Tag Archives: Problem of Evil

William Lane Craig debates Alex Rosenberg: Does God Exist? Video, audio and summary

Below, please find my summary of the Craig-Rosenberg debate, which occurred on February 1st, 2013 at Purdue University.

Brian Auten has posted the MP3 audio of the debate at Apologetics 315.

The debaters

Below is the summary.

Dr. Craig’s opening speech:

The topic: What are the arguments that make belief in God reasonable or unreasonable?
First speech: arguments for reasonableness of belief in God
Second speech: respond to arguments against reasonableness of belief in God

Eight arguments:

  1. Contingency argument: God – a transcendent, personal being – is the explanation of why a contingent universe exists.
  2. Cosmological argument: God is the cause of the beginning of the universe, which is attested by physics and cosmology.
  3. Applicability of mathematics to nature: God is the best explanation for the applicability of mathematics to nature.
  4. Fine-tuning argument: God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe to permit life.
  5. Intentionality of conscious states: God is the best explanation of the intentionality of our mental states.
  6. The moral argument: God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and duties.
  7. The resurrection of Jesus: God is the best explanation for the core of historical facts accepted by most ancient historians across the ideological spectrum.
  8. Religious experience: God is the best explanation of our immediate experience and knowledge of his existence.

Dr. Rosenberg’s opening speech

First argument: The fallacy of ad hominem

  • I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry
  • Dr. Craig has said all of that before in other debates
  • You didn’t need to come out on this cold night
  • Craig’s arguments have all been refuted
  • Dr. Craig just doesn’t listen
  • Dr. Craig is not interested in getting at the truth
  • Dr. Craig is just interested in scoring debate points
  • The adversarial system is the wrong approach to decide truth
  • Dr. Craig is very confident about his take of physics

Second argument: The fallacy of arguing from authority

  • 95% of members of the NAS are atheists
  • Therefore Dr. Craig cannot use science

Third argument: Effects don’t require causes

  • I am going to pretend that Craig said that “every effect requires a cause”
  • Quantum mechanics shows that some effects occur without causes
  • A particle of uranium (which is not nothing, it is something) decays without a cause
  • This uncaused effect is the same as the universe coming into being out of nothing uncaused
  • Therefore the principle of sufficient reason is false

Fourth argument: Silicon-based life and the multiverse

  • If these constants had been different, maybe we would have other kinds of intelligent life, like silicon-based life
  • Carbon-based life is not the only kind of life, maybe you can have other kinds of life, none of which have been observed
  • There could be different kinds of life in other areas of the universe that we can’t see
  • There are things we can’t see that disprove the current physics that we can see
  • Quantum foam is evidence that a multiverse exists
  • The multiverse would solve the problem of fine-tuning

Fifth argument: The Euthyphro dilemma

  • The moral argument is refuted by Euthyphro dilemma
  • Dr. Craig is such a moron that he has never heard of the Euthyphro dilemma ever before
  • This is found in the first and simplest of Plato’s dialogs
  • Why is Dr. Craig so stupid that he has not read this simple dialog ever before?
  • Evolution explains why humans evolve arbitrary customs and conventions that vary by time and place
  • Alternative moral theories: utilitarianism, social contract, etc. that don’t require God

Sixth argument: Mormonism undermines Dr. Craig’s three minimal facts about Jesus

  • Why is Dr. Craig so stupid and ignorant to persist in pushing such an ignorant, stupid argument?
  • Mormonism is a silly religion that is not historically well founded
  • Therefore, Jesus was not buried
  • Islam is a silly religion that is not historically grounded
  • Therefore, the tomb was not found empty
  • Scientology is a silly religion that is not historically grounded
  • Therefore, the eyewitnesses didn’t have post-mortem appearances
  • Eyewitness testimony is unreliable in some cases
  • Therefore, eyewitness testimony was unreliable in this case
  • Apparitions of Mary are bizarre
  • Therefore, the majority of historians are wrong to think that the disciples saw post-mortem appearances

Seventh argument: Deductive problem of evil

  • Evil and suffering are logically incompatible with an all good, all powerful God

Eight argument: God is not just to allow evil and suffering

  • God cannot make the evils of this life right in the afterlife

Dr. Craig’s first rebuttal

Dr. Rosenberg sketched the deductive argument from evil.

