God Determines

The ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus (around 300 BCE), introduced the world to a conundrum called the Problem of Evil. It says: Since evil exists, God doesn’t. Here is the entire proof:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?

    Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able to prevent evil but not willing?

    Then he is not benevolent.

Since evil evidently exists,

    no omnipotent and benevolent God exists.

Lactantius, an early Christian living around 280 CE, was the one who attributed the Problem of Evil to Epicurus. To refute the argument he wrote:

I know that most of the philosophers who defend providence are commonly shaken by this argument and … are almost driven to admit that god does not care, which is exactly what Epicurus is looking for. … But Epicurus did not see … that if evils are taken away, wisdom is equally removed; nor do any vestiges of virtue remain in man, the nature of which consists in sustaining and overcoming the bitterness of evils.

Lactantius says that God gave us evil in order for us to know good. How does evil teach us what good is? Some examples might be these:

from strife we learn the value of harmony
from falling a child learns to walk
from knowing of death we learn the value of life
thus from the evil we learn the good

So Evil, itself, is a gift from God. Evil and God may both exist.

Pretty clever refutation.

What is interesting about this paradox of Epicurus is its vast generality – far beyond anything religious! It has a secular counterpart: it expresses the paradox of free will versus determinism. God corresponds to determinism, evil corresponds to free will. If God is controlling everything then how can evil exist? If determinism is controlling everything than how can free will exist?

By determinism is meant simply this: the recognition that if natural law governs all that happens, it must certainly govern how I act. It governs all the molecular processes of which I am made. Determinism is an expression of faith in natural cause. An individual’s behavior is the necessary effect resulting from the entire constellation of molecular processes, genetics and experience that an individual suffers in his or her existence. So it is determined by these.

Seen theologically determinism is equivalent to the notion ‘we are in the hands of god’. What we do is God’s will. God determines. When Einstein (1879-1955) used the word, God, he meant natural law.

The existence of God is the analogue of the existence of natural law.

The existence of evil is the analogue of the existence of free will.

By free will is meant the everyday experience of making choices. We feel we are freely choosing. We know the difference between coerced decisions and free choice. Free will is behavior without coercion. If you could have done otherwise, then what it is that you chose to do is by free will. Within free will should be included inspiration – something that arises as intimately and freely as will.

To do evil exemplifies free choice. The choice of good or evil is an act of free will. Christianity says you have free will to choose salvation. (Albeit there is the coercion of hell if you don’t.)

So the problem of Epicurus in secular form might be:

If everything is determined,

    you cannot choose your actions.

If you could choose actions,

    not everything would be determined.

Therefore determinism and free will

    cannot both exist.

But they do both exist; one an intellectual inference, the other a matter of experience. How is this possible? Lactantius had the answer: The feeling of free will is the gift of the deterministic world.

This idea is explored in the next posting.





2 responses to “God Determines”

  1. Thank you for a brilliant article that provokes careful thinking into the matters of divine. Two issues I would set on the table:

    1. Neither David Hume nor Lactantius, who put this argument in Epicurus mouth, were after existence of God per se but existence of a benevolent God. Hume and Epicurus believed in god(s) but set out to refute that god(s) interferes in human affairs. Lactantius quoted Epicurus as denying that gods have negative emotions such as anger. I think both Hume and Epicurus are misunderstood.

    2. It seems contrary to Epicurus to hold such position. I have failed to find a primary or secondary source that suggested that Epicurus entertained such an opinion. I am skeptical but open for correction.

    I would like to know your views.

  2. Thank you for your knowledgable comments on the historical context regarding Epicurus and Hume. Hume’s attribution of the paradox to Epicurus never seemed reasonable to me. Epicurus lived in times far removed from the Judeo-Christian concept of a God so why would he have questioned His existence?

    But that the paradox can have a secular embodiment was what interested me. I don’t believe that there is a God.