Freedom, Evil, and the Illusion of Omnipotence

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“Is he an omnipotent and wholly benevolent being willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is Evil? ” -Hume In the world we live in today, there is undoubtedly the existence of evil. Such a presence of moral wrongdoing seems confusing in a world where such a significant portion of the population believes in the existence of a God.

This belief in God is set in conditional terms nevertheless, and lies in the idea that while “God is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good,” evil is still allowed to exist (Plantinga, God, Evil, and the Metaphysics of Freedom). Theists believe that these requirements of God are not shaken by the presence of evil in the world; God can maintain these universal terms while there are evils occurring throughout our planet. However, it seems irrational to allow these two propositions to coexist with each other without challenging either the existence of evil or the powers theists have bestowed upon God.

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Some theists operate under the belief that evil serves as the counterpart to good (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence). This contradicts the belief that a moral good will always eliminate a moral evil, which theists also hold. However, for the two to act as counterparts, then they must exist equally with each other. If good eliminates evil as the theist idea of God is supposed to, how can they continuously work alongside each other? J. J. Mackie likens the supposed partnership between the two qualities of good and evil to the discrepancies between great and small.

For greatness to exist, there must be something smaller to which it can be compared. The two are actual counterparts, as one cannot exist without the presence of the other. An image to help demonstrate this point can be found by examining the differences between great and small mountains. Surely Mount Everest would not be regarded so greatly if every mountain in the world were nearly just as big. It is only because of the existence of smaller mountains that leads to our categorization of Everest as something separate.

The problem with this relationship is that greatness and smallness are not qualities in the sense that good and evil are. What this implies is that it would be ridiculous to think of people opposing greatness in favor of smallness or vice versa (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence). On the other hand, there is indeed a theoretical movement against evil, or even against good, which makes the comparison useless. Good and evil are supposed to be necessary counterparts as well as mutually opposed forces, where great and small lack these requirements.

The real justification of evil as a potential counterpart for good is in the fact that we are aware of the idea of evil itself. “If everything were red we should not notice redness, and so we should have no word ‘red’; we observe and give names to qualities only if they have real opposites. ” (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence). Mackie is noting the fact that if we do not notice an “other” quality opposed to its apparent opposite, there is no need or justification for distinguishing the two.

The only reason that we are aware of our own goodness is because of the evidence of others’ evil. Mackie even accounts for this by stating “God might have made everything good, though we should not have noticed if he had. ” (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence). If God had made the world wholly good as he is also supposed to be, we would not even realize it, because we were not subjected to anything other than goodness. To have this distinction between the two ideas of good and evil does still does not justify their relationship as counterparts to each other.

The idea that because of evil we are aware of good lies in the fact that only a small amount of evil is required to notice goodness. If one person was wronged in the most mundane way, by being cut in line at the supermarket, that would be enough for them to recognize the goodness of others in comparison to the “evil” of the person who wronged them. Hardly this sudden distinction between the two qualities is enough to justify the fact that they are counterparts. Theists could not accept this notion of evil as such minute, although important, force in distinguishing good from evil.

Mackie goes back to the concept of red and touches on this idea by noting “the ontological requirement that non-redness should occur would be satisfied even if all the universe, except for a minute speck, were red. ” (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence) For two things to be true counterparts to each other, one would have to assume equal force of presence for both, which has been demonstrated to be unnecessary in indentifying an opposing idea. A separate route used by theists to absolve God of the existence of evil is the claim that evil is a necessary means to good, or that in reality, it is better to ave some evil in the world so that we may appreciate the good (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence). A fitting example of this unpleasantness as a necessary factor in order to appreciate the pleasant is given with music. Certainly it seems valid that a melody in a piece of music is much more pleasurable if it follows a series of discordant notes or chords. Without the latter, the former would go by unnoticed. What theists argue is that without some sort of the simple or physical evils, we would not garner or appreciate the supposed good that resulted as a consequence (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence).

Hume uses pain and misery to define these base evils, which can be categorized as first order evils, or evil (1). Everything else that is evil arises from these two qualities. On the opposing side there must be a first order good or good (1). This category of good contains the base level goods, which are happiness and pleasure. However, out of good (1) arises second order good, or good (2), which is merely a heightening of good (1) in the face of evil (1). Good (2) serves to minimize evil (1) as much as possible while also doing the same to maximize good (1).

