The problem of evil is one of the most commonly pushed objections to the existence of God.There have been, historically, two major ways this problem is presented. The first way is to suggest that evil and God are logically incompatible. The second way argues that evil reduces the probability of God’s existence.
The suggestion that evil and God are logically incompatible has been largely abandoned in recent scholarship due to the writings of theistic philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga. Atheistic philosophers who had pressed such a problem have largely abandoned such argumentation in favor of the second method–the probabilistic problem of evil (see Rowe, Draper, Mackie, etc. to see atheistic turnabout on this subject). It is widely acknowledged that there is no logical incompatibility (in the sense that it is a logical contradiction) for there to exist an omni-benevolent God and evil (Plantinga, 461).
Thus, the argument has turned to probabilistic arguments against the existence of God. These arguments often are something like, “Given the great amount of evil in the world, it seems unlikely that God [here meaning the God of Classical Theism] exists.” Given some amount of evil, E, it seems as though the probability that God exists is lower than .5 (50%). There are many problems with such arguments. I have argued this elsewhere (see here) , but there are further arguments I’d like to expand upon.
First, one major problem with such arguments is to figure out some way to measure evil (hereafter E). How do we objectively measure the amount of E in the world? But then this leads us to a second problem: if we can measure the amount of E in the world, what amount of E is such that the existence of God (call it “T” for theism) is unlikely? Where is the mark at which T is more likely than not, given E?
But apart from even these problems, there is the fact that some rather simple explanations or defenses can be used by theists. For example, the theist could assert that as long as there is any amount of good in the world, T is more likely than not. This doesn’t seem quite fair, so the theist could rather assert that given any E, there is the possibility that God utilizes E for good. But this may be unconvincing as well. There are still other “outs” for the theist.
Perhaps the most interesting and insightful defenses from this kind of problem of evil was made by Alvin Plantinga in the essential work, Warranted Christian Belief. He argues, utilizing a “multiverse” type of scenario:
“…a theist might agree that it is unlikely, given just what we know about our world that there is such a person as God. But perhaps God has created countless worlds, in fact, all the worlds… in which there is a substantial overall balance of good over evil. In some worlds there is no suffering and evil; in some a great deal; as it happens, we find ourselves in one of the worlds where there is a good deal. But the probability of theism, given the whole ensemble of worlds, isn’t particularly low” (Plantinga, 473).
This defense is almost joyfully simple, yet it reveals a looming problem for the anti-theist wielding the problem of evil. There are indeed countless scenarios just like this, or at least similar to it, in which theism has a “way out.” Plantinga mentions these throughout the same work (see pages 458-499).
There are other ways to defend against such arguments, however. The assertion is that the existence of some amount of E lowers T, given E. But of course the theist can easily grant this and simply argue that on the basis of their own background knowledge (hereafter “k”), the probability of T given E and k is quite high. Plantinga argues for the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, an assertion with which I stand in agreement (Plantinga, 290 and following). But we need not even appeal to a notion that will be as highly disputed as this.
For perhaps the theist has the belief that the cosmological argument seems plausible, or the ontological argument is quite convincing (as here), or perhaps they believe that the other alternatives (the other theistic religions, pantheism, naturalism, paganism, spiritualism, etc.) are even less likely than T. But then the theist has a high probability of T given k, even if the theist acknowledges that T’s probability given E is lower than before.
It then follows that the theist is justified in maintaining such theistic belief even in light of the problem of evil, for on k and E, they still believe there is a high probability that T is true.
Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford. 2000.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.
“The problem of evil is one of the most commonly pushed objections to the existence of God.”
I may be nitpicking, but just to be clear: the problem of evil is not an argument against the existence of God. It is only an argument against a god that is both all good and all powerful. This does not rule out gods existing that are not all powerful (Thor or Apollo, for example) or that aren’t completely good. And remember, not completely good doesn’t mean evil.
I definitely appreciate the clarification. As I was outlining in this post, originally the argument of evil was an argument against the existence of God, in a sense. The claim was that evil and God were logically incompatible, and thus contradictory. In other words, if evil existed, God did not. But that has fallen by the wayside in contemporary philosophy. Indeed, people could allow for gods that were not the God of Classical Theism, but that is not the subject of this post.
