Why God “Allows” Evil

A meme on an atheist Facebook group showed a picture of a crawling starving black African with the following caption: “People who think that their god grants them special favors, while that same god allows millions of people to suffer and starve, are not only delusional, they’re also especially arrogant, vain, and self-absorbed.”

I asked, “Why do the atheists allow them to suffer and starve?”

Justin replied: “Because we don’t all have the resources to help them. There are atheist foundations trying, plenty of them. They just aren’t as well funded or as old as religious organizations.”

I countered with: “It is no argument against God’s existence that He will not do your work for you.”

A woman named Jennifer continued the argument:

You’re missing the point here, Dmitry. Atheists don’t claim to be treated special because we believe in a higher power. I’ve met plenty of “Christians” who think if God wanted people to have food he would supply them with it.

The point of this meme wasn’t to say the religious are doing a bad job helping world hunger (they are), but to show how arrogant you are for thinking you have food because of your religion.

There is a genuine confusion here. I have food on the one hand because of the conjunction of numerous secondary causes, such as because I live in a capitalist society, because of the human mastery of the material world, because of my own usefulness to fellow men within social cooperation or other people’s charity toward me, and so on.

But as regards the first cause, I may have food to the extent that Jesus’ advise was true and sensible: “So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” (Mt 6:31-33)

In other words, if you seek only food, then obeying natural laws, including the laws of economics and physics, is both necessary and sufficient for success at finding it.

If, however, you seek “God’s kingdom and righteousness,” then such obedience is only necessary and not sufficient. The promise of Christianity is that even if your main concern is not food but moral perfection, God will still, through whatever sneaky way He invents, help you find food. (What could those ways be? Well, they may take the form of surprising and welcome opportunities to escape danger or succeed financially.)

The important for us point is that, as we can see, prudent conduct is necessary in both cases. For example, it was only a relatively short while ago that people “learned with stupefaction that there is another aspect from which human action might be viewed than that of good and bad, of fair and unfair, of just and unjust,” writes Mises. “In the course of social events there prevails a regularity of phenomena to which man must adjust his actions if he wishes to succeed. … One must study the laws of human action and social cooperation as the physicist studies the laws of nature.” (HA, 2)

The reason why the African in the meme was starving is that one way or another, he failed to provide for himself. Now Jesus indeed fed 4,000 with 7 loaves and a few fish. But the purpose of this miracle was to authenticate Him as God. Miracle-working is not God’s usual MO. The error of Jennifer’s Christian opponents is that they think that God will provide even for those who are uninterested in learning the natural laws and harnessing the knowledge for their own profit. “The economic policies of the last decades have been the outcome of a mentality that scoffs at any variety of sound economic theory and glorifies the spurious doctrines of its detractors,” Mises goes on. “The blame for the unsatisfactory state of economic affairs can certainly not be placed upon a science which both rulers and masses despise and ignore.” (HA, 9-10) In reality, however, such contempt is a major sin, and God does not listen to sinners. It does not matter how much one strives for heavenly glory if he refuses to work and as a result dies from starvation. All divine grace builds on nature. The top will be torn down, if the foundation is corrupted.

Now it may be objected that the African’s plight is not strictly his own fault. Maybe bad government policies in his country have caused a famine. Very well, consider the following: “As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day.'” (Jn 9:1-4)

Each of us is his brother’s keeper. So, do the works of God that Jesus spoke of and gave examples of and worry less about the theological problem of evil.

P.S. Jennifer then is right that the argument she’s heard from some Christians is grotesque. God will not up and “supply” the African with food through some miracle. The African’s miserable condition is not some punishment for a personal sin of his. Access to food is simply conditional on science, technology, capital accumulation, and well, hard work. The purpose of evil is to incentivize (1) human striving for happiness in general and (2) works of mercy in particular. There are failures even in these two, because the incentives are imperfect. There is suffering which does not get corrected. Human progress, making on earth as it is in heaven, is slow and unsteady. Nevertheless, on the whole, the world works, and evil is evidence for rather than against theism.

Arguments for Reincarnation

In Chapter 11, Davis compares and contrasts two “systems of salvation”: Karma vs. Grace. In this post I want to consider his one objection to Grace called “Not enough time”:

But surely one lifetime is not enough to achieve salvation. This claim is substantiated by the simple observation that most people die in far less than an optimal or perfect spiritual state.

Obviously, for the vast majority of people, many more lives than one are needed to reach the spiritual end-state. A loving God will make this possible; a God who does not is a moral monster. (Christian Philosophical Theology, 201)

He replies to this objection as follows:

But since the core idea is that by God’s grace one has been forgiven and cleansed of sin, the problem is not fatal to the theory.

