Saturday, 31 October 2009

Swinburne: The problem of evil

This chapter is completely misnamed, because Swinburne doesn't seem to find evil any kind of problem at all.

His first line of argument is that some evils can serve greater good. Parents rightly allow a dentist to cause pain to their children for the greater good of healthy adult teeth. And God (if he exists) can cause or allow what appear to be evils in the service of a greater good which we cannot necessarily yet perceive. He states that one important greater good is that without evils and suffering, our ability to have and show concern for others is impaired. We cannot be concerned for somebody's welfare and take action to assure it unless that person's welfare is somehow at risk, and if there is no suffering there is no possibility of that happening.

His next line of argument is the "Argument from the Need for Knowledge", that we are endowed with free choices, and without natural evils our ability to make choices would be impaired in that the choices would have no effect. Also, without the chance to observe evil outcomes, we have no knowledge as to the likely good or bad effects of a choice, and no means ever of obtaining such knowledge. Since knowledge is a good thing, this is a greater good that is served by the presence of evil.

He then argues God's right to inflict harm, that parents have a right to do some degree of harm to their children for their own long-term good, and that God, being so much more than parents to us all, similarly has a right to inflict harm for the good of our souls.

He then goes on to address the quantity of evil in the world, the idea that, even given all these arguments, with things such as Hiroshima, the Holocaust, ther Lisbon Earthquake and the Black Death, God might have overdone it a bit. This is his response.

Suppose that one less person had been burnt by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Then there would have been less opportunity for courage and sympathy; one less piece of information about the effects of atomic radiation, less people (relatives of the person burnt) who would have had a strong desire to campaign for nuclear disarmament and against imperialist expansion. Ando so on. Of course, removal of one bad state or the possibility of one bad state will not remove much good, any more than the removal of one grain of sand will make much difference to the fact that you still have a heap of sand. But the removal of one grain of sand will make a bit of a difference, and so will the removal of one bad state.
What he seems to be arguing is that evil is in fact good, in that the more evil there is, the more opportunity there is for people to do good in response. This is a torturer's charter. "I'm only doing this to you for the good of your family, so they can show sympathy to you in your injured state once I have finished with you." It excuses all kinds of evil. It is easy enough for people to do evil believing they are doing good without cover from this kind of fatuous philosophy. If the Hiroshima bomb had never been built, nobody would have been burned by it, and if nuclear weapons had never been developed, there would have been no need for people to campaign for nuclear disamament, and could perhaps have turned to other more substantive forms of good work.

It also suggests that there is ultimately nothing that can be done to reduce the total amount of evil in the world - that God decides how much evil there should be, and that everything is always for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.

There are two issues here. The first is how nauseatingly grotesque this philosophy is, and how easily it can be turned to the service of evil actions. The second is how completely without evidence all this hypothesising is. It depends on us making the assumption without specific evidence that there is a God, that he is good, that he allows evil for the the benefit of our immortal souls, that the amount of evil is at its optimum value for God's perfectly good purposes, and that the removal of even one small amount of human or natural evil will remove as much or more opportunity for humans to be good in response. Phooey.

But it gets worse. Swinburne's next argument is the "Argument from Hiddenness", the idea that keeping himself largely hidden from human sight is just the sort of thing a perfect God would do, since too obvious a Godly presence inhibits the ability of humans to make a free choice whether or not to worship God, and that allowing evil into the world is a part of the process of keeping God hidden from view. If you take this argument, then God ceases to be any kind of scientific proposition at all, he becomes a mechanism by which any possible phenomenon can be interpreted as being consistent with God's existence. If there is no possible phenomenon that can be shown, even in principle, to be incompatible with God's existence, then you now have an unfalsifiable proposition, and therefore all Swinburne's ideas of probability, flawed though they were from the outset, go out of the window, because probability has no meaning at all in the context of unfalsifiable propositions, and no evidence one way or the other can affect one's thinking on the matter.

But for all that, he grandly concludes that the existence of evil in the world does not form a C-inductive argument against God, and the probability of God's existence is unimpaired. There is no explaining going on here, merely explaining-away.


  1. Theodicy is the vilest of all theologies.

    Does Swinburne even address the inconsistency of claiming knowledge is good to justify learning from evil, and then claiming lack of evidence for god is good in the hiddenness argument?

    What about the inconsistency in arguing that god is omnipotent but that we cannot obtain knowledge otherwise except by historical experience? There was much talk in medieval theology about the way angels talked to humans, and to god - angels, it was said, didn't use language, for their mind wasn't hidden by their flesh; instead, they used direct revelation to *show* people things, and understood god by direct apprehension. Swinburne, as a theologian, should be familiar with this possibility, and at least respond to it as a possible means for god to reveal the bad effects of bad decisions to us without us needing to live through them.

  2. Swinburne does mention angels in this chapter concerning other theodicies which he finds "incomplete". He also does not make use of it in his own arguments because to involve angels in explanations of theodicy requires a significant modification and increase in complexity of his original hypothesis of theism.

  3. He needs not introduce angels to introduce direct revelation. I just brought angels as an historical example this idea that Swinburne should have been familiar with.

    I find Craig's use of demons to justify natural evil rather original, at least... (of course, it's just more absurd - but at least it's original).

  4. I think you let the 'greater good' argument off a little lightly. It's not simply that we have no evidence that suffering on earth results in a greater good: rather, it is that all the evidence we have refutes that. A 'greater good' case must begin by refuting every single fact and experience that supports what we all know to be true: that suffering is awful and should be prevented wherever possible.

    And this is as true of trivial suffering as it is of major anguish. Right now I have a mild pain in my knee. Its not crippling or debilitating, but I'd rather it wasn't there. If Swinburne really thinks he can show that a mild and apparently consequence-free pain in my knee is a prerequisite for greater good in the long run, then it's reasonable to expect him to show it -- and likewise for every other itch, ache and minor annoyance occurring on earth now and in the past. Unless he can convincingly explain away every single one, then his argument fails.

  5. I have promised Jonathan for some time, to comment on Richard Swinburne, so here we go!

    Philosphers, when we really don't like what someone is saying, tend to go straight for the presuppositions on which an argument is based. it's a way of going straight for the jugular. Now somethimes presuppositions are stated in a clear unambigious way, and sometimes they are buried in the argument and less explicit. Swinburne as you've already guessed is the latter type. So I'm going to first of all spell out his big 2 presuppositions and then go for him, ignoring the nitty gritty of his text.

    Presupposition 1: This is the best of all possible worlds (in a moral sense)
    Presupposition 2:Humans cannot develop morally and spiritually in a paradise.

    Now I know that initially ! looks a lot like 2, but actually they are quite different, and naughty old Swinburne has deliberately confused and conflated them.

    Let's look at best possible world first. Is this the best possible world? My answer is No!The very best reply to the theist I can come up with is that even if we concede that this world is the best that might be had, the problem of evil and suffering are still with us. Swinburne hasn't solved the problem at all.None of the miseries which provoke our complaints are assuaged by Swinburne's assurance that this is the best that could be done - the problem is still with us and we are back to square one.

    So we now see that presupposition number 1 is less than useless, even if we are generous and allow Swinburne to have his way, he's not actually solved anything at all, and I'm sure you all see that!

    Let's have a go at presupposition 2 now. Old Swinburne is basing his ideas on Iraneaus ( a really old early church father) where you need a picture of the world as a scene of person-making in which the creative process continues beