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Antony is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She specializes in thephilosophy of mind and epistemology. She is the editor, most recently, of Philosophers Without Gods:Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life (Oxford University Press, 2007).
NO GOOD REASON—EXPLORING THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
There are many different ways to conceive of the divine, but according to one familiarconception, common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there is exactly one deity—God—and this deity is eternal, omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and perfectlygood. I’ll use the term theism to denote the view that God, so conceived, exists. I’ll call thosewho accept this doctrine theists and those who deny it atheists. Theists believe that God, thisbeing who is perfect in all respects, has complete dominion over the world in which we live;most believe he created it. But therein lies a problem: Is this world the kind of world we wouldexpect from a perfect being?
The issue is suffering. Our world is full of suffering; it seems woven into the fabric of life.Every sentient being on the planet suffers, some almost incessantly. Physical suffering isentailed by a natural order that requires some animals to kill others in order to live, and allanimals, predator and prey alike, lead lives governed by urgent but frequently unsatisﬁedbiological needs. Much of the physical pain we suffer is the result of disease or injury—to whichall animals are constantly vulnerable—but some of it is the natural accompaniment to perfectlyhealthy processes, like menstruation and childbirth. Creatures who are capable of emotionexperience emotional pain: terror, sadness, and confusion. Complex psychologies makeavailable new forms of pain: dread, hopelessness, anxiety, depression, guilt, shame,compulsions, hallucinations, and delusions. The human need for social connection makesnearly inevitable for us the searing pain of loss. How can all of this be squared with thesupposition that an all-powerful being set things up with the well-being of His creatures inmind?
Considerations like these constitute what’s often called the problem of evil, a problem that isregarded by believers and nonbelievers alike as posing a deep challenge to theism. Manyatheists will say that it is this problem that convinced them that there was no God,1 and manytheists will admit that they have struggled with the problem themselves. I’m going to argue inthis essay that in the end, the atheists are right: the problem of evil—or, as I will refer to it, theproblem of suffering 2 —constitutes a strong enough argument against theism to justify atheism.But I want also to show that the matter is a little more complicated than some atheists realize.
The Logical Argument from Suffering
Some atheists argue that the mere existence of suffering shows conclusively that there is noGod.3 That is, they argue that the characteristics standardly attributed to God—speciﬁcally, hismoral goodness and his omnipotence—are logically incompatible with the toleration ofsuffering. Hume, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, attributes reasoning like this tothe ancient philosopher Epicurus, paraphrasing him thus:
Is [God] able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he willing, but not able? Then he isimpotent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then, is evil?
Now a series of rhetorical questions is not yet an argument, but it’s pretty easy to see whatHume had in mind. Here’s one way of reconstructing the argument:
THE LOGICAL ARGUMENT FROM SUFFERING
- No morally good being would allow suffering if he or she were able to prevent it. [“NoTolerance”]
- An omnipotent 4 being would always be able to prevent suffering.
- THEREFORE, if there were a morally good, omnipotent being, there would be nosuffering.
- There is suffering.
- THEREFORE, there is no being who is both morally good and omnipotent.
This argument is valid, and many atheists ﬁnd it completely convincing. But they shouldn’t. Theargument is not sound; its ﬁrst premise is false. We can see this from everyday experience.
Consider the following case: A loving parent (who we will call “Parent”) follows the guidanceof child-care experts and disciplines his child (“Child”) by allowing her to experience the“natural consequences” of her actions. On one occasion, Child leaves a favorite toy outsideovernight, ignoring Parent’s warning that doing so might result in damage to the toy. Indeed,there is a terrible rainstorm that night; the toy is buffeted by the winds and pelted by the rain.The next morning Child ﬁnds the toy in ruins, its delicate mechanism shattered. Child isdisconsolate.
Now let us suppose further that Parent foresaw all of this. He realized, when the storm ﬁrstthreatened, what damage it would do to the toy. Parent also knew how upset Child would be toﬁnd it ruined. Parent could have spared Child the pain—all he would have had to do was run outto the backyard and retrieve the toy before the storm hit—but he allowed it.
