Solving the Problem of Physical Evil

In a penetrating paper, H.J. McCloskey considers a number of arguments in defense of God’s existence when faced with the theological problem of evil.

Let me mention a few that seem to be straw men that McCloskey gleefully demolishes. The second argument is “physical evil is God’s punishment for sin. This kind of explanation was advanced to explain the terrible Lisbon earthquake in the eighteenth century, in which 40,000 people were killed. There are many replies to this argument, for instance Voltaire’s. Voltaire asked: ‘Did God in this earthquake select the 40,000 least virtuous of the Portuguese citizens?'” (209) But the argument rather is that the world with physical evil (i.e., one in which such evil occurs from time to time) is punishment for the Original Sin to the human race as a whole; it’s not the case that a given instance of physical evil is punishment to a particular Smith for a particular actual sin.

Prior to that, McCloskey ascribes to theists the fault of “denying the reality of evil by describing it as a ‘privation’ or absence of good.” (207) Now evil is not mere absence of good; it is absence of good that ought by right to be there. This is unlike true absence of good for which it is not the case that this good ought to have been there all along. An obvious example of the latter is poverty. It’s a natural human condition of lack of wealth; that man ought to be prosperous is in no way the “correct” state of affairs unjustly violated; hence poverty is not an evil but absence of good. It is ironic that McCloskey dismisses this argument, since any genuine physical evil depends on the existence of a good God who for seemingly unfathomable reasons lets us suffer. It is McCloskey who must deny the reality of evil. It is wrong to conflate evil and absence of good; but it is also wrong to fail to realize that it is meaningless to speak of physical evil without God.

(Another example: a gifted child has more potential than a regular child. If evil were merely absence of good, then the former would have to be judged worse than the latter, since being gifted yet undeveloped implies a greater distance from self-perfection. This perverse conclusion is avoided once we grasp that it’s not the case that a gifted kid ought to be perfect but only that he ought to strive to become a perfect adult much later in life.)

The fifth argument is that “the universe is better with evil in it.” McCloskey wants proof that all physical evil is “in fact valuable and necessary as a means to greater good.” (212) Again, however, the problem of evil is a logical — and hence strong — puzzle of how a good and perfect Creator can co-exist with a perilous world like ours. In order to dispose of the paradox, it is sufficient “simply to suggest that physical evil might nonetheless have a justification, although we may never come to know this justification.”

McCloskey goes on to assert that on this argument “we could [then] never know whether evil is really evil, or good really good. … By implication it follows that it would be dangerous to eliminate evil because we may thereby introduce a discordant element into the divine symphony of the universe; and, conversely, it may be wrong to condemn the elimination of what is good, because the latter may result in the production of more, higher goods.” (213) But he himself disposes of this objection by admitting that “physical evil enriches the whole by giving rise to moral goodness…, noble moral virtues — courage, endurance, benevolence, sympathy, and the like.” When a man eliminates physical evil, he by that fact creates a moral good; moreover, no discordant element is introduced, because he leaves “enough and as bad,” to parody Locke, for everyone else.

Now moral good can be elicited by physical evil, but so can moral evil. The theist “then goes on to account for moral evil in terms of the value of free will and/or its goods.” (214) McCloskey objects that free will would then seem to justify a hellish world with only moral evil, and in such a world physical evil would incidentally not be justified.

We will deal with moral evil in the next post.

Original Sin and the Purpose of Moral Evil

“How could a morally perfect, all powerful God,” asks McCloskey, “create a universe in which occur such moral evils as cruelty, cowardice, and hatred, the more especially as these evils constitute a rejection of God Himself…?” The typically given answer is that “free will alone provides a justification for moral evil. … men have free will; moral evil is a consequence of free will; a universe in which men exercise free will even with lapses into moral evil is better than a universe in which men become automata doing good always because predestined to do so.” (217) This version indeed has the difficulty that it would also perversely justify a world with no moral good and unshakeable moral wickedness. As a result, theists must insist that “in fact men do not always choose what is evil.”

McCloskey then brings up the question of why free will and absolute moral goodness are incompatible. At the very least, he suggests, free will should be compatible with must less moral evil than marks this world. In what follows, I will reply to this objection.

Beside physical and moral goods, there is further metaphysical good such as indeed free will which McCloskey does not identify as such. In discussing it, it will help to divide it into “levels.” On level 1, the metaphysical good is the degree of perfection of creaturely essences. To illustrate: Socrates is better than a pig metaphysically; Socrates is better than a fool morally; and Socrates satisfied is better than Socrates dissatisfied physically. Here metaphysical evil is the distance between the completeness of a creature and the completeness of God, with God being perfect and containing zero metaphysical evil.

