The problem of evil

In the course of this paper, I will try to solve the problem of evil. Specifically, I will address one of the "Further Questions" at the end of Robert Merrihew Adams's article, Must God Create the Best on page 327 of our textbook, The Experience of Philosophy. The question is this:

The problem of evil is often stated in some way such as this: If there were an all-powerful being, then that being could prevent evil. If there were a being who was perfectly good, that being would prevent evil if that being could. Evil exists. Therefore, no being is all-powerful and perfectly good. Has Adams answered this argument? Explain.

I will also be using Stephen M. Cahn's essay, titled Cacodaemony, as a source. It uses this structure as an argument, which is formally equivalent to the problem of evil I am examining:

p⊃~q If an omnipotent, omniscient, omnimalevolent Demon exists, then there would be no goodness in the world.
q But there is goodness in the world.
∴~p Therefore, the Demon does not exist.

In this argument, the question really at stake is not whether or not said Demon exists, because that is taken as a given (i.e., an axiom of the system). But the argument as stated is valid - given the two premises, the conclusion must be true. Since we know the conclusion is false, there must be a problem with one of the two premises.

Cahn is right in claiming that attacking the second premise won't work. Claiming there is no good in the world, or no evil, is simply redefining the meaning of accepted words to get around the problem of having to deal with the issue. Especially from the position of the nonexistence of evil, if God is perfect and good, and thus nothing of His creation can be evil, where do we get off saying that murder is evil? Or simply wrong, for that matter? It's all part of God's perfect plan. Clearly, even if there's no such thing as evil, because everything is good, for the sake of our continued health, comfort, and existence, there is a benefit to looking at the state of the world as if there is a such thing as evil. As well, if murder is good, our idea of an all-good God will have to be radically changed.

Therefore, the problem must lie with the supposition - that is, the fact that there is goodness in the world must not be incompatible with the existence of the Demon: likewise, evil in the world must not be incompatible with the existence of God. This is the premise that I will focus on in the course of this essay, because, as I have already shown that the second can't be argued and the conclusion, according to the system we're using, is patently false. The question at stake, then, is whether or not we can reconcile the traditional idea of God - that is, a God who is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-good - with a God who can allow for the creation of evil in the world.

First, it's necessary to look at what we "know." God exists. That's a given. We also know about God that He is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. He or She created the universe, and everything in it. These are two things that cannot be reduced, and that's what we're working with. Also, from experience, good and evil both exist. As author of the universe, God clearly created evil, because he created everything, but was God morally wrong in doing so? Cahn shows that God might have to allow evil to achieve His ends, because in essence the best possible world would need to have some evil. For purposes of my argument, I am going to assume otherwise - that the best possible world would be one without evil.

An issue I take with Cahn's argument is that he suggests an omnimalevolent Demon would want to maximize the evil in the world - in effect, create the worst of all possible worlds. Thus, the existence of good in the world is not a choice the Demon makes, but something He is required to allow logically in order to maximize evil. Cahn assumes, basically, what Adams refutes - that a Deity must create the best possible world. "If a perfectly good moral agent created any world at all, it would have to be the very best world that he could create." (Adams, 319)

It, however, isn't necessary to assume that good (evil) exists in order to maximize the evil (good) in the world. It's possible, I'm proposing, that God may have had other reasons for allowing evil's existence. The only thing we must accept at this stage is that the universe as we see it: 1 - fulfills God's purpose for creating it, and 2 - is consistent with God's character. We can't be sure of what God's purposes for creating the world might be, but I propose that it may not in fact be to maximize the good in the world. An omnipotent, omniscient creator's reasons for creation would surely be more than simply that. It must be consistent with the idea that God is all-loving. It needn't, however, be to maximize human happiness - I think it's fair to say that that would be only a small part of God's plan. Essentially, God's omnibenevolence does not mean His purposes for creating the universe have anything to do with goodness.

