And so dear reader, here continues the exchange between Randal and Ralph the Atheist as Randal rebuffs Ralph’s problem of evil. (For Part 3 of the discussion click here. And you should definitely read Part 3 first if you haven’t, though I won’t take any punitive measures if you don’t.) Be sure to stay tuned for the final rejoinder from Ralph coming soon…
Randal: Okay Ralph, I asked you to articulate the one argument against God’s existence that you believe is strongest. You responded with the logical problem of evil. Let me quote you in full and then offer a rebuttal. So first, here’s Ralph:
“If you want me to provide one argument for my not believing in God – when in fact originally you asked for ‘reasons’, so I provided 17 to which I would like answers – I’ll choose my 9th point, the existence of horrific suffering/evil. I’m happy to use Epicurus’ phraseology: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” If God took so much care to create the universe and all of us in it, why would he allow atrocious, terrifying events like tsunamis to occur? Why would he allow babies to be born with defects that make their lives a constant agony? Why would he allow cancer? I have never once heard an even vaguely convincing answer to this question, because I can’t see that there is one; as soon as you propose that there is a designer in all of this – not only a designer, but one who cares about our little lives – then you cannot run away from the difficult questions; in my opinion you have to level the charge of evil at the designer (as opposed to just claiming that he has “a plan” for all of us) or concede that this is sufficiently serious reason to doubt his existence. What possible reason could there be for an omnipotent deity to allow someone to suffer with a crippling illness for their entire life – or to lose their child in an earthquake – when he could apparently have prevented it?”
And so ends Ralph in his own words.
Let’s take a closer look at Epicurus’ reasoning. For the sake of clarity we can summarize his argument as follows:
(1) If God is omnipotent then God would be able to prevent any evil.
(2) If God is omnibenevolent then God would want to prevent any evil.
(3) Therefore, evil does not exist.
(4) Evil exists.
Given the fact that evil undoubtedly exists, it would seem that we must reject (1) and/or (2). And that means rejecting God and adopting atheism. So says Ralph.
The first thing to note by way of reply is that this argument doesn’t actually require one to adopt atheism. At best it only requires us to reject omnipotence or omnibenevolence. This is an important point so I’m going to spend some time unpacking it.
Remember I defined God minimally as the necessary agent cause of contingent reality. This minimal definition could be maintained whilst rejecting the omnipotence and/or omnibenevolence of the necessary agent cause. And indeed some theists have done precisely this. To take one example, Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner famously denied God’s omnipotence in his bestseller Why do bad things happen to good people? Process theists would be another example for they also deny divine omnipotence. (Indeed, process theists go further and challenge the claim that the God-world relation is one of asymmetric sustenance-dependence, but that’s another issue.)
In conclusion, one could be a theist even while rejecting divine omnipotence or omnibenevolence.
This is the moment where countless atheists have rolled their eyes and invoked some version of Antony Flew’s invisible gardener illustration. In this familiar parable two men come upon a forest clearing. One insists it is tended by a gardener while the other demurs. So the skeptic says to the believer, “Let’s wait and see if your gardener appears.” The believer agrees and so they wait … but no gardener shows up. However, instead of rejecting his gardener hypothesis, the believer merely revises it. “The gardener is invisible!” he quips. “That’s why we couldn’t see him!” The skeptic looks incredulous. “Okay then, let’s set up an electric fence around the clearing. That way we’ll know if he’s coming. Perhaps some trip-wires and motion sensor cameras as well.” Immediately believer shakes his head. “Sorry, that won’t work. He can pass through fences and trip wires and he’s also invisible to motion sensing cameras.” I suppose you can see where this is going. The theist is supposed to be like this believer, engaged in a perpetual ad hoc revision of a ridiculous claim.
The invisible gardener story is effective for scoring some rhetorical points with the peanut gallery. On the downside, it reveals a high level of ignorance about the way that comprehensive explanatory theories are developed and defended over time. Think about a scientific theory, perhaps evolution. The core claim of the theory is that the origin of species can be explained through a mechanism of descent with modification over time combined with selective pressures that favor some modifications over others. That claim (or something like it) brings us to the core of the theory. And from there the theory is built up with a large number of supporting claims which relate the theory to the world observed. Over time some of these subordinate supporting claims come to be abandoned (think, for example, of the recapitulation theory of developmental biology) while others are adopted (for example, the fused chromosome 2 in human beings as supporting evidence for the common ancestry shared by Homo sapiens and the higher primates).
Consequently it is naive to think that refuting one or a handful of subordinate claims to a scientific theory constitutes a refutation of the theory itself. It may require the abandonment of some subordinate claims and the adoption of others, but that doesn’t mean it requires the abandonment of the theory per se. In case you’re wondering, yes it is theoretically possible to continue forever adopting new subordinate claims as a way to reconcile prima facie disconfirming data with the core theory. This means that theories are never really falsified. Rather, they are effectively abandoned when people conclude “I’m tired of proposing new subordinate emendations to this theory. It’s more trouble than it is worth. Let’s go watch the ball game.” In this respect theories are like cars. You can keep fixing the car every time it breaks down, but there comes a point where the law of diminishing returns kicks in and it is no longer worthwhile to fix it. At that point you send the car to the wrecker and get a new one.
