This is the the thirty-second 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. In the last post, I looked at a vagueness problem that comes up in some of the questions people might ask as part of the evidential problem of evil. In this last post of the problem of evil, I respond to the last of five questions I originally asked in presenting the evidential problem 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?
The case William Rowe presents is a deer who suffers and then dies in a forest fire, and no one ever even finds out about it. This seems to be completely meaningless. It does not help the deer. It does not help anyone else. Could God have a reason for such suffering?
Theists have responded to Rowe in an interesting way in that they do not give a positive response. In the sources I gave at the outset of the problem of evil posts in this series, Greg Ganssle gives this response. I've also seen it in the work of Daniel Howard-Snyder. Both of them were students of William Alston, who as far as I know is the first philosopher to present this line of reasoning in the contemporary discussion of the evidential problem of evil. It is, however, a much older line of thought, going back to the book of Job in the Hebrew Bible. Some have called it the agnostic response, which I think can be a little misleading. It's not about agnosticism about God, i.e. a claim about our ability to know whether God exists. That would be a little counterproductive for theists to be doing in a defense against the problem of evil. It's a much more restricted kind of agnosticism, one that has to do with our ability to know what sorts of reasons God might have for allowing evil.
The agnostic response does not assume that we can explain every kind of evil. What it does is question the question. If there are kinds of evil, amounts of evil, or durations of evil that we have no good explanation why God would allow, what does that tell us? It tells us that we are not in possession of a good reason why God would allow that particular instance of evil. Does it mean there is no such evil? That depends on whether we take ourselves to be the sort of beings who would be able to figure out such a reason if there is one.
I would be in a very good position to know if there were an elephant in the room. I would see it. Those things are not small. I would not be in a good position to know if there is a flea in the room. I know of no fleas in the room, but they can hide pretty well. Maybe there is none, but if there were then I would not necessarily know it.
Which of those cases is closer to our understanding of why God would allow some particular instance of evil? William Rowe takes us as the sort of beings who could figure out such reasons. After all, we have figured out reasons such as all the ones I've already discussed in this series. It is unlikely that there are things that are truly good that we have somehow missed. It is unlikely that thousands of years of philosophy would miss any very good explanations of evil.
In contrast, the agnostic defense thinks such a view is far too optimistic about our capabilities. There may be a lot that we should not expect ourselves to be aware of. We did not create this universe. We know very little about how to put together universes with natural laws and then predict what will happen as a result of certain laws. There might be kinds of good that we can't even understand because we are limited beings? There be consequences of the good and evil that occur in the universe that we should not expect ourselves to be able to predict. Given our limitations, we might wonder if we would know of all the kinds of reasons a perfect being might have for allowing evil.
This is basically where contemporary philosophers of religion leave us on the issue. Some think we would see such reasons if there were any, and thus we can see the existence of such evil as strong evidence against God. Others think we shouldn't be confident of our abilities to think of such reasons, and thus we shouldn't rule out their possibility. That would mean that the evidential argument should not be pressed to count as very strong evidence against God's existence. Whether evil as it occurs in the universe we know counts as good enough evidence against God might depend at least in part on whether we should expect to have such reasons.
Next: in the first post of four on philosophical theology, we'll return to problems with omnipotence.