Evaluating the skeptical theistic response to the problem of evil…

Ok, today’s post is a doozy! A lot of effort went in to it, so I hope you enjoy it. If you have anything to add, feel free to berate my cognitive abilities and slap me with a post.

One other thing… I was a huge dick head to Socrates and Nietzsche over the weekend. I owe them an apology for saying those rude and very untrue things. I sincerely apologize, and hope that they understand that what was spoken is not what is in my heart of hearts, but was clearly some angst manifesting itself in a time of severe inebriation. All apologies.

Moving on…

It is said that there exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent, and perfect god who looks down upon us – his creation – with infinite love and desire to know us. Beyond this, it is said that god has bestowed upon us free will, and the reason necessary to make proper use of such a tremendous gift. Such claims are found within the often poetic and beautiful pages of scripture, offering all of human kind an insight into the heart of our heavenly father. Reading such literature is certainly inspirational – if you take its text seriously, and ignore the reality of the world around you.

The problems with the Judeo-Christian conception of god are manifold. Volumes continue to be written about the varying ways in which the claims of such a perfectly loving, totally perfect, and maximally powerful deity actually existing seem implausible. Unsurprisingly, an equal number of defenses for such claims attempt to explain the apparent inconsistencies contained within the Bible, and other holy books. Clearly there is no room for such an exhaustive treatment on the myriad arguments back and forth, so this paper will focus on one of the most critical, and most perplexing problems for advocating the existence of god – the problem of evil. This paper will attempt to analyze one potential response to this problem – the skeptical theist response – and determine if it successfully defends the position that god exists despite the evil that exists in the world.

In order to analyze the skeptical theistic response to the problem of evil, we must first know what the problem of evil claims. It is laid out in two premises and a conclusion, as follows:

1) There exist horrendous evils that an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good god would have no justifying reason to permit.

2) An omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good god would not permit evil unless there were justifying reasons for its allowance.

3) Therefore, an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good god does not exist

Looking at the argument, we see that it possesses the validity necessary to consider it further. But what can we say about soundness? Are the premises true? William Rowe contends that the premises are true, and that as such, we have good reasons for doubting that god exists. In his essay, Evil is Evidence Against Theistic Belief, Rowe avers that “…the evils that occur in our world make belief in atheism more reasonable than belief in theism.” (Rowe, p.3) Rowe defends his argument’s soundness by defending the first premise, which is the key premise in question. His defense relies on two examples; the first tells the story of a fawn who is horrifically burned by a forest fire, and suffers intensely for five days before death finally relieves the poor animal of its suffering. The second example is a story of a 5-year old girl who is brutally beaten, raped, and strangled to death. It is evident that neither of these horrific stories contains anything that precludes their use as examples to justify the claim in premise one because these things do happen in the real world. How, then, does the theist propose to assail this argument?

Michael Bergmann and Daniel Howard-Snyder (hereafter referred to as “BS”) propose that the flaw in AFE is the erroneous claim in premise one that there are horrendous evils that God would have no justifying reason to permit. Responding to Rowe in Evil Does Not Make Atheism More Reasonable then Theism, BS avers that just because there is evil in the world that appears to have no justification, that does not entail that there are no justifications. They call this the “noseeum inference.” The nosseum, to BS, is like a novice physicist not recognizing the truth in claims made by more skilled mathematicians; simply because they do not understand the truth does not make the truth absent. This is the position of the skeptical theist (ST).

The ST position holds that there is no reason to believe that premise 1 of the AFE is true. Clearly, this is not the strongest approach for the theist. Aside from merely arguing that the noseeum inference is wrong, the theist should be able to produce justifications that actually prove that the premise is false. These justifications, or theodicies, would remove the need for skeptical theism. However, the occurrence of just one evil without rational justification then returns the crucial premise to a positive truth-value, and would destroy the plausibility of appealing to any theodicy.

Charitable and reasonable criteria can be concluded to consist of two clauses to the assumption that an evil is warranted/justified if and only if; (i) the evil brings about some greater good, or prevents a greater evil, and (ii) the greater good could not be brought about, nor the greater evil prevented, without the evil in question. As we will see, the overbearing problem with theodicies is the satisfaction of the second clause. Here are a few examples:

Belief in god: It is claimed that evils draw our attention to god, and espouses belief in him/her. Does it satisfy claim (i)? Perhaps, yes. But it is not the case that belief comes only from some evil that draws our attention to god, so the clause (ii) fails, and thus, the entire theodicy.

Understanding of goods impossible without evil: It is claimed that we cannot know or appreciate goods when we experience them without first having evils to compare them to. Does it satisfy claim (i)? Perhaps, yes; but just as before, there is nothing about this theodicy that is necessarily the case, namely, it is not the case that we must experience evil to know/appreciate goodness. Suppose we simply compare levels of goodness with morally neutral states as opposed to evil; this way we can still appreciate higher levels of goodness without the evil. Or what if we lived in a world with far fewer evils, namely no horrendous evil like the fawn, or the little girl examples? We could compare good with less frightful evils. But it is certainly not the case that we must have any sort of comparison between states to know/appreciate some other state. Clause (ii) thereby fails, and with it, the whole theodicy.

