The Global Argument from Evil
By the global argument from evil, I understand the following argument (or any argument sufficiently similar to it that the two arguments stand or fall together): We find vast amounts of truly horrendous evil in the world; if there were a God, we should not find vast amounts of horrendous evil in the world; there is, therefore, no God. (The global argument from evil, you will remember, is named by contrast to the many local arguments from evil, arguments that proceed from premises concerning some particular evil. It is my position that the global argument from evil and local arguments from evil are best treated separately.)
I will preface my examination of this argument with a defense of the moral propriety of examining it. My preface is by no means shadow-boxing. It is quite common for people to say that to examine the argument from evil (in any of its forms), to treat it as if it were just one more philosophical argument, an argument whose virtues and defects could and should be weighed by impartial reason, is a sign of moral insensitivity—or downright wickedness. One might suppose that no argument was exempt from critical examination. One might suppose that if an argument had sufficient force that it would be intellectually dishonest for the opponents of its conclusion to ignore it (a feature that many ascribe to the argument from evil), it would follow that it would be intellectually dishonest for advocates of its conclusion to forbid the opponents of the conclusion to criticize it. But those people to whom I have alluded assert, and with considerable vehemence, that it is extremely insensitive (or extremely wicked) to examine the argument from evil with a critical eye. Here, for example, is a famous passage from John Stuart Mill's Three Essays on Religion (pp. 186–7):
We now pass to the moral attributes of the Deity, so far as indicated in the Creation; or (stating the problem in the broadest manner) to the question, what indications Nature gives of the purposes of its author. This question bears a very different aspect to us from what it bears to those teachers of Natural Theology who are incumbered with the necessity of admitting the omnipotence of the Creator. We have not to attempt the impossible problem of reconciling infinite benevolence and justice with infinite power in the Creator of a world such as this. The attempt to do so not only involves absolute contradiction in an intellectual point of view but exhibits to excess the revolting spectacle of a Jesuitical defense of moral enormities.
Here is a second example. The following poem occurs in the late Kingsley Amis's novel The Anti-Death League (it is the work of one of the characters), and it puts a little flesh on the bones of Mill's abstract Victorian indignation. It contains several specific allusions to just those arguments that Mill describes as Jesuitical defenses of moral enormities. Its literary effect depends essentially on putting these arguments, or allusions to them, into the mouth of God:
TO A BABY BORN WITHOUT LIMBS
This is just to show you who's boss around here.
It'll keep you on your toes, so to speak.
Make you put your best foot forward, so to speak,
And give you something to turn your hand to, so to speak.
You can face up to it like a man,
Or snivel and blubber like a baby.
That's up to you. Nothing to do with Me.
If you take it in the right spirit,
You can have a bloody marvelous life,
With the great rewards courage brings,
And the beauty of accepting your lot.
And think how much good it'll do your Mum and Dad,
And your Grans and Gramps and the rest of the shower,
To be stopped being complacent.
Make sure they baptize you, though,
In case some murdering bastard
Decides to put you away quick,
Which would send you straight to limb-o, ha ha ha.
But just a word in your ear, if you've got one.
Mind you, do take this in the right spirit,
And keep a civil tongue in your head about Me.
Because if you don't,
I've got plenty of other stuff up My sleeve,
Such as leukemia and polio,
Which, incidentally, you're welcome to any time,
Whatever spirit you take this in.
I've given you one love-pat, right?
You don't want another.
The attitude expressed in these two quotations is not confined to avowed enemies of Christianity. The theologian Kenneth Surin, a Christian, contends in his book Theology and the Problem of Evil that anyone who attempts to reconcile the goodness and omnipotence of God with such evils as the Holocaust actually undermines his own and others' abilities to oppose those evils and is, therefore, at least in a sense, cooperating with their perpetrators. (At any rate, I think that's what his thesis is. As is the case with a great many twentieth-century academic theologians, Surin writes a kind of prose that seems to an untutored analytical philosopher like me designed to conceal his meaning.)
