Notes on the Problem of Evil

Sandra LaFave
West Valley College

Philosopher J. L. Mackie published “Evil and Omnipotence” in 1955. That article has become a classic philosophical statement of the problem of evil. Mackie’s article is online here, and it serves as the broad outline for these notes. Mackie was not the first philosopher to address the problem of evil, however. The problem is entrenched in the history of philosophy and theology. Attempts to solve it even have a special name: theodicies.



Let’s get clear (if we can) on the concept of omnipotence first. From Latin, “omni-“ means “all”; “potentia” means “power”. So an omnipotent being has all powers. An omnipotent being can do anything.

But believers have been trying to figure it out, without much success, for centuries, what omnipotence really means. For example, can God create a stone he can’t lift? (If he can, he’s not omnipotent because he can’t lift it; if he can’t, he’s not omnipotent, because he can’t create it.) Can God violate the laws of logic? If God can do anything, can God make 2+2 equal 5? Can God decide to become supremely evil? Can God commit suicide? You can see the problems here, no? It looks like unlimited omnipotence leads to contradictions.

“Omnipotence” might mean

  1. Unlimited Omnipotence:

    • God can do anything at all that anyone can think of. Some theologians think this.

  2. More common among theologians is the notion of Qualified Omnipotence: God can do whatever he chooses to do, but his choices are limited because

    • God imposes limits on himself. For example: some theists say God (as Creator) first created logic and the rules of nature and then chose to follow the rules of logic and also chose not to interfere in the operation of the laws of nature. God created humans with free will and chooses not to interfere with that.


    • The nature of God doesn’t allow him to do some things. For example, since God is essentially good, he can’t become bad.

It may be helpful to remember that the God of Christianity is a logos-type God, unlike the Old Testament God or the gods of the ancient Greek and Roman pantheon. Those gods were unpredictable, irrational, unjust, and vindictive. If you were unlucky enough to incur the wrath of one of those gods, you were doomed to eternal suffering, even if you were a virtuous person. The logos God of the New Testament, by contrast, follows the rules of logic, and is thereby constrained. The universe is consistent (i.e., it follows rules, enabling it to be known by science) and the universe is ultimately morally fair: good is rewarded and evil is punished.


What is the problem of evil?

You’ve probably heard of the problem of evil (also known as the problem of suffering): if God loves us, as Christians say, and he is just and fair and all-knowing and omnipotent, then why is human life often so full of suffering? The suffering of innocent people, e.g., children, seems especially cruel. The God of Christianity knows that innocent children suffer. He's omnipotent, which means he could make the suffering go away. And he's supposedly a loving God (a loving father, according to popular imagery); what kind of loving father would allow his child to starve to death or die from some horrible disease? Some people, like J. L. Mackie, view the problem of evil as the most powerful argument for atheism. A famous literary statement of the problem of evil can be found in Feodor Dostoevsky's famous novel The Brothers Karamazov.

In Confessions, Chapter 5, Augustine states the problem: “Whence is evil? Or was there some evil matter of which He made and formed and ordered it, but left something in it which He did not convert into good? But why was this? Was He powerless to change the whole lump, so that no evil should remain in it, seeing that He is omnipotent? Lastly, why would He make anything at all of it, and not rather by the same omnipotency cause it not to be at all?” In other words, God is omnipotent and therefore obviously able to cause evil “not to be at all”. So why didn’t he choose that route? Either he isn’t all good (Augustine rejects this view) or evil isn’t real (Augustine accepts this view as the solution).

Mackie says the problem of evil arises because the following three statements comprise an inconsistent set: they cannot all be simultaneously true:

  1. God is omnipotent (meaning there are no limits to what God can do).

  2. God is all-good (good in the sense of being actively opposed to evil).

  3. Evil exists.

According to Mackie, one of these statements must be false.

Another common way to state the atheist argument that arises from the problem of evil and omnipotence is a reductio ad absurdum (indirect) proof. This version claims that absurd (i.e., contradictory) consequences follow from the supposition that there is an omnipotent and totally good God. Hence, that supposition cannot be true. If the supposition cannot be true, no such God can exist. Here's the indirect proof:

To prove: There is no God (“God” meaning a being who is both omnipotent and totally good).

