[Note: This is part one in a two-part series on atheism and the problem of evil.]
My tummy hurts. Ergo, there is no god.
This argument may be absurd, but it’s not intended as a reductio ad absurdum. Although in simplistic form, this enthymeme encapsulates one of the primary atheological arguments—the argument from evil.
The structure of the argument becomes more obvious once we include the unstated premises:
1. Tummy aches are a form of harm being done to the physical and/or psychological well-being of a sentient creature.
2. Harm is evil.
3. God—an omniscient, wholly good being—would prevent evil.
4. God did not prevent my tummy ache.
5. Ergo, there is no god.
This argument is known as the evidential problem of evil, the preeminent surviving form of that argument since the problem of evil has been, in my opinion, adequately solved.
The evidential problem of evil is the problem of determining whether the existence of evil constitutes evidence against the existence of God. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, “Evidential arguments purport to show that evil counts against theism in the sense that the existence of evil lowers the probability that God exists.”
The strongest and most famous examples of this type of argument can be found in William Rowe’s 1979 paper, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism.” Rowe outlines his primary argument as follows:
1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
3. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being. (Rowe 1979: 336)
I contend that Rowe’s argument is precisely the same as my Tummy Ache formulation.
Not so, you say, for Rowe has added the qualifier intense to the suffering in question. To which I’d respond: My tummy hurts intensely.
Actually, I would say that my construction of the argument is more solid. By sneaking in the adjective intense, Rowe attempts to give the premise emotional resonance. However, the inclusion of the modifier shifts the premise onto subjective ground, weakening its force. After all, how does intense suffering differ in kind from mere suffering?
Let's imagine that all suffering could be converted to a single unit of measurement—suffering measured in Tummy Aches (TA). Let’s also say that the range of suffering extends from .0001 TA to 100 billion TA. At what level would we say that suffering has become intense? 10 TA? 100 TA? Obviously, it would depend on the context. In the life of a single human, 100 TA of suffering might be considered intense. But is this the right standard?
Among philosophers, pain and suffering are most often evaluated in relation to individual human experience. Yet if we are talking about an amount of suffering that would disprove God, we should consider it within a larger context, such as the entire universe. On that scale, would 100 TA be noteworthy? Would even 100 billion TA be a considerable amount within the vast expanse of the cosmos?
Even if we were to choose an arbitrary context, however, we would still be left with the subjective, personal consideration: If God is omnipotent then he should be able to prevent my tummy ache. For the premise to support the conclusion it should discard all qualifiers and state its point more directly: “An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any suffering . . .”
Stated in this way, most people would abandon arguments for the Tummy Ache-evidential problem of evil. However, some skeptical folk would still contend that an omnipotent, wholly good being would indeed prevent all tummy aches—and that stomach pains are evidence against the existence of God. The proper response to this is “Are you omniscient?”
The necessity of this question is based on the fact that the first premise can only be judged by an omniscient being. When faced with the bare fact that suffering occurs, we are left with the question, “Could the suffering have been prevented without losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse?” Only an omniscient being could answer with certitude, yet Rowe’s premise begs the question by assuming that the answer is affirmative.
Those of us who are not omniscient, however, should be hesitant to conclude this is damning evidence. By remaining agnostic about the first premise, we have no reason to believe the argument is sound. It becomes apparent that the mere existence of evil has no bearing on the probability that God exists. The evidential problem of evil is, I contend, a non sequitur.
This is not to deny that evil is a problem; it is just not a logical or evidential problem. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga explains, evil is a religious problem:
The theist may find a religious problem in evil; in the presence of his own suffering or that of someone near to him he may find it difficult to maintain what he takes to be the proper attitude towards God. Faced with great personal suffering or misfortune, he may be tempted to rebel against God, to shake his fist in God’s face, or even to give up belief in God altogether. [emphasis in the original]
“Such a problem calls,” says Plantinga, “not for philosophical enlightenment, but for pastoral care.”
Perhaps, then, we are failing in our apologetic duties when we respond to such arguments as if they were inspired by reason rather than motivated by emotional. But how should we address such emotional atheism? That is the question we'll consider next week in the second part of this series.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.
*Most philosophers (including William Rowe) would admit that Alvin Plantinga has solved the logical problem of evil. In his brief and masterful God, Freedom, and Evil, Plantinga concludes that it is at least possible that God could not have created a world with moral good but no moral evil.
William Rowe’s The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism