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Preliminary Notes on the Various Problems of Evil

by Francois Tremblay



Being the most well-known strong-atheistic argument, the Problem of Evil (PoE, also called the Argument from Evil) has received a great deal of attention, a lot more attention than it deserves. Some theologians even state that it is the ONLY strong-atheistic argument in existence. Given the great diversity of such arguments – as our Atheology section testifies – such an evaluation is foolish at best. But the fact remains that the PoE is very simple, very direct, and very effective as a tool of evangelization, and that therefore it is of prime importance to at least talk about it on this site.

Even though I do not intend to discuss any specific argument from evil in this article, I wanted to write some preliminary notes on the topic. There are a couple of points that seem, to me, to be vital to any discussion on PoEs, and yet which are rarely treated at all. I also wish to present a simplified version of the PoE that can be used as a direct and uncomplicated strong-atheistic argument. I will also give formulations of the PoE variants listed on this site.

It is my personal opinion that the logical PoE, as it is usually formulated, is unnecessarily complex and burdened for the use of most people. It also introduces many misdirections in the discussion. To explain what I mean, let me give you a common formulation of the logical PoE, using a general form “god”:

  1. If a god exists, then it is omnipotent (i.e., all-powerful).
  2. If a god exists, then it is omniscient (i.e., all-knowing).
  3. If a god exists, then it is perfectly good.
  4. If a god is omnipotent, it would be able to prevent all of the evil and suffering in the world.
  5. If a god is omniscient, it would know about all of the evil and suffering in the world and would know how to eliminate or prevent it.
  6. If a god is perfectly good, it would want to prevent all of the evil and suffering in the world.
  7. If a god would be able to prevent evil, would know about its existence, and would want to prevent it, then no evil would exist. (from 1 to 6)
  8. If a god exists, then no natural or human evil would exist. (from 7)
  9. Natural and human evil exists.
  1. No god exists. (from 8 and 9)

    Now this argument is logically valid. However, its complexity opens it to many apparent problems, such as the possibility of an overriding reason for a god to create evil – theodicies. For instance, many theists argue that first-order evils are necessary for some second-order goods to exist.

    Such theodicies invariably fail, but the usual formulation hides that fact behind a lot of verbiage. Furthermore, it uses terms such as the omnis, and good/evil, which may be considered ambiguous to some extent. Drange, in Nonbelief and Evil, may be doing the right thing when he restricts his use of the PoE to more objective things like suffering. Nevertheless, evil can still be defined objectively using scientific and common sense standards. Either way the argument can be expressed objectively without too much problem.

    To a certain extent, when we say that God should not create EVIL, we mean EVIL from the Christian or theistic standpoint, not our own standard of evil. Of course, if a Christian or theist calls mass murder good, for instance, because God willed it, then we have to end the argument by deeming our opponent irreparably morally corrupt. So there are limits to which we accommodate the Christian or theist’s conception of good and evil. There is a limit to which we should be accommodating to the theist’s moral flaws, since there is no point in debating with an insane person.

    Now, there are four considerations that I think we should introduce in the argument.

    The first is that a god, being unlimited, cannot have any needs, limits, or emotional desires. This being the case, it has absolutely no incentive to do anythign, and by consequence no moral terms can apply to such a being, since morality is the study of optimal or proper action. For a god there is no such thing as an optimal action. I call this the Amoral God Paradox. It is a paradox because the more metaphysical power a being has, the least it can desire or need to use it.

    In the view of the Paradox, most Problems of Evil become irrelevant, but this comes at a heavy price. If moral terms no longer apply to “god”, then we cannot speak of a moral god being altogether. It cannot be the case that a god is moral at all, which presents fatal problems for the theistic view.

    Further use of the Problems of Evil, of course, assume that we can make sense of moral terms as regards to a god, or at least to its actions as they apply to human beings.

    The second is that any discussion of maximization of good, or maximization of moral value, is completely irrelevant to the argument. PoE does not, or should not, rest on the idea that the universe is not “the best universe possible”, but rather that the universe is “perfect”. As Everitt states in his short but excellent discussion of this issue (in The Non-Existence of God, pages 243 to 244):

    The question we need to raise is whether the theist can consistently say either that the change from cosmos 1 [before Creation] to cosmos 2 [after Creation] was a change for the better, or that it was for the worse.

    The change cannot have been for the better. For since God is by definition fully and infinitely perfect in every respect, and the cosmos initially consisted only of God, the cosmos could not have been improved from its initial state...