  1. Suppose: There is such a God. (I.e., suppose the opposite of the claim we want to prove.

  2. If there is such a God and he’s omnipotent, then there are no limits to what he can do. That’s what “omnipotent” means.

  3. If there is such a God and he’s good, he’d tend to make evil go away. Or, if there is a totally good being, he at minimum doesn’t make things worse; he improves things.

  4. Evil and suffering are bad.

  5. If evil and suffering exist, things could be better.

  6. Evil and suffering exist.

  7. So things could be better.

  8. But if there is a God who is really omnipotent and totally good, then there should be no evil or suffering. God is powerful enough to eliminate it altogether, and he’s totally good, so he should (as a matter of definition) eliminate it altogether. If there is a God who’s omnipotent and totally good, in other words, things really couldn’t be better!

  9. There is a contradiction between statements 7 and 8. The contradiction follows directly from the supposition in statement 1. Therefore statement 1 is absurd. Q.E.D.

As I have presented the argument, it may sound dry. But it carries a lot of emotional weight. Many people struggle with suffering – health problems, war, famine, losses of all kinds. Religious people often tell sufferers to have faith that God will take their suffering away. But I think sufferers want to know why they’re suffering to begin with. If God could have eliminated suffering, and he didn’t, then why didn’t he? And if he didn’t eliminate suffering, how can he be called good at all (let alone totally good); he seems to be just a sadist. This is a hard problem for believers as well as unbelievers; religious bookstores frequently have titles such as “Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen to Good People?” or “Why Did You Do This to Me, God?”.

Some people say the cause of evil is Satan, or the devil. Philosophers don’t usually consider this explanation as separate from the classic problem of evil because it seems to be the same problem in another form:

"Why doesn’t God just get rid of Satan once and for all? If he’s omnipotent, he can. If he’s omnibenevolent, he wants to. So why doesn’t he?"

Philosophical and theological responses to this are the same as for the classic problem of evil.


Solutions that Work (the unorthodox ones, according to Mackie)

Now, you can make the problem of evil go away, but you have to deny key elements of Christian doctrine. In other words, the genuine solutions are unorthodox. “Orthodox” is an interesting words. Many of you know the word “orthodontia” because you’ve had your teeth straightened. The “ortho” in “orthodontia” means “straight” or “going the right way.” The “ortho” in “orthodox” also means “straight” or “going the right way.” If your opinions (doxa) are orthodox, they are along the right lines; they are on the straight path and will not lead you astray. Many Christian sects enforce doctrinal orthodoxy; that is, in order to be a member in good standing, you must profess belief in certain articles of faith, and if you don’t profess belief, you can’t be a member of the church in good standing (you become a heretic or an apostate). Among these articles of faith – or presupposed by them – are the claims that God is totally good, God is omnipotent, and evil is real. There’s no problem of evil if you’re willing to deny any of these claims. So …

  1. “God is not omnipotent” solves the problem. Evil and suffering are no longer problems; God would like to make them go away, and he would if he could, (‘cuz he’s good), but he’s just not powerful enough.[1]

  2. “God is not totally good” solves the problem. Evil and suffering are now perfectly understandable. They happen because God is cruel and mean.

  3. “Evil and suffering don’t exist” solves the problem. There are two common versions of "evil doesn't exist": evil as privation of goodness (Augustine), or evil as illusory (non-Western religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism).

Let's consider these one at a time.

Unothodox Solution 1: "God is not omnipotent"

Recall the two notions of omnipotence described above. “God is not omnipotent” must mean

  1. Unlimited omnipotence is false. God can't do everything anyone can think of. He can’t and never could (because he’s immutable). Omnipotence is not an essential property of God.


  2. If God exists at all, God's powers must be limited, either by his choice or by his nature, or both.

Mackie is probably right that the denial of unlimited omnipotence would be unorthodox for most Christians. For example, Catholics still affirm omnipotence in the Credo of the Mass. And as Mackie says, denying unlimited omnipotence certainly solves the problem of evil. God just tells the sufferer, “Can’t do anything about it, sorry. Never could.”

