The Evidential Problem of Evil and Suffering


Damage from Hurricane Laura in Louisiana.

Source: https://weather.com/news/news/2020-09-03-hurricane-laura-water-outages-louisiana-blamed-on-wind


In the last post, we discussed an objection to God's existence based on evil and suffering in the world. This objection claims that God's existence is logically incompatible with the existence of evil and suffering in the world. But, as we saw in that post, the objection fails because its presuppositions about God are not necessarily true. Since they are not necessarily true, God's existence is not necessarily incompatible with the presence of evil and suffering. But what if the presence of evil and suffering in the world nonetheless renders God's existence less probable? In light of the presence of evil and suffering in the world, should we be less confident about the existence of a good, righteous, and loving God?


As with the logical version, this argument embodies a common experience of those who observe or experience severe suffering, either as a result of evil or circumstances, such as financial trouble, bad health, or, indeed hurricanes. Often, the experience of suffering is met with a poignant question: why? Why am I going through this? Why would God allow me to face this? Evil and suffering don't merely strike us as painful; it also seems pointless. If God exists, He must surely not care. Who allows something like the Holocaust, the Columbine massacre, and 9/11? Cancer in children, earthquakes, and volcanoes? In light of this overwhelming evil and suffering, surely this suggests that God is absent.


This argument is not as strong as the logical version for an obvious reason. The nature of its conclusion is different. Whereas the logical version concludes that God's existence is incompatible with the existence of evil and suffering, the evidential (or probabilistic) version comes to a more modest conclusion. Its conclusion is that, in light of the magnitude of suffering and evil in the world, God's existence is very unlikely. But this more modest conclusion is actually the argument's strength, since it's easier to support. So does this more modest argument against the existence of God prove successful? Here is the video:

For this post, I will divide our evaluation of this argument into three parts, each of which will build on the points before:

  1. Terminology

  2. The Logic of the Argument

  3. Evaluating the Argument

Terminology


The video above from Reasonable Faith does not use some terminology that I think will be helpful in our understanding of the objection. This terminology helps to distinguish certain concepts from each other in order to gain a more precise understanding of the evidential case for the evidential problem of evil and suffering.


The first has to do with the difference between moral evil and natural evil. In the post about the logical version of the problem of evil and suffering, I shared an image of a mass grave from a concentration camp. This is an obvious case of moral evil. The suffering resulting from this evil is the result of human agents who freely make evil choices. The image above, however, is an example of natural evil. The suffering resulting from natural evil has little, it seems, to do with the free choices of human agents. Because of this, the argument commonly called the free will defense, which we discussed in the post on the logical problem, doesn't necessarily apply to natural evil. Who's to blame for a hurricane? In the evidential problem of evil, therefore, we must deal with both moral and natural evil.

The second has to do with what is called gratuitous evil. Very often, severe suffering feels pointless. That poignant question-why?-expresses the anguish of suffering that seems to lack any ultimate significance. This is opposed to evil that has some ultimate significance, such as some greater good in the future. Discussion about the evidential problem of evil and suffering often is a discussion about the existence of gratuitous evil, in a way that I will explain below.


So it is key that we remember two concepts-the difference between moral and natural evil and the concept of gratuitous evil-in order to rightly understand the strength of the evidential problem of evil and suffering.


The Logic of the Argument


The differences between the logical and evidential problem of evil and suffering are clear from their names. The evidential problem of evil and suffering claims that there is empirical evidence from the evil and suffering of the world that suggests that God does not exist. Because of this, it is an inductive argument, where the existence of evil and suffering in the world (supposedly) provide support for the conclusion that "God does not exist." Therefore, while the evidential version grants that God and evil and suffering can exist together, nonetheless the sheer weight of the evil and suffering in the world suggests that He doesn't exist.


Inevitably, this kind of an argument will involve making judgments about probabilities. Bear with me. This can seem overwhelming and complicated, but the reasoning is more intuitive than it may seem at first. Whenever we consider the probability of a proposition, we must consider it in light of other propositions that we already believe. This seems reasonable; you wouldn't consider as true propositions that completely conflict with your prior beliefs. This set of prior beliefs is called background information. This is often expressed in English as a question. For example, let's consider proposition T. We'll use B to stand for background information. If we were to consider the probability of T, we'd have to consider it in light of B. As a question, we would ask, "What is the probability of T, given B?" In other words, in light of B, how likely is it that T is true?


Of course, background information is relative to the individual. Someone may be ignorant of certain evidence or more knowledgeable of other pieces of evidence. In light of that background information, the probability of T may seem higher or lower for any individual. This does not mean that probability is subjective, but it does entail that the extent of one's knowledge may affect how probable a particular proposition is to one.


We can also express the question above with symbols, similar to a probability problem in mathematics. Let's say that for an individual, the probability of T, given B, is more likely true than false. Numerically, probabilities are expressed in a range from 0 to 1, where 0 means "impossible" and 1 means "necessarily true." If the proposition is just as likely to be true as false, then the probability is 0.5. If it is more likely true than false, then it is greater than 0.5. If it is more likely false than true, then it is less than 0.5. So let's express this probability with symbols: P(T/B) = greater than 0.5

(The "/" means "given that.")


Now that we have the basic structure of a symbolized probability statement, we can consider how the existence of evil and suffering could affect the probability that God exists. Let's use G to mean "God exists." Let's assume that B includes the claim that evil and suffering exist in the world. To simplify this, let's use E to symbolize this claim. The atheist, by using this argument, claims that E renders G less likely true than false. In other words:

P(G/E) = less than 0.5


Notice that I substituted E for B because E is only descriptive of one proposition in our background information, not all of our background information. This is a very important point to which we'll return.


Let's bring all of this together in order to illustrate the thrust of the evidential problem of evil and suffering. The claim above-that P(G/E) = less than 0.5-is, I think, the central claim of the evidential problem of evil. Therefore, there are two ways that we can blunt the force of the argument. We can either:

  • Show that the truth of E does not decrease the probability of G. This could be done by showing that some propositions from B account for E without rendering G less likely.

  • Concede that P(G/E) = less than 0.5 but argue that, in light of all of our background information, G is nonetheless more likely than not.

As we evaluate these two options, the concepts laid out in the previous section will become relevant. So the goal of this objection is to show that P(G/E) = less than 0.5. Is it successful?


Evaluating the Argument


In the video, three responses are given to the evidential problem of evil and suffering. Based on our analysis above, notice that each response falls within one of the two options that I listed for refuting this objection. These three responses are:

  • We're not in a position to say that God probably lacks reasons for allowing suffering and evil to exist in the world.

  • Relative to the full scope of the evidence, God's existence may well be probable.

  • Christianity entails doctrines that increase the probability of the co-existence of God and suffering.

Let's address each of these in turn.


We're not in a position to say that God probably lacks reasons for allowing suffering and evil to exist in the world. This response reflects the first option. Remember that the claim of the atheist is that the existence of evil and suffering renders God's existence less likely than not. But what if some relevant information can explain how God and so much suffering and evil exist? What if we were to find out that, for every individual instance of suffering and evil in the world, God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing that evil and suffering to exist? That would be helpful and would undermine the claim that God's existence is less probable, given the evil and suffering in the world, but how in the world could we prove that?


Perhaps we can't show that every instance of evil and suffering has a morally sufficient reason behind it. But if it did, then the objection would fail, since the existence of evil and suffering wouldn't entail anything about God's existence. He is the One allowing it to happen for good reasons. But this means that only gratuitous evil and suffering decrease the probability that God exists. If that evil and suffering has a greater purpose behind it (i.e., if it is not gratuitous), then God's existence is rendered no less likely. Therefore, while we may not be able to show that gratuitous evil and suffering does not exist, the atheist has to be able to show that gratuitous evil and suffering does exist. Only gratuitous evil and suffering causes a problem for the theist. Can the atheist prove this claim? It would seem impossible to prove it. The web of causes and choices that influence other events and choices over time is incomprehensibly complex. Seemingly small events, from a narrow perspective, can have massive consequences from a larger perspective. The problem is that we have only a narrow perspective. The result is that a world in which evil and suffering are gratuitous seems to look the same as a world in which evil and suffering are not gratuitous. The atheist is simply not in a position cognitively to shoulder this claim that gratuitous evil and suffering exist. Because of this, he or she is in no position to say that evil and suffering affect the probability that God exists. The atheist simply can't know that to be true.


Relative to the full scope of the evidence, God's existence may well be probable. This is essentially a restatement of the second option. We've spent several weeks now going over various arguments for God's existence. If you find those arguments convincing, then they are now part of your background information. Let's take for granted the idea that P(G/E) = less than 0.5. This probability, while interesting, tells us nothing about the probability that P(G/B). It may be that, given the full scope of your background information, you should still believe that God exists. The existence of evil and suffering in the world might be troubling and difficult to account for but not definitive.


Christianity entails doctrines that increase the probability of the co-existence of God and suffering. This is a specific form of the first option. As Christians, we are entirely within our rights to interpret the existence of evil and suffering in the world from a Christian lens. I will simply list these doctrines in order without discussing them in full detail. Suffice it to say that, as Christians, the existence of evil and suffering does not necessarily count against the probability that God exists. Here are the four doctrines:

  • The chief purpose of life is not happiness.

  • Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God and His purpose.

  • God's purpose is not restricted to this life.

  • The knowledge of God is an incomparable good.

If we have good reason to affirm that Christianity is true, then we should not be troubled intellectually by the existence of evil and suffering in the world. The Christian worldview provides good reasons as to why they exist and as to how we should interpret them.


Therefore, while the evidential problem of evil and suffering provides a formidable objection to God's existence at face value, on further examination, it falls short. It doesn't seem to be able to bear the burden of proving its central claim, and it doesn't seem able to overcome the cumulative weight of arguments for God's existence.


That's it for this week's post! Hopefully, these posts about objections to God's existence have been edifying, particularly as you've been able to see that Christianity can answer objections lobbied against it. Next time, we will discuss the problem of evil and suffering as an emotional problem. More often than not, we meet people when they're in tears over the loss of a loved one, financial hardship, illness, and the like. Christians are by no means invulnerable to this. As we meet people in the midst of suffering and loss, it will do little good to address their suffering with arguments. How do we meet people in their emotional needs, as well as intellectual? How do we go through hardship and find encouragement and hope? This is the topic for next time.


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