Follow up to: TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 3: Evil
Theodices are answers to the question “Why does an all-good God allow suffering?” This question is commonly called The Problem of Evil.
Awhile ago, I was in a debate with Cl about the Problem of Evil. I wrote a lot about the Problem of Evil in that debate, which eventually led to my current views on the Problem of Evil, seen in TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 3: Evil and TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 4: Skeptical Theism.
I now advocate for what I call the “Almost Problem of Evil”, which goes like this:
P1: The only sufficient reasons for an entity to allow suffering are either (1) that entity was not capable of preventing the suffering and/or (2) preventing that suffering would cause the same amount or greater suffering to result (a higher good).
P2: We cannot know whether God is omnibenevolent unless we know that he has sufficient reasons to allow suffering.
P3: God is capable of doing everything that is logically possible.
P4: For every instance of suffering, it’s prevention is logically possible (even though that prevention might just cause more suffering).
C5: Therefore from P1-5, the only sufficient reason for God to allow suffering is that the prevention of that suffering would cause the same amount or greater suffering to result.
P6: Either (a) we do not have enough information to know what God’s reasons are, (b) the existence of suffering is enough evidence to infer God has no reasons, or (c) a theodicy exists which can allow us to infer God does have sufficient reasons.
P7: If we do not have enough information to know what God’s reasons are (skeptical theism), we cannot know whether or not God has sufficient reasons to allow suffering.
P8: No such theodicy exists that would allow us to infer that God has sufficient reasons to allow suffering.
C9: Therefore from C5 and P6-8, we cannot know whether God is omnibenevolent.
P10: If we cannot know whether God is omnibenevolent, all knowably omnibenevolent gods do not exist.
C11: Therefore from C9 and P10, all knowably omnibenevolent gods do not exist.
I’ve defended the bulk of the argument in the essays it came from. But I wanted to draw upon my debate with Cl to further defend P8, that there are no theodicies. The only way I can think of doing this is just by providing counterarguments to every theodicy suggested. Here is my complete list so far, last updated June 26, 2012:
Theodicy #1: “Free Will”
The idea that suffering is necessary for Free Will is one of the most famous defenses against the Problem of Evil. However…
- The Free Will Defense fails because only a compatibilist theory of free will makes sense – God could have easily created people that had genuine free choice yet never chose rephrensible actions, as this is often the kind of free will that God seems to have himself, or the kind of free will of people residing in Heaven.
- Even if compatibilism isn’t true, it’s still clear that there are genetic, environmental, and sociological causes for our actions. The existence of psycopathy, irrationality, and bias present problems for our free will.
- There is no issue of free will in suffering that has nothing to do with humans, such as that of nonhuman animals in the wild or babies with birth defects.
- There are cases of “moral evil” where we would recognize someone’s intervention as necessary, not a violation of free will. Consider how police officers don’t violate our free will by ensuring that rapists are arrested.
Theodicy #2: “Punishment of Sin”
Second, another very commonly given reason that suffering is necessary is because God needs to use it to punish sin, and sin must be punished in order for there to be less of it, and less sin is a higher benefit.
- Nonhuman animals don’t have original sin, let alone can make moral decisions capable of being sensibly punished.
- Babies with original sin don’t need to be punished for the original sin because they have not made any conscious choice to reject God or act malevolently.
- Given how uncorrelated sinful behavior is with suffering, this theodicy is highly implausible. Those who suffered through the Bubonic Plague were not especially more sinful than those today who have the advantages of modern medicine.
Theodicy #3: “Need for Natural Law”
Third and even more generally, yet another theodicy says that birth defects and the suffering of nonhuman animals at the hands of natural disasters is necessary to have the kind of consistent physics needed for our world.
- There’s no reason why an omnipotent God couldn’t make a different world that has consistent physics yet does not contain these examples, or why he couldn’t just maintain such a world with divine will.
- None of the examples I mentioned are remotely fundamental to physics – the world could still operate just fine without the Bubonic Plague, birth defects, and/or nonhuman animal suffering.
Theodicy #4: “Drawing Closer to God” / “Lessons Learned” / “Building Virtue”
Fourth, a very common theodicy is referred to as soul-making, which has typically been three different things – God using suffering to draw people closer to him, using suffering to teach lessons, or using suffering to build people’s character.
- All three of these seemingly different defenses can be defeated in the same way – God could have instilled any of these lessons, love for God, or character from birth.
- Given that God knows all lessons, has infinite love for himself, and is of perfect virtue, yet has not suffered, there is no reason to think that suffering is logically necessary for these three things.
- None of these elements of soul-making are at all relevant to nonhuman animals or those who die too young, since they are incapable of any of these three things.
Theodicy #5: “The Need for Genuine Human Accomplishment”
Fifth, it is argued that suffering is necessary to give humans things to do that make a meaningful impact, and nothing is more meaningful than alleviating the suffering of others.
- This response fails because God could have made something meaningful instead that did not involve suffering – given that our purpose and drive for meaning is allegedly God-given in the first place.
- All of the examples I mentioned are so structural and complicated that humanity has no hope of solving these problems for thousands of years – removing the suffering of nonhuman animals and removing birth defects would require an unfathomable amount of re-engineering biology.
- We often don’t have even the slightest chance of ameliorating the suffering, even if the issue is complicated. In the 14th century, humans were tasked with stopping the bubonic plague – not only did they have very little medical resources and containment plans, they lacked a germ theory of disease altogether.
- Unless Heaven is undesirable, there still should be genuine human accomplishment there, despite there being no needless suffering.
Theodicy #6: “The Benefits of Heaven”
Sixth and last, it is suggested that all this suffering is inconsequential because all will be corrected in Heaven. (I argue against this theodicy at length in “Heaven, Coddling Gods, and Other Theodicies”)
- This is controversial, because it is undecided theologically whether babies who die from birth defects or nonhuman animals actually go to Heaven.
- Heaven does not make the suffering any more needless now even if Heaven is compensation, because Heaven could still be given without the suffering. It’s the equivalent of punching someone in the face and then giving them a million dollars.
- There is large disagreement on what the Bible says about how to get in Heaven, and many of these interpretations have particularly unfair entry requirements, requiring things like baptism and faith rather than good intentions.
- We also have nothing (except faith in the Bible) to show that Heaven actually exists or it balances out suffering the way theists say it does.
Now, I have certainly not addressed every potential benefit that might be argued for suffering in general, or for these particular instances (nonhuman animal suffering and birth defects of babies). However, if you have a different theodicy in mind, comment here, I’d be happy to consider it and add it to this list (or admit defeat!).
Followed up in: Comments on Letters From a Skeptic, 2: Evil
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