Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Problem of Evil

Monroe county

Next week students in my MCCC Philosophy of Religion class will be given oral exams on the matter of the existence of evil and evil's compatibility with an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing, necessarily existent personal agent we call God.

I'll ask the student 5 questions. The first is: explain atheist J.L. Mackie's logical argument from evil against God's existence. Mackie thought the very concept of "theism" to be internally inconsistent; i.e., that to affirm God is all-powerful and God is all-good and Evil exists this is "Mackie's Triad") is the logical equivalent of saying John is a bachelor and John's wife is Linda.

Mackie thought one adequate solution to this logical problem would be if the statement Evil exists was false. What if "evil" was just an illusion? Who could believe such an outrageous thing? My second question for the students is: Explain Buddhism's idea that evil is an illusion. Yes, all Buddhists do not feel this way. But I think pure Buddhists consider evil to be illusory (if they consider anything at all) because: 1) the external world is not some reality to be grasped; and 2) there is no "self" or "ego" to do any grasping.

The third question is: explain Alvin Plantinga's Free Will Defense against Mackie's logical argument from evil. Nearly all philosophers think Plantinga (and others) have defeated Mackie's argument and consigned it to the trash can of history. To defeat Mackie's argument all Plantinga has to do is show that it is possible to affirm Mackie's Triad. Plantinga uses modal logic and shows that there is a possible world in which all three statements are true. This possible world includes: 1) It's possible that God has given persons libertarian free will (the ability to make a choice that is not full reducible to antecedent causal conditions); 2) It's possible that God has counterfactual knowledge (God knows the truth value of future conditional statements, esp. those involving moral choices); and 3) transworld depravity exists (in every possible world free agents will make at least one evil choice).

The fourth question is: Explain William Rowe's evidential argument from evil against God's existence. Rowe agrees that Plantinga et. al. have soundly defeated Mackie's logical argument. In its place Rowe gives an evidential argument based on the evidence of the kind of intense suffering that occurs in the world and the amount of such suffering. Students will need to state Rowe's argument (2 premises, conclusion), state that P2 is non-controversial, and explain Rowe's "Bambi example" as a defense of P1. Thankfully, Rowe is a "friendly atheist" rather than a militant fundamentalist ad hominem-abusing non-philosophical atheist such as Richard Dawkins.

Finally, the fifth question is: Explain Stephen Wyckstra's idea that Rowe has committed a "no-see-um" fallacy which reasons like this: 1) As far as I can see there is no point to this suffering; and then concludes 2) Therefore there is no point to this suffering. This reasoning only succeeds if the CORNEA principle obtains; viz., we have reasonable epistemic access to the state of affairs. For example, a nurse can say As far as I can see there are no germs on this needle we just used on the previous 500 patients. But the nurse cannot conclude from this that Therefore there are no germs on this needle. More than this, says Wyckstra, we don't have epistemic access to the mind of an all-knowing God.