Re: "Professing to be wise, they became fools..."

Tom Pearson (
Sat, 06 Mar 1999 19:33:37 -0600

At 11:49 PM 03/05/1999 -0600, Bill Payne wrote:

>I received this from a high school senior, and thought the edu's might
>want to get a heads up on what's coming. :-)

I'm one of those philosophy professors, and I do this sort of thing in the
classroom all the time. Only I'm an orthodox Christian, not an atheist,
and I'm fairly brazen about it. (I'm extremely fortunate to work in a
public institution that honors my Christian commitment, and recognizes its
centrality to my teaching and research). Such things as the Problem of
Evil are serious philosophical issues, provoked by genuine human experience
and the reflection that accompanies that experience. Most of my students
don't need me to rub their noses in the anomalies of evil; they are well
acquainted with sin and pain and death, and come with their own religious
doubts and perplexities. So send these glib and gifted students right
along to my class. Their classmates will engage them in quite a sober

<snipping much interesting dialogue>

>("The Christian" says): "Wrong again, sir. You see, immorality is merely
the absence of morality.
>Is there such thing as injustice? No. Injustice is the absence of
>justice. Is there such a thing as evil?" The Christian pauses. "Isn't
>evil the absence of good?"

This is, of course, the argument first made by Augustine, who wanted to
show that evil was no real thing, but simply a privation (Being = good,
Non-Being = evil). But this argument, clever though it is, can't lay a
glove on the Problem of Evil. Why would God -- all-good, all-knowing,
all-powerful -- create a world so rich in privation? And if evil is just
an absence, we can phrase the question in its familiar form: why would God
create a world so rich in evil?

>"You are working on the premise of duality," the Christian explains.
>"That, for example, there is life and then there's death; a good God and
>a bad God.

Fair enough. It's not clear that the hypothetical professor has actually
articulated any kind of dualist position, but perhaps he is working from
"the premise of duality."

>The Christian continues. "If there is evil in the world, professor, and
>we all agree there is, then God, if he exists, must be accomplishing a
>work through the agency of evil. What is that work, God is accomplishing?
>The Bible tells us it is to see if each one of us will, of our own free
>will, choose good over evil."

Now here's duality for you. The universe is divided into "good" and
"evil," and we must choose either one or the other. This is a reprise of
the ancient heresy of Manicheism, against which Augustine (among others)
fought tooth and nail. It was, in fact, in writing in opposition to this
point of view that Augustine develops his notion of evil as privation. How
can "The Christian" in this little dialogue hold that evil is simply a
privation, an absence, not a really existing thing, and at the same time
claim that evil does exist and that we choose between it and good? "The
Christian" here has subverted his own position. Where does "the Bible tell
us" such self-refuting heresy?

I suspect that students are frequently better off listening to their

Tom Pearson

Thomas D. Pearson
Department of History & Philosophy
The University of Texas-Pan American
Edinburg, Texas