Problem of Evil: Issues with Skeptical Theism and Theodicies

Problem of Evil: Issues with Skeptical Theism and Theodicies November 6, 2017

The problem of evil is this last week’s subject of choice! One problem for many of the theodicies (defensive reasons as to why suffering should exist in light of an OmniGod) is natural evil, qua hurricanes, carnivorousness and general plate tectonic mayhem. Oh, and drought. And mayhap AIDS. Malaria too. Perhaps deformity. Certainly supervolcanoes. Deadly meteorites are well in.

You get the picture.

One comment that piqued my interest came from Mark Landes:

Interesting thought process of creating a substantial argument from the theistic side. Well done C Peterson.

I have two observations on the following items.

“Second, suffering may be required as a necessary counterpart to pleasure. Perhaps if we do not experience suffering, we cannot fully experience (or comprehend) joy. Perhaps we cannot have pleasure without pain. More to the point, joy and pleasure may be meaningless concepts without their negative counterparts.”

I see a naturalistic explanation of this argument far more compelling than it being an argument for a god. We see many opposites in nature that are easily defined, (Hot v. Cold, Wet v. Dry). We also see opposites in emotions (Love v. Hate, Empathy v. Apathy). None of these things require a god they are just the balance we see naturally.

This is tied to the next point:

“Third, consider the possibility that suffering is formative. Even without eternal life, suffering may be seen as valuable. We encounter many stories of people who suffered from some illness or malevolent attack, and ultimately concluded that it changed them for the better.”

In fact the majority of the suffering we have seen lately is a result of natural forces (Hurricanes, flooding and wind). I see little evidence of a god causing those people to suffer and what would the lesson be? I do not disagree that suffering may be seen as valuable but what exactly would the lesson be with a major natural disaster. People who believed in a god were just as affected as those who did not, some who believe were killed as were some who do not believe. If there was a god that was omnibenevolent what is the lesson other than it is temporary suffering for greater rewards in the after-life.

There was also a decent comment, amongst many from readers, from rgtmath:

“More critically, to the extent that we can define it, we don’t have any reliable way to measure it when we look at the world from a religionist viewpoint.”

Actually, we do. Take a religion’s claims about its god, the promises made, especially blessing for good behaviors and suffering for bad behaviors, and then compare it to reality. The overwhelming consensus is that God both claims credit for the suffering of the innocent and at the same time promises that those who do right will be blessed. Stephen Frye’s comments about the guinea worm are right on. That God should create a creature for the express purpose of creating unavoidable suffering is monstrous. There is no actual Justice in that Good is rewarded and Evil is punished, no matter what the Scriptures promise.

I talked about Landes’ general point in my book The Little Book of Unholy Questions (a book of some 501 question I asked God, and none of which she has answered):

282. If my child was to walk on the flowers in my garden, trampling them, it would be immoral to punish him without telling him what he had done wrong. This would communicate to my child his misdemeanour so that he would not do it again. What have we done wrong to deserve cancer, malaria, the tsunami, the Holocaust, disability, cholera etc., and is it right that you have not communicated to us why we have had these ‘punishments’?

Natural disasters provide a particularly uncomfortable time for believers in an omni-God. Some apologists even go as far as to say that we need plate tectonics to have life. As Dinesh D’Souza says[1], “While natural disasters occasionally wreak havoc, our planet needs plate tectonics to produce the biodiversity that enables complex life to flourish on earth.” While this may be true, this is a ridiculous argument when relating to an omnipotent God. God shouldn’t be confined and constrained by plate tectonics. God has the power to perform perpetual miracles, and so he could perpetually sustain life on a planet without plate tectonics, or perpetually keep volcanoes and earthquakes at bay. This smacks of apologist desperation when confronted with the argument that natural disasters show that God cannot have his three cherished characteristics.

