Faculty, students and visitors discuss the age-old problem in philosophical context


This weekend, the Notre Dame Department of Philosophy presents its second conference to confront the widely debated question: “If God is good and powerful, why does evil exist?”

Taking place on Friday, March 21 in the Eck Visitor Center Auditorium and Saturday, March 22 in DeBartolo Hall, the conference will be open and free to Notre Dame, Holy Cross and Saint Mary’s students and faculty.

Speakers come from among the most insightful of voices on the philosophy of ethics, attempting to tackle the difficult problem of evil. John Hare from Yale University will give the first lecture on Friday, followed on Saturday by Laura Garcia from Boston College, and Bruce Russell from Wayne State University.

Although no information is currently available about the particular topics each speaker will address, the array of speakers promises a meaningful discussion of the theme of the conference.

In a comment to the Rover, David O’Connor, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Concurrent Associate Professor of Classics at Notre Dame, acclaimed Garcia as a scholar who “has long been a vigorous and insightful voice for Catholic views of ethics.”

Garcia received her doctorate from Notre Dame and taught at Rutgers University, Georgetown University, the University of St. Thomas, the Catholic University, Calvin College and Notre Dame. According to the Boston College faculty department webpage, she is widely published on topics in philosophy of religion and ethics, and has a particular interest in exploring life issues and the vocation of women.

John Hare, who studied at Oxford University and received his doctorate from Princeton University, is the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale. According to O’Connor, Hare has visited Notre Dame many times and has many friends among the faculty. He is considered “one of the most well-regarded scholars in the country who teaches and writes about ethics from a theological point of view.”

Among his repository of books, Professor Hare has written on topics regarding ancient philosophy, as well as contemporary ethical and moral theory. As stated in his biography on the Yale Divinity School website, Hare can offer a “nontechnical treatment” of issues of moral philosophy.

O’Connor did not comment regarding the final speaker, Bruce Russell, who serves as professor and chair of the philosophy department at Wayne State University. Russell specializes in ethics, epistemology and the philosophy of religion.

Jim Sterba, Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, organized the conference with generous funding from the John Templeton foundation.

Sterba said that he found it surprising “that relevant resources that could similarly advance discussion of the problem have not yet been utilized.”

The purpose of the conference, he described to the Rover, is “to bring to bear the yet untapped resources from contemporary moral theory to advance the discussion of the problem of evil.”

O’Connor also explained the main idea behind the conference in a comment to the Rover:

“The so-called ‘Problem of Evil,’ that is, understanding how a good and powerful God can allow evil in the world, has been much discussed in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion. But much of this discussion has been motivated by current approaches in metaphysics and epistemology, rather than directly by approaches in ethics. In general, metaphysical and epistemological approaches will focus on puzzles about how to conceive God’s power; ethical approaches are likely to focus more on how to conceive God’s goodness. In both cases, we hope we can understand the mysterious goodness and power of God better by reflecting on human goodness and power, where our knowledge is more intimate and grounded.”

Presented via the arguments of philosophers such as BC Johnson, David Hume and JL Mackie, the “problem of evil” is a concept familiar to most first-year philosophy students.

Shannon Chiao, a freshman finance major, reflected on her experience discussing Mackie’s famous essay, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in her university-requisite introductory philosophy course. “I thought the discussion was insightful since I never thought about how God and evil can and do [co]exist and how incompatible that may seem.”

In his claim against the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God, Mackie argues against several so-called “fallacious arguments” that defend God’s goodness and power in the midst of the existence of evil, including the defense that evil is a necessary counterpart to good.

Mackie’s argument and those of similar philosophers have posed a challenge to many theists’ understanding of God as omnipotent and wholly good. On the other hand, some of the most highly regarded theologians of the Catholic Church, including Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, have ardently defended the existence of a good and powerful God.

Chiao responded to Mackie’s essay with a simple statement of faith, affirming the belief that “God is omnipotent in a way which we cannot interpret or use human understanding to define his divine power; God has plans for everyone, and we should not doubt his omnipotence or challenge the coexistence of God and evil in the world.”

For anyone interested in delving into the contemporary approach to a long-debated question, there is an opportunity for open discussion following each speaker’s lecture. Sterba welcomes undergraduates to attend, and will reserve the first question from the audience for an undergraduate student.

Victoria Velasquez is a freshman majoring in English. She realized her life dream this spring break in Orlando, FL. Contact her with any info on Disney princess auditions at vvelasq2@nd.edu.