Monday, January 31, 2011

Mailbag Monday: The Problem of Evil

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.


Luke writes:
I got a request for you if you're up for it bro. It's motherfucking Epicurus. That's right, that old Greek badass. The man who originally came up with the Problem of Evil. Can I get it explained further?
Sure thing, bro. Epicurus is credited with originally formulating the problem of evil (though he probably meant it not as proof that the gods didn't exist, but as proof that the gods were far away and didn't give a fuck about us. After all, the idea that the gods didn't exist was inconceivable to most ancients.) We find his formulation as follows:
"“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? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”"
The argument runs something like this: Of the following three ideas, only two of them are compatible at any given time:
  1. An omnipotent God
  2. A benevolent God
  3. Evil in the world
Seriously, if an all-powerful God who can do literally whatever the fuck he wants exists and really loves us, why would he allow us to suffer? Why would he allow evil to exist, when he can clap his hands and fix everything?

An attempt to answer the problem of evil is known as a 'theodicy', and tons of philosophers have attempted them. For example, Leibniz said, "Maybe this is the best possible world. Allowing evil into the world has allowed God to create greater good, and so there is no greater world than this one." Except 40 years after he published that, an earthquake ripped through Portugal and fucking destroyed the city of Lisbon and everything in it, which made a lot of people say, "Really? This is the best possible world? Seriously? Even if a little evil spices things up a bit, do we really need this rampant fucking destruction?" And that was the end of Liebniz's argument.

Any theodicy has to provide a reason why God might allow evil to exist. it doesn't have to show the actual reason he does - that seems pretty fucking impossible, to identify God's actual reasoning - but to succeed it must show that there could be a reason, that evil is somehow compatible with God. Is should also make God as powerful as possible - a theodicy that says, "Well... God isn't as powerful as you'd think" doesn't really get us anywhere. That's just a bro punting the first proposition of the three.

Most contemporary theodicies focus on free will, and philosophers of religion seem to think that this is the most promising line of attack. God gave us free will, and we fucked it up. Why did he give us free will if we were going to fuck up? Because without free will, there can't be any true moral good, since moral good involves making a choice. Even though we fucked up, a world with fucked up people is still better than a world in which there are no people. Back to the idea that the benefits of free will outweigh the negatives.

The right understanding of free will might explain why there's evil per se, but it doesn't really explain certain evils, like the earthquake at Lisbon. Why is such horrific evil acceptable? Peter van Inwagen responded to this idea by saying that we don't get to draw arbitrary lines for God - let's say one fewer person had died at Lisbon. Still horrific? Yeah. What if only one person died? Still horrific? Probably not - that's Detroit on a great day. So what's the magic number in between? "Hey, God, only 4,999 people can die at a time. C'mon. Get your shit together." The suggestion is that God warned us, and we went playing in the minefield anyway. We can't get mad when a fuckton of mines blow up - if God prevented mines from blowing up, we would never try to leave the minefield and get back to Him. Besides, maybe he does prevent some mines from blowing up. What if we had a Lisbon style earthquake every ten years? That would be fucking terrible.
Still, perhaps exploding mines and earthquakes are a bit dramatic for God - couldn't he get us to want to leave the minefield in an easier way? That depends on how stubborn we are in using our free will. But God had to draw the line somewhere; maybe we would have complained about the worst of it no matter what: "Bro, ten people died in a car accident. Fucking ten. Can you believe that shit?! There IS NO GOD."

But even that defense doesn't deal with all evil. Philosopher William Rowe proposes a thought experiment known as "Rowe's Fawn" that removes all element of free will or human choice. Let's say there's this adorable little fawn, fucking cute as can be, walking through the forest, when a tree falls down and breaks his fucking leg. He can't go anywhere, he can't get food, and he just lies there in agony waiting days for the sweet release of death. Now, how the fuck could free will have possibly caused that? Moreover, how could that result in a greater good? No one knows about it; Disney isn't going to make a movie about this one. What benefit could this possibly have?

Defenses to this argument fall into two camps: either that the suffering really is caused by free will in some way, like the butterfly effect, or that there's no way to prevent that sort of suffering without effecting really, really fucking strange laws of nature that don't allow the production of, say, higher intelligence that can produce good. If all pain everywhere is prevented by miracles of God, can we really produce moral good or have free will? So, it's not that that suffering is a result of free will, or even that it itself causes good, but that for there to be the good of free will it has to be a little bit possible that a fawn gets fucked from time to time.

And there it is, a sketch of the problem of evil. It's my experience that people tend to react to arguments one way or another in accord with the position they already have, so if you're an atheist, try asking yourself this: "Who am I to tell God how to run shit? Doesn't He probably know better than me how to accomplish His plan? And couldn't shit be way worse than it has been?" and if you're a theist, try asking yourself this: "Is it really the case that God had to let some of this shit happen? Couldn't an omnipotent being do without some of the terrible shit that's happened? Really, God?" And hopefully, that clarifies the sides for you.

If you want to read more, a good place to start is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.

Peter van Inwagen's full Gifford Lecture text can be purchased on Amazon, and is, in my opinion, an excellent, accessible, and relatively fair treatment of the problem, although he does come from a theistic perspective to a theistic conclusion: The Problem of Evil.

Oxford University Press publishes a compendium of essays on the topic which fall on either side of the question, which is unfortunately also titled The Problem of Evil: (Oxford Readings in Philosophy).


  1. This is some deep shit, bro.

    Keep 'em coming.
    I read your post every week from Tokyo.

    Much love!

  2. This is my favorite post so far. Great job!

  3. The problem I have with the "Who am I to tell God how to run shit?" question is that the answer is obvious. I'm fucking me. I'm the only intelligence I have access to, the only take on the universe I can ever possibly have.

    If God is so inscrutable that his goodness is indistinguishable from evil, then how the fuck is it still goodness in any meaningful sense of the word?

    I mean, there have been a ton of people throughout history who have done shit that seems pretty damned wrong to me. At least some of them have believed, or at least claimed to believe, that they were doing good - even doing God's work.

    So, consider, what information would allow you to accept that Pol Pot or Hitler was a good person? What if you knew they were twice as smart as you, and ten times as knowledgeable about the world? Would that be enough to convince you that they were good guys?

    Where is the line, where they become enough smarter and better informed than me that I am justified in abandoning my own ideas about morality in favour of theirs?

    And note that I'm not talking about sitting down and reading Kant or Singer, and understanding their point, and reconsidering your views in the light of their arguments. I'm talking about sitting down and reading "No, realy, you SHOULD stab people to death and watch them die. The virtuous nature of stabbing more than outweighs the evil of murder!" and simply accepting, on their authority, that okay, stabbing is good.

    Now, I'm not saying people don't do that. I mean, anyone who joins the military has fundamentally done exactly that. They've given up their right to make moral decisions to someone they presumably believe is better informed or otherwise better equipped to make such judgments.

    To my mind, if there is a God, and his benevolence is such that by his lights, the best of all possible worlds is one in which babies are born with AIDS or crack addictions, or into famine or crippling poverty, in which plagues, earthquakes, and hurricanes destroy cities and entire species are wiped out of existence on a daily basis, if such a being exists then I want nothing to do with it.

  4. "that there's no way to prevent that sort of suffering without effecting really, really fucking strange laws of nature that don't allow the production of, say, higher intelligence that can produce good"

    Of course, this is basically admitting that God isn't omnipotent.

  5. The problem of evil also assumes that "evil" is a "real" concept. One could refute the problem of evil by denying the existence of evil.

  6. Simple answer: 'Good' as well as 'Evil' would limit that bro-being referred to as God, and limited beings are by definition not omnipotent; the presence of evil in the world is irrelevant and should be taken into account like the Hindus do, as necessity, as causality, a feature of a becoming-world. Boo-f'in-hoo, besides, we know and do good only insofar as we are aware of, avoid, and resist EVIL ....

  7. I don't have much of a philosophical background, but to me it makes sense that evil is basically something that causes pain, physical or emotional.

    Every human being on the planet has at one time caused pain, most people do every day.

    If God were to wipe all evil off the planet, he would either have to destroy all people, or make them into people who don't cause evil.

    I can't speak for the other religions, but Christianity says He will do both of the above. If He destroyed all evil immediately, He wouldn't be very benevolent. Since everyone will always cause evil, He made a way (Jesus) for people to eventually cause no evil, and now He's allowing evil in the world while waiting for more people to accept that way.

    That's my best explanation for it.

  8. Maybe evil is just the stabilization of good as a contrast, you know, one of those can't have this without this type of deals because it would be meaningless. I say God allows evil because it's another option and who is God to go back on his word of Free Will.

    I wouldn't call that fawn getting fucked in the woods for no reason evil, I would more-or-less consider that a neutral event as it was not caused with any intent. Mother nature is a neutral force doing what it does and we're just along for the ride sometimes.

    I believe intent is what classifies an action or event as evil or good. Intent to actually do something to cause pain and/or distress.

