Leading up to Hume, theodicy grew to be an increasingly central issue not only in theological discussion but also in philosophical inquiry – for some (such as Leibniz) it was a primary stimulus. Hume’s empiricism brought no less emphasis on the topic but did, however, generate dramatically disparate conclusions. Countering in particular the teleological concept, Hume attacks theism mercilessly. While epistemology may be his primary battleground, the problem of evil attracts much of his attention. It is notable that for Hume arriving at a theodicy was not his ambition, rather he sought to obliterate traditional notions of God. Having already countered to his own satisfaction a priori arguments for God’s existence, Hume attacks what he believes to be the last bastion of grounding for belief in God – the teleological idea.
If able to demonstrate that God is indifferent to good and evil, He can be made irrelevant and even nonsensical. As a result, any theistically based teleological idea would be moot. To accomplish this Hume relies on Epicurus’ ancient iteration of the problem. He reminds theists that
“Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays on the Immortality of The Soul and Suicide, Richard Popkin, ed., (Hackett Publishing, 1980), 63)
In Hume’s analysis of Epicurus, a more formalized argument begins to take shape. Unless terminology is redefined (as it is in previous theodicies), there are only three possibilities: (1) God is not omnipotent, (2) God is not omnibenevolent, (3) evil does not exist.
Hume will not allow any redefinition of evil, as in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion he lists a number of moral and natural evils which are painfully evident to all. In so doing he concludes against a cosmos initiated by either concern for its creatures or by divine volition, saying:
“Were all living creatures incapable of pain, or were the world administered by particular volitions, evil never could have found access into the universe: and were animals endowed with a large stock of powers and faculties, beyond what strict necessity requires; or were the several springs and principles of the universe so accurately framed as to preserve always the just temperament and medium; there must have been very little ill in comparison of what we feel at present. What then shall we pronounce on this occasion?” (David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Section 11:8)
Once a-priori ideas of inherent goodness are vanquished (theistic or otherwise) such goodness can only be derived from experience, and Hume has an easy time of dismissing that possibility:
“But let us still assert, that as this goodness is not antecedently established, but must be inferred from the phenomena, there can be no grounds for such an inference, while there are so many ills in the universe, and while these ills might so easily have been remedied, as far as human understanding can be allowed to judge on such a subject.” (Ibid.)
Having established the groundlessness of the idea of teleological goodness, Hume closes the issue with a resounding indictment derived from simple observation:
“But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences, the only beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible or odious to the spectator! 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!” (Ibid., 11:9)
As representative of Hume, these statements fasten theological conceptions of evil and notions of the character of God to theories of knowledge, and they additionally raise questions of the nature of good which leads further into ethical discussions. For Hume, theology and philosophy are too connected, and he wishes to extricate philosophical inquiry from the grips unverifiable religious notions. Insofar as this is his objective, Hume becomes perhaps the lead protagonist for theodicy. Any attempt at theodicy which does not at least consider the colossal issues he raises will be found deficient or partial at best.
To resolve the issue, one or more of God’s attributes must be defined differently than Epicurus and Hume understand them. In fact, recognizing Biblical definitions are the only way to resolve this problem.
So, which characteristic(s) need to be reconsidered: (1) omnipotence, (2) omniscience, or (3) omnibenevolence (love)? Which one(s) do Epicurus, Hume, and so many others get wrong?
Choose wisely, Dr. Jones…