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A Logical Argument from Evil and Perfection

A Logical Argument from Evil and Perfection (2012)

Luke Tracey

The purpose of this paper is to advance an argument from evil against the existence of God as standardly conceived by philosophers of religion—that is, God conceived of as a perfect being. Because this argument is logical rather than evidential, I begin by framing it in terms of considerations raised by the most famous critic of the logical argument from evil, Alvin Plantinga. I then support a controversial and crucial premise of the argument with an original subargument from the concept of God as a perfect being to the universal failure of theodicy. Finally, I examine four objections and find them to be inadequate grounds for rejecting the conclusion of the argument—that perfect-being theism is untenable.

Groundwork for an Argument

In God, Freedom, and Evil, Alvin Plantinga examines J. L. Mackie’s logical argument from evil as expounded in his 1955 paper, “Evil and Omnipotence.”[1] As Plantinga explains,[2] Mackie takes the following propositions to form an inconsistent set:

(1) God is omnipotent.
(2) God is wholly good.
(3) Evil exists.
(19) A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can.
(20) There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

All of these propositions seem plausible on theism; but if the set is inconsistent, one must reject at least one of them on pain of irrationality. Since (3) is obvious, and since both (19) and (20) appear to be solid definitions, it seems that either (1) or (2) (or both) must be rejected if the presupposition that God exists is false. Instead, Plantinga contests (19) on several grounds, guiding a cascade of revisions. His most important criticism is that, if we assume that some evils are logically required for the existence of a greater good, we would expect that a good being would not eliminate these evils, as doing so would also eliminate the good. Eventually, he settles on an inconsistent set of propositions from which a valid argument from evil may be constructed:

(1) God is omnipotent.
(2) God is wholly good.
(2′) God is omniscient.
(3) Evil exists.
(19c) An omnipotent and omniscient good being eliminates every evil that it can properly eliminate.
(20) There are no nonlogical limits to what an omnipotent being can do.
(21) If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then he can properly eliminate every evil state of affairs.

Having constructed this set, why does Plantinga doubt that the logical argument succeeds? Because, he tells us, (21) is possibly false; and it needs to be a necessary truth to ensure that the existence of God and the existence of evil are incompatible. Pace Plantinga, I aim to show that something like (21) is necessarily true. But first I need to reformulate Plantinga’s set into an argument proper, and fix two faults in his proposal. In doing so I adopt some controversial assumptions. However, these assumptions are shared by perfect-being theists, so whatever their truth-value, an otherwise sound argument which employs them would be significant—it would take the perfect-being theist from his premises to the conclusion that theism is false. And since providing perfect-being theists with grounds to reject their belief is what an argument against perfect-being theism is for, my use of these assumptions cannot amount to a defect in my argument. I ask that the reader keep this in mind for what follows.[3]

My first change to the set above is to replace talk of God’s properly eliminating evil with talk of his preventing evil, where, according to Plantinga, “a being properly eliminates an evil state of affairs if it eliminates that evil without either eliminating an outweighing good or bringing about a greater evil.”[4] The reason for the change is that the notion of proper elimination isn’t going to be nearly strong enough to use in a logical argument from evil. For instance, to say that every evil is properly eliminated is not to say that all superfluous evil is prevented; nor to say that superfluous evils are not allowed to exist for eons, only to be eliminated at the end of time. So Plantinga’s notion of proper elimination isn’t going to be useful in constructing a logical argument at all, as it fails to validate the inference from the existence of evil to the falsity of theism. By contrast, talk of God’s preventing evil does validate this inference, for the prevention of an evil does entail its nonexistence.

A second adjustment is necessary. Plantinga shows that a premise like (21) can easily be falsified, as there might be some state of affairs S, such that S is good overall, but where a constituent of S is an unrelated evil—for example, S might represent the conjunction of “James is ecstatic” with “Paul has the sniffles.” Could God properly eliminate this arbitrary evil? Apparently not, because to eliminate Paul’s sniffles would be to eliminate S, and S is a good whose value outweighs the disvalue of mere sniffles. Obviously, counterexamples of this sort multiply; so long as some good outweighs some evil with which it is compossible (i.e., able to coexist), then we’ll be able to construct a counterexample. So (21) needs modification in order to rule out this mereological gerrymandering.

