Anthology Extract Commentary : Edexcel Paper 1 Extract 1: J.L. Mackie ‘Evil and Omnipotence’ (1977)

Taken from: The Philosophy of Religion, edited by B Mitchell (Oxford, OUP, 1977),
Chapter V, Evil and Omnipotence, pp. 92–104.

NOTE: Copyright issues may come into play at this point. So what you will find below are the FIRST and LAST couple of sentences of the section that is commented on followed by the commentary itself (though sometimes entire passages are quoted). If anyone finds this commentary useful, feel free to cut and paste the text of Evil and Omnipotence and combine it with these notes.

The full extract can be found HERE.

The PHILOSOPHY DUNGEON website also features a superb commentary on Mackie’s article that can be accessed HERE. So this blog entry should only be regarded as complementing what they have produced.


Biographical information is almost always irrelevant when it comes answering examination questions on issues that philosophers and theologians have contributed to, but in the case of J.L. Mackie (1917 – 1981), it is important to know from the outset that he was a sceptical, atheist philosopher. So in this famous article, he is not really drawing attention to problems to do with conceptions of God’s omnipotence that arise in relation to evil in the hope that someone will eventually come along and resolve them. Instead, his aim is to demonstrate that they make it unlikely that the God of classical theism actually exists.

The traditional arguments for the existence of God have been fairly thoroughly criticized by philosophers. But the theologian can, if he wishes, accept this criticism. He can admit that no rational proof of God’s existence is possible. And he can still retain all that is essential to his position, by holding that God’s existence is known in some other non-rational way.

Religious experiences may be what Mackie had in mind here. For example, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James observes that, “the words ‘mysticism’ and ‘mystical’ are often used as terms of mere reproach, to throw at any opinion which we regard as vague and vast and sentimental and without a base in either facts or logic.”

I think, however, that a more telling criticism can be made by way of the traditional problem of evilFrom these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible.

Mackie is referring here to what is known as the ‘inconsistent triad’ – in other words,  the logical problem of evil features three ideas but only two of them can be true. As evil – both moral and natural – is clearly a feature of this world, either God is not omnipotent (i.e. He cannot stop evil), or God is not omnibenevolent (i.e. He does not love us or care about us (and other living creatures that can feel pain) enough to stop evil. Some philosophers may wish to additionally argue that because God is omniscient (all-knowing) , this is also incompatible with the existence of evil in the world, because God must have known in advance what was going to happen. One example is Bertrand Russell (see below).

A. Adequate Solutions

Now once the problem is fully stated it is clear that it can be solved, in the sense that the problem will not arise if one gives up at least one of the propositions
that constitute it. If you are prepared to say that God is not wholly good, or not quite omnipotent, or that evil does not exist, or that good is not opposed to the kind of evil that exists, or that there are limits to what an omnipotent thing can do, then the problem of evil will not arise for you
Many have agreed with Pope that disorder is harmony not understood, and that partial evil is universal good. Whether any of these views is true is, or course, another question. But each of them gives an adequate solution of the problem of evil in the sense that if you accept it this problem does not arise for you, though you may, of course, have other problems to face.

‘If you are prepared to say that God is not wholly good’ – Here Mackie might be alluding to Deism. a view that holds that God does not interfere with the functioning of the natural world in any way, allowing it to simply run according to the laws of nature that he configured when He created all things. And so, if intervention is integral to the notion of God as good, insofar as a good God would not allow Himself to be a bystander when it comes to evil, then in Deist theology, He might be regarded as lacking in omnibenevolence.  Deism as a way of envisaging the relationship of God to the natural world has proven to be persistent in its appeal since it first emerged in 17th Century Europe. Famous subscribers include Thomas Jefferson (the third US President), astronaut Neil Armstrong, Antony Flew (in his later years), and the musician Nick Cave.

In the very first line of this song, Cave reveals that his conception of God is akin to that found in Deism.

Although this is almost certainly not what Mackie had in mind, two other candidates for a God who is not ‘wholly good’ are the ‘demiurge’, and the supreme but hidden God that are both referred to in what is known as Gnostic writing. Gnosticism (the word is derived from the Greek term ‘gnosis’, which refers to ‘having knowledge’ in the sense of direct, intuitive insight into the nature of reality) is an umbrella term that describes a collection of religious ideas and systems that took shape in the late 1st and 2nd Century AD among Jewish and early Christian sects. Gnostic ontology distinguished between a supreme, hidden God and a malign, lesser deity known as ‘the Demiurge’ (sometimes associated with the capricious, punitive and unpredictable Yahweh of the Old Testament), who is responsible for creating a material world that is regarded as flawed and inherently evil. Both deities therefore hardly seem possessed of the attributes of goodness and omnibenevolence, the demiurge for obvious reasons, and the supreme but remote God for remaining at a distance from the physical realm.

With regard to Mackie’s discussion of omnipotence, and specifically his reference to suggestions that God may be ‘not quite omnipotent’, and those who deny the possibility of God’s omnipotence, or qualify the meaning of the term by limiting it, or who, again, acknowledge ‘quite a number of things that an omnipotent being cannot do’, he may have had in mind a number of theological perspectives when it comes to this divine attribute.

For example, within the school of thought known as Process Theology , as advanced by A.N. Whitehead  (1861- 1947) and Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000), it has been suggested that God may not be omnipotent as has traditionally been claimed. Instead, as Whitehead puts it, God is ‘the great companion – the fellow sufferer who understands’. So God is powerful enough to create a universe with us in it and can affect His creation through his persuasive powers to try to get us to behave properly, but He is not powerful enough to prevent evil. God is also said to be part of His creation and grows and develops with it. So when we suffer He suffers too. To a certain extent this is reflected in the teaching of the Incarnation – that God allowed himself to become human through Jesus in order to redeem us by suffering and dying for our sins on the cross.

Peter Geach has further proposed that God is ‘almighty’ i.e. He has much more power over anything than any other living creature rather than the power to do anything. However, it could be argued that even an ‘almighty’ God would still be able to do a lot more about evil.

Yet another conjecture about omnipotence has been made by Alvin Plantinga. He argues that God might deliberately choose to limit his powers under certain circumstances e.g. so as to preserve human free-will. However, to suggest that God would deliberately limit his powers suggests that this is part of a plan He has. And the Russian novelist Dostoevsky argued that whatever that plan is, if it involves the suffering of innocent children it is unacceptable.

A particular problem is raised by the issue of whether an omnipotent God should be capable of making a stone too heavy for Him to lift. If He can’t then He cannot be fully omnipotent because there is something He cannot do. But if He can, His omnipotence is also restricted because He will have made something that He does not have the power to lift. However, it may be the case that the range of God’s omnipotence is restricted to things that are logically possible, If so, this might resolve the paradox of the stone if the idea of making a stone too heavy to lift is self-contradictory and logically impossible.

When it comes to Mackie’s brief mention of the notions that evil ‘does not exist’ or is some kind of ‘illusion’, just something in the mind that seems real to us, one thinks of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science movement, who claimed that evil is, indeed, something unreal. She maintained that ‘…the only reality of sin, sickness and death is the awful fact that unrealities seem real to human, erring belief.’ For example, a boil is something that ‘…simply manifests, through inflammation and swelling, a belief in pain, and this belief is called a boil.’ Needless to say, for a person in a state of extreme physical or psychological torment, being told this may hardly bring much comfort or reassurance, as pain and suffering certainly do seem objectively real to the person experiencing them. Perhaps the best that can be said for this perspective is that the psychological distress that accompanies physical discomfort may possibly be alleviated by adopting this perspective.

Augustine too, came close to this position when he wrote that, ‘Nothing evil exists in itself, but only as an evil aspect of some actual entity.’ From this, he goes on to enquire, ‘What, after all, is anything we call evil except the privation of the good (privatio boni)? ‘ According to Augustine, a privation occurs when some good is absent which a thing should have. A stone that lacks eyes has not suffered a privation because it is not meant to have them (unless that stone happens to be a Pet Rock). But a seagull without wings could be said to have suffered a privation because it should have them. In other words, unlike Baker Eddy, Augustine is affirming that certainly is real. But it is a sort of defect, an absence. Just as blindness is a defect (an absence of sight), so evil is an absence of good.

But often enough these adequate solutions are only almost adopted….In addition, therefore, to adequate solutions, we must recognize unsatisfactory inconsistent solutions, in which there is only a half-hearted or temporary rejection of one of the propositions which together constitute the problem. In these, one of the constituent propositions is explicitly rejected, but it is covertly re-asserted or assumed elsewhere in the system.

Augustine further suggested that evil is part of the natural balance of the universe. Just as a painting might contain light and dark shades to create a striking artistic effect, so the universe is like a work of art. From our perspective there might appear to be too much unjust pain and suffering. But if we have this point of view, we are like somebody who can only see the shadows in a painting. From the point of view of the ‘artist’ (God) all this evil and suffering eventually gets balanced out. Why? Because sinners eventually get punished and justice is done (Augustine maintained that all evil – both natural and moral – is a punishment for sin). And so the harmony of the universe gets restored. This is possibly close to what Pope also had in mind with his claim that ‘disorder is harmony misunderstood’. The fuller quotation from his An Essay on Man is as follows:

“All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, ‘Whatever is, is right.”

In response, Mackie suggests that some authors of theodicies are aware ‘in other contexts’ of their deficiencies, though his point that ‘illusion’ and ‘privation’ are themselves evils sounds more like something that a critic of theodicy such as Mackie himself might say. It is also unclear who – aside from Pope – these ‘thinkers’ are, and whether they are being wilfully disingenuous or remain oblivious to the inconsistencies in their theological speculations. Perhaps one such ‘inconsistency’ can be found with those who have argued that God may not, in fact, be all-powerful, whilst seeking to maintain that He is still powerful enough to create a universe. Additionally, Augustine’s insistence that all evil is sin or a punishment for sin implies that it may, after all, be something more than a mere deficiency, or that privation itself is, indeed, an evil, at least insofar as it provokes divine retribution.

The ‘naturalistic fallacy’ is famous in philosophy for illustrating the gap that exists between an ‘Is’, a statement of fact, and an ‘Ought’, a statement with moral content.  For example, it is well known that many people commit adultery. But no matter how many genuine cases of adultery we might encounter, none of them will reveal whether people who commit adultery ought not to, and therefore some kind of additional justification is required if this is what we wish to argue. The problem is that transitions from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ can often be detected in moral argumentation without any such justification being supplied. David Hume expressed this problem in a memorable passage from his A Treatise on Human Nature as follows:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it’s necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

This is really about arguing from facts to values. In Mackie’s case, he cites the assumption that natural selection must be something ‘good’ as an instance of a value in need of justification getting somehow derived from a fact. Similarly, from the fact that harmony and regularity are features of the universe, an assumption is made by Pope that these features transcend and outshine any apparent sense of ‘discord’ that we detect in the world, simply because, from our limited perspective, we are unable to appreciate the bigger picture.

By being closely attentive to Pope’s couplet, Mackie additionally demonstrates that this assumption is, in any case, problematic, as the phrase ‘partial evil’ is ambiguous. It could mean either that any kind of evil is real but insignificant when set against the backdrop of a creation that is emphatically good, or it could mean evil is entirely illusory, as Baker Eddy and Christian Scientists believe. A similar tension can also arguably be discerned in Augustine, as it is not quite clear whether God’s punishment puts right any disharmony in the universe, or whether there was never any disharmony to begin with, though the balance of probability suggests the former. Either way, for Mackie, these inconsistencies render the solutions inadequate and unsatisfactory, as they depend on the reassertion of a divine attribute which gets qualified elsewhere in the same theodicy. In the examples discussed, it seems to be both God’s goodness and omnipotence that are at stake, as His creation should express these attributes fully if it is, indeed, orderly and harmonious.

B. Fallacious Solutions
Besides these half-hearted solutions, which explicitly reject but implicitly assert one of the constituent propositions, there are definitely fallacious solutions which explicitly maintain all of the constituent propositions, but implicitly reject at least one of them in the course of the argument that explains away the problem of evil
And this account of logic is clearly inconsistent with the view that God is bound by logical necessities – unless it is possible for an omnipotent being to bind himself, an issue which we shall consider later, when we come to the Paradox of Omnipotence. This solution of the problem of evil cannot, therefore, be consistently adopted along with the view that logic is itself created by God.

One view of the attribute of omnipotence is that it means that God can do absolutely anything; He can even perform logically impossible feats like making a square circle. This is because – as God is the inventor of logical laws – He is not bound by them. Most (though not all) philosophers consider this to have been Descartes’ understanding of omnipotence. For example, Harry Frankfurt ascribes to Descartes the belief that God is ‘a being for whom the logically impossible is possible’. However, a majority of theists tend to side with Aquinas on this issue. Aquinas wrote that, ‘God can do all things that are possible’. So for Aquinas, logically impossible actions are not real actions at all. Similarly, C.S. Lewis contended that examples of logically impossible actions are just ‘meaningless combinations of words’.

The ‘parallel….ethical view’ that Mackie mentions in passing is the Euthyphro dilemma (see the course notes on Religion and Morality). In doing so he is alluding to the fact that on the one hand, Descartes’ understanding of omnipotence entails that God’s actions must be completely arbitrary if they owe no fidelity to logic, something that may not sit well with theists who would regard divine activity as something purposeful rather than random. On the other hand, if God is bound by logical laws then He effectively becomes less worthy of worship. We could therefore bypass him if we wanted to and simply revere logic and rationality instead.

But, secondly, this solution denies that evil is opposed to good in our original sense…. I feel sure that no theists would be content to regard God’s goodness as analogous to this – as if what he supports were not the good but the better, and as if he had the paradoxical aim that all things should be better than other things.

In this paragraph, Mackie is drawing attention to the fact that if the existence of good necessarily requires the existence of evil, then they must in some sense be complementary rather than opposing forces, something that again does not chime very well with traditional theism, which envisages the universe as a cosmic battleground between these two potencies, so that good will always ‘eliminate evil as far as it can’, and evil will do the same if it gets a chance to. Additionally, as ‘counterparts’, these qualities cannot therefore be regarded as inherent to anything they describe comparatively. As such, they are relative notions. They are, in other words, like the terms ‘great’ and ‘small’. For example, actor Rory McCann who plays ‘The Hound’ in the series Game of Thrones is ‘great’ (as in ‘tall’) in comparison to Peter Dinklage, the smallest member of the cast, but ‘small’ in comparison with KIng Kong. Moreover, if this analogy is, nevertheless, correct, it would be hardly acceptable to theists, for as Mackie points out, we would then have to regard God as merely upholding goodness as something that is only comparatively better than evil, which seems odd.

This point is obscured by the fact that ‘great’ and ‘small’ seem to have an absolute as well as a relative sense…In neither case are greatness and smallness both necessary counterparts and mutually opposed forces or possible objects for support or attack.

Additionally, if ‘good’ and ‘evil’ can be thought of in an absolutist sense, problems still arise for this solution. In terms of ‘great’, for example, one might envisage the universe continuing to expand as a result of the Big Bang up to a point of maximal greatness. Similarly, one can think of the world as one in which good continues to grow (perhaps as a consequence of the expansion of the Kingdom of God) until a state of absolute goodness reigns everywhere. But this would then mean that neither goodness nor greatness actually require evil or smallness in order for them to be good or great, which therefore defeats the whole point of this theodicy. As Mackie puts it, ‘either quality could exist without the other.’

It may be replied that good and evil are necessary counterparts in the same way as any quality and its logical opposite: redness can occur, it is suggested, only if non-redness also occurs….If so, the principle that a term must have an opposite would belong only to our language or to our thought and would not be an ontological principle, and, correspondingly, the rule that good cannot exist without evil would not state a logical necessity of a sort that God would just have to put up with. God might have made everything good, though we should not have noticed it if he had.

Note that a logical opposite is not the same as a polar opposite (examples of polar opposites are rich and poor, hot and cold). The term logical opposite refers to the smallest change that can be made to a statement to render it not true. For example, “All” becomes “less than all”, which could range from 0.1-99.9%, while the logical opposite of “hot” is “not hot”, rather than cold. Contrastingly, polar opposites are complete opposites, like north and south, love and hate.

Looked at from this angle, except for when evil is conceived of as a privation, good and evil are not ‘necessary counterparts’. They are not logical opposites like redness and non-redness. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that they could be thought of as such. Even so, they would, for Mackie, only be logical opposites in a linguistic, rather than metaphysical sense. This is because there is no logical impossibility in everything being red (or good, or evil), though if this were the case, we would then not notice, as we only assign words to what we perceive, so that in world without any contrast to redness, the word ‘red’ would not be a requisite part of our vocabulary. But this is not what this theodicy claims. For it to work as a solution, both good and evil must be part of the fabric of reality rather than just linguistic categories. Note that Mackie’s suggestion that an entirely good creation is not a logical impossibility, that it is an option that was open to God, but one that He did not pursue, dovetails with his observations about the free-will defence, that appear later in his article (see below).

But, finally, even if we concede that this is an ontological principle, it will provide a solution for the problem of evil only if one is prepared to say, ‘Evil exists,
but only just enough evil to serve as the counterpart of good’. I doubt whether any theist will accept this. After all, the ontological requirement that non-redness should occur would be satisfied even if all the universe, except for a minute speck, were red, and, if there were a corresponding requirement for evil as a counterpart to good, a minute dose of evil would presumably do. But theists are not usually willing to say, in all contexts, that all the evil that occurs is a minute and necessary dose.

Ontology can be defined as the study of that which is. For example, in Christian ontology, there is a physical universe, a heaven and a hell (plus purgatory for Catholics). Here, Mackie observes that, if good and evil are, indeed, part of what is, only a miniscule amount of evil would (perhaps should) be sufficient to service the proposal that one requires the other. But theists generally do not think of good and evil in this way. For example, evil must be a far more substantial force that is opposed to God for any cosmic struggle between these two ontological realities to make any sense. It is also arguable, according to the terms of reference of the evidential problem of evil (which is not discussed by Mackie), that what does appear to exist ontologically is actually an excess of gratuitous, seemingly pointless evil.

2. ‘Evil is necessary as a means to good.’ … Unless a favourable answer can be given to this question, the suggestion that evil is necessary as a means to good solves the problem of evil only by denying one of its constituent propositions, either that God is omnipotent or that ‘omnipotent’ means what it says.

Mackie frames this theodicy in terms of causation. Stated bluntly, evil causes good., and so without at least some evil, you wouldn’t get good. Evil is therefore necessary from what is known as a soteriological perspective. The term ‘soteriology’ here refers to teachings about salvation in world faiths. For example, according to Buddhist teaching, reality is impermanent, and so because things change, suffering is inevitable. Buddhist soteriology therefore focuses on putting a stop to craving, our deeply rooted psychological tendency to wish for things to be other than they are. This can be achieved through meditation. Do a lot of meditation and salvation/liberation from suffering can be achieved.

The Irenean theodicy provides another example: encounters with evil are necessary, as without them, the transformative process of soul-making would not be possible.

For Mackie, if one can achieve a certain end, in this case salvation, only through a certain means (e.g. soul-making), then what we have here is essentially a causal relationship. But a consequence of this must be that – if God’s salvific aims for us can only be brought about in such a manner – then He must be as much bound by causal laws as we are, and so He cannot be omnipotent in the way that this attribute has been traditionally understood by theists, as being all-powerful is usually taken to mean that God instigates causal laws and is not limited by them (as demonstrated by His ability to perform miracles, which involves the suspension of such laws). And so the only sense in which the traditional understanding of omnipotence can be retained is if God somehow deliberately chooses to be bound by the causal laws that He has created.

3. The universe is better with some evil in it than it could be if there were no evil.’ ….Alternatively, it may be worked out in connection with the notion of progress, that the best possible organization of the universe will not be static , but progressive, that the gradual overcoming of evil by good is really a finer thing than would be the eternal unchallenged supremacy of good.

Is the famous piano solo in this song an example of what Mackie means when he states that, ‘…in a musical work, for example, there may occur discords which somehow add to the beauty of the work as a whole’?

Mackie is surely alluding here to a strand of the Augustinian theodicy that has already been discussed above, according to which it is suggested that God is like a cosmic artisan and the universe is His canvas. He deploys painterly contrasts of light and dark for their overall aesthetic effect, something which we are unable to appreciate because we cannot see this totality, especially If we happen to reside in a ‘dark’ corner of creation, one afflicted with evil or suffering, or if we are oppressed with personal difficulties, which induce a kind of myopia in terms of how we perceive the overall reality in which we participate.

As an aside (and continuing with the brief musical interlude), this is a leitmotif that the Canadian singer-songwriter and painter Joni Mitchell appears to explore in the lyrics her song ‘Shadows and Light’, though in a more ambiguous manner:

Every picture has it’s shadows
And it has some source of light
Blindness, blindness and sight
The perils of benefactors
The blessings of parasites
Blindness, blindness and sight
Threatened by all things
Devil of cruelty
Drawn to all things
Devil of delight
Mythical devil of the ever-present laws
Governing blindness, blindness and sight

Suntans in reservation dining rooms
Pale miners in their lantern rays
Night, night and day
Hostage smiles on presidents
Freedom scribbled in the subway
It’s like night, night and day
Threatened by all things
God of cruelty
Drawn to all things
God of delight
Mythical God of the everlasting laws
Governing day, day and night

In either case, this solution usually starts from the assumption that the evil whose existence gives rise to the problem of evil is primarily what is called physical
evil, that is to say, pain
But even if evil (2) could be explained in this way, it is fairly clear that there would be third order evils contrasting with this third order good: and we should be well on the way to an infinite regress, where the solution of a problem of evil, stated in terms of evil (n), indicated the existence of an evil (n+1), and a further problem to be solved.