The point is not that we all achieve sainthood, but that we are graciously forgiven — in this, the one and only, life — for not achieving it. (208)

This is entirely unsatisfactory. Forgiveness means a stay of execution in hell. But the human “last end” is not avoiding hell but meriting heaven, in other words, achieving glory. Now “glory” can mean various goods of both heaven and paradise, like vision of God, impassibility of the body, security of happiness, and so on. But its simplest meaning is “being honored by God, including before other saints, for an exemplary life well lived.” And it is clear that there are many souls in the beyond who cannot reasonably be so honored. Thus, there may be people in next life who will not go to hell (or are forgiven through mercy) but who cannot go to heaven (through justice), because their holiness and spiritual sophistication are below some minimum. What is God to do with them?

The problem is not well-solved by positing purgatory. A saint who is 90% good and 10% bad can have the cancer of evil burned out of him in the purgatory fire (which St. Thomas teaches is the exact same fire with which the damned are tormented in hell) and remain reasonably human. A sinner, even if forgiven and spared hell, who has rather 10% good and 90% bad in him will, upon purification, lose his entire identity. At best, he’ll become a simple child running around underfoot, whom adult saints will treat will benign indifference. At worst, his intellect will be destroyed, and he’ll end up literally a plant, a flower growing somewhere in paradise. Given that the “vast majority” are sinners, God ends up ruling a kingdom of half-wits, pitiful hollow subhumans. And this is grotesque.

Having written this, I recalled a near-death experience account which suggested literally that:

My next question was, “How do you explain this intense happiness?”

Your thoughts are vibrations which are controlled by the Master-Vibration. It neutralizes all negative thoughts and lets you think only the good thoughts, such as love, freedom, and happiness.

“Then what becomes of the old grouches?”

If they are too bad, they go to a realm of lower vibrations where their kind of thoughts can live. If they came here, the Master-Vibration would annihilate them. After death people gravitate into homogeneous groups according to the rate of their soul’s vibrations. If the percent of discord in a person is small, it can be eliminated by the Master-Vibration; then the remaining good can live on here.

For example, if a person were 70% good and 30% bad, the bad could be eliminated by the Master-Vibration and the remaining good welcomed into heaven. However, if the percentage of bad were too high, this couldn’t be done, and the person would have to gravitate to a lower level and live with people of his own kind. In the hereafter each person lives in the kind of a heaven or hell that he prepared for himself while on Earth.

Reincarnation follows naturally.

Davis has another reply to this particular objection. “It is… an unanswerable question whether more people would accept God’s grace if human lives were longer than they are, or if human beings lived more than one life.” It’s true that reincarnation does not guarantee salvation, but it seems to guarantee at least the eventual rendering of a final choice between salvation and damnation. The people who “would not go to hell but cannot go to heaven,” like some Wandering Jew, will all in the end be forced to choose wholeheartedly and without any chance of turning back one or the other.

Reincarnation also solves nicely the problem of the fate of infants and children who suffer death, the seeming lack of hope (for glory, not forgiveness) for reformed criminals, and suchlike.

Finally, allowing for reincarnation does not seem to alter any other doctrine of the Church on any point of faith and morals. The introduction of the possibility of multiple incarnations leaves the rest of the body of the Church’s teaching completely intact.

Mystery of Salvation Statistics

I have discussed the problem of whether everyone will in the end be saved and found the evidence inconclusive as regards both reason and Christian faith. No near-death experience I am aware of resolves the matter, either. Nor any private revelation to any saint. Nor, again, does reincarnation, if it be real, guarantee it.

I have argued that the created universe was a gift from God the Father to the Son. It was the Son who chose both the possible world to be actualized by Father and along with that, the providential path through it by the Holy Spirit at the Son’s greatest pleasure. Predestination of humans toward either hell or different degrees of glory occurred as an aspect of this choice: the world on the whole is best possible one, and its human potential as a one thing is best realized — as judged by the Son but perhaps also “objectively,” but perhaps some individuals through their sin destroy themselves, as per God’s permission.

Thus, God the Father created nature which the Holy Spirit then may have labored on through intelligent design = grace, but God does not create individual humans; nature does. And nature is a mad scientist. Can we make an analogy that perhaps just as nature eliminates the physically unfit by killing their bodies, so perhaps God or even “spiritual” natural laws eliminate the spiritually unfit by throwing them into hell?

