My tummy hurts. Ergo, there is no god.
This argument may be absurd but it is not intended as a reductio ad absurdum. Although a very simplistic form, this enthymeme encapsulates one of the primary atheological arguments — the argument from evil.
The structure of the argument becomes more obvious once we include the unstated premises:
1. Tummy aches are a form of harm being done to the physical and/or psychological well-being of a sentient creature.
2. Harm is evil.
3. God–an omniscient, wholly good being–would prevent evil.
4. God did not prevent my tummy ache
5. Ergo, there is no god.
This argument is a type known as the evidential problem of evil, the primary remaining form since the logical problem of evil has been solved.*
The evidential problem of evil is the problem of determining whether the existence of evil constitutes evidence against the existence of God. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, “Evidential arguments purport to show that evil counts against theism in the sense that the existence of evil lowers the probability that God exists.”
One of the strongest and most famous examples of this type of argument can be found in William Rowe’s 1979 paper, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism.” Rowe outlines his argument as follows:
1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
3. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being. (Rowe 1979: 336)
I contend that Rowe’s argument is precisely the same as my Tummy Ache formulation.
Not so, you say, for Rowe has added the qualifier intense suffering. To which I’d respond: My tummy hurts intensely.
Actually, I would say that my construction is more solid. By sneaking in the adjective “intense” Rowe attempts to give the premise an emotional resonance, but merely succeeds in weakening his premise. The inclusion of the adjective shifts the premise onto subjective ground. After all, how does “intense” suffering differ in any meaningful sense from mere suffering?
Let’s imagine that all suffering could be converted to a single unit of measurement, say Tummy Aches (TA). Let’s also say that the range of suffering goes from .001 TA to 100 billion TA. At what level does suffering become “intense”? 10 TA? 100 TA? It would depend on the context. In the life of a single human, 100 TA of suffering might be considered intense. But what if we are talking about an amount that would disprove God shouldn’t we consider the entire universe? Would 100 TA be a lot then? Would even 100 billion TA be a considerable amount within the vast expanse of the cosmos?
Besides, what does it matter if we are talking about 100,000 TA or merely 1 TA. If God is omnipotent then he should be able to prevent my tummy ache. For the premise to support the conclusion it should discard all qualifiers and state its point more directly: “An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any suffering…”
Stated in this way, most people would abandon this Tummy Ache argument. Some would still contend, though, that an omnipotent wholly good being would indeed prevent all tummy aches and that stomach pains are indeed evidence against the existence of God. To which the proper response is to ask, “Are you omniscient?”
The reason this question is relevant is because premise #1 can only be judged by an omniscient being. When faced with the fact “Suffering occurs” we are left with the question, “Could the suffering have been prevented without losing some
greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse?” Only an omniscient being could know for sure, yet Rowe’s premise begs the question by assuming that the answer is “yes.”
Those of us that are not omniscient, however, should be hesitant to conclude this is damning evidence without knowing all the facts. By remaining agnostic about premise #1, we have no reason to believe the argument is sound. It becomes apparent that the mere existence of evil has no bearing on the probability that God exists. The evidential problem of evil is a non sequitur.
This is not to deny that evil is a problem. It is, just not a logical or evidential problem. As Alvin Plantinga contends, evil is a religious problem:
The theist may find a religious problem in evil; in the presence of his own suffering or that of someone near to him he may find it difficult to maintain what he takes to be the proper attitude towards God. Faced with great personal suffering or misfortune, he may be tempted to rebel against God, to shake his fist in God’s face, or even to give up belief in God altogether… Such a problem calls, not for philosophical enlightenment, but for pastoral care. [emphasis in the original]
*Most philosophers (including William Howe who is mentioned later) would admit that Alvin Plantinga has solved the logical problem of evil. In his brief and masterful God, Freedom, and Evil, Plantinga concludes that it is at least possible that God could not have created a world with moral good but no moral evil.