Reflections on the problem of evil (Part 5) – External Problem

Posted: July 18, 2011 in Philosophy, Religion
Tags: , , ,

by Dima Zhyvov

This post is a continuation of the series on the problem of evil. Please see Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4, if you have not read them yet.

The External Problem of Evil

But if the problem of evil fails as an internal problem for Christian theism, does it present an insurmountable external problem? The versions of the problem thus far have attempted to demonstrate that two beliefs held by Christians, namely, that God exists and that evil exists, are either incompatible or improbable with respect to one another. Most non-theists have now abandoned this project. Instead they claim that the seemingly pointless and unnecessary evils in the world constitute evidence against God’s existence. That is to say, they argue that the following two propositions are incompatible with each other[1].

(6) An omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists.

(7) Gratuitous evil exists.

What makes this an external problem is that Christian is not committed by his worldview to admitting the truth of (7). Certainly, the Christian is committed to the truth that evil exists, but not that gratuitous evil exists. To believe this would be to admit that God allows certain evils for no purpose whatsoever; they are utterly pointless and unnecessary. This would logically lead us to unacceptable, from a theistic point of view, conclusions that God is nonexistent or uncaring or sloppy or lacking power or anything of that sort. Naturally, the theist would contest the idea expressed in proposition (7) regardless of what the actual formulation of the argument is.

An example of one such argument would be:

(8) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.

(9) Gratuitous evil exists.

(10) Therefore, God does not exist.

The key question will be the warrant offered for (9). The theist will readily admit that much of the evil we observe in the world appears to be pointless and unnecessary and hence, gratuitous evil. But he or she will challenge the objector’s inference from this appearance to the reality of gratuitous evil. This again, brings us back to the discussion we have had above concerning our ability to discern God’s morally sufficient reason for allowing certain evils to occur. I will not rehash or restate the arguments here, but will simply state that our failure to discern the morally justifying reason for the occurrence of various evils gives very little ground for thinking that God could not have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evils we observe in the world. Moreover, one could again insist on considering the full scope of the evidence for God, because in asking whether the evil we observe really is gratuitous, the most important question to consider is, ironically, whether God exists.

In preparation for this article, I have read the atheist philosopher William L Rowe’s essay, entitled The Problem Of Evil And Some Varieties Of Atheism[2]. In it, he brilliantly casts his evidential argument from evil[3] and suggests that this argument may rationally justify someone in being an atheist. What is more interesting, however, is what comes next. After Rowe presents his argument, he then speculates on the best theistic response to it, which only reiterates my point about the appropriateness of considering the evidences for God’s existence. I shall quote Rowe at length:

“The best procedure for the theist to follow in rejecting premise (1) is the indirect procedure. This procedure I shall call “the G.E. Moore shift,” so-called in honor of the twentieth-century philosopher, G.E. Moore, who used it to great effect in dealing with the arguments of the sceptics. Sceptical philosophers such as David Hume have advanced ingenious arguments to prove that no one can know of the existence of any material object. The premises of their arguments employ plausible principles, principles which many philosophers have tried to reject directly, but only with questionable success.Moore’s procedure was altogether different. Instead of arguing directly against the premises of the sceptic’s arguments, he simply noted that the premises implied, for example, that he (Moore) did not know of the existence of a pencil. Moore then proceeds indirectly against the sceptic’s premises by arguing:

I do know that this pencil exists.

            If the sceptic’s principles are correct I cannot know of the existence of this pencil

The Sceptic’s principles (at least one) must be incorrect

Moore then noted that his argument is just as valid as the sceptic’s, that both of their arguments contain the premise “If the sceptic’s principles are correct Moore cannot know of the existence of this pencil,” and concluded that the only way to choose between the two arguments (Moore’s and the sceptic’s) is by deciding which of the first premises it is more rational to believe – Moore’s premise “I do know that this pencil exists” or the sceptic’s premises asserting that his sceptical principles are correct. Moore concluded that his own first premise was the more rational of the two”[4]

What does “G.E. Moore shift” have to do with our present discussion? I think it shows well that it is absolutely appropriate for a theist when confronted with the external problem of evil to construct an argument of his own on the basis of the one offered to him by a sceptic and then argue that the theist has more ground for thinking that God exists than for thinking that gratuitous evil exists in reality.

