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Ethics: The Problem of Evil

Sally discusses a classic argument that God does not exist, called 'The Problem of Evil'. Along the way, she distinguishes different ways in which people believe that God exists, and discusses what's bad about having contradictory beliefs.

Speaker: Dr. Sally Haslanger, Ford Professor of Philosophy and Women's & Gender Studies, MIT.
Created by Gaurav Vazirani.

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  • male robot donald style avatar for user G.R.A.
    my problem with this video is that even though god is "OOO" doesn't mean there can't be evil, because god gives us free will & lets us decide how we use it.(at least according to my religion)
    (19 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Josh Shibley
    what about the other motives an OOO God would have for not preventing evil, like to display his holyness, forgiveness, and grace?
    (5 votes)
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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user Ravengal101
    I completely disagree with the statement made at . Even though a God might be omnipotent and omnibenevolent, he isn't obligated to sniff out evil and immediately nip it in the bud. It's quite clear that as human beings we have free will and are thus the cause of the 'evil' in the world. All Gods set guidelines regarding how people should live, which encourage them to desist from partaking in the ungodly. It is ridiculous to try to hold such a being accountable for our actions. You cannot say that God's not omnipotent or omnibenevolent because evil exists and you can't assume that he would react in that particular way simply because he has those traits.
    (5 votes)
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  • female robot grace style avatar for user Sp00ns
    "You don't want to go around the world holding false beliefs because it gets you into trouble."

    Put me in some fundamentalist Christian areas of Europe and America, or Israel or Saudi Arabia and I'll believe in any God you tell me to if it means you put the gun down. :P
    (4 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Haridhar
    What if God isn't OOO?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user admin
      This is exactly right. The argument is very specifically aimed at a particular conception of God which is shared by many of the monotheistic religions. Of course, this is not the only conception of God and it may well be that there is a God that is not OOO. In that case, this particular version of the problem might not apply. There might be other versions but this particular formulation would not.
      (3 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Hideki Minamizaki
    My philosophy teacher said once this, I would like your oppinion about it:
    God is all good.
    If God is all good, anything that differs from him is evil.
    Therefore, everything that is not God is evil.
    If God is all-powerful, then He can prevent the evil. (But why He doesn't do that?)
    If he prevent all evil, nothing would exist except God (because he is all good.)
    Other things than God exists.
    So, it is possible that if God exists, he can allow evil to exists too.
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Agent Smith
      Thank you for your argument. I spent two days thinking about it. It's a compelling argument but one of its necessary conclusions is god created evil, after all didn't He create "everything else". How does an all good God create evil? You could say that the attribute of evil is inherent in things that are different from god. But this is surely not a problem for an all powerful god. Unless you want to make concessions on his omnipotence.
      So from your argument it follows that either god created evil or he is not all powerful. Thanks again for an interesting pov.
      (3 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user trek
    Seems to me there are quite a few holes in the logic of this argument. What about free will? It is obvious that humans have the ability to chose to do good or evil. If an OOO deity were to routinely prevent a person from exercising free will in the avoidance of bad choices, could we even be human?
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user GiannaRandall
    I believe that there is no evil in the world because I believe that nothing is right and nothing is wrong. What we consider "right or wrong" is just what society finds acceptable there is no genuine right or wrong in the world. Because its all about what kind of society we as individuals live in. Think of it this way... your a 14 year old girl raised in a society in the northern united states all your life society has told you that murder is bad. Now you met a 14 year old boy who lives in a small village in Romania all his life his society as raised him to think murder is just a part of how the world is meant to work. So now you have a contraindication that can never be solved because in the eyes of the beholders there right. So there is truly no right or wrong in the universe, theirs just society raising us to think one way or another. Thank you :)
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Peterson
      You present an argument that seems logical, but is really not. That is a very basic way of looking at morality, and is really just an "anything goes" type of philosophy. Most people will agree that there are certain inherent things in this world that are right and wrong, regardless of society or time period.

      You mentioned murder in your statement - is it ever right to murder? Just because someone is raised thinking it is just "part of life" does not lead to the conclusion that it is right. If someone is raised thinking that theft is okay, does it make it correct to steal? What if your house was robbed by a thief who grew up being taught that is was okay to steal - you would not be happy, I am sure.

