Butterflies and Sliding Doors: the failure of apologetics to resolve the problem of evil

The logical argument from evil is dead and its smaller sibling, the probabilistic argument, is such a weak thing that it cannot even rise from its sick bed, let alone strike any significant blow against theism.

So say apologists including, recently, Stephen J Graham who has blogged about it more than once. Here is an example.

The death knell for the logical argument was supposedly sounded by Plantiga’s Free-Will Defence, in which Plantinga argues that in order for humans to be capable of making moral decisions libertarian free-will must exist. If libertarian free-will exists then it is not logically possible for God to prevent it from being used to do evil. But the ability freely to choose between good and bad is so valuable that it is worth the evil which has resulted. (There is a supplementary argument which is supposed to deal with evil not caused by humans, “natural evil”, but let’s keep things simple and leave that on the back-burner.)

The first thing to say about this argument is that it doesn’t work at all unless you accept that libertarian free-will:
1. is a coherent concept,
2. is actually the way things operate and
3. is necessary in order for acts to have real moral value.

Most compatabilists will reject every one of the above. Unless he can prove all of them, Plantinga’s defence should be considered a failure.

However, SGJ thinks Plantinga has succeeded and so he focuses his fire on the probabilistic argument from free-will. Leaving aside the question of whether his dismissal of the logical argument from evil is premature, I should like to look at how he tackles the probabilistic argument.

Although he does not state it in terms in this particular post, SJG draws heavily on the Molinist position to support his argument. This position is strongly favoured by William Lane Craig, on whose work SJG draws heavily. Molinism involves God’s supposed knowledge of counterfactuals. Counterfactuals are concerned with what would have happened if events had unfolded differently. E.g What would life be like if Hitler had won the war? Or, If I had tossed a coin five minutes ago, would it have landed on heads or tails?

God is supposed to have knowledge of what free-willed (in the libertarian sense) humans would do in all logically possible worlds. He then providentially only creates the world where the greatest possible good is achieved with least possible (unavoidable) evil.

God, it is argued, may know that by allowing an apparent evil, he will bring about, in some way not obvious to humans, a benefit which will far outweigh that evil. Like the butterfly whose wing fluttering might, according to chaos theory, set in motion a chain of events culminating in a hurricane on the other side of the world, so when we see what we perceive to be gratuitous evil it may for all we know produce a series of effects which in the end result in a greater good. Or, like the film Sliding Doors, apparently good outcomes may turn out to be…..not that great after all.

Given a working definition of knowledge as “justified, true belief” it is not at all clear how God can “know” what I would do in any given (non-actualised) situation if I have libertarian free-will.
But if we accept that somehow God can know what his creatures would do in any possible set of circumstances, is it tenable to claim that what we perceive as gratuitous evil may at some point operate to bring about a greater good?

SJG correctly points out that the burden of proof is on the atheist in this debate. He does not say to what standard he expects the burden of proof to be met. In law, the burden of proof is almost invariably on the party who brings the case to court. However the law recognises two different standards to be achieved in meeting that burden. The lower standard (usually applied in civil cases) is on the balance of probabilities – that it is more likely than not that the claimant’s evidence is right. The higher standard, usually applied in criminal cases, is beyond reasonable doubt.

In defending the probabilistic argument from evil I might be expected to argue that the atheist need only prove her case on the balance of probabilities But in fact I will argue that the evidence we have establishes beyond reasonable doubt that gratuitous evil exists.

SJG suggests that the good effects may take decades to appear. His mentor, WLC goes further:

The brutal murder of an innocent man or a child’s dying of leukemia could produce a sort of ripple effect through history such that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later and perhaps in another land. When you think of God’s providence over the whole of history, I think you can see how hopeless it is for limited observers to speculate on the probability that God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting a certain evil. We’re just not in a good position to assess such probabilities.

Wow! Centuries might pass. And not even in the same land!

But the mistake here is to introduce a third standard of proof, one that is so high that nothing ever could or will meet it outside the realms of such abstract fields as maths or logic. The standard of proof demanded here is absolute proof, beyond a per adventure, where any possibility of mistake, no matter how speculative or unsupported by evidence is supposed to be enough to undermine what our common sense tells us to be true.

When the prosecution seeks to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, reasonable doubt is not triggered by the theoretical possibility that (for instance) shape shifting aliens might have taken the defendant’s form, so that the clear as a bell image of him on CCTV robbing a bank is not him at all.

Yes, we all know that hindsight is a wonderful thing. And we can all see (not just Christians, as SJG bizarrely implies) that history is a moving picture. But that doesn’t mean that we should all suspend our judgements about everything, indefinitely, because after all, you never know, do you? Yet it would follow from SJG’s logic that that is exactly what we should do. When, at the end of his post, he claims that the resurrection establishes the triumph of good in spite of the apparent evil of the crucifixion, what gives him the confidence to say so? Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight it will turn out that the resurrection was a Bad Thing, leading to a false religion which has misled and ensnared millions of dupes. But an omnipotent and omniscient God has foreseen that this Bad Thing is a necessary precondition to some ultimate greater good which will brought about in thousands or maybe millions of years time. And perhaps the lucky beneficiaries of this particular evil for an ultimate greater good may turn out to be inhabitants of the planet Zog, light years away….

For goodness sake! This way madness lies. If, as SJG and WLC implicitly concede the world gives every indication of containing gratuitous evil, then mere speculation is not a rational basis for denying it.

SJG’s assertion that the sufferings of this life are negligible when viewed in the context of eternity make (for this atheist at least) unpleasant reading. Consider the recent loss of the aircraft shot down over Ukraine. The “lucky” ones died in the immediate explosion. But many would have been conscious as they fell through the air to their deaths. And if that is not enough to convince you that temporal human suffering is of great moment, consider the fate of those who were left to mourn for them. A life time of grief, where all a parent’s cherished hopes and dreams for a beloved child diminish to just the narrow wish “Maybe she was one of those ‘lucky’ ones….”

“Infinitesimal”? Really?

I cannot agree that anything can reduce such suffering to no importance. But if eternity does make temporal suffering of no consequence, then it will follow that Jesus’ human temporal suffering on the cross is nothing much. Atheists sometimes like to say “Jesus had a really bad week-end for us.” It seems that SJG would find it hard to disagree with this sentiment given his take on the compensations afforded by eternity.

When SJG says that God may reward those who go through these trials in faith, what about those who have no faith, or the “wrong” faith? Perhaps SJG is a universalist, I don’t know. But if not, it does prompt the question of how the suffering of an atheist or a Muslim or a Jew can be justified when they are going to get to the other side to find…more of the same, only infinitely worse and with no end to it.

Plantinga’s free-will defence rests in the shaky foundations of libertarian free-will. WLC’s “Sliding Doors” argument rests on an unreasonable standard for proof. By diminishing the horrors of human suffering SJG gives the appearance of being what I am sure he is not in reality: crass and insensitive.

May I respectfully suggest a return to the drawing board?