Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Problem of Evil and the Argument from Evil: A Distinction

Although the phrases “Problem of Evil” and “Argument from Evil” are often used interchangeably, an important distinction needs to be made. The Problem of Evil is, at bottom, a question. “If God exists,” ask atheists and theists alike, “why is there so much suffering in the world?” Or, “If an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good being exists, how can evil be a part of any created order?” Or, “Why did God allow Grandma to get cancer?”

Notice that no positive claim is being made here. That is, the person asking the question is not really affirming or denying anything about God. This is significant, because when dealing with the Problem of Evil, skeptics frequently ask a series of questions without any argument whatsoever. “Why did God do X? Why did God do Y? Why does God allow Z?” The implication, of course, is that if theists cannot answer such questions, their position is somehow flawed.

But surely no atheist could consistently employ such a principle against theism. For, if we say that the ability to answer questions is a criterion for truth, the atheist will hardly get very far when we apply this method to atheism (e.g. when we ask where the universe came from, why it is finely tuned for life, how life formed, why there is so much evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, why moral values seem objective, etc.). In other words, questions aren’t enough. What we need are arguments.

This is where the Argument from Evil comes in. Here the atheist isn’t merely asking a question, but making a truth-claim and defending it with evidence. The difference is that, with an argument on the table, we are now in a position to judge whether the evidence really bears on theism. We can make sure that there are true premises and valid logic, and, therefore, that the conclusion actually follows. We can assign definitions to terms, and ask how the skeptic arrived at these definitions. We can test principles, and ensure that the atheist is applying these principles consistently.

A series of questions, however (which, again, is what we typically find atheists posing), is far more difficult to evaluate properly. It’s simply impossible to assess the evidential value of X in the question “Why did God allow X?”

Hence, we should be careful to ascertain when a question is being asked, and when a truth-claim is being made. The beginning of a dialogue, then, might go something like this:

ATHEIST: “Why did God allow the Holocaust?”

THEIST: “Are you trying to make an argument, or are you simply asking a question? If it is the latter, I might exercise a little restraint and say that I don’t know.”

ATHEIST: “No, I’m saying that the Holocaust is evidence against God’s existence.”

THEIST: “Well then, I’ll need to see an argument to that effect.”

ATHEIST: “Fine. If God is all-powerful, he would be able to prevent the Holocaust. If God is all-knowing, he would know how to prevent the Holocaust. If he is all-good, he would want to prevent the Holocaust. But the Holocaust happened. Hence, God does not exist.”

THEIST: “All right. Now we’ve got some premises to examine. . . .”

This would, of course, apply in the other direction as well. A different conversation might begin thus:

THEIST: “If God doesn’t exist, where did life come from?”

ATHEIST: “Well, if you’re only asking a question, I might reply that I don’t know. Or, were you trying to make an argument?”

THEIST: “I’m trying to make an argument. It goes like this. The complexity of even the most primitive life-form imaginable is mind-boggling. Chance is not a reasonable option, since the odds are so overwhelmingly against it. Hence, the best explanation would be some kind of intelligence.”

ATHEIST: “Now we’ve got something to work with. . . .”

The point of all this is that we must be careful to note the difference between (1) evidence against theism, and (2) interesting issues and puzzles for theists. The Argument from Evil, if successful, gives us evidence against theism. The Problem of Evil gives us only mysteries to think about.

Interestingly, from my experience, most of the people who leave Christianity don’t understand this distinction. I’ve heard several former Christians say something like, “Well, I just couldn’t figure out X, and my pastor couldn’t explain it to me. So I left Christianity and became an atheist.” Notice that the atheist here is saying that he left Christianity because of an unanswered question. But if unanswered questions are a problem, atheists have far more to be uncomfortable about than theists.

10 comments:

Broken Bones said...

http://layersbetween.blogspot.com/

John W. Loftus said...

You could rephrase this whole dialogue and instead of having an atheist argue in this manner, it could be a pantheist or a process theologian.

Stunney said...

There are arguments to the effect that theism is irrational. Same with atheism, pantheism, etc.

Where does this leave the ordinary, culturally conditioned non-philosopher leading a busy life?

I suggest it leaves them in the position of going with their gut instinct.

For most of human history, most humans have felt instinctively that there is a meaningful, universal, morally binding and indestructible purpose to human existence which will eventually be fully revealed and fulfilled. And this gut-instinctive feeling has endured in the face of the totality of the human experience of suffering and evil. But it appears to be less common in modern secular Western society.

What I find interesting is how readily monotheistic religion spread and took root in pre-modern cultures when human life was far more precarious than it is now. Religion 'peaked' not long after the Black Death. It seems that many people viewed human suffering then as being not at all incompatible with a good, almighty, and supremely wise God. Indeed, eternal torment for hordes of human beings was seen as perfectly consistent with, even required by, mainstream theism.

This mindset is very intriguing to me. I think at its heart was a conviction of the sheer enormity of sin, which most modern urbanized Western people cannot fully grasp, precisely because our life is not as precarious, seemingly not as dependent on an indulgent Creator, as in former times.

We don't experience ourselves as being daily at the mercy of our Creator, whereas pre-moderns did. Their default instinct was gratitude that things were not worse, not self-righteous outrage that things weren't better.

The latter attitude is, I think, one of the major characteristics of modedrnity. We have a much stronger sense of entitlement than pre-moderns.

But it is not all clear that we really are, er, entitled to this strong sense of entitlement. We can easily imagine a worse world than we have. Given our 'uppity' attitudes towards any Creator, why shouldn't a good Creator give us a worse world---one like the Middle Ages, whose people were generally much less insolent toward the 'good Lord'?