What’s the verdict about Parent? I hope you will agree that Parent was not wrong to leavethe toy where Child abandoned it. Parent’s purpose in mindfully ignoring the toy was to teachChild a lesson—a valuable one—about the consequences of negligence. Had Parent intervened,he would have spared Child the pain of losing her favorite plaything, but at the cost of allowingher to persist in behavior that might eventually lead to much worse suffering down the road.Had Parent intervened, Child might have remained ignorant of important structural features ofher world—like the strength of wind and the fragility of toys—that make it necessary to care forthe things one values. Given the importance of this lesson for Child’s future happiness, wemight even go so far as to say that Parent actually had a duty to take the steps necessary toimpart it.
Clearly then, the Principle of No Tolerance is false. There are circumstances in which amorally good being might choose to allow suffering that he or she could have prevented.
But maybe we were just careless in the phrasing of premise (1). Let’s see if we can repair thelogical argument by reformulating the ﬁrst premise, to take account of the considerations thatcame to light in our story. Basically what emerged is that a morally good being might justiﬁablypermit an instance of suffering that he could have prevented, as long as he had a good reasonfor doing so. So let’s build that condition into our revised principle. That would gives us:
THE PRINCIPLE OF NO TOLERANCE UNLESS
(1*) No morally good being would allow suffering if he or she were able to prevent it unlesshe or she had a good reason to permit it.
This principle is much more plausible than No Tolerance, and it does protect the argumentfrom mundane counterexamples such as our story of the damaged toy. But this revision marksthe beginning of the end for the Logical Argument.
Notice that if we simply replace premise (1) with premise (1*), then the resulting argument isnot valid—we cannot derive (3) from (1*) and (2). The Principle of No Tolerance Unless opens upa logical loophole. To close it, the atheist would have to add a premise like this:
- GOOD REASON
- 5) There is no good reason that a morally good, omnipotent being could have to allowsuffering.
Putting all this together, we get what we could call “The Weakened Logical Argument”:
THE WEAKENED LOGICAL ARGUMENT FROM SUFFERING
- ) No morally good being would allow suffering if he or she were able to prevent it, unlesshe or she had a good reason to permit it. [“No Tolerance Unless”]
- An omnipotent being would always be able to prevent suffering.
- 5) There is no good reason that a morally good, omnipotent being could have to allowsuffering. [“No Good Reason”]
- THEREFORE, if there were a morally good, omnipotent being, then there would be nosuffering.
- There is suffering.
- THEREFORE, there is no being who is both morally good and omnipotent.
Now we have a valid argument again, but we’ve strayed far from the original terms of theLogical Argument. The atheist was supposed to show that it was inconceivable how sufferingcould be tolerated by an omnipotent, morally good being, and she was supposed to do this byshowing how the nonexistence of suffering could be derived from the theist’s own conceptionof God. But No Good Reason goes well beyond the theist’s deﬁnition. It makes a substantiveclaim about God’s motives, and one that is by no means obviously true.
The theist will point out that even in the realm of the human, we are never in a position tosay for sure that someone acted without good reason. They will point out—quite reasonably, Ithink—that we cannot tell from the superﬁcial appearance of a situation what the moral factsare. Suppose you saw someone plunging a penknife into the throat of another person. There’sno reason that could justify an action like that, right? Wrong! It might turn out that the “victim”was choking to death and needed an emergency tracheotomy, which the “assailant,” whohappened to be a surgeon, was fortunately able to perform. What this shows, the theist mightargue, is that situations can turn out to be complicated in ways that one wouldn’t haveanticipated, and these complications can make a decisive difference to our understanding ofthe moral dimensions of the case.5
- think the atheist should concede that the Logical Argument is a failure; the theist does notviolate logic in believing that there is a morally good, omnipotent being in a world that alsocontains suffering. But the failure of the Logical Argument doesn’t mean that the problem ofsuffering has been solved. The atheist will note that while there is nocontradiction insupposing that a morally good, omnipotent being would have a good reason for toleratingsuffering, it is still very difﬁcult to see what such a reason might be. If the atheist can show thatthere are good grounds for believing that no such reason exists, then she will have shown thatthere are good grounds for denying that God exists.
