This is part of a series in which I present a cumulative case for why I don't believe in god. The series index is here.
The problem of evil is a very popular and well-known (and hotly debated) argument against the existence of god. In general, the problem is broken down into two categories: the logical problem and the evidential problem.
The logical problem attempts to argue that any existence of evil whatsoever is logically incompatible with the existence of a being, called "god" who is said to be concurrently all good, all powerful, and all knowing.
The evidential problem of evil attempts to find actual examples of undesirable states of existence that are so apparently horrible that one cannot think of any possible greater good that god might be bringing about as a result of its occurrence.
I'm painting a highly simplistic picture here, but think that the summaries are reasonable. Typical apologetic responses (which, when attempting to explain how evil can exist given a good, omni-max good, are called theodicies) are free will, soul-building, and ignorance of god's reasons.
There are others, for sure, but these are the most common "buckets" I've seen answers fall into. The free will defense can take some various avenues, but typically implies either a) that removing all evil from the world would violate our free will (and god values this human-only property too much to do so) or b) that the non-existence of evil would make free will meaningless, since the only way to evaluate the level of "goodness" in a freely choisen action is by comparison with it's antithesis. Even another route is that c) no matter what possibly world god created, every single one of them in which humans have free will entailed that we would do evil. Some take a step further and imply that perhaps this is the best possible world. Others imply that perhaps god couldn't have known exactly what would come about when creating his free willed creatures (somewhat of a limited omniscience). In all cases, free will is valued higher than the existence of evil for various reasons.
Soul building implies that the existence of evil brings about the building of virtue as humans struggle through it, thus better preparing us for the possibility of heaven.
Ignorance is typically the last stop on the route. If no answers have proven satisfying to the inquirer, the appeal to divine ignorance is a surefire win -- we can't possibly know why god allows x, y, and z, but we can trust that he has good reasons, well, because he's god. I don't see this as much of a viable option since the very evidence being used to determine whether "god" is synonymous with "all good, all powerful, all knowing" is being explained by the fact that god is, in fact, synonymous with these properties. I may not understand it entirely, but for now it strikes me as circular and essentially as playing "the faith card" (I don't have to understand, just believe).
Enough of the prelude. All one really has to know is that some find the existence of evil troubling when told that an all good, all powerful, all knowing being also exists and created this world... and that others respond by essentially saying that it couldn't have been any other way for various reasons.
I came up with something a bit back that originated with a comment at Common Sense Atheism HERE. The free will defense was presented along the lines of it being necessary for god to allow us the freedom to do evil, which really got me thinking.
Really what I'm getting at is (aside from evil): am I free to jump over a 100ft building?
I see a dilemma here for the free will defense. One horn is that, "Yes," I'm free, but simply unable. I honestly don't know entirely what that means, but could see it meaning that I'm "free" to want/will it, but due to physical limitations I can't actually carry it out. The other horn is that, "No," I'm not free to do something if I'm only able to think it but not carry it out.
Applied to evil, this means that:
- I'm either free to will any evil, but not able to carry certain acts out... or
- I'm not free to do any evils that I can only think about but not carry out.
What does this have to do with the Problem of Evil? Well, it means that when one states that god had to make it this way, that there's already a whole category of stuff I can will/imagine/desire, but not do. I can't (yet) carry out a sci-fi death fantasy on someone I hate by shooting them with a Star Trek phaser set to kill. Or hack someone's arm off with a real light saber.
I continued extending this idea at CSA, and summarized my idea of "the impossibility of evil" HERE.
I really, really liked it and hadn't heard it anywhere else. In essence, my thesis is that god could have created us wholly free, but essentially made actually doing evil a technical problem so advanced that we wouldn't ever figure it out. Imagine evil was on par with figuring out all the details of quantum physics. We were scratching the surface ages ago trying to figure out what the cosmos was about, why the planets moved like they did, and eventually have come to trying to understand the circumstances surrounding the origin of the universe. Many think we're close... but we're not there.
How about this with evil? Imagine being able to conceive of ending someone's life or hurting them, but literally having it be so intellectually challenging that it would take us until we developed artificial intelligence to solve all the necessary technical details. Heck, why couldn't we have remained so ignorant of biology that we didn't even understand that sufficient physical injury would bring about death? What if it never even would have occurred to Cain that picking up a rock to smash Able's brains would stop him from living?
My point is that we could easily have been wholly free, but unable. Just like I'm wholly free, but unable, to shoot someone with a phaser. This way of thinking opens up a lot of middle ground for ways in which this world could be better as well. As far as I know, this needs to be the best of all possible worlds, though I could be wrong. In my understanding, an omni-max god couldn't be said to have created a sub-optimal universe more prone to evil/suffering than another, at least without some greater good coming out of it.
My idea doesn't necessarily apply to natural disasters or evils like that -- just the evil brought about by humans, which some apologists claim is responsible for all the natural disasters, birth defects, and sicknesses anyway, perhaps which entered the world at the fall. Even were we just to focus on all the human vs. human evil that is brought about, consider a spectrum of evils with mass slaughter being at one end and implanting a speck of dust in someone's eye at the other end. Could god not have made the more severe evils even more challenging to bring about than they already are? Or the development of explosives and firearms more challenging in order to reduce the amount of deaths that could be brought about in a short amount of time?
Or what about providing every humans with a force field that prevented them from being killed. Let all humans be free to will anything they want. Then let them be prevented from actually killing another human by our inherent force fields.
The point is that I can imagine quite a few ways in which we would "free" to want/desire/will evil, but unable to actually bring it out. Period.
I can also see reducing the amount of human-cause evil by this route, even if it wasn't eliminated entirely. Make more significant evils more technologically challenging, or simply seem more challenging to our brains. Keep humans ignorant of how and/or why people die to prevent them from figuring out how to bring such a circumstance about -- humans could have just known that death happened when you go old and died in your sleep rather than knowing that we were susceptible to various toxins, organ damage, or fluid loss.
In this way, an omni-max god could have created a world filled with less human-instigated evils while still allowing the retention of "free will."