Tag Archives: Problem of evil

Guardian Angels

AngelOn an episode of the Late Show, host Stephen Colbert and Jane Lynch had an interesting discussion of guardian angels. Lynch, who currently stars as a guardian angel in “Angel from Hell”, related a story of how her guardian angel held her in a protective embrace during a low point of her life. Colbert, ever the rational Catholic, noted that he believed in guardian angels despite knowing that they do not exist. The question of the existence of guardian angels is certainly an interesting one and provides yet another way to consider the classic problem of evil.

In general terms, a guardian angel is a supernatural, benevolent being who serves as the personal protector of someone. The nature of their alleged guarding varies considerably. For some, the guardian angel is supposed to serve in the classic “angel on the shoulder” role and provide good advice. For others, the angel provides a comforting presence. Some even claim that guardian angels take a very active role, such as reducing a potentially fatal fall to one that merely inflicts massive bodily injury. My interest is, however, not with the specific functions of guardian angels, but with the question of their existence.

In the context of monotheism, a guardian angel is an agent of God. As such, this ties them into the problem of evil. The general problem of evil is the challenge of reconciling the alleged existence of God with the existence of evil. Some take this problem to decisively show that God does not exist. Others contend that it shows that God is not how philosophers envision Him in the problem—that is, He is not omniscient, omnibenevolent or omnipotent. In the case of guardian angels, the challenge is to reconcile their alleged existence with evil.

One merely has to look through the news of the day to see a multitude of cases in which a guardian angel could have saved the day with fairly little effort. For example, a guardian angel could inform the police about the location of a kidnapped child. As another example, a guardian angel could exert a bit of effort to keep a ladder from slipping. They could also do more difficult things, like preventing cancer from killing children or deflecting bullets away from school children. Since none of this ever seems to happen, one obvious conclusion is that there are no guardian angels.

However, as with the main problem of evil, there are some ways to try to address this specific problem. One option, which is not available in the case of God, is to argue that guardian angels have very limited capabilities—that is, they are incredibly weak supernatural beings. Alternatively, they might operate under very restrictive rules in terms of what they are allowed to do. One problem with this reply is that such weak angels seem indistinguishable in their effects from non-existent angels. Another problem ties this into the broader problem of evil: why wouldn’t God deploy a better sort of guardian or give them broader rules to operate under? This, of course, just brings up the usual problem of evil.

Another option is that not everyone gets an angel. Jane Lynch, for example, might get an angel that hugged her. Alan Kurdi, the young boy who drowned trying to flee Syria, did not get a guardian angel. While this would be an explanation of sorts, it still just pushes the problem back: why would God not provide everyone in need with a guardian? Mere humans are, of course, limited in their resources and abilities, so everyone cannot be protected all the time. However, God would not seem to suffer from such a limitation.

It is also possible to make use of a stock reply to the problem of evil and bring in the Devil. Perhaps Lucifer deploys his demonic agents to counter the guardian angels. So, when something bad happens to a good person, it is because her guardian angel was outdone by a demon. While this has a certain appeal, it would require a world in which God and the Devil are closely matched so that the Devil can defy God and His angels. This, of course, just brings in the general problem of evil: unless one postulates two roughly equal deities, God is on the hook for the Devil and his demons. Or rather, God’s demons.

As should be expected, guardian angels seem to fare no better than God in regards to the problem of evil. That said, the notion of benevolent, supernatural personal guardians predates monotheism. Socrates, for example, claimed to have a guardian who would warn him of bad choices (which Stephen Colbert also claims to have).

These sort of guardians were not claimed to be agents of a perfect being, as such they do avoid the problem of evil. Supernatural beings that are freelancers or who serve a limited deity can reasonably be expected to be limited in their abilities and it would certainly make sense that not everyone would have a guardian. Conflict between opposing supernatural agencies also makes sense, since there is no postulation of a single supreme being.

While these supernatural guardians do avoid the problem of evil, they run up against the problem of evidence: there does not appear to be adequate evidence for the existence of such supernatural beings. In fact, the alleged evidence for them is better explained by alternatives. For example, a little voice in one’s head is better explained in terms of the psychological rather than the supernatural (a benign mental condition rather than a supernatural guardian). As another example, a fall that merely badly injures a person rather than killing them is better explained in terms of the vagaries of chance than in terms of a conscious, supernatural intervention.

Given the above discussion, there seems to be little reason to believe in the existence of guardian angels. The world would be rather different if they did exist, so clearly they do not. Or they do so little as to make no meaningful difference—which is rather hard to distinguish from not existing.

I certainly do not begrudge people their belief in guardian angels—if that belief leads them to make better choices and feel safer in a dangerous world, then it is a benign belief. I certainly have comfort beliefs as well—as we all do. Perhaps these are our guardian angels. This, obviously, points to another discussion about such beliefs.



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God, Rape & Free Will


freewill.jpg (Photo credit: Thunderkiss59)

The stock problem of evil is that the existence of evil in the world is incompatible with the Philosophy 101 conception of God, namely that God is all good, all powerful and all knowing. After all, if God has these attributes, then He knows about all evil, should tolerate no evil and has the power to prevent evil. While some take the problem of evil to show that God does not exist, it can also be taken as showing that this conception of God is in error.

Not surprisingly, those who wish to accept the existence of this all good, all powerful and all-knowing deity have attempted various ways to respond to the problem of evil. One standard response is, of course, that God has granted us free will and this necessitates that He allow us to do evil things. This, it is claimed, gets God off the hook: since we are free to choose evil, God is not accountable for the evil we do.

In a previous essay I discussed Republican Richard Mourdock’s view that “Life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.” In the course of that essay, I briefly discussed the matter of free will. In this essay I will expand on this matter.

For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that we have free will. Obviously, this can easily be dispute, I am interested in seeing whether or not such free will can actually get God off the hook for the evil that occurs, such as rape and its consequences.

On the face of it, free will would seem to free God from being morally accountable for our choices. After all, if God does not compel or influence our choices and we are truly free to select between good and evil, then the responsibility of the choice would rest on the person making the decision. It should also be added that God would presumably also be excused from allowing for evil choices—after all, in order for there to be truly free will in the context of morality there must be the capacity for choosing good or evil. Or so the stock arguments usually claim.

For the sake of the discussion I will also accept this second assumption, namely that free will gets God off the hook in regards to our choices. This does, of course, lead to an interesting question: does allowing free will also require that God allow the consequences of the evil choices to come to pass? That is, could God allow people moral autonomy in their choices, yet prevent their misdeeds from actually bearing their evil fruit?

One way to consider this matter is to take the view that free will requires that a person be able to make a moral decision and that this decision be either good or evil (or possibly neutral). After all, a moral choice must be a moral choice. On this approach, whether or not free will would be compatible with God preventing occurrences (like rape or pregnancy caused by rape) would seem to depend on what makes something good or evil.

There are, of course, a multitude of moral theories that address this matter. For the sake of brevity I will consider two: Kant’s view and the utilitarian view (as exemplified by John Stuart Mill).

Kant famously takes the view that “A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition—that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favor of any inclination…Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither add to nor take away anything from this value.”

For Kant, what makes a willing (decision) good or evil is contained in the act of willing itself. Hence, there would be no need to consider the consequences of an action stemming from a decision when determining the morality of the choice. An interesting illustration of this view can be found in Bioware’s Star Wars the Old Republic game. Players are often given a chance to select between light side (good) and dark side (evil) options, thus earning light side or dark side points which determine the moral alignment of the character. For example, a player might have to choose to kill or spare a defeated opponent.  Conveniently, the choices are labeled with symbols indicating whether a choice is light side or dark side—which would be very useful in real life.

If Kant’s view is correct, then God could allow the freedom of the will while also preventing evil choices from having any harmful consequences. For example, a person could freely chose to rape a woman and the moral choice would presumably be duly noted by God (in anticipation of judgment day). God could then simply prevent the rape from ever occurring—the rapist could, for example, stumble and fall while lunging towards his intended victim. As another example, a person could freely will the decision to murder someone, yet find that her gun fails to fire when aimed at the intended victim. In short, people could be free to make moral choices while at the same time being unable to actually bring those evil intentions into actuality. Thus, God could allow free will while also preventing anyone from being harmed.

It might be objected that God could not do this on the grounds that people would soon figure out that they could never actualize their evil decisions and hence people would (in general) stop making evil choices. That is, there would be a rather effective deterrent to evil choices, namely that they could never bear fruit and this would rob people of their free will. For example, those who would otherwise decide to rape if they could engage in rape would not do that because they would know that their attempts to act on their decisions would be thwarted.