God then chose the world as a whole, but He did not directly decree that any particular Smith would be born or live; Smith’s existence is foreseen but not thereby intended by any person of the Trinity. An analogy would be direct vs. representative democracy: in the former one votes for individual laws or policies; in the latter, one votes in a package deal for a congressman who will then according to his own counsel vote for many policies. God intended Smith directly only in the sense that He was influenced by the foresight that Smith would contribute his minuscule amount of goodness to the goodness of the world. Again it is also possible that Smith is good only indirectly and even if hell-bound, if his existence still is useful on utilitarian grounds as regards the welfare of the entire world.

Thus, perhaps God, in foreseeing Smith, his randomly generated self, and his future adventures, loved Smith and chose the world in a (very) small part because of him; then again, perhaps He hated Smith’s guts and chose the world despite Smith’s lamentable depravity but such that the world is still the best possible one on the whole.

Hence, Jesus’ analogy with the divine judgment as applying to an almost randomly grown harvest which contains some good and some bad plants:

When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” His slaves said to him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” He replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.'” (Mt 13:26-30)

The parable asserts that an “enemy” sowed evil men, but we have to be careful here. Perhaps the enemy can corrupt the seeds morally as they develop and live, but all the seeds themselves must needs be metaphysically good, lest God be the direct author of evil or even a fetus could be judged evil by its very nature and burned even prior to committing any actual sins or wicked deeds. NABRE comments that “weeds” refer to “darnel, a poisonous weed that in its first stage of growth resembles wheat.” So, at first, the weeds and wheat are indistinguishable but separate later in life which is a defensible idea. In short, as God did not create any individual, neither did the devil.

In this case, as already asserted, life of the soul is “survival of the saintliest.” God takes each soul, evaluates its beauty, and unceremoniously consigns it to either heaven or hell. Just how exactly beautiful must my soul be in order to get to heaven? Where’s the cutoff point? I don’t know, but something like this would be true in an unredeemed world.

It follows that positive reprobation is false, since God directly predestines no one by virtue of not creating anyone. In addition, of course, it is generally unattractive. If God had created Smith evil and predestined him for the life of sin and self-destruction, perhaps in order to sacrifice him in some utilitarian fashion for the sake of those predestined for salvation, then we could take exception to such an objectionably callous divine decision. Whether anyone is saved would depend on one’s luck, in particular on not being born Smith-like. Nor will it help to argue that “Smith drove himself into hell freely,” because such a “choice” implies that Smith is enjoying hell which cannot be. Hell is by its nature always an explicit punishment and the worst one possible at that. It would then be much harder than it is now to insist on the absolute essential goodness of God.

But negative reprobation where Smith’s sins are foreseen (though again not intended but permitted for the sake of some general welfare) and punishment is accorded on their account cannot be disposed of so easily. The world remains best possible and potential one, but God lacks the power to save everyone, though He makes the best out of a bad situation. (We may still wonder though why Smith would bother with attributing goodness to the Father and the Holy Spirit when the Son executes his soul.)

I am not making these questions up as though no one had asked them before; e.g., the Catholic Encyclopedia considers it a “hidden mystery,” asking, “Why is it that this child is baptized, but not the child of the neighbor? Why is it that Peter the Apostle rose again after his fall and persevered till his death, while Judas Iscariot, his fellow-Apostle, hanged himself and thus frustrated his salvation?” These considerations once again suggest that the answer to the question “Who will be saved?” is a carefully guarded mystery.

Reincarnation As Natural Happiness

Physical death is separation of the body from the soul. Spiritual death in hell is further forced separation of the will which is absorbed into God and the intellect which alone remains to suffer horribly and eternally. As a result, hell is a deliberate murder of the soul, i.e., destruction of the soul’s nature by God as punishment for sins.

Now the Catholic doctrine insists that only glory or shame, heaven and hell are permissible human destinies, and “a middle state, a merely natural happiness, does not exist.” And yet it seems entirely possible that a man, Smith, can live and die though not in the state of grace, still in the state of natural righteousness. Perhaps he scrupulously obeyed the natural law, yet for whatever reason was deprived of grace. His nature even after death as regards the union between will and intellect exhibits great integrity. If God nevertheless withholds glory from Smith, must He still by that very fact guillotine Smith’s soul in half, suck out the will, and throw the mind to the devils?

The Catholic Encyclopedia mentions that the “eternal election to glory alone, that is, without regard to the preceding merits through grace, must be designated as (inadequate) predestination. Though the possibility of the latter is at once clear to the reflecting mind, yet its actuality is strongly contested by the majority of theologians…”

If that cannot be a solution to this problem, then, given that (a) there is no “natural happiness” in the next life but that (b) natural happiness (or pursuit for it) is the very essence and condition of this one, we are led to conclude that a soul that merits neither heaven nor hell (e.g., of a pious Jew?) must needs be reincarnated. Without this device, even the Church would seem to exist mainly in order to populate hell. QED?

