Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rowe's argument from evil and anti-evolutionary arguments

Consider Rowe's argument, which is essentially:

  1. E is an evil for which we have been unable to find a justifier despite serious investigation.
  2. Therefore, probably, E has no justifier.
  3. If some evil has no justifier, then theism is false.
  4. Therefore, probably, theism is false.

And then consider this anti-evolutionary argument:

  1. F is a major inheritable feature of an organism for which we have been unable to find an evolutionary explanation despite serious investigation.
  2. Therefore, probably, F has no evolutionary explanation.
  3. If some major inheritable feature of an organism has no evolutionary explanation, then evolutionary universalism is false.
  4. Therefore, probably, evolutionary universalism is false.
Here, evolutionary universalism is the claim that all major inheritable features of organisms have their presence explained by means of evolutionary explanations. (There are many ways of spelling out "major" that still leaves (5) plausible in some cases.)

It is an interesting sociological fact that many atheists think 1-4 is a good argument and 5-8 is a bad one, and that many creationists and intelligent design advocates think 5-8 is a good argument and 1-4 is a bad one.

But I think both are bad.

I suspect that if you took an evolutionary scientist and offered 5-8 outside of the politicized context that such arguments as 5-8 these days carry, the biologist would say something like: "Of course, we don't have all the ramifications of evolution worked out yet. F is a research problem that X, Y, Z and others are currently working on (variant: I haven't thought about F, but it would be an interesting research problem for one of my graduate students--I have a smart one I may suggest it to). For any major theory like evolution we expect there to be such research problems." And the theist can say much the same thing, mutatis mutandis. And that can be enough of an answer.

Furthermore, and this is an idea based on what Trent Dougherty has said to me about the problem of evil, the scientist may add: "And while we haven't found out the evolutionary explanation, here is a story which, if true, would be such an explanation, and which is compatible with what we know." This is the giving of just-so stories, which is oft derided by opponents of evolution, but which is perfectly legitimate. And the theistic analogue is obvious.


Heath White said...

My first thought is to appeal to Kuhn. He says that paradigms always have anomalies, but that science can't continue without a paradigm, so you take the anomalies as research problems. Only in rare and extreme cases, when anomalies pile up intractably and some alternative paradigm becomes viable, does the paradigm-in-place get questioned.

I think the position of the biologist is that there is no serious contender with evolutionary universalism, so anomalies are merely research problems for the paradigm-in-place. In the philosophy of religion, there are (at least in some minds) multiple serious candidates for paradigms, so we are quicker to call anomalies serious difficulties for a contending paradigm.

That is a diagnosis of the dialectical situation, not a position within it.

rigelrover said...
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rigelrover said...

It is interesting that Kuhn's recommendation would fall under its own pervue...

If anomalies do pile up, potentially, for every paradigm there is then there are an abundance of intractable anomalies for the meta-paradigm that we should hold onto any paradigm as long as there aren't too many intractable anomalies. An anomaly for Kuhn's paradigm would have to be at least a single paradigm of the same scope of his which itself does not have an anamoly... but if it were the case that such a paradigm existed, then it would result in our adopting that very paradigm on its superior merits and not Kuhn's.

I think, rather, that Alex's point about the inconsistency of the application of epistemological standards between the two parties who want to uphold either 1-4 or 5-8 but not both or neither reduces to a case of weighing a Cartesian epistemology against a modern particularist one. Allowing that particularist epistemologies are appropriate does not guarantee which particular truths will be granted to certain parties as either self-evident or not worth doubting in anything but an academic exercise. In this case it is a matter of cumulative evidences that warrants which, if either, argument should be accepted as a rational one.

Kuhn's is much like Plantinga's except that Kuhn would want to adopt a slightly different set of basic beliefs. Under Kuhn one might be more likely to arrive at the conclusion that 1-4 is more warranted, but that would be a prescribed conclusion that rested solely in one's presumption of Kuhn's standards of belief, I think.

