Has Plantinga “buried” Mackie’s logical argument from evil?
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Int J Philos Relig (2014) 75:189–196DOI 10.1007/s11153-014-9448-3
Has Plantinga “buried” Mackie’s logical argumentfrom evil?
Received: 14 January 2014 / Accepted: 21 February 2014 / Published online: 4 March 2014© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014
Abstract In seeking to undermine Mackie’s logical argument from evil, Plantingaassumes that Mackie’s argument regards it as a necessary truth that a wholly goodGod would eliminate all evil that he could eliminate. I argue that this is an interpre-tative mistake, and that Mackie is merely assuming that the theist believes that God’sgoodness entails that God would eliminate all evil that he could eliminate. Oncethe difference between these two assumptions, and the implausibility of Plantinga’sassumption, are brought out, Plantinga’s celebrated critique of Mackie’s argument canbe seen to be far less compelling than is often assumed to be the case.
Keywords John Mackie · Alvin Plantinga · Logical argument from evil ·Problem of evil
In “Evil and Omnipotence” (1955) Mackie famously argues that the three beliefs
(1) God is infinitely powerful,(2) God is wholly good, and(3) evil exists,
are inconsistent, and in so arguing he appeals to the further premises
(4) there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do, and(5) a wholly good thing always eliminates evil as far as he can.
In view of the alleged inconsistency, Mackie judges that theists (or at any rate theistswho hold the relevant beliefs) are “positively irrational.”1
1 Mackie (1955, pp. 200–201). In subsequent writings Mackie identifies the relevant sorts of theists as“traditional” theists; see e.g. Mackie (1962, p. 153; 1982, p. 150).
A. Kraal (B)University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, AB T2N 1N4, Canadae-mail: [email protected]
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In The Nature of Necessity (1974a) and God, Freedom and Evil (1974b) Plantingaargues, also famously, that Mackie’s argument isn’t sound.2 So influential has Planti-nga’s reasoning been that it is today widely assumed, among analytic philosophers ofreligion, that Mackie’s argument has been “buried.”3
Plantinga’s argument against Mackie rests on a largely unexamined interpretationof Mackie, however, and only holds if this interpretation is exegetically sound. Thosewho hold that Plantinga has “buried” Mackie’s argument assume, in effect, that Planti-nga’s interpretation is exegetically sound. Nonetheless, I shall venture to argue that acompelling case can be made for regarding Plantinga’s interpretation as exegeticallyunsound, and in such a way as to render his argument against Mackie unsuccessful.In what follows I seek to substantiate this claim.
Plantinga’s assumption that Mackie proposes (5) as a necessary truth
Plantinga’s critique of Mackie comprises two main parts. The most well-known partis the Free Will Defense, which is a “way of arguing that […] (1) and (2) are in factconsistent [with (3)].”4 In arguing this conclusion, the Free Will Defense seeks toidentify a proposition that is (i) possible, (ii) consistent with (1) and (2), and (iii) suchthat in conjunction with (1) and (2) it entails (3).5 The proposition Plantinga suggestscentres on the claim that “Every possible person suffers from transworld depravity,”that is, that every possible person is such that there is some morally significant actionwith respect to which they would go wrong and hence would introduce some evil intothe world.6
The Free Will Defense builds on what Plantinga calls his “first project,” however,which consists in “explor[ing] the ways in which the atheologian might argue that (1)and (2) are incompatible, and to point out that this is enormously more difficult thanthe atheologians seem to suppose.”7 More specifically, the first project consists inarguing, in opposition to what Plantinga takes to be Mackie’s view, that (4) and (5)aren’t necessary truths, and so can’t be properly used to derive a contradiction from(1)–(3). This first project has received relatively little attention in the literature, whichinstead has been dominated by discussions of the Free Will Defense. It is worth noting,though, that the success of Plantinga’s Free Will Defense depends on the success ofthe first project. It is in connection with this first project, I shall argue, that we find acrucial interpretative mistake on the part of Plantinga.
2 See Plantinga (1967, pp. 115–155; 1974b, pp. 12–55; 1974a, pp. 164–190).3 See e.g. Dougherty (2011, p. 560).4 Plantinga (1985, p. 41).5 See Plantinga (1974b, p. 26).6 Plantinga (1974a, pp. 184–189; 1974b, pp. 49–54). Note that I say that Plantinga’s additional proposition“centres” on the claim that “Every possible person suffers from transworld depravity,” which is not to saythat this claim is identical to the relevant proposition. The relevant proposition is in fact a conjunctiveproposition consisting of this claim in conjunction with the further proposition that “God created a worldcontaining moral good”; see Plantinga (1974a, p. 189; 1974b, p. 54).7 Plantinga (1985, pp. 40–41).
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In seeking to show that the conjunction of (4) and (5) isn’t a necessary truth,Plantinga grants that (4) is necessarily true (with the minor qualification that the“limits” spoken of in (4) are “nonlogical” limits),8 and in what follows I shall allowthat Plantinga is justified in this. With regard to (5) Plantinga is more critical, however.His objection, in brief, is that “a good person would not be obliged to eliminate a givenevil if they could do so only by eliminating a good that outweighed it.”9 In line withthis it is suggested that if a wholly good being could eliminate all evil in the worldonly by eliminating outweighing goods, then it is far from clear that a wholly goodbeing would eliminate all evil in the world—in which case (5) wouldn’t be a necessarytruth.10
Suppose that Plantinga is right in this, and that he accordingly has succeeded inshowing that (5) isn’t a necessary truth. Does it follow that Mackie is wrong in con-tending that (5) can be used to show that (1)–(3) is contradictory? Only if we supposethat Mackie is proposing (5) as a necessary truth.
Interestingly, in God and Other Minds Plantinga recognizes that (5) could be putto effective use in Mackie’s argument even if it falls short of being a necessary truth,provided it is either “essential to theism” or a “logical consequence” of claims essentialto theism.11 But he doesn’t entertain seriously the possibility that these latter thingsare what Mackie had in mind, regarding it instead as more or less obvious that Mackieproposes (5) as a necessary truth in its own right.
Why does Plantinga take Mackie to be proposing (5) as a necessary truth? Becauseif these claims aren’t regarded as essential to theism or as logical consequences ofclaims essential to theism, the claim can only be used to generate a contradictionwith (3) if it is a necessary truth in its own right. To better understand Plantinga’sreasoning on this point we do well to attend to a few preliminary definitions. Anexplicit contradiction, says Plantinga, is “a conjunctive proposition, one conjunct ofwhich is the denial or negation of the other conjunct.”12 In line with this a set ofpropositions is said to be explicitly contradictory “if one of the members [of the set]is the denial or negation of another member.”13 A set of propositions, moreover, issaid to be formally contradictory if “an explicit contradiction can be deduced [fromit] by the laws of logic.”14 With the help of these definitions Plantinga introduces thenotion of implicit contradiction, which he defines as follows: “a set S of propositionsis implicitly contradictory if there is a necessary proposition p such that the resultof adding p to S is a formally contradictory set.”15 We can now see why Plantingatakes Mackie to propose (5) as a necessary truth: if (5) were only a contingent truth,there would be some possible world in which it would be consistent with (3), in which
8 Plantinga (1974b, p. 17).9 Plantinga (1974b, p. 20).10 Plantinga (1974b, pp. 22–24; cf. p. 54).11 Plantinga (1967, p. 117).12 Plantinga (1974b, p. 12).13 Plantinga (1974b, p. 13).14 Plantinga (1974b, p. 14).15 Plantinga (1974b, p. 16).
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case it wouldn’t contradict (3), since it contradicts (3) only if it entails ∼ (3) in everypossible world.
Plantinga’s idea that Mackie is proposing (5) as a necessary truth is of course con-nected to his more basic idea that Mackie’s contention is that (1)–(3) is “implicitlycontradictory” (in the above defined sense). For (1)–(3) to be implicitly contradictoryit is required that there is some further proposition which is both necessary and suchthat in conjunction with (1)–(3) it yields a formal contradiction. This further propo-sition, Plantinga thinks, is in Mackie’s argument the conjunction of (4) and (5). SaysPlantinga:
[W]hen Mackie says that set A is contradictory, we may properly take him, Ithink, as holding that it is implicitly contradictory in the explained sense. […]What he means, I think, is that to get a formally contradictory set we must addsome propositions to set A (i.e.  and ); and if we aim to show that set A isimplicitly contradictory, these propositions must be necessary truths—“quasi-logical rules,” as Mackie calls them.16
In what follows I argue that Plantinga is mistaken in assuming that Mackie is proposing(5) as a necessary truth.
Does Mackie propose (5) as a necessary truth?
Mackie formulates his basic contention as the claim that the theistic claims (1) and(2) are inconsistent with (3), and that religious beliefs are by consequence “positivelyirrational” on account of their contradictoriness.17
Now Mackie’s contention that (1) and (2) are inconsistent with (3) could be under-stood in at least two ways.18 On one view, Mackie is contending that the meanings ofterms like “infinite power” and “infinite goodness” in (1) and (2) are such as to render(1)–(2) inconsistent with (3); let’s call this “the Meaning Interpretation.” On anotherview, Mackie is contending that the nature of things is such as to render the attributesmentioned in (1)–(2) incompossible with (3); let’s call this “the Ontological Interpre-tation.” Briefly put, the Meaning Interpretation regards the contention as grounded inthe meanings of words, whereas the Ontological Interpretation takes it to be groundedin the nature of things.
That Mackie has the Meaning Interpretation in mind is made initially plausibleby the fact that he seeks to support his contention by means of what he calls “quasi-logical rules connecting the terms ‘good’,” ‘evil’, and ‘omnipotent’.”19 Clearly, if thecontention was grounded in the nature of things as opposed to the meaning of words
16 Plantinga (1974b, pp. 16–17).17 Mackie (1955, p. 200).18 According to a third interpretation, due to Michael Tooley, Mackie isn’t urging a logical argument at all,but is really urging an evidential argument from evil; see Tooley (1981, pp. 361–362). The mistakennessof this interpretation was made clear by Mackie himself one year after the publication of Tooley’s paper,however; see Mackie (1982, pp. 150–151).19 Mackie (1955, p. 201) (my emphasis).
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there would be little point in appealing to connections between the terms “good,” “evil”and “omnipotent” in seeking to support this contention. Moreover, Mackie takes hisargument to show that religious beliefs are “positively irrational” and require “[an]extreme rejection of reason” on the part of those who hold them.20 In order to showsuch a thing it wouldn’t suffice to show merely that the nature of things is such as torender the non-linguistic propositions expressed by (1) and (2) inconsistent with (3),for it might very well be that religious believers are unaware that the nature of thingsis such as to give rise to the relevant inconsistency, in which case they could hardlybe charged with irrationality in believing (1)–(3).
It seems then that Mackie’s contention should be understood in line with the Mean-ing Interpretation. Now the Meaning Interpretation could, in turn, be understood ineither of two ways. Mackie could be contending that what religious believers mean bythe expression “goodness” in (2) is such as to give rise to inconsistency. Alternatively,Mackie could be contending that in view of the ordinary meaning of the expression“goodness” in (2), the relevant inconsistency follows.
That Mackie’s contention should be understood in the first way is made clear inMackie’s “Theism and Utopia” (1962) and The Miracle of Theism (1982). In “Theismand Utopia” he says:
[Critics of theism] are not putting forward any positive theological doctrines, theyare questioning the coherence of the traditional theistic view. They are askingwhether this view can be made coherent, or whether it involves an ineradicablecontradiction. That being so, it is not for the critics to say what constitutesgoodness. On this matter the theist can take his pick, he can adopt whateverinterpretation of goodness he prefers, so long as he sticks to it consistently.The question is whether God’s being what the theist calls wholly good, andomnipotent, is compatible with the existence, which he recognises, of what hecalls evil.21
In The Miracle of Theism he says similarly:
Since I am charging the theist with holding incompatible beliefs, it is his con-ceptions of good, evil, and so on that are in play here.22
So Mackie’s contention is clearly that in view of what “religious believers” or “theists”mean by the term “goodness” in (2), a contradiction follows.
In order to support this contention, Mackie sketches the following strategy:
[T]he contradiction does not arise immediately; to show it we need some addi-tional premises, or perhaps some quasi-logical rules connecting the terms “good,”“evil,” and “omnipotent.” These additional principles are that good is opposedto evil, in such a way that a [wholly] good thing always eliminates evil as faras it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. Fromthese it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and
20 Mackie (1955, p. 200).21 Mackie (1962, pp. 153–154) (my emphasis).22 Mackie (1982, p. 165) (emphasis in the original).
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then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists,are incompatible.23
Plantinga understands Mackie to here be proposing (5) as a necessary truth. Referringto the set of propositions (1)–(3) as “set A,” he says:
[O]f course, if Mackie means to show that set A is implicitly contradictory, thenhe must hold that (19) and (20) [i.e. (4) and (5) in our numbering] are not merelytrue but necessarily true.24
As should be clear from the foregoing, I believe Plantinga gets Mackie wrong on thispoint. What Mackie intended to say is not that (5) is a necessary truth, but rather thatit brings out what the (traditional) theist implicitly believes in believing (2).
This interpretation is made initially plausible by the fact that Mackie takes (5) as“connecting” the terms “good” and “evil,”25 which terms occur in (2) and (5). Strongerreasons for holding this interpretation to be correct, are, however, the following three.
First, Mackie is explicit in that the contradiction he is seeking to exhibit is a con-tradiction “between these three propositions,” i.e. between (1)–(3).26 To say this, andthen to immediately add a further proposition to the list,—be it an analytic or nec-essary truth—doesn’t make sense. In that case Mackie would presumably have saidthat the inconsistency holds between more than three propositions. By regarding (5)as part of what the traditional theist implicitly believes in believing (2), however, itbecomes entirely proper to say that the inconsistency holds between the three claims(1)–(3) rather than between (1)–(3) and (5), for in that case (5) simply makes explicitwhat is implicitly believed in (1)–(3).
Second, Mackie is explicit in that (5) is adduced for the sake of ‘show[ing]’ that(1)–(3) are inconsistent.27 If (5) weren’t part of what the theist implicitly believes inbelieving (2) but an additional necessary truth, the addition of it to (1)–(3) wouldn’tsuffice to show that (1)–(3) are inconsistent, but only that (1)–(3) in conjunction with(5) is inconsistent, and this is something different.
And third, and as we saw above, Mackie is explicit in that he “[is] not puttingforward any positive theological doctrines,” but is arguing on the basis of what “thetheist” (or “the traditional theist”) believes about God, goodness, and evil.28 If Mackiewas earnest in making this claim, he couldn’t have brought any additional principleinto his attempt to demonstrate an inconsistency, be it ever so analytic or necessary,if this principle is not part of what the theist himself at least implicitly believes or iscommitted to. For if Mackie brought in such an additional principle, he would not bearguing solely on the basis of what the theist believes. If, on the other hand, we regard(5) as part of what the theist implicitly believes in believing (2), then Mackie could
23 Mackie (1955, p. 201).24 Plantinga (1974b, p. 17).25 Mackie (1955, p. 201).26 Mackie (1955, p. 200) (my emphasis).27 Mackie (1955, p. 201).28 Mackie (1962, pp. 153–154; 1982, p. 165).
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indeed make use of this claim even while arguing solely on the basis of what theistshold to be true, for in that case (5) is just part of what the theist already believes.
To this interpretation it might be objected that (5) can’t be part of what the theistimplicitly believes in believing (2), for (2) is a belief about God whereas (5) is a beliefabout what anything with the quality “wholly good” would be like. This objectiontakes a too literalistic view of Mackie’s formulation of (5), however. The formulationMackie gives of (5) in “Evil and Omnipotence” is given mostly in passing, and asMackie clarifies in his later piece “Theism and Utopia” (quoted above) his argument isreally just concerned with “the question […] whether God’s being what the theist callswholly good, and omnipotent, is compatible with the existence, which he recognizes,of what he calls evil” (my emphasis). So it is clearly not Mackie’s intention that (5) beunderstood as a universal claim as opposed to a claim exclusively about God. Rather,it should to be understood as claiming
(5*) that God, qua wholly good, always eliminates evil as far as he can.
It would be nice if we could make Mackie’s assumption that (5) is part of what thetheist implicitly believes in believing (2) a bit more precise. One way in which thismight be done is as follows:
(i) In believing that God is “wholly good,” theists believe that God never falls shortof doing what it would be perfectly good to do.
(ii) Theists hold that for God to refrain from eliminating all the evil that he couldeliminate counts as not doing what is perfectly good.
(iii) Hence, in believing that God is “wholly good” theists implicitly believe that Godnever refrains from eliminating all the evil that he can eliminate.
Something of the above sort is clearly what underlies Mackie’s assumption that (5) isa “quasi-logical rule” which connects the terms “good” and “evil” in such a way as toshow that (1)–(3) is inconsistent.
If the above defended interpretation of Mackie’s argument is correct, it is clear thatPlantinga gets the argument wrong, and so fails to undermine it. Plantinga gets theargument wrong because he presupposes that Mackie is proposing (5) not as part ofwhat the traditional theist believes in believing (2), but as a necessary truth in itsown right; and this, I have argued, is not what Mackie is doing. If this is right, it isevident that the widespread belief that Plantinga has “buried” Mackie’s argument isjust wrong. To bury the argument, it must be shown that it is no part of the traditionaltheist’s belief in the infinite goodness of God that God eliminates all evil as far as hecan. But this isn’t something Plantinga has as yet shown.
Dougherty, T. (2011). Recent work on the problem of evil. Analysis, 71, 560–573.Mackie, J. (1955). Evil and omnipotence. Mind, 64, 200–201.
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Mackie, J. (1962). Theism and Utopia. Philosophy, 37, 153–158.Mackie, J. (1982). The miracle of theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Plantinga, A. (1967). God and other minds. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press.Plantinga, A. (1974a). The nature of necessity. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Plantinga, A. (1974b). God, freedom, and evil. New York: Harper and Row.Plantinga, A. (1985). Self-profile. In P. van Inwagen & J. Tomberlin (Eds.), Alvin Plantinga (pp. 3–97).
Dordrecht: Reidel.Tooley, M. (1981). Alvin Plantinga and the argument from evil. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 58,