God, Freedom, and Evil

By Alvin Plantinga, 1974

Alvin Plantinga is one of the better-known analytic philosophers of religion.  The distinguishing feature of analytic philosophy, as far as I can tell, is an annoying insistence on labeling everything with letters—I suppose to make philosophy look like mathematics.  Sure enough, in this book one has to slog through a lot of prose like “S’ is included in W and includes neither P’s performing A nor P’s restraining from performing A”.  It’s not too hard to mentally translate this into regular English.  Still, I’ve yet to encounter a philosophical problem where pseudo-math-speak works better than plain English.

In this book, Plantinga addresses two of the classical problems of natural theology:  theodicy and the ontological argument.  The first part analyses a project of what he calls “natural atheology”, namely, can one use the existence of evil to disprove the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God.  Plantinga sets out to show that one cannot.  His goal is not to explain why God really does allow evil; he only wants to show that the propositions “God exists”, “He is all-powerful”, “He is morally perfect”, and “There is evil in the world” don’t contradict each other.  To establish this, he only has to provide some possible scenario in which all are true.  His solution is a variation on the famous free will argument.  This argument says that God allows evil in the world as a necessary consequence of creating beings with free will.  Having free creatures in the world is a very great good, and by definition even an omnipotent being cannot control a will without it ceasing to be free.  He considers an objection:  since God is omniscient, He knows what every person’s free choices in every situation will be.  So why didn’t He just pick to create precisely those people and those situations such that—of their own free will—no one ever happens to sin?  Plantinga introduces the concept of “transworld depravity”.  A person is transworld depraved if he will freely sin at some point in every possible world in which he exists.  It is possible, Plantinga argues, that everyone has transworld depravity, in which case even God couldn’t create a world with free rational creatures and without sin.  Since this is possible, we can’t say that the existence of evil is inconsistent with the existence of God.  Plantinga also briefly questions the belief that God is morally constrained to create the best-possible universe, because it is doubtful that a best-possible universe can even be imagined.  (You could always imagine adding more good things to it.)  Of course, he doesn’t stress this point, because transworld depravity allows him to argue that maybe this really is as good as things could be.

Plantinga’s natural theology project is the ontological argument.  After quickly reviewing and dismissing the cosmological and teleological arguments, he comes to Anslem’s famous idea:  God, the greatest possible being, must necessarily exist, because existence is a necessary quality of greatness.   The ontological argument certainly sounds like a ridiculous piece of sophistry, but philosophers are still finding new subtleties to it.  Most of the famous arguments against ontological-class arguments (including, as Plantinga explains, Kant’s) are question-begging.  Other philosophers have set to work to fix the proof and make from it a really valid proof of God’s existence.  One such attempt was made by Norman Malcolm, who suggested the following:  the existence of a greatest possible being is possible, i.e. He exists in some universe.   Now, necessary existence is one aspect of maximal greatness.  Therefore, in some possible world, there is a God who exists in all possible worlds, including ours.  Plantinga points out that this version only proves that a being exists in our world that has the properties of God in the possible world.  I don’t think it would be too hard to argue that if God exists in a given world, that he carries his Godly properties with Him.  Instead Plantinga restates the argument so that this comes directly from the proof.  His trick is to switch from talking about possible beings to talking about qualities, in particular the quality of “maximal greatness”—the property of having the maximal degree of all excellences in every possible world.  The premise of the proof is that there is a possible world in which maximal greatness is instantiated, from which it pretty easily follows that this being exists in the actual world.  Plantinga admits that this proof probably won’t convince many atheists, because they can just deny the premise.  I myself agree that a lot of work would have to be done even to make it plausible to non-theists.

This book is a worthwhile contribution to the philosophy of religion, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone just starting on the subject.  The writing style is unnecessarily complicated, the conclusions are rather meager (atheism isn’t necessarily true, and theism isn’t necessarily false), and the issues discussed are not necessarily the most interesting ones.

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