I am not entirely out of sympathy with writers like Mill, the fictional author of the poem in Amis's novel, and Surin. There is one sort of position on God and evil toward which the intellectual scorn of Mill (I'll discuss his moral scorn presently) seems entirely appropriate, and it could plausibly be argued that Surin would be right to say that anyone who defended this position was encouraging indifference to the evils of the world. I have in mind the idea that—in the most strict and literal sense—evil does not exist. Now it might seem surprising that anyone would defend this idea. Consider the following well-known passage from The Brothers Karamazov:
“By the way, a Bulgarian I met lately in Moscow… told me about the crimes committed by Turks and Circassians in all parts of Bulgaria through fear of a general rising of the Slavs. They burn villages, murder, outrage women and children, they nail their prisoners by the ears to the fences, leave them so till morning, and in the morning they hang them.… These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children, too; cutting the unborn child from the mother's womb, and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on the points of their bayonets before their mothers' eyes…”2
How can anyone listen to stories like this and say that evil does not exist? Well, one sort of answer to this question is provided by the adherents of more than one Eastern religion: the appearance of evil that is all about us is mere
appearance, illusion, for the simple reason that all appearance, everything ordinary people take for sensible reality, is illusion. I will not consider this position. I'll take it for granted that what our senses tell us about the world around us is reasonably accurate. But there have been thinkers who held that evil was an illusion even though the sun and the stars and St Rule's Tower were not. Their idea, if I understand it, is something like this. An event like the Turkish massacres in Bulgaria would
be an evil if it constituted the entire universe. But, of course, no such event does. The universe as a whole contains no spot or stain of evil, but it looks to us human beings as if it did because we view it from a limited perspective. Perhaps an aesthetic analogy will help us to understand this rather difficult idea. (I found this helpful analogy in a book by the philosopher Wallace Matson;3
I hasten to add that it does not represent his own point of view.) Many pieces of music that are of extreme beauty and perfection contain short discordant passages that would sound very ugly if they were played all by themselves, outside the musical context in which the composer meant them to occur. (Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier
is an example.) But these passages are not ugly in their proper musical context; they are not the kind of passage that Rossini was referring to when he said, “Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour”. Seen, or rather heard, in the context of the whole, they are not only not ugly but are essential elements of the beauty and perfection of that whole. The idea I am deprecating is that the horrors and atrocities of our world are the moral analogues of these discordant passages. The loci classici
of this idea are Leibniz's Theodicy
and Pope's Essay on Man
, particularly the famous lines:
All nature is but art unknown to thee,
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.4
(In the matter of Leibniz, if you want to tell me that I am wrong to imply that his position was the same as Pope's, or anything close to it, I won't fight back. Let's say that by ‘Leibniz’ I mean Leibniz as he has commonly been understood. Even if this Leibniz is a fiction, he has been an influential one.) I don't see how anyone could accept this position. It seems to me to be wholly fantastic. Do not misunderstand this statement. I wish to distance myself from the vulgar slander that ascribes moral insensibility (or downright wickedness) to Pope—a slander about which I'll have more to say in a moment. For my part, I accuse him only of intellectual error. But the intellectual error is of enormous magnitude—comparable to the intellectual error of, say, the astronomer Percival Lowell, who believed that Mars was covered with canals (of which he drew a detailed map), the work of an ancient and dying civilization. This belief was based on no more than the romantic appeal of the tale of an ancient civilization bravely laboring to stave off the fall of night—with, perhaps, some assistance from optical illusion. Pope's belief that “Whatever is, is right” can have had no more basis than his desire that it be true—with, perhaps, some assistance from Leibniz's Theodicy. If we think of soldiers making mothers watch while they throw their babies in the air and catch them on the points of their bayonets, or of the ancient Mesopotamian practice of moloch—of throwing living infants into a furnace as a sacrifice to Baal—or of a child born without limbs, we shall, I hope, find it impossible to say that evil is not real. Bad things really do happen. (Remember that by ‘evil’ we mean simply ‘bad things’.) Anyone who, like Pope, says that we call certain things bad only because we don't see them sub specie aeternitatis is in grave error. One might as well say that if we could only observe pain from God's point of view, we'd see that it doesn't hurt.
Now what I am calling a grave (or, to put it another way, an absurd) error must be carefully distinguished from three theses I do not call errors; each of these has sometimes been confused with it.
First, it must be distinguished from the thesis that out of every evil God brings some greater good—or that out of the totality of evil he brings some great good or goods that outweigh that totality. That may or may not be so, but if it is so, it doesn't imply that evil is an illusion. In fact, it implies that evil isn't an illusion; for even God can't bring good out of evil if there is no evil.
Secondly, it must be distinguished from a famous thesis of St Augustine's, that evil is not a thing that exists in its own right, but is rather a privation of good. That may or may not be so, but if it is so, it doesn't imply that evil is an illusion. A hole in the seat of your trousers isn't a thing that exists in its own right, but is (so to speak) a privation of cloth. But that doesn't mean that the hole is an illusion. If a hole isn't a real thing but a mere absence, that nice metaphysical point doesn't change the fact that your trousers need mending. To maintain that defects in things are not themselves things isn't to maintain that nothing is really defective.
Thirdly, it must not be confused with the biblical promise that some day God will wipe away every tear. That may or may not be so, but if it is so, it doesn't imply that there aren't tears now, and it doesn't imply that the tears of the present day are shed over illusions—that, if we could only see things as God sees them, we'd see that there was nothing to cry about.
If anyone takes the Leibniz/Pope line on the reality of evil, then, I think, that person deserves some of the scorn that Mill and the other writers I've quoted so eloquently express. I insist, however, that the scorn should be intellectual, rather than moral. In believing that “Whatever is, is right”, Pope is guilty of no moral error; but his intellectual error is profound, and not to be imitated. I don't say that intellectual and moral error can't be mixed. Those who deny the reality of the Holocaust, for example, are guilty of both. But I would say that an important part of the cause of their intellectual error was antecedently existing moral defects in themselves; these moral defects have led them to deny empirically ascertainable facts. I don't think that Pope and Leibniz believed that evil was an illusion of perspective because they were particularly bad men (I expect they were no better or worse than most of us, something I certainly shouldn't be willing to say of Holocaust-deniers); I think they simply went badly wrong about how things are. Similar cases abound. Descartes, for example, believed that animals felt no pain. I don't suppose he was guilty of this intellectual error (and it is an intellectual error; someone who thinks that animals feel no pain has gone badly wrong about how things are) because of some moral defect he brought to his theorizing about animals. (That might be true of someone whose livelihood depended on causing pain to animals, and who therefore found it convenient to believe that animals felt no pain.) No, Descartes believed this because he thought he saw a good argument for it. He should have seen that if the proposition that animals don't feel pain is the conclusion of a valid argument, at least one of the premises of that argument must be false. Somehow he didn't. But this was not a moral failure—and the same should be said of Pope's and Leibniz's failures to accept the reality of evil.
In any case, the scorn of Mill and the other writers I've quoted is not directed only at those who deny the reality of evil. This scorn is poured on anyone who is unwilling to admit, without further argument, that the evils of this world entail the non-existence of a good and omnipotent God. And when they imply that all such people, all people who are not immediately converted to atheism by the argument from evil in its simplest form, are morally defective, they go too far—they go far
too far—and I must accuse them of intellectual dishonesty.5
Philosophy is hard. Thinking clearly for an extended period is hard. It is easier to pour scorn on those who disagree with you than actually to address their arguments. (It was easier for Voltaire to caricature Leibniz's arguments and to mock the caricature than actually to address them. And so he wrote Candide.) And of all the kinds of scorn that can be poured on someone's views, moral scorn is the safest and most pleasant (most pleasant to the one doing the pouring). It is the safest kind because, if you want to pour moral scorn on someone's views, you can be sure that everyone who is predisposed to agree with you will believe that you have made an unanswerable point. And you can be sure that any attempt your opponent in debate makes at an answer will be dismissed by a significant proportion of your audience as a “rationalization”—that great contribution of modern depth psychology to intellectual complacency and laziness. Moral scorn is the most pleasant kind of scorn to deploy against those who disagree with you because a display of self—-righteousness—moral posturing—is a pleasant action whatever the circumstances, and it's nice to have an excuse for it. No one can tell me that Mill wasn't enjoying himself when he wrote the words “exhibits to excess the revolting spectacle of a jesuitical defense of moral enormities”. (Perhaps he was enjoying himself so much that his attention was diverted from the question, “What would it be to exhibit a revolting spectacle in moderation?”)
To those who avoid having to reply to criticism of the argument from evil by this sort of moral posturing, I can only say, “Come off it”. These people are, in point of principle, in exactly the same position as those defenders of law and order who, if you express a suspicion that a man accused of molesting a child may have been framed by the police, tell you with evident disgust that molesting a child is a monstrous crime and that you're defending a child molester.
Having defended the moral propriety of critically examining the argument from evil, I will now do just that. The argument presupposes, and rightly, that two features God is supposed to have are “non-negotiable”: that he is omnipotent and that he is morally perfect. As we saw in the second lecture, it isn't easy to say what omnipotence means. My non-negotiable adherence to “God is omnipotent” comes to this: in these lectures, in attempting to answer the argument from evil, I will never contend that God is unable to do a certain thing unless I am prepared to defend the thesis that the thing in question is intrinsically or metaphysically impossible. (And this despite the fact that I believe that there are certain intrinsically possible acts—lying and promise breaking, for example—that the one, the only possible, omnipotent being is unable to perform.) To say that God is morally perfect is to say that he never does anything morally wrong—that he could not possibly do anything morally wrong.6
Omnipotence and moral perfection are, as I said, non-negotiable components of the idea of God. A being that is the greatest being possible and is less powerful than it might have been (or is less powerful than some other possible being might have been) is a contradiction in terms, and so is a being who is the greatest being possible and sometimes acts wrongly. If the universe was made by an intelligent being, and if that being is less than omnipotent (and if there's no other being who is
omnipotent), then the atheists are right: God does not exist. If the universe was made by an omnipotent being, and if that being has done even one thing that was morally wrong (and if there isn't another omnipotent being, one who never does anything morally wrong), then the atheists are right: God does not exist. If the Creator of the universe lacked either omnipotence or moral perfection, and if he claimed to be God, he would be either an impostor or confused—an impostor if he claimed to be both omnipotent and morally perfect, and confused if he admitted to being either not omnipotent or not morally perfect and still claimed to be God.
I began this lecture with a simple statement of the global argument from evil. One premise of this argument was: ‘If there were a God, we should not find vast amounts of horrendous evil in the world.’ But the statement “If there were an omnipotent and morally perfect being, we should not find vast amounts of horrendous evil in the world” might well be false if the all-powerful and morally perfect being were ignorant, and not culpably ignorant, of certain evils. But this is not a difficulty for the proponent of the global argument from evil, for God is, as we have seen, omniscient. The proponent of the simple argument could, in fact, defend his premise by an appeal to far weaker theses about the extent of God's knowledge than ‘God is omniscient’. If the evils of the world constitute an effective prima facie case for the conclusion that there is no omnipotent, morally perfect, and omniscient being, they present an equally effective prima facie case for the conclusion that there is no omnipotent and morally perfect being who has even as much knowledge of what goes on in the world as we human beings have. The full panoply of omniscience, so to speak, does not really enter into the initial stages of a presentation and discussion of an argument from evil. Omniscience—omniscience in the full sense of the word—will become important only later, when we come to discuss the free-will defense.
It is time now to turn to our promised ideal debate, the debate between Atheist and Theist before the audience of ideal agnostics. We are imagining that stage of the debate in which Atheist is trying to convince the agnostics to abandon their agnosticism and become atheists like herself, and, more specifically, that stage in the debate in which she attempts to employ the global argument from evil to that end. She inaugurates this stage of the debate with a statement of the global argument, a slightly more elaborate version of the argument than the one I have given:
God, if he exists, is omniscient, or, at the very least, knows as much as we human beings do. He therefore knows at least about the evils of the world we know about, and we know that the world contains a vast amount of evil. [I am going to assume that neither party to the debate thinks the Leibniz/Pope thesis on evil, the thesis that evil is an illusion of our limited perspective, is worth so much as a passing mention.] Now consider those evils God knows about. Since he's morally perfect, he must desire that these evils not exist—their non-existence must be what he wants. And an omnipotent being can achieve or bring about whatever he wants—or at least whatever he wants that is intrinsically possible And the non-existence of evil, of bad things, is obviously intrinsically possible. So if there were an omnipotent, morally perfect being who knew about the evils we know about—well, they wouldn't have arisen in the first place, for he'd have prevented their occurrence. Or if, for some reason, he didn't do that, he'd certainly remove them the instant they began to exist. But we observe evils, and very long-lasting ones. So we must conclude that God does not exist.
What shall Theist—who grants that the world contains vast amounts of truly horrible evil—say in reply? I think that he should begin with an obvious point about the relations between what one wants, what one can do, and what one will, in the event, do:
I grant that, in some sense of the word, the non-existence of evil must be what a perfectly good being wants. But we often don't bring about states of affairs we can bring about and want to bring about. Suppose, for example, that Alice's mother is dying in great pain and that Alice yearns desperately for her mother to die—today and not next week or next month. And suppose it would be easy for Alice to arrange this—she is perhaps a doctor or a nurse and has easy access to pharmaceutical resources that would enable her to achieve this end. Does it follow that she will act on this ability that she has? It is obvious that it does not, for Alice might have reasons for not doing what she can do. Two obvious candidates for such reasons are: she thinks it would be morally wrong; she is afraid that her act would be discovered, and that she would be prosecuted for murder. And either of these reasons might be sufficient, in her mind, to outweigh her desire for an immediate end to her mother's sufferings. So it may be that someone has a very strong desire for something and is able to obtain this thing, but does not act on this desire—because he has reasons for not doing so that seem to him to outweigh the desirability of the thing. The conclusion that evil does not exist does not, therefore, follow logically from the premises that the non-existence of evil is what God wants and that he is able to bring about the object of his desire—since, for all logic can tell us, God might have reasons for allowing evil to exist that, in his mind, outweigh the desirability of the non-existence of evil.
