Explanations for Evil, Part IV

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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.

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The agnostic response claims that we should not expect to be able to understand God’s reasons. The problem with this argument is that it leaves the possibilities of a benevolent, malevolent or indifferent god equally likely: any evidence to the contrary of any of these three possibilities could always be explained away by our inability to understand God’s true reasons.

Now there’s an important difference between the fly and God questions. I don’t care much whether there is a fly in my room (if it were important I would spend a couple of hours searching carefully until I was confident there wasn’t any), but whether God is benevolent or otherwise is terribly important. So while I wouldn’t expect the fly to get out of its way to make its presence noticeable to me I would expect a benevolent god to make his motives and intentions reasonably clear to us.

Note that our ability to understand should not be taken as given. God would give us the ability necessary to understand whatever he wanted us to understand.

The agnostic response claims that we should not expect to be able to understand God’s reasons. The problem with this argument is that it leaves the possibilities of a benevolent, malevolent or indifferent god equally likely: any evidence to the contrary of any of these three possibilities could always be explained away by our inability to understand God’s true reasons.

I don't think that's true. If we were trying to use responses to the problem of evil to establish God's existence, that might be so, but that's not what this is. This is a defense of the traditional view of God from a charge that such a being is inconsistent with the evidence. Since that's the dialectic, all the theist needs to do is explain why one account of how a traditional view of God is consistent with all the evidence without being drastically at odds with the evidence.

Whether we can know if God is good is a completely different issue. We'd have to go back to the responses to the no-evidence argument and the theistic arguments for that issue. If the moral argument is any good (and I think it is), then it counts as evidence of a good God. If the ontological argument is sound, then it also does. (I know it's in disfavor, but I don't think any objection to it counts as anything more than charging it with begging the question, which is consistent with being a sound argument. Since I think the part that begs the question has some evidence going for it with the other arguments, I think that problem gets dodged.) But even if the theistic arguments are no good, the responses to the no-evidence argument that I discussed earlier this series seem to me to allow for someone knowing that God exists and knowing that God is good without any evidence whatsoever.

But that's just a different issue. In terms of the problem of evil, the theist merely has to defend against the objection of consistency (for the logical problem) and the charge of strong evidence against God (for the evidential problem). I happen to think the suggestions of responses we do have, together with the reasons why we shouldn't be so confident that we'd think of all reasons, should count as an effective underminer of the claim that unexplained evil counts as strong evidence against God's existence.

Jeremy, I don’t think you presented a plausible explanation for why an omnipotent, benevolent god would allow evil. If the concept of libertarian freedom is implausible it provides only a possible explanation of evil (so refuting the logical problem) but not a plausible one. (You may believe that the libertarian explanation is only an example of other, more plausible, explanations of the same sort, but while you don’t put those other explanations on the table I don’t think they count.) So when we move to the evidential problem our first task should be finding a plausible, not merely possible, explanation for why there is evil at all. But most of your responses to the evidential problem don’t address this question; rather, they take for granted that some evil is unavoidable and simply discuss whether there is ‘excess’ evil.

Specifically, if God has perfect foreknowledge or middle knowledge, as you think he does and the traditional view asserts, he could have created a world and human beings such that no evil would ever occur. I don’t think you provided a plausible explanation for why God should not do this. The question here is not whether God could shelter innocent people from the consequences of evil, immediately restore things to their pre-evil state or shorten the duration of the consequences of evil; the question is why there is any evil in the first place. Note that with middle knowledge any evil that happens must have been intended by God, even if only to allow a greater good. You mention that God may want evil to punish people or to draw people back to him. But wouldn’t it be much better for God to create good people who would never reject him and who would need no punishment and no evil to draw them to God?

The only response that I found persuasive was the idea that hardship on earth might heighten the joy in heaven. But if you think more about it the idea turns out not to be so good after all. Consider a child that, due to some misfortune, is separated from his loving parents; the parents are thought dead, and the child is taken to an orphanage where he is neglected and given a hard time; after a couple of years the parents manage to locate and reunite with the child. Now this would be a very moving story and the joy of the reunion would be immense, but it would certainly be much better for everyone involved if the child had never been separated from his parents.

