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The Evidential Argument from Evil

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Is evil evidence against the existence of God? Even if God and evil are compatible, it remains hotly contested whether evil renders belief in God unreasonable. The Evidential Argument from Evil presents five classic statements on this issue by eminent philosophers and theologians and places them in dialogue with eleven original essays reflecting new thinking by these and other scholars. The volume focuses on two versions of the argument. The first affirms that there is no reason for God to permit either certain specific horrors or the variety and profusion of undeserved suffering. The second asserts that pleasure and pain, given their biological role, are better explained by hypotheses other than theism.

Contributors include William P. Alston, Paul Draper, Richard M. Gale, Daniel Howard-Snyder, Alvin Plantinga, William L. Rowe, Bruce Russell, Eleonore Stump, Richard G. Swinburne, Peter van Inwagen, and Stephen John Wykstra.

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Introduction: The Evidential Argument From Evil

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DANIEL HOWARD-SNYDER

Evil, it is often said, poses a problem for theism, the view that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, “God,” for short. This problem is usually called “the problem of evil.” But this is a bad name for what philosophers study under that rubric. They study what is better thought of as an argument, or a host of arguments, rather than a problem. Of course, an argument from evil against theism can be both an argument and a problem. Some people realize this for the first time when they assert an argument from evil in print and someone publishes a reply in which numerous defects and oversights are laid bare for the public eye. And if it turns out that there is a God and He doesn’t take kindly to such arguments, then an argument from evil might be a big problem, a very big problem, for one who sincerely propounds it. Typically, however, an argument from evil is not thought to be a problem for the atheist. But if not for the atheist, for whom is an argument from evil a “problem”?

 

1. The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism

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WILLIAM L. ROWE

This chapter is concerned with three interrelated questions. The first is: Is there an argument for atheism based on the existence of evil that may rationally justify someone in being an atheist? To this first question I give an affirmative answer and try to support that answer by setting forth a strong argument for atheism based on the existence of evil.1 The second question is: How can the theist best defend his position against the argument for atheism based on the existence of evil? In response to this question I try to describe what may be an adequate rational defense for theism against any argument for atheism based on the existence of evil. The final question is: What position should the informed atheist take concerning the rationality of theistic belief? Three different answers an atheist may give to this question serve to distinguish three varieties of atheism: unfriendly atheism, indifferent atheism, and friendly atheism. In the final part of the paper I discuss and defend the position of friendly atheism.

 

2. Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists

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PAUL DRAPER

Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists

I will argue in this paper that our knowledge about pain and pleasure creates an epistemic problem for theists. The problem is not that some proposition about pain and pleasure can be shown to be both true and logically inconsistent with theism. Rather, the problem is evidential. A statement reporting the observations and testimony upon which our knowledge about pain and pleasure is based bears a certain significant negative evidential relation to theism.1 And because of this, we have a prima facie good epistemic reason to reject theism—that is, a reason that is sufficient for rejecting theism unless overridden by other reasons for not rejecting theism.

By “theism” I mean the following statement:

There exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect person who created the Universe.

I will use the word “God” as a title rather than as a proper name, and I will stipulate that necessary and sufficient conditions for bearing this title are that one be an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect person who created the Universe. Given this (probably technical) use of the term “God,” theism is the statement that God exists.

 