In order to expose the weaknesses of this theodicy, Mackie distinguishes between different ‘orders’ or categories of good and evil, that are hierarchically arranged. First of all, there are the raw experiences of physical sensations of pain and pleasure. Mackie refers to such experiences in two ways, as ‘first order’ evil and good, and as evil and good (1). In doing so, he puts the reader of his article a little in mind of Bentham, who argued that we have all been hard-wired psychologically by nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

These sensations are ‘necessary’ for supporters of this theodicy because they are character-building (or destroying) in an Aristotelian sense, through the manner in which they provoke us to take action. For example, confronted with the sensation of fear in the face of a physical threat, courage (rather than cowardice or recklessness) may be cultivated, while the discomfort caused by the sight of someone else’s suffering may elicit empathy or a callous disregard for that person’s plight. These are what Mackie calls ‘second order’ goods and evils. When things go well, a second order good or good (2) is enhanced at the expense of a second order evil. For such transformations to occur, first order evils are therefore logically necessary, as without them character development of this sort would not be possible. By implication then, second order goods are therefore more important than first order goods and evils.

For Mackie, this theodicy is one that he considers to be ‘subtle’, as it allows that first order evil should exist without this impacting on God’s omnipotence. The ‘best of all possible worlds ‘ (a phrase coined by the philosopher Leibniz, who insisted that we are, indeed, living in such a world) is therefore one that must contain this form of evil. Any encounter with it is designed to promote good (2). And as an omnibenevolent God would always be concerned to maximise goodness, an additional, higher order good, which Mackie calls good (3), enshrines God’s will in this respect and completes the overall picture.

Subtle though it may be, he nevertheless does not consider this theodicy to be successful, for a number of reasons. First of all, the benevolence that is expressed through good (2), and even more so (a fortiori) through good (3), might be seen in a crudely Benthamite manner: these two allegedly higher goods are still really just designed to evoke increases of feelings of pleasure and reductions of feelings of pain. If so, why bother with goods (2) and (3) at all? God should, instead, cut to the chase, use his omnipotence to eradicate all unpleasant sensations, and make everyone happy.

Mackie goes on to state that theists who object to this criticism can do so with ‘some plausibility’. He does not say why, but one reason might be that it would then seem that God must be some sort of cosmic hedonist. Furthermore, if He made us in such a way that we are compelled to seek pleasure and avoid pain, this leaves little room for free will in our lives, as our behaviour would then be designed to serve what Bentham called these two ‘sovereign masters’.*

The second objection that Mackie discusses is that this theodicy requires the divine attribute of omnibenevolence to be re-defined. An all-loving God is now no longer interested in abolishing or minimising evil. Instead, He is simply about promoting goodness. Some theists might find this ‘disturbing’, as it would seem to additionally entail that God again ‘binds himself’ in relation to omnipotence when it comes to His power to suppress or completely annihilate evil.

Mackie considers his next criticism to be the most decisive. He first of all points out that if there are second order goods, there must also be second order evils. One example might be when we behave in an inappropriately cowardly manner in response to an experience that arouses fear in us. The fear would be an instance of evil (1) and our cowardly response to whatever fearful situation we find ourselves in would be an example of evil (2). Unfortunately, this theodicy only provides an explanation for why forms evil (1) exist. When the ground of debate shifts to a consideration of forms of evil (2), the theist is once again obliged to come up with an explanation as to why an all-powerful, all-loving good permits the cultivation of second order evils, nasty character traits like, say, malevolence, cruelty and callousness.

This state of affairs persists, even when a still higher good, good (3) is invoked as an explanation for evil (2). For example, if the purpose of it is to inspire the bringing about of a world where second order goods like ‘benevolence’ are ultimately preeminent, the kind of world that God, as the ultimate source and embodiment of goodness champions, then there would still also have to be a cosmic source and personification of evil, evil (3), that is working to promote, say, selfishness. For Mackie, unless some ‘fresh notions’ are introduced into this theodicy (such as free-will, which he will discuss next), this leads to an infinite regress, where further goods are appealed to explain the latest instance of evil, goods and evils (4), (5), or (6) etc.

Alternatively (though Mackie does not consider this possibility), the buck might eventually stop with two kinds of opposing ontological realities that are forever opposed to each other. An ancient, no longer extant but once major religion called Manichaeism, dating from the third century AD, was based on this kind of assumption, namely, that the world is an arena for a cosmic struggle between evenly matched forces of light and darkness, or goodness and evil. In this instance, the good power is not omnipotent but merely powerful, so this is an ontology that Christian theists are hardly going to find acceptable.

*This point could also be used to criticise Bentham’s brand of utilitarianism, on the grounds that it is overly deterministic.

The surrealist American film and tv director David Lynch frequently explores supernatural, Manichean themes in his work, especially in his extraordinary series Twin Peaks, where the characters often lead conflicted double lives, or encounter their sinister doppelgangers.

4.‘Evil is due to human free will.’….Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good.

Mackie now begins to elaborate on his earlier mention of ‘new notions’ that might allow the theist to sidestep the third criticism of the previous theodicy. The main one to be discussed here is, of course, that of free-will, and specifically, what is known as ‘the free will defence’.

In the 4th edition of his Philosophy of Religion, John Hick explains that ‘…Christian thought has always seen moral evil as related to human freedom and responsibility. To be a person is to be a finite center of freedom, a (relatively) self-directing agent responsible for one’s own decisions. This involves being free to act wrongly as well as rightly. There can therefore be no certainty in advance that a genuinely free moral agent will never choose amiss. Consequently…the possibility of wrong-doing is logically inseparable from the creation of finite persons, and to say that God should not have created beings who might sin amounts to saying that God should not have created people.’

According to Mackie’s own terms of reference, freedom in this theodicy becomes a third order good, one that can be then be deployed to justify the existence of second order evils. For example, malice and cruelty are now logically necessary’, as they are a consequence of God having given us the ability to choose to exhibit these character traits. Similarly, when we behave with ‘sympathy’ and heroism’, these qualities are not simply compelled by God. He does not make us act in these ways. Instead, they follow from the fact that He has created us to be self-directing moral agents, the owners of our own moral decisions as it were. So when we choose to do evil thing it is we, rather than God, who are responsible for them. Throughout it is assumed that conferring free will of this kind on humans is so important and indeed ‘valuable’ that it justifies allowing the expression of any kind of second order evil.

However, there is another underlying assumption here that Mackie wishes to challenge, namely, the notion that God was faced with a binary choice between making ‘innocent automata’ who lack free-will but would always do the right thing, or the creation of a world with free beings who sometimes choose to commit evil acts. Instead, he thinks that God had a third option. He could have made us so that we could freely choose to good things on each and every occasion. That such an option was open to God is revealed by the fact that if it is not logically impossible for us to choose to something morally praiseworthy on one or several occasions, then it is also not logically impossible for us to do so every time, without exception.

Mackie’s ingenious suggestion has become quite famous in terms of the subsequent theological discussion that it has given rise to. It is therefore a prime candidate for making an appearance in a ‘Clarify’ examination question, which is why it has been analysed and evaluated in a previous blog entry*. The following three paragraphs are therefore simply repeated here:

‘Mackie’s point appears to be well-made. For example, if a student goes through an inner struggle on one occasion when they are required to produce a piece of homework for their Religious Studies teacher, but end up reluctantly completing the task when they would much rather have been doing something else, then they may be thought of as having made a free choice which will hopefully meet with the approval of that teacher. Even though they could be under pressure to succeed academically from their parents and educators, and may face a disciplinary sanction if they do not hand in their essay on time, at the end of the day they are not being forced to do so. And yet they did the right thing of their own volition. Mackie’s point is that God could have designed us to do the right thing on each and every occasion, not just one, to always do our homework in other words.

In response to Mackie, it has been suggested that his third scenario does not constitute a genuine form of freedom, for we are still effectively God’s puppets. As John Hick has written, ‘Such “freedom” would be comparable to that of patients acting out a series of posthypnotic suggestions [or, one might add, TV characters acting from a script without being aware of doing so] : they appear to themselves to be free, but their volitions have actually been predetermined by the will of the hypnotist. Thus, it is suggested, while God could have created such beings, there would have been no point in doing so.’

Assuming that there is also a prior inner struggle on the part of those who nevertheless always go on to do the right thing, their actions could still be said to be not freely chosen because there is no real opportunity to make immoral decisions, to follow through and act on their worst impulses. Plus, as Richard Swinburne has pointed out, God did not make a ‘toy world’ in which our free choices do not really matter, because such a place would not be truly meaningful. Instead, a world where we have a genuine opportunity to inflict real harm on others is the only one that makes any sense as far as our moral decisions are concerned, which also give us an opportunity to damn ourselves through what we do.’

*Mackie also echoes Kant’s insistence that there is no logical impossibility in us always telling the truth (see HERE for more on that).

If it is replied that this objection is absurd…I conclude that to make this solution plausible two different senses of ‘freedom’ must be confused, one sense which will justify the view that freedom is a third order good, more valuable than other goods would be without it, and another sense, sheer randomness, to prevent us from ascribing to God a decision to make men such that they sometimes go wrong when he might have made them such that they would always freely go right.

Mackie’s argument here is as follows:

  1. God is the creator of human beings. He makes them ‘as they are’.
  2. As such, their actions are determined by their God-given character.
  3. But if this is the case, then God is still ultimately responsible for these actions. So the theodicy fails because it does not establish that human beings actually do have the kind of free-will that makes them rather than God morally blameworthy for their ‘wrong choices’.
  4. On the other hand, if free choices are not determined by either God or the will of each human that He has created, then they must be completely random.
  5. If so, the theodicy still fails because human beings cannot be held responsible for actions that they have not willed.
  6. Plus, as random actions have no moral significance, the freedom that accompanies this randomness also cannot be morally meaningful, and cannot therefore be held to be a third order good that justifies the existence of evil.

This theodicy therefore ‘confuses’ the two variants of freedom mentioned above, and neither of these can, in any case, be deployed to resolve the problem of evil successfully.

Overall, the only kind of freedom that would get God ‘off the hook’ for evil must be a kind of freedom that can only be expressed through randomness. But this is not the sort of freedom that theists believe He has given us. Theists would say that the kind of third-order freedom God has conferred on humans must be of a sort that is related to our character, otherwise, we could not be held accountable for our evil or sinful behaviour. But then, as the author of human nature, this makes God ultimately responsible for what we do. Bertrand Russell forthrightly expressed this issue of ultimate responsibility when he wrote that, ‘If I were going to beget a child knowing that the child was going to be a homicidal maniac, I should be responsible for his crimes. If God knew in advance the sins of which man would be guilty, He was clearly responsible for all the consequences of those sins when He decided to create man’.