  9. Ever wonder why no one makes movies or writes fiction without conflict in them? Life without conflict/evil and overcoming it would be pretty boring.

    We would never get to experience the joy of comforting a loved one, achieving something you've worked hard for, or understand the glory of redemption.

    If you look at a relationship between a man and a woman, without evil, they would just get along all the time and live like happy zombies. If you ask me, I prefer the interesting-ness caused by longing, desire, passion, and even making up.

    "Evil is threefold, viz., metaphysical evil, moral, and physical, the retributive consequence of moral guilt. Its existence subserves the perfection of the whole; the universe would be less perfect if it contained no evil. Thus fire could not exist without the corruption of what it consumes; the lion must slay the ass in order to live, and if there were no wrong doing, there would be no sphere for patience and justice. God is said (as in Isaiah 45) to be the author of evil in the sense that the corruption of material objects in nature is ordained by Him, as a means for carrying out the design of the universe; and on the other hand, the evil which exists as a consequence of the breach of Divine laws is in the same sense due to Divine appointment; the universe would be less perfect if its laws could be broken with impunity. Thus evil, in one aspect, i.e. as counter-balancing the deordination of sin, has the nature of good. But the evil of sin, though permitted by God, is in no sense due to him; its cause is the abuse of free will by angels and men. It should be observed that the universal perfection to which evil in some form is necessary, is the perfection of this universe, not of any universe: metaphysical evil, that is to say, and indirectly, moral evil as well, is included in the design of the universe which is partially known to us; but we cannot say without denying the Divine omnipotence, that another equally perfect universe could not be created in which evil would have no place."(Catholic Encyclopedia:Evil).

  10. You're good.

    Those who does not know pain knows no peace.

  11. in theocracy, man was said to have defied god saying basically, we know good from evil, right from wrong, i essence "we don't really need you". so according to theocratic history he basically said, ok, "I'm going to give you enough rope to hang yourself"" but in the end you will know you need to do it my way for a better life" I'm a big believer of free will, look at almost every problem throughout time and you can root it to free will. we need to learn how to behave as a species. if there is a "higher plane" do you really think mankind is ready to exist at that level, hmmmmmmm i think not. it's not about the politics of religion, but being spiritual and aspiring to the greater self, our path on earth could be a massive learning experience, and sometimes the best way to learn is to go it alone and learn from your mistakes and stop blaming god for own fuck ups

  12. Here's my concern: do you really have to take away free will along with evil? I think we can all agree that each of us know people of different degrees of evil. Some people we know choose to do what we consider good (tell someone when their wallet falls out of their pocket, for instance), and other people do what we consider evil (steal that wallet). Just because people don't choose to do evil things doesn't mean they don't have the option to do so. Also, I think it'd be reasonable to say there's a diversity of personalities, physical appearances, and behaviors of people who commit fewer evil actions. Statistically I would say there are many more combinations of traits of people possible than all the people who have ever existed or who will exist for the rest of the life of the earth and possibly longer.

    So, given this information, if God created us, and if he is omnipotent and benevolent, why not just make all people with the sort of traits that they would not choose to commit evil acts? I don't think there would be a lack of diversity of people.

  13. For all I read, I think there is no evil or good - those are just instinctual and cultural mindsets, common to more than just our species, that can help us on the action to choose and act accordingly to the continuation of our life. Saying that a god is concerned about what we think as good or evil is saying that he is like us - not likely... As a rational being, anything other that what we see as good seems a pointless and meaningless destruction - we have all right to feel this way - that's who we are, how we feel, etc - but applying our feelings, moral and social concepts to the universe, judging a god according to it, at least for me is completely illogical, stupid and pointless. If I was a god I couldn't care less. I just had made the rules of a game that mankind and all living beings are forced to play and (perhaps) get something from it.

  14. Perhaps the elimination of evil is not in our best interest. God is privy to knowledge we know not of.

  15. Obviously evil and suffering are a result of free sinful choices of human beings. God gives us a free will and allows us to choose between good and evil.

  16. "...if you're an atheist, try asking yourself this: "Who am I to tell God how to run shit? Doesn't He probably know better than me how to accomplish His plan? And couldn't shit be way worse than it has been?""

    If you're an atheist, you don't believe in a God in the first place, so none of these questions make sense.

    That said, keep your posts coming! I am learning so much about philosophy thanks to you, bro!

  17. There are atheists who take the possibility of God much more seriously than that. I'm not trying to attack you or anything, just saying. I don't know how it would be possible to deny the existence of God without at least considering these types of questions.