Thursday, October 19, 2006

Plantinga and the logical problem of evil

Arguments in philosophy rarely achieve the status of full proofs, arguments that begin from premises known to be true and advancing by impeccable logic to a philosophically significant conclusion. Anyone familiar with my book on the argument from reason realizes that I do not make that kind of a claim on behalf of my own arguments against naturalism. Most of us think that it is a good day's work for a philosopher to provide a cumulative-case role-player, something that might "break the tie" if someone is on the fence between two positions, and in combination with other reasons, might provide a good reason for, say, believing in God or not believing in God.

The argument from evil seems to have a different status, at least in many minds. Many advocates of the argument from evil suppose that that argument, unlike your typical theistic on atheistic argument, really can stand on its own as a disproof of the existence of God, showing that all who believe in God are just being irrational. Plantinga is widely credited by both theists and atheists with showing that the argument does not achieve this goal.

Yet, I get the impression from some people that they really think that the argument from evil is something more than a cumulative case role-player, and I do not think that this claim is defensible. I am unsure as to whether the argument from evil can successfully play a role as a cumulative-case role-player, but I do not think it can do more than this.

At least what is known is the logical argument from evil (as opposed to the evidential argument from evil) was supposed to do.

Would anyone like to argue that it really is stronger than your average cumulative-case role player? That, virtually alone of all philosophical arguments, and regardless of all other considerations both pro and con, really provides beyond a reasonable doubt that God does not exist.

14 comments:

Blue Devil Knight said...

I tend to agree with you, but if someone truly takes there to be solid arguments for each premise, then they are justified in their belief. When I step back and dispassionately consider the amount of suffering caused by natural disaster and human maliciousness, the existence of something that can do (almost) anything, and which loves humans, seems outlandish (complicated philosophical arguments notwithstanding: for every theistic response there seems to be a good nontheistic counterresponse, but I could understand someone who said the opposite: I think it depends on your priors, which supports your claim that AOE needs to be part of a cumulative case against gods).

Also, while it is hard for me to disentangle (psychologically) all the reasons I have to be an atheist, the problem of evil alone leaves me leaning strongly toward atheism (about the Judeo-Christian God).

If I was forced to pick a single argument that the Judeo-Christian God don't exist, the argument from evil would be up there on my candidate list. Also up there, roughly in order, would be:
1.The complete lack of obvious positive evidence that an omnipotent being that wants us to believe it exists actually exists (e.g., clear-cut miracles).
2.Considerations from evolutionary biology and neuroscience coupled with facts from cultural anthropology/developmental psychology (which cohere in a story that we invented gods to serve some psychological function, such as explaining weird things and coping with the evolutionarily novel acute awareness of really awful things such as cute little babies dying).

If I were a theist, I think I'd be most troubled by the argument from evil and the lack of evidence. But on the positive side, I'd focus on consciousness, abstract objects, and ethical claims. On the other hand, these things are really evidence against naturalism rather than for theism. There are lots of atheists who believe that consciousness is not physical, who are Platonists about abstract objects, and moral realists.

Blue Devil Knight said...

So, to more directly answer your question: I think it can play more than merely a cumulative role. Not all role-players are equal, and it is one of the best. If it wasn't, would Lewis have struggled with it so much?

Jason said...

Perhaps the distinction should be that the AOE provides, or anyway seems to provide, a stronger-than-merely-combinatory argument against distinctive claims made by specific schools of theism (so to speak). I really don't see how it has ever had any strength at all against mere theism per se.

Of course, there are those of us--including Lewis--who think the notion of unjust suffering actually does point in the direction not only of theism but of God as the actual objective ground of morality. (I'm pretty sure Victor has already done a thread on this somewhere, though. {s} The ref I'm thinking of is where Lewis argues that, back when he was an atheist, part of what moved him toward theism was when he realized that his complaints about unfair suffering depended on there being a human-independent objective standard of morality after all.)

So even then, the AfE ends up being more ambivalent than it might first be supposed. But then again, it isn't what I'd appeal to first, myself, even as a move from atheism to theism.

(i.e. when I'm deep in the middle of horrible pain, and yelling at God myself, and am tempted to chunk the whole thing, not least because I foresee the real possibility that I might be expected to bear the pain forever because it really _is_ the right and loving thing to do; even then, I already know where atheism is going to lead me eventually, and the route isn't first through needing a divine moral grounding for appeal to the unjustness of suffering after all. Though I do recognize how that could work, too. {shrug})


Anyway, the ambivalence of the AOE can be illustrated by BDK's observation (which I think has plenty of historical credence) that people may believe in God _because_ of "acute awareness of really awful things such as cute little babies dying".

Jason Pratt

Anonymous said...

I'm no philosopher, but it seems to me that the problem of evil argument presumes a set of truths that the materialist is not able to establish.
- humans are the highest product of the deity the argument seeks to attack.
- the comfort and security of humans are the highest priority of the deity the argument seeks to attack.

Since neither of these can be reasonably established, the premise is undermined at that point.

If the theist can explain that the comfort and security are not the purpose of the deity in question, which is a difficult paradigm shift for any materialist (and most Christians), then an interesting discussion could follow.

It seems that materialist view humans as the purpose of a creator deity. In contrast the God of Christianity appears to have created humans as the process by which he will conquer evil, and has designed this universe for the express purpose of the conquest of evil. Viewing humanity as the "process" does not demean humanity, as many materialists will attempt to argue.

John W. Loftus said...

Most all Christian philosophers claim the logical problem has been solved, but there are still versions of the logical problem of evil that have not been sufficiently answered, written by Quentin Smith, Richard La Croix, and Richard Gale. Just because Plantinga answered Mackie's formulation, and just because Mackie admitted it, doesn't mean that all formulations have been answered.

Christian philosophers like to tout any successes they have till they're blue in the face, since they have so few. But it's propaganda, plain and simple, coming from an old boys club of guys who hang around together in the Society of Christian Philosophers.

Am I wrong about this?

John W. Loftus said...

Would anyone like to argue that it really is stronger than your average cumulative-case role player? That, virtually alone of all philosophical arguments, and regardless of all other considerations both pro and con, really provides beyond a reasonable doubt that God does not exist.

There is no silver bullet argument, in large part because all cumulative arguments are evaluated by persons, and as such there is an irreducible personal element to evaluating these arguments.

But I will say that the inductive problem of evil is as clear of an empirical refutation of the existence of the theistic belief in God as there is. Is it possible that upon this argument alone hangs the whole Christian claim to a rational faith? This may depend entirely upon the person who is doing the evaluating.

But we do know that some arguments are weightier than others in the minds of people, and I personally think this one is the weightiest argument of all.

Blue Devil Knight said...

If there were gross miracles, I would probably still buy the argument from evil, and just think that the supernatural being performing the miracles was not omnipotent and perfectly benevolent (sort of like the God of the Hebrew Scriptures).

Unless He provided a compelling explanation for the existence of evil in one of the miracles.

Clayton said...

This might not be a shocker to Professor Reppert but I believe that the version of the argument from evil discussed in an earlier thread is a silver bullet. The premise that God must have intervened on behalf of some particular person (see details from previous thread) is, I believe, one known with absolute certainty.

There seems to be a difference between Plantinga's managing to show that some evil is compatible with the existence of God and showing that this evil in particular is one that God could tolerate. I take it that we know of some particular evils that God could never tolerate them.

steve said...

John W. Loftus:

"But I will say that the inductive problem of evil is as clear of an empirical refutation of the existence of the theistic belief in God as there is."

One little problem: evil is not an empirical property.

exapologist said...

Victor,
I agree with you on the point recently made by Van Inwagen in his new book on the problem of evil, viz., that like many other deductive philosophical arguments with momentous conclusions, it's imprudent to put too much weight on the logical problem of evil. I also think you're right that a cumulative case is needed for justifiedly being a theist or atheist.

Steven Carr said...

1) God is a necessary being and exists in all logically possible worlds.

2) God is supposedly omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent

3) Therefore , suppose a omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being exists in all possible worlds

4) Many logically possible worlds contain large amounts of suffering with no redeeming features.

5) Therefore these logically possible worlds do not contain a being who would alleviate pointless suffering

6) Therefore there are logically possible worlds that do not contain an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being.

7) But this contradicts 3, showing that there is no necessary omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being

Dave Armstrong said...

I replied to Ed Babinski's comments (which referenced this blog), in my paper:

Critique of Agnostic Ed Babinski's Post: "The Problem of Evil, Alvin Plantinga & Victor Reppert" (the "Emotional" Argument From Evil)

http://socrates58.blogspot.com/2006/10/critique-of-agnostic-ed-babinskis-post.html

I love your blog, and will have to make more time to visit it. The comments seem reasonable and educational as well.

Dave Armstrong

Edward T. Babinski said...

Please see, Non-Exclusivism, Universalism, Evil, and, Philosophy As One Big 'IF'

John W. Loftus said...

Vic: Plantinga is widely credited by both theists and atheists with showing that the argument does not achieve this goal.

I Blogged about this. See here.