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The Existence of God 11: The Problem of Evil


Swinburne offers some regular responses to the problem of evil. Most of it is basically the free will defense combined with the defense from higher-goods/soul building. Swinburne argues that all the evil that occurs can work towards higher goods, like allowing people to show courage, love, self-sacrifice, etc. There’s also the argument that if God suspended the normal predictive laws that exist to save more people, then that would dilute the motivation for people to help others, since God would be depended upon unduly.

So the first problem is that free will doesn’t exist. Second problem is that even if it does exist, it is at least controversial to assert that it’s good trumps the terrible things that happen to people. Is it really of infinite goodness that people have the free will that Swinburne talks about?

Now, to look at Swinburne’s view, he says that to have a free will choice to do something, one must have a temptation to do otherwise. This is different than how other philosophers have viewed free will. Other philosophers would say that free will is the ability to act without prior cause, undetermined by other factors. Even if I am not tempted to kill, I have the free will to do so. Swinburne would say a person who is not tempted to kill does not have the free will to do so.

This view seems bizarre, and in the least, it’s a free will that seems not worth having. I would not wish a desire of pedophilia on people just so they can morally reject that temptation. I wouldn’t tempt my child with something harmful, just to give him free will (unless that temptation was training to prevent succumbing in the future- regardless, no temptation would be better than some).

Whatever good Swinburne sees in free will seems to be vacuous and empty, and he relies on our desire to ‘cheer‘ for free will in order for his point to feel good.

Lastly, Swinburne is accepting as objective and transcendent all/most of the goods that humans hold. If something like desirism is true and value/good comes from a relationship between desires and states of affairs, then if our desires were different, what is good would be different. That means that God could have easily made states of affairs and desires in which our terrible suffering was not necessary, but in which goodness and value could exist.

Put another way, if our desires were different, we wouldn’t need suffering to get value. If desirism is true, Swinburne’s argument fails.

This whole chapter strikes me as an elaborate rationalization. Swinburne repeatedly talks about how good it is that certain things happen just as they do, therefore the problem of evil leaves God just as likely. What would possibly count against his hypothesis? There’s a constant appeal to emotion when Swinburne says things like “surely the world would be less good if. . .” and then says something about courage in the face of tragedy etc. Maybe it would be better if courage was not necessary. We only like courage because of the horrible things that exist in the first place. It’s as if Swinburne is saying that seatbelts are so wonderful because they are creative inventions that showcase human ingenuity and value for life. Surely a world without seatbelts would not be so great, right? Personally though, I would rather have a world without fatal car crashes.

The one thing that deserves more thought is Swinburne’s argument that God has a right to allow pain or inflict limited pain because he stands in a relationship similar to a parent over a child. A parent can allow a vaccination, even if it hurts. As long as the good outweighs the bad, the parent is justified in his actions. This is how Swinburne defends what God does.

This is similar to how Tim justified hell and such. Of course, Swinburne would say that an action is not justified if it leaves more harm than good, and hell is certainly more harmful than helpful. Swinburne does not argue that God has infinite rights. Perhaps I’ll quote Swinburne back to Tim.

Kindle Notes:

I suggest that there are three further conditions that must be satisfied if, compatibly with his perfect goodness, God is to allow an evil E to occur. The second condition is that God also in fact brings about the good G. Thirdly, God must not wrong the sufferer by causing or permitting the evil. He must have the right to make or permit that individual to suffer. And, finally, some sort of comparative condition must be satisfied (3184).

And, as pointed out earlier, for us to have a free choice between good and evil we must (of logical necessity) have some temptation to do the evil (3197).

Note: Why is this freedom good? We could also be free but untempted by evil, just like God, who is perfectly free.

First there is the defence that much of the evil suffered by a human being is God’s punishment for his sins; such punishment is a good, and suffering is necessary to achieve it. Although this might account for some natural evil, it is clearly quite unable to account for the suffering of babies or animals (3199).

God gives to our ancestors a great responsibility for our well-being. If they behave well, we flourish. If they sin, we suffer for their sins. The good of their responsibility, it may be claimed, requires the possibility of our suffering when they abuse it (3202).

