A Short Response to William Rowe’s “The Problem of Evil”

by Max Andrews

See William Rowe, “The Problem of Evil,” in Philosophy of Religion (Belmont: CA, Wadsworth, 2007), 112-31.

Rowe makes a strong positive case for why atheism is true.  He supposes that, as especially in the absence of other arguments, anyone who observes the amount of human and animal suffering in the world and the truth of premise 1 in the evidential argument (that there are probably pointless evils) then this person would be rationally justified in believing atheism to be true. He presents two basic forms of the argument:  the logical and the evidential problems of evil.  The logical problem of evil argues that the existence of God and the existence of evil are logically contradictory claims.  However, these aren’t explicitly contradictory—they are implicit (i.e. a married bachelor is an implicit contradiction and a married non-married person is an explicit contradiction).  Rowe recognizes that we must abandon the logical problem of evil because the contradiction has yet to be proved (though he states that just because it has yet to be demonstrated doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t one).

The evidential problem is a probabilistic argument, which argues that given the apparent [pointless] evil it is more probable that God does not exist than if God does exist.  He uses the example of a fawn suffering for no apparent reason.  Given that God would prevent this from happening and the fact that it does happen then God doesn’t seem to exist.  Rowe seems to favor this form of the problem of evil over the logical problem.

Each of the arguments is countered with theistic objections to the problem of evil such as the free will defense and other theodicies.  Rowe gives fair attention and representation of the competing explanations.  He concedes that there are certainly rational grounds for believing in theism and advocates a form of friendly agnosticism or atheism and discourages any unfriendly forms of agnosticism or atheism.

Here are Rowe’s arguments:

The Logical Problem of Evil

  1. God exists and is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good.
  2. Evil exists
  3. An omnipotent, omniscient, good being will prevent the occurrence of any evil whatever.
  4. A good, omnipotent, omniscient being prevents the occurrence of any evil that is not logically necessary for the occurrence of a good, which outweighs it.
  5. There are occurrences of evil that is not logically necessary for the occurrence of a good, which outweighs it.
  6. Therefore, God does not exist.

The Evidential Problem of Evil

  1. Probably, there are pointless evils.
  2. If God exists, there are no pointless evils.
  3. Therefore, probably, God does not exist.

One of the problems I found with Rowe’s argument is that he requires God, by definition, to want to prevent certain evils.  This has the idea that we are akin to divine pets.  I don’t think that is necessarily the case.  If it’s even possible then it removes the problem in the logical form.  Also, the evidential, or probabilistic, argument from evil must be taken into consideration with background information.  What is the background information? It must include other arguments for the existence of God because of the use of a theological premise.  Thus, you have the problem of good as well.  Given the total background knowledge it’s still highly probable that God exist.

I still had a few questions remaining. How could you quantify instances of evil?  Does an instance count as the total result, persons involved, or immediate effects? Shouldn’t the problem of animal suffering be expressed probabilistically?  In other words, since we don’t know if animals consciously suffer, as in first order suffering, the animals knowing, “I am suffering right now,” shouldn’t that inference that they are being, at best, a probability claim? Why assume that God, necessarily, would prevent pointless evils? Especially if evil is quantifiable, why think that these instances outweigh the probability that God does exist given the total background information?

If you've read the chapter or Rowe on the problem of evil you'll get why there's a picture of a deer here.


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