However, the second view -- that God's "omnipotence" is qualified -- is common and orthodox, even if not entirely intelligible. A theologian would be careful to warn us that God is immutable and not in time, so (2) is really impossible to understand fully. Qualified omnipotence appears to conflict with immutability. Most theists believe God is immutable AND God’s omnipotence is qualified AND God created everything. Once God creates, however, if he decides not to interfere in the universe (and if he’s a logos God, he doesn’t), then his omnipotence has changed. What happened to his supposed immutability?

You can avoid this problem by denying immutability, and that route might be acceptable to many believers. Immutability is problematic anyway: Kant would say we cannot possibly understand what it would mean for a being in time not to change; but neither do we understand what it would mean for a being to be "outside of time".

So let's assume the conflict with immutability is not fatal. If “God is not omnipotent” means only that divine omnipotence is qualified, then we are still arguably orthodox. If “God is not omnipotent” means “God chose to limit his powers,” then when the sufferer asks, "Why don't you do something about my suffering, God?", God’s answer isn’t simply “Sorry, I can’t.” It’s something like “Sorry about that. I’m not powerful enough to make your suffering go away, because I choose (or chose) not to interfere in the universe.”

God's answer now leads the sufferer to ask: “OK, why do you choose not to interfere?”

We may have made some progress. Qualified omnipotence might be half of a solution to the problem of evil. The other half would have to be a reasonable answer to the sufferer’s question “Why don’t you help?” Possible answers from God include:

  1. “I couldn’t create good without evil.”

  2. “Logic made me do it,”

  3. “I allow evil because the universe is really better with suffering than without,”

  4. “I allow it because humans, in their freedom, choose to sin, and thus deserve to suffer.”

These are the four so-called orthodox solutions to the problem of evil. If any of these responses makes sense, the Christian can say "God chose not to intervene, and I totally understand why." Mackie, however, says there is no intelligible answer: all four orthodox solutions fail.

Unorthodox Solution 2: "God isn't totally good"

Note that Mackie defines "totally good" as "actively opposed to evil", so that a totally good being eliminates evil as far as it can. If we limit omnipotence in the way just described -- if we say, for example, that God chooses to allow natural evils (floods, earthquakes, disease, etc.) as part of the ordinary course of nature; and God also chooses not to interfere in the exercise of human free will (and humans often cause suffering) -- then God is, of course, not totally good according to Mackie's definition. And remember, limited omnipotence is orthodox. Thus if we could demonstrate that God's choice to limit his own powers was reasonable (intelligible and logically consistent), then we might be able to live with the notion that God isn't totally good in the way Mackie describes; i.e., God has his reasons for choosing not to eliminate evil as much as he can.

Unorthodox Solution 3: "Evil doesn't exist"

Two common versions of "Evil doesn't exist" include evil as privation (absence) of goodness, and evil as an illusion of unenlightened mind.

Evil as Privation

According to Augustine’s “evil as privation” view, evil is essentially non-being. Augustine says “For God, evil does not exist at all.” Evil is the absence of good; it isn’t anything that is. According to “evil as privation of good” since evil doesn’t exist, we can’t experience evil. We experience not pain, but “absence of comfort”. We experience not sadness but “absence of happiness”. We experience not disease but “absence of health”.

Augustine’s view is often said to “preserve omnipotence” in the following way: if evil doesn’t exist, as Augustine argues, the question of whether God is powerful enough to eliminate it simply doesn’t arise, since there’s nothing to eliminate.

Augustine is a Church Father. As far as I can determine, the “evil as privation” view is orthodox.

Philosophers and theologians often note two kinds of evils:

  1. Natural evils, such as death, disease, earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters;


  2. Moral evils such as sins and dispositions to evil (bad character).

Aquinas calls natural evils “evils of penalty” and moral evils “evils of fault”.

On the “evil as privation” view,

  1. Natural evils result from God’s perfect creation (perfect because the perfection of creation requires a hierarchy of goodness, e.g., some stars are brighter, some animals more fierce, etc. ).


