The Problem of Evil: Crash Course Philosophy #13

Crash Course Philosophy is brought to you by Squarespace Squarespace: share your passion with the world. Why is the sky blue? Which came first: orange the color or orange the fruit? And why is C3PO afraid of everything? Like, who decided it was a good idea to teach a droid to experience fear?

There are some questions that we ask ourselves, either as kids, or adults, or both. They’re questions about weird, everyday things, and they’re weird because most of us don’t know the answers to them offhand. But most of the time, those questions turn out to be pretty answerable.

Like, for the ones I just mentioned, the short answers are: Because of the way photons interact with the molecules in the atmosphere. …the fruit; And…uh…’cause that’s what George Lucas wanted. Maybe because 3PO’s a protocol droid, and they need to be able to relate to humans.

Though, he could stand to turn his fear settings down a notch. Now, as you know, philosophers have a soft spot for questions that can never be answered. Most of the time, these puzzles make for great thought experiments – tests of our skills in logic and argument.

But there are some questions whose very lack of an answer can be downright troubling. Unlike the occasional fluke of physics or bit of Star Wars trivia, there’s a part of us that really wants, or even needs to have an answer to these things.

For the past month or so, we’ve been exploring the philosophy of religion, and we’ve been doing it mainly from a theistic perspective, looking into arguments that justify belief in God. But one of the most persistent challenges to god’s existence is also the root of one of the most-asked,

But least answerable, questions that we, as thinking beings, face. Why is there evil? [Theme Music] Evil comes in many forms. And likewise, for philosophers, poses many problems, especially vis a vis the existence of god. First, there’s what’s known as the logical problem of evil.

Like all rational people, theists can’t help but acknowledge that the world is full of evil. And here, we’re understanding “evil” to be all manner of bad stuff – like, not just Hitler or Darth Vader or Moriarty.

It’s everything that’s in the vast spectrum of badness, from stubbed toes to plagues and everything in between. Theists and atheists both agree that evil exists in this way. But they disagree about the next part. Many theists believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.

But atheists argue that this creates a contradiction – a set of beliefs that can’t all be true at the same time. Because, evil is bad, right – whether it’s stubbed toes or genocide or paper cuts or epidemics? So, if there’s really an all-knowing God out there, he knows about all the evil.

He might even know about it before it happens. And if he’s all-powerful, he could stop it. And if he’s all-good, then he would want to stop it. And yet he doesn’t. The evil continues. Philosophically rational people shouldn’t hold inconsistent beliefs,

So atheists argue that you’re going to have to give something up – and the thing to give up is God. Some theists, however, take a different route. They choose to give up one or more divine attributes. They argue that maybe God isn’t powerful enough to stop evil,

Or maybe he’s not knowledgeable enough to know about it, or maybe he’s not even good enough to care about stopping it. That might sound weird to some of you, but if you’ve ever heard someone say that God is envious, or petty, or jealous, that’s basically what they’re doing –

They’re acknowledging the possibility that God is not actually good. If you’ve ever checked out the Old Testament, there is a God there who has some anger issues – one who’s not at all opposed to wiping out entire populations just because of some bad behavior.

Still, despite this scriptural evidence, many theists are committed to God’s omni-attributes, and are thus stuck with a problem. They have to resolve the logical problem of evil and find some way to explain why God would allow evil into the world.

And if you can do that, then you are presenting what is known as a theodicy. A theodicy is an attempt to show that the existence of evil doesn’t rule out the possibility of God’s existence. Yes, this is such a big deal that there’s a word for it.

And the most popular theodicy is called The Free Will Defense. This argument holds that God maximized the goodness in the world by creating free beings. And being free means that we have the choice to do evil things – a choice that some of us exercise.

This theodicy says that God doesn’t create evil, but evil can’t be avoided without depriving us of our freedom. And a world without freedom would be a worse place overall. This explanation preserves God’s goodness, because he created the best possible world, and also preserves his omnipotence and omniscience, because,

Although he does know about evil and could stop it, he has a good reason not to – to ensure our freedom. The problem is, the free will defense really only really addresses what’s known as moral evil – or the evil committed, on purpose, by humans.

Now, we’re certainly responsible for a lot of bad stuff, but you can’t blame us for everything. We can’t be held responsible for the fact that the plates of the earth sometimes shift, causing destructive earthquakes, or that a storm might knock a tree over that falls onto someone’s house.

This type of evil – the stuff we’re not responsible for – is called natural evil, and the free will defense can’t resolve natural evil. Religion is one of those philosophical issues that can make it hard for us to consider anything objectively.

That’s where fiction comes in handy because fictional stories can let us see how hypothetical people deal with hypothetical situations. And with that in mind, let’s go to the Thought Bubble for some Flash Philosophy! Let’s consider the case of Ivan, a good Russian who decides to break up with God.

