The theist’s problem of evil explained simply

Posted on 11/26/12 17 Comments

Imagine that you have such faith in the government that you believe bad things never happen to the infrastructure of the city in which you live unless they are planned by the government for some greater purpose.

One day you wake up to find the street of your neighborhood flooded. “There’s your capable government for you!” your neighbor Alex the Anarchist says from his flooded front yard.

You, however, are unphased. “Clearly this is a controlled flooding,” you reply confidently. “The Army Corps of Engineers must have some reason why they allowed it. It’s for a greater purpose, you can bet that.”

“Oh really?” Alex guffaws. “Have you watched the morning news?”

You turn on the television and see a truly staggering scene. Almost the entire city has at least some flooding. Not one building is untouched by it.

A flooded street is one thing. But this is something else. The flooding is extensive, the damage to the city unprecedented. Could it really be that the Army Corps of Engineers has some greater purpose for allowing flooding on this scale?

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  • Walter

    I take it that you are not a big fan of the “Greater Good” theodicy when used by itself? I have seen you touch on this subject several times, yet I don’t recall ever reading Randal’s theodicy. Come to think of it, I do seem to recall you once wrote that evil might be explained by a combination of theodicies: Greater Good, Soul Building, Best possible World, Free Will, etc.

    Care to elaborate on your own personal theory?

    For myself, I tend to believe in more of a “ground-of-all-being” type of impersonal deity who evinces a certain level of indifference towards individual suffering. Understandably, my model of God is not going to be very satisfactory to those who wish to believe in a more anthropomorphic Heavenly Father.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I don’t think there is such a thing as a best possible world. I think free will and soul making theodicies are tokens of the greater goods type. Ultimately I believe that a greater goods theodicy is correct. (In this I disagree with theisms that reject either meticulous providence or the maximal goodness of God as a way to explain evil.) However, like a good skeptical theist I see no reason to think we mere mortals should be able to fathom what those greater goods could be in anything like a comprehensive explanation.

      • Walter

        I don’t think there is such a thing as a best possible world.

        Neither do I. But that would mean that Heaven (in the form of a redeemed earth) won’t be the best possible world either – just better than this one in a few particular areas.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          If heaven exists it isn’t a “possible world”, rather it is part of the maximal state of affairs that is the actual world. Thus the actual world would include all the events and states of affairs that existed, exist and will exist, including the state of restoration in heaven.

          • Walter

            Not sure that I fully understand the distinction. I assume the concept of a best possible world to be incoherent due to the fact that an infinite Creator can always outdo himself. No matter how good a world He creates on Tuesday, He can always top that with a better one on Thursday if He chooses to do so.

            I thought that a possible world is one where we can imagine something being different than it is in our actual world, making our world one of many possibilities. Even if a redeemed earth is simply our actual earth with all the dials turned up to ten, does this not still entail that it is one of many possible forms of Heaven? God could have made a different possible earth and redeemed it by turning that world’s dials up to maximal.

            This all leads to the next question: why did God not place us in a world where the “maximal state of affairs” already exists? I assume that this is the point where you will call upon skeptical theism?

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              A possible world is a maximal description of the way things could be. It is not a description at one moment in time, however, but rather a maximal description that includes all facts about the past and the future.

              So there is a possible world where God never creates and a possible world where he creates a fallen world. Perhaps there is also a possible world in which there are libertarianly free creatures but no fall. (Such a world is logically possible but may not be feasible or such that God could, in fact, actualize it.)

              If God annihilated the universe tomorrow and replaced it with a heavenly reality then he wouldn’t have replaced one possible world with another. Rather, the actual world would include the state of affairs of the universe existing at one time and the universe being replaced by a heavenly reality at another.

      • Thomas Larsen

        I don’t think there is such a thing as a best possible world.

        Out of interest: why not?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Because of a paper written about twenty years ago by Daniel Howard-Snyder.

          Ask yourself what a perfect world is made of. Presumably things like pretty flowers and happy people. So we fill a world with x number of pretty flowers and happy people in order to make it perfect. The problem is that x+1 would seem a little more perfect, and x+2 a little more perfect again.

          Only if you arbitrarily stipulate that a world with only 1000 (or 1,000,000 or whatever) pretty flowers and happy people is perfect and no more. But there’s no reason to believe that. So it seems like you could always make a world a little more perfect. And thus “perfect world” seems to suffer the fate of “highest number”.

  • AdamHazzard

    The Corps of Engineers is constrained by its limited ability to intervene in nature. Often, it is forced to choose the less disastrous of several obviously bad outcomes.

    One wonders about the constraints that apparently exist on an omnipotent god’s ability to intervene, and how such constraints might have arisen. If from the will of god, are they really constraints or just preferences? If from the nature of the universe, does that contradict the definition of omnipotence? If there are no such constraints, can we assume that a creator god is content with the existence of natural evil?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      God is limited in different ways. He is limited in the sense of accidential necessity, i.e. once an event occurs God cannot make it such that that event did not occur. God also is limited if he wants to create libertarianly free creatures in the sense that God cannot directly determine the free actions of such creatures. He is also limited if there is intrinsic value to creatures developing moral character such that their moral history creates a creature of greater ontological worth than one that was created with a particular moral character by divine fiat.

      • AdamHazzard

        None of those constraints seem especially relevant to the problem you describe, however. Are we to assume that a rockfall that kills a passing hiker somehow arises from free will, or that it confers on the victim a greater ontological worth?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          I was simply pointing out that God’s ability to actualize states of affairs at T-1 is not unrestricted. I don’t purport to have provided an exhaustive list of those restrictions but the ones I did list provide a principled explanation for why God may allow many of the evils that occur. Among the other restrictions that have been proposed there is the natural good of having regular natural processes (e.g. gravity) operative in a material world. That would provide part of the explanation for rocks regularly fall. (Of course God could have supplied natural laws according to which rocks turn into foam when they come near a human skull, but alas he didn’t. So again, we may have another piece of the puzzle, but that’s very different from having the whole puzzle assembled.)

          • AdamHazzard

            Thanks for that response — I do realize you were stating the problem, not claiming to have solved it.

            I would only add the observation that, if we posit a world in which natural processes operate without the intervention of divine beings, the puzzle of “natural evil” disappears — miraculously, I’m tempted to say.

  • AdamHazzard

    One other point. You begin by saying,

    Imagine that you have such faith in the government that you believe bad
    things never happen to the infrastructure of the city in which you live
    unless they are planned by the government for some greater purpose.

    I think we would all agree that such a faith is misplaced — it’s simply not within the power of the government to guarantee that bad, unplanned things will never happen to the infrastructure of the city. We reach that conclusion fairly easy by observing the nature of civic government and the nature of the crises it confronts.

    In other words, the logical problem only arises if we foolishly insist on the premise that the government is omnipotent (in the realm of infrastructure), omniscient (in the realm of infrastructure), and completely benevolent in its intentions. We solve that problem by questioning and modifying the premise.

    From an atheistic perspective, it seems as if the apologist is doing everything in his or her power to avoid questioning or modifying the premise that a god exists and that it is omniscient, omnipotent and universally benevolent. Which means that the problem of natural evil remains theologically intractable, a perpetually hovering mystery to which the only recourse is a doubling-down on the premise itself — “No, the government must have allowed this flood, for some good reason which we are unable to comprehend.”

  • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

    Nu? Why should Florence get all the tourists?

    • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

      Oops…I meant Venice.

  • Emilie_dC

    I think that if the problem of animal suffering is considered as part of the POE, then a better analogy would be if the entire continent were flooded.