Why Doesn't God Intervene to Prevent Evil? (1996)

Bruce Russell

 

(This article was originally published in Philosophy: The Quest for Truth [third ed., ed. Louis P. Pojman, Belmont: Wadsworth, 1996], pp. 74-80.)

Bruce Russell is professor and chair of the philosophy department at Wayne State University. He has published several articles in philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. The following is his abstract of his article:

If we have reason to believe that there is pointless suffering, then we have reason to believe God does not exist, for God would not allow pointless suffering. Russell considers three dfferent principles concerning when failure to see something gives us reason to believe it is not there. He criticizes the first two principles and defends the third. He then uses it to argue that our failure to see a good whose realization would justify God in allowing all the suffering we see can give us reason to believe there is no such good and so reason to believe there is pointless suffering and that God does not exist.

 

IN THE EARLY HOURS of New Year's Day, 1986, a little girl was brutally beaten, raped, and then strangled in Flint, Michigan. The girl's mother was living with her boyfriend, another man who was unemployed, and her three children including a nine-month-old infant fathered by her boyfriend.

On New Year's Eve, all three adults went drinking at a bar near the woman's home. The boyfriend, who had been taking drugs and drinking heavily, was asked to leave the bar at 8:00 p.m. After several reappearances he finally left for good at about 9:30 P.M. The woman and the unemployed man remained at the bar until 2:00 A.M. at which time the woman went home and the man went to a party at a neighbor's home. Perhaps out of jealousy, the boyfriend attacked the woman when she entered the house. Her brother intervened, hitting the boyfriend and leaving him passed out and slumped over a table. The brother left. Later, the boyfriend attacked the woman again and this time she knocked him unconscious. After checking on the children, she went to bed.

Later, the woman's five-year-old daughter went downstairs to go to the bathroom. The unemployed man testified that when he returned from the party at 3:45 A.M. he found the five-year-old dead. At his trial, the boyfriend was acquitted of the crime because his lawyer cast doubt on the innocence of the unemployed man. But the little girl was raped, severely beaten over most of her body, and strangled by one of those men that night.

Many horrible stories just like this one occur everyday. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevski described an instance of children being thrown in the air and caught on bayonets and another of children being hunted down and torn to pieces by a rich man's hounds. Surely, any of us would have intervened to prevent any of these heinous crimes if we had known about them and could have prevented them without risking harm or injury to ourselves or others. It is even more certain that we would have intervened to prevent at least one of these terrible acts. But they weren't prevented by God or anyone else. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, he surely knew about the crimes and could easily have prevented them without any risk of harm to himself or others. We see no reason why God, if he exists, would not have intervened to prevent at least one of these horrible acts. So it is reasonable for us to think that there is no such reason. So it is reasonable for us to think that God does not exist.

I want to explore whether this argument against the existence of God is a good one. Can we reason from the fact that we see no reason that would justify God, if he exists, in failing to intervene to the conclusion that it is reasonable to believe there is no such reason and so reason to believe God does not exist?

Sometimes not seeing something is a reason to believe it isn't there. If I don't see an elephant in the room, there is reason to believe there is none. However, if I don't see a virus with my naked eye that is no reason to believe one isn't there. As Steve Wykstra (of Calvin College) says, it is a matter of seeability. Elephants have high seeability--viruses, low.

Similar considerations apply to a person's reasons for action. If I am a chess master and see no good reason for a move by a novice, then I have good reason to think there isn't any. But if the situation were reversed, that is, if the novice saw no good reason for a move by the master, then the novice would not have good reason to believe there is no such reason. Novices' reasons have high seeability for masters; masters' reasons have low seeability for novices.

Perhaps a general principle can be constructed based on these few examples:

Noseeum 1 S's failure to see X is good reason for S to believe X isn't there if and only if S has no reason to think if X were there S would not see X.

Put another way, this principle says that if we have reason to think we wouldn't see something even if it were there--reason, so to speak, to think that something is "invisible"--then our failure to see it gives us no reason to think it isn't there. On the other hand, if we do not have reason to think it is "invisible," then our failure to see something does give us reason to believe it is not there.

This principle seems to give the right answer in the cases we've considered so far. In the case of the elephant, a person has no reason to think that if an elephant were in the room he would not see it--that is, no reason to think elephants are invisible. Similarly, the chess master has no reason to think that if there were good reason for the novice to make some move he would not see it. So the Noseeum 1 principle implies that a person's failure to see an elephant, or the chess master's failure to see the point of the novice's move, gives each reason to believe there is no elephant in the room and no point to the novice's move, respectively. On the other hand, there is good reason to think that if a virus were present we wouldn't see it with the naked eye, and good reason to think that even if there were a point to the master's move, the novice would not see it. That is, there is good reason to think these things are "invisible"--in the first case to all of us, in the second to the novice. So the Noseeum 1 principle correctly implies that anyone's failure to see a virus with the naked eye, or the novice's failure to see the point of the master's move, does not give those people reason to believe that there is no virus or that there is no point to the master's move.

However, Noseeum 1 does not correctly handle the following example: Some scientists ask me to reach some universal generalization about the color of a certain kind of animal which I had never seen until they showed me a large sample of that kind of animal. While the sample is large, I do not know whether it is representative or has been chosen by the scientists for some special reason unknown to me. Suppose on failing to see any that have orange markings on them I conclude that no animals of that sort have orange markings. Clearly, my failing to see any with orange markings does not give me good reason to believe that none have those markings even though there is no reason for me to think that if some did have orange markings I would not see them (for instance, I have no reason to think that the scientists would keep any such animals out of the sample they showed me).

This example suggests that a stronger principle may be true:

Noseeum 2 S's failure to see X is good reason for S to believe X isn't there if and only if S has reason to think if X were there S would see X.

According to Noseeum 1, if I have reason to think I wouldn't see something even if it were there--reason to think it is "invisible"--then my failing to see it is no reason to believe it isn't there. However, according to the Noseeum 2 principle, it is not just my having reason to think I wouldn't see something even if it were there that undercuts the reason-giving force of my failing to see it. That force is also undercut if I don't have reason to think I would see something if it were there, that is, if I don't have reason to think it is "invisible." According to Noseeum 2, reason to think something is not "seeable" is sufficient to undercut the reason-giving force of failures to see, but so is lack of reason to think the thing is "seeable."

Applying Noseeum 2 to the example above, it turns out that since I do not have reason to think if some of these animals had orange markings I would see them--no reason to think their being orange is "visible," it follows that failing to see any with such markings does not give me good reason to believe none have those markings. If we applied it to the other examples, we would get the same results as we got from applying the first principle. Hence, Noseeum 2 can account for all the intuitive judgments we have considered about when failing to see something gives us reason to believe it is not there while Noseeum 1 cannot.

Suppose we try to use Noseeum 2 in an argument to show that our failure to see a good whose realization by God would justify him (if he exists) in allowing so much suffering gives us good reason to think that there is no such good, and so good reason to believe God does not exist. The question we have to ask is whether we have reason to think that if God exists and has adequate reason for allowing all the suffering we see, we would see it. In other words, the question we have to ask is whether we have reason to think that if God exists his reasons would be "visible" to us. If the answer is that we do have reason to think they would be "visible," then our failure to see a point to all the suffering we see will give us good reason to think there is no point. If the answer is we don't have reason to think they would be "visible" to us, then our failure to see a point will not give us good reason to believe there is none.

Things don't look promising for those who say we have reason to think that if there is a good whose realization by God would justify him in allowing so much suffering, we would see it. Surely, God would know more about the conditions of realization of the goods we know of than we do; surely, he would know more than we do about what needs to be the case for those goods to come into being or to continue to exist. And even if we don't have reason to believe there are goods of which we are unaware, goods beyond our ken, surely we do not have good reason to believe there aren't any. Given our ignorance of what is needed to realize goods of which we are aware and of whether there are goods beyond our ken, we cannot have good reason to believe that if God exists and has adequate reason for allowing so much suffering we would see it. For all we know, he allows it because it is the only way to realize goods of which we are aware or goods beyond our ken.

It looks as though atheists are not going to be able to use Noseeum 2 to argue that our failure to see a point to so much suffering gives us good reason to believe there is none. In fact, theists can use that principle to show the opposite, namely, that our failure to see a good whose realization by God would justify him (if he exists) in allowing so much suffering does not give us reason to believe there is no such good and so no reason to believe that God does not exist.

Before accepting these conclusions we should compare our failure to see a reason for so much suffering to tribesmen's failure to see a reason to cut open another member of their tribe who is suffering from severe abdominal pains. Suppose a visitor suggests that the tribesman who is in pain should be cut open and a small part of his body (the appendix) removed. Now either (G) there is a good that justifies a skilled person's cutting open their brother or (-G) there is not. Which should the tribesmen believe, that there is such a good or that there isn't?

The answer to this question depends, of course, on what justified background beliefs the tribesmen hold. Suppose the tribe members know about Western medicine and believe that a person trained in Western medicine knows more about the body, its illnesses, ailments, injuries, etc., and their treatments, cures, etc., than they do. Suppose, also, they have never observed anyone survive who had a cut in the abdomen like the one that is being proposed. Now whether it is reasonable for the tribe members to believe that it would be best for their friend to be cut open by a skilled person will depend on whether they have reason to believe the visitor is a Western doctor or is at least knowledgeable about the ways of Western medicine. In short, they will have reason to believe (G), that there is a good that justifies a skilled person's cutting open their brother, if and only if they have reason to believe the visitor is a trustworthy person who is more knowledgeable about the body, its illnesses, etc., than they are.

The question, "Is there a good whose realization by God would justify him (if he exists) in allowing so much suffering?" is like the question, "Is there a good whose realization would justify a skilled person in cutting open and removing the appendix from the tribesman?" Of course, there either is such a God-justifying good (G*) or there is not (-G*). But which is it reasonable for us to believe?

In the case of the tribesmen, whether it is reasonable for them to believe that there is a good that would justify a skilled person's cutting open their brother depends solely on whether it is reasonable for them to believe that the visitor is trustworthy and more knowledgeable than they about the body and its afflictions. A parallel conclusion seems true when it is a question of whether it is reasonable for us to believe that there is a God-justifying good for allowing all the suffering we see. Of course it's true that if we have reason to believe God exists, then we'll also have reason to believe that there is such a good, for God would not allow all the suffering we see if there were not. But it also seems true that in our circumstances we have reason to believe there is such a good only if we have reason to believe God exists.

In principle we could have other reasons for thinking a God-justifying good exists (just as in principle the tribesmen could have reasons for thinking it best to cut open their brother that had nothing to do with their reasons for thinking the visitor is trustworthy and knowledgeable about Western medicine). For instance, if we knew there was a very wise, nondivine person around and that he said there was such a good, then we would have reason to believe there was even if we didn't have reason to believe God exists. But the circumstances in which we do not have reason to believe God exists, but do have reason to believe that there is a God-justifying reason for all the suffering, do not seem to obtain. Surely, the mere possibility that there are such God-justifying reasons does not give us reason to believe there are. So in our epistemic circumstances, the only reason for thinking there is a good whose realization by God (if he exists) would justify him in allowing so much suffering is that there is reason to think God exists.

Suppose one grants that there is no reason to think God exists. Assume, also, that, leaving the problem of evil aside, there is no reason to think he does not exist. Shouldn't we then suspend judgment about whether there is a God-justifying reason for his allowing all the suffering we see, not believe there isn't? No, because the hypothesis that there is no such good is a better explanation of why we fail to see one than the explanation that there is such a good which is hidden to us. Other things being equal, explanations which posit some hidden mechanism are never as good as those that do not. That is why we should believe that there is a real world outside us that is pretty much the way we think it is, not some evil demon causing the sensations in us that we think are caused by physical objects outside us.

The case of the tribesmen exactly parallels our actual situation. They will have reason to believe that there is a good that justifies a skilled person's cutting open their brother if and only if they have reason to believe the visitor is a trustworthy person who is more knowledgeable about illnesses and the like than they are. We will have reason to believe there is a good whose realization by God would justify him in allowing so much suffering if and only if we have reason to believe that God exists. In circumstances where the tribe members have no reason to think the visitor is trustworthy and knowledgeable in the relevant respects, the best explanation of their failure to see a sufficient reason to cut open their brother is that there none. When they have reason to think the visitor is trustworthy and knowledgeable, the best explanation is that there is such a reason of which they are ignorant. Similarly, in circumstances where we have no adequate reason to think that God exists, the best explanation of our failure to see a good which would justify God in allowing so much suffering is that there is no such good. But if we have adequate reason to think that God exists, then the best explanation of our failure to see such a good is that there is one but either it, or the conditions needed for its realization, are beyond our grasp (or both).

This discussion suggests that the following principle, not Noseeum 2, is the correct principle linking failures to see to reasons to believe:

Noseeum 3 S's failure to see X is good reason for S to believe X isn't there if and only if X's not being there is part of the best explanation of S's failure to see X (or is deducible from statements which are).

It is clear from Noseeum 3 why a person's failure to see something would give him good reason to believe that it isn't there in some circumstances but not others. As we have already seen, in circumstances where the tribesmen have no reason to think the person who proposes to cut open their friend is knowledgeable about Western medicine, their failure to see a reason does give them reason to think there is none. However, if they have reason to think the person is, then the best explanation of their failure to see a reason is that there is a reason which is beyond their grasp. We have also seen that similar results follow regarding divine reasons for allowing suffering.

Noseeum 2 fails because it is not sensitive to differences in epistemic circumstances--differences in the background beliefs a person is justified in holding. When we have no reason to think God exists, Noseeum 2 will imply that our failure to see a divine reason for allowing all the suffering we observe is no reason to think there is none. That is because we have no reason to think we would see a divine reason if there were one--because we have no reason to think divine reasons are "visible." According to Noseeum 2, that is sufficient to undercut the reason-giving force of our failure to see any such reasons. According to Noseeum 3, if we have no reason to believe God exists our failure to see a reason which would justify God in allowing all the suffering we see gives us reason to believe there is none because that is the best explanation of our failure to see such a reason.

Having argued that we are in a position to judge that there is pointless suffering if and only if there is no adequate reason to believe that God exists, I will now criticize an argument meant to show that we are in no position to judge that there is no good that would justify God in allowing so much suffering, and so in no position to judge that God does not exist on the basis of apparently pointless suffering. The basis of this conclusion is the claim that we are in no position to judge that God's allowing all that suffering is not needed to realize goods of which we are aware or ones (if any) of which we are not. For similar reasons it would follow that we are in no position to judge that there is sufficient reason for someone to intervene to prevent some heinous act (say, the brutal beating, rape, and murder of a little girl). After all, both a human being's failing to intervene, and God's failing to intervene, might be needed to realize certain important goods. And if we are in no position to judge that God's failing to intervene is not needed to realize those goods, how can we be in a position to judge that our failing to intervene is not needed and our intervening is morally required?

Here is a formalization of what I have been arguing based on the idea that we are sometimes in a position to judge that human interventions are morally required and yet in no better position to judge that they are than to judge that divine intervention would be required. The argument form is modus tollens: "If p, then q," "not-q," therefore, "not-p." Since the argument is valid, the conclusion follows from the premises so any criticisms must be of the premises.

1. If we were in no position to judge that there would be no adequate reason for God (if he existed) to allow so much awful suffering because we are in no position to judge that his allowing all that suffering is not needed to realize goods of which we are aware or ones (if any) of which we are not, then we would never be in a position to judge that there is adequate reason for some particular person to intervene to prevent some heinous act (since we are never in a position to judge that a person's failing to intervene is not needed to realize goods of which we are aware or ones (if any) of which we are not).

2. But sometimes we are in a position to judge that there is adequate reason for some particular person to intervene to prevent some heinous act.

3. Therefore, it is not true that we are in no position to judge that there would be no adequate reason for God (if he existed) to allow so much awful suffering because we are in no position to judge that allowing all that suffering is not needed to realize goods of which we are aware or ones (if any) of which we are not.

Perhaps we are in no position to judge that there would be no adequate reason for God (if he exists) to allow so much awful suffering but if so, it is not because we are in no position to judge that allowing all that suffering is not needed to realize goods of which we are aware or ones (if any) of which we are not. Hence, an argument which relies on that claim will not show that we are in no position to judge that there is pointless suffering. And any argument that tries to show we are in no position to judge that there is pointless suffering risks proving too much, namely, that we are never in a position to judge that there is adequate reason for some particular person to intervene to prevent some heinous act.

It is worth pointing out that the consequent of the first premise in this argument does not read:

then we would never be in position to judge that no particular person has adequate reason to intervene to prevent some heinous act (because we are never in a position to judge that failing to intervene is not needed to realize goods of which we are aware or ones (if any) of which we are not).

We might well be in a position to judge that no particular person has such a reason because we are in a position to judge that he has no reason to think that his nonintervention is needed to realize goods weighty enough to justify that nonintervention. But the actual consequent of the first premise concerns what reasons there are, not the reasons some particular agent has, for intervention.

And surely the second premise is true: Sometimes we have adequate reason to believe that there is adequate reason for some particular person to intervene to prevent some heinous act, not just that she has such reason. We know enough about what reasons there are that might justify nonintervention, and about their conditions of realization, to have adequate reason to believe that nonintervention would be unjustified by this person in these circumstances and intervention required.

Failure to see the point of so much suffering gives us reason to believe there is none, if we have no reason to believe God exists, even though it would not if we had adequate reason to believe he does. Once we have reason to believe that there is pointless suffering then we can use the following argument to show that God does not exist:

1. If God exists, there is no pointless suffering.
2. But there is pointless suffering.
3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Since I do not think we have reason to believe God exists, I think we have reason to believe there is pointless suffering and so reason to believe God does not exist. If I am right, the only way anyone can refute this argument is by offering reasons to believe that God exists. If we lack reasons for believing in God we should be atheists, not agnostics.[1]

NOTE

[1] I am grateful to William Rowe for comments on an earlier draft that helped me frame some of the questions more clearly and to sharpen the arguments I present.


"Why Doesn't God Intervene to Prevent Evil?" is copyright © 1996, 2000 by Bruce Russell.
The electronic version is copyright © 2000 Internet Infidels with the written permission of Bruce Russell.

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