Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Plantinga on Evil

From guest blogger, Chase T.

This blog post is a discussion and response to Alvin Plantinga’s Evil Forces, in which Plantinga discusses the presence of evil in the world and its compatibility with the existence of an omnibenevolent being. Plantinga’s main thesis is that the existence of evil can be explained by the existence of evil forces, or Satan to be exact, that act in contrast with God, who is indeed omnibenevolent. Plantinga asserts that natural evil and moral evil are not truly distinct, but rather that natural evils are actually moral evils on the part of Satan and his cohorts. The reasoning behind Satan’s evil actions, and therefore the existence of evil in general, being permitted by an omnibenevolent God can be attributed to freedom. God allows Satan to act in the way that he does because it is worse to curtail a being’s freedom than it is to allow his freedom and permit some evil actions. In Plantinga’s mind, freedom with the existence of evil is better than a complete lack of evil, but rational beings that are not entirely free.

I believe the main argument can be broken down as follows:

1.  God is an omnibenevolent being who created the universe and all the rational beings that inhabit it, including Satan.
2.  God created rational beings to the most perfect degree that he could.
3.  Beings that are rational and totally free are more perfect than beings that lack some or all freedom.
4.  Therefore, God created us with the most freedom possible in order to make us as perfect as possible.
5.  If Satan is free to act as he desires, he will do evil deeds to contrast God’s goodness.
6.  Satan is free because he is one of the rational beings that God created.

7.  Therefore Satan will do evil deeds to contrast God’s goodness and evil will exist.

This argument seems valid to me but I see a number of problems with it. The first problem that I have with this argument lies in premise 2. I take it that Plantinga would argue that God made us as perfect as he could, otherwise why would he give us unlimited freedom in the first place? If he was not seeking to maximize our perfection he would have made us less free and eliminated evil. However, it seems to me that the rational beings that inhabit God’s universe are far from perfect. If God really intends for us to be as perfect as possible, how is it that we can make so many blatant errors in judgment, action, and moral responsibility? I take it that Plantinga would respond by saying that, as stated in his argument, our freedom entails the possibility for error and evil. But why then would God not give rational beings total free will, but also the necessary knowledge required to avoid evil? Evil actions on the part of beings seems to arise from a notion on their part that what they need or desire can only be attained by the injury of another being. However, if given the knowledge of how to achieve one’s desires without injuring another, would rational beings not seek their desires in such a way as to avoid evil? I suggest that they would.

Now, this idea of people with perfect knowledge of how to act in accordance with their desires, but still avoid evil does not explain a few things. Firstly, what do we say about the being who desires to be evil. It seems that Satan is such a being and in Plantinga’s eyes the source of all evil. It seems that even if a being such as Satan was given perfect knowledge of how to act to avoid evil, he would still seek out as part of his free will as it is in fact what he desires. My response to this is multifaceted. A being such as this is inherently evil. He is not good but simply misdirected, otherwise perfect knowledge would lead him to avoid evil. And the earlier counter argument to Plantinga would apply here as well. If this is in fact the case, then it follows that God made the being as such, for Satan could not have existed if he was not created by God. However, it seems that if God did in fact make an inherently bad being, than he made a being that is clearly less perfect than he could have otherwise been. Either Satan is misguided, and therefore God could have given him and the rest of the rational beings in the universe free will and perfect knowledge to go with it, or God created Satan as inherently bad. How could an omnibenevolent being create a being that is inherently evil? God’s omnipotence dictates that he could have done otherwise in making Satan inherently evil. He could have made Satan free and just a normally rational being as perfect as possible like the rest of the rational beings, but he did not, and herein lies the problem.

If we break down Plantinga’s assertions, it becomes clear that in order for this notion of Satan explaining evil to be valid, it entails two ideas that are totally incompatible with the Anselmian notion of God. These ideas are:

1. God did not make all beings as perfectly as he could have.
2. God is in fact the source of evil in the universe as he created Satan and made him inherently evil.

Clearly Plantinga does not want to make either of these two claims. But they are unfortunately a part of his argument that cannot, and should not, be avoided. For this argument to be complete it needs to be fleshed out and freedom and perfect knowledge need to be discussed further, but this is my blog post, and that is what the paper is for!


Anonymous said...

Satan makes his first appearance in the book of Job. This book closes with a multi-page speech by God which begins by rebuking the friends of Job for pretending to understand God's will. This is followed by some metaphysics that suggest ignorance on everyone's part, science notwithstanding, on the accident of a Sun, Earth, Moon, etc. held together by gravity. A litany of the character and disposition of various beasts are given, finally, a fair amount of treatment is given to a entity called the Leviathan...

Joshua Adams said...

I think where Platinga would disagree with you is in the definition of perfect. He sees a perfect being as one that is more free. So to him the greatest freedom for us humans to have is the freedom to rebel against its a creator, an all good God. So when he says to the perfect degree, the fact that we can choose to turn against God is the best possible way to create us and have us be the most perfect degree of beings.

isaac scott said...

I find your objection to Platinga very convincing. For Platinga to now say that God did not create evil or bring evil into the world, it appears he would have to admit that Satan was not created by God. This however is not acceptable to theists or Abrahamic doctrine. I think you could bring up another objection that has to do with God's omnipotence. If God is all powerful, even if the Devil is perfectly evil, why doesn't God stop the Devil from doing Evil? And if God is choosing to let Evil be done, shouldn't there be a problem with God's omnibenevolence?

Anonymous said...

There seems to be some intuition that above all, God ought to be omnibenevolent. Let's attempt to agree that if someone is hurting you, this forms a basis for forgiveness as the reverse is hatred, rage and resentment. If someone is hurting someone else, is this not a basis for courage? Perhaps as righteous indignation over compassion for the victim? As opposed to, if you like, bravery? The upshot is: Can omnibenevolence, by an omniscient and omnipotent God, even fly at all where humans are free to do evil?

Danny Witt said...

This discussion of Plantinga’s argument for God’s permission of Satan existing as a free, evil being does a good job of getting at some of the implicit premises (i.e., assumptions) that Plantinga is making in his original argument. I liked your analysis and found something interesting. Your question seems to be about human beings being the most perfect that they can be and how that interacts with the free will or knowledge that we have. You seem to suggest that we would be more perfect if we were less free and thus had no evil actions floating around. In a similar vein, you question why a good God would not give rational beings unhindered free will and the knowledge to use that free will to commit only good actions.

These are interesting questions. The word “perfect” poses a lot of problems for us. Ranking things along some “degree of perfection spectrum” is challenging, especially when dealing with different combinations of ideal human attributes. My question is this: Is there a difference between individual perfection and group perfection? On the order of one human being, how can it not be that the utmost perfection is in having free will (i.e., acting without constraints on any pre-decided actions)? On the order of a community or group of beings, it seems that perfection starts to be based on the absence of immoral actions between individuals (this obviously entails no evil). So if all God is concerned with is perfection (for a perfect world), which perfection is He focused on? Can it be both? It seems like you have already argued implicitly that individual and group perfection could not logically coexist. This might be where you bring in your question about beings having sufficient moral knowledge to eliminate the possibility of doing evils, even though they have total free will. But is this free will in the truest sense? Aren’t such beings constrained by their own supreme moral knowledge? Maybe this is okay to permit; I’m just curious what you might say.

Also, I’d like to make a comment about the use of the descriptor “rational” for all beings. It seems like we have this capability—namely, to use rational processes—but I’m not so sure that we exercise this attribute in a continuous fashion. Many people in the world act irrationally and based on emotional motivations. So when you argue that God couldn’t have made us perfectly because there are many blatant errors, it seems like someone could respond by noting that reasoning is not always exercised, and our failure to use reason causes evil. This has implications for how we would be able to consistently use moral knowledge if it was gifted to us by God. I’m not sure how this works into your argument (if it does at all), but I think it’s incorrect to rubberstamp beings as necessarily being rational in every moment of their lives.

Natalie North said...

In the book of Job, God calls attention to Job as a good and loyal man who fulfills all of the commandments and does not sin. The Satan convinces God to let him test Job, saying that the only reason that he has been so loyal is that he has never had hardship or a reason to question God. The Satan says that if Job’s perfect life is taken from him then he too will curse God. His perfect life is taken away and he never curses God, only his own life. It seems that this satan did not want to do bad irrationally or for its own sake, but saw it as a means to an end, making Job curse God. It makes sense that he does bad things because he has free will, which God cannot control. But I question if this is necessarily means that God is allowing "evil" to exist. If Satan has rational motivations, or if Satan thinks that the bad he does creates more good than bad or at least is not bad for himself, then it seems to avoid the definition that I have for evil. If correct rational knowledge and self-perception of evil are required for an act to be evil, which I believe they are, I believe that evil never really happens. My view does not take anything away from Platinga's argument as free will, rationality, and the most perfect world that he addresses are ideas that I would maintain in mine. It is merely the definition that he ascribes to evil that I would contest. I have a problem with his view of the satan, as I do not agree with the New Testament portrayal.

Anonymous said...

If God is truly explaining the wisdom of his will to the company of Job, Job 41, the end of his speech, needs to be interpreted, I think, properly.