Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Does evil disprove God?

Having spent some time establishing the fact that Christianity is not anti-intellectual in principle, it's worth having a quick look at whether Christianity is anti-intellectual in actuality. That is, are there are certain facts that we know that render Christianity impossible or irrational? After all it's good and well to say that Christianity doesn't teach you to throw your brain away, when it might be the case that actually believing it would require you to given the circumstances. Many people believe this is the very position we find ourselves in. And frequently a chief reason cited as the cause for this sorry states of affairs is the argument from evil, a.k.a the problem of suffering.

What problem are we looking at?

Now before we jump in to examine this objection we need to clarify what exactly it is we're trying to achieve. We've all experienced suffering of various kinds and for many of us the tension between God's existence and the existence of evil is not a purely academic concern. It is personal and it hurts. This entry is absolutely NOT going to counsel those hurts. It is going to focus on the intellectual problems evil gives us. So please do not think I'm being intentionally cold or detached when I discuss the matter.

With that caveat aside, there is yet another to consider. Conversations like the following are familiar to many of us:

Benny: Man, God is so good. He's really blessed my life.
Jimbo: Oh? If God is so good then why does he allow earthquakes and murders?
Benny: Urm ....

Yeah... *the theists in the room all nod understandingly*. Now in actual fact the way that Jimbo has expressed the problem of suffering is rather distracting. What he hasn't said is what actually follows if Benny is unable to answer. Does that mean that God can't exist? Does that mean that Benny's belief in God is irrational? Jimbo hasn't clarified either way. He hasn't really presented an argument. If you're a skeptic I'd encourage you to actually formulate the steps of the argument you're putting across. If you're a theist I'd encourage you to call out anyone who approaches the subject in this way. Sometimes this sort of presentation is masking a mere 'argument from outrage' rather than an honest rational enquiry. Let's say that Benny challenges Jimbo on this and Jimbo obliges and forms the following argument...

Jimbo: Benny my boy your theism is done for! You think that God is all-powerful and perfectly good. But if God is perfectly good he always desires good for his creatures. And if God is all-powerful then God always has the power to carry out what he desires. So there shouldn't be any evil. But evil exists! Therefore your God cannot.

So Jimbo has contrued the argument so that it's trying to persuade us that God logically cannot exist alongside evil.

A heavy burden to bear

The form of the argument Jimbo has presented is called the logical argument from evil or the deductive argument from evil. This argument would have us believe that to claim that God exists alongside evil is as impossibly contradictory as saying that your mother exists and doesn't exist at the same time. This is a very strong claim and the burden is on the skeptic to demonstrate this impossibility. For the theist to defuse the argument, all that must be done is show that it is possible that God can exist alongside evil. Benny doesn't have to explain why God permits evil he only has to show that it is not impossible for them to co-exist (that is why posing the question as Jimbo initially did can be distracting). As it happens it is quite easy to show that the two can possibly co-exist. In fact philosophers have basically abandoned the logical form of the argument (it is the 'evidential' form of the argument from evil which is discussed nowadays, and we shall turn our attention to it next time).

The solution

Simply put it is possible that God has a morally justifiable reason for permitting the existence of evil. Philosopher Daniel Howard-Snyder says this about the failure of the logical argument from evil:

"... nothing we know rules out the possibility that there is a morally justifying reason for a wholly good thing to permit evil she could prevent. Indeed, consider the proposition that

J: There is a morally justifying reason for God to permit evil he could prevent, a reason we could not know of, and He permits evil for that reason, and evil results.

Nothing we know rules out J as a possibility ... (The Evidential Argument from Evil. 1996: xiii-xiv)"

And well, that's it. Because it's possible, it's not impossible. So evil alone does not disprove God. Next time we'll see if evil nonetheless gives us a good reason not to believe in God.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your post Martin, have to be honest, I never even considered that the end of the argument is simply 'because it's possible'. Probably because the argument provokes an emotional response in me, because as you stated above,it's personal and it hurts. I like the way you can answer in this logical way.
I also find it interesting that you have not mentioned the argument for free will here? For me free will answers not only why people can be evil and God allows it but also that the original choice of sin with Adam and Eve lead to such evils being possible such as natural disasters. I wonder what are your thoughts on this. As it is clear to me that you know much more than I do in these matters! Carl (from 'free spirit')

Martin said...

Sorry for the late reply Carl, I've only recently discovered how to check whether I have comments without manually looking through every post.

I do actually mention the issue of free will in the next entry on Does Evil Make God Improbable? I certainly think free will is a good reason for thinking that God permits human evil. I'm also open to it linked to natural evil. I happen to think that Biblically, human sin doesn't directly cause natural evil, but rather, human sin invoked God's curse which caused natural evil. I don't know just how explicit the text is about this though (and it wouldn't certainly present plenty of other juicy issues to discuss!)

Martin said...

it would*