However, it will immediately be apparent that each creature is content with being what it is; thus, frogs do not dream of wanting to be cats; nor cats, humans; nor (it seems) humans, angels. Despite the fact that a cat has the cat nature and not the divine nature, the cat is at peace and does not envy God. On level 2, there is no metaphysical evil at all!

Level 3 comes in when we admit that humans are a unique and astonishing exception to the rule. Humans are the only creatures with an ineluctable tendency to corrupt their own nature, as the Christian story of the Original Sin indicates. Now the story of man’s fall from grace is compatible with old earth, etc. if we follow Dembski and propose that Adam and his Garden may have been created billions of years ago, but the universe was created still earlier with physical evil in anticipation of Adam’s sin which God had foreseen.

(There is also level 4, which is attained via divine grace, charity, etc. that will in the end unite the entire creation into a single vine-and-branches that far exceeds even pure nature.)

In thus sinning originally, Adam and Eve brought the entire lower world down with them, which explains animal suffering. Both human and external nature are now partially corrupt; moreover, actual sin follows on original, and men can now act in morally evil ways.

Human corruptibility is a unique metaphysical defect of the human nature. When tempted with the promise that “you will be like gods,” man, by unjustly coveting the divine nature, despised and therefore corrupted his own human nature. (God made us as good as possible, and though it was not good enough, God’s ad extra omnipotence is safeguarded.) It was therefore impossible to make humans who would always choose good. Provisions were made through the incarnation of the Son much later for the partial amelioration of this defect. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” etc. We cannot hope to deal with the problem of evil without rightly understanding early Genesis.

So much for revelation. But reason suggests the same answer. We need to undo our corruption. We must purposely purge the evil from our souls, purify our nature of its innate corruption evident to everyone (and not just to Christians). It is ironic that our physically evil environment reflects our fallen nature and proneness to commit moral evil. The world is as wild and savage and merciless physically as man is wild morally. The only way for us to succeed in staying alive and avoiding pain and physical disorders of every kind is to cooperate and in so doing relentlessly abide by natural law and justice. God is not sticking it to us, rubbing our noses in our flaws with this irony. The point was to make justice toward men the crucial means to success in subduing the earth. Mastering the natural world — and the concomitant alleviation of physical evil — depends greatly on mastering one’s own human nature. Physical suffering is an incentive to us to be moral.

The moral good promoted by physical evil is not heroic sainthood or glorious works of mercy inspired by divine grace but merely purity of the human nature. It is not divine Christian love but merely absence of demonic hatred. But that is sufficient. For one, corrupt nature is the greatest obstacle to grace. Heal the nature, and God will not disappoint us with His supernatural gifts. McCloskey considers the argument that “pain is a goad to action and that part of its justification lies in this fact.” I agree with him in rejecting this defense, because even absence of pleasure (coupled with anticipation of future utility) is sufficient for action, not any pain. It would seem that in paradise that will be precisely the reason for the everlasting economic improvement. It could have been this way in this world, too, and the reason why it’s not is the corrupt human nature which makes occasional physical pain necessary in order for man to regain his full humanity.

Nor is physical evil a good incentive to charity. Even without this evil, one can be motivated by a desire to improve his neighbor’s welfare. Even if one could not relieve the neighbor’s pain under no-physical-evil, he could still create pleasure for him. But does not physical evil grow charity more efficiently? Is man best motivated by the plight of his fellow men than by opportunity to bring about pleasure? Further, under pure nature and no physical evil, nature alone suffices to yield fastest economic progress. What use is there for charity then? And isn’t it a mighty spiritual achievement to learn to love people who ought to be loved but are somewhat unlovable? Well, charity makes practical interpersonal utility comparisons possible. Therefore, one is enabled to improve overall happiness through some sacrifices of own smaller interest for the beloved’s greater interest. This can be accomplished even in a physically perfect world. Now Jesus said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:13) But in a no-physical-evil world there is never a need to lay down one’s life. Hence expressions of perfect love are impossible in an Earthly Paradise. I do not know how great a loss this would be, but my guess is not enough of a loss to justify physical evil.

Moral goods like courage and prudence, too, can co-exist with absence of physical evil. Courage can be cashed out as tactical mastery, athletic performance, presence of mind, and so on. There is no need for violent aggression toward fellow men in order to manifest courage.

To conclude, a world in which physical evil is plentiful but not overwhelming is justified by the need for it for purification of human nature. A world in which further moral evil is plentiful but also not overwhelming is justified as an inevitable result of free will. It’s not the case that every particular physical evil is an essential part of the overall good. A given moral evil can never be justified, but moral evils are permitted by God through His mercy for the metaphysically problematic human nature: “Never again will I curse the ground because of human beings, since the desires of the human heart are evil from youth; nor will I ever again strike down every living being, as I have done.” (Gen 8:21)

Note again that (1) the presence of both physical good and evil means that the world is physically, regarding narrow happiness, ambivalent;

(2) the presence of both moral good and evil means that the world is morally evil, since even a single sin or vice can ruin a person;

(3) finally, the world is as metaphysically good as it can possibly be which means that it is metaphysically good tout court.

