Saturday, March 12, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 6 Part 1 (Arguments from evil)

[Rough Draft - comments welcome]

The logical argument
An omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent would be aware of, able to prevent, and willing to prevent all evil. Thus, the existence of any evil presents a problem for theists. Rea and Murray quickly dispense with attempts to deny premise 2 (evil exists) or else deny God's absolute goodness.  They move on to denials of this premise: "a wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of every evil [they can]." They point out that some evils might be a necessary precondition for securing outweighing goods. Now we've honed in on the gratuitous evil rendition of this argument.
6.9 If there were a God, there would be no gratuitous evils (GEs).
6.10 There is at least one GE.
6.11 Therefore: there is no God.
A question about the premise 6.10 that will likely be pursued later, what exactly is our epistemic situation with respect to identifying gratuitous evil? The atheist might argue for premise 6.10 in at least two ways. First, he might argue that no outweighing good could possibly justify some evil (for instance, a child being cruelly beaten).  Second, he might argue that some evil could not possibly be necessary to obtain an outweighing good. Rea and Murray argue that it is logically impossible for God to creature free creatures that conform to his will, and thus it is possible that a universe with free creatures has some evil.  Furthermore, some theists argue that a universe with free creatures results in more overall goods.[2] Rea and Murray don't find the support for premise 6.10 to be compelling; however, we haven't yet covered William Rowe's noseum inference, which aims to establish premise 6.10 probabilistically.

The Direct Evidential Argument
This argument is like the one above except that the second premise here asserts GE as likely or probable.  Thus, while the theist can show it possible that God has a good reason for GE, this argument requires him to show that it is probable that God has a reason for GE.

Reply One: Moorean Shift
Rea and Murray discuss how a theist might reply by G.E. Moore's reply to skepticism.  Moore famously argued against skeptical threat arguments by showing the premise being denied (via the skeptic) was more plausibly true, and thus a refutation of skepticism and not the other way around.  Here is my own rendition:

Skeptical Argument
If God exists, no GE exists
Probably, GE exists
Therefore: Probably, God does not exist

Moorean Shift
If God exists, no GE exists
Probably, God exists
Therefore: Probably, there is no GE

This looks to me to be just another example of the old adage that one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens.  One argument asserts If P then Q.  P, therefore Q.  The Moorean shift asserts If P then Q.  Not-Q, therefore not-P.  Whether or not the Moorean Shift succeeds depends on which premise is more plausible: Probably, GE exists....or probably, God exists?  So now the theist can refer to his arsenal or arguments in favor of God's existence, and if they form a stronger case than whatever case can be made for gratuitous evil, it seems we have defeated the argument.

Because of this, this seems to me to be an argument that atheism is reasonable, rather than an argument that theism is false.  One needs to reject (or at least provisionally put aside) all the other arguments for God's existence in order for this to have any purchase.  I recall William Rowe beginning an essay[3] by saying something to this effect, so perhaps I'm not too far off.  In addition, the atheist needs some good reasons to think that there is GE.  William Rowe argues this way:

P1. If there were a reason were E1, we would probably conceive of it
P2. We can't conceive of a reason for E1
C.  Therefore, there probably isn't a reason for E1.  (Thus, probably GE exists.)

E1 is some particularly cruel evil (such as a deer experiencing a painful death in a forest fire) that is representative of similar evils that we can't see any good reason for.[4]  This argument is seductive because in common experience we assume that "If ya can't see it, it probably ain't there."  But in what situations is this kind of inference appropriate versus not?  Rea and Murray give a us this criteria:

1. You must be looking in the right place.  For instance, you can't conclude that there is no milk in the fridge because you don't see any in the pantry. How might this play into the current discussion? Perhaps the atheist is only looking for a present reason that would justify some evil, but in fact the explanation lies in some complex group of contingent facts that brought about a future good, prevent a future evil, resulted from some past good, or resulted from avoiding some past evil.

2. If the thing were actually there, you would be able to see it.  For instance, you can't conclude that there are no germs on a needle because you don't see any there.

Reply Two: Skeptical Theism
Some philosophers adopt the position of "skeptical theism" and argue that we are not complying with #2 above.  We simply aren't in a position to see all the reasons for evil, and thus the fact that we don't see a reason for E1 doesn't justify an inference to the conclusion that there probably isn't one.[5]  Firstly, the skeptical theist might say we don't know the full range of goods which God might be trying to achieve.  Second, there is good reason to doubt that "we would have any idea what role particular evils might play in bringing about those goods."

How does Rowe respond to skeptical theism?  First, he claims that the skeptical theist is in a position that forces him to be skeptical about gratuitous evils even in a different world that contains much more evil than ours.  Second, he argues that a noconceivum argument is stronger than a noseeum argument.  In other words, it isn't just that we can't find any actual reasons, it is that every possible reason brought forth (even remotely possible reasons) seems to be inadequate.  Why?  Because, as discussed before, the evil in question must be necessary to bring about some greater good or prevent some greater evil.  Nothing we can even imagine fits this case for E1.

Reply Three: Theodicies
Perhaps the theist can offer some good reasons why God permits various evils.  One such reason is that evil results from divine punishment for human wrongdoing--and all the better if punishment secures an outweighing good.  Unfortunately, it looks as if God could have brought about such outweighing goods (e.g., rehabilitation, deterrence, societal protection) in other non-punitive ways.  Rea and Murray briefly consider the thesis that divine punishment is retributive (God is penalizes us for doing something wrong), and conclude that this might be necessary for securing the good of a "globally just universe."

Free Will

The free will theodicy aims at explaining why moral evil, which results from the actions of free creatures, is permitted by God.  Moral evil might arise as a consequence of a free choice, or it could simply be the case that a choice itself is evil.  Rea and Murray are unconvinced that we could have one without the other, and reject notions that God could have put us in a virtual playpen where our evil choices would have no actual effect (imagine running over a mailbox and it magically popping back into place).  Thus, if it is good for humans to have significant moral freedom, it appears inevitable that some moral evil exists.

Natural Law

The natural law theodicy focuses on the conditions that must be in place for human freedom to exist in the first place.  One such requirement for freedom is that "the environment around us be governed by regular, orderly laws of nature."  Without knowing that a particular action will bring about a particular response, one simply wouldn't know how to intend to do such an action. You might wish to split wood, but you would have no consistent background knowledge (in a chaotic world) such as, "When I swing an axe and strike the wood, it will usually split."  But unfortunately, the same laws of nature that permit an axe to split wood also permit an avalanche to engulf a village.

1. Human choices are a good which God would want to actualize in creating the world
2. In order to actualize human choices, the world must exhibit natural order
3. Natural order also results in natural evil
4. Therefore, natural evils are permitted by God because God desires that humans have choices

But are all natural evils necessary, and could God have yielded slightly less natural evil with slightly different natural laws (and still preserve human freedom)?  Unfortunately, knowledge of this sort would require an extraordinarily detailed account of how different laws (and the resulting events produced) might create a different overall outcome.

But a more formidable objection asks if some natural evils (which result from the natural order) could be prevented without impacting human freedom at all, for instance, kidney stones.  "The only answer avaiable to the theist is that natural evils serve as necessary conditions for a variety of good ends, and that some of them are just unknown."

Soul Making Theodicies
Perhaps evil could be necessary for a different sort of good than just free choice.  One such candidate is the good of moral and spiritual growth, particularly of the kind that one couldn't experience in a perfect world.  For instance, we could not be courageous unless there were real dangers to be confronted.

[1] See the clear and concise introduction to these arguments by Bill Vallicella.
[2] For a more details exposition of the Free Will Defense, see Alvin Plantinga's God, Freedom, and Evil (1977).
[3] Peterson, Contemporary Issues in the Philosophy of Religion, Ch 1.
[4] Stephen Wykstra has labeled the general inference from "I can' see an x" to "There probably is no x" the noseum inference.  "The Human Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering:" On Avoiding the Evils of 'Appearance'." International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 16 (1984), pp. 73-94.
[5] A well-written blog series on (and against) skeptical theism is available at Philosophical Disquisitions


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