That aside, it is trivially true that any absolute gap in a paradigm guarantees that it cannot ultimately succeed. Whereas the problem of potential E's may only apparently have no justifier, people in the intelligent design movement have attempted to set nomological probability bounds such that there are some F's for which there are positively no possible justifiers.

The question is whether those bounds are justifiable.

Boonton said...

I wouldn't go so far as to appeal to Kuhn. The problem is in the term 'serious investigation'. Computing the nature and magnitude of what it means to do a 'serious investigation' of all 'major' inheritable features of an organism. It's akin to something like gathering all the grains of sand on a beach and piecing them together into the original rocks that they were.

In contrast, most Evils do not appear so difficult to investigate. Unless you're going to take a Panglossian view that all is for the best, always, it's pretty easy to say that evils like the Holocaust are quite difficult to justify.

Both arguments you present here are what I call the 'reverse OJ' argument. Consider what prosecutors tried to prove with OJ, that he killed two people. But that's not the only possible way to prove OJ guilty. You could prove everyone else in the entire world innocent. Consider this argument:

1. Ron and Nicole were killed by a person in LA.
2. All persons in LA can be proven innocent on the night in question except OJ.
3. Therefore OJ is guilty.

Prosecutors don't usually mount proofs like that because we often have no way to know who was in LA on any given night, let alone prove their wherabouts! But sometimes it can happen. I recall hearing once about a prison guard who was killed while locked in the back of a transport van with 4 prisoners. In a case like that, if you bar supernatural intervention as reasonable, you can prove prisoner A guilty if you can prove that prisoner's B,C and D were innocent.

The difficulty in applying this proof, though, is that you must establish that you've covered all possibilities except one. In the case of evolution, you must prove that all possible explanations for a trait that involve improving fitness is false. Therefore the trait must not have arising due to evoluationary advantage. But how can you prove you haven't negelected an obscure, difficult to see evoluationary advantage? There's probably millions out there. The number of reasons an infinite God, on the other hand, could permit the Holacaust are much more limited IMO. The 'reverse OJ proof' is, therefore, more viable.

rigelrover said...
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rigelrover said...

If we have good reason to believe in an infinite (or necessary being) who is perfect in justice before coming to the problem of evil, then I would think that we have warrant in taking a given E to be a contingent or apparent unexplained/unjustified evil, but not an unexplainable/unjustifiable one. The problem of evil is for those who have already warrant to believe in this kind of God, not for those who precluded it from their worldview.

On the other hand it is at least, in theory, possible to establish a probability bound for states of affairs resulting in a given unexplained F on chance alone.

Your objection seems to be the emotive one: "How can THIS all powerful God cause/allow these things to happen in his Good world?"; questioning God's motives/purposes rather than his existence.

James Bejon said...

@Boonton: I don't know that I'd want to limit "the number of reasons an infinite God" could have. For one thing, there is the biblical view of things to consider: "For [as] the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa 55). But besides that, why can't God's reasons currently be as obscure to us as are their evolutionary counterparts? Take, for instance, the concept of 'spandrels' of evolution. Why can't God's reasons be like that? Alternatively, maybe God's reason for allowing some particular evil E depends precisely on our not being able to fathom his reason for allowing it.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Well, the real life situation is often like this: scientific theory T has anomalies, but so do its serious competitors. The same is true in the case of theism.


"In contrast, most Evils do not appear so difficult to investigate"

The evil in itself may not be so difficult to investigate, but its consequences, especially its moral consequences, are exceedingly difficult. Likewise, antecedents are often hard to investigate. No doubt some evils are justified as punishment of someone wicked. But except in the case of someone of obviously stellar character, or someone very young, it's really hard to figure out if they've deserved it.

Typically, few people, except the sufferers themselves, bother with the investigation. And the sufferers often, though far from always, come to a positive conclusion that there is a justification.

I am inclined to think of the Holocaust as primarily (though perhaps not exclusively) an aggregate of evils to particular individuals, and I do not think there is much reason to expect a single theodicy to cover them all.

rigelrover said...
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Boonton said...

Something's been bothering me about this all last night and I think I hit upon it:

"8.Therefore, probably, evolutionary universalism is false."

That little word 'universalism' is a major problem with this argument. If it means what I think it means, you're saying that all traits can be tied to some evolutionary advantage. That's a tall order, one which no actual scientist would subscribe too.

But consider if evolution explains, say, 80% of inherited traits. You have a theory that has huge explainatory value. Compare this with the classical 'laws of motion' and gravity that culminated with Newton. They don't describe anywhere near 80% of motion. Drop a feather from a tower, for example, and it won't follow the 'laws of motion' except under hypersylized conditions (for example, in a pure vacuum).

So the problem with your counter argument is that if you did find a trait that absolutely couldn't be explained by evolution....well all you got is a trait that can't be explained by evolution, so what? If 90%, 80%, even 50% or 40% of traits can be explained by evolution you still got a pretty good theory. The argument relies on a straw man, a fictional scientist/philosopher who is asserting 'evolution all or nothing'....i.e. if there's a single trait that evolution can't explain then evolution can't explain anything! No such scientist or philospher exists or has ever existed.

The Theodicy problem, though, is trickier. It's premises are more definitional:

1. An infinite God can make the universe do whatever he wants.

2. There is evil that clearly happens in this universe.


There is either no infinite God that exists or he is not a purely good God.

#1 I think can't be disputed as a premise. Likewise I don't think many would really care to dispute #2 unless you want to take a Panglossian view of things ("yes the Holocaust was bad, but it helped Israel get established and maybe over many, many years that good will outweigh the bad so we do indeed live in the 'best of all possible worlds' ".....this is not an argument I find very convincing)

The only way to dispute this is to call out the 'hidden premise'...

2.5 A God that's perfectly good would not permit evil

To me this 'hidden premise' is not at all as obvious. On the individual level of finite entities, like us, we usually do make a distinction between comission and omission. It's one thing to commit a murder, it's not the same to fail to stop a murder. But since we are finite we face a 'resource allocation problem'. We can easily say we have a duty not to add to the evil of the world but to say we have a duty to lower the amount of evil....well we have to consider that we are plagued with imperfect information, imperfect reasoning skills, and limited resources. How you apply this to an entity who is by definition infinite and suffers from no lack of knowledge, power, energy etc. I'm not sure.

On the con-side of God, you have the fact that God has none of the limits humans have in stopping evil. On the pro-side, however, you have the fact that God can 'compensate' for evil by creating good so perhaps 2.5 fails because you can have a 'perfectly good God' that chooses to permit evil but offset it with good of some sort. To use a cartoonish example, imagine if every murder victim suddenly awoke to an alterate reality where they could enjoy the life that was unjustly taken from them? Likewise the family of every victim could at some point get the time they were denied 'back' with their loved one. Would this 'compensate' for God allowing the murder to happen in the first place?

In sum the theodicy argument is not a slam dunk against the existence of God, IMO, but the evolution argument you draw in contrast doesn't, IMO, really pick up on its flaws.

James Bejon said...

Boonton: "'re saying that all traits can be tied to some evolutionary advantage..."

The OP defines evolutionary universalism as the claim "that all major inheritable features of organisms have their presence explained by means of evolutionary explanations". But something's having an evolutionary explanation needn't entail its having an advantage. Deleterious mutations, for instance, can have evolutionary explanations.

Boonton said...

OK but the problem here is still with the term 'universalism'. Consider the 'endosymbiont' theory for mitochondria origins. Mitochondria are little 'organs' inside cells. They have their own DNA. The endosymbiont idea is that they basically evolved not by evolution but when one cell 'ate' another but found it couldn't digest it. The two cells then entered a symbiotic relationship until they basically seem like a single organism today. (

Now clearly mitochondria are no minor trait of cells so in a sense we already suspect 'evolutionary universalism' is not quite true. The problem, though, is that evolution can be mostly true and that would make it a fantastic theory. But the theodicy question deals in absolutes. If you say God permits evil, for example, because he's only 'mostly good'....well you've stumbled onto a major theological issue.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The endosymbiont stuff sounds like an evolutionary explanation to me, just one involving a more complex replicant and a more complex mutation event.