Monday, April 2, 2007


William L. Rowe

My friends, Dan Howard-Snyder and Mike Bergmann, think that the enormous amount of seemingly pointless, horrendous evil occurring daily in our world gives us no good reason at all to think it unlikely that God exists. For, on the assumption that God exists, they believe we have no good reason to think it probable either that there would be any less horrendous evil or that God would help us understand what some of the justifying goods are that he is powerless to bring about without permitting all this horrendous evil.

In support of their view they liken my argument for the probable nonexistence of God to the reasoning of someone who concludes that there is probably no extraterrestrial life because we don’t detect any communications from extraterrestrials.

I believe they are right to reject the inference to the likely nonexistence of extraterrestrials from our failure to detect communications from them. For, as they point out, we have no good reason to think that extraterrestrials would know that we exist, or would care about us enough to want to communicate with us, or would have anything like sufficient power and knowledge to devise a way to communicate with us. So, given these considerations, we cannot reasonably infer the nonexistence of extraterrestrials from our not having detected any communications from them.

As opposed to what we don’t know about extraterrestrials, however, we do know that God, if he exists, most certainly knows that we exist, most certainly loves us and cares for us, and, being infinitely powerful, is able to prevent any of the horrendous evils that befall us. Furthermore, given his infinite knowledge, God would know how to achieve the very best lives possible for us with the minimum of horrible suffering.

My friends, however, believe that we have no sufficient reason at all to think it even likely that God could achieve the very best for us (humans and animals) were he to have prevented the holocaust, the terrible suffering of the fawn, the horrible suffering of the little girl, or any of the other countless evils that abound in this world.

Why on earth do they believe this? The basic reason is this: God’s knowledge of goods and the conditions of their realization extends far beyond our own. Because God’s knowledge extends far beyond our own they think it just may be that God would know that even he, with his infinite power, cannot achieve the best for us without permitting all the horrendous evils that occur daily in our world. And they also think it just may be that God can achieve the best for us only if he keeps us in the dark as to what the good is that justifies him in permitting any of these horrendous evils.

But what their view comes to is this. Because we cannot rule out God’s knowing goods we do not know, we cannot rule out there being goods that justify God in permitting any amount of evil whatever that might occur in our world. If human and animal life on earth were nothing more than a series of agonizing moments from birth to death, my friends’ position would still require them to say that we cannot reasonably infer that it is even likely that God does not exist. For, since we don’t know that the goods we know of are representative of the goods there are, we can’t know that it is likely that there are no goods that justify God in permitting human and animal life on earth to be nothing more than a series of agonizing moments from birth to death.

But surely such a view is unreasonable, if not absurd. Surely there must be some point at which the appalling agony of human and animal existence on earth would render it unlikely that God exists. And this must be so even though we all agree that God’s knowledge would far exceed our own. I believe my theistic friends have gone considerably beyond that point when in light of the enormous proliferation of horrendous evil in this world they continue to insist that we are unjustified in concluding that it is unlikely that God exists.

They characterize my argument as a “noseeum” argument. But this is not quite correct. There are lots of things we can conceive of occurring in our world which we don’t see occurring. My argument is basically a “noconceiveum” argument, not a “noseeum” argument. We cannot even conceive of goods that may occur and would justify God in permitting the terrible evils that afflict our world.

Of course, being finite beings we can’t expect to know all the goods God would know, any more than an amateur at chess should expect to know all the reasons for a particular move that Kasparov makes in a game. But, unlike Kasparov who in a chess match has a good reason not to tell us how a particular move fits into his plan to win the game, God, if he exists, isn’t playing chess with our lives. In fact, since understanding the goods for the sake of which he permits terrible evils to befall us would itself enable us to better bear our suffering, God has a strong reason to help us understand those goods and how they require his permission of the terrible evils that befall us.

My friends, however, do seem to think we can conceive of goods that may require God to permit at least some of these awful evils. They suggest that for all we know the following complex good may occur: the little five year old girl meets up with her rapist-killer somewhere in the next life, and he then repents and begs her forgiveness for savagely beating, raping, and strangling her, and she then forgives him with the result that both of them live happily ever after in the presence of God.

What are we to make of this suggestion as to why God permitted the little girl to be brutally beaten, raped, and strangled? Well, they are right in holding that even God cannot bring about this complex good without permitting that individual to brutally beat, rape, and strangle the little girl.

But that alone won’t justify God in permitting that to happen to her. For it is eminently reasonable to believe that God could win the soul of the little girl’s rapist-killer without having to permit him to do what he did to her. And even if he can’t, is it right for any being to permit the little girl to be robbed of her life in that way just so her killer could have something bad enough on his conscience to ultimately seek forgiveness? It is one thing to knowingly and freely give up one’s life for the sake of another and quite another thing to have it ripped away, against one’s will, just so someone else can later be led to repentance.

If this is the best that can be done to find a good we know of that may justify God in permitting the little girl to be brutally beaten, raped, and strangled, the evidential argument from evil will surely remain a thorn in the side of theism for some time to come.

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