From the archives: Gary Gutting on Mackie, Plantinga, and the problem of evil

Part of a series I originally published when leaving grad school, this may also be the longest discussion of a point I like to hammer a lot: no, there is not a consensus that Plantinga basically took care of the problem of evil. See here for part 1 of the series.

Now the part of my review that will talk about things non-philosophers care most about: philosophy of religion, Alvin Plantinga, and the problem of evil. This is also the part I find most difficult to write, because I know Gutting personally and don’t want to be too harsh criticizing him.

I’ll get straight to the point, though: the careful discussion of the first few chapters vanishes when Gutting starts talking about Plantinga. Gutting was remarkably cautious about the supposed accomplishments of Quine, Kripke, and Gettier. With Plantinga, though, his attitude becomes uncritical acceptance. He not only insists Plantinga was right about his major claims, but that Plantinga’s claims deserve to be counted as items of philosophical “knowledge.”

One of the claims is one I’ve discussed here, the claim that Plantinga decisively refuted J. L. Mackie’s version of the problem of evil. Here’s Mackie’s argument, from the 1955 paper “Evil and Omnipotence”:

In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions…

However, the contradiction does not arise immediately; to show it we need some additional premises, or perhaps some quasi-logical rules connecting the terms ‘good’, ‘evil’, and ‘omnipotent’. These additional principles are that good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible.

The initial thought in Plantinga’s response to Mackie was not new. Plantinga argued that “omnipotence” need not include the ability to do what is literally impossible, and it is impossible to determine a person’s actions and at the same time allow them free will. Plantinga then develops the point this way: true, God had many different options when it came to how to create the world, and God would have been able to see how people would act given each possible set-up for the world.

But, Plantinga says, that it’s possible that when God was creating the world, he foresaw that no matter how he created it, as long as he allowed for there to be free will, people would make some wrong choices, and wrong choices are a kind of evil. So maybe God couldn’t create free will without allowing evil, but it’s possible that God decided free will was valuable enough to allow evil for the sake of it. So there’s no impossibility of God and evil co-existing, because God might have allowed evil for the sake of free will.

In his original paper, Mackie had not addressed this exact response, but he was perfectly well aware that some theologians had attempted to solve the problem of evil by appeal to free will, and countered that that response depended on a confused conception of free will. Mackie’s point can be refined by saying that the free will defense depends on a libertarian view of free will, which says that being free is incompatible with being determined. However, the most widely-held view among contemporary philosophers is the compatiblist view of free will, which says that being free is compatible with determinism. If the compatibilists are right, Plantinga’s argument doesn’t work.

I’m a recent convert to the compatibilist view of free will, and hopefully I’ll remember to do a post explaining why at some point. But for now, I want to look at Gutting’s response to this problem:

Plantinga’s discussion is specifically directed at contemporary analytic philosophers, such as J. L. Mackie, who maintained that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the Christian God, that a contradiction can be deduced from the assumption that both evil and the Christian God exist. If so, the undeniable existence of evil proves that God does not exist. Responding to this strong version of the problem requires only a proof that a world with both God and evil is logically possible, not that it is actual or even probable. Accordingly, a defense against the objection may appeal to the most outlandish assumptions as long as they are logically possible. This immediately allows Plantinga, in formulating a free will defense, to avoid complex issues about the nature of freedom.

I agree that if Mackie is read as asserting a formal contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil, he’s in trouble. But that’s an absurd reading of the debate. It’s not the reading Plantinga himself used in his best known work on the problem of evil. In Nature of Necessity, for example, he says:

Presumably the atheologian—he who offers arguments against the existence of God—never meant to hold that there was a formal contradiction here; he meant instead that the conjunction of these two propositions is necessarily false, false in every possible world. (p. 165)

So if the compatibilist view of free will is necessarily true and Plantinga’s libertarian view necessarily false (as I’m inclined to think they are), bringing in libertarian free will is of no help to Plantinga. Also, as David Lewis pointed out, simply looking for formal consistency would make Plantinga’s free will defense completely unnecessary, because you might as well “reconcile” God and evil by appealing to absurd moral views, such as the view that:

We are partly right, partly wrong in our catalogue of values. The best things in life include love, joy, knowledge, vigour, despair, malice, betrayal, torture, . . . . God in His infinite love provides all His children with an abundance of good things. Different ones of us get different gifts, all of them very good. So some are blessed with joy and knowledge, some with vigour and malice, some with torture and despair. God permits evil-doing as a means for delivering some of the goods, just as He permits beneficence as a means for delivering others.