The obvious reply is that free will does not mean that person gets what s/he wills—it merely means that the person is free to will. As such, people who want to rape could still will to rape and do so freely. They just would not be able to harm anyone.

It is, of course, obvious that this is not how the world works—people are able to do all sorts of misdeeds. However, since God could make the world work this way, this would suggest various possibilities such as God not existing or that God is not a Kantian. This leads me to the discussion of the utilitarian option.

On the stock utilitarian approach, the morality of an action depends on the consequences of said action. As Mill put it, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” As such, the morality of a willing would not be determined by the willing but by the consequences of the action brought about by the willing in question.

If this is correct, then God would need to allow the consequences of the willing to occur in order for the willing to be good or evil (or neutral). After all, if the willing had no consequences then it would have no moral significance on a consequentialist view like utilitarianism. So, for example, if a person freely wills to rape a woman, then God must not intervene. Otherwise He would be interfering with what determines the ethics of the willing. As such, if God did not allow the rapist to act upon his willing, then the decision to rape would not be an evil decision. If it is assumed that free will is essential to God being able to judge people for their deeds and misdeeds, then He would have to allow misdeeds to bear fruit so that they would be, in fact, misdeeds. On the usual view, He then punishes or rewards people after they die.

One rather obvious problem with this approach is that an all knowing God would know the consequences of an action even without allowing the action to take place. As such, God could allow people to will their misdeeds and then punish them for what the consequences would have been if they had been able to act upon their intentions. After all human justice punishes people even when they are prevented from committing their crimes. For example, someone who tries to murder another person is still justly punished even if she is prevented from succeeding.

It might be countered that God can only punish cases of actual evil rather than potential evil. That is, if the misdeed is prevented then it is not an actual misdeed and hence God cannot justly punish a person. On this view, God must allow rape in order to be able to toast rapists in Hell. This would, of course, require that God not consider an attempted evil deed as an evil deed. So, actual murder would be wrong, but attempted murder would not. This, of course, is rather contrary to human justice—but it could be claimed that human law and divine law are rather different. Obviously humans and God take very different approaches: we generally try to keep people from committing misdeeds whereas God apparently never does. Rather, He seems content to punish long after the fact—at least on the usual account of God.


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God, Yachts and Bitches

Aliosha VII Yacht

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Stephen Colbert recently raised an important theological and philosophical question, namely,”Could God create a yacht so big that he could not fill it with bitches?” This sort of question, obviously enough, parallels some of the classic questions about the nature of God’s omnipotence, such as “can God create a rock that He cannot lift?”

The specific question of whether or not God can create such a yacht would seem to involve considering the specifics of the scenario, such as the size limits of yachts (would a ship of a certain size be too big to be classified as a yacht?) and bitches as well as what would count as being full of bitches (does this mean that the bitches are comfortably occupying the vessel or stacked and stuffed in all the spaces?). However, these complications can be set aside (along with the offensive term “bitches”) in favor of a more general sort of question: can God create a container that He cannot fill?

On the face of it, this would seem to create what appears to be a paradox. If God is omnipotent, then it would seem to follow that He could create a container (such as a yacht) of any size-even one that would be so big that He could not fill it (even given an infinite supply of created bitches). However, His omnipotence would also seem to entail that He could fill any container, no matter how big. After all, He could just create enough things to fill the container.

One potential way out of this problem is to play games with the notion of infinity. Presumably the largest container that God could create would be infinite in size. Presumably the largest number and volume of things (such as bitches) that God could create would also be infinite. Leibniz, in his Theodicy,  writes “and infinity, that is to say, the accumulation of an infinite number of substances, is, properly speaking, not a whole any more than the infinite number itself, whereof one cannot say whether it is even or uneven.” Stealing from Leibniz, perhaps it could be said that when talking about an infinite yacht and an infinite number of bitches it would not be possible to say whether it is full or not. Of course, this seems vaguely (or not so vaguely) unsatisfying.

Perhaps a better approach would be to look at the matter a bit differently. The problem arises from taking the ability to create something so big that He cannot fill it as a positive ability of God. As such, if God did not have that ability, then He would be lacking. But, of course, if he could not fill the object, then he would also be lacking.

