Steven Cowan on the connection between evil, suffering and no-see-ums

This tiny little thing is a No-See-Um
This tiny little thing is a No-See-Um

Have you heard about the terrible noseeums? Then read on, for Steven Cowan will tell you about them.


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. Consider the recent Tsunami in the Indian Ocean that took the lives of almost 200,000 people. Consider as well the infamous Nazi Holocaust in which millions of Jews and others were mercilessly slaughtered. Moreover, we can watch the evening news on almost any day and hear of people in our neighborhoods being robbed, beaten, and murdered. How and why could God allow such things?


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.

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, in this paper, lists six problems with the idea that humans can know that any particular instance of evil and suffering is gratuitous. Humans 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. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and the burden of proof is on the person who says there is NO morally sufficient reason. They’re making the claim, they have to shoulder the burden of proof.

By the way, I HAVE the PDF of the William Alston paper. But I can’t post it publicly because it’s copyrighted.

Read the whole post by Steve Cowan – the noseeum response to the inductive problem of evil is state of the art, and you can even hear it being used by William Lane Craig in his debate with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong on the problems of evil and suffering. (MP3)

I also found this opening speech from a debate that Steven Cowan did on the problem of evil just a month ago.

The best place to learn about no-see-ums is in this amazing, perfect lecture by Biola University professor Doug Geivett – hosted on Brian Auten’s blog. Doug Geivett is a nice guy, and he even links to me from his blog.

Here’s my previous best post on the problem of evil, if you want more. It explains everything you need to know about this topic, in brief, and understandably.

6 thoughts on “Steven Cowan on the connection between evil, suffering and no-see-ums”

  1. I appreciate the posts on the problem of evil, as atheism as completely incapable of even speaking about the topic. Keep the posts coming, it is philosophically stimulating!


  2. It seems that a lot of atheists have stopped harping on the problem of evil, which used to be seen as the biggest God-killer argument. I’ve noticed a shift in effort offering the problem of evil to the problem of divine hiddenness.

    Isn’t evil widely considered in philosophy circles to have been solved by Plantinga? It seems to be a bigger problem in the public mind than in the professional mind. Have you seen God on Trial?


  3. Thanks. This is interesting and helpful because I hear this issue brought up a lot by lay atheists who have read Dawkins and co.


  4. Sorry I’m late to this conversation. Just thought I would say thanks for alerting me to the Geivett lecture. I listened to it twice over the weekend and it’s very orderly and insightful. I thought his discussion of why William Rowe chose to use Bambi as his example of evil was great, as was his discussion of how the probabilistic problem of evil, when used by atheists, is actually self-refuting, since it notes that objective evil exists.

    Last, it seems that Michael Tooley is trying to carry on the probabilistic problem of evil at its most sophisticated level. He used it in his last debate with WL Craig (I learned this from WLC’s newsletter.) I need to buy that debate from Biola.


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