The evidential argument from evil and anti-evolutionary arguments
May 18, 2011 — 6:49

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Problem of Evil  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 31

Consider Rowe’s argument, which is essentially:

  1. E is an evil for which we have been unable to find a justifier despite serious investigation.
  2. Therefore, probably, E has no justifier.
  3. If some evil has no justifier, then theism is false.
  4. Therefore, probably, theism is false.

And then consider this anti-evolutionary argument:

  1. F is a major inheritable feature of an organism for which we have been unable to find an evolutionary explanation despite serious investigation.
  2. Therefore, probably, F has no evolutionary explanation.
  3. If some major inheritable feature of an organism has no evolutionary explanation, then evolutionary universalism is false.
  4. Therefore, probably, evolutionary universalism is false.

Here, evolutionary universalism is the claim that all major inheritable features of organisms have their presence explained by means of evolutionary explanations. (There are many ways of spelling out “major” that still leaves (5) plausible in some cases.)

It is an interesting sociological fact that many atheists think 1-4 is a good argument and 5-8 is a bad one, and that many creationists and intelligent design advocates think 5-8 is a good argument and 1-4 is a bad one.

But I think both are bad.

I suspect that if you took an evolutionary scientist and offered 5-8 outside of the politicized context that such arguments as 5-8 these days carry, the biologist would say something like: “Of course, we don’t have all the ramifications of evolution worked out yet. F is a research problem that X, Y, Z and others are currently working on (variant: I haven’t thought about F, but it would be an interesting research problem for one of my graduate students–I have a smart one I may suggest it to). For any major theory like evolution we expect there to be such research problems.” And the theist can say much the same thing, mutatis mutandis. And that can be enough of an answer.

Furthermore, and this is an idea based on what Trent Dougherty has said to me about the problem of evil, the scientist may add: “And while we haven’t found out the evolutionary explanation, here is a story which, if true, would be such an explanation, and which is compatible with what we know.” This is the giving of just-so stories, which is oft derided by opponents of evolution, but which is perfectly legitimate. And the theistic analogue is obvious.

  • Two key differences I have to point out:
    1. Scientists are actively involved in gathering more information, and are finding out new explanations for previously unexplained things on a daily basis. Creationist theologians are not gathering more information. They are just puzzling over the same questions that have been puzzled over for thousands of years, and we have not gotten any new evidence or better answers in the meantime.
    2. The problem of evil is an incredibly central one to many formulations of theism. Without an answer, the idea of a benevolent and omnipotent god is on incredibly shaky ground. On the other hand, we have many compelling and scientifically warranted explanations for various features evolving. Scientific theories are always under investigation, but when we have such a preponderance of evidence we say that a theory seems very likely to be true. To find one thing that is not yet explained is not to challenge the large body of already explained things that have been demonstrated to follow the posited rule, so it does not provide a real challenge to the theory itself. (Finding something which definitely had a contradictory explanation would be another issue altogether, but that is not the example you are giving.)
    I’m setting aside, of course, the fact that creationists often bring up tired old examples of things that scientists do have explanations for — like the evolution of the eye, or other things that seem counterintuitive to someone who has not studied evolutionary biology. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that 5-8 is based on something that truly does not yet have an evolutionary explanation.

    May 18, 2011 — 8:02
  • DaVead

    Isn’t there an inductive case against (5-6) from the history of evolutionary discoveries that is much stronger than an inductive case against (1-2) from the history of theodices?
    For premise (5), we have a long history of major inheritable features that were once flouted as evolutionarily unexplainable but have now been explained, such as eyes, immune systems, or the bacterial flagellum.
    For premise (1), however, despite the availability of theistic just-so stories, there remain many evils that we have known about for thousands of years for which we have not found justifiers.

    May 18, 2011 — 8:29
  • I’m not sure they’re good arguments either, but consider this:
    What is going into the probability calculation to say that it is “probably false?” We have two debatable notions – that evil is justified and that evolution is true. For the evil is justified case, do we have many satisfactory explanations for a wide variety of cases? I’m not sure that we do. On the other hand, evolution does have a lot of confirmation going into the problem. So, wouldn’t they have different prior probabilities?
    Note: I’m certainly not an expert in bayes theorem, but this sounds intuitively correct to me based on that limited understanding.

    May 18, 2011 — 8:46
  • Keith

    I agree with 3 that if some evil has no justification theism is false. The problem is that 1 and 2 cannot be proven because it would take an omniscient being to know the justification of all evil. Therefore you cannot disprove theism by this argument.

    May 18, 2011 — 9:32
  • Wes Morriston

    Biologists point to many examples of successful evolutionary explanations of major heritable characteristics. They also point to steady progress in the search for evolutionary explanations. This is what gives weight to the reply that “X, Y, and Z are working on it,” or that “this would be a good research program for some grad student.” Can you make comparable claims about the moral justifications we’ve discovered for major evils? (This is a real question – not a rhetorical one.)

    May 18, 2011 — 10:45
  • TZ

    Hi Prof Morriston: Wouldn’t the theodicies that work for other evils parallel the steady progress in evolutionary explanations for other things? And wouldn’t the support for theism show that there is an explanation to be had in the same way that the support for evolution shows that there is an evolutionary explanation to be had? The analogy might depend on whether the theodicies do work, and on whether there is such support for theism.

    May 18, 2011 — 11:13
  • Paul

    One might argue that the first argument illicitly moves from (1) to (2) since it violates something like CORNEA, whereas the second argument doesn’t have that problem. Secondly, if the existence of evil presupposes God, then the first argument has that flaw too. In response to Wes, one might point to several theodicies that have been given over the years. Dean Zimmerman likes to say that the PoE is like a giant black circle. The various theodicies are like erasers that come in and erase sections of the circle. However, there’s still some black areas left over. The possibility of new theodicies (research projects) or the employment of skeptical theism arguments can be used in the face of this situation.

    May 18, 2011 — 12:40
  • Matthew G

    There’s another analogy from day to day life that perhaps fits in here as well. When you know someone, you are willing to trust him when the time comes to trust or distrust. So, if you and your father have plans to go fishing, and he never shows up, you would think “well, I’m sure something came up; he must have misplaced his phone or something.” You would immediately think of plausible explanations for why he didn’t show up even though you don’t know the real reason, if you have reason to trust him. Wouldn’t the same thing apply to our relationship to God?
    I would say some of the existent just-so stories for various aspects of the POE aren’t bad (they have some force) and could give us reason to have some confidence in the sort of response the biologist gives to 5-8 when it comes to the POE. Also, I think the fact that in our experience we can sometimes see how good can come out of suffering gives us reason to think there are good reasons for there being suffering/evil in the first place. “If this good can come out of that suffering (given that there is suffering) then surely God could be up to something similar when he allows there to be suffering in the first place.” So, experience could also lend some confidence to the biologist’s response when it comes to the POE.

    May 18, 2011 — 13:15
  • I submitted a comment, but it seems to have been lost in the fray.
    I agree with Wes that there is a difference in the track record of explaining evolution versus seemingly gratuitous evil. I’m not an expert Bayesian, but should this affect the prior probability from the start? So, I would say 5-8 decrease the posterior probability compared to the prior, but maybe it was already high enough that it is still probable.

    May 18, 2011 — 15:00
  • Do theodicies hold the same weight as examining the heirarchical DNA structure or the distribution of species, such as marsupials in Australia? Perhaps I’m just being overly biased towards a more empiricist approach, but I would say the latter seem stronger.

    May 18, 2011 — 15:21
  • NFQ:
    “To find one thing that is not yet explained is not to challenge the large body of already explained things that have been demonstrated to follow the posited rule, so it does not provide a real challenge to the theory itself.”
    Exactly. And this is true on the side of theism as well.
    “Isn’t there an inductive case against (5-6) from the history of evolutionary discoveries that is much stronger than an inductive case against (1-2) from the history of theodices?”
    Maybe. But I think the 5-8 argument would have also been a bad argument early on after Darwin proposed his theory, when we didn’t have such a history of evolutionary discoveries. The point is that it is no great surprise, given the truth of Darwin’s theory, that there exists a feature F as in 5. And likewise it is no great surprise, given the truth of theism, that there exists an evil E as in 1.
    But actually we rarely communally investigate a particular evil with an eye to finding a justifier over a significant amount of time. People sometimes think about evils that happened to them personally, or to their loved ones. And when they do that, often they do find at least apparent justifiers. Here one needs to listen to the stories people tell about how different events have changed their lives.
    You might say: What about such evils as the Holocaust? Surely much investigation has been done. But I think the Holocaust is first and foremost an agglomeration of particular evils to particular individuals: there is my great aunt who died of tuberculosis a couple of years after leaving a concentration camp, there is my erstwhile mentor Alexander Melzak who lived through a concentration camp, there is the seventeenth child that Mengele tortured, etc. Each of these is a horrendous evil, and there is nothing in theism that claims that the justifiers for each will be the same. For some of these evils, no doubt the individuals who went through them, or more rarely their friends and family, will claim to have found justifiers. For others, not. One might also ask for theodicy of the holistic aspects of the Holocaust–the attempted destruction of whole peoples, over and beyond the murder of individuals. But it is a controversial question whether there are such evils that do not simply reduce to evils to individuals, including of course such evils as “attempting to destroy X’s people”, which is an evil to X. And theodicies for the holistic aspects have been offered.
    It’s controversial that evolution has higher priors. There are plenty of very fine arguments for theism.
    But even if that were so, the point I just made DaVead applies: 5-8 would fail to be a refutation, or even a serious argument against, evolutionary universalism even shortly after Darwin wrote his book.
    I take an individualist approach here, and a lot of individuals claim to have made significant progress in seeing how the horrendous evils they have suffered fit into a justifying story. It often sounds presumptuous and glib if non-fellow-sufferers try to offer such justifiers in particular cases, which makes the investigation harder. By the same token, it tends to sound presumptuous to deny a justifying story a sufferer claims to have found. It’s hard to avoid offending when the discussion is at the discussion of individual sufferings.
    Why my focus on individual sufferings? Because while in the evolutionary case, the explananda are types of features (a particular instance of a heritable mutation does not have to have an explanation), in the evil case, the explananda are particular evils, which the theist claims to all have justifiers.
    I also think we’ve made progress on finding putative justifiers for types of evils. Soul-building was a major step forward, for instance. Some of the ideas coming out of the creator-as-author analogy are plausible. Free will is an oldie, but a goodie. Progress in philosophy moves on a slow time-scale. It took millenia to figure out that institutions such as slavery are wrong.
    One disanalogy between the evolutionary case and the theistic case is that, arguably, evolution is a theory designed primarily to explain the major heritable features of organisms, theism is not a theory designed primarily to explain the evils or to offer justifiers for them. Rather, theism, considered as an explanatory theory, is designed to explain phenomena like the existence of persons, the existence of something rather than nothing, the presence of moral knowledge, reports of miracles, teleology, etc.
    The black circle analogy is helpful, and I would use it for the evolutionary case as well.
    I like your example of the ordinary life deployment of just-so stories.

    May 18, 2011 — 15:42
  • One point I want to emphasize is that I think there is a serious inductive logic flaw in 1-4 and 5-8. Those responses that emphasize the higher prior probabilities of 5-8 appear to agree that 5-8 would be a good argument if the prior probability of evolutionary theory were low. But that’s not the issue. The issue is that the existence of Fs that satisfy 5 is no great surprise given evolutionary universalism, and the existence of Es that satisfy 1 is no great surprise given theism, at least if we condition on there existing limited knowers (not for any of the “high” reasons of sceptical theism, but simply because we do not know enough about the events in question).
    Nor am I denying that one could try to strengthen 1-4 by saying that there are many evils that have withstood much investigation and still not yielded a plausible justifier-candidate. But that’s a different argument from 1-4.

    May 18, 2011 — 16:03
  • Alexander,
    Are we pitting evolution against all arguments for theism or against justifications of evil? If against the latter, then I would say most theodicies I’m familiar with are about saving possibility, rather than speaking to probability. Compare this to tests in the study of evolution and we have probability-raising confirmations.
    I don’t find the time travelling back to Darwin approach compelling. They did’t have the evidence yet to rightly raise the probability. Likewise, we may in the future raise or lower the probability that evolution is correct. That doen’t seem to matter to what we know now.
    It’s like if you made an argument that you could probably throw a ball further than me. Then, I said that I could throw a ball very far. And you came back with, “But I bet I could throw a ball further than you could when you were 11.” But my old throwing capability – and the former strength of the theory – isn’t what’s being offered as a rebuttal.

    May 18, 2011 — 16:14
  • 1. I also doubt evolutionary theory is much more than 95% or 98% likely to be true, even bracketing the controversial cases. The pessimistic meta-induction, while I think it is insufficient to undercut our knowledge of scientific theories, forces a moderate but wholesale reduction in the probability of what one might call “grand scientific theories”, like evolution or General Relativity. We have a history of well-confirmed grand scientific theories being replaced by new, better and logically incompatible theories that fit the old data just as well or better. Maybe this doesn’t happen always or even all that often, despite what the sceptics say. I don’t know. But our confidence should somewhat decrease as a result of this, and 2-5% is not an unreasonable decrease.
    And I don’t think it’s at all hard to get to the 95-98% confidence level in theism if we bracket the problem of evil, just given some theistic arguments.
    2. I am not claiming that there are no relevant differences between 1-4 and 5-8. My point is simply that the very reasonable answer I imagine on behalf of the biologist for 5-8 works just as well for 1-4. It doesn’t matter for this point if there are other answers one can give on behalf of the biologist–the one I offer on her behalf is good, and it makes no mention of how well-confirmed evolution is.
    3. As to why the time-travel to Darwin’s time matters, I think it would be better if we didn’t smother infant scientific theories. When a theory starts out, it has a probability somewhat over one half, and sometimes maybe less than half, and there are plenty of anomalies if one just looks around a bit. If 5-8 was a good argument, then Darwin was epistemically irrational in believing his theory true. But he wasn’t. I suppose one could say that it’s pragmatically beneficial for scientists to believe infant theories though it is epistemically unjustified, but I think it is a merit of my story that the infant theories can remain epistemically justified in the face of anomaly.

    May 18, 2011 — 17:26
  • Gregory Lewis

    My hunch is this has something to do with wider concerns about disconfirming general hypotheses.
    In either Theism or Evolution’s case, a single recalcitrant datum should not lead us to abandon the overall theory. I think Alexander has noted elsewhere the idea of a ‘tail of unseeability’: even very good theories will likely have some data points that fit it poorly, and we should not be too stressed out about this providing the theory is by and large a good fit with the evidence. That said, inexplicable data should count against a theory, and could even force us to abandon it. So I do not think arguments like 1-4 and 5-8 are necessarily unpersuasive.
    This is where the argumentative strength of 1-4 and 5-8 begin to diverge. For, as noted, the ‘noseeum’ seems much less secure in the case of evolutionary theory, for threeish reasons: 1) a good track record of finding robust explanations, 2) plausible sceptical hypotheses, 3) A very good fit to a large body of data.
    Re 1) evolutionary theory has a good track record of explaining data, including data thought by some to be inexplicable, which both serves to bolster the theory and undermine the move from 5 to 6. Problems of particular features seem to have a much better track record of being ‘settled’ than particular evils having good theodicies – I, for one, am pretty unpersuaded by any theodicy for even pretty mild evils.
    (Aside, another possibly irrelevant disanalogy is that usually theodicy tends to restrict itself to plausible just-so stories: “These might not be God’s actual reasons, but here is why this thing might be justified”. Evolutionary explanations tend to aim for something much stronger.)
    [Further aside: Maybe Plantinga’s work on the lPoE could be considered ‘explanatory progress’?]
    Presenting 5-8 would have been a bad argument if you did it in Darwin’s time, but it would have been bad because we could not yet assess the theories ability to explain data. The right response an early evolutionary biologist could make would be something like: “Okay, there is currently lots of Fs we can’t really explain, but the theory does attractively explain this other stuff. Give us a chance at beginning to explain these things – if we make good progress, then hopefully that will convince you that the Fs will be explained in good time.”
    Re 2. I do not think many people think it is simple to inspect the relevant fitness concerns in mans early evolutionary environment, or to work out ontogeny from millions of years ago from a limited sample set, and so on. The sort of sceptical hypotheses used in the defense of Theism are controversial: it seems not completely crazy that one could assert that the world is not one of great moral obscurity.
    Re 3. Evolutionary biology provides some rather stonking good explanations of rather big things like the DNA sequences in living organisms, ERVs, the agreement between ontogeny and phylogeny, and so on and so forth. More particularly, it can provide pretty robust evolutionary histories for all sorts of features. Whether Theism provides any stonking good explanations for any feature of our world is controversial, but it strikes me as much less controversial its explanations of particular evils tend to be much less robust: a collection of plausible just-so stories at best. When the ‘tail of unseeability’ becomes a ‘unseeable in general’, then that suggests we should be much less tolerant of untoward data.
    In sum. I think what one needs to do is try and evaluate the whole distribution of how explicable the observations are given a certain theory, and further estimate the past history of this distribution. If you rate your theory has providing a good explanation of most of the relevant data with a tail of mysteries, and you see your theory shows a continued track record of solving mysteries like these, it seems a pretty good idea to stick with the theory.
    In contrast, if your theory doesn’t really offer a great fit for most of your data, and hasn’t had much luck at getting better answers, then that suggests taking the currently unexplained data more seriously. I think Theism is closer towards this problematic sort of distribution+history, and evolution closer towards the less problematic distribution+history.
    (As a corollary, the habit of focusing the discussion around the PoE to the ‘tough cases’ perhaps is less-than-helpful: we want to see how persuasive the practice of theodicy is for easier cases to see how well the ‘Theistic theory’ stacks up.)
    Apologies for length and lack of insight.

    May 18, 2011 — 17:46
  • Alexander Pruss:
    “To find one thing that is not yet explained is not to challenge the large body of already explained things that have been demonstrated to follow the posited rule, so it does not provide a real challenge to the theory itself.”
    Exactly. And this is true on the side of theism as well.

    Wait, theism is a scientific theory now? What are the attributes of god(s) that have already been explained by evidence- and inference-based analysis? If a religious doctrine contends that its god(s) are perfectly loving, perfectly good, omnipotent, omniscient, etc. … then any one instance of monstrosity disproves those claims.
    Theologians are not involved in collecting “evidence” that the god(s) they believe in exist. They spend their time rationalizing the beliefs they already have by reinterpreting the world we actually live in to bring it into accordance with their beliefs. “Maybe God has some sort of a plan for us that can only work by having toddlers be raped and left to die in ditches” is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested. No one is gathering data to see if that explanation works out. This isn’t something that someone’s grad students are going to get around to studying eventually.

    May 18, 2011 — 20:47
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Both natural evolution and theism are understood as universal theories, so it appears that a single successful counterexample would falsify either of them. That’s why Rowe concentrates on animal suffering, and indeed on the suffering of a single fawn.
    Still, there are also significant differences. Natural evolution is a scientific theory the scope of which is to explain physical phenomena related to the complexity and variability of the species. Theism is a metaphysical theory the scope of which is to explain everything. The explanatory principle used in natural evolution is mechanistic, which is amenable to objective conceptual checking (even though for practical reasons such checking is only possible in microevolution). The explanatory principle used in theism is personal, which is less objective (but also more broadly applicable).
    Even taking into account these differences, I think Alex’s conclusion is valid: If one has enough warrant to confidently believe in either theory then the presence of a single problematic case should not lower one’s confidence to any significant degree. Therefore Rowe’s argument fails on epistemic grounds. For the argument from evil to succeed the atheologian must use the whole range and types of evil which exist, and argue that it makes the existence of God significantly improbable.
    Incidentally, there is another reason why (I think) Rowe’s argument fails: Even if it is true that there is no justification for the suffering of the fawn, there may be a justification for the creation of a world in which unjustified individual evils obtain. Theism is thus intrinsically stronger against 1-4 or 5-8 type of arguments, and cannot be falsified even by a successful counterexample.

    May 19, 2011 — 2:33
  • Alexader Pruss:
    “It doesn’t matter for this point if there are other answers one can give on behalf of the biologist–the one I offer on her behalf is good, and it makes no mention of how well-confirmed evolution is.”
    But the specific answer by the biologist does not occur on an island. Rather, it seems to have all sorts of background behind the answer, like a web. If you presented a problem to an alchemist, and they said, “Hold on; I’m working on it,” you probably wouldn’t find that very reassuring or convincing. The reason the biologist is able to say they haven’t found it yet, I would say is due to track record.
    RE: Infant Theories –
    I don’t see any problem with saying every newly proposed theory is improbable (or maybe we want to say we can’t make a sufficient determination). That seems to actually match up really well with how we do probability and how the history of science has played out so far. What goes into saying something is probable? Under Bayes, it’s knowledge and evidence, right? Well, at the time of Darwin, there was simply less K and E for confirmation. As they got more, the probability increased. How can we compare our K and E now to that of Darwin’s time and say it’s not more probable?

    May 19, 2011 — 9:26
  • That’s why Rowe concentrates on animal suffering, and indeed on the suffering of a single fawn.
    I’m not an academic (well, not in this field) and I haven’t read Rowe’s work, so I didn’t realize this. I agree completely that “For the argument from evil to succeed the atheologian must use the whole range and types of evil which exist, and argue that it makes the existence of God significantly improbable.” Normally, the examples I hear/see used involve things like large-scale natural disasters or disease epidemics, but even then it is treated in aggregate.
    I still think that an unanswered question in evolutionary biology is different from an unanswered question in theology. As I said before, “unanswered” is distinct from “answered with a contradictory result.” Scientists are finding answers to previously unanswered questions constantly, even for quests that have been continuing for decades or longer. “Hold on, we’re still looking” is therefore a reasonable response. Theologians haven’t been finding new answers to anything, and when your theory purports to have all the answers to everything in existence, one unsolved problem means that you actually don’t have the answers you claim. As you said, “The explanatory principle used in theism is personal, which is less objective” — and, I would add, is hardly worth calling explanatory at all.

    May 19, 2011 — 10:07
  • Matthew G

    Another analogy. In medicine there are often things that remain unexplained, but no one responds by giving up on medicine or thinking it’s all probably nonsense.

    May 19, 2011 — 11:19
  • @Matthew G:
    When you know someone, you are willing to trust him when the time comes to trust or distrust. So, if you and your father have plans to go fishing, and he never shows up, you would think “well, I’m sure something came up; he must have misplaced his phone or something.” You would immediately think of plausible explanations for why he didn’t show up even though you don’t know the real reason, if you have reason to trust him. Wouldn’t the same thing apply to our relationship to God?
    If my father and I made plans to go fishing, I would certainly have seen him before in my life. I would have talked to him. He would have explicitly said to me, “I’ll see you Saturday morning.” I would have memories of prior events with my father, and I’d know what his values are regarding punctuality, and whether he had a tendency to misplace things or forget about commitments.
    I am not aware of any knowledge that theologians have gathered about their god(s) that approach this sort of level of prior knowledge. It is all conjecture based up on, if anything, ancient and unreliable texts. Unless you actually want to say that you have talked with God personally, that he has told you specifics about his plan for the world and you have a good sense of God’s character … my answer to your question is “no.”
    In medicine there are often things that remain unexplained, but no one responds by giving up on medicine or thinking it’s all probably nonsense.
    And if nothing was ever explained in medicine, it would be no better than homeopathy, and we would be right to reject it as nonsense. Are you saying that there a plethora of other evils which have been well-explained by theologians, and someone arguing along the lines of 1-4 is just nitpicking on a rare example?

    May 19, 2011 — 13:03
  • Reading some of the comments, I think some people may be making an understandable but problematic confusion in their discussion of the analogy. The parallel put forward between the arguments not between theism and evolutionary explanation; it is between theism and evolutionary universalism. What is treated as parallel with evolutionary explanation is establishing of justifiers for evils. These latter are much broader categories than the former; as they function in the arguments, the former categories (theism, understood here in terms of theodicy, and evolutionary universalism) are universalist stances that one can take with regard to the latter categories (explanation of evil, understood in terms of identification of justifiers, and evolutionary explanation).
    Thus the arguments really only concern the extent to which the lack of a certain kind of explanation for a single phenomenon in itself gives reason to reject universalism about that kind of explanation. But this means that all the discussion of whether there are successful identifiable theodicies is irrelevant — the actual parallel requires a completely different question: whether there are successful identifiable explanations of evil in terms of justifiers for those evils. Theism, as it functions in the argument, is simply a limit case here — that there are in principles no evils for which adequate justifiers are not available — just as evolutionary universalism is simply a limit case here — that there are no major heritable characteristics for which adequate evolutionary explanations are not available. But, of course, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that many explanations of evil in terms of justifiers are successful; very few people hold that evils in the sense used here never in any case admit of justifiers. (We often identify justifiers for human-caused evils, for instance.) So the question here is really just: simply given the existence of evils for which we have not found any justifiers yet, how safely could a person hold that all evils have justifiers?
    One could, in fact, simply take God out of the equation without seriously changing the discussion: consider someone who isn’t a theist, but is a believer in a strong form of the objective goodness of the universe — a sort of simplified Absolute Idealism, perhaps. The same parallel can be made for exactly the same reasons, because the parallel has nothing to do with theism as such but about justifiers for evils and universalism about justifiers for evils. Theism really only enters into the matter indirectly insofar as (1) certain kinds of theism entail universalism about justifiers for evils; and (2) arguments against theism from evils often entail rejecting universalism about justifiers for evils.

    May 19, 2011 — 16:05
  • There’s a difference between the kinds of explanations being sought in 1-4 and 5-8. For evil, we want a telelogical explanation: we want it to be meaningful and purposive. For evolution, we only want a causal explanation.
    Why isn’t there a research program devoted to discovering the meaning and purpose of various evils? If, as you seem to be suggesting, “every particular evil is a universal good,” then we ought to be able to discover more about the world by discovering why such unexplained evils are necessary. And yet we do not seem to be capable of, or even desire, a teleological account of evils. Instead, the best we can manage is an etiological account. But perhaps that is a weakness in our research programs?
    The “just so story” problem is separate: we can certainly accept inferences to the best explanation as promissory notes in both biology and this new field (speculative ethics? political theology? onto-ethics?).

    May 20, 2011 — 7:26
  • I have it! Casuist molecular theodicy: the study of justifications for evil.

    May 20, 2011 — 7:34
  • Joshua:
    Individual sufferers of evil often look for meaning in their suffering. So ordinary individuals, together with friends and advisers, do indeed engage in this kind of research project.
    And philosophers, theologians and novelists look for the types of justifiers that there could be, but rarely if ever examine particular cases in any great amount of detail.

    May 20, 2011 — 10:09
  • I think the scientific bias in favor of explainability makes a lot more sense than the theological bias in favor of justification, but I’d like to hear more about what you think would count as a justifier, such that it is the subject of deliberation and novels. We can say a lot about what makes a good explanation: depth, power, simplicity, etc. but what does a justificatory account of suffering look like? “We need pain because otherwise our actions would have no consequences” doesn’t really cut it.
    Certainly, we seek out explanations in the sense of causes through novels and friends, but I’m not sure I’ve seen many people looking for *justifications* for their suffering. At best, we sometimes hear people telling very weak just-so/status-quo-bias stories about their own lives, i.e. “If it weren’t for my cancer, I wouldn’t have met Sue.” Usually, though, counseling and friendly advise focus on diagnosis and prescription.
    Perhaps we only do this for the justifications for the suffering of others? But even then: mostly when philosophers and novelists discuss the fact that 22,000 children under the age of five die every day of easily-preventable poverty-related diseases, we discuss prevention and blame, not why this is the best of all possible outcomes.
    All that said, I agree that the problem of evil doesn’t really prove anything about God’s existence. It only gives us evidence against God’s goodness, while leaving ample room for non-stringent definitions of God. This is analogous to evolutionary anomalies, which don’t always prove the current formulation of evolutionary theory but sometimes force us to re-articulate the current theory.

    May 20, 2011 — 16:19
  • I should add that it’s a bit of a coincidence that in 5 and 6 we have talk about explanations and in 1 and 2 we have talk about justifications–this is not essential to the argument. Instead of evolutionary theory, I could have used another theory, such as that every Population I star is younger than some Population II star. Finding a Population I star that appears to be older than every Population II star would be a mere anomaly. The general point is that the mere fact that there is an apparent counterinstance hardly affects a scientific theory.
    That said, I imagine that justifications of particular would reference such things as virtues made possible (in the sufferer and/or others) by the evils or the value of punishment of the guilty (when the sufferer is guilty) or the value of self-identification with the crucified Christ or leaving a morally harmful environment or the value of free will or any of the stories theodicists tell.
    I do not know that there is such a thing as “the theodicy” for children dying of poverty-related disease. Each child dying of a poverty-related disease is an individual. Each such death is a separate evil. In principle, each case would need to be examined on its own merits.

    May 20, 2011 — 18:31
  • Can you provide an example of F in the real world?

    May 21, 2011 — 14:52
  • There is a question of what it means to “find an evolutionary explanation”. If it means know what the evolutionary explanation is (if memory serves, in at least one publication Rowe talks of knowledge in the case of the problem of evil), then there are plenty of examples where we have several stories available, and we don’t know which one, if any, is the correct one.
    Along those lines, sexual reproduction and the appendix are probably still examples of Fs–multiple theories have been proposed, and we do not know which, if any, is correct. Homosexuality may be another one. (A standard story involves kin selection, but we are far from knowing that the story is true. An interesting paper from 2001 suggests the contrary.)
    Of course, the lower one’s standards for what one counts as “finding”, the harder it is to find examples that do the job on the evolutionary side, since typically there are some more or less speculative stories whenever a problem has been seriously investigated. But it is also harder to find examples that do the job on the problem of evil side for the same reason.

    May 21, 2011 — 15:06
  • Matthew G

    Prof. Pruss:
    You’re focus on idividual suffering reminded me of some of Lewis’ remarks in his The Problem of Pain:
    “We must never make the problem of pain worse than it is by vague talk about the ‘unimaginable sum of human misery’. Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.”
    That has always struck me as plausible, but I’m not totally at ease with it. (Zagzebski has a paper on Lewis’ idea here: ) But I think it does cut down some of the arguments from evil that have to do with quantities. It also relieves our grief over the imagined “composite pain” or the imagined sufferer of it all. (However, IF God can suffer, then we WOULD find “that composite pain” in HIS consciousness. A staggering thought. If that’s true, then it’s one way of fleshing out the common claim that God is not aloof from the suffering of the world but knows it better than anyone. But does God always know that suffering or does he only suffer this “composite pain” on the cross, and hence the Word of Abandonment? Just thinking out loud here.)

    May 23, 2011 — 19:07
  • Cardinal Newman takes this even further. He thinks that it is illegitimate to base the problem of evil on the suffering of others. He seems to think that if we consider our own suffering, we will see it as part of a story that makes it unreasonable to run an argument from evil. It is only when we consider others’ suffering that the problem of evil is plausible.
    I think it’s not true that nobody finds the problem of evil when they consider their own suffering. But I think Newman is right in his warning about focusing on the suffering of others, given that we don’t know how it fits into their lives as well as we do in our own case (though, do we know it so well in our own case?).

    May 23, 2011 — 19:55