      This line of reasoning stems from Utilitarianism - that moral actions must be weighed by whether they produce more positive outcomes, or negative ones. That is one way of approaching the discussion of morality. Religion, hypothetical imperatives, and social justice are all other ways of approaching the problem. Just because a person has been raised one way does not mean it is right. It may be okay for that single person, but what necessitates the fact that their form of morality must be applied to the entire universe? There must be something applicable to all, or our world will turn into a place of slaughter and injustice, all of it okay because the person committing the crimes was raised thinking they were correct.
      (1 vote)
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Billy Blaze
    What if there's a god that is not OOO ?
    How do we know that a god is OOO anyway?
    (3 votes)
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  • starky tree style avatar for user Sherrinford Hull
    I believe this argument is flawed for one big reason, An "OOO" god is omnipotent so it is apparent that an "OOO" god would have a master plan that would also be completely morally correct. So we have to think, why would an genius and all good god allow evil? We'll the most prominent theory is that, an "OOO" God would want us to have free will with what we do and believe, so that has to allow for sin and immoral deeds. Now people say, we'll then how would we have free will in heaven? And the answer for that is, our time on earth is a way for us to mature and see how bad evil is compared to heaven, which would mean that evil is actually NECESSARY for an "OOO" gods plan for us. So therefor this argument is flawed in the end were it says you must either: deny the existent of evil, deny the god an OOO feature, or be irrational, because there are reasons that an OOO god would allow evil in this world.
    (2 votes)
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    • old spice man green style avatar for user Alf Lyle
      Even if one agrees that some amount of evil is necessary in order to understand the value of good, one has to question the amount of (literally) overkill being provided. One often cited statistic is the 25,000 deaths per day of children under five years old. And what did the many (up to 10,000) people in Nepal do this week to require their deaths? What moral lessons did we learn from that? If the lesson was to build better buildings, wouldn't say 1,000 deaths be sufficient for God to make his point?
      (2 votes)

