The God of monotheistic religions is said to be infinitely good and infinitely powerful. But, if so, why did God tolerate that there is evil in the world for which no one can apparently be blamed?
This is, in a nutshell, the so-called problem of evil, which gives rise to the quest of justifying our "discourse about God," that is of justifying God’s work in light of our own conception of God.
The Problem in Western Philosophy
The problem of evil was evident to most religious writers, we can presume; but at certain times during the history of theological and philosophical thinking it was addressed more directly. In the history of Wester philosophy, the two main moments for the discussion of the problem of evil occurred probably during Augustine’s era, that is in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., and then during the flourishing of Early Modern thought.
In Early Modern times it was Descartes to revive to the problem of evil, in the sixth of his Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes’s discussion was later picked up by authors such as Pierre Bayle, Baruch Spinoza, Leibniz, and Voltaire. Let’s see the most salient parts of the debate.
What’s at Stake
In the fourth meditation, Descartes had asked himself a very simple but poignant question: why do humans make mistakes? The answer to that was that humans have an infinite will – we can want to do all sorts of things, even those that are patently impossible – but, at the same time, we have a limited understanding. Thus, sometimes we want to judge of that which we do no fully comprehend, and we make mistakes. That seems straightforward enough.
Unfortunately, the matter is not that simple. In the sixth meditation, Descartes finds out that sometimes we run into error when no one seems to be blameworthy. Consider a human being who has dropsy, that is someone who finds herself in the following strange condition: feeling vividly thirsty, while being in a physiological state where ingesting more liquids is going to be fatal. Such a person seems not to be blameworthy for being ill; at the same time, no one else seems responsible for the illness. Since a person who suffers from dropsy is a creature of God, and no person can be blamed for her illness, it seems that God, who is omnipotent, could have avoided that the existence of the illness. Thus, God wanted the illness to be manifested. Yet, how can this be compatible with the idea that God is infinitely good?
Ways Out of the Problem?
Descartes’s own solution out of the problem was somewhat elaborate and not much convincing. In the subsequent century, a number of additional solutions were developed. Here are four of the most notable ones.
First Solution: Two Gods. There is not just one God, but rather there are two: a God who is infinitely evil and one who is infinitely good. This is the proposal of Pierre Bayle, put forward in one of the best sellers of the seventeenth hundreds, the Historical and Critical Dictionary (1695).
Second Solution: No Good and Evil. The second solution is that good and evil are just names we attach to things based on our own preferences. There is nothing real about good and evil. This is the nominalistic position of Baruch Spinoza.
Third Solution: The best of All Possible Worlds. Leibniz famously attempted to reply to Descartes by arguing that our own is the best of all possible worlds. That is, despite the fact that there is evil in our world, God could have not done a better job.
Fourth Solution: Agnosticism.