Evil and Omnipotence

J.L. Mackie


1.       Problem of evil proves belief in God irrational (not just non-rational)

          a.       When problems are found with proofs for God’s existence, believers can claim that God is known in some other, non-rational way

          b.       Problem of evil puts them in a much worse position

          c.       They must now be prepared to believe not just what cannot be proven, but what can be disproved from other beliefs they hold.

2.       Problem of evil (can’t hold all 5)

          a.       God is wholly good

          b.       God is omnipotent

          c.       Evil exists

          d.       A good thing always eliminates (or opposes) evil as much as it can

          e.       No limits to what an omnipotent thing can do

                    i.        No logical? or causal? limits?

3.       Solve problem by

          a.       Rejecting (a) or (b)

          b.       Rejecting (c)--existence of evil

                    i.        It’s an illusion (as whole world is), evil only belongs to this world; evil is merely a privation of good; evil in a positive sense–that would opposed good–does not exist; disorder is harmony not understood; partial evil is universal good

          c.       Rejecting d: Good is not opposed to the kind of evil that exists

          d.       Rejecting e: There are limits to what an omnipotent thing can do


4.       “Good cannot exist w/o evil” or “Evil is necessary as a counterpart to good”

          a.       Good could not exist w/o evil if good and evil relative counter parts such as “great and small” or bigger than and smaller than?

                    i.        If something is bigger than something else then there has to be something smaller than something else too

                    ii.       But then good and evil are not opposed; good does not try to eliminate evil as much as it can, but instead requires it

                    iii.      On this account, by good we mean something like “better” (and by evil “worse”)

                    iv.      But this is peculiar; not what we mean when we say God is good (better) or that murder is evil (worse)....better

          b.       Mackie rejects claim that any quality must have a real opposite

                    i.        E.g., redness can occur only if non-redness can

                    ii.       But everything could be red (and nothing non-red)

                    iii.      True we wouldn’t notice it, or even have a word for it

                    iv.      So God could have made everything good, though if he did we would not notice it.

          c.       Even if every quality must have a real opposite, this provides no solution to problem of evil, unless one is willing to say, there is just enough evil to serve as a counterpart to good

                    i.        If for red to exist some non-red must, a tiny spec would be enough

                    ii.       And the same if for good to exist some evil must also exist

                              (1)     Presumably a small dose would be sufficient.


          d.       Mackie reply: To say good can’t exist w/o evil limits God’s power

                    i.        Sets limits to what God can do: He cannot create good w/o creating evil

                    ii.       So either God is not omnipotent or there are some limits to what an omnipotent thing can do

          e.       Counter-reply

                    i.        Omnipotent does not mean the power to do the logically impossible (and the claim is that good is logically impossible w/o evil)

                    ii.       Difference between logical and physical/causal impossible

          f.       This assumes that logic is independent of God.

                    i.        If logic were created by God (e.g., logic is the way in which God arbitrarily chooses to think), then God could have made good independent of evil, by creating different laws of logic.


5.       Evil is necessary as a means to good

          a.       This involves a severe restriction on God’s power and so involves rejecting God’s omnipotence

          b.       It is a causal law that can’t get a certain end w/o a certain means

          c.       So if God had to introduce evil as a means to good, he must be subject to some causal laws

          d.       And this conflicts with ordinary theistic view of omnipotence

                    i.        God is not bound by causal laws

                    ii.       For example, he can perform miracles (turn water into wine, or walk on water)

          e.       Most theists think God created causal laws


6.       The universe is better with some evil in it than it would be if there were no evil

          a.       Evil may contribute to goodness of whole in which found

                    i.        Like in aesthetics, contrast heightens beauty (e.g., discord in music somehow adds to beauty of whole work)

                    ii.       Progressive universe with a gradual overcoming of evil by good is really a better world than a world with static eternal unchallenged supremacy of good