So I would assert it is an argument against the existence of God in the sense I’m taking God (aka the God of Classical Theism). I’m not in the business of defending the existence of other so-called “gods”. Thanks again for the clarification. I do appreciate your comments.
“It is only an argument against a god that is both all good and all powerful.”
Which is why that argument fails both logically and practically. Practically because theists hold that God is more than a two-attribute wonder. Logically because it contains an argumentative fallacy. It may serve to strengthen the unbelief of someone who already denies there is a god (or at least doubts).
The conclusion you have stated has several different forms of its proof, but the bottom line is that they all presume God exists “if God is…” Now, the reason I say this argument fails the test of logic is because it commits a grievous straw-man fallacy. The straw-man fallacy occurs in positing a proof that only deals with God based on two attributes: omnipotence and omnibenevolence. Omnipotence and Omnibenevolence alone are not the limit of what is meant by “God.” We think those two attributes are the only two factors involved in the problem of evil, but consider how other attributes affect the problem of evil. What is to be made of omniscience? Could God see and know something we do not? If God is all-seeing/knowing and we are not I suppose the answer is yes. Could that have ramifications on what we call evil and unjust? I suppose so. What is to be made of Eternity? Transcendence? Sovereignty? I think you see my point. There is more at work between God and the Problem of Evil than just a stick-figure god with either an omnipotent arm or an omnibenevolent one.
Because the proof posits that God exists, the antagonist must either acknowledge all that is meant by their opponents’ “God” (since usually this argument is used on a theist), or else the argument is nothing more than straw-manning. Now, if the argument were to include all the attributes of the theists’ God, they would actually have to forfeit the pursuit of the problem of evil altogether. This probably seems confusing, but let me remind the reader that the proof presumes God exists. This is pivotal! If the God that is presumed to exist is not a straw-man version of God, but the complete God believed in by the theists, then we humans have no place to scrutinize and judge. I’m not saying this to be simplistic or dismissive on the matter. Intelligibly speaking, can that which has limited knowledge accurately sit in judgment over that which is all-knowing? Can that which is temporal scrutinize that which is eternal? Can that which is localized accuse that which is transcendent? The gap of perspective between mankind and God is too great for the problem of evil argument to be anything but a pointless musing of hypotheses. Strictly speaking, unless the antagonist commits that straw-man fallacy he will be forced to abandon his proof for no other reason than he has no real ground on which he can stand and approach that “God” which is otherwise unapproachable.
Thanks for this excellent response! You have brought up many further points with which the theist can counter such arguments.
“The straw-man fallacy occurs in positing a proof that only deals with God based on two attributes: omnipotence and omnibenevolence.”
It’s only a straw-man if the person making the argument is specifically saying that no god exists because of the problem of evil. I have not heard anyone make that argument.
“then we humans have no place to scrutinize and judge.”
In which case, I can dismiss everything you’ve said about your god, including that your god is inscrutable. Because if it is inscrutable, how would you be able to scrutinize it and be able to determine it was inscrutable?
I don’t believe God is inscrutable, and I doubt Open2Truth does either, but regardless of his beliefs, I think the point he was making wasn’t that God is inscrutable, but rather that there could be reasons beyond our knowledge that could justify some level of “evil.” I must point out that while I do think this is a fair assertion, it is not one that I made, specifically because I don’t think we need to appeal to things we don’t know in this case. There are almost limitless possibilities we can use in order to explain evil given theism. I outlined such reasons above and came to the conclusion that the theist can certainly take theism as highly probable, even if evil makes it less probable. Of course, I also argued that the existence of evil doesn’t seem to make theism less probable. Anyway, my basic point is that I don’t think God is inscrutable, and though there may be reasons beyond our knowledge that could explain the existence of evil on God, there are also plenty of reasons within our knowledge.
It still is a straw-man fallacy to claim either that God is a) not all-powerful because he can’t fix the problem; or b) that he is not all good because he has the power and doesn’t. Either of those conclusions would be changed if not negated altogether were other attributes to be considered in the proof. Thus the straw-manned version of God leads to one of two conclusions neither of which are logically necessary when an un-straw-manned God is examined.