  2. Moral evils result from humans’ freely turning away from the greater good and choosing “lesser goods”.

In creating the universe with hierarchies of goodness, God is clearly responsible for natural evils, but he can’t be said to have created them. He allows them because all humans are sinful and deserve to suffer (Augustine); or he allows them as consequences of the laws of nature operating normally (Aquinas) because the universe is more perfect that way (more on this later).

Moral evils, on the other hand, are never caused by God and God is never responsible for them.

In either case, evil is simply absence of good or lesser good. It is non-being.

Evil as an Illusion of Unenlightened Mind

Non-Western religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism view evil as an illusion that results from an unenlightened mind. According to “evil as illusion,” suffering is caused by our thoughts. “I suffer” is just a story I tell myself, but what I actually experience are just some sensations. I wouldn’t experience them as suffering if I were fully enlightened. According to non-Western religions, if you think something is bad, that’s your ego projecting itself pridefully out at the universe. But if you are enlightened, you realize that there’s nothing especially alarming about the cancer; it just is, like everything else, and everything is always changing. The divine nature is in the cancer as much as it’s in you, and besides, there’s really no “you” anyway.

Hence the problem of evil arises in Western religions only.

It seems to me that orthodox solution 3 – “Evil doesn’t exist” -- in either form is simply not helpful to ordinary people as a solution to the problem of evil. You say “Why did you do this to me, God?” God says “Sorry you feel that way, but your cancer is just the absence of healthy cells. Your pain is just the absence of comfort.”

It’s reasonable for the sufferer to feel frustrated by God’s answer, no? The sufferer says to God “Well, maybe that works for you, but I can’t seem to define away the cancer or the pain! I’m still suffering here.”

To sum up so far, Mackie says "God is not omnipotent", "God is not totally good", and "Evil does not exist" are all unorthodox solutions to the problem of evil. That is, a person who believes one or more of these views would not be welcome in most Christian faith communities. But the situation is more complicated, I think. "God is not omnipotent" might just mean God has chosen to limit his powers, and that view is orthodox. If we accept "God is not omnipotent" in that sense, God is of course not "totally good" in Mackie's sense; i.e., God chooses not to eliminate evil as much as he can. So we might have an orthodox solution to the problem of evil if we can devise some intelligible and logically consistent rationale for God's choice to limit his powers. Mackie says there is no such rationale. Let's see if Mackie is right.


Solutions that Don’t Work (the “orthodox” ones)

According to Mackie, the usual “orthodox” solutions you hear in churches are actually not orthodox at all. They actually presuppose one or more of the unorthodox solutions described in the previous section. Thus, according to Mackie, there are no orthodox solutions to the problem of evil.

Mackie discusses four so-called “orthodox” solutions:

  1. Evil is necessary as a means to good; God could not create good without simultaneously bringing evil into existence.

  2. Evil is necessary as a logical counterpart to good.

  3. The universe is actually better with some evil in it than it would be if there were none, since evil gives us the opportunity to grow and develop morally and spiritually as a result of our confronting it in faith.

  4. Evil is due to human free will.


Why “evil is necessary as a means” is really unorthodox

You see this “solution” in the movie Oh, God. A child asks God (George Burns) why he created the world with evil and suffering. God answers, “Can you tell me another way I could have done it?” Sometimes believers use the analogy of a mountain and a valley: they say, “You can’t make a mountain without simultaneously making a valley. And in the same way, God can’t create good things without simultaneously bringing bad things into existence as a necessary consequence.”

Mackie replies: But most Christians believe God is not subject to the ordinary causal laws of nature. For example, God as Creator can create things out of nothing. Why can’t an omnipotent God create a mountain without creating a valley? According to Mackie, orthodox solution 1 masks unorthodox solution 1. You can’t really say “God couldn’t have done it any other way” without denying omnipotence.

As we saw above, believers often say, “God's omnipotence is qualified. So God’s supposed inability to create a mountain without a valley is just the result of a constraint he put on himself or the result of his very nature.”

But qualified omnipotence is less convincing here because God as Creator is supposedly the author of causal laws. God made the law requiring valleys with mountains. That was his idea, and he presumably could have done things a different way.

Maybe he did, in other universes.

Maybe we can’t think of a way to make a mountain without a valley, but we’re not omnipotent.

