The problem of evil

AQA Philosophy
Metaphysics of God

The nature of moral and natural evil

Natural evil is evil which results from the workings of the natural world, such as natural disasters and disease. God designed and created the natural world which seems to make God responsible for the evil and suffering that occurs as a result of nature.

David Hume points to four types of evil found in the natural world:

1 – Animal suffering. Why shouldn’t nature be created such that animals feel less pain, or indeed no pain at all?
2 – Creatures have limited abilities to ensure their survival and happiness.
3 – Nature has extremes which make survival and happiness more difficult.
4 – Individual natural disasters.

Hume claims that an omnipotent God would have the power to prevent these forms of natural evil and therefore the existence of natural evil is a problem for belief in God.

Moral evil is evil which is caused by human action, such as murder and torture. This is a problem for God’s existence because why doesn’t God intervene to prevent morally evil actions by humans, such as the holocaust? Furthermore, God could have designed us with less physical ability to cause suffering and less vulnerability to suffer at the hands of other people. God could even have created us without free will and given us a good nature that would have avoided causing moral evil. This suggests that the existence of moral evil could have been avoided and is thus a problem for belief in a God who would have avoided it.

The logical problem of evil

The logical problem of evil is the a priori argument that it is impossible for evil and the God of classical theism (as defined as omnibenevolent and omnipotent) to co-exist.

Epicurus (ancient Greek philosopher, one of the first to formulate the problem of evil)

  1. Is God willing but not able to prevent evil? Then he isn’t omnipotent
  2. Is God is able to prevent evil but not willing? Then he isn’t omnibenevolent
  3. If God is both able and willing, then why is there evil?
  4. If God is neither able or willing then why call him God?

Mackie reformulated this argument into the ‘inconsistent triad’ which held that the God of classical theism (omnipotent and omnibenevolence) cannot exist if evil exists. Either Omnipotence, omnibenevolence or evil must not exist, since all three are inconsistent. Omnipotence entails the power to eliminate evil. Omnibenevolence entails the motivation to prevent evil. Something cannot possibly exist if there is a being with the power and motivation to eliminate it. Therefore if evil exists, an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God cannot exist. God could at most be omnibenevolent or omnipotent but not both. This is known as the Logical problem of evil which claims that it is logically impossible for both God (as defined with omnipotence & omnibenevolence) and evil to both exist. This is an a priori argument because the conclusion follows from a logical analysis of the definitions of the concepts ‘omnibenevolence’, ‘omnipotence’ and ‘evil’, without reference to experience.

P1. An omnipotent God has the power to eliminate evil.
P2. An omnibenevolent God has the motivation to eliminate evil.
P3. Nothing can exist if there is a being with the power and motivation to eliminate it.
C1. Evil, omnipotence and omnibenevolence thus form an inconsistent triad such that God (as classically defined) and evil cannot possibly co-exist.

This argument is then sometimes developed into an a posteriori argument by referencing our experience of evil and drawing the conclusion not just that God and evil cannot co-exist, but that since evil does exist God does not exist:

P4. We experience evil in the world.
C2. Evil exists, therefore God does not exist.

The evidential problem of evil

The Evidential problem of evil is the a posteriori argument that the evidence of evil in the world means that belief in God cannot be justified. There is a logical possibility that evil and a perfect God exist together, but the evidence is against that possibility actually being true.

Hume puts forward an evidential problem of evil. Hume is an empiricist and approaches the problem of evil as such. He points out the a posteriori evidence of evil in the world:

1 – Animal suffering. Why shouldn’t nature be created such that animals feel less pain, or indeed no pain at all?
2 – Creatures have limited abilities to ensure their survival and happiness
3 – Why does nature have extremes which make survival and happiness more difficult? Natural evil
4 – Why doesn’t God intervene to prevent individual natural disasters?

A God could have made this world without such evil, making it evidence against a perfect God existing. Hume says it is ‘possible’ that a perfect God exists but allows evil for reasons consistent with omnibenevolence, ‘but they are unknown to us’.

Hume is arguing that no matter what theologians might speculate about God’s ‘reasons’ for allowing evil, we have no evidence that there is a God who has such reasons.

“I conclude that however consistent the world may be (on certain assumptions and with allowances made) with the idea of such a God, it can never provide us with an inference to his existence.

There can be no grounds for such an inference when there are so many misfortunes in the universe, and while these misfortunes could—as far as human understanding can be allowed to judge on such a subject—easily have been remedied. I am sceptic enough to allow that the bad appearances, notwithstanding all my reasonings, may be compatible with such ·divine· attributes as you suppose; but surely they can never prove these attributes.”

Hume, as an empiricist, insists that we are only justified in believing what the evidence suggests. The evidence of an imperfect world, while logically compatible with a perfect God, makes belief in a perfect God unjustified.

P1. We are only justified in believing what the evidence suggests (empiricism).
P2. We only have evidence of imperfection (a world with both good and evil).
C1. We are only justified in believing that imperfection exists.
C2. So, belief in a perfectly good being is not justified.

The only justifiable route to belief in anything, including God, is through experience. Yet, experience shows us an imperfect world full of evil. So, because of evil, belief in God is not justified.

The Free Will Defence

soul-making theodicy