David O’Connor Explains Defense and Theodicy

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

David O’Connor gives a remarkably clear explanation of the difference between defense and theodicy, from the opening of God and Inscrutable Evil:

Could evil for which we can discern neither point nor justification ever exist in a God-made world? Even if it could, does not such evil make it improbable that the world was made by God? Why would a God-made world contain evils for which we can discover no point or justification? And, even if there is a reason that a world made by God contains evils of that sort, why so much and so many varieties?

…Of its nature, a defense tries to ensure that [theism] survives the charge or attack against which [it] is being defended. That being so, a successful defense does not have to prove theism true and atheism false. Nor does it have to establish that the evils cited in a given antitheistic argument are logically consistent with God, or that their occurrence is probable if God exists. Furthermore, it does not have to explain the existence of any or all evil in a supposedly God-made world. To do any of these things would constitute a substantive, and, in the first case, a maximal defense of theism, whereas a nonsubstantive and considerably more minimal defense, if successful, is sufficient. Thus, against a prosecuting argument whose aim is to show that certain facts of evil are inconsistent with God, a defense succeeds if it shows that the prosecuting argument fails to establish its conclusion. And likewise for a defense against an argument aiming to show that some fact or facts of evil are improbable on theism…

A defense, understood in any of the ways just specified, is an appropriate response to the first two of the four questions posed above, but not to the third or the fourth. To answer those questions would require a theodicy, a theodicy being an attempt to answer, in a systematic and comprehensive way, the question, “what is the source of the evil we find, and why does God permit it?” So understood, a theodicy tries to explain the ways of God to human beings, whereas a defense need not.

…While a theodicy’s task is wider than a defense’s, it is neither the more basic nor the more important… This is because… if the theistic defenses are not up to their job, then [theism] stares defeat in the face. And if theism is defeated, then the [theodicy] project will be redundant. But if the defenses hold, then while the need to solve the [problems of theodicy] remains, their solution could plausibly be understood as a work in progress and its completion not urgent, or, at least, less urgent than the need for a defense. In this sense, then, defense has priority over theodicy.

Please keep this in mind as you read my Arguing About Evil series.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

TaiChi July 30, 2010 at 6:46 pm

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 (especially if he claims to know without benefit of revelation) 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.” ~ David Lewis, ‘Evil For Freedom’s Sake’.


Steven Carr July 30, 2010 at 9:03 pm

‘Thus, against a prosecuting argument whose aim is to show that certain facts of evil are inconsistent with God, a defense succeeds if it shows that the prosecuting argument fails to establish its conclusion. ‘

Perhaps people should just keep hitting him with a piece of 2 by 4 theological debating wood until he admits that an all-good God would not let his believers suffer horribly because they believe their god loves them.

Or he can try to show that my belief in unipedalism is false, given that I can pull a Plantinga and claim it is logically possible that we are living in a world where we cannot count our legs correctly.


Steven Carr July 30, 2010 at 9:06 pm

‘But a defence needn’t be true and needn’t be plausible; ‘

‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’, but my supporters don’t want the truth, or even a plausible defense of the truth.


lukeprog July 30, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Good one, TaiChi!


Rob July 30, 2010 at 10:47 pm

I predict future philosophers will view Plantinga as the greatest sophist of all time.


antiplastic July 31, 2010 at 11:09 am



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