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Evidential Arguments from Evil

The argument from evil (or problem of evil) is the argument that an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God would not allow any—or certain kinds of—evil or suffering to occur. Unlike the logical argument from evil, which holds that the existence of God (so defined) is logically incompatible with some known fact about evil, the evidential (or probabilistic) argument from evil contends that some known fact about evil is evidence against the existence of God. For instance, one version of the argument contends that the biological role of pain and pleasure is much more likely on naturalism than theism (e.g., Paul Draper).

Other versions of the evidential argument concede that God could have a morally sufficient reason for allowing certain evils to occur—e.g., to ensure that some greater good is achieved as a consequence of an evil. However, proponents add, God would only allow as much evil or suffering as is absolutely necessary in order to achieve greater goods. But when we look at the world around us, we find prevalent instances of apparently gratuitous evil—pointless evils from which no greater good seems to result. According to proponents, the existence of apparently gratuitous evil provides strong evidence that God (as traditionally defined) does not exist (e.g., William Rowe).

For thousands of years theologians and philosophers have developed elaborate theodicies—responses to the argument from evil which retain belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God. According to the unknown purpose defense (UPD), God allows apparently pointless suffering for some reason that we can't comprehend. The free will defense (FWD) maintains that God has to allow the existence of some evil in order to preserve human free will (e.g., Alvin Plantinga, Robert Adams). Finally, the soul-making theodicy (SMT) contends that God allows some evil because it builds positive character in the victims or in others which outweighs the negative value of the evil itself (e.g., John Hick).

There are several problems with each of these theodicies, but I will only note the most serious ones. The UPD faces the obvious objection that if you have no idea what reason God has for allowing evil, then for all you know there is no justifiable reason at all for an all-good God to permit it. And even if the FWD and SMT were successful, they would still leave much apparently gratuitious evil unexplained. As William Rowe points out, when a fawn burns to death in a forest fire and no human being ever knows about it, this apparently unnecessary evil neither preserves human free will nor builds the character of human beings.

-- Keith Augustine

The essays below explore these issues in more detail:

The Anthropic Coincidences, Evil and the Disconfirmation of Theism (1995) by Quentin Smith

According to Smith, the large amount of gratuitous evil is less probable given theism than it is given some alternative hypothesis to theism, such as the hypothesis that the universe was created by a malevolent supernatural being.

The Arguments from Evil and Nonbelief (1996) by Theodore Drange

Drange defends two arguments for atheism, including an argument from evil. As Drange points out, his argument by itself, disregarding the support for its premises, is a deductive or logical argument from evil. The support for the argument's premises, however, are of an inductive or evidential sort. Therefore, he explains, his argument from evil is an evidential argument, not intended to be conclusive.

The Argument from Physiological Horrors (2004; updated 2019) by Horia Plugaru

In this essay Horia Plugaru argues that the existence of physiological horrors provides evidence against the existence of a traditional theistic God. Although the argument proceeds from the empirical observation of facts that shouldn't obtain in a theistic world, and horrors by definition bring us some sort of suffering, the argument is not a variation on the evidential argument from evil, though it is related to it. Rather, the argument is that unjustified and extreme ugliness is unlikely to be found in the work of a perfect creator, but since it is in fact found in the world, human beings are probably not the products of a perfect creator.

Cataract (2009) by Mark Vuletic

Does horrendous suffering constitute evidence against the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and infinitely benevolent God? In this colorful hypothetical dialogue (based upon a real one in the philosophical literature), Mark Vuletic considers the primary issue of contention between the defender and skeptic of God's goodness: Could any amount of suffering ever constitute evidence against the goodness of God?

Depravity, Divine Responsibility and Moral Evil: A Critique of a New Free Will Defence (1995) by Andrea Weisberger

A popular response to the problem of evil contends that there is a necessary connection between free will and the existence of moral (or human-caused) evil. Alvin Plantinga, for instance, has advanced a concept of "transworld depravity"--essentially the idea that in any possible world where a given person has substantial free will, that person will necessarily commit at least one immoral act. In criticizing Plantinga's notion of transworld depravity, Clement Dore offers an alternative solution. But Weisberger argues that Dore's solution also fails because the existence of free will in no way necessitates either the human capacity to act wrongly or the excessive amount of moral evil we actually find in the world. Weisberger concludes that the free will defense utterly fails to undermine the argument from evil.