    Nor can the change have been for the worst. Again God’s perfection surely blocks a ‘Yes’ answer. For suppose that the answer were ‘Yes’. That would be to imagine God comparing the two possible cosmoses (one consisting only of him, the other of him and the world), recognising (since he is omniscient) that the latter is worse than the former, and freely choosing what he knows to be the worse option. That would surely be incompatible with his divine perfection.

    I further interpret this as meaning that the universe is not without flaw, instead of not containing all potentialities. This makes PoE more restricted in its aim, but also makes it a lot simpler and direct. Thus no theologican can accuse me of accusing his god of trivialities (i.e. wanting infinite amounts of free ice cream because it is “good”). We are talking here about suffering, in many cases gratuitous suffering, such as war, famine, pestilence, earthquakes and hurricanes, crime, etc. The argument does not demand more potentialities but rather an absence of moral flaw or suffering.

    Technical discussions of the Problem of Evil usually get into issues such as first-order goods and evils, second-order goods and evil, and so on. To the simple formulation that an omnibenevolent being would not allow evil to exist, it is widely acknowledged that the following is a valid response :

    (1) There is a morally justifying reason for God to permit evil it could prevent, insofar as that evil is necessary for some higher good.
    (all non-ontological theodicies take this form)

    More succinctly :

    (2) There is no gratuitous evil.

    Which is to say :

    (3) There is no first-order evil that does not cause a second-order good.

    And then the atheologian and the theologian argue on whether (3) is actually true or not, and whatever reason there might be for this or that evil to exist.

    Well, there is plenty of reason to think that (3) is false. And the evidential argument from evil, based on gratuitous evils, is a powerful one. We see easily and intuitively that a human being who commits gratuitous evil is immoral.

    But the fact is, “God” is not a human being. So there is an inherent problem with posing the PoE as revolving around (3). The relation between first-order evils (say, the suffering caused by a visit to the dentist) and second-order goods (say, better teeth) is a relation of CAUSALITY. The first caused the second, according to natural law.

    But if we assume that God exists, then there is no natural law, only divine fiat. Therefore (3) automatically fails in the case of theism. The whole notion of what a gratuitous evil is, is based on the assumption of naturalism. But that obviously cannot obtain if we assume that God exists ! Therefore we cannot portray the PoE as revolving around (3), since God is morally responsible for causality just as much as it is for evil events.

    All non-ontological theodicies also fall to the same problem, in that they assume naturalism and its causes hold. The free will theodicy assumes that the nature of the human will is a given. But to God it cannot be a given !

    The Problem of Evil is not a Problem of Unjustifiable Evils. It doesn’t matter if we can justify the evils or not. We are not the moral agent under question here : we are not God. Our naturalism-based evaluation of the evils has no bearing on the PoE.

    The existence of evil alone is sufficient for PoE. The fact that the Christian can evaluate something as evil alone is sufficient to destroy theism. This is in fact similar to the Moral Argument from Evil, which argues from the Christian recognition of evil and desire to change events that Christians do not really believe in God. But the PoE is a statement of fact, and does not proceed from people’s beliefs or lack thereof.

    I do not see that it is necessary for the argument to posit that God or any god is perfect. Even without that premise, we are still faced with a basic fact, which constitutes my second point:

  2. The pivotal event considered by the PoE is not a god’s recognition of evil but a god’s creative act.
  1. Given that creative act, a god has three options: creating nothing, creating a perfect universe, creating a non-perfect universe.

    Always noting that I am using “perfect” here in the more restricted sense of flawless, and not the greater sense of containing all potentiality. It is quite possible for us to imagine (or even make) simple things that have no flaws given the possibilities at their creation, but not to make things that contain all potentialities. So the sense in which I use “perfect” is much less controversial – indeed, I contend, not controversial at all, and I am sure Everitt would agree.

    The final point is that all theodicies must necessarily fail, because they all deny a god’s creative powers. I will come back to this.

    Given all that I have discussed, I would like to humbly propose a simplistic PoE that resolves these problems. It should be something like this:

  2. If a god exists, then it is Creator.
  3. If a god exists, then it is morally righteous.
  4. Given (1) and (2), a god would not have created a non-perfect universe.
  5. If a god did not create a non-perfect universe, we should not observe natural or human evil/suffering.
  6. We observe natural and human evil/suffering.
  1. No god exists. (from 3, 4 and 5)

    If a name is necessary for this variant, I would call it the Problem of Evil from the Creative Act, or something related to the fact that it specifically argues from a god’s creative action.

