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July 24, 2017 | by  | in Philosoraptor |
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In what will come as a surprise to no one, it turns out that the concept of evil is pretty problematic — in more ways than one. The aptly-named “Problem of Evil”, originally formulated by the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, remains one of the most famous objections to the existence of a benevolent God.

The core of the argument consists in the observation that there’s a lot of unnecessary suffering, death, and Star Wars prequels in the world, and that an omnipotent and loving God shouldn’t allow those things to exist. There are many different formulations of the problem, from logical arguments to evidential ones, but for the purpose of this column we only need to consider the basic idea that the presence of evil indicates that no benevolent God exists.

There are numerous objections to the Problem of Evil. One is the “free will defence,” advanced most recently by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who argues along the following lines:

  1. The creation of creatures with morally significant free will is more important than creating a world without suffering.
  2. Free will is only morally significant if we are free to do immoral things.
  3. Therefore, a benevolent God would give humans morally significant free will, but since some humans would use this free will to commit immoral actions, evil would still exist.
  4. Therefore, the existence of evil is compatible with the existence of a benevolent God.

There are a couple of immediate surface-level responses to this argument. It can’t explain the existence of evils which are not human made — for example, natural disasters. And it doesn’t seem that free will is more morally important than the prevention of evil — for example, we ought to restrain Bob from torturing Joe, even though that stifles Bob’s morally significant free will.

But a more substantive response comes from the Australian philosopher John Mackie. Mackie notes that it is possible for a human with morally significant free will to nevertheless always freely choose to act morally. Given this, there is nothing logically impossible about a world full of humans with morally significant free will who always use their free will to act morally — that is to say, a world with morally significant free will but no evil. An omnipotent being should be able to create any world that is not logically impossible, so even an omnipotent God who valued free will would not create a world with evil in it.

This is a strong response, though Plantinga argues that Mackie is mistaken. There is no room in this column to dive fully into the dispute between the two philosophers, so instead it should be noted that there are many other ingenious defences against the Problem of Evil. One such defence basically embraces multiverse theory, and says that a benevolent God would create all possible net-good universes. In that case, evil exists because we unluckily ended up in one of the less perfect ones.

But suppose God had already created a perfect universe. Why would God create our universe, instead of just creating another perfect universe? The answer to that hinges on the difficult metaphysical question of whether the second perfect universe, which is identical in all respects to the first perfect universe, would be the same universe. If it was the same universe, then creating it wouldn’t do any good, and God ought to create our world instead. Yet the metaphysical question is still up in the air.

The Problem of Evil exemplifies the timeless nature of philosophy. It’s a question that was first posed thousands of years ago, yet it continues to puzzle theologians, philosophers, and ordinary people alike. It remains to be seen whether it’s a decisive refutation of the existence of God.

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