The Ontological Capacity and The Problem with the Evidential Argument from Evil


The difficulty with any argument either pro or con theism that depends on an argument regarding evil, whether logical or evidential, is that the argument hinges on something that is not even properly defined, much less understood.

The argument Van Inwagen is attempting to counter is an evidential argument made by Paul Draper. The problem with Draper’s initial argument is that it requires evil and pain to be commutative terms, which they simply are not. While evil generally causes pain, pain may involve evil or not. That Draper can begin with such an obvious equivocation is only made possible by the lack of a coherent understanding of evil.

Without getting involved in whether theism, atheism or polytheism accounts better for the existence of evil, it also should be pointed out that both Draper’s argument and Van Inwagen’s counter-argument require a specific interpretation of the theos, one that originated largely with Christian apologetics out of its beginnings in Neo-Platonism. Thus, unless you restrict the use of theism and other directly related terms to their Neo-Platonic/Christian interpretation, the argument fails to be a general argument surrounding the possibility of theos on either side.

Most accounts of the nature of evil, from the ancients to the post-modern, agree on certain basic posits. From the perspective of definition, the most basic is that evil is in almost every case posited as a human affair. Whether humans are being differentiated from animals or from divinities, evil most often appears as a specifically human capacity. If this turns out to be the case, and the manner in which the theos is defined is lacking this capacity, then the question of why such a being, if the theos is in fact a being in the same sense as other beings in the first place, would “allow” evil takes on a different quality. While the focus, at least in terms of countering the logical argument from evil against theism, has been on the provision of free will, it may be that the capacity for evil is founded on more than one basic capacity of human beings. And while the theos is generally conceived to possess free will, it may not share the other capacity or capacities that make evil a possibility for human beings.

In the Old Testament the theos, Yahweh, has a specific incapacity that it does not share with human beings. Were it simply in one determination of the theos that this incapacity was noted, it might be merey an aberrant notion of theos, but the Old Testament stories that manifest the incapacity are themselves retellings and reworkings of stories describing the theos to the degree that it is considered possible in the various traditions. While there are differences in the stories that are important theologically and historically between the Hebrew versions and older Canaanite, Sumerian and other versions, the same incapacity is manifested in every version. This is the ability to name, to determine something as what it is as such. Whether this interferes with the notion of the theos as omnipotent is only relevant in theological traditions that make that claim, but I’ll leave that question open, since it’s at least questionable whether the capacity to name, i.e. the ontological capacity of human beings, is in fact a power, or if the very notion of it as a power is part of the basic misinterpretation of human beings that lies at the root of western thinking, theistic or not. It may be that omnipotence only involves all positive potentials. Or it may be a more direct notion that the apparent lack of a particular ability in the theos is due to its simply being superfluous – since the theos is posited as omniscient and omnipotent, it would inherently be incapable of misdetermination, since insofar as anything was determined by it, that thing would correspond to that determination by the definition of omniscience. Were it redetermined it would correspond anew to the new determination by the definition of omnipotence.

Given then that aside from free will, the ontological capacity was necessary for evil proper, then it would be comprehensible that the theos could both have free will yet be incapable of evil, and be simultaneously incapable of preventing evil without not having granted human beings that ontological ability. If the theos were not interpreted as a creator-being, which many of the stories do not, then even the latter would be irrelevant, since it would simply be what differentiates the divine from the mortal. If misdetermining and holding to that misdetermination were the means by which free will can be a will to evil, we have both a better definition of the notion of evil and can make a start to actually understanding its nature and provenance.

If we think of a simple case that most are agreed, excepting unusual circumstances, to be evil, for instance the case of murder, we can question whether the ontological capacity is required for an act to be properly considered evil. The evildoer has evidently caused a lack in an other, in this case a complete lack of the continuance of the other’s being. Since the nature of being-guilty has been convincingly interpreted as being the origin of a lack, we also have a concurrence in that proper guilt is generally considered to be a result of doing evil ( c.f. the discussion of being-guilty in Being and Time). This being the origin of a lack, though, in order to meet the full definition of evil, requires both freedom and intent. Without being able to determine the being of an other being the origin of such a lack could not be an intentional act, since the difference made to the other’s determination couldn’t itself be determined.

If we look at a more subtle act that is generally considered to be evil, that of prejudice, we can see more clearly that an intentional misdetermination is involved. Prejudgement, properly utilized, is simply a shortcut by means of which one can more quickly distinguish what is unique about a particular instance of a being, since what is unique will usually diverge from the prejudgement. Prejudice as an evil, though, begins when that prejudgement is held onto in the face of contradictory evidence, and thus the other is intentionally misdetermined to have the features of the a priori judgement and not the features actually in evidence.

It may also be, since the theos is not a being in the same sense as other beings that we may come across in the world and so determine it in its that, what and how, that any determination of the theos beyond its necessary posits must come from the theos’ own self-revelation to human beings, if such has occurred and continues to occur. The overdetermination of the theos would itself be a fundamentally evil act of misdetermining and holding to that misdetermination.


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