Wouldn't God, though, still want to maximize goodness in any world he creates? Yes, as long as doing so does not conflict with His purposes for creation (remember, his purposes are good to begin with). What if these purposes create undue suffering for his creation? It couldn't, for one, because an all-good God's purposes could not cause any suffering that was not necessary. As well, it would need to at least fulfill the requirements set out below.

Since we are assuming the best of all possible worlds would be one without evil, it is also fair to assume any less perfect world would be one that does contain evil. God is capable, therefore, of creating a world with evil and remaining true to his character as long as the world He creates satisfies these 3 requirements, from Adams's article (page 321):

  1. None of the individuals would have existed in the best of all possible worlds.
  2. None of the creatures in it has a life so miserable on the whole that it would have been better if it had never existed.
  3. Every individual creature in the world is at least as happy on the whole as it would have been in any other possible world in which it could have existed.

Adams does a good job of responding to objections to these conditions in the abstract, but does not allow for applying them to this, actual, world. The only point of Adams's three that I think is irrefutable out of hand is the first. If we take as a given that the best possible world would be one without evil, it's safe to assume that none of us would exist there. The second is rather more difficult. Surely it might be said that those who are or were slaves underneath terrible conditions, their lives are so miserable that it might have been better had they never existed. Or calves raised for veal, or creatures born with defects that leave them in pain their whole lives. Saying that non-existence would be better is a radical judgment to make, not one to be made lightly. As well, living things are such wonderfully complex things that hopefully some joy they might have found in the course of their life would make it worthwhile. And if their pain so outweighed the joy? At the very least they contributed something to the world, playing a part in making it a better place. Their life may have been filled with sorrow and pain, but in the end even a small part in the grand scheme of things is an important one. To be sure, I'm not prepared to make the statement that any creature, no matter how miserable, would have been better off not existing. And opportunities surely exist for others to help remedy the situation if it ever seems so bad as that.

The third point may be met with similar objections. Couldn't any of those mentioned above have had better lives in another possible world? This isn't a question I can readily supply a response to. Luckily, for the same reason, it isn't an entirely valid objection. There's no way of knowing other actual possible worlds might be like, so there's no way of answering one way or the other if the being in question would be better off in any given world, much less whether or not it would exist in said world. I realize that this isn't an entirely satisfactory response, but since it is logically possible for such a world to exist, I think it's fair to grant that this world does fill the requirement.

The key concept at work in saying God could be perfectly loving while creating a world less than the best possible is that of grace. "A God who is gracious with respect to creating might well choose to create and love less excellent creatures than He could have chosen." (Adams, 323) This idea, as Adams suggests, is entirely consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, even when His creatures do evil, He does not love them any less. Adams makes another point, specifically related to the existence of evil, "for the task of struggling against certain evils may be seen as precisely a part of the life that the religious person is to accept and be glad in." (Adams, 324)

What I am suggesting is that we don't have to assume that God might have been "forced to allow the existence of these [evils]" (Cahn) but that the existence of evil is in fact something God could have chosen, because the existence of evil was in fact part of His plan for existence. One thing God would have on His side in this situation is His omniscience - he could safely allow evil's existence knowing that it would never get out of hand. He would, thus, know whether the world He was creating would fulfill these three conditions, or if at any point in its history it would break one.

Having established that creating a less than perfect world, with evil, is not incongruous with God's character, it still remains to be discussed why God might choose to create such a world. Especially since I have rejected the possibility that creating the world in such a manner would be necessary for Him. For what purposes would an all-good God desire to create a world in which evil was necessary? And what I'm looking for here is not merely some purpose that He wouldn't be able to accomplish without evil allowing evil to exist, but a purpose for which evil was necessary, in which evil plays an active role, rather than a precondition.

Death is an "evil", one that particularly distresses mankind. And evolution in particular would be impossible without it, or very severely stunted. Indeed, the process of evolution relies on the death of organisms second only to the primary driving force of evolution, reproduction. And since evolution is such a powerful force in our world, I would imagine it might be closely tied to a Creator's purpose.