We clearly require a more fine-grained way of talking about goods and evils than in terms of “states of affairs.” We need to individuate the good qua good, the evil qua evil, and leave aside anything which might be accidental to either. But what makes the good good and the evil evil? The answer is controversial, so even if the atheist were to take a position on the loci of good and evil in her argument, the success of that argument would also be contentious. Fortunately, the issue can be avoided. Whatever these loci are, they must satisfy certain constraints in order to count as the loci of good and evil, and in terms of these constraints we will be able to stipulate terms suitable for use in an argument from evil. This will make for an abstract sort of argument—but an effective one.

So here are some constraints. First, the kinds of good and evil we want to individuate will not be merely apparent, nor relative to particular observers; instead they will be objectively good or evil. Further, their value will be noninstrumental, for whatever is instrumentally good cannot itself justify the existence of any evil, and neither can the instrumentally evil itself be a mark against the existence of God—in both cases only the final good or evil, on which the instruments depend for their value, will determine the scope of what God would justifiably allow to exist. Since the notion of intrinsic value efficiently covers both the objectivity and the finality of value, it will be ideal for the task.[5]

Next, we need to find a way of specifying our goods and evils on the level of goodness and evilness itself. This is not difficult given our stipulative method: we can exclude by definition those items whose value is merely derivative of a good or evil constituent that it has, leaving us with the atoms of value. Finally, something needs to serve as subject of these constraints. Properties are suitable here, as we can ascribe properties to beings of all kinds, and so to whatever it is in which moral value inheres, material or immaterial. These desiderata yield the following definitions for use in a logical argument from evil:

Good-Making Property (GMP): A property (i) whose possession by an object increases its intrinsic value, and (ii) which cannot be decomposed into constituent properties in virtue of which (i) is true.

Evil-Making Property (EMP): A property (i) whose possession by an object decreases its intrinsic value, and (ii) which cannot be decomposed into constituent properties in virtue of which (i) is true.

With the above adjustments, and some minor tweaks to presentation, I can now advance this essay’s main argument.

An Argument from Evil

  1. God is, by definition, an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good being.
  2. An omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good being prevents the instantiation of every evil-making property (EMP) whose instantiation is not entailed by the instantiation of some greater good-making property (GMP).
  3. Every evil-making property (EMP) is such that its instantiation is not entailed by the instantiation of some greater good-making property (GMP).
  4. Therefore, if God exists, every evil-making property (EMP) is such that God prevents the instantiation of it (from 2 and 3).
  5. Some evil-making property (EMP) is instantiated (since evil exists).
  6. If God exists, then some evil-making property (EMP) is instantiated (from 5) and it is the case that God prevents the instantiation of it (from 4) (but these clauses are contradictory).
  7. Therefore, God does not exist.

(NB: References to numbered premises will henceforth be to this argument.)

The argument is valid. But is it sound? Premise (1) is an uncontroversial statement of traditional theism. (2) seems to capture the widely shared intuition that God would only allow evil for the sake of some greater good. (5) has as much claim to be true as any other moral assertion. (4), (6), and (7) are logical consequences. That leaves us with (3), which makes an audacious, even outrageous, claim. Yet (as I show below) perfect-being theism is committed to this claim.

A Subargument for Premise (3)

  1. It is possible that God could exist without any other thing existing (i.e., there is some possible world in which God alone exists).
  2. In any possible world where God exists, he instantiates all good-making properties (GMPs), and no evil-making properties (EMPs).
  3. So, in the possible world where God alone exists, God instantiates all good-making properties (GMPs) and no evil-making properties (EMPs) (from A and B).
  4. If some property is instantiated in the absence of another property, instantiation of that first property does not entail the instantiation of the other property.
  5. Then, there is no good-making property (GMP) whose instantiation entails instantiation of an evil-making property (EMP) (from C and D).
  6. Therefore, every evil-making property (EMP) is such that its instantiation is not entailed by the instantiation of some good-making property (GMP) (from E).
  1. Every evil-making property (EMP) is such that its instantiation is not entailed by the instantiation of some greater good-making property (GMP).

