The Problem of Evil: Part One

The task of reconciling the evil in this world with the goodness of God and his creation belongs to a branch of Christian theology called Theodicy. This task has been exacerbated in the past century and half by evolutionary theory that makes us acutely aware of the long-ages past filled with animal suffering. Developing a theodicy is of particular interest to the Christian theologian who seeks to make Christianity credible in the mental environment and requires the analytical tools of the Philosophy of Religion.[1]

The need for a theodicy is directly proportional to the force of the Problem of Evil (POE). Part One of this essay will therefore briefly survey different articulations of the POE and strategies that seek to explain or refute the force of those arguments. In Part Two, I will develop a framework for my own theodicy.

The Logical Problem of Evil

The logical POE has endured throughout the centuries until recent years. Its goal is to show that God does not exist. It is best put forth by David Hume, “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”[2] From this the following premises can be articulated.

1)       An all-powerful and all-loving God exists.
2)       Evil exists.

It is claimed by the proponent of the logical POE that both these premises are incompatible. Alvin Plantinga’s work has significantly developed discussion on the problem such that today it is largely considered by philosophers to be solved.[3] First he points out that the hidden assumptions needed to draw out an explicit contradiction are not necessarily true and their proof is a load far too heavy to bear. These hidden premises are the following.

3)       If God is all-powerful, then he can create any world he desires.
4)       If God is all-loving, then he prefers a world with less evil than the actual world.

Secondly, he provides reasons why we should consider both (3) and (4) as possible[4] – reasons which we shall explore in responding to Paul Draper and Christopher Southgate. Thirdly, he provides a fifth premise that shows that (1) and (2) are actually consistent. This premise is as follows.

5)  God could not[5] have created a world that had so much good as the actual world but had less evil, both in terms of quantity and quality; and, moreover, God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil that exists.[6]

The Probabilistic Problem of Evil

The probabilistic POE is more difficult to dispel. This argument admits there is no logical contradiction between (1) and (2), but submits that their compatibility is extremely unlikely. It seeks to show that God’s existence is not impossible, but improbable given the amount of evil and suffering in the world. Three considerations are available that offset the force of this argument.

First, probabilities should always be assessed with respect to the background knowledge. If evil were to be taken in isolation, then the theist could freely admit that it provides grounds for the improbability of God’s existence. However, the theist should insist that evil be assessed relative to the full scope of evidence for God’s existence. Second, we are not in any position to know or assess if God has no morally sufficient reason for permitting the evils in the world. God’s foreknowledge extends perfectly into the distant future, while we are limited creatures who can only guess at the ripples effects any purported evil will accomplish in time. Third, there are certain Christian doctrines that render the compatibility of evil and God’s existence more probable.

That is to say, Pr(Evil/God & Other Christian doctrine) > Pr(Evil/God). William Lane Craig explicates four such doctrines. First, that the purpose of this life is not human happiness, but the knowledge of God. Second, humans are in a state of rebellion against God. Third, God’s purposes do not cease with the grave but are eternal. Fourth, the knowledge of God is an incommensurable good.[7]

The External Problem of Evil

These previous two arguments are internal[8] and have largely been abandoned. However, an external POE remains. This argument argues that God’s existence[9] and the existence of gratuitous evil are incompatible. Although the Christian theist is not committed to the premise that gratuitous evil exists, the objector will nevertheless try to show in an evidential fashion that it is true that gratuitous evil exists. (This is where evolutionary theory and a long primordial history of the world enter into our discussion, for with these the amount of evil and suffering in the world is dramatically increased.) The considerations given to answer the probabilistic POE will equally apply to natural evil as it does to moral evil.[10]

Paul Draper, an atheist philosopher at Purdue University, has used evolutionary theory as evidence to support his POE argument. Taking Theism (T) and Naturalism (N) as hypotheses, he asks which best explains the amount of evil we observe relative to the evolutionary process (E) and the distribution of pleasure/pain (P). By evaluating the simplicity and the explanatory power of each hypothesis he concludes that Naturalism is more probably true.

Draper’s argument is based on three dubious assumptions.[11] First, that the intrinsic probability of Theism and Naturalism are equal; i.e. Pr(N) = Pr(T). Draper admits his case depends on, “all things being equal,” but this judgment depends on the background evidence that should include any independent reason for or against God’s existence.[12] Second, that the probability of the distribution of pleasure/pain in a world with evolution and Naturalism is greater than a world with evolution and Theism, i.e. Pr(P/E&N) > Pr (P/E&T). However, as creatures with limited knowledge we have no reason to suppose that we are in any epistemic position to accurately weigh the distribution of pain and pleasure with any good that has or may yet result. Third, that the probability of evolution on Naturalism is greater than the probability of evolution is on Theism, i.e. Pr(E/N) > Pr(E/T). However, the evolution of biological organisms is dependent on the existence of biological organisms (B). He is thus actually arguing for Pr(E/N&B) > Pr(E/T&B), which with dubious in light of insights gained from the Intelligent Design community.[13]

In Part Two, while examining the evolutionary theodicy of Christopher Southgate and William Dembski interesting theodicy a framework for my own theodicy will develop.


Footnotes

[1] Plantinga has distinguished a difference between what he calls a “defense” and a “theodicy.” A defense will show that the proponent of the POE fails to carry his objection, while a theodicy will be an attempt at explaining why there is evil and suffering in the world.

[2] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980), part 10, p. 198.

[3] Evidence of this is its absence in professional philosophical literature. See William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Downers Grove, IL.; InterVarsity Press, 2003), 541.

[4] For the logical POE, these reasons need not be plausible. They only need to be possible and the alleged incompatibility is broken.

[5] The “could not” should not be considered a limitation in divine omnipotence, but should be construed as there being no feasible world of free-creatures that God could have created.

[6] William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Downers Grove, IL.; InterVarsity Press, 2003) 541.

[7] Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 544-8

[8] An internal argument is a versions of the POE that is formulated with premises (1) and (2), both of which the orthodox Christian community is committed to. It seeks to expose an inner tension within the Christian worldview and thereby show that God’s existence is either impossible or implausible.

[9] God here defined minimally as an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being.

[10] I include animal suffering as one aspect of natural evil, which would also include earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, mass extinction events, pestilence, etc.

[11] The most fundamental flaw in Draper’s argument is his affirmation that gratuitous evil exists with his definition of Naturalism; namely, the affirmation that nothing but the “natural world” exists. (natural world = def. “By the “natural world,” I mean the collection of all existing physical entities (past, present, and future) together with any entities whose existence depends (either causally or ontologically) on the existence of those entities. “Natural” entities are entities that are part of the natural world so defined, and a “supernatural” entity, if there is such a thing, is simply an entity that can affect the natural world despite not being a part of it.”) Evil is however a non-physical property whose existence relies on objective moral values which cannot rightly be assigned to set of things natural. Naturalism does not, in principle, have the explanatory resources for the existence of evil. His argument is then, at bottom, a non-starter by begging the question.

[12] For instance, evidence accrued from Natural Theology or from personal experience.

[13] This would include the origin of complex and highly specified information in biological organisms, as well as the fine-tuning of the conditions necessary for existence of biological life, a life-sustaining planet and universe. See Hugh Ross, “RTB Design Compendium,” Reasons to Believe. Cited 8 November 2010. Online: http://www.reasons.org/links/hugh/research-notes

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