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L&FP, 53: Mackie’s concession regarding the deductive form argument from evil against the existence of God (answering CD et al.)

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It seems there is still a feeling in some atheistical quarters that Mackie’s formulation of the deductive argument from evil has withstood Plantinga’s challenge. This recently came up here at UD. and led to an exchange:


CD, 183: >>KF @ 174
I found this an interesting aside:

So, in an era with the Plantinga free will defence — as opposed to theodicy — on the table, what can be offered that makes God a suspect notion? ________

I think claims that Plantinga defeated the logical problem of evil are wildly exaggerated, if not downright wrong. For an excellent discussion of this, Raymond Bradley’s article is a must: The Free Will Defense Refuted and God’s Existence Disproved>>

My immediate response was:

KF, 190: >>[R]ight at outset, [Bradley presents] a strawman which seems to pivot on misunderstanding differences between defence and theodicy, as well as misunderstanding the difference freedom brings . . . inter alia the possibility of love thus of virtue and the possibility of actual reason:

Plantinga, however, ignores clauses (a) and (c), and targets only clause (b), that involving God’s omnipotence. He sketches a scenario according to which God did his best to create a world without evil but had his plans thwarted by the freedom-abusing creatures he had created. “Given these conditions,” he argues, God could not have created a world free of evil. This “despite” his omnipotence. True, moral and natural evil exists. But that’s up to us, and Satan, respectively. It isn’t “up to God.” So Plantinga claims.


Here is a summary, note, an outline:

Plantinga’s free-will defense, in a skeletal form, allows us to effectively address the problem. For, it is claimed that the following set of theistic beliefs embed an unresolvable contradiction:

1. God exists
2. God is omnipotent – all powerful
3. God is omniscient – all-knowing
4. God is omni-benevolent – all-good
5. God created the world
6. The world contains evil

[–> Notice, NOT ignored, that is false, and in context willfully misleading]

To do so, there is an implicit claim that, (2a) if he exists, God is omnipotent and so capable of — but obviously does not eliminate — evil. So, at least one of 2 – 5 should be surrendered. But all of these claims are central to the notion of God, so it is held that the problem is actually 1.

[–> again, not ignored]

Therefore, NOT-1: God does not exist.

However, it has been pointed out by Plantinga and others that:

2a is not consistent with what theists actually believe: if the elimination of some evil would lead to a worse evil, or prevent the emergence of a greater good, then God might have a good reason to permit some evil in the cosmos.

[–> Notice, the issue of misunderstanding]

Specifically, what if “many evils result from human free will or from the fact that our universe operates under natural laws or from the fact that humans exist in a setting that fosters soul-making . . . [and that such a world] contains more good than a world that does not” ?

In this case, Theists propose that 2a should be revised: 2b: “A good, omnipotent God will eliminate evil as far as he can without either losing a greater good or bringing about a greater evil.” But, once this is done, the alleged contradiction collapses.

Further, Alvin Plantinga – through his free will defense — was able to show that the theistic set is actually consistent. He did this by augmenting the set with a further proposition that is logically possible (as opposed to seeming plausible to one who may be committed to another worldview) and which makes the consistency clear. That proposition, skeletally, is 5a: “God created a world (potentially) containing evil; and has a good reason for doing so.” Propositions 1, 2b, 3, 4, and 5a are plainly consistent, and entail 6.

[–> if p1, p2 . . . pn are alleged to be inconsistent but if augmented by e become clearly consistent, p1 through pn are necessarily consistent already]

The essence of that defense is:

“A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures . . . God can create free creatures, but he can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For . . . then they aren’t significantly free after all . . . He could only have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.” [NB: This assumes that moral good reflects the power of choice: if we are merely robots carrying out programs, then we cannot actually love, be truthful, etc.] [From: Clark, Kelley James. Return to Reason. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 69 – 70, citing Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil, (Eerdmans, 1974), p. 30.]

So, the attempted dismissal fails.