                              (1)     This seems quite plausible

          b.       Examples

                    i.        Existence of pain and disease make possible sympathy, benevolence, heroism, and struggle to overcome these evils

          c.       1st order evil: pain and disease

          d.       1st order good: pleasure and health

          e.       2nd order good

                    i.        Heightened happiness by contrast with misery

                    ii.       Sympathy with suffering

                    iii.      Heroism in face of danger

          f.       2nd order good not possible with out first order evil

          g.       2nd order good more important than first order good or evil

          h.       So the universe is better in virtue of having 1st order evils

          i.        This is the best of all logically possible worlds because it includes the important second order goods, even though real evils (1st order evils of pain and disease) exist

                    i.        In the end, theodicy would seem to have to argue that this is the best of all possible worlds (a difficult task)


          j.        Mackie reply: Thinks that existence of 2nd order evil is the weakness in this argument

                    i.        2nd order evils: Malevolence, cruelty, callousness, cowardice

                    ii.       2nd order evils are worse than 1st order evils

                    iii.      God would especially want and try to get rid of them

                    iv.      But 2nd order evil exists

          k.       Might one argue that 2nd order goods far outweigh 2nd order evils in importance and so this is still the best of all possible worlds?

                    i.        What reason might be given for this idea?


7.       Evil is due to human free will (not God)

          a.       (Much) Evil is not due to God, but to human free will

          b.       2nd order evil (e.g., cruelty, maliciousness) is not justified, but it is the responsibility of humans and not of God

          c.       Combine this with above solution to 1st order evil (pain), which is necessary to 2nd order goods (sympathy, struggle against evil)

          d.       It is better that men should act freely and sometimes do bad things than they be innocent automata and act rightly in a wholly determined way.

                    i.        2nd order evils like cruelty are logically necessary accompaniments of freedom

8.       Mackie’s response: God should have created people who always freely choose the good

          a.       If God can make people who freely choose to act well on some occasions, there is nothing logically impossible about him making people who freely choose the good on all occasions

          b.       God was not faced with choice of making innocent automata or beings whose free actions would sometimes create evil

          c.       He had the better option of making beings who freely always act right.

          d.       That he did not do this shows he can’t be both fully good and fully powerful


          e.       Possible Reply: Making of wrong choices is logically necessary for freedom

                    i.        Is this true? Only the possibility of making such choices would seem to be required

          f.       Mackie: This assumes freedom is randomness; that free choices do not follow from people’s characters

                    i.        Must take a view of freedom as randomness or indeterminacy (including with choosing good and evil acts)

                    ii.       Assuming that men’s acts can be free only if not determined by their characters

                    iii.      For if God made men as they are, but did not determine their wrong choices, this can only be because the wrong choices are not determined by men as they are (not determined by their characters)

          g.       But freedom as random action not determined by nature of the person acting can’t be of such great value as to justify the evil that results


          h.       Mackie ignores (or rejects) a third conception of freedom which is neither randomness, not determined by one’s character but “ultimate origination”


9.       Mackie: If God can control people’s free wills, then why doesn’t he refrain from controlling their wills when they act rightly and control them when they will badly?

          a.       Is a wrong free act not really evil, because the freedom is a value that outweighs is wrongness?

                    i.        We would not say this about Dostoevsky cases...

          b.       Theists claim that sin is really evil, not that the freedom involved makes it an overall good!


10.     Can an omnipotent being make things which he cannot subsequently control?

11.     Can he make rules which then bind himself (e.g., laws of logic or causal laws)?

12.     Paradox:

          a.       Because if one answers yes, then he is no longer omnipotent

          b.       If answers no, then there are things he cannot do and he is not omnipotent

13.     Mackie distinguishes between two types of omnipotence

          a.       (1) Unlimited power to act (1st order omnipotence)

          b.       (2) Unlimited power to determine what powers to act things shall have (2nd order omnipotence)

14.     Can either say

          a.       God always has (1), and if so no beings ever have powers to act independently of God

          b.       Or say God has (2) and uses it to assign independent powers to act to certain things, so that thereafter God did not have omnipotence (1)

          c.       Can’t consistently ascribe to any continuing being omnipotence in inclusive sense (both senses)

15.     Unqualified omnipotence can’t be ascribed to any being that continues through time

          a.       And if God and his actions are not in time, can omnipotence or power of any sort be meaningfully ascribed to him?

16.     Putting God outside of time solves paradox

          a.       No times can be assigned to his actions

          b.       But not clear we can make sense of God acting if he is outside time


17.     I’m not sure there is a genuine problem here

          a.       Could say God has 1 and 2 and chooses never to use 2

          b.       Or could say he had 1 and 2, chose to use 2 and now no longer has one