“Strong” Logical Argument from Evil Against God: RIP?

“Strong” Logical Argument from Evil Against God: RIP? November 28, 2018

[for general, philosophically lay-level background, see my paper: “Logical” Problem of Evil: Alvin Plantinga’s Decisive Refutation]


Atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder (prime mover behind the influential Internet Infidels / Secular Web network) maintains that the former position is currently widely accepted:

Ever since Alvin Plantinga refuted J.L. Mackie’s logical argument from evil, the majority of contemporary philosophers of religion have come to believe that logical arguments from evil are unsuccessful. This opinion is not unanimous, however. Philosophers Richard Gale, Quentin Smith, and Howard Jordan Sobel challenge the conventional view regarding the prospects for logical arguments from evil. Indeed, Smith has formulated a new version of the logical argument from evil to avoid the pitfalls of Mackie’s argument. Nevertheless, many philosophers remain highly skeptical regarding logical arguments from evil. (Logical Arguments for Atheism: Logical Arguments from Evil)

It’s interesting that even some of those who argue against Plantinga’s famous free will defense, do not purport to have totally, decisively overthrown or refuted it. For example, philosopher Quentin Smith writes about his colleague Richard Gale’s attempts (both men are mentioned above):

Gale points out that his argument is not conclusive . . . the analogies may not be sufficiently strong. Nonetheless, Gale thinks his argument has some force against Plantinga’s free will defense. But does it? . . . I think Plantinga’s free will defense can survive this attack.

Gale has much more to say about the problems with Plantinga’s free will defense, none of which he thinks conclusively refutes the defense. (A Sound Logical Argument from Evil, from pp. 148-157 of Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language, Yale University Press, 1997)

Smith thinks his own rebuttal does succeed where Gale’s fails, but it is interesting to note what he says about the other attempt, and how Gale himself regards his own efforts; he writes:

Obviously, any analogy between man and God will be an imperfect one, since there are such striking disanalogies between the two. For this reason I do not see my argument as in any way conclusive. At best, it might take the smirk off the face of a Free Will Defender and replace it with a worried grin. (Freedom and the Free Will Defense; originally published in Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1990; emphases added)

Noted atheist philosopher Graham Oppy elaborates similarly on the current consensus about this particular version of the atheological argument from evil:

. . . it is one thing to suppose that ‘the problem of evil’ has some kind of justificatory role in non-theistic rejection of theistic beliefs; it is quite another question whether ‘the problem of evil’ poses some kind of insuperable problem for reasonable theistic belief . . . While it seems clearly reasonable for non-theists to allow ‘the problem of evil’ to have some role in their reasons for rejecting traditional Western theism, it is much less obvious that it is reasonable for non-theists to claim that ‘the problem of evil’ raises insuperable difficulties for theists.

In her book, Weisberger argues a case for the stronger claim, i.e. Weisberger argues for the conclusion that ‘the problem of evil’ amounts to a disproof of the existence of the god of traditional Western theism. For various reasons, I think that her case is not quite as strong as she supposes, and that she doesn’t manage to establish that anyone who is both reasonable and fully apprised of the facts about the amounts, kinds, and distribution of evils in the world will deny the existence of the god of traditional Western theism.

. . . Perhaps the main fault which I find with the overall line which Weisberger takes lies in her appeals to the burden of proof. It seems to me that the right method here is to formulate the competing views – i.e. theistic and non-theistic theories of the world – and then to ask which one is best supported by the total available evidence. If theists can reasonably suppose that they have lots of evidence which supports the claim that God exists, then they may reasonably believe that there is a solution to ‘the problem of evil’, even if they do not know what that solution is. To insist, that theists have to provide a satisfactory theodicy or else abandon their theism, is to fail to pay proper regard to ‘the principle of total evidence’. (Review of Weisberger, A. [1999] “Suffering Belief: Evil and the Anglo-American Defence of Theism,” Toronto Studies in Religion 23, New York: Peter Lang, pp. xvi+245)

David O’Connor is a non-theist professor of philosophy at Seton Hall University. His book God and Inscrutable Evil: In Defense of Theism and Atheism (Lanham/London, Rowman & Littlefield, 1998) was reviewed by Dean Stretton (2001). Note how O’Connor, too, doesn’t regard the logical problem of evil as a conclusive, unanswerable refutation of theism:

In the shorter part II, O’Connor moves to discussion of direct empirical arguments from evil (namely, those whose evidential base comprises certain facts of evil), and in particular the argument formulated by William Rowe. O’Connor then considers the skeptical defense of theism advocated by Stephen Wykstra and others, and concedes that this defense not only succeeds to a large degree against Rowe’s argument, but also refutes (or at least justifiably departs from) the assumptions of the standard model of debate on the problem of evil, and thus undermines the indirect empirical argument of part I as well. This is the defense of theism referred to in the subtitle. The facts of evil, O’Connor says, constitute sustaining evidence for atheism (p.211), in the sense that someone who is already an atheist will regard those facts as further reason to remain an atheist (since those facts are just what we would expect if atheism were true); but those facts do not settle or even tend to settle the debate in favour of atheism, since, as the skeptical defence shows, the facts of evil are equally what we would expect if theism were true (or at least are not particularly surprising given theism).

O’Connor thus argues, in the end, for a “detente” between “friendly theism and friendly atheism”- the term “friendly” denoting “each side’s recognition of failure to either refute the other [side] or to gain decisive cognitive advantage over it” (p.227). “[T]heism,” he says, can be justified for certain persons in certain circumstances, atheism for others in other circumstances” (p.xi); thus the need for an “intellectually tolerant, live-and-let-live view” on the issue of God’s existence (p.236).

Atheist Dave Holloway concurs:

Historically, and in terms of popularity, the argument from evil (AE) is the most important argument of any argument that has attempted to justify disbelief in the existence of a God. Philosophers from Epicurus to J.L. Mackie have put forth the argument; theologians from Augustine to Plantinga have taken the problem seriously and attempted to grapple with it.

The classic statement of the argument maintains that the existence of God, defined as all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good, is incompatible with the existence of evil in the world. Atheologians historically stated this as a deductive argument, attempting to show that the following statements are inconsistent:

(1) God is all-powerful and all-knowing.

(2) God is all-good.

(3) Evil exists.

However, this approach is generally regarded as unsuccessful. The logical compatibility of 1-3 can be seen when one considers that (1) and (2) entail, respectively,

(4) God could prevent evil unless evil is logically necessary.

(5) God would prevent evil unless God is morally justified in allowing it.

(4) and (5) combined entail

(6) Evil exists only if it is logically necessary or morally justified.

which is compatible with (1) and (2).

Because of the general perceived failure of this approach, the focus has shifted to evidential arguments from evil. (Skeptical Theism and the Evidential Argument From Evil [link now defunct] )

The former Christian and doctoral candidate in philosophy “exapologist” (these ubiquitous and unnecessary Internet nicknames will be the death of me) concedes less than all that but still takes a view far less triumphant than traditional post-“Enlightenment” atheism:

[A]pologists are being misleading when they claim that Plantinga has refuted the deductive argument from evil. At best, he’s shown that we can’t be confident that the deductive argument from evil is sound. (Some {Temporarily} Final Thoughts About the Free Will Defense)

What, then, does Plantinga’s Free Will Defense really show? In light of the previous discussion, just this: for people who aren’t theologically conservative Christians, it’s not conclusively ruled out as impossible that the Free Will Defense saves theism from the logical problem of evil . . . (On the Force of “Possibly” in Plantinga’s Free Will Defense)

Now based on what I understand so far of the current literature on this clarification, the FWD is still problematic even on the correct construal (though I can’t say so with any confidence yet). (blog comment under the above paper)

But alas, there is division in Atheist-Land, and not all realize what has occurred in philosophy and philosophy of religion in the past 40-50 years. Steven Conifer, a sharp, zealous young atheist (whom I have debated at least three times), confidently states:

Conversely, many atheological arguments, such as the Argument from Evil, Theodore Drange’s Arguments from Nonbelief and Confusion, various incompatible-properties arguments, and the Lack-of-Evidence Argument (which is based on the very assertion that there exists no good objective evidence for God’s existence) have never, to my knowledge, been seriously challenged. (The Argument from Reason for the Nonexistence of God, 2001)

[Note: I debated Dr. Drange regarding his “ANB” argument, too; I don’t think I did that bad of a job, seeing that I am a mere layman with the formal experience of eight to ten college philosophy classes, going against a philosophy professor]

John W. Loftus, former (semi-heretical sect) Church of Christ pastor-turned-atheist and blogmaster of Debunking Christianity, throws all restraint and nuance to the wind when he writes about the current philosophical status of the logical problem of evil:

The Logical Problem of Evil Is Still Very Much Alive! [title of post]

Of course, this is nothing new to educated people, but I still read where Christians proclaim the logical problem of evil is dead. What gives? In the future if someone says such an ignorant thing, refer them here, and to the books listed below.

