The Problem of Good

David Cowles

May 29, 2022

The purpose of this essay is not to resolve, or even rehash, the Problem of Evil, but rather to situate the Problem of Evil in the context of an even broader problem that I call, ‘the Problem of Good’.

You’re familiar with the famous Problem of Evil. It’s an argument often advanced by non-believers against the existence of God. It runs something like this:


“God is omniscient, omnipotent and all good. So, any world that includes God should be perfect. After all, God knows everything, does everything, and always acts out of perfectly benevolent intentions.”


But when we take a close look at our world, it certainly does not appear to be perfect – not even close!


“Wars, famines, and natural disasters fill our TV screens every evening. Humans routinely commit unspeakable acts of cruelty, directed at fellow humans, animals and even nature itself. Moreover, everyone ages, most eventually get sick and become infirm, and all die, often horribly. In such a world, surely there can be no room for God.”


Theologians have confronted this reasoning for centuries, but they have not always done a very convincing job of answering it. The Book of Job, for example, is a long meditation on the Problem of Evil. Job records a number of proposed solutions to the Problem of Evil, but it finds fault with each one…and yet, Job never offers a solution of its own (see The Riddle of Job, also in this issue).


Philosophers haven’t done much better. According to G. W. Leibniz, for example, the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds. Hard to see how! Finally, Carl Jung, Rabbi Harold Kushner, and others reject the basic premises of the argument. They assert that God can be ‘God’ without necessarily being omniscient, omnipotent, or benevolent, as these terms are normally understood. For Jung, God is neither omniscient nor benevolent. For Kushner, God is not omnipotent.


The purpose of this essay is not to resolve, or even rehash, the Problem of Evil, but rather to situate the Problem of Evil in the context of an even broader problem that I call, ‘the Problem of Good.’


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As hard as it is to explain the phenomenon of Evil, it is much more difficult to account for the phenomenon of Good. In fact, the Problem of Evil turns out to be just a special case, and a degenerate one at that, of the much broader Problem of Good.


Good and evil. We speak of them as though they were symmetrical opposites, perfect antonyms. But they are not! Good is the quality by which we recognize and measure all that is of ‘value’ in our world; whereas Evil, as Saint Augustine pointed out, is simply the absence of Good.


Beauty is not merely the absence of ugliness; but ugliness is certainly the absence of beauty. Truth is not merely the absence of falsehood, but falsehood is certainly the absence of truth. Justice is not merely the absence of injustice; but injustice is certainly the absence of justice.


And so, symmetry is broken! What is it we mean when we call an event ‘evil?’


We might mean that…


  • the event is less ‘good’ than it could have been, or

  • the event is less ‘good’ than possible alternative events,

  • the event is on balance ‘less good than bad,’

  • the event is ‘pure evil,’ or Evil per se (e.g., Satan)


A purely evil event is not possible (see above); nor can Evil by itself ever constitute an event. Evil is not something, but the ‘lack’ of something (i.e., the Good). So, while ‘a lack’ may play an important role in the development of an event, it can never be an ‘event’ per se.


Yet, every day, we experience events that seem more evil than good…or at least less good than they might have been.


Three assumptions underlie the so-called ‘Problem of Evil:’


  • Evil is an objective characteristic of certain events, not just the subjective reaction of an observer.

  • At least most of the time, we can recognize evil when we see it.

  • We can identify and label events as relatively ‘evil’ with an acceptable degree of accuracy.


Most proposed solutions to the Problem of Evil begin with a denial of one or more of these assumptions:


  • “You can’t say that an event is ‘evil’ if it might be better than any possible alternative.”

  • “While an event might appear to be evil, it may be part of a larger complex of events (a ‘divine plan,’ for example) that will ultimately result in the greatest possible good.”

  • Evil will always have its apologists.


But non-believers are understandably unimpressed with this argument:


  • “I can easily identify as ‘evil’ events for which better alternatives exist: the Holocaust, for example. If I can’t label events like the Holocaust as ‘evil’ then I have given in to radical moral skepticism, the ‘null point’ of all philosophy.

  • “If we have to tolerate objectively evil events in order to get to ‘the greatest possible good,’ then maybe it isn’t the greatest possible good after all. The greatest possible good should be a good we can get to without tolerating evil along the way.”


So Evil objectively characterizes certain events, and we can recognize it when we see it. But how? How do we recognize a lack? By comparing it to its opposite, real or imagined. And what is the opposite of Evil but Good?


If Evil objectively characterizes certain events, or aspects of certain events, then the same must be said of Good. We must be able to recognize Good when we see it; but how?


