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Science, Confirmation, and the Theistic Hypothesis: Chapter 5

Chapter Five

Evil and the Disconfirmation of Theism

The last chapter ended on an inconclusive note. The skeptical arguments examined there provide ample protection against certain kinds of aggressive apologetic, but it is not clear that they constitute decisive arguments against theism in general. This chapter will attempt to develop such a general anti-theistic argument. Specifically, an hypothesis-disconfirming version of the problem of evil will be offered against theism.

The problem of evil is, of course, one of the oldest and most intractable issues in the philosophy of religion. It is generally agreed that the existence of evil presents some sort of difficulty for theism. The precise nature of this difficulty has been interpreted in numerous ways. Perhaps it has most often been seen as a problem of logical consistency: How are the predicates normally ascribed to God, i.e. that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good, to be reconciled with the claim that he created a world that contains evil? During the past few decades, particularly powerful and subtle versions of this challenge have been developed by anti-theistic philosophers such as J.L. Mackie and Antony Flew.[1]

Theistic philosophers have responded to this charge of inconsistency in two different ways.[2] Some theists, such as Alvin Plantinga and Nelson Pike, think it adequate to show that no formal contradiction follows from conjointly claiming that God exists and that he created a world containing evil.[3] Others, such as Schlesinger and Swinburne, do not think it adequate merely to avoid formal contradiction.[4] They hold that if theism is to make a plausible response to the problem of evil, some reason must be given for thinking that God is in fact justified in permitting evil. In short, whereas Plantinga and Pike are content to develop logical strategies for the avoidance of self-contradiction, Schlesinger and Swinburne produce full-blown theodicies. The present chapter endorses this latter approach and will therefore concentrate on the arguments of Schlesinger and Swinburne. First, however, an hypothesis-disconfirming argument from evil will be developed and the precise nature of the difficulty it creates for theism will be clarified.


It is one of the best known principles of confirmation theory that hypotheses are more easily refuted than confirmed. This is because the arguments employed to refute hypotheses are deductively valid whereas those employed in their confirmation are not. The basic structure of an hypothesis-disconfirming argument is quite simple.[5] From an hypothesis (H) and initial conditions(C), a prediction(P) is deduced. An experiment or observation is then performed to see whether that prediction holds true. If the predicted event does not occur, either the hypothesis is wrong or the initial conditions were not what they were held to be. If the initial conditions were indeed what they were held to be, the hypothesis is falsified. The formal structure of this argument is as follows (“->” will be the symbol for material implication):

    1) (H . C) -> P     premise (deduction of prediction)
    2) ~P              premise (observed result)
    3) C                premise (initial conditions true)
    4) ~(H . C)        1,2 Modus Tollens
    5) ~H v ~C          4, DeMorgan's Laws
    6) ~H               3,5 Disjunctive Syllogism

The structure of an hypothesis-disconfirming argument from evil is even simpler. In such an argument H will be the theistic hypothesis–expressed in the following preposition(T):

(T) There exists a perfectly good, omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe.

Since a God so defined would not face any initial conditions other than his own will and nature, C here will be T itself, and (T . T) reduces simply to T. Therefore, if a class of evils can be deduced that should not exist if T is true, the discovery of an actual instance of such evil will, by modus tollens, decisively falsify T.

However, things are never really quite this simple. As W.V. Quine has argued, our beliefs face the tribunal of experience not singly but as a whole body.[6] When contrary evidence threatens as hypothesis there are usually many different adjustments that can be made within our body of beliefs to accommodate such results. Outright rejection of the hypothesis is only one possible adjustment. More frequently, we might change the hypothesis or add auxiliary hypotheses to it so that it no longer made unsuccessful predictions. On the other hand, we might decide that the initial conditions had in fact been different and that they differed in such a way that the previously unexpected result would now be expected. Yet another option might be to re-evaluate the contrary evidence so that we no longer see it as counting against the hypothesis.

Sometimes, however, an hypothesis will be confronted by evidence in such a way that rejection of the hypothesis is the only feasible option. That is, there are some situations in which all the alternative adjustments in our web of beliefs would, for one reason or another, be unacceptable. For instance, it might be that the hypothesis does not admit of significant alteration and that the only available auxiliary hypotheses are wholly unjustified and ad hoc. Further, it might be that any significant change in our conceptions of the initial conditions or the nature of the contrary evidence would entail a radical overhauling of deeply-entrenched concepts or theories.

The aim of the proponent of the hypothesis-disconfirming argument from evil is, of course, to place the theist in precisely the desperate situation described above. Theism will be greatly discredited if the only way it can obviate a contradiction between its claims and the existence of evil is through the invocation of ad hoc hypotheses. Further, theism will be similarly discredited if the only theodicies it offers rest upon claims that run against widely held basic notions of rationality or morality.

The chief task facing the proponent of the hypothesis-disconfirming argument from evil is therefore to deduce a class of evils that should not exist if God exists and then to point out clear instances of such evils in the world.[7] The model for an argument of this sort is given in a fable offered by Roland Puccetti:

Suppose we are all tenants in a large apartment building and we meet to discuss common problems. It is clear that the building has many faults. Walls are crumbling, ceilings develop cracks, the heat is sometimes off in winter and on in the summer, the elevators are unreliable, etc. The general feeling is that our landlord, whom none of us has ever seen, is either incompetent or selfishly indifferent to our fate. Some tenants, however, rise to his defence. They say he may have good reason for letting the building go on in this way, though when pressed they can’t suggest any which sound convincing to most of us. Now what would we normally do if we saw no prospect of getting a reasonable explanation in the future? Surely we wouldn’t just sit back and suspend judgement indefinitely. It is always possible that anyone really had good reasons for what he did, or what he did not do. Ignorance of possible motivation does not prevent us, in human affairs, from making a decision about someone’s moral qualities.[8]

The relevance of this fable to the problem of evil is obvious. Indeed, on the face of it, everything Puccetti says about the earthly landlord applies a fortiori to the heavenly one; he seems much more callous than his mundane counterpart. Surely the enormous variety, extent, and magnitude of the evils found in the world place a much greater burden of justification on the theist than the ramshackle condition of an apartment would place on a defender of the landlord.

Many theists would doubtless find the above paragraph far too hasty and presumptuous. It is easy to see how the disgraceful condition of an apartment building counts against the claim that the landlord is competent and concerned for his tenants’ welfare. It is quite so easy to see how the evils of the world, terrible as they may be, constitute a prima facie counter-example to theistic claims? Clearly, a landlord has certain obligations to his tenants; if he is negligent he is rightly condemned as incompetent or callous. But perhaps, so theists will say, we are forgetting what God said to Job out of the whirlwind. What right do we have to judge God? It is easy to identify evils that a landlord, if he were competent and concerned for his tenants’ welfare, would not allow to exist. Can we so readily identify a set of evils the existence of which would be precluded by the existence of God?

This is a fair challenge, and it can be answered by turning to the theistic definition of “God”. Four of the predicates traditionally ascribed to God are perfect goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, and that God is the creator of the universe. Taking the first of these traditional predicates, what exactly is meant by “perfect goodness”? Surely it is both uncontroversial and innocuous to say that a perfectly good being will not bring an evil into being unless there is a legitimate excuse or adequate justification for doing so. This may be expressed more formally as the following principle (P):

(P) A perfectly good being will not knowingly bring about an evil e that was within its power not to bring about unless not bringing about e is a sufficient condition for one or both of the following results: (a) Another evil e’ is brought into being (or allowed to continue in existence) such that e’ is as bad as or worse than e. (b) The realization of some good g is prevented (or its existence is discontinued), where, g, had it occurred (or had its existence been allowed to continue), would have been good enough to have justified the occurrence of e.

The upshot of principle (P) is that a perfectly good being will be excused for bringing about an unjustified evil only if he/she did so out of ignorance or was powerless not to bring it about. Further, the only adequate justification for bringing an evil into being is that not doing so will results in (a) and/or (b).

The excuse of ignorance is, of course, not available to an omniscient being. Further, only logical necessity could conceivably place any limit on what God could refrain from creating. Hence, the following principle (P*) tells us what sort of evil God will refrain from actualizing:

(P*) A perfectly good, omniscient, omnipotent, creator of the universe will not actualize an evil e unless the nonactualization of e logically entails one or both of the following: (a*) Another evil e’ is actualized such that e’ is as bad as or worse than e. (b*) Some good g is not actualized where g, had it been actualized, would have been good enough to have justified the actualization of e.

It is important to note that “actualize” here is taken to include both what has been called “strong” and “weak” actualization.[9] God actualizes an evil strongly when he directly creates it; he actualizes an evil weakly when he creates agents whom he allows to commit these evils of their own free volitions.

Let the name “superfluous evil” be given to all that evil which a perfectly good, omniscient, and omnipotent creator would not actualize. If, therefore, such a creator does exist, since all evil in the universe will have been actualized either strongly or weakly by that creator, there should presently be no superfluous evil in the universe. If, however, we discover examples of superfluous evil in the universe, we must conclude that it is false that a perfectly good, omniscient, and omnipotent creator exists. Hence, the identification of superfluous evil in the universe will show that God does not exist.

It is quite easy, moreover, to find evils that are prima facie superfluous. That is, many of the evils of our experience could have been left unactualized seemingly without necessitating equally bad or worse evils or precluding justifying goods. For instance, it is very hard to see that some other great evil would have resulted or some great good would have been prevented if much disease had simply been left unactualized. The same thing applies to birth defects, such as spina bifida, and genetic disorders, such a Tay-Sachs. It is not obvious that the nonactualization of these evils would have diminished the world’s overall goodness or entailed some equally bad or worse evils. So-called “natural evil”, therefore, presents many of the clearest cases of prima facie counterexamples to the theistic hypothesis.[10]


As noted earlier, one sort of theistic response to such an argument is to claim that the argument from evil has failed to generate a formal contradiction. Pike, for example, argues that evil contradicts the existence of God only if God has no morally sufficient justification for allowing such evil.[11] Further, he claims that it cannot be demonstrated that no such morally sufficient justification exists for the evils of the world. In other words, no matter how apparently pointless or superfluous as evil presently appears, we are allegedly in no position to know that sub specie aeternitatis it is unjustified. Hence, there can be no grounds for saying that the existence of evil is logically compatible with the existence of God.

Plantinga’s argument is somewhat similar.[12] He notes that two statements can be contradictory only if it is impossible for them to be conjointly true. Plantinga’s aim is to show that there are possible states of affairs in which it is true both that God exists and that evil exists. He does not need to argue that this is the actual state of affairs; he can defeat the charge of inconsistency by showing it to be merely possible. If he succeeds in showing this, he will have proven it possible that “God exists” and “evil exists” are conjointly true.

Plantinga’s argument is long, tortuous, and employs the formidable technical machinery of possible-worlds semantics. It is not necessary to reproduce the details of his argument here; it may be conceded that he does establish that there is a logically possible world in which God and all of the world’s evils co-exist. Of greater interest are some of the strange devices that Plantinga employs to establish the possibility of such a world. His manner of dealing with the problem of natural evil is particularly odd.

The distinctive thing about Plantinga’s treatment of the problem of natural evil is his effort to show how it can be subsumed under the problem of moral evil. He thinks it possible that Satan and his minions are responsible for natural evil:

Satan, so the traditional doctrine goes, is a mighty nonhuman spirit who, along with many other angels, was created long before God created man. Unlike most of his colleagues, Satan rebelled against God and has since been wreaking whatever havoc he can. The result is natural evil. So the natural evil we find is due to free actions of nonhuman spirits.[13]

If this is so–and here, once again, all we need is the bare possibility–what we call natural evils are actually moral evils. Hence, if there are arguments that preclude the existence of a contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of moral evil–and Plantinga believes he possesses such arguments–then those arguments can be extended to cover natural evils as well. In other words it might be the case that

Natural evil is due to the free actions of nonhuman persons; there is a balance of good over evil with respect to the actions of these nonhuman persons; and it was not within the power of God to create a world that contains a more favourable balance of good over evil with respect to the actions of the nonhuman persons it contains.[14]

It follows that there can be no contradiction in conjointly asserting that God exists, that he created nonhuman agents, and that the world contains as much natural evil as it does contain.

Plantinga’s argument has been cogently criticized by Anthony Kenny and Mackie and Pike’s by Terence Penelhum.[15] Here, however, it may simply be conceded that Pike and Plantinga have succeeded in showing that no formal contradiction results from the conjoint assertion that God exists and that the actual evil found in the world exists. The problem is that they have accomplished this only with the help of completely unjustified and ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses. Pike tells us that God might have a morally sufficient justification for allowing evil, but he neither indicates what could serve as a justification nor offers any evidence that evil is in fact so justified. Likewise, Plantinga tells us that natural evil might be caused by the free acts of nonhuman agents, but he gives no evidence at all for the existence of such beings. No evidence is offered for these speculations and they serve no purpose except to insulate theism from ostensibly falsifying evidence.

Anyone determined at all costs to save a particular hypothesis from falsification can always generate ad hoc hypotheses to deal with apparent counterexamples. However, the avoidance of falsification through the introduction of such speculations and scenarios is tolerated neither in science nor in the contexts of ordinary life. A scientist who refused to subject a cherished hypothesis to severe tests and instead devised ever more ingenious scenarios for the preservation of that hypothesis, could hardly expect to be taken seriously by other scientists. Similarly, a defender of Puccetti’s landlord who said only that the landlord’s behaviour might be justified should expect little patience from the other tenants. As Puccetti said, there always might be an explanation for why someone acted as they did, but in the event that no such plausible explanation is actually offered, we cannot be expected to suspend judgment forever.

Most theists recognize, pace Pike and Plantinga, that they cannot shirk the task of developing a full-blown theodicy. Apparently disconfirming evils can be dealt with only by giving plausible reasons for thinking that it would not, after all, be wrong for God to actualize them. The generation of ad hoc hypotheses in the face of evident evils is simply not enough. This point is made by Schlesinger with specific references to Pike.[16] Swinburne makes a similar point with reference to Plantinga’s devil-scenario:

Many theists have of course claimed that natural evils are really brought about by free agents other than man, viz. fallen angels, and hence that a defense similar to the free will defense can be used to give the same kind of account of them as of moral evils. But this looks very much like an ad hoc hypothesis added to theism to save it from falsification by evidence which would otherwise falsify it. Although this hypothesis may save theism from formal falsification, it would seem that natural evil still greatly disconfirms theism, if the only way to save theism from falsification is by adding to it an ad hoc hypothesis. If the fallen-angel defense is to be taken more seriously, we need evidence of the existence of fallen angels, other than that provided by the existence of natural evil.[17]

The above remarks ably summarize the difficulties of the Pike-Plantinga approach and prompt us to turn to the more substantial arguments of Swinburne and Schlesinger.


One of the most plausible responses to the problem of evil has always been the so-called “free-will defense.” Surely, so the argument goes, it is better to have a world populated by beings who can freely choose to do good or evil–even though they do in fact sometimes choose evil–than to have a world filled with sentient automata whom God has programmed to do nothing but good. In fact, for moral goodness to be possible at all, it seems to be a necessary condition that there exist free agents who may justly be held responsible for their actions. A world totally devoid of moral goodness, even though it lacked all evil and abounded in all other sorts of goodness, can plausibly be seen as a world worse than the present one. Hence, a perfectly good God may have created a world in which there is free will, and consequently moral goodness, even though free beings sometimes abuse their freedom by choosing evil.

The first and most obvious reply to the free will defense is that, at best, it leaves a vast amount of evil unjustified. As we have seen, natural evil–disease, earthquakes, birth defects, droughts, volcanic eruptions, etc.–are, to all appearances, not due to the direct actions of free agents. Further, it is not clear that human beings do in fact possess the sort of freedom that the argument requires.[18] Even if we do have such freedom, to invest it with so high a value contravenes basic, widely-shared moral intuitions. For instance, many cases can be imagined in which someone is planning to commit an evil act and the only way to prevent their doing so is by restricting the exercises of their free will. In such a case, the failure to limit someone’s freedom may rightly be seen as a great evil. Finally, there are in the world a few individuals of saintly character who employ their free will to do very many good acts and only a few and very minor evil ones. There would be no loss of freedom if the world had been populated entirely with persons of such character, and, since such a possibility was open to God, he would appear to be at fault for not doing so.[19]

A number of the above objections are anticipated by Swinburne in his theodicy which is essentially a version of the free will defense. Swinburne begins by claiming that to have free will precludes God, however surreptitiously, predetermining our actions. What we do must, at least in part, be a matter of our own uncaused choices. Now it is at least plausible that God would allow humans a significant share in the creation of their own destinies. In order to give them that responsibility, he had to make them capable of making genuine choices.

