Friday, 30 July 2010

Does evil make God improbable?

Last time we examined the argument that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God - the deductive argument from evil. Hopefully I showed that the argument isn't successful. Today we're going to see whether the existence of evil poses a different kind of problem for theists. We're going to see if the existence of evil makes belief in God irrational. Like I said last time, please understand that we're tackling the purely intellectual side of the problem of suffering so don't think I'm insensitive to the emotional pains of evil just because I am dissecting this problem in a 'detached' intellectual way. I think our pain matters and I think also it matters to God. But the aim of this entry is not to counsel anyone.

Let's carry on ...

The evidential argument from evil

Let's return again to our favourite hypothetical debaters, Benny the Christian and Jimbo the skeptic. In the last entry we saw that Benny had the means to counter Jimbo's deductive argument from evil. Because it is possible that God has a morally justifiable reason for permitting evil, it is not impossible for evil and God to co-exist. So where does this leave them?

Jimbo: Gotta say Benny, I'm impressed that you managed to defeat the deductive argument from evil. But you aren't out of the woods yet my friend.
Benny: Oh no?
Jimbo: Nope. It's slam-dunk time. You see perhaps God does have a morally justifiable reason for permitting evil. But given the extent of evil we see in the world and the types of evil we see, it just isn't likely that he does.
Benny: I don't like the sound of this. You're gonna have to explain your point further.
Jimbo: Gladly. Imagine a deer in a forest. There's no one around. And as it happens it's standing next to a rotting tree. The tree collapses and lands on the deer crushing its back legs. The deer isn't dead yet but it can't move and it is in agony. After a couple of hours a bear finds it and eats it further adding to the deer's agony before it finally dies.
Benny: That isn't the most pleasant thing to imagine...
Jimbo: Quite. Can you think of any greater good that would be achieved by this happening?
Benny: ... not really.
Jimbo: Indeed. We seem to come up short when we think of any reason that might justifiably permit God to allow this to happen. It seems reasonable to think that probably, no such reason exists. And as a result, probably God doesn't exist.
Benny: This does sound quite convincing...

Benny is right, it does indeed sound convincing. This is the evidential argument from evil. Or to be more accurate, this is one example of an evidential argument from evil. There's more than one way a skeptic can present this sort of argument but as a species they share a similar spirit to the one Jimbo presented. The idea is that some amount or type of evil appears to be gratuitous - that is, unnecessary - and so most likely there are no good morally justifiable reasons for these evils to be permitted. And if God doesn't have a morally justifiable reason for permitting evil, that means he can't exist (or at least, he can't be both all-loving and all-powerful simultaneously).

How can we give Benny a hand here? Debates over the strength of the evidential argument continue and being but a new student of them myself I shall just pass on what I've learnt from those on the front lines.

The worst case scenario

For the sake of argument let's assume that Jimbo is right and that looking at the situation it is quite improbable that there exists a morally justifiable reason for why the deer died as it did. We might think then that, judging solely by the kinds of evil that exists, the existence of God is improbable. But the key thing to note is that this argument is judging the liklihood of God's existence based on evil alone.

Imagine you have a friend who has gone to buy a pet earlier today. She has gone to 'Pet's Palace of Perfectly Pretty Poodles', a shop well known for selling Poodles. In fact the shop holds 99 animals and all but one of them are Poodles. The other one is a cat (leftover from the times before the shop owner began literally worshipping the pink pooches). Based on this knowledge alone if you had to guess what pet your friend took home, you'd say it is overwhelmingly likely that she purchased a Poodle. It would be pretty unreasonable to think she'd bought the cat. But what if you knew that your friend was both scared of dogs and allergic to them? Then your estimation would radically change - it would be more reasonable to think that your friend bought that lone cat.

Similarly it might be the case that based on evil alone, the existence of God is unlikely, but with our other knowledge factored in, the probability is not so low or is even high. So if you already have good grounds for believing that God exists, then the evidential argument from evil doesn't render your belief irrational. If you don't have good reasons for believing in God this argument might push you more toward atheism, and if you're already there, well then, you'll feel more secure in your atheism. But what more can we say?

What are the odds?

You might have noticed a certain assumption within the argument. It goes something like this; "we can't think of a morally justifiable reason for why x occurred. If there was such a reason, probably we would know it. But we don't know it, so there probably isn't such a reason." But is this assumption correct? Why think that if there is such a reason, we would know it?

Imagine a field of thousands of acres. It's vast, expansive, and rather pretty. And you're stuck inside. You're in the kitchen of some manor overlooking just a few feet of the field which is the grounds of your place. You're already kind of annoyed at being stuck inside when you could be roaming the grounds, but to make matters worse your spouse comes in the room and asks you where the kids are. Apparently, you ought to have been looking after them. You aren't sure where they are but you decide to narrow down the options. You peer out of the window at the small part of the grounds you can see. You can't see the kids there and so you conclude that they aren't in the grounds. Would this be a reasonable conclusion?

No, it wouldn't be seeing as you aren't in a position where you'd be likely to see the kids if they were in the grounds - after all it's a massive area and you can only see a very small part of it. Perhaps we are in a very similar position with God and evil. We can't see a morally justifiable reason for certain evils, but then maybe we just aren't in a place where we're likely to see those reasons. After all God is far more intelligent then we are and as Isaiah 55:8 declares, his thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways are not our ways. This gap between ourselves and God means it might not be as probable that there are no morally justifiable reasons for certain evils as we think.


Another factor to consider in our estimations of the probability that God could have a morally justifiable reason for evil, is any plausible theodicies we might have. A theodicy is a proposed reason that God might have for permitting certain kinds of evil. The most famous and most widely accepted theodicy is the 'free will theodicy'. This theodicy attempts to explain why God allows evil performed by people. The reasoning is that genuine free choice is a valuable thing - if we were forced to do certain things (like love) they'd be a lot less meaningful. Because of this, God gave humans genuine free will and because God cannot force anybody to act a certain way without taking away their free will, necessarily he must allow some people to commit evil if they want to. The theodicy is not without its counter-arguments (and counter-counter-arguments etc) but it is illustrated here by way of example. A plausible theodicy will certainly impact our etimation of the odds involved here.


The evidential argument from evil is not a bad argument but even if we can't boost the probability of God having a morally justifiable reason for certain evils, this is only a problem for the person whose basis for believing in God is already rather shakey. Evil provides more disturbing emotional concerns than intellectual ones. Jimbo hasn't given Benny a slam-dunk yet! And as I hope to explore later in the blog, evil might present the atheist with their own challenge to overcome.


klatu said...

Evil and the inability of any religious teaching to impact evil and that we cannot see evil being beaten by any stronger moral teaching offered by tradition, only makes religion improbable while the promise of the incarnation remains unrealized. I don't think God may not have even started yet? All that exists is a theological counterfeit. All is chasing after wind!

Martin said...

Hello Klatu. I think your conclusion that all that exists is a theological counterfeit is deeply mistaken. The link you pointed me to does well to poetically note humanity's sad history of failure. But why do you think this history has any negative bearing on the probability of Christianity's truth?

Jesus was quite frank in saying that we mortals do NOT have any ability to make the world perfect ourselves. He said that apart from him we can achieve NOTHING (John 15:4-6). He promised us that we would have hardship and trials (John 16:33) but he claimed he had overcome the world. That is, he has the ultimate victory over evil and will someday return to make everything right.

If you recognise how futile our own efforts have been to bring the world into a state of peace I suggest you study Jesus' claims and decide for yourself whether you can reasonable trust him to carry out all that he promised.