Theist begins his reply with these words. But he must say a great deal more than this, for, if we gave her her head, Atheist could make pretty good prima facie cases for two conclusions: that a morally perfect Creator would make every effort to prevent the suffering of his creatures, and that that the suffering of creatures could not be a necessary means to any end for an omnipotent being. Theist must, therefore, say something about God's reasons for allowing evil, something to make it plausible this, however, I will remind you of some terminology I introduced in the first lecture that will help us to understand the general strategy I am going to have him follow in his discussion of God's reasons for allowing evil to exist.
Suppose I believe both in God and in the real existence of evil. Suppose I think I know what God's reasons for allowing evil to exist are, and that I tell them to you. Then I have presented you with a theodicy. (Here I use ‘theodicy’ in Plantinga's sense. Various writers, Richard Swinburne and I among them, have found it useful to use the word in other senses. In these lectures, I will stick with the usage that Plantinga's work has made more or less standard in philosophical discussions of the argument from evil.) If I could present a theodicy, and if the audience to whom I presented it found it convincing, I'd have an effective reply to the argument from evil, at least as regards that particular audience. But suppose that, although I believe in both God and evil, I don't claim to know what God's reasons for allowing evil are. Is there any way for someone in my position to reply to the argument from evil? There is. Consider this analogy.
Your friend Clarissa, a single mother, left her two very young children alone in her flat for several hours very late last night. Your Aunt Harriet a maiden lady of strong moral principles, learns of this and declares: Clarissa is unfit to raise children. You spring to your friend's defense “Now, Aunt Harriet, don't go jumping to conclusions. There's probably a perfectly good explanation. Maybe Billy or Annie was ill, and she decided to go over to the clinic for help. You know she hasn't got a phone or a car and no one in that neighborhood of hers would come to the door at two o'clock in the morning.” If you tell your Aunt Harriet a story like this, you don't claim to know what Clarissa's reasons for leaving her children alone really were. And you're not claiming to have said anything that shows that Clarissa really is a good mother. You're claiming only to show that the fact Aunt Harriet has adduced doesn't prove that she isn't one; what you're trying to establish is that for all you or Aunt Harriet know, she had some good reason for what she did. And you're not trying to establish only that there is some remote possibility that she had a good reason. No counsel for the defense would try to raise doubts in the minds of the members of a jury by pointing out to them that for all they knew the defendant had an identical twin of whom all record had been lost, and who was the person who had actually committed the crime the defendant was charged with. That may be a possibility—I suppose it is a possibility—but it is too remote a possibility to raise real doubts in anyone's mind. What you're trying to convince Aunt Harriet of is that there is, as we say, a very real possibility that Clarissa had a good reason for leaving her children alone; and your attempt to convince her of this consists in your presenting her with an example of what such a reason might be.
Critical responses to the argument from evil—at least responses by philosophers—usually take just this form. A philosopher who responds to the argument from evil typically does so by telling a story, a story in which God allows evil to exist. This story will, of course, represent God as having reasons for allowing the existence of evil, reasons that, if the rest of the story were true, would be good ones. Such a story philosophers call a defense
. If I offer a story about God and evil as a defense, I hope for the following reaction from my audience: “Given that God exists, the rest of the story might well be true. I can't see any reason to rule it out.” The reason I hope for this reaction should be clear. If the story I have told is true, then the argument from evil (any version of the argument from evil) has a false premise. More precisely: given that the argument from evil is logically valid (that is, given that the conclusion of the argument follows logically from its premises), at least one of the premises of the argument has to be false if my story, my “defense”, is true. If, therefore, my audience reacts to my story about God and evil as I hope they will, they will immediately draw the conclusion I want them to draw: that, for all they know, at least one of the premises of the argument from evil is false.7
Some people, if they are familiar with the usual conduct of debates about the argument from evil may be puzzled by my bringing the notion “a very real possibility” into my fictional debate at this early point. It has become something of a custom for critics of the argument from evil first to discuss the so-called logical problem of evil, the problem of finding a defense that satisfies no stronger condition than this, that it be free from internal logical contradiction; when the critics have dealt with this problem to their own satisfaction, as they always do, they go on to discuss the so-called evidential (or probabilistic) problem of evil, the problem of finding a defense that (among certain other desirable features) represents, in my phrase, a real possibility. If defense counsels followed a parallel strategy in courts of law, they would first try to prove that their clients' innocence was logically consistent with the evidence by telling stories (by presenting “alternative theories of the crime”) involving things like twins separated at birth, operatic coincidences, and mental telepathy; only after they had shown by this method that their clients' innocence was logically consistent with the evidence, would they go on to try to raise real doubts in the minds of jurors about the guilt of their clients.
