Wednesday, February 18, 2015

J.L.Mackie's Logical A Priori Argument from Evil Against the Existence of God

Monroe County Community College pond

I divide my MCCC Philosophy of Religion classes into three teaching units. This week I began teaching the second unit, which is on The Argument from Evil Against the Existence of God.

"Evil," in the philosophical discussion, is usually defined as "gratuitous suffering," or "pointless suffering." (Peter van Inwagen refers to evil, generally, as undeserved suffering.)

If suffering has a telos, or a "point," then perhaps it cannot be considered "evil." For example: Suppose you and I are walking across a street, when suddenly I push you down. You fall and break your arm. You are suffering! You cry out, "Why did you do that to me?!" I point to a car that nearly hit you and say, "I pushed you so the car wouldn't hit you." Your suffering, while painful, is not pointless.

All suffering, therefore, is not gratuitous. But some suffering seems to be pointless. In other words, it seems there is evil in the world.

With this definition of "evil" in mind, we'll look at J.L.Mackie's famous, a priori, logical argument from evil, "Evil and Omnipotence."  Mackie posits a "triad" of statements" which, he claims, cannot all be affirmed at the same time without contradiction. They are:

1. God is all-powerful.

2. God is all-good.
3. Evil exists.

Mackie finds these three statements "logically inconsistent," in the same way that the following two statements are logically inconsistent: 1) John is a bachelor; 2) John's wife is Linda. Mackie aims to show, "not that religious beliefs lack rational support, but that they are positively irrational." (In Peterson et. al., 288)

Mackie adds two assumptions that stand behind his triad, which are: a) an all-powerful being is able to bring about any logically possible state of affairs; and 2) an all-good being would desire to stop evil from happening. That being true, what's the deal with evil? Mackie is certain that evil exists, and I see no reason to deny this.

Mackie then gives some possible solutions to the problem of evil. He says we would have no "problem" of evil if just one of the three statements was false. If 1 is false, then 2 and 3 could logically be true, since God might desire to stop evil but could not do so since he would not be all-powerful. If God is not omnipotent, then no "problem of evil" exists, since God would not be able to stop evil from happening even, according to his all-loving natire, if he wanted to.

If 2 were false, then while God could stop any evil from occurring he would not desire to. If God is not omnibenevolent, then no "problem of evil" exists, since while God could, according to his all-powerful nature, stop evil from happening God would not want to.

If 3 were false and evil did not even exist, then of course we are not left with a "problem of evil" any more than we have a problem with unicorns. 

Mackie is certain that 3 is true. Therefore, according to his reasoning, an all-powerful and all-loving being we refer to as "God" cannot exist, any more than square circles can exist. (Note that the theist does not want to deny 1, 2, or 3.)

For Mackie 1, 2, and 3 form a logical contradiction in that we cannot affirm any two of them without the third being necessarily false.