The Problem of Evil: Still A Strong Argument for Atheism

Introduction

In this article I will consider the problem of evil, one of the main arguments against the existence of an all-good and all-knowing God. This article is written largely in response to a conference on the problem of evil I attended recently at which Christian apologist John Dickson presented keynote lectures. As such, much of my discussion, in particular the ‘inconsistency response’ which I critique at length, are inspired by his remarks at this event. However this piece is designed to stand alone, and so is not structured as a point-by-point critique of Dickson’s arguments. Instead, I discuss a number of issues which I think are of relevance to this question.

First I begin by presenting a simple ‘naive’ argument from evil, setting the groundwork for a discussion and critique of a common rebuttal to the argument, namely that the problem of evil requires a presupposition of theism and therefore is self-contradictory. I argue that both of the key premises of this rebuttal, namely that an atheist must presuppose moral realism in order for the argument to work, and that moral realism cannot be justified under atheism, are both false, and therefore the inconsistency rebuttal dependent upon these premises is unsound. I then present an improved, inference to the best explanation form of the argument from evil, and consider various criticisms of this form of argument. I conclude that the problem of evil remains a powerful argument in favour of atheism.

A Naive Argument from Evil

I will begin by presenting what I describe as a ‘naive’ argument from evil. I describe it as ‘naive’ not in order to denigrate the argument (which I think is promising albeit in need of further refinement), but merely in order to distinguish this simple, generic version of the argument from evil from more sophisticated, specific versions of the argument that have been advocated in the philosophical literature. It is something like this ‘naive’ argument that atheists often raise and theists often respond to in more popular discourse, and therefore I think it useful to frame the discussion for much of the remainder of this piece. The argument is given as follows:

P1. There exist a large number of horrible forms of evil and suffering for which we can see no greater purpose or compensating good.

P2. If an all-powerful, all-good God existed, then such horrific, apparently purposeless evils would not exist.

C. Therefore, an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist.

Note that the conclusion could be interpreted as being arrived at with deductive certainly, or (more plausibly), as being established by the argument as probably true to some level of certainty. Logical versions of the problem of evil are much more difficult to defend philosophically than evidential versions, but I don’t wish to get distracted by such distinctions here, so readers may feel free to interpret the above argument through either lens.

The Inconsistency Response

One common avenue of response to the problem of evil is for a theist to argue that the atheist critique of the ‘problem of evil’ is self-contradictory, depending for its force upon the existence of God in order to argue against God’s existence. The idea is that if atheism holds and God does not exist, there cannot be any objective existence of evil or suffering, for to make any sense of such concepts requires the existence of God, whose perfectly good being serves as the grounding of all notions of goodness, and against which the countervailing notions of evil and suffering can be contrasted. Without God providing grounding for goodness, therefore, there can be no evil and no suffering, and so in appealing to these concepts the atheist is actually contradicting themselves, unintentionally furnishing an indirect argument in favour of the very God they seek to disprove. We may summarise this response in the form of the following syllogism:

P1. In order for the argument from evil to be sound, it must appeal to an antecedently established source of objective morality.

P2. Under atheism, there can be no source of objective morality.

C. Therefore, the argument from evil is unsound.

I reject both premises of this argument. In the next two sections I shall successively explain why I think each of them is false. My purpose is to show that the problem of evil survives this popular criticism against it, and thus retains its force as a reason for disbelief in an all-good, all-powerful God.

Is the Problem of Evil Self-Undermining?

Beginning with the first premise, I do not agree that it is necessary for the atheist to appeal to any notion of objective morality or evil in order for the argument from evil to be sound. This is because the argument from evil can be understood as a form of reductio ad absurdum. Such arguments work by assuming the truth of the conclusion they wish to critique, and then demonstrating that this leads to absurd results. On the basis of these absurd consequences it is therefore reasoned that the contention in question is impossible (or at least unlikely) to be true.

