1. The Problem
One of the most well-known arguments against the existence of God, from the existence of evil, is the one proposed by William Rowe in his paper, The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism. As a sort of springboard to the evidential argument from evil, Rowe’s paper and the response-papers that flowed from it, are instructive for apologists who are working through theodicies and defenses. Below then, is Rowe’s popular argument explained, followed by a particular response that many have found especially thoughtful.
To begin with, Rowe’s paper centers around the following syllogism: 1
i) There exists instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some great good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse
ii) An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
iii) Therefore, there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.
Now, premiss (ii) is relatively uncontroversial since Christian’s agree that God (an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly-good Being) will permit evil to occur only if He has sufficient reasons for doing so (i.e. to acheive a greater good, or prevent a worse evil). Thus, Rowe dedicates the bulk of his paper in support of premiss (i).
2. Bambi in the Fire
In support of premiss (i) Rowe offers the illustration of a fawn which has been horribly burnt in a forest fire and eventually dies after days of agony. Now, Rowe does concede that, “…if the intense suffering leads to some greater good, a good we could not have obtained without undergoing the suffering in question, we might conclude that the suffering is justified.” 2
However, Rowe argues, “So far as we can see, the fawn’s intense suffering is pointless. For there does not appear to be any greater good…the fawn’s suffering would require…” 3 Therefore, although one cannot definitively prove that (i) is true, Rowe believes that it is altogether reasonable to believe that (i) is a rational belief. 4
That is, since we cannot perceive any greater good that an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being could have for permitting the fawn’s suffering, Rowe concludes that we are “rationally justified” in believing that such a being does not exist; for if it did, then it would have prevented the fawn’s suffering.
3. Rowe’s Unjustified Inference
Rowe’s entire argument is an inference from, “as far as we can see there is no greater good connected to the fawn’s suffering” to the conclusion, “we are rationally justified in believing that there is no greater good connected to the fawn’s suffering.” That is, “since we do not see a greater good, it is reasonable to believe that there is no greater good.”
This inference however, makes the assumption that if there were a greater good connected to the fawn’s suffering, then we would have known about it. But the question is, as Alvin Plantinga asked, “Why suppose that if God does have a reason for permitting evil, the theist [and/or the atheist] would be the first to know?” 5
a. Wykstra’s Response
Expanding on Plantinga, Stephen Wykstra argues that moving from “so far as we can tell, there is no greater good” to “there probably is no greater good” is only justifiable if one is confident that he has “epistemic access” to all the possible reasons God could have for permitting evil. 6 That is, we can argue from, “we see no X“ to “there is definitely no X” only if X has reasonable “seeability,” to use Wykstra’s words.
If, for example, Beth does not see any elephants in her kitchen, then she is certainly rational in inferring that there are indeed no elephants in her kitchen; for if there were, it is likely that she would see them. However, if she does not see a mosquito in her kitchen, is she equally as rational in inferring that there are no mosquitos in her kitchen? One wouldn’t think so. This is because mosquitos have low “seeability”.
Now, at its core, Rowe’s argument claims that one is rationally justified in believing that God does not exist in light of gratuitous (apparently pointless) evil. However, we have seen that this argument rests on an inference from “we see no possible reason that a God could have for allowing certain evils” to “there are no possible reasons that a God could have for allowing certain evils.” This inference however, is thoroughly unjustified for we are simply not in the epistemic position to make such an inferential leap.
It is certainly possible that God could have a whole host of reasons for permitting evils which lay outside the purview of mankind. Thus, given our epistemic limitations, we are by no means justified in believing that God does not exist in light of “apparently” pointless evils.
Although Rowe’s argument is commendable, all he has offered us in the end, is an autobiographical report of his epistemic limitations (“as far as I can tell”).
- William L Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16, no. 4 (Oct., 1979): 335 ↩
- Ibid., 337 ↩
- Ibid., 337. ↩
- Ibid., 338 ↩
- Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 165. ↩
- Stephen J. Wykstra, “The Humean Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering: On Avoiding the Evils of Appearance,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 16, no. 2 (1984): 73-93. ↩