Let’s examine the premises. (A) makes a claim to possibility, one which I think has prima facie plausibility for theists and atheists alike. But it also appears to be inherent in the very concept of God once we notice two aspects of traditional emphasis. The first aspect is God’s free creativity, by which I mean God’s creation of the world not of necessity, but as the result of free choice. Picturesquely, creation is an acte gratuit, a gratuitous act in which the divine will is exercised without requirement or stimulus, and it is because God freely so willed that he is deserving of our worship as Creator. The second aspect is God’s absolute sovereignty, by which I mean both God’s nondependence on other beings for his existence, and the dependence of every other being on God. Taken together, these aspects of the concept of God lead us to (A): if God freely creates, then God could have refrained from creating; and if God is absolutely sovereign, then his noncreation means that nothing other than God could exist.[6]

(B) explicates a plausible interpretation of God’s perfect goodness: he must have all possible GMPs and lack all possible EMPs.[7] Most strongly, if God is goodness itself, then ‘God’ and ‘good’ are interdefinable. Since goodness itself cannot be evil in any way, God would have no EMPs; and since goodness itself cannot fail to include some GMP (else that property would not be good), neither would God lack any GMPs. William Lane Craig adopts this view in the following response to the Euthyphro dilemma:

God’s character is definitive of moral goodness; it serves as the paradigm of moral goodness. Thus, the morally good/bad is determined by reference to God’s nature; the morally right/wrong is determined by reference to his will… If the non-theist should demand, “Why pick God’s nature as definitive of the Good?” the answer is that God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being, and a being which is the paradigm of goodness is greater than one which merely exemplifies goodness.[8]

Craig stands within orthodox tradition here, echoing many luminaries of theology, such as St. Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Gottfried Leibniz, among others.[9] But even those for whom tradition carries little weight should find (B) compelling: God is flawless (hence without EMPs) and good in every way that something can be good (hence possessing every GMP).

(C) puts (A) and (B) together, adding to our description of the lone God world what was already implicit in the concept of God. (D) states a logical platitude, and together with (C), yields (E). For if every GMP can be instantiated (as God) in the absence of every EMP, then it cannot be necessary for an EMP to exist whenever a GMP exists. But entailment is a necessitating relation, and consequently no GMP entails any EMP. Similarly, (F) is a deductive consequence of (E). For suppose, to the contrary, that there is some evil-making property whose instantiation is entailed by the instantiation of a GMP. Then there would be a GMP which entailed it, whereas (E) states that no GMPs entail EMPs. If (F) is false, then (E) is false; so (E) entails (F). And (3) is just a special case of (F)—if every EMP is not entailed by a GMP, then a fortiori, they are not entailed by greater GMPs. So there we have support for (3), and with it, a successful argument from evil.

Objections to the Subargument

Objection 1: I deny (A): it is not possible for God to exist on his own, at least in the sense required for your argument—that is, for a lone God world to be possible, as opposed to a world in which God merely preexists his creation. For the act of creation is a supreme good, and so an act which an essentially good God would’ve performed in any possible world. What (A) describes may be conceptually possible, but it is not metaphysically possible.

Reply: As previously argued, if creation was a free act by God, then God could’ve refrained from creating, and so a lone God world is possible. But this is true only if the ‘principle of alternate possibilities’ is true—i.e., if moral responsibility for an act entails the possibility of refraining from the act. Perhaps this is not so, however; so-called ‘Frankfurt-type cases’ purport to show that moral responsibility can attach to actions even where it is not possible for the actor to refrain from them. Whether or not such examples are successful, let us assume for the sake of argument that they succeed, ignoring any wider repercussions they might have for the theist. For even if (A) were strictly false, a parallel argument can be made that is equally potent.

Recall that in arguing for (A), one of the two aspects of God’s nature I appealed to was God’s absolute sovereignty—that God depends on no other being for his existence, and that every other being depends upon God for its existence. Yet if it is true that God does not depend on other beings for his existence, then it is likewise true that none of the essential properties which God has depend upon other beings for their existence, either. But God essentially instantiates all GMPs, so no GMPs depend for their existence on any other beings than God. And God essentially instantiates no EMPs, so if GMPs do depend on God for their existence, this cannot be because of some EMP he instantiates. Hence, there is no GMP whose instantiation depends on the instantiation of an EMP.

Of course, that conclusion is not quite the same as the proposition (E)—we have traded nonentailment for independence. But making the appropriate changes throughout the rest of the main argument seems to do little to weaken it. A revised (2) (which substitutes “is not entailed by” with “is not dependent on”) would be just plausible as our original (2).

Objection 2: I disagree with (B): God does not instantiate every good-making property, but on the contrary, only most good-making properties—those which are compossible.

