Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The evidential force of there being at least one gratuitous evil is low

Suppose we keep fixed in our epistemic background K general facts about human life and the breadth and depth of evil in the world, and consider the impact on theism of the additional piece of evidence that at least one of the evils is apparently gratuitous—i.e., one such that has resisted finding a theodicy despite strenuous investigation.

Now, clearly, if we found that there is not even one gratuitous evil would be extremely good evidence for the existence of God—for if there is no God, it is amazing if of the many evils there are, none were apparently gratuitous, but less amazing if there is a God. And hence, by a standard Bayesian theorem, finding that there is at least one gratuitous evil must be some evidence against the existence of God. But at the same time, the fact that F is strong evidence for T does not mean that the absence of F is strong evidence against T. Whether it is or is not depends on details.

But the background K contains some relevant facts. One of these is that we are limited knowers, and while we have had spectacular successes in our ability to understand the world and events around us, it is not incredibly uncommon to find things that have (so far) defeated our strenuous investigation. Some of these are scientific questions, and some are interpersonal questions—“Why did he do that?” Given this, it seems unsurprising, even if God exists, that we would sometimes be stymied in figuring out why God did something, including why he failed to prevent some evils. Thus, the probability of at least one of the vast numbers of evils in K being apparently gratuitous, given the existence of God, is pretty high, though slightly lower than given the non-existence of God. This means that the evidential force for atheism of there being at least one apparently gratuitous evil is fairly low.

Furthermore, one can come up with a theodicy for the gratuitous part of a gratuitous evil. When a person’s motives are not transparent to us we are thereby provided with an opportunity for exercising the virtue of trust. And reversely, a person’s always explaining themselves when they have been apparently unjustified does not build trust, on the other hand, but suspicion. Given the evils themselves as part of the background K, that some of them be apparently gratuitous provides us with an opportunity to exercise trust in God in a way that we would not be able to if none of the evils were apparently gratuitous. Given K (which presumably includes facts about us not being always in the luminous presence of God), it would be somewhat surprising if God always made sure we could figure out why he allowed evils. Again, this makes the evidential force for atheism of the apparent gratuity of evil fairly low.

Now, it may well be that when we consider the number or the type (perhaps they are of a type where divine explanations of permission would be reasonably expected) of apparently gratuitous evils, things change. Nothing I have said in this post undermines that claim. My only point is that the mere existence of an apparently gratuitous evil is very little evidence against theism.


Walter Van den Acker said...

'The mere existence of an apparently gratuitous evil'. Apparent to whom?
It seems to me that if there is an evil' that is apparently gratuitous even after lots of apologeticd have atempted to find a possible justification for it, that would be much more convincing as evidence againdt theism. Especially considering the claim that God is the Good. The Good simply doesn't allow for any evil'. Of course if you keep antropomorphing God, your argument may be more convincing.

Dominik Kowalski said...

This is definitely false. It's actually the identification of God with the Form of the Good which makes the idea of a gratuitous evil difficult to make intelligible. The Form of the Good is that by which norms, acts or obligations can be considered good by participation within it. Here is Johnstons approach from that:


The deduction from "Goodness itself" to "No evil at all" needs arguments as well. You're invoking a significant degree of presupposition in regards to obligations. Because as far as I can see, nothing you say follows from the Neo-Platonic conception of Goodness itself

Walter Van den Acker said...

'It's actually the identification of God with the Form of the Good which makes the idea of a gratuitous evil difficult to make intelligible'
Well, that's either question-begging or it makes my point
I haven't said anything about obligations.
I have read the article you linked. Thank you for that. I wasn't too impressied though. His argument may work against the logical problem of evil, but I am talking about the evidential problem of evil. As far as I am concerned, the deduction from "Goodness itself" to "some evil' 'needs argumenten. And maybe there are such arguments, but I haven't encounteref any good one yet

Dominik Kowalski said...

I mean, what exactly do you get from something that is identical to the Form of the Good? A ground for axiology (something that you actually need to get a problem of evil off the ground in the first place). A final cause within it for the things that spring off it. The fact that the things in question will have something in common that will have its origin in its ultimate cause in which it is exemplified (the convertibility of being to goodness comes to mind).

The evidential argument is ultimately a form of the logical argument. The "evidential" part is merely our epistemic perspective. And we get the "some evil" by giving theodicies like Johnston. It's fully compatible with the notion of "Goodness Itself". It's even compatible with the rejection of theodicies as exemplified by Brian Davies or Marilyn McCord Adams. It doesn't tell the full story. But what exactly is left, that is capable of giving rise to the problem of evil? I don't see it

Walter Van den Acker said...


I do not need any axiology to get the problem fo evil off the ground.
I agree that the evidential argument is ultimately a form of the logical argument and, while I am convinced that evil is indeed logically incompatible with a tri-omni God, I cannot prove this. Hence, I only claim that evil is extrememy powerful evidence against the existence of a tri-omni God, although, who iknows, perhaps some day someone may prove me wrong. I think the chances of that happeing are infinitessimally small, but not zero.

As to Johnston's theodicy, he at least agrees with me that there is simply too much evil in this material world for it to have been created by "Goodness itself".
Contrary to some apologists, including Alex I think (but he can correct me if I am wrong), Jhnson takes the PoE as a serious challenge and tries to build a theodicy, for his personal God, who is not the God Alex believes in. Johnston's God has a very different kind of omiscience in mind. He claims that God cannot know the outcome of libertarian free choices. So, his theodicy presupposes Open Theism or maybe even Process Theology. he tries to dwonplay the evidence of evil in the material world by admitting God di not create this world, but some Archon (or demiurg) did, and the evil in thos wolrd came about because this Archon chose his own goodness ove God's goodness. And there is the problem, becasue if god is Goodness itself, the goodness of the Archon is God's goodnessor at least it should be if God did His job properly. So, the problem still remains and it will reamain even of Johnston were to claim that The Archon's evil was created bu some super Archon etc.