Dr. Rosenberg presupposes naturalism. Naturalism is a false theory of knowledge:

1. It’s too restrictive: There are truths that cannot be proved by natural science.
2. It’s self-refuting: no scientific proof for naturalism exists.

That’s why epistemological naturalism is considered false by most philosophers of science.

But more importantly than that: Epistemological naturalism does not imply metaphysical naturalism. (E.g. – W. Quine)

Dr. Rosenberg has to present arguments in favor of (metaphysical) naturalism, not just assume that (metaphysical) naturalism is true.

Dr. Craig presented eight arguments against metaphysical naturalism taken from Rosenberg’s own book:

1. The argument from the intentionality (aboutness) of mental states implies non-physical minds (dualism), which is incompatible with naturalism
2. The existence of meaning in language is incompatible with naturalism, Rosenberg even says that all the sentences in his own book are meaningless
3. The existence of truth is incompatible with naturalism
4. The argument from moral praise and blame is incompatible with naturalism
5. Libertarian freedom (free will) is incompatible with naturalism
6. Purpose is incompatible with naturalism
7. The enduring concept of self is incompatible with naturalism
8. The experience of first-person subjectivity (“I”) is incompatible with naturalism

Metaphysical naturalism is false: it is irrational and it contradicts our experience of ourselves.

And epistemological naturalism is compatible with theism.

Rebutting Dr. Rosenberg’s responses:

1. Contingency: no response

2. Cosmological: he mis-states the first premise to say every effect… when it is whatever begins to exist…, the origin of the universe was not from a vacuum, virtual particles come from a vacuum not nothing, there are interpretations of QM that are compatible with determinism. Rosenberg has to believe that the entire universe popped into being from non-being.

3. Mathematics: no response

4. Fine-tuning: the multiverse is refuted by empirical observations of the universe. Without fine-tuning, it’s not that we still have silicon to make life out of. It’s that we lose basic minimal things like chemical diversity, matter, stars, planets, etc. No life of any kind, not just no carbon-based life.

5. Intentionality: no response.

6. Moral argument: the answer to the dilemma is that you split the dilemma: God is the standard of good, and the commands flow from his unchanging moral nature. The commands are not arbitrary, and the standard is not external to God. Dr. Rosenberg is a nihilist and he cannot ground good and evil on his nihilistic view.

7. Resurrection: The Gospels are early eyewitness testimony. Mormonism and Islam have nothing to do with the minimal set of historical facts about Jesus agreed to by the majority of ancient historians across the ideological spectrum, general statements against eyewitnesses do not refute the specific eyewitness testimony in this case.

8. Religious experience: No response.

Dr. Rosenberg’s first rebuttal

I wrote a book and you should buy it, because it got me invited to this debate. Let me repeat the title a few times for you. Please buy it.

Dr. Craig is right, there are multiple interpretations of QM, not just the one I presented, including deterministic ones.

All the disturbing implications of naturalism that Dr. Craig stated follow from metaphysical naturalism, and metaphysical naturalism is true. (Note: he equates science with metaphysical naturalism)

Science proves that metaphysical naturalism is true, but I won’t say what specific scientific tests prove my philosophical assumption of metaphysical naturalism.

I’ll pretend that the Big Bang (science) doesn’t disprove naturalism, like Dr. Craig said. Again. (covers ears) La la la, there is no Big Bang.

We didn’t come here to debate epistemological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism.

Let me explain the problem of intentionality since I’m so smart and no one knows what it means.

There are many answers to this problem of intentionality.

My answer is that most scientists are naturalists, therefore naturalism is true, regardless of the argument from intentionality of mental states.

That’s how I would respond to one of the eight problems with naturalism that Dr. Craig raised. I won’t answer the other seven problems.

It is an argument from ignorance to argue that the applicability of mathematics to the universe requires a designer, because there are non-Euclidean geometries. Craig’s argument, which he gets from people like respected physicists like Eugene Wigner, is bizarre. It is bizarre, therefore I refute Eugene Wigner and all the other scholars who make that argument. It is bizarre! Bizarre!

Deductive problem of evil: there is no response to this argument, certainly not Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense. The deductive argument from evil has not been entirely abandoned at all! It’s not like arch-atheist J.L. Mackie himself admits that the deductive problem of evil doesn’t lead to a logical inconsistency between evil and God.

Dr. Craig has to tell me why God allows evil or God doesn’t exist.

It is offensive that Dr. Craig cannot tell me why God allows every evil and suffering that occurs.

He literally said this: “I will become a Christian if Dr. Craig can tell me why God allowed EVERY EVIL THAT OCCURRED IN THE LAST 3.5 BILLION YEARS”

Dr. Craig’s second rebuttal

We are not in a position to know why God allows specific instances of evil and suffering.

God cannot force people to freely do anything – freedom is not compatible with determinism. Freedom is a good, but freedom opens up the possibility of moral evil. You cannot have the good of free will without allowing people to choose to do morally evil things.

God can permit evil and suffering in order to bring more people into a relationship with him.

The atheist has to show that God could allow less evil and achieve more knowledge of God in order to say there is too much evil.

The purpose of life is not happiness, but knowledge of God.

Dr. Craig quotes agnostic Paul Draper (Purdue) and Peter Van Inwagen (Notre Dame) to state that the deductive problem of evil is dead because of free will and morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil.

1. Contingency: no response.

2. Cosmological: QM does not apply, because the universe came from nothing, not a vacuum, and QM only works in a vacuum.

3. Mathematics: He mentions alternatives like non-Euclidean geometry, but we have to explain the structure of THIS universe.

4. Fine-tuning: ???

5. Intentional states: intentional mental states proves that minds exist, which fits with theism better than it fits with atheism.

6. Moral argument: You need God to ground morality, and Dr. Rosenberg believes in morality. He needs God to ground objective moral values and duties.

7. Historical argument: He has to respond to the minimal facts supported by the consensus of ancient historians across the ideological spectrum.

8. The problems of naturalism: He says that you can’t have science without naturalism, but you can have science with EPISTEMOLOGICAL NATURALISM, and theists accept science and methodological naturalism. We don’t accept METAPHYSCIAL NATURALISM because of the eight problems Craig presented, like intentionality, first-person, persistence of self, etc. You can believe in both science and theism, by embracing epistemological naturalism, while rejecting methaphysical naturalism.

Dr. Rosenberg’s second rebuttal

Dr. Craig hasn’t answered many of my points, I won’t say which ones though.

Debates don’t work as a way of deciding what’s true, so we should overturn the entire criminal justice system.

The principle of sufficient reason is false because it is disconfirmed by quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics (vacuum and virtual particles that exist for a short time) is similar to the origin of the universe (nothing and entire universe and 14 billion years).

We know that alpha particles come into being without cause all the time from a quantum vacuum for a tiny sub-second duration before going out of existence, so we can say that the entire physical universe came into being for 14 billion years from absolute nothing which is not a quantum vacuum.

Peter Van Inwagen is the best metaphysician working today, and he says that my deductive argument from evil is not decisive, it’s not a successful argument. (Why is he undermining his own problem of evil argument????!)

Dr. Craig invoked Plantinga’s free will defense to the deductive POE. Freedom allows us to do evil. God could have given us free will without evil and suffering. I won’t show how, but I’ll just assert it, because debates are such a bad forum for supplying evidence for my speculative assertions.