Reply: No argument from evil covers every conception of God, and this one is no exception.[10] Nevertheless, I believe that the arguments here cover traditional theism, which endorses the thesis that God is a perfect being.[11] And God’s perfection seems to entail his possession of every GMP:

  1. God is a perfect being.
  2. A perfect being instantiates every absolute perfection.
  3. For each and every intrinsic valuative dimension, there corresponds an absolute perfection, which is identical to the optimal fulfillment of that intrinsic valuative dimension.
  4. So, God optimally fulfills every intrinsic valuative dimension.
  5. If some being optimally fulfills every intrinsic valuative dimension, then that being also instantiates every good-making property (GMP).
  6. So, God instantiates every good-making property (GMP).

(I) states the distinctive claim of perfect-being theism. (II) is a Cartesian elucidation of the term “perfect being.”[12] As far as I know, it is accepted by all perfect-being theologians, for its truth is necessary to infer from God’s general perfection that he has the perfections of tradition—necessary existence, omnipotence, immutability, and so on. However, the qualifier “absolute” serves an important function here, and I need to explain why I include it on behalf of the theologians.

In place of (II), suppose that we characterize the Cartesian claim of perfect-being theology as “A perfect being instantiates every perfection.” This claim will be falsified if there are any perfections which a perfect being would not have. Yet despite the air of paradox here, there are in fact many perfections which we would not expect a perfect being to have—a perfect being is not perfectly malevolent, nor perfectly spherical, nor perfectly feline—and at least some of these sorts of perfection appear to incompatible with the perfections traditionally ascribed to God. Thus it looks as though there is no deductive path from the notion of a perfect being to any of the particular aspects of God’s nature. However, perfect-being theologians can avoid this problem by introducing a distinction which separates the perfections worthy of worship and admiration from those that are merely remarkable: they can distinguish between ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ perfections.

All sorts of items may count as relatively perfect: a perfect circle is perfect relative to our criteria for circles; a perfect holiday is perfect relative to our criteria for holidays; and so on. And for any meaningful expression of the form “a perfect X,” there will be some criteria of X’s by which we can judge their relative perfection. Why? Because for any X, there will always be some semantic criteria according to which we apply the term “X,” and the more fitting an exemplar is to those criteria, the closer to being a perfect X the exemplar will be. But absolute perfection is different. What is absolutely perfect is perfect in a way which transcends local interests in the satisfiability of semantic criteria. Absolute perfection has nothing to do with semantic fittingness, and everything to do with intrinsic values. Though it looks as though the phrase “a perfect being” is another instance of the schema “a perfect X,” it really isn’t—here ‘being’ is not some concept to which perfection is being relativized, but is instead a term with minimal content used in reference to absolute perfection because it satisfies a grammatical requirement that ascriptions of perfection should have a subject.[13]

(III) explains why absolute perfections have everything to do with intrinsic values: they are linked by identity. To possess an absolute perfection is just to be maximally good in some way, a way which it is intrinsically good to be. Again, this kind of claim is crucial to perfect-being theology: without it, we have no bridge from the concept of a perfect being to any of extraordinary qualities which are said to follow from God’s perfection. To see that (V) is true, recall that GMPs are intrinsically valuable. Because they are intrinsically valuable, they imply some intrinsic valuative dimension by which they are to be described as such—at the very least, the binary dimension which concerns the possession or nonpossession of the GMP—and so to optimally fulfill every intrinsic valuative dimension would be to instantiate every GMP. (IV) and (VI) are logical consequences, the latter confirming the suspect fragment of (B).

So much for the truth of the premises; what about their validity? Well, suppose that (IV) is false, but that (I)-(III) are true. If (IV) is false, then there is some intrinsic valuative dimension that God does not optimally fulfill. According to (III), there corresponds to this intrinsic valuative dimension an absolute perfection, which is identical to the optimal fulfillment of that dimension. But if the absolute perfection here is identical to the optimal fulfillment of said dimension, then it follows from God’s failure to optimally fulfill that dimension that he fails to instantiate the absolute perfection. Yet (I) and (II) together entail that there is no absolute perfection that God does not instantiate, so we have our contradiction and a proof of the validity of the inference. The validity of the inference from (IV) and (V) to (VI) is obvious. For better or worse, (B) is an implication of perfect-being theism.

Objections to the Argument

Objection 1: Theodicy/defense X solves the logical problem of evil. Since your argument does not deal with theodicy/defense X, you have not made your case.