In the case of the problem of evil, all that is needed is a recognition that certain states of affairs prevail in the world that possess properties contrary to the purported nature of God. For example, natural disasters and diseases cause millions to suffer and die for no apparent purpose. Such occurrences are contrary to God’s nature to be caring and loving towards his creation, not wishing them to suffer without reason. We therefore may use words like ‘evil’ to describe such occurrences, not in the sense that the hurricane was malevolent, but in the sense that the states of affairs resulting from such occurrences are contrary to God’s alleged good nature. Once we recognise this contradiction between God’s purported nature and the actual state of affairs in the world, we arrive at the reductio portion of the argument. Namely, that if a God with a god nature did exist and was all powerful, the world should be absent of horrific pointless suffering this being against God’s nature. But this is absurd, for the world abounds in horrific pointless suffering. Thus we infer that God does not exist.

The crucial point to realise about this argument is that it does not require the atheist to present a grounded, objective conception of evil or suffering in order for this argument to work. Rather, all they need to demonstrate is a conflict between an all-good God and other facts about the world. Thus the response that this argument ‘presupposes the existence of God’ thus entirely misses the point, since presupposing the conclusion one wishes to refute is precisely the point of this line of argument, and does not represent some sort of mistake or defect. The idea is to presume the truth of the conclusion and then show that this leads to absurd results. This type of argument is used widely in philosophy and indeed even in mathematics, and responding to such an argument by asserting that it ‘presupposes the conclusion it seeks to refute’ demonstrates a lack of understanding of a basic tool in logical reasoning.

Does Atheism Entail Moral Nihilism?

Proceeding now to the second premise of the rebuttal, I will argue that there is in fact no good reason to think that atheistic worldviews are in principle incapable of supporting objective morality. In my experience this alleged incompatibility between atheism and objective morality is seldom actually argued for by those making this argument, but rather it is merely asserted. What reason is given for this exactly?

Morality, at least under one understanding, consists of a set of propositions concerning the goodness or badness of certain actions and/or states of affairs. What exactly is the reason for supposing that such facts cannot pertain in the absence of a God? There are numerous serious accounts presented in the literature as to how such propositions might be instantiated or justified in a naturalistic framework. Indeed, I think it is much more plausible to argue that we suffer from a plethora of competing accounts for how this could be, rather than a complete lack of any such proposals as the theist claims.

In order to justify the claim that no naturalistic accounts of morality are viable, therefore, one would need first to demonstrate the inadequacy of all serious proposals for a naturalistic morality, and furthermore provide an argument for why no similar future proposal could possibly work. Usually I find virtually no attempt to do the former, and only very weak arguments made in defence of the latter. Below I briefly respond to a few common points that are often made when criticising atheistic morality, and show why they are fallacious. Note that the particular forms of the arguments I quote in italics were written by me, but I think are broadly representative of the sorts of claims often made in the context of such discussions.

The Materiality of Mankind

‘Under naturalism humans are nothing more than bags of cells brought about by chance collisions of particles, with no inherent purpose or value whatever.’

I have two main objections to this argument. Firstly, this argument commits the fallacy of composition, inferring that because atoms or cells have no moral value in themselves, that therefore any collection of them cannot have moral value. This is equivalent to arguing that because individual water molecules are not wet, that therefore collections of them cannot have the property of wetness. Such reasoning is fallacious therefore and cannot be used to ground a case against atheistic moral realism.

Second, it is question-begging to say that without anything beyond the material world, there can be no moral significance to anything in the material world, because that is precisely the point of contention which the atheist moral realist denies. It is necessary to give an argument as to why something beyond the material world is necessary for objective moral values to exist, rather than merely assert that since atheism lacks such a thing that therefore atheistic morality must fail. In particular, the theist needs to explain what would be necessary in order for objective morality to exist, what epistemological or ontological function needs to be fulfilled, and then explain how God fulfills such a function while no purely material entities could do. An example might be: ‘any ground for morality must be eternal, but no material thing is eternal. Hence the ground for morality must be God’. I disagree with the first premise, but the point is that this is the type of argument that would need to be given to show that some supernatural entity fulfills some specific function that a material entity could not. Absent such an explanation, this rebuttal is entirely question-begging.

