Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The problem of evil: the final solution?

Here's a response to the argument from evil that you don't hear very often. I thought of it in grad school.

Let's assume that God is pursuing the greatest total balance of good over bad.
In the beginning God creates the best of all possible universes. The good-to-bad balance of that universe is + 1 million.

Should God stop? He can, after all, now create the second best of all possible worlds, and nearly double the total balance of good over evil. So what God has to do to get the best balance of good over evil is create all the worlds that have a positive balance, so that the total can be as high as possible.

Does the good in this world outweigh the bad all told? If it does, then God ought to actualize it, no matter how much suffering it contains. Can we honestly say that all the good in this world is greater than all the bad? That's a much tougher case to make than arguing that this is not the best of all possible worlds. All God needs to do to improve the total balance of good over evil is to create all the worlds with a positive balance.

Is this the end of the argument from evil?


havoc said...

The end of the Argument from Evil is this:

If there is no God, there can be no evil. Therefore, the argument from evil is out of the atheist arsenal.

Of course, it remains an interesting and important intramural discussion for theists.

Anonymous said...

I like this response to the Problem of Evil, Vic. I have a similar-ish one of my own:

(1) If God is all-powerful, then for any world God could create, He would be capable of creating some other world better than that one.
(2) Therefore, of necessity, God cannot create the best of all possible worlds, as the notion is incoherent.
(3) Therefore, objecting that God has not created the best of all possible worlds, reduces to objecting that God has created a world at all ... not a particularly impressive objection.

The only way I can see to avoid this argument is to deny (1) by defending the notion of worlds of infinite value, than which no other world could have more value and which would be within God's power to create. But the notion of infinite value is sufficiently slippery to make this response problematic.


Sturgeon's Lawyer said...

One problem with this is that it reduces God to an algorithm designed to maximize some value -- either the ratio (good:evil), or else the net sum of the term (good-evil).

Another problem is that it absolves God of all responsibility. If God creates a world knowing that there will be evil, and God has complete freedom -- all of which follow from our definitions about God -- then God knowingly causes suffering where there need be none.

My own take is to conceive God as an artist, creating a kind of narrative art we call "a world." Narrative art where nothing bad ever happens is, to be blunt, boring -- and so bad art. We may have faith that the narrative will ultimately turn out well enough to justify (in at least an aesthetic sense) all that has gone before -- but for the moment everyone, including (or especially!) the "good guys" has some suffering to do.

Victor Reppert said...

Sturgeon's Lawyer: One problem with this is that it reduces God to an algorithm designed to maximize some value -- either the ratio (good:evil), or else the net sum of the term (good-evil).

VR: That's not a problem for the value theory I am employing here.

SL: Another problem is that it absolves God of all responsibility. If God creates a world knowing that there will be evil, and God has complete freedom -- all of which follow from our definitions about God -- then God knowingly causes suffering where there need be none.

VR: It is needed, to maximize the total balance of good over evil.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't you first consider this argument from Richard R. La Croix: “If God is the greatest possible good then if God had not created there would be nothing but the greatest possible good. And since God didn’t need to create at all, then the fact that he did create produced less than the greatest possible good.” “Perhaps God could not, for some perfectly plausible reason, create a world without evil, but then it would seem that he ought not to have created at all.” “Prior to creation God knew that if he created there would be evil, so being wholly good he ought not to have created.”

Why did God create something in the first place? Theists will typically defend the goodness of God by arguing he could not have created a world without some suffering and evil. But what reason is there for creating anything at all? Theists typically respond by saying creation was an expression of God’s love. But wasn’t God already complete in love? If love must be expressed, then God needed to create, and that means he lacked something.

A perfectly good God should not have created anything at all, if by creating something, anything, it also brought about so much intense suffering. By doing so he actually reduced the amount of total goodness there is, since God alone purportedly has absolute goodness.

Victor Reppert said...

So you define goodness as the lack of suffering? I reject your value theory.

Mike Darus said...

I would like to see Victor's objection to John's position pursued. It seems a key point to determine whether an action or inaction by God that permits suffering to occur necessarily disqualifes God from being considered good? Suffering has a variety of benefitial purposes under Christian theism. Suffering is not the primary problem to be solved in Biblical theism. The primary problem is sin, not suffering.

stunney said...

The idea that God is not justified in creating this world has to deal with a fairly obvious fact: namely, that most people are glad they, and the world they live in, exist. They'd rather live than never have existed, upon reflection. They're glad the universe exists with its nature and with them in it, upon reflection, and all things considered. Suicide is a distinctly minority taste.

Now if that is the majority verdict about the existence of the universe and individual personal lives within it, what could it even mean to say that the verdict is wrong or mistaken?

And if the verdict is necessarily not wrong, then what grounds do we have for thinking God is not justified in relying on that very verdict when it comes to deciding whether to annihilate or continue to sustain the universe in being?

exapologist said...

