What is the Problem of Evil?


The Problem of Evil is typically split into logical and evidential forms and concern the incompatibility with the existence of evil, or unnecessary evil, and the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God.

Logical Problem of Evil:

  1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
  2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
  3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
  4. If God is morally perfect, then God would desire to eliminate all evil.
  5. Evil exists.
  6. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.

Therefore 7. God doesn’t exist.

In the logical problem of evil the existence of evil (5) is logically incompatible with one of (1-4) and so given that evil exists then one of the premises (1-4) must be false. Since 1-4 are just expansions on the traditional Judeao-Christian definition of God then the existence of evil is held to be logically incompatible with such a God.

Some theistic responses to the problem of evil are to revise the concept of God so that it does not include one of the traditional attributes such as omnipotence or benevolence. These revisions contain deep problems of their own (how could a God that had the power to create a universe from nothing lack the power to prevent a certain feature of the universe from occurring? Or if God is not good then surely it is a mistake to think he is worthy of worship) hence I will not discuss them as they do not appear worthy of serious consideration. Other responses include postulating other malevolent powerful immaterial agents like the devil or malign spirits[1] that act in the world. However such imagined agents would either be able to resist God’s power, knowledge, or not. If they are able to resist God then God would not be omnipotent, and if they are not, then God would have to let them be creating evil rather than eliminating or preventing it. So the same logical paradox arises again.

The more typical theistic response is to say that the existence of evil and God are compatible if such the evil that exists is necessarily connected with a future good state of affairs that outweighs the evil, or cannot be separated from an equally or worse state of affairs.

The Evidential Problem of Evil

William Rowe views the evidential problem of evil as an improvement over the logical problem. Here evil is only incompatible with God if it is not necessary as a means for a greater good. Still one may be quite legitimate in wondering whether the difference is that great as the incompatibility has merely shifted to a more qualified form of evil unnecessary evil rather than evil simpliciter.

Rowe describes the argument as follows:

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

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

So there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being [OG for short].

Rowe acknowledges that there are many cases of intense suffering that appears pointless (not serving any greater good or preventing any equally bad or worse evil). In describing a case of natural evil.  Rowe asks us to imagine a forest fire that was caused by lightening. Within the forest a fawn is burned, it lies trapped by the fire for several days until eventually death relieves its suffering.

There seems no good reason why such suffering could not be reduced or preventable by an OG. An OG could have stopped the fawn from burning, or given the burning, ended its life sooner (say reduced its suffering from 5-4,3,2,1 days) and in so doing prevented pointless unnecessary suffering. The idea that an OG could not have prevented such suffering is quite absurd. A being that could not prevent such suffering hardly seems worthy of the attribute ‘omnipotent’.

The case for natural evil being incompatible with an OG is even greater when considering it from a Darwinian perspective[2] as the very process that generates the diversity of species we see today necessitates thousands of lives of pain and waste and it is dubious whether the good that is produced (the lives of complex creatures like human beings) justifies the suffering of countless many creatures that lost out in the struggle for survival that was a necessary condition of our existence.

Rowe notes that there are undoubtedly many cases of evil that appear unconnected with any greater good (or preventing some equally bad or worse evil) but he is unwilling to say that such evil is incompatible with an OG.  As he says “it hardly follows that it [intense and apparently pointless suffering] is not so required. After all, we are often surprised by how things we thought to be unconnected turn out to be intimately connected.” For instance if we think of chaos theory as being one such theory as changing our conception of things that were hithero thought to be unconnected, such as the butterflies wings flapping and the weather in some other part of the world turn out to be so connected. Hence Rowe asserts:

[T]here may be unfamiliar goods, goods we haven’t dreamed of, to which the fawns suffering is inextricably connected. Indeed it would require something like omniscience on our part before we could lay claim to knowing that there is no greater good connected to the fawns suffering in such a manner that an omnipotent omniscient being could not have achieved that good without permitting that suffering or some evil equally bad or worse. So the case of the fawns suffering does not establish the truth of 1.

Rowe, perhaps in something of an understatement, acknowledges that since we have evidence to believe that 1 is true and it is reasonable to believe that 1 is true then 1 is good evidence against the existence of God. This is because we don’t have any independent reason for thinking that the existence of seemingly pointless suffering connects in any way to a greater good, and even if it did, if God could not prevent that suffering and still bring about that greater good then it would count against any claim of alleged omnipotence. So the theists response about the possibility for things that we do not think as being intimately are intimately connected is not grounds (or good) for thinking that things are intimately connected when faced with the concrete evidence that pointless suffering exists.

