Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Inductive Problem of Evil Argument Against the Existence of God

One of the most influential statements of the problem of evil argument for atheism goes something like this. In the history of sentient beings on this planet, there have been countless instances of prolonged suffering and death that occurred in isolation. Rowe gives a now famous example of a fawn that is burned horribly in a forest fire and that dies very slowly over the course of several days. By hypothesis, no humans find the fawn, no one exercises the virtues of kindness or sympathy by helping the fawn, and the slow, torturous death of the fawn doesn’t make some causal contribution to some chain of events that ultimately creates more good than evil, or helps to avoid some worse evil. If the fawn had died even one day or one hour sooner, the world would have been a better place. Surely, there have been many such events in the course of life on this planet. In order for Rowe’s argument to be successful, however, it need only be reasonable that there has been at least one such case in the millions of years that there have been creatures that are capable of suffering.

The argument is that if there was an all powerful, all knowing, and all good being, he would have eliminated such an instance of suffering. But since there surely are such cases in the world, there must not be an omni-God.

Perhaps the most compelling thing about Rowe’s argument, and the reason that it has been so influential, is that it seems obvious to anyone who thinks about it that there must have been cases like the one described. To deny Rowe’s first premise:

“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.”

would be to assert something that seems to utterly defy common sense, namely,

“There has never, in all the billions of years that creatures capable of experiencing pain on Earth, been a single instance where one of them experienced a moment of pain that was not absolutely necessary and that served some greater good or helped avoid some greater evil.”

That is, if you deny Rowe’s first premise, you have to adopt the view that there has never been any suffering that could have been eliminated or avoided from the larger perspective. And believing that have proven to be very difficult for anyone who has experienced what seemed like pointless suffering, or come across the corpse of a whale on the beach, or seen the ravages of disease.

Consider these two cases. These are not the sorts of examples that Rowe had in mind. An important facet of Rowe’s example is that the suffering occurs in complete isolation from human exercises of virtue or moral growth. But the cases graphically illustrate some closely related points:

On Dec. 26th, 2005, an enormous tsunami struck the coast of Thailand and surrounding areas. The best estimates of the death tolls now are around 240,000 people. Twins, Charlotte and Marcus, were vacationing with their parents on the beaches in Thailand when the wave swept inland. Their family became separate and their parents were killed. Here is Charlotte’s firsthand account of the event from The Guardian (Sat., Dec. 23, 2006):

Boxing Day in Khao Lak, 2004. Mum, Dad and I are lying on the sunbeds. Marcus has stayed in our room, watching a film. Mum is reading her diving magazine. I rub sun lotion all over myself. Dad is looking out to sea in a strange way. Mum and I look up and see the water disappear, leaving all the fish on the sand. We see children running out to help the fish back into the water, so that they do not die. Dad wants me to fetch the camera from the hotel so that we can film the water disappearing. I am too lazy. Dad gets up to fetch it himself, but first he and Mum have a little argument. Dad thinks that the water is drawing out. Mum and I shriek, "It's coming in."
"Calm down - of course it isn't coming in," says Dad, on his way to the hotel. I have not seen him since.

Mum and I see the wave. We take our stuff and run. Mum runs away ahead of me. I hear her voice: "For goodness sake run, Charlotte! Whatever happens I will always love you." I have not seen her since.

She disappears without bothering to check whether I am behind her. I run in panic, upwards, as far as I can. Get to a flight of steps where there is chaos. A small child is standing by the steps crying. The mother has left the child alone.

I am holding tightly on to the stair rail when the wave roars in over the whole of Khao Lak. I feel the wave rolling over me and pulling away the rail. I go with the wave out to sea and in again, several times. Under the surface, I swallow gulps of salty water when I try to get air. I will not survive if I do not come up to the surface. In the end I can take deep breaths. With my eyes closed. I am hanging in something, a tree? The roof of a house? The thing I am hanging on snaps and I am pulled out to sea again, out and in. After perhaps seven minutes I open my eyes. I have landed up by the hotel and see masses of people lying there, blood everywhere.

And here is an account of the course of cholera in its victims. The disease has literally killed millions of people in the course of human history.