The same is true when it comes to comprehensive metaphysical theories. If a person adopts a theory with the core claim that the contingent universe is explicable in terms of a necessary agent cause, they could initially include suborinate claims that this necessary agent cause is omnipotent and omnibenevolent. But these subordinate claims could be abandoned if disconfirming evidence to their truth arose. By doing so they could successfully reconcile the core theoretical claim with the prima facie disconfirming data.
This brings us to the biggest distortion of the invisible gardener illustration. It compares theism to an arbitrary hypothesis that has no explanatory value and thus one that there is no independent value in reconciling to disconfirming data. But theism (i.e. the appeal to a necessary agent cause) is not like that at all. Among the facts that a necessary agent cause theory aims to explain are the following: the existence of something (a contingent universe) rather than nothing; the origin of cosmic fine-tuning; the origin of the universe a finite time ago out of nothing; the origin of specified biological information; the existence of teleology in nature reflected, for example, in the observation that eyes are for seeing; the existence of objective moral value, moral obligation and moral knowledge of that value and obligation; the existence of rational intuition of abstract objects and their relations; the origin of consciousness and self-consciousness; the existence of objective aesthetic value and aesthetic perceptual knowledge of that value, and so on.)
So Ralph, it is important that you understand first that theories in metaphysics such as the theory that the universe is explicable in terms of a necessary agent cause are appealed to because of their explanatory force for a wide range of disparate facts. The theory that there exists a necessary agent cause of contingent reality has consilience which is why the theory has endured to this day. And this fact would make it very reasonable to emend the theory if required in order to retain its explanatory force in other areas. But is such revision even required? I’ll consider that in just a moment.
However, before assessing the success of the logical problem of evil let me make one quick observation about your own view of evil. Ralph, your entire objection is fueled by an indignation that things should be as they are. Why should babies be born with defects and people drown in tsunamis? Why is there evil in the world? Note that the indignation is rooted in the soil of a conception of objective value and disvalue. Your anger that things are as they are reveals that you sense things really should be different. Human beings shouldn’t suffer as they do. The lack of fairness, the sense of unredeemed and pointless suffering offends your sense of the right. (If it doesn’t then why bother raising the objection in the first place?) But then ask yourself a question: if you believe that there is no necessary agent cause of the universe, if you believe instead that we are mere random byproducts of the blind cycling of evolutionary processes, then what is the source of this moral indignation of yours? As Richard Dawkins wrote: “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” If you really believe this is true then it seems that your indignation at the presence of evil in the world is fundamentally irrational.
Okay, now finally let’s turn back to the alleged contradiction at the heart of the logical problem. No doubt you’ve heard the phrase “An oldie but a goodie.” Alas, it doesn’t apply in this case. Epicurus’ argument may be old, but philosophers today widely recognize that it isn’t good because both (1) and (2) appear to be false. The problem here is that we can readily envision instances where an omnipotent being might be obliged to accept a certain degree of evil in order to actualize certain states of affairs, and an omnibenevolent being might have morally sufficient grounds to accept a certain degree of evil in order to achieve greater goods.
Let’s start with the point on omnipotence. Let’s assume that God wants to create a world with a substantial number of libertarianly free creatures. It may be the case that in any world with substantial numbers of libertarianly free creatures, a significant number of those creatures will freely engage in evil actions. Thus, to attain the good of having these libertarianly free creatures God must accept the evil that comes as a byproduct of some of the choices of those creatures.
You might question the wisdom of God having made a world with libertarianly free creatures. But that is quite irrelevant to the logical problem of evil. The fact remains that an omnipotent being may not be able to prevent every evil if he opts to respect the actions of libertarianly free creatures. So your first point dissolves.
There is a similar problem with the second premise. Imagine a child stricken with a rare disease that requires painful hour long treatments for two weeks. The parent takes the child to the clinic and holds him down for the hour while the doctor undertakes the treatment. Throughout the process the child screams and cries. From the child’s perspective the parent’s behavior seems cruel and inexplicable. He cannot understand that the parent allows him to suffer to achieve a greater good. Similarly, it is perfectly conceivable that an omnibenevolent God might allow evils in the world to achieve a greater good.
Consequently, we must reject both (1) and (2). There is no logical contradiction between the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity and the existence of evil.
Let me summarize everything to wrap it up. I began by noting first that the logical problem of evil only requires the rejection of a subordinate claim to the core theistic theory and thus even if successful it doesn’t require the abandonment of theism. Second, I noted that the moral force of the objection is inconsistent with atheism. And finally, I noted that both the first and second premise in the argument are demonstrably false.
In closing, I’d like to thank you for the conversation Ralph. I am reminded of comments made by Supreme Court Justice Scalia (a social conservative) when he was asked on the news program “Sixty Minutes” about his personal relationship with Justice Ginsburg, a social progressive judge on the same court. Scalia replied:
“I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. And some very good people have some very bad ideas. And if you can’t separate the two, you gotta get another day job. You don’t want to be a judge. At least not a judge on a multi-member panel.”
The same principle applies here. I believe it is really important to distinguish ideas from persons. I think Ralph has failed completely to provide a case for atheism. And that failure is encapsulated here in the failure of his central argument. However, attacks on arguments and worldviews should not be construed as attacks on persons, so I thank Ralph for the dialogue. And with that I turn it over to my atheist interlocutor for the last word.