The Evidential Argument from Evil (1998) by Nicholas Tattersall

Tattersall defends a version of the evidential argument from evil that is based upon the probable existence of gratuitous evil. The argument includes a premise that gratuitous evils are logically incompatible with the God of theism. The argument is evidential, however, since it is not known with certainty that gratuitous evil exists. Thus, the other premise of Tattersall's argument is that gratuitous evil probably exists. Various theistic objections to this argument are refuted.

Evil and Skeptical Theism (2012) by Ryan Stringer

In this paper Ryan Stringer critiques a response to atheistic arguments from evil that has been called "skeptical theism." He starts by formulating a simple atheistic argument from evil and briefly justifying its two premises. Then he defends the argument against a skeptical theist's potential response. First, he indirectly defends his argument by arguing that skeptical theism is both intrinsically implausible and has problematic consequences, which makes it an unreasonable response. Second, he directly defends his argument by presenting arguments supporting its second premise. Stringer concludes that skeptical theism does not undermine his argument.

Freedom and the Free Will Defense (1990) by Richard M. Gale

"It is my purpose to explore some of the problems concerning the relation between divine creation and creaturely freedom by criticizing various versions of the Free Will Defense."

God is Either the Efficient or Final Cause of Evil (2020) by Edouard Tahmizian

Where did evil in the world come from? In this article Edouard Tahmizian considers God's causal influence on the origin of evil. He aims to show that, if biblical hard determinism is true, God would be the efficient cause of Adam and Eve's transgression—the original sin that the rest of humanity inherited when the first humans, Adam and Eve, purportedly ate fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil according to the Book of Genesis. Moreover, he argues, even if biblical hard determinism is not true and all events could have turned out differently, God would still be the final cause of Adam and Eve's sin, making him at least somewhat causally responsible for the sin of Adam and Eve that we all purportedly inherited. In the end, Tahmizian's analysis implies that God is ultimately the source of all evil.

Human Suffering and the Acceptance of God (1997) by Michael Martin

A refutation of William Lane Craig's theodicy based upon the idea that human suffering can lead to acceptance of God.

The 'Inductive' Argument From Evil: A Dialogue (1988) by Bruce Russell and Stephen Wykstra

A fictional dialogue between three philosophical women about the inductive (or evidential) argument from evil.

Natural Selection and the Problem of Evil (Great Debate) (2007) by Paul Draper

In this chapter, Paul Draper appeals to natural selection in order to show that the failure of many humans and animals to flourish is strong evidence against the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect God. Treating theism and naturalism as hypotheses that aim to explain certain features of our world, Draper sets out to test each hypothesis against various known facts, including facts about human and animal suffering. After demonstrating that, prior to such testing, naturalism is more probable than theism in virtue of its smaller scope and greater simplicity, Draper goes on to argue that naturalism has far greater "predictive power" than theism, concluding that this provides strong grounds for rejecting theism.

Objections to Draper's Argument from Evil (Great Debate) (2007) by Alvin Plantinga

Paul Draper argues that all else held equal, "naturalism is much more probable than theism," and therefore "theism is very probably false"; moreover, naturalism is simpler and smaller in scope than theism, and has much greater predictive power than theism with respect to evolutionary facts about suffering. In this response, Alvin Plantinga disputes that theism has larger scope than naturalism, and argues that what is really at issue for epistemic probability is not simplicity as Draper understands it (as "uniformity"), but "epistemic naturalness"--and that theism is more epistemically natural than naturalism. Moreover, if we treat theism as a hypothesis (rather than as a fact), theism might be subject to prima facie defeat by facts about suffering and misery, but nevertheless explain or predict a whole range of other data better than naturalism, such as our possession of reliable cognitive faculties, the existence of objective morality, the fine-tuning of the universe, the existence of abstract objects, and so on. But if some theists know that theism is true (in virtue of religious experiences, say), then their theism is not subject to defeat by facts about suffering even disregarding these explanatory advantages.

On the Plausibility of Naturalism and the Seriousness of the Argument from Evil (Great Debate) (2007) by Paul Draper

Alvin Plantinga does not challenge (and thus implicitly concedes) the soundness of Paul Draper's argument for the conclusion that certain facts about good and evil are strong evidence against theism. Plantinga does, however, challenge Draper's view that naturalism is more plausible than theism, which Draper needs to reach the further conclusion that, other evidence held equal, theism is very probably false. In addition, Plantinga challenges the significance of this final conclusion. In this chapter, Draper defends his views on plausibility and then argues that Plantinga's challenge to the significance of his final conclusion fails for two reasons. First, Plantinga fails to show that this further conclusion does not threaten the rationality or warrant of most theistic belief. Second, he mistakenly assumes that, in order to be significant, this conclusion must threaten the rationality or warrant of most theistic belief.

