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I have been discussing the Problem of Evil (POE) a bit recently, particularly the Logical Problem of Evil (LPOE), and without wanting to defend theism and belief in God, I have been defending the logical possibility of OmniGod in light of the existence of suffering.

The basis of the POE, of course, is that if God is all-loving, -knowing and -powerful, then how come there is so much suffering in the world. The theist appeals primarily to some form of skeptical theism and/or a host of theodicies (defences/reasons for such suffering). Skeptical theism states that we can’t or don’t know the mind of God, and there could be a reason for the existence of suffering in light of OmniGod. The two are not necessarily logically inconsistent. For example, cancer, genocide or me stubbing my toe may have superior trumping reasons for their existence that justify them in light of God’s existence.

Now, we don’t need to know what they are, simply that they/it could exist. As I discussed, there is certainly a huge weakness in the argument here in that, amongst the many other issues, it is a case of possibiliter ergo probabiliter: it is possible, therefore it is probable.

For the theist, all suffering must be instrumental, serving some greater good or similar, or being part of some utterly different moral metric that we poor humans cannot access (and the reasons for us not accessing these are themselves instrumental in serving a greater good). There would be no such thing as gratuitous suffering for the theist as this would invalidate OmniGod.

Fellow nontheist Gary Whittenberger took umbrage at this position:

JP1: There could be some reason that, in light of his all-loving, -powerful and -knowing characteristics, God still allows cancer, genocide and toe-stubbing.

GW1: By “some reason” I assume that you mean “a good reason” or “an adequate justification.” No, there couldn’t be such a reason! For now, let’s set aside genocide and toe-stubbing and focus on cancer. In fact, let’s be more specific and focus on breast cancer in women as it ordinarily occurs.

GW1: If God did exist, there could be no reason why he would allow this breast cancer. Why? Because it would be immoral for him to allow breast cancer to occur when he could actually prevent it, and God would be all-powerful and perfectly moral.

GW1: The invocation of utilitarian ethics, to which you allude, does not work in this case because any greater harm which God might be preventing by allowing breast cancer in women could also be prevented and would be prevented by God. The existence of God cannot be saved by an infinite regress.

JP1: You could contrive some weird and wonderful ad hoc rationalisation as to why God would allow this or design the world so.

GW1: You might try, but none would work. Try it. Present one for discussion.

JP1: And even if you couldn’t actually think of a single argument that soundly does this, it doesn’t preclude the notion that might be a possible argument out there.

GW1: No, a possible good reason is precluded by the logic of the matter, so there is not one out there.

GW1: If this is still not convincing, let’s pile on. If God did exist and he had some good reason for allowing breast cancer in women, then he would have told all of us what that good reason is. Moral perfection requires this notification.

This is actually pretty similar to the claim “unicorns don’t exist” – it comes down to Cartesian epistemology: the only thing you can indubitably know is cogito ergo sum. Outside of that, short of logical impossibility, everything else is a case of probability. There could be unicorns somewhere in this universe; we just don’t know indubitably that they don’t exist.

So, Gary asks, is there “good reason” that unicorns (breast cancer) exist?

Well, this is irrelevant to a deductive argument such as the POE. The question is, does the POE as constructed as a syllogism deductively negate the existence of OmniGod? For the philosopher, without expanding on the argument, the answer for the LPOE is no, it doesn’t necessarily negate the existence of God. The theist doesn’t really need to provide a “good reason” for any suffering, as they get away by providing a get-out-of-jail-free card to say there could be a reason (and this reason could be good) and this is enough elbow room to show that the LPOE doesn’t provide the deductive surety atheists desire. Hence the later development of the evidential problem of evil that looks at things probabilistically (or inductively) rather than deductively.

When Gary asks of me: “You might try, but none would work. Try it. Present one for discussion.[contrive some weird and wonderful ad hoc rationalisation for suffering]”, I (as a Devil’s Advocate theist) simply don’t need to for my position to hold. How can he prove none will work? The theist simply needs to appeal to the mere possibility of a good reason without having to do anything else; where Gary demands the theist provides one, they merely have to retort, “Prove there isn’t one” and we end up at an impasse. But this impasse serves the theist’s purpose.

Gary says, “a possible good reason is precluded by the logic of the matter” but this is not shown. If, indeed, one could deductively show this, then Gary would be right, but no syllogism clearly shows this in the usual form of the LPOE.

He continues, after another comment from me:

JP: You would have to show that deductively to make the claim hold.

GW: I accept that challenge. So that I may effectively meet your challenge, please define “good reason” as applied to this context we are discussing.

Again, the burden of proof, for the theist, is absent – all they need to do is posit the mere possibility of one and, for them, job done. Yes, it’s weak, but, for them, it’s all they want to be able to thrust in their wedge of possibility. Et, voilá, God.

Is there a way out for the atheist?

Quite possibly, and I need to think about this in perhaps more depth with a little more time on my hands, and no doubt many have got there before me. But my intuitive response would be to develop a syllogism whereby the theist is backed into necessarily having to take on consequentialism, for example. We know that most theists hate consequentialism, and so if you could develop a syllogism to entrap them with this, then there is mileage in the LPOE.

It would go something like this:

  1. A bunch of premises to show that reasons for suffering are necessarily consequentialist (appealing to greater goods etc).
  2. Regular POE premises.
  3. If there could be a reason that suffering coexists with OmniGod, then the reasons are necessarily consequentialist.
  4. Conclusion: God or the theist must adopt consequentialism to argue that God exists given the POE/previous premises; or, if not, OmniGod does not exist.

In other words, you can either have consequentialism, or God.

To be fair, this might still allow a get out for the theist in the form of what Luke Breuer posited:

Consider the fact that what we currently think to be the fundamental laws of nature might be quite wrong—like Newtonian physics got the ontology all wrong in comparison to QM and GR. Would it be a kind of moral or intellectual evil for us to have to go through another paradigm shift?

If your answer to the above is “no”, then why would the same not also apply to our morality somehow being a very rough approximation of God’s morality, and thus in need of major renovation? Note that there would be rules for such a renovation—it wouldn’t be a “flatten & reinstall”, where you simply overwrite what a person thought before instead of bring them from where they are to a new place via evidence & reason. (Wertrationalität, not ZweckrationalitätWP: Instrumental and value rationality)

In other words, it could be that our whole understanding of morality is utterly wrong, or so off the mark as to what God is operating to that it is effectively an eliminativist approach to the POE. I would be interested on your thoughts on this.

Thanks to Gary for the comments that have brought this post about. Keep ’em coming,

I have written an awful lot about Omni God and the problems involved with such a concept. Indeed, my reasonably priced e-book, The Problem of “God”: Classical Theism under the Spotlight (UK), deals extensively with these ideas. Here are some further posts per you to peruse:



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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...