Soul-Making As Solution to the Problem of Evil

In this marvelous and beautifully argued paper Mackie gives an excellent presentation of the soul-making solution to the problem of evil. Of course, he is not entirely happy with it, but I will try to remedy that here. Let’s see what he has for us.

Let us call pain and misery “first-order evil” or “evil (1).” What contrasts with this, namely, pleasure and happiness, will be called “first-order good” or “good (1).”

Distinct from this is “second-order good” or “good (2),” which somehow emerges in a complex situation in which evil (1) is a necessary component — logically, not merely causally, necessary.

(Exactly how it emerges does not matter: … in other versions it includes sympathy with suffering, heroism in facing danger, and the gradual decrease of first-order evil and increase of first-order good.)

It is also being assumed that second-order good is more important than first-order good or evil, in particular that it more than outweighs the first-order evil it involves. (67)

The first objection to this that Mackie advances is that goods of the 2nd order may be mere means to the goods of the 1st order. This is true when rightly understood. Human beings have nature, personality, and narrow happiness, the latter understood as satisfaction of desires, whatever they are. Improvement in nature (in charity, wisdom, and their fruit of fear of the law) is man’s first end; in personal virtue, his second end; and in narrow happiness, his third and last end, to be sought and achieved in this precise order. “Each of these ends is also an essential constitutive part of true happiness which consists in an appropriate union of the three.” Therefore, the 2nd-order good of sympathy, heroism, etc. is a stepping stone to 1st-order pleasure, but an essential one without which true happiness cannot be had. There is no human happiness without pure nature and virtuous character. Mackie is right to refuse to “press this objection.” (68)

Let us now call 1st-order goods (evils) physical goods (evils); 2nd-order goods, moral goods. Mackie continues that the human response to 1st-order evils can itself be evil (in which case it will be a moral evil of the 2nd order). “This would include malevolence, cruelty, callousness, cowardice, and states in which good (1) is decreasing and evil (1) increasing.” (68) And the same reasoning would apply to discredit the notion that the purpose of the (n)th-order evil is to promote (n + 1)th-order good.

Fortunately, Mackie is not done with the solutions to the problem of evil. For we can now say that 2nd-order evil is due to 3rd-order metaphysical good of human free will:

To explain why a wholly good God gave men free will although it would lead to some important evils, it must be argued that it is better on the whole that men should act freely, and sometimes err, than that they should be innocent automata, acting rightly in a wholly determined way.

Freedom, that is to say, is now treated as a third-order good and as being more valuable than second-order goods (such as sympathy and heroism) would be if they were deterministically produced, and it is being assumed that second-order evils, such as cruelty, are logically necessary accompaniments of freedom, just as pain is a logically necessary precondition of sympathy. (68-9)

Inspired, isn’t it? Mackie immediately objects that an omnipotent God would have been able to create humans who, though possessing free will, always chose the good. “If there is no logical impossibility in a man’s freely choosing the good on one, or on several, occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion.” (69) Well, there is indeed no logical impossibility of never committing a sin, but given that humans live, on average, for something like 80 years and start out as infants with only minuscule amounts of love, knowledge, and power, having to acquire those by growing up in a tremendously complex world and to become highly complex human beings, mistakes (which include morally evil deeds) are practically inevitable.

Even St. Thomas noted that “our knowledge is so imperfect that no philosopher has ever been able to discover perfectly the nature of a single fly.” (AC, 1.I.A.5.a) Of course, now we know that even a fly exhibits incredible specified complexity and is an engineering marvel.

A more serious objection consists in asking whether there are (3rd-order) metaphysical evils and if so, then what justifies them. My reply will consist in 3 steps.

First, it seems that examples of metaphysical evils abound:

  1. scarcity of consumer goods and factors of production;
  2. the inevitability of death;
  3. temporal as opposed to eternal existence combined with the weakness of both memory and foresight;
  4. practical unavoidability of errors in life, including those from which one cannot recover;
  5. natural poverty;
  6. unlimited wants coupled with the paucity of power to satisfy them;
  7. proneness to moral corruption (being corrupt, e.g., having a vicious character, is, indeed, a moral evil, but proneness to corruption is part of human nature and so is a metaphysical evil);
  8. to take complementary examples from physics and moral theology, entropy that wears on the body and temptations that wear on the soul;

and suchlike. In other words,

  1. a particular instance of pain is a physical evil;
  2. if that physical evil is unjustly inflicted on one person by another, then this crime itself is an instance of moral evil;
  3. finally, the “existential” fact that pain is unavoidable in the life of a human being is a metaphysical evil, a fundamental and inescapable limitation of the world.

Again, when a given lion kills a given antelope, the latter’s suffering is a physical evil of some sort. But that nature as a whole is designed in such a way that the two are natural enemies and that one of them must die, either the antelope to feed the lion or the lion from starvation, is a metaphysical evil. That a certain factory pollutes the air and harms my health is a physical evil (suffered by me). But the fact that there cannot be 100% efficient machines, and some pollution is inevitable is a metaphysical evil.

Yet, and second, we can counter this by noticing that metaphysical evil would seem to take the form of apparent (1) evil per se or defects of created nature and (2) evil per accidens or the fate of human beings to suffer. However, everything likes being what it is (if it did not, then it would not live for long). I enjoy being human, for example, and would want to turn into neither a frog below the level of perfection of my nature nor an angel above. The alleged metaphysical evil per se is nothing of the sort but is actually good!

That a person is able to feel pain and anguish seems bad, too, until one realizes that this again is part of the design of the world and a good thing. Without the duality of suffering and pleasure, there would be no thinking, no action, and no soul-making. The evil per accidens, then, is also only apparent, and to a novice in philosophy.

Third, as a response to this suggestion that metaphysical evil is an illusion, we can still further object that nature is often exceedingly brutal and cruel and dark. It is hardly paradise, so the puzzle is the sheer amount of metaphysical evil in the world. Christianity attributes this strange and seemingly scandalous corruption of nature to the human “original sin.” But the Genesis story seems like a set-up. Why? Well, it is part of the Christian understanding that God the Father created nature within the Garden of Eden without a blemish and rested thereupon. Metaphysical evil came into the world later. This happened in order to facilitate the mission of the second person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, that commenced immediately upon the original creation. See, e.g.,

Goodness: Creator and Destroyer;
Sins Against the Holy Spirit.

God may have felt that we needed to be softened up so that grace may rebuild us both by healing nature and by building on nature. Artificial metaphysical evil introduced upon the “original sin” resulted in the fact that we are not fully human. This is a great metaphysical evil from the point of view of God the Father but perhaps is somehow useful to God the Holy Spirit in His unique mission. God needed us to have a greater potential which was bought at the expense of lower integrity and perfection of our nature and actuality.

Given these arguments, let’s evaluate the following. “As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.'” (Jn 9:1-3)

The blindness of the man is a physical evil; the works of God (by which works of mercy by man assisted by the Holy Spirit’s grace are meant) are moral goods; that nature is such as occasionally to cause blind children to be born is a metaphysical evil. But the divine project requires even this latter evil in order to unify the world which, when all is accomplished, will be vastly metaphysically superior to the original creation even with the latter’s pristine and unspoiled nature which lacked obvious flaws.

Regarding that project, both God and humans are all in and full speed ahead; all the bridges are burned; there is no going back into any natural happiness either here or in the hereafter; you are either with God in His astonishing enterprise or against God. He who is not ascending to heaven is by that very fact descending into hell.

Finally, Mackie asks, “Why… should God refrain from controlling evil wills? Why should he not leave men free to will rightly, but intervene when he sees them beginning to will wrongly?” (70)

First, controlling evil wills would seem to entail destruction of the natural laws, according to which human nature operates on its own. In such a case, man would be good by divine goodness not by his own, which is contrary to divine purpose.

Second, God does exercise providence by bestowing grace. St. Thomas enumerates “five effects of grace in us: of these, the first is, to heal the soul; the second, to desire good; the third, to carry into effect the good proposed; the fourth, to persevere in good; the fifth, to reach glory.” (ST, II-I, 111, 3) This interaction is very subtle: “a man may, of himself, know something, and with certainty; and in this way no one can know that he has grace.” (112, 5)

Third, God cannot unilaterally decide what sort of person one wants to be. One has to make his own identity. That’s why God cannot crudely interfere with the process of self-making. Mackie argues that “there would be a loss of value if God took away the wrongness and freedom together. But this is utterly opposed to what theists say about sin in other contexts.” (70) What is he talking about? Who would want his own freedom to be taken away so long as he no longer sins? The key is to learn not to make mistakes in life while retaining one’s freedom, to become a human saint, not to turn into a machine.

