Arguing about Evil: Introduction and Index

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 8, 2009 in Indexes,Problem of Evil

evil01I didn’t lose my faith in God because various arguments for atheism were persuasive. I didn’t lose my faith in Santa Claus because of arguments against Santa Claus, either. I lost my faith in God and in Santa Claus because I realized there just weren’t any good arguments for either of them.

In fact, the idea of arguing against the existence of something is kind of weird. Why do most people disbelieve in fairies, goblins, Zeus, black magic, astrology, unicorns, and so on? Surely not because we know of strong arguments against them. We disbelieve because there just aren’t any good arguments for those things.

Still, God-believers demand that skeptics prove their God doesn’t exist. In response, atheists have come up with dozens of arguments against the existence of God. The most well-known of these is “The Problem of Evil.”

A problem for whom?

There is no “problem” with evil – harm or suffering – for the atheist. According to atheism, evil exists because the universe doesn’t care about us. Earthquakes just happen, and they hurt.

There is no problem with evil for the Zoroastrian, either. Zoroastrians believe there are two equally powerful gods: one evil, and one good. That’s why there is lots of evil and lots of good in the world. No problem.

Judaism inherited a lot from Zoroastrianism, but it eventually stripped things down to just one God. This simplicity has its theological advantages, but it does introduce at least one huge problem: the problem of evil. If there is only one God of unquestioned power, and he is all-good, then where does evil come from? Wherever evil arose, wouldn’t an all-good, all-powerful God replace it with the good? And wouldn’t he design the universe to be perfectly good in the first place?

Later, Judaism made a half-assed attempt to solve the problem by introducing Satan to the mix, but it doesn’t quite work because Satan can’t compete with God’s power.

So, the problem remains. As Hume put it:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Folk atheism

One need not be a philosopher to see the problem. The problem arises in our daily experience. “If God loved Jenny, and God was able to protect her, why did he let the car kill her at age 11?” Or on a grander scale: “If God loves humans, and he was able to prevent the mutation that enabled HIV to leap from apes to humans, why did he allow this viral mutation, which has devestated tens of millions of lives?”

But does this this reasoning hold up under scrutiny? Does evil provide not just a “problem” for theism, but a good argument against theism?

This series

Though the argument from evil is perhaps the oldest argument against God, astonishing progress on the issue has been made in philosophy of the last 60 years.

The purpose of this series is to clarify the argument from evil and bring us all “up to speed” on its status in analytic philosophy today. We’ll examine all the latest versions of the argument from evil and what theists have said in God’s defense.

Here is an index of all the posts in this series:

  1. Introduction (this post)
  2. What’s the problem?
  3. Mackie’s Argument
  4. Plantinga’s Free Will Defense

(more to come)

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Lee A. P. August 8, 2009 at 9:56 am

“As Hume put it:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Wasn’t this Epicurus?


lukeprog August 8, 2009 at 10:07 am

Hume attributed it to Epicurus, but his source is unknown and Epicurus never wrote anything so terse that we know of.


Steven Carr August 8, 2009 at 11:03 am

William Lane Craig has an interesting take on the problem of evil.
Why does this alleged god allow children to be aborted?

Craig said :-

‘We can summarize this new version of the argument from harm as follows:

1. If God exists, gratuitous harm does not exist.
2. Gratuitous harm does exist.
3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Now the most contentious premiss in this argument is (2). The first version of the argument from harm posed an essentially internal problem about the consistency of Christian theism, since the Christian is committed by his own theology to the truth of the propositions God exists and Harm exists. But the Christian is not committed to the truth of (2). How, then, will the atheist prove that the harm in the world is truly gratuitous?’

An excellent point by a top Christian philosopher.

How is anybody going to prove that the harm caused by abortion is truly gratuitous?

Do  apologists really think there is no ‘truly gratuitous’ harm done in the world?

Craig digs himself in deeper….

‘All right, but then that makes it all the more difficult for the atheist to prove that truly gratuitous harm exists, for how could he possibly know what in God’s providential plan of history does or does not contribute to the ultimate salvation of the greatest number of people?’

There you are.

Abortion and other harms in the world today actually lead to the ultimate salvation of the greatest number of people.

So keep aborting babies…. Every abortion , and every other harm in the world today, is in ‘God’s providential plan of history’ for the ‘ultimate salvation of the greatest number of people’.


lukeprog August 8, 2009 at 11:46 am


As usual, your point is forceful and hilarious!


Lee A. P. August 8, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Its all a drama for the glory of God so just shut up and believe. The more evil, the more for him to triumphantly conquor. He is the omnipotent performance artist. Its his show.