So the kind of residual freedom that we are left with in this sense, only resolves the problem of evil in a manner that retains God’s omnipotence, if He pursues Mackie’s suggested third option, and creates us to freely choose the good whenever a moral decision has to be made, an option that, as we have seen, might also be problematic, as it makes God seem heavy handed in the matter, more like a stage hypnotist than a master craftsman.

This criticism is sufficient to dispose of this solution…The present solution of the problem of evil, then, can be maintained only in the form that God has made men so free that he cannot control their wills.

Not content to highlight the profound logical weaknesses of the free-will defence that are revealed when we consider the sort of freedom that God has apparently given us, Mackie now attempts to drive some further nails into the coffin of this theodicy that are also to do with the attribute of omnipotence.

Another aspect of God’s relationship to free-will is that, for us to be truly free, even He must be unable to control us, or at least, He deliberately stops Himself from doing so, even when we are about to commit evil acts. Mackie argues that this latter possibility is a non-starter for two reasons: first of all, it again entails that freedom is a third order good which trumps all second order forms of evil, which in turn must mean that these evils are not really evils at all. This way of envisaging second order sins is one that Mackie thinks theists would resist, because for them, sinful acts are inherently evil. The lack of intervention on God’s part that follows from God binding himself is also inconsistent with what He gets up to in the Bible. For example, in the Exodus story, He intervenes to cause the waters of the Red Sea to drown an evil Pharaoh’s army and prevent them from re-capturing the fleeing Israelites, and in Numbers 22 He sends an angel of the Lord to stop someone called Balaam from following a ‘reckless’ path. For Mackie, this leaves us facing the prospect that God really is unable to control the wills of humans, as it is the only remaining option. However, the adoption of this view has further implications as far as His omnipotence is concerned.

This leads us to what I call the Paradox of Omnipotence: can an omnipotent being make things which he cannot subsequently control?….Even on determinist principles the answers ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ are equally irreconcilable with God’s omnipotence.

The term ‘paradox’ usually gets applied to situations in which opposite or contradictory truths both seem valid. In the case of omnipotence, such a paradox arises when we ask whether God is capable of deploying this attribute to perform actions of such a kind that they would then entail that He cannot actually be omnipotent. For example, if He can make things that He cannot control, this means that He must not be all-powerful, because after He has done so there is now something that exists over which he is unable to exert any power. On the other hand, if He is unable to create something that He cannot then control, He also lacks omnipotence. And so by thinking through the implications of what it is to be an omnipotent being, we discover a contradiction, expressed through imagining a scenario in which it is not possible for a being to continue to retain their omnipotence in exercising that omnipotence. This is the nub of the paradox: there seems to be something that an omnipotent being cannot do.

The Paradox of Omnipotence is normally explained with the help of a more specific example, or rather a different question, one that Mackie omits to mention, in which it is asked, ‘Can God make a stone too heavy for Him to lift?’ If the answer to this question is ‘yes’ then we have found something that God cannot do. He cannot lift the stone. If the answer is ‘no’, then there is something else He cannot do: create a stone like this.

Mackie almost certainly has C.S. Lewis in mind when he insists that the conundrum he has described is a ‘proper question’. As we saw above, Lewis thought that God’s omnipotence is not of a sort that allows Him to perform logically impossible actions, like creating a four-sided triangle, or a stone that weighs too much for Him to lift. But Mackie is arguing that God is not required to do something logically impossible here, so that the question he is posing does not simply consist of a meaningless combination of words, as his example of the mechanic demonstrates.

This example then prompts Mackie to consider the Paradox of Omnipotence from the perspective of theological determinism. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Theological determinism is the view that God determines every event that occurs’. Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin are then cited as examples of Christian thinkers who are considered to have aligned themselves with this position. It is a doctrine that has also prompted much discussion and debate within Islam as well as Christianity, as many have been troubled by the implications of God being omniscient (an attribute which gets foregrounded in these discussions). For if God knows everything then He knows what we are going to do before we do it. In which case, our actions cannot be free and we cannot be judged by God on the basis of them. God’s foreknowledge determines all our ‘choices’ and makes them inevitable.

Mackie’s concern here is not to attempt to reconcile God’s foreknowledge with free-will. Rather, he wishes to show that even if God determines everything, the issue raised by the Paradox of Omnipotence still arises. The question still applies because if God cannot control what He has determined, for example by making an alteration to the trajectory that something is following at a later stage, then He cannot be omnipotent. Alternately, if He can intervene in this way, He still lacks omnipotence because He has failed to determine everything without any subsequent need for an intervention.

Before suggesting a solution of this paradox, I would point out that there is a parallel Paradox of Sovereignty….What the paradox shows is that we cannot ascribe to any continuing institution legal sovereignty in an inclusive sense.

Mackie now attempts to resolve the Paradox of Omnipotence by way of an analogy. A sovereign is someone who possesses or is held to possess the power to pass laws over a given population. In a democracy, in theory this power resides with the people themselves, as they choose their leaders through an electoral process. These leaders then enact laws through acts of parliament. A Paradox of Sovereignty arises when we start to think about whether a present parliament could pass a law that forbids a future parliament from doing something, like turning banks into non-profit organisations, or perhaps preventing that future parliament from repealing (getting rid of) a previous law (or laws) that constrain them from legislating in whatever way they might wish to. If a present parliament could do something like this, then it effectively means that parliament will no longer be sovereign at some point in the future. But if they cannot, this means that they are not truly sovereign here and now.

