A Problem for the Problem of Evil?


William Lane Craig once gave a talk entitled, “Top 10 Worst Objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument.” Along the same lines, maybe someday I should a talk entitled, “Top 10 Worst Objections to the Argument from Evil.” But, for now, I want to focus on just one of the top ten objections, the idea that the argument from evil (for atheism) can be flipped on its head into an argument from evil (for theism).

I’ve refuted this objection over and over again, which might lead some regular readers of this blog to complain that I am beating a dead horse. But, since this is a meme which won’t die, I think a better analogy than dead horses is the game of “whack-a-mole.”

Doug Wilson repeats the meme. He begins:

The problem of evil goes back at least to the time of Epicurus, and it runs like this. Why doesn’t God do something about the existence and reality of evil? Either He cannot do something about it, or He will not do something about it. If He cannot, then how is He omnipotent? If He will not, then how is He benevolent? In either case, an essential attribute of Deity is lost, and so there you go.

And so it is that the triumphant sophomore retires from the field, carrying the hnors [sic] of battle with him.

As far as what Epicurus wrote, that’s a decent summary. As far as what contemporary defenders of the argument from evil go, that’s terrible.

First, Wilson ignores (or is unaware) of anything written in the last thirty years by defenders of arguments from evil, arguments which are far more sophisticated than the Epicurean version of the argument from evil. Wilson completely ignores evidential arguments from evil based on facts about pain and pleasure (which includes the problem of animal suffering), virtue and vice, flourishing and languishing, triumph and tragedy, autonomy and heteronomy, empathy and apathy, and the like. Wilson can refer to defenders of an argument from evil as “triumphant sophomores” only by ignoring scholars like William Rowe, Paul Draper, Quentin Smith, Richard Gale, John Schellenberg, Bruce Russell, and so forth.

Second, I’ve never been a fan of the name “problem of evil” and responses like Wilson’s illustrate why. Calling evil a “problem” is fine as far as it goes, but it causes people to lose sight of the fact that when philosophers talk about the “problem of evil,” they are talking about an argument for atheism. That’s why Christian philosopher Daniel Howard-Snyder, for example, refers to the “evidential argument from evil” to emphasize the fact that we’re dealing with arguments.

The apparent force of the argument lies in the stark alternative it presents, along with its steadfast refusal to continue reasoning in the same way. If you insist on marching in that direction, you have to go all the way off the precipice. Allow me to present yet another stark alternative.

Either there is a satisfactory (and satisfying) answer to the problem of evil, or there is not. If there is a satisfactory (and satisfying) answer, then farther along we’ll know all about it, farther along we’ll understand why. We need not know the answer now to know that there has to be one.

But if there is not a satisfactory (and satisfying) answer, then what follows? It means there is no God, and if there is no God, then there is no such thing as evil. Everything that happens just happens, things just are. If there is no such thing as evil, then there can be no such thing as a problem of evil. If there is no such thing as math, then there can be no math problems. Evil? Eh? What is that?

This is not a serious response to arguments from evil. First, even if it were the case that “there is no such thing as evil” if there is no God, that doesn’t refute evidential arguments from evil, which say that, other evidence held equal, known facts about ‘evil’ (such as I listed above) are much more probable on naturalism than on theism, and hence strong evidence against theism. Second, but in fact Wilson is wrong when he claims that “there is no such thing as evil” is a logical implication of atheism. Given how frequently theists (like Wilson) try to link arguments from evil (against theism) to moral arguments (for theism), it never ceases to amaze me how these same theists fail to apply the same skepticism towards logical arguments from morality as they do towards logical arguments from evil. Allow me to explain. Logical arguments from evil claim that God’s existence is logically incompatible with some known fact about evil. Theists object that there are possible worlds in which God exists and evil exists. But now consider logical arguments from morality, which claim that God’s nonexistence is logically incompatible with the existence of evil. Critics of logical arguments from morality can point out that they fail for a parallel reason: there are possible worlds in which God doesn’t exist and evil exists. Of course, theists could deny that a world without God is not a possible world. Apart from massively begging the question against atheists, this response carries with it an enormous burden of proof. It is one thing to claim that a world without God is not a possible world; it is another thing to prove that. Given the failure of the notorious ontological argument for God’s existence, I’d say the prospects for that line of defense are dim.