- Evidential Argument from Suffering
What the atheist needs to do, then, is modify her strategy. She can’t show that the existence ofsuffering proves that there is no God, but perhaps she can show that the existence of sufferingprovides very good evidence that there is no God. She cannot say that the principle No GoodReason is certainly true, but perhaps she can give grounds for thinking that it is very probablytrue.6 So let’s consider the following argument:
- EVIDENTIAL ARGUMENT FROM SUFFERING
- ) No morally good being would fail to prevent suffering if he or she were able to preventit, unless he or she had a good reason to permit it. [“No Tolerance Unless”]
- An omnipotent being would always be able to prevent suffering.
- 5)Probably, there is no good reason that a morally good, omnipotent being could have forfailing to prevent suffering. [“No Good Reason”]
- THEREFORE, if there were a morally good, omnipotent being, thenprobably there wouldbe no suffering.
- There is suffering.
- THEREFORE,probably there is no being who is both morally good and omnipotent.
Let’s see how this argument fares.
The atheist should start by explaining what it is for someone to have a “good reason” forpermitting suffering. In our story, Parent’s reason for allowing Child to suffer was that Parentwanted to teach Child an important lesson, and allowing her to experience the painfulconsequences of her own negligence was the only way to do it.7 What makes this a goodreason?
First of all, Parent acted on the basis of a morally laudable goal—sparing Child great pain anddisappointment in the future. It’s vital to our moral assessment of Parent’s actions that we areable to endorse this goal as a good one. But it’s also important that we can recognize it assufﬁciently important to warrant the suffering that Parent allowed Child to endure. Supposethat the only reason Parent failed to retrieve the toy before the rains came was that Parent didnot want to interrupt a story that his spouse was telling. In this case, I think, we would judgeParent harshly. While it is laudable to attend to a spouse’s story without interruption, doing sois not important enough. The momentary frustration that someone might experience at havingto postpone a punchline (and I take that seriously, I assure you!) is simply not comparable tothe sadness Child will suffer when she discovers that her favorite toy is ruined. We also have toconsider the fairness of Parent’s action—it’s important that Parent’s goal is Child’s well-being. Itwould be wrong for Parent to allow Child’s toy to be ruined simply in order to show an oldersibling what happens if you are negligent. Although teaching Sibling an important lesson is amorally laudable goal, Parent would not be justiﬁed in causing distress to Child in order toachieve it. That would be unjust.
So the ﬁrst requirement that would have to be met for God to have a good reason forpermitting the amount of suffering we observe in the world is that that reason would have tobe very, very, very important, because we are talking about an enormous amount of suffering.Consider just the suffering of non-human animals. As I noted at the beginning, hunger, fear,exhaustion, and violence are a regular part of their everyday experience. What moral goal couldjustify the creation of a natural order where this is so? It could not be the imparting of animportant lesson to the animals, because most if not all of them are incapable of the kind ofreasoning they’d need to learn it and beneﬁt from it. And it could not be the imparting of alesson to us, because it would be unjust to make the non-human animals suffer in order tobeneﬁt the human ones.
Well, how about this as a surpassingly important moral goal: eternal bliss? Couldn’t it be thatthe whole of earthly existence—including all the suffering—is a necessary part of God’s plan tobring his creatures into eternal union with him in heaven?8 I agree that eternal bliss would be avery, very, very important moral goal. And perhaps it could be part of the story (to ﬁnesse thequestion of justice) that the non-human animals get to go to heaven, too. But now we get to adifferent problem—what kind of “necessity” could there be that compels God to use sufferingto achieve his goal?
Parent, recall, is constrained to pursue his morally laudable goal against a background ofconstraints that he did not choose and that he could not alter. He wants Child to live as healthyand as happy a life as possible, given the factors that structure human life. Parent cannot alterthe physical and psychological contingencies that make it necessary for him to decide betweenthe small, local suffering entailed by the loss of the toy and the potentially greater futuresuffering to which Child is vulnerable if she doesn’t learn to take care of her things. Parentcannot alter the conditions under which material things decay, nor can he alter the laws ofhuman psychology that make harsh experience not only the best but often the only possibleteacher. Thus, while Parent could act to prevent that one particular bit of suffering, he cannotdo so without exposing Child to the risk of greater suffering in the future. Parent cannotprevent Child’s ever suffering at all.
