Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How surprising is evil?

According to the argument from evil:

  1. The evils of this world are much more surprising given theism than given atheism.
But if (1) were true, then we would expect:
  1. Theists tend to be much more surprised by evil than atheists.
However, I do not think (2) is in fact observed, and this provides evidence against (1).

Objection 1: Theists are irrational, and irrational people may not be surprised by the objectively surprising.

Response: This proposed explanation of the non-occurrence of (2) would itself lead to a further prediction:

  1. The more rational a theist, the more likely she is to be surprised by evil.
But (3) is definitely not observed. In fact, the contrary is probably the case.

Objection 2: This is a version of the problem of old evidence. In old evidence cases, one is not surprised by the evidence as one already knew it.

Response: Still, if (1) is true, we would at least expect:

  1. Theists, and if not in general then at least the more rational ones, are significantly more surprised than atheists to learn of new and particularly heinous evils.
But I do not think this is actually observed.

None of this is a conclusive refutation of (1). But it does decrease the likelihood of (1).


Anonymous said...

Actually, (1) should go:
(1) Evil isn't surprising if atheism is true and the universe exists and the universe permits life and living creatures with qualia exist ...

The list of things that we need for evil to exist is quite long and nothing on that list is surprising on theism, but I can think of a number of honest atheists who continue to be surprised by a lot of those things.

Mike Almeida said...


I wonder whether it should be put in terms of surprise. Even if theists are not surprised by evil, they might regard it as highly improbable on theism. It is not surpising that I draw an Ace from a fair deck (what is there to be surprised at?), but it is improbable. In other words, the problem of evil might remain even if the evil that exists is not surprising to anyone.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Improbable things happen all the time. Moreover, it is always possible to come up with theories that make an otherwise improbable thing more probable. But we are most interested in things that are not merely improbable, but improbable and in some way remarkable.

James said...

Slightly unrelated I'm afraid, but I've often wondered if an Anthropic Principle type argument can be offered as a defense against the problem of evil. Now, I don't for my part think much of the Anthropic Principle. But suppose some naturalist S does. That is, suppose S thinks

(1) The universe is finely-tuned for life

can be countered with

(2) Right, but if we didn't exist then we wouldn't observe such fine-tuning, so given the fact that we do exist, our observing a finely-tuned universe isn't surprising.

Now, if S is a moral relativist, shouldn't S also accept that

(3) The amount of evil in the universe is improbable given theism.

can be countered with

(4) But if God didn't exist then moral values wouldn't exist (or we wouldn't perceive them so keenly or be so outraged by them or something like that), so the fact that we observe an improbable amount of evil isn't surprising?

I'm not convinced this gets anyone anywhere, but I thought I'd mention it anyway.

Mike Almeida said...

That's an interesting way to go, but it isn't the typical way to formulate the evidential argument from evil, and it seems to put too large a burden on the atheist. It is enough that observable evil E is unlikely on theism T. It needn't be remarkable on T. That is, all you need is P(T|E) is low; Rowe argues, I'm sure you recall, that on reasonable assignments it is not even .4. His argument runs with no assumptions about whether E is remarkable or surprising on T.

James said...

Yes, fair point. I wonder if, rather than talking about "surprise", we could talk about things' "requiring an explanation" or something like that.

Anonymous said...

Who are these people who would say that all the pain and suffering in the world isn't surprising given theism? It seems to me the pain and suffering is much less surprising on naturalism (its just about survival and that's why evil is so arbitrarily distributed, pointless, and the like).

The whole reason for a theodicy is to show that we shouldn't be all that surprised, given theism AND the theodicy.

I'm really just echoing van Inwagen in his masterful "The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence."

Alexander R Pruss said...

Given naturalism, the existence of evil can be argued to be improbable, or maybe even impossible, because if there is evil, there are axiological facts, and that there are axiological facts fits poorly with naturalism. And our knowledge that there is evil requires that we know axiological facts, and it is extremely difficult to see how a naturalist could account for us knowing axiological facts.

Likewise, given naturalism, consciousness--and hence pain and suffering which require consciousness--seems improbable.

Though the arguments in my post suggest that, probably, neither evil nor pain is surprising.

enigMan said...

Alex, it strikes me that one might argue similarly that, although one would think that the phenomenal appearance of the world would be much more surprising given materialism (and especially modern physics) than given Idealism, if that were so then one would expect materialists (and especially physicists) to be much more surprised, by the superficial appearance of the world, than Idealists are. But I only say that because I have Idealistic leanings. I think that materialists (and especially physicists) should be confounded by how the world looks. But of course, they say the same about Idealists (whilst kicking stones about, apparently). The general case is metaphysical disagreement. Theists think very differently about evil than do atheists, so there is perhaps some underlying equivocation in your post?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I do actually think that many smart materialists are surprised by the phenomenal appearance of the world.

And idealists should be surprised by the fact that some much of the phenomenal appearance of the world has an as-of-matter intentionality. :-)