Problem of evil (evidential)

From Religions Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

The evidential version of the problem of evil (also referred to as the probabilistic or inductive version), seeks to show that the existence of evil, although logically consistent with the existence of God, counts against or lowers the probability of the truth of theism. As an example, a critic of Plantinga's idea of "a mighty nonhuman spirit" causing natural evils may concede that the existence of such a being is not logically impossible but argue that due to lacking scientific evidence for its existence this is very unlikely and thus it is an unconvincing explanation for the presence of natural evils.


A version by William L. Rowe:

  1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  3. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Another by Paul Draper (philosopher):

  1. Gratuitous evils exist.
  2. The hypothesis of indifference, i.e., that if there are supernatural beings they are indifferent to gratuitous evils, is a better explanation for (1) than theism.
  3. Therefore, evidence prefers that no god, as commonly understood by theists, exists.

These arguments are probability judgments since they rest on the claim that, even after careful reflection, one can see no good reason for God’s permission of evil. The inference from this claim to the general statement that there exists unnecessary evil is inductive reasoning|inductive in nature and it is this inductive step that sets the evidential argument apart from the logical argument.

The logical possibility of hidden or unknown reasons for the existence of evil still exist. However, the existence of God is viewed as any large-scale hypothesis or explanatory theory that aims to make sense of some pertinent facts. The extent to which it fails to do so has not been confirmed. According to Occam's razor, one should make as few assumptions as possible. Hidden reasons are assumptions, as is the assumption that all pertinent facts can be observed, or that facts and theories humans have not discerned are indeed hidden. Thus, as per Draper's argument above, the theory that there is an omniscient and omnipotent being who is indifferent requires no hidden reasons in order to explain evil. It is thus a simpler theory than one that also requires hidden reasons regarding evil in order to include omnibenevolence. Similarly, for every hidden argument that completely or partially justifies observed evils it is equally likely that there is a hidden argument that actually makes the observed evils worse than they appear without hidden arguments. As such, from a probabilistic viewpoint hidden arguments will neutralize one another.

Author and researcher Gregory S. Paul offers what he considers to be a particularly strong problem of evil. Paul describes conservative calculations that at least 100 billion people have been born throughout human history (starting roughly 50 000 years ago, when Homo Sapiens—humans—first appeared). He then performed what he calls "simple" calculations to estimate the historical death rate of children throughout this time. He found that the historical death rate was over 50%, and that the deaths of these children were mostly due to diseases (like malaria).

Paul thus sees it as a problem of evil, because this means, throughout human history, over 50 billion people died naturally before they were old enough to give mature consent. He adds that as many as 300 billion humans may never have reached birth, instead dying naturally but prenatally (the prenatal death rate being about 3/4 historically). Paul says that these figures could have implications for calculating the population of a heaven (which could include the aforementioned 50 billion children, 50 billion adults, and roughly 300 billion fetuses—excluding any living today).

A common response to instances of the evidential problem is that there are plausible (and not hidden) justifications for God’s permission of evil. These are discussed below.

Related arguments[edit]

Doctrines of hell, particularly those involving eternal suffering, pose a particularly strong form of the problem of evil (see problem of hell). If unbelief, incorrect beliefs, or poor design are considered evils, then the argument from nonbelief, the argument from inconsistent revelations, and the argument from poor design may be seen as particular instances of the argument from evil.

Responses: defenses and theodicies[edit]

Responses to the problem of evil have sometimes been classified as defenses or theodicies. However, authors disagree on the exact definitions. John Hick, for example, proposes a theodicy, while Alvin Plantinga formulates a defense. The idea of human free will often appears in a both of these strategies, but in different ways. Generally, a defense may refer to attempts to defuse the logical problem of evil by showing that there is no logical incompatibility between the existence of evil and the existence of God. This task does not require the identification of a plausible explanation of evil, and is successful if the explanation provided shows that the existence of God and the existence of evil are logically compatible. It need not even be true, since a false though coherent explanation would be sufficient to show logical compatibility.

A theodicy (may refer to the project of "justifying God" – showing that God's existence is compatible with the existence of evil) on the other hand, is more ambitious, since it attempts to provide a plausible justification—a morally sufficient reason—for the existence of evil and thereby rebut the "evidential" argument from evil. Richard Swinburne maintains that it does not make sense to assume there are greater goods that justify the evil's presence in the world unless we know what they are—without knowledge of what the greater goods could be, one cannot have a successful theodicy. Thus, some authors see arguments appealing to demons or the fall of man as indeed logically possible, but not very plausible given our knowledge about the world, and so see those arguments as providing defensces but not good theodicies.

