William Rowe and the Problem of Evil

by Max Andrews

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.

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, by 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.

(See William Rowe’s “The Problem of Evil” in chapter 7 of Philosophy of Religion (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2007), 112-131.)


One Comment to “William Rowe and the Problem of Evil”

  1. Ironically, you’re using an argumentative maneuver against Rowe’s evidential argument that Rowe is famous for discovering. He found it in the works of G.E. Moore, and it’s usually called the ‘Moorean shift’.

    It all starts with a conditional proposition in an argument: if p, then q. Premise (2) is such a proposition. From there, the argument may either affirm p or deny q making it either a modus ponens, or a modus tollens respectively. You can Moorean shift the argument by affirming or denying the opposite of what it does.

    So, in the evidential problem of evil above, Rowe denies (2)’s consequent and modus tollens’ God. You Moorean shift the argument by affirming (2)’s antecedent (in light of your background knowledge).

    Just some interesting trivia.

    There are basically two strategies I’d want to take in responding to your objection to Rowe’s evidential argument. First, I’d want to take a look at these probabilifying arguments in your background knowledge ’cause I’m confident there are good objections to them. Second, I’d want to make denying (1) as painful a bullet to bite as I could, such that it’s very uncomfortable to reject (1), even in light of arguments for God’s existence.

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