A Good God Would Exclude Evil
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 3 - Philosophy of Religion
David Hume, from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
Kem Stone - 27 August 2007
We now turn to another major issue in the philosophy of religion, the problem of evil—or how an omnipotent and
supremely good being could allow for evil to exist.  There are two texts to look at, the first being David Hume’s
argument that one cannot infer the existence of such a perfectly good creator of the world when one considers the
state of affairs in this world.  In support of his argument, Hume offers four examples of what he sees as un-
necessary evils, and while he admits that the idea of a good God may be reconcilable to these circumstances (as
he admits we are of very limited intelligence and may simply not understand), the belief in God comes prior to our
experience of these evils and could never be inferred
from them.  Though I agree with Hume’s main point, there
are weaknesses in regards to each of the four circumstances of evil he offers, and in my critique I will offer some
objections and counter-objections to each of them.

Hume begins by making the point that if a person of limited intelligence were told before entering the world that it
was created by a very good, wise, and powerful Being, he would be surprised by all of the evils he would find
when he got here.  Of course he may still hold onto the belief that the world was created by a good God, as he
understands his intelligence is limited and he may just not know the reasons for all this evil.  But if he were not told
anything about the world’s creator beforehand, as is the case with humanity, he would most certainly not come to
the conclusion based on his own experience that the world was created by such a being.  “And from thence I
conclude that, however consistent the world may be, allowing certain suppositions and conjectures with the idea
of such a Deity, it can never afford us an inference concerning his existence” (98).  Hume objects to the arguments
for God’s existence on empirical grounds on the basis that one cannot infer the existence of a supremely good
being from the world which is so clearly full of evil.

The first circumstance of evil that Hume offers is the most simple: that humans and animals are contrived in such a
way that the avoidance of pain is what drives them to action.  This Hume sees as un-necessary because we can
easily imagine a world where creatures might be incited to action without the use of pain.  “All animals might be
constantly in a state of enjoyment; but when urged by any of the necessities of nature, such as thirst, hunger,
weariness instead of pain, they might feel a diminution of pleasure by which they might be prompted to seek that
object which is necessary to their substance” (98).

I might object that the line may not be so clear between pain and “diminution of pleasure.”  Were the world to be
designed in the aforementioned way, and hunger were not
painful but merely less pleasurable than having a full
stomach, we might simply call this state of “diminution of pleasure” by the name
pain.  In fact, it may be argued
that what we presently think of as
pain is actually this very phenomenon, and that because we have no knowledge
of what “true” pain is we experience this state of less-than-normal pleasure as pain.  Of course, one may offer the
counter-objection that we need not even be designed in such a way that such incitements to action are necessary,
and that we go about our business not to ensure our own survival but merely because we are naturally inclined to
do so.

The second circumstance Hume points to is the conducting of the world by general laws, which seems un-
necessary for a world under the providence of a perfect being.  By this Hume means that divine intervention, albeit
on a small scale so as not to completely break the course of nature, should be allowed.  If it is part of the Deity’s
plan to remain hidden, He may still act when it comes to phenomena which seem to happen randomly or by
accident, such as health and sickness, calm and temper.  “A being, therefore, who knows the secret springs of the
universe might easily, by particular volitions, turn all these accidents to the good of mankind and render the whole
world happy, without discovering himself in any operation” (99).  For instance, good people could all live long and
happy lives.  Or certain small events, such as a wave that might have buried Caesar at the bottom of the ocean,
might have changed the course of history for the better.  Hume admits that there may be good reasons why God
does not interpose in such a manner, but though certain reasons may exist to save the conclusion of God’s
existence, there is certainly nothing to
establish it.

Though Hume has already seen it coming, the most obvious objection to this is that certain apparent evils may turn
out for the greater good when we look at the broader course of history.  Perhaps the early death of Hitler may
have made things better for those who lived during his time and the few generations that immediately followed, but
it could be that a thousand years later, someone who would never have been born had it not been for Hitler’s
impact on the world does something to improve the condition of humanity universally.  The counter-objection is
equally obvious: if God is all-powerful could he have not brought about the birth of this world-saviour
without the
slaughter of millions generations beforehand?