Sophia De Morgan said...

Hey Stunney, that's a great point about our entitlement attitudes. Perhaps one of the reasons that we expect more is because we actually have more and are grateful for less.

Also, another interesting example of the different response toward suffering between people living today and those living hundreds or thousands of years ago can be seen within Jewish culture. The fact that an overwhelming number of cultural Jews are atheists or agnostics is due largely to the events of the Holocaust in the 20th century. Yet, in the Hebrew scriptures, during the periods of the most intense suffering, the people's hearts turned back to God. And the fact that God uses suffering to turn his people back to Him is praised in the psalms as a part of God's great mercy.

John W. Loftus said...

Actually, I think the truth is that the problem of evil has more force in today's culture because of our heighten sense of civility.

We see plenty of moral progress. We abhor slavery. Women, homosexuals, lesbians and African-Americans have gained many needed rights in the West, along with freethinkers. We are more health conscious with the foods we eat, and there is a movement against smoking. We no longer have lynchings in the West. When we do execute a murderer, we’ve come up with more humane ways to do it, and many people are against the death penalty altogether.

Richard Dawkins talks about the “steadily shifting standard of what is morally acceptable.” Hitler, who is widely regarded as a monster, “would not have stood out in the time of Caligula or of Genghis Khan.” “Hitler seems especially evil only by the more benign standards of our time.” Even Donald Rumsfeld, who “sounds so callous and odious today, would have sounded like a bleeding-heart liberal if he had said the same things [he does] during the Second World War.”

It's precisely because our standards have changed that makes the problem of evil more pronounced.

steve said...

John W. Loftus said...
Actually, I think the truth is that the problem of evil has more force in today's culture because of our heighten sense of civility.

We see plenty of moral progress. We abhor slavery. Women, homosexuals, lesbians and African-Americans have gained many needed rights in the West, along with freethinkers. We are more health conscious with the foods we eat, and there is a movement against smoking. We no longer have lynchings in the West. When we do execute a murderer, we’ve come up with more humane ways to do it, and many people are against the death penalty altogether.

Richard Dawkins talks about the “steadily shifting standard of what is morally acceptable.” Hitler, who is widely regarded as a monster, “would not have stood out in the time of Caligula or of Genghis Khan.” “Hitler seems especially evil only by the more benign standards of our time.” Even Donald Rumsfeld, who “sounds so callous and odious today, would have sounded like a bleeding-heart liberal if he had said the same things [he does] during the Second World War.”

It's precisely because our standards have changed that makes the problem of evil more pronounced.

**********************************

This is from a man who doesn't believe that anything is intrinsically good or evil.

So the price he pays for his version of moral progress is moral relativism.

John W. Loftus said...

And the price Steve pays for believing in a barbaric God of the Bible is that this isn't considered progress.

Stunney said...

I think the truth is that the problem of evil has more force in today's culture because of our heighten sense of civility.

Were you awake and paying attention during the 20th century?

Just to remind you, there were two World Wars, a Holocaust, lots of horrific proxy wars during the Cold War (on which billions upon billions were spent while we knew millions were dying of hunger elsewhere), atheistic Communist regimes slaughtered tens of millions, and Western secular societies became swamped by the crassest consumerism that increasingly exploited sweatshop Third World labor and threatened environmental catastrophe, while crime rates, addiction rates, abortion rates, divorce rates and
other social ills soared.

True, formal legal racism in the US has ended. But do you know what the figures are for the incarceration rate, and average life expectancy for young Black males in the US? They're dreadful.

Meantime, 9 more US soldiers have died today in another disastrous war (you remember the one in Vietnam, surely).

Heightened sense of civility?

Well, I suppose if you're a gay, you could say that. Unless you're a gay foetus.

steve said...

John W. Loftus said...

"And the price Steve pays for believing in a barbaric God of the Bible is that this isn't considered progress."

But, according to Loftus, barbarism isn't intrinsically wrong.

And, no, I don't regard all his examples as examples of moral progress.

I don't put the anti-smoking movement on the same moral plane as the abolition movement.

Notice, too, that Loftus' examples are, without exception, liberal orthodoxy. He has brought zero independent judgment to the issues. No attempt to sort these out. Not critical thinking, but partyline thinking.

An individual with true moral and rational discrimination would do better than to rubberstamp the political correctitude of 2007.

larryniven said...

I've skipped the comments, so forgive me if someone's made this point before. I actually feel like the atheist is in a stronger position with respect to unanswered questions than the Christian (e.g.) is. Note that all of your examples of "questions" of evil are in the same category, and can be formulated by something like, "Why does God allow x?" where x is an event that seems to be bad to an unnecessary degree. That there are literally thousands of questions that fit into this category - not to mention the theist's relative lack of progress in answering any of them - reinforces the weakness of the theist's position.

The questions you pose to atheists, on the other hand, fall under any number of different categories. The evidence for Jesus's resurrection is historical; the presence of life is scientific; the origins of the universe are probably outside of anything humans can know through experience. However, not every historical or scientific (e.g.) question is unanswerable by atheists, whereas every single "question of evil" is equally unanswerable by the theist. In this way, atheists *currently* have a much stronger position here, because their evidence has progressed so much and continues to. Theists, obviously, have an infinitely stronger potential, because they only have to develop one (kind of) answer, but they've been really quite bad at developing one.

Or, to put it differently, don't you think the steady accumulation of evidence as to the insufficiency of the Christian answer weakens that position more than the shifting nature of the questions being posed to atheists and their answers?