There Is No “Evil in a Godless World”

Quentin Smith relates a story that once during a hiking trip he

was awoken in the middle of the night by the sounds of a struggle between two animals. Cries of terror and extreme agony rent the night, intermingled with the sounds of jaws snapping bones, [etc.]

It seemed to me self-evident that the natural law that animals must savagely kill and devour each other in order to survive was an evil natural law and that the obtaining of this law was sufficient evidence that God did not exist. (235)

We’ll go in some detail on his argument in a later post. For now I want to convey my amusement at the last sentence of the paper: “What I experienced was a brief and terrifying glimpse into the ultimately evil dimension of a godless world.” (248)

Smith never condescends to define the word “evil” for us in this paper, so let me do it for him: (physical) evil is absence of some good that ought to be there.

One might be able to prove, and Smith attempts just that, that given that God is good and by that fact creates the best possible world, a world with predation is inconsistent with such goodness, because at the very least it is worse than the world of tofu-eating tigers.

But without admitting theism, there is no way at all to demonstrate that “a vegetarian world ought to be.” For Dawkins’ sake, why? Who guaranteed that you, Smith, should be born in such a world? Who are you to demand to be born in such a world?

Thus, predation can in no wise be called evil, because it’s not the case that its absence objectively ought to be. Nobody, on atheism, viciously failed to do his obvious duty.

Note that of course even an atheist can philosophize on ethics and argue (correctly) that, say, torturing the cat is wrong and ought not to be done. But this evil is a human action within human control. Which universe one is born into, and the laws that bind and define it, on the other hand, are hardly a moral choice exercised by an individual.

As a result, it cannot reasonably be said that “Smith perceived evil in a godless world”; only that “An atheist saw something he for mysterious reasons personally disliked.”

Quentin Smith Plays God

Smith attempts to design a better world than ours, thereby showing that if God did not actualize it, then this must not be the best possible world or even a good world, and if it’s not, then God does not exist. (3.1)

Behind his complex argument there is a simple point. There is a law E, according to which “animals must savagely kill and devour each other in order to survive” (235), and that law is ultimately evil. There is a possible world W, Smith contends, which “is exactly like the actual world [V] except that all (and not just some) animals or animal-like creatures are vegetarians. For example, in W there are counterparts to humans that are exactly like humans except that their DNA includes a strictly vegetarian blueprint.” (240-1) In W, unlike in V, even tigers are nourished exclusively by vegetables.

Is W a better world than V?

A considerable part of my reply is contained in my evaluation of Fred Reed’s atheology. Read it first for the main thrust of the argument.

For example, if only herbivores existed, then they would multiply until their food supplies would be exhausted, resulting in mass deaths from starvation. Predators “thin the herds,” benefiting the species, etc. Here are some further points.

Thomas Morris has identified four fears related to death:

(1) fear of the process of dying;
(2) fear of punishment;
(3) fear of the unknown;
(4) fear of annihilation. (Philosophy for Dummies, Ch. 16, “From Dust to Dust: Fear and the Void”)

Animals are innocent; hence they can have no (2) even if their souls are somehow preserved.

There is nothing for them after death and so there is nothing to know in the first place, so (3) does not apply to them either.

Their souls are corruptible, so they must be naturally protected from (4), as fearing the inevitable would be pointless.

So, it seems that animals are only afraid of the pain and suffering attendant upon dying. But, once again, it is hard to imagine a happy death. On one nature show there was a dying giraffe surrounded by a swarm of insects that were eating it alive. We were shown the moment at which the giraffe could no longer stand and collapsed, and that was the end of it. Is that a better way of dying than being consumed by a tiger? Or must insects, too, be vegetarians?

Further, plants compete for sunlight, good soil, etc. with equal brutality: “Did you know that plants fight? If only you could see the deadly, ceaseless warfare among plants, this lovely landscape would terrify you. It would make you think man’s struggles tame,” writes Garet Garrett.

It seems arbitrary to subject plants to the rigors of survival of the fittest yet exempt animals. Moreover, competition and fighting for survival of oneself and one’s progeny makes species strong, even if some individuals are sacrificed in the process of evolution. God gives animals a shot at life and strength to avoid dangers and pass on their genes and nature, which are more than they deserve. We might say that God acts towards animals as Conan’s god Crom in Robert E. Howard’s novels acts towards humans: Crom answers no prayers, and he dispenses only two gifts to the Cimmerian newborn: the strength in their sword arm and the fire in their hearts. And after that he doesn’t bat an eye at them.

In particular, without predation, the forces of natural selection would probably not suffice to produce effective evolution capable of making humans.

Consider also that the non-human animals’ personal identity may not be sufficiently sharp or well-preserved through time, such that the animal may not be conscious that it itself suffers. In other words, rather than proposing that “an antelope is suffering from pain,” we can at the most assert that “some suffering is occurring.”

Further, no individual animal requires us to love it; charity does not extent toward it. It may as in the case of pets, but choosing to love a pet is solely an individual non-moral preference. Hence animal pains and pleasures do not really matter to either God or men. A complementary point is that predators are more sophisticated creatures than herbivores. Cats and dogs are both carnivorous predators; hence a world without predation would lack the best kind of pets. Such a world would be impoverished, as it is said that “until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

Smith attacks what he see to be a premise in Richard Swinburne’s argument that “instances of E provide humans with helpful knowledge pertinent to themselves”: “It is good that animals savagely attack, kill, and devour each other and occasionally humans, so that animals and humans can learn to avoid being savagely attacked, killed, and devoured on some occasions in the future.” He says that if we take it to heart, then “we should be rejoicing in the AIDS epidemic since the instances of AIDS combined with the opportunities to learn how to prevent AIDS would result in an overall increase in the positive value of the universe.” (243-4) This is just a confusion. We do not rejoice in physical evil, but we recognize the value of metaphysical evil as an incentive to fight. As the character Gordon Chen considers in James Clavell’s Tai-Pan: “He looked covertly at Mauss. He respected him for being a merciless teacher and was grateful to him for forcing him to be the best student in school. But he despised him for his filth, for his stench, and for his cruelty.” (29-30) So, we, too, should appreciate the challenging environment of nature as a merciless teacher both to humans and lower animals, yet at the same time nothing stops us from longing for eternal rest in God’s heaven.

Smith accuses John Hick’s God of “speciesism,” of favoring humans and letting animals serve them, thereby neglecting the latter’s welfare or rights. Of course, animals have no rights, and their welfare is entirely up to man. But men do not rule the world by some divine mandate; rather, men are the kind of animals who are able to subdue and exploit other animals, given a sufficient level of civilization, better than those other animals are able to exploit them. Our dominion of the world is due to our nature and craftiness and resourcefulness, not necessarily to the reception of a divine inheritance à la early Genesis.

Finally, there is the argument that physical evil is useful as a means for man to heal and purify his nature, which is so uniquely corrupt that not even God could make us better. Basically, each (wild) animal has no allegiance but to the self. The war of all animals against all is a sign of what happens when a rational animal loses his mind. It is this lower part of ours, given our unique animal-angelic nature, that may be responsible for the “Original Sin” or, more philosophically, that causes our metaphysical defects.

(Even if it is said that the Original Sin itself was a moral not metaphysical evil, nevertheless, what qualifies as metaphysical evil is the inevitability of this sin. Adam and Eve never stood a chance, and that’s what made the human race naturally corrupt.)

These points combined suggest that animal suffering is not a reason to doubt God’s goodness.

Two Most General Theodicies

After a rather inauspicious beginning — and middle, and end — William L. Rowe comes up with a real gem in the last paragraph: “There are,” he says, “four different things a theodicy might aim at doing, each more difficult than its predecessor.

“First, a theodicy might seek to explain why [God] would permit any evil at all.

“Second, a theodicy might endeavor to explain why there are instances of the various kinds of evil we find in our world — animal pain, human suffering, wickedness, etc.

“Third, a theodicy might endeavor to explain why there is the amount of evil (of these kinds) that we find in our world.

“And, finally, a theodicy might endeavor to explain certain particular evils that obtain.” (273)

He considers the theodicy of soul-making through natural law and argues that it is “successful on the first level, and perhaps the second.” (273) But not further than that.

Very well, let’s consider his levels. Clearly, from level 2 it follows that there will be some evils which serve the purpose of ordered soul-making. So, some — in fact, most (because soul-making must work as a rule not as some rarely happening near-miraculous event) — particular evils are justified or absorbed by various higher-order goods.

The questions are, (a) are all evils ultimately absorbed (Rowe’s level 3)?

And (b) how, precisely, are they absorbed for any given evil E (level 4)?

As an example of what at first glance appear gratuitous unjustified evils Rowe considers two cases. The first one concerns the ordeal of a fawn trapped in a forest fire, who is “horribly burned and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering.” The second is a real story of a little girl Sue who was “severely beaten, raped, and then strangled early on New Year’s Day of 1986.” (263)

We’ll get to more specific theodicies later. Here I wish to discuss two most general ways of getting God off the hook. The force of the argument from evil is apparent in the following formulation:

1) Suppose God exists as some absolute goodness.
2) But the state of our world is very sorry, indeed.
3) Even if God does nothing bad to anyone, He at least permits much suffering to occur.
Therefore,
4) I accuse God of criminal negligence, depraved indifference, and therefore of committing moral evil.
5) With that, I rest my case; the theist is now invited to defend God.

The first defense will use deontological approach to ethics. God may speak as follows:

(i) I am the Author of life and death. I created both your soul and every atom in your body. I give life, and I can take it away. As a result, I have a moral-legal (in the case of God, there is no distinction) right to kill anyone at my pleasure, including, a fortiori, by refusing to prevent any death through a miraculous intervention. As a result, my exercise of this right cannot be criminal or depraved; hence in permitting suffering, I commit no wicked deeds. I have no duty to babysit or coddle any of my creatures.

Alternatively, God can argue this way:

(ii) I am the Author of nature. But I do not directly as First Cause give or take life or happiness; nature does. The fawn died because of a natural accident; I had no hand in it at all, other than foreseeing before creating that this event would occur and choosing to create the world either despite or because of it. This fawn died, because it was weak; but many others that were more fit escaped; when they reproduce and pass their genes to their offspring, the deer species will become stronger. Therefore, you can only accuse me of creating an evil natural law, according to which animals die painfully from time to time. Your, Rowe’s, levels 3 and 4 are not in the picture at all.

Note that challenging the propriety of the natural law that “animals must savagely kill and devour each other in order to survive” is exactly what Quentin Smith attempts to do in the previous paper. Smith does not bother with the fate of any individual fawn.

The second defense will be utilitarian.

God is infinite and omniscient. Hence it seems fitting that God would seek to achieve for His creatures some form of the greatest good for the greatest number. For example, God may want to maximize total human happiness over the whole span of time humanity endures in the universe, and even into the entirety of human everlasting lives within the communion of saints in heaven and paradise. Such a feat may require numerous local sacrifices which we perceive as evil and incompatible with the goodness of God. But if we were fully informed of the best way to impart into the creation the greatest possible good, then we would agree with God that some suffering ought to take place for its sake. Unfortunately, we are not privy to the near-infinite cunning of divine providence. Hence levels 3 and 4 establish nothing, not even a reason to doubt theism.

We might object by invoking a scene from Seinfeld:

Jerry: You know, I used to think that the universe is a random, chaotic sequence of meaningless events, but I see now that there is reason and purpose to all things.

George: What happened to you?

Jerry: Religion, my friend, that’s what happened to me. Because, I have just been informed that it’s going to cost Elaine the sum of five thousand dollars to get the apartment upstairs.

George: Five thousand dollars? She doesn’t have five thousand dollars!

Jerry: Of course she doesn’t have five thousand dollars!

George: So, she can’t get the apartment.

Jerry: Can’t get it.

George: So, she doesn’t move in.

Jerry: No move. So, you see, it’s all part of a divine plan.

George: And how does the baldness fit into that plan?

Well, I don’t know 100%, but you, George, will probably eventually find out, just as Jerry “did.”

Again, it is only possible to sustain an attack on theism on the level of natural law, i.e., that it is wrong for God to insist that some men become bald as they grow older. But as Rowe concedes, the apparent evil of some natural laws is fully absorbed by their utility for soul-making.

When Suffering Is Just or for the Benefit of the Sufferer

Let me now introduce some particular theodicies, in this post according to its title. Again we define evil as an absence of good that ought to be there.

1. Some suffering, like punishment of a man by the authorities with prison for crimes or inflicted by God for inner sins, may be deserved and thus is not evil; suffering from punishment for all 4 reasons positively ought to be.

Note that Christianity holds that “justice” will eventually and definitely be served if not here than in the next life. Surely, God may have a reason to punish a man in this life if only to reform him and lessen his punishment in the next.

2. There is suffering that is inevitable and which everyone accepts as part of being a finite creature, i.e., in the process of choice. For one feels sorrow from realizing that one’s second most valuable option must be set aside for the sake of the most pleasant choice.

Thus, my limited income will allow me buy either a TV or a computer; as a consequence of buying the TV, I may feel a slight wistful discomfort from the fact that I have thus deprived myself of the computer.

3. There is physical suffering that (a) builds character and (b) discovers the self. Call such suffering “optimal frustration,” and the theodicy that absorbs and justifies it, “soul-making.”

4. Much suffering may be simply one’s own fault, as a natural consequence of imprudence, incompetence, or stupidity. Or, if that suffering really ought not to be, either, than it clearly is absorbed by soul-making, since the need to learn and practice and master one’s environment and tools is a crucial aspect of building oneself up.

Again, many illnesses happen because people do not take proper care of themselves. Such an illness, too, is one’s own fault, and the law according to which neglecting one’s own health leads to sickness is also absorbed by soul-making, as caring for one’s health is key to any kind of self-actualization and to developing an identity.

