Some people often say that it is impossible to prove a negative and they go on to apply this idea to the question of God’s existence. They say, “You can’t prove God doesn’t exist.” Unfortunately for these folks many philosophers would disagree and in fact they offer what many perceive to be a powerful argument against the existence of God called the Intellectual Problem of Evil.
This argument is expressed in two ways, The Logical Problem of Evil and The Evidential Problem of Evil. Over the course of two separate posts we will look at both of these, considering their validity as arguments against theism.
Before we dig into the arguments first we have to answer the question, “Does evil exist?”
Does Evil Exist?
Philosopher Keith Yandell says, "The fact is that there is evil in the world..." This is clear to us all; it’s considered brute or basic knowledge. We often ignore evil, having become desensitized to it; that is until a man murders 26 innocent people, most of them children or he walks the streets of a wealthy suburb randomly shooting innocent human beings. Or when a police officer shoots an unarmed man or terrorist fly two plains into iconic buildings killing more than 2,ooo people. Then we are jostled and shaken, as if being awakened from a sleep or trance to a cruel truth.
Sam Harris, outspoken critic of religion and prolific atheistic author gives his own example of what evil is,
“Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture, and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind is not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of six billion human beings.” (Link)
Atheist William Rowe, professor emeritus of philosophy at Purdue University affirms the existence of evil, “Intense human and animal suffering, for example, occurs daily and in great plentitude in our world. Such suffering is a clear case of evil.”
The Psalmists writes “Evils have encompassed me without number.”
Jeremiah pleads, “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?”
And Saint Paul tells us “the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now.”
It is evidentially clear that evil exists but what exactly is “evil”? The dictionary definition of evil is “morally reprehensible, sinful, wicked.” We will use this definition as we explore the problem of evil. At this point it is also important to note that the burden of proof here in the logical problem of evil rests on the skeptic remembering that this argument is supposed to be a positive argument for the non-existence of God. It is up to the skeptic to lay out an argument that concludes with “Therefore, God does not exist.” With this in mind let’s examine the most often used argument against God.
The Logical Problem of Evil:
The logical argument from evil asserts that it is logically impossible for God and evil to exist and is usually presented in the following format:
O1. An omnipotent (all powerful) God exists.
O2. An omniscient (all knowing) God exists.
O3. An omnibenevolent (all loving) God exists.
E4. However, evil exists.
G. Therefore God does not exist.
This problem as stated relies on the notion that it's logically impossible for an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God to exist while evil also exists. The skeptic reasons that either God is not O1, O2 and/or O3, given that evil exists, or evil itself would not exist. He goes on to think that since evil clearly exists as we have seen, God, as according to traditional monotheism, does not exist.
But why think that O1, O2 and O3 are inconsistent with the existence of evil? This is where the skeptic must own the burden of proof; it is up to them to show that there is a contradiction between them. But there is no explicit contradiction here; that is, one statement is not the opposite of the others.
In order for this argument to follow logically the skeptic must bring to the table at least two hidden assumptions,
O4. If God is O1, He can create any world He wants.
O5. If God were O3, He would prefer a world without evil.
In light of these two hidden assumption the argument is that an all powerful and all-loving God could and would want to create a world without suffering. Therefore, it follows that because there is suffering in the world (E4) God does not exist (G).
However, for this argument to follow logically the atheist must now show that O4 and/or O5 are necessarily true, a task they cannot accomplish. In order for the skeptic to show O4 and/or O5 to be necessarily true there must not be any logical exceptions to them. In other words to show either or both of the premises false all one must do is provide a possible scenario that would show that God, while being all-powerful could not create any world he wants.
Is O4 (if God is omnipotent he can create any world He wants.) necessarily true? Not in a world in which God created people with free will! It would be logically impossible to create a free people and then force them to do or not to do anything against that free will. This would be the equivalent of having a married bachelor or a four-sided triangle. God, in his omnipotence cannot create logical impossibilities. In On Guard William Lane Craig writes,
“If people have free will, they may refuse to do what God desires. So there will be any number of possible worlds that God cannot create because the people in them wouldn’t cooperate with God’s desires. In fact, for all we know, it’s possible that in any world of free persons with as much good as this world there wouldn’t also be as much suffering. This conjecture need not be true or even probable, but so long as it’s even logically possible it shows that it is not necessarily true that God can create any world that He wants.”
In light of this it is clear that O4 is not necessarily true but what about O5, “If God were all-loving, He would prefer a world without suffering.” Is this necessarily true? This premise is easier to navigate for the simple reason that we can all imagine situations in which the allowance of suffering or evil can bring about a greater good. When answering this question keep in mind that we are not attempting to show what God’s actual reasons are for allowing evil. To try and do so would be equivalent to claiming to be omniscient. We are only showing that there are possible reasons for God to allow evil while remaining all loving and it would seem quite simple to imagine a world in which God could have reasons for allowing evil.
If you're a parent then you have real-life experiences where allowing pain or suffering (evil) accomplishes a greater good, and is actually loving. For example, I have three little girls and a forth on the way; just a few days ago we brought our middle daughter to the doctor where blood needed to be drawn. This caused pain to Phoebe but the results from the blood work will hopefully give the doctors clues as to what might help her. Out of our love we allowed our daughter to experience an evil in the hopes of a greater good being accomplished. Similarly God could have perfectly good reasons for allowing evil while loving us perfectly despite what we might think you know and understand!
The free will defense can also be applied to O5. Given free will it may simply be impossible for an all-loving God to eliminate evil. As a point of fact the free will defense has been astonishingly successful throughout the history of philosophy. So much so that philosophers no longer believe the logical problem of evil exists. Garrett DeWeese, professor at large at Talbot School of Theology says, “No one can disprove God’s existence by the logical problem of evil.” In conclusion, the skeptic simply cannot stand under the weight of the burden of proof assumed by his hidden assumptions. William Lane Craig says it perfectly, “It’s widely admitted by both atheist and Christian philosophers alike that the logical version of the problem suffering [evil] has failed.”
Next time we will examine The Evidential Argument from Evil and see if it fairs any better in its attempt to speak against the existence of theism.