Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The argument from partial theodicy

The following would be a superb teleological argument for the existence of God if only we had good reason to accept (1) without relying on theism:

  1. Every evil has a theodicy.
  2. If every evil has a theodicy, then probably God exists.
  3. So, probably God exists.
I can think of two (perhaps not ultimately different) ways of making (2) plausible. First, the best explanation of (1) would be that God exists. Second, that an evil has a theodicy means that it's the sort of thing that God would have a reason to permit if God existed. But it would be very odd if all evils had this hypothetical God-involving property without God existing. It would be a cosmic coincidence.

But as I said, (1) is the rub. However, what about this version:

  1. Most evils happening to humans have a theodicy.
  2. If most evils happening to humans have a theodicy, then probably God exists.
  3. So, probably, God exists.
And while we're at it, let's add:
  1. If God exists, all evils have a theodicy.
  2. So, probably, all evils have a theodicy.
Premise (5) is harder to justify than (2), but I think the reasoning behind (2) still contributes to the plausibility of (5). The best alternative to theism is a form of naturalism, and we just wouldn't expect most evils, or even most evils happening to people, to have a theodicy on naturalism, so our best explanation for why most such evils have a theodicy is that God exists.

I want to say something about why I am restricting (4) and the antecedent of (5) to evils happening to humans. The reason is that we have much better epistemic access to evils happening to humans, and so we are better able to judge of both the magnitude of the evils and the theodicies and lack thereof.

And (4) is much easier to justify than (1). All we need is enough partial theodicies. Plausibly, for instance, many evils—perhaps it's already most evils—are moral evils that are sufficiently non-horrendous that a free will theodicy directly applies to them. Many evils have a good theodicy in terms of the exercise of virtue they enable. And when I reflect on the evils that have befallen me in my life, it's easy to see that I deserve punishment for them all by my sins, and would have deserved a lot more than I got. Granted, I've lived a charmed life, so the applicability of this will be limited. But between freedom, virtue and punishment, it is plausible that the majority of evils happening to people have been covered.

A somewhat different argumentative route is:

  1. Most evils happening to humans have a theodicy.
  2. The best explanation of (9) is that all evils have a theodicy.
  3. So, probably, all evils have a theodicy.
  4. If all evils have a theodicy, then probably God exists.
  5. At least somewhat probably, God exists.

Finally, there will be first-person versions that make use of a premise like:

  1. Every evil (or: most evils) that happened to me has a theodicy.


Michael Gonzalez said...

Honestly, I'm not convinced of (2).... Playing devil's advocate (no pun intended!), couldn't the atheist just charge that theism is so loosely defined, or so easily varied, that a wide range of evils can have theodicy-style explanations, and so it is not all that surprising that the subset of evils which happen to have actually occured fall under one or more theodicy-style explanations? It seems to me that there is a problem with saying "X has a theodicy". That implies that it is a property of the evil in question and prejudices the issue. The best you can hope for is to say that, for any X, there exists a theodicy which can defend theism from it. Wording it that way leaves open the response above: that theism is just too easy to defend from evils in general, because of being loosely defined or something like that (akin to what Sean Carroll said a lot in his debate with William Lane Craig).

I guess my fundamental concern is that the property of "having a theodicy" might be thought of more as a statement about the ingenuity of the defenders of theism from the Problem of Evil than a property of the evil itself, which makes the defense of (2) seem less strong.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't see theism as being all that ill-defined in respect of what is most relevant to the partial theodicies in question. God is perfectly morally good, all powerful and all knowing. That's what's most relevant to theodicy.

Sure, there are questions about exactly what omnipotence comes to, but those questions do not affect theodicy very much. Preventing disease is not like creating stones that no one can lift. The partial theodicies I mention in the post do not depend on fine details of the doctrine of independence.

That said, there is a real dividing point as to whether God has middle knowledge. If he does, that makes free will theodicies more difficult. But the case against Molinist is pretty strong, so I am happy to restrict myself to non-Molinist theism.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr Pruss

How exactly do you define "theodicy"?
IMHO, the word theodicy in and out of itself already presupposes a god of some kind.
Does it make sence to say that there is a theodicy for some (or most or all) evil under naturalism?
That doesn't mean there isn't an explanation for evil under naturalism.
But then it would seem that a (partial) explanation of evil under naturalism is more likely than under theism and the argument gets dangerously close to the evidential problem of evil..

Alexander R Pruss said...

I see a theodicy for an evil E as a giving of reasons that would justify God in permitting E if God existed. (That's a rough and ready idea, and of course a lot of refinement would be needed to be very happy with it.)

Walter Van den Acker said...

Yes, I understand this. But it still seems odd to claim that some reason a hypothetical God would have for permitting evil means that this God is not hypothetical but real.
Why wouldn't the same hold, e.g. for the reasons a hypothetical Gandalf may have for helping the Hobbits? Does that have any bearing on the actual existence of Gandalf?

I am also a little bit puzzled as to why you would say that Molinism makes free will theodicies more difficult.
Is it because you think Molinism isn't compatible with libertarian free will?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Suppose I see something and say: "That's just the sort of thing Gandalf would do." And I have this experience many times. Then that gives me some reason to think Gandalf exists.