As I said in the first lecture, I find this division of the problem artificial and unhelpful—although I think it is easy to see why it arose. It arose because the earliest attempts to use the argument from evil to prove the non-existence of God—I mean the earliest attempts by analytical philosophers—were attempts to prove that the statement ‘God and evil both exist’ was logically self—-contradictory. And various philosophers, most notably Nelson Pike and Alvin Plantinga, attempted to show that these supposed proofs of logical self—-contradiction were far from convincing.8
The debate evolved fairly quickly out of this early, “logical” stage into a discussion of a much more interesting question: whether the statement ‘God and evil both exist’ could be shown to be probably false
or unreasonable to believe
. Discussions of the problem of evil even today tend to recapitulate this episode in the evolution of the discussion of the argument from evil.
Since I find the distinction artificial and unhelpful, I am, of course not going to allow it to dictate the form that my discussion of the argument from evil will take. I am, as it were, jumping right into the evidential problem (so-called; I won't use the term) without any consideration of the logical problem. Or none as such, none under the rubric “the logical problem of evil”. Those who know the history of the discussions of the argument from evil in the Fifties and Sixties of the last century will see that many of the points I make, or have my creatures Atheist and Theist make, were first made in discussions of the logical problem.
All right. Theist's response will take the form of an attempt to present one or more defenses, and his hope will be that the response of the audience of agnostics to this defense, or these defenses, will be, “Given that God exists, the rest of the story might well be true. I can't see any reason to rule it out.” What form could a plausible defense (a defense having a real chance of eliciting this reaction from an audience of neutral agnostics following an ideal debate) take?
One point is clear: A defense cannot simply take the form of a story about how God brings some great good out of the evils of the world, a good that outweighs those evils. At the very least, a defense will have to include the proposition that God was unable to bring about the greater good without allowing the evils we observe (or some other evils as bad or worse). And to find a story that can plausibly be said to have this feature is no trivial undertaking. The reason for this lies in God's omnipotence. A human being can often be excused for allowing, or even causing, a certain evil if that evil was a necessary means, or an unavoidable consequence thereof, to some good that outweighed it—or if it was a necessary means to the prevention of some greater evil. The eighteenth-century surgeon who operated without anesthetic caused unimaginable pain to his patients, but we do not condemn him because (at least if he knew what he was about) the pain was an unavoidable consequence of the means necessary to a good that outweighed it—saving the patient's life, for example. But we should not excuse a present-day surgeon who had anesthetics available and who nevertheless operated without using them—not even if his operation saved the patient's life and thus resulted in a good that outweighed the horrible pain the patient suffered.
A great many of the theodicies or defenses that one sees are insufficiently sensitive to this point. Many undergraduates at the University of Notre Dame, for example, seem inclined to say something like the following: if there were no evil, no one would appreciate—perhaps no one would even be aware of—the goodness of the things that are good you know the idea: you never really appreciate health till you've been ill you never really understand how great and beautiful a thing friendship is till you've known adversity and known what it is to have friends who stick by you through thick and thin—and so on. Now the obvious criticism of this defense is so immediately obvious that in tends to mask the point that led me to raise it. The immediately obvious criticism is that this defense may be capable of accounting for certain amount of, for example, physical pain, but it certainly doesn't account for the degree and the duration of the pain that many people are subject to—and it doesn't account for the fact that many of the people who experience horrible physical pain do not seem to be granted any subsequent goods to appreciate. If, for example, the final six months of the life of a man dying of cancer are one continuous chapter of excruciating pain, the “appreciation” defense (so to call it) can hardly be said to provide a plausible account of why God would allow someone's life to end this way. (Admittedly, this is not a conclusive point: the Notre Dame undergraduate will probably add to his or her defense at this point the thesis that the sufferer better appreciates the goods of Heaven because of his earthly sufferings.) But I have brought up the “appreciation” defense—which otherwise would not be worth spending any time on—to make a different point. It is not at all evident that an omnipotent creator would need to allow people really to experience any pain or grief or sorrow or adversity or illness to enable them to appreciate the good things in life. An omnipotent being would certainly be able to provide the knowledge of evil that human beings in fact acquire by bitter experience of real events in some other way. An omnipotent being could, for example, so arrange matters that at a certain point in each person's life—for a few years during his adolescence, say—that person have very vivid and absolutely convincing nightmares in which he is a prisoner in a concentration camp or dies of some horrible disease or watches his loved ones being raped and murdered by soldiers bent on ethnic cleansing. Whether such dreams would be “worth it”, I don't know. That is, I don't know whether people in a world in which nothing bad ever happened in reality would be better off for having such nightmares—whether the nightmares would lead to an appreciation of the good things in their lives that outweighed the intrinsic unpleasantness of having them. But it seems clear that a world in which horrible things occurred only in nightmares would be better than a world in which the same horrible things occurred in reality, and that a morally perfect being would, all other things being equal, prefer a world in which horrible things were confined to dreams to a world in which they existed in reality. The general point this example is intended to illustrate is simply that the resources of an omnipotent being are unlimited—or are limited only by what is intrinsically possible—and that a defense must take account of these unlimited resources.
