The Epistemological Necessity of Evil Revisited: A Problem For Theists?

In a recent article I wrote here, I argued some major points that were problematic for skeptics in regards to the Problem of Evil. The article was written merely to give a synopsis of how the Problem of Evil is far more problematic for Atheists than it is for Theists. After leaving that article to be critiqued by the readers, I reminded myself that a true intellectual goes back and reviews his work; by this I mean he turns the argument on himself. I have always thought that the best way to evaluate whether or not an argument is a good one, is if you are the first on stage to play Devil’s Advocate. Fortunately, I remembered this and went back and did some deeper thinking on the matter. Before going on, here is the portion of the article that has come into question:

First, it needs to be understood what “evil” actually is. Many people tend to give different answers to what they understand to be “evil”; however, most people tend to agree on what constitutes evil; Needless death, suffering, and pain tend to all be the first things mentioned when describing evil. While I may be partial to describing evil as those things that are opposed to God’s Will, this is not the universal definition accepted by all person’s, even if it includes the former things mentioned. For the sake of the argument, whenever I state the word “evil”, I only mean the three things mentioned earlier: Needless death, suffering, and pain. It should also go without saying that anyone who creates any of the following is performing an evil action.

So when a skeptic states that there is evil in this world or that there is too much evil in this world, and presents that as a case against a personal Deity (or any for that matter), how do they know evil exists? Does one need to be a rocket scientist to understand that there is evil in this world? Of course not, but the difficulty that I am about to present for the skeptic has nothing to do with intelligence, rather it has to do with opposites and a matter of realization and appreciation. How does a person know or appreciate an object without knowing the properties that exist opposed to it? For instance, how could I know what heat was if I didn’t know cold? A skeptic might scoff at this idea and say, “Of course you can know what cold or heat was without experiencing the other!”, but to that I would disagree. Let us draw out a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say, that our planet only experienced a temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit and that we humans never knew any other temperature below or above said degrees, would we then really believe there were such things as “cold” or “heat”? There would be no possible distinction; neither would there be any need to mention the degree of temperature at all, because there is nothing else to compare it to. Of course, this analogy can be challenged by merely stating that there are in fact differences in degrees on all parts of the planet, but as I stated earlier, this is purely a hypothetical situation and not reflective of reality. There are in fact distinctions in degrees, which allow us to measure and to also think things to either be cold or hot.

Now, let us change the analogy and mention God and creation. Let’s imagine for once that God created a world without any possibility of evil and that we humans never experienced or even knew what evil truly was. Would we then know what good was? Without an opposite, there would be no realization that what we are experiencing, in any way, good,. We would have no realization of good, all it would be would be a feeling that we have inherent within us just like the beating of our hearts or our intake of oxygen; completely and utterly ignored. Though it is a stretch to say that the beating of our hearts or oxygen intake are ignored, because often times they are not , in fear that it is beating too much or too little or that we are in-taking too much or too little, but this merely solidifies my point: even the slightest differences help to provide us with realization and appreciation of what we know.

The skeptic, hopefully not denying this obvious truth, may go on to say that distinctions are necessary, but that there is in fact too much evil in this world. While I can sympathize emotionally with this claim, I cannot take it very seriously because it is a rather empty statement. How do we truly know there is too much evil in this world or even just a little more than good? How do we measure that? Maybe there is too much evil in this world, but even then, how is that an argument against God? We have already concluded that evil is necessary epistemologically, so the claim that there is even a fraction of evil in this world, which disproves a Deity, falls flat on it’s face. For the irony is, in order to percieve and wish for good (a matter of appreciation), one must be able to perceive evil. So those that wish for a “perfect” world, would not recognize that it is perfect without first having experienced a world that is not perfect.

In this article, I hope to elaborate on some points I made in that article and present a much more thorough defense of the first point. Perhaps, later, I will go on to critique the other points of that article, but as of right now I think this will be a task worth putting time into.

In the first portion of my article I bring about a problem for the skeptics by asking, “How does a person know or appreciate an object without knowing the properties that exist opposed to it?”. Now, I still feel this to be a very valid question in regards to how we are able to know things, especially when it comes to good and evil. Now, this is a problem for the skeptic because there seems to be a great irony here; that in order for a person to know good, they must also know evil, so for good to even be recognizable, it is epistemologically necessary for evil to exist. What this leaves the skeptic is a world where evil must exist, where then there is no longer a “problem” of evil, but a necessity. But as I pointed out before, this is not to confuse the ontological necessity of evil with that of the epistemological, however it does seem even ontologically necessary for evil to exist in order for us to know it. Something cannot be knowable if it doesn’t exist. In some sense then, this invalidates the stigma that God creating evil or the possibility of evil (this distinction may be trivial or not) is actually not an evil in and of itself, but rather—I daresay—good. For the purpose of structuring these issues in their proper order we will have to get to this particular claim later in the article.

