Guest blogger John D of Philosophical Disquisitions summarizes contemporary articles in philosophy of religion in plain talk so that you can be up to speed on the God debate as it ensues at the highest levels of thought. Visit John’s blog for more helpful summaries of contemporary philosophical works.
I like sloths. They’ve managed to reduce life to its essentials: eating, sleeping, and occasional acts of reproduction. You have to admire that kind of efficiency. But that efficiency can also be their downfall. When push comes to shove, and their existence is threatened, their options are limited. Hanging on to a tree branch will only get you so far.
You may be wondering where I’m going with this – after all, this is supposed to be about the philosophy of religion, not the life cycle of the sloth – but never fear there is a reason. This video should make things clearer. It depicts a sloth being attacked and eventually killed by a cougar (or puma). I challenge you to watch all five minutes – it’s really quite heartbreaking stuff.
It would also appear to be a classic example of natural evil: neither the sloth nor the cougar would match the definition of a moral agent, i.e. neither one is in possession of free will and rationality, and yet the actions of one is clearly a source of moral harm for the other. What’s more, this is just one example; predator-prey interactions of this sort are a commonplace in the natural world. And natural evil of all varieties is simply abundant on this planet.
This is a bit of a sore thumb for theists. The naive version of the problem of evil tells us that the existence of god is incompatible with the existence of any evil whatsoever. But as we all know, theists have a ready response to this: some evils are necessary in order that higher goods (e.g. free-will, soul-making) be realised. Problem solved, right? “Not so fast” we non-theists reply: the evils necessary for those kinds of goods are products of human wrongdoing, natural evil is a separate issue. It’s not at all clear that natural evil is necessary in order that higher goods be realised.
This brings us – at long last – to the subject matter of this series of blog posts. You see, a few years back (2005 to be precise) Nick Trakakis published a paper in which he addressed this very issue and defended the bold claim that theism could not account for any instances of natural evil. I want to share the arguments from his paper here.
I’ll be dividing the series into three parts. In this first part I’ll outline Trakakis’s basic argument and define some of its key terms. I will then turn my attention to John Hicks’s soul-making theodicy and see whether it can account for natural evil. In future posts two additional theodicies will be assessed, one from Richard Swinburne and one from Bruce Reichenbach. By the end we’ll have a good idea of whether or not the problem of natural evil is a serious one for the theist.
Without further ado, let’s get underway.
1.Trakakis’s Basic Argument
Here’s an easy formulation of Trakakis’s argument.
(1) The existence of an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god is incompatible with the existence of evil, unless that evil is necessary in order to achieve some higher order good.
(2) No amount, instance or distribution of natural evil is necessary in order to achieve some higher order good.
(3) Therefore, an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god is not compatible with the existence of any amount, instance or distribution of natural evil.
The argument could continue. It could, for instance, point out that there is plenty of natural evil in the world and conclude that this implies the non-existence of God, but that’s not really Trakakis’s focus. He’s only concerned with the compatibility issue.
Before getting into the meat of this argument, we need to take some time out to define it’s key terms. They are the following:
I. Orthodoxly Conceived Monotheistic God: A being that has the following set of properties: omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, aseity (i.e. existential independence), immateriality and eternality. Also, contingently, the creator of this universe. (Note: the term itself is borrowed from Oppy, but is consistent with what Trakakis says about God)
II. Moral Evil: this is any evil act, event or state of affairs that is directly attributable to the actions of a moral agent (i.e. one with free will and rationality). Moral responsibility, as opposed to libertarian free will, is the key concern here.
III. Natural Evil: Any evil act, event or state of affairs that is solely or chiefly the result of the operation of the laws of nature. Or, alternatively, any evil act, event or state of affairs for which no non-divine agent can be held morally responsible.
Note that under the above definition, many things we might expect to count as instances of natural evil do not in fact count as natural evil. For example, cancers that are the result of willfully risky behaviour, and famines that are the result of government mismanagement, will not count as natural evils. Conversely, evils that were the unforeseeable result of some action on the part of a moral agent will count as natural evils.
Turning back to the basic argument, we should be able to see that premise (2) is where the debate can be expected to lie. Trakakis can either try to support it or defend it. He opts for the latter strategy: he considers three leading theodicies that would allow for natural evil and argues that they fail to do so. The first of those is the soul-making theodicy associated with John Hick. In the remainder of this post we’ll see how Trakakis fends off the challenge from Hick.
2. The Eden World vs. The Actual World
We begin by considering the differences between a hypothetical world that only has moral evil and the actual world that has both moral and natural evil. It is crucial to Trakakis’s overall argument that we develop a sufficiently rich conception of this hypothetical world. Why? Because his argument effectively forces the theist to look at such a world and ask: are the higher order goods appealed to by the different theodicies impossible there? If they are, then the theist can breathe a sigh of relief; if they are not, Trakakis’s argument might succeed.
Trakakis calls the relevant hypothetical world Eden and some of the crucial differences between it and the actual world are outlined in the diagram below. The most significant is that the laws of nature in Eden must be entirely benevolent.
3. The Soul-Making Theodicy
Bearing in mind the distinction between Eden and the actual world, we can now proceed to set out the soul-making theodicy. The basic idea is familiar: a certain level of evil (more specifically, hardship and suffering) helps us to develop important moral virtues such as patience, courage and compassion. Developing those virtues is a great good. And since evil is permissible if it is necessary for realising great goods then the problem of evil is defanged.
That might work for evil in general (no such concession is being made) but we’re solely concerned with natural evil here. So we need to assess whether natural evil, in addition to moral evil , is necessary for soul-making. To do that, we need to develop some idea of the preconditions for soul-making.
Roughly speaking, they are twofold (a) the agent must have opportunities for displaying moral courage in response to hardship and suffering, and (b) the agent must be epistemically distant from God. The latter condition might be surprising but the motivation behind it is straightforward: if God’s existence is too obvious, moral development would be compromised because we would not make free, autonomous moral decisions. God’s presence would just overwhelm our autonomy.
This is where the soul-making theodicy starts to bite. Its proponent can maintain – contra-Trakakis – that an Eden-like world would not provide the conditions necessary for soul-making because life would be devoid of hardship, and God’s existence would be immediately inferable from the benevolent character of the laws of nature.
To set this out more formally, we can construct the following argument:
(4) Soul-making is a higher order good.
(5) Soul-making is only possible if (a) there are opportunities for displaying moral courage in response to hardship and (b) there is epistemic distance from God.
(6) A world without natural evil would be a world without hardship and epistemic distance from God.
(7) Therefore, natural evil is necessary for realising the higher order good of soul-making.
4. Response and Summary
Trakakis gives relatively short shrift to the soul-making theodicy.
Looking first to condition (a), he notes that there will still be opportunities for moral courage in Eden. After all, moral evil can still give rise to the requisite hardship and suffering. Human beings will still have the potential for greed and self-interest, and these potentialities could make themselves known in the willful infliction of cruelty, the hoarding of essential natural resources, and the mismanagement of social and community relations. So we can rebut part of premise (6) with the following:
(8) In a world with purely moral evil there would still be deprivation, adversity, suffering and hardship due to the effects of moral evil.
Turning then to condition (b) – that of epistemic distance – Trakakis doubts that apparently benevolent natural laws would bridge the gap between man and God by that much. There will still, after all, be plenty of moral evil and its presence should restrain any impulse to infer the existence of a morally good creator. Furthermore, even if the impulse is not restrained, there is no reason to think that different creedal-specific beliefs would not arise in different parts of the world. This religious pluralism would create a level of ambiguity conducive to epistemic distance. So we can rebut the second part of premise (6) with this:
(9) Benevolent causal laws alone would not create conditions of epistemic immediacy: inference to the existence of a morally good creator could be blocked by the presence of moral evil and religious pluralism.
This gives us the following completed argument map for the first portion of Trakakis’s paper.
It would seem then that Trakakis’s bold thesis survives the assault from Hick’s soul-making theodicy. Can it do the same for Swinburne and Reichenbach? Find out in parts 2 and 3.
- John Danaher