Since some choices are good and others bad, humans can be truly free only if God allows them to make bad choices. Some of these bad choices will involve harm to oneself or others. Further, the greater the share in shaping our own destinies that God gives us, the more power to harm one another he must allow us:

He must for example not merely give men the power to bruise each other, but also give men the power to become heroin addicts, to persuade other men to become heroin addicts, and to drop atom bombs. A God who greatly limits the harm which men can do to each other greatly limits the control over their destiny which he gives to men–just as an over-protective parent who preserves his child from almost every possible physical or moral danger does not allow him to run his own life, and in turn to make through his own choice a difference in the lives of others.[20]

How great a share, then, should humans be allowed in the creation of their own destinies? Swinburne thinks that God would not allow us unlimited powers to harm one another, so he must draw a line somewhere:

The free-will defense does not deny that there must be a limit to the amount of harm which a good God would allow man to do to others deliberately or through negligence. Clearly in our world there is a limit to the amount of harm which man can suffer. Men only live for so long and if you inflict too much pain on them during their lives they become unconscious. It is in no way obvious that the limit to human suffering inflicted by other men is drawn in the wrong place–that if there is a God he has given men too great a control over their own destiny.[21]

The limit, Swinburne says, is not obviously drawn in the wrong place. Perhaps, though, someone undergoing the sort of torment he so coolly contemplates would be inclined to disagree. At any rate, the important thing to note here is that Swinburne only claims that the limits of human responsibility are not obviously drawn at the wrong place. He gives us no reason to think they are drawn in the right place; this will be important to recall later in this chapter.

Nevertheless, if God did establish the correct limits of human responsibility, this accounts for the existence of moral evil. What though of natural evil? Surprisingly, argues Swinburne, the free will defense also seems to provide a way of accounting for natural evil.

To be truly responsible for our actions we must know that by making certain choices we will be bringing about particular results. For instance, someone can only choose to commit murder if he knows which actions will result in his victim’s death. How does the murderer learn, e.g., that he can kill his victim by putting cyanide in the soup? He might learn it by being told that cyanide is deadly. But the person he learned it from must have learned it from someone else and that person in turn from someone else and so on. This chain cannot stretch back ad infinitum; there must have been a first cyanide poisoning in human history. Therefore, the first cyanide poisoner could not have learned the deadly results of ingesting the substance by observing or hearing about a previous cyanide murder. It can only have been learned by seeing or being told of someone suffering death due to the accidental ingestion of cyanide or similar poisons. Further, inductive inferences, such as that cyanide is poisonous, cannot be based on only a very few, isolated occurrences. To give grounds for sure knowledge, accidental cyanide poisonings must have occurred with sufficient frequency to justify the inference.[22]

The same hold for natural evils in general. They occur in order to inform us which evils we can cause, refrain from causing, prevent, or allow to occur. Swinburne does not flinch from the attempt to justify in this way even some of the most gruesome natural evils:

Thus we know that rabies causes a terrible death. With this knowledge we have the possibility of preventing such death (e.g., by controlling the entry of pet animals into Britain), or of negligently allowing it to occur or even of deliberately causing it. Only with the knowledge of the effects of rabies are such possibilities ours. But for us to gain knowledge of the effect of rabies it is necessary that others die of rabies (when the rabies was not preventable by man), and be seen to have done so. Generally, we can only have the opportunity to prevent disease affecting ourselves or others or to neglect to do so, or the opportunity to spread disease deliberately (e.g., by indulging in biological warfare), if there are naturally occurring diseases. And men can only have the opportunity to prevent incurable diseases or to allow them to occur, if there are naturally occurring incurable diseases.[23]

Swinburne is quite aware that many large-scale natural disasters cannot presently be caused or prevented by human beings. Their justification lies in the fact that humans of the future may very well be faced with momentous decisions that we presently are incapable of making. Future humans might, for example, have the choice of whether to move the earth closer to the sun, colonize Mars, greatly extend the human lifespan, or create new organisms in laboratories. Swinburne comments:

But rational choices on these matters can only be made in the light of knowledge of the consequences of alternative actions. The most sure knowledge can come only from the records of the effects on man of natural disasters, and of naturally caused changes of environment and constitution. If men are knowingly to determine the fate of future generations through making such choices they can do so most surely by having knowledge of the disasters which have befallen past generations.[24]

Further, the long-range plans of present and future humans can also be guided by knowledge of the evolutionary history of life on earth. Hence, the whole history of nature “red in tooth and claw” serves to guide us in making responsible long-range decisions.

Finally, Swinburne considers whether God could have spared humans and animals the torment of natural evils by giving people non-inductive knowledge of the consequences of their actions. According to Swinburne, this would require that God tell us out loud which results will be caused by which actions. However, this would have the bad effect of letting everyone know for certain that God exists and is constantly watching all that we do. The possession by everyone of such knowledge would result in a severe abridgement of human responsibility. We would no longer make good decisions and refrain from bad simply because we want to do what is virtuous. Rather, knowing that God is constantly watching over us, we would be good out of prudence to avoid punishment.[25]

Unsympathetic readers are likely to find Swinburne’s theodicy just as implausible as Plantinga’s demon-scenario and to regard it as deserving a similarly quick dismissal. However, Swinburne’s theodicy evinces a seriousness and depth that the Plantinga-Pike approach lacks. Swinburne recognizes that the problem of evil has to do with the evils of this world; to say that the problem is solved in some possible world does not matter unless that world is identical to the actual one. Further, he is willing to risk the attempt to explain things which many will regard as patently inexplicable–a risk not taken by those who seek refuge in ad hoc hypotheses. Because he recognizes something of the depth of the problem of evil, and because he takes the risks involved in facing the problem head-on, he merits a more detailed analysis and critique.

In making an evaluation of Swinburne’s theodicy, attention will be restricted to his treatment of the problem of natural evil. Recalling the requirements of principle P*, the problem of natural evil can be solved only by showing that there are plausible reasons for holding that natural evil is not superfluous. That is, Swinburne must show that the nonactualization of natural evils would have entailed the actualization of worse (or equivalent) evils or the nonactualization of justifying goods. For Swinburne, the responsibility of humans for their own and others’ destinies is the justifying good that could not be actualized if God had not actualized natural evils.