Obviously, such “solutions” to the problem of evil do not accomplish much of anything.

Gutting also uses an out-of-context quote from Mackie to claim that Mackie accepted Plantinga’s argument as successful:

Plantinga’s free will defense has been generally accepted as a successful response to the claim that God’s existence and the existence of evil are logically inconsistent. J. L. Mackie himself acknowledged that “since this defence is formally possible, and its principle involves no real abandonment of our ordinary view of the opposition between good and evil, we can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another.” (pp. 110-111)

The problem is that if you trace down the original quote from Mackie’s book The Miracle of Theism, he wasn’t talking about Plantinga’s argument at all. Rather, he was referring to a general greater-goods defense (the idea that God allows evil for the sake of some greater good), which he had already complimented as “particularly subtle” in the 1955 paper. What Mackie actually said about Plantinga in The Miracle of Theism was quite critical. Here is his final verdict on attempts to reconcile God and evil:

In short, all forms of the free will defense fail, and since this defense alone had any chance of success there is no plausible theodicy on offer. We cannot, indeed, take the problem of evil as a conclusive disproof of traditional theism, because, as we have seen, there is some flexibility in its doctrines, and in particular in the additional premisses needed to make to make the problem explicit. There may be some way of adjusting these which avoids an internal contradiction without giving up anything essential to theism. But none has yet been clearly presented, and there is a strong presumption that theism cannot be made coherent without a serious change in at least one of its central doctrines. (p. 176)

Does this sound like Mackie accepted that he had been refuted?

Bad as all of this is, the discussion of the problem of evil gets even worse in the last chapter, where Gutting says:

Consider a standard atheistic argument from evil: An all-good being would have wanted to prevent the Holocaust, and an all-powerful being would have been able to do so; therefore, since the Holocaust did occur, there is no being that is both all-good and all-powerful – hence no God in the traditional sense. No one familiar with Plantinga’s free will defense can think that there is a compelling case for the initial premise of this argument. It is logically possible that an all-good being would permit the Holocaust for the sake of avoiding even greater evils and that even an all-powerful being could not have prevented the Holocaust and avoided greater evils. The argument as formulated is demonstrably inadequate, and anyone who rejects the existence of God on the basis of this argument has been misled. (p.232)

This is a giant non-sequitur: the fact that it is logically possible that something is false does not mean a compelling case for it has not been made, or that the contrary view is remotely plausible. And it’s especially difficult to see how Plantinga did anything to touch versions of the problem of evil based on specific evils like the Holocaust. For reasons I’ve explained here, when the problem of evil is put that way, I think it’s a very powerful argument, even though I’m “familiar with Plantinga’s free will defense” and can’t see that I’ve been “misled.”

Remember that Plantinga argued that possibly, God had no way to allow free will while ensuring that no one ever did wrong. Surely, though he still could have allowed free will while preventing the Holocaust. For example, he might have created a world with free will, not intervened for several thousand years, allowing people to make various bad choices, and then miraculously intervened to prevent all the horrors of the Holocaust from occurring.

Gutting also has a discussion of Plantinga’s book rranted Christian Belief, but that discussion is, if anything, even more uncritical. Here, not only can I not see any good reasons to think Plantinga’s arguments are conclusive, I can’t even see why Gutting would think so.

I find the situation a bit embarrassing. Based on my personal contact with Gutting, I don’t think he should be dismissed as just a hack apologist, but that’s what he sounds like in the parts of What Philosophers Know that deal with religion. The most I can think to say in his defense is this: he isn’t really doing anything any worse than the philosophers who’ve said that Quine refuted the analytic-synthetic distinction.

If it’s not any worse intellectually, though, it’s certainly more frustrating. I know there are smart, sincere inquirers who’ve gotten into philosophy of religion, but bought into unsupported assertions about what Plantinga has supposedly proved, just because the people who are most involved in the discussion insist on this so loudly. My hope with this post is that those folk will read it and learn to take the things philosophers say with a grain of salt.

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