5. The final theodicy of this post will require an assumption not just of theism (which the atheist makes during his critique) but specifically of Christianity and its doctrine of grace.

First, increasing the charity for neighbor in one’s heart is possible through holy works of mercy. (The exact connection is complex.) But in the beginning, a man may feel little charity and resort to “forcing” himself to do good deeds. This suffering from spiritual dryness is absorbed by the growth of his theological virtues (faith, hope, charity).

Second, we know that God the Son died 3 times for the sake of the world. And thus He tells His creatures: “As I died for the sake of those I love, so you, too, will know what it is like to suffer for your people.” Marilyn McCord Adams thus suggests (in a new to me theodicy) that “temporal suffering itself is a vision into the inner life of God.” I don’t think that means that suffering is inflicted for its own sake, as though to make us simply taste or experience it, but it may be a condition of imitating God most faithfully.

Since the first death and rebirth of God in a perfected state was for the sake of His free knowledge before creating, even angels benefited from it.

The good angels, too, suffered greatly by watching so many of their brethren fall with Lucifer. (And yet it cannot be said that angels are “ashamed of their race,” because unlike humans who are one race or species, angels are not multiplied by bodies but each are a subsisting form. Each angel is therefore as if its own species.)

In that case, it may be that suffering is necessarily a feature of any and all life.

When Suffering Is Permitted for the Greater Good

William P. Alston critiques Rowe brilliantly by biting the bullet and considering if not all than at least most known theodicies. Rowe himself calls Alston’s job “masterful” (292). In this post, we’ll deal with 2 theodicies that do not depend on suffering being directly for the good of the sufferer: free will and the need for nature to function according to natural laws.

1. The free will theodicy, Alston says, has been subjected to “radical criticisms,” one of which is that free will is not “of such value as to be worth all the sin and suffering it has brought into the world.” With all due respect, that is just nuts.

Free will is the capacity of choice, of ranking goals on a scale from most to least urgent and pleasant. Its absence means that you do not examine alternatives of acting for their utility. Hence, also because the will and the free will are one and the same power, you have no feelings, you do not love. And if you have no love of concupiscence, you can’t have love of friendship, because what goods (none of which you yourself value) are you willing to your friends? But without feelings, there can be no thoughts of how to achieve your goals. Nor is pure contemplation possible without enjoyment of it.

There is moreover no such thing as an unfree will, unless you want to hold that a billiard ball “enjoys” doing whatever it is determined to do. But if you’d rather be a billiard ball, then you probably have no business philosophizing.

Having a will, i.e., intellectual appetite, is the essence of man. It’s his 2nd level of being marked by teleology rather than mere 1st-level physical causation. To reject it is to destroy oneself utterly. There are no humanoid will-less counterparts to us in any possible world.

Objection 1:

… the fact that libertarian free will is valuable does not entail that one should never intervene in the exercise of libertarian free will.

Indeed, very few people think that one should not intervene to prevent someone from committing rape or murder.

On the contrary, almost everyone would hold that a failure to prevent heinously evil actions when one can do so would be seriously wrong.

Reply: It is beside the point that stopping Sue’s murderer would justifiably diminish his free will; indeed, I could’ve stopped him by shooting him dead, and that would be the end of all free will in the guy. But this would be my job or job for human beings not for God. He won’t fight our battles for us, even if some of these battles are lost miserably.

This objection postulates that it is God’s duty to be an all-seeing cop. On this theory, as soon as one conceives of a crime or executes it, God ought to smite that person with a lightning bolt. Why doesn’t God do this? First, because we humans can do that, too, and God wants us to defeat evil. It’s the job of local governments to enforce laws against criminals. Second, God does do it, but more subtly, through grace and His “voice” of conscience.

Here are some last words that the girl could say to her torturer.

Objection 2:

Secondly, the proposition that libertarian free will is valuable does not entail that it is a good thing for people to have the power to inflict great harm upon others.

So individuals could, for example, have libertarian free will, but not have the power to torture and murder others.

Reply: This objection argues that it would be a better world in which a person might want to commit rape or murder, know how to do so, but somehow fail to have the power to go through with his evil scheme. His gun may malfunction, he may freeze according to some new God-directed natural law as soon as he tries to pull the trigger, etc.

Now first, this entails that no one will ever want to commit a crime, because what’s the point if you can’t possibly carry it out? So the choice in question will be immediately stricken from one’s values scale, and the will will effectively no longer be free.

Second, what is a crime or a sin can at times be very difficult to figure out. Doing so is the task of moral deliberation. If God were to stop crimes (or even sins) in progress, then the virtue of prudence would cease to be useful. There would be no genuine moral dilemmas, whether theoretical or practical, either, to be pondered.

And why stop with crimes? Should I eat that apple or shouldn’t I? There is only one correct answer. Is God now supposed to inform me of it? In other words, if God were always to decide for us what the right course of action is, we would never learn to reason for ourselves.

