Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Evidential (Probabilistic) Problem of Evil: Part 1

In the last post, I responded to a second defense of the logical problem of evil: that a benevolent being desires to eradicate all suffering and evil now. I noted that while this may seem true at first, there are a host of exceptions to this generalization, and it is therefore not necessarily the case. But since a benevolent being does not necessarily desire to eradicate all evil and suffering now, it follows that the evil and suffering now observed are not incompatible with the desires of a benevolent being. Thus the second major assumption of the logical problem of evil also fails. I further noted that some theistic philosophers have sought (successfully) to show positively that evil and suffering are consistent with the existence of God. Consequently, most philosophers, including atheistic ones, agree that the so-called logical problem of evil is in fact not problematic after all. It will no doubt take some time for the news of this to trickle down to lay-atheist apologists who have a tendency to neglect the study of views which differ from their own, so I should not be surprised to hear the claim, especially on the internet, that the existence of evil proves that God cannot exist. The continued insistence that this is so, it seems to me, is the result of ignorance (willing or not), and should not at all lessen the confidence of the theist.

                There is another problem of evil, however, which does not seem to be so easily defeated, and still has a number of defenders. This problem essentially is that, while it’s not the case that an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being cannot exist, nevertheless it is the case that such a being very probably does not exist. This results, in a sense, from one of the theistic defenses to the logical problem of evil: that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing the suffering and evil that we observe.

                The defender of the evidential problem of evil (hereafter EPE) concedes that a certain number of evils could plausibly be allowed by a benevolent God, but that the sheer amount of evil and suffering in the world is improbable if a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient being exists. It is important at this juncture to clarify what is being claimed in the EPE: that the existence of God is improbable given the amount (not the mere presence) of suffering in the world. God, if He existed, would not allow this much suffering. Or God, if He existed, would not plausibly have morally sufficient reasons for so doing. It can be formulated numerous ways, but it generally includes the view that if God did have morally sufficient reasons for allowing this amount of suffering, we would be privy to at least some of those reasons. But many of the reasons which we could admit as morally justifying simply do not seem to apply to most instances of suffering. This, according to the EPE, counts as prima facie evidence against the existence of God.

                So to formalize the argument, it is necessary to define one’s terms and sufficiently organize one’s line of reasoning.

1.       If God exists, gratuitous suffering does not exist.
2.       Gratuitous suffering does exist.
3.       Therefore God does not exist.

This is a logically valid modus tollens argument.
Gratuitous suffering is suffering for which there is no purpose, or end, and God is defined minimally as an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent being. Thus we can see that the EPE stands or falls on the basis of whether gratuitous evils exist.

                It will also be helpful to remember at this point that the EPE is an argument, in effect, against the existence of God. The proponent of it presumably wishes to show God’s existence to be improbable, and consequently it is the proponent of it who must bear the burden of proof. He must make a compelling case that the EPE actually is strong evidence against the existence of God. I mention this only because lay atheist apologists tend to proceed as though they have no burden of proof, ever, for anything they say. However convenient that may be for them, it will do little to advance their case against a theism which is well grounded, and is neither reactionary nor defensive. The atheist does bear the proof-burden here, and if she is not willing or able to bear it, then so much the worse for atheism.

                In abandoning strict logical disproof, the EPE seeks to make a probabilistic case against the existence of God by offering evidence. Necessarily, this evidence will be weighed against all the evidence for the existence of God, so it will not be helpful to think that the EPE all by itself renders God’s existence (hereafter G) improbable. The theist may be tempted to concede that a great deal of suffering appears to be gratuitous, but she may simply flip the EPE on its head in this way:

1.       If God exists, gratuitous suffering does not exist.
2.       God exists.
3.       Therefore gratuitous suffering does not exist.

Thus we have a valid modus ponens argument against the EPE. It should be sufficiently clear at this point that probabilistic arguments need to account for the totality of the evidence, and the theist might justifiably assert that we have strong enough evidence of G by way the the Kalām cosmological argument, the moral argument, et. al.… that theism is still totally justified and rational even in light of the EPE.

       But all that aside. Now to an examination of an actual exposition of the EPE offered by philosopher John Loftus in his book The Christian Delusion. Loftus admits that some theodicies have some force. For instance, the one I mentioned back in my post on the logical problem of evil, where I offered the example of a surgeon inflicting suffering in order to prevent further harm to the patient. Loftus interestingly sidesteps many of these theodicies by focusing on what he calls the “Darwinian problem of evil,” which is the mass of animal pain and death prior to the existence of human beings. He makes it very clear that what he is seeking from the theist is not merely what Alvin Plantinga calls a “defense” (which is a suggestion of what God’s morally sufficient reason might be for all we know); what he is seeking is a veritable theodicy. He wants to know what God’s reasons actually are. Absent a compelling theodicy for pre-human animal suffering, Loftus contends that the EPE is very strong (possibly incontrovertible) evidence against G. Loftus summarizes and then criticizes some leading theistic accounts of pre-human animal suffering, and in my next post I’ll take his summaries and criticisms point by point.

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