Mackie says, this so-called “solution” really presupposes unorthodox solution #1: it presupposes that God is not really omnipotent after all – an unorthodox view. “Orthodox” solution #1 is really unorthodox solution #1.



Why “evil is necessary as a counterpart” is really unorthodox

First we need to understand what this “solution” means. According to Mackie, this means evil must necessarily exist if good exists, since God is bound by the laws of logic, and “good” and “evil” are logical opposites. Since “non-good” means evil, evil must exist if good exists.

Mackie makes two separate (and correct) logical points:

  1. There are two different logical senses of “counterpart” or “opposite”: the strong sense of opposition (logical complements, or negations) and the less strong sense of opposition (logical contraries). Two sets are logical complements of each other if everything in the universe is a member of one or the other set and not both. Pairs of sets such as “dogs” and “non-dogs” are logical complements, because everything in the universe is either a dog or it isn’t: “non-dogs” is the logical complement of “dogs.” “Good” and “non-good” are opposites in the strong sense; but “good” and “evil” are not opposites in the strong sense. If God follows the rules of logic, he is bound to create non-good things if he creates good things. But non-good things are not necessarily evil. “Good” and “evil” are contraries, meaning that if X is one, X can’t be the other, but X might be neither. Contraries are the less rigid opposites exemplified in pairs like “Republican” and “Democrat”: if one is a Republican, one isn’t a Democrat, and vice-versa, but one could also be neither a Republican nor a Democrat (one could be a Libertarian or a Green, for example). In the same way, because “good” and “evil” are contraries, a good thing can’t be evil, an evil thing can’t be good, AND there are things that are neither evil nor good, i.e., neutral things. If God follows the rules of logic when he creates, then, he doesn’t have to create evil if he creates good.

  2. If there is more than one thing, then everything that exists is either red or non-red (members of one or the other complementary set); but this does not rule out the possibility that everything that exists is red. Everything being red is perfectly consistent with the claim that everything is either red or non-red. In the same way, if “good” and “non-good” are opposites in the strong sense, then if there’s more than one thing, everything has to be either “good” or “non-good”, which implies that it’s possible for everything to be good. In other words, a God committed to the laws of logic does not violate the laws of logic if he makes everything good.

Believers often give solution #2 to explain how we learn the difference between good and evil. And solution #2 probably is a good description of how we often learn. We learn what’s good by contrast with the bad. If everything seemed to be good all the time, maybe we’d never be able to tell the difference between good and evil. But even if that’s true, that doesn’t explain why evil and suffering must exist. If God’s purpose in creating or allowing evil is simply pedagogical (to teach us the difference), then surely he could think of a way to give us the lesson without tormenting us in the process. If he can’t, he’s not omnipotent (unorthodox solution #1). Furthermore, even if evil did have to exist for us to learn about it – and it’s not clear why this should be so if God is omnipotent – then why so much evil? It seems we could learn what’s bad without suffering quite so much. However, God allows some people to suffer quite horribly and protractedly – much more than enough for them to learn the lesson. This seems to show God’s just not very nice (unorthodox solution #2).



Why “the universe is better with evil” is unorthodox

Orthodox solution 3 comes in two common forms: one aesthetic, one moral.

The aesthetic version is summed up in Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man (1733): “All nature is but art, unknown to thee; / All chance, direction, which thou canst not see; / All discord, harmony not understood; / All partial evil, universal good.” What seems like chance to us is really God’s intentionally-created work of the highest art; what seems like discord or evil to us is really part of God’s bigger plan. The universe really is as good as it can be from God’s point of view. Just as sometimes discord adds to the beauty of a piece of music, so does “evil” (from the human point of view) add to the greater awesomeness of God’s creation.

The moral version (often called “soul-making theodicy” and associated with the 2nd-century bishop Irenaeus) says the universe is actually better with some evil in it than it would be if there were none, because evil gives us the opportunity to grow and develop morally and spiritually as a result of our confronting it in faith. For example, if you get an opportunity to give charity to a suffering person, then someone must be suffering in order to be the recipient of your charity. If you yourself suffer, your suffering provides an opportunity for you or someone else to grow morally and spiritually. Human suffering simply must exist for people to grow morally and spiritually.

In either case, it’s just a matter of understanding God’s priorities, a believer would say. In either case, God is not primarily concerned with decreasing human suffering; God’s benevolence extends only so far. His ways are not our ways. It is more important to God that the universe be as beautiful or awesome as possible than that people suffer. It is more important to God that we be as good as possible than that we be happy in this life, and in fact he’s set things up so that we can reach our full spiritual potential only if we (or others) suffer in this life. If you point out to a religious person that this scenario makes God seem less than totally good (not to say sadistic), the religious person might answer that we are happiest when we are most fully developed morally and spiritually. (And this may be true, for those who reach the apex of spiritual development.) But if you ask the religious person why God set things up that way and not another – for surely, as Mackie points out, an omnipotent God could have made human spiritual development possible without suffering – the religious person says “I don’t know; His ways are not our ways.” A “muscular Christian” might say “Suck it up.”

But it often rings hollow to suffering people when believers tell them “God is good” or “God loves you.” For sufferers, God often seems like the guard in a concentration camp; he doesn’t have to torture you, but he does anyway, and then tells you, absurdly, that he’s torturing you because he loves you. For Mackie, this so-called orthodox “solution” masks unorthodox solution #2.



Why “evil is due to human free will” is unorthodox

Orthodox solution #4 is often found in combination with orthodox solution #3, as follows: God wants humans to develop morally and spiritually, and free agency is necessary for that. From God’s point of view, the value of human freedom (including the freedom to cause terrible suffering to other humans) outweighs any suffering that this freedom causes. Some theologians, e.g., John Hick, say that if humans didn’t suffer, humans would never be tested and become better, so human goodness would be childlike or robotic. Suffering must exist, then, to enable people to use their free will to “grow up” morally and spiritually. This reduces to “His ways are not our ways”.

Mackie responds that God could have created humans whose goodness was immutable; they freely choose only the good, and become better and better, happier and happier. This is what happens to residents of heaven, no? So why couldn’t God have made residents of earth the same way? The response can only be “His ways are not our ways”. And while that might be true, it is a solution that simply doesn’t address the issues raised by the problem of evil.

Also, to many people, the free will response in this form (“Grow up; suck it up; life is hard, etc.”) seems not to take seriously the actual amount of suffering that many humans experience. Even if some people develop morally from some suffering, it doesn’t follow that anyone can develop morally from any amount of suffering. It seems obvious that some people’s suffering is simply too much -- too great to bear at all, let alone to develop morally as a result of it. Suffering seems to kill some people before they have a chance to grow from it; for example, a soldier with an excruciatingly painful bullet wound, or person with terminal cancer, may die in agony, and as the infection or disease progresses, the sufferers, as a matter of physiological fact, become less and less capable of sustained thought. An observer who says “Look, God is giving them a splendid opportunity for moral and spiritual growth, and they’re just refusing to take it!” seems both cruel and ignorant of the facts of biology.

Think of what Voldemort does to Longbottom’s parents in the Harry Potter books. They don’t die, but they are destroyed nonetheless; as a result of their torture by Voldemort, they become so incapacitated they are unable to raise their son. Many people say the Nazi Holocaust is another good example of sustained almost-unimaginable suffering; rather than calling forth virtue in the victims, the Holocaust appeared to destroy many people both psychologically and morally. Believers sometimes respond that no suffering is unbearable, because God never gives people more suffering than they can handle successfully. But that response again seems contrary to the facts of biology: an injury capable of producing intense suffering, even if it does not kill a person, can deprive a person of the capacity for sustained sober reflection, e.g., cardiovascular accidents (strokes), or some forms of encephalitis.

It is often hard to see how the preservation of free will can possibly be more worthwhile than the prevention of human suffering. Try this thought experiment: Suppose you have the chance to prevent a gruesome murder from happening, without incurring any harm to you, but you choose to let the murder happen anyway. You could not use the free-will defense to justify your inaction, could you? It would certainly be unacceptable for you, a human being, to argue that you were right not to prevent the murder, even if you were able to, simply because you wanted to preserve the free-will of the murderer. So why should this justification be more acceptable coming from God? A God who values freedom more than human suffering seems just nasty (unorthodox solution 2). It’s no comfort to hear “His ways are not our ways” when he seems to act like a monster.

