Victor Reppert on the Argument from Evil as a Reductio

Can atheist who rejects moral realism press the argument from evil? Many theists, including William Lane Craig and Ravi Zacharias, have argued that the answer is “no.” In my old critique of one of Zacharias’s books, I wrote the following.

Zacharias presents two objections to AE. First, he suggests that it is incoherent for atheists to appeal to evil as evidence of the nonexistence of God since objective moral evil could not exist if there is no God (p. 48). Yet, as I argued above, objective moral values are logically possible even if there is no God. And the atheist need not postulate the existence of objective moral values in order to use evil as evidence for atheism. An argument from evil might not contain any normative premises; the atheist could appeal to God’s loving nature rather than God’s moral nature.[13] For example:


(1) If a perfectly loving God were to exist, then he would not permit the occurrence of any unjustifiable suffering.
(2) But unjustifiable suffering does occur.
(3) Therefore, a perfectly loving God does not exist.

To emphasize the point (though I consider this unnecessary), the atheist might even change the name of the argument from “the Argument from Evil” to “the Argument from Unjustifiable Suffering.”[14]
Most importantly, AE may be understood as a challenge to the internal coherence of a theistic worldview. An AE can be understood as saying something like the following:

Look. You theists believe that X, Y, and Z are evil. You theists believe that God is good. You theists believe that good persons are opposed to evil. So you theists need to explain why a god who is good (in your sense of ‘good’) would allow so much apparently pointless evil (in your sense of ‘evil’). If you can’t explain it, then that is a problem for the internal coherence of your worldview.[15]

When AE is understood in this way, it doesn’t presuppose that there are objective moral values.

In an old post, Victor Reppert says that he is aware of running the argument from evil as a reductio ad absurdum argument, but he is unconvinced. He writes:

I still maintain that important phenomena that give rise to the problem of evil are themselves deeply problematic for naturalism, including consciousness, objective moral values (and yes I know all about running it as a reductio without presupposing objective moral values–I still think subjectivism undercuts the argument).

Here’s my question to Reppert: why? How does subjectivism undercut the argument? For example, how does subjectivism undercut Draper’s version of the evidential argument from evil (summarized here)?

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04982524614308121228 Mark Jones

    To restate the point about internal coherence, if the theist objects:

    …that it is incoherent for atheists to appeal to evil as evidence of the nonexistence of God [in the theist worldview] since objective moral evil could not exist if there is no God [which is the atheist worldview]

    Then surely the atheist can mirror this objection by saying:

    …that it is incoherent for theists to appeal to a lack of evil [in the atheist worldview] since objective moral evil must exist if there is a God [which is the theist worldview]

    I think if the first is true then so is the second, so the first would be both true and untrue, following the logic of the theist objection.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    How can atheists refute the claim that it is incoherent for Santa Claus to be able to go down the chimney of every good boy and girl in just one evening when they don't believe in good or evil?

    Surely atheists have no basis for criticising the internal coherence of the Santa Claus story until they define what is meant for a boy to be 'good.'

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01786844757672182664 Truth Seeker

    Hopefully you are open to correction but William Lane Craig does not make this philosophical error as you ascribe it to him:

    "Here’s how I think the atheist should present the problem: he should drop all language of evil and just talk about suffering, or as some have put it, the problem of pain. Then he should argue that the nature of God, at least the Christian God, is such that because He is loving, He wouldn’t permit such terrible suffering. Here the non-theist makes no claim that the suffering is evil or that God would be wrong to permit it; rather he just claims that a loving person such as God is supposed to be wouldn’t allow such suffering." -William Lane Craig

    Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/problem-of-evil-without-objective-moral-values#ixzz1xgQW9let go to

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Jeffery,

    That's a very interesting question; I hope Reppert chooses to address it.

    I would like to add a related question for Reppert:

    In another old post, Reppert explains what he means by 'objective':

    Victor Reppert: "Something is objective just in case there can be real disagreements in which one party or the other must be mistaken. Both sides can’t be right. If I say O. J. killed Nicole and Ron, and you say he didn’t, one of us is mistaken."

