Accounting for Natural Evil (part 2)

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 7, 2011 in Guest Post,Problem of Evil

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.

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So you remember the sloth and the cougar right? In part one, their unfortunate encounter (from the sloth’s perspective anyway) was used to introduce us to Nick Trakakis’s strong claim that theism is incapable of accounting for any amount, instance or distribution of natural evil. I suggested that Trakakis’s argument boiled down to the following:

(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.

Premise (1) might be disputed by some non-theists, but we’re going to concede it for the purposes of this series because premise (2) is where our interest lies. As noted the last day, Trakakis doesn’t offer any positive justification for (2) but, instead, tries to see if anything can be said for the contrary position. He does this by evaluating several leading theodicies and seeing whether they can show how natural evil is necessary for achieving some higher order good. If they fail, he will deem his argument to be successful.

Last time out, we looked at the soul-making theodicy. In this post we’ll look at Swinburne’s free will theodicy.

 

1. The Argument from the Need for Knowledge

Within the literature on the problem of evil, the free will theodicy (and “defence”) is of special significance. For many theists, free will is recognised as a great good. But it is a unique kind of great good because its existence necessitates at least some amount of evil (or so Plantinga famously argued – some might dispute this since it presupposes a libertarian conception of free will).

This seems plausible but it makes the distinction between natural and moral evil all the more important. Although the non-believer might concede that free will necessitates the existence of moral evil (i.e. evil arising from the actions of free human agents), they are wont to argue that it does not necessitate the existence of natural evil (i.e. evil that does not arise from the actions of free human agents).

Enter Richard Swinburne. For many years now, he has been arguing that the non-believer cannot make this move because natural evil is absolutely necessary in order for free will to be possible. The argument he presents is somewhat long-winded and I’m going to lay it out in all its glorious detail right now. Brace yourself.

(Note: the numbering continues from part 1, in case you are confused and I’ve fiddled about slightly with the wording from Trakakis’s presentation.)

(10) If a moral agent S is to freely (or responsibly) bring about good or evil states of affairs, S must know how to bring about good or evil states of affairs.

(11) S cannot know how to bring about a good or evil state of affairs without knowing what consequences would follow from his or her actions.

(12) The only way for S to know the consequences of his or her actions is through induction from past events.

(13) There are two relevant sorts of past event that can provide the basis for such induction: (a) the past actions of moral agents including those of the agent himself or herself and (b) evil occurrences that are the result of natural laws.

(14) Therefore, S can have the freedom to bring about good or evil states of affairs if and only if he or she can induce the consequences of their actions from (a) the past actions of other moral agents; or (b) evil occurrences that are the result of natural laws.

(15) For any token of moral evil M, there must have been a first time for that evil have been freely brought about by a moral agent. Call this M*

(16) The moral agent who brought about M* could not have acquired knowledge of the consequences of their action by induction from the actions of other moral agents.

(17) Therefore, the moral agent who brought about M* must have acquired knowledge of the consequences of their actions by induction from the outcomes of natural laws.

(18) Therefore, natural evil is a necessary precondition for bringing about the realisation of the higher order good of free will.

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A couple of quick observations here before we move on to a more substantial critique. First, in premise (10) I suggest that “freely” and “responsibly” are interchangeable for the purposes of this argument. This seems right to me. I think the higher order good at stake here is that of being a morally responsible agent. Free will is simply being viewed as a necessary precondition for that higher order good. Second, the conclusion (18) directly defeats premise (2) of Trakakis’s basic argument. So Trakakis needs to somehow break the chain of argumentation proposed by Swinburne to save his argument.

Moving on to more substantial matters, it should be clear that many aspects of Swinburne’s argument are unobjectionable. He is essentially imposing a knowledge condition on the exercise of responsible agency. I don’t know of a single philosopher of responsibility who would reject the imposition of such a condition. Knowledge and control conditions have been part of theories of responsible agency since the time of Aristotle. What does seem objectionable is the particular content that Swinburne gives to the knowledge condition in premise (12). Let’s look at this in more detail.

 

2. Swinburne’s Knowledge Condition

Two things should be borne in mind when assessing the acceptability of Swinburne’s knowledge condition.

First, the knowledge supplied by induction must be sufficiently strong for us to think the agent is responsible for acting upon it. No induction from past experience will ever supply complete certainty about the consequences of our future actions. But this is not a problem: the level of knowledge required for responsibility can be relatively low on some occasions, it all depends on which outcomes the agent is being held responsible for. Despite this not being a problem, the fact that complete certainty is not required is important when considering whether there are other knowledge conditions that do not necessitate the existence of natural evil.

Second, for his argument to work, Swinburne must be proposing that induction from past events is the only logically possible source of knowledge for free agents. The claim has to be this strong because we are concerned here with an alleged logical incompatibility between theism and natural evil. Many philosophers, both theist and non-theist, reckon that as philosophically limber as he is, Swinburne has much too high a hurdle to clear on this occasion (the same could be said of Trakakis in this article).

These critics propose other logically possible sources of knowledge that are as good as, if not better than, induction from past events. What’s more, these proposals would not require the existence of natural evil. The proposals can be divided into two classes: (i) those suggesting other supernatural sources of knowledge and (ii) those suggesting non-supernatural sources of knowledge. We’ll look at both in turn.

 

3. Other Supernatural Sources of Knowledge

Trakakis lists six possible supernatural sources of knowledge. Each has been put forward by different critics of Swinburne over the years. Set out briefly, they are:

(a) Universal Divine Revelation

(b) Special Divine Revelation

(c) Angelic Revelation

(d) A “knowledge machine” or oracle

(e) Message-laden dreams or visions

(f) Innate Knowledge

Some of these are more important than others. Only the first and sixth possibilities will be discussed here.

Swinburne objects to universal revelation on the grounds that it would overwhelm the autonomy of the agent. The reason for this is that knowledge of God’s existence when coupled with the desire to please him and avoid divine punishment, would remove the temptation to do evil. This would undermine true freedom. I can sort of the point (it harkens back to the epistemic distance requirement in the soul-making theodicy), but as someone who was brought up to pray for God to deliver me from temptation I struggle to see how this is necessarily a bad thing. Is free will really worth it if our ultimate goal is to be rid of it? This gets into the problem of heaven, which will have to wait for another day.

Even if it is successful in relation to universal revelation, it’s not clear that Swinburne’s objection works for the other five sources of knowledge. We’ll take innate knowledge as a special case. The idea here is that we could just be pre-programmed with knowledge of the likely consequences of our actions.

Swinburne objects to this on the grounds that the certainty provided by innate knowledge would not be enough for responsible agency. The obvious reply is that innate knowledge may be no worse than induction on this score and perhaps a good deal better. Indeed, there are many cases where innate knowledge is thought more secure than inferential or inductive knowledge. A classic example is to be found in the anti-evidentialist epistemology of Alvin Plantinga.

There is another problem with innate knowledge. This one affecting its application to the present context of an argument against natural evil. This is discussed in the next section because it crops up in relation to the non-supernatural sources of knowledge as well.

 

4. Non-Supernatural Sources of Knowledge

Non-supernatural sources of knowledge are any sources that do not originate in supernatural agents. This means they must be attributable, at some level, to other free actions on the part of human beings. A bootstrapping process is envisioned: through one set of free acts, humans could supply themselves with the knowledge necessary for another set of free, morally evil acts.

Two possible non-supernatural sources of knowledge are discussed by Trakakis. One is that of formal scientific testing and has been suggested by Eleonore Stump; the other is that of informal trial-and-error and is suggested by Trakakis himself. In both instances, initial actions (experiments or trials) will produce consequences that provide some knowledge, which can then be used as a source of knowledge for future actions.

Both possibilities seem plausible at first glance but when you think about them in more detail they are suspicious. What could possibly provide the motivation for such experiments or trials? The answer would seem to be some innate drive for curiosity or desire satisfaction. But the desires could not stem from our own experience of pain or suffering since, for the purposes of this argument, we are assuming that the world is devoid of natural evils capable of bringing about such experiences. But then the question arises: would not the presence of such innate drives itself amount to the existence of a type of natural evil? The same question arises in relation to innate knowledge.

Trakakis suggests the following answer:

“It seems more plausible, however, to regard our natural or inbuilt dispositions as morally neutral, as being neither good nor evil. It is how we cultivate these dispositions, rather than the dispositions themselves that is morally relevant.”

I’m not sure if I’m persuaded by that response. It seems to me like the process of dispositional cultivation would implicate yet more innate dispositions and abilities, each of which would be of circumspect provenance. In other words, these cultivators might themselves be morally non-neutral and so might be instances of natural evil.