. . . Most Christians claim the logical problem has been solved, but there are still versions of the logical problem of evil that have not been sufficiently answered. There are those written by Quentin Smith, “A Sound Logical Argument From Evil;” Hugh LaFollette, “Plantinga on the Free Will Defense;” Richard La Croix, “Unjustified Evil and God’s Choice” [all to be found in The Impossibility of God, eds. Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier (Prometheus Books, 2003)], Richard Gale’s On the Nature and Existence of God (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 98-178, and Graham Oppy’s book Arguing About Gods (Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 262-268, who argues at length for the thesis that Plantinga’s treatment of the logical problem of evil is inconsistent in several respects. See also A.M. Weisberger’s critique of Plantinga’s free will defense in her book Suffering Belief(Peter Lang, 1999), pp. 163-184. Just because Plantinga answered Mackie’s formulation, and just because Mackie admitted it, doesn’t mean that all formulations have been answered, or that others agree with Mackie’s admission.

Christian people like to tout any successes they have since they have so few. But it’s propaganda, plain and simple, and based on out of date information. (The Logical Problem of Evil Is Still Very Much Alive!: 10-26-06)

At the risk of showing how un-“educated” and “ignorant” I am, I beg to differ, based on what we have seen above. The fact is that Plantinga accomplished about as much as anyone can expect a philosopher to achieve, visa-vis his peers: he caused a major change of perception regarding what was previously thought to be a virtually unanswerable weapon in the atheist arsenal. Very few philosophers (theist and atheist alike) are able to manage that.

Of course there will be continued replies and arguments and claims of some that Plantinga failed in what he is widely-perceived to have done. We expect this, but it doesn’t change the fact that the consensus (which is not, as we know, itself decisive, but certainly something to be taken into consideration) is that the traditional logical argument has been seriously weakened: particularly in the premature dogmatism of its classically triumphalistic atheist claims.

I’ve documented above how Quentin Smith didn’t think that Gale succeeded in refuting Plantinga. Gale himself admitted the same regarding a 1990 version of his critique. We also observed how Oppy thought that Weisberger’s argument against the logical argument from evil (1999) was too ambitious and failed in some key respects. He certainly didn’t think that the logical argument trumped all feeble theist replies, since he wrote [see above for sources and more context]:

. . . it is quite another question whether ‘the problem of evil’ poses some kind of insuperable problem for reasonable theistic belief . . . it is much less obvious that it is reasonable for non-theists to claim that ‘the problem of evil’ raises insuperable difficulties for theists.

Perhaps Oppy has changed his mind in the ensuing years (I don’t know), but that is what he thought then, at any rate. The fact remains that Plantinga and other influential theistic philosophers in the last 40 years or so, have changed the very nature and emphases of the debate. Atheists used to run around with an attitude of complete superiority and the thought that theist philosophers were basically (though not stated as bluntly) ignorant, outdated troglodytes and intellectual neophytes and pretenders, improperly mixing mere religion in with supposed theistic “philosophy.”

Bertrand Russell even went so far as to say that Christianity and philosophy were altogether incompatible and contrary, so that even St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine could not be considered philosophers in any reasonable sense of the word. Those heady days of atheist hubris (along with ludicrous positivism) are long gone, praise be to God!