The Is-Ought Gap

‘There is no way for atheists to bridge the ‘is-ought’ gap.’

The idea of the is/ought gap is that one cannot validly draw an ethical conclusion from a series of non-ethical premises, without implicitly relying on unstated ethical premises. The idea is that there is a ‘gap’ between any factual ‘is’ statements one may make, and any normative conclusion that one may wish to draw from them. Allegedly, this serves as a fatal flaw to any attempted naturalistic account of morality, for it is impossible to argue from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ without incorporating normative premises into one’s argument, thereby begging the question.

Along with a number of other philosophers who have considered this question, I am of the belief that this notion of an argumentative ‘gap’ is not specific to morality at all, but rather is a much broader point concerning how to connect different subject matters or spheres of discourse. To understand this, think about how one might try to give a reductive account of why an event was ‘fun’. One might talk about playing with friends, going on rides at a fair, telling great jokes, having stimulating new experiences, and many other such things, but none of these premises would allow us to say anything about having fun. To make a conclusion about ‘fun’, we would need to include an additional premise of the form ‘laughing is fun’, or ‘having stimulating new experiences is a fun experience’, etc. These premises, however, include the notion of ‘fun’, which is precisely what we are attempting to give an account of, and thus we may be accused of begging the question. From arguments like this, we could conclude that there is an ‘is/fun’ gap, or no way of giving an explanation as to why an experience was fun using purely non-fun concepts.

This particular example is my invention, but this general idea has been discussed in the philosophical literature. My own preferred response to such matters is that there simply is nothing problematic about such arguments, and that the person taking issue with them ultimately is forced into a position of widespread scepticism, in that they will be unable to justify a large range of claims they typically would wish to make without (by their own criteria) begging the question.

A second, independent consideration that theists raising the is/ought gap seldom acknowledge is that if an is/ought gap does exist, appealing to God does nothing whatever to overcome it, a point that has been discussed by philosophers like G.E. Moore. Indeed, Hume himself explicitly includes ‘the being of a God’ as one such ‘is’ fact in his original formulation of the dilemma! Theists can make a long list of assertions about God’s commandments, or God’s nature, or God’s relationship to us, or whatever other facts they may wish to appeal to, however since these are all claims about what ‘is’, they are vulnerable to the ‘is/ought gap’ critique in exactly the same way as any naturalistic ethical theory would be. That is, in order to infer based on what God commands what one ought to do, one must introduce a premise something like ‘one ought to do what God commands’, which is a moral premise. Thus theistic ethical theories do no better in bridging the is/ought gap then atheistic moral theories.

Blind Forces of Nature

‘There can be no greater purpose to life or objective moral worth in a universe run solely by the blind forces of nature.’

This is very similar to the first objection, but I include both because I often find that theists will make this same fundamental point in a number of different ways, using slightly different language. My response, as before, is that this objection is question begging. The atheist moral realist claims that there can be objective morality in a purely material universe. Rather than presenting an argument for why this is impossible, the theist making this statement is merely asserting their position as if it were self-evident and requiring of no further substantiation. Perhaps such views are self-evident to some theists, but they certainly are not to many atheists, and as such it is incumbent upon those making the claim to provide a cogent argument for it, rather than merely asserting it.

The atheist moral realist is totally unfazed by talk of ‘blindness laws of nature’ or the ‘cruelty of the natural world’, and other such aphorisms. The atheist moral realist believes that facts regarding meaning and purpose can supervene upon, or emerge out of, purely materialistic states of affairs, in a way analogous to how the meaning of language derives from mere neural firings and vibrations of air molecules, or how living beings are comprised of nothing but materials which themselves are non-living chemicals. The atheist has numerous sophisticated philosophical accounts to appeal to in support of this contention, none of which are addressed by this argument.

Laws Imply a Law-Giver

‘Laws imply a law-giver, and therefore moral laws imply the existence of a moral law-giver’.

