The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams

The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford 1990).

If God is almighty, all-knowing, and perfectly good, why do bad things happen? Depending on where one stands, such a question is puzzle, a mystery, or proof that the concept of a deity is unsubstantiated. The seeds of the problem can be seen with Epicurus in the 3rd century BCE and has been developed over the centuries. Although stated in many ways, the following argument should give one the gist of the issue at hand.1

  1. If God were all powerful, God could prevent any evil,
  2. If God were all knowing, God would know how to prevent any evil,
  3. If God were perfectly good, God would wish to prevent any evil,
  4. Evil is incompatible with an all powerful, all knowing, and perfectly good being,
  5. By definition, God is all powerful, all knowing, and perfectly good,
  6. Evil exists.
  7. God does not exist.

The argument took its modern form with David Hume and his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion but perhaps took on its most rigorous and pithy incarnation with J. L. Mackie and his 1955 article “Evil and Omnipotence.” The following forty years so since the publication of Mackie’s oft quoted and reproduced article has spawned a renewed philosophical interest in and creative investigation of the question of evil.

Adams and Adams have selected twelve previously published articles or chapters (starting with Mackie) to show how the problem has developed and how landscape has changed. Yes, these are all previously published and one could, if one wished, go to the effort of assembling these for yourself, but they are so well placed with each other and the introduction so instructive that the book itself is well worth reading, whether one is an upper-level undergraduate studying philosophy or religion, a professor of the same, or an amateur philosopher.

As previously stated, The Problem, starts with Mackie. For those, such as myself, who have seen Mackie and his argument invoked, summarized, and critiqued, it is good to have finally read the argument as a piece, if for no other reason but because the summaries not only abbreviate the main thrust of Mackie’s presentation but lop off most of his subsidiary critiques.

This in turn is followed by Nelson Pike’s “Hume on Evil,” which allows us to see the connection between Hume and Mackie. More than that, Pike’s argument, including his borrowing of Leibniz’s best possible world analysis paves the way the arguments that Alvin Plantinga would later refine in The Nature of Necessity and God, Freedom and Evil.

One pleasant surprise for me was Roderick Chisholm’s “The Defeat of Good and Evil.” Anyone who has read Marilyn McCord Adams’ numerous contributions to the question of evil will be aware of her distinction between balancing good against evil with good defeating evil. The technical distinction is found in this article dating from 1968, and Chisholm is know for nothing if not crafting every finer technical definitions.

The next two chapters, Alvin Plantinga’s “God, Evil and the Problem of Evil” and Robert Merrihew’s Adams’ “Middle Knowledge and the Problem of Evil,” are well paired. Mackie is credited with bringing new rigor to the problem of evil and setting the stage for subsequent discussion. Plantinga can take credit not only for answering Mackie but for taking the problem into a whole new direction. One simply cannot appreciate the various arguments regarding the problem of evil over the past twenty years without reference to this article. The key feature of Plantinga’s argument involves reviving (and recasting) an idea called middle knowledge. Adam’s critique of middle knowledge is important not in that overturns Plantinga’s argument but that it makes a atheologian’s task all the harder—though at the cost of jettisoning some long-held views of omniscience. This has created its own debated among believers.

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