[This post belongs to a four-part series that Rationally Speaking is running with one of our podcast guests, Prof. David Kyle Johnson of the Department of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Kyle's philosophical specializations include logic, metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of religion. His publications include “God, Fatalism, and Temporal Ontology” (Religious Studies) and “Natural Evil and the Simulation Hypothesis” (Philo). He also teaches and has published extensively on the interaction between philosophy and popular culture, including a textbook (Introducing Philosophy Through Pop Culture) and two edited volumes in the Wiley/Blackwell series (on Christopher Nolan’s Inception and NBC’s Heroes). He maintains the blog Plato on Pop with William Irwin for Psychology Today, and hosts a podcast.] [go to part I]
I am in the midst of arguing that many theists are committed to believing that we live in a computer simulation. Last time I defined the simulation hypothesis and showed why it is more likely than you would suspect. Now I'm going to show that the problem of natural evil is misunderstood and clearly define how it presents itself to the modern academic theist.
The logical problem of natural evil is often misunderstood. Alvin Plantinga suggested that it is merely a seeming logical incompatibility between these two premises:
(1) God (an omnipotent, omniscience, omni-benevolent being) exists.
(2) Natural evil exists.
Since it is a seeming logical incompatibility, to solve this problem, all one needs to do is tell a logically consistent story in which both (1) and (2) are true. Plantinga’s suggestion? Demons did it! According to Plantinga, the story in which demons are actually the cause of calamities such as earthquakes and hurricanes, and the evil they bring about, is one in which both God and natural evil co-exist. According to Plantinga, it is logically possible that God would not prevent the evil actions of free agents, and since demons would be freely acting agents, it would be logically consistent for God to allow demons to cause such calamities. And since Plantinga is only trying to resolve a logical incompatibility, Plantinga need not actually endorse the “demon did it” theory in order for this solution to work.
There are a number of problems here. Not everyone, for example, agrees that it is logically coherent for God to allow moral evil. Hitler’s ability to freely choose to exterminate the Jews, for example, just isn’t that important. More importantly, however, the story Plantinga proposes is not one in which (1) and (2) are actually true together. Plantinga is taking “natural evil” and “calamities” to be synonymous, and so he thinks a story in which earthquakes, hurricanes and God co-exist is a story in which natural evil and God co-exist. But if such calamities are caused by moral agents, such as demons, then the evil they produce is not natural evil — it is moral evil. Thus Plantinga’s story is not one in which God and natural evil co-exist; it is a story in which there is no natural evil, and God and moral evil co-exist.
I am not just splitting linguistic hairs here. The logical problem of natural evil is not merely a problem of how God and calamities can co-exist. Truth be told, the mere existence of such calamities has never posed much of a logical threat to God’s existence. Humans have come up with many ways to not fault God for tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes: Aquinas suggested they were punishment for sin — perhaps Adam’s, perhaps our own. The Gnostics suggested they were the work of the imperfect God of the Old Testament; the world of the New Testament God would be perfect. Others blamed… you guessed it… demons. If Plantinga thought he was presenting an original argument, he apparently hadn't done his homework. Such solutions had already functioned perfectly well to protect theistic belief for centuries... until science came along.
Science originated as a quest to find the laws that govern the universe. The assumption was that, if God had created the universe, then it must be orderly, and so we set out to find that order. When we did, we discovered something we didn’t expect — an explanation for calamities, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, rooted in these newly discovered laws. It took a while for some of those explanations to mature, but we discovered that tornadoes are the result of a complex interplay between cool, dry air and warm, moist air in thunderstorms. Earthquakes are the result of tectonic plates slipping and releasing vast amounts of energy that build up as they press together. Hurricanes are the result of (roughly put) water vapor hovering over low pressure areas in the ocean. Diseases and mental disorders are the work of viruses, germs, genetic anomalies, chemical imbalances and brain injuries. The natural laws are such that given certain inevitable initial conditions, such calamities are a necessary consequence. Thus they acquired the label “natural disasters.” And since natural disasters cause massive amounts of suffering and steal life without discrimination, frequently and at random — and since, according to theism, God is the one who designed the universe, and its laws — well, as you can see, this is major problem for theistic belief.
I have a small yorkie named Alex. Suppose I designed into the blueprint of my house puppy killing machines, embedded into the walls, that randomly, and without warning, reach out with sharp picks and saws to kill any puppy within reach. Suppose I then made my dog Alex live in my house. I could hardly be said to be a loving master. Even if he is lucky and is never in the wrong place at the wrong time, I’m one lousy bastard. Yet this is exactly the kind of universe that God has designed for us to live in — one that can, and does, reach out, without warming, randomly, and kill anyone within reach. If someone did design our universe, they don’t seem to be loving and caring masters.
So, instead of expressing it as an incompatibility between the above statements (1) and (2), we can more accurately express the logical problem of natural evil as a logical incompatibility between (1) and two other statements. Thus, we could say, the problem is that the academic theist is committed to all three of the following:
(1) God (an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent being) exists.
(3) God is the creator and designer of the physical universe, including the laws that govern it.
(4) Natural disasters, and the evil they cause, are a direct byproduct of the laws that govern our universe.
Notice how irrelevant Plantinga’s “Demon’s did it” solution is to this problem. It would entail that (4) is false, but it is not a story in which (1), (3) and (4) are true together. So, unless Plantinga is willing to deny the findings of modern science, and instead maintain that demons actually do cause natural disasters, and thus deny (4), the “Demon did it” hypothesis is a dead end.
This problem of natural evil is one that theists have yet to adequately address. It is not a problem of why God would allow natural disasters, but how he could ultimately be the author of them by authoring what necessities them: the laws of physics.
How might theists try to solve this problem? It is to that question I will turn in the next entry.