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Philosophy Lecture at St Mellitus College

04 December 2016

‘The Problem of the Problem of Evil’ by Prof. Ian McFarland

Philosophy, RS, and other Collingham students had the opportunity to hear a paper read by a leading academic, Ian McFarland, the Regius Professor from Cambridge.  The topic was the Problem of the Problem of Evil.  We anticipated that we would see it handled in a way that would go beyond the usual A Level studies.

The use of untranslated Latin served to remind students of the importance of intellectual preparation for scholarly study.  This was also a typical academic paper in that McFarland did not with grandiose claims attempt or claim to solve every question, as often happens with popular lectures by public intellectuals, but tried to tease out and clarify just one aspect of the issue, and to see whether that carried the discussion forward.

This he attempted by trying to re-frame one element of the philosophical problem of evil.  If rather than seeing it as an abstract problem of logical consistency given certain assertions, we looked at where the assertions came from, that might reflect back on whether the inconsistency that generates the problem of evil can indeed be stated in the typical stark terms.

There is a problem, McFarland found, with the way the problem of evil is usually formulated.  Part of the problem of evil arises from the assertion that the world contains not just evil consequences of human actions but ‘natural evil’ that can only be traced back to God.

The theist, though, suggested McFarland, is not, indeed should not be, committed to affirming that the world is evil.  Not merely as a denial of the phenomena around us, but because the assertion is epistemologically misplaced in a way which would be at odds with others of the affirmations that make up the formulation of the problem of evil.  Affirming that which as part of the problem of evil would have to be affirmed about God, precludes affirming the evil of the world.  Yet a major part of the problem depends upon the tension between these two sets of affirmations.  We then see, he claimed, that the theist is not, indeed cannot be, committed to affirming that states of affairs are either good or evil.  This would be a category mistake.

All in all, the lecture was an intellectual challenge and it was a treat to have this opportunity for students to see academia at work.

Michael Peat, Head of Philosophy, Collingham.

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