    While the argument is simple, there are still a couple of points I need to make explicit, specifically premise 2 and deduction 4. Deduction 4 is easy to unpack. If a god does not create a non-perfect universe, then he either creates a perfect universe or no universe at all. Either way, we should not observe any evil: if there is no universe, we should not observe anything at all, since we would not exist.

    Premise 2 is a little more vague. What exactly do I mean by “morally righteous”? I mean this simply to be a looser condition than omnibenevolence. Here is a condition I would place as necessary for moral righteousness:

    Posit a volitional being X. When making a choice where there is at least one perfect alternative and the cost of the implementation of all alternatives are identical (or in the case of a god, where the cost is automatically zero), X will choose a perfect alternative if X is morally righteous.

    Or:

    Posit a being X’s choice function at the time of Creation D(Creation), a cost function C(x), a being an alternative and ap being a perfect alternative. For X to be morally righteous, it must be the case that:

    • If C(a)=0 for all a, then D(Creation)=ap.
  • If C(ap)<=C(a) for all a and some ap, then D(Creation)=ap.

    If a god must be infinitely powerful, then all C(a) must equal 0 by definition, and that is sufficient for our purposes. But even if, for some reason, we defined a god as finitely powerful, there is still strong intuitive reason to posit that C(a)~C(ap): according to Big Bang theory, for instance, all possible states could have arisen from a very small point of matter. But more importantly, to argue that a god could not bring about C(ap)<=C(a) falls into the same fallacy as the theodicies, fallacy which we will see in a moment.

    Anyway, I think this definition is pretty uncontroversial. Let me give you a simple example. Posit that you have resolved to buy an ice cream cone. All the flavours are available at equal price. This would qualify as a situation where all alternatives have equal cost. Suppose that you choose a flavour that makes you violently ill, such as ipecac. Unless you are a masochist and enjoy inflicting yourself pain, your choice of the ipecac ice cream was very stupid, and morally unrighteous following my definition.

    Note that I am not claiming that a god would always make a perfect choice in all instances, let alone a choice which maximizes anything. I am setting a type of situation, of which divine creation is an instance, where everyone would agree on what the morally righteous choice would be. Even if a hypothetical god was not morally perfect, it should still have no problem making a perfect universe in such a situation. If it does not, we can rightly call such a being evil, and leave the purview of traditional theism.

    I have stated many times that all theodicies should be rejected out of hand because of a fundamental fallacy. My emphasis on the creative act sheds some light on this issue also. Consider:

    Posit a theodicy T where an excuse E (free will, ontological causality, second-order goods, testing character, etc) is presented for the existence of various evils.

    1. If T is true, then a god created the universe with various evils because of E.
    2. If a god is Creator, then it could have brought about any state of the universe, including one where E exists without evil, or no state of the universe at all.
  1. T cannot be true. (from 1 and 2)

    The only way to refute this argument would be to justify why E is logically necessary, which is impossible. For there can be no case where E must exist, since a god could have not created the universe at all. Furthermore, a god’s divine creation precludes the possibility of such an E, given that a god may create things differently, or rig natural law in any way it desires, or intervene in subsequent events (all of these are functionally equivalent). Let me point our various theodicies and how this applies:

    Free will theodicy: A god could have created free will so that it can only effect good actions, or made it so that evil intentions are never actualized. Furthermore, there is no credible reason to consider free will valuable in itself either (for an excellent discussion of this point, see Everitt p247). Finally, it omits natural evils.

    Ontological causality: This theodicy is simply incorrect, since good could exist without evil. There is no problem with properties taking unique values: we already have many such examples, such as “material”. Furthermore, evil is not a negative term in the ontological sense, making the objection irrelevant.

    Soul-building/Second-order goods: A god could have created human beings possessing second-order goods, without needing first-order evils to bring them about. A god would not be bound by human psychology.

    Original sin/Warning: A god could have created humans with an inherent sense of the existence of the divine, or at least a divine sense (presuppositionalists state that we have such a sense, but all the evidence goes against it).

    Testing character: Being omniscient, a god could know in advance how a person would live his life. But more importantly, and in line with our other objections, a god could simply create beings for which the outcome of the test is already known, or even being that will always fulfill the test.

    Unknown purposes/”divine plan”: There can be no unknown purposes for evil unless we concede that God is not Creator or morally righteous. Furthermore, the unknown purposes theodicy is extremely vulnerable to the Argument from Divine Hiddenness.

    As such, any theodicy is self-refuting since it presumes that its god is limited. All other theodicy you encounter may be easily refuted under the same lines.