Evil espouses virtue: The presence of evil causes individuals to morally recoil from evil, and therefore strive to be morally good. This theodicy fails both clauses. In the first, we can imagine a world with fewer virtues, but is void of any evil. This is a superior alternative to living in a world with myriad virtues, but equal or greater vices and evils. The second clause fails also because it is possible for god to simply bestow us with the virtues as opposed to first exposing us to so much suffering and evil.

Free-will makes evil necessary to our existence: This is the most commonly appealed to theodicy, and requires significantly more treatment than we have been allotted. But what we can quickly, and rightly aver is that free-will does not presuppose that evil must be committed; it is logically possible that god could (and should) have created us with our rational faculties so enlightened that we would never choose to perform any act of evil, therefore free-will does not entail the existence of evil. In this case, both clauses fail outright, and so too does the theodicy.

The failure of these four potential vindications of the skeptical theistic position suggest that it is difficult or implausible to hold such a position without abandoning reason, or without ignoring the considerable rational evidence against it. Here we see the difficulty in satisfying the second clause. In many cases, one might simply (and correctly) appeal to God’s purported omnipotence. If God is all-powerful, then it is not the case that God must employ any amount of evil or suffering in order to bring about some good. Think of a magical candy bar that inoculates children against disease with the same effectiveness as a painful shot in the bum. What reason would any rational being have for preferring the painful method over the non-painful one when both are clearly available? Reason dictates that there really aren’t any. In the same sense, God could bring about whatever effect he so chooses, and can do so without the need for evil. (If this is not the case, then greater questions of God’s omnipotence and goodness are necessary.) For this reason, Rowe argues that it is merely more probable than not that atheism provides a more rational answer to the question of whether or not god exists.

Seeing the theodicies fail, we return to skeptical theism, and the weak objection of BS. The weakness of BS’s noseeum objection is simply this; if there were such goods that justify evil, we would expect to be aware of them. We now return to our sound noseeum implied by premise 1 of AFE, because we are right in expecting not to see such justifications, especially in light of the goodness and power of God.

Here we have examined the problem of evil, and determined that the argument retains its force and truth despite allowing for the challenge of the first, and strongest premise. The challenge allowed for the possibility that some evil can be justified if and only if certain rational criteria are met, and having examined four of the strongest attempts at satisfying those criteria, and having each attempt fail, we see that no such justification for evil exists. For these reasons, the challenge brought forth by the skeptical theist fails; therefore, the skeptical theist reply to the problem of evil is implausible. Certainly many theists must have recognized that rational evaluation of theistic claims tends to defeat them, so it is more likely than not that their argument will resort to an appeal based on faith as opposed to reason. Still others, such as Alvin Plantinga in God, Freedom, and Evil, argue that simply because it is not immediately evident that the theodicies presented satisfy clauses (i) and (ii), it cannot be deductively proven that no such vindication exists, therefore, we would be in error to conclude that the argument from evil is successful. Such a position ignores the fact that over thousands of years, human kind has yet to discover theodicies that would successfully meet both clauses. According to the maxim known as Ockham’s Razor, the simplest answer is most likely the correct one. In this case, the simplest answer to the problem of justifying evil is that there isn’t any. In that case, we are amply justified to saying that it is more likely the case that there is no god than we are in stating otherwise.

If I am wrong about all of this, then god forgive me for leading people astray, but technically it’s your own damn fault because you endowed me with insufficient reason to competently deduce the correct answer.

Yours in contemplation,


About facedownphilosophy

Proud recipient of the "Award for Outstanding Excellence in the Field of Unrivaled Superiority"
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7 Responses to Evaluating the skeptical theistic response to the problem of evil…

  1. whitefrozen says:

    Have you ever read Dostoevsky?

    • No, but just as soon as I am through with reading Plantinga, Locke (for the 10th fucking time), Allen, Klemke/Cahn, and Woltersdorff, I look forward to some fine leisure reading. “The Idiot” has been at the top of my list for quite some time. I here that Dostoevsky has a very incisive wit.

      • whitefrozen says:

        You’ll find some interesting takes on theodicy that relate very much to the content of this post. Spot-on takes, I would say, given my distaste for typical theodicies.

      • Which essay should I look for?

      • whitefrozen says:

        It’s in Dostoevsky’s masterwork, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ , so I can’t really point you to a specific chapter, since it’s a narrative. But one of the main characters, Ivan Karamazov, delivers some interesting thoughts on the emptiness of many moral theodicies.

      • Thank you for the suggestion. I love being directed to good and decent work, nearly as much as I love good and decent whiskey. To you, I raise my glass.

      • whitefrozen says:

        I’ll raise my glass as well (though I stick mostly to abbey ales) – to many good conversations to come.

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