Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Plantinga and the Problem(s) of Evil

In Monday's post about the atheist bus campaign, I suggested that, given the powerful anti-theistic arguments available to us, "God probably doesn't exist" dramatically under-states the case. Even allowing for general fallibilism, a more accurate formulation would be "we can be as sure of God's non-existence as we can be of anything." While most of the post was spent taking apart the stranger bits of conventional wisdom often spouted by people with "middle of the road" positions on God--"science and religion can't conflict because they concern different subjects," "you can't prove a negative"--I did mention the Problem of Evil in passing, saying that (a) there were purely logical problems with making sense of the notion of an "all-powerful" being existing, that (b) "we have powerful empirical evidence against the existence of God in the form of the Problem of Evil," and that (c), given that we have no evidence for the existence of God, even if we didn't have any evidence against the existence of God--i.e. even if (a) and (b) were both false--then, in that "all else being equal" hypothetical, atheism would be rationally mandatory purely as a matter of ontological simplicity.

In the comments, Simon Bunckenburg asked:

"Hi, re your treatment of the problem of evil. I'm suprised you do not mention Platinga's free will response? seems to make sense to me."

To quickly review for readers who may not be familiar with this, it's customary to separate out "the logical problem of evil" from "the evidential problem of evil." A standard way to explain the distinction is that the former problem is about whether the existence of evil makes it logically impossible that God exists, whereas the latter problem is about whether the existence of evil makes it merely extremely improbable that God exists. Plantinga's version of the Free Will Defense isn't intended to address the "evidential problem of evil," but merely to show that the existence of evil doesn't make the existence of God logically impossible. While normal Free Will Defenses at best only account for human evil, Plantinga's is notable because he extends it to natural evil by pointing out that, for example, it is at least logically possible that earthquakes could be caused by demons exercising their free will.

So, the obvious, standard way to reply to Simon would be to point out that my only claim about the Problem of Evil in my post was that the existence of evil constitutes "powerful empirical evidence against the existence of God", and that Plantinga's response doesn't touch that claim, and that indeed it isn't intended to touch it. The reasons why I'm devoting an entire post to this, instead of just giving that one-sentence response in the comments, are that:

(1) For a variety of reasons, I'm not entirely satisfied with the standard way of chopping up the Problem of Evil into "logical" and "evidential" forms,
(2) In any case, even if I was completely comfortable with standard procedure here, I'd strongly reject the claim that Plantinga has refuted the "logical" form of the problem. I think that his version of the Free Will Defense (like all versions of it) fails for all sorts of interesting reasons, worth mentioning.

(Note that if you want to skip all the epistemic stuff and just see what I have to say about Plantinga, I mark the break between my discussions of (1) and (2) with a ************.)

On (1), I'd start by noting that, while I'm in a distinct minority here on the contemporary philosophical scene, I reject the whole notion of epistemic probability. (I've posted about this before, and may again, but for now I'll just note that I agree with the conclusions Simon Evnine comes to in his discussion of the Lottery and Preface Paradoxes in his book Epistemic dimensions of personhood. Briefly: the right lesson to draw from the paradoxes is that high probability is neither universally necessary nor universally sufficient for epistemic justification.) A second, related point, is that I'm a confirmational holist. (I think all of rational inference is a matter of coming up with the best total explanation of the evidence, where "total explanation" includes logical and metaphysical components as well as more obviously "empirical" ones, and it's all intertwined.) Putting the two together, let's go back to something I said about the refutation of theories in my last post:

"If a consequence of Astronomical Theory A is that such-and-such planet will be at such-and-such position at a certain time, and at the relevant time, we observe the relevant position and the planet isn't there, that's evidence against Astronomical Theory A. (Similarly, an obvious consequence of theism is that unnecessary suffering shouldn't exist, but it does exist, in great quantities, and the theist has no convincing way to explain it away. This is evidence against theism.) Without this sort of negative evidence, the process of doing science would be unrecognizable."

Let's try to be a bit more precise about all of this:

Is the refutation of Astronomical Theory A "logical"? Well, in the example, the conclusion that Astronomical Theory A is false comes at the end of a valid and sound logical argument (an instance of Modus Tollens), and I don't accept that probability has anything to do with it. In that sense, it's certainly logical. On the other hand, there are in any such cases any number of creative ad hoc maneuvers one could go through in order to deny the first premise of that argument ("if the theory were true, such-and-such planet would be observed at such-and-such position at a certain time"). If we stick to our guns and continue to assert that first premise and thus the conclusion as well, it's because we've examined these explanations and decided that our best overall theory of the world is a simpler one where we don't try to explain away the evidence in these complicated ways. Note, however, that I'd say precisely the same thing if someone tried to get around the conclusion by denying the validity of Modus Tollens (for example, by postulating true contradictions and pointing out that, given that assumption, it follows that MT isn't universally truth-preserving, since 'if P, then Q' 'P', 'Q' and '~Q' would all be jointly true). My attitude wouldn't be "either the probability of the conclusion being false is 0, which licenses me to dogmatically ignore all dissenters, or it's over 0, in which case I have to prefix key parts of the argument with the word 'probably'", but rather that everything's on the table and has to be evaluated case-by-case.

Given my Quinean epistemic picture, then, I'd argue that there's just one Problem of Evil. Given the existence of all sorts of apparently gratuitous suffering and evil, should we believe in God?


On (2), I'd note first that we need to be careful about delineating exactly what Plantinga is trying to do. Just showing that the appearance of the existence of extreme suffering by innocent people is logically compatible with theism doesn't require anything nearly so complicated as Plantinga's manuevers. If you're friendly to qualia, there's Ryan's excellent zombie solution, and with a little creativity one could come up with something similar that doesn't involve qualia to show that the appearance of innocent people suffering in an extreme ways is some sort of illusion. This is all a lot more simple and elegant than banging on about free will and God's ability to actualize certain possible worlds. It isn't sufficient for Plantinga, though, because he seems to aspire to a slightly more interesting project: he wants to show that even if we take the appearance of extreme suffering by innocent people seriously, and postulate that it is just as it appears, this assumption is compatible with the claim that God exists.

That project is considerably more interesting, and I think he pisses it away in a spectacularly uninteresting way when he starts talking about demons exercising their free will by causing earthquakes. If successful (which I don't take it to be....see below) that technically shows that the real existence of extreme suffering is compatible with the existence of God, but it doesn't show that the real existence of extreme suffering caused in the way that it is really caused is compatible with the existence of God. The project "show that God's existence is logically compatible with something we all know to be true (even if there's some sense in which we can't absolutely rule out extreme fantastical scenarios on which it would be false)" becomes totally uninteresting and pointless if the price of the compatibility is that you have to continue to admit that the existence of God is logically incompatible with something else that we equally well all know to be true (even if there's some sense in which we can't absolutely rule out extreme fantastical scenarios on which it would be false). We know damn well that earthquakes aren't caused by demons, just as we know damn well that the inmates at Auschwitz weren't Chalmersian zombies. The two claims have precisely the same epistemic status. Showing that "the existence of earthquakes that really kill and maim really existing and really conscious innocent children" is logically consistent with the existence of God has no value if you aren't also showing that "the existence of earthquakes really caused in the way we know them to be caused that really kill and maim really existing and really conscious innocent children."

So, even if Plantinga's maneuver were successful in his project, there would still be an interesting "logical problem of evil" that his solution wouldn't touch, and, in fact, I would argue that that the version addressed by his solution only ever looked interesting because, if you squint, it looks like the filled-out version spelled out at the end of the last paragraph.

Still, Plantinga's solution might at least defeat the interesting logical problem of evil when it comes to human evil, right? Like, a separate solution is needed to show that God's existence is logically compatible with natural evil, but showing it for human evil would still be worthwhile.


The first problem is that, given compatibilism about free will, it's obviously not the case that God couldn't actualize deterministic possible worlds where everyone fulfilled the conditions for being free and there was no moral evil. Arguing for compatibilism is a much bigger project--there's a vast literature there--but for now I'll just report that (a) I'm a compatibilist, and (b) that I'm fairly unimpressed with Plantinga's dismissals of compatibilism, which he doesn't tend to take seriously enough to provide much of anything resembling an argument against.

The second, related, problem is that even if you accept that libertarians are right and compatibilists are wrong about the conditions for free will--which I don't--Plantinga has only demonstrated the logical possibility of the co-existence of God with human evil given the significant further assumption that it's logically possible for the libertarian's conditions for free will could be fulfilled. (After all, one could take e.g. Naomi Arpaly's position, eloquently argued for in her book Merit, Meaning and Human Bondage that we do desire free will, but that it's quite possible to wish for deeply impossible things.) I actually think that there are considerable reasons to doubt that this would be logically possible. Depending on exactly how one understands the details, free will as conceived by the libertarian might seem to require a form of causation that is neither deterministic nor random, and it's just not obvious that this notion can be cashed out in a logically coherent way.

Finally, even given the joint assumptions that (a) the libertarian is right about the conditions for freedom, and (b) it's at least possible for those conditions to be fulfilled (plus, of course, some additional controversial assumptions, like, "free will is more good than genocide is bad"), it's not clear that any of this establishes the possible co-existence of God with the specific sorts of extreme human evil that actually exist.

If you're the sort of theistic libertarian who finds that last claim intriguingly strange--given both libertarianism about free will, and the assumption that a just God would allow his creatures free will, how could all that not at least add up to a solution to the logical Problem of Evil?--then stay tuned for next week, because that will be the subject of Monday's post. As an extra feature, I promise to use the phrase "Hitler semen" in my answer.

1 comment:

Simon Bunckenburg said...

Cheers for the response Ben, I look forward to Monday's post!