This problem goes straight to the heart of Trakakis’s overall argument. To succeed, he needs to show that a world without natural evil is actually conceivable, but even this brief consideration of what kinds of innate dispositions are allowed in such a world suggests that it would be far more counter-intuitive than we might initially suppose. To be fair, Trakakis tries to address this issue again at the end of his article. I’ll talk about this the next day.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

cl June 7, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Although the non-believer might concede that free will necessitates the existence of moral evil (i.e. evil arising from the actions of free human agents), they are wont to argue that it does not necessitate the existence of natural evil (i.e. evil that does not arise from the actions of free human agents).

The Bible seems to teach that natural evil is a direct result of moral evil [cf. the fall]. On that view, free will seems to necessarily entail the potentiality of both moral and natural evils, which seems to nullify the non-believer’s argument.

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Adito June 8, 2011 at 1:26 am

cl,

I agree that a necessary connection between agents free will and natural evil would nullify the non-believers argument. But since no non-believer is inclined to accept the bible as authoritative on any topic the point is moot.

John,

I’d say it’s unlikely theists will be able to rule out all supernatural sources of knowledge here. This whole argument seems a little silly though. There clearly have not been just one or two examples of natural evil and this is all that would have been necessarily for moral agents to gain the required knowledge. What theists have a truly difficult time addressing is the incredible amount of natural evil in the world. Swinburne doesn’t even come close to addressing this.

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John D June 8, 2011 at 1:48 am

Adito,

My initial response was that by bringing up the volume of natural evil you were shifting to an evidential problem of evil whereas this is basically about the logical problem. But now that I think about perhaps there’s a logical difficulty with the volume of natural evil for Swinburne’s argument. I mean to say, wouldn’t one instance of natural evil be enough to get the ball of freely-willed evil rolling? After that, all knowledge could come from the past actions of others. Thoughts?

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Joel June 8, 2011 at 3:19 am

John,

I have difficulty understanding how Premise 16 even works.

From your diagram: “the moral agent who brought about M* could not have acquired knowledge of the consequences of their action by induction from the actions of other moral agents.

Swinburne seems to be conflating intentional M and unintentional M. Can’t a person learn from others’ unintended actions that M leads to X (people getting hurt)? These prior actions are not considered M* because people did not have the requite knowledge to make it “free. But a person can use induction from the actions of other moral actions, to understand what M entails – and from this, a person can bring about M*. This will defeat the entire argument – moral evil does not require natural evil.

In essense Swinburne denies that an unintentionally harmful action can give us knowledge that is harmfuil, and this is plain absurd.

Comments?

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Joel June 8, 2011 at 3:21 am

Correction for my previous post’s second last sentence.

“In essense Swinburne denies that an unintentionally harmful action can give us knowledge that such an action is harmful, and this is plain absurd.”

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John D June 8, 2011 at 4:08 am

I think the problem is that unintentionally harmful action would count as a natural evil (see the definition of this term in part one) and we’re trying to see if a world can exist that is both (a) devoid of all natural evil and (b) still allows for the presence of higher order goods like free will.

Swinburne could happily allow for unintentionally harmful acts. For instance, presumably the cruelty that most animals inflict upon each other is unintentional (in the sense that it is not deliberately malicious) and we could acquire knowledge from observation of them.

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Joel June 8, 2011 at 6:37 am

John,

That’s a good point. Nonetheless, isn’t it rather equivocal to say that natural evil is justified (from a religious point of view) when, in fact, it is only one particular kind of natural evil that is justified?

This will still give us a strong argument from evil (barring skeptical theism) – since moral evil would only require one particular kind of natural evil – thus natural evil on the whole is incompatible with a benevolent deity.

And I don’t think that this issue (c.f. your response to Adito) of the “volume” of natural evil, makes the argument evidential. The issue of volume, I thik, brings out te fact that thre something qualitatively differen between the necessary evil and the gratuitous; if there is there is gratuitous evil (and there certainly seems to be, given the amount of unobserved evil we know via inuction is going on), then there is a logical incompatibility at foot – this is not just an evidential issue (again, barring skeptical theism).

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Patrick who is not Patrick June 8, 2011 at 6:45 am

The Bible seems to teach that natural evil is a direct result of moral evil [cf. the fall]. On that view, free will seems to necessarily entail the potentiality of both moral and natural evils, which seems to nullify the non-believer’s argument.

No, cl.

