Thursday, January 24, 2013

Problem of evil: logical and evidential versions

To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Problem of evil: logical and evidential versions
Date: 4th March 2009 14:40

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 23 February, with your essay for the University of London BA Philosophy of Religion module, in response to the question, 'What is the difference between the logical and evidential versions of the problem of evil? Evaluate one possible response to EITHER the logical version OR the evidential version.'

You have chosen to discuss the logical version of the problem of evil and the response which you consider is Plantinga's 'free will' defence.

I liked the idea of starting off with the example of 'Who broke the salad tongs?' As an illustration of the difference between the logical and evidential versions of the problem of evil, the example is spoiled somewhat by its complexity. A better use of the example would be to leave out the part about Jaimie, and concentrate on the argument from elimination: 'Either A or B or C. But not-A and not-B. Therefore C.'

An argument is only as strong as its premisses, however, and this is the weakness of the logical version. In fact, I would tend to regard the distinction between the 'logical' and 'evidential' versions as specious. The logical version claims that there 'is' evil in the world, but then as soon as one tries to make sense of this assertion it becomes apparent that the claim is that there is 'unavoidable' or 'unnecessary' evil. But then the whole question of what is or is not unavoidable or unnecessary hangs on empirical considerations.

As a response to the question, you give rather more than the examiner is asking for (in anticipating Mackie's anticipation of possible objections) but we can let that pass. The meat of your essay concerns the validity of the free will defence.

I liked the fact that you were prepared to seriously consider the possibility that God has given human beings free will but *could* if he had so chosen, have placed them in circumstances in which they always made the ethically right choice, or chose good over evil. Surely, every time a person decides between good and evil, there is a chance that they will choose good. Why can't something that happens sometimes happen always? Isn't that enough (however improbable) to establish the coherence of the hypothesis that God could, if he had so chosen, have created a world where human beings were free but in which there was no evil.

I actually suspect that there is something desperately wrong with this. It does sound superficially like the idea that if you gave a monkey a typewriter and enough time it would 'eventually' write all the plays of Shakespeare. You can even calculate the mathematical probability. Assume that there are n characters to choose from including caps and spaces. Then the probability is 1/n x 1/n x 1/n... m times, where m is the total number of characters in Shakespeare's collected works.

Could one do the same with free will? Just take every person, past, present and future, and every challenge requiring a decision, and then multiply the odds.

If that doesn't sound obviously incoherent, consider how the argument would run with false belief. Arguably, having a false belief about something is a kind of 'evil', although it is easier to argue that sometimes having a false belief can have good consequences. Could God so arrange the universe that no-one ever had a false belief about anything? Every time we exercised our judgement, or every time we strained our eyes at some object in the distance we always got it right.

Make things simple enough and it might be possible. But then again, what kind of life would human beings have, knowing only that *whatever they think* they are always right, or always do the right thing? Surely, in such a situation, one of the basic conditions for genuine 'freedom of choice' is lacking. The life they would live is just not a human life. There is no sense of risk or peril, no sense of urgency, hardly a sense, surely, of what it is to 'make a decision'.

However, we are talking about logic, and in response to a logical argument (or what purports to be a logical argument) you need a logically watertight case. What Plantinga ought to say at this point is that if you like you can call your ideal no-error world a world where human beings have 'free will'. But that isn't the kind of free will *worth having*. The kind worth having is the kind which is exercised knowing that errors do happen, that human beings sometimes do make the wrong choice.

On the question of natural evil, I do find the idea that natural evils might have resulted from the wrong exercise of free will by fallen angels simply ridiculous. Why not just blame fallen angels for everything? Why bother with all the rigmarole? Surely this is the kind of thing that brings philosophy into disrepute.

All the best,

Geoffrey