Consider the argument (8) – (10). It has the following logical structure:

(8) If P, then Q

(9) Not Q

(10) Therefore, not P

Where,

P – “God exists”

Q – “Gratuitous evil does not exist”

Not Q – “Gratuitous evil does exist”

Not P – “God does not exist”

Now let us apply “G.E. Moore shift”. Theistic response would be as follows:

(11) Not (not P) or, simply, P (due to the rule of double negative elimination)

(12) If P, then Q

(13) Therefore, Q

So the real question is whether we have more warrant for (9) or for (11). This allows ample ground for presenting various lines of reasoning in favour of theism which I mentioned above. As Daniel Howard-Snyder points out, the problem of evil is thus a problem only for “the theist who finds all its premises and inferences compelling and who has lousy grounds for believing theism”; but if one has more compelling grounds for theism, then the problem of evil “is not a problem”[5]


I hereby conclude our discussion of the intellectual problem of evil. You will recall that we started with examining the logical version of the internal problem of evil and concluded that it is unsuccessful. We then moved into the shaky field of probabilities and recognized that various evidential arguments from evil are also far from being conclusive. Finally, we looked at the external version of the problem and identified what strategy the theist may employ in response to it.

In summary, I believe the intellectual problem of evil – whether in its internal or external versions – can satisfactorily be solved.

Click here to see part 6 of the article


[1] I am using Craig’s and Moreland’s exposition of the external problem of evil from their book, Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview, pp. 548-549

[2] You may read the full article here.

[3] His argument goes like this:

(1*) There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

(2*) An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

(3*) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being

I will leave it for my readers to evaluate the merits of this argument. I am convinced that if one has followed our discussion thus far, she would be prepared to answer this challenge, albeit coming from a professional philosopher.

[4] Quoted from William L. Rowe’s essay, The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism, in Philosophy of Religion, ed. Craig, p. 323

[5] David Howard-Snyder, ”Introduction,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder, p. XI, as cited by Moreland and Craig, Foundations, 549

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Comments
  1. R P says:

    Well thought and well written, with minimal block quoting – a refreshing change of pace!

    However, to be honest, it doesn’t address the objection, although it might seem so to some.

    Your argument can be made formally valid with the addition of the word gratuitous, but the gratuity (or lack thereof) is precisely the issue.

    You effectively acknowledge this when you say:
    “So the real question is whether we have more warrant for (9) or for (11).”

    Good so far. But then:
    “This allows ample ground for presenting various lines of reasoning in favour of theism… the problem of evil is thus a problem only for “the theist who finds all its premises and inferences compelling and who has lousy grounds for believing theism”; but if one has more compelling grounds for theism, then the problem of evil “is not a problem””

    Which is like saying “if you have other, non-lousy reasons to believe in a benevolent God, you have a plausible reason for ignoring the problem of evil”.

    And while I suppose that’s possible, it doesn’t really address the objection, which is that the evil in the world looks pretty darn gratuitous to us lousy folks.

    Still, a nice post.

    P.S. I am personally not aware of anyone who finds Moore’s reply to skepticism convincing, although I’m sure we could find some if we looked.

    If you have not read it, I would recommend “The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism” by Barry Stroud, Chapter 3 in particular, titled G.E. Moore and Skepticism: ‘Internal and ‘External’.

    • Thank you for your insightful and encouraging comment!

      As to the specific points you raised in your comment, I agree that if this blog post is read in isolation from the other parts in the series then it does look like I have not addressed the objection adequately. Originally all 6 parts of the series were written as one article and was intended to be read as such. In Part 5, for instance, I presuppose that other parts of the article have been read as I draw on the earlier parts when I write:

      “This again, brings us back to the discussion we have had above concerning our ability to discern God’s morally sufficient reason for allowing certain evils to occur. I will not rehash or restate the arguments here, but will simply state that our failure to discern the morally justifying reason for the occurrence of various evils gives very little ground for thinking that God could not have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evils we observe in the world. “

      I hope that my readers would reference Part 4 where I deal with this in some detail. I find that the skeptical solution presented in my discussion of the probabilistic version of internal problem of evil can also be employed here to undercut the force of the objection coming from someone who propounds the external version of the problem of evil. Similarly, one may find a somewhat fuller treatment of the place that theistic arguments play in the discussion of probabilities in the beginning of Part 4.
      If you have time and desire to read my earlier parts of this series I would love to hear your feedback.

      Thank you for recommending the book on philosophical skepticism. I have not read it yet, so I guess I would need to add it to my wish list 🙂

      As to the viability of G.E. Moore’s reply to skepticism, I would like to understand why it is not a valid response to the skeptic. His “shift” makes perfect sense to me as it correctly follows elemental rules of logic. According to the rule of inference in classical logic called transposition, one can always infer from the truth of “A implies B” the truth of “Not-B implies not-A”, and conversely. In our discussion this means that the statement “If God exists, then gratuitous evil does not exist” is logically equivalent to the proposition, “If gratuitous evil exists, then God does not exist”. It follows, then, that one can legitimately reconstruct the argument of the skeptic in the following way:

      1. If gratuitous evil exists, then God does not exist (inferred from original premise in the skeptic’s argument “If God exists, then gratuitous evil does not exist”)
      2. God exists
      3. Therefore, it follows that gratuitous evil does not exist.

      This is precisely what Moore is doing in another context and, to be honest, I struggle understanding the reservations people might have concerning his strategy.

      It is a pleasure to discuss these things with you,

      Dima

      • R P says:

        Hello again!

        Moore’s view is sort of like the Cartesian solution to the mind/body problem. Every undergraduate has to study Descartes as part of the history of ideas, but no one actually believes the pineal gland is the link between mind and body.

        Stroud offers a very thorough analysis, and I would refer you to him. Suffice it to say Moore suggests it is POSSIBLE skepticism is wrong, which is like a big “so what?” I think intuitively we all appreciated that already.

        You say:
        “As to the viability of G.E. Moore’s reply to skepticism, I would like to understand why it is not a valid response to the skeptic. His “shift” makes perfect sense to me as it correctly follows elemental rules of logic.”

        I am not arguing it isn’t logically valid. I was simply suggesting that your conclusion, “the problem of evil might not be a problem”, isn’t all that interesting. But perhaps there are some atheists out there who think differently – I wouldn’t know.

        I did read several of the other posts – 1, 4, 5 and 6 if I remember correctly. Very nice summary. I don’t think I could respond to all of it, but if there is something in particular you would refer me to, I might be able to keep up.

        As mentioned it the apparent gratuity that is the issue.

        Hope that helps.

      • Hello!

        Let me address the heart of the matter first.

        You write: “As mentioned it the apparent gratuity that is the issue.”

        I would not say that the apparent gratuity, in a sense of evil seeming to be gratuitous to us (if that is what you mean), is the issue, because I think that both theists (sane ones) and atheists agree that evil appears to be gratuitous. What in my opinion is the real crux or heart of the debate is whether the further inference that the atheist is making, from “the evil appears to be gratuitous” to “therefore, it probably is gratuitous in reality” is justified. So I guess I would be interested to know your opinion about the “skeptical solution” I presented in Part 4 where I discussed the crucial assumption on behalf of the atheist who advances evidential or probabilistic version of the problem of evil, namely, that if I do not see morally sufficient reasons that can justify God’s permitting certain kinds or amounts of evil, then it follows that there probably are not any.

        “I am not arguing it isn’t logically valid. I was simply suggesting that your conclusion, ‘the problem of evil might not be a problem’, isn’t all that interesting. But perhaps there are some atheists out there who think differently – I wouldn’t know.”

        Thanks for clarifying the matter. I also want to make some things clear. When I talked about G.E. Moore’s reply to skepticism I was specifically referring to the validity and appropriateness of his “shift” as a strategy that could legitimately be employed by theists when discussing the problem of evil. I was not committing myself to the idea that Moore successfully refuted skepticism as a whole by following this strategy. It is one thing to have a promising strategy and quite another to successfully carry it out.

        Thank you for your valuable input!

        Dima

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