Denial of omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence[edit]

If God lacks any one of these qualities, the existence of evil is explicable, and so the problem of evil will not be encountered.

In polytheism the individual deities are usually not omnipotent or omnibenevolent. However, if one of the deities has these properties the problem of evil applies. Belief systems where several deities are omnipotent would lead to logical contradictions.

Greater good responses[edit]

The omnipotence paradoxes raise questions as to the nature of God's omnipotence, with some solutions proposing that omnipotence does not require the ability to actualize the logically impossible. Greater good responses to the problem make use of this insight by arguing for existence of goods of great value which God cannot actualize without also permitting evil, and thus that there are evils he cannot be expected to prevent despite being omnipotent. The most popular greater good response appeals to free will.

Free will[edit]

The free will response asserts that the existence of free beings is something of tremendous value, because with free will comes the ability to make morally significant choices (and, it may be added, to enter into authentic loving relationships. Christian pastor and theologian, Gregory A. Boyd claims that God's all-powerful nature does not mean that God exercises all power, and instead allows free agents to act against his own wishes. He argues that since love must be chosen, love cannot exist without true free will. He also maintains that God does not plan or will evil in people's lives, but that evil is a result of a combination of free choices and the interconnectedness and complexity of life in a sinful and fallen world. With it also comes the potential for abuse, as when we fail to act morally. But the disvalue created by such abuse of free will is easily outweighed by the great value of free will and the good that comes of it, and so God is justified in creating a world which offers free will existence, and with it the potential for evil, over a world with neither free beings nor evil. A world with free beings and no evil would be still better, however this would require the cooperation of free beings with God, as it is logically impossible for God to prevent abuses of freedom without thereby curtailing that freedom.

Critics of the free will response have questioned whether it accounts for the degree of evil seen in this world. One point in this regard is that while the value of free will may be thought sufficient to counterbalance minor evils, it is less obvious that it outweighs the disvalue of evils such as rape and murder. Particularly egregious cases known as horrendous evils, which "constitute prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to him/her on the whole", have been the focus of recent work in the problem of evil. Another point is that those actions of free beings which bring about evil very often diminish the freedom of those who suffer the evil - for example, the murder of a young child (e.g. Death of Baby P) may prevent the child from ever exercising their free will in a significant way. Given that in such a case pits the freedom of an innocent child against the freedom of the evil-doer, it is not clear why God would not intervene for the sake of the child.

A second criticism is that the potential for evil inherent in free will may be limited by means which do not impinge on that free will. God could accomplish this by making moral actions especially pleasurable, so that they would be irresistible to us; he could also punish immoral actions immediately, and make it obvious that moral rectitude is in our self-interest; or he could allow bad moral decisions to be made, but intervene to prevent the harmful consequences from actually happening. A reply is that such a "toy world" would mean that free will has less or no real value. C. S. Lewis writes: "We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them." Critics may respond that this view seems to imply it would be similarly wrong for humans to try to reduce suffering in these ways, a position which few would advocate. The debate depends on the definitions of free will and determinism, which are deeply disputed concepts themselves, as well as their relation to one another.

A third reply is that though the free will defense has the potential to explain moral evil, as described it fails to address natural evils, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and diseases. Advocates of the free will response may advert to a different explanation of these natural evils, or extend the free will response to account for them. As an example of the latter, Alvin Plantinga has famously suggested that natural evils are caused by the free choices of supernatural beings such as demons. Others have argued that natural evils are the result of the fall of man, which corrupted the perfect world created by God; or that natural laws which are prerequisite for the existence of intelligent free beings, or again that natural evils provide us with a knowledge of evil which makes our free choices more significant than they would otherwise be, and so our free will more valuable. Richard Swinburne in "Is There a God?" writes that "the operation of natural laws producing evils gives humans knowledge (if they choose to seek it) of how to bring about such evils themselves. Observing you can catch some disease by the operation of natural processes gives me the power either to use those processes to give that disease to other people, or through negligence to allow others to catch it, or to take measures to prevent others from catching the disease." In this way, "it increases the range of significant choice....The actions which natural evil makes possible are ones which allow us to perform at our best and interact with our fellows at the deepest level" Lastly, it has been suggested that natural evils are a mechanism of divine punishment for evils that humans have committed, and so the evil is justified.