The analogy that I use about my child stomping on the plants and being told off arbitrarily after the event is powerful. The fact that ‘high-falluting’ philosophers and theologians argue incessantly, and without sound conclusion, over the nature of evil clearly means that God is doing exactly this. There is no clear communication from God as to why this evil is taking place, as to why we are being punished, if indeed evil exists as a result of some kind of punishment. If evil exists for any other reason, God is still not communicating this, and as a supposedly all-loving ruler I suggest that it is his duty to do so. His subjects are suffering each and every day in a universe where there could be no suffering. As the suffering ones, I believe we have a right to know why this is the case.

[1] (retrieved 20/4/22011)

This idea, that is effectively skeptical theism – that there must be a reason as to why any given unit of suffering exists in light of OmniGod, but that we don’t necessarily know the mind of God to be able to decipher the reasoning behind why suffering might be left to happen – really leaves us with question marks about communication. If we are being punished for something with our suffering, or if we are supposed to learn something from it, then surely having these communicated to us is beneficial. Prison, after all, when effectively delivered, is about rehabilitating people; there is nothing about hell, for example, or about malaria, that gives scope for “rehabilitation”, for learning for the individual.

Skeptical theism is what underwrites the logical problem of evil – that there could be a reason for all the suffering.

Let’s look at the guinea worm. We have an organism whose life-cycle necessarily causes pain to their host. Given that guinea worm is something we have only scientifically understood in very recent times, I fail to see how it is something that we, as humans, could have learnt from. For tens of thousands of years, before the ability to write, there were humans and proto-humans who were suffering without understanding at all why they were suffering, in many ways, one being the guinea worm. Perhaps this was about soul-building, but as far as we can tell, the soul does not exist and does nothing that consciousness doesn’t do. But what about those other animals that guinea worms affect and infect? They certainly don’t have souls to build! What possible good could come to the sufferer that could not be learnt in some other way? Is the guinea worm the only way that a particular type of good can be brought about? Still, after all this time of natural evil, we and theists argue amongst each other as to what the reasons could be. And no one really knows. The Fall (didn’t happen)? Free will (doesn’t exist)? Soul(don’t exist)-building?

Who knows.

Really, who knows?

Guessing games are fun. Until someone loses an eye.


Or a life.

Or a civilisation.

Or species.

To a child who doesn’t even understand the abstract ideas at play here, and the concepts of learning something from the suffering, then what? What of the child who suffers starvation? What are they learning, and how is it useful when they promptly die, at the age of three, with no conceptual capabilities to learn and garner a greater good? You can only appeal to an afterlife. In which case, this suffering is a consequentialist means to an end that looks pretty barbaric.

If that three-year-old does end up definitely going to heaven, and has had to suffer on Earth with guinea worms or malaria or starvation, then why bother putting them through that suffering? As I have mentioned before in previous articles, why not create that child in heaven straight away?  If suffering really is a consequentialist means to an end, then just create the end.

It is this notion of time that I want to just spend the last few paragraphs talking about. I think we can safely discount the idea that heaven can compensate for suffering on earth in our normal lifetime. As I’ve mentioned before, heaven as compensation or as moral justification is truly a consequentialist ideal and fits only into a consequentialist moral philosophical framework. So if you don’t have heaven to use as a tool to balance the books of suffering in our normal human lifetime, then the suffering must have its positive ramifications experienced within that lifetime. If we can’t use heaven, then the person who is suffering is being used instrumentally and this is using a person as a means to an end in a way that only fits with a consequentialist moral framework.

What this means is that if there are positive greater goods that come about from every instance of human suffering, then we should see these, empirically, within the lifetime of the sufferer. Now it’s also worth mentioning that theodicies are, in and of themselves, consequentialist in their very DNA. Suffering takes place as a means to an end, with the end being the greater good becomes about as a result of the suffering. There appears to be no deontological or categorical good or imperative in suffering…

Even if we forget this little blip in the theology of the theist, we still face the problem of not seeing the gains to the individual who suffers unless you invoke an afterlife which, as I’ve mentioned, is problematic.

The conclusion being that the problem of evil is a really big problem no matter which way you look at it.

Unless, of course, you admit to consequentialism or, simply, that shit happens.

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