The deductive or logical form problem of evil fails, and with the goods of reason, love, virtue and redemption etc, the inductive form is countered. The existential form is a matter of counselling, not logic.>>

In the course of my arguing, I referred to Mackie’s concession, which CD doubted was real, on grounds of lacking documentation. On seeing the onward path of discussion, I thought it advisable to lay that out, and note that after a day or so, it is buried with hardly a comment, save for EDTA’s thank you. I think this is important enough to view as dealing with a key logic issue and worthy of headlining for record, so:

KF, 407: >>I have decided, on observing the onward exchanges, that it is worth some time to respond regarding Mackie’s concession, as it draws out some of the underlying patterns and issues in the exchanges here and elsewhere.

Let us therefore notice, from Mackie’s post humous The Miracle of Theism, the guarded, reluctant retraction of the earlier confident argument that the logical form of the problem of evil was decisive against theism. That is, in two separate passages:

[W]e can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another. [–> explicitly, a concession, and a big one] But whether this offers a real solution of the problem is another question. [p. 154] . . . .

[A]ll forms of the free will defence fail [–> really? We shall see . . . ], and since this defence alone had any chance of success there is no plausible theodicy on offer [–> note improper conflation of a defense with theodicy]. We cannot, indeed, take the problem of evil as a conclusive disproof of traditional theism, [–> the buried headline and lead!] because, as we have seen, there is some flexibility in its doctrines, and in particular in the additional premisses needed to make the problem explicit. [–> a key point of Plantinga was that the alleged contradiction was not explicit so an implied or invited premise had to be identified] There may be some way of adjusting these which avoids an internal contradiction with-out giving up anything essential to theism.

[–> better, atheists etc have not found such an additional premise: a necessary truth or a construct acceptable to theists as what informed theists actually believe and so the logical form of the problem of evils as advertised for centuries by atheists etc, fails to deliver as advertised]

But none has yet been clearly presented [–> he disputes Plantinga], and there is a strong presumption

[–> not, demonstration! He confesses to a faith commitment here as he cannot claim a proof]

that theism cannot be made coherent without a serious change in at least one of its central doctrines. [p. 176] [J L Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (1982, i.e. post mortem), pp. 154, 176.]

We can readily see:

1: that he has indeed conceded the logical problem of evil, and we can discern his general attitude to philosophical theism from his term, “doctrines,” a term that obviously suggests dogmas and dogmatism, when premises would be more apt — so we must discount for that attitude in parsing his concession.

2: As he tries to dismiss theodicies, only defenses are on offer, but he will not here call Plantinga by name.

3: When he speaks of “flexibility” and “the additional premisses needed to make the problem [of evil] explicit” he clearly implies that Plantinga is right to note that there is no explicit contradiction, and that

4: to get a contradiction, additional propositions are needed, which need to be necessarily true and/or acceptable to academically serious ethical theists — on pain of, yes, strawman fallacy (a, sadly, commonly encountered problem).

5: That Mackie manifestly cannot produce such a necessary or acceptable augmenting proposition — or he would triumphantly announce it — tells the rest of the story. For, instead,

6: he is forced to concede, tellingly, “We cannot, indeed, take the problem of evil as a conclusive disproof of traditional theism” . . . in short, the original claim that that had happened, has failed.

7: Which is all we need to know the true balance on the merits, despite his assertions that Plantinga’s arguments fail. For,

8: had he a decisive refutation, Mackie would not have had to leave the door open like that.

9: No wonder, then, that we can see how, Michael Palmer, in The Atheist’s Primer, admits:

Mackie, in his The Miracle of Theism (1982) concedes that Plantinga has shown how God and evil can co-exist – that he has successfully resolved a logical problem

[–> oh, nothing more than showing among professional philosophers that the claimed irrefutable incoherence and impossibility of God due to the logical form of the problem of evil fails; grade D, work harder!]

– but that the substantive issue still remains unanswered. After all, as Plantinga himself has made clear, a defence is not a theodicy,

[–> but it opens up reasonable confidence in God and a possible way to better understand his key attributes, so too the value of our responsible, conscience guided freedom to reason, decide, love, know etc]

and the reason why evil exists at all still remains to be explained.[Lutterworths (2012), p. 64.]

. . . so, too, we see in the Oxford Handbook of Atheism, the almost in passing remark:

Planting stipulates that, in order to show theism to be self-contradictory and thus irrational, the burden is on the non-theistic critic to utilize propositions that are essential to theism, or necessarily true, or logical consequences of such propositions [–> another way to be necessary]. Clearly, there is no logical problem for the theist if he is not committed to each proposition in the [theistic] set [as presented and/or augmented by atheologians] or if the set does not really entail a contradiction. The logical argument faded as theists were generally successful in rejecting the assumption that free will is compatibilist in nature as well as the assumption that God must eliminate all evil [to be good, omnipotent and omniscient]. Mackie’s concession, however, comes short of full surrender:

[W]e can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another. But whether [the Free Will Defence] offers a real solution of the problem is another question. (1982: 154)

Following this admission, most thinkers transitioned to the evidential argument from evil while some continued searching for a viable logical argument.[Oxford (2013), eds Bullivant & Ruse, in Ch. 5, “The Problem of Evil,” by Michael L. Peterson.]

and, in a recent Reddit post, by u/deleted under the r/DebateReligion subreddit, essentially the same admission is given as the majority view of relevant philosophers:

The logical problem of evil was supposed to show that a three-trait god (all-knowing, all-powerful, maximally-good) was logically impossible. After Plantinga vs. Mackie, I think most philosophers would agree that Plantinga at least showed there was no logical impossibility.

However, there still probably remained a great unlikelihood,

[–> actually not, as once God is a serious candidate necessary being, once such is credibly possible he is credibly actual. Further, those who object based on inductive forms, are apparently in effect attaching themselves to a compatibilist form of determinism, which is hugely controversial and arguably self referentialy incoherent. For, they assume the credibility of their own reasoning but imply or invite that our apparent freedom, responsibility and rationality, thus ability to credibly argue and know are in fact driven and controlled by antecedent forces that are irrelevant to our choosing and predetermine our behaviour, thought, argument etc. If they do not, they need to explain ______ including why the Atheist’s Handbook argues in that light.]

and that unlikelihood is known as the evidential problem of evil . . .

10: So, we freely conclude that the holder of the field is Plantinga’s: [2b:] “A good, omnipotent God will eliminate evil as far as he can without either losing a greater good or bringing about a greater evil.”

11: This directly shows that the theistic set is coherent as if there is a good reason to do so an utterly wise God would know it and an utterly good God would act to gain in creation a whole new category of virtue due to genuine, significant freedom to love, reason, think, warrant, know and decide. That is,

12: We see [5a:] “God created a world (potentially) containing evil; and has a good reason for doing so.” Where,

13: the notion that significant freedom can be antecedently programmed and determined — compatibilism — is false on its face. Which, arguably, is tantamount to transworld depravity: no world with significantly free thus ought guided creatures capable of moral, intellectual and cultural good is possible in which across the span of reality all such creatures at all times only use freedom to the good. (And yes, equally arguably for Judaeo-Christian theism, heaven is part of a package deal, with an associated world of soul test.) So,

14: the logical form of the problem of evils is dead and conceded to be dead.

15: As noted, the inductive form faces two key challenges,

[a] coherently defining good/evil without implying that the world/reality root is indeed recognisably the inherently good, utterly wise, necessary and maximally great being and creator God of generic ethical theism; also

[b] arguing without self referentially reducing our rational, responsible, morally governed significant freedom to grand delusion or utter dubiousness.

16: Objectors to the God of ethical theism are therefore invited to answer the challenges __________ and/or to explain why the Mackie concession fails __________ . (Predictably, hard to do or it would have been done by 1981 by the leading modern proponent of the attempt to refute theism by appealing to the repulsiveness of evil.)>>

Forty years after it was made, Mackie’s concession still stands. We can fairly conclude, the deductive form problem of evil meant to imply that God is an impossible being, has failed and is unlikely to be resurrected. The inductive form, faces the double challenges of defining evil vs good, and of self referential implications of compatibilism or other views that imply undermining of rational, responsible freedom. For the existential form, go find good pastoral counselling. END

PS, in a related thread, definitions were provided for evil and for good. In reverse order as good is prior — and is oddly hard to find well addressed as definition online:

KF, Argu’t from evil thread, 135: >>I see the defining of the good is something hard to find online, a bad sign for what our day is like, one can find discussion of evil far more than discussion of the good. Okay, let’s do a rough cut:

good or goodness first speaks to moral and/or aesthetic perfection and/or purity or the approach thereto, includes beneficence [and especially loving compassion and generosity], can express fitness or aptness for purpose [or superior performance], exemplary state or conduct or performance, or can relate to things or states of affairs that reflect such and related things. A good mango tree gives good fruit, often in this region the Julie is the standard of perfection or at least of reference; though I take the Bombay as preferable absent the defect of being thin skinned and prone to wrigglers (hence the eat it in the dark joke). A good tool is apt to carry out a job effectively if rightly used. A good island is happily situated, well watered, lush, has wonderful beaches etc. A good person is of exemplary conduct; Jesus of Nazareth is perhaps the generally accepted yardstick. A good God is one who is supreme in perfections and especially in moral excellence and generous beneficence, letting his rain fall on the just and the unjust, etc. A good creature is moving towards fulfillment of its due ends, especially where that is more than the mere common average. And much more. We here see that yardstick examples help us flesh out our concept and this then controls discussion as what cuts across key cases will be error.

Notice, good vs evil brings in the issue of purpose, achievement or progress towards that, and even perfection, purity, beneficence, example and more.>>

Then, to define evil i/l/o the classic brief definition:

KF, 134, but cf. 87 and OP: >>The classic understanding that

evil is a parasitical distortion, frustration, perversion, privation of the good out of its due and often naturally evident end, is antecedent to its chaotic consequences or repulsiveness etc. That classic understanding identifies that evil is not a primary entity that you can order by the boxcar load etc. It is instead, a failing to be aligned with due end, which then leads to recognising that due ends are embedded in our world. Thus, we see a way to recognise the good.

Yes, we can and do recognise the evil from its chaotic and destructive, repulsive consequences — famously in a form of the Categorical imperative, or from capital cases in point such as Nazism and Communism as they played out in living memory then from family resemblance and from seeing degrees and escalations, but that is different from identifying its substantial nature. this is not merely about word usage, we are dealing here with the is-ought gap as enconscienced creatures, where that gap can only be properly and effectively bridged in the root of reality.>>

These concepts are also foundational.

14 Replies to “L&FP, 53: Mackie’s concession regarding the deductive form argument from evil against the existence of God (answering CD et al.)

  1. 1
    kairosfocus says:

    Headlined: Mackie’s concession (in his The Miracle of Theism) regarding the deductive form argument from evil against the existence of God (answering CD et al.)

  2. 2
    kairosfocus says:

    Happy St Pat’s, a holiday here — indeed our national day. KF

  3. 3
    kairosfocus says:

    Calling Cd, calling CD, here is your documentation on pp 154 and 176 of Mackie’s post humus book published 1982, with drawing out of significance. KF

  4. 4
    Silver Asiatic says:


    Thanks for the detailed analysis and for finding the Mackie selections.

    Bradley says that having free will is not worth the price, but he does not refute Plantinga’s argument that a world with free moral beings necessarily, logically requires the presence of evil.

  5. 5
    Blastus says:

    Genesis 18:23-26 KJV
    And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? And the LORD said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.

  6. 6
    kairosfocus says:

    B, Sodom was an acknowledged extreme, nowhere near the norm. If you are suggesting that today we are approaching such extremes, then maybe we need to attend to warnings about such. “As in the days of Noe . . . ” KF

  7. 7
    kairosfocus says:

    SA, without responsible, rational, significant freedom, there is no Bradley there and there is no argument just dynamic stochastic emanations of no credibility. Branch on which we sit principle. KF

  8. 8
    kairosfocus says:

    Still calling CD, still calling CD, the OP answers as to where Mackie concedes Plantinga’s point. KF

  9. 9
    chuckdarwin says:

    This is where Mackie finally comes down on the free will defense:

    In short, all forms of the free will defense fail, and since this defense alone had any chance of success there is no plausible theodicy on offer. We cannot, indeed, take the problem of evil as conclusive disproof of traditional theism, because, as we have seen there is some flexibility in its doctrines, and in particular in the additional premisses (sic) needed to make the problem explicit. There maybe some way of adjusting these which avoids an internal contradiction without giving up anything essential to theism. But none has yet been clearly presented, and there is a strong presumption that theism cannot be made coherent without a serious change in at least one of its cental doctrines. (emphasis in original)

    To me, and I obviously could be wrong, Mackie is looking at two separate issues, internal inconsistences in “traditional” theistic doctrines (the so-called “omni’s) and, separately, Plantinga’s free will defense which merely claims that there is no formal, logical inconsistency between the omni’s and the existence of evil. (Parenthetically, I think the FWD is easily defeated simply by adding the premise “God created the world and everything in it.” Then two conclusions follow, first, that God is the author of evil and, an explicit contradiction between the existence of evil and omnibenevolence arises. I think this is what Mackie was alluding to. My two cents.)
    I make this observation on two factors. First, Mackie’s first sentence in this passage and, second, the structure of Chapter 9, where the free will defense (FWD) is treated separately.

    I haven’t reviewed my original comment because I’m too lazy to dig through 100+ posts, however, I believe my original observation went to the latter, namely, that Mackie didn’t concede that Plantinga’s FWD worked (I think I used the phrase “Plantinga’s position”). That point is clear from the first sentence in the passage. I think that Mackie realized that one could fiddle with the original argument and either abandon one or more of the omni’s to remove inconsistences or add premises to make inconstancies explicit. Bradley’s article, in part, addresses the later by focusing on omnibenevolence.

    Going back to The Miracle of Theism after all these years, I fault Mackie for not being more clear and not being explicit on some points, but that’s a moot point. In any event, I don’t think the logical problem of evil is over. More recent thinkers such as Graham Oppy (who WLC referred to as “scary smart”), among others, have not been willing to concede it. As to Mackie, if you want to “freely claim that Plaintinga is the holder of the field,” knock yourself out.

    Erin go brah……

  10. 10
    kairosfocus says:

    CD, actually, he implicitly conceded a lot (cf OP) and on p 154, here is the money shot concession — and he used that term:

    [W]e can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another. [–> explicitly, a concession, and a big one] But whether this offers a real solution of the problem is another question. [p. 154] . . .

    Why is that? The OP draws out what he leaves implicit on the why. That is despite his bold claims to the contrary, the free will defense worked. The attributes of God, properly understood, are coherent. And since God is at least a serious candidate necessary being world/reality root, that means it is credible that he is actual. If possibly necessary, on possible worlds analysis informed by S5, actual. Where, too, compatibilism, as a claimed account for freedom, fails.

    And of course, part of that failure is that one cannot be free and self moved if determined by antecedent causal factors.

    See OP for brief notes on inductive and existential forms of the problem.

    But, it is manifest, that the deductive form is dead.


    PS, S5 is the modal operator pruner, o1o2 . . . on [x] –> on(x). If necessarily possible then possible, existing in at least one PW were it instantiated. If possibly necessary, existing in at least one world and as necessary, so in all PWs.

  11. 11
    EDTA says:


    Parenthetically, I think the FWD is easily defeated simply by adding the premise “God created the world and everything in it.”

    Bad idea. A knowledgeable theist will disagree with your premise–something easily done: Perhaps God created the _potential_ for a lot of things but did not create them explicitly. He may have imbued us with enough free will so that we could take responsibility for our own actions. That would mean that he did not create absolutely everything that exists now, and cannot be held responsible for our choices.

    (If Bradley would prefer to be an automaton, fine. Let him have it. Oh wait, as a materialist [I presume], he’s already got his wish: no actually free will!)

  12. 12
    chuckdarwin says:

    EDTA @ 11
    My premise is “God created the world and everything in it.” And you, as an ostensibly knowledgeable theist disagree with that premise? With what part of the premise do you disagree?

  13. 13
    EDTA says:

    >With what part of the premise do you disagree?

    I disagree that God created my actions of 5 minutes ago, for example. In creating us as free creatures, and therefore giving us some small amount of autonomy, we take responsibility for our actions.

  14. 14
    kairosfocus says:

    CD, you do or should know that EDTA is right, that has been on the table for 1500+ years as a serious point. Evil is not a primary thing, it is a twisting out of due alignment. Freedom carries responsibility. So, please, cease from setting up and knocking over strawmen. KF

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