Hard determinism and the problem of evil

In an insightful and well organized article (PDF) Nick Trakakis asks the question whether the existence of evil presents a bigger problem for theologies that do not allow any room for free will. He offers a number of theodicies that are available to the “divine determinist” and concludes that although hard determinism introduces complications, these complications are not greater than alternative theological views that permit God less control over His creation. The article is also relevant for non-theists because some of the theodicies can be restated as secular “justifications” or “explanations” of the existence of evil as well.

A problematic section in the article is the use the author makes of the distinction between “evil” and “horrendous evil.” He seems to believe that the existence of normal or routine evil can be accommodated in divine determinism but that “horrendous evil” is much harder to justify. In this article the author concedes that a “skeptical theist” can simply argue that humans are not equipped with complete knowledge and should restrain from applying human moral standards to God’s creation. But it seems that the existence of “horrendous evil” can be made compatible with orthodox Calvinist theology as well. One could argue that “horrendous evil” is used in some circumstances to “shatter one’s presumption of self-sufficiency” and “inflated sense of one’s moral worth” to “instill…a sense of absolute dependence on God.” One might even argue that those who are broken down in this way are among the elect that will receive divine grace. The “dehumanizing” aspect of horrendous evil does not necessarily seem to be  at odds with but even supportive of such a Calvinist perspective.

The distinction between “evil” and “horrendous evil” itself is too arbitrary to decide which theodicies are credible and which are not. One problematic aspect is its historical nature. As humanity morally matures we should expect to broaden our conception of what constitutes horrendous evil. It is also striking that most of the examples the author gives involve many people suffering the same fate. One could argue that the suffering of many people is a greater evil for the individual that suffers and others but one could just as well argue that this characteristic provides consolation and closure. The distinction between “evil” and “horrendous evil” is not powerful enough to dismiss most of the theodicies that allow for “just” evil.

The real objective of the article is to argue that free-will based theodicies do not have an easier task on their hands. One may believe that Supralapsarian Calvinists have achieved logical consistency at the price of conceiving God as the Author of Sin, but they can at least rejoice in not having to solve the many weird consequences that follow if God and free will are presumed to co-exist. Not to speak of the formidable difficulty of making a coherent or empirical case for the existence of free will as such.

From a secular perspective the existence of evil is easier to explain.  Organic molecules bump into each other in all kinds of physically permissible ways and it is no surprise that there will be joy and that there will be pain.  The “transhumanist” would like to assume more control over this process to alter the balance between good and evil. Theological perspectives about the role of pain and suffering, or how to live in a world without free will, are quite relevant when undertaking such an ambitious project.