There seems to me to be only one defense that has any hope of succeeding, and that is the so-called free-will defense.9
In saying this, I place myself in a long tradition that goes back at least to St Augustine, although I do not propose, like many in that tradition, to offer a theodicy. I do not claim to know that free will plays any central part in God's reasons for allowing the existence of evil. I employ the free-will defense as just precisely a defense, a story that includes both God and evil and, given that there is a God, is true for all anyone knows. If I have anything to add to what others in this tradition have said, it derives from the fact (I firmly believe it to be a fact) that today we understand free will better than philosophers and theologians have in the past. Those of you who know my work on free will may be puzzled by this last statement, for I have always insisted (though not always as explicitly and vehemently as I have in recent years) that free will is a mystery, something we don't understand at all. Am I not, therefore, saying that we now understand something we don't understand at all better than philosophers used to understand it? And is it not a form of obscurantism to argue for the conclusion that the argument from evil, which is a very straightforward argument indeed, is a failure by telling a story that essentially involves a mystery?
These are good questions, but I am confident I have good answers to them. Here is what I mean by saying that free will is a mystery: Anyone who has thought carefully about the problem of free will and who has come to a conclusion about free will that is detailed and systematic enough to be called a theory of free will must accept some proposition that seems self-evidently false. To choose what theory of free will to accept is to choose which seemingly self-evidently false proposition one accepts. And this choice cannot be evaded by accepting some deflationary or “commonsense” or naturalistic theory of free will. To do that is simply to choose a theory of free will, and, if I am right, it is therefore to choose to accept some proposition that seems self-evidently false. Well, this is a controversial thesis; that is, it is controversial whether free will is in this sense a mystery. And, fortunately, my use of the free-will defense in these lectures will not depend on it. I mention it only to absolve myself of the charge of contradiction, for I believe that it is consistent to say that free will is a mystery in this sense and that philosophers today understand free will better than philosophers of the past have understood it. I claim to have a better philosophical understanding of free will than, for example, Augustine and Aquinas. By this I mean that, although I find free will an impenetrable mystery, I have at my disposal a better family of ideas, a set of unambiguous, sharply defined, and more useful technical terms relating to the problem of free will than Augustine and Aquinas had. And I know of all manner of arguments pertaining to free will that were unknown (or only vaguely, gropingly formulated) before the 1960s.
As to the charge of obscurantism—well, free will is a real thing. (If anyone denies that free will exists, that is a theory about free will, or an important part of one, and it commits its adherents to the seemingly self-evidently false proposition that free will does not exist.) I will, of course, include in my version of the free-will defense (that is, in the version of the free-will defense that I put into the mouth of Theist), some statements that imply the existence of free will. In my view, however, none of these statements are ones that are known to be false or probably false or unreasonable to believe. Remember that the free-will defense is a defense, not a theodicy, and that the person who offers a defense is not obliged to include in it only statements that are known to be true. I shall, for example, suppose that free will is incompatible with determinism, but that is not a thesis that is known to be false. There are philosophical arguments that can be brought against “incompatibilism” of course, but that fact is nicely accommodated by my methodology, by my placing Theist's use of the free-will defense in the context of a debate: Atheist is perfectly free to bring these arguments to the attention of the agnostics.
Let us now return to that debate. I am going to imagine Theist putting forward a very simple form of the free-will defense; I will go on to ask what Atheist might say in response:
God made the world and it was very good. An indispensable part of the goodness he chose was the existence of rational beings: self-aware beings capable of abstract thought and love and having the power of free choice between contemplated alternative courses of action. This last feature of rational beings, free choice or free will, is a good. But even an omnipotent being is unable to control the exercise of the power of free choice, for a choice that was controlled would ipso facto not be free. In other words, if I have a free choice between x and y, even God cannot ensure that I choose x. To ask God to give me a free choice between x and y and to see to it that I choose x instead of y is to ask God to bring about the intrinsically impossible; it is like asking him to create a round square, a material body that has no shape, or an invisible object that casts a shadow. Having this power of free choice, some or all human beings misused it and produced a certain amount of evil. But free will is a sufficiently great good that its existence outweighs the evils that have resulted and will result from its abuse; and God foresaw this.