In the novel The Brothers Karamozov, 19th century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky presents us with Ivan, a man who claims to believe in God. But Ivan finds the fact that God allows evil to exist to be so unforgivable, that he decides worshipping such a god would be, just, unconscionable.

Ivan goes so far as to declare that he is “returning his ticket” to heaven. If the same God who allows evil – particularly the suffering and death of children – is also saving a cozy place in paradise for Ivan, well, Ivan wants nothing to do with it.

So, his way out of the problem of evil is to deny God’s goodness, and to conclude that a bad God is not only unworthy of his worship, he’s also not someone Ivan wants to spend eternity with. It’s like the ultimate un-friending.

Now, some readers have found Ivan’s decision to be noble, and full of integrity. After all, if you really think God is letting all of this bad stuff happen, why would you want to be on his team?

But other people think Ivan is being irrational – why condemn yourself to eternity in hell on principle? For theists, it’s another question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Thanks, Thought Bubble! Now, unlike Ivan, a lot of people aren’t willing to give up their ticket to heaven.

So they need to work on a way to keeping believing in, and worshipping, God, even though evil is still a thing. One way to do that, is to argue that good can’t exist without its opposite. The idea here is that you can’t understand the concept of pleasure without pain.

We don’t know what it feels like to be warm if we haven’t been cold. We can’t understand the goodness of filling our bellies if we’ve never been hungry. But there’s also another way, though it involves a little more work on your part.

20th century English philosopher of religion John Hick offered what’s known as the soul-making theodicy. Unlike the traditional view that God created a perfect world, which we ruined through our own poor choices, Hick argued that God deliberately creates us “unfinished,”

And our earthly lives are designed to toughen us up, in a sense, kinda like boot camp. The harshness of life, Hick said, gives us a robust texture and character that wouldn’t be possible without an imperfect world. Hick said that we’re not just God’s little pets, and he’s not our benevolent owner,

Whose sole job is to keep us in a safe, comfortable environment. Instead, he wants to build us, to train us, into a particular kind of being. So we need an environment that’s suited to the sort of growth that he wants – the sort that this world makes possible.

A lot of people find these and other theodicies to be pretty compelling. However, the problem of evil actually goes a step deeper. What we’ve been talking about so far is the logical problem of evil. This problem can be resolved, if we can explain why there’s evil.

But there’s also the evidential problem of evil. This problem points out that we might be able to explain why evil exists, but we still can’t explain why there’s so much evil in the world. For instance, let’s say that it’s true that we really do need evil in order to understand goodness.

In that case, why can’t we understand the contrast through some sort of low-level evil – like paper cuts and head colds and having to work straight through our lunch hour every now and then? I mean, slow, painful deaths from cancer, and city-destroying hurricanes…

They don’t really add anything valuable to our understanding of goodness. Do they? If God were truly good, and if a negative contrast were really needed in order for us to understand the goodness of the world, then why wouldn’t he give us just the very minimum dosage of necessary to achieve that goal?

A counterargument might suggest that there’s always a good that corresponds to, and is proportionate to, any evil. But empirically, such goodness is really hard to find. What good, for example, could possibly correspond to the horrors of a genocide? In cases like this, Hick’s soul-making doesn’t seem to cut it.

You can’t really argue that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” because, sometimes, evil does kill us. A lot of us. And sometimes it kills us before we have a chance to grow and learn from the suffering we’ve endured.

Despite these and other philosophical sticking points, a lot of people have found a theodicy that satisfies them – one that they believe reconciles the apparent evil in the world with God’s existence. Others find all of these theodicies to be flawed, and they reject God’s omni-nature,

Preserving their belief in God by finding him to be less than perfectly powerful, or knowledgeable, or good. Still others are convinced that the evil in the world is simply incompatible with the existence of a god, or at least any god worth worshipping.

Wherever you end up, this is a problem that needs to be grappled with. And you’ll probably be thinking about it long after this lesson has ended. After all, today we have considered the biggest problem in theism – the problem of evil.

We’ve thought about different theodicies – or ways that we might reconcile the existence of evil and the existence of god, and we’ve explored whether those responses are sufficient. Next time, we’ll consider what kinds of justification we need to have for our religious beliefs.

This episode of Crash Course Philosophy is made possible by Squarespace. Squarespace is a way to create a website, blog or online store for you and your ideas. Squarespace features a user-friendly interface, custom templates and 24/7 customer support. Try Squarespace at course for a special offer. Squarespace: share your passion with the world.

Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out amazing shows like PBS Idea Channel, The Chatterbox, and PBS Space Time. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio

With the help of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.

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