The Evidential Argument from Evil

24 June 2008

The Evidential Argument from Evil is a collection of scholarly articles written by the top philosophers currently writing in the field. It includes both defenders and critics of the evidential argument from evil. Many of the contributions are excellent and greatly enhance the discussion.

For the most part, the theistic critics of the Problem of Evil tend not to focus directly on the issue of theodicy- providing reasons why God may permit evil in the world. Richard Swinburne is the only contributor who attempts to offer a full-fledged theodicy, though Eleanore Stump offers a discussion on the book of Job that approaches a theodicy as well. The main emphasis is on defenses- merely logically possible accounts- and an appeal to our cognitive limitations. Basically, most of the theistic writers try to demonstrate that we are simply not in a cognitive position to judge with any certainty whether or not God has a sufficient reason for the evils that exist in the world. Since we have no idea whether or not God has a reason, it is a bit hasty to conclude from the existence of unexplained evil in the world that God probably does not exist.

This is one aspect of the Problem of Evil that I do not tend to emphasize in my own analysis of this issue. I tend to think that a bare appeal to our cognitive limitations is inadequate. While it is legitimate to point out that we should not expect to understand God’s reasons for any particular evil, it is not legitimate to avoid offering any sorts of plausible reasons why evil and suffering in general exists in the world.

Nevertheless, the theistic critics make a good case that we should not truly be surprised if we are unable to think of the reasons why God allows so much evil and suffering in the world. Thus, when the defender of the Problem of Evil jumps from the premise that we don’t know why so much evil exists, to the premise that God does not have a sufficient reason for permitting the evil that exists, they improperly assume that we are in the type of cognitive situation where we should expect to find reasons even if they existed.

The atheist defenders of the problem offer several different formulations of the argument throughout the volume. As Bruce Russell notes, there are several different formulations of the evidential argument from evil, so theistic critics must be careful not to jump the gun and assume that a critique of one type constitutes a critique of all types. Of particular note is the type of argument developed by Paul Draper. Draper does not challenge the theist to explain apparently gratuitous evil, he offers a hypothesis competing with theism that he believes explains the evidence concerning the distribution of pain and pleasure in the world better than theism. This is a powerful argument that must be addressed, and it cannot simply be lumped together with all other types of arguments from evil.

Ultimately, I would have liked more authors to attempt the development of substantial theodicies like the soul-making theory or the free will defense. These seem to be critical aspects of the problem of evil that were not really addressed. Nevertheless, this book contains a number of excellent essays that advance the discussion of the problem of evil. Many of the essays are quite technical and challenging, but for the reader who is prepared for such an advanced discussion, this book will prove useful. However, for a comprehensive overview of the problem of evil, the reader may have to look elsewhere.


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