    Another error that even prominent theologians fall into, is to characterize the PoE as a Problem of Not Enough Good. They think that we’re whining because we don’t get the ice cream we want. No, a frustrated desire is not “evil”. Only actions are good or evil. It is not “evil” for people to have unfulfilled desires. To try to compare the PoE, which is supported by universally reviled events such as earthquakes and tsunamis, the Holocaust, deadly viruses, or the suffering of a child, to not getting ice cream or not being President, is disingenuous and downright slanderous.

    To end this article, let me give formulations of all the PoE variants on this site, for easy consultation, in strong-atheistic form whether possible. I am not the originator of these arguments – if you have any questions about them, I would invite you to consult the links for each of them on the Atheology page.

    Logical Problem of Evil
    (also see above)

  2. Natural and human evil exists.
  3. Natural and human evil is incompatible with the existence of a god (omnipotent, omniscient, all-good being).
  1. Therefore, no god exists.

    Evidential Problem of Evil

  2. Gratuitous evils probably exist.
  3. Gratuitous evils are incompatible with the existence of a god (omnipotent, omniscient, all-good).
  1. Therefore, probably no god exists.

    Argument from Evil Natural Laws

  2. A god is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
  3. If a god exists, then there exist no instances of an ultimately evil natural law.
  4. It is probable that the law of predation is ultimately evil.
  5. It is probable that there exist instances of the law of predation.
  1. Therefore, it is probable that a god does not exist.

    Moral Argument from Evil

  2. The most rational theists know (i.e., have a justified, true belief) that God exists.
  3. If a god exists, then there is objective justification for every actual instance of evil, justification that will occur even if no onlooker intervenes to stop or prevent that evil.
    1. For any possible world W, if a god exists in W, then every instance of evil in W is objectively justified.
    1. If a god exists, then there is objective justification for any actual instance of evil, including those evils for which there is a human onlooker.
  4. Some members of the class of most rational theists (as I have defined that class) are theists who know (2).
  5. Some of the most rational theists (namely, those who know 2) know that there is objective justification for any actual instance of evil, justification that will occur even if no onlooker intervenes to stop or prevent that evil.
  6. If human person P knows that there is objective justification for evil E, and that this justification will occur even if P does not intervene to stop or prevent E, then P is morally justified in allowing E to occur.
  7. Some of the most rational theists (namely, those who know 2) are morally justified in allowing any actual evil to occur. (from 4 and 5)
  8. If the most rational theists know that a god exists, then some of those theists (namely, those who know 2) are morally justified in allowing any evil to occur. (from 1 to 6)
  9. Even the most rational theists (including those who know 2) are not morally justified in allowing just any evil to occur.
  10. Even the most rational theists do not know that a god exists. (from 7 and 8)
  11. If the most rational theists do not know that a god exists, then no theist knows that a god exists.
  12. No theist knows that a god exists. (from 9 and 10)
  13. For any given theist, that theist’s belief that a god exists is either false or unjustified.
  14. If a god exists, then some theists are justified in believing that a god exists.
  15. If a god exists, then no theist has a false belief that a god exists.
  16. If a god exists, then some theists know (i.e., have a justified, true belief) that God exists. (from 13 and 14)
  17. It is not the case that some theists know (i.e., have a justified and true belief) that a god exists. (from 12)
  1. No god exists. (from 15 and 16)

    Inductive Argument from Evil

  2. In terms of our experience, most seeming errors or mistakes in the kinds of created entities we have so far examined are the result of the fallibility of one or more creators of the entities. [Empirical evidence]
  3. The universe is a created entity. [Supposition]
    1. If the universe is a created entity, then it is an entity of a kind we have so far examined, with seeming errors or mistakes. [Empirical evidence] [Probably]
  4. The seeming errors or mistakes in the universe are probably the result of the actions of a fallible being or beings. [From (1), (2), and (2a) by predictive inference]
  5. If a god exists, then the seeming errors or mistakes in the universe are the results of the actions of a being who is infallible. [Analytic truth]
  1. Therefore probably no god exists. [From (3) and (4) by modus tollens]

    Argument from the Biological Role of Pain and Pleasure

  2. Consider the following observations:
    1. Moral agents experiencing pain or pleasure we know to be biologically useful.
    2. Sentient beings that are not moral agents experiencing pain or pleasure that we know to be biologically useful.
    1. Sentient beings experiencing pain or pleasure that we do not know to be biologically useful.
  3. On the whole, a, b and c are more probably the result of natural law than a god.
  1. Therefore probably no god exists.

Last updated: October 12, 2004