Generic and Specific Problems of Evil

The nature and tractability of the problem depends on the type of theism espoused

A reader requests some help in a debate he is having with some atheists about the problem of evil.  My advice: don't debate atheists.  Read their arguments and consider them carefully.  Then think the problem through for yourself  in as intellectually honest and existentially serious a manner as you can.  Then decide whether to engage in religious practices.  Debate with atheists is like debate with leftists: it is unlikely to be fruitful.  There is no fruitful debate without common ground, and theists and atheists share very little common ground.

But the following way of looking at the matter of God and evil may be of some help to my reader.  In this entry I distinguish generic theism from specific theisms and then I claim that (i) the logical complexion and tractability of the problem of evil depends on the type of theism adopted, and that (ii) for something close to an orthodox -- miniscule 'o'-- Christian theism the problem of evil is more tractable than for generic theism.

Suppose we define a 'generic theist' as one who affirms the existence of a bodiless person, a pure spirit, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and who in addition is perfectly free, the creator and sustainer of the universe, the source of its intelligibility and value, and the ground of moral obligation. This generic theism is common to the mainstream of the three Abrahamic religions. Most theists, however, are not 'generic' but adopt a specific form of theism. Christians, for example, add to the divine attributes listed above the attribute of being triune and others besides. Christianity also includes doctrines about the human being and his ultimate destiny in an afterlife. The (philosophical) anthropology and eudaimonology of Christianity is just as important to it as its theology. Generic theism is thus an abstraction from the concrete specific theisms that people accept and live.  And let's be clear that while doctrine is essential to religion, pace Wittgenstein, and/or certain of his followers, no religion is exhausted by its doctrine.  Each concrete religion is a way of life and a form of life.  Each concrete religion involves both doctrine and practice, an orthodoxy and an orthopraxy.

Now the point I want to make is that, just as we ought to distinguish between generic theism and specific theisms, we ought to distinguish between the generic problem of evil and specific problems of evil. The generic problem of evil is the problem faced by the generic theist of reconciling belief in a God possessing the standard omni-attributes with the existence of evil in the kinds and amounts encountered in the actual world. A specific problem of evil, on the other hand, is the problem a specific type of theist has in reconciling the existence of God with the existence of evil.

We need to examine whether the problem a theist of a specific stripe has in reconciling God and evil is easier to solve or perhaps harder to solve than the problem a generic theist has.

To see what I am driving at, imagine a version of theism — call it version A — that affirms God, immortal souls, and the eventual blissful communion of all souls with God. On this version of theism there is purgatory, but no hell defined as a state of everlasting separation from God. Thus on this version of theism there is post-mortem evil, the pain of purgatory, but this purgatorial evil is instrumental for the achieving of a higher good and is to that extent redeemed by this higher good.

Now compare this theism-A with a theism-B which affirms God but denies post-mortem existence whether in the form of immortal souls or in the form of resurrected (ensouled) bodies. On this alternative the God of the generic theist (defined above) exists, but for human beings this life is all there is: at death a human being ceases to exist utterly. Now does it not seem that the theist-B faces a much tougher problem than the theist-A when it comes to reconciling a good God with the fact of evil?  So it seems to me.

For the theist-B, the horrendous evils of this life are not compensated for by any life to come. One suffers pointlessly, meaninglessly.  But for the theist-A, the transient evils of this short life are as nothing compared to the endless bliss of the soul's communion with God and with other purified souls. Thus gratuitous evil for the theist-A is a vanishing quantity.  To appreciate this, you must understand that for the theist-A, God is Being itself in its full plenitude while this world, though real, is entirely derivative and entirely dependent, at each instant, on the divine Reality for its existence, nature, intelligibility, and value.  The supreme Reality is like the sun outside of Plato's Cave; this world is the cave, its furnishings, and its benighted troglodytes.