Naturalism vs. Theism: The Carrier-Wanchick Debate (2006)

In this online debate between Richard Carrier and Tom Wanchick, Carrier opens with a discussion of method followed by 5 arguments for naturalism and 2 arguments against theism, while Wanchick opens with 9 arguments for theism. In the first rebuttals, each debater criticizes the arguments offered by the other in the opening statements. In the second rebuttals, each debater defends their opening arguments against the criticisms of the other in the first rebuttals. Both closing statements focus on the purported deficiencies of the other debater's overall case.

The Pollution Solution: A Critique of Dore's Response to the Argument from Evil (1997) by Andrea Weisberger

Several contemporary philosophers of religion have offered 'solutions' the problem of evil which insist that the world would actually be worse off than it currently is if there were no evil in it. Although John Hick's soul-making theodicy is the most prominent example of such a solution, Clement Dore has recently offered a theodicy that Weisberger dubs "the pollution solution." According to this response, evil is a necessary consequence of the 'polluting' natural machinery of the world. But as Weisberger points out, Dore fails to answer the critical question: Why couldn't God have created "nonpolluting" natural machinery? On the face of it, there is no reason to believe that such a world is logically impossible, and Dore offers no evidence to the contrary.

The Problem of Evil: Too Much Suffering (2004) (Off Site) by Bruce Russell

Because there is so much relevant evidence, it is hard to be certain that the best explanation of so much horrible suffering and some remarkable and beneficial events is that there is no God but people are sometimes lucky. But such an explanation seems better than one that says that God intervenes and sometimes helps bring about good outcomes and other times allows bad outcomes for reasons beyond our ken. That theistic explanation has two strikes against it in that we cannot understand how an immaterial being can act on the material world, and it posits the existence of hidden reasons, those beyond our ken. Whether it has three strikes against it depends on whether luck is an adequate explanation of events like the saving of the nine miners in Pennsylvania, the so-called Quecreek Miracle.

R. M. Adams's Theodicy of Grace (1998) by Richard M. Gale

Robert M. Adams, in a brilliant, thought-provoking essay, 'Must God Create the Best?,' puts forth a theodicy for God's creating inferior people to those he could have created or, in general, a less perfect world than he could have created, in terms of his bestowing grace upon these created beings. ... It makes available to God the following excuse for creating free beings who produce a less favorable balance of moral good over moral evil than that which would have been realized by other free beings he could have created: 'Sure I created some rotten apples or, at any rate, people who are morally inferior to others I could have created, but in doing so I was bestowing my grace upon them—creating them without any consideration of their (moral) merit. So don't bug me about why I permitted there to be moral evil, or at least more moral evil than was required, given what my options were.' Whether or not Adams intended this wide an application of his theodicy of grace, it will be instructive to see how it fares when so interpreted.

Review of Drange's Nonbelief and Evil (2005) by Charles Echelbarger

In this review of Ted Drange's Nonbelief and Evil, Charles Echelbarger outlines the contribution that the book makes to the philosophy of religion literature, comparing it to the work of other nontheistic philosophers of religion and noting Drange's emphasis on the different conceptions of God that comprehensive nontheistic arguments must address. He then turns to a discussion of Drange's two main arguments, the argument from evil and the argument from nonbelief, noting that Drange finds the latter superior to the more traditional argument from evil. He also notes that, on Drange's view, the argument from nonbelief has no force against the existence of the sort of remote Creator envisioned by radical deism.

Review of Jordan Howard Sobel's Logic and Theism (2006) by Theodore M. Drange

Jordan Howard Sobel's Logic and Theism is long, abstruse, and technical, but valuable for those who have an interest in its topics. Those looking for arguments based on empirical phenomena said to be best explained by the God hypothesis should look elsewhere. Sobel's focus is, rather, issues of definition and logical structure. He addresses everything from the ontological argument to the fine-tuning argument, demolishing all of the main arguments for God's existence. Moreover, he argues that the kind of omnipotence and omniscience that theists ascribe to God is incoherent, and defends both evidential and logical arguments from evil against the existence of God. Finally, he turns to a discussion of practical reasons for belief in God, such as those invoked by Pascal's wager. No cutting-edge research on these topics should omit Sobel's work.

A Simple Statement of the Problem of Evil (2011) by Keith Parsons

If God is all-powerful, then he can prevent evil; and if he is as good as can be, then he will prevent it. Why, then, does evil exist? The existence of evil implies that either God is not all-powerful, or he is not perfectly good. And if the traditional God must be both, then the existence of evil entails that such a God does not exist. Unless, of course, God has some morally sufficient reason for permitting evil—to prevent even greater evils, perhaps, or to enable some greater good. But examples of apparently pointless evils could be multiplied indefinitely, and some evils are so egregiously awful that no conceivable attendant good would be great enough to justify permitting them. But perhaps there are attendant goods that we, with our finite minds, simply cannot conceive. Perhaps; but this solution comes at a price. If we can have no inkling of what God would permit to happen, then we can equally have no inkling of whether God does, or even could, exist.

The Tale of the Twelve Officers (2002) by Mark Vuletic

An excellent, fictional introduction to the problem of evil and twelve theistic responses to the problem.

The Theistic God is Dead—A Casualty of Terrorism (2001) (Off Site) by Bishop John Shelby Spong

The terrorist tragedy will help us step beyond yesterday's God, beyond pious delusions.

Theodical Individualism against Skeptical Theism (2019) by Horia Plugaru

In this essay Horia George Plugaru rebuts the skeptical theism response to the evidential argument from evil by employing an intuitive moral principle called the principle of theodical individualism. Although skeptical theists deny the existence of pointless evil, theodical individualism signals its existence. The only recourse left to skeptical theists is to fall into moral paralysis or make serious concessions to proponents of the evidential argument from evil.

Two Ways of Proving Atheism (1996) by Quentin Smith

This is the transcript of a speech given before the 1996 Atheist Alliance Convention. Smith discusses two ways to prove atheism: scientific cosmology and gratuitous evil. Smith described his argument from gratuitous evil as an inductive (or evidential) argument.

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

Philosopher Bruce Russell argues that there is good reason to believe there is pointless suffering and therefore God does not exist.

Why God Does Not Exist Because This World Does (2020) by Richard Schoenig

Two of the most salient beliefs that most theists hold are that God is maximally good and loving, and that the eternal postmortem experience of the beatific vision of God is the summum bonum for all human beings. Given these two foundational theistic tenets, in this paper Richard Schoenig argues that God would have created humans in what he calls heaven world, and immediately and directly offered to all of them the option of experiencing that highest good—thereby skipping the pain, suffering, and confusion which suffuses this world. The argument developed in the paper concludes that there are no good reasons why God would not have created heaven world rather than this world. If so, then the existence of this world rather than heaven world constitutes adequate evidence that God does not exist.

Why I Am Not a Christian (2006) by Richard Carrier

In this explanation of why he is not a Christian, Richard Carrier outlines the top four reasons why he rejects Christianity: God's silence, God's inactivity, lack of evidence, and the overt conflict between discovered reality and Christian theory. Though a lay exposition geared at a general audience, the essay appeals to a variety of atheistic arguments, including the argument from religious confusion, an evidential argument from evil, divine hiddenness, the argument from biological evolution, and the argument from physical minds. In an interesting twist on the argument from design, Carrier turns the fine-tuning argument on its head, noting that several features of our universe--features predicted by naturalism--are highly improbable if Christian theism is true.

Why I Am Not a Christian (2006) by Graham Oppy

Graham Oppy explains the ways in which his reasons for rejecting Christianity differ from those offered by Bertrand Russell in his famous paper of the same title. In section I, Oppy considers how Christianity should be characterized, the best way to build a case against theism, and the nonrational reasons why people believe in God, among other things. In section II, he offers an account of his journey to unbelief and the philosophy of religion. By section III, Oppy explains why he is not a Christian, as well as some of the things that he does believe. Here he pines in on appeals to contingency and causality in theistic arguments, the problem of evil, free will, the mind-body problem, the history of the universe, human history, and the historicity of the Gospels--outlining his "supervenient naturalism" along the way. Oppy wraps up by considering the meaning of life and whether virtuous behavior relates to Christian belief.

See also:

Reviews of Books about Arguments from Evil [ Index ]

Jeffery Jay Lowder maintains this page.

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