Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Performing Contradictions and the Problem of Evil

[By Jeremy Pierce]

I've been teaching an introductory philosophy course this semester with a new text for my God unit, Thinking About God by Greg Ganssle. It's designed to be usable for high school or introductory college/university courses, and it's just about the lowest level of detail that I would want to use for this course. I'm supplementing it some with other readings also, but it's nice to spend a lot of time just in one book after using lots of scattered readings in past versions of the course.

One thing that I found really interesting was in the section on the logical problem of evil. The logical problem of evil presents three traditional attributes of God (omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness) and then seeks to derive a contradiction if you admit to the existence of evil (which pretty much all traditional theists will do, and thus it's a problem even if the person presenting the problem doesn't happen to believe in evil, because the theist does, and it's supposed to be a contradiction for theism). Now it so happens that hardly any philosopher today accepts the logical problem of evil as a good argument, for several reasons, but in the process of explaining why Ganssle hits on an interesting issue that I hadn't thought of before. One way some people have resisted theists' attempts to respond to the problem of evil might actually help the theist in surprising ways.

Responses to the logical problem of evil can involve explaining why a perfectly good, omniscient, omnipotent being would allow evil. For instance, free will is given as something important enough that God would want it, even if it means a fair amount of evil would be allowed. One kind of response to that (not taken seriously by most philosophers) is that if God is omnipotent then God should be able to give free will and also guarantee that people will freely do no evil. The standard response is that libertarian free will is incompatible with God guaranteeing what people will do, and God can't perform a contradiction, since contradictions are impossible. So God can't both give free will and guarantee what people will do, since guaranteeing what people will do violates free will. That would amount to performing a contradiction.

But isn't God omnipotent? Doesn't that mean God can do anything? The traditional answer is no. Rene Descartes is an extremely rare exception to the overwhelming consensus among theists that God cannot perform contradictions, because there is no such thing to be performed. Maybe you can define something called superomnipotence and then say that superomnipotent beings would be able to grant free will and then guarantee what people will do, but that's not the sort of thing theists hold to, because God is merely omnipotent. In fact, nothing could be superomnipotent anyway, and claiming that God is superomnipotent would already be claiming and impossibility.

What I found really interesting in Ganssle's discussion of this is that he thinks the superomnipotence objection to the problem of evil actually counts in the theist's behavior. What if the theist were to concede that God is superomnipotent? You might then think that God doesn't have a good reason for allowing evil anymore, since God could perform the contradiction to guarantee people's choices while maintaining their libertarian free will. But not so fast. Does God need a reason to allow evil if God is superomnipotent? Superomnipotence means God can perform contradictions. That means God can allow evil even if evil contradicts God's goodness, omnipotence, and omniscience. If you're going to allow contradictions with a superomnipotent being, then why is it at all problematic that God and evil contradict each other? This objection seems to fall flat if you allow God to be superomnipotent.

I had never considered that point before, and while I think Ganssle is right I do want to say one further thing. Once you allow contradictions, all logic goes out the window. Contradictions logically entail that every statement is true. So it's not going to be surprising if it turns out that the theist is not threatened anymore by the problem of evil, since every statement turns out to be true, including that one. But it's also going to be true that God is unjust and evil, since that's also going to be a statement, and every statement follows from contradictions. Once you allow contradictions you can prove that God doesn't exist just as much as you can prove that God is vindicated in allowing evil. In the end, I don't know if Ganssle's point establishes very much, since any statement follows as true once you allow contradictions. I do think it was an interesting observation, however. There's a reason hardly any philosopher has endorsed superomnipotence as a plausible interpretation of omnipotence. It's completely ridiculous to suppose that theists have ever meant that God can do something that makes God both exist and not exist, so omnipotence could never have meant that.

Cross-posted at Prosblogion and Parablemania


  1. Even Descartes is very ambiguous about it -- so much so that Descartes scholars are often puzzled about how strong his position should be.

  2. Very interesting. Although, I'm not sure if Ganssle's point holds true for non-Christian religions, especially Islam. Coincidentally, the Pope's now infamous speech deals indirectly with this subject. For if religion were rational as Benedict suggests, then an argument of superomnipotence might allow contradictions that blurr the line between rationality and irrationality, and hence the strength of one's religious convictions.

  3. "Once you allow contradictions, all logic goes out the window."

    What about paraconsistent logics? They can at least deal with rare contradictions (by avoiding explosion). Though if the superomnipotentist thinks that God can (and plausibly would) realize any contradiction whatsoever, then rational assessments would indeed seem to go out the window. But perhaps a constrained version of the thesis would work better (if not too ad hoc).

    Relating this to a previous discussion, I assume the theist would not consider God's existence to be compossible with any amount of evil and gratuitous suffering whatsoever. His "benevolence" would then be nothing but an empty title, with no real force to it. If superomnipotence commits one to degrading God in such a way, then I think the thesis is no friend of theism after all.

  4. How about a distinction of this sort: God is actually superomnipotent; his powers are such that he can make anything be the case. But he's always consistent in the exercise of his power so that he never brings about the truth of falsehoods or inconsistencies.

  5. Cirdan, It seems to become meaningless to label God as superomnipotent, yet say that he never acts in an inconsistent way. If it were true that God could make a square circle, yet never did this for the sake of remaining consistent, it would still pose the same logical problem of superomnipotence actually acted upon. Even the possibility of God being able to make a square circle is enough to land one in a contradiction. Whether he actually uses his superomnipotent powers is besides the point.