The first issue I want to touch up on is in regards to how this small claim ultimately reflects on God’s quality of omniscience. As I was thinking of how we as humans obtain knowledge, it dawned on me that this creates a perplexing dilemma for the Theist. One such argument proposed by skeptics makes this problem clear:

(1) There are two general forms of knowledge; that of Conceptual Knowledge (knowledge of true propositions: 2+2= 4) and Experiential Knowledge (knowledge of how something feels physically or emotionally).
(2) In order for God to be omniscient, He must know both these forms of knowledge.
(3) God, being incorporeal, cannot know what something feels like physically or emotionally.
(4) The incarnation, while it may seem to remedy this problem, is an event that happens within Time and is a new experience to God.
(5) Being a new experience, this would mean that God learns something, which cannot be if He is omniscient.
(6) Seeing as God either cannot or did not at some point possess the knowledge of how something feels physically, this means that God was never or is not omniscient.

Note that it appears not to tie into the primary claims of my argument; however, this problem and its solution are essential to the argument as a whole. The skeptic is arguing that because God cannot feel physical or emotional experiences due to His incorporeal nature that this therefore leaves God without that knowledge. Two ways to possibly get around this problem are by asserting a concept by Aquinas called “discursiveness” (though it seems that this causes problems for the general concept of time as well as God’s sovereignty and the issue of Free Will) so as to place the incarnation well within an eternal present state and therefore remedying the issue of physical experience, and by asserting that emotional experience is merely conceptual and a part of our general thoughts. While I will not dismiss these solutions, I will attempt to propose a much easier route.

Some skeptics differentiate between two forms of knowledge: that of Conceptual Knowledge and Experiential Knowledge, however, within the field of Epistemology, there are actually three types of knowledge that could fit into either of these two categories. So what is knowledge? The three forms claimed within formal philosophical circles today are: (1) Knowledge By Acquaintance, (2) Know-How Knowledge, and (3) Propositional Knowledge. The first type of knowledge, Knowledge by Acquaintance, is that which is experienced by the senses. For instance, I see a red ball in my front yard, so I know what a ball and the color red are. Similarly, this form of knowledge is also associated with knowledge of how we determine 2 + 2 = 4. To be able to think in ways like “A therefore B”, is also considered a type of “seeing”. The second type of knowledge, the knowledge of “Know-How” is that concerning things I can or cannot do. For instance, I can play baseball; I know how to swing a bat to hit the ball and I also know how to catch it. Finally, the third type of knowledge, Propositional Knowledge, is a type of knowledge where a person knows P where P is a proposition (the content of a sentence or statement).

It would appear that among the three forms all of them would qualify as Conceptual and Experiential knowledge; Conceptual in that all experiences of learning are retained as concepts and Experiential in that all experiences of learning are brought about by the senses (I have to see, hear, etc. in order to learn). Where I would disagree with those skeptics that assert the two types of knowledge, is that I only believe there to be one, which is Conceptual Knowledge; in that I believe experience merely leads one to obtain knowledge and is not knowledge in and of itself. For instance, when I experience a burn from touching an open flame I’ve learned that the flame hurts me and I retain the memory of that pain, but the memory itself is only retained as a concept and not as an actualization of the experience itself. Whenever I conjure up this memory the experience of that flame does not happen again. This is to say, that my knowledge of pain exists independent of the experience, though in order to be learned it is dependent on me experiencing it. Though many Philosophers argue over what constitutes “true” knowledge these days one feature that is not argued over is that in order for something to be known it must be retained. What I argue is that the experience itself is not retainable.

A possible objection is that I can know what something feels like, which is distinct from my concept of it. To this I would say that this is impossible, because knowledge is not independent from the ability to store it. You do not know what you cannot store in your memory and knowledge in and of itself has no ontological status; perhaps memory does, but this is different. Going back to the burn analogy, I retain only a concept of what something feels like. I know I don’t like it. I know it’s harmful. What I don’t know is what it feels like. Someone could say that they do in fact know what it feels like; a sensation like horrid bee stings covering every single inch of flesh converging with an icy chill that numbs the body. But this is merely a concept. The experience itself is no longer retained. I cannot retain the sensation no more than I can retain a drunken state. If people could retain a drunken state then there would be no need to get drunk again.

But even if we postulated that someone could retain a state of experience does this mean that their knowledge of it is similar to that experience? It would seem not. The mere fact that people can seemingly become conditioned to certain experiences seems to indicate that their concept of that experience differs from the experience itself. Someone may state that the body is what is adjusting to the experience, but it seems odd to disregard the mind from this. One only need remind the skeptic that the concept can exist independent of the experience itself, as stated earlier. I may know that something hurts in general or that something hurts more than something else, but this doesn’t mean I am retaining the actualized experience within my mind. It seems then that experience only helps to provide knowledge rather than be knowledge.

If the skeptic accepts this reasoning then a further objection could be raised: “If in fact, actualized experiences cannot be retained and therefore are not a form of knowledge, this only means that actualized experiences cannot be known in and of themselves. But, actualized experiences exist and anything that exists can be known. If God knows everything, then He must know actualized experiences.”

It could be argued that actualized experiences do not really exist, but then it would seem that they are merely illusions. If this were the case, then we truly do not know them in concept either. So it seems that actualized experiences do in fact exist. And this is where it begins to get interesting.

Previously I argued that in order for people to know something, such as good, they must experience and know the anti-thesis (or something distinct but relational to) of that object. In doing so, I realized this created a conundrum that I have already attempted to solve: If God knows everything, He must know that which we do not know (actualized experiences) and He must know Good and Evil before they were ever actualized among mankind. This problem suggests that God must therefore, be able to experience both these things in absence of everything else, but Himself. But if God is all that existed before Creation and he was omniscient then this implies that these experiences are a part of God. But wait, actualized experiences and evil as a part of God? Blasphemy!

Blasphemy may be correct, but let’s first determine how these experiences, such as actualized physical experiences, can be known by God and are a part of God. First, it must be stated that in determining what knowledge actually is, I do not distinguish this from how God knows. At first, this may appear to be appealing to the last objection of the skeptic, but this is only if the actualized and the conceptual are different within the mind of God. I would argue that they are not. God can only know things by concept. But if God only knows things by concept, then what does that make of our actualized experiences and us? What it means is that you, our actualized experiences, and I are, in reality, the actualized concepts of God; we are God’s Matrix. In other words—quoting a line from the famous movie—“It means fasten your seat belt Dorothy, 'cause Kansas is going bye-bye”.

But how? That is a question that has haunted those that attempt metaphysics for thousands of years. I cannot, in all honestly give you the exact method by which this occurs. And to be blunt, this is somewhere that all thinking beings must admit mystery to, but God alone. Of course, a skeptic could try and chastise me for not giving an “appropriate” answer to the workings of Divine concepts becoming actualized, but I would merely remark that I do not have time to indulge in insanity; for it seems that only a mind that is completely lost could ever attempt such a task. What should be known is that the propositions that I have offered do appear to be conclusively valid.

The other problem this seems to raise is that God must have these concepts inherent within Himself in order to know and experience them. This would include evil. Immediately, it could be claimed then that God not only created evil or the possibility of evil, but that such things were a part of Him to begin with, therefore making God evil. This would appear to be the case at first, but I would argue otherwise. The dilemma that we seem to have here can be solved by giving, what I consider, a proper definition of evil as well as incorporating the concept of the Trinity. Many Theists, especially within the Christian camp, tend to define evil as the “absence of good”, but this seems like a false conclusion. It doesn’t seem like we can know what an absence of something is unless that something is not merely an absence, but something that exists. I think it would be better to suggest that evil is the incomplete state of good. Though analogies are never direct representations of what is being argued, I do think it necessary in this instance. Say, for example, that I try to explain the concept of love. Now, would it seem contrary to the concept of love if the concept did not include things like mercy, justice, compassion, etc.? Clearly, love would no longer be what it is, but something completely different. While whatever this is may retain some elements of love, it would not be love.

In the same way, I argue that good, when made incomplete or lacking in particular virtues, is not good at all, but evil. A person claiming to be just, but lacking in mercy and/or compassion, is not just at all; it is, by nature an oxymoron. So then, how does this all apply to God and His nature? As stated before, the Trinitarian concept of God seems to resolve this issue rather easily. First, the Trinitarian view states that God is three distinct persons in one (or as one combined substance). These three distinct persons are only independent in that they are all distinct, personal identities with seemingly different roles, but they are all dependant on one another and cannot exists independently of one another to be God. Just as love cannot exclude justice, mercy, compassion, etc, the Father cannot be God without the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is to say that the Father doesn’t just decide to take a vacation to Hawaii one day and leaves the Divine Business to His Son and Spirit. It doesn’t work that way. But, while God knows Himself as One entity, He also knows Himself as three distinct persons. This is not saying that God is schizophrenic or arbitrary, just that the three persons, while distinct also must co-exists necessarily for Him to be God. It could not be otherwise. So what is being argued here? What is being argued is that God knows the possibility or the existence of evil in that He knows what it would be like for Him to not be as a Trinity. In knowing each person independently from the whole as well as the whole itself, God knows what it is not to be a complete version of Himself. But does this suggest that the individual members of the Trinity are evil? Quite the contrary, because while it can be known what it is like to not be as a whole, this does not suggests that the persons of God exists independently of that whole. So, because God’s three persons are intimately tied to one another, they are all good. Therefore, God can and does experience evil, though it is not actualized within His own Being. Therefore, God is not evil. Though the exact dimensions of character I have yet to determine for each of the three persons (which may require a separate paper in the future), this idea seems entirely consistent with itself. The idea would also lead credence to the Fall of Satan and Man, in that trying to be like God, they only desired to be partly like Him, which led them to an evil nature.

What I have argued, all together then, is that evil is epistemologically and ontologically necessary. Without the anti-thesis of good coexisting with it, it would not be known or realized. So is there a problem of evil? The answer is ultimately, no; there is only a necessity. Does this create a problem for the Theists in relation to God’s omniscience and how knowledge is obtained? Yes, it does, but under careful reasoning and only, by what it seems, under a Trinitarian concept of God (inherently Christian) does it seem that this dilemma can be resolved.

Of course there is one more problem left that I have yet to address in this article: that of the reasoning behind why man was created the way he was to experience evil. This will require a separate paper that I may write in the future. For now, I only wish that my recent thoughts be examined. While I know I do not hold any sufficient credibility within academia (I’ve almost received my Bachelors), I do hope that my arguments are taken seriously and that they are openly criticized. I welcome objections and any possible revisions so that I can either revise the argument or scrap it all together.

Thank you for reading,

In the Pursuit of Faith, Mind, and the Spirit of Truth,



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Anonymous said…
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Anonymous said…
A bit late to this post, but I'll try a few comments anyway.... There is a certain amount of instinctive "obviousness" to the claim that we must know something's opposite to know the thing itself; but do you really have to see a valley to understand a mountain? Seeing the mountain rise up above flat land is good enough, you don't need to see a valley too. So first you need to demonstrate that there is no "neutral ground", no midpoint, no zero-level against which goodness could be measured in the absence of evil.

That isn't so obvious, surely; but even if you could disprove a neutral point, it still does not follow that you need to know or see anything else to contrast something. Do I need to see blue in order to see red? If I never knew blue, I might not call it "red", or indeed call it anything at all; but surely "redness" is something in and of itself, not merely in contrast to "blueness". Putting blue next to red does not make it redder or any more different. "Redness" and "blueness" are distinct qualities in and of themselves; if they were distinguishable only because of their relative difference, then a world in which red and blue were the only two colours would look no different from a world with only red and pink.

I also don't see why God's omniscience has to include "experiential" knowledge: it seems safe to say that human knowledge is going to be different from divine knowledge, since man is not God; but why then would God be required to possess "human" knowledge, that is, knowledge in a human mode? To say that a human being knows something differently from how God knows it is not to say that the human knows something different.

Your claim that remembering is "not an actualization of the experience itself" is opposite to what many philosophers in fact claim; there are some obvious ways in which experience and memory do indeed seem to be the same thing. They are both actions of the imagination, differing only in whether the stimulation is present or recalled. The reason that memories seem different from or weaker than an immediate experience is surely owing to the fact that our memories are highly imperfect -- they just aren't doing a very good job of recreating the original experience, rather than doing a different job.

What probably is the important distinction here is the difference between abstract (or "intellectual" knowledge) and imagination; it seems that God has the former, but not the latter. (Except, as you mention, via the Incarnation -- which wouldn't affect or change God in any way, because of course God qua God exists outside of time.) However, God does have abstract knowledge of what it is like for us to imagine qualia, even though for God that knowledge is not acquired through experience. Again, God doesn't need to have knowledge in a human manner to still count as omniscient.

You say, "I think it would be better to suggest that evil is the incomplete state of good" (as opposed to those who define evil as "the absence of good"). Well, the traditional metaphysical view is of course that existence is "good" and evil is the lack of existence -- but yes, in the sense of incompleteness, of lacking some good that should have been there; so I think you are actually in accord with the traditional position.

Anyway, since I don't accept the rationale for why evil has to exist, it still remains to be shown what is the purpose of having evil. And, as you point out, even once we've done that, we can still ask why God would create that kind of a universe, rather than, say, not creating anything, and thus avoiding evil altogether.


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