I won't even attempt to defend evolution as God's purpose for creation, but I will propose this: is it not a good for creatures to better adapt themselves to their environment, and thus experience greater health and happiness? That is all I will say on the matter, and now proceed to my earlier premise: could the good achieved by evolution be achieved without the evil of death? No, for two reasons: first, if creatures didn't die, the gene pool would remain constant, and therefore evolution would not occur. Also, the problem of overpopulation would be terrible. The first problem does have a couple of alternatives. New creatures would add to the gene pool, and some form of population drift might occur, but the continuance of less fit organisms would counteract this. Since evolution rests on statistics, rather than absolutes, I feel the utmost confidence in making this assertion.

It might be suggested that organisms would simply go sterile in old age, which would be reasonable, but this wouldn't solve the problem of those organisms who would have died before procreating. I don't think that this would be enough to solve the problem, however, and adding any extra stipulations, such as a series of other conditions under which a creature would go sterile, would turn the world into one with rules far too different from the one we live in to be relevant. In addition, it's not clear that immortality would offer any sort of benefit - if it did, we certainly would see more examples of it in nature; at the very least we would see creatures with far longer life-spans. Since we do not, there is likely an evolutionary benefit for death.

As well, the overpopulation issue is a serious one, for which there is no solution. No matter how small the rate of reproduction of organisms, if they don't die, eventually they'd run out of resources and space. And suggesting that they not reproduce at all is simply out of the question - that defeats the initial proposal of God's purpose being to allow evolution.

If we allow that death is an important aspect of evolution, we can move very easily from there to another, more active evil - conflict and violence. These two things plague all living creatures; indeed, they are essential to existence. Why do they exist in the first place? I propose that they are a natural byproduct not simply of creatures living together as usually assumed, but of evolution. Conflict between creatures, or natural evils (aspects of the environment that are treacherous and may lead to death), is precisely what the process of evolution thrives on. Evolution, as some have observed, is cold, heartless, and blind, in this respect. Which I am forced to agree with - it's a natural process, it cannot have the capacity to be otherwise. But it is precisely this blind process that allows for the existence of the beauty and variety of living things in the world.

If it were not for competition, the deer would not have its horns, the turtle its shell, the peacock and other birds their plumage. Flowers would be drab and colorless. Indeed, all of human civilization would never have developed past the hunter-gatherer stage - and we would have had to accomplish that without hunting. At this point it may sound as if I am saying that conflict and violence are good - I'm not. All I am saying is that they are evils that are required for evolution to occur. Are they, though, necessary for evolution? The examples I mentioned are all specific evolutionary responses that allow the organisms to compete for survival better - i.e., they offer an evolutionary advantage. Could not other evolutions occur without competition? Again, no, because the conflict for survival is precisely what drives evolution.

Were evolution to occur at all in populations that did not need to fight for survival, all would be sex-based. That is, they would all better the chances for the organism in question to secure a mate, and to help along the reproductive process. But again, even those would be conflict-based: fighting over a mate, like the plumage of birds. Without any conflict, any advantage some evolution gave would be no advantage at all.

This also parallels Genesis. Were God to create creatures who felt no conflict, as happens in the creation story, it would be bound to be only temporary. For, if creatures existed without feeling any conflict, one born who did would secure an immediate advantage. Thus, the temptation of Adam and Eve. The story of Cain and Abel, Noah's Ark, etc.

If God wants his creatures to grow and learn, evil is necessary. Not only as something to learn from, and fight against, but the very act of growing and learning would create it. And isn't it more natural to think that God, in His infinite wisdom, chose to create things this way, not that He couldn't avoid it?