It is implausible to suppose that our early ancestors had any conception that their actions might cause the range of natural evils that their decendants suffer. And anyway this defence cannot explain the suffering of animals long before humans arrived on earth (3206).

natural evils have been brought about by free agents other than humans-namely, fallen angels (3208).

This defence, unlike the first two, is adequate to cope with natural evils of all kinds. But it does have the major problem that it saves theism from refutation by adding to it an extra hypothesis, a hypothesis for which there does not seem to me to be much independent evidence (3210).

suffering that some individuals suffer. The first of the substantial reasons why our ability to make significant free choices would be gravely diminished in the absence of natural evil is what is known as the `higher-order’ defence. This claims that natural evil provides opportunities for especially valuable kinds of emotional response and free choice (3219).

For it is good to have a deep concern for others; and the concern can be a deep and serious one only if things are bad with the sufferer. One cannot worry about someone’s condition unless there is something bad or likely to be bad about it (3224).

Note: This is backwards. Concern is good only because suffering exists in the first place, since it predicts help and kindess. There is nothing objectively good about concern. This is another example of taking our moral intuitions and making them unnecessarily transcendental.

It is good that we should have the opportunity (occasionally) to do such actions as showing courage or sympathy, actions that often involve resisting great temptation, because thereby we manifest our total commitment to the good (3235).

Note: Prove that they are objective goods.

God could have made a world in which animals got nothing but thrills out of life; but their life is richer for the complexity and difficulty of the tasks they face and the hardships to which they react appropriately (3291).

Note: How can you claim this? If a wildfire could be prevented with an uncourageous action, the suffering it prevents is worth it, even if many acts of courage and bravery are avoided. Swinburne is simply pointing out the positive in a tragedy and assuming without argument that it is worth it.

natural evil provides us with a wider range of choice of actions by which we can affect ourselves, each other, and the physical world (3374).

Note: Yay God. Thanks for the tsunami.

My argument so far has been that, if humans are to have the opportunity to bring about serious evils for themselves or others by actions or negligence, or to prevent their occurrence, and if all knowledge of the future is obtained by normal induction, that is by rational response to evidence-then there must be serious natural evils occurring to man or animals. I have argued earlier that it is good that we should have the former opportunity (3404).

In developing the higher-order-goods defence and the argument from the need for knowledge, I have been arguing that by bringing about natural evils God makes possible various goods and that doing the former is the only logically possible and morally permissible way in which he can secure the latter (3463).

God as the author of our being would have rights over us that we do not have over our fellow humans. To allow someone to suffer for his own good or the good of someone else, one has to stand in some kind of parental relationship towards him. I do not have the right to force some stranger, Joe Bloggs, to suffer for the good of his soul or of the soul of Bill Snoggs, but I have some right of this kind in respect of my own children (3474).

I have this right because in small part I am responsible for the younger son’s existence, its beginning, and continuance; I feed him and educate him (3477).

I suggest that we can generalize these intuitions by the following principle. A benefactor has the right to take back, or to tie bad aspects to, some of the benefits that he gives to some one, so long as he remains on balance a benefactor (3483).

If there is a God, the greatest good of all in this respect must be being-of-use to God himself; and all human suffering that is of use to others will also be of use to God, who has designed the world so that suffering does benefit those others (3537).

deep conviction of the existence of God inhibits someone’s ability to choose freely between good and evil. It makes it too easy to choose the good for anyone who has either a strong desire to be liked by good persons (and especially any on whom he depends for his existence), stronger than any contrary bad desire; or a strong desire for his own future well-being combined with a strong belief that it is quite likely that a God would not provide a good afterlife for bad people (3632).

Note: Good information makes bad decisions too rare. That would be terrible.

for someone to have a free choice between good and evil, he needs temptation-a (balance of) desire to do what is evil, which he can then resist, if he so chooses (3636).

Note: Resist based on what? An uncaused decision? So randomly assigned decisions are a good thing?

We need `epistemic distance’ from God in order to have a free choice between good and evil (3650).

Note: Good point. Let’s not tell kids to avoid dashing into traffic. That would violate their free will. It would be too easy to not dash into traffic.

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