I dispute the notion that the existence of laws implies or requires a law-giver, as I think there are many examples of various sorts of laws that exist despite the absence of any clear law-giver. There are laws of propriety and etiquette without any person or body to act as ‘law giver’. Laws of grammar and spelling exist without any lawgiver. Laws of physics/nature can exist without any lawgiver. (Note that if theists dispute this, they are taking the position that without the existence of God, there could be no form of orderliness to the cosmos at all. If this very strong position were true then I question why theists would even bother arguing about morality, as atheism would not even be able to account for the regularities discovered by science).

Perhaps one could argue that none of these are really ‘laws’, but are customs, practices, rules, or mere regularities. In some cases this may be a valid distinction to make, but I very much doubt this will apply to all such examples. For example, there are very explicit laws about the spelling of many English words, without requiring any person or group who gives such laws. These are not mere optional customs: if you violate them you will be described as doing something “wrong” (not morally or legally wrong, but wrong in terms of the laws of spelling), and often reprimanded (often by social or professional disapproval). Call these spelling rules if you prefer, but I fail to see the relevant difference.

Notwithstanding one’s views on science or spelling, even in an explicitly legal context, I think it is clear that the principle of laws requiring a law-giver is false. What lawgiver establishes the legality of a constitution, or of international laws? For instance, by what legal authority was the United States Constitution promulgated as lawful? What lawgiver established the legal force of the International Criminal Court? In the United Kingdom, which lacks a written constitution, who exactly is the supreme law-giver supposed to be? Is it the monarch who imbues legal authority to the parliament, or the parliament who imbues legal status to the Queen? The very fact that in cases like this legal scholars can argue at length about technical de jure justifications and de facto realities just illustrates my point that this notion that ‘laws require a lawgiver’ is predicated upon an absurdly naive and indefensible notion of what constitute ‘laws’ and on what virtue they have normative force.

On the basis of such examples and numerous others, I see no reason at all to accept the premise that laws require lawgivers. The only way to save this argument that I can see is to assert by definitional fiat that laws must be established by lawgivers, in which case the argument becomes question-begging, since the theist would have to begin with the presumption that a moral lawgiver (i.e. God) exists, in order to establish the existence of the very ‘moral laws’ they seek to use as proof of the existence of said God.

An IBE Argument from Evil

Having considered two main objections to a naive form of the argument from evil, I now wish to reiterate the argument in a form which I think has considerable persuasive power. The argument takes the form of an inference to the best explanation as a mode of argument to establish the probable truth of the conclusion on the basis of the premises.

P1. There exist many diverse forms of apparently purposeless evil and suffering in the world.

P2. The best explanation for this is the non-existence of an all-powerful, all-good God

C. Therefore an all-powerful, all-good God (probably) does not exist

Theodicies

Besides the objection I responded to at length above (singled out because it seems to be the most common objection), theistic responses to this argument typically take one of three forms. The first is to deny P1, which is typically done by appealing to some form of theodicy, or an explanation of God’s reasons for allowing suffering and evil of various types, and therefore denying the existence of pointless suffering and evil. I regard all extant theodicies as incomplete or problematic, especially with regard to natural evil (e.g. natural disasters, diseases), and thus incapable of explaining all instances of apparently pointless suffering, as would be required in order to disprove P1. For time and space constraints, however, I will not offer critiques of specific theodicies here, something however that the atheist does need to do in order to provide a completely rigorous defense of this argument. For the moment, however, I shall simply appeal to the fact that many Christians seem to be in agreement we me that no extant theodicy is satisfactory. Indeed, most theodicies are theologically very controversial, which may be one reason why many apologists often seem to avoid offering them.

