Behind Mackie's Argument For Atheism


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Mackie in his paper Evil and Omnipotence, constructs an argument against the idea of the possibility of a God existing that has the characteristics laid out by the main religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. These characteristics include that God is omnipotent, or He is capable of stopping evil, and omni benevolent, or He wants to eliminate evil and He is entirely good. Mackie systematically goes through his logical thought process as well as his response to any type of criticism or alternative solution that might arise. The main point of his argument is to establish that God, as constructed by Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, could not possibly exist. It is one of the most highly regarded arguments towards atheism.

Mackie wishes to disprove the existence of God, or at least the view of God being both omnipotent and wholly good, through an argument which uses the problem of the existence of evil. Here is how he lays the argument out: 1. Suppose there is a God, whom is composed of the above characteristics. 2. If this God is omnipotent, then there is no limit to His ability or what He can do. 3. If this God is wholly good then it would be assumed that He would want to eliminate evil completely. 4. If there was a God who knew evil existed, could eliminate evil, and wanted to eliminate evil then it would make logical sense that there would be no evil. 5. However, evil does exist. 6. Therefore an omnipotent and wholly good God cannot exist. This argument is analogous, say, to a master chef, in that this chef is capable of cooking only the best tasting food in the world, he is able to cook this way all the time, and he knows that people only like good tasting food. However, in this chef's restaurant there always seems to be some food that is vile tasting. But, if the Chef was able to cook the best tasting food all the time and he knew that people only wanted good tasting food, then we would have to surmise that this type of chef could not possibly exist. Again, Mackie's argument is not against the existence of God, but against the existence of a God that is composed of the characteristics of being omnipotent and wholly good.

In his paper Mackie not only lays out his own case for atheism but he also rebuts any argument that might be contrary to his own.

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He breaks this down further in to two subsections; adequate solutions and fallacious solutions. Adequate solutions are those which remove the problem of evil through limiting or removing key characteristics in the theological doctrine. The person would have to be able to limit or remove something that makes up God. This would be saying that God could perhaps not be quite as good or that he is not fully omnipotent, or that there could be a limit to His power. The fallacious solutions are those which maintain the characteristics of their image of God, but in their argument somehow limit or reject these characteristics when trying to counter Mackie's argument.

When looking at the adequate solutions Mackie infers that people are able to maintain their view of God being omnipotent by somehow changing the very definition of the word. However, if you state that God is not omnipotent, whether it is implicitly stated or directly, you would have solved the problem. But, in your own argument you have proved only that God would like evil to go away, but He is not powerful enough to do it. If you were to argue that God is not totally good, then the existence of evil can be comprehended in that God could perhaps be sadistic. He also goes on to examine the possibility of evil being just an illusion and that it does not truly exist at all. However, there is the possibility “that this illusion is itself an evil”. Mackie is saying that it is not logical to assert that evil is not evil, when the idea in and of itself is evil. So even those that are able to somehow contain or limit their view of God's power necessarily includes the view that God cannot be absolutely omnipotent and wholly good. So, although Mackie agrees that by limiting or changing the characteristics that make up God, the existence of God may be able to be maintained, it is not a God that follows common theological views. This reinforces his argument towards atheism and against the existence of God. These “believers”, according to Mackie, are simply modifying their premise in order to support their argument, while at the same time, maintaining their belief in their unmodified version of God. This is illogical and is not supportable as a valid argument. Although the solution may work, it fails to establish the existence of an omnipotent, wholly good God.

Mackie next discusses fallacious solutions, or ones which maintain the characteristics of God in their view, but through their argument somehow reject one of these characteristics. These are the usual arguments that occur when one is defending the very existence of God. In his paper Mackie explains how he is able to find the fallacy in these arguments. Often he states “the supposed solution moves to and fro, between, say, two of the constituent propositions, at one point asserting the first of these but covertly abandoning the second, at another point asserting the second but covertly abandoning the first.” Mackie’s basic premise is that none of these arguments are able to uphold both propositions of God being omnipotent and wholly good. The four fallacies Mackie discuses are that “Good cannot exist without evil” or “Evil is necessary as a counterpart to good”, “Evil is necessary as a means to good”, the universe is better with some evil in it than it could be if there were no evil”, and “Evil is due to human freewill”.

