An Exercise on the Problem of Evil

Elliott Crozat

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April 3, 2020

Are you under a stay-at-home order? Consider thinking about the problem of evil (PoE). Here is a brief exercise.

Suppose someone says the following to you: “God would never permit COVID-19. So, since there is COVID-19, there is no God.” How would you respond?

Notice that this is an example of the PoE. But there are many versions of the PoE. So, your first step is to determine whether your interlocutor is expressing the emotional PoE or the intellectual PoE. If the former, then he’s probably not arguing for atheism — even if it seems otherwise. Rather, he’s expressing emotion. Your response might be to figure out his emotional state and, if helpful, provide emotional support or suggest that he seek emotional counseling.

But if your interlocutor is articulating the intellectual PoE, then he’s trying to construct an argument from evil/suffering for atheism. He might even be trying to convince you that atheism is true. Your next step is to discover if he’s propounding the logical/deductive version or the probabilistic/inductive version of the PoE. On the former, the coexistence of God and evil is logically impossible. On the latter, the coexistence is possible, but the existence of evil makes God’s existence improbable and therefore unreasonable to believe.

If your acquaintance is articulating the logical/deductive PoE, you might respond that there is no explicit or implicit contradiction between the propositions “God exists” and “Evil exists.” Hence, the existence of God is compatible with the existence of evil, and the logical/deductive version is unsuccessful. (Note: the consensus among philosophers, even atheistic ones, is that this argument fails. Ask your interlocutor if he is aware of this fact.)

If your dialogue partner means to assert the probabilistic/inductive version, then he isn’t claiming that the coexistence of God and evil is impossible. Rather, he believes that the existence of evil makes atheism probable — somewhat like having an extrovert as a neighbor makes it likely that she will strike a conversation with you the next time you check your mail box, therefore rendering it reasonable for you to prepare for a chat. If your partner is arguing in terms of probability, you ought to ask him:

“Why should I believe that evil makes atheism probable? You’re assuming that God would have no sufficient reason to permit evil or suffering. How can a human being know such a thing? We humans are not in the epistemic position to claim confidence about such matters. Besides, sometimes even we have good reasons for allowing suffering. Why can’t God have reasons as well?”

You might continue: “Moreover, there are plausible arguments for theism. Are you aware of them? They should be considered, too.”

And finally, you might say: “God, if existent, is a necessary being. In what sense, then, would evil make God improbable? How could some contingent fact about evil make it the case that a necessary being probably doesn’t exist? You need to clarify what you mean by ‘probability.’ Please explain.”

There are rational objections to the PoE. Now is a good time to commit some of them to memory. Who knows, someone might actually raise the PoE to you.

P. S.

Further homework for the reader: Construct a dialogue. How might the atheist respond to your reply about the logical/deductive PoE? What about your reply to the probabilistic/inductive argument? How would you address these counter-responses?

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About the Author

Elliott Crozat

Elliott R. Crozat is a full-time professor of philosophy and the humanities at Purdue University Global. His philosophical interests include metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, ethics, and the meaning of life. He lives in Sarasota, FL.

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