OHPT: Thoughts on The Problem of Evil (Chapter 15)

I was eager for this chapter, not just because the Problem of Evil is what drew me to philosophy, but because I was eager to see how someone would summarize the work done around this question. It is of such profound significance to almost every facet of theological arguments for God: her existence, her characteristics, her engagement with the world, etc. It’s a lot to break off and address meaningful and succinctly.

Also, I was so, so happy to read this chapter, because Draper is agnostic! I FEEL SEEN. It’s the first time a non-Christian has written something for this book, and I found that a welcome bit of intellectual and spiritual diversity. I wouldn’t have minded if all authors discussing Christian theology were believing Christians, but it’s nice to see non-believers’ voices and intellect being taken seriously in this context and included in this kind of work. So let’s dive in.

Dr. Paul Draper is a philosopher of religion at Purdue University. His evidential argument from evil have been very influential and he once debated William Lane Craig on the existence of God! #fomo Though my memory is fuzzy as all get out, I think I might have taken a class from him when I was (fleetingly) walking the hallowed ground of Purdue. I’m very sure I heard about him if I never took a class of his, so there is that.

As one would expect from his area of expertise and success, Draper focuses his discussion on the problem of evil on “alethic” questions, or questions that address whether or not what we know about evil can or should inform our beliefs about God (her existence, her attributes, etc.). He argues that because logical arguments depend on showing logical impossibility, and because possibility can be quite permissive in supernatural belief systems like theism (Plantinga’s demons to explain the destructiveness of nature is a perfect example), then trying to go the logical argument route is not the most productive for getting to the heart of the problem of evil.

Finding the road of possibility too broad and permissive in matters of theism (with an omnipotent, omniscient Being, all non-self-contradictory things are possible), Draper turns down the path of probability.

Draper says the best way forward is to deal with arguments positing an alternative to theism as being more likely to be true given what we know. Draper calls these kinds of arguments “Bayesian” arguments, from Bayes’ theorem of mathematical probability. Bayesian arguments from evil have this structure:

(1) We know that e obtains
(2) e‘s obtaining is antecendently many times more probable given some alternative hypothesis h to theism than it is given theism.
So, (3) e‘s obtaining is strong evidence favoring h over theism (i.e. our knowledge that e obtains increases the ratio of the probability of h to the probability of theism many-fold).
(4) h is at least as plausible as theism (i.e. h is at least as probable as theism independent of all evidence for and against theism and h, or at least we have no good reason to believe otherwise).
So, (5) Other evidence held equal, theism is very probably false.

Draper 339

Among the other things Draper explores about this form of argument and challenges to it, this observation of the general Problem of Evil debate gave me pause: “Some philosophers believe that plausibility judgments are purely subjective. […] Other philosophers believe that plausibility judgments are objective (or at least are subject to substantial objective constraints)” (Draper 345). I think this is a fascinatingsplit considering arguments around theism, both for or against. To say something is plausible is to say it seems reasonable or probable. To say something is probable is to say it is likely the case that that thing is true. All claims about supernatural probability rest on some argument for plausibility, I would think. (Or should I say, I currently think this, but am open to being corrected!)

I think arguments of plausibility, with all their grounding in “seeming”, can be either objective or subjective. Most likely, any one argument is a mix of both. The things we read, the “data” we put into our brain and make familiar to ourselves determines what “seems” (in the most intuitive sense) reasonable and right. I have a different sense of what “seems” reasonable about a logical argument from someone who has never studied philosophy. Someone who has worked on cars has a different sense of what “seems” reasonable about a claim to what ails my old bucket of bolts (love you forever, Jimmy the Silver Johnson!) than I do. And that mechanic is certainly more right about her intuitions of plausibility than I am. Intuitions of plausibility carry with them the constitutive potential for a strong subjective influence, but that subjectivity could very well be informed by objective facts, data, and experience.

Obliquely, though not directly, responding to this, Draper touts the value of “modest” hypotheses: hypotheses that tell us less about the world (have a more limited scope) are better than those that purport to explain a lot about the world (have a wider explanatory scope). Dr. Jerome Kagan, in his excellent, if a bit dry, book Five Constraints on Predicting Behavior refers to this when he emphasizes how important it is, for psychologists and for science journalists, to recognize and articulate the full context for any scientific study or finding. A study may show the link between drinking red wine and low instances of heart disease, but if the participants in the study were only from a select and narrow population, all we can extrapolate is that drinking red wine correlates with low instances of heart disease for that group of people. That study group has any number of more-or-less-unique cultural practices, lifestyle choices, genetic predispositions, dietary preferences, acclimation to weather/climate patterns, etc. that would make the studied correlation stronger (or weaker) than that when studied in a different ethnic or socioeconomic group.

Interestingly, Draper’s own hypothesized alternative to theism is broad in that it can be coherent within several supernatural and naturalistic explanations for the phenomenon of the moral human, his ‘hypothesis of indifference’ (HI): “neither the nature nor the condition of sentient beings on earth is the result of actions performed by benevolent or malevolent non-human persons” (343). But while it is broad, it offers a specific, narrow alternative rather than merely claiming that “theism is false” without proffering a substitute explanation. Is HI more plausible and more probable than theism? Draper thinks so.

Plantinga does not, but Draper isn’t impressed with Plantinga’s objections. As per usual, I need more time to mull it over.

I had never encountered formulations of plausibility and probability for the argument from evil, so this chapter was a delight of new ways of thinking (about God and in general). It made me reach for two books: my long-neglected book on statistics, and a book by Daniel Dennett called Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. I think that’s the best kind of reading — one that inspires and motivates you to read more. Much appreciated, Draper.

Favorite quote (yes, in large part because he praises Hume and I’m still fan girling on Hume a little bit):

This is an important insight on Hume’s part. Logical arguments from evil can ignore the good in the world (as Philo emphasizes in Part 10 of the Dialogues), but evidential arguments from evil cannot. Pointing out that various facts about pain are evidence against theism is of little significance if parallel facts about pleasure are equally strong evidence for theism.


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