To put it simply, good (2) includes traits such as heroism and benevolence that increase an individual’s happiness and pleasure while diminishing their misery and pain. This idea of the world suits the theists’ idea of a wholly good, omnipotent God while also acknowledging the existence of evil. This is done by establishing a basic evil in the world, and then demonstrating the higher amount of good to be appreciated and admired that is a direct result of evil’s existence (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence). Nevertheless, the idea of good (2) increasing good (1) while minimizing evil (1) does not totally fit the idea of God’s goodness.

God wishes to further add to the good in the world by maximizing good (2) and does so by establishing good (3) (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence). However, there are a couple of problems with this notion. How is it possible for a higher amount of good to exist? This seems to be an entirely subjective line of reasoning, one that God would not take part in. Some may place happiness at the highest order of good, something that is trying to be obtained, while what could be found in good (2) belongs at the base levels, meaning that these goods could derive into what is currently good (1).

More importantly seems the obvious fact that allowing second order good to exist makes way for a second order evil to exist. This set of evils is similar to good (2) as it contains more complex qualities than pain and misery, such as malevolence and cruelty (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence). Just as second order goods build on first order goods, second order evils seek to heighten the influence of first order evils. While one may feel safe in the existence of third order good, if there is the logical possibility of second order evil, there must be the possibility of third order evil.

Even if one were to establish a fourth order good or good (4) to trump this evil (3), it would appear to be an infinite digression to the point where claiming evil’s existence as a necessary means to appreciate goodness irrelevant. The argument becomes weakened as more and more exceptions are created, eventually rendering it impractical. Creating a higher good to trump a lower evil in order to appreciate goodness in the world becomes fundamentally useless, as there will always be an equal evil for every moral good.

Alvin Plantinga uses an altogether different tactic when it comes to accounting for evil in the world despite God’s nearly perfect being. He makes the case for the Free Will Defence by claiming God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness are not disproven by the existence of evil. His argument stems from the idea that God can create free creatures without losing his goodness. In order for God to provide moral good in the world, he must provide moral evil (Plantinga, God, Evil, and the Metaphysics of Freedom).

However, if God actively seeks out to provide moral evil or moral good, the individuals in his world would not be significantly free. Therefore he created creatures capable of moral evil, but allowed them to choose whether or not to be so on their own. If the individuals that he places in this world choose to act out of self-interest and choose a path of evil rather than one of goodness, then it is not God’s fault. He merely placed significantly free agents in his world and refused to interfere with their actions.

This allows God to continue to be wholly good, omnipotent, and omniscient while also giving an excuse for the creation of evil (Plantinga, God, Evil, and the Metaphysics of Freedom). While posing possible objections to this theory, Plantinga tries to allow for a world that has free creatures that always choose to do what is right. But even in his proposed objections to his ideas, a concept of such a world brings on some serious objections. As previously mentioned, for there to be the acknowledgment of good, there must first be the presence of evil.

If there is evil, then it is impossible to claim that everyone in the world will always choose to pursue the right action. Furthermore, if everyone consistently chooses the right action and in doing so eases each other’s pain and suffering, then someone or something would have had to make them suffer. But if everyone always chooses to act rightly, such a scenario should never occur in that world. Even accounting for physical evils such as natural disasters, if God was truly wholly good, would he not create a world that was not plagued by such happenings?

In such a place where everyone chooses what is morally good, there lacks any notion of free will. For God to design a world and inhabit it with free people that he has programmed to continuously choose the right action denies them of any true meaning of what it is to be free. If God had a choice to make such a world as proposed by Plantinga, he would have. The fact that he did not, and that we live in a world of so much evil is evidence enough to deny the fact that he is wholly good (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence).

Mackie argues that to be free entails some sort of randomness in the process of deciding whether or not to act out of evil or good notions. It is irrational to use some kind of selective free will as a justification to rid God’s involvement with the creation of evil. Had god not wanted evil, he would have made the planet so that no such thing could occur, which in turn would actually deprive individuals of their free will. Even Plantinga seems to agree with this notion, stating that it was not in God’s power to create a world of moral good without moral evil (Plantinga, God, Evil, and the Metaphysics of Freedom).

Such a claim only reinforces the fact that our freedom to act how we see fit is a process of total randomness that God then has no control over, which in turn severely limits the possibility that he acting on the notion of being wholly good. These two points severely restrict God’s power over us as individuals, therefore eliminating him of his omnipotence. “There is a fundamental difficulty in the notion of an omnipotent god creating men with free will, for if men’s wills are really free this must mean that even God cannot control them, that is, that God is no longer omnipotent. (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence). Mackie presents the Paradox of Omnipotence, which asks whether or not an omnipotent being can make things that he cannot subsequently control. While it is could be understood that humans can design and build machines that turn out to operate beyond our control, no rationally reasoning human would ever claim to be omnipotent like the theists do of their notion of God. The mechanic of such a machine would also be able to determine, although not with complete accuracy, the actions his machine will perform.

Such a machine may in fact do the opposite of its intended purpose, much to the dismay of the mechanic. However, it is inappropriate to compare a mechanic and this particular notion of God because he is supposed to be omniscient, therefore necessitating that he be able to know exactly what his designed individuals will do. It seems to the reader that Plantinga is so concerned with the allowance of evil as being compatible to God’s goodness that he completely contradicts God’s supposed omnipotence. He claims “it is not within God’s power to create a world containing moral good without creating one containing moral evil. (Plantinga, God, Evil, and the Metaphysics of Freedom)

He also states the proposition that “God is omnipotent and it was not within his power to create a world containing moral good but not moral evil. ” (Plantinga, God, Evil, and the Metaphysics of Freedom) This premise seems extremely hard to accept because its initial claim of God’s unlimited ability to do whatever he wants is followed by stating something that God could not do. For a being to be able to be limited, the notion of omnipotence is no longer valid. Mackie relates the Paradox of Omnipotence that Plantinga appears to accept to a Paradox of Sovereignty.

In this scenario there is a legislative body that passes a law during its term that makes it impossible for future legislators to repeal. In short, there is a parliament that restricts its own power (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence). This parliament should at the present time be able to establish laws that govern its citizens or other entities, as well as write laws that it can apply to itself. However, if the current parliament has complete sovereignty over itself at some other point in the future, it makes sense to doubt that any other configuration of parliament would have power to be truly sovereign (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence).

This comparison applies to the theists’ notion of God by relating the fact that an omnipotent being or entity could possibly restrict itself, and in doing so restrict the freedom of their subjects while also rejecting its omnipotence. Much like the parliament used in the example, God can have unlimited powers to act, as well as unlimited powers to determine what capabilities others have to act (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence). If we allow God to have unlimited power to act, the there cannot be true freedom, as each individual has no powers to act individually of God.

This allows no concept of free will, as they would be constantly intervened by God to act morally right. Conversely, if we allow God to have unlimited power to determine what powers to act things shall have, then he cannot have unlimited power to act. In this instance if he assigned us free will, the he would have no power to interrupt our decisions, which would then allow for evil, further contradicting his total goodness. Through the previous arguments, there is no justification for evil that also maintains the theistic idea of a God who is wholly good, omnipotent, and omniscient.

Evil is in no way necessary for goodness to exist. Creating evil in the world is not required for goodness. Without evil, there would not have even been the notion of good. For God to be wholly good, he would have made a world where goodness and proper morality were the only aspects taken into consideration, and in that instance we would not even know the distinction between the two virtues. Nevertheless, this scenario would have been unfair because in that world those living this experience would lack any notion of free will.

However, theists try to maintain that our free will is necessary, so that evil is allowed to exist while God is simultaneously released from any blame. Even then, if God is supposed to be omnipotent and omniscient, then free will cannot exist. He should either be able to create a world where our choices are always morally good, barring the fact that we would not know the difference, which he has not done, or he must know exactly what our actions are going to be, thus ridding each individual of any real freedom of choice.

It must be concluded that either at least one of the qualities of the theistic view of God is false, or that his powers, and thus legitimacy, do not exist.

Works Cited

Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. [London], 1779. Print. Mackie, J. L. “Iv. —Evil And Omnipotence. ” Mind LXIV. 254 (1955): 200-12. Print. Plantinga, Alvin. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974. Print.

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Freedom, Evil, and the Illusion of Omnipotence. (2016, Dec 18). Retrieved from

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