3. Some Major Strands of Theodicy

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RICHARD SWINBURNE

God is by definition omnipotent and perfectly good. Yet manifestly there is evil of many diverse kinds. It would appear that an omnipotent being can prevent evil if he tries to do so, and that a perfectly good being will try. The existence of such evil appears, therefore, to be inconsistent with the existence of God, or at least to render it improbable.1 Theodicy is the enterprise of showing that appearances are misleading: that evils of the kind and quantity we find on Earth are neither incompatible with nor render improbable the existence of God.2 Even if the evils around us do render improbable the existence of God, we may still have stronger evidence to show that there is a God which outweighs the counterevidence, which suffices to make it rational for us to believe that there is a God. My own view, however, is that theodicy is a viable enterprise, that we do not need to rely on stronger evidence for the existence of God to outweigh counterevidence from evil. This paper is a contribution to theodicy. I accept that an omnipotent being can prevent any evil he chooses, but I deny that a perfectly good being will always try to do so. If a perfectly good being is to allow evil to occur, he must have the right to do so, and there must be some good which is brought about by allowing the evil to occur and could not be brought about by him in any better way, and so great that it is worth allowing the evil to occur. If the perfectly good being is also omnipotent (i.e., can do anything logically possible), then it must be logically impossible for him to bring about the greater good in any better way. The condition about the right is important: even if my allowing you to suffer will do you great good, unless I am in some special position in regard to you (e.g., I am your parent), I do not have the right to allow you to suffer. I believe that God does have the right to allow humans (and animals) to suffer for the sake of greater good—to a limited extent and for a limited period (e.g., 100 years per human)—but I shall not argue for that here for reason of space.3 My concern will be rather with contributing toward showing that evils of the kind and quantity we find on Earth serve greater goods.

 

4. Aquinas on the Sufferings of Job

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ELEONORE STUMP

Aquinas wrote commentaries on five books of the Old Testament (Psalms, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations), two Gospels (Matthew and John), and the Pauline epistles. These biblical commentaries have not received the same sort of attention as some of his other works, such as the Summa theologiae or the Summa contra gentiles, but they are a treasure trove of philosophy and theology.1 The commentary on Job in particular is one of Aquinas’s more mature and polished commentaries. Unlike many of them, which are preserved in the form of a reportatio, a transcription of Aquinas’s lecturers by someone who attended them, the commentary on Job is an expositio, material reworked and revised by Aquinas himself.2 The commentary sheds light on Aquinas’s understanding of God’s providence and especially of the relation between God’s providence and human suffering. Aquinas does discuss providence in other works as well, most notably in book 3 of the Summa contra gentiles, which is roughly contemporary with the commentary on Job; and he considers problems involving suffering in many of the biblical commentaries, especially those on the Pauline epistles.3 But the book of Job is the paradigmatic presentation of the problem of evil for anyone trying to reconcile the existence of God with the presence of evil in the world, and it is therefore particularly interesting to see how Aquinas interprets this book. So, although I turn to the Summa contra gentiles and the commentaries on the Pauline epistles when appropriate, my focus is on Aquinas’s commentary on Job.

 

5. Epistemic Probability and Evil

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ALVIN PLANTINGA

The amount and variety of evil in our world has often baffled and perplexed believers in God. Evil can occasion deeper problems: faced with the shocking concreteness of a particularly appalling example of evil in his own life or the life of someone close to him, a believer may find himself tempted to take toward God an attitude he himself deplores; such evil can incline him to mistrust God, to be angry with him, to adopt toward him an attitude of suspicion and distrust or bitterness and rebellion. This is a pastoral, or religious, or existential problem of evil.

Many philosophers have argued, however, that evil generates a problem of quite another sort for the theist; indeed, nearly every first course in philosophy includes a session on the so-called “problem of evil.” This problem is not pastoral or existential but broadly speaking epistemic; it has to do with fulfilling epistemic obligation, or maintaining a rational system of beliefs, or following proper intellectual procedure, or perhaps with practicing proper mental hygiene. The claim is that the evil in our world—including suffering as well as evil properly so-called, that is, wickedness—is both obvious and undeniable; but then belief in God, in the face of such gross and rampant evil, is in some way intellectually dubious, or questionable, or out of order, or worse. I propose to investigate this claim. First, I shall claim that in its most viable form this objection invokes a version of the probabilistic atheological argument from evil. Second, I shall argue that the prospects for this objection are bleak, both from a rough-and-ready intuitive point of view and from the perspectives of the main contemporary accounts of probability. Third, I shall claim that the main contemporary accounts of probability don’t provide the resources for a proper discussion of this objection. And fourth, after outlining a more appropriate conception of epistemic probability, I shall try to show that in any event the most important question here does not concern the propositional warrant or lack thereof displayed by belief in God; the real question here concerns the nonpropositional warrant, if any, enjoyed by this belief.