    In God, Freedom, and Evil Alvin Plantinga responds to J. L. Mackie's argument that the problem of evil disproves the existence of God. His argument is very similar to what this post has presented. I just wanted to note an illustration he gives:

    Imagine you are mountain climbing and a storm is coming. Two people are on the face of the cliff below, but you only have time to save one before the storm hits. Regardless of which person you choose, you are not morally to blame (assuming you consider the two people as having equal value). Plantinga says God's choice between allowing freewill (the person God choose to save) and a world with no evil (the person God did not choose to save) is similar to this situation. It is not logically possible to have both exist. By introducing possible worlds, Plantinga allows God to choose either world, but not both at the same time.

    An interesting question to ponder though is that most Christian Theist believe in heaven as well. Heaven is generally considered to be a place where their is no evil. What happen's to human freewill at this point? This seems to be a world where no evil exists, so is freewill removed? If so, is heaven considered to be a better of possible worlds?

  6. Bryan, that's a good consideration pointing toward why Christians should be compatibilists (as if the compatibilism assumed by the biblical authors were not enough), but there is something to say about this available to those who insist on being libertarians. It may be that knowing what evil is like will prevent those who actually make it to heaven from making the same mistake that brought all the evil in to begin with. I'm not sure how God could guarantee this with libertarian freedom at least if God has middle knowledge (i.e. knowledge of what free beings will do in certain circumstances). It seems as if God could know the circumstances when free beings would not freely choose evil and then actualize them. Perhaps that does require people knowing about past evil, and so it still might require some time of evil in this life. So I don't think the libertarian has no resources to answer that question. I don't know how to make sense of what grounds middle knowledge if God is temporal and humans have libertarian freedom, but those are problems independent of your question.

  7. A quibble; you say the claim that an omnipotent God should have been able to give people free will and still have prevented all evil is not taken seriously by most philosophers. The claim is advanced by J. L. Mackie, and while I haven't done a poll to find out how many philosophers agree with Mackie, I will confidently say that Mackie's views on philosophy of religion are taken seriously by most philosophers.

  8. Protagoras, Mackie's views on philosophy of religion are taken seriously, but one of his mature views was that his earlier view on the logical problem of evil turned out to be false. It's true that he had a paper defending the claim that theism and evil form a contradictory set of claims, but he rejected that argument in the face of Plantinga's free will defense. He conceded to Plantinga in The Miracle of Theism that the logical problem of evil fails, thus repudiating the main line of argument in his oft-reprinted article.

    William Rowe is probably the most important philosopher of religion in the atheist camp today, and he says the same thing. I believe David Lewis agreed in his famous problem of evil paper, but I haven't looked at that in a while. It's pretty much accepted by the most prominent atheists who work on the issue that the logical problem of evil fails. That's why all the focus has been on the evidential problem in more recent years.

  9. Protagoras, I have to agree with Jeremy that J. L. Mackie's argument has to be considered defeated by Plantinga's freewill defense presented in God, Freedom, and Evil.

    Jeremy, I have attempted to address some of the conflict in the middle knowledge of God and human libertarian freedom in a previous post on God and Time.

    You said that "It seems as if God could know the circumstances when free beings would not freely choose evil and then actualize them."

    The question that follows is: if this is possible, why did God not choose this in the beginning? It's an interesting concept that maybe the only way to complete a situation where humans would not choose evil requires human's to have knowledge of evil and its effects. There seems to be a possibility in this answering the stated question.

    Another possibility within Christian Theism is the absence of a tempter in Heaven. The fall of man and the resultant knowledge of good and evil are attributed to the temptation of Satan. One possibility maybe that humans in a state of innocence (before the fall, not the condition we are in now) are unable to originate evil, thus in a state of innocence in heaven a human would not be able to originate evil. Of course this answer to the question relies on more theological issues than some would desire.

  10. Bryan and Don, my point wasn't that there's no account of libertarian free will in heaven. My point is that such an account may concede something that makes libertarian free will unnecessary to begin with, and then we might as well be compatibilists to begin with. As someone who thinks compatibilism is a much better way to make sense of Christian theology and biblical statements, I'm not very tied to libertarian views on the problem of evil. The knowledge of evil issue is just as effective with comptibilist freedom as it is with libertarian freedom, since it doesn't rely on anything in the libertarian account. The requirement of an outside originating source of evil such as Satan seems also to me to require nothing in the libertarian view. If you concede that there's nothing important about having libertarian free will in heaven, it decreases the sense of its importance in this life.

    What I'm suggesting is that you might, as Augustine did, start to distance yourself from the Epicurean hardline and start accepting something more like the Stoic view on freedom. Augustine never made it all the way there, because he insisted on some principle of alternative possibilities (although maybe he believed that only about Adam and Eve), but he sounds like the Stoics often enough that you might not think he was confident that we really need libertarian freedom as we standardly conceive it. I think Aquinas was much closer to compatibilism than Augustine (with some inconsistencies with his semi-Pelagianism, but that never enters his philosophical views on the problem of evil or providence). I think it's exactly because the kinds of things they were drawn to in answering problems like this one were particularly irrelevant to the libertarian/compatibilist issue that enabled them to say things that put some distance between their views and libertarian accounts of freedom.

  11. Don, Jr., would you also state your point as, "A person may have freewill to choose to give up freewill"?

  12. I'm a compatibilist, so I don't think there's much importance to having libertarian free will in heaven. I do think it's worthwhile showing problems with a false view, and one problem with libertarianism has to do with the heaven issue. It's not really relevant to the problem of evil, of course, and if that's all you mean then I agree.

    But someone raised the question, and I think the issues are worth exploring in general. I think it's fun to think through which positions can be maintained consistently, and it's sometimes worth doing so for reasons other than fun (e.g. if it can end up showing that the motivation for a position I disagree with gets lost once you say some other things).

    I'm not sure I see any equivocation. As far as I can tell, I'm using terminology consistently. Is there some particular term that you think I'm equivocating on?


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