Mackie says the main reason to reject solution #4 is the “incoherence” of the notion of free will. You may have learned about this in your introductory philosophy classes. Most philosophers don’t agree with Mackie that free will is incoherent, but most philosophers do accept some form of determinism. It seems impossible to avoid determinism if God made an orderly universe in which everything happens according to laws of nature, and an omniscient infallible God knows the future.

One common view among philosophers and theologians is “soft determinism”: freedom consists in being able to do what you want to do in the circumstances in which you find yourself. A prisoner is not free to leave the prison, but is free to write to his mother. However, according to soft determinism, we are not really free with respect to our wants: we want what we want, according to our brain chemistry, our conditioning, our nutritional state, and all the rest of the laws of the universe. The universe is still determined. We are free in the sense that we can do what we want; but the future is fixed nonetheless.

The libertarian position on free will – the view that we are free only if we can change the future by some non-physical power of our minds alone – means even God can’t know what we’ll choose, and he can’t prevent any of our free acts, i.e., the libertarian position seems at odds with both divine omniscience and omnipotence.

A lot of people say you are free to change your wants. For example, if you find yourself wanting to crawl into a hole after a bad breakup, you can, by an effort of will, force yourself to go out and party, or talk to a counselor, etc., and thereby cheer yourself up, so you no longer want to crawl into a hole. According to William James and others, if you want to have faith in God, you can “will to believe”. If these transformations are possible, though, according to soft determinism, they are possible because of a physical substrate of preexisting brain conditions, etc. Nothing in an orderly universe happens by magic. That follows from the logos God. Hence, philosophers and theologians generally doubt that miracles (in the sense of violations of the laws of nature) are really possible – one difference between the views of theologians and popular religion, where people commonly believe that miracles are not only possible but actually exist.

Orthodox view #4 -- "Evil is due to human free will" -- takes a grim turn in Augustine. I learned his views on free will and sin as a child in Catholic grammar school. Augustine is particularly interested in original sin. Augustine argues that God created a perfect world without any evil or suffering. Genesis 1:31: “God saw all that he had made and saw that it was very good” Augustine defined evil as the privation of goodness, just as blindness is a privation of sight. Since evil is not an entity in itself, just like blindness is not an entity in itself, God could not have created it. Instead, evil (i.e., failure to attain the maximum good) originates from free will possessed by angels and humans, who turned their back on God and settled for a lesser form of goodness. As a result of Adam and Eve’s original sin, the state of perfection was ruined by sin. Thus -- this is where things get strange -- all humans, according to Augustine, deserve God’s punishment for Adam’s original sin because all humans are “seminally present in the loins of Adam”. (This is why Jesus had to be born of a virgin (no sperm involved) and also why Mary the mother of Jesus also had to be “immaculately conceived” (no sperm involved in making her either). In Augustine's day, descendants of criminals were usually expected to continue to suffer and pay for the crimes of their ancestors, so this idea that blame for Adam's sin extends to all Adam's descendants would not have been considered strange. Because all humans inherit Adam's blame, God does not interfere when Adam's descendants suffer, because he is a just God (though to us it may sound like the opposite of justice), and we are worthy of punishment. (This is why it’s important to be baptized; Baptism removes the original sin.)

God chooses to offer salvation to some people, but only God chooses who to save. There’s nothing we can do to gain God’s grace if we’re not baptized, and even if we are baptized, we may still go to hell simply because God doesn't choose to save us, for his own reasons. Baptism is necessary but not sufficient for salvation. It follows from Augustine's views unbaptized babies and all non-Catholics automatically go to hell. So in the Catholic Church anyone can perform a Baptism. As a child raised in Catholic schools, I was also taught that in an emergency, you don’t necessarily help save people or ease the victims’ suffering: the first thing you do is baptize everyone in sight, just in case.




WVC Philosophy Home Page | WVC Home Page

Questions or comments about the WVC Philosophy Department?