VT Debate–The Problem of Gratuitous Evil

by Max Andrews

One of the objections made by one of the atheists in the VT debate on the existence of God was William Rowe’s form of the problem of gratuitous evil:[1]

  1. There exist instances of intense suffering that an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. (Factual premise)
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering that being could, unless that being could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. (Theological premise).
  3. Therefore, There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Or, simply put:

  1. There are unnecessary evils.
  2. God would prevent evils without losing some greater good.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

I never had the opportunity to respond to this in the debate since there was no cross-examination nor was this raised in the Q&A.  There are two problems, I believe, with this argument.  I would object to the first two premises (or the whole thing while I’m at it…).  Concerning P1, there are no ways of knowing if God does not have a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil.  We do not exist in a privileged spatiotemporal position to make the claim that he doesn’t.  Thus, we have:

1’ No goods we know of would justify God allowing E1 or E2 to occur (Event of evil). (Then 2’).

Premise 1′ is the best case one could make in formulating this argument.  Therefore, the conclusion for this premise would at best be: probably, there are no goods, simpliciter (in any sense), that would justify God.  However, there are two questions that must be addressed:

  • A: Are we in an epistemic position to say there are gratuitous evils?
  • B: Are we in an epistemic position to say there are no gratuitous evils?

But, 1′ is just a concession to the objection–that we are epistemically limited and to make a claim such as 1 requires a level of epistemic privilege we do not possess. If we say “it seems so” (as in A) is saying “it is” unless there is some reason to stop that inference.

Paul Draper (an atheist and skilled in inductive logic) also questions P1 for logical reasons.  He asks the question, “Does P1 have a strong enough representative sampling?”  Draper says, No.  We know it’s not representative because not every good entered into sampling.  All possibilities must have the same chance in the sampling.  We know it’s not representative because there may be goods we cannot know or comprehend or justify with God in our mind.  I brought this up after the debate with the atheist who raised this objection and his response was simply, “Well, you do this with the fine-tuning argument.”  Of course, it wasn’t the time or place to ensue in further debate so I let it go at that point since I addressed that objection during the Q&A (see The Fine-Tuning Argument and Random Sampling).

This doesn’t fully answer the problem of evil but I believe this gives sufficient reason to reject the argument from gratuitous evil.  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.  (For more on my use of probability in the debate see VT Debate–My Method of Argumentation).

[1] William Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979): 335.


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