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

June 6th, 2011 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

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.

The next three represent a debated between William Rowe and Stephen Wykstra. Rowe’s “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” along with Wykstra’s “The Humean Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering,” reflect not only a response to Plantinga in weakening Makie’s argument from logical to evidential but the believer’s agnostic reply. Basically Rowe’s argument is that on the evidence, one would expect either less suffering than there is or that there would be no suffering of a particular sort (Rowe presses the second here). Wykstra’s reply is that such an analysis depends on (a) what we are in a position to know or expect and (b) within some specific varieties of theism we would expect goods beyond our ken to arise out of evils. Some variations of this argument have been called the agnostic defense. Rowe’s rejoinder is that Wykstra is relying on an enhanced version of theism that depends on the more generic version that he, Rowe, has criticized. Consequently the enhanced version falls with the generic. Both evidential problem of evil and the “agnostic” reply have been hotly debated in the literature. What is also interesting here is that Rowe’s rejoinder neatly sets up Marilyn McCord Adam’s final contribution to this anthology.

Unlike much The Problem, he next installment, a couple of chapters in John Hick’s Evil and the Love of God, is out of chronological sequence. Although Hick’s book might be consider something akin to basic reading on the problem of evil, it does approach things from a very different direction. If you have ever heard the phrase, “vale of soul-making,” you can thank Hick. Discussions, such as Plantinga or Pike’s, which focus on the amount or balance of good and evil in the world are seen by Hicks as essentially aesthetic and do not address the situation of the sufferer herself. Hick argues that what the universe is about is the making and perfecting of souls and that this task requires suffering.

Diogenes Allen at once expands upon Hick and turns his analysis on its head. Allen argues (against Hick’s anthropocentric view) that an aesthetic consideration, if taken teleologically for nature as a whole is a valuable perspective that should not be cast off. In doing so, however, he does make a point, similar to that of Hick’s, that suffering has the potential to open us up to the love of God and so at least has the potential to be of some use.

One of the editors had been setting herself up to have the last word in this anthology. As already noted, a number selections point to Marilyn McCord Adams’ “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.” Adams article to one extent or another takes on most of what has come before and arrives at a provocative synthesis. What most noteworthy of Adams’ work, however, is how she pushes the point with examining evils which would seem to provide doubt that one’s life could provide oneself any great good (what she terms horrendous evils) and the defense of the hope that such evils are defeated by God in that God participates in our suffering with us as made evident in Jesus Christ.

1There is a very separate, and under-appreciated problem that asks that if God is the source of all being, how evil can exist if God is essentially good. If God is good, whence came evil?