Essays / The Problem of Naturalism / Katelyn Ebert

Everyone has experienced pain.  Injury, betrayal, natural disaster, or the death of a close relative or friend all cause us to sharply recall the problems of this world.  During these or other tragedies, we tend to wonder, “why is there evil?” Many privately or publicly conclude that evil in the world is inconsistent with the concept of God as omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good).  Formal arguments based on the problem of evil have been presented by influential philosophers such as Michael Tooley, David Hume, and John Mackie. Though these propositions cannot disprove the existence of a God, they call into question the classical concept of God.  To present a serious criticism, skeptics should use an internal critique to show that the theist’s theory fails on its own terms.  Gottfried Leibniz, a Christian philosopher, offers a defense of theism by proposing that evils are a means to higher goods.  His argument is even stronger if omnibenevolence is defined to include justice.

To define terms, empiricism is the view that the senses are the only means of acquiring unquestionable facts, not trusting knowledge by a priori reasoning.  A debatable result is Naturalism, which holds that everything is the result of natural processes and is made of material elements.  For example, the mind would be considered nothing more than the sum of electrochemical processes in the brain. An objective standard of morality as defined in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy posits that as an object, it “would be there, as it is, even if no subject perceived it” (Friend).  This seems descriptive of an eternal metaphysical concept.

With these definitions, it seems that the concept of evil cannot be objective if we assume naturalism.  Removing spirituality, humans and animals are the results of billions of years of chance and energy acting on matter.  We are here because of natural selection, so our cognitive and sensory faculties should be prime for survival; there is no guarantee that we are able to accurately perceive or understand objective morality.  By definition, objective morality seems highly discordant with empirically derived concepts of right and wrong. Though we pursue what we determine is good and worthy, the standards we develop for a good life come to naught under scrutiny.  Consider that once we die, the amount of pleasure or suffering we had in this life is irrelevant; what we do for others, for our family, or the betterment of society will be forgotten if humanity goes extinct; the universe itself will be left unmarked when it eventually dies a ‘heat death’ as energy reaches complete equilibrium throughout and change is no longer possible.  Nothing we deem good is eternal. Consequently, individual experience cannot present objective morality, which must be considered true at all times and in all places.

To clarify, pointing out the lack of objective morality is not the same as saying that people cannot recognize evil.  However, if evil is based only on our subjective experience, our value critique of God is proportionally subjective. Moral theories like Social Contract Theory (SCT) or Utilitarianism attempt to define evil beyond individual preference.  Within naturalism, it seems implausible that either theory could be eternal, which would imply the existence of a metaphysical concept. The burden of proof would remain on the proponent to show how natural laws could produce such. If the moral standard of Social Contract Theory is a brute fact but did not exist before Socrates, Hobbes, or John Locke developed the concept, then it requires a subject to perceive it, and would therefore not be objective.  Could anything less than fully objective concepts of good and evil be fairly applied to a transcendent God? Assumably not. Similarly, utilitarianism is a theory arising from the electrochemical brain processes of organisms on Earth (assuming we don’t make contact with Vulcans), so the jurisdiction of these moral theories are limited to humanity’s dominion.

Since there must be objectively evil events in the world for the problem of evil to be a legitimate problem, perhaps there is an underlying objective moral standard explaining Social Contract Theory and Utilitarianism.  If evil in SCT is defined as violating the moral obligations one accepted by choosing to live in a society where people determined such moral principles likely to form and/or maintain societal stability, one could ask why societal stability is good.  The answer could actually be utilitarian: such generally facilitates the survival and happiness of more human beings. So why are existence and pleasure good? If it is based on the cooperate testimony to this preference, why should it be authoritative?  All this revelation reflects is that it is competitively advantageous for survival to enjoy life. Or, if existence and pleasure are good in the same way that suffering and death are bad, perhaps these are the brute facts of morality. This moral law is not composed of atoms nor directly comparable to the laws of thermodynamics; it must be metaphysical.  This could fit within naturalism only by arising from natural laws. However, physical laws of natural selection and the processes of mutation lead to evolution, which entails suffering and death. How could natural laws produce a higher law that condemns itself? The existence of an unexplainable metaphysical concept itself refutes naturalism, but if we are the result of only natural processes, we would also have to evolve beyond the laws that produced us to claim comprehension of metaphysical morality.  Ultimately, this illustrates that evil from the naturalistic perspective cannot be objective.