The third circumstance which Hume offers may have been strong at the time in which it was written, but from
today’s standpoint is undoubtedly the weakest.  He cites the frugality with which the beings of the world are
endowed with their various powers and faculties.  Though we can not blame Hume for the scientific
misconceptions of his time, this particular circumstance arises out of an error.  “So well adjusted are the organs
and capacities of all animals, and so well fitted to their preservation, that, as far as history or tradition reaches,
there appears not to be any single species which has yet been extinguished in the universe” (99).  Though we now
understand this to be false, and that indeed far more species have been extinguished from our planet than currently
dwell on it, this still does not defeat Hume’s point entirely.  He sees that where one power in an animal is
increased such as swiftness, another is decreased such as force.  That humans, who excel most in the area of
reason, are most deficient in bodily advantages.  Hume asks why a perfectly good God could not have
constructed things differently—not that humans ought to have the wings of an eagle or the strength of an ox, but to
at least “let him be endowed with a greater propensity to industry and labour, a more vigorous spring and activity
of mind, a more constant bent to business and application” (100).

The first point needs no objection, as the circumstance Hume points to has already been rendered moot and
explained by the theory of natural selection.  But in response to the point that if
humans were created by God,
they could at least have been designed so as not to be so naturally lazy, one could object that the value of labour
might be diminished if man were naturally inclined to industriousness.  This is a weak objection, however, not
merely because of the difficulty in finding what constitutes the
value of labour (let alone any value at all), but
because a supremely good being could have made it un-necessary that labour be necessary at all.

The final circumstance Hume points to is one that has existed since the dawn of human thought and is still a major
source of doubt regarding God’s existence today, which Hume refers to as “the inaccurate workmanship of all the
springs and principles of the great machine of the universe” (101).  The forces of nature—should they be
attributed to the design of the some perfectly good Deity—ought to be “so accurately adjusted as to keep
precisely within those bounds in which their utility consists; but they are, all of them, apt, on every occasion, to run
into the one extreme or the other” (101).  The examples are not difficult to think of.  Without wind, sailors could
not navigate the oceans, but so often the wind becomes a hurricane and causes great destruction.  Without rain,
nothing would grow, but so often excessive rains lead to flooding which kills and destroys anyway.  Heat is
necessary for all life and vegetation, but is often so excessive that it kills what it would otherwise cause to flourish.  
If these forces were all under God’s control, and God is an infinitely good and compassionate being, why are they
so often brought to deadly extremes?

One may perhaps object that God may have a good purpose behind this.  Perhaps he brings his creation to
destructive extremes so often as to demonstrate to man that they ought to practice moderation, lest they bring evil
unto themselves by pursuing their own passions to harmful extremes.  This of course is a very weak objection, as
one could very justifiably pose the question: why must we pay so dearly for such a lesson when it could be taught
to us in so many other, far less painful ways?

A point which Hume leaves out of his argument but I believe is most certainly worth mentioning is that none of the
evil circumstances he points to were ever considered a problem with a belief in the Divine until the conception of
the One God such as that in the Judeo-Christian religions.  The existence of pain and the excesses of nature were
certainly attributed to the gods, but these gods were not assumed to have any special love for humanity.  When a
tidal wave struck and killed thousands, when earthquakes and flooding destroyed entire towns and villages, when
long-lasting drought brought about disease and famine, nobody asked “how could the gods allow this to
happen?”  The gods were seen as powerful and prone to such cruelty, and for that reason humans feared them
and offered sacrifices to them.  They saw the same circumstances in the world as we, and without being taught
from birth that all things were controlled by a perfectly good being, such an assertion would have seemed absurd
to them.

This is Hume’s exact conclusion—that our conception of God as a perfectly good being comes prior to our
experience of the world, and that left without any preconceptions as to the nature of the Divine, we could certainly
not justify any inference to the existence of an omnipotent and perfectly good creator.  “The whole presents
nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap,
without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children!” (102).

And so while we have not established that the Problem of Evil as formulated by Hume
dis-proves God’s
existence (as we admit our limited intelligence may simply leave us blind to the good behind every apparent evil), it
most certainly casts some very justifiable doubt on the idea.