However, the idea of an ability to create an object so big that He cannot fill it seems to involve an absurdity. After all, if God could create a hollow object of X size and Y interior volume, then it would seem that He could simply create an object marginally smaller than X with a volume of Y. Thus, the question is actually asking “could God create an object and not be able to create a smaller object (or objects) that would fill the larger object” and the answer would seem to be “no.” After all, objects have volumes and sizes, but so big that it cannot be filled does not seem to be a legitimate property that God could just give to an object. Rather, this property is a relational property between the object and all other things that exist or could exist. Thus, the supposition that God can create objects entails that He can fill any object He creates.

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God’s Love

I recently finished a section on faith & reason in my Introduction to Philosophy class. As per tradition, I included a discussion of the problem of evil and used David Hume‘s writings on the subject. Condensing down his argument, he contends that we cannot reasonably infer the existence of an all powerful, all knowing and supremely benevolent being from the nature of the world. After all, there seems to be a significant tension between all the evil in the world and the existence of such a perfect being. Hume does note that the existence of evil is consistent with God having the qualities commonly attributed to Him, but he thinks that this is not what we would expect.

Reflecting a bit on this, I think that Hume is correct on both points. After all, inferring that a perfect being exists based on the available empirical evidence seems like quite a leap. This would be like looking at a student’s tests and papers, seeing an average grade of D and inferring that despite all the evidence, the student really is an A student. While I have had students make such a claim (that they are A students, despite the lack of A grades), this is hardly good reasoning.

In regards to the second point, Hume does seem to be correct that the evil of the world is consistent with God being good and so on. After all, being good is consistent with being a bit rough. To use another teaching analogy, being a morally good professor is consistent with giving the students challenging and difficult assignments. It is also consistent with applying failing grades when such grades are earned. Naturally, a student who fails or dislikes the work will not see these things as good, but she would be wrong about this. Of course, the analogy does have some weak points. After all, I do not smite my students with random diseases, nor do I tolerate violence in my classroom. However, I do smite them with paper assignments and I do tolerate active discussions in which students sometimes strongly criticize one another. So, perhaps God is good, but he runs a very tough classroom.

Of course, many people hold that God is not just good. God is also supposed to be, on some accounts, a loving God. This raises the question of whether the available evidence can be reconciled with this claim.

While goodness is consistent with being a bit rough and also consistent with being objective, love seems to be different. While it is said that people hurt the ones they love, this seems to be a claim about what people do and not what love is really about. Love seems to involve a special concern for someone else and a desire to not only do well by that person, but also to be rather biased in his favor. As such, there is a difference in the behavior of a person who loves someone else as opposed to how that person would act towards someone he did not love.

To make the discussion a bit more concrete, I’ll use my own fall and surgery as an example. Back in March, I had a ladder go out from under me, thus dropping me about eight feet. My left foot hit the ladder and this tore my quadriceps tendon. While a good person watching me about to be hurt would have tried to help me, it could be consistent with a person’s goodness to let me fall. After all, doing so would certainly teach me to be more careful about ladders and such in the future. To use yet another teaching analogy, this could be seen as failing a student for making the bad choice of cheating-that will teach her. Likewise, my bad choice of getting on a ladder during a storm taught me to never do that again.

However, someone who loves me would not have let me fall, if she could have prevented it. After all, someone who loves me would not want me to suffer such an injury and have to endure such a long and painful recovery. Suppose, for example, someone who professed to love me was standing by the ladder and she saw it slipping. If she did nothing to try to stop it and just watched me fall, I would be inclined to say that she did not love me.

Obviously, if God exists, then He was aware of the ladder slipping and could have easily prevented this. However, He let it slip and hence let me fall. That hardly seems to be a sign of love. As such, if God exists, then I can be fairly sure that He does not love me.

Naturally, someone could counter by arguing that if being good is compatible with being a bit rough, then so  is love. After all, a parent who loves his children will let them endure the discomfort of getting their vaccines so as to keep them safe. A person might, also out of love, allow someone he loves to learn a lesson the hard way, knowing that is the only way the person will learn. And, of course, love hurts. So, perhaps it is consistent with God’s love that he allows us to fall, get terrible diseases, murder, be murdered, rape, be raped and so on. However, it certainly is a strange sort of love. I’m certainly glad my friends and family do not love me that way.

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