A Problem for Whom?
As a syllogism, theodicy, or “the problem of evil,” asserts the nonexistence of God, by way of contradiction—namely, it argues that if God did exist there would be no preventable evil in the world. This contradiction arises from the contention that God—in his western conception as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent—would prevent all preventable evils, yet such evils persist (Anderson). However, this argument only works from a very particular human perspective, and one that is fairly recent. Namely, this argument assumes that preventable evils exist.
When theodicy arguments are presented, discussion usually starts with human evil. One may object that human evil is not preventable, because if God did so, He would contradict the free will that He has allegedly endowed to humans. A defense would argue that an omnipotent God would have the power to create contradictions such as controlled free will. However, this is a poor defense on two counts.
The power to create contradictions may lie beyond God’s power because such powers do not exist or because such powers contradict his omnibenevolent nature. On one count, if it is impossible for God to create contradictions such as “controlled free will” or “square circles,” it would not conflict with his omnipotence, for the same reason that a grocery store owner would not be a liar for claiming that they have every kind of food in their market, while lacking manna. Omnipotence merely demands that a being have all powers, but says nothing about which powers actually exist, and if contradictions are impossible, then the power to create them would not exist. Therefore, God may not be able to control free agents but still be omnipotent. On another count, it might be the case that contradictions—such as controlled free will—are chaotic and inherently evil, and therefore it would be beyond the nature of an omnibenevolent God (who values good order) to invoke such measures, even if they are possible. However, there are other conceptions of evil that do not concern human action.
In defense of theodicy, a rejoinder asserts that even if God cannot prevent human evil, there is still evil in the world that is preventable in the form of natural disasters and animal attacks. However, this assertion is also questionable on the grounds that human conceptions of these “evils” are subjective. From the point of view of an omnipotent, omniscient God—moreover, from the perspective of the Abrahamic God—human death and mayhem might be seen as a minor inconvenience. Indeed, Abrahamic religious texts abound with teachings that trivialize the worth of human, worldly experience before the infinite worth of an afterlife with God. Moreover, if there is a punitive purpose of natural disasters and animal attacks, then it would be just as insular to call them “evil” as it would be to refer to punitive parenting tactics as “evil.” It would be more accurate to refer to these disasters as “necessary evils”—necessary in order to curb human behavior that cannot be divinely controlled. Indeed, for much of human history, religious leadership has interpreted natural disasters as acts of vengeance from dissatisfied gods, and many still do.
So, the problem of evil is unconvincing as an argument against God’s existence, because it is not clear that evil is preventable or that it even exists (as defined in the argument). In closing, Socrates once pondered whether “pious” is pious objectively or only because “pious” merely defines the things and actions that gods love (Euthyphro, 10a). The same questions arise concerning ethics and morality. Some conceptions of God hold Him as the ultimate moral lawgiver—that if He exists, then He creates objective moral law. However, if He does exist and He is the ultimate lawgiver, then it might follow that only He can determine that which is actually good and that which is actually evil. If this is the case, then humans really are in a tough position to distinguish what is objectively evil from the things that merely disturb our egos.
Anderson, C. Anthony. “ARGUMENT FROM EVIL: DEDUCTIVE VERSION.” ARGUMENT FROM EVIL: DEDUCTIVE VERSION. UCSB, 1 Jan. 2003. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. <http://www.philosophy.ucsb.edu/faculty/anderson/12ARGUMENTFROMEVILDEDUCTIVEVERSION.htm>.
Plato. Euthyphro. Geneva: Henricus Stephanus, 1578. Print.
This Philosophy post was written by Princeton.