But more should be said about God's choosing to create evil. Adams did not say anything specifically about evil, merely that a God who created a less than perfect world could still be considered perfectly good. And Cahn's proves that God might allow evil in order to create greater good. Since I am arguing a point slightly different than both, I feel I may have some more explaining to do. What we have taken as givens are these: God exists. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. God created the world, and this world exhibits both good and evil. What has been deduced is that God is not required, logically or according to what we might guess of His character, to create the best possible world. I am assuming that the best possible world would be one without evil - this could be debated, but it whether or not this is true is not central to my argument. A less than perfect world would have to be flawed in some way, and this flaw would thus be evil.

Could not God create a world that was less than perfect without evil? My assumption is that if there were no evil, it would be perfect. What sort of flaw might a world have that was not evil? Creatures who experienced no evil but were not happy? Wouldn't that be evil? As well, I doubt a God who created a world without happiness could be considered all-good. For sake of my argument, then, I will continue with the assumption that any flaw in a perfect world would be evil. In any case, I do not think that a counter to this point would very much hurt my argument. What is important, though, is that none of us would exist in a world that was perfect - that is, a world without evil - because if we would have, God would be less than perfectly kind to us by creating this world instead. Again, I think this point is pretty water-tight. Could any of us exist in a world without evil? For one, our existences are dependent upon this world and events that have transpired here, and that includes all of the evil. It might be possible for God to create exactly similar replicates in a perfect, evil-free world. But what would the results of that be? Either we'd bring evil with us to that world, or somehow restricted from perpetrating any act of evil - thus abolishing our "free will", in fact, eliminating much of what makes us who we are.

What if we were able to do evil, but just didn't want to for whatever reason - maybe we saw how perfect the world was, and didn't want to ruin it, or maybe we just didn't want to, and that's that. This falls into the same trap. Eliminating a good portion of our desires would be akin to creating an entirely different person. So, this world certainly does fit the constraint that none of us would exist in a perfect world.

Does the existence of evil, however, break either of Adams's other two requirements? It does seem to be able to pass the second, that "None of the creatures in it has a life so miserable on the whole that it would have been better if it had never existed." For certainly, many living creatures are or seem very happy to be alive. So it certainly is at least possible that God might create a world, which did contain evil, that would fill this requirement. And I do think that, even in cases where the creature in question does leave a mostly miserable life, it can't be said that it would have been better had it not existed at all. I realize I can't satisfactorily defend this, but at least it would also be very hard to disprove. The third requirement, as well, proves difficult to prove. That "every individual creature in the world is at least as happy on the whole as it would have been in any other possible world in which it could have existed." I might argue that none of us would exist at all in any other world at all, but that isn't very compelling. But again, the existence of evil itself does not break this. For since no existing creature would exist in a world without evil, there does have to be a possible world with evil where every creature is no less happy on the whole than they could otherwise be.

This brings us back to this problem: just because God could create a world with evil doesn't mean he actually would. The important problem is out of the way, namely, that it is possible for God to create evil and still be perfectly good, but his reasons for creating evil must also be perfectly good. Commonly, according to Judeo-Christian traditions, God created the world in order to be able to share His love with something. Without evil and suffering, we would not be able to appreciate the love God has for us, and thus be unable to feel and return that love. Is this a valid statement? I think it is. We can't really observe something without knowing what it is like as well as what an absence of it is like. Take a sort of silly example - we don't see our own noses not because it isn't in our field of vision, because on close examination it is, but because we don't know what it's like for it not to be there. There needs to be a gradation - even if it is only binary - for us to recognize things. Would we know what day was if there were no night? We'd certainly have no word for it, because there would be no need to distinguish it from something that didn't exist. Likewise, we would have no concept of "good" if evil didn't exist. Likewise, we would have no concept of God's love if it was always present.

However, whatever reasons God may have had for creating evil, I feel I have shown that God could allow its existence while remaining perfectly loving and perfectly good. I have also given two possibilities for reasons a God such as this might choose to create evil, which is enough to show that reasons might exist.