Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Problem of Evil

I'm a big fan of the Problem of Evil.  I suspect that may sound like a funny statement to the uninitiated, but anyone having found this blog should understand my meaning.

Basically stated, the problem of evil says that if a god possessing omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence (the Christian God) exists, evil should not exist. Evil exists, therefore such a god does not. The reason I'm such a fan is that the argument is simple and obvious. Some other disproofs of god take a certain amount of investigation and understanding, but the problem of evil readily presents itself. Suffering is too prevalent, and it is all too common to hear a Christian ask why god would allow this or that to happen.

Because I enjoy the PoE so much, I am also very interested in theodicy, the defense against it. I'll review several defenses here in my next few posts, along with some common analogies and explanations as to why I don't think they work.

Quite a few of the defenses against the PoE, when dissected boil down to the notion of free will. God wanted us to have free will, it is said, and this could not be accomplished without evil. Before I explain why this doesn't work, it is important to understand what is meant by free will.  When I ask people about this, I rarely get the same answer. From what I've gathered, though, it seems that Christians take it to mean the possibility of making any of the available choices in a given situation. They do not mean that the choice has not been limited, coerced, or otherwise influenced.

Now, immediately a problem presents itself. Omniscience appears to preclude free will. If a being is all-knowing, then certainly it knows the outcome of all choices, does it not?  Christians assert that it means just that. How then, is there any real choice if the outcome is already known?

Perhaps the worst response to this question I have ever heard took the form of an analogy:

   "Suppose my child is reaching for a hot stove. I know that she will get burned, but she still has a choice to touch the stove or not. " ( I'm paraphrasing here; the original analogy was filled with much emotional pleading and unnecessary exposition.)

Firstly, I am not a bad parent. I'm not going to sit idly by and let my child, or any child I have the ability to stop, injure themselves. Secondly, I am not omniscient, and that is where the analogy falls apart. The uncaring parent in the analogy does not know their child will get burned, they know that if the child touches the stove, she will likely get a burn.  Omniscience doesn't allow for if or likely; the little girl will touch the stove and will get a burn.  The poor child has no choice once omniscience gets involved.

Let's imagine for a minute that free will and omniscience are somehow compatible. Does it then solve the PoE? To know that, we need to ask more questions.

The concept of free will as a cause for the existence of evil implies that there are good choices and bad (evil) choices.  Without delving into what is meant by 'good' or 'bad' we can say that a good choice is one that produces a good result and likewise for a bad choice.  Generally, we can say that the character of a choice is determined by its result. Bearing that in mind, the question we need to ask our Christian friend is this:

Can there be a good result of free will that does not also accord with God's will?

Omnibenevolence seems to indicate that there cannot. If God is to be all-good, then his actions and choices are also all good. For any choice, the good result is the one that God would choose. (It does not matter that God might have choices unavailable to the person actually making the decision because we are hypothetically limiting God's choices to those available to the person. In other words, no matter the size of the group of choices, God will always choose the one that is most good)

This answer presents something of a conundrum. Free will becomes a net evil; no new good is introduced by it, but new evil (evil itself according to the defense) is. Really, then, free will is nothing more than another name for evil and is of no use in resolving the PoE.

Though the whole muddle of free will and Christian theology brings up dozens of questions, I'm going to stop there and finish this post by presenting a version of the Free will Argument for the Nonexistence of God (FANG). To my knowledge, it is an original formulation.

1)God is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnibenevolent (all-good)
2)God has free will
3)God always chooses the most good choice available(from omnibenevolence)
4)From 1-3 God is a free-willed always good being (FWAGB)
5) A FWAGB is not logically impossible (from 4)
6)God can do anything that is not logically impossible (from omnipotence)
7)God did not create humans as FWAGB, but as FWnAGB
8)By 3,5-7 FWnAGB is more good than FWAGB
9)By 4 & 8, God is less good than he could be.
10) By 9, God is not omnibenevolent
11)1&10 are contradictory.
12)Therefore, God does not exist

There are, I think, two basic objections to this. The first would to be to challenge my usage of omnibenevolence. One could either deny that God is maximally good or that his choices are always the most good, but either of these options wreak havoc on Christian theology.

The other objection might be that there is some restriction on humans that disallows them being FWAGB. This is, however, a weak objection. The objection implicitly claims that humans, which must be FWnAGB, were the best choice for a creation, better than any FWAGB. This is simply a restatement of premise 8 and as such does not affect the argument.

I believe this is a sound argument based on premises that Christians themselves recommend. Free will, it seems, doesn't help God out of the PoE. To the contrary, it shoots him in the metaphorical foot.


  1. The Problem of Pain - C.S. Lewis

    Pretty good book, very fast read, since you seem [very] interested in this subject I suggest you pick it up.

    Anyways, great post recreant. Very detailed and well thought out. I really like it.

  2. LDagnostic,

    Thank you for the compliment. I haven't read that particular work, but I will be sure to pick it up next time I have a chance. Being one of the favorite authors of the current apologetic crop, I've seen most of C.S. Lewis arguments in one form or another. It will be interseting to see what this adds to the discussion.