Video transcript

(intro music) My name is Sally Haslanger, and I'm a professor of philosophy at MIT. Today, we're going to discuss an argument in favor of atheism, in favor of the belief that God doesn't exist. Let's start with some definitions. "Theism" - that's "the belief that God exists." So, "atheism": "the belief that God doesn't exist." Rational theism is one form of theism. It's the belief that there are evidential reasons to believe that God exists. Now, arational theism is the belief in God without evidence. There are plenty of people who are arational theists, because they believe in God based on faith. Faith is often thought to be believing something in spite of the fact that you don't have evidence for it, and it's completely common for people to believe things without evidence, right? We believe things all the time based on wishful thinking. We believe it because it's just in the air, or it's convenient for us to believe it. It makes us happy for us to believe it. All those sorts of things. But we're talking here about evidence, where "evidence" is "some information "that lends credibility to the claim, "in the sense that it's more likely to be true "if you have the evidence." Okay, so arational theism, as I said, is a common position, but we're not really gonna talk very much about it today. Irrational theism is the belief in God in spite of evidential reasons supporting atheism. Notice that this is quite different from arational theism. The belief in God without evidence, as mentioned, could be just on the basis of a lack of evidence. But irrational theism is when you hold belief in God, that is, when you hold theism, but there are clear supporting reasons for the opposing view, that is, for atheism. Now, that's problematic, and we're gonna look a little bit further into why it's problematic. Let's move on to a few more definitions so that we're clear what we're talking about. "Contradiction" - what is a contradiction? A contradiction is when you have a set of beliefs that are not possibly true together. So a set of beliefs is contradictory if and only if it's not possible for all of them to be true. Here's a simple example: "Today is Monday. It's not the case that today is Monday." Those can't both be true together. Now, we're making an assumption: mainly, that we're talking about right here right now. We're not talking about something on the other side of the dateline. Considering "today is Monday," and "it's not today is Monday," that's a contradiction. Both of them can't be true. So if you believe both of them, then you're believing a contradiction. Now, it's not necessarily the case that a contradiction needs to involve only two statements. It can involve three statements. So "all birds can fly," "penguins are birds," "penguins can't fly." Not all of them can be true together, right? If you hold what it is to fly stable, if you hold what it is to be a bird stable, then you can't hold all these together and have just true beliefs. One of them has got to be false. Now you could say, "Well, maybe it's not the case that all birds can fly," or, "Maybe it's not the case that all penguins are birds," or maybe you could come up with a modification of what it is to fly so that penguins can fly. They're really good underwater, for example. You watch them under water, they look like they're flying. But that's not really flying. So you can't hold all of these beliefs. You have to figure out which one you're going to give up. Likewise, "today is Monday" and "it's not the case that today is Monday" - you need to give one up. Okay, now why do you have to give one up? Some people say, "Wait, we believe in contradictions all the time. "It's just not obvious that we believe in contradictions." Well, that's true. We probably do have contradictory beliefs, but it's not good to have contradictory beliefs. We want to get rid of our contradictory beliefs. Now there are a couple of reasons why. First of all, it's really good to have true beliefs. You don't want to go around the world having false beliefs, cause it gets you into trouble. So if I believe that there's no wall here, and I go walking into the wall, then that's not so good. False beliefs can get you into trouble in that way. They can lead you into problematic circumstances that you'd probably best not be in. So holding beliefs that are false is problematic, and if you hold contradictory beliefs, you know one of them has got to be false, and that's bad. Another thing is coherent action. Having contradictory beliefs makes it difficult to act coherently. Look at this one: "Today is Monday, and it's not the case that today is Monday." Suppose you have a dentist appointment on Monday. What do you do? Do you go or not? You both believe that it is and it isn't Monday, so what are you gonna do? It's hard to act coherently and act in a sensible way to fulfill your obligations, etcetera. Since one of the beliefs you hold has got to be false, and you can't act on two contradictory beliefs, you can't really act coherently. So we're talking about whether God exists, and evidence for and against the existence of God. Now, there are many different conceptions of God or gods. I'm not trying to adjudicate what's the right or best conception of God. But there's a particular standard definition in the West, that God is an all-perfect being, a being at least who has these three features: a god is all-knowing (which is to be omniscient), all-powerful (which is to be omnipotent), and to be wholly good (or omnibenevolent). So this being is perfect, is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good, (or omnibenevolent). We're gonna call the combination of these features "OOO" ("O-O-O") because they're pretty good ooo features. Let's go ahead and now look at the argument that suggests that atheism is the rational view to hold, the one that there's the greatest evidence to believe. Here's the first premise: if God exists, he, she, or it would be OOO. Now I use "he, she, or it" because, of course, I don't know whether there's a God, and if there is, whether it's a he, she, or it, or at least for the purposes of the discussion, we're not gonna assume anything like that. Okay, so that's the first premise. Second: if an OOO god exits, there would be no evil. Well, why's that? Well, if a god were all-knowing, then that god would know when evil was going to occur (or that it occurred), would have the power to make it not occur, and is wholly good, so would also have the motivation to make it not occur. So this combination of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence suggests that if a god were truly OOO, there would be no evil. We assume for the purposes of argument that God exists. And we conclude, then, there is no evil. So if God exists, he, she, or it would be OOO. If an OOO god exists, there would be no evil. God exists, so there is no evil. The problem is, there is evil. Well, at least, it seems there's evil. That might be one of the questions that comes up when we consider objections to the argument. It appears, certainly appears, that there's evil: lynching, terrorism, the death of innocent babies. So for the moment, we're gonna say there is evil. But look: "there is no evil," "there is evil" - this is a contradiction. And so we have to reject one of these premises. Well, this one, that God is OOO, that one is hard to reject because that's just how we've defined what God is. This one - it seems straightforward. And so once we assume God exists, and we assume that there is evil in the world, which is hard to deny, we get a contradiction. So we have to reject something. And so the thing that's most likely to be false, according to the argument, is number (3), that God exists. So we conclude that God does not exist. Now this argument is a little bit truncated, as any argument is. It relies on two further assumptions. First, a wholly good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can. And second, that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. But these just seem to be part of the definition of all-knowing, all-powerful, and wholly good. It's just true by definition. So here's a way to think about it. If we assume a certain kind of God, an OOO God, and we really take seriously the perfection of that God (all-knowing, all-powerful, omnibenevolent,) then once we assume that kind of God, and that there exists some evil in the world, then we've got a contradiction. So the theist is left with this position: either the theist has to say there is no evil in the world, or the theist has to give up one of these features of their God. Those are your two options. Neither of them look very appealing. And so now we're in a position to say, "If you don't want to do that, "you are an irrational theist," that there is compelling evidence that God does not exist, God of this OOO kind does not exist, and yet, you believe anyway. That is to say, you believe a contradiction. You believe that there is evil, and there is no evil. You believe that there is this kind of god, there isn't this kind of god. We saw before that belief in contradictions is a bad thing, and you ought to avoid it wherever you can. And so this is the argument that you should not be a theist, because irrational theism is not an acceptable form of theism. Subtitles by the Amara.org community