Finally, because the free will response assumes a libertarian account of free will, the debate over its adequacy naturally widens into a debate concerning the nature and existence of free will. Compatibilists deny that a being who is determined to act morally lacks free will, and so also that God cannot ensure the moral behavior of the free beings he creates. Hard determinists deny the existence of free will, and therefore that the existence of free will justifies the evil in our world. There is also debate regarding the compatibility of libertarian free will with the absence of evil from heaven.

Soul-making or Irenaean theodicy[edit]

Distinctive of the soul-making theodicy is the claim that evil and suffering are necessary for spiritual growth. This theodicy was developed by the second-century Christian theologian, Irenaeus of Lyons, and its most recent and outspoken advocate has been the influential philosopher of religion, John Hick. A perceived inadequacy with the theodicy is that many evils do not seem to promote such growth, and can be positively destructive of the human spirit. A second issue concerns the distribution of evils suffered: were it true that God permitted evil in order to facilitate spiritual growth, then we would expect evil to disproportionately befall those in poor spiritual health. This does not seem to be the case, as the decadent enjoy lives of luxury which insulate them from evil, whereas many of the pious are poor, and are well acquainted with worldly evils. A third problem attending this theodicy is that the qualities developed through experience with evil seem to be useful precisely because they are useful in overcoming evil. But if there were no evil, then there would seem to be no value in such qualities, and consequently no need for God to permit evil in the first place. Against this it may be asserted that the qualities developed are intrinsically valuable, but this view would need further justification.

Skeptical theism[edit]

Skeptical theists argue that due to humanity's limited knowledge, we cannot expect to understand God or his ultimate plan. When a parent takes an infant to the doctor for a regular vaccination to prevent childhood disease, it's because the parent cares for and loves that child. The infant however will be unable to appreciate this. It is argued that just as an infant cannot possibly understand the motives of its parent due to its cognitive limitations, so too are humans unable to comprehend God's will in their current physical and earthly state. Given this view, the difficulty or impossibility of finding a plausible explanation for evil in a world created by God is to be expected, and so the argument from evil is assumed to fail unless it can be proven that God's reasons would be comprehensible to us. A related response is that good and evil are strictly beyond human comprehension. Since our concepts of good and evil as instilled in us by God are only intended to facilitate ethical behavior in our relations with other humans, we should have no expectation that our concepts are accurate beyond what is needed to fulfill this function, and therefore cannot presume that they are sufficient to determine whether what we call evil really is evil. Such a view may be independently attractive to the theist, as it permits an agreeable interpretation of certain biblical passages, such as "...Who makes peace and creates evil; I am the Lord, Who makes all these."

A counterpoint to the above is that while these considerations harmonize belief in God with our inability to identify his reasons for permitting evil, there remains a question as to why we have not been given a clear and unambiguous assurance by God that he has good reasons for allowing evil, which would be within our ability to understand. Here discussion of the problem of evil shades into discussion of the argument from nonbelief.

Eric Wielenberg has argued that the theist who adopts Skeptical Theism as a response to the evidential problem of evil must, as a matter of consistency, admit that he is also in no position to place probabilities on the truth value of any proposition that has biblical Justification only. This is because the theist isn't in a position to place probabilities on whether or not God has a 'beyond our understanding' justification for lying to them in any proposition that has biblical justification only.

Denial of the existence of evil[edit]

Evil as the absence of good[edit]

6th century portrait of Augustine of Hippo

The fifth century theologian Augustine of Hippo maintained that evil exists only as a privation or absence of the good. Ignorance is an evil, but is merely the absence of knowledge, which is good; disease is the absence of health; callousness an absence of compassion. Since evil has no positive reality of its own, it cannot be caused to exist, and so God cannot be held responsible for causing it to exist. In its strongest form, this view may identify evil as an absence of God, who is the sole source of that which is good.

A related view, which draws on the Taoist concept of yin-yang, allows that both evil and good have positive reality, but maintains that they are complementary opposites, where the existence of each is dependent on the existence of the other. Compassion, a valuable virtue, can only exist if there is suffering; bravery only exists if we sometimes face danger; self-sacrifice is called for only where others are in need. This is sometimes called the "contrast" argument.

