After the failure of the logical problem of evil (deductive argument) to demonstrate the impossibility of God’s existence given the presence of evil in the world, atheists have largely turned to the evidential problem of evil (inductive argument) to provide a probabilistic argument against the existence of God.  Whereas the logical problem of evil argued that the mere existence of evil in the world proves God cannot exist, the evidential problem of evil argues that the amount of evil in the world is so great that it is highly improbable that a good God exists.  Those who advance the evidential form of the argument claim that if the amount of evil in the world reaches some threshold, then it is no longer reasonable to believe that a good God exists—and of course, they believe the amount of evil in the world has reached this threshold.  The argument could be stated as follows:

(1) The probability of God’s existence is commensurate to the amount of evil in the world.
(2) The probability of God’s existence declines as the amount of evil increases
(3) There is much more evil in the world than we would expect there to be if a good and all-powerful God existed
(4) Therefore, it is improbable that God exists.

What advocates of this argument fail to recognize is that the evidential problem of evil has to assume that there is a logical tension between the existence of God and the existence of evil, such that certain amounts of evil in the world should cause someone to conclude that God probably does not coexist with evil.  In so doing, they are borrowing presuppositions from the logical problem of evil, which makes the evidential form of the argument parasitic on the logical form rather than a separate argument that stands or falls wholly on its own merits.[1].  I’ll come back to this in a moment when I take a deeper look at premises 1-2 of the argument.  For now, I’ll focus my attention on the subjective nature of premise 3.

A Pound of Subjectivity with a Dash of Circularity

Premise 3: There is much more evil in the world than we would expect there to be if a good and all-powerful God existed.

While advocates of the evidential argument (“Advocates”) invariably believe the amount of evil in the world has reached the threshold by which God’s existence can no longer be considered probable, the threshold itself is ill-defined and entirely subjective.  No objective basis is provided for determining what the threshold should be, or how we can objectively assess whether the amount of evil in this world is less than or greater than that threshold.  It is just assumed that it will be obvious to all that there is too much evil in the world to think that a good and all-powerful God exists.

One could agree in principle with Advocates that the probability of God’s existence can be assessed by measuring the amount of evil in the world (premises 1-2), and yet disagree that the actual amount of evil in the world is sufficient to conclude that God’s existence is improbable (premise 3).[2],[3]  Advocates could register their disagreement with that assessment, but without objective criteria for determining both the threshold and the means by which we determine if the amount of evil in the world has reached that threshold they are impotent to refute their opponent’s assessment.  The strength of the evidential argument, then, boils down to one’s own subjective opinion as to what constitutes too much evil.  If one thinks the amount of evil in the world is such that it is highly improbable that God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting it, then they will be inclined to agree with conclusion of the argument.  If one thinks the amount of evil in the world is such that it is probable God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting it, then they will be inclined to think the conclusion of the argument is false.  Similarly, if one thinks the conclusion that God’s existence is highly improbable is true, then they will be inclined to think the premises of the argument are true.  If one thinks the conclusion that God’s existence is highly improbable is not true, they will be inclined to think the premises of the argument are false (or at least premise 3).  Without an objective basis to determine the truth of the premise 3 we are left with an argument that will only convince those who are already convinced of the conclusion (hence, the circularity).  An argument whose tail wags the dog does not make for a very persuasive argument!

Unless Advocates can come up with an objective argument for premise 3, it is little more than a bald assertion based on their own subjective analysis.  If we are to believe that God could not have a morally sufficient reason for permitting the amount of evil we observe in our world, we must be provided with some objective criteria by which to evaluate the precise threshold at which the amount of evil in the world makes God’s existence improbable or highly improbable.

Presupposing the Truth of the Logical Problem of Evil

Premise 1: The probability of God’s existence is commensurate to the amount of evil in the world.
Premise 2: The probability of God’s existence declines as the amount of evil increases

The matter of subjectivity is just one problem with the evidential argument from evil, however.  The more fundamental problem is the assumptions being made in premises 1-2.  Why think the probability of God’s existence is commensurate to the amount of evil in the world, such that greater amounts of evil render God’s existence less probable?  Why think that a good God could exist if the amount of evil in the world is X, but if the amount of evil increases to X+1 then the existence of a good God is less likely, and if the amount increases to X+2 the existence of God is even more unlikely, and if the amount of evil increases to X+9 God’s existence becomes highly improbable?  If there is no logical incompatibility between God and evil because God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting evil[4], then how do greater amounts of evil make God’s existence more improbable?  If God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting X amount of evil, on what grounds should we think that He is less likely to have a morally sufficient reason for permitting X+9 amount of evil as well?  If the existence of God is logically compatible with the existence of evil qua evil, then the amount of actual evil in the world cannot make the co-existence of God and evil less probable.  If there is no logical incompatibility between God’s existence and the existence of evil, then God’s existence is just as possible if the amount of evil in the world is X as it is if the amount of evil is X+9.