An example from real life may help to clarify the point that Mackie is making: Vladimir Putin has been the President of Russia for over 20 years. In 2020, the Russian constitution was amended to allow him to rule for two more consecutive terms, another 16 years, until 2036. In April 2021, Putin signed the required amendments into law. This alteration to the constitution is an example of a law being passed that undermines the power of sovereignty possessed by whoever wrote the previous constitution. At the time they may have certainly imagined themselves to have the power to author a constitution that could never be altered in the future in the way that it was. But it turns out that they did not.

Moving on, Mackie thinks that this Paradox of Sovereignty can be resolved by making a distinction between what he calls first and second order laws and sovereignty. First order laws are those that affect the citizens of the country over which a parliament presides. Second order laws are those to do with the legal process itself and how a parliament goes about making laws about that process. In terms of sovereignty, we can say that a parliament at any time can have sovereignty (1), i.e. it has the power to, for instance, impose a lockdown on its populace because of a pandemic it it wants to, and we can also say that the present parliament has both sovereignty (1) and sovereignty (2). An example of the present parliament having sovereignty (2) might arise if a law is passed preventing a future parliament from ever ending a lockdown. But what Mackie is saying is that it is not possible to say both that the present parliament has sovereignty (2) and that all parliaments both now and in the future have sovereignty (1), as a parliament now might use sovereignty (2) to take away the sovereignty (1) of all future parliaments e.g. by imposing a permanent state of lockdown on both the members of that parliament and its citizens by stopping them from ever repealing that law.

Okay. So what is this doing here? Well, the main reason is because George Clinton was the founder member of the legendary musical collective Parliament, whose distinctive funk style drew on psychedelic culture, outlandish fashion, science-fiction, and surreal humour, all of which are showcased in this wonderful video. And typing the word ‘parliament’ over and over again brought it to mind. There’s no other reason, really. But maybe it’s also nice to have another musical interlude.

The analogy between omnipotence and sovereignty shows that the paradox of omnipotence can be solved in a similar way….But what the paradox shows is that we cannot consistently ascribe to any continuing being omnipotence in an inclusive sense.

When ‘sovereignty’ is translated into ‘omnipotence’, the Paradox of Omnipotence can be ‘solved’ in two possible ways. We can now say that God has omnipotence (1) and so He can do whatever He wants, though this must then mean that human beings have no power to act independently of Him. Or we can say that God has omnipotence (2), in which case case He then no longer has omnipotence (1) from the point at which He confers full independence on any being or thing and no longer controls them. But for a ‘continuing being’ (a term that will be explained below), we cannot say that they have ‘inclusive’ omnipotence. In other words, they cannot always and at any time be in possession of both omnipotence (1) and omnipotence (2) if they ever make use of omnipotence (2).

NOTE: if the above discussion is too tricky to follow, it is worth bearing in mind that Mackie is actually using the Paradox of Sovereignty to simply buttress his earlier point that if God can make truly free beings then He cannot be all-powerful, as He has made something that He can no longer control. On the other hand if He cannot make truly free beings, then He again is no longer omnipotent, and crucially, whatever beings He can create would not have the kind of free-will which makes them fully responsible for their choices, and this is the sort of freedom that theists want these beings to have. In other words, neither possibility is going to be acceptable for anyone who believes both that God is fully omnipotent and that we have bona fide free-will.

An alternative solution to this paradox would be simply to deny that God is a continuing being, that any times can be assigned to his actions at all. But on this assumption (which also has difficulties of its own) no meaning can be given to the assertion that God made men with wills so free that he could not control them. The paradox of omnipotence can be avoided by putting God outside time, but the free will solution of the problem of evil cannot be saved in this way, and equally it remains impossible to hold that an omnipotent God binds himself by causal or logical laws.

A ‘continuing being’ is one that exists over time, and that therefore has a past and a future. If God is like this, the Parable of Omnipotence applies to Him from the point at which He binds Himself by making beings that He cannot control. But what if God is not a continuing being? What if He exists outside of time and space? Can the Paradox of Omnipotence be solved by thinking of God in this way? Mackie thinks that it can but that there is a price to pay, as the free-will defence then has to be sacrificed. This is because it now no longer makes sense for us to think of God deciding to make fully free beings at a certain point in time, or to willingly limit His power by means of any causal or logical laws that He sets up.

Of the proposed solutions of the problem of evil which we have examined, none has stood up to criticism. There may be other solutions which require examination, but this study strongly suggests that there is no valid solution of the problem which does not modify at least one of the constituent propositions in a way which would seriously affect the essential core of the theistic position. Quite apart from the problem of evil, the paradox of omnipotence has shown that God’s omnipotence must in any case be restricted in one way or another, that unqualified omnipotence cannot be ascribed to any being that continues through time. And if God and his actions are not in time, can omnipotence, or power of any sort, be meaningfully ascribed to him?

Boethius (c.477 to 524 AD) was a Christian philosopher who thought that God could exist outside of time and space and that it was, nevertheless, still possible for Him to create beings with free-will of a sort that makes it acceptable for Him to reward and punish their actions. However, as a discussion of Boethius falls outside the scope of this already lengthy blog entry, it can be found HERE.

Mackie, though, does not consider any of the theodicies that he has analysed to have satisfactorily resolved the problem of evil. All are inadequate because tinkering with one aspect of the inconsistent triad only creates further logical problems and issues for another aspect of it. And this is especially the case when it comes to omnipotence, as profound difficulties emerge in whatever way this divine attribute is regarded.