The Theism-Atheism Debate: God and the Probabilistic Problem of Evil

In this entry, we continue in our analysis of the problem of evil. As noted, there are two problems of evil: the logical and probabilistic variations. We already looked at the logical problem and some of the theistic responses made to it. In this entry, we will turn our focus briefly to the probabilistic problem of evil.

The probabilistic problem of evil concedes that there is no logical contradiction between an all-good and all-powerful God existing despite there being evil and suffering in the world. But what it does argue, however, is that given the evil and suffering in the world, it is highly improbable that such a God exists. The extent of evil is so great that it seems improbable that God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting it. This probabilistic version is typically deemed to be stronger than the logical problem given that its conclusion (“It is improbable that God exists”) is more easily defended. 

Theists have attempted to respond to this argument in several ways. First, there is the same response that is made to the logical problem of evil, which is that there could be reasons for why God allows evil to exist in the world that only he knows about, but that we humans, from our limitations in intelligence and insight, cannot know. On a theistic conception of an all-powerful God who brought the universe into existence, God must be transcendent and sovereign, and therefore able to see the end from the beginning. Such a God would no doubt have the broader perspective so that the evils which appear pointless to humans with a limited framework may be seen to have been justly permitted within God’s wider framework.

Some theists maintain that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting evils to occur (perhaps for God to use it to bring about an awareness of himself to the greatest number of human beings), but that we humans are not in the epistemic position to say that this is impossible. This is not, for the theist, merely an escape via an appeal to mystery, but is instead to make known the human being’s inherent cognitive limitations offsetting attempts to say that it is improbable that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting evil. 

A second response claims that we need to take into account the full scope of evidence that theists provide making the existence of God probable. This is because probabilities are relative to background information. The probabilistic argument from evil, claims the theist, must be seen in the light of the various other arguments posited for God’s existence, such as the Kalam cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the ontological argument, the argument from morality, the applicability of mathematics, and so on. Just focusing on the problem of evil alone might seem at first a compelling proof against God possibly existing, but this is weakened if the problem is seen alongside the other arguments. The theist maintains that rather than God’s existence being improbable, the evidence, when taken into account, makes God’s existence probable. As philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig explains,

“Hence, the theist could actually admit that the problem of evil, taken in isolation, does make God’s existence improbable. But he will insist that when the total scope of the evidence is considered, then the scales are at least evenly balanced or tip in favor of theism” (1).

There is also the retort that suffering is necessary; for example, theists contend that it brings about a greater knowledge of God. It is when one’s life is painful, perhaps due to a loss or an illness, that human beings turn with great zeal to seek after God. The assumption here is that God desires human beings to seek him and that suffering is a necessary means for him to attain this; in fact, it is possible that if life on Earth were merely easy and free from suffering human beings would find little need to believe in God. But for many theists, a knowledge of God is the ultimate good. It is the very reason for existence.

It is perhaps from these several responses offered by theists that some religious skeptics have conceded the argument from the problem of evil. The atheist philosopher William L. Rowe stated that “Some philosophers have contended that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God. No one, I think has succeeded in establishing such an extravagant claim” (2).

Another atheist philosopher, J. L. Mackie, stated that “We can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another” (3). And, in conclusion, William P. Alston maintained that “It is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides that the logical argument is bankrupt” (4).

References

1. Moreland, J. P., and Craig, William. 2017. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Westmont: InterVarsity Press. p. 546. 

2. Rowe, William. 1979. “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism.” American Philosophical Quarterly. p. 335.

3. Mackie, J. L. 1982. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford University Press. p. 154.

4. Alston, William. 1991. “The Inductive Argument from Evil and the Human Condition.” Philosophical Perspectives 5:29-67.

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