God’s Omnipotence And Sovereignty – Part Ten
The Evidential Form of the Problem:
In light of atheists’ failure to produce such a proposition, the majority consensus among philosophers today is that the logical form of the problem of evil is a failure. For this reason, the main focus of the discussion has turned in recent decades to the evidential form of the problem. In some ways, this marks a retreat on the atheist’s part to a weak position, but it is nonetheless potentially damaging to the theist. Proponents of the evidential argument admit that theism is logically consistent and that the existence of evil does not in itself disprove the existence of God. The charge they make is that evil exists, and, more significantly, the kind and quantity of evil we find in the world-constitutes robust evidence against God’s existence. Put differently, the evil we find renders it unlikely that God exists, and thus it provides us with neither good reason for not believing in God.
The evidential from the problem of evil is best understood as a response to the “greater-good” theodicies sketched in the last section. The atheist here admits that it is possible for a perfectly good, omniscient, omnipotent being to allow evil if a greater good is achieved that could not be achieved in any other way. So the mere existence of evil does not contradict God’s existence. However, the atheist will contend that much of the actual evil we observe in the world is pointless: it does not lead to any greater good, or it is not, at any rate, logically necessary for achieving any greater good. A good God-by the very definition of “good”-would not allow pointless evil. The argument can be summarized as follows:
1. If God exists, he does not allow any pointless evil.
2. Probably, there is some pointless evil in the world.
3. Therefore, God probably does not exist.
The qualifying term “probably” is essential. The atheist does not presume to prove that there are genuinely pointless evils in the world; she can admit that it is always possible that God has some justifying reason for allowing the evil beyond our ability to comprehend. However, she thinks this is improbable because it appears to us that there are pointless evils. The critic will note that here, like everywhere else in life, we must make our best judgments based on how things appear. Given that there appear to be pointless evils, the most rational conclusion to draw is that a perfectly good and omnipotent God probably does not exist.
In responding to the evidential form of the problem, the theist can try to rely on the theodicies we examined in the last section and others that have been proposed. We must not forget that evil affects the believer, and the non-believer feels a problem. Many believers find many evils globally, especially those that seem particularly egregious or horrendous-baffling and troubling. They wonder why God allows these things, for they admit that these evils seem pointless. What, then, can the believer says?
First, the believer can try to refute the second premise by challenging the reasons used to support it. Recall that atheists’ reason for thinking that it is likely or probable that there are pointless evils is simply this: it appears there are pointless evils. The claim that it appears that there are some pointless evils, however, is open to challenge. Stephen Wykstra has argued that this claim violates a basic epistemic principle called the Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access (CORNEA, for short).
In a nutshell, what CORNEA states is that one is justified in claiming “it appears that there are no Xs” only if one is justified in believing that, if there were any Xs, one would be in a position to perceive them. Ways best see this as an example. Suppose someone opened the garage door, turned on the light, looked around, and, based on what he saw, declared, “It appears that there are no dogs in the garage.” He would be justified in making this claim because there was nothing strange going on in this scenario-if; there were any dogs in the garage; a glance would be sufficient for him to see him. However, suppose this same person opened the garage door, turned on the light, glanced around, and, based on what he saw, declared, “It appears that there are no fleas in the garage.” In this case, his claim would not justify making this kind of claim because it is common knowledge that if there were any fleas in the garage, one likely would not be able to perceive them with just a glance.
The general lesson here is that one is not justified in claiming that it appears that there are no Xs if one has reason to believe that, in one’s present epistemic state, one is not in a position to be able to perceive any Xs that might be there. When this is applied to the discussion of the evidential argument, the point is this. Given that God is both omniscient and transcendent, there is every reason to believe that God is privy to a vast amount of knowledge about the relations between good and evil, of which we are ignorant. We have reason to believe, then, that for any allegedly pointless evil, if there were some justifying reason that God had for allowing it, we very likely would not be in a position to perceive it.
If God exists, it is virtually certain that many of his reasons are incomprehensible to us. Con-sequent, we are in no position to claim for any actual evil that we observe, that evil even appears to serve no greater good. The claim “It appears that there are some pointless evils” is unjustified because it violates CORNEA. Nevertheless, without this claim, premise (2) is unfounded. This response to the evidential argument is sometimes called the cognitive limitation defense. There is a second response to the evidential argument available to the believer-one that ties into the first response nicely, without being as technical. The theist can state that she believes God has reasons for allowing evil, even if she does not know what those reasons are. The believers’ evidence for thinking that God has justified reasons for allowing evil will be her evidence for God’s existence and goodness. Suppose one has a good reason for believing in a benevolent and loving God. Then one is justified in believing God has good reasons for allowing evil.
To appreciate the force of this kind of response, consider the following argument, which inverts the previous atheistic argument:
1. If God exists, he does not allow any pointless evil.
2. Probably, God exists.
3. Therefore, probably, there is no pointless evil in the world.
This strategy of turning an argument on is head-sometimes called a G. E. Moore shift, after the early twentieth-century philosopher who made it famous-results, every time, in an argument just as valid as the original. Which argument is to be preferred in this particular case? The answer requires that an individual judge her whole evidential situation. Does one have more evidence that pointless evils exist? Most would admit that the existence of evil is a problem for the theist; it does “count against” the existence of God in the sense that it provides prima facie evidence that God does not exist. (None, however, that Wykstra’s argument could be used to challenge even this assumption).
However, even if this is true, the critical question is whether this negative evidence is sufficient to count decisively against God’s existence (whether it provides what we might call ultima facie evidence). Suppose one has solid reasons for believing in God and believing him to be good. In that case, evil will be regarded as a difficulty since one does not understand why God allows evil, but not as a decisive difficulty. After all, as we have just discussed, it seems highly doubtful that finite human beings could justifiably claim to know that any evil is genuinely pointless with our imperfect and selective understanding of the world around us. If one had come to know God as a loving, good being-through religious experience and revelation, perhaps one would have robust evidence that God must have good reasons for allowing evil. Even if one had no idea what those reasons might be. It is, in fact, in just this sort of situation that one calls on faith. If the faith is to be reasonable, of course, there must be some basis for belief in God.
However, adherents of a region commonly claim to have evidence of this type. For example, Christians often cite the incarnation of Jesus as providing them which knowledge of God and God’s character. Simultaneously, not an explanation of why God allows evil, Jesus’ death and resurrection demonstrate that he loves his creatures to suffer with them and will eventually triumph over evil by turning it into good. (More on this shortly). Evil, then, is a severe problem for the theist, but it is not necessarily insurmountable. Suppose the theist has good reasons for believing God is justified in permitting evil. In that case, the occurrence of evil is seen as a test of one’s faith in God.
To the atheist, evil constitutes strong evidence against God’s existence. From a theistic perspective, however, the person who doubts God because of evil needs one of two things. If he does not know God and God’s goodness, he needs to come to know God-through experience or perhaps through special revelation-or he needs to come to know God in a fuller way. If he already knows God and His goodness, he needs pastoral encouragement to help him persevere in his faith.