Soul-Making Is an Exceedingly Complex Affair

The next paper continues the discussion. Here are some highlights. Mackie suggests that “children can develop into responsible self-governing adults only by being allowed to make mistakes and to learn from them.” Pain can be usefully endured if part of a medical treatment. Moreover, pain “performs a useful warning function: it directs the animal away from what would cause greater injury or death.” Mackie’s problem with such observations is that they presuppose definite causal relationships. But for God, “if omnipotence means anything at all, it means power over causal laws.” (75) I am sure that God chose the causal laws carefully, but some causality is essential to our very existence; and the good of man’s ability to act, of the ends-means connections, outweighs the evils that might occur because of the general character of these rules. In other words, the universal goodness of the presence of causality itself in the world precisely absorbs, to use Mackie’s terminology, those evils that come from the particular and unfortunate working out of those rules. Thus, the general good of having abundant water for drinking, swimming in, etc. may lead to a particular evil of drowning. But that evil would nevertheless be absorbed. The question then comes down to, “Why aren’t we already in paradise where, for example, our bodies would be immortal and impassible?” Well, because God is not done with us, and we aren’t done with ourselves, either.

Mackie then considers the “paradox of omnipotence”: “Are men supposed to be free in the sense merely that God does not control their choosing, or in the sense that he cannot do so? … can an omnipotent being make things which he cannot control?” (81) Now this concerns the ad extra power of God as goodness to create a world; not God ad intra power to “achieve” eternal, perfect, and infinite happiness. The paradox is easy to solve. Having created Socrates, for example, God cannot at the same time keep him and take away his rationality. This follows from the truth of the proposition, “Socrates is necessarily rational,” not from any genuine limitation on divine omnipotence.

This is relevant to solving the next puzzle, whether God could have “made men such that they always freely choose the good.” (85) If “always choosing the good” is an aspect of human nature, then man is necessarily holy, cannot choose evil, and is by that very fact unfree.

But perhaps choosing the good could be not an essential property of a human being but a common one, i.e., a proper accident, like being risible or being less than 20 feet tall. All men would remain free but would in fact always and without fail choose the good. Well, if “choosing the good” were an exceedingly trivial affair, it might have been possible for God to create a serviceable world in which humans always chose it. But it is obvious that the enormous complexity of the world including of man’s moral life is not a bug but the world’s explicit and essential feature. Hence, in practice, God could not create humans this way. Increasing human powers to deal with this complexity would not work; as St. Thomas writes, “God’s power is His goodness: hence He cannot use His power otherwise than well. But it is not so with men. Consequently it is not enough for man’s happiness, that he become like God in power, unless he become like Him in goodness also.” (ST, II-I, 2, 4, reply 1) In other words, with greater power, man would be able to do both greater goods and greater evils. Perhaps it is just as well that we are spared this possibility.

Regarding Mackie’s rejection of Plantinga’s free will defense based on everyone’s transworld depravity, again, it may be logically possible for every person not to sin, but it is not practically possible, given God’s aim of having a world populated by creatures who, little by little, by trial and error, with fear and trembling, make and build up themselves.

Plantinga’s Free Will Defense

Hugh LaFollette considers Plantinga’s arguments and finds them lacking. The argument being responded to is this:

Consider, [Plantinga] says, some human, Maurice, who will, at some time t in the near future, be free with respect to some insignificant action — like having oatmeal for breakfast. That is, at time t, he will be free to take oatmeal, but also free to take something else, say, shredded wheat. “Next suppose we consider S’ a state of affairs that is included in the actual world and includes Maurice’s being free at time t to take oatmeal and free to reject it.” This S’, Plantinga tell us, includes neither Maurice’s taking nor rejecting the oatmeal. … God knows that one of the following conditionals is true:

(8) If S’ were to obtain, Maurice will freely take the oatmeal.


(9) If S’ were to obtain, Maurice will freely reject the oatmeal. (99)

Suppose that S’ obtains and (God knows that) (8) is true there. Then the world W’ in which Maurice will freely reject the oatmeal, though possible, is “unfeasible” for God. For if God leaves things be, then Maurice will freely take the oatmeal and W’ will not be actualized; if God forces Maurice to reject the oatmeal, then our hero’s decision will no longer be free, and once again W’ will not be actualized.

LaFollette argues that to say that S’ obtains, (8) is true, and Maurice freely rejects the oatmeal is to utter a logical contradiction. And contradictions indicate impossible not merely unfeasible worlds. The issue here turns on how best to reconcile God’s foreknowledge and contingent events. If we say that God knowledge depends on or is determined by creaturely actions, then LaFollette’s complaint cannot be sustained: it could have happened that W’ occurred and then God would have known something different, namely that Maurice would freely not take the oatmeal.

In other words, (8) is true because W’ does not occur; but if it were to occur, then (8) would be false and God would have known that. It is certainly true that the conjunction of S’, (8) and W’ is impossible, but that is irrelevant, because (8) and W’ will never occur together; the truth value v of (8) is a variable that is counterfactually dependent on the occurrence or non-occurrence of W’. By knowing v first through simple intelligence and ultimately by vision, God foreknows what Maurice will as a matter of fact do. But if that is so, then it is not within God’s power to cause Maurice to freely choose not to have oatmeal, yet the world in which this happens is clearly a possible one.