VR and SL: I'm with you on the "no possible best world (any more than there is a greatest natural number), so no obligation to create it" argument (a point made by both Adams and Swinburne). I have a couple of questions and comments, though:

i. I'm not sure if a god's obligations are to be spelled out in this utilitarian or quasi-utilitarian way of creating a world that, on balance, has more good than bad.

ii. What does a world that, on balance, has more good than bad consist in? Suppose, for example, that the vast majority of creatures capable of suffering and enjoyment had pleasant lives, but that, say, 10 percent of them underwent life-long, or at any rate long-term, excrutiating anguish. Would *that* count as a world that had, on balance, more good than bad?

iii. If God has a rights-based ethic, then God is obligated to fulfil his duties regarding our positive and negative rights. If so, then even if the world has, on balance, more good than bad in the sense of suffering and enjoyment, it may yet be morally impermissible to actualize it if it includes states of affairs involving God violating our positive and negative rights, no?

iv. It seems to me that a reply to the problem of evil for generic theism may well fail as a reply to the problem of evil for specifically Christian theism. Suppose, for example, that the sort of reply you have in mind works, that is, suppose the world contains more good than bad in some relevant sense, or suppose that, at least, the matter is inscrutable for us. Still, is it really inscrutable for us that what the OT describes God doing/commanding/permitting/endorsing (e.g., commanding the killing of innocent babies, whole people groups, and "keeping the virgins alive for themselves") is incompatible with what an omnicient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god would do/permit? One could of course make a number of moves here, but in relation to your original question, it's not clear to me that your reply is "the final solution" on at least *this* issue.

Tom Freeman said...

He can, after all, now create the second best of all possible worlds, and nearly double the total balance of good over evil.

This seems to assume that what's important is the amount of good minus the amount of evil (i.e. the difference). But why shouldn't it be the amount of good divided by the amount of evil (i.e. the ratio)?

If I help four people and harm one, that's a goodness score of +3 or 80%. If I help two people and harm none, that's only +2 but a full 100%. Which is better?

Anonymous said...

Sandra Menssen and Thomas Sullivan co-wrote an interesting paper called "Grading Worlds". I'm afraid I don't have the full reference to hand.

Their basic premise was that even if "God must create the best", the atheist can provide so sensible criteria on which it will turn out that worlds can be compared and this one is evidently not the best. Several possible methods of grading worlds are considered.

Like others here, I have problems with treating God as though he were some "Big utilitarian in the sky", but Theists often merely treat God this way because it is an unstated assumption behind many formulations of the argument from evil, and a question they do not think to question.

However, what Victor's comment shows is that even on that crude theory of value, the atheist will have a hard time pressing home his argument.

I seem to recall one further point of the Menssen/Sullivan paper was that if we do adopt a utilitarian position for grading worlds, then of course God's own "happiness" should also be taken into account. And if God takes more pleasure from the world he has created than he would from any other world he could have created ... the argument isn't going to get very far.


Anonymous said...

On this whole issue we need to consider William Rowe's book.

I haven't read it, but I understand he argues against Adams.

This book focuses on God's freedom and praiseworthiness in relation to his perfect goodness. Given his necessary perfections, if there is a best world for God to create he would have no choice other than to create it. For, as Leibniz tells us, 'to do less good than one could is to be lacking in wisdom or in goodness'. But if God could not do otherwise than create the best world, he created the world of necessity, not freely. And, if that is so, it may be argued that we have no reason to be thankful to God for creating us, since, as parts of the best possible world, God was simply unable to do anything other than create us---he created us of necessity, not freely. Moreover, we are confronted with the difficulty of having to believe that this world, with its Holocaust, and innumerable other evils, is the best that an infinitely powerful, infinitely good being could do in creating a world. Neither of these conclusions, taken by itself, seems at all plausible. Yet each conclusion appears to follow from the conception of God now dominant in the great religions of the West. William Rowe presents a detailed study of this important problem, both historically in the writings of Gottfried Leibniz, Samuel Clarke, Thomas Aquinas, and Jonathan Edwards, and in the contemporary philosophical literature devoted to the issue. Rowe argues that this problem is more serious than is commonly thought and may require some significant revision in contemporary thinking about the nature of God.

Anonymous said...

I just ordered Rowe's book, so I should have something more to add later after reading it.

Sturgeon's Lawyer said...

Dr. Reppert,

The problem (as I see it) with reducing God to an algorithm is that it means that God need be no more conscious than the infamous "Chinese room."

As for suffering to maximize the balance of good over evil -- surely God can choose not to create evil at all. Since the ratio of any quantity to zero is infinite, that choice would make the balance of good over evil an absolute maximum (unless you wish to take the Taoist position that good is meaningful only in contrast with evil).

Therefore, in choosing to create any world at all in which any kind of evil subsists, God necessarily chooses not to maximize the balance of good over evil.

It might be that rather than the balance or ratio, God seeks to maximize the net good -- the solution to the sum (good - evil). But, again, I find myself doubting that such a mechanistic God bears any resemblance to the reality I seem to have encountered in my prayer.