A Problem with the Problem of Evil

Many objections have been made to the existence of God in the history of philosophy. One of the most important of these is the problem of evil.

The problem of evil has typically appeared in two forms. The first of these forms can be called the “logical form.” The argument here is that the existence of God is logically incompatible with other beliefs the theist holds: more specifically, the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God is said to be logically incompatible with the presence of evil. Given that the current consensus appears to be that this form of the problem of evil is unsuccessful, I will say no more about it. However, there is a second form of the problem called the “deductive” or “probabilistic” form. Skeptics who make this argument typically concede that the existence of God is not strictly logically incompatible with the presence of evil. Instead they argue that the existence of God is highly unlikely or improbable given the presence, quality, and extent of evil. In other words, their contention is that the probability of the existence of God with respect to evil is much less than denying the existence of God with respect to evil. If this is so, the argument goes, we would be irrational to accept the existence of God.

It seems to me that this claim is both widespread in atheist literature and, regrettably, patently fallacious. This should be quite clear once we set out the logic of the argument offered by the atheist. (It’s worth noting that in popular atheist literature the procedure of setting out claims in logical form is almost never followed, but rather the argument is typically carried along by the methodology of pointing to all the evil in the world and crying rhetorically: “how could an all-powerful, all-loving God allow it!?”). However, as is typically the case in philosophy, arguments which are prima facie persuasive wither and die when we see them in their logical form and find that they really do not amount to very much.

The atheist critic contends that the belief that:

(1) God is the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator of the world

is improbable with respect to the evil we find in the world, or unlikely given the belief:

(2) There is X amount of evil in the world.

Firstly, let’s be generous to the skeptic and grant that belief (1) is indeed improbable given belief (2), (a claim which is highly contentious, not least of all due to the work of certain philosophical theists who have constructed arguments for the existence of God using the fact of the existence of evil). What follows from the fact that belief 1 is indeed improbable with respect to belief 2? How is it an objection to belief in God? It hardly follows that theism is false. Nor does the argument show that we cannot rationally believe in both 1 and 2 at the same time, as so often assumed. It should be fairly obvious that even if (1) is improbable given (2), (1) might be probable with respect to something else we know. For example, (and this is based on an example given by Alvin Plantinga) I might believe that:

(3) John is an Irishman, and 9/10 Irishmen cannot play a musical instrument.

I might also believe that:

(4) John can play a musical instrument.

Now, in this instance belief 4 is improbable with respect to belief 3. Does this mean there is something wrong with my acceptance of both beliefs? Hardly. After all, I might also believe that:

(5) John plays in an orchestra, and 999/1000 orchestra members can play a musical instrument.

In this case it is entirely plausible to hold these beliefs. Even though belief 4 is highly improbable with respect to belief 3, it is still incredibly probable given something else we know: namely, (5). If (3) and (5) are all I know about John’s musical ability then (4) is much more probable than its denial – despite the fact that (4) is improbable with respect to something else I know.

So, returning to theism, despite granting that belief (1) is improbable with respect to belief (2), there does not appear to be much consequence for the theist. And this despite the grand claims of many atheist writers who simply point to the all the evil, conclude that God’s existence is improbable with respect to it, and then call for the abandonment of belief in God for that reason, seemingly oblivious to the fact that in philosophical terms they have accomplished zero, nada, nothing.

How then can the skeptic proceed? We have seen that it is not good enough to simply say 1 is improbable on 2, since our example shows that despite 1 being improbable on 2 it may yet be very probable given other beliefs we hold. Taking beliefs in isolation shows nothing about their reasonableness or probability. It seems to me therefore that the only other approach left for the advocate of the probabilistic argument from evil is to posit that not only is (1) improbable with respect to (2) but that (1) is improbable with respect to some body of total evidence. The argument here is that for any given person there is a set of propositions – SP – that comprises the total evidence. So, for any specific proposition – p – that is accepted, we are rational only if p is not improbable with respect to SP. SP is therefore the set of propositions to which the beliefs of the person in question are responsible.

However, as Plantinga points out, the question as to precisely which propositions make up SP is a crucial one, and is an issue that is too frequently overlooked by proponents of this argument. It doesn’t matter much for my present purposes how we describe SP. The issue is this: what rules out belief in God from being one of the propositions comprising SP?

If, at least for some theists, belief in God is a member of SP, then it obviously cannot be improbable with respect to SP. Philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff and William Alston have done a lot of work defending the proper basicality of belief in God – at least for some theists. If their conclusions are correct – and I think they are, though can’t go into the details here – then theists are entirely within their “epistemic rights” in actually starting from belief in God, and thus in using it as one of those propositions the probability with respect to which judges the standing of other beliefs and propositions. In fact, even for those theists for whom belief in God is not a basic belief, the point still stands. A theist might have, or at least claim to have, very good reasons to believe that God exists, is omnipotent and all loving, and his arguments might well be a defeater for the contention that the problem of evil makes the existence of God highly unlikely. There are many arguments for the existence of God and the point here is that the problem of evil cannot be considered aside from all the other evidence a person might have before them. For instance, in a criminal trial there might be a really good argument for the defense, but this argument is not considered in isolation from the total body of evidence before the court – which might include strong enough prosecution arguments to lead to a verdict of guilty regardless of this single strong argument held by the defense.

This should be enough to have exposed the naiveté and narrow vision of this form of the problem. It ignores the big epistemological picture, the brute fact that taking propositions in isolation tells us very little about their reasonableness. We could take all manner of propositions which are unlikely with respect to other propositions we hold but highly likely given our big epistemological picture which includes many other propositions that the skeptic here conveniently ignores.

It would appear to be the case then that the fact (granting it even is a fact) that belief in God is improbable given the existence of evil does not even remotely suggest that the theist is irrational in accepting the former.

Stephen J Graham


Filed under God, Problem of Evil

2 responses to “A Problem with the Problem of Evil

  1. Theodicy seems like an impossible endeavor. Perhaps the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” is unanswerable. Perhaps we should instead ask “why do bad things happen for good people?” After all, there is no progress without suffering. “Long is the way, And hard that out of hell leads up to light.”

    Furthermore, there is the question of the existence of evil. What many judge to be evil – pain, poverty, death – might not necessarily be evils. Montaigne wrote an essay about this, how many of the ‘evils’ in the world are only ‘evils’ because we hold the opinion that they are. If we held a different opinion, then they cease to be ‘evils’.

  2. Pingback: Contra God | stephenjgraham

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