Rowe claims that the theists best way to respond to suffering is indirectly by claiming that they have rational grounds for belief in OG and thereby that they have rational grounds for rejecting 1 even though they cannot say what purpose 1 could serve or how things are connected. In echoing G.E.Moore’s response to the skeptic Rowe thinks that rather than try and show where the atheists reasoning is amiss the theist should attempt to justify belief that an OG exists on some other grounds and then as a consequence hold that he is justified in believing that the evil that exists is not pointless but exists for some other purpose.

Rowe explains (but fails to elaborate on the details) what sort of considerations might justify a theist in believing an OG exists even though this is essential to the credibility of the theist’s defence of the existence of apparently pointless evil. For instance Rowe notes that the theist might endeavour to justify his belief by appealing to one of more traditional arguments: Ontological, Cosmological, Teleological, Moral etc.  Second he might appeal to certain aspects of religious experience, perhaps even his own religious experience. Third he might try to justify theism as a plausible theory in terms of which we can account for a variety of phenomena.  However these arguments are widely held to be in disrepute and lack any persuasive force in modern philosophy.

So the theists reasons in reverse order to the atheist:

T1: An OG exists

T2: IF an OG exists then an OG would prevent intense suffering unless it could not do so without losing some greater good or permitting some equally bad or worse.

T3: So there is no intense suffering that an OG could have prevented without losing some greater good or permitting some equally bad or worse state of affairs.

Rowe then outlines three different attitudes that the atheist can take to theism

A: The Unfriendly Atheist – No one is rationally justified in believing that the theistic God exists.

B: The Indifferent Atheist [Agnostic?] No belief regarding the rationality of theistic belief.

C: The Friendly Atheist – Some theists are rationally justified in believing that God exists.

Rowe considers it prima facie paradoxical for atheists to think that some theists can be rationally justified in belief in God after all if a position is rationally justified it seems to put it outside of criticism which atheists engage in. In an attempt to defuse the paradox Rowe points out that we can be rationally justified in believing something whilst acknowledging that others who do not have access to the same information are rationally justified in believing that what we believe is false. Consider the scenario of being shipwrecked and still alive but after an extensive search rescuers fail to find him. You can acknowledge that the rescuers would be rationally justified in believing that you do not exist whilst you would be rationally justified in believing that you do exist.

Hence Rowe’s suggests that such a friendly view can be defended if the atheist holds that the grounds for theism are not as telling as the theist takes them to be. He describes the following scenario whereby I add a sum of numbers up on my calculator and get result x, and you add the same sum of numbers up on your calculator and arrive at result y – you would be justified in believing y is the correct result even if unbeknown to you your calculator is faulty. But of course the problem with Rowe’s analogy is that if I know your calculator is faulty and you don’t then we are not acquainted with the same grounds for belief as you are missing out some important information.  Without this difference in information there would just be confusion as to what the correct result was. Perhaps the point of such an analogy is to suggest that some theists like (damaged calculators) are not able to reason reliably regarding the existence of God and what appear to them to be good reasons for belief in God are not in fact so.  After all most people regard the beliefs that they hold as being rationally defensible..

So from a theist’s perspective they view themselves as having rational grounds for belief and the atheist can recognise this without holding that theism is itself rationally warranted. Hence it is not difficult for an atheist to be friendly when he has reason to believe that the theist is not acquainted with the grounds for disbelief that he (the atheist) possesses. Perhaps they are unaware of why theological arguments are regarded as unpersuasive, or are unaware of how the central posits of theism are in conflict with the naturalistic world view of science.

However it becomes more difficult to hold such a friendly view when the atheist holds that the theist has all the grounds for atheism that the atheist has and yet the theist maintains that they are rationally justified in maintaining their theistic beliefs. This is where double think is required in order to maintain a view of the theist as being rational which is a view that the theist wants to retain.

[I suspect that double think is quite widespread, and may be useful in maintaining harmonious social relations, and deserves greater considerations by philosophers. More on this topic later]


[1] For instance In the Persian tradition of the Zoroastrians and Manicheans a benevolent God vies with a malicious devil for control of the world and in some passages of Christianity such as the book of Job a devil smites Job with boils.

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2 Responses to What is the Problem of Evil?

  1. shelleymrcampbell says:

    Turning to literature, one of the best extrapolations of this discussion is in Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. The chapters ‘Rebellion’ and ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ take into account Atheism (Ivan Karamazov) and the Church (Alyosha Karamazov). I will respond properly to this post in due course.

    • Yes, I think that would make a nice complimentary post Shelley. The religious justification of the existence of evil by appeal to some positive future state of affairs assumes a form of consequentialism whereby the (good) ends justify the (evil) means. Not sure if you were thinking of that, look forward to reading it.
      JB

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