All this is true for Parent, but none of it is true for God. God is not just any morally goodagent—God is an omnipotent morally good agent. Parent’s reason for permitting Child to sufferwas that it was necessary in order for Child to learn a morally valuable lesson. But God hasoptions that Parent didn’t have. God could arrange things so that it never matters to Child’shappiness whether she is responsible or not, maybe by assigning a Super Guardian Angel tofollow Child around for the rest of her life, miraculously protecting toys, books, musicalinstruments, and anything else threatened by Child’s carelessness. Alternatively, God couldhave altered Child’s psychology so that she accepted without question the counsel of herParent, without needing to experience the harsh consequences of ignoring it. In the same vein,God could simply arrange it so that, when the time comes, Child simply knows theconsequences of negligence without having had to learn them from experience. Finally, Godcould have arranged for toys, and other precious things, to be made out of indestructiblematerials. In short, God cannot shift the blame in the ways that Parent can.
In what sense, then, could the suffering of non-human animals be necessary for God toachieve his aim of bringing human creatures to eternal bliss? It is plausible that it wasbiologically necessary for the emergence of human animals that there be a long—really long—period of evolution in our past, with all the suffering for prehistoric non-human animals thatentails. But God, as an omnipotent being, can bend biology to his will. Indeed, what biology is isdependent on God’s will—he’s the one who makes the laws of biology in the ﬁrst place. Facts ofnature of the sort that constrain Parent and structure his choices are as nothing to anomnipotent being. It’s very difﬁcult to see what kind of “necessity” could force God to trade offsuffering now for greater happiness later.
The theist might respond by saying that there is a kind of necessity that can constrain evenan omnipotent being: logical necessity. No one, not even God, can make it the case both thatthere are spiders and that there are no spiders. (Tip: If you ever get to choose, go for nospiders.) That’s because it’s logically impossible for spiders to both exist and not exist. Theresimply is no such possible state of affairs. Not being able to bring about such a state of affairsseems consistent with God’s being omnipotent, for it’s hardly a limitation on his power to beunable to bring about a state of affairs that cannot—because logic says it cannot—be broughtabout.
But how does this help the theist? There are two possible ways. First, there is what’s calledthe free will defense. According to this line of thought, free will is something of surpassinglyimportant moral value. (Let’s suppose that that is so.9 ) But in order for God to create beingswith free will, he must refrain from interfering with the actions they freely choose to perform.Of course human beings, many times, choose to do things that cause suffering. God cannotprevent this suffering, because to do so he would have to ensure that we choose one wayrather than another, and that would be the same thing as revoking our free will. So God has nochoice in this matter—there is no possible situation in which God both grants us free will andensures that we make good choices.
Much has been written for and against the free will defense.10 One objection, which youlikely will have anticipated, is that human free will cannot be a good reason for permitting thevast amounts of animal suffering that human beings had nothing to do with or the humansuffering that is due to natural forces (think volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes) rather than tohuman choice. But maybe the strategy behind the free will defense (i.e., appealing to logicalnecessity as a source of “constraint” on even the omnipotent) can be employed to show us howGod might have had a good reason for permitting even non-human-caused suffering.