The only thing that could make God’s existence less probable given X+9 amount of evil is if we assume that it is highly improbable that God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting great amounts of evil.  Advocates assume that perhaps God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting X or X+2 amounts of evil, but not X+9.  But as we already saw, they have no objective basis for considering any value of X to be the threshold beyond which God could not have a morally sufficient reason for permitting evil.  And even if they could put forth an objective basis for determining what the proper threshold should be and how we can assess whether the evil in the world has met or surpassed that threshold, how could we ever apply that criterion objectively and with accuracy?  Our epistemic finitude and temporal limitations prevent us from being able to accurately assess whether or not God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting X+9 amount of evil, and thus to conclude that it is highly improbable that He have such a reason is premature, presumptuous, and arbitrary.

At this point some may charge me of appealing to ignorance or mystery, but such is not the case at all.  As William Lane Craig observed:

 [W]e have no idea of the natural and moral evils that might be involved in order for God to arrange the circumstances and free agents in them requisite to some intended purpose, nor can we discern what reasons such a provident God might have in mind for permitting some evil to enter our lives.  Certainly many evils seem pointless and unnecessary to us ‑ but we are simply not in a position to judge.

To say this is not to appeal to mystery, but rather to point to the inherent cognitive limitations that frustrate attempts to say that it is improbable that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting some particular evil.  Ironically, in other contexts non-believers recognize these cognitive limitations.  One of the most damaging objections to utilitarian ethical theory, for example, is that it is quite simply impossible for us to estimate which action that we might perform will ultimately lead to the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure in the world (see chapter 21).  Because of our cognitive limitations, actions which appear disastrous in the short term may redound to the greatest good, while some short term boon may issue in untold misery.[5]

Given our inability to accurately assess whether God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the amount of evil we see in the actual world, I see no reason to think the amount of evil in the world makes God’s existence any more improbable than if there was less evil in the world.  Granted, greater amounts of evil may make it more difficult for us to understand the reasons God could have for permitting such amounts of evil – reasons that would be morally sufficient to compensate for the suffering caused by it – but our bewilderment and emotional struggle is not indicative of a logical tension between high levels of evil in the world and the existence of God.  It may be beyond our epistemic abilities to know and understand God’s purposes for permitting great amounts of evil, but that does not mean it is improbable that He has such purposes.  When I was a child and was disciplined by my parents, I thought it was highly improbable that they had a morally sufficient reason for inflicting pain and suffering on me, but now that I am older and wiser, now I can see that they did have a morally sufficient reason for acting as they did.  Similarly, perhaps if we could see the grand picture of things as God sees them, we would also see that there is a morally sufficient reason for permitting the evil we see in the world.

The fact that there is no logical contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil renders the relative quantity of evil utterly irrelevant to assessing the probability of God’s existence.  I submit that the only reason to think a certain amount of evil in the world makes God’s existence improbable is if one already presumes that there is a logical incompatibility between the existence of God and the existence of evil, regardless of the amount of evil.  So while philosophers put forth the evidential problem of evil as a distinct argument against God’s existence, its defenders must presuppose that the underlying principle of the logical version of the argument is true for the evidential version to make any sense.  While they do not think the coexistence of God and evil is logically contradictory as the logical version of the argument claimed, they do think the coexistence of God and evil is logically incompatible.  While God and evil are not mutually exclusive such that the existence of one excludes the possibility of the other’s existence, there is a tension between the two such that the greater the amount of evil in the world, the less likely it is that God could exist in the same world.  The tension and incompatibility they envision could be likened to the relationship between humans and poison.  While humans can coexist with small amounts of poison in their system, there comes a threshold beyond which humans and poison cannot coexist.  Likewise, while God and evil can coexist in principle, their coexistence is only probable if there are low-levels of evil in the world.  Once evil reaches a certain threshold, it is highly improbable that God and evil can still be thought to coexist.

The problem with this approach should be clear: You can’t admit on the one hand that there is no incompatibility between the coexistence of God and evil, but then turn around and argue that God’s existence is highly improbable because of all the evil in the world.  Either God and evil can coexist or they cannot.  If they can, then no matter how much evil there is in the world there is no reason to think God’s existence becomes less probable, because whatever the amount of actual evil in the world, God’s existence is always logically compatible with it, and God could always have a morally sufficient reason for allowing it.

