Does the Presence of Evil Disprove God’s Existence?

I’ve been reading a book by the distinguished philosopher, Stephen Law, entitled “Believing Bullshit.” In this book, Law goes through a series of argumentative strategies people use to evade objections to their farfetched belief systems. Law often accuses religious people of employing such illicit argumentative strategies. Law refers to one major problem religious believers, particularly those who believe in a perfectly benevolent deity, face as the “evidential problem of evil.” This problem is one that might drive a religious believer to use a ploy or a ruse to avoid what Law thinks are obvious implications of the problem of evidential evil: namely, that it makes no sense, given the amount of evil in the world, to believe in a benevolent and all-powerful God.

Before I explain why I disagree with this position, I want to articulate as clearly as possible the evidential problem of evil as Law understands it. The evidential problem of evil is supposed to be more devastating to religious belief than the logical problem of evil. The logical problem of evil relies on the tension between the clear existence of evil in the world, and belief that God is perfectly good. If there is a perfectly good God, then it makes sense to think that such a God would not allow evil. But there is evil, and so it seems unlikely that there is a perfectly good God in charge of the universe. There are plenty of responses available to the theist at this point. One is that the evil in the world is necessary to achieve a level of perfection unattainable were it not for the presence of evil.

The evidential problem of evil nullifies this argumentative strategy. The evidential problem responds by noting that there is not just some evil in the world. Even a small amount of evil in the world would create a logical problem for the theist. If God is perfectly benevolent, why doesn’t he eradicate even the small amount of evil? But, the evidential problem points to the immense amount of evil in the world. There is so much evil in the world, the evidential problem of evil goes, that it is highly unlikely a perfectly good God would allow it—there is no way in which it could be justified.

You may be nodding your head in agreement with this position. But, I reject it. It is true that Law is modest in his claims. He says that the immense amount of evil makes it highly unlikely that there is a perfectly good God in charge of the universe. He does not say that the immense amount of evil in the world rules out the possibility that there is a perfectly good God in charge of the universe. Still, I don’t think even his more modest conclusion follows.

Let me begin on a more familiar level. I think there is a flaw in the following argument: If a man does a series of evil things, he is a bad person. A man has done a series of evil things. Therefore, he is a bad person. This argument is valid, since its conclusion follows from the premises if the premises are true. But, I do not think it is sound, in that the first premise, the conditional statement, is implausible. I think there is a way in which a person can do a series of evil things and still not be a bad person.

Let me bring in an example from a TV series I was watching recently called Homeland. One of the main characters in the show is a Marine who is held prisoner in Iraq by Al-Qaeda, who tortures him. This Marine, whose name is Nicholas Brody, starts to buy into the ideology of his captors and eventually attempts a terrorist plot of his own once he is free and back in America.

Now, the character in the TV series, Nicholas Brody, does not actually set off the bomb he wears on a vest hidden underneath his shirt. His daughter dissuades him. However, let us say he did set off the bomb. Let us say also that he was responsible for a series of terrorist attacks before setting off the bomb. Is this Brody necessarily a bad person?

The character Brody in the series, Homeland, is clearly not a bad person. He is a flawed person, terribly misguided, but he is not a bad person. He remains sympathetic throughout the series. He was under enormous psychological pressure while imprisoned in Iraq and we learn throughout the course of the show that his rage at the U.S. government is justified, as it was conducting lethal drone strikes while at the same time lying about them. So, to say that Brody is a bad person because he was about to set off a bomb is an oversimplification. I think it is also an oversimplification even if Brody did set off the bomb. There is plenty of basis for empathy in the character of Brody.

I offer this example by way of showing how even the presence of enormous evil in the world does not imply, or even strongly suggest, that there is no benevolent God. Again, my target is the conditional, if the world is full of evil, there could be no benevolent God.  I think that, even if there were more evil than there is now, it is still not the case, as Law thinks, that it is highly unlikely that there is a perfectly benevolent deity.

I am going to identify three reasons for this view. First, the notion of cumulative evil is deceptive. C.S Lewis makes this point in his book, The Problem of Pain. Cumulative evil, in a way, is a sort of pseudo-entity because no one actually experiences cumulative evil. Each individual suffers only the evil that in particular afflicts him or her. For instance, I do not suffer the hunger of someone in Africa, nor do I suffer from the depression burdening someone in a psychiatric hospital at this moment. So, talk of all the evil in the world masks the fact that only a small portion of it is experienced by each individual. The case for God looks a lot better when we realize this. So, even though there may be 50,000 deaths from starvation each month in the world, no individual experiences all of this starvation.

The second reason involves the observation that Law’s judgment about the proper amount of evil in the world is presumptuous. It is presumptuous because it involves the kind of macro-level planning for which no human intellect is fit. Who is anyone to say that, if we look at the whole course of history, there is an incorrect amount of evil? The claim is too ambitious for a human intellect.

The third reason is related to the second. The claim that there is too much evil in the world is presumptuous also because we lack knowledge of the afterlife. Perhaps there is too much evil in the world if we focus only on this life. But, perhaps the evil that each individual experiences is justified in light of what it makes possible not only in this life, but in the next. The evil each individual experiences in this life is necessarily temporary. If the temporary evil an individual suffers is somehow necessary for some eternal glory, then perhaps it is worth enduring. Since we do not what is beyond death, we cannot make a proper judgment about how much evil is proper for the world.

 

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8 thoughts on “Does the Presence of Evil Disprove God’s Existence?

  1. It is true, as noted Plantinga, the staggering amount and variety of evil in our world has often perplexed and bewildered believers in God. The existence of a million and one imaginative and forever evolving theodicies is testament enough to that fact, but why should it? Why should the volume and variety of evil in this world be a source of confusion? Why should a single theodicy even exist? Why should Plantinga’s believers be perplexed? Is there any legitimate argument, plausible pretext or historically compelling observationto justify the confusion? Put simply, is there any credible reason to even suspect that the world has somehow gone terribly, drastically, hopelessly wrong, as opposed to it simply performing precisely as desired by its Creator?

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    1. Hi John,
      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I guess your comment amounts to denying that the problem of evil is really a problem at all. I think you might be on to something. We may not like evil, but on what basis can we claim that what we call evil is incompatible with wise and benevolent governance of the entire universe? We’re only human, after all.

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      1. You’re welcome. It’s an interesting subject, but my point was not that we might be mischaracterising evil, but rather mischaracterising the Creator.

        Despite the existence of the million and one inventive theodicies pleading the case for some more palatable alternative, is it not simply the case that the increasing volume and variety of evil in this world baffles only because it contradicts the things Plantinga’s believers want to believe? Is it not the case that Creation is simply running contrary to how Plantinga’s believers think Creation should run?

        As I originally asked, is there any historically compelling observation that even suggests that the world has gone drastically wrong?

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  2. There’s a lot here, and a lot of my contentions are going to come down to definitions. For that, I apologise in advance. It’s also a very wordy reply, but I don’t see what I can cut without cutting meaning (except for this intro).

    Take, for example, the Brody Analogy (If a man does a series of evil things, he is a bad person. A man has done a series of evil things. Therefore, he is a bad person). Your definition of a God here is very important! Because the way Brody can be a terrorist and a good person depends on changes in who he is, his lack of complete knowledge, his powerlessness to resist or manage certain circumstances.

    That is to say a person can be a bad person for weeks, months, or even years and still change. But even good people can find themselves in a situation where their limited abilities mean the best they can do is mitigate against certain evils, but still be a part of many evils. Or one can simply be mistaken, with the best possible intentions.

    Are any of those traits applicable to God? Can God be limited in ability or knowledge, or can It change? The problem of evil (evidential or logical) is always predicated on the omniGod, and the defence offered here seems to really change those assumptions. If the God you’re talking about is fumbling through creation, just like humans are, “then why call him God?” (As Epicurus asked).

    After that, we run into what I’m going to call the Lakatosian problem. Lakatos was a philosopher of science, but I think one of this programs of thought has enough reach to enter into all intellectual questions: the distinction between a progressive and degenerative model. The difference comes down to the model’s ability to make predictions (and in this way is closely related to Model Dependent Realism). And the God-model is degenerative: it makes no reliable predictions. The entire model is littered with ‘crumple zones’, and the crumple zone we hit here (along with how your defining a God) is that of ‘enough evil’. Given no data, the benevolent omniGod would lead to the prediction of no suffering. And yet, there is a lot. And the entire model just crumples, and makes excuses.

    When I say there is a lot of suffering, obviously we don’t have a metric or a benchmark, and that sort of wiggle room also places the God model on the ‘degenerative’ side of Lakatos’ distinction. However, we can look at the maximal amount of suffering a person is capable of and infer what level of the population is how far up the suffering scale. From my cosy chair in a wealthy part of the UK, my first look makes me think that, perhaps, this argument works against me. But then I remember Africa, Tibetan monks, Myanmar, and human history. Obviously, the case studies abound. Hitchens did a great great speech human misery throughout time. You may wish to argue that the amount of suffering any individual endures falls short of the total amount of suffering — as if that is a fitting excuse — but it doesn’t account for the huge proportion of the population, over time, which has suffered close-to-as-deeply-as-it-can.

    This is not to mention the problem of the inequity of evil. It is abhorrent that my family and I should be so fine, while Africa is so — well, I’ll let you pick a word to complete that sentence — by design. I don’t know if the problem of the inequity of evil is a oft discussed issue, or if goes by another name. But it is another problem.

    The final failure of the God model is that of Heaven. The problem is that it permits all suffering. It permits anything and everything. It predicts nothing. Because all may well be repaid in Heaven. (Unless you’re me and the Christians are correct, in which case we have another problem of evil: the problem of supernatural evil. Hell is a real problem too.) So, again, we end up with the God model on the wrong side of reasonable inquiry when it comes to the Lakatosian distinction I talked about.

    Now, I concede that this doesn’t disprove a God. But that’s not how intellectual inquiry normally happens. This makes the model of a God nonsensical in absorbing or explaining a domain of reality it really should be able to explain. And with no other evidence for a God (at least, not any that survives Occam’s razor and Lakatos — more Model Dependent Realism), one simply doesn’t just accept it until it is disproved.

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  3. Thanks for the thoughtful remarks. I hear echoes of Popper in what you’re saying. The God model, if you will, is not falsifiable and so not a scientific theory. In other words, nothing that can happen is enough to disprove that God exists. There is no specific prediction made by the God model.
    My question is, do all of our beliefs have to be scientific? It seems that you’re reasoning is that we should jettison beliefs that are not testable (or, in your words, make reliable predictions and so are progressive). Once we have testable beliefs, we test them and then throw out those that fail the tests.
    But, my thought is that are deep issues we can’t help but think about (is there a God, do I have a soul, am I immortal, do I have a free will). These issues are so vast, beyond observable data, that they don’t permit of a test. And yet, these issues are so existentially urgent for us that we can’t help but take a stand on them.

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    1. How can an issue be vast and be beyond empirical data? Surely if an entity has effects on reality, it leaves evidence. And surely if it does not effect reality, you can’t know it’s true.
      If there is no difference between a claim being true and a claim being false, how do you possibly get a handle on which it is? (Regardless of whether it is considered science.)

      Put another way, short of assuming something is true and then making excuses for the failures of logical and evidential scrutiny, what epistemology do you have for making claims about these things?

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  4. You sound like a logical positivist. It’s the verification principle–nothing is meaningful unless a statement is either analytic or there is some corresponding observation. But we lose so much with this principle, including the verification principle itself! Ethical statements, metaphysical claims, all go out the window, but no one doubts the importance of these claims to human life.

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