Reply: If my argument and subargument are sound, I have indeed made my case. For a sound deductive argument necessitates its conclusion, and so whatever else there is to say about why a particular theodicy fails, my arguments here necessitate that it fails. But since readers will understandably want more before they are persuaded, I will offer some general remarks.

The conspicuous premise of the argument is (3), and it is conspicuous precisely because it is designed to cover theodicean possibilities: every viable theodicy purports to cite a greater good for whose sake evil may be justified. So my general reply to those who wonder why their pet theodicy fails is given in the support for (3), the subargument. That argument works by exploiting a double standard inherent in theodicies: on the one hand, theists claim the existence of a perfect being who has every perfection and is without flaw; yet on the other hand, a theodicy claims the regrettable but unavoidable imperfectability of the created world. But whatever is actual is possible, so if perfection is actual in the form of God, then perfection is possible. Since an omnipotent God can bring about any states of affairs that are logically possible, God can bring about a perfect creation. And so theodicies are destined to fail.

One might think that the free will defense is an exception to this rule. Contrary to the usual form of a theodicy where the greater GMP straightforwardly entails an EMP, perhaps free will merely makes evil possible—leading one to deny (2) rather than (3). However, if mere possibility is all that follows from the instantiation of a GMP, then it seems an omnipotent being should be able to instantiate that property in the absence of any EMP. But still, doesn’t the free will defense present a special case? Doesn’t the very nature of free will logically prohibit God from exercising his omnipotence to ensure that free will does not bring evil into the world?

No. The differential treatment of God and his creation indicates an inconsistency in the free will defense. On the one hand, the theist wants to say that human free will opens up the possibility of evil through sin; but on the other hand, the theist wishes to maintain that this possibility is not open to God. But if God cannot sin because he lacks free will, then free will can’t be a GMP, since God instantiates all GMPs. Alternatively, if God’s free will is restricted against sin, then God’s limited free will is a GMP, and human free will would only be good insofar as it approximates God’s sort of free will. In either case, no GMP is to be secured by creating beings whose free choices may lead to the existence of evil, as opposed to essentially good beings.[14]

This dilemma is inescapable for the standard free will defense. The next objection advances a more recent version of the free will defense, one which aims to break the symmetry on which I have been relying.

Objection 2: I contend that your (2) is false. It requires us to believe that there need be no essential difference between the Creator and what he creates, such that the nonentailment of evil-making properties (EMPs) by good-making properties (GMPs) would obtain just as well in the case of created beings as in their creator. But, in fact, there is an essential difference here: created beings instantiate the property of being created, and God instantiates the property of being uncreated. The property of createdness, perhaps together with other good-making properties, does entail evil.

Reply: Quentin Smith offers an argument temperamentally similar to my own in “A Sound Logical Argument from Evil.” He begins by distinguishing three different varieties of freedom:

A person is externally free with respect to an action A if and only if nothing other than (external to) herself determines either that she perform A or refrain from performing A.

A person is internally free with respect to an action A if and only if it is false that his past physical and psychological states, in conjunction with causal laws, determine either that he perform A or refrain from performing A.

A person is logically free with respect to an action A if and only if there is some possible world in which he performs A and there is another possible world in which he does not perform A. A person is logically free with respect to a wholly good life (a life in which every morally relevant action performed by the person is a good action) if and only if there is some possible world in which he lives this life and another possible world in which he does not.[15]

Smith goes on to note that, although God is internally and externally free, his omnibenevolence precludes his having logical freedom. From this he infers that logical freedom is not metaphysically valuable (else God would have it), though internal and external freedom may be. He then constructs an argument from evil asserting that God could’ve created necessarily good (thus logically unfree) but internally and externally free beings like himself, and therefore need not—and would not have—created a world in which moral evil exists.[16] In “The Essential Divine-Perfection Objection to the Free-Will Defence,” Alexander Pruss takes up our objection and extends it:

The initial form of my argument is very simple. If Patricia is a creature who lacks logical freedom with respect to a wholly good life, then by Smith’s definition either it is a necessary truth that if Patricia exists, Patricia leads a wholly good life, or it is a necessary truth that if Patricia exists, Patricia does not lead a wholly good life. For concreteness, take the first case: that Patricia exists entails that Patricia leads a wholly good life…. Then, that God creates Patricia entails that Patricia exists. Therefore, that God creates Patricia entails that Patricia leads a wholly good life. But surely that means that Patricia is determined to lead a wholly good life by something external to her, namely by God’s creating her. Hence, she is not externally free with respect to leading a wholly good life.[17]

At first glance this response looks decisive. It is undeniable that God has the property of being uncreated, whereas any of his creations must have the property of being created by God. It also seems undeniable that, as God is part of a causal chain leading to any particular of Patricia’s actions, God qualifies as a cause of them. And it further appears that some notion of libertarian free will can support the idea that causal origination in God would be freedom-canceling. However, Pruss’ argument fails because it applies indiscriminately to all creatures, whether logically free or not.

