Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Problem of Evil

This is a paper I wrote for class. So if it reads like a school paper, you'll know why.

The problem of evil in philosophical and theological circles is the logical conundrum surrounding the facts of our universe and the attempts to correspond them with the hypothesized existence of God. God is considered by many theologians and billions of believers to be a perfect being. He is omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent which means that He is all knowing, all-powerful and only wants the best for all inhabitants of the universe. If this being were to create a universe we would expect it to be perfect as a perfect creator ought to make perfect creations. We would expect to see a world full of wonder and light, a veritable paradise for all the denizens who lived there.

However, this is a far cry from the world which we live in. We see murderers and rapists on the news each night at six. We see nations at war. We see tsunamis and earthquakes killing hundreds of thousands of people. We see infants born without legs, without faces, some without hope of living out the week. We see a world of nature where each animal must kill the other to survive. We see evil things everywhere we look. How can a perfect creator make such an imperfect mess? That is the Problem of Evil.

It is a famous problem and was put succinctly by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"

The most convincing response for the typical theist to this issue was the one proposed by John Hick, a contemporary Christian theologian and philosopher. While not the most original, he argued that the traditional theistic God has other interests besides the simple pleasure of mankind. The universe was not made for our pleasure but for the higher purpose of what he called "soul-making."

The first thing that Hick argues to explain the evil actions of men is the aspect of free will which each human being has. Every person chooses through his own power whether to do good or bad. Good choices merit "soul-making" while bad choices do not. This higher goal of "soul-making" has the necessary logical cost of free will and subsequently must allow some poor choices to be made. Were God to make a "perfect" world where free will did not exist and everyone was compelled to act well, choices and acts would be valueless as they would all be mere pulls of the strings by God. The individual could get no credit and no souls would be made.

Hick also explains natural evils, which are those disasters from nature, by saying that a soul is also "made" by individuals through their free will to emerge valiantly from suffering and overcome difficulties. Like moral character, a soul is not just given, it needs to be built. God allows natural evils so that the moral qualities of character can be built through performing actions of kindness, generosity, courage, and so on. However, in a "perfect" world without any suffering none of these actions can possibly be made. Who can one be generous to if nobody wants or needs a thing?

Evil exists so that people will have opportunities to use their free will to choose to do good. Giving charity to those less fortunate is a "soul-making" exercise but would be impossible to do in a world of paradise because there could not be any poor people who would need aid. So people grapple with the difficulties of this world in order for them to be rewarded in the afterlife as they earn eternal life in heaven.

There are, of course, difficulties with this response of Hick’s as there are with all theodicies. One major point has to do with the fact of the amount of evil which we see in the world. If evil is necessary for character growth then why does there seem to be so much evil in excess compared to what any person would need to grow through. Not enough "soul-making" could have been made if thirty thousand people perished from the tsunami rather than the actual number many times that?

Another major point is that there are some cases of suffering where no growth at all is made. An unknown drifter gets lost in the woods and starves to death. Nobody knows he’s missing and nobody even goes looking for him or cares that he’s lost. Nobody’s character was built by this episode. No soul was "made." For what then is the reason behind such apparently gratuitous evil?

Besides instances of zero growth, what about those instances of negative growth? A person might take advantage of a starving person by making them buy food at an inflated price. Who’s soul was "made" in such a scenario? Such suffering appears to be incapable of being lined up with the "soul-making" evil of Hick.

There are also objections to Hick’s claim that free will must also have the necessary consequence that some individuals will use it for evil. Hick agrees that God fits the traditional properties of omniscience, omnipotence and omni-benevolence. Focusing on the attribute of omniscience for a moment, it is taken to mean that God knows everything that has, is and will be. As such, it would make sense to say that before any individual is created by God and put on Earth, God already knows if the person will act good or bad. Assuming that such knowledge does not preclude free will itself (which is an argument in it of itself) could not God simply opt not to put the bad choosers on Earth? God maintains free will but only creates those who would choose well. These good choosers are not puppets nor are they compelled to be good. Being good is just the way they chose, using their own free will, to be. Removing bad choosers from the equation should not negate the free will of the good choosers.

Yet, besides all of these valid objections, there remains a major fundamental objection to his argument. In order for Hick to explain evil he must then hypothesize all sorts of other unproven concepts. Not only must God exist, but humans must have free will. Not only must God exist and human have free will but humans must also have souls. Not only must God exist and human have souls but those souls must also have the capacity for eternal life. Not only must God, human souls, and the afterlife exist, but God must also have a special interest and a master plan for these human souls for eternal life for which he planned and constructed the universe for and so on.

All these additional unsubstantiated actors lead to a more complex problem than we started with. If we were to appeal to Occam’s razor, it would surely cut down such increased entities. In order for Hick to explain how God’s existence is coherent with our imperfect world, he must speculate about the existence of all these other factors which are just as, if not more so, unproven than God.

However, despite all these difficulties, as far as the typical theist is concerned they can all be easily laid aside. The traditional theist comes into the issue with a set of assumed beliefs about the world. Of course God has a master plan, of course people have eternal souls, etc. For the traditional theist, Hick’s argument is simply the logical conclusion of what their chosen religion already explicates. Perhaps for the skeptic the whole "soul-making" master plan is hard to swallow, but just the opposite for the traditional theist.

Essentially it is for this reason, and this reason alone, for why Hick’s arguments are so often used by traditional theists to bolster their beliefs of the world. The argument itself is wholly speculative but when faith comes into play that is often swept under the rug. Independent sources of evidence are not necessary, just as long as the world view itself is more or less internally consistent.

No comments: