Wednesday, November 19, 2003
A post on the problem of evil
I've had very little exposure to philosophy of religion, but I have encountered a rather standard argument against the existence of a certain type of God. Here is the argument from the problem of evil: Suppose there is a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. Such a God would want to create the best possible world -- and because he is omnipotent, he therefore would create the best possible world. But the real world is not the best possible world -- people suffer, there are natural disasters, etc. Therefore, there is no God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. Felicia Nimue Ackerman suggested a fascinating response to this argument in class today (i.e. yesterday, i.e. Wednesday). She said it's not original to her, but didn't know to whom it was. Maybe I'll look it up tomorrow. I'm curious, because it's really quite brilliant. Anyway, the argument: We need to be clear what it means to be omnipotent. The standard gloss of "able to do anything" is problematic -- it's reasonable to restrict it to "able to do anything that is logically possible." (This suggests an answer to the famous quip, "could God create a stone so heavy that even he couldn't lift it?" No, because such a thing is logically impossible.) I think this move is fairly universally agreed to. But now, consider this claim: Necessarily, there is no best possible world. It seems true to me. After all, given any possible world, we could make it better, perhaps by increasing the happiness of one person in it, or by adding a new perfectly happy person. But now, God has an excuse for the problem of evil: the reason he didn't create the best possible world is that to do so would be logically impossible! Something feels fishy, but I can't figure out what it is. I want to say, "well, fine, God, so you couldn't have made it the best possible world, but why didn't you at least make the world better?" But of course, I could say that in any possible world (assuming of course that I'm in it, and can talk). Can God really get off the hook that easily? This feels like a really devious, sneaky argument, but I can't see anything wrong with it. (Interestingly, it intellectually feels to me a lot like St. Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God. Apparently, some theologians are very clever.) UPDATE: thanks to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I learn that this response has been advocated particularly by George Schlesinger and Peter Forrest. There's actually a fascinating discussion there, with troublesome implications for consequentialists like me. Check it out.