This is the the twenty-eighth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. The last post looked at responses to the logical problem of evil. This post moves on to the evidential problem of evil.
Most philosophers have conceded that the logical problem of evil does not disprove theism. That does not stop them from offering a different version of the problem of evil against the existence of God. William Rowe is probably the most prominent philosopher defending the problem of evil today. He calls this version of the argument the evidential problem of evil.
The evidential problem of evil begins with the existence of evil, but it takes a different strategy. It does not seek to disprove the existence of God by finding a contradiction between the existence of evil and the existence of God. It simply seeks to show that the existence of God is unlikely given the kinds of evil, the amount of evil, how long evil has gone on, and so on. The facts about evil are that it is a lot more than just human free choices. Even if human free will explains some evil, some evil seems not to be explained so easily that way. Even if there are good reasons for God to allow some evil, is all evil explained so easily? What about cases where a little less evil would have accomplished the same purposes? Do we need to have all the kinds of evil? Did it need to go on this long? Does it need to be as widespread as it is? Do the individual cases of evil need to be as bad as they are?
The evidential problem of evil puts forward the lump sum of the facts about evil as its starting evidence. It does not conclude that this proves there is no God, as the logical problem did. It simply sees this lump sum of all the facts about evil as very strong evidence against the existence of God. Very strong evidence is still not a proof. Of course, if it is very strong evidence, and that evidence cannot be countered with alternative explanations, then perhaps no one should believe in God. We may be able to come up with explanations for a good deal of evil in the universe, but that does not mean we have explained all of it. If there seems to be no good explanation for a good deal of the evil that we can observe, is that not a good sign that some of it really has no good explanation? If that is true, then there probably is no reason why a good being would allow it. Therefore, there probably is no such being.
Responses to the Evidential Problem of Evil
It might be easiest to see the theistic responses to the evidential problem of evil if we separate the problem into several different questions.
A. What about kinds of evil that aren’t the result of the free actions of human beings?
B. God might allow free human beings to make evil choices, but why wouldn’t God immediately restore things to the way they were so that the world would not continue to contain evil?
C. Even if God would not restore things immediately, wouldn’t a good God prevent innocent beings from experiencing the consequences of that evil?
D. Even if God would not prevent the consequences or restore things immediately, why does it have to go on this long, and why does it have to be as bad as it is and as widespread as it is? Wouldn’t a good God want to minimize the effects of evil?
E. Even if these questions can all be answered somewhat satisfactorily, we do not have a complete explanation of evil. Isn’t that still evidence against God, if we can’t come up with a complete explanation of the amount of evil, the kinds of evil, the distribution of evil, the depths of evil, the length of time evil occurs, and so on? Explaining some evil helps resist seeing that evil as evidence against God, since it explains why God would allow that evil. But how can that remove all the evidence that the total sum of evil presents against God?
Theists have spent thousands of years looking at such questions, and these posts will not really do justice to everything that has been said, but I do hope to capture some of the more important things that recent philosophers have drawn on in responding to the latest versions of this argument in the form they have taken from philosophers such as William Rowe. In the next few posts, I will consider these questions, starting with questions A and B in the next post.