For the problem of evil to be a legitimate philosophical problem, the critiquer must be able to point to objective evil.  An external critique is one based in the critiquer’s worldview, generally considering whether the idea is consistent with reality. Consider for a moment if the problem of evil was used externally and defeated the theist position.  Relying upon premises consistent with naturalism and an objective presence of evil, a non-theist argues against a transcendent theistic God. Hypothetically, the theistic perspective is defeated. Now the objective presence of evil, which is inconsistent naturalism, is assumed with the naturalistic critique.  Either the original objectivity of evil or the original premises based in naturalism (that form the external critique) were wrong. Of course, there would be nothing wrong with an internal critique.  This would be showing how the presence of objective evil is inconsistent with the theistic concept of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God.  However, to truly test consistency without introducing exterior restrictions upon the character of God, the nontheist should allow the theist to define their own terms.  

Within this context of internal versus external critiques, classical arguments for and against the problem of evil can be analyzed.  Dr. Michael Tooley’s Inductive Argument from Evil falls apart when it uses both naturalistic and non-naturalistic bases for his premises.  In his debate with Dr. William Lane Craig, he starts his opening statement with an inventory of evils in the world. Many of these are moral evils, such as the Holocaust (Ratio).  He does not justify the objectivity of these actions as morally wrong, and to operate upon such, as discussed earlier, is not naturalistic. Even more so is the point of alleged genetic evil.  This is a note about the imperfections of our biology that cause suffering. How could the suboptimal results of the unguided, morally neutral process of evolution have “wrong-making properties?”  And yet Tooley also makes external critiques that are consistent with his worldview, like the inclusion of natural evil, which assumes humans are innocent or at least morally neutral; this is not the case in the Christian worldview but is ignored here and when he discusses the genocides of the Old Testament.  So Tooley’s argument is trying to operate both from an internal and an external perspective, which does not work.

Even ignoring Tooley’s problematic approach, there are issues with the premises of his argument that make it unsound.  Primarily, one of his key premises states that “an action is morally wrong, all things considered, if it has wrong-making characteristics [both known and unknown] that are not counterbalanced by its right-making characteristics [both known and unknown]” (Ratio).  He likely points out the potential unknown evil in any given scenario in response to the common theistic claim that evil in the world is for a greater unseen good. The crux of Tooley’s argument hinges on there being events in the world where the known evil outweighs the known good, but by noting that there are two unknowns there inevitably ends up being almost nothing that can be concluded.  Even if on one side of the inequality you have 3,000,000 known evils plus X unknown evils, and on the other you have 3 known goods plus Y unknown goods, the probability of the evil outweighing the good is not necessarily high because we have no way of knowing the scale of X or Y. Y could be 3×10²⁰ and X could be 3 for all we know. This leads to an even more fundamental issue: how does one assign a numerical value to good and evil, even in one situation?  How many lives equal how much suffering weighed against how much pleasure? Rather than appealing to mysterious unknown goods, the theist like Leibniz may be pointing out that there are higher goods like benevolence. Virtues, vices, and freedoms make the good and evil of a scenario even more unquantifiable.

A very different approach to the problem of evil is by the philosopher David Hume, who develops an internal critique of the traditional concept of God.  Based on empirical a posteriori reasoning, he spends the bulk of The Argument from Evil arguing that there is, in fact, evil in the world.  However, the heart of his argument–that God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence are incompatible with evil in the world–is left largely undefined and unargued.  He merely asserts that if God is “willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he [sic] impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (235).  This is a summary of Epicurus’s trilemma, and though it is presented as conclusive, the major premises are not argued. That being able but unwilling to remove evil makes one malevolent is not an explicit or formal logical necessity.  The many arguments offered in support of consistency must be ignored for Hume’s assertion to work because most are not responded to. At one point, Hume may be responding to the defense that good outweighs evil by attempting to show the opposite.  Yet, how can one measure good and evil in the world? Hume does not extensively define evil beyond example, although he does seem to assume a concept of omnibenevolence that theists may question.

