Peering Into The Abyss

Dr. William Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher upon whose posts we often comment in these pages, has put up a good one today on the topic of God and evil. He makes an important distinction, one that people often fail to keep in mind, between what is called the “argument from evil” and its close cousin, the “problem of evil”. The former is an attempt to prove the nonexistence of God, and the latter is simply a difficulty that the theist must struggle with.

As Dr. Vallicella makes clear, for an atheist to use the existence of evil to prove the nonexistence of God, two premises must be firmly established: first, that evil exists, and second, that evil is incompatible with the existence of God. Now for the first premise to be conclusive, it isn’t sufficient that we have the feeling that evil exists, or that there are things in the world that bother us. No, for us to use this assumption as part of an ironclad proof it is required that evil exists, as an objective fact. But of course to the atheist there is no bedrock upon which a definition of evil may rest in the first place, so the argument is doomed. You can’t prove the nonexistence of God from a merely subjective intuition of evil.

On the other hand, however, the problem of evil is still very real for the theist, because he still must reconcile his experience of evil with his concept of God — and of course, believing in God, he will therefore have a foundation to support the belief that evil really is an objective fact of the world. I don’t envy theists this task. It seems dauntingly, absurdly difficult, particularly in comparison to the coherence and clarity of the atheist’s position, which is simply that we have our moral intuitions because it has been useful for us to have them, and that’s all there is to it. As soon as you stop insisting that God must exist, and that evil must be anything more than a subjective valuation, the problem just vanishes, and you see at once that it never should have been there in the first place.

This is not to say that we no longer have any basis for thinking that cruelty is bad, of course. There is no call for us to scrap our subjective moral valuations, even if we could. Nobody would argue that babies, for example, are objectively cute, or beer objectively delightful, but we don’t suggest that as a result we should stop enjoying babies and beer. But for some reason, when people are confronted with the subjectivity of evil, they shy away from the brink, and so are left having to explain how the loving and all-powerful God they insist on believing in could give a two-year-old girl cancer of the throat — which is, to say the least, a tough row to hoe. It amazes me that Dr. Vallicella, having limned the difficulty so clearly, prefers to grapple with this eternally intractable and easily avoidable problem rather than simply to grasp the nihilistic nettle and be delivered from it once and for all, but to each his own. (Even such alpha atheists as Dennett and Dawkins seem to tread carefully when they get close to the canyon’s rim, and I suppose it must be a good deal harder for an actual theist.) Come on, Bill! You can do it! Just let go. You’ll be fine.

Anyway, we’ve been over this before, but it’s worth reiterating, and Vallicella’s post is a good one. You can read it here.

P.S. I understand that Steven Pinker is going to have an article on this topic in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. That should be interesting.


  1. Bill says

    I made my own resolution of the theodicic problem. It exists because most concepts of God rest on a mutually exclusive set of properties–Omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent. This later is what usually gets tortured and contorted in theodicic arguments. I prefer to consider God as not omnipotent, and possibly not absolutely omniscient, certainly relative to us, omniscient. If He is not omnipotent, then even if evil exists, He may not be able to stop it in all cases. Actually, I hypothesize that God is as bound by the laws of nature as we are. This puts considerable, but not complete, constraints on His ability to stop evil.

    Posted January 11, 2008 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Bill says

    Correction, they are not mutually exclusive, they are mutually contradictive.

    Posted January 11, 2008 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Well, a God that can’t stop a little girl from getting cancer would be a pretty watered-down God, I should imagine, as far as most people are concerned. Why bother with the concept at all?

    Posted January 11, 2008 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  4. Bill says

    I would suppose by that logic a car that didn’t do 0-60 in 4 seconds and top 200 mph is a pretty watered-down car too. There are many people that want their God to be the wild-card, joker, or get-out-of-jail-free card, that allows potentially escaping the bounds of the laws of nature or of human behavior. But suppose there is a God that has great knowledge and wisdom and can help us see things in a better way over time if we are open to Him. In your particular instance, He may be helping the researcher trying to find the cure for cancer, or the surgeon that is removing it, or the oncologist that is treating it chemically. It is not that He is helpless, He simply can’t do anything arbitrarily. My own view is that there is a God and He works through people, primarily by creating awareness of other choices or ways of doing things.

    It is tempting, I suppose, to say, “I want God to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, and if He isn’t, I don’t want anything to do with Him.” But it might be more reasonable to accept what He is. It certainly beats nothing.

    Posted January 11, 2008 at 9:27 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Yes, one can imagine any sort of God one likes, from thundering, omnipotent superbeings to well-intentioned underachievers. That’s one of the best things about gods, of course: that you can cook them up any way you like them, without anybody being able to show that you’re wrong. But I have a feeling that a God who merely “beats nothing” doesn’t really beat nothing as far as most theists are concerned.

    Slowly torturing a two-year-old girl to death in front of her helpless parents, for example, is one hell of a way to help doctors cure cancer. With friends like that…

    (By the way, if you ask most folks around where I live, we already have someone who has great knowledge and wisdom and can help us see things in a better way over time if we are open to Him. In fact, his wife’s running for president.)

    Posted January 11, 2008 at 10:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Bill, I’m sorry about the flippant tone there at the end; you were being serious.

    Most people would be profoundly unsatisfied with the sort of God you posit. What inclines you to such a belief in the first place? When you say “accept what He is”, there is an implicit assumption that it’s possible to know that this is in fact what he is. What reason could you give for someone to think that there is such a God? It seems a fairly short distance from believing in a totally undetectable God who can’t do anything at all.

    Posted January 11, 2008 at 10:41 pm | Permalink
  7. Bill says


    the comment about slowly torturing implies an ability to allow or disallow the death. That is exactly what I am trying to point out is not the case. You appear to take the position that either God can be omnipotent or He has no business existing. But if God exists and is omnipotent He then becomes all the worse for allowing the girl to die, and we are back at the theodicic question again.

    My particular choice is most fully explained in the posts in my religious archive blog which is linked in my regular blog. In a nutshell, it is my way of solving the conflict of 30+ years of the pursuit of scientific knowledge in a broad range of disciplines, with a number of emotional and subjective experiences. It has worked for me and may or may not work for anyone else. It is a way of resolving an inherently insoluable problem, without getting rid of everything relating to the concept or belief in God. I did spend most of the 30+ years without the concept or belief in God.

    What most or many people believe has never been an acceptable argument to me. After all millions of French welcomed the Nazis, and millions of Germans went along with the Holocaust.

    Knowing the nature of God is a subjective thing. God is neither provable nor disprovable, and the belief is subject to choice. Along with the belief comes the choice of the type of God one wishes to believe in. I do not chose to believe in a God that would allow evil to occur, if He could prevent it, and I do not believe in a utilitarian God that balances matters far more finely than we can. That would undermine our ability to make moral choices (Thou shalt not kill, but I can because I know more about the consequences.), just as God’s violating the laws of nature with what are perceived as miracles would undermine our understanding of such laws. The last is more fully stated in other posts.

    Posted January 13, 2008 at 9:25 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Well, Bill, as I’ve said, we are free to make our gods in whatever image we like, though for me the far simpler solution to your “insoluble problem” is simply not to have any gods at all.

    As you correctly point out, the fact that many other people believe something is not a compelling reason to believe it oneself, but it is hard to see what, exactly, one gets from worshipping the weak God you posit — which, as one of our readers emails, has “displaced God far down the spiritual chain of being.” He asks: “Where did this God come from? How did it get where it is?”

    Posted January 13, 2008 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

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