To begin with, notice that God’s entailment of Patricia’s virtuous behavior proceeds by way of her counterfactuals of freedom. Pruss tells us that Patricia’s existence entails her leading a wholly good life, and this is only true if Patricia’s existence entails those counterfactuals that ensure that every morally relevant action she performs is good. So we can gloss Pruss’ argument in a way which makes this salient: God creates Patricia in circumstances C, she has certain counterfactuals of freedom specifying a good action A in C, and so God determines her doing of A in C. But since the same is true of every action Patricia performs, and since every action Patricia performs is good, it is (surely!) the case that God determines that she lead a wholly good life. Hence, she is not externally free with respect to leading a wholly good life.

Yet if this is how the entailment is derived, then it is not just necessarily good creatures who are determined by God, but creatures of every stripe. For consider Manuel, a person-essence whose counterfactuals of freedom support a mixture of right and wrong actions. That God creates Manuel in circumstances C, having counterfactuals of freedom specifying his doing A in C, means that God determines his doing of A in C. The same is true of every action Manuel performs. To complete the symmetry, we can let ‘M-life’ denote the kind of life that Manuel would live in C given his counterfactuals of freedom—then that God creates Manuel in C (surely!) determines that he lead an M-life. Hence, Manuel is not externally free with respect to leading an M-life. Thus, Pruss’ counter to Smith would lay waste to the external freedom of God’s creation generally. Of course, if even logically free creatures cannot have external freedom, then external freedom cannot be a reason to create such beings over logically unfree but necessarily good beings.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see where an advocate of the standard free will defense would think that this goes awry. The free will defense is usually explained by distinguishing between strong and weak actualization. To strongly actualize a state of affairs is to be the cause of that state, whereas to weakly actualize a state of affairs is to strongly actualize (cause) a subset of some state of affairs containing free beings. Those beings complete that state with the free acts described by their counterfactuals of freedom. The point the distinction is to allow us to conceptually separate entailment (which both kinds of actualization imply) from causal responsibility (which only strong actualization implies). But for the distinction to work it must be the case that, though God’s bringing about C would counterfactually entail some person-essence’s action A, this entailment is not sufficient for God himself to be causally responsible for A. This is plausibly so: despite the entailment, we think that God only controls an initial segment of the causal chain specified in C, and that consequently he does not determine the outcome of the process in the relevant sense—his creatures do. But then, by creating necessarily good beings, God need not control all parts of the causal chain either—he can leave the counterfactuals of freedom to be determined by his necessarily good beings.[18][19] So it would seem that creaturehood cannot be used to support the free will defense after all—if we take Pruss’ argument against the possibility of necessarily good but externally free creatures seriously, we are led to deny the good which was supposed to explain moral evil; but if we instead take external freedom seriously, we will be led to deny the reasoning which would rule out necessarily good but externally free creatures.

So much for the free will defense, then. Might there be some other defense or theodicy which utilizes the essential difference of creaturehood? I have no argument that proves the contrary. All I can say is that the free will defense appears to be the only apologetic that might put the difference to use. Thus my argument for the nonexistence of God conceived of as a perfect being is complete.


I began this essay by looking at Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil, where we find a suggested form of a successful argument from evil. I made two adjustments to this form: first, by eschewing talk of the proper elimination of evil in favor of its prevention; and second, by bringing in the notions of good-making and evil-making properties. With these changes, I proposed a valid argument from evil. I then noted that, as the other premises seemed unobjectionable, the weight of the argument fell on premise (3), the proposition that “Every evil-making property (EMP) is such that its instantiation is not entailed by the instantiation of some greater good-making property (GMP).” I offered a subargument for this premise making use of the possibility of God’s existing alone, together with his perfection, to show that from the perspective of perfect-being theism, (3) would be true. But if (3) is accepted by perfect-being theists, then the argument from evil succeeds.

Four objections were considered: two for the subargument and two for the main argument. The first of these denied that the lone God world was a genuine possibility, and I responded by pointing out that the argument could be recast in an equally powerful form based on God’s independence from other beings. Next came an objection to the premise stating that God would instantiate every good-making property, and no evil-making property. I conceded that my argument would not disprove every conception of God, but clarified that it would apply to God conceived of as a perfect being, and thus would apply to the God of traditional theism. I then considered the objection that my argument ignores the various attempts to reconcile evil and the existence of God, purportedly making my argument inadequate. My general answer here, grounded in the subargument, was that given my argument any theodicy would have to be guilty of a double standard. Finally, I considered a denial of (2) in the form of a property which all of God’s creation must have, but which God himself would not have—that of being created by God. Because God does not have this property, we cannot use the subargument to show that it does not entail evil, nor that its combination with other good-making properties would not entail evil. In this vein I consider Pruss’ response to Smith’s logical argument from evil, finding that Pruss’ counter fails to support the free will defense. Given the failure of these objections, and in the absence of any others, the theist must accept the soundness of the argument from evil. Perfect-being theism is untenable.


[1] J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence.” Mind (New Series), Vol. 64, No. 254 (April 1955): 200-212; reprinted in Louis P. Pojman (ed.), Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 3rd edition (Wadsworth, 1998).

[2] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), pp. 12-29.

[3] For instance, one unsuccessful objection to the argument from evil runs as follows: “The argument from evil presupposes moral realism, but on atheism moral realism must be false. So the atheist cannot argue from evil against theism without self-contradiction, thus the argument from evil necessarily fails.” This objection fails because the atheist is not expressing his own beliefs in setting out the argument from evil, but trying to demonstrate the inconsistency theistic beliefs. And since this objection neither challenges the truth of the argument’s premises, nor the validity of its inferences, it fails to rebut the argument from evil. The objection simply commits the ad hominem fallacy in uncharitably challenging the atheist’s rationality.

[4] Plantinga, p. 20.

[5] Of course, many atheists (and some theists) deem ‘intrinsic good’ and ‘intrinsic evil’ to be dubious notions. But what matters for the success of the argument is not whether the world contains intrinsic good or evil, but that perfect-being theists are willing to assume that it does, since it is they who are unconvinced that a perfect being does not exist. We’ll see reason for crediting this assumption to them later in the essay.

[6] A Platonistic worry is that abstract objects exist necessarily, so God could not exist alone. But in order to allay it, one need only modify (A) such that it is possible for God to exist in the absence of other concreta, and add as a premise: “Only concrete objects can instantiate evil-making properties.”

[7] This may not be obvious if one is thinking of moral goodness alone. However, God’s goodness does not merely concern his behavior, but his nature as well; thus goodness has a metaphysical sense. As Paul Helm writes in his essay “Goodness” in The Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Religion,

God is said to be good in a wider or narrower sense; wider, when this indicates the fullness and completeness of his being, his self-sufficiency and freedom from want or deficiency of any kind. In this sense of “perfect goodness” it has the same reference as “perfect being,” though a different sense. Divine perfection provides the conceptual link between being and goodness in God’s case; God alone is, and can be, good. In the narrower sense God’ s goodness is an aspect of his moral character, and he communicates this goodness to his creatures in acts of creation and redemption. (p. 263)

[8] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Leicester, UK: Crossway Books, 2008), p. 182. Though Craig is here identifying God and moral goodness, the last sentence quoted makes clear that he would extend the identification to God and goodness generally, as the same reasoning applies.

[9] Anselm: “Now, one thing is necessary, viz., that one necessary Being in which there is every good—or better, who is every good, one good, complete good, and the only good” [Anselm of Canterbury: Monologion, Proslogion, Debate with Gaunilo, and a Meditation on Human Redemption, trans. Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Warren Richardson (London: SCM Press, 1974), pp. 108-109].

Aquinas: “All the perfections of all things are in God” [St. Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on God, trans. James Francis Anderson (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 22].

Leibniz: “41. Whence it follows that God is absolutely perfect; for perfection is nothing but amount of positive reality, in the strict sense, leaving out of account the limits or bounds in things which are limited. And where there are no bounds, that is to say in God, perfection is absolutely infinite” [Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, The Monadology and Other Philosophical Writings, trans. Robert Latta (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1898), p. 240].

