Blurring the Lines of Distinction

blurred_focusGetting back to the discussion of J.L. Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we come to the famous problem of evil. Here, Mackie seems to alternate between a very reasonable and a very sloppy approach.

He begins with the reasonable, laying out the argument and agreeing that there is no explicit contradiction between the idea of a good God and the existence of evil. But there is, he claims, a contradiction when one adds the idea that a good and omnipotent God would be both able and willing to remove evil from the world.

This strikes me as already a bit sloppy, in that Mackie has endorsed a moral subjectivist position–and hasn’t otherwise presented a theory of objective morality to rival theistic explanations. As such, he cannot actually claim that evil exists in an objective sense, but only things that humans find personally distasteful.

As a non-human, God is not morally bound by human opinion, however.

But Mackie seems to understand this. Swinging back to a reasonable approach, he clarifies that he is arguing that there is an internal inconsistency in traditional theism. It doesn’t matter, then, whether or not evil actually exists. The point is that theism claims that it does, and this (purportedly) contradicts the notion of a loving God.

This is a key move, however, because it is only by shifting this goalpost that Mackie can make a case against theism.

First, however, he agrees with the theist that omnipotence doesn’t include the ability to do the logically impossible. I’ve met quite a few who demand otherwise–and have even insinuated that this “limit” on omnipotence is simply a retreat in the face of the problem of evil.

To those that know the history of theology, it is no such thing, but set that aside. The real point is that it isn’t needed to address the problem of evil. In fact, it is only because the theist agrees that God can’t to the logically impossible that there is any problem of evil at all.

Even if it could be shown that evil is a contradiction of a good God, all the theist would have to say is “sure, that’s a logical impossibility, but God can do  the logically impossible”.

The point isn’t that theistic philosophers say this (with the exception of Anslem, I can’t think of any who would). The point is that, for the problem of evil to even get off the ground, one has to assume that God is bound by what is logical possible.

And this is perfectly reasonable. Logical contradictions aren’t things–such as acts that simply can’t be done–they are meaningless arrangements of words.

Mackie does not dispute this, but he does throw out another straw man. I’ll not get into it here, as I’ve never heard anyone actually give the argument. But it is very significant that Mackie, after pointing out the silliness of the argument, also claims that (even if it were true) it would only defend necessary and minute amounts of evil.

This is important because Mackie is drifting away from the claim that there is a logical contradiction here, and into a different (though similar) argument. Generally called the “probabilistic problem of evil”, it is the claim that, while there’s no logical issue, there’s just too darn much evil in the world to believe in God.

I agree that this issue should be addressed, but Mackie doesn’t seem to be aware that it is a different issue. As such, he immediately begins confusing issues. Theists have offered many explanations, one of which is the pointing out how often good things come from evil.

But Mackie insists that this does not address the contradiction named earlier. Indeed it does not, because it is not addressed to that contradiction, but rather to the probabilistic argument he’s switched to making. And, while I hardly think it is a complete answer in itself, it is a significant point to raise in that discussion.

Mackie claims directly that all evil can’t be accounted for in this way, but neither offers a reason to think this, nor addresses the other reasons theists have given for the existence of evil.

And this last is important. Though he immediately goes on to discuss the free will defense, Mackie insists that it relies on the idea that absolutely all evil is the product of free will–and nothing else. This seems a sort of divide and conquer rhetorical trick that offers no real reason why these arguments can’t be taken together.

So, it is only because he has blurred the lines between the logical and the probabilistic versions of the argument, while simultaneously insisting that explanations which are typically given together must explain every case or be utterly rejected, that Mackie can dismiss the traditional answers to the problem of evil.

As to his discussion of the famous free will defense, I’ll get to that next.


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