Comments on the Craig-Rosenberg debate, part 2: the so-called “logical argument from evil”

I’m going to dedicate most of this post to Rosenberg’s opening statement, but first let me say “here here” to something from Jason Rosenhouse’s comments on the debate:

Craig proceeded to unload eight “arguments” for God’s existence. I use the sneer quotes because in most cases he was just making assertions, and not arguments.

Word.

Okay, now Rosenhouse’s comments on Rosenberg’s opening statement:

From my perspective as an atheist, Rosenberg was pretty disappointing. Stylistically Craig was the clear winner. He is a much more polished and confident speaker. Worse, however, was that substantively Rosenberg was also not so impressive. He made some good points, and I can certainly understand his frustration at having to respond to Craig’s mostly foolish arguments, but the fact remains that his responses were frequently unconvincing, or at least needed to be expressed more clearly to be convincing. His biggest blunder was in presenting the logical argument from evil, in which it is asserted that there is a flat-out contradiction between the existence of a loving God and the existence of evil. This is as opposed to the evidential argument, which states merely that the prevalence of evil is strong evidence against God.

I agree with what Rosenhouse says about style. I got the impression that Rosenberg did his homework on Craig and knew what he’d be up against; what was missing was Rosenberg rehearsing his opening statement 20 times in front of a mirror. But I want to take issue with what Rosenhouse (and many other people) have been saying about Rosenberg’s alleged use of the “logical” problem of evil.

In general, the insistence of people who follow these issues on classifying versions of the problem of evil as either “logical” or “evidential” is weird. It isn’t something you see with any other kind of argument in philosophy. What we care about with deductive arguments is first whether they are valid, and second whether the premises are true, whether people can agree that they’re true, whether people should agree that they’re true, etc.

If there’s agreement that an argument is deductively valid and the premises are true, it doesn’t matter if the premises are logical truths, if they’re necessary or contingent, or if they’re a priori or a posteriori. It matters somewhat whether we’re certain the premises are true, or whether we just think they’re just probably true, but thinking an arguments premises are only probably true doesn’t turn the argument into an “evidential” or “probabilistic” argument.

(Note: when I started writing this post, I vaguely remembered Theodore Drange making the same points I made in the above two paragraphs in his book Nonbelief & EvilBut on checking the book, Drange’s points were only kinda similar. Is there any chance I was thinking of someone else?)

As far as I can tell, Rosenberg only used the word “logical” twice in his opening statement in reference to the problem of evil. He called the argument a “logical deduction,” but that could be said of any deductive argument, and so doesn’t tell us anything about the content of Rosenberg’s argument. And he also said that, “it’s not enough to fob it off on the mystery of God’s plan or on the mere logical compatibility of these two views,” suggesting that he isn’t worried about the logical status of the argument’s premises.

Based on this, it seems to me that dismissing Rosenberg for “presenting the logical problem of evil” is wrong. What is true is that the sort of very simple argument from evil that Rosenberg gave is not popular among atheist philosophy of religion specialists. But it’s not like there’s a philosophical consensus against those arguments, because they’re quite popular among atheist philosophers not specializing in PoR. I could give many examples: Massimo Pigliucci, David Lewis, some of my undergrad professors, etc.

What religious apologists would like to say about this is that you should trust the people who specialize in PoR because they know the issues best. Therefore Lewis, Pigliucci, Rosenberg et al. all don’t know what they’re talking about. But there’s another explanation: that the non-PoR folks are more or less aware of what the PoR folks are saying and just unimpressed, in fact so unimpressed that they see no point in trying to contribute to PoR. I won’t try to argue for one explanation or the other here here, except to note that the situation is a bit odd. After all, evolutionary biologists have had no such trouble convincing the other biologists of the claims of evolutionary biology.

That said, I do have a worry about Rosenberg’s argument. Rosenberg claimed that if an all-powerful, benevolent God existed, he’d prevent all suffering. What exactly does that mean? If it just means any kind of pain at all, it seems easy to make a “greater goods” defense work there. BDSM aside, there can be something satisfying about, say, being sore the day after a good workout.

Now, to my ear “suffering” has much stronger connotations than “pain,” so maybe Rosenberg meant something more than just “pain.” But he would have been on firmer ground if he had explicitly restricted himself to talking about things like the Holocaust. (And had he done that, IMHO, there would’ve been no need to do anything fancy with the structure of the argument.)

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