Monday, February 21, 2011

The Argument from Evil Against God's Existence

Ice storm!
(For my MCCC Philosophy of Religion students.)

Next week in my Philosophy of Religion course at MCCC I'll begin presenting what is arguably to strongest philosophical argument against God's existence; viz., the argument from evil. My experience is that students will be easily engaged in this discussion since it has so many practical ramifications.

First, I'll explain the fairly standard philosophical definition of "evil" as: pointless suffering. Pointless suffering is suffering that is neither needed to allow for there to be a greater good nor needed to prevent a greater evil from happening. My own position is that, on Christian theism, there is pointless suffering from a purely human point of view. If, e.g., I hit you over the head with a shovel for no reason other than it's just fun (which I would never do!), then there is no point to your suffering. Christian theism defines my act as "sin" which is, precisely, "to miss the point" (to miss the "mark," as in archery).

Second, we'll look at J.L.Mackie's famous, a priori, logical argument from evil. Mackie posits a "triad" of statements" which, he claims, cannot all be affirmed at the same time without contradiction. They are:
1. God is all-powerful.
2. God is all-good.
3. Evil exists.
He adds two assumptions to this, which are: a) an all-powerful being would be able to stop evil from happening; and 2) an all-good being would desire to stop evil from happening.
That being true, what's the deal with evil? Mackie s certain evil exists, and I see no reason to deny this.
He says we would have no "problem" of evil if just one of the three statements was false. If 1 is false, then 2 and 3 could logically be true, since God might desire to stop evil but could not do so since he would not be all-powerful. If 2 were false, then while God could stop any evil from occurring he would not desire to. If 3 were false and evil did not even exist, then of course we are not left with a "problem of evil" any more than we have a "problem with unicorns." And who might deny that evil exists? Buddhism does, at least in its virgin, culturally unpolluted form. I'll explain this idea to our students, which always proves to be head-twisting.

Third, I will present Alvin Plantinga's famous "Free Will Defense" in which he decisively refutes Mackie's sheer logical argument. It's important to understand just what Plantinga needs to do to refute Mackie, which is: show that there is no logical contradiction in affirming 1, 2, and 3. Nearly everyone, to include atheists such as William Rowe, agree that, after Plantinga, Mackie's argument fails. Plantinga shows how it is logically possible to say "True" to all three at once. This is an exercise in modal logic and the language of logical possibility.

Fourth, I will present William Rowe's classic "evidential argument from evil." Rowe agrees that an a priori logical argument such as Mackie's fails. But he believes there are enough instances of intense suffering to inductively conclude that an all-loving, all-powerful God does not exist. He calls his view "friendly atheism," which states that one is not irrational in affirming theism in the face of evil.

Finally, I'll presernt Stephen Wyckstra's argument that Rowe commits a "no-seeum fallacy." Rowe, thinks Wyckstra, reasons like this:
1a. As far as I can see, there is no point to X's intense suffering.
2. Therefore there is no point to X's intense suffering.
Wyckstra says one can only reason this way if one has "reasonable epistemic access"; viz., that if there were a point to the suffering one would be in an epistemic position to see it. Because the argument is about an all-knowing God we cannot expect to have all-knowing epistemic access. Therefore Rowe's argument fails in that there is no claim of inference from 1a to 1b.

My classes intend to serve as introductions to basic issues in the philosophy of religion. These five arguments can propel a student towards relevant philosophical inquiry should they choose to learn more.

I will not mention a number of things, to include Greg Boyd's Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy, which influences me, and Marilyn McCord Adams's Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.