Arguments About Evil and the Existence of God

  • July 11, 2024/

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Is the apparent existence of evil compelling evidence that God does not exist?

 

Evil is often defined as sickness or immorality, and it is undeniable that it is in the world around us. Indeed, the existence of evil and suffering leads us to question the existence of a theist God, leading to arguments such as Rowe’s proposition of the evidential problem of evil. In my essay, I will be defending Rowe’s evidential problem of evil and his response to Wykstra’s cornea objection. I will show how Rowe gives sound and rational support to his argument that an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good being cannot co-exist with the evil and suffering in our world. Further, I will also show how Rowe’s reply champions over Wykstra’s objection of his argument.

The evidential problem of evil concerns whether or not the existence of evil forms compelling evidence to show that God does not exist. It also focuses on to what extent it does so, if this were the case. Rowe’s formulation of the argument from evil goes as follows:

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There exists instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being. (Rowe 1979:336)

Rowe claims this argument is valid, and thus ‘if we have rational grounds for accepting its premises, to that extent we have rational grounds for accepting atheism.” (Rowe 1979: 336) Therefore, Rowe focuses on providing rational grounds for the second premise, which communicates an idea of what the theistic God would do in certain circumstances. Specifically, what a theistic God would do if they were aware of an instance of intense suffering about to occur, and was ‘all powerful’, thus being able to stop it from taking place, then they would do so unless it would lose some greater good or allow some evil that is worse or equally bad. Rowe is expressing his belief that an omnipotent, omniscient and loving God wouldn’t allow any evil that is pointless, consistent with God’s purpose.

Now, we can focus on the first premise, for which Rowe employs the example of the fawn: “Suppose in some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering. So far as we can see, the fawn’s intense suffering is pointless … Since the fawn’s suffering was preventable and, so far as we can see, pointless, doesn’t it appear that is true?’ (Rowe 1979:336)

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Indeed, an omniscient and omnipotent and wholly good being has the ability to prevent the fawn from being burned, or relieved the fawn of it’s suffering by ending it’s life quickly, rather than the fawn having to suffer the pain for many days before dying. Thus, we can conclude that the fawn’s suffering was indeed both preventable and pointless, thus providing rational support for premise 1. Indeed, this may be short of certainty, but its sufficient for us to rationally believe in the first premise. As we have seen that the second premise is a belief held by many theists and non theists, and the suffering in our world provides rational support for the first premise, we lead to our conclusion: we have rational support to believe that a God does not exist.

Another example we can look at is the case of Sue: a true event in which a 5 year old girl was raped, beaten and murdered in 1986. (Rowe 1988: 120) The little girl was living with her mother, her mothers boyfriend, another man, her sibling, and a 9 month infant fathered by the boyfriend. On new years eve, all the adults were at the bar but the boyfriend was asked to leave at 9pm after taking drugs and drinking heavily. The woman and the other man stayed at the bar till 2 am, then the woman went home and the man went to another party. As she walked into the house, she was attacked by her boyfriend, but her brother broke up the fight and left soon after. Later, she was attacked by the boyfriend again but she knocked him unconscious, and went to sleep after checking that the children were okay. The 5 year old girl had gone to the bathroom downstairs. When the other man returned at 3:45am from the party, the 5 year old girl was found raped, severely beaten and strangled to death by the boyfriend.

We shall refer the the fawn as E1 and the case of Sue as E2 (Rowe 1988: 120). Indeed, Rowe comments that he chooses E1 as an instance of natural evil and e2 as an instance of moral evil in order to ‘pose a serious difficulty for the theist’. Rowe claims that even if it were true that God couldn’t have permitted E1 and E2 without permitting some evil that is as bad or worse or forgoing some greater good, this cannot be applicable to all cases of evil that take place in our world every day. Thus, Rowe expresses the problem as so:

P) There is not a good state of affairs or greater good that we know of, that an omnipotent and omniscient’s God’s obtaining would morally allow or justify such a being to allow E1 or E2. Thus

Q) There is a high likelihood, therefore, that there is no such good state of affairs or greater good that an omnipotent and omniscient’s God’s obtaining would morally allow or justify such a being to allow E1 or E2