 

6. The Inductive Argument from Evil and the Human Cognitive Condition

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WILLIAM P. ALSTON

The recent outpouring of literature on the problem of evil has materially advanced the subject in several ways. In particular, a clear distinction has been made between the “logical” argument against the existence of God (“atheological argument”) from evil, which attempts to show that evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God, and the “inductive” (“empirical,” “probabilistic”) argument, which contents itself with the claim that evil constitutes (sufficient) empirical evidence against the existence of God. It is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides that the logical argument is bankrupt, but the inductive argument is still very much alive and kicking.

In this paper I will be concerned with the inductive argument. More specifically, I shall be contributing to a certain criticism of that argument, one based on a low estimate of human cognitive capacities in a certain application. To indicate the point at which this criticism engages the argument, I shall use one of the most careful and perspicuous formulations of the argument in a recent essay by William Rowe (1979).*

 

7. Rowe’s Noseeum Arguments from Evil

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STEPHEN JOHN WYKSTRA

In the Midwest we have “noseeums”—tiny flies which, while having a painful bite, are so small you “no see ’um.” We also have Rowe’s inductive argument for atheism. Rowe holds that the theistic God would allow suffering only if doing so serves some outweighing good. But is there some such good for every instance of suffering? Rowe thinks not. There is much suffering, he says, for which we see no such goods; and this, he argues, inductively justifies believing that for some sufferings there are no such goods. Since it gives such bite to what we cannot see, I call this a “noseeum argument” from evil.

In 1984, I criticized Rowe’s induction using CORNEA, the “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access.” In brief, CORNEA says that we can argue from “we see no X” to “there is no X” only when X has “reasonable seeability”—that is, is the sort of thing which, if it exists, we can reasonably expect to see in the situation. Looking around my garage and seeing no dog entitles me to conclude that none is present, but seeing no flea does not; and this is because fleas, unlike dogs, have low seeability: even if they were present, we cannot reasonably expect to see them in this way. But should we expect God-purposed goods to have the needed seeability? Arguing from the disparity between a creator’s vision and ours, I urged not: Rowe’s case thus fails CORNEA’s seeability requirement.

 

8. The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence

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PETER VAN INWAGEN

It used to be widely held that evil—which for present purposes we may identify with undeserved pain and suffering—was incompatible with the existence of God: that no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able to tell, this thesis is no longer defended. But arguments for the following weaker thesis continue to be very popular: Evil (or at least evil of the amounts and kinds we actually observe) constitutes evidence against the existence of God, evidence that seems decisively to outweigh the totality of available evidence for the existence of God.

In this paper, I wish to discuss what seems to me to be the most powerful version of the “evidential argument from evil.” The argument takes the following form. There is a serious hypothesis h that is inconsistent with theism and on which the amounts and kinds of suffering that the world contains are far more easily explained than they are on the hypothesis of theism. This fact constitutes a prima facie case for preferring h to theism. Examination shows that there is no known way of answering this case, and there is good reason to think that no way of answering it will be forthcoming. Therefore, the hypothesis h is (relative to the epistemic situation of someone who has followed the argument this far) preferable to theism. But if p and q are inconsistent and p is (relative to one’s epistemic situation) epistemically preferable to q, then it is not rational for one to accept q. (Of course, it does not follow either that it is rational for one to accept p or that it is rational for one to reject q.) It is, therefore, not rational for one who has followed the argument up to this point to accept theism.1

 

9. The Skeptical Theist

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PAUL DRAPER

The term skeptical theist is apt to be misleading. If one can resist the temptation to dismiss it as oxymoronic, then one is likely to associate it with fideism. But the theists whose views I intend to discuss are not fideists and accordingly do not defend theism by defending a general skepticism about human cognitive powers. Rather, their skepticism is supposed to extend only so far as nonskeptical standards of rationality demand. This is far enough, they believe, to undermine probabilistic arguments from evil against theism, but not far enough to undermine all rational grounds for theistic belief. By distinguishing different types of probabilistic arguments from evil, I will show that these skeptical theists have not yet solved the evidential problem of evil and that certain forbidding obstacles stand between them and future success.

