Thursday, June 18, 2009

Keith Parsons' evidential argument from evil

A redated post.

Suppose we are all tenants in a large apartment building and we meet to discuss common problems. It is clear that the building has many faults. Walls are crumbling, ceilings develop cracks, the heat is sometimes off in winter and on in the summer, the elevators are unreliable, etc. The general feeling is that our landlord, whom none of us has ever seen, is either incompetent or selfishly indifferent to our fate. Some tenants, however, rise to his defence. They say he may have good reason for letting the building go on in this way, though when pressed they can't suggest any which sound convincing to most of us. Now what would we normally do if we saw no prospect of getting a reasonable explanation in the future? Surely we wouldn't just sit back and suspend judgement indefinitely. It is always possible that anyone really had good reasons for what he did, or what he did not do. Ignorance of possible motivation does not prevent us, in human affairs, from making a decision about someone's moral qualities.[8]

8] Roland Puccetti, "The Concept of God," Philosophical Quarterly, 14 (1964), p. 243.


Anonymous said...

Well I don't see how a building exercises free will in such a manner to induce a depraved state, or that by letting the building suffer, it procures a greater good.

Brandon said...

This is a very slight modification of an argument in Hume's Dialogues (Part XI).

Unknown said...

They say he may have good reason for letting the building go on in this way, though when pressed they can't suggest any which sound convincing to most of us.

The problem might be with the apologists, or it might be with the rest of us. After all, how many of us really believe that if an argument or an explanation is good, it will persuade most people?

And in any event, who would argue, from such premises, that the apartment building did not have a designer?

Anonymous said...

"And in any event, who would argue, from such premises, that the apartment building did not have a designer?"

Well this is outside the scope of the analogy.

Unknown said...

If there's no landlord, who am I paying my rent to?

philip m said...

If atheism means not having to pay rent, then I am all for it.

J said...


""Theism will be greatly discredited if the only way it can obviate a contradiction between its claims and the existence of evil is through the invocation of ad hoc hypotheses.""

While I agree the evidential problem of evil remains important, Parsons' attempts at reducing the problem to a few syllogisms or a rather cheesy analogy seems to miss the point, greatly. (He might peruse Dostoyevsky's analogies, say in Brothers Karamazov).

The believer's "ad hoc" hypotheses --sort of typical Parsons' bureaucratese--do offer the theist (not necessarily the Christian fundamentalist) a possible explanation. Given a soul and immortality, then apparent evil might be resolved: the good kids who were unfortunately swept up in the tidal wave "ascendit ad caelos", as the story goes. And that's not exactly ad hoc, but a key part of the dogma, whether we agree or not. I don't think there are good grounds for believing an immortal soul--or God-- exists, but nonetheless I pause for a few momentos while pondering Descartes' Res Cogitans...(as did Noam Chomsky).

J said...

The Parsons hacks also forget that "evil", whatever it is, is not discrete, or quantifiable. The POE (both evi. and logical) merely shows inconsistency, or hypocrisy--according to human standards of justice--not a real contradiction. It's qualitative, not quantitative (that holds even for that old chestnut of the Euthyphro).

The hypothetical analogy shows a landlord to be injust, unethical, uncaring, so forth, or just absent, not really existing. But they forget that the POE hypothetical should also include the possibility of a soul, afterlife, not knowing God's purposes, etc. not to say the problem of defining "good" or "evil." The pragmatic skeptic or doubter--like Hobbes--doesn't really bother with the endless hypotheticals. Of God, nothing can be known.

Mike Darus said...

You don't live in an apartment, it is your house. You are responsible to fix it. Stop laying around complaining and get busy. You will have pride of ownership and a sense of accomplishment. It will be your house because you fixed the leaky faucit and customized the bookcase in the den. If you lay tile on the crack in the floor, expect trouble. Not all parts of your house are equally safe and comfortable.

Oh, you want that mansion where the ceiling never cracks and you have not trouble? You are not living in that neighborhood yet. When you sell this house, you have the option to upgrade or move into an apartment.

Doctor Logic said...


Thanks for describing the atheist/humanist approach to home ownership.

The Christian approach is to argue that the building defects are there by design because we don't deserve better, and that if we can only bring ourselves to love the slumlord with all our hearts, he'll automatically move us into a penthouse on Central Park at some later date.

Yeah, everyone else, the POE doesn't say there's no landlord. It says the landlord is not wealthy and benevolent.

J said...

the POE doesn't say there's no landlord. It says the landlord is not wealthy and benevolent

Again, the evidential POE does suggest that, but it's a cogent, and persuasive argument, not necessary. We should also remember it's a hypothetical: the attributes of a supposed God are stipulated, not proven. Since one agrees to the supernatural stipulations, it would seem skeptics and atheists should also agree to the stipulation of the Afterlife (not that I do, but I don't agree to the stipulation of an omnipotent monotheist God, either).

So apparent "evil" (more like "unmerited suffering" when Mackie takes it on) could be resolved/requited or somehow justified in the afterlike. However odd or supernatural that seems, it is sort of core doctrine: I don't think there are any convincing arguments for a transcendent soul, or afterlife, but one must admit if there were, then the POE is, if not resolved, greatly ameliorated.

For that matter, the POE begs the question of evil. If a large number of people approved of war, or disease, crime, and considered say a plague an act of God, then they might think God wasn't evil.

Mike Darus said...

Maybe the atheist/humanist has borrowed the concept of "on earth as it is in heaven" as a motivation for mitigating evil. I am confident that those who claim to follow the One who suggested praying with these words sometimes forget the challenge to live accordingly.

The Christian approach is that we do deserve better. We deserve a taste of heaven now and are under obligation to help others experience the flavor. The Christian views the landlord as quite wealthy but not ready to unload the entire inheritance in this world. The POE complains that the landlord is witholding too much. The Christian thinks the landlord is quite generous. Someone is a spoiled brat.