One reason Molinism causes trouble for theodicy is that Molinism is very likely to make it possible for God to manipulate our actions to an extremely high degree, and hence to ensure that we exercise our freedom while almost never, and perhaps never, doing wrong.

Walter Van den Acker said...

If J.R.R. Tolkien said this and had this experience many times, I don't think that would give us reasons to think Gandalf really existed.
Now, an atheist obviously believes that God was somehow "made up" by someone (or some people or lots of people).
It doesn't seem too much of a coincidence in that case that those who made up this God, or those who already regard this fictional God as real and have lots of information about this fictional character, would say things like, "That's the sort of thing God would do" on lots of occasions.
I have been a Trekkie since I was a child and there are lots of things I would say are the things Captian Kirk would or wouldn't do. Yet, I do not believe Captain Kirk is real.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In the Gandalf case, it would give us *some* reason, but maybe not all that much.

But it would be very much a prima facie surprising fact that most evils are such that there is good reason for a perfect being to allow them. Given naturalism, we would not expect evils to be particularly nicely tied to goods on average.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Maybe that's just me, but I don't find it surprising at all that people come up with all sorts of ad hoc "excuses" that make it look like evil is compatible with the character they believe in.
So, I think we'll have to agree to disagree about this.
Thank you for the link to the article on Molinism. I have just skimmed it and I will read it more thoroughly when I find the time. Looks interesting.

Mike Almeida said...

Second, that an evil has a theodicy means that it's the sort of thing that God would have a reason to permit if God existed. But it would be very odd if all evils had this hypothetical God-involving property without God existing. It would be a cosmic coincidence.

Alex, this observation is importantly relevant to arguments for skeptical theism. What we should be asking in Rowe's argument is the probability that there is a good simpliciter for evils, given that we do not observe one, not the probability that there is a God purposed good. The probability of the latter is higher than the probability of the former, and it makes Rowe's challenge stronger.

Alexander R Pruss said...

There is a constraint on the "excuses": they need to actually excuse. :-)

Walter Van den Acker said...

Yes, they need to actually excuse, which according to the theist making them, they do and which according to the atheist, they obviously don't.

Alexander R Pruss said...

According to the atheist, they don't excuse everything. I think there are few philosophical atheists who insist that no case of evil has a successful theodicy.

Walter Van den Acker said...

I think, given naturalism, it can be expected that some cases of evil have a successful theodicy.
And I may be mistaken, but I don't think many atheist philosphers hold that most evils have a successful theodicy. So, I think my point stands.

But I have said what I wanted to say, so, I respectfully bow out.
Again, thanks for the interesting exchange.

Kolten Ellis said...

Couldn't the Molinist respond either that (a) this world simply is the best possible world with regard to the total number of persons saved and the lowest possible amount of Moral Evil, or (perhaps more convincingly) (b) that God's primary concern in creation is the maximal ratio of Saved to damned, and that it may be infeasable to obtain a better ratio than a world with significant moral evil could provide?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yet given Molinism and Zimmerman's manipulation argument, it sure seems likely that God could ensure a better outcome, since probably by tweaking the antecedents in insignificant ways, he could get just about any outcome, including everyone being saved.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: I agree with you that Molinism is hopeless (not just for this reason, though I certainly think this is a strong objection to using theodicies while espousing Molinism...). But I'm still not sure that (2) is sufficiently persuasive in your original post. Could the exact same effect be found if the defenders of theism were sufficiently clever? Or if the theodicies themselves are sufficiently broad? For example, a "supralapsarian" sort of response might go something like this: The sacrifice of Christ is such a superlative good that it justifies a great deal of evil, and indeed cannot exist without the backdrop of such evils from whcih to save us. I may be mispresenting the supralapsarian a bit (I'm not really impressed with this sort of answer myself). But my point is this: An evil event's being susceptible to this kind of justification is (in my opinion) more due to the extremely broad scope of the theodicy. So it should not be surprising that, even on naturalism, all evils which actually occur could in principle be defended via this sort of theodicy.

Alexander R Pruss said...

To count as a theodicy, a story has to be *true*. It has to be a correct excuse.

Of course, I think the Christ's sacrifice story is true, but the atheist will deny this. So this theodicy isn't useful here. (And if we could bring the atheist around to believe the story, then we would have probably convinced her of theism already. :-) )

On the other hand, my suggested partial theodicies are ones that there is some hope of the atheist's acceptance of. We have the arguments for incompatibilism and it's pretty plausible that significant freedom has significant value, and together this makes it very plausible that freedom justifies the permission of many evils. And an atheist, particularly one who thinks poorly of me :-), may find it quite easy to accept my testimony to the claim that I have done enough wrong in my life that all the evils that have befallen me would be a just punishment.

Whether one could convince a reasonable atheist that *most* cases of evil are covered by a theodicy is not clear. But the task does not seem hopeless.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Oh, I see the point now. If the atheist is convinced that a certain good is sufficient justification for a set of evils, then they will not consider that to be a successful argument against God's existence. But, if all the evils in the world had such justifications, it would seem like a pretty wild coincidence given that God doesn't actually exist. Why shouldn't there be at least SOME evils which couldn't have been squared with His existence? That does seem like an interesting idea.