[By the way, right here is a chief reason for the pointlessness of discussions with atheists.  The typical atheist is a naturalist/materialist/physicalist for whom  this physical world is the ens reallissimum.  One cannot have a fruitful discussion with someone whose sense of reality and value is entirely different from one's own. Analogy with the political: if you have a traditional notion of justice you won't get far with someone who thinks of justice as 'social justice.' But I digress.]

Most atheists share the very strong intuition that the probability of this world's containing the amount of evil it does is much greater on the hypothesis that God does not exist than it is on the hypothesis that God exists:

Prob(E/~G) >> Prob(E/G).

They take this as evidence that there is no God.  For if there were a God possessing the standard omni-attributes, why would there be the amounts of evil that we actually encounter?  But to properly evaluate this inequality, how can one leave out the rest of what most theists believe? The amount and kinds of evil in this world enter the calculation, no doubt. But the absence of gratuitous evil, and the presence of unending bliss in the next world, are also relevant if the question concerns reconciling God and evil within theism-A.

Here is an  analogy.  Some of us had rotten childhoods but are enjoying very good adulthoods.  Suppose Sam is such a person, now age 60.  Up to age 23 Sam's life was on balance not worth living; after age 23 it became worth living.  Suppose Sam claims that his life is overall rotten due to his lousy first 23 years.  You would point out to him that his judgment is ridiculous and unjust.  The quality of one's life overall depends on the whole of it, not just on part of it.  There is also the consideration that there is a surplus of value due to the life's going from bad to good, rather than in the other direction (bonum progressionis.)  Similarly, a just evaluation of the value of life in this world cannot be based solely on what goes on in this world, but must also take into consideration what goes on in the next.

To sum up:

1. Real live theists are not generic theists, but theists of some particular stripe or other. Generic theism is an abstraction.  Real live theists hold specific doctrines that are embodied in specific practices.  Among these doctrines will be a theory of the nature of man, his ultimate destiny, his final felicity, and his relation to God.  Although the question of the existence of God is logically distinct from the question of the nature of man, in a specific theism such as Christianity, the theology and the anthropology are mutually influencing so much so that if there is no God, then there is no Man either.  (If what distinguishes man from other animals is imago dei, then no God, no Man.)

2. The problem of evil, if it is to be a genuine existential conundrum bearing on how one lives one's life and not a mere logic puzzle, is the problem of reconciling the existence of the God of a particular religion with the fact of evil as evil is understood from within this particular religion.

3. A theism that affirms God, post-mortem existence, and the eventual unending blissful communion of all souls (or resurrected persons) with God does not face the same problem of evil as a version of theism which denies post-mortem existence.  The problem of evil for the former type of theist is much less serious than it is for the theist of the latter type. 

4. It is dialectically unfair for atheists to argue against all (classical) theists from the fact of the evil in this world when (i) not all theists are generic theists, and (ii) some theists believe that the transient evils of this short life are far outweighed by the unending bliss of the world to come.

5. It is arguable that there is no insoluble problem of evil for theists-A. Suppose this world is a "vale of soul-making" (the phrase is from John Keats) in which human beings, exercising free will, make themselves worthy, or fail to make themselves worthy, of communion with God. Combine this soul-making idea with post-mortem existence, and the existence of purgatory but not hell, and we have perhaps the elements of a solution to the problem of evil. (Cf. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, Part IV)

Let me conclude by noting that a theism-C which holds to eternal damnation for some may exacerbate the problem of evil. Here I refer you to David Lewis' posthumous "Divine Evil" in Louise Antony, ed., Philosophers Without Gods, Oxford 2007, pp. 231-242. Lewis, may God rest his soul, maintains that the usual logical and evidential arguments from evil are a "sideshow" compared to a "simpler argument, one that has been strangely neglected" (p. 231) that focuses not on the evils that God fails to prevent, but on the one's he perpetrates. And then he goes on to speak of hell and eternal torment. You can guess what conclusion he comes to.

We shall have to examine Lewis' simpler argument from evil in a separate post. But I am happy that he in effect concedes one of my points, namely, that a serious discussion of the problem of evil must address the whole of a theistic position and not focus merely on God and his attributes.