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Evil and the Existence of God: How Effective is the Appeal to Inscrutability, Part I

March 21, 2011

This semester is my favorite semester so far in seminary, but also the hardest.  I am taking three classes:  Suffering, Tragedy, and Christian Faith; Systematic Apologetics, and Leading Missional Churches.  Because I have to write so much for classes, I am going to continue to use this blog to post my work.  Though some of the essays will not be relevant, some will certainly be useful for dealing with issues of theodicy and church leadership.  I hope you can find them useful in someway.  Enjoy.

 

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God’s Inscrutability and the Problem of Evil


I. Introduction

The question this paper seeks to answer concerns the effectiveness of the philosopher’s and the theologian’s appeal to inscrutability as a response to the evidential problem of evil.  I include both the philosopher and the theologian in this formulation for two reasons:  (1) both philosophers and theologians have appealed to inscrutability as a response to the evidential problem of evil; and (2), the philosopher and the theologian may (and usually do) have different tasks to accomplish, and this may impact our interpretation of the effectiveness of such an appeal.[1] By the appeal to inscrutability, I mean roughly, that because of the limitations of human knowledge, we, in all likelihood, do not have access to all the reasons for which God might allow evil; and so, we are in no position to say that there are (apparently) no good reasons for God to do so. Put more strongly, the theistic philosopher and the theologian may argue that God, being good, will or does have reasons that we, because of our limited cognitive access, cannot know for allowing evil and even every instance of evil.

Yet, is such an appeal effective in combating the evidential problem of evil?  Does this appeal provide an adequate solution?  Though the issues are complex (as we will see), my answer to these questions follows along these lines: depending on the epistemic principle one chooses[2], a philosopher may be entitled to appeal to inscrutability in his response to the evidential problem of evil; logically it is all that is necessary.  However, the theologian is never entitled to such an appeal as a first line of defense, for a central task of the theologian is to provide an account of the way God actually is.[3] And yet, one more statement is needed:  while the philosopher may be logically and intellectually justified in appealing to inscrutability, such an appeal is rarely, if ever emotionally satisfying, and thus, I propose that it should be abandoned as a primary response to the evidential problem of evil.

 

II. The Evidential Problem of Evil

Before exploring the actual appeal to inscrutability made by philosophers and theologians, we would do well to briefly present the evidential problem of evil.  It is widely acknowledged that the evidential problem of evil is the preferred method of atheologians.  It has been shown that there is no logical contradiction between the three premises “God is all-powerful,” “God is wholly good,” and “Evil exists.”[4] Therefore, while the atheologian concedes that there is no logical contradiction, he maintains that the existence of evil provides prima facie evidence against God’s existence.[5] David Basinger expresses the atheologian’s position forcefully:  “many [atheologians] still wish to maintain not only that (a) the existence of evil in great abundance counts as evidence against the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good God but also that the ability of the theist to respond to such evil is so limited that (b) on rational grounds one should believe that God does not exist.”[6]

A few points are worth consideration.  First, it must be noted that the evidential problem of evil is an inductive argument, and therefore non-demonstrative.  At best, the evidential problem can be valid; it cannot be proven.  Second, the evidential problem only seeks to show that evil provides prima facie evidence against God’s existence.  There very well could be evidence in support of God’s existence that outweighs the prima facie evidence.  Therefore, the atheologian is inviting the theist to provide some such evidence.[7] Thirdly, the weight of the argument is not found in the fact that evil merely exists in the world, but in the fact that evil exists in such large quantities (i.e., gratuitous evil) and seems to be so pointless that it appears to defy reason to think that an omnipotent, wholly good God could not prevent at least some of the evils in this world without compromising some equal or greater good by doing so.  That is to say, while God may have good reasons for allowing some instances of evil, it seems inconceivable that he has good reasons for allowing every instance of evil.[8] From these considerations, we may conclude that the atheologian has provided a compelling prima facie case against God’s existence.  Thus, if God’s existence is to be defended, the burden of proof is on the theist.

 

III.  Philosophical “Options”

At this point, the theist has a number of options philosophically.  He may seek to discredit the evidential case by showing it to be deficient in some manner; he may acknowledge the prima facie evidence and seek to offer counter-evidence that is stronger; or he may appeal to inscrutability as a way of “escaping” the force of the evidential objection.[9] Temporarily leaving option one aside, I will focus on the latter two.  As I mentioned in the introduction, the effectiveness of the appeal to inscrutability depends on the choice of one’s “epistemic principle”—that of Swinburne’s “Principle of Credulity” or Wykstra’s “CORNEA.”

 

Swinburne’s “Principle of Credulity”

In seeking a principle that establishes the justification of belief, Richard Swinburne offers the following principle:  “that, other things being equal, it is probable and so rational to believe that things are as they seem to be (and the stronger the inclination, the more rational the belief).”[10] In other words, we are justified in believing in belief B, if it “seems” to us that B is really the way things are if there is no conflicting evidence that would indicate that B is not the way things are.   Therefore,  “if there seems to someone that there is some bad state incompatible with the existence of God, he ought so to believe, and so believe that there is no God—in the absence of counter-reasons.”[11] If the Principle of Credulity is sound, the evidential problem of evil places the burden of proof on the theist to provide some counter-evidence that would show that the existence of evil is compatible with the existence of God.

 

Wyksta’s “CORNEA”

Disastisfied with Swinburne’s “Principle of Credulity,” Stephen Wykstra offers his own epistemic principle, “the Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access”:

On the basis of cognized situation s, human H is entitled to claim ‘It appears that p’ only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her.[12]

We might plug in the atheologians claim into CORNEA like this:  “On the basis that [given a specific instance of gratuitous evil], the [atheologian] is entitled to claim “It appears that [this instance of evil does not serve any God-justifying purposes], only if it is reasonable for the [atheologian that], given his cognitive faculties and the use he has made of them, if [this instance of evil does not serve any God-justifying purposes”] were not the case, then [the specific instance of gratuitous evil] would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by him.”

While this principle is difficult to grasp, it seems to indicate that in order for the atheologian to maintain his stance that it appears that at least one instance of evil does not serve any God-justifying purpose, the atheologian would need to have epistemic access to most, if not all, the reasons why God would allow such an evil.  Wykstra maintains that this is unlikely given the limitations of our cognition in relation to God’s; we are morally and intellectually inferior to God to the point that it is unreasonable to assume that we would be aware of all the reasons God might have for allowing a particular instance of evil.  Therefore, based on Wykstra’s CORNEA, we have a sophisticated appeal to inscrutability that potentially counters the evidential objection.  However, while this maneuver by Wykstra may provide a legitimate escape to the evidential objection by way of inscrutability, it is not at all clear that CORNEA is in fact sound, and even if it were, it can never produce an emotionally satisfying answer to the force of the evidential objection.


[1] Below I will argue that the philosopher’s and the theologian’s tasks are different, and that it may be sufficient for the philosopher to make such an appeal; however, for the theologian, whose task it is to help us understand God, such an appeal is insufficient and amounts to an avoidance of the issue.

[2] Here I am referring to the debate between Richard Swinburne and Stephen J. Wykstra.  Swinburne proposes his “Principle of Credulity” as a way of evaluating what constitutes rational justification for belief.  See Swinburne’s Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 20-22 for a brief discussion of this principle.  Stephen Wykstra, on the other hand, argues that Swinburne’s “Principle of Credulity” is insufficient and offers his own principle: CORNEA.  See, “The Human Obstacle to Evidential Arguments From Suffering: On Avoiding the Evil of Appearance” in  The Problem of Evil, ed. Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 150-154.  Both of these perspectives will be discussed more fully in the following section

[3] Obviously, it must be acknowledged here, that the theologian cannot fully explain the “ways” of God.  So, in a very real sense, inscrutability is a valid aspect of a theistic worldview.  However, the theologian is presumably able to offer some information about God, and regarding this most important question of the existence of evil, the theologian, at the very least, should be able to provide some plausible explanation as to why his all-good and all-powerful God would allow a world containing evil.  Though it is often admitted that the project of theodicy is impossibly difficult, it is still a necessary component of the theologian’s task.  This will hopefully become more clear.

[4] So admits Michael Martin in “Is Evil Evidence Against the Existence of God,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1992), 135.

[5] Ibid., 136.

[6] David Basinger, “Evil As Evidence Against God’s Existence,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1992), 141.  William Rowe would not likely go as far as Basinger suggests.  Rather than saying that one “should believe that God does not exist,” Rowe simply maintains that the atheist has rational grounds for believing that God does not exist.  It is a weaker form of the argument.  See Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” in The Problem of Evil ed., Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 130; 136.

[7] Martin gives such an invitation:  “The present paper may be considered a challenge to the theist to come up with some non-arbitrary reasons for rejecting the argument,” in “Is Evil Evidence Against the Existence of God,” 138.

[8] In support of this, a classic example of the fawn killed in a forest fire is provided by Rowe in “The Problem of Evil and Varieties of Atheism,” 130.

[9] I should note two things here.  First, these may not be the only three options available to the theist, but I cannot immediately see any others.  Secondly, though I use the word “escape” I do not mean to imply that this is merely a “cop-out.”  Before reading Stephen Wykstra, I was inclined toward such a stance; however, he has presented a highly sophisticated defense of inscrutability that also undermines the evidential case.  Yet, in the end, I would still argue that by making one’s primary response that of inscrutability, all one has done is escape the force of the objection; he has not at all answered it.

[10] Swinburne, Providence, 20.

[11] Ibid., 22.  The school of Reformed Epistemology has made a compelling case that one does not have to give up belief in God in the face of counter-evidence.  They argue that belief in God is a properly basic belief, and that even without compelling evidence, it can be a justifiable belief.  I think that this school’s stance is sound and worthy of consideration.  While a theist may not have to give up his right to believe in God—even if he cannot provide strong counter-evidence—a theist should not lightly dismiss the atheist’s evidential force.  Evidence can only ever make a probabilistic case, but it should not be dismissed without seeking to bring such counter-evidence to it.  Thus, thought a theist need not give up his belief in God, the burden of proof remains on him to provide strong counter-evidence to the evidential objection.

[12] Wyksta, “The Human Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering,” 152.

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