In the fist argument that “Good cannot exist without evil” or that “Evil is necessary as a counterpart to good” Mackie suggests that in looking at this you have to say that good and evil are the exact opposites of each other in the same way as “red” and “non-red” are the exact opposites. Mackie states that if something is red, and there is something else that exists, then what the other must be is either red or non-red. But, he also believes that the idea of everything having its own logical opposite is only a construction in our mind and that there is no reason that God would have had to create an opposite for good. Using the red/non-red analogy and saying that something is red does not imply that non-red things would have to exist. In this way you could say that just because good exists, non-good, or evil, does not necessarily have to exist. Or that if something is not good, it does not necessarily mean that it is evil. Let us examine the argument that God may have created evil to teach us what good is. God had other options, including teaching us what is good by some other manner that involves less suffering or simply less evil? This may lead us to believe that God is not entirely good. Building further on this is the idea that for God to have had created good, it was necessary to create evil sets a limit to his power. This brings us back to the adequate solutions in which the statement does not create the image of a God who is omnipotent.

In refuting the “Evil is necessary as a means to good” argument Mackie basically states that “this has little plausibility as a solution of the problem of evil, since it obviously implies a severe restriction of God's power.” Also saying that you cannot have an ends without the mean is a causal law. Saying that God is limited by the very same laws that he created severely conflicts with the definition of an omnipotent entity. Again this argument only solves the problem by editing one of the two characteristics of God.

The third argument that “the universe is better with some evil in it than it could be if there were no evil” infers that because of evil we grow and develop a richer and morally favorable life. In other words, there can be no heroism if there is no one to save, or no charity if no one was downtrodden. Suffering must exist in order for the truly amazing human characteristics to show through. One could argue that this is the manner in which God lets us reach our full potential and be the most decent being possible. But one has to ask, why would God put in to us a manner of understanding that requires suffering? Could He have not brought us in to enlightenment in some other way? Is it a reasonable argument to suggest, say, that a mother who locks their child in a closet and tortures them (something that they do not have to do, but does it anyways), and then tells the child the reason behind it is love proves God is wholly good?

The fourth solution that Mackie presents is that “evil is due to freewill”. Mackie states this as being the most important in that it puts the notion of evil not in God's hands but in our own. He breaks goods into orders in how important they are. He places freedom in the 3rd order and thus makes it more valuable and as such better than a 2nd order good. It can then be assumed that 2nd order evils are necessary in order for there to be a 3rd order good and that it is more important that a man can act freely and make a mistake than not to have freedom. But Mackie questions whether these evils are in fact necessary for freedom to exist. He argues it is not necessary for Mans freedom to involve a choice that causes evil. It would make more sense for an omnipotent and wholly good God to grant freedom while still ensuring only good could be an outcome. The other argument Mackie gives is that if God is omnipotent and wholly good, why, when he sees an evil in man, does he not intervene and make it good? Is it possible that God has created something that he cannot control? This would show some kind of boundary to His powers. This idea was named the Paradox of Omnipotence by Mackie: “is it possible for an omnipotent being to create something he cannot control”? From this paradox Mackie states that it is impossible to have an omnipotent being if the evil caused by freewill argument was to hold.

In his case against an omnipotent, wholly good God, Mackie logically argues against the existence of this God. He is also able to dismiss the solutions or arguments against this premise through simple logical analysis and through the idea and existence of evil. Because it is impossible to prove the existence of God, Mackie has taken what theologians hold true to their religions and used it to prove that the existence of God, all good, and omnipotent is just not possible.

Works Cited
Mackie, J.L.. “Evil and Omnipotence” First Philosophy: Fundamental Problems and Readings in Philosophy. Volume III: God, Mind, and Freedom. Ed. Andrew Bailey. Peterborough: Broadview Press Ltd., 2004. 106-114.


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