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God, Evil, and Probabilistic Arguments


November 18, 1999

From WHIP (What's Happening In Philosophy)


How can a good, all-powerful God permit bad things to happen? Philosophers have debated that question for centuries. It comes to the forefront particularly in the midst of devastating circumstances or extreme and seemingly needless suffering. In recent days, for example, every part of the world seems to be touched by evil and suffering: Kosovo has been dismantled by war, Turkey and Taiwan have been devastated by earthquakes, and in the United States incidences of school shootings and hurricane disasters fill the headlines. But is evil analyzable? Simone Weil once observed, "Evil being the root of mystery, pain is the root of knowledge." Caught between this tension of mystery and knowledge stands the human wonderer.

Philosophers who set out to address such questions generally face two broad issues, the problem of God's hiddenness and the problem of evil. The first issue, the problem of God's hiddenness, is concerned with God's apparent failure to reveal Godself in such a way that more people would believe in God. It raises questions related to God's lack of involvement by, for example, providing comfort or assurance in the face of evil. Others notice God's absence in God's apparent unwillingness or inability to prevent, or at least lessen, the severity of evil and suffering.

God's hiddenness was a theme of the recent Pacific meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers, which featured papers on both sides of the question. Some of those papers will be a part of a new collection on hiddenness edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser and entitled The Hiddenness of God: New Essays (forthcoming, Cambridge). On the other side of the question, philosophers such as Theodore Drange of West Virginia University ( have developed arguments from divine silence that seek to show how the presence of non-belief in the world is evidence against the existence of God. In his recent book, Non-belief and Evil, Drange attempts to argue that the presence of such widespread non-belief in God is good grounds for believing that God does not exist. If God does exist, Drange argues, God would cause more people to believe in God. Drange sees this as a type of evil over which God should have direct control if God exists.

For some philosophers, the problem of God's hiddenness is the not-so-distant cousin of the problem of evil, which, by far, is the more prominent issue. The problem of evil has to do with the compatibility of certain conceptions of God with the existence of evil. More specifically, philosophers have been faced with the question of whether the existence of a God that has all the properties of the Judeo-Christian conception would permit all the evil the world has known and will know. The question really strikes at the core of our being: Is this really the best a good God can do? Theists and non-theists have felt the burden of this question and have been in constant dialog over the proposed answers. In the near future, Calvin College ( will host a conference entitled "God and Evil" in order to continue this very dialog. The conference will feature prominent theists such as Peter Van Inwagen and Alvin Plantinga, who have written extensively on the problem of evil.

In attempting to solve the problem of evil, theists typically address it, not as a problem with theism, but as a problem within theism. They attempt to explain how, not if, the existence of God is compatible with evil and why God is silent. In this context, philosophers of religion are concerned with gaining a greater understanding of God and God's relationship to the created world, since both the existence of God and the existence of evil are considered real. On the other hand, non-theists generally see the problems of evil and God's hiddenness as defeaters for theism: If, for example, evil exists -- and we all know it does -- then certain, traditional conceptions of God can't possibly be true; the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of such a God. It is worth noting that many non-theists see the problem of evil as such a severe problem that it alone serves as a sufficient defeater for belief in God.

Whereas the problem of divine hiddenness asks questions about why God doesn't do more to prevent evil, the more general problem of evil presents questions about why God allows evil in the first place. Some non-theists do allow for the compatibility of the existence of evil and the belief in God (though not the existence of God), for they view the existence of evil itself as an explanation for the existence of the belief in God. For example, Freud's now famous argument was that it is precisely due to our inability to live in this cold, hard world that the belief in God is formed. Thus, belief in God becomes a "useful fiction," a survival skill that helps humanity get along in the world in the face of unbearable evils. Survival skills, the argument continues, are not a product of dysfunction, so belief in God should not be abandoned (in some cases). Still, the belief in God, though helpful, is entirely false. Plantinga deals with Freud's position in his Warrant and Christian Belief (forthcoming, Oxford University Press).

Historically, non-theists tried to develop deductive arguments designed to show the incompatibility of the existence of God (as conceived in the Judeo-Christian tradition) and the existence of evil and suffering in the world. In the same way, theists have approached the problem by developing deductive arguments (called theodicies) designed to demonstrate that existence of God and evil are compatible. In more recent exchanges, however, arguments on both sides have moved away from the deductive approach to more of an inductive one. Arguments from non-theists, for example, have attempted either to show the incompatibility of theism as a worldview given evil, or to show that other approaches to the world, such as naturalism, explain evil better than theism. This has come to be known as the evidential problem of evil (the best collection of essays on this topic is The Evidential Argument from Evil [1996], edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder of Seattle Pacific University).

William Rowe of Purdue University ( was the first modern philosopher to state the evidential problem clearly. His 1979 paper, "The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism," set the ball rolling and has been anthologized in numerous volumes. Since 1979, Rowe has reworked and strengthened this argument. Michael Bergmann, who also teaches at Purdue, will be looking at Rowe's new argument at the annual Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association.

Paul Draper of Florida International University ( has developed a probabilistic argument from evil along evidential lines and is working on a similar argument based on Darwinian evolution and naturalism. I asked Dr. Draper about the trend towards more probabilistic arguments as opposed to deductive arguments and he explained, "The most important shift in the contemporary discussion of the problem of evil occurred in the 70s and 80s. It was then that the focus shifted away from the issue of whether or not various known facts about suffering are logically incompatible with (and so disprove) theism to the issue of whether or not various known facts about suffering are strong evidence against theism."

He further explained that the move shifted from attempting to show how belief in God's existence is irrational given evil to the idea that belief in God's existence is less probable given evil in the world. "Concerning the first issue," he said, "it is now widely accepted that some facts about suffering are compatible with theism and that none can be proven to be incompatible. But even facts that are compatible with a theory can be strong evidence against it. (For example, one's fingerprints on the safe can be strong evidence that you stole the money even though they are clearly compatible with your innocence.) So the second issue is independent of the first."

He went on to describe how contemporary efforts are more interested in looking at the relative explanatory strength of theism as opposed to naturalism or some other explanation in accounting for the existence of evil in the world. "Before this trend began," Draper noted, "much time was wasted debating how many facts about suffering theism 'needed' to explain to avoid disconfirmation."

Clearly, the problem of evil continues to be a "live" issue for philosophers of religion and appears to be growing in prominence as an area of study. At the end of the day, however, the problem of evil may not be so much philosophical as emotional.

We may come to the point where we understand why and how God does what God does, but, even if we do, pain and suffering will continue to cut as deeply as it ever has. As Saul Bellow's once said, "There are evils ... that have the ability to survive identification and go on for ever." Perhaps having a greater understanding will serve to remove a bit of the sting.

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