We should note that the free-will defense depends on the Thomist, as opposed to the Cartesian, conception of omnipotence, for, according to Descartes, an omnipotent being can
bring about the intrinsically impossible. But that is no real objection to Theist's defense. In adopting the Thomist conception of omnipotence, Theist actually makes things harder for himself—for on the Cartesian conception of omnipotence, it is absurdly easy to reply to the argument from evil in any of its forms. (Absurdly easy, I
would say, because the Cartesian conception of omnipotence is absurd.) The Cartesian need only say that there is no evil. And, in saying this, he need not be in agreement with Leibniz and Pope, who refuse to say that there is
evil. He can say that there is evil—and also that there isn't. After all, if God can
bring it about that evil both exists and does not exist, who's to say that he hasn't? (Well, Descartes
says that God in fact hasn't brought about the truth of any self-contradictory statements, but that thesis is not inherent in his theory of omnipotence.) “But a morally perfect God, even if he could bring about the truth of contradictions, wouldn't bring it about that there both is and isn't evil; he'd do something even better: he'd bring it about that there isn't evil, and not
bring it about that there is; he'd bring it about that there isn't any evil, full stop.” I agree, replies the Cartesian theodicist, but that doesn't count against my argument, for he has done just that. “But that contradicts what you just said. You said that God has brought it about that there both is and isn't evil, and then you said that he brought it about that there isn't any evil, full stop.” “Yes,” the Cartesian theodicist replies, “that's a contradiction all right. But there's nothing wrong with asserting a contradiction if it's true, and that one is, for God has brought about its truth. He's omnipotent, you know.” And there is no reply to the Cartesian theodicist; a reply
is a species of rational discourse, and anyone who, like the Cartesian theodicist, affirms the truth of contradictions, has the resources to make rational discourse about the argument from evil (or any other topic) impossible.10
Let us leave him to his own devices and presuppose the Thomist account of omnipotence, which at least makes rational discourse about what an omnipotent being can do possible.
Theist's presentation of the free-will defense immediately suggests several objections. Here are two that would immediately occur to most people:
How could anyone possibly believe that the evils of this world are outweighed by the good inherent in our having free will? Perhaps free will is a good and would outweigh, in Theist's words “a certain amount of evil”, but it seems impossible to believe that it can outweigh the amount of physical suffering (to say nothing of other sorts of evil) that actually exists.
Not all evils are the result of human free will. Consider, for example, the Lisbon earthquake or the almost inconceivable misery and loss of life produced by the Asian tsunami of December 2004. Such events are not the result of any act of human will, free or unfree.
In my view, the simple form of the free-will defense I have put into Theist's mouth is unable to deal with either of these objections. The simple form of the free-will defense can deal with at best the existence of some evil—as opposed to the vast amount of evil we actually observe—and the evil with which it can deal is only the evil that is caused by the acts of human beings. I believe, however, that more sophisticated forms of the free-will defense do have interesting things to say about the vast amount of evil in the world and about those evils that are not caused by human beings. Before I discuss these “more sophisticated” forms of the free-will defense, however, I want to examine some objections that have been raised against the free-will defense that are so fundamental that, if valid, they would refute any elaboration of the defense, however sophisticated. These objections have to do with the nature of free will. I am not going to inject them into my dialogue between Atheist and Theist, for the simple reason that—in my view, anyway—they have not got very much force, and I do not want it to be accused of fictional character assassination; my Atheist has more interesting arguments at her disposal. Nevertheless, I am going to discuss these arguments. One of them I will discuss because it played an important part in early debates about the argument from evil. (From my parochial point of view, the “early” debates about the argument from evil took place in the Fifties and Sixties.) I will discuss the others because, although they cannot be said to have played an important part in the debate, they have some currency. Since, like the first, they involve philosophical problems about free will, it will be convenient to discuss them in connection with the first.
I will begin the next lecture with a discussion of these three arguments: the argument that, since free will is compatible with determinism, an omnipotent and omniscient being could indeed determine the free choices of its creatures; the argument that, although free will and determinism are incompatible, God is able to ensure that human beings freely choose one course of action over another without determining their actions (owing to his having what is called “middle knowledge”); and the argument that since God's omniscience is incompatible with free will, the free-will defense is logically self-contradictory.