To succeed in justifying natural evils in this way, Swinburne must perform two tasks: First, he must show that it is not logically possible for humans to be given such responsibility without the actualization of natural evils; second, he must give sound reasons for thinking that human responsibility is a great enough good to justify the natural evils that actually occur. Swinburne has failed in both these tasks.

With respect to the first task, Swinburne is far too hasty in his dismissal of the possibility that God could give us non-inductive knowledge of the consequences of our actions. According to Swinburne, God could only give us non-inductive knowledge by saying things out loud to us. But surely if God exists his ability to communicate is not nearly so limited as Swinburne imagines.

It is easy to think of a number of ways that God could impart non-inductive knowledge without revealing his existence. Knowledge of the consequences of certain actions could be implanted in us at birth as innate ideas. This sort of knowledge could come to us in dreams or as sudden flashes of insight. Such innate ideas, dreams, and flashes of insight would then be just basic facts about our mental life and there would be no impelling reason to think that they reveal the existence of God.

Further, it seems likely that such innate ideas, dreams, or flashes of insight, would only have to be given to a very few people. God would know in advance which individuals would commit evils if they knew about them. He could implant such knowledge in some of these persons and then allow them to commit the evils. Before long, enough of these evils would have been committed to justify ordinary inductive inferences about them. Then, so long as people retained the knowledge based on inductive inferences, it would be unnecessary to impart innate ideas, dreams, or flashes of insight.

Even if God did speak to us directly, how are we to recognize that the voice we hear is God’s? Would we not be more likely to identify such a voice as belonging to a demon since it tempts us to do terrible acts? Further, even if we did recognize that God had spoken to us, this would not completely deprive us of individual responsibility. It is far from obvious that someone who is certain of God’s existence will only do good and avoid evil out of prudence. Is the mystic, who is convinced that he or she has experienced an immediate encounter with God, incapable of true virtue? Conversely, can it be safely predicted that self-interest will keep the zealous Christian who is thoroughly convinced that God punishes sinners, from committing gross evils? St. Francis in the first instance and Torquemada in the second show that the answer to both of these questions is “no.”

It appears that Swinburne has failed to give any good reasons for thinking that God could not have given us non-inductive knowledge of the consequences of our actions. Further, he overlooks the possibility of indirect inductive knowledge of such consequences. For instance, someone with enough knowledge of biology and chemistry would be aware that certain chemical processes are necessary for the continuation of life. That person could also know that the chemical properties of a substance are such that they would inhibit one of those chemical processes necessary for life. All of this could be known without ever having witnesses an actual death due to the ingestion of that chemical. It seems, therefore, that humans could have both inductive and non-inductive knowledge of the consequences of their actions, and so be fully responsible for those acts, even if natural evil had not been actualized.

Suppose, though, that Swinburne did succeed in showing that the nonactualization of certain natural evils, e.g., infectious diseases, would necessarily have resulted in an abridgement of human responsibility. He could then only defend God’s actualization of infectious diseases by claiming that the abridgement of freedom involved in their nonactualization would have been an evil as bad or worse than the diseases themselves.

The first thing to note about the above claim is simply that it militates against basic widely-shared moral intuitions. Is the vigilance of those who control the entry of pet animals into Britain, or even the heroism of Louis Pasteur, a great enough good to justify the existence of rabies? It is hard to imagine that those whose lives are devoted to the conquest of disease, or to caring for its victims would see their own efforts, laudable as they may be, as contributing to the justification of such evils. One cannot imagine Mother Theresa believing that it is better for there to be lepers for her act compassionately towards than for there to be no lepers. The attitude that seems most consonant with true compassion is the wish that those whose suffering is being alleviated had never had to suffer at all.

Further, if natural evils are actually blessings in disguise, then we are in this respect too richly blessed. There are far, far too many instances of natural evil for human beings to even begin to take responsibility for them all. Speculations about what human beings will be able to take responsibility for in the future are just that–speculations. In the meantime, it appears that human beings could have just as much responsibility as they do now if that responsibility were focused on a smaller number of evils. For instance, if there were only half the number of diseases that there now are, this would still be enough to keep doctors, researchers, and everybody else fully occupied for the forseeable future.

Finally, some very strange consequences apparently follow from investing human responsibility with as high a value as Swinburne does. It seems to follow from this line of thought that scientists working in recombinant DNA research would be justified in creating new plagues and releasing them into the environment. Millions might die from these plagues, but that should be more than counterbalanced by the great increase in human responsibility.

Presumably, though, Swinburne would want to deny this alleged consequence of his argument. He would want to claim that God was justified in creating the diseases that he did, but that we would not be justified in creating new ones. Swinburne could argue this only by claiming that God has created the perfect balance between the evil of disease and the good of human responsibility. If God had actualized less disease, humans would have too little responsibility; if he had actualized more, there would have been superfluous evil.

It will be recalled that Swinburne only said that the limits of human responsibility were not obviously drawn at the wrong place; he gave us no reason whatsoever to think that the limit was drawn at exactly the right place. If no such reason can be given, the notion that the actual balance of the evil of disease and the good of human responsibility is the ideal one is just as much an ad hoc hypothesis as Plantinga’s demon-scenario. Hence, we must conclude that Swinburne has given no good reason to think that God was justified in creating disease but that we would not be justified in creating more.

Swinburne’s theodicy has therefore failed with respect to natural evils. He has given us no reason to refrain from regarding earthquakes, disease, birth defects, volcanic eruptions, etc. as counterexamples to the theistic hypothesis.


Schlesinger’s theodicy is in many respects similar to Swinburne’s: They both regard evil as justified by the opportunities for human beings that can only come into being through God’s actualization of evil.[26] However, Schlesinger places greater emphasis on the virtuous responses elicited by evil than upon the value of human freedom and responsibility per se. That is, Schlesinger endorses the “soul-making” theodicy recently defended by John Hick and deriving ultimately from the Church Father Irenaeus.[27]

“Soul-making” theodicy is based on the undeniable fact that some types of virtuous acts are possible only if actual instances of suffering occur:

Consider such admirable characteristics as fortitude, charity, compassion, courage or forgiveness. It is logically impossible for instances of fortitude to occur where there is no pain, since by definition fortitude is firmness of mind in meeting adversity and the readiness to endure hardship without complaint. It is logically impossible to have charity where there is no want; compassion where there is no suffering, and thus nothing to be compassionate about; courage where there is no danger; or forgiveness where no injury has been done. A world that contains instances of these desirable qualities–all of which may be described as virtuous responses to suffering–is a better world than one that does not. God, wanting to have a better world, was compelled to permit suffering.[28]

Schlesinger devotes little space to further articulation of this theodicy; his main effort is to raise and answer a number of objections that have been or might be offered against the “soul-making” argument. The criticisms that Schlesinger considers vary widely in their value. Hence, it will be unnecessary to follow his exposition and replies to each of them. Instead, the more important of these objections will be considered and Schlesinger’s replies to them examined and evaluated.

The first and most obvious objection is that the “soul-making” theodicy has things backwards. Compassion, fortitude, forgiveness, etc. are good only insofar as they serve to alleviate suffering. Where no suffering exists there is no need for such virtues, and therefore it would be absurd to create suffering merely so that such virtues could be exercised. Schlesinger replies:

This objection can be met by pointing out that to value these noble qualities only for their effectiveness as antidotes to suffering is a possible view, but by no means the most reasonable view. Another view, which many people hold, judges that these qualities constitute good in themselves. It can be claimed that a person who has exercised charity, for example, has done good not only because he has eliminated want, but also because he has enhanced his character by being charitable, as well as enriching the world by adding to the virtuous acts performed in it. Admittedly if there were no want we would not need an act of charity to eliminate it, but we would be missing chances for the giver to improve his character and contribute to the moral wealth of the world. Charity is valuable not merely because of its usefulness but also because of the moral beauty inherent in it.[29]

Schlesinger therefore claims that compassion, courage, forgiveness, etc., are intrinsically good and not merely good as means for the alleviation of suffering.

The test of whether something is an intrinsic good is whether it would be worth having purely for its own sake–independently of whether it led to any other good. Surely though, there is something very odd in thinking that compassion, for example, could be good for its own sake, whether or not it ever actually led to the alleviation of suffering. If the value of compassion is detachable from the actual elimination of suffering, there seems to be no reason why it must be directed towards that aim. However, it seems that compassion just is, by definition, directed towards the alleviation of the suffering of others. Any act or feeling detached from that aim simply would not be compassion, no matter how ennobling it might be or how much intrinsic moral worth it might possess. It seems, therefore, that it is simply incoherent to speak of compassion as being practiced for its own sake; anything practiced for its own sake cannot be compassion.

Schlesinger could not reply by agreeing that compassion is necessarily directed towards the alleviation of suffering and then claiming that it is precisely this feature that makes compassion intrinsically valuable. This would be to claim that what makes compassion intrinsically good is that it serves as a means to something else, and surely this is nonsense.

Further, it is a sound ethical principle that moral deformity results when instrumental goods are mistaken for intrinsic ones and are pursued for their own sake rather than for their corresponding higher ends. For instance, an adequate income is certainly a good thing since freedom from want and a modicum of luxury are conducive to happiness. However, when money is pursued for its own sake, greed and avarice are the result.

Similar deformities occur when an effort is made to pursue courage, compassion, charity, fortitude, etc., for their own sake rather than for the alleviation of evil. When courage is admired too much, as is often the case with persons who are expected to be unusually courageous, courage is sometimes taken as an end in itself. When this occurs, a cult of bravado emerges and genuine courage is likely to be supplanted by swagger or machismo. Analogously, when “compassion” or “charity” are displayed for their own sakes they are soon revealed not as genuine compassion or charity, but as sanctimonious self-glorification. This is precisely what Protestant theologians have always condemned as the attempt to achieve salvation through works. On the other hand, the profound humility of those who are genuinely compassionate and charitable shows that by their acts they claim no righteousness for themselves. It appears, therefore, that the virtues listed by Schlesinger must be regarded as instrumental rather than intrinsic goods and that their moral worth and ennobling effects are due to the fact that they serve to overcome or mitigate evil.

Schlesinger devotes considerable space to a rebuttal of Mackie’s argument from evil.[30] Mackie distinguishes between first-order goods and evils, such as pleasure and pain, and the second-order goods and evils for which those of the first order are necessary preconditions. Charity and compassion would be examples of second-order goods since they tend to promote first-order goods and diminish first-order evils. Selfishness and callousness, on the other hand, are second-order evils since they tend to exacerbate pain and suffering and to diminish happiness. Mackie points out that even if first-order evils were justified by the existence of second-order goods, the existence of second-order evils remains unjustified. Theists would then presumably justify second-order evils in terms of third-order goods, but atheists would immediately point to third-order evils. It therefore appears that the attempt to justify evil in terms of higher-order good leads to a vicious infinite regress: Each higher order of good is accompanied by evils of that same order which in turn require justification.

Schlesinger replies that Mackie’s regress is neither vicious nor infinite.[31] Schlesinger admits that one should view this regress pessimistically, as presenting a new and unsolved difficulty whenever a solution is proposed. However, he contends that there is also an optimistic perspective on such a regress:

For as soon as the question why we have evil of level (n + 1) is raised we are able to explain this as a necessary condition of having good of level (n + 2). It is not clear that we have to feel frustrated because we are immediately confronted with a new problem after every solution; we could feel reassured that for every question we are at once provided with a solution. In the standard infinite regress, which all agree is vicious, it does not matter where we stop in the regress, for each step is as bad as another. Mackie’s is a peculiar regress, however, in it we alternate between a step that lands us in a difficulty, and a step which resolves the previous difficulty. He would have to produce an argument to convince us that this kind of regress invalidates the virtuous response to suffering solution.[32]

Further, Schlesinger points out the regress is in fact not infinite.[33] It would be absurd to think that there actually exists a five hundred and thirty seventh level of good and evil; in actuality the highest-order good or evil found in the world would probably not exceed the fourth or fifth level. The theist could therefore claim that the highest order of evil in the world was, say, fourth-level evil, whereas good extends up to the fifth level. The atheist could then be challenged to produce a concrete example of fifth-order evil in the world, and would likely to be hard put to do so.

Finally, Schlesinger thinks that a much simpler and entirely adequate reply is available:

Mackie’s objection is based on his unquestioning assumption that the disvalue of second order evil is exactly equivalent in degree to the value of second order good. There is no reason why this should be granted; in fact there is a good argument for not granting it. A human being is physically an animal and hence represents a strongly self-seeking system whose very essence lies on constantly striving to satisfy a wide range of appetites. By virtue of his animality, it is quite natural for a human being to pursue his selfish goals at the expense of everybody else…He has been created with an innate bent for callousness and meanness. Acts of the superego, such as charity compassion, are results of exerting a special noble will to curb these natural drives. Thus the positive value of virtuous acts by far exceeds the negative value of immoral acts…It is far more remarkable for man to act virtuously, a non-animal-like spirituality transcending his selfish impulses, than it is for him to do what comes naturally.[34]

Schlesinger’s first criticism has a paradoxical quality: It ought to satisfy an atheist, but it sounds strange coming from a theist. Schlesinger says that evil as a whole would be justified if at each stage of an infinite regress the evil that occurs at that stage is justified by the good at the next level. This is much like the atheist’s claim that the existence of the universe as a whole is adequately explained because each stage in the infinite causal chain is adequately explained by the causes operating at the next stage back. Supporters of the cosmological argument, however, are not satisfied that the existence of the universe as a whole can be explained in this way and they should reject the application of the same sort of reasoning to the problem of evil. Hence, certain ways of arguing for theism seem closed to Schlesinger so long as he maintains this criticism of Mackie.

Schlesinger is quite right that that, practically speaking, there is no infinite regress of orders of good and evil. However, in his challenge to the atheist to produce an example of fifth-order evil, he has forgotten that he must first meet the burden of proof himself. When confronted by actual evils going up to, say, the fourth level, Schlesinger cannot just say that there might be fifth-order good but no fifth-order evil, he has forgotten that he must first meet the burden of proof himself. When confronted by actual evils going up to, say, the fourth level, Schlesinger cannot just say that there might be fifth-order good but no fifth-order evil. He must first produce a concrete example of fifth order good and only then can he challenge the atheist to produce an example of fifth-order evil. Further, since atheists do not seem to be on the whole any less ingenious than theists, there is no reason to think that they will be any harder put to produce fifth-order evils than theists will be to produce fifth-order goods.

Two obvious difficulties arise with Schlesinger’s claim that the positive value or virtuous acts far exceeds the negative value of immoral acts. First, to say that God created humans with a strong inclination towards evil in order to enhance the value of their rare good acts is, to say the least, a very strange notion and one for which considerably more justification is required. Second, even if it is true that the value of individual good acts outweighs the disvalue of individual evil ones, what bad acts lack in quality they make up in quantity. If humans have as great a propensity towards evil as Schlesinger claims, it is far to say that each good act is outnumbered by many bad ones. More argument is needed to show that one act of compassion outweighs the disvalue of, say, a dozen acts of callousness.

However Schlesinger responds to the above difficulties, his main problem is left unsolved. The degree to which the positive value of good exceeds the negative value of evil is irrelevant since the existence of any evil at all at a particular level is sufficient to require justification. That is, the existence of any amount of evil at a particular level will require that a higher order of good be posited–unless evils can somehow be justified by the goods of that same level. That is, unless it can be shown that the evils of a given level are logically necessary preconditions for the goods of that same level, a higher level of good will have to be posited to justify them. Schlesinger has given no indication of how the evils of one level could serve as logically necessary preconditions for the goods of that same level, and it is difficult to see how this could be shown.

Finally, Schlesinger realizes that while many might find some plausibility in the “soul making” theodicy, they will think that the magnitude of suffering is too great and the good of virtuous acts too small to account for all of the world’s evils to be accounted for in this way.[35] According to Schlesinger, the theistic responses should be that

… in the afterlife, which is of infinite duration, there is unlimited scope to compensate the sufferer. In fact, he may receive so much recompense for his earlier sufferings that, in view of this and the important goals his travails have served, he will ultimately feel that he has no reason to complain.[36]

Schlesinger realizes that atheists will regard any appeal to an afterlife as unsatisfactory. However, he argues that to demand evidence for such a future state is to illicitly shift the burden of proof:

Let it suffice to remind ourselves that the problem of evil has been raised in the atheist’s endeavour to disprove theism conclusively. All the theist is called upon to do is to show that there is no convincing proof that atheism is true. The burden of proof that an afterlife exists does not rest upon him. Before claiming victory, the atheist would have to show positively that such a life is non-existent; merely to deride the theist for his belief will not do. Nor can the theist be accused of ad hoc argument, since he has not postulated the world to come simply to provide a reply to the specific objection we are discussing–on the contrary, it is deeply embedded in a theistic world view.[37]

However, to say that an hypothesis is ad hoc is not necessarily to say anything about how deeply embedded it is as a belief of those who propose it. In a public debate, an hypothesis is ad hoc if there is no evidence for it of a sort that is, in principle, ascertainable by all parties in the dispute. If one such party can avoid falsification only by proposing such an hypothesis, the opposing parties will justifiably regard the debate as over and as settled in their favour. Schlesinger seems to think that it is the atheist’s aim to convince the theist, but the goal may be simply to make the best case with respect to the publically available evidence.