Here’s how the story might go: just as it may be difﬁcult to give a moral assessment of asituation when we know little about it, it can be difﬁcult to give a logical assessment of asituation when we know little about it. There can be coherent descriptions of a state of affairsthat, once we know a bit more, turns out to be impossible. Consider poor Oedipus. Oedipusthought that the following described a possible state of affairs: “I will marry Jocasta, and I won’tmarry my mother.” But as he discovered later, to his horror, there was no such possible state ofaffairs. Jocasta was his mother, so it was impossible for him to marry Jocasta and not marry hismother.11 Similarly, the theist might continue, the descriptions we give of situations that wethink are perfectly possible, and that God therefore could easily have brought about, may turnout to refer to situations that cannot possibly exist. It may seem to us that God could havedesigned human anatomy in such a way that childbirth was not painful to women. But that mayonly be because “women give birth without pain” looks like a self-consistent description.Maybe, if we knew all the facts, we would see that there is something about women, orchildbirth, or pain that connects them necessarily, just as Jocasta turns out to be connectednecessarily to Oedipus’s mother. Maybe, in fact, all the laws of nature are connected in such away that if God created any material world at all, he’d have to create one like this.
- think that the atheist has to concede, as she did earlier in our discussion of moralassessment, that we cannot be sure, from a surface description of a situation, that it has thefeatures that it appears to have. But where has this concession gotten us? The atheist hasalready given up thelogical argument from suffering; she admits that there could begoodreason for God to permit the suffering we observe around us. Right now we are concerned withwhat it isreasonablebelieve, not with what is merely possible. Yes, the person stabbingsomeone with a penknifecould, for all we’ve observed so far, be a surgeon performing a life-saving operation. But what are the chances?
- we were asked in the abstract “Could a loving Parent possibly allow his child’s favorite toyto be ruined, when he could easily have saved it?” we might initially say no. But as soon assomeone mentioned the possibility that Parent was trying to teach Child a lesson, we’d quicklychange our mind. Yes, of course, we’d say—we didn’t think of that. Parent might have had agood reason after all. Seeing the possible reason for it, we can easily see Parent’s behavior in adifferent light.
But now let’s suppose we get some more information. Child testiﬁes, credibly, that Parentnever warned her about the consequences of leaving her toy out in the rain, and that she,Child, didn’t know what those consequences would be. Maybe Parent himself admits the truthof all this. Suppose, further, that you learn that there was, in fact, no rainstorm. Parent, it turnsout, deliberately activated the sprinkler system and allowed it to run throughout the night.Discoveries of this sort continue, and the more you learn, the more unsettled you become. Itemerges that there have been a host of incidents throughout Child’s short life in which Parentdid things that good parents never do. Once, Child was beaten severely for setting the tableincorrectly. Another time, Parent arranged for a neighbor to offer Child a type of lusciouscandy that Child had been speciﬁcally forbidden to eat; when Child (predictably) succumbed totemptation, Parent punished her by locking her out of the house, forcing her to sleep in adangerous back alley where she was vulnerable to vermin and desperate drug addicts. In lightof all this new evidence, you conclude that you were right in the ﬁrst place: Parent is a very badparent.
At this point, it would be grotesque for someone who wanted to defend Parent simply topoint out that there is surely some possible reason a good parent might have had for doing allthe things that Parent has done, and that perhaps Parent had no choice but to do the things hedid. You don’t deny that it is possible that such a reason exists—you cannot prove that it doesn’t.It is, however, a mystery what such a reason could be. The details of the case raise particularsticking points, such as: How could an etiquette mistake warrant a beating? How could it bethat Parent had no option but to expose Child to mortal danger? And since the danger ismortal, what greater good could the punishment serve? If Parent’s defender cannot give us asubstantive candidate reason, one that addresses these and the many other questions that canbe raised about the case, then we are justiﬁed in concluding that probably, Parent is bad.
The situation, I contend, is the same with God. When we confront seriously the amount ofsuffering in the world (fawns dying in ﬁres, children struck with painful illness, adults enduringpointless depression) and consider the way it is distributed (afﬂictions heapeddisproportionately on the poor and the vulnerable), I think the rational conclusion to draw isthat there is no good reason for it. A good reason would have to be one that involved asurpassingly important moral goal, where the achievement of that goal required, in a sensestrong enough to constrain an omnipotent being, the mass of suffering we see in the worldaround us. It’s not enough for the theist to insist that there could be such a reason or to pointout that we haven’t proved that there couldn’t be such a reason: the theist has to show us whatsuch a reason might be. And if the theist cannot? Then the Evidential Argument from Sufferingsucceeds.