Most skeptical theists attack probabilistic arguments from evil by arguing for something like the following skeptical thesis, which I will call “skeptical thesis #1” or “ST1” for short:

 

10. Defenseless

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BRUCE RUSSELL

Evidential arguments from evil against the existence of God often take the following form:

1. If God exists, there is no gratuitous evil, that is, evil which God would have no morally sufficient reason to allow.

2. But there is gratuitous evil.

3. So God does not exist.

They are evidential because of the nature of the arguments given for the second premise. Those arguments are probabilistic or epistemic in nature, starting from the fact that even after careful reflection we see no morally sufficient reason for God to allow certain kinds, instances, amounts, or patterns of suffering or from that suffering itself. And they move from those starting points to the conclusion that there is gratuitous evil either by induction or by abduction, that is, by an inference to the best explanation. We can capture these four kinds of evidential arguments from evil by means of the following matrix:

William Rowe has given a version of the evidential argument from evil that is in category (1). He argues that because the goods we know of provide no morally sufficient reason for allowing certain instances of suffering, we have good reason to believe that no goods provide such reason and hence good reason to believe that allowing the suffering is not morally justified. Critics have responded that our knowledge that the goods we know of do not justify allowing the suffering gives us reason to believe that no goods do only if we have good reason to believe that the sample of goods we know of is a representative sample, and we have no good reason to believe it is.2 An argument that has been given to show we have no reason to believe the sample is representative is that “goods beyond our ken have no chance of belonging to Rowe’s sample [of goods which could justify allowing the suffering]; so the sample is not random.”3

 

11. Some Difficulties in Theistic Treatments of Evil

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RICHARD M. GALE

That the world contains the evils it does obviously poses a challenge to traditional theism. For some it is logical in that a contradiction is supposed to be deducible from the coexistence of God and evil. Almost everyone now believes that adequate defenses have been devised to neutralize this challenge, a defense being a description of a possible world containing both God and the evils in question. In such a world God has a morally exonerating excuse for permitting these evils. In particular, it is claimed that the free-will defense, in at least one of its many versions, succeeds in reconciling God’s existence with moral evil—evil that is attributable to creaturely misuse of free will. In my book, On the Nature and Existence of God, I argued that no version of this defense works, and thereby the logical problem posed by moral evil is still with us. This, however, will not be my concern in this paper.

Evil also can be seen as posing an evidential challenge because the evils found in the world are supposed to lower the probability that God exists, and, for some atheologians, so much so that it is less than one-half. There are two different theistic responses to this challenge. The strongest response takes the form of a theodicy, which is a defense plus some argument for thinking that the possible world in which God and evil coexist is the actual world. The weaker response, which I will call “defensive skepticism,” is either (i) a defense coupled with an argument for our not being cognitively capable of finding out whether or not the possible world described in this defense is the actual world or (ii) just an argument for our not being cognitively capable of determining whether or not any evil is “gratuitous” in the sense that there is not in fact, though there could be, a circumstance that would constitute a morally exonerating excuse for God’s permitting it.

 

12. Reflections on the Chapters by Draper, Russell, and Gale

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PETER VAN INWAGEN

In “The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence” (chapter 8 [EAS]), I left the notion of epistemic probability at a more or less intuitive level. Reflection on Professor Draper’s essay “The Skeptical Theist” in the present volume (chapter 9) and a letter from Alvin Plantinga have convinced me that the main point I was trying to make was obscured by my failure to discuss this notion systematically—and by my shifting back and forth between the notions of epistemic surprise and epistemic probability. In this paper I shall discuss epistemic probability at some length, and I shall not mention “surprise” at all.

In the first section, I argue that judgments of epistemic probability can best be understood as epistemic judgments about nonepistemic (or “real, objective”) probabilities. I go on to show how to reconstruct Draper’s “evidential challenge” in such a way that it refers not to epistemic probabilities but to epistemic judgments about nonepistemic probabilities. I then present a restatement of the central argument of my chapter 8 specifically tailored to the reconstructed version of Draper’s challenge. In Section II, I shall explain why I do not find any materials in “The Skeptical Theist” from which an effective answer to the restated version of my argument could be constructed. In Section III, I shall explain why—despite what is said in “The Skeptical Theist”—I continue to regard Draper’s theses on how epistemic challenges must be met as intolerably restrictive.

