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.
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