R. Douglas Geivett On "Augustine and the Problem of Evil."

As announced earlier I’m planning on reviewing every chapter in the new anthology on the problem of suffering titled, God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain,edited by Chad Meister and James K. Dew. [To read other entries in this series just click on the "God and Evil" tag below this post].

This time up is chapter five (pp. 65-79) written by R. Douglas Geivett, "Augustine and the Problem of Evil." Using Plato's allegory of the cave is illustrative here (although Geivett doesn't mention it). Augustine essentially borrowed from Plato some of his main insights (with Christian deviations). In Plato the real is the "good" (the highest of the forms) while that which is unreal are the "shadows" on the wall of the cave. When we substitute "God" for Plato's "good" and substitute "evil" for Plato's "shadows" we basically get Augustine. Evil is unreal. It doesn't exist except as a parasite on the good. Evil has no actual substance (or existence) in and of itself. It's a privation on the good. The reason we see evil is due to the free willed choices of God's creatures. It cannot come from God who is necessarily good. Geivett finds merit in Augustine's approach and includes some lessons for today.


First off, I find no merit in Augustine's argument to the existence of a good God. Geivett claims his proof for God's existence "plays a crucial role" in his theodicy. Augustine reasoned like this in three steps: 1) God exists based on the need to ground eternal truth (a Platonic argument); 2) God is necessarily good whereas all other things by virtue of being created are contingent goods, 3) Therefore, a necessarily good God couldn't create evil. By definition God cannot be responsible for it. (I'll confess this is a rather simplistic account for brevity's sake). As I indicated his is a purely deductive argument, one based on definitions. If we define things in the way Augustine did then we'll get the same result. That is, if it is in fact deductively true beyond doubt that God is necessarily good then he couldn't create the massive amount of suffering in this world (i.e., evil). The question is how Augustine gets from A to Z.

Geivett objects that Augustine's argument to a necessarily good God is not a purely deductive one. Augustine offered inductive support as well, in the feelings of guilt we all have from time to time. However, I can conceive of no reasonable argument that would lead us to think God is necessarily good given (a) the nature of the world we see around us, and given (b) other equally probable God-hypotheses. Consider (a). There is no way we can conclude there is a perfectly good God if we inductively look at the world and try to determine whether such a God, if he exists, is necessarily good. At best we could only inductively conclude God has a mixture of both good and evil in him (or better, Paul Draper's "Hypothesis of Indifference"). Perhaps God is a glorified human being? After all, human beings contain a mixture of both good and bad, which is what we would inductively conclude about God from the world. So Augustine's so-called inductive support for his deductive argument to God's goodness is merely used in defense of something he already determined from his deductive argument, devoid of any inductive evidence at all. With his definitions and the deductive nature of his argument he doesn't need any inductive evidence at all. In fact, such evidence is irrelevant. Consider (b). There are equally probable God-hypotheses, one of which is that a trickster (or deceiver) God exists, not a good one. Based on this conception alone the best any believer can claim is agnosticism.

Now let's consider evil as a privation. Just substitute the word "suffering" in place of the word "evil" and see what we get. You see, that's what we're talking about, suffering, a massive amount of intense naturally and morally caused suffering. It exists. No Platonic deductive argument nor any alternative definitions can deny this fact. How does suffering not exist? Sentient creatures all experience it as real. Augustine is defining God as necessarily good without any non-controversial inductive support (the experience of guilt, by the way, is no indication there is a perfectly good God given naturalistic explanations that locate it in the conscience regions of our brains).

What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a language reversal game with the privation theory. For now rather than "the problem of evil," we have "the problem of a less good." Why didn't God create a world with more good in it? Andrea Weisberger explains: "'Less good' simply functions as a euphemism for evil, and the problem reduces to a matter of semantics. No matter what we wish to call the particular phenomenon in question, the pain feels the same...Certainly the problem of evil disappears, it is true, but the problem of less good which takes its place is equally vexing." (p. 74) Weisberger explains in her book, Suffering Belief:"There is clearly a major problem with the privation theory: it does not seem to satisfactorily account for our experience of evil." (p. 73). She rightly argues this solution of Augustine's (and Aquinas's) is a concessionary one, for it concedes that the problem of evil as traditional formulated is a sound argument, it just denies one of the premises (i.e., that evil exists).

Geivett admits that Augustine's view of evil as "a privation" is "often met with incredulity (or worse)." These are some of the reasons why.

Geivett ends his chapter with some lessons for today. Let me mention the first and the last lessons, the only ones worthy of comment.

Lesson 1) "Every worldview and philosophy of life must reckon with the reality of evil, including the evil of human moral failure." Again, let's substitute the word "suffering" for the word "evil," so this now reads: "Every worldview and philosophy of life must reckon with the reality of suffering, including the suffering [caused by] human moral failure." He opines that atheists cannot answer this problem, that we "loath to say what evil is." Really? I just did. It's called suffering. And what accounts for such suffering? In a word, evolution.

Lesson 4) "Christianity is attractive, in part, for its solution to both the existential and the intellectual problems of evil." My response is what I do every time I get a physical. *cough* I'm showing in reviewing this book it is anything but that. Such a statement is little more than masturbatory madness. It's circle jerk time folks. For people who want to believe all it takes is a little patience and some ingenuity. To see this for what it is look at Scientology's solution to the problem of "evil." Look at Christian Scientist's solution. Look at the pantheist's solution. Look at the Calvinist's solution. They all claim to have the best solution, take your pick. Just try to argue them out of their solution and you will see the same resistance we see coming from the authors in this book. Hint: They will disagree with us. We cannot convince them otherwise, no matter what we say. I'll guarantee it. That's why faith needs no evidence. That's the nature of faith. It's irrational. Evidence doesn't count at all, and when it does, it's forced into the service of faith.

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