David Lewis on Defense and Theodicy

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 30, 2010 in Alvin Plantinga,Problem of Evil

After posting some of David O’Connor’s thoughts on defense and theodicy in discussing the problem of evil, TaiChi pointed to the wonderfully clear presentation of the issue by David Lewis in “Evil for Freedom’s Sake?“:

Alvin Plantinga, our foremost modern authority on free-will theodicy, would recoil from that name for his subject. He has taught us to distinguish ‘theodicy’ from ‘defence’. ‘Theodicy’, for Plantinga, means an audacious claim to know the truth about why God permits evil. And not just a trivial bit of the truth – God permits evil for the sake of some good or other – but something fairly substantive and detailed. One who claims to know God’s mind so well… will seem both foolhardy and impudent.

‘Defence’, on the other hand, means just any hypothesis about why omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God permits evil. Its sole purpose is to rebut the contention that there is no possible way that such a thing could happen. To serve that purpose, the hypothesis need not be put forward as true. It need not be at all plausible. Mere possibility is enough.

Plantinga aims only at defence. So why does he invest so much effort and ingenuity in the hypothesis that God permits evil for freedom’s sake? I think an easier hypothesis would serve his purpose. As follows. We are partly right, partly wrong in our catalogue of values. The best things in life include love, joy, knowledge, vigour, despair, malice, betrayal, torture, … God in His infinite love provides all His children with an abundance of good things. Different ones of us get different gifts, all of them very good. So some are blessed with joy and knowledge, some with vigour and malice, some with torture and despair. God permits evil-doing as a means for delivering some of the goods, just as He permits beneficence as a means for delivering others.

Why not? The hypothesis isn’t true, of course. And it isn’t plausible. But a defence needn’t be true and needn’t be plausible; possibility is enough. And not epistemic possibility, or ‘real’ possibility given the actual circumstances and laws of nature; just ‘broadly logical’ possibility. That’s an easy standard. If somehow it could be made to explain why God permits evil, the hypothesis that pigs fly would be good enough for mere defence.

I myself think that a false value judgement, however preposterous, is possibly true. But suppose you disagree, and deny that value judgements are contingent. No matter. What you deny is a disputed metaphysical thesis. Plantinga incorporates a disputed metaphysical thesis into his own free-will defence – the thesis that there are truths about how unactualized free choices would have come out – without stopping to prove that it is possible because it is true. Evidently he takes for granted that whether or not it’s true, still it is possible in the relevant sense. So why may I not follow his precedent?

Defence is too easy; knowing God’s mind is too hard. I think the topic worth pursuing falls in between, and has no place in Plantinga’s scheme of theodicy versus defence. Pace Plantinga, I’ll call that topic ‘theodicy’, but I don’t mean the know-it-all theodicy that he wisely disowns. Rather I mean tentative theodicy, even speculative theodicy. The Christian needn’t hope to end by knowing for sure why God permits evil. But he can hope to advance from a predicament of not having a clue to a predicament of indecision between several not too-unbelievable hypotheses (maybe still including the hypothesis: ‘none of the above’). The job is to devise hypotheses that are at least somewhat plausible, at least to the Christian, and to find considerations that make them more plausible or less. Robert M. Adams has written that ‘the atheological program… need not be one of rational coercion. It might be a more modest project of rational persuasion, intended not to coerce but to attract the minds of theists and agnostics, or perhaps to shore up the unbelief of atheists.’ Right; and the same, mutatis mutandis, goes for theodicy.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Gressis July 31, 2010 at 8:32 am

There’s also this treatment of defenses and theodicies by Peter van Inwagen:

“A ‘defense’ in the weakest sense in which the word is used is an internally consistent story according to which God and evil both exist. Sometimes the following two requirements are added: The evil in the story must be of the amounts and kinds that we observe in the actual world, and the story must contain no element that we have good scientific or historical reasons to regard as false. A theodicy is a story that has the same internal features as a defense, but which the theodicist, the person telling the story, puts forward as true or at least highly plausible.” (Page 30 of The Problem of Evil)

So, a defense on van Inwagen’s view has (up to) the following the three features:

1. It is an internally consistent story that explains how God and evils can possibly coexist;
2. The evils that it shows can possibly coexist with God are evils in the amounts and kinds we see in our own world; and
3. No element in the defense is one that we have good reason to believe is false for scientific or historical grounds.

A theodicy includes 1-3 but also adds

4. Every element of the story in the defense is believed by the theodicist to be true or at least highly plausible.


Shane August 1, 2010 at 2:17 pm

It all seems rather complex when people use words like “theodicy”, but a key element in my own “faith journey” was the dawning of the enlightenment that “good” and “evil” are not things or substances in the universe (nor is “sin” for that matter), but labels we apply to things that we take a particular view of. If *we* take a particular view of something, there is no reason a priori why a god should take a similar view, but since theists often claim to know the mind of god, at least to the extent that they don’t think he was messing around with the whole Jesus malarkey, it is difficult for them to flip around and play the ineffable card. If god is effable enough for us to eff what the eff he was playing at with the effing bible and Jesus, then he can’t be so ineffable that we can’t effing eff what’s going on with effing things that appear to eff people over big style. So Plantinga can eff off.


Matt August 25, 2010 at 8:32 pm


“a key element in my own “faith journey” was the dawning of the enlightenment that “good” and “evil” are not things or substances in the universe (nor is “sin” for that matter), but labels we apply to things that we take a particular view of.”

So, uh… you became a nihilist? That’s pretty sad. There’re more things in the world than substances. As it is, good and evil are, I think, more commonly thought of as properties than things.

We claim to know the mind of God because we think we’ve got good reasons to believe that He reveals some things to us. Conscience, for example, is a kind of general revelation imperfectly perceived, as we believe that the moral law is God’s will. Just because God reveals some things about Himself, however, doesn’t mean that we are justified in thinking we can know anything more than what he’s revealed. That is, it is well within God’s power to make hims will understood, but far beyond ours to extract understanding for ourselves with faculties that weren’t designed for the purpose.


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