"Cholera is a horrific illness. The onset of the disease is typically quick and spectacular; you can be healthy one moment and dead within hours. The disease, left untreated, has a fatality rate that can reach fifty per cent. The first sign that you have it is a sudden and explosive watery diarrhea, classically described as “rice-water stool,” resembling the water in which rice has been rinsed and sometimes having a fishy smell. White specks floating in the stool are bits of lining from the small intestine. As a result of water loss—vomiting often accompanies diarrhea, and as much as a litre of water may be lost per hour—your eyes become sunken; your body is racked with agonizing cramps; the skin becomes leathery; lips and face turn blue; blood pressure drops; heartbeat becomes irregular; the amount of oxygen reaching your cells diminishes. Once you enter hypovolemic shock, death can follow within minutes. A mid-nineteenth-century English newspaper report described cholera victims who were “one minute warm, palpitating, human organisms—the next a sort of galvanized corpse, with icy breath, stopped pulse, and blood congealed—blue, shrivelled up, convulsed.” Through it all, and until the very last stages, is the added horror of full consciousness. You are aware of what’s happening: “the mind within remains untouched and clear,—shining strangely through the glazed eyes . . . a spirit, looking out in terror from a corpse.”

“Sick City,” Steven Shapin. The New Yorker, Nov. 6, 2006.

Rowe’s point is that even if some of the instances of people suffering or dying from cholera contributed to some greater good or avoided some greater evil—someone’s immune system grew stronger, scientific knowledge of hygiene and sanitation improved, or some future genocidal dictator died in the crib—it is perfectly reasonable to believe that at least some of the cases did not play some positive role like that. There may have been some net benefit to the suffering that someone like Charlotte experienced as a result of the Christmas day tsunami (although she would likely reject the claim that she is somehow better off for having her parents torn away from her, battered, and drowned), but there must have been some of the suffering and death induced by the tsunami that did not do anything good. The reason Rowe’s argument is so powerful is that there only needs to be a single instance like that to render the first premise true, and the argument sound.

The surprising thing for me is that I have thought about it for years, and I don’t think the argument works. The reason I don’t think it works is that reflecting carefully on the notion of an omni-God and the kind of relationship he might have to the world, it undermines the powerful intuition we initially have in favor of Rowe’s first premise. But a full discussion of that will take some space, obviously, and will fill up the better part of a chapter in the atheism book I am writing.

10 comments:

Eric said...

I'm interested to hear more about why you think the argument doesn't work, and I'm impatient and don't want to wait for the book. Care to give a nutshell overview?

Anonymous said...

even if you do claim that some evil or suffering exists because of some greater good that can occur one day in light of the evil, or that by permitting this one instance of evil, god is not permitting something even worse from happening- isn't this sort of a week argument in the first place? it seems to me to be an argument from ignorance, and that rowe's argument doesn't even need to include this proviso in the first place.

because we are of course not omniscient, we can't know of this greater good that might take place one day because of the suffering that occurred, or the suffering that didn't happen in lieu of that which did. with that said, we are arguing straight from ignorance, that there MIGHT be something we don't know that is brewing, namely a greater good, that will manifest itself one day to explain the seemingly pointless suffering.

well, how long do we wait for this greater good? 10, 15 years? what if it never shows up? couldn't you always say, using the argument from ignorance, "just wait, the greater good will prevail. you just have to have faith. we can't see it now, but it's coming. it will explain this all." so how long do you wait for the greater good to manifest itself before you simply concede that an omni-god would prevent this pointless suffering, regardless; before you simply concede that there is just no greater good that can come from 240,000 people dying? after all, what greater good have we seen from the holocaust, and how long should we wait for it before we deem it pointless suffering? how long do we need to wait for the vindication of the suffering before we can just call it quits and deem it pointless? of course it's possible we're ignorant of the greater good that can come one fine day, but you can't just justify everything with the greater good argument. it's simply ignorant!

--Josh Cadji

Anonymous said...

You say "Reflecting carefully on the notion of an omni-God and the kind of relationship he might have to the world, it undermines the powerful intuition we initially have in favor of Rowe’s first premise," and then leave it hanging. Surely an argument from personal reflection should not convince us that Rowe's premise (or argument) is fallacious. It is like saying "When I think carefully about God and all God's wisdom, there just has to be a really good reason for all of this apparently extraneous suffering" and hoping the rest of us nod our heads in silent agreement at the inscrutability and awesomeness of God's plan--in short, it is question-begging--what plan? what god? The problem of evil denier still owes us a proof of a an omni-god.

Jon said...

There is another powerful argument concerning natural evil "The laws of quantum mechanics have an intrinsically random element that can never be eliminated. Why not - why can't we predict the future from the knowledge of the initial positions and velocities? The answer is the famoous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle." - Leonard Susskind's - The Cosmic Landscape, String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design - Randomness is a direct contradiction to an omni-god. Randomness causes natural evil as well as good. The universe or multiverse could have been designed perfect, predictable and profound. It is not, therefore there is no omni-god.

Jon said...

One reason why the the Inductive Problem of Evil argument does not work is simply because it is Inductive. I'm sure everyone knows that, but I just want to clarify induction, and then give an argument based on deduction. Induction gives us what seems as probability. i.e. an inductive argument may make it seem that the chances are 99.9x10 to the 500th power that are argument is sound. But it is not bulletproof. It does give us intelligent reasoning behind our daily belief's however, i.e. I believe that gravity will not jump 1 million fold so that I get crushed by a black hole event in the next five minutes. Maybe a deductive argument will go as follows. 1. God is all good. 2. God can only create perfect goodness. 3. No matter the reason or purpose for their being evil, the existence of evil would negate God's existence. 4. Evil exists at least in my mind. 5. Therefore God does not exist.

paullve said...

Maybe suffering is not the greatest evil. Lets say that adoration of god is a good. Why not make a universe where everyone just was programmed to adore god. Maybe free adoration is a greater good. Then this would require a universe where god did not routinely interfere. Lets say god made 10 universes, one in which he never interfered, one in 10% of the cases of useless sufferring, one in 20%. I guess we could be sure we were not in the one with 100% interference, but for the rest we could not tell in which one we were living.

All we can show is a omnipotent god, who is constrained by the moral imperative to avoid unnessecary suffering does not exist.

In order to prove God does not exist, we have to be correct on the assumptions we make on the nature of god. But if god does not exist, then the assumptions we have made about god's nature are false.

golferdude7123 said...

God created us with free will and in doing so He gave us the option of choosing good or evil. He cannot create a world without evil because then we wouldn't have free will. But He didn't necessary create evil. God create the tools for evil and Adam and Eve put used them to create evil when they first sinned or The Fall. Evil actually started when Lucifer thought he could place his own goodness over God, and in doing so he created the deprivation of good, or evil.

golferdude7123 said...

God created us with free will and in doing so He gave us the option of choosing good or evil. He cannot create a world without evil because then we wouldn't have free will. But He didn't necessary create evil. God create the tools for evil and Adam and Eve put used them to create evil when they first sinned or The Fall. Evil actually started when Lucifer thought he could place his own goodness over God, and in doing so he created the deprivation of good, or evil.

golferdude7123 said...

God created us with free will and in doing so He gave us the option of choosing good or evil. He cannot create a world without evil because then we wouldn't have free will. But He didn't necessary create evil. God create the tools for evil and Adam and Eve put used them to create evil when they first sinned or The Fall. Evil actually started when Lucifer thought he could place his own goodness over God, and in doing so he created the deprivation of good, or evil.

Rim Crim said...

I'd just like to note that, if, as a theist might wish to argue, a god let a fawn suffer for days and die because of a greater good that would eventually result, it implies two things.

One is that this god is as much a slave to cause-and-effect as a human or an eroding rock formation, and is unable to cause this greater good to come about without the suffering of the fawn.

Another implication is that this god's ends justify its means. This implication is perhaps not as strong, but theists who suggests that a god's ends justify its means must also explain why a human's ends do not, if they believe that ends do not justify means.

Such theists must also live with the belief that the proposition, "the end justifies the means" is a relative proposition.