Atheists might retort that I am failing to distinguish between possibility and probability; i.e. they are not claiming that God’s existence is impossible, but merely improbable, and thus they are not relying on the logical version of the argument to when making their case.  This is true insofar that they are not arguing God’s existence is impossible given the amount of evil in our world.  But I do not mean to say that the evidential version is parasitic on the conclusion of the logical version.  Rather, it is parasitic on its presupposition that there is an inconsistency between the existence of God and the existence of evil.  While they admit that the logical version of the argument is unsuccessful, they are only admitting that the conclusion is false: given the existence of evil, God cannot exist.  But they do agree with the underlying assumption of the logical version of the argument, namely that there is an incompatibility between the existence of God and the existence of evil.  It is in this sense that the evidential argument from evil is parasitic on the logical argument from evil.  By denying the logical form of the argument they affirm that God and evil can coexist, but then they turn around and declare that that it is highly improbable that God and evil do coexist.  Why?  Because God and evil are incompatible with each other!  But if God and evil are compatible, it becomes inexplicable why greater amounts of evil make the co-existence of God and evil improbable.

To conclude, since the evidential problem of evil is only a problem if there is a genuine logical problem of evil, and there is no logical problem of evil, there is no evidential problem of evil either.


[1]I am indebted to philosopher Glenn Peoples for this insight.
[2]
As I’ll go on to argue, however, premises 1 and 2 are dubious.  If there is no logical incompatibility between the existence of an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God and the existence of evil, then there is no reason to think that God’s existence becomes less probable as the amount of evil increases.
[3]
One reason they may have for denying that the amount of evil in the world is sufficient to conclude that God does not exist is because they recognize that the question of God’s existence cannot be decided by just one consideration—the amount of evil in the world—but must be considered in light of all of our background knowledge.  There are positive reasons to believe that God exists, such as the origin and contingency of the universe, the fine-tuning of the initial constants required for a life-permitting universe, the origin of biological information, the origin of life, the origin of consciousness, and the existence of moral facts.  When we weigh the evidence against God’s existence (evil in the world) against the evidence for God’s existence, on the whole it is still more reasonable to believe that God exists.  And if the preponderance of evidence points to the existence of God, then we conclude that God must have a morally sufficient reason for permitting all of the actual evil in the world. We reason as follows:
(1)     Taken in isolation, the amount of evil in the world renders God’s existence improbable.
(2)     However, the origin and contingency of the universe, the fine-tuning of physics, the origin of biological information, the origin of life, the origin of consciousness, and the existence of moral facts renders God’s existence probable.
(3)     God’s existence cannot be both probable and improbable.
(4)     Since the reasons to think God’s existence is probable are more numerous and more persuasive than the reasons to think God’s existence is improbable, it is more reasonable to believe God’s existence is probable.
(5)     If God’s existence is probable, then it cannot be true that God’s existence is improbable given the amount of evil in the world.
(6)     For God’s existence to be probable given the amount of actual evil in the world, God must have a morally sufficient reason for permitting these evils.
(7)     Therefore, it is probable that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting the amount of evil in the world.
[4]
Detractors often construe this as an argument from ignorance.  Appealing to morally sufficient reasons that God may have for permitting evil is clearly not an argument from ignorance.  To argue from ignorance is to argue as follows: “I don’t know why X, therefore Y is true.”  Clearly that is not the form of the argument.  Indeed, the appeal to morally sufficient reasons is not even an argument.  It is simply an undercutting defeater to the atheist’s argument that God cannot exist because the existence of an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God is logically incompatible with the existence of evil in the world.  To undercut that claim, the theist only needs to show a possible way in which the two are logically compatible.  And indeed, if God were to have morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil, then there is nothing logically incompatible with a good God permitting evil.  Whether God truly has such reasons is irrelevant, as is the question of whether we can know what those reasons are.  The mere possibility that God has such reasons is enough to show that the atheist’s “logically contradictory” or “logically inconsistent” argument is false.

I actually think we can discern God’s morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil in a general sense (it produces moral goods that could not be produced otherwise, such as forgiveness, patience, sympathy, courage, and mercy).  What I don’t think we can know is the morally sufficient reason(s) God has for permitting any one particular instance of evil, and for good reason: We can’t see the larger picture to know how some evil S might abound for the greater good.  S could cause a chain of events leading to the greater good in someone’s life in the immediate or distant future.  We are just not in an epistemic position to know, evaluate, or judge such things.  But human epistemic limitations should be no reason to conclude that it is not possible for God to have morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil. More will be said about this later.
[5]
William Lane Craig, “The Problem of Evil”; available from http://www.bethinking.org/suffering/advanced/the-problem-of-evil.htm; Internet; accessed 10 February 2012.

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