Welcome to the first ‘Ponder This’ segment since NaPoWriMo. Once again, this segment is devoted to questions of religion and philosophy. The current run of this segment discusses topics from Professor Peter Kreeft’s lecture series Faith and Reason: the Philosophy of Religion.
If anything in this blog sparks a question or comment (positive, negative, or neutral), feel free to comment below in a respectful way.
Religion and the Problem of Evil
Thesis: Because of ambiguous terminology, the argument against theism from the position of the problem of evil, although valid, is inconclusive.
One of the first questions one needs to ask when conversing about the philosophy of religion is “what are the arguments against religion.” There are several arguments against religion in general, and “Westerns” religions in particular. Most of the arguments seek to weaken the argument of faith, but one argument, according to Peter Kreeft, has claimed to kill the rational argument for theism: the argument of evil. The argument of evil can be termed in different ways, but ultimately it maintains that assuming God is all-good and all-powerful, evil exists. But evil does exist, therefore there must be no God. This is a serious claim, one that if true, would simply put an end to all meaningful philosophizing about the theist’s God. But intellectual theism still persists, so the question one should ask is “how do theists approach the problem of evil.”
There are only five ways to respond to a rational argument. The first way is to contest it on the basis of a false premise. If the statement upon which the entire argument hinges is in some way false, then the argument is void. It is like multiplying a complex equation by a variable one has discovered to be zero. A second way to engage with the argument would be to contest it by identifying some logical fallacy, or false connection within the argument. There are many types of logical fallacies, but false assumptions or associations within an argument break the argument down from the inside once found. A third approach to dealing with an argument is to identify ambiguous terminology. Important terms within an argument must be clearly defined. Terms with more than one possible meaning make for unclear and potentially false arguments. A forth way to engage with an argument, if one of the previous three engagements does not apply, is to accept the argument as true. If no fault can be found with the argument, then it must be true, unless one opts for the fifth way to engage with an argument, which is to ignore it all together. In looking at the argument of evil the theist can neither claim false premises, nor identify any logical fallacies, but he can identify several ambiguous terms, and that is where the conversation begins.
If there is just one ambiguous term in an argument, a conversation must be had. There are several ambiguous terms in the argument of evil. One such term is the word evil. In the context of the argument, does evil mean “anything bad,” or does it imply some malevolent entity. And if the former, how does one define the word bad? How does one identify elemental evils without a standard for good? There are a number of questions surrounding the term “evil,” and the answers do make a difference in the argument. Another such ambiguous term is “all-powerful.” What does it mean to be omnipotent? C. S. Lewis talks about what the term cannot mean. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis explains that power to do all “things” does not include the power to make what he calls “non-entities,” or two mutually exclusive realities. This argument is necessary to understanding the problem of because of the conception that “evil” often comes in the form of choices people make. For God to create free agents, he would have to allow them to make choices, even if they would have negative consequences. To say that God could create a perfect world without evil is true, but limited because such a world would be necessarily simplistic.
There are at least four other ambiguous terms in the argument of evil, each of which requires, not quick simple reply, but a deep and complex discussion. Peter Kreeft discusses all of them in much greater detail and with much for clarity in the third lecture of the audio course Faith and Reason: the Philosophy of Religion. The point of identifying these ambiguous terms is not to attempt to simply shut down one of the most significant arguments against religion. The problem of evil in reality is real and it is one that religious individuals must take seriously. The question is whether or not this reality, which contains evil, can be reconciled to the concept of traditional theism. Because of the presence of ambiguous terms in the argument of evil, the questions surrounding those terms turn into conversations, and within some of these questions reside answers that maintain the rational integrity and plausibility of theism.
*End Note: This essay was written, not as a comprehensive defense of theism, but as an attempt to interact with the conversation of the problem of evil from a theistic perspective. It is not thorough, nor is it extensive. It is merely an exercise in understanding the nature of the argument.