Skeptical Theism

The second broad form of response is to deny P2, the most prominent justification of which takes the form of a position known as sceptical theism. Skeptical theism does not deny that there many apparently pointless evils and sufferings in the world, but instead argues that atheism is not the best explanation for them. Instead it is argued that we have no particular reason to be aware of the reasons, complex and far beyond or ken as they may well be, that God may have for permitting such suffering and evil. Thus it is asserted that lack of ability to gain insight into which such reasons might be is the best explanation for apparently pointless suffering, rather than the absence of an all-powerful, all-good God. I regard this response is more convincing than any theodicies I have heard, but still I think it fails to defeat P2. The reason I think it so fails is because sceptical theism does not offer any explanatory power of its own. It merely asserts that we are not in the capacity to know why God may permit suffering and evil, but offers nothing comparable to the explanatory power naturally provided by the atheistic explanation. To use an imperfect but perhaps helpful metaphor, sceptical theism may give a reason why theism does not ‘lose points’ as a result of failing to explain suffering and evil, but it does not alter the fact that atheism ‘gains points’ as a result of the explanatory power that this hypothesis gives us regarding the observed phenomena of evil and suffering in the world.

Defeaters

The third general form of response to this argument is to accept P1 and P2, but deny the validity of the argument. One method for doing this would be to say that the argument is only valid ‘all else being equal’, but that even granting the premises, the conclusion can be avoided if sufficiently strong ‘defeaters’ are present. Such defeaters would likely take the form of independent arguments for the existence of God, which establish the falsity of atheism to a sufficiently high degree of likelihood such that even after factoring in the negative evidence provided by the problem of evil, on balance one is still left with a greater likelihood than not that an all-powerful, all-good God exists. Such an approach is, in my view, by far the most reasonable theistic response to the problem of evil – basically to say that apparently pointless evil and suffering constitute some evidence against the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God, but not sufficient evidence against to make belief unwarranted. Where I differ from theists offering this defense is of course the strength of those other, independent reasons for believing in God’s existence, however discussion of such further matters is best left for another blog post.

Conclusion

In this piece I have argued that the problem of evil, especially when presented in the form of an inference to the best explanation, survives common refutations and emerges as a powerful argument against the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God. In particular, I argued that the existence of apparently pointless suffering and evil in the world is better explained by atheism than theism, and thus constitutes a reason for belief in atheism. I defended this argument against the criticism that it is self-contradictory, briefly discussed some problems with theodicies, and argued that sceptical theism fails to address the issue of explanatory power which is at the heart of the IBE form of the argument. As such, it is my belief that the problem of evil remains one of the strongest arguments in favour of atheism over theism.

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3 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil: Still A Strong Argument for Atheism

  1. I respond to this post not in terms of its content but by way of a metacritical response to its form and methodological assumptions. For me, this post, lacks significance, since, like others from James, it suffers from the narrowly rationalist methodology he has attempted to apply to issues, like the knowledge of good and evil, which are part of everyone’s lived human experience for which the rational and the empirical methodology may be necessary to the via negative of avoiding false conclusions, but are not sufficient to prove any positive affirmations, such as God exists, and also God does not exist.
    For these reasons, I agree that the fact of evil in the world is probably an argument ‘against’ a theistic God. But it is not, and cannot be, an argument ‘for’ hard atheism, as in the denial of any kind of God, or as I prefer, godness as an essential aspect of the natural world, because theism is only one kind of godness. [Hence the importance of distinguishing atheism and a-theism.] There is in fact no argument in favour of hard atheism, because while God or godness is not conclusively verifiable, neither is it falsifiable. In empirical terms, there is no replicable experiment to disprove any form of godness (i.e. any kind of transcendent, enduring, universal, spirituality). In rational terms, there is no deductive argument to disprove the same, since the initial assumptions for any such argument can never be agreed.
    People of progressive agnostic faith stance, like myself, are asking ‘non-believers’ to turn their energies to a critique of various possible forms of godness that are not theistic (but are still suggested in biblical narratives) for example godness that is not about divine agency in the world (eg as portrayed in stories of Exodus and Resurrection), but about divine influence (eg in the story of Elijah.- not in the wind, not in the fire, not in the earthquake, but in she still small voice…)
    Paul Tonson – The Godly A-theist.

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