Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How to eliminate the problem of evil

I am redating a post from 2005 which took place, if course, before my exchanges with Calvinists. I am aware of the fact that some Calvinists, notably Sudduth, dissasociate not only themselves from what I am calling Ockhamism here, but also dissassociate Calvin from Ockhamism.

The following is a presentation of an argument from evil:

(1) Gratuitous evils probably exist.
(2) Gratuitous evils are incompatible with the God of theism (omnipotent, omniscient, all-good).
(3) Therefore, the God of theism probably does not exist.

This argument has a presupposition that some Christians have questioned. It presupposes that "good" is somehow independent of the will of God, and that it has some objective meaning independent of the will of God. That presupposition, which John Beversluis calls Platonism is that "the term good cannot mean some thing radically different from what is means when applied to men." The opposing view is that he calls the Ockhamist view, set forth by William of Ockham. This is Beversluis's exposition:

"According to this view, when we talk about God's goodness, we must be prepared to give up our ordinary moral standards. The term good when applied to God does mean som ething radically different from what it means when applied to human beings. To suppose that God must be conform to some standard other than his own sovereign will is to deny his ultimacy. His is not under any moral constraint to command certain actions and to forbid others. He does not, for example, forbid murder because it is wrong; it is wrong because he forbids it. If God would command us to murder, then that would be our duty, just as it was the duty of Abraham to sacridice Isaac, or Elijah to slay the prophets of Baal, or Joshua to slaughter the Canaanites right down to the alst woman and child. Some Ockhamist Christians have even gone so far as to say that God could have reversed the entire moral law and made virtues not only of murder but of adultery, theft, coveting and bearing false witness. As Ockhamist John Calvin puts it, "The will of God is the highest rule of justice; so that what he wills must be considered just...for this very reason, because he wills it." (Calvin's Institutes, book 3, chapter 3, section 2)And one contemporary Calvinist, Gordon H. Clark, surpasses even Ockham and Calvin on this point. "God .... cannot be responsible for the plain reason that there is no power superior to him; no greater being can hold him accountable; no one can punish ... there are no laws which he could disobey."1

1 Gordon Clark, Reason, Religion and Revelation (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1986), p. 241, John Beversluis, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1985) pp. 102-103.

Now if "good" means "in accordance with God's will, then there is simply no possibility that God actions can possibly be wrong. If we are prepared to set aside the concept of goodness that we are inclined to apply to human beings and admit that "good" means be definition "whatever God wills," there simply can be no problem of evil.

You've heard of Ockham's Razor, this is Ockham's Solvent. Any version of the problem of evil that you could possibly advance can be answered by one sentence, "Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?" Or, as your mother used to say, "Because I said so!"

Earlier I put together a couple of posts on why Calvinists can't solve the problem of evil. That is true. But they can dissolve it. This is, I think the only possible option the Calvinist has in responding to the objection from evil. The fact is that for the Calvinist, for all eternity, the world could have been better than it was, is, and always will be, at least by any understading of goodness that humans can make any sense of.

So if you really want to get rid of the problem of evil, this is the way to do it. Unfortunately, it gets rid of a lot of other things as well. See the link to the first chapter of my book.


Anonymous said...

So what about things like hell and homosexuality then?

People often make claims that, say, "any God who says that homosexuals are morally reprehensible can't be good!" or "how can a good God ever throw people into hell?"

If you're going to say that all of our moral intuitions hold good then it seems to me that maybe you're going to be contradicting scripture at some point.

But, of course, if you're going to say that on some occasions our intuitions don't hold good, why can't the propblem of evil simply be one of those occasions?

Jason Pratt said...

I think our moral intuitions hold at least _some_ good; even in the cases mentioned. (Of course, this assumes someone is saying such things in report of their moral intuition, and not for some other reason, such as to be contentious, or to try to get people to permit what they themselves happen to want to do, etc.)

There is a difference between being able to see the good imperfectly, and the good being something completely different from our moral intuitions at all. I have no problem believing that people can make those claims because they are trying to hold to what good they _can_ truly see, even if they are seeing the good imperfectly.

Better for them to do that, than to accept as light what seems to them, not only an appearance but a _being_ of darkness. One of those is a striving with, the other against, the Holy Spirit.

We mustn't convince people to accept what seems to them to be flat contradictions; much less to accept what seems to them to be evil. If we do, then we're leading them into sin, even if the new doctrine they're thus accepting happens to be technically correct; and God will hold _us_ accountable for, in essence, seducing or even raping them. (St. Paul has something to say about this principle, too, in the Epistle to the Galatians.)

dookoo said...

You might like to check out this article on the problem of evil.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately for Calvinists, even saying that God defines what good is can't save Calvinism from the problem of evil. It would mean that not only was God culpable for things we consider to be evil from our flawed human capacity. If there's no freewill, then He also caused all adultery, theft, murder, incest, apostacy, herecy and Satanism that has ever been. If He determined all things, then everything He dictates against, He has caused. He would not merely fail to live up to our conception of goodness, but his own. There need be no higher power for Him to be accountable to, for He would still be accountable to himself. Freewill for humans or a flawed God are the only logical outcomes of the problem of evil.

Anonymous said...

Well, that is to say, freewill, a flawed God, a self-contradictory God or no God.

a helmet said...

Hello Victor,

I just said basically the same thing in a discussion here:

You might join and comment as well, perhaps link to your blog from there.

-a helmet

philip m said...

The problem with saying, "Whatever God so happens to like is what is good" is that we do not have epistemic access to its truth.

We always will have more confidence in moral propositions like,

"Harming another person for no reason is wrong"

than in the proposition:

"The nonmoral attibrutes of God give rise to the ability to determine the content of moral propositions."

The person who holds that God can make murder qua murder good holds to the second proposition. We don't know this proposition is true. The first is the one we apprehend as true.

And it's really not doing God any favors by telling people that if He had randomly decided that rape was a good idea, we'd all be obliged to do it.

It doesn't help to make your God a bigger idea if it makes him a terrible idea.

a helmet said...

Calvinism's theodicy goes like this:

1)There is one God

2)God is omnipotent and omniscient

3)There is evil

4)Definition: God is perfectly good.

Thus, the logical problem of evil is "solved" by definition.

Joshua Blanchard said...

One consequence of defining "good" in a way wholly dependent on God is that it almost makes the term superfluous. Certainly calling God's actions good would be superfluous. But even saying that "I should do X because X is good" is superfluous, because we could just say "I should do X because God commands it." It's not clear that "good" even offers a convenient shorthand.

Victor Reppert said...

Now I did note that not every Calvinist is going to defend their position this way. They can argue that the glorification of God is intrinsically good, and that whatever promotes the glorification of God is really good, even if it results in permanent misery for creatures. Thus, what is good is good because it glorifies God, not because God commands it.

Peter Pike said...

Victor said:
Now I did note that not every Calvinist is going to defend their position this way.

I'll call your bluff then. Can you name ANY Calvinist, aside from the 37 Clarkians that exist, who would defend it this way? Names and quotes, Victor.

Further, I must note that you have STILL not once bothered to define what "good" or "evil" is, despite the fact that the Calvinists who you seem to think cannot answer your brilliant arguments have done just that.

What does it say when a philosophy prof doesn't even do the bare minimum necessary in defining terms? What gives you the right to treat Calvinists with scorn when they HAVE done this necessary homework? And how can you write anything with a straight face knowing full well that you've been called out for this many times by me already and have STILL not produced a definition?

Am I really the only person who thinks that to even begin to discuss what "the problem of evil" entails a definition of "evil"?!?!

Victor Reppert said...

I was familiar with some Calvin quotes, as well as this Clark quote, which suggested to me that Calvinists were Ockhamists.

I looked at your account of good, which you gave in a previous thread.

Pike: 1. God exists with certain attributes that make up His nature.

2. God's nature determines how He acts, what He wills, etc.

3. God gives general commands to us, based on His nature.

4. God is immutable.

5. Logically, then, God's general commands will not change. They are what they are.

VR: I don't know that this theory permits us to identify God. What does the word "God" mean in your system? Is God a being omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good? Or do you have some other definition in mind?

Victor Reppert said...

In my view moral obligation is created by the fact that God creates us with an intended purpose which is identical to our good, and is acts in a way that is consistent with the pursuit of that good for all his creatures. Our good is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, evil is what gets in the way of that.

On Calvinist theory there is a large gap between what makes God's character good, and what makes us good, a gap that cannot be explained in terms of a difference in God's wisdom or knowledge. A native may believe that men in white coats bearing long needles are mean to little kids because he lacks knowledge that the men in the white coats possess, but the standard of goodness for natives and for missionary doctors is the same. Both the native and the doctor want the child to be well, and for the child not to suffer, but they have different ideas as to how to go about it.

It seems to me that when you say God gives commands based on his nature, it is pretty clear that we don't have obligations to reflect all aspects of God's nature in our own conduct. We might be rightly wrathful when someone we love is raped, but we aren't supposed to be looking for or artifically creating opportunities for us to exercise our attribute of being wrathful at evil, as if there was some aspect of us that is going to go unfulfilled if we are fortunate enough never to be in a position where that sort of wrath is called for.

So while divine commands are supposed to be based on the divine nature, the kind of people we are commanded to be fails to fully reflect the character of God, and there are actions on the part of God which are deemed right which, if parallel actions are performed by humans, they contravene the commands of God.

Anonymous said...

Ockham's principle is that ENTITIES should not be multiplied beyond necessity.

The universe and the existence of evil in the world is compatible with a universe without a deity. So a deity is an unnecessary entity and should be discarded without further evidence that has not yet surfaced.

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