 

13. On Being Evidentially Challenged

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ALVIN PLANTINGA

Pain and pleasure, says Paul Draper, constitute an evidential problem for theists.1 What precisely is the problem?

The problem is not that some proposition about pain and pleasure can be shown to be both true and logically inconsistent with theism. Rather, the problem is evidential. A statement reporting the observations and testimony upon which our knowledge about pain and pleasure is based bears a certain significant negative evidential relation to theism.

What is that statement, and what is the significant negative evidential relation it bears to theism? As for the former,

Now let “O” stand for a statement reporting both the observations one has made of humans and animals experiencing pain or pleasure and the testimony one has encountered concerning the observations others have made of sentient beings experiencing pain or pleasure. By “pain” I mean physical or mental suffering of any sort.

So O is the statement that bears a significant negative evidential relation to theism. Note that O is person relative: each of us will have her own O, and my O may differ from yours. My O, we might say, sets out the facts about the magnitude, variety, distribution, duration, and the like (for short, the “disposition”) of pleasure and pain as I know them.

 

14. The Evidential Argument from Evil: A Second Look

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WILLIAM L. ROWE

It is as misleading to speak of the evidential argument from evil as it is to speak of the cosmological argument. Just as there are distinct arguments that qualify as cosmological arguments, there are distinct arguments that qualify as evidential arguments from evil.1 My purpose here is to look again at an evidential argument from evil that I first presented in 1979.2 Since that time I have made several changes in that argument in an effort to make it clearer and to patch up weaknesses in earlier statements of it. Starting with the latest published account of the argument, I will discuss some important criticisms of it and will continue my efforts to clarify, simplify, and strengthen the argument.

The latest formulation I have given of the evidential problem of evil goes something like this.3 (E1 is the case of a fawn trapped in a forest fire and undergoing several days of terrible agony before dying. E2 is the case of the rape, beating, and murder by strangulation of a five-year-old girl.)4

 

15. The Argument from Inscrutable Evil

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DANIEL HOWARD-SNYDER

But there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! . . . what have the children to do with it, tell me, please?1

1. Only those lacking moral sensibilities, or those with twisted views of providence, could fail to feel the anguish apparent in Ivan Karamazov’s question. At least when most of us reflect on each of the particular horrors he describes—e.g., the boy eaten alive by the general’s hunting hounds or the girl habitually beaten, thrashed, and kicked by her parents “until her body was one bruise,” or some other brutal, debilitating, and undeserved evil—we find ourselves frustrated, unable to grasp what reasons God would have for permitting innocent children to suffer. As Ivan puts it, “it is beyond all comprehension that they should suffer.” Their suffering is, in a word, inscrutable.

 

16. Some (Temporarily) Final Thoughts on Evidential Arguments from Evil

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WILLIAM P. ALSTON

I have been assigned the unenviable job of “clean-up hitter.” The baseball metaphor, though of obvious application, can be misleading in more than one way. So far from aiming to bring the previous batters home (to their intended destination,) my efforts will be much more often directed to stranding them on the base paths. Moreover, the targets of my discussion are largely drawn from the opposing team, the members of which are bending their efforts to keeping me from making solid contact with the ball. Perhaps a more felicitous term for the assignment would be “groundskeeper.” My assignment is to restore the playing field to its pristine state after the depredations wrought by my predecessors.

Extricating myself from these athletic metaphors, it goes without saying that any “final word” on this topic is final only until the next round of comment and countercomment. My aim in this terminal chapter is to draw some of the threads of the previous chapters into the fabric I am inclined to weave. No doubt, many of my colleagues would discern a different pattern. More specifically, I will offer some second thoughts on my essay reprinted in this volume, then seek to do a better job of bringing out what I take to be the fatal weakness in evidential atheological arguments from evil, commenting, along the way, on various points in the foregoing chapters.

 

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