[10] As Jordan Howard-Sobel tells us, “The logical problem of evil is a problem for perfect-being theologies only” [Logic and Theism: Arguments For and Against Beliefs in God, 1st ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 479].

[11] “According to traditional Western theism, God is the greatest being possible in virtue of possessing a complete set of great-making qualities or perfections” [Joshua Hoffman & Gary S. Rosenkrantz, The Divine Attributes: Exploring the Philosophy of Religion (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), p. 15].

[12] I advert to Descartes’ version of the ontological argument found in his Meditations, where he argues roughly: God is a perfect being; a perfect being possesses all perfections; existence is a perfection; therefore God possesses existence (i.e., he exists).

[13] Notice that if we take the perfection as relativized, anything that exists would satisfy the description of ‘a perfect being’, as everything existing perfectly fulfills our criteria for the application of the term ‘being’, and so the description would be trivial.

[14] Raymond D. Bradley offers another kind of reply: not only does God have a choice with regard to which free beings he creates, he also has a choice with regard to the counterfactual permutations of such beings. So I take it that Bradley conceives of God as having a choice, for example, whether to create a Hitler whose counterfactuals are such that he freely chooses to become an artist, as opposed to a Hitler whose counterfactuals are such that he freely chooses to become a global dictator. If so, then it seems that God is able to create free beings without running the risk of creating wrongdoers. His “The Free Will Defense Refuted and God’s Existence Disproved” on the Secular Web is well worth reading in full.

[15] Quentin Smith, “A Sound Logical Argument from Evil” in Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 149; emphasis mine].

[16] On Smith’s view such necessarily good beings are not humans who have been restricted to the good; nor are they humans whose counterfactuals of freedom just happen to ensure their perfect goodness in the actual world. Instead, they are a class of beings over and above humans, internally-externally free but logically determined, but who might qualify as ‘human’ in a loose sense of being similarly rational persons. Though Smith doesn’t say so directly, his reference to a class of necessarily good beings suggests that their goodness is essential to them—as it is to God. Alexander R. Pruss does not always observe this difference between Smith’s ‘humans’ and ourselves in arguing for his position (see note 17 below), crucial though it is: “[Patricia] has a certain nature, and God has created Patricia as having that nature. But surely then God has determined her to act rightly” [Alexander R. Pruss, “The Essential Divine-Perfection Objection to the Free-Will Defence.” Religious Studies, Vol. 44, No. 4 (2008): 433-444, p. 441; emphasis mine].

[17] Pruss, pp. 435-436.

[18] Pruss further argues that creaturehood and a lack of logical freedom entails a lack of internal freedom, chiefly from the plausible idea that logical determination would have to be grounded in the internal dispositional states of an agent. I think that this line of argument fails for two reasons. First, the grounds Pruss appeals to in favor of such dispositional states appear to apply equally well to logically undetermined beings, and so even granting his arguments, he only succeeds in establishing that internal freedom is impossible and therefore not a greater good. Second, Pruss needs to show that his arguments against internal freedom in logically determined creatures do not also apply to God. Pruss realizes this, and gestures towards the Thomistic doctrine of simplicity as standing in contradiction to determination of God’s behavior by internal states, but this is inadequate: by making an exception for God, he undermines his earlier arguments appealing to the mysteriousness of logical determination being ungrounded for an agent.

[19] Spelled out: Let “P c Q & Q c R” symbolize “P causes Q, and Q causes R.” Then, that God causes Patricia (to exist), who in turn causes action R, fits this form. Pruss derives from God’s causing Patricia, and Patricia’s causing R, that therefore God causes R—i.e., from “P c Q & Q c R” that “P c R.” This is perfectly valid—causation is transitive, so the predecessor in a causal chain will always be a (not necessarily the) cause of a later event in the chain. However, this is not the strong causation required for canceling freedom. What is needed instead is that God causes Patricia to cause action R (for him to cause her counterfactual of freedom). So what Pruss really needs to deduce from “P c Q & Q c R” is “P c (Q c R).” But this derivation is fallacious. For example, though true that “smoking causes cancer, and cancer causes death,” it is not true that smoking causes the causal relation between cancer and death, for the causal relation between cancer and death obtains regardless of whether there is anybody who smokes. Likewise, it does not follow from God’s causing Patricia, and Patricia’s causing action R, that God causes Patricia to cause that action.

Copyright ©2012 Luke Tracey. The electronic version is copyright ©2012 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Luke Tracey. All rights reserved.

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