Further, the atheist has reasons for rejecting the appeal to an afterlife other than arguing that it is unevidenced and ad hoc. It just is not clear how future bliss, even an eternity of bliss, is supposed to compensate for present evils. If an evil is unjustified in the present, it can only be justified in the future by serving as a logically necessary condition for the prevention of some future evil or the actualization of some future good. How are present evils a necessary condition for the attainment of an eternity of bliss? Presumably, God can bestow such bliss on whomever he chooses without having to make them suffer first. Until some reason is given for thinking otherwise, there is no reason to think that present evils are justified by a blissful afterlife.

In conclusion, therefore, the theodicies of Swinburne and Schlesinger fail to deal adequately with the hypothesis-disconfirming argument from evil. Neither has given any reason for thinking that many prima facie counterexamples to the theistic hypothesis are only apparent and not genuine. In earlier chapters it was shown that Schlesinger and Swinburne fail to offer plausible arguments in favour of theism. Now it is clear that they have also failed to defend theism against disconfirmation by the fact of evil. Their failure on both counts must raise serious doubts about the possibility of an hypothesis-confirming defense of theism.


[1] Antony Flew, “Divine Omnipotence and Human Freedom,” in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, eds. (New York: Macmillan, 1955), pp. 144-169; J.L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in God and Evil, Nelson Pike, ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964), pp. 46-60.

[2] These and many other recent theistic responses to the problem of evil are excellently summarized by Michael L. Peterson in “Recent Work on the Problem of Evil” in The American Philosophical Quarterly, 2, #4 (October, 1983).

[3] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1974), pp. 7-64; Nelson Pike, “Hume on Evil” in Nelson Pike, ed., pp. 85-102.

[4] Schlesinger, Religion and Scientific Method, pp. 9-79 and Metaphysics pp. 48-66; Swinburne, EOG, pp. 200-244 and “Natural Evil,” The American Philosophical Quarterly, 15, #4 (October, 1978), pp. 295-301.

[5] The structure I present has been adapted from the one offered by Ronald Giere in Understanding Scientific Reasoning (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1984), pp. 109-110.

[6] W.V.O. Quine, Methods of Logic (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Wilson, 1950), p. xii.

[7] Terence Penelhum has argued that the problem of evil ought not to be construed in this manner, i.e. as a problem of evidence against an hypothesis: “It is not a problem about a belief that does not seem to square with the evidence. It would only be the latter sort of problem if the theist himself was disposed to ignore the evils in the world. Perhaps some are…But this is not typical. The recognition of the existence of evil is not in itself a challenge to theism: It is a part of it. The existence of evil is not something that the facts of life force the theist to admit…The existence of evil is something the theist emphasizes.” from Religion and Rationality, pp. 223-224. However, it is possible for the proponents of an hypothesis to wrongly assimilate certain evidence into that hypothesis. Recall the creationists’ attempt to interpret the evidence for evolution as signs of the inscrutable workings of providence. When evidence is adduced against an hypothesis, the important question is whether defenders of that hypothesis can show that the claimed disconfirming evidence does not constitute a genuine counterexample. If this can be shown, then the evidence can legitimately be incorporated into the hypothesis; if it cannot be shown, then it serves to disconfirm that hypothesis. This chapter argues that the occurrence of certain evils cannot be legitimately incorporated into the theistic hypothesis.

[8] Roland Puccetti, “The Concept of God,” Philosophical Quarterly, 14 (1964), p. 243.

[9] These two different senses of actualization are developed by Alvin Plantinga in The Nature of Necessity, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 172-173.

[10] That the standard distinction between “moral” and “natural” evil, is an artificial and not very satisfactory one is cogently argued by Mackie in The Miracle of Theism p. 163. However, as a rough way of classifying evils into those that are the result of the choices of free agents and those which, to all appearances, are not, the distinction is still sufficiently clear to be of use here.

[11] Pike, pp. 87-97.

[12] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, pp. 9-64.

[13] Ibid., p. 58.

[14] Ibid., p. 58.

[15] See Anthony Kenny, The God of the Philosophers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 65-71; Mackie, The Miracle of Theism, pp. 173-176; and Penelhum, Religion and Rationality, pp. 247-249.

[16] Schlesinger, Religion and Scientific Method, p. 11.

[17] Swinburne, “Natural Evil”, p. 296.

[18] See Mackie, The Miracle of Theism, pp. 166-172.

[19] See Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” p. 56.

[20] Swinburne, “Natural Evil,” p. 296.

[21] Ibid., p. 296.

[22] Ibid., p. 299.

[23] Ibid., p. 299.

[24] Ibid., pp. 299-300.

[25] Ibid., p. 301.

[26] Schlesinger, Metaphysics, pp. 57-66.

[27] Hick’s fullest statement of this theodicy is found in his Evil and the God of Love (Glasgow: William Collins & Sons, 1966), pp. 279-400.

[28] Schlesinger, Metaphysics, p. 57.

[29] Ibid., p. 58.

[30] Ibid., pp. 60-62.

[31] Ibid., pp. 61-62.

[32] Ibid., p. 61.

[33] Ibid., p. 61.

[34] Ibid., p. 62.

[35] Ibid., p. 63.

[36] Ibid., p. 64.

[37] Ibid., p. 65.

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