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This post is the final part of my series on Nick Trakakis’s article “Is Theism Capable of Accounting for any Natural Evil?”. In the article, Trakakis presents the following basic 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.
As noted in earlier parts, the critical premise here is (2). No positive justification is offered for it. Instead, Trakakis defends it by way of elimination: if none of the leading theodicies can explain why natural evil is necessary for higher order goods, then the premise will be deemed acceptable. In previous entries, we’ve looked at and dismissed the challenge posed by Hick’s soul-making theodicy and Swinburne’s free will theodicy. In this entry, we’ll look at Bruce Reichenbach’s natural law theodicy.
Reichenbach argues that natural evil is an unavoidable by-product of the laws governing God’s creation. As such, they are essential in order for any goods at all to be realised. His argument can be presented in the following manner. (Again, numbering continues from previous parts):
(19) God could have created either:
- (i) W1: the actual world that we inhabit with its natural laws;
- (ii) W2: a world in which he regularly intervenes in order to prevent natural evil;
- (iii) W3: a world with natural laws that never produce (through their operation alone) human and animal suffering.
(20) It is unreasonable for God to regularly intervene in a world with natural laws because constant intervention would make rational decisions, predictions and calculations impossible.
(21) Therefore, only W1 and W3 were viable options for God.
(22) A world like W3 would be worse overall than W1.
(23) Therefore, God could only have created W1.
(24) W1 necessarily contains natural evil.
(25) Therefore, natural evil was unavoidable for God.
(26) One cannot be accountable for something that is unavoidable.
(27) Therefore, God cannot be accountable for natural evil.
There’s an obvious point of criticism here in the shape of premise (22), but let’s talk about some other aspects of the argument first.
In particular, lets talk about Reichenbach’s dismissal of W2. Why would a world of this sort be such an unreasonable thing for God to create? The answer has to do with the necessary preconditions of moral agency. Being able to predict the outcomes of your actions and being able to meaningfully decide between different options are necessary for moral agency. But both of these things require reasonably stable natural laws. Constant divine intervention would negate that stability. So W2 is not a viable option.
Trakakis thinks this chain of reasoning is strong — perhaps the strongest part of Reichenbach’s argument. I’m not entirely sure. I feel like someone could argue that post-facto intervention would, in at least some circumstances, be compatible with moral agency. Like maybe if it only happened in the case of particularly severe forms of natural evil. Let’s leave this to one side though and focus on the more important stuff.
Why is W3 worse than W1?
As noted above, the main bone of contention here is premise (22). What possible reason do we have to accept it? To answer to that question we must direct our attention to the counterintuitive features of a world without natural evil. Reichenbach argues that if there were no natural evils there would also be, much to our chagrin, no sentient creatures capable of exercising free will. This is to be contrasted with W1 where such creatures do exist. And since the existence of such creatures is a great good, it follows that W3 is worse overall than W1. We put this as follows:
(28) Sentient and free creatures could not exist in W3 but could in W1.
(29) A world with sentient and free creatures is better than a world without such creatures.
(30) Therefore, W3 is worse overall than W1.
This argument, valid as it is, only suffices to push the point of critique back from premise (22) to premise (28). So we ask a new critical question: Does Reichenbach provide any justification for (28)?
Following Trakakis, it seems like Reichenbach offers the following justification. First, he argues that sentient and free creatures must necessarily be bound-up with nature. That is to say, they must experience nature and they must act upon it. Second, he argues that any creature which existed in a world without natural evil could not be bound-up with nature because nature is always going to be a source of some discomfort, pain or suffering. Thus, the conclusion is that sentient and free creatures cannot exist in W3. Reichenbach adds to this the obersvation that finitude is an essential part of being a natural entity. So in addition to be disconnected from natural laws, creatures in W3 would have to live forever.
There are several difficulties with this argument. Trakakis mentions two. I’ll mention one other: the problem of heaven. On most traditional accounts, heaven is a place devoid of suffering, free will and finite lives. So are we to believe that W1 is better than heaven as well? That seems like a reductio to me and there’s a very good discussion of the issue in Graham Oppy’s book Arguing about God which I recommend to your attention. Anyway, back to Trakakis’s two criticisms.
The first is that Reichenbach’s argument rests on an unwarranted inference. There is no reason to think that nature must necessarily adversely affect the beings who are bound-up in it. It could be the case that the laws of nature have only benign affects without negating the fact that there are creatures who experience its effects and act upon it. And remember, this doesn’t mean that there will be no suffering or no room for moral growth (or decay). Trakakis has defended the possibility of those things in a world without natural evil already when discussing Hick and Swinburne.
The second problem with the argument has to do with Reichenbach’s discussion of finitude. Trakakis isn’t persuaded that finitude is a source of evil. He thinks it is and agent’s finitude in combination with how they exercise their free will that leads to negative experiences.
The Skeptical Challenge
This second point seems a bit weak to me, but it leads into a more interesting discussion of skeptical theism. I’ve discussed this at length on my own blog, in case you are interested. It crops here because Reichenbach retreats to it in defence of his argument. More precisely, he claims that even if his positive arguments are unsuccessful, the burden of proof doesn’t fall on him to show that W1 is better than the alternatives; instead, the burden of proof is on the atheologian to show that W1 is worse than the alternatives.
The burden-shifting is justified by the lack of specificity in Trakakis’s claim that there could be a world like W3. If Trakakis thinks that W3 is a real possibility, and that it really would be better than W1, then he better put up or shut up: he better describe the existence of such a world with sufficient vividity and precision so as to make it seem like a real possibility. Until he does so, the theist can fall back on the skeptical proclamation: “For all we know, this world is as good as it can be!”
Trakakis thinks it is possible to rise to the challenge and describe, in sufficiently vivid detail, the genuine possibility of a world without natural evil. He spends the last few pages of his article trying to do this. I can’t summarise his attempts here since the whole point is that summaries are unhelpful in making this kind of case: we need the detail. I leave it the interested reader to see for themselves what Trakakis has to say.
Unfortunately, that brings us to the end of this series of posts. What can we take away from it? Personally, I think Trakakis’s argument is a pretty strong one. Like him, I can’t see why moral evil alone isn’t enough for soul-making; or why natural evil (of the volume we see in this world) is a necessary precondition for free will. That said, I think his response to Reichenbach is probably the weakest aspect of his article. Whether a world devoid of natural evil can really be conceived in sufficient detail is up for serious debate. Trakakis’s attempt at the end of his essay certainly makes such a world seem really strange. But, then again, maybe that’s the whole point.