Dominik Kowalski said...


there are misunderstandings of Johnston here. What Pruss and he believe about God is identical. Identity to Goodness itself is affirmed by both and is continued to be explicitly affirmed by Johnston in his article.

But the bigger and more important
misunderstanding concern foreknowledge and open theism. No, the denial of foreknowledge doesn't entail either open or process theism. Why would it? As Barry Miller has pointed out in "A Most Unlikely God", there are facts unknowable prior to creation, e.g. the knowledge of the individual, since there are no haeccities. Of course, that in turn entails free choices as well. But contrary to open theism, there's still heavy providence, as in the the sustaining of the actuality of the action, and it actually doesn't go against simplicity (as Miller shows on pp. 120 forward) since the contingent state of creation, identifiable with the cognitive state of God, can be shown to not actually entail any kind of potency within the divine essence by usage of the external modal operator "[...]", as in

1. God causes Socrates to lift his leg and

2. God causes [Socrates lifts his leg]

So once again we have a hole in the argument. There's no entailment of the one fact to the other state going on, no entailment of the denial of molinism or quasi-molinism to open or process theism. Feser doesn't affirm the foreknowledge. And I'm not sure if Pruss does. But the type of foreknowledge you're talking about is a rather recent development and certainly no requirement. Once again, Barry Miller, but also more recently Matthews Grant, are excellent on that.

In regards to "Goodness", you write

"because this Archon chose his own goodness ove God's goodness. And there is the problem, becasue if god is Goodness itself, the goodness of the Archon is God's goodness or at least it should be if God did His job properly."

This presupposes theological compatibilism, as well as very peculiar notion of Goodness that I don't recognize. I have the hunch that it's once again the invoking of univocity into these terms, for which there's just no room on classical metaphysics of Goodness. Johnston works with an explicitly libertarian notion of free will. And that's the whole point of the "Principle of Adequate Reason" employed; in cases where reasons aren't rationally compelling we still have a reason for the acting, as in the cases of opting. Of course it's false that the Archon's goodness is identical to God's goodness. Putting it in terms of actuality, the goodness of it is determined by limits set in its essence, the good for the archon or, later down the line, of the human, are different than that of God, if the notion of "the Good of Goodness itself" is even intelligible (replace the adjective with "red" and it wouldn't be).

The good of the individual is always only good insofar as the goodness participates in the Form of the Good. That's uncontroversial, it's the point of it. And the distinction between creaturely good and Goodness itself is the exact point of the theodicy Johnston describes (it needs to be said that he isn't making anything new here. The theodicy is neo-platonist to the core and can be traced back to Plotinus and arguably Plato, even though it wasn't done as a theodicy initially, but rather a metaphysics about the hierarchy of being that gets used for a theodicy).

Dominik Kowalski said...

[Part 2]:

The distinction is summarized here clearly

"A free will’s failure to manifest God, in proportion to its own knowledge and power, is a defect in that will. That failure is definitive of hamartia or sin, a defective orientation of the will, which involves valorizing in mental and bodily action the manifestation of one’s own good, i.e., one’s own degree of nature-relative perfection, one’s own power, one’s knowledge, over the manifestation Goodness itself."

which clearly makes your point above unjustified. "Nature-relative perfection" is the key phrase here, and stating that God would have to make his Goodness identical to creaturely Goodness demands nothing short of a contradiction, by demanding to remove the nature-relativity, thus ceasing the creature to be a creature. But if that's the standard you're employing, then no wonder that no theodicy ever satisfies you.

Lastly, about your denial of requiring an axiology. The question is how can you formulate the PoE without it? Presumably as a kind of internal criticism, by showing that your interlucor, me, holds a position with inherent contradictions in regards to God and evil. That's an argument where you don't need any presuppositions on your own. This is not given here though, as can be seen by your own statement of restricting yourself to the evidential case. The kind of evil you're recognizing for the argument must be something you can independently recognize, and something we both accept as existing, otherwise the argument wouldn't get off the ground. Brandon Watson made a good post on this topic.


Walter Van den Acker said...


Let me first answer your last comment. I indeed hold that you and Johnston and Pruss hold a position with inherent contradictions. My evidential case is based on evidence, and that evidence includes that you think evil exists.
So the kind of evil I use for the argument need not be something I can independently recognize. Brandon Watson claims that I am "going to run into difficulties assessing whether I am correctly pinning down what these phenomena I don't believe exist would be if they existed".
But I don't run into such diffiuclties at all. I know what "these phenomena would be".
Of course there can be some definition of "Good" and some definition of "evil" that some kind of theist can consistently hold to, but I am working from your definition of evil and your definition of Good and I argue that they are incompatible.

To answer your first objection, no, I don't presuppose theololical compatibilism. Although I believe libertarian free will is incoherent, I am willing to assume for the sake of the argument that it is coherent and that it does exist.
No, you can argue that tha Archon's Goodness cannot be indentical to God's Goodness, because the archon is a creature and a creature's goodness is good only infofar it participates in God's goodness, but that doesn't make any difference at all. Surely, it is good for the Archon to participate in God's goodness and it is bad for the archon not to do so. So, only if the archon is a complete moron, he will choose not to participate. But, being a moron is not the archon's fault. It's God's fault, because obviously there are other (possible) archon's who are smart enough to participate.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Just to add. I employ a very high standard for theodicies. And so should you. You, as well as Johnston and Pruss and Feser, set the bar far too low. If you raise the bar a bit, you will see that the theodicies don't work.