Good is not something we see directly when we experience events. What we see are its manifestations: Beauty, Truth, Justice, etc. We don’t even perceive these qualities directly. We perceive them only in the patterns formed by the concrete qualities that the event embodies. A painting, for example, is ‘good’ if it is ‘beautiful’ and it is beautiful if its lines, shapes, and colors form patterns that possess a certain indefinable, but nonetheless objective, aesthetic quality.


A proposition is ‘good’ if it is ‘true’ and it is true if it is consistent with other true propositions and if it accounts for relevant details of experience. A law is ‘good’ if it is ‘just’ and it is just if it treats folks both according to their merits and with compassion. Two paintings side-by-side on a museum wall may well include the same hues and shapes, but one may be beautiful and the other not. Essential Beauty is a function of the pattern of hues and shapes, not the hues and shapes themselves. Two propositions may include the exact same words, but one proposition may be true and the other not; it depends on the pattern formed by those words. Two laws may include the same elements, but one may apply those elements justly and the other not; it depends on how those elements work together to achieve ‘good?’ Again, it is all about the pattern.


So, in determining whether a painting is good, we need to apply certain aesthetic criteria; in determining whether a proposition is good, we need to apply certain logical and experimental criteria; in determining whether a law is good, we need to apply certain ethical criteria.


But where do these criteria (values) come from? Where do they ‘reside?’ Not in or among the concrete elements that make up the painting, the proposition, or the law! For something to qualify as a ‘value’ with respect to certain ‘elements,’ it must transcend those elements.


If we use a different yardstick to measure different entities, those measurements are suspect. If we vary our unit of distance each time we measure, then our measurements are meaningless.


Although values transcend the entities, they qualify – they are not values if they don’t - they are by no means strangers to those entities. A value that is wholly transcendent is no better than a wholly immanent value. Values only function as values if they are shared by both the judge and the judged. For this reason, legal systems that achieve at least a degree of buy-in from all elements of society are often the most successful.


Again, let’s be clear: justice is just per se; it doesn’t need anyone to buy-in. However, when it comes time to apply that value to specific situations, buy-in is extremely helpful. A corner of the universe without values that are both transcendent and immanent (shared) is a corner of the universe that does not exist. Everything we do, we do, guided by our values.


Values play three distinct roles with respect to events:


  • They provide the initial impetus that sets an event in motion.

  • They constitute the concrete, initial aim of that event.

  • They form the objective criteria (yardstick) by which that event must ultimately be judged (or measured).


Every event is subject to evaluation according to these ‘objective criteria’ precisely because every event shapes itself in response to those criteria. Therefore, values are both wholly immanent (as goals) and entirely transcendent (as measures). How is that possible?


On the surface, it isn’t! According to the standard ‘secular’ model, the universe is a self-contained, self-explanatory phenomenon – a flat, ontologically democratic world where entities (events) are just facts…and nothing more.


Events may refer to one another (e.g., cause and effect) but they cannot rely on anything that transcends them, anything beyond their collective selves because the model stipulates that there is nothing beyond their collective selves.


Ludwig Wittgenstein famously wrote, “No statement of facts can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value…(because) all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level.”


In Twilight of the Gods, Nietzsche wrote, “…There exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole… But nothing exists apart from the whole!”


According to these two models, human beings do whatever they do, for whatever reasons they do, and who are we to judge? Sound familiar? But if we believe that values are objectively real, we can’t settle for this sort of secular agnosticism.


The Problem of Evil asks how an imperfect world can be reconciled with the existence of a perfect God. Instead, I pose the Problem of Good: in an ontologically flat (vs. hierarchical) universe (Nietzsche’s ‘universe’ for example), how can there be any objective values? And if there aren’t any objective values, how can there be any experience of Good?


Specifically, how would we know whether something was ‘good’ or not, and how would we recognize the ‘good’ in an unfolding event?


I am reminded of my grammar school days. A flat universe is the cosmological equivalent of letting students grade themselves without any need to justify those grades and without any accountability for the grades themselves, for the accuracy of those grades, or for the quality of the work being graded.


For a pre-teen boy in the 1950s, this was Shangri-La. But unfortunately, that’s not how things worked in Sister Mary Francis’s 5th grade classroom. Neither is it the way things work in the universe!


An event consists of three groups of elements: concrete elements (qualities) inherited from the event’s actual world (i.e., from other events), an element of novelty that every event must inject into the process of concrescence (no novelty, no event), and the transcendent elements (values) that motivate and guide the event from stem to stern and that ultimately characterize the entity’s ‘objective immortality.’ To the extent that events consist of concrete physical (i.e., historical) elements, they are temporal; to the extent that events consist of values, they are eternal. There are no ‘events’ without ‘values;’ therefore, Good is the eternal aspect of everything that exists.


Corollary: to the extent that an event is ‘good,’ it is eternal, and to the extent that an event is eternal, it is good!


Can we detour to Genesis for just one moment? “Then God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good…evening came, and morning followed – the first day.’” (Gen. 1: 3 – 5)


The authors of Genesis waste no time! Just two verses into the very first book of the Old Testament, and they are already making it clear that ‘Good’ is the prerequisite of ‘Be.’ God makes no mistakes. Even so, he checks his work, and it is not until ‘God saw that the light was good’ that the ‘first day’ was ‘in the can.’


According to 20th century British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, every potential event can be expressed in the form of a ‘proposition.’ Values are what turn propositions into events. We are often reminded that ‘change is the only constant’ in our world. That is true as applied to the material and historical elements of that world; it is not true of values.


Values are not subject to change, period. If values could change, how could we call them ‘values?’ And how could they function as standards of judgment?


That said, the concrete application of these values to temporal events will vary from judge to judge and from event to event. But each one of those events should be judged using the same set of uber-values as the criterion.


So, where are we? We rejected the idea that ‘Good’ can somehow emerge spontaneously from a set of events which, in aggregate and by themselves, must initially be assumed to be value neutral.


To be is to be an event, or at least to be an element in an event. All events are characterized by a particular selection, emphasis and arrangement of values, applied to a unique ‘actual world.’


How can values that transcend our temporal world still play a necessary role in that world? So far as I can see, there is one and only one possible solution to this paradox: there must be an event that consists solely of values without any physical or historical contribution. Because, by definition, there is no physical or historical contribution to this event, the event cannot not occur in spacetime. It must occur ‘beyond’ spacetime. Because it occurs outside spacetime, it avoids the limitations normally imposed on emerging events by spacetime itself.


This ‘special event’ has no physical or historical elements, yet it is eminently ‘real;’ therefore, it must participate in at least one other emerging event. And because it is outside spacetime, and is in the actual world of at least one other emerging event, it must then be in the actual world of every such event, past, present, and future.


Therefore, this ‘special event’ is both immanent and transcendent:


  • Immanent, because it lies in the actual world of every other event and because it motivates and guides each such event.

  • Transcendent, because it is universal and eternal. Therefore, it is the one common event by which all other events may be measured and judged.


Every other entity, by definition, must include selected ‘concrete’ elements as well as values and must have the potential to arrange those elements into patterns that are beautiful, truthful, just, ethical, loving, aware, etc. The values that constitute the ‘special event’ form a pattern to which all other patterns are called to confirm. Composed entirely of values that exist outside spacetime, but participate in the constitution of every event inside spacetime.


If all this sounds strange and esoteric, it isn’t! In fact, it is totally ordinary and mundane. There already is a perfectly common word that we use whenever we refer to this ‘special event:’


That word is God.


Some folks who have followed us this far may leave here. The introduction of ‘God’ into the conversation may be a bridge too far for them. But I would ask those folks to be patient and reflective. The logic of our argument is difficult to escape. Like it or not, there doesn’t seem to be any other way to account for the world as we experience it. Apparently, there is a God after all!


So, let’s sum up. What have we demonstrated? We have shown that…


  • The ‘Problem of Evil’ assumes that there are objective values and that those values may (actually, must) be relied on whenever we evaluate an event.

  • We recognize Evil as the absence of those qualities we call ‘good.’ These qualities are the objective values that, by their presence or absence, allow us to recognize Good and Evil in our world.

  • Those same objective values are found in every entity at its origin.

  • Those values influence (but do not determine) the evolution of those events.

  • They constitute the standard by which all events will (must) ultimately be judged.

  • These objective values are both immanent and transcendent. For values to be immanent, they must be embodied in an actual event. For values to be transcendent, that event must occur outside of space and time. The event must be a-temporal, i.e., eternal.

  • There can be but one such event – an event consisting entirely of values and constituted outside of time; we call this entity “God”.


And now, if we accept these premises, we know that such an entity must, in fact, exist.

So, have we proven the existence of God, the holy grail of philosophy for millennia? Not quite! What I hope we have done is define a very narrow set of conditions one must accept in order to deny God’s existence:


  • Either Good and Evil do not exist (ontological nihilism); or

  • Good and Evil do exist, but they do no not objectively characterize events (ethical nihilism); or

  • Good and Evil do exist, and they do objectively characterize events, but we cannot recognize Good and Evil with anything close to an acceptable degree of accuracy (epistemological nihilism).


So, it’s perfectly logical to deny the existence of God, but if you do so, you must be prepared to accept ethical nihilism, ontological nihilism (which could include solipsism), or epistemological nihilism. These are Macbeth’s three witches, Wagner’s three norns, the ‘null points’ of philosophy.


So, it turns out that the Problem of Evil backfires! Based on its core assumptions, it morphs into the Problem of Good. In this new form, it strongly supports the very thesis it was designed to debunk, namely that God exists.

 

David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.


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