Perhaps the most important criticism of the "absence" view is that, even granting its success against the argument from evil, it does nothing to undermine an 'argument from the absence of goodness' which may be pushed instead, and so the response is only superficially successful. For instance, good things by the same logic can be defined as having a privation of evil. Health means a lack of disease, wisdom a lack of ignorance etc. Moreover, many things called a mere "lack" are no such thing. Diseases are not merely a "lack of health", but things in themselves (e.g. cancer, infections etc.).

As to the contrast view, there is nothing logically impossible about having pleasure with no pain etc. Moreover, the Bible itself promises that in the Kingdom of Heaven "There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain" (Revelation 21:4), which means Christians would have a difficulty maintaining this.

Evil as illusory[edit]

It is possible to hold that evils such as suffering and disease are mere illusions, and that we are mistaken about the existence of evil. This approach is favored by some Eastern religious philosophies such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and by Christian Science. It is most plausible when considering our knowledge of evils which are geographically or temporally distant, for these might not be real after all. However, when considering our own sensations of pain and mental anguish, there does not seem to be a difference in apprehending that we are afflicted by such sensations and suffering under their influence. If that is the case, it seems that not all evils can be dismissed as illusory.

Turning the tables[edit]

"Evil" suggests an ethical law[edit]

A different approach to the problem of evil is to turn the tables by suggesting that any argument from evil is self-refuting, in that its conclusion would necessitate the falsity of one of its premises. One response then is to point out that the assertion "evil exists" implies an ethical standard against which moral value is determined, and then to argue that this standard implies the existence of God (see argument from morality). C. S. Lewis writes:

"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?... Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies."

The standard criticism of this view is that an argument from evil is not necessarily a presentation of the views of its proponent, but is instead intended to show how premises which the theist is inclined to believe lead him or her to the conclusion that God does not exist (i.e. as a reductio of the theist's worldview). Another tact is to reformulate the argument from evil so that this criticism does not apply—for example, by replacing the term "evil" with "suffering", or what is more cumbersome, a state of affairs that orthodox theists would agree are properly called "evil".

General criticisms of defenses and theodicies[edit]

Several philosophers have argued that just as there exists a problem of evil for theists who believe in an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent being, so too is there a problem of good for anyone who believes in an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnimalevolent (or perfectly evil) being. As it appears that the defenses and theodicies which might allow the theist to resist the problem of evil can be inverted and used to defend belief in the omnimalevolent being, this suggests that we should draw similar conclusions about the success of these defensive strategies. In that case, the theist appears to face a dilemma: either to accept that both sets of responses are equally bad, and so that the theist does not have an adequate response to the problem of evil; or to accept that both sets of responses are equally good, and so to commit to the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnimalevolent being as plausible. Critics have noted that theodicies and defenses are often addressed to the logical problem of evil. As such, they are intended only to demonstrate that it is possible that evil can co-exist with an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent being. Since the relevant parallel commitment is only that good can co-exist with an omniscient, omnipotent and omnimalevolent being, not that it is plausible that they should do so, the theist who is responding to the problem of evil need not be committing themselves to something they are likely to think is false. This reply, however, leaves the evidential problem of evil untouched.

Another general criticism is that though a theodicy may harmonize God with the existence of evil, it does so at the cost of nullifying morality. This is because most theodicies assume that whatever evil there is exists because it is required for the sake of some greater good. But if an evil is necessary because it secures a greater good, then it appears we humans have no duty to prevent it, for in doing so we would also prevent the greater good for which the evil is required. Even worse, it seems that any action can be rationalized, as if one succeeds in performing it, then God has permitted it, and so it must be for the greater good. From this line of thought one may conclude that, as these conclusions violate our basic moral intuitions, no greater good theodicy is true, and God does not exist. Alternatively, one may point out that greater good theodicies lead us to see every conceivable state of affairs as compatible with the existence of God, and in that case the notion of God's goodness is rendered meaningless.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

v · d Arguments against the existence of god
Existential arguments   Argument from nonbelief · Problem of Evil (logical) . Who created God? · Turtles all the way down · Problem of non-God objects · Argument from incompatible attributes · No-reason argument · Santa Claus argument · Can God create a rock so heavy that he can't lift it? · Outsider test
Arguments from the Bible   Failed prophecy in the Bible · Biblical contradictions
Evidentiary arguments   Problem of evil (evidential) · Inefficacy of prayer
Reasonableness arguments   Occam's Razor · Outsider test · Argument from locality · Argument from inconsistent revelations
Other arguments   Emotional pleas