When Hume engages with Leibniz’s theistic position, he claims that Leibniz denies the existence of evil, being “perhaps the first who ventured upon so bold and paradoxical an opinion” (233).  However, this misrepresents Leibniz’s view entirely, since Leibniz admits in his Theodicy that “it must be confessed that there is evil in this world which God has made” (238).  Leibniz’s actual defense is that “the evil is accompanied by a greater good” (238, emphasis his), and greater goods are intertwined with evil.  This is in response to the objection that God did not create the best possible world since there is evil in it.  Leibniz counters by using the analogy of a general who would rather win a battle that would have minor losses than neither win the battle nor incur losses.  An example not mentioned by Leibniz that could enlighten his point is that virtues like sympathy are intrinsically connected to suffering. So, higher goods like benevolence could not be achieved without some evil.  

In response to the Free Will Defense, the late Oxford professor John Mackie proposes that in the creation of morally free creatures, true omnipotence has been forfeited.  For a being to be truly free, it has to be ultimately uncontrolled. Mackie points out that there are two types of omnipotence: the power to control (O₁) and the power to create beings one cannot control (O₂), (Mackie, 210-212).  Since these inherently conflict with one another, God cannot have both O₁ and O₂ from an Aquinisinian perspective; (Aquinas’s view of Omnipotence will be discussed shortly).  Plantinga posits that God has O₂, which is why once God created significantly free humans, He was no longer able to interfere with their actions (309-310). Therefore, God is not responsible for moral evil, although not being able to hold to O₁ would compromise omnipotence from the classical perspective.  As a result, Mackie’s critique that the theist is redefining or rejecting one of the premises to solve the problem of evil seems valid.  

On the other hand, if God does not possess the ability to essentially thwart Himself as O₂ implies, one could avoid compromising classical omnipotence.  O₂ would be considered logically impossible if one accepts O₁, and therefore not necessitated by omnipotence following Aquinas’s argument.  Still, God could have the ability to create beings that He could allow to primarily act freely while maintaining fundamental control.  Unless God is compelled to always display O₁, God should be free to choose when to control His creation.  If God, as omnibenevolent, only actively intervened to produce virtue, humans would remain the cause of vice.  As far as natural evil, like tsunamis and earthquakes, an argument could be made that these are also the results of human free will since in the Judeo-Christian worldview they are the result of the Fall.  So the free will defense is a fair model for explaining the relationship between God’s omnipotence and humans’ freedom and responsibility.

However, the atheist may then object as to why a good God would allow evil.  Although Leibniz’s Theodicy to the problem of evil seems reasonable, it could be expanded and strengthened by the following.  Consider how if God’s justice is inseparable from His omnibenevolence, the necessity of evil as a means to good is more logical.  

  1. Premise 1- God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
  2. Premise 2- An essential aspect of omnibenevolence is justice.
  3. Premise 3- An omnipotent being can do all that is logically possible.
  4. Premise 4- Justice logically requires evil in the world.
  5. Premise 5- Therefore, God cannot demonstrate justice without creating a world with evil.
  6. Premise 6- It is good for God to express all of His attributes.
  7. Conclusion: Evil exists so that the fullness of God’s omnibenevolence can be expressed.

Premise 1 is presupposed in the deductive problem of evil so as to argue its inconsistency with evil existing.  The argument being presented here is that when Premise 2 is allowed as a theistic rendering of omnibenevolence, there is a rational explanation for evil.  Since justice is often considered a preeminent trait within the definition of goodness, the theist’s inclusion of this should be allowed to stand. This is especially the case considering the supporting prosyllogism from earlier was that an internal critique checks the coherence of the premises.  Premise 5 is validly deduced from Premises 1, 3, and 4, so it stands if 3 and 4 are also true. (P1: If x, then a, b, c. P3: If a, then y. P4: If y, then z. P5: Therefore, if x, then z.)