The same goes for enforcement and adjudication of disputes: both are our job, not God’s. Soul-making neutralizes this objection adequately.

The Scripture appears to agree with me: “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.’ He replied to him, ‘Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?'” (Lk 12:13-14) Neither should we expect God to rule over our torts or property disputes or decide what the social etiquette ought to be.

Supporting Argument 3:

Swinburne’s idea is that if the possible actions that are open to one vary enormously in moral worth, then libertarian free will is very valuable indeed,

whereas if the variation in the moral status of what one can do is very limited, then libertarian free will adds much less to the world:

one has what has been characterized as a “toy world,” where one has very little responsibility for the well-being of others.

Comment: The temptation to a human being to commit heinous moral evils is the price paid for the possibility of doing a tremendous amount of good.

If I am right in the foregoing argument, some moral evil is justified: humans can be allowed to exist despite it. The question we are asking now is why great evils should be permissible. And the answer is that the possibility of magnificent deeds and the possibility of very evil deeds are two sides of the same coin; you can’t have one without the other.

Hartshorne in Reality As Social Process provides a nice illustration of this line of thought:

That chances of evil remain is not because evil is good or useful after all, but because chances of evil overlap with chances of good. A dead man has no chance of suffering, also none of enjoyment. The principle is universal and a priori.

Tone down sensitiveness and spontaneity, and one reduces the risk of suffering but also the opportunities for depths of enjoyment. All the utopias are tame, just because vitality has been sacrificed to reduce risk. Opportunity, willy-nilly, drops too. Tragedy is thus inherent in value. (107)

Again, a mystical book by the chief of the Rosicrucian Order, Spencer Lewis, A Thousand Years of Yesterday, includes the following prayer:

God, good God, what a world and what a time! Have all men forgotten their greatest gift, the chivalry of manhood, the protecting power of their might over the weaker?

Can men come from chanting of Thy goodness and enter into the destruction of the littlest beings?

Then make me weak, God, make me weak, that I may not hurt, or see hurt — or permit the destruction of the smallest flower of the fields or the most minute animal of Thy world. Make me humble, make me simple, make me — kind — good — loving, all — and never too strong to destroy that which Thou hast made! (Ch. VII)

It was necessary for God to optimize human power, so as to allow men to create great good without allowing them to harm the world too much if they choose to do great evil instead.

2. God cannot interfere into nature for fear of setting a dangerous precedent. God does not even stop suicides, the ultimate (though not necessarily the worst) sin. There cannot be found out any general pattern of God’s activities, lest humans will use it for their own ends (or evade God’s purposes) and in so doing nullify God’s interventionist rule. There cannot be anything mechanical, any clockwork-like predictability in God.

We should discuss miracles at this point. Miracles are problematic for several reasons. Frequent unpredictable miracles would destroy the orderliness of the world. A natural scientist is normally able to isolate causes and effects in his lab experiments. Though humans are unpredictable, too, the scientist can minimize the interference of human action with his research. For example, he can lock the doors to the lab and not let anyone in while he works. But he cannot keep God out in this manner.

Frequent predictable miracles, including those that would occur with a definite probability, would end up being yet another natural law, and humans would adapt to them. If God always responded to any utterance “Abracadabra, homework be done!” by completing the student’s homework, then we can be sure that people would exploit this regularity. This new law would be especially strange, because it could be revoked at any time at God’s will rather than being rooted in the measure of permanence and stability of things’ natures, thus enslaving man to God’s caprices once again.

Some atheists wonder whether it would be a better world, if God prevented murders by vaporizing bullets as they traveled from the gun to the victim. They do not envision the nightmare this would create, as people adapted to this rule, tried to circumvent it by finding loopholes (of which there would be a vast number), argued with God whether any particular shot should be stopped by Him, or switched to knives. Natural laws would turn out to be orders of magnitude more horribly convoluted than the US tax law.

Either people can purposely kill each other or not. If they can, then individual miraculous interventions are out of the question. If this is to be a law-bound world, then there cannot be many miraculous exceptions to it, lest our predicament would be likened to Wile E. Coyote’s tumultuous relationship with laws of physics.

If they cannot, then the law forbidding this should be placed deep into the human nature, such as by causing malice in one’s heart to be impossible. But the latter solution is not practicable either, because often human interests conflict or seem to. Learning to love other people despite obstacles is part of the human mission to the world.

Objection 1:

Many evils depend upon precisely what laws the world contains.

An omnipotent being could, for example, easily create a world with the same laws of physics as our world, but with slightly different laws linking neurophysiological states with qualities of experiences, so that extremely intense pains either did not arise, or could be turned off when they served no purpose.

Or additional physical laws of a rather specialized sort could be introduced that would cause very harmful viruses to self-destruct.

Reply: First, extreme pain does often result in unconsciousness or death. Second, the ability to turn off pain might at first glance appear to be useful, but it would introduce its own dangers. Pain is a symptom of an illness and in general a signal that something is wrong. Being able to turn it off might cause people to neglect their health. And why stop with physical pain? Should people be able to turn off sorrow, too? Further, this would inhibit human attempts to control pain through pain-killers and anesthesia, and things like depression, through treatment. Again, soul-making does not seem to permit such obviously contrived devices as a mind switch which eliminates pain.

Further, viruses are creatures just as we humans are. It is true that it is unclear to what extent they can be considered living beings. Still, they, too, apparently want to succeed in the struggle for life. The interests of a human being and a virus that infects him are indeed antagonistic. God never intended for all things to flourish. But God the Father would not privilege humans over viruses in the biological sense, because all things are equally His creatures. The desire to continue living and therefore the impulse to fight for life naturally belong to everything that lives, even viruses. It’s a fundamental property of this world, and to change it arbitrarily would be far too ad hoc.

Objection 2:

Suppose that there was an omnipotent and omniscient being, and he informed us that he had created other universes that contained no living things, and in which he constantly intervened, so that those worlds were massively irregular.

Would such actions be morally problematic?

[If not], then the property of creating a world with massive irregularities cannot be a wrongmaking property of actions.

Creating a world with massive irregularities would be a wrongmaking property if it had humans in it who had to master the natural laws of that world in order both to heal their nature and to prosper. The combination of soul-making + the need for natural laws + Original Sin precludes such a monstrously chaotic world.

The suffering of the fawn can also be justified as an unfortunate byproduct of a lawlike world. Alston goes into some detail contemplating alternative worlds without predation, animal suffering, natural disasters, etc. It’s an impressively conducted exercise. In the end he confesses his own powerlessness as an architect of creation. I agree; our capacity for this sort of ultimate wisdom is tiny. Quentin Smith should take note.

Re: An Argument from Non-Gratuitous Evil

Thomas Metcalf commits an almost ridiculous blunder. He assumes that all evil is justified, “grants to the defender of theism that gratuitous evil does not exist,” (329) and argues that “the position according to which there is no gratuitous evil will lead to a new argument from evil, a strong evidential argument against God’s existence.” (330)

How does it work? He proposes the principle:

(PA) If a person S is suffering intensely, and S’s suffering is justified, it is morally better to inform S that her suffering is justified than to withhold that information. (331)

Yet many people do not believe that their suffering is justified. Hence the all-good God does not exist.

Have you spotted the problem right there? The fact that many people are mystified by God’s hiddenness is itself an evil. But by Metcalf’s own assumption, all evils are justified, including this one! Therefore, any attempt to disprove that God has some good reason not to let everybody know the meaning of their trials is entirely vain. I’m done with this guy.

Well, Ok. Let’s be (very) charitable to Metcalf and suppose that he simply argues that in PA he has found an instance of unjustified / gratuitous evil:

1) Smith is undergoing suffering. Why won’t God stop it?
2) Smith is scandalized by the suffering. Why won’t God tell him the purpose of his ordeal?
3) Smith is upset that God is silent and apparently hiding. Why won’t God explain to him why He won’t speak?

Well, if God explained it, then He would not be silent anymore. So, the regress stops here.

There is no reason to believe that the particular evils (1)-(3) are not absorbed. The evil of the (perhaps temporary) failure to find meaning in one’s suffering is neither more nor less troublesome from the point of view of theism than any other evil, including the evil of the suffering itself, and therefore the standard theodicies apply to it.

For example, our author’s third objection to his own thesis, namely that “God wants us to figure things out for ourselves, such as that our suffering is justified, because that process of discovery would provide the opportunity for mental, emotional, and spiritual growth,” (334) deserves more attention than the cursory and unsatisfactory treatment given to it in the article.

The fourth objection, too, has merit: “For all we know, God has an unknown purpose for failing to bring about [more realization that all suffering is justified], a purpose that he can’t explain to us.” (334) Remember that when I elevated God the Son to the status of “central planner” in heaven / paradise, I justified it by the infinite complexity of the economic problem, since human lives are everlasting, to which only His own infinitude can rise. I pointed out that the reasons for Jesus’ decisions about our heavenly “curriculum” cannot even be understood by any creature, since we are finite yet His rule is eternal. Thus, God’s general purpose may actually be extremely well-known, such as to maximize human happiness from the beginning of man until kingdom come, yet the means to this laudable end could be exceedingly, even infinitely, intricate.

(Of course, God is no socialist tyrant: as St. Thomas writes, “God’s power is His goodness: hence He cannot use His power otherwise than well.” (ST, II-I, 2, 4, reply 1))

And so on.