Monthly Archives: August 2015

Arguing About Evil: Two Kinds of Argument

Part of the Arguing About Evil series.

The problem of evil, or argument from evil, comes in two conventionally recognized forms: logical problems of evil and evidential problems of evil.

Logical problems of evil aim to show that the presence of evil is logically inconsistent with the claim that there exists a being which is omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good. In other words, logical problems of evil argue that if evil exists, then the claim that God exists cannot be true, and vice versa. If a logical argument from evil succeeds, then theism is false. Theists respond to logical problems of evil by showing that there exists a possible reason for the existence of evil, which would show that God’s non-existence is not necessitated by the presence of evil. An example of this is Plantinga’s famous free-will defense, which we’ll look at in one of the posts in this series.

The evidential problem of evil, on the other hand, aims to show not that God’s existence given the existence of evil is impossible, but that it is very unlikely. In this case, pointing out a possible reason for the existence of evil would not work. Theists typically respond by trying to show, “with at least a fair degree of probability, what God’s actual reason for permitting evil is.” (Everitt, p. 229) Examples of these attempts include the free-will theodicy (the claim that a world with free will and evil is better than a world with no evil and no free will) and the soul-making theodicy (the claim that evil serves what can loosely be called a character-building function). A successful evidential argument from evil would not show that theism is certainly false, but only that it is implausible or improbable.

Furthermore, both kinds of the argument from evil can rely on more than just the plain fact that evil exists. According to Everitt, “Some authors… distinguish between different versions of the logical problem, and also different versions of the evidential problem according to whether the focus is on the existence of evil per se, or on the huge total amount, or on the distribution, or on the awfulness of the worst evils, etc.” (Everitt, p. 228) One can also distinguish the kinds of evil that these arguments rely on into two kinds: natural and moral evils. Moral evil typically consists of evil brought about by human activity, such as torture and other forms of cruelty, or deceit, or acting solely for personal gain. Natural evils cover the broad spectrum of evils brought about by the normal operation of the laws of nature, such as disease and natural disasters.

Next post, we’ll look at an example of a logical problem of evil.

Arguing About Evil: An Introduction

Just as there are arguments for the existence of God (cosmological, teleological, ontological and so on),  there are arguments against the existence of God. One of these is the famous ‘problem of evil’. You might have seen it evoked by a quotation attributed to Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher, which goes:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” – source

The challenge evil poses for theism is obvious and does not require a degree in philosophy to see. We are exposed to suffering and evil on an almost daily basis. Some of us probably have asked why God allows us to suffer, or why God allows such things as war, disease and natural disasters to occur. It is not surprising, given this, that the “argument from evil is an objection to theism as old as theism itself”. (Everitt, p. 227)

The argument from evil aims to show that there is an incompatibility between some of theism’s doctrines (which not all theists may endorse) and certain features of the world, namely the existence of natural and moral evils and the suffering they bring about. As old as the argument is, a great deal of discussion about is still taking place in contemporary philosophy of religion. This series, “Arguing About Evil”, is meant to offer readers a glimpse of the ongoing debate and the latest developments related to the problem of evil.

Links to all posts that are part of this series will be posted here:

  1. Arguing About Evil: An Introduction
  2. Arguing About Evil: Two Kinds of Arguments

Next post, we’ll consider two kinds of arguments from evil: logical and evidential.

Some More Books

Here are some more books I’ve read. Like the last time, not all of them will be included in the bibliography.

Who Was Jesus?: A Critique of the New Testament Record, George Albert Wells – As usual, Wells is comprehensive and informative, and the only reason I won’t recommend this book – which is probably not a good reason to not recommend it – is that it is too similar to the another book I’ve recommended by the same author.

The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, Paul Rhodes Eddy, Gregory A. Boyd – I’ve already written about this book (here and here), so it might not come as a surprise that I won’t be adding this book to the bibliography either. Aside from the issues I discussed before, it is indirect (never once addresses the historicity of a particular miracle), and I cannot be help entertain the suspicion that Eddy and Boyd made their argument by on quoting lots of favourable authorities and ignoring unfavourable ones. I’m not really qualified to judge if this is what really happened, but  there were points – such as their brief discussion of the Papias tradition – when it was noticeable that the problematic aspects were left unaddressed and even unmentioned. I probably owe this book another read, but it’s not making it into the bibliography until I’m familiar enough with the arguments and debates to be sure that nothing was left out.

When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, Stanley Schachter – The first book to make it into the bibliography. When Prophecy Fails is a social and psychological study of a group that predicted the end of the world and the reaction of that group following the failure of their prophecy. The authors discuss the conditions under which, they argue, rationalization following disconfirmation occurs and a propensity to proselytize develops.  In describing the beliefs of that group that was the object of its study, When Prophecy Fails also gives one a somewhat disturbing view of the things people can end up believing.

Historical Evidence and Argument, David Henige – Henige believes that skepticism and doubt should be prioritized when dealing with historical sources or when engaging in historiography, and provides hosts of examples in which he argues overconfidence in conclusions and interpretations of facts, and willingness to trust historical sources and other kinds of apparent facts, led to embarrassing problems for historians. Strongly recommended.