Premise 3 is the conclusion of Thomas Aquinas’s “Is God’s Power Limited?”  The well-known Christian theologian and philosopher wrote an explanation to many common objections to omnipotence, essentially claiming that God can do all things that are absolutely possible, meaning objectively logical and logically consistent with His nature (104-106).  This implies that Logic exists metaphysically distinct from God, and could problematically lead to God being subservient to the Laws of Logic as an outside force. Alternatively, Rene Descartes, in his search for an unquestionable fact in Meditations on First Philosophy, asks how he could know “that I am not deceived every time that I add two and three, or count the sides of a square?” (8).  Here, the Princeton professor of philosophy Harry Frankfurt infers that Descartes is operating upon a view of God’s omnipotence that means He can do both what is absolutely possible and absolutely impossible, including changing analytical truths (109).  This would present the opposite problem where God arbitrarily defines logic. Tomorrow 2+3 could equal 7 if that is what God decides. If the laws of logic are unstable, philosophy would be pointless, thereby destroying the means of even coming to the original conclusion.  Instead of either of these views, what if logic, truth, and other objectives were realities that flow from and reflect an aspect of God’s character and nature? That could be caused as God entered time and space, which would be why the premises of logic are taken sequentially.  So what if God were to enter time and space differently in order to display other attributes of His nature, would the laws of logic be different? Not if God is unchanging and had a divine purpose in creating the universe as it is. Logic being reflected as an aspect of God’s character is at most a passive way of God “creating logic,” and the resulting stability is what ultimately differentiates it from Descartes’ model.  A concept like this reconciles the assumed premise in any argument that logic is constant, but does not call into question God’s omnipotence by placing it ontologically above Him.

In defense of  Premise 4, it would be wise to mention that God is described commonly in the Old and New Testament as a judge.  Kant’s theory of justice separates the concept into two realms: the private and the civil (Pomerleau). Since God is the King and Judge, the characteristics of civil justice are more relevant.  Protective, commutative, and distributive justice all require some form of evil in the world. If a government is required to fairly maintain, manage, and distribute goods, there is an assumption that there could be a lack of resources.  Deficiencies in access to food, water, or medicine (or the diseases in the first place) lead to suffering in the world, a form of evil. Likewise, the need for protection requires either natural or moral evil. Furthermore, there is a distinct character trait within the broader definition of justice that can only be seen in the context of righteous punishment of wrongdoing, which of course implies moral evil.  No form of civil justice can be served without the presence of evil.

Upon similar logic, an analogy can illustrate the reasoning behind Premise 6.  Consider how a judge is deemed good when a criminal receives an appropriate sentence.  God could similarly be glorified in executing right judgment. Furthermore, even when a flawed person receives an appropriate honor, it is a good thing.  How much better would it be for God to receive due glory? Therefore, the best possible universe could be one in which God receives the most glory, assumably by demonstrating all of His attributes, which would include justice and necessitate evil.  

Though at first glance the problem of evil appears threatening to the traditional concept of God, its premises must still be argued. To remain consistent, skeptics must choose between an external critique of the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of God by naturalism and an internal critique of the concept of God by theology.  When theists specify the inclusion of justice as an aspect of omnibenevolence, there arises an explanation for why a good and powerful God would allow evil.  Lastly, the problems of this world must be considered in the context of temporality: God has a final plan of redemption for all of creation. As a diamond shines brighter on a dark background, so too will redemption for a broken world will be greater than an unfallen creation.  

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. “Is God’s Power Limited?” Philosophy of Religion, edited by Michael Rea and Louis Pojman, no.7, Cengage Learning, 2015, pp. 104-106.

Descartes, René. “Meditations On First Philosophy.” The Philosophical Works of Descartes, translated by Elizabeth S. Haldane. Cambridge University Press, 1911, pp. 1–32.

Frankfurt, Harry G. “The Logic of Omnipotence.” Philosophy of Religion, edited by Michael Rea and Louis Pojman, no.7, Cengage Learning, 2015, p. 109.

Friend, Celeste. “Social Contract Theory.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, IEP, http://www.iep.utm.edu/soc-cont/.

Hume, David. “The Argument from Evil.” Philosophy of Religion, edited by Michael Rea and Louis Pojman, no.7, Cengage Learning, 2015, pp. 232-237.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. “Theodicy: A Defense of Theism.” Philosophy of Religion, edited by Michael Rea and Louis Pojman, no.7, Cengage Learning, 2015, pp. 237-243.

Mackie, John L. “Evil and Omnipotence.” Mind, New Series, vol. 64, no. 254, Oxford University Press, 1955, pp. 200-212.

Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. Harper & Roe, 1974. “The Free Will Defense.” edited by Michael Rea and Louis Pojman, no.7, Cengage Learning, 2015, pp. 300–318.

Pomerleau, Wayne P. “Western Theories of Justice.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, IEP, http://www.iep.utm.edu/justwest/.

Ratio Christi. “Is God Real? William Lane Craig vs Michael Tooley (Part 1)” Online video clip. YouTube. 11 March 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdgBZKvDfaA.  

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