For the record, no, I don’t think God is necessarily inscrutable. I think the Bible contains far too many songs of lament, complaint Psalms, and prayers of people geared towards God changing His course of action for this to be the case. The point I was driving at is that the Problem of Evil argument in its present state is a laughable excuse for an intellectual argument. In light of what a theist means by “God” the problem of evil argument seems less like a philosophical exploration and more like an angry adolescent saying his father is either too poor or not-loving enough to bail him out of jail, buy him a car on his 16th bday, or any other hypothetical scenario. Clearly will and power are not the only two factors at work in parents’ decisions. In all actuality most of us will find ourselves making the same “unfair” decisions 30 years later when we have kids and the same perspective and insight our parents had.
I don’t mean to trivialize the substance of the problem of evil. Certainly the millions of agonizing deaths to cancer, natural disaster, war, genocide, etc. are not to be equated with the plights of a spoiled teenager. The analogy is simply to show that there is more at work in discussing the potential courses of action than just God’s will and ability. Unfortunately, adding his divine insight to the equation is something we can only scrutinize as far as our own human insight goes.
To defend my quote that you pulled out. I did not say that God is inscrutable, I said humans have no place scrutinizing God. There is a subtle, yet important difference. Obviously we have the noetic capacity to scrutinize anything and everything, including God. By saying we have “no place” doing so I simply mean that the pursuit of scrutinizing a true God (and not a caricatured, straw-god) will ultimately leave us with the concluding realization that God is God and we are not. This resignation makes scrutiny a trumped endeavor from the get-go. If God sees something that we cannot then our only course of action is to seek to know more until all is revealed. I could say the same thing about scrutinizing a jury. I really have no place scrutinizing a jury’s decision unless I have seen the same evidence as they have. Given God’s omniscience, I can only scrutinize as far as my own awareness of the evidence, and that will perpetually leave room for God to know something more. This makes it logically impossible to negate either his omniscience or omnipotence based on what we deem sufficient evidence because God has a greater supply of evidence.
I’m not saying we like resigning ourselves to this lower place. It would be quite stoic to ignore all human pain and suffering and not seek explanation. But if your God is presumed to be omniscient as well as omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then you can in no way discredit the latter two attributes in the face of evil because there will always remain that first attribute about which we have a hard time making conjectures. We can assume that if we were all good and all powerful we would end suffering and we can assume God would too. We can’t quite assume what God might be seeing that prevents or persuades him from stepping in and acting.
so because some insignificant human once posited that the problem of evil proves that god does not exist, suddenly atheism has the responsibility of proving that he doesn’t? false. The only thing that needs to be said about this is that, according to christianity, judaism and islam – god claims responsibility for both good and evil.
Here is how the christianity’s claim of god’s existence fails.
1) the god of the old testament bible claimed all power, all knowledge.
2) He claimed authorship and control of all good and evil.
3) he carried out or commanded a)genocide b)rape c)child molestation and torture d)slavery as a blessing to his blessed followers
According to the new testament, god loves all people, loves all children and says that if any man should hurt even 1 child it would be better that a millstone be tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea.
Why is this a deistic conflict? Because the person of jesus claimed to be “THAT I AM” the very I AM who told moses at the burning bush, “tell them I AM sent you”
So the problem of evil is not a proof in and of itself that god does not exist, but the fact that the same god as told in two character scenes contradicts his own value system is proof that such a deity does not exist.
following the same logic, the claim for the existence of god fails in judaism and islam….and this includes all breakoffs, sections and scisms.
Jason, you’re basing that off of how the Bible interprets God’s value system and morality. Before you start trying to encapsulate what moral perfection is, you should take a good look at yourself and realize that your feeble mind does not know everything (which includes the understanding for moral perfection). For all you know, God is morally perfect because He can justify peoples suffering and death by rewarding them. You just simply do not know. It is that you and atheists that use the Problem of Evil do not KNOW, you all cannot use the Problem of Evil.