    Going by a similar example, let's say that in a hit-and-run scenario, two witnesses give different accounts: Bob says that the car who hit the victim was green, whereas Alice says the car was red.
    Or let's say that Alice says that the driver ignored a red traffic light, but Bob says the traffic light was green.

    Clearly, they can't both be right. At least one of them is mistaken; maybe both are (e.g., if the car was yellow, and so was the traffic light), but surely it's not the case that they're both right. That is the case regardless of the result of any philosophical debate about whether color properties are mind-dependent or mind-independent..

    Now, if (for instance) Tom and Mary mean the same when they use the word 'immoral', then if Mary says that a certain behavior was immoral, and Tom says it was not, then clearly there is a disagreement (whether that's a necessary condition for a disagreement is another matter, but surely it's a sufficient one).

    Also, Reppert claims that there is a moral law, and indeed that different people mean the same by moral terms. So, his position seems to be that while moral terms do mean the same across speakers, if naturalism is true, the meaning of moral terms would be different from what it actually is and different people would mean different things by those terms, to the point of preventing actual disagreement.

    The added question would be:

    Q2: Why should we expect, on naturalism, that the meaning of moral terms be different from what it is, varying from person to person to the point of preventing actual disagreement?

    Incidentally, no amount of talk about whether or not there is mind-independent value (whatever that might be) would address Q2, since this is a question about the meaning of the words.

    Side note: I'm not sure about the distinction between 'natural' and 'non-natural' (or 'supernatural'), but I'm leaving that aside to focus on other issues. Also, I'm leaving aside Reppert's objection to rational inference on naturalism, etc., to focus on his metaethical claims.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Truth Seeker — I am open to correction. I think you are barking up the wrong tree on this one.

    1. In the quotation of Craig you provided, Craig argues that the atheists who press the argument from evil "should drop all language of evil and just talking about suffering, or as some have put it, the problem of pain." Why? Because he thinks objective moral values are a problem for atheism *and* because he does not seem to recognize that, even if OMVs are a problem for atheism, the argument from evil can be pressed as a reductio ad absurdum argument.

    2. I have watched debates where Craig has tried to employ the "turnaround" strategy and argue that evil is evidence for God's existence. Again, that tactic completely misses the point of the reductio.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01786844757672182664 Truth Seeker

    Hmmm, well I do agree that he has tried the turnaround argument a number of times, but I understood him to be saying that an atheist who does reject moral realism can still press the problem of evil in terms of suffering… I thought the first sentence of this post was saying that Craig doesn't think an atheist who rejects moral realism can press the argument from evil though? Maybe there is a semantic issue here? Re-reading my earlier post prompts me to apologize for any rudeness my 'tone' may have conveyed as well. Side Note: In his debate with Stephen Law (during the Q&A; I think, he is pretty candid about the 'problem of suffering' beinga viable option for the non-realist).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01786844757672182664 Truth Seeker

    I also agree that the atheist non-realist can pose the problem to the Christian who accepts OMV's in terms of an internal challenge to their worldview since they are committed to such values. Perhaps there is a confusion in the role of defeaters here. Is it the case that the problem of evil is a rebutting defeater to theism (whether or not an atheist is a moral realist) while perhaps what Craig is trying (however unsuccessfully) is to offer a rebutting defeater-defeater to the original rebutting defeater that the problem of evil poses for him? Just trying to be charitable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01786844757672182664 Truth Seeker

    The main problem I have with the 'turn around' argument is that it seems to imply that no matter how horrendous, and how apparently pointless suffering turns out to be in any possible world, someone like Craig can say: yes exactly, and so God must exist. There is no upper limit so to speak on the amount, duration, extent, and distribution of evil in the world that can falsify this tactic which worries me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12045468316613818510 Blue Devil Knight

    It never failed to amaze me that whenever this comes up, the response is trotted out that atheists can't use the argument from evil because they don't believe in evil. It was a useful idiot filter, frankly.

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