It is hard to believe that, for the greater glory of heaven, God would create babies that are born blind or severely handicapped; create people in such a way that they go on to commit suicide, or turn into murderers or child abusers. And it sounds especially ironic that God should create people that commit horrendous crimes in the very name of God. Another important issue is what happens to these people that are so created that they go astray. If they go to hell, as the traditional view holds, then, in my view, no glory in heaven will be enough to compensate for the evil, for hell, even if it is only a privation of the ultimate good of the union with God in heaven, seems to me to be the ultimate evil. It is a lose-lose-lose situation: those who end up there lose; those who go to heaven lose, unless they’re indifferent to the plight of those in hell, and I would have thought God himself would suffer too. This suggests an even more radical abolition of evil. Why should God bother to create an earthly life at all? He could simply create heaven with such people as deserved to be there.

So I don’t think we have at this stage in these posts a plausible explanation for why there is evil. That plausible reasons may exist which we are unable to understand sounds like a poor argument to me. I think it is reasonable to expect that a benevolent god would give us some understanding of what he is doing and why.

But wouldn’t it be much better for God to create good people who would never reject him and who would need no punishment and no evil to draw them to God?

That's the kind of thing the agnostic response says we can't answer with any confidence. If we think we can, it relies on assumptions about God that may well stem from our ignorance of things that are way beyond us. As far as I can tell, it may well be that God allows evil simply because it's a better world with evil than it would be without it. Even though I'm not prepared to Leibniz's answer that this is the best possible world (because of the vagueness problem), I do find it plausible that the world is much better with evil than it would be without it.

That's what the free will response shows, not because of its content but because of its form. It shows how a higher-order good (e.g. libertarian free will) would function to defeat the logical problem. What I can't be sure of is that there aren't such higher-order goods, even if I don't find it plausible that libertarian freedom is one of them.

So I can then suspend judgment on whether the claim of the problem of evil is true. That leaves the believer no longer threatened by the negative attack, even if it hasn't been demonstrated that there is a positive reason for the existence of evil. I would go as far as to say that only the agnostic response is needed. All the other things I've said in this series count as a nice bonus in terms of being some solutions.

It's not true that they're all reasons based on "why not more evil?" given that there's evil, and there are plenty of other suggestions over the centuries of writing on this subject. The natural laws response to natural disasters doesn't assume any evil. If Malebranche is similarly right that simpler laws counts as a good-making feature enough to justify allowing some evil, that also doesn't assume evil prior to the decision to generate those laws. The suggestion that God's glory is heightened by the presence of evil, as the dark around the edges of a much greater mosaic of colors, does not assume prior evil. There's the possibility that God's character is more strongly demonstrated when there is evil (particularly when we're talking about holiness and justice that aren't fully manifested except in response to evil), and maybe the value of demonstrating God's character is more important than avoiding evil to someone who has a better understanding of intrinsic goods than we do. There are plenty of things people have offered in the long history of this subject that don't rely on libertarian free will.

It's even possible as far as I can tell that compatibilist free will has restrictions on it that we can't completely understand. Perhaps free decisions in the relevant compatibilist sense will not involve real relationships and genuine freedom of choice unless there was an initial libertarian choice to do evil, as one interpretation of Augustine has it. Or maybe compatibilist freedom actually requires the presence of evil if it's going to generate a real relationship without deception between God and humans.

I think you're losing sight of the dialectic here. The atheist or agnostic is making an argument against theism. Theists have only to respond to the claim that's being made. The claim is that evil counts as evidence against the existence of God. If the theist can undermine the assumptions made in such a claim, then the argument does not go through. The theist has to do no motivating of any positive thesis in order to respond to the problem of evil. All the theist has to do is undermine the claim that's being advanced.

What you are saying is equivalent to the theist saying that atheism is disproved by the fine-tuning argument simply because the atheist has not shown the many-universes hypothesis to be plausible. What the many-universes hypothesis shows is that it's not implausible to believe there is no designer given that there is a potential explanation, even if it's a thoroughly implausible one (and it is). Those who feel comfortable in their atheism despite the fine-tuning argument can do so because there is some potential explanation. I happen to think it's a very implausible explanation, but I don't think that makes atheism implausible merely on that ground. What it shows is the possibility of an explanation, and thus atheism is not severely undermined as would be the case if there were no explanation. It means the argument becomes much less support for theism than it otherwise would be. But I think the same is true of the problem of evil, which is much less support for atheism than it otherwise would be simply because so many things have been said to explain the possibility of evil, even if some or most of them are implausible. It doesn't thereby make theism implausible anymore than the implausibility of the many-universes explanation makes atheism implausible.