First, the Bible doesn’t demonstrate the potentiality of both, it asserts an explanation for how they happened. A just-so story is not a demonstration of the logical possibility of compatibility.

Second, Swinburne’s argument probably denies the fall. Its a claim that the existence of natural evil is necessary for the existence of greater goods, so that God would desire that natural evil exist. This isn’t very compatible with the idea of natural evil as a undesired consequence of human disobedience. This theodicy would make natural evil the desired outcome, not an undesired one. And it declares that the act of “disobedience” was in fact in accord with God’s true desires for human behavior.

Its probably possible that someone could construct a theology that makes these things compatible. After all, with divine command theory and the idea of defining God as Good just ‘cuz you said so, you can do almost anything theologically: perhaps you could use the tradition in which God brainwashed the Pharoah into acting against the Pharoah’s own judgment because God desired to murder some children. There’s probably some option somewhere that could reconcile this.

But the result would, at the least, require significant revisions in Christianity. As usual, this theodicy is intended by Swinburne to apply to his concept of God, not yours.

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John D June 8, 2011 at 7:37 am

Joel,

I don’t know if I follow you exactly, but it may be that you’re making the same point I was trying to make in my response to Adito, above. I said there that my initial reaction would be that issues about volume are properly considered in relation to evidential arguments not logical arguments, but I went on to point out that maybe it was relevant to the logical problem after all.

My thinking is this: Swinburne says we need some instances of natural evil in order to acquire the knowledge necessary for committing our own acts of moral evil. Fine, we can grant him this. But surely we only need one or two such instances? The first morally evil agent can use these as the basis for performing his or her own acts of moral evil and everyone else can learn from them. The fact that natural evil continues to exist (and in great abundance) then seems unnecessary for Swinburne’s theodicy to go through. Thus, there really is a logically incompatibility between the great volume of natural evil and the existence of God.

As you say, all this ignores sceptical theist responses.

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Adito June 8, 2011 at 8:45 am

John,

Yes, that’s what I was going for. The “boot-strapping” process only needs to be begun by a couple instances of evil. But Swinburnes argument looks pretty strong as a defense for why there is at least some natural evil as long as he finds a good reason to rule out all supernatural sources of knowledge. His dismissal of them because they’d destroy free will looks pretty lame but maybe there’s a better general argument out there.

There’s a second objection I find more interesting though. Why does God retain morally significant free will if His knowledge of evil is innate? Perhaps “innate” is the wrong word to use but however you want to define Gods knowledge I don’t see why humans couldn’t have the same sort of knowledge and retain morally significant free will.

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DZ June 8, 2011 at 11:24 am

Adito,

You write:
“cl,

I agree that a necessary connection between agents free will and natural evil would nullify the non-believers argument. But since no non-believer is inclined to accept the bible as authoritative on any topic the point is moot.”

I thought the problem of evil was presented as an internal problem for theistic (Christian) worldview. In this case whether non-believers are inclined to accept the Bible as authoritative is irrelevant. The question is whether theistic worldview given its presuppositions and beliefs is coherent given natural evil or compatible with it. Would you not agree?

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Adito June 8, 2011 at 11:53 am

DZ,

That’s a little too easy. God, as He’s described in Christian theism, appears to have had better options when creating the world than to allow the evil we see. Since the description of God is based on the bible this is a contradiction and we all (theist or not) can rightfully demand an explanation for why this is the case. The question at stake is whether theistic presuppositions make sense given the way the world actually is so appealing to them is begging the question.

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John D June 8, 2011 at 11:56 am

Adito,

I think that’s a very interesting point. If God has knowledge of consequences (he does, doesn’t he?) without induction, why can’t we? I’m sure the theist will respond by suggesting that there are significant disanalogies between our knowledge and that of God (omniscience for one). But would any of those provide grounds for thinking that God-like innate knowledge with respect to the consequences of our actions is logically impossible for human beings? I don’t know. It’s an objection that merits development I reckon.

DZ,

I would say that theism is distinct from Christian theism. Presumably, the doctrine of the fall is not a necessary part of the hypothesis of theism.

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Bret June 8, 2011 at 12:05 pm

If God had knowledge that the evils of today would have benefits tomorrow or years from now, does that not violate the Christian allegiance to free will? If God knows how the variables of the current state of things will influence the free will of people years from now, then god is already aware of the decisions people have yet to make. If the choices that have yet to be made can be know by God now, then free will is an illusion.

