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Philosophers debate the problem of evil

By Hongtao Hu     4/9/24 10:57pm

The Houston Institute hosted a debate on “The Problem of Evil” at the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies April 2. Rice students and Houstonians filed in to listen to Rob Koons from the University of Texas at Austin and Luis Oliveira from the University of Houston debate how evil could be present assuming God exists.  

This event was sponsored by the Houston Institute, an organization which “provides a venue where students can think deeply about the best way to live,” according to their website. 

“Though we are rooted in the natural law tradition … we look at the best thinkers with a range of views in a fair-minded way. All students committed to serious intellectual engagement are welcome, regardless of their views,” the website reads. 

The debate began with a 25-minute opening argument from both sides, followed by a response from each speaker. The debate continued with a question-and-answer period, where participants could inquire about Koons’ and Oliveria’s claims. 

Koons began the debate by proffering various arguments for why God would allow suffering.

“Let’s start with the first obvious [issue], why didn’t God create a world that was full of happiness and devoid of pain?” Koons said in his opening argument. “If we’re going to address this in a religious context … one competing view of ethics is that a morally good person produces as much happiness as possible. But with that model, it doesn’t seem like God’s doing the right job.

“From my Christian perspective, I think we shouldn’t look at it in terms of God being a total happiness maximizer…he’s a God of love, because it’s love of individuals and not adequate quantities [of happiness],” Koons said.

Oliveria made a non-traditional argument, specifically, about how “reflective normative unintelligibility” makes it “dangerous” for humans to trust God. Oliveria defined “reflective normative unintelligibility” as a contradiction that arises when one assigning the value of goodness to God creates concrete expectations for God’s behavior, which are then unmet through his permittance of inexplicable evil. 

“If your relationship to God suffers from reflective normative unintelligibility, trusting God isn’t appropriate,” Oliveria said. 

According to Victor Saenz, the executive director of the Houston Institute, this debate was an opportunity for students to learn about both sides of the issue in a fair-minded way. 

“We deliberately chose two speakers who held very different perspectives, but also deliberately structured debate in a way that they would, in advance, get to see each others’ presentations and respond thoughtfully,” Saenz said. 

According to Houston Institute’s Student Club president Jahnavi Mahajan, debates such as this allow her and other Rice students to practice philosophy beyond the classroom.

“I started with Houston Institute in the fall of my freshman year … it was one more way for me to do philosophy beyond class in a more nonplussed way, getting into more discussions [about philosophy],” Mahajan, a Lovett College sophomore, said.

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