Kevin August 8, 2009 at 1:39 pm

I’ve some familiarity with Craig’s thoughts on the problem of evil as well.  It seems to me that he (and Plantinga from who he gets a lot of this) tries to shift the burden of proof to the atheist. If he can show that God might have some reason for allowing evil, then he’s won.  It’s suddenly the atheist’s job to show that God can’t have any plausible reason for allowing evil.  We shouldn’t let this go.  It seems to me prima facie obvious that some suffering is gratuitous, and that an omnipotent being could get things done (whatever ends are supposed to justify the existence of evil)  without as much evil as there is.  Thus, it’s clearly the theist’s job to show not only that God might have some reason, but what those reasons are and why examples of evil are not gratuitous.
And keep in mind that atheists need only one example of gratuitous evil to win this argument.  I don’t see how the theist wins the debate by saying, “well, God could have some reason for allowing this evil, logically speaking.”  If God does, then explain what it is, not what it might be, or even less impressive, that there might be some unknown reason.  To win, the theist must explain the reason for every instance of evil, or give some explanation that can, in principle, account for all evil.
On to another point, for everyone.  I could use some help with an argument that’s been kicking around in my head.  I’m not sure of its merit yet.  It starts with a claim Descartes makes, and I’m not sure how widely accepted this is today, especially by theists.  It’s from Descartes’ argument for God in Meditation III and it goes like this:  “An effect must be at least as real as its cause.”  I think he says something similar elsewhere along the lines of  “the cause already contains in potentia (is my Latin correct) its effect(s).”  The gist of the second principle is that there can’t be anything in an effect that is utterly foreign to, or entirely different from, its cause.  You can’t get A from not-A.
If that’s the case, and if God is logically, if not chronologically, primary, then it seems that either
(a) the evil in the world is explained by there being some evil in God, but if so, God does not exist (at least not the typical God of theism); or
(b) evil is nothing real, but is the absence of good, as Augustine claims, but this has its own flaws, such as the question of whether such privation of good is itself an evil; or
(c) evil is just a label for things we dislike, and along with this usually goes the claim that God does not exist.  This is in the ballpark of naturalist accounts of evil.
Sorry if that’s a bit muddled.  But the point I’m driving at is that, on the theistic account, if evil is something real, and if God created all that is, how can the theist escape the claim that God caused evil?  If only God existed in the beginning, and if the effect is contained within the cause, then God must be evil, and therefore does not exist.  Theists try to pin the blame on man’s rebellion, original sin, or what have you, but on this argument, since we’re caused by God, then any potential for evil we have in us is also contained in God.
Any criticisms, defeaters, or suggestions for improvement would be welcome.  Thanks.


toweltowel August 8, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Kevin, Descartes has three causal principles in the neighborhood of what you write.
1. Something cannot come from nothing.
2. An effect cannot have more reality than its cause.
3. An idea cannot have more objective reality than its cause has formal reality.
Such a priori principles are not taken very seriously in the aftermath of Hume on causation: most now accept that we learn everything we know about cause and effect from repeated observation of nature in action. But I think some theists still rely on similar ideas: e.g., intelligent design theorists on ‘information’.
As for evil, I think it’s a safe guess that Descartes gives it the Augustinian treatment: evil is an absence of reality. Here I’m assuming that Descartes would treat evil the same way he treats error in the Fourth Meditation: a privation consisting in incorrect uses of human free will (“the operation of the will in so far as it proceeds from me”), and a mere negation when referred to God and therefore involving no causal contribution from that quarter (i.e., no ‘divine concurrence’). So God can only be held responsible for creating the human will, not for the particular sinful operations we freely cause.


Dace August 8, 2009 at 4:46 pm

I really don’t see a way out of the problem of evil for the theist. For example, take a typical free-will defense for the existence of evil, which relies on the idea that if you give something free-will, it’s almost certain to end up doing evil things as a matter of statistical probability.
Sounds reasonable, right? Until you see that the theist is committed to its being false, for God is described as being completely free and perfectly good, and these being part of his essential nature. So what looks to be the strongest objection to the problem of evil withers in self-contradiction. The logical problem still stands, and since I think that even the appearance of evil is itself an evil (it inflicts distress on those to whom it appears), this looks to be enough to refute the typical God.


Kevin August 8, 2009 at 8:16 pm

toweltowel: Here I’m assuming that Descartes would treat evil the same way he treats error in the Fourth Meditation: a privation consisting in incorrect uses of human free will (”the operation of the will in so far as it proceeds from me”), and a mere negation when referred to God and therefore involving no causal contribution from that quarter (i.e., no ‘divine concurrence’). So God can only be held responsible for creating the human will, not for the particular sinful operations we freely cause.