If you answer the question 3 + 5 as being 8, then you don’t have free will – you are biologically determined if you answer 8, because everyone answers 8, and that means everyone is biologically determined with no free will.

Why can’t God give us free will and then prevent us from making a free choice?

No scholars date the gospels earlier than 60-70 AD, especially not atheists like James Crossley who dates Mark to 40 AD. Therefore Jesus’ burial isn’t historical, like the majority of scholars across the broad spectrum of scholarship agree it is.

The original New Testament documents were written in Aramaic.

All New Testament scholars are orthodox Christians, like atheist Robert Funk for example.

Dr. Craig’s concluding speech

In order to sustain the deductive argument from evil, Dr. Rosenberg must show that God could create a world of free creatures with less evil.

Principle of Sufficient Reason: not using the general principle of sufficient reason, but a more modest version of this states that contingent things should have an explanation for their existence. And we know that the universe is a contingent.

The New Testament was not written in Aramaic, they were written in Greek. Dr. Rosenberg is wrong there too.

(Dr. Craig spends the rest of his concluding speech giving his testimony and urging people to investigate the New testament).

Dr. Rosenberg’s concluding speech

Some long-dead French guy named Laplace said that he has no need of that (God) hypothesis. He did not know about any of Dr. Craig’s arguments made in this debate tonight when he said that, though.

There is no need to explain how the universe began or how the universe is finely-tuned if you just assume metaphysical naturalism on faith.

The Easter Bunny, therefore atheism.

Most scientists are atheists, therefore atheism.

You can do a lot of science without God, just don’t look at the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, or the other parts of science that Craig mentioned, as well as the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, the habitability argument, and so on.

You can be a Christian, but good Christians should not use arguments and evidence.

Good Christians should be irrational and ignorant. Bad Christians look for arguments and evidence from science and history.

Good Christians should embrace the absurd. Bad Christians want to search for truth and use logic and evidence.

Why does God let people suffer? Why is there so much evil in the world?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

I just wanted to draw your attention to this 4 page essay by Joe Manzari, which is the best darn summary of the state of the art on the problems of evil and suffering I have seen. The problem of evil is an objection to the existence of God based on the presence of evil or suffering in the world. The arguments basically infer that if God is all-good and all-powerful, then there should not be any evil or suffering.

There are two kinds of problem of evil.

The Logical/Deductive Problem of Evil:

The first kind is called “the deductive problem of evil” or “the logical problem of evil”. An exampel of evil would be Saddam Hussein murdering some journalist who told the truth about him. This version of the problem of evil tries to introduce a logical contradiction between the attributes of God and the presence of evil, like this:

(1) God exists.
(2) God is omnipotent.
(3) God is omniscient.
(4) God is omni-benevolent.
(5) Evil exists.
(6) A good being always eliminates evil as far as it can.
(7) There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

In order to avoid a contradiction, we need to explain how there could still be evil, since the conclusion of this argument is that there should not be any evil!So how are we going to get out of this mess? The solution is to attack premises 6 and 7.

Premise 6 is false because in order to eliminate human evil, you would have to eliminate free will. But eliminating free will is worse than allowing it, because good things like love are impossible without free will.

It is in response to this proposition that the Free Will Theodicy of G. W. Leibniz applies. God, valuing man’s freedom, decided to provide him with a will that was free to choose good over evil, rather than constraining his will, allowing him to choose only good.

Premise 7 is false because there are limits on what an omnipotent being can do. God cannot perform contradictory things, because contradictory things are impossible. God cannot make a married bachelor. Similarly, God cannot force free creatures to do his will.

In the same manner that God cannot create a square circle, he cannot make someone freely choose to do something. Thus, if God grants people genuine freedom, then it is impossible for him to determine what they will do. All that God can do is create the circumstances in which a person can make free choices and then stand back and let them make the choices.

One last point. In order to solve the problem of natural evil for this argument, you can point out that free will requires predictable and regular natural laws in order to make free will meaningful. Natural laws mean that individuals can predict what will happen when they act, allowing for moral responsibility. More on that next time.

Inductive/Probabilistic Problem of Evil

There is a second version of the problem of evil, though, which is more dangerous than the first. This is the one you see being argued in debates, whereas the first version is not used because it has been defused as seen above. Here is the second one:

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) Gratuitous evil exists.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

This argument tries to argue that while God may have some reason for allowing free will, there are other evils in the world that are not the result of human action that God has no reason for permitting. Theists usually like to argue that God has morally-sufficient reasons for allowing some evil in the world, in order for the character of humans to develop through suffering and endurance. But what about gratuitous evil, which doesn’t have any point?

Consider the case of a fawn running in the forest, who falls and breaks his leg. Ouch! Then a forest fire starts and the poor fawn suffocates to death in the smoke. Why would God allow this poor small animal suffer like that? And notice that there is no morally sufficient reason for allowing it, because no human knows about this and so no human’s character or relationship with God is impacted by it.

The solution to this problem is to deny premise 2. (You can also deny 1 if you want). The problem with premise 2 is that the atheist is claiming to know that some instance of evil really is gratuitous. But since they are making the claim to know, they have to be able to show that God’s permission of that evil achieves nothing. But how do they know 2 is true?

The problem with 2 is that the atheist is not in a position to know that the permission of some evil X really doesn’t achieve anything. This is because the atheist cannot look forward into the future, or see into other places, in order to know for certain that there is no morally sufficient reason for allowing God’s allowing evil X to occur. But since the atheist argues based on premise 2, he must be able to show that premise 2 is more probable than not.

Manzari’s article also argues why apparently gratuitous evil is less problematic for Christians in particular, because of certain Christian doctrines. He lists four doctrines that make the apparently gratuitous evil that we observe more compatible with an all-good, all-powerful God.

  1. The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God.
    Some of the things that we experience may wreck our feelings of contentment, but we need to remember that God may be permitting those troubles in order to remind us not to get too comfortable with life on earth, and to think ahead to the after-life. And remember, even Jesus learned endurance through suffering. His suffering was not pointless and neither is ours.
  2. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God and God’s purposes.
    We humans seem to be on a dead run away from God, trying to keep our autonomy by knowing as little about him as possible. Part of knowing God is knowing what he designed us to do – to love him and to love others. And so, the less we know about God, the more we stray from his design for our lives.
  3. God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over beyond the grave into eternity.
    Sometimes it seems as if our sufferings really are catastrophic, but when you realize that you are offered eternal life without any suffering after you die, the sufferings of this life are a lot less upsetting than they would be if this life was all we had.
  4. The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good.
    This one is the biggest for me. Knowing God and knowing his actual character by studying the historical Jesus is a wonderful counterbalance for all the problems and sufferings of this life. A little bit of historical study reveals that Jesus was not spared the worst kind of suffering in his life, making it is a lot easier for us to bear with whatever God allows us to face.

In section 3, Manzari shows how you can also argue against this version of the problem by supplying evidence for God, such as from the big bang, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, the origin of free will, the origin of the first living organism, the origin of the mind, the sudden emergence of phyla in the fossil record, molecular machines, irreducible complexity, the resurrection miracle, and the objective morality argument.

The argument goes like this:

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) God exists.
(3) Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

Just support 2 with some evidence, and you win, especially when they can’t support their claim to know that gratuitous evil exists.

The Argument for God from Evil

In the paper, Manzari actually makes an argument for God from evil. That’s right. Far from disproving God, the presence of evil (a departure from the way things out to be), actually affirms God’s existence. How?

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
(2) Evil exists.
(3) Therefore, objective moral values do exist.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

That’s right. If evil exists in any sense such that it is not a personal or cultural preference, then objective morality exists. If objective morality exists, then there is an objective moral lawgiver. Game over. If the atheist backtracks and says that the existence of evil is just his opinion or his cultural preference, then this standard does not apply to God, and you win again. Game over again.

So, although the problems of evil look pretty tough, they are actually easy. The toughest part of evil and suffering is the emotional problem. I could tell you stories about what I’ve been through… but then, that’s why the arguments matter. You can hold your position under tremendous fire when you have the arguments and evidence to ground you.

A possible reason why God permits suffering and evil: the soul-making theodicy

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Steve Hays has a post up at Triablogue about one my favorite defenses to the inductive problem of evil – the soul-making theodicy.

He writes:

The soul-making theodicy was popularized by John Hick. In Augustinian anthropology, Adam and Eve were finished products. They fell from a state of moral perfection. Hick contrasted that with his own position, according to which Adam and Eve were created with the potential for moral growth. They were still in the process of creation. They had the potential for moral maturation. (Mind you, Hick denied the historicity of Adam and Eve.)

There’s some truth to this analysis, although it suffers from equivocation. To say unfallen Adam and Eve were morally “perfect” simply means they were sinless. It doesn’t mean there was no room for moral improvement.

Paradoxically, fallen humans can be both better and worse than unfallen humans. Inasmuch as they are sinners, they are worse. Yet Christians can have a moral grace that surpasses the mere sinlessness of Adam and Eve. Saints have virtues that angels lack.

3. Let’s take an example: Suppose you have a family of five. Both parents are social climbers and overachievers. The husband is consumed with career advancement. The wife is a tiger mom. She makes sure the kids are enrolled in all the right student clubs and extracurricular activities that will look good on a college application. The two teenage sons and a daughter are into the usual things kids in their age-bracket are into. At dinner, each member of the family is glued to the display on their smart phone.

The members of the family aren’t Christian. Aren’t into meaning-of-life questions. They lead superficial lives.

One son starts to forget routine things. At first this is amusing. They think he’s absent-minded. Distracted by too much multitasking. But he begins to complain about headaches.

His parents take him to the doctor, and he’s diagnosed with brain cancer. Suddenly their priorities come to a screeching halt.

They now have a sick family member who will just get sicker. Their social world contracts. Their center of gravity shifts.

Instead of being frivolous and self-absorbed, they make the most of the remaining time with their dying family member. The wrenching experience changes them. Deepens them. Makes them better people. Develops their unrealized moral potential.

Perhaps, in their distress and despair, they turn to God. They regret the missed opportunities. Regret taking life for granted. Regret taking one another for granted. Regret all the things they should have said and done differently, in retrospect.

That kind of regret can refine character. Moving forward, that prompts them to treat others with greater patience and understanding.

This is hypothetical, but there are real life examples of Christians like Eric Liddell and Ernest Gordon who exhibit moral heroism in the face of extreme adversity.

The rest of the article considers some objections to this defense.

Have you ever had that happen to you? Where something terrible happened and you found yourself having to pray, and care for others, and drop all your plans, and be unselfish? It’s happened to me. In fact, I think this is one of the main things that Christians should be doing. We ought to respond to setbacks as if they were opportunities for us to show our real character. Don’t treat the needs and sufferings of others as something to avoid, treat it as your opportunity to be more like Jesus. I know that we all have dreams of things that we would like to do and achieve. But sometimes, an opportunity arises for us to imitate Jesus by being obedient with suffering, or by caring for the suffering of others by putting our own needs and desires second. It’s tempting to think that our super-duper plan to change the world is the most important thing, but it really isn’t. Don’t miss the chance to form your character when you suffer, or when someone close to you is suffering.

I have to mention Dina, who has been busy visiting the elderly in a hospital for the last two weeks. She is a busy lady, and has things she would rather be doing. She hasn’t done any cross-stitching in months, because she is so stressed with work. Nevertheless, she didn’t take that as an excuse to put herself first. She found some people close to her who were suffering and thought “here is an opportunity for me to imitate Jesus by putting myself second, and serving others first”. Evil and suffering gives you the opportunity to be who God wants you to be.

Stephen Cowan asks: does God have a reason for allowing evil and suffering?

Theology that hits the spot
Philosophy of religion that hits the spot

Here is an article by Steven Cowan about the problems of evil and suffering.


The problem of evil is no doubt the most serious challenge to belief in God. Even religious believers find it troubling that evil exists in the world—and so much evil! It is puzzling, to say the least, that an all-powerful, absolutely good being would allow evil to exist in his creation. And yet it does. Evil and suffering exist and they are often overwhelming in their magnitude.

Now let’s find out what a noseeum is, and how it relates to the existence of evil and suffering:

However, perhaps God’s existence is incompatible with a certain kind of evil that exists. For example, the atheist William Rowe has argued that God’s existence is inconsistent with pointless or gratuitous evil. By “pointless evil,” Rowe means evil that does not and cannot serve a greater good. And Rowe believes that there is such pointless evil in the world. He thus concludes that God does not exist. Rowe’s argument may be simply stated as follows:

  1. If God exists, there would be no pointless evil.
  2. There is pointless evil.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

[…]But, is there pointless evil in the world? Rowe thinks there is. To show that there is pointless evil, Rowe introduces what he calls the “noseeum inference.” Like the pesty little bugs that some readers may be familiar with, a “noseeum” is something that you cannot see—it is a “no-see-um.” And a noseeum inference is a conclusion drawn on the basis of what one does not see. The basic structure of all noseeum inferences looks like this:

  1. I cannot see an x.
  2. Therefore, there probably is no x.

We all make noseeum inferences everyday of our lives. Every time I go to cross a street, I look both ways and I step out into the street only after I “no-see-um” a car coming.

[…]Rowe applies this kind of noseeum reasoning to God and evil. Rowe suggests that if we cannot see a reason for a particular instance of evil, then there is probably not a reason. Suppose we hear about a very young child who is tortured to death to amuse some psychotic person. We think about this event and we examine all the circumstances surrounding it. No matter how hard we try, we cannot see any good reason why this child had to suffer the way she did. Since we cannot see a reason why God would allow this child to suffer, there probably is not a good reason—the child’s suffering was pointless. Of course, Rowe would be quick to point out that he is not speaking merely hypothetically. There are cases like this in the news every day—real-life cases in which we shake our heads in frustration, wondering why God would allow such a thing.

Is Rowe correct in his conclusion? Do such examples prove that there is pointless evil in the world? I don’t think so. To see why, we must recognize that noseeum inferences are not all created equal. Some noseeum inferences, as we have seen, are reasonable and appropriate. But, many are not. Suppose I look up at the night sky at the star Deneb and I do not see a planet orbiting that star. Would it be reasonable for me to conclude that there is no planet orbiting Deneb? Of course not. Suppose that using the best telescopes and other imaging equipment presently available, I still cannot see a planet around Deneb. I would still be unjustified in concluding that there was no such planet.

In that example, the planet is the noseeum. Just because you look really hard, you can’t be confident that the planet is not there. And similarly with the problem of evil and suffering, looking really hard and finding no reason does not mean that there is no reason. It just means that you are not in a good position to see the reason. You don’t know enough to to be sure that there is no reason, because of your limitations as a human being.

To know that any given instance of evil or suffering is gratuitous/pointless requires a high level of knowledge. How much knowledge? Well, consider this paper by the late William Alston of Syracuse University, who lists six problems with the idea that humans can know that any particular instance of evil and suffering is gratuitous. (You can get the PDF here)

According to the paper, human beings just do not have the capability to know for certain that God has NO morally sufficient reason for allowing any particular instance of evil and/or suffering. God’s morally sufficient reason is a noseeum. To know for sure that there is no reason, we would need to have more knowledge than we do.

Also, remember that on the Christian view, the good aim that God has is NOT to make humans have happy feelings in this life, regardless of their knowledge, wisdom and character. That’s what atheists think, though. They think that God, if he exists, is obligated to make them feel happy all the time. They don’t think that God’s goal is being actively involved in forming their knowledge, wisdom and character. God has a purpose – to work in the world so that everyone who can freely respond to him will respond to him. The Bible says that allowing pain and suffering is one of the ways that he gets that group of people who are willing to respond to respond to him – FREELY. To be able to claim that evil is gratuitous, the atheist has to show that God can achieve his goal of saving all the people he wants to save while permitting less suffering in the world. And that is a very difficult thing for an atheist to show, given our human cognitive limitations.

I also found this opening speech from a debate that Steven Cowan did on the problem of evil, which may also be useful to you.

The best place to learn more about no-see-ums is in this excellent lecture by Biola University professor Doug Geivett.

Why doesn’t God make his existence more obvious to people?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson about to do philosophy
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson about to do philosophy

Have you ever heard someone say that if God existed, he would give us more evidence? This is called the “hiddenness of God” argument. It’s also known as the argument from “rational non-belief”.

Basically the argument is something like this:

  1. God is all powerful
  2. God is all loving
  3. God wants all people to know about him
  4. Some people don’t know about him
  5. Therefore, there is no God.

In this argument, the atheist is saying that he’s looked for God real hard and that if God were there, he should have found him by now. After all, God can do anything he wants that’s logically possible, and he wants us to know that he exists. To defeat the argument we need to find a possible explanation of why God would want to remain hidden when our eternal destination depends on our knowledge of his existence.

What reason could God have for remaining hidden?

Dr. Michael Murray, a brilliant professor of philosophy at Franklin & Marshall College, has found a reason for God to remain hidden.

His paper on divine hiddenness is here:
Coercion and the Hiddenness of God“, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 30, 1993.

He argues that if God reveals himself too much to people, he takes away our freedom to make morally-significant decisions, including responding to his self-revelation to us. Murray argues that God stays somewhat hidden, so that he gives people space to either 1) respond to God, or 2) avoid God so we can keep our autonomy from him. God places a higher value on people having the free will to respond to him, and if he shows too much of himself he takes away their free choice to respond to him, because once he is too overt about his existence, people will just feel obligated to belief in him in order to avoid being punished.

But believing in God just to avoid punishment is NOT what God wants for us. If it is too obvious to us that God exists and that he really will judge us, then people will respond to him and behave morally out of self-preservation. But God wants us to respond to him out of interest in him, just like we might try to get to know someone we admire. God has to dial down the immediacy of the threat of judgment, and the probability that the threat is actual. That leaves it up to us to respond to God’s veiled revelation of himself to us, in nature and in Scripture.

(Note: I think that we don’t seek God on our own, and that he must take the initiative to reach out to us and draw us to him. But I do think that we are free to resist his revelation, at which point God stops himself short of coercing our will. We are therefore responsible for our own fate).

The atheist’s argument is a logical/deductive argument. It aims to show that there is a contradiction between God’s will for us and his hiding from us. In order to derive a contradiction, God MUST NOT have any possible reason to remain hidden. If he has a reason for remaining hidden that is consistent with his goodness, then the argument will not go through.

When Murray offers a possible reason for God to remain hidden in order to allow people to freely respond to him, then the argument is defeated. God wants people to respond to him freely so that there is a genuine love relationship – not coercion by overt threat of damnation. To rescue the argument, the atheist has to be able to prove that God could provide more evidence of his existence without interfering with the free choice of his creatures to reject him.

Murray has defended the argument in works published by prestigious academic presses such as Cambridge University Press, (ISBN: 0521006104, 2001) and Routledge (ISBN: 0415380383, 2007). The book chapter from the Cambridge book is here. The book chapter from the Routledge book is here.

Positive arguments for Christian theism