Indeed, P states that E1 and E2 cannot be justified by any good. Following this, the validity of Q is inferred to be true, or that E1 and E2 cannot be justified by any goods. Therefore, Rowe employs P in order to show the truth of the factual premise. The main concept in P is that there is a greater good that we do know of.Rowe claims that (Rowe 1999:123) we should be able to a) conceive of and b) understand the intrinsic good of, a greater good or good state of affairs to really know it. Examples of intrinsic good include love, happiness, pleasure and virtuous action).The intrinsic good of should not be limited to just the good thats we already know, instead, we should include good that we have some idea of, even if it is indefinite that they will occur or have previously occurred. For instance, concerning the case of Sue, she may experience the good of eternal bliss after death. Despite this, we cannot justify an omnipotent and omniscient being in permitting E1 or E2 with any good that we do know, unless the good is actualised at any point.

 

Rowe claims (Rowe 1988:120) that we ‘have good reason to believe no good state of affairs we know would justify an omnipotent, omniscient being in permitting either E1 or E2”. Rowe questions, couldn’t an omnipotent being could achieve this good state of affairs or greater good without having to allow instances of suffering like E1 or E2, or wouldn’t achieving these good state of affairs or greater good not truly morally justify allowing instances of suffering like E1 or E2 to take place. (Rowe 1988: 121, 123; 1991: 72).Thus, bringing us to Rowe’s inductive inference from P to Q. Rowe has not claims that he can prove or definitely know that instances of suffering are pointless, such as the example of the fawn or the little girl. He has accepted that there may be a greater good connected to these cases that outweighs them, which we do not and cannot know. Despite not being able to prove or definitely know if Q is true, Rowe has shown that we have rational grounds to be able to accept Q. Rowe makes the inference from P to Q as he has shown that P’s truth is sufficient evidence to accept Q.

So far, I have shown that Rowe has sufficient grounds to argue that the existence of evil is indeed compelling evidence to believe that God does not exist. However, I will now offer Wykstra’s counterargument. Wykstra poses an objection to Rowe’s inference from P to Q. He does this by drawing on an epistemic principle: the “CORNEA” (Condition Of ReasoNable Epistemic Access). “On the basis of cognised situation s, human H is entitled to claim “It appears that p” only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her”. (Wykstra 1984: 85) Indeed, here Wykstra is arguing that we should have certain knowledge in order to judge things by appearance, as we should be able to also tell when things are not as they appear in order to make such judgements. For instance, I look down at my garden from my window, which is on a very high floor, and I do not see any bees on the flowers in the garden. This does not put me in a position to state that there are no bees there. Similarly, Wykstra uses CORNEA to show that we are not able to make judgements about evil given that we have limited knowledge about God’s goodness and abilities.

Furthermore, Rowe has made an inference from P to Q, claiming in P that there aren’t any greater goods justifying God to allow these evils and to permit E1 and E2 from taking place. Wykstra claims that Rowe’s assumption, is false. He argues that it is our cognitive abilities and wisdom that prevents us from seeing God’s reasons for allowing evil. Wykstra objects Rowe’s evidential argument of evil by focusing on the lack of human knowledge. Wykstra (1984: 87-91) uses the parent analogy to illustrate his objection. The gap between human intellect and God’s intellect is large, like the cognitive abilities of a one month old infant and a parent. If this is the case, even if there was greater good that are connected to the examples of suffering that Rowe gives, we should be able to recognise most of said ‘goods’, like a one month old infant should recognise her parents reasons for allowing her suffering, which is not likely. Indeed, Wykstra is claiming that assuming CORNEA is valid, Rowe cannot argue that any case of pointless suffering is actually pointless. According to Wykstra’s argument about gap of human knowledge and God’s knowledge, the outweighing greater good connected to instances of suffering is beyond our knowledge. Thus, Wykstra claims “if we think carefully about the sort of being theism proposes for our belief, it is entirely expectable – given what we know of our cognitive limits – that the goods by virtue of which this Being allows known suffering should very often be beyond our ken” (1984: 91).