But why did God create beings who inevitably fail sometimes in using their free will?  God created the human will to be a certain way; apparently a deficient way.  Here I’m not referring to willful acts of evil alone, but also to the evils we do inadvertently through failures inherent in our nature.   Your response probably does avoid the problems I raised in my first post, but it still leaves us to answer why God creates deficient beings, and why God provides for natural evils.  My original objection, I think, still applies to natural evils.


toweltowel August 8, 2009 at 11:16 pm

Kevin, I had no intention of defending theism against the problem of evil. On the contrary, I think the problem of evil counts as very strong evidence against theism. I only intended to explain Descartes’ views.
Continuing in that vein, I’ll say that Descartes thinks the unfortunate deficiencies of human nature couldn’t have been any other way. For the problem with human nature is this: we have an imperfect and limited intellect combined with a perfect and unlimited will. This is why sometimes we are faced with a choice, the intellect has no understanding of the correct choice, and the will retains the capacity to make a choice anyway. Sadly, we often make blind choices instead of suspending the will, and this is the origin of error.
Now why can’t this have been any other way? Descartes says that it’s impossible to have a created intellect that is perfect and unlimited: that is, if God creates any other intellect, it will have to be occasionally lacking in understanding. And as for the will, Descartes says it’s impossible to have a will that is imperfect and limited: that is, it is the nature of the will to be able to choose in any situation. So this unfortunate combination is unavoidable for any created mind.
As to why God creates other minds in the first place, I honestly don’t know what Descartes would say. And I’m not sure how Descartes’ claims about the impossibility of a created-but-perfect intellect and a limited will can be reconciled with his views about God’s creation of the eternal truths: Descartes holds the bizarre view that God’s omnipotence extends so inconceivably far that God could have chosen to make contradictions true and 2+3=5 false, in which case it’s unclear how any appeal to what is absolutely impossible can be used to get God off the hook.
As for natural evils, I would look to what Descartes says about dropsy towards the end of the Sixth Meditation: it’s basically an appeal to simple general laws that generate good results for the most part but occasionally produce bad results. Again, I’m not sure why a hyper-omnipotent God like Descartes’ couldn’t be expected to find a better way.


Kevin August 9, 2009 at 6:16 am

I didn’t mean to offend by assuming you were defending theism ;)
You know your Descartes well.  This all sounds familiar.  I think it’s time a re-read the Meditations.


Reginald Selkirk August 10, 2009 at 5:40 am

Some theists are convinced that atheists face a corresponding Problem of Good. I do not find their arguments convincing, or even coherent.


alex February 21, 2010 at 3:34 pm

The last time I got into the “problem of evil” conversation with some Christians, the response boiled down to: “Well, I can’t pretend to understand everything god does.” And there really isn’t any arguing with that, you know? It’s the “I trust and have faith in something so vast and unknowable that I can’t possibly understand the basics of it, but I still center my entire life around it” clause. Or, they cry. Which is also the end of the conversation..

The bigger thing that’s irritating me lately is the theist and new age statement, “Everything happens for a reason.” Really gets under my skin. It’s almost always said after something terrible happens, and always leaves me wondering how it’s supposed to be even remotely comforting. “Hey, I know your best friend just died an excruciatingly painful death due to a horrific disease but…um…everything happens for a reason!” Yeah, thanks? How about, that reason can go eff itself??


Wissam October 5, 2010 at 1:18 pm

1. For all x, if x is morally justified, then x is morally acceptable.

2. For all x, if x is morally acceptable, then x is not morally objectionable.

3. For all x, if x is morally justified, then x is not morally objectionable (1,2, H.S.).

4. There exists at least one x such that x is morally objectionable (subjective premise).

5. There exists at least one x such that x is not morally justified (3,4, M.T.).

6. If God exists, then all events are morally justified (theological premise).

7. God does not exist (5,6, M.T.).

What I labelled subjective premise is obviously true, at least for most people. Jews constantly nag about how shit always happens to them. As for Muslims, they do find kuffar’s actions as morally objectionable. Now, the free will defense has little part here, since its purpose is to justify the existence of sufferring but not the existence of morally objectionable sufferring.

I think morally objectionable events are exactly what Epicurus had in mind when thinking about “evil”.


Wissam October 5, 2010 at 1:21 pm

According to theologians, the necessity of humans’ good actions deletes freedom, but they disregard god’s necessity to do good actions.


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