A redated post.
My daughter is writing a paper on the problem of evil, and asked me what I thought of the attempt to explain natural evil as a species of moral evil. In the literature on the problem of evil, moral evil is thought to be the result of the actions of creatures do wrong. Examples of this would be Hitler’s slaughter of the Jews, the party purges of Stalin, the murders of Ted Bundy and Jack the Ripper, but also would include less dramatic evils such as the sins I have committed today. Natural evil is evil that does not result from the actions of creatures, such as earthquakes, floods, being struck by lightning, illness, old age, etc.
In the case of moral evil, a solution looks to be available. God, it seems, has an interest in free obedience, and by free I mean that obedience that is not determined or controlled by God himself. (See my discussion of Star Trek in a previous entry). But in order for God to open the way obedience that is free in this sense, God must refuse to control the outcome of our choices, but if he does that, then he risks the possibility that disobedience. I realize this involves rejecting the claim that free will and determinism are compatible. If freedom and determinism are compatible, then God could have created the World of Mr. Rogers, the world in which everyone freely does what is right.
Plantinga’s Demon Scenario
For the sake of this discussion, I will assume that the problem of moral evil is answerable in terms of human free will. This still leaves the serious problem of explaining natural evil. In Alvin Plantinga’s The Nature of Necessity, he mentions the idea that all evils are broadly moral evil, because while some evils are the result of human free choices, other evils are the result of the free choices of non-human creatures. He writes:
But another and more traditional line of thought is pursued by St. Augustine, who attributes much of the evil we find to Satan, or to Satan and his cohorts. Satan, so the traditional doctrine goes, is a mighty non-human spirit who, along with many other angels, was created long before God created man. Unlike most of his colleagues, Satan rebelled against God and since has been wreaking whatever havoc he can. The result is natural evil. So the natural evil we find is due to free actions of non-human spirits.1
Now, Plantinga points out that for Augustine, this appeal to Satanic agency is an attempt to provide a theodicy, that is, to provide a true explanation for why God permits suffering. A defense, on the other hand, is an attempt to refute some version of the argument from evil. That may involve providing the actual explanation for the existence of evils, but it may not. The argument from evil Plantinga is discussing here is often called the logical problem of evil; it involves the claim that theists, in believing both that there is a God and in also being a realist about the evils in the world, the theist is implicitly contradicting himself. All we need to refute this argument is to provide a possible scenario according to which God and the evils in this world co-exist. Plantinga therefore claims that the demon scenario meets this requirement, and therefore, he claims the logical problem of evil stands refuted.
Over the years, and largely due to the work of Plantinga, attention has shifted from the logical problem of evil to the probabilistic or evidential problem of evil. The idea is that while it is possible that God existence is compatible with the suffering and evil we find in the world, nevertheless, it can be argued that evil in the world makes God’s existence improbable, or that that evil and suffering is strong evidence against the existence of God. In response to this argument, Plantinga says:
(The demon scenario), for example, involves the idea that the evil that is not due to free agency, is due to the agency of other rational and significantly free creatures. Do we have evidence against this idea? Many people find it preposterous; but that is scarcely evidence against it. Theologians sometimes tell us that this idea is repugnant to “man come of age” or to “modern habits of thought.” I am not convinced that this is so; in any case it does not come to much as evidence. The mere fact that a belief in unpopular at present (or at some other time) is interesting, no doubt, from a sociological point of view; it is evidentially irrelevant. Perhaps, we do have evidence against this belief, but if we do, I do not know what it is.2
I recall a conversation in my office with Plantinga when I was a fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame in which Plantinga told me that even though he presented the scenario as a possible scenario, he considered demonic influence to be the real explanation of many of the evils in the world. Certainly this explanation has biblical support, as is evident from reading Job or the Gospels. It also has the support of an obscure popular British theologian from the middle of the past century, a guy by the name of..uh..uh..Lewis. (See the Animal Pain chapter of The Problem of Pain).
Atheist philosopher Keith M. Parsons, in his book God and the Burden of Proof, however, offers two criticisms of the demon scenario as a defense against the problem of evil. He writes:
But how is this even possible? What would it be like to bring about natural evils? Natural evils are caused, so far as we can tell, by the same fundamental laws of nature that explain all other natural phenomena. Earthquakes are caused by the same tectonic processes that produce majestic mountain ranges; pathogens and parasites evolved according to the same kittens and butterflies, weather systems that bring balmy breezes to one region bring tornadoes to another. The causes of natural evil are thus so intimately involved with (and often identical to) the causes of all other natural phenomena that to cause natural evil, it would seem necessary to cause nature.
But in that case, what becomes of the doctrine of God as creator? At best we would seem to have a kind of dualism reminiscent of Manichaeism—a heretical movements in the late Roman Empire that viewed the cosmos as the creation of eternally opposed good and evil principles. If the demon scenario is thus inconsistent with the doctrine of God as creator, it cannot be of any use to Plantinga, not even as a bare possibility.3
He goes on to say:
A further difficulty with Plantinga’s argument is his assumption that free will could have the sort of absolute value he thinks it might have. As we saw earlier, ordinary moral judgments do not grant such a value to the possession or employment of free will. For instance, if I knew that a terrorist, of his own free will, planed to plant a bomb on an airliner, I would feel obliged to do everything in my power to inhibit him from exercising his free will in that way. How then is it possible that God could be justified in allowing Satan to run amok? How is it consistent with the goodness of God not to have placed greater restrictions on Satan’s freedom?4
So I’m going to put the question to my commentators, having presented both sides of the argument. Are at least some natural evils due to the influence of Satan and his minions? Or not?
1 Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974) p. 192. He references “The Problem of Free Choice”’ in Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 22 (New York: Paulist/ Newman Press), pp. 71ff.; and Confessions and Enchiridion tr. and ed., by Albert C. Outler (Philadelphia: Westminister Press), pp. 341-6.
2 Plantinga, p. 195.
3 Keith Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1989) pp. 123-124.
4. Parsons, p. 124.