However, I agree with LaFollette that Plantinga’s defense is inadequate. Plantinga’s argument is that

∀(x)(x has committed even a single moral evil ⊃ ◊(x has transworld depravity)) or, equivalently,

∀(x)(x has committed even a single moral evil ⊃ ◊□(x is depraved)) or, from the S5 system of modal logic,

∀(x)(x has committed even a single moral evil ⊃ □(x is depraved)) or, simply,

(a) ∀(x)(x is depraved ⊃ □(x is depraved)).

There is really no evidence either for (a) or against (a), but (a) is conceivable, and that, Plantinga seems to argue, is sufficient to demonstrate the compatibility of

(1) God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good; and
(5) The actual world contains moral evil.

In other words, we can say that based on our current knowledge of things, it is not appropriate to confidently affirm that (1) and (5) contradict each other.

We can even strengthen (a) to

(b) □∀(x)(x is depraved ≡ □(x is depraved)).

The problem is that it remains a possibility that there may be a world populated entirely by perfect saints, i.e., a world in which no one is depraved. This eventuality may be denied with a still stronger statement:

(c) □∀(x)(◊(x is depraved) ≡ □(x is depraved)),

but at the cost of making it false. For (c) has two unhappy implications. Now every possible human being is “possibly depraved”; that’s the essence of the human condition, free will, etc. First, if it follows from this that such a creature is depraved necessarily, then it means that sin is necessary and absolutely unavoidable. The Catholic Encyclopedia argues rather that “while of our own strength we cannot avoid sin, with God’s grace we can.” Perhaps in a world whose nature is less viciously corrupt than ours, a life of unwavering natural righteousness is occasionally possible even without grace. Plantinga bothers with no such distinctions. Second, it implies that no actual human being has ever lived a sinless life. But there is a counterexample: Mary the Mother of God. Hence, (c) is false and this particular counter to the problem of evil stands undermined.

Whether There Can Be a “Necessarily Good” Man?

Smith begins by considering three distinct concepts of freedom. The relevant one for our purposes is logical freedom: “A person is logically free with respect to an action A if and only if there is some possible world in which he performs A and there is another possible world in which he does not perform A.” (107) Smith then notes that God is logically determined toward good actions yet retains his freedom in other senses.

Incidentally, ad intra, God has a will but not free will, since He is perfectly happy and is under no necessity to make choices by picking one good while setting aside another.

Recall that Plantinga argues that it is conceivable that

(b) □∀(x)(x is depraved ≡ □(x is depraved)).

Our author’s argument quickly takes a bizarre turn. Why, he asks, couldn’t God have created men logically determined or “necessarily good” with respect to good acts? The obvious answer is: if God could not create beings who would be always actually righteous (because of their transworld depravity), then a fortiori, neither could He create beings who would be necessarily righteous. Smith argues

for the stronger claim that there is a different sort of creature, rational persons who are internally-externally free but logically determined to do what is right, and… there is a possible world containing only them and God.

This stronger claim is needed to withstand Plantinga’s criticism that it is possible that if God created the persons in question, they would choose to do some wrong acts, even though they might not have. (115)

Did Smith imagine that the stronger claim can better “withstand” criticism (it’s bigger and tougher, after all) if the weaker claim fails? Quentin, it’s the other way around!

In philosophy, a “strong” argument is one that’s ambitious and grand and affirms a great deal. Thus, “everything is made out of water” is an extremely strong statement and for that reason is easy to refute, such as by suggesting that there is no water in fire. A weak argument is one that affirms a modest claim which as a result is easier to defend.

But perhaps Smith raises the issue of whether there could be rational creatures who would have such a nature that they would be necessarily good for the following reason: if God is logically determined toward good, why couldn’t He make humans (or call them whatever) who would be exactly like Him in goodness?

If by goodness we understand God’s “3rd-level” goodness, such as His mode of causation, then it is uniquely God’s, and no creature can ever be at all good in this sense.

If by goodness we understand God’s 2nd-level Trinitarian perfection, then humans can be good, as they are made in this God’s image and likeness; however, God is infinite and creatures can only be finite. God, after all, begot only one Son who is equal to the Father in all respects. Now can a finite humanoid creature ever be truly safe from sin? The Christian story of the fall of man suggests that even perfect nature of both oneself and the environment is no guarantee of perpetual virtue; any finite being, no matter how naturally uncorrupt (as Adam was), will in infinite time sin. It is permissible, i.e., not contrary to revelation, to hold that Adam had survived in his Garden for a million (or billion) years and succumbed to temptation only at long last. But succumb he did.

