On the Riddle of Epicurus

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then He is not omnipotent.
Is He able, but not willing?
Then He is malevolent.
Is He both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is He neither able nor willing?
Then why call Him God?

The Problem of evil

This is the famous 'riddle' attributed to Epicurus. It's a version of the Problem of Evil that is used to question the existence or qualities of a certain kind of supernatural deity. Its particular targets are the monotheistic religions.

It's doubtful that Epicurus himself is the originator of the 'riddle'. He lived at a time when monotheism was a marginal trend in his society. It could have been coined by a later Epicurean, who was confronting the early christian missionaries (perhaps Paul himself).

The 'riddle' targets a conception of a deity that has the following qualities:

  • There is only one god.
  • He is the creator of the universe.
  • He is all-powerful (omnipotent).
  • He is all-good (omnibenevolent).

This conception is contrasted with the self-evident fact that there are many things that a human would say are evil. There are both natural disasters (storms, disease, etc.) and man-made disasters (war, ethnic cleansing, murder, etc.). The 'riddle' asserts that some or all of this evil contradicts the existence of an all-good, all-powerful god...

This post looks at the answers christian writers have offered to the riddle. While there is little hope that any of these will convince a believer, perhaps someone will find them useful in their thinking.

Christian answers

Free Will and natural evil

The most common argument offered is that evil exists because humans have free will. In essence, the world contains evil because humans choose to do evil or to disobey god's commands. While this might hold water with human-caused evil, there is also natural evil that humans couldn't possibly be the cause of.

Many humans die every year from disasters or diseases that could have easily been left out of the world. Such omission wouldn't have had any effect on human free will. Humans can't choose to cause such events so they aren't a matter of human will.

Yet there are children dying from malaria or drought right this second. They are far too young to have made any use of their free will... but are still the victims of evil.

The only way that these natural events could be the fault of humans, is if you say — as some actually do — that god causes these disasters because some humans don't obey him in all things. Phrases like "victim blaming" and "collective punishment" come to mind.

Created humans and Free Will

The assertion is that evil has to exist because humans were created with free will, and what would the use of it be if no evil existed...

The problem with this argument from a christian is that it's not true!

Humans were specifically created without the capability to choose between good and evil. Without free will by extension. Don't believe me? Go take a look at Genesis 2:16 — 17. We'll wait right here for you...

For the record, it says:

2:16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
2:17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

If he already knew good from evil -- and therefore had free will -- why would "man" eat from the tree?

The story isn't true — obviously — but it illustrates the contradiction in the christian claim that humans were created with free will and chose evil, instead of good and god.

All humans are sinful.

Since we are humans and descended from Eve (who — btw — didn't have free will either), we are automatically sinners and therefore evil. Then we also commit the acts that are defined as sinful, and are doubly damned.

If we look at the list of sins that the Bible contains, it becomes obvious that the game is rigged in another way as well. Many sins aren't actions. They are thoughts! If you want something that someone else has, there has been no harm to anyone... but you're guilty of "coveting". Sin is a thought-crime.

An Epicurean system of justice would consider such non-actions that result in no harm to others as irrelevant, and certainly not deserving of punishment. It might be that "coveting" isn't good for the coveter himself, but that is a matter of education, not eternal damnation.

You can learn from evil.

The claim is that you can't know good, except in contrast with evil. On the surface, this looks sort of reasonable, especially when the point is made that light reveals the existence of dark (or some other such dichotomy).

An Epicurean says that this is nonsense.

Humans have an inborn detection mechanism to tell the good from the evil. It's automatic, and the only learning involved is how to listen constantly. Epicurus called it the Criterion of all choice and avoidance: Pleasure and Pain.

In a nutshell, all good things are pleasurable in the long-term, and all the evil things will ultimately lead to pain.

A human is born knowing the difference between good and evil. The real evils aren't all that hard to recognize — most babies can do that, and toddlers know fairness from injustice. What many religious people mean when they say "we need to learn from evil", is in reference to the things that are supposedly crimes against a god. As if such a thing was possible...

Epicurean points

Epicurus' definition of evil

The Epicurean definition of evil is relatively easy to remember: Pain is evil.

"While therefore all pleasure because it is naturally akin to us is good, not all pleasure is choiceworthy, just as all pain is an evil and yet not all pain is to be shunned."
Letter to Menoeceus, 129 [emphasis by me]

Though you can tell that the situation isn't all that easy. It may be necessary to accept some pain in order to avoid a greater pain. Much of Epicurus's ethics is about teaching us how to distinguish the pain to avoid from the pain to endure.

The non-interventionist gods

Epicurus says many difficult things about the gods, but for this discussion the most relevant is that the gods do not interfere in the world for or against humans. They didn't create us. They don't reward the holy, nor punish the wicked. They didn't give us ethics, nor do they judge us.

And they certainly didn't spoil the world because a woman liked some fruit!

The capability to know good from evil is such a central ability in Epicurean Philosophy that the belief in a god who would punish for it would be laughable... if it wasn't so tragic at the same time.

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