I don’t think atheism needs the multi-universe hypothesis or any explanation for the finely tuned laws of physics. Atheists can simply admit that they don’t know. This would provide an argument for theism only if theism made the whole picture any more intelligible. But in my view it does the opposite. You have to assume that an intelligent mind exists without any supporting physical body; and that this mind, unaided by any physical body or device, has the ability to will the whole of the material universe into existence and fine tune it. I think that these assumptions are far more implausible than the already implausible assumption that the laws of physics just happen to be the way they are.

But if the lessons of history are any good I think it is a fair bet that some naturalistic explanations for the laws of physics will be found, which in turn will raise further questions and so on. Our understanding of the natural world has progressed only slowly and each step forward was accompanied by new questions, for the material universe simply has no means to unveil its secrets just like that; we have to do with our limited minds. The situation with God’s reasons for allowing evil is quite different though, for an omnipotent god can give us any knowledge he pleases, and we could reasonably expect a benevolent god to give us some understanding of his intentions and motives. And yet you say that the best response to the problem of evil is a higher good that we don’t understand.

As I understand it the problem of evil is not directly an argument against theism in general, but only against the traditional theistic view that God is omnipotent and cares about us. The problem with the agnostic response is that it can be used to defend other views of God. I could avail myself of most or even all the arguments for the existence of God; claim that we are too limited to fully understand what God’s perfection entails, and that we should therefore remain agnostic as to our role in God’s creation and his intentions towards us. For instance, God could be reserving us all a, from our perspective, rather bleak destiny, because that destiny could contribute to a higher good that is beyond our understanding and is not our good. In fact the agnostic response is better suited to defend such unpalatable views of God, for in this case we would have no reason to expect God to reveal us his reasons.

You have to assume that an intelligent mind exists without any supporting physical body; and that this mind, unaided by any physical body or device, has the ability to will the whole of the material universe into existence and fine tune it. I think that these assumptions are far more implausible than the already implausible assumption that the laws of physics just happen to be the way they are.

Then you just have a very differently ordered set of plausibility structures than I do.

for an omnipotent god can give us any knowledge he pleases, and we could reasonably expect a benevolent god to give us some understanding of his intentions and motives

Well, yes, but we could also reasonably expect a benevolent God wouldn't give us all the reasons, especially if there were some we wouldn't grasp (or couldn't grasp until after experiencing certain things in temporal succession, in some cases). Know certain reasons might lead us to do things or think things that would be bad. It might be impossible for temporal beings to know certain things ahead of certain other things while still engaging in certain virtuous character traits, for example. Lack of clear reasons may also allow us to develop character traits worth having.

I didn't say that the best response to the problem of evil is some higher good we can't understand. I said the best response to the problem of evil is that we shouldn't expect our abilities to think of reasons to be comprehensive enough that we can adequately think of and evaluate reasons for why God might allow evil. The second part is really important. We may have thought of some of the reasons and dismissed them as not good enough reasons.

Of course someone holding another view of God might make this agnostic claim. But the only person who might need to use it is the one whose beliefs are being challenged by the problem of evil, and those alternative views may get out of it much more easily, as I discussed in my first post.

Now as to the completely separate claim that we should be agnostic about what God is like, I think that's just false. At least it can't be established. If reliabilism is correct, if the Bible, say, is a reliable means of getting God's actual communication with human beings, and if we read it and follow its dictates in a way that leads to genuine interaction with God, then we can know that what it says is true. I made this point in the no-evidence posts, and I referred back to it earlier in conversation with you on this point. If those responses to no-evidence arguments are good (and I think they are), then there is plenty of information that can flat-out be known about what God is like. The agnostic point is about what someone already believing that can say in defense of still-unknown (because unrevealed) reasons for allowing evil. But that's consistent with lots of people fully knowing that God exists and knowing what God is like.

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