(God then created our present corrupt universe in anticipation of Adam’s sin, having foreseen it.)

The good angels never fell, but they were tested only once and merited their destiny with a single decision. But Adam was presumably subject to the temptation to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil continuously over his entire initially immortal life. Adam’s original sin was then inevitable, and God, foreseeing this bothersome problem, has with all His later actions aimed to make the best out of a bad situation. If true, then Plantinga’s Free Will Defense discussed in the previous post acquires additional merit if we speak of merely natural (ungraced) humans and infinite life: if Adam could not in the end avoid sin, then a fortiori, neither can any other sufficiently human-like creature. Thus, the Genesis story, if it is a truthful account of the creation of man, provides massive empirical support for the theory of universal transworld depravity and therefore for the truth of

(c) □∀(x)(◊(x is depraved) ≡ □(x is depraved)).

The perfect security of happiness obtains only in heaven / paradise in the state of glory where the process of self-making will cease. Creatures can never fully relax while away from God.

Hence, there can be no such thing as a created humanoid who is “logically determined” toward good. These aren’t the droids you are looking for, Quentin.

Re: Unjustified Evil and God’s Choice

La Croex expends far too many words in an argument that could be expressed very simply: In order for evil not to exist, God could have refrained from creating the world; further, since God is the greatest possible good, no goodness was added to God as a result of creation. Why then did God create? And would it not be better if He had not?

On the theist’s own view prior to creation there was nothing missing from the perfect value of God which would call for creation.

One possible approach to a satisfactory apologetic of creation, for example, might be to point out that if God had not created, then there would be no human free will or human moral good.

But this kind of an approach would require a further premise to the effect that a created, hierarchy of value adds to the overall value and, hence, God created.

It would follow from this, however, that created value adds to God’s value and, hence, that God is not the greatest possible good because His goodness can be increased by the addition of created value. (124)

But Thomas Morris has solved this problem to my satisfaction in his Our Idea of God. He notices a distinction between

a being, an entity, an individual, on the one hand, and any state of affairs which involves that individual. The distinction is a fundamental and quite simple one. I am an individual being, my Pelikan 800 fountain pen is an individual entity, and we are both involved in the state of affairs of my writing this sentence with my Pelikan 800 fountain pen.

Likewise, we must carefully distinguish between the state of affairs of that fountain pen’s existing and the object which is that fountain pen.

With this sort of distinction clearly in mind, we can clarify exactly what the central claim of perfect being theology is: It is that God is to be thought of as the greatest possible being. And this is a claim that does not entail the separate proposition that the state of affairs of God’s existing alone is the greatest possible state of affairs. …

We can acknowledge that the state of affairs consisting in God’s sharing existence with our created universe is greater than the state of affairs of God’s existing in pristine isolation or solitude. But from this, it does not follow that there is any being or individual greater than God. This would be the case only if God and the created universe could be thought of as parts of a larger object, God-and-the-world, which could be assigned a value as a distinct individual, additively derived from the values of its parts.

And this is prohibited for at least two reasons.

First, there is no natural principle of unity in accordance with which God and the created universe would together compose one object.

Second, it is just conceptually precluded by perfect being theology that God ever be considered a part of a larger and more valuable whole, an entity distinct from, but partially composed by, God.

With all this in mind, we can affirm the positive value, even the great positive value, of the created universe, without thereby posing any threat to the conception of God as the greatest possible being, and without any risk of contradiction arising in connection with that conception. (142-3)

If the overall state of affairs of God + the world is better that the state of affairs of God alone even despite the presence of evil in the world, then La Croex’s argument fails.

All Partial Evil, Universal Good?

Ernest Nagel criticizes the argument that

the things called evil are evil only because they are viewed in isolation; they are not evil when viewed in proper perspective and in relation to the rest of the universe. …

it is unsupported speculation…

For the argument can be turned around: what we judge to be a good is a good only because it is viewed in isolation; when it is viewed in its proper perspective, and in relation to the entire scheme of things, it is an evil. This is in fact a standard form of the argument for a universal pessimism. Is it any worse than the similar argument for a universal optimism? (Critiques of God, 13-4)

Yes, but the point is that as long as it is merely possible, even if unknown and unproven, that all partial evil contributes to the universal greatest good, the attack on theism by the problem of evil is to an extent blunted. I already pointed out that, contra Nagel, atheism dissolves rather than solves the problem of evil, as an atheist is willy-nilly forced to contend that there is no such thing as evil at all. At the same time, the theological problem of evil posits a logical contradiction between the goodness and perfection of the Creator and the sorry state of the creation. Since our author does not demonstrate that this is not the best possible world, his refutation of this particular defense fails.