I don’t know about the other people that Loftus mentions above, but if he got it that wrong concerning three of them, I suspect that he is exaggerating about one or more of the others, too. Yet Loftus kept up his insults and exaggerations in comments on my blog about my article on Alvin Plantinga (cited at the top of this post):

Since you seem so well-read, have you read A.M. Weisberger’s Suffering Belief? She’s written over 40 pages on the Free Will Defense. Have you read the essays in The Impossibility of God? I don’t think so. There are still versions of the logical problem of evil that have not been answered, by Quentin Smith, Richard La Croix, and Richard Gale. Just because Plantinga answered Mackie’s formulation, and just because Mackie admitted it, doesn’t mean that all formulations have been answered. This is just bogus. But Christian philosophers like to tout any successes they have till their [sic] blue in the face, since they have so few. But it’s propaganda, plain and simple, coming from an old boys club of guys who hang around together in the Society of Christian Philosophers. (10-13-06)

Right. Well, he is entitled to his opinion. But professional philosophers and other atheists don’t agree that Christian philosophers have fared so poorly or that the logical argument from evil has not been significantly refuted insofar as it claimed to be an absolute disproof of God’s existence and of the supposedly inherently illogical nature of Christian belief. Loftus’s colleague and fellow blogger, the agnostic Edward T. Babinski, who has a BS degree in science, outdoes even Loftus’s triumphalism: he thinks that he refuted Plantinga (one of the most highly-regarded philosophers alive today) with a phone call and one “difficult” question. [defunct link from Haloscan and my old blog]

As I believe I noted in my previous paper on the topic, philosopher James R. Beebe, in his Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, “The Logical Problem of Evil”, reiterates the position for which I have been contending:

Since the logical problem of evil claims that it is logically impossible for God and evil to co-exist, all that Plantinga (or any other theist) needs to do to combat this claim is to describe a possible situation in which God and evil co-exist. That situation doesn’t need to be actual or even realistic. Plantinga doesn’t need to have a single shred of evidence supporting the truth of his suggestion. All he needs to do is give a logically consistent description of a way that God and evil can co-exist. Plantinga claims God and evil could co-exist if God had a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil. He suggests that God’s morally sufficient reason might have something to do with humans being granted morally significant free will and with the greater goods this freedom makes possible. All that Plantinga needs to claim on behalf of (MSR1) and (MSR2) is that they are logically possible (that is, not contradictory).

Does Plantinga’s Free Will Defense succeed in describing a possible state of affairs in which God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil? It certainly seems so. In fact, it appears that even the most hardened atheist must admit that (MSR1) and (MSR2) are possible reasons God might have for allowing moral and natural evil. They may not represent God’s actual reasons, but for the purpose of blocking the logical problem of evil, it is not necessary that Plantinga discover God’s actual reasons . . . since (MSR2) deals with the logical problem of evil as it pertains to natural evil (which claims that it is logically impossible for God and natural evil to co-exist), it only needs to sketch a possible way for God and natural evil to co-exist. The fact that (MSR2) may be implausible does not keep it from being possible. Since the situation described by (MSR2) is clearly possible, it appears that it successfully rebuts the logical problem of evil as it pertains to natural evil.

Since (MSR1) and (MSR2) together seem to show contra the claims of the logical problem of evil how it is possible for God and (moral and natural) evil to co-exist, it seems that the Free Will Defense successfully defeats the logical problem of evil.

. . . The desire to see a theistic response to the problem of evil go beyond merely undermining a particular atheological argument is understandable. However, we should keep in mind that all parties admit that Plantinga’s Free Will Defense successfully rebuts the logical problem of evil as it was formulated by atheists during the mid-twentieth-century.

If there is any blame that needs to go around, it may be that some of it should go to Mackie and other atheologians for claiming that the problem of evil was a problem of inconsistency. The ease with which Plantinga undermined that formulation of the problem suggests that the logical formulation did not adequately capture the difficult and perplexing issue concerning God and evil that has been so hotly debated by philosophers and theologians.

As for recent literature; well, that works both ways. Theists have made further arguments also; for example, see:

The Problem of Evil, by Peter van Inwagen (Oxford University Press, 2006)

The Problem Of Evil And The Problem Of God, D. Z. Phillips (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2005)

Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, edited by Stephen T. Davis (Westminster John Knox Press; Revised edition, 2001)

Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion), Marilyn McCord Adams (Cornell University Press: 2000)

Providence and the Problem of Evil, Richard Swinburne (Oxford University Press, 1998)

The Problem of Evil (Oxford Readings in Philosophy), edited by [theists] Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford University Press, 1991), including articles by theistic philosophers Terence Penelhum, Alvin Plantinga, Stephen J. Wykstra, and John Hick


(originally 11-26-06)

Photo credit: WhiteKnight138 (7-27-17): Alvin Plantinga: the greatest living Christian philosopher [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]


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