Good Out of Evil

Besides the objection mentioned in the last post, St. Thomas brings up another objection to the existence of God:

Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

He replies to the objection,

As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

Does good in fact come from evil, and if so, how does this happen?

Some people are born without the ability to feel physical pain. While someone first hearing about this might think it sounds like a good thing, it is in fact a very bad thing, as noted in the linked post. Children suffering from this condition often bite off parts of their tongue, or fail to notice sprains or broken bones, thus causing greater injury to themselves, and so on.

And after a moment’s thought, this is not so strange. Pain, taken as knowledge of an injury, is not a bad thing, but a good thing; it is the injury which is bad, as well as secondary effects such as distraction from other tasks and so on.

And here we see the primary path, although not the only path, by which good comes from evil, at least in human things. Evil is an indirect cause of the knowledge of evil, and the knowledge of evil is good, and a cause of goodness. In this way a person can benefit even from his own faults and vices, insofar as he learns from them and goes on to do better.

This can happen even with very great evils. Thus for example in the post here, Cameron Harwick discusses how the use of nuclear weapons by the United States, a very great evil, might bear significant responsibility for the peace (such as it was) that followed. Or in other words, without that specific use of nuclear weapons, there might have been a nuclear war between the United States and Russia, which would have been much worse.

None of this is accidental, but in fact tends to happen in a very systematic way, basically for reasons which we discussed some days ago. All things and all people strive for the good, and the knowledge of evil is just one of the things that contributes to their efforts.

Now someone might suppose that the explanation here is too human. Does it not take away the glory from God? Should we not say instead that God brings good out of evil in mysterious ways that are beyond our comprehension?

Now there are surely many things which are beyond our comprehension. But the attitude in this objection is simply the zeal for God which is not according to knowledge. God does not make things in such a way that he merely happens to bring good out of evil, but rather he gives the things themselves such an order and such a nature that it is natural to them to bring good out of evil. And such a creation, which possesses this ability in an intrinsic way, is better and more ordered than a theoretical creation that lacked that ability.

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2 thoughts on “Good Out of Evil

  1. This makes sense. People make the mistake of making God a “God of the gaps”, not just with respect to efficient causality, but with respect to final causality as well.

    But as for what would be better, it seems to me that a creation in which beings have an intrinsic order to bringing good out of evil is better than one which lacks this order and has to be “filled in”; yet a creation in which there are layers of order, and layers of providence, would be even better than that. A little like how a fugue has maybe one clearly audible main theme, but then there are other underlying things going on which a person may not immediately recognize, such as that same theme being played underneath in counterpoint, creating layers of beauty. Or in literature, one finds layers of meaning in greater works. I’m not really arguing with anything you’ve said…but I don’t want you to stop there, that’s all. I’m sorry I said “layers” so many times.

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    • I agree.

      But this touches on a risk which I mentioned in the previous post. Because of the relation of true and good, engaging in wishful thinking sometimes leads not only away from the truth, but also from the good.

      Consider what happens with the ID movement I discussed in the last post. Wishful thinking leads them to posit things which are not only probably untrue, but probably inferior to the actual reality.

      In a similar way, if you notice some account that has these layers and immediately accept it because it seems like it would be good, rather than for reasons directly concerned with its truth, then it is not only likely that you will be mistaken, but it may turn out that reality is better than what you proposed, rather than worse. This does not necessarily mean that if someone specifically proposed the better account in detail, you would immediately see that it is better. It is perfectly possible that it would seem worse to you, just as it seems to the ID folks that reality is inferior to their account.

      This happens because our idea of the good, like all ideas, is more accurate if it is informed by reality.

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