However, I will show that Wykstra’s objection from CORNEA cannot stand against the evidential argument of evil. Rowe replies to Wykstra’s objection from CORNEA: ’The mere assumption that (the theistic God) exists gives us no reason whatever to suppose either that the greater goods in virtue of which he permits most sufferings are goods that come into existence far in the future of the sufferings we are aware of, or that once they do obtain we continue to be ignorant of them and their relation to the sufferings.’ Rowe (1984: 98) He claims that given the attributes of a theistic God of being all loving, all knowing and powerful, he must ensure CORNEA if he truly exists. If he exists, it would be troublesome for God to create such a world in which all cases of suffering are prevented, but never seemed to be. Thus, we can still maintain that we have sufficient grounds to believe that God does not exist.

Additionally, Rowe (2001, 298; 1996, 274–276) defends the reverse parent analogy to deny Wykstra’s original parent analogy. As we expect a loving parent to make a child who must suffer, understand the reasons for their suffering if they have the power to do so. Likewise, we can expect a loving God to make us understand the reasoning for our suffering, as he definitely has the power to do so. Rowe has successfully demonstrated his reverse parent analogy, which can be described as more sound than the original parent analogy, due to the fact that it draws upon God’s qualities of being all loving and all powerful. Additionally, it provides support to deny the obscurity, which we can call thesis transparency. The probability that God allows us to understand and see why he permits evil, given that such a God with this reasoning exists, is high.

Indeed, Rowe has been successful in his defence of the evidential argument from evil, and thus he has provided us with rational grounds to believe that the existence of evil is compelling evidence to deny the existence of a theistic God. At this point in the essay, it is clear that the problem of evil has naturally lead to another problem: the problem of divine hiddenness. Indeed, it could be argued by a theist that if God had any reason to reveal himself in some way, he would have done so, which may be used to defend obscurity. The likelihood that we are not aware of the reasons behind the evil and suffering in the world may be very low, but the likelihood that we are not aware of the reasons behind the evil and suffering in the world and the reasons in question, may still be high. Indeed, if the probability that the reasons in question, given theism, is high then we may discover that the first value is not that low. This may be a reason to defend obscurity against Rowe’s argument, despite this, is clear that Rowe’s reverse parent analogy is stronger than the original, as it takes into account the qualities of the theistic God of being all loving and all powerful, unlike the original parent analogy.

To conclude, it can be seen in my essay that Rowe’s evidential argument of evil provides rational grounds to believe that the theist God and the undeniable evil and suffering in the world around us cannot co-exist. Indeed, I have shown how he successfully argues against the CORNEA objection, claiming that if God existed, he would ensure CORNEA. Further, Rowe provides a reverse parent analogy in response to Wykstra’s parent analogy. Despite the theist being able to defend the obscurity of the original parent analogy, it is clear that but it is clear that Rowe still champions over the theist and Wykstra. This allows us, in conclusion, to argue that the apparent existence of evil is compelling evidence that God does not exist.

Bibliography:

Rowe, William L. (1979), ‘The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism’. American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (4): 335-341. (Reprinted Adams & Adams (eds.), The Problem of Evil, 1992.

Rowe, William L. (1984), ‘Evil and the Theistic Hypothesis: A Response to Wykstra’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 16 (2): 95-100. (Reprinted in Adams & Adams (eds.), The Problem of Evil, 1992.)

Rowe, William L. 1988. “Evil and Theodicy,” Philosophical Topics 16: 119-32.

Rowe, William L. 1996. “The Evidential Argument from Evil: A Second Look,” in Daniel Howard-Snyder (ed.), The Evidential Argument from Evil

Rowe, William L. 2001a. “Grounds for Belief Aside, Does Evil Make Atheism More Reasonable than Theism” in William Rowe (ed.), God and the Problem of Evil. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp.124-37.

Wykstra, Stephen J. (1984), ‘The Humean Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering: On Avoiding the Evils of “Appearance”’. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 16 (2): 73-93. (Reprinted in Adams & Adams (eds.), The Problem of Evil, 1992).