Most modern arguments from evil are of the broadly “evidential” kind. Take the argument of William Rowe as a classic paradigm of such an argument type:
(1) There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
(2) An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
(3) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.
Theists have several retorts open to them. Some propose theodicies to account for the kinds of evil Rowe discusses. Others argue that the evidence in favour of the existence of God outweighs the argument from evil. Whatever strategy they employ, Rowe reckons – quite rightly – that most theists will grant premise 2, directing their fire against premise 1.
In so doing, theists – myself included – will adhere to some version of what is commonly referred to as “skeptical theism:” the view that we simply cannot know that a premise like (1) is true or more probable than not.
Different theistic philosophers will focus of different reasons why we should be skeptical. In his version of skeptical theism, Wykstra emphasises how our intellectual capacities are greatly inferior to God’s, much greater than the gap that exists between a small child and his parents. In the latter case a small child is often unable to understand parental anger, discipline and punishment, or why they might make the child do things they find distasteful or arduous. By contrast, Ahern argues that our knowledge of good and evil and the interconnections between events is severely limited. Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, argues that our grasp of the divine nature is tenuous at best, such that judgments about what an omnipotent or wholly good being would or would not do are virtually worthless. Whilst agreeing with all this, (as do I, particularly with Ahern), Alston focuses on the extreme difficulties faced by the atheist in their attempt to provide adequate support for what Alston describes as “a certain very ambitious negative existential claim,” namely, in Rowe’s case, there is no morally sufficient reason for God to permit certain evils we see.
Here are just a few of the factors discussed by Alston which demonstrate that we aren’t in a position to deny that God has some morally significant reason or other for the suffering we find in the world:
1. Lack of data – including the secrets of the human heart, the constitution and structure of the universe, and the remote past and future, including an afterlife, if any. For example, Christian theism allows for the notion of suffering for character formation, discipline, or even punishment for sin. Since we do not know the secrets of the human heart it seems that any attempt to rule out such explanations for evil is impossible. How can we tell in the case of some person – Bob – that the suffering he is facing might well be caused for such a reason? Bob might seem like a decent bloke, but no-one can really tell what’s going on in his mind, or what types of experiences might work (or will be most likely to work, given Bob’s freedom) to bring him to a better way of life.
2. Complexity greater than we can handle. Here we face the difficulty of holding enormous complexes of fact – different possible worlds or different systems of natural laws – together in the mind sufficiently for comparative evaluation. Take our world – W – and compare it to some other world – W* – which differs from W in some way. How could we even begin to compare these two worlds in such a way as to justifiably conclude that W* would be a better world than W and that therefore God should have made it instead of the world we find ourselves with? We have little idea how particular evils affect later events in the world and even less of a notion as to what God might be up to in the world such that certain evils are permitted. Given our limited spatio-temporal position there is little reason to think we could come close to an accurate comparison.
3. Difficulty in determining what is metaphysically possible or necessary. Bruce Reichenbach appeals to the benefits of law-like natural order, and considers suffering as an inevitable by-product of any such order. Critics often ask: could God not have created a very different natural order, perhaps one that would not involve human and animal suffering either at all or to a much lesser extent? There are various responses to this, but here I wish to point out a significant problem: it is not at all clear what possibilities are actually open to God. We are concerned here with metaphysical possibilities rather than merely conceptual or logical possibilities. The critic points out that we can consistently and intelligibly conceive or imagine a world in which there are no diseases or natural disasters, while all or the vast majority of the goods we currently enjoy remain present. His mistake is in taking his ability to imagine such a world as demonstrating that it is possible for God to create such a world. However, conceivability is not sufficient for metaphysical possibility – what is possible given the metaphysical structure of reality. It is far more difficult to determine what is metaphysically possible or necessary than to determine what is conceptually possible or necessary. The latter requires nothing more than reflection on our concepts. When it comes to what is metaphysically possible, frankly we haven’t the foggiest idea as to what essential natures are within God’s creative repertoire, much less as to which combinations of these into total lawful systems are actualisable. Since we don’t even have the beginnings of a canvass of the possibilities here, we are in no position to make a sufficiently informed judgment as to what God could or not could not create by way of a natural order that contains the goods of this one without its disadvantages. Furthermore, we have no way to know what consequences would ensue by changing some aspect of the natural order. It is notoriously difficult to find any sufficient basis for claims as to what is metaphysically possible, given the essential natural of things, the exact character of which is often unknown to us and virtually always controversial. This difficulty is many times multiplied when we are dealing with total possible worlds or total systems of natural order.
4. Ignorance of the full range of possibilities. This is always crippling when we are seeking to establish a negative conclusion. If we don’t know whether or not there are possibilities beyond the ones we have thought of, we are in a very bad position to show that there can be no divine reason for permitting evil.
5. Ignorance of the full range of values. When it’s a question of whether some good is related to E in such a way as to justify God in permitting E, we are, for the reason mentioned above, in a very poor position to answer the question if we don’t know the extent to which there are modes of value beyond those of which we are aware. For in that case, so far as we can know, E may be justified by its relation to one of those unknown goods. Moreover, just how valuable or worthwhile is something like free will or the ability/chance to show compassion? To what extent do such values justify evil or how much evil do they justify? It seems impossible for us to give an answer to such questions.
Alston therefore chastises such atheists insofar as they claim “that there isn’t something in a certain territory, while having a very sketchy idea of what is in that territory, and having no sufficient basis for an estimate of how much of the territory falls outside his knowledge.” I find myself in full agree with Alston, and thus it seems to me that the likelihood of a semi-decent atheistic argument from evil is, at best, bleak.
Stephen J. Graham