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DZ June 8, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Adito,

I see your point. It is just that I think cl was alluding to a possibility of natural evil being the result of free choices of men before the Fall. In this case the natural evil is really a consequence of moral evil committed by free creatures. Since, presumably, God’s omnipotence does not entail Him being able to bring about contradictory states of affairs (such as making someone freely choose something), it follows that the logical problem of natural evil can be potentially solved using standard free-will defense.

John D,
Of course they are distinct and the doctrine of the fall is not a necessary part of generic theism, but since I am a Christian I am interested in discussing this particular version of theism and how well it fares against this objection.

It is fun to discuss it with you. I am not a native speaker so my apologies if my English is not perfect.

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Patrick who is not Patrick June 8, 2011 at 1:39 pm

DZ wrote,

I see your point. It is just that I think cl was alluding to a possibility of natural evil being the result of free choices of men before the Fall. In this case the natural evil is really a consequence of moral evil committed by free creatures. Since, presumably, God’s omnipotence does not entail Him being able to bring about contradictory states of affairs (such as making someone freely choose something), it follows that the logical problem of natural evil can be potentially solved using standard free-will defense.

Whether this provides a good defense depends on whether it makes sense to claim that natural evil is a logically necessary consequence of sinfulness. Asserting that it is so is not the same as demonstrating that it is so. Demonstrating that this is so is probably impossible without resorting to some form of paganism.

In Christianity, there is no pre-existing pagan cosmos from which God created the world. This means that defending Christianity by claiming that the nature of reality causes something to be so is very difficult. There are only two situations in which that sort of defense is possible. The first is logical impossibility, since it would apply in all possible universes a hypothetical deity could create, and the second is the necessary attributes of the deity itself.

The idea that human sin causes earthquakes is obviously not a logical necessity, or at the least we know of no reason why it ought to be. It also is not a logically necessary result of some necessary attribute of a God, or at least we know of no reason why it ought to be. This defense is not likely available to the Christian.

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Reidish June 8, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Patrick who is not Patrick,

You wrote:

A just-so story is not a demonstration of the logical possibility of compatibility.

Why not? In fact, to demonstrate logical possibility of compatibility, one only needs to come up with a “just-so story”.

Second, Swinburne’s argument probably denies the fall. Its a claim that the existence of natural evil is necessary for the existence of greater goods, so that God would desire that natural evil exist. This isn’t very compatible with the idea of natural evil as a undesired consequence of human disobedience. This theodicy would make natural evil the desired outcome, not an undesired one.

I think this is true only if you equivocate on “desire”. If you desire a healthy tooth, you should go to the dentist and get the cavity filled. Given that, do you desire to go to the dentist?

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Patrick who is not Patrick June 8, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Reidish- Take something that’s necessarily impossible. Make a story where it isn’t. What you will have is not a demonstration of logical possibility. What you will have is a plot hole.

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Adito June 8, 2011 at 5:57 pm

John,

The objection is inspired by Taichi’s logical problem of evil (you should be able to find it on google pretty easily) so unfortunately I can’t claim too much credit for it :)

DZ,

Since, presumably, God’s omnipotence does not entail Him being able to bring about contradictory states of affairs (such as making someone freely choose something), it follows that the logical problem of natural evil can be potentially solved using standard free-will defense.

I’m not sure I understand the entailment you’re describing here. It follows that if natural evil is necessary for morally significant free will and morally significant free will is an overriding good then the problem of evil is solved. Is this what you meant? If so then my objection is simply that there’s no reason to think that this necessary connection exists. The argument that John is describing, and the argument from evil generally, attacks the idea that this necessary connection exists so it clearly does no good for a theist to simply say the connection is presupposed. That’s avoiding the question at best and begging the question at worst.

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Reidish June 8, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Patrick who is not Patrick,

You wrote:

Take something that’s necessarily impossible. Make a story where it isn’t. What you will have is not a demonstration of logical possibility. What you will have is a plot hole.

Well, that’s a different accusation you are making. What is it that you are taking to be necessarily impossible?

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Larkus June 9, 2011 at 12:31 pm

The Bible seems to teach that natural evil is a direct result of moral evil.

The Bible seems to teach that [natural] evil is a direct result of God’s actions.

Isaiah 45:7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

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NJester June 12, 2011 at 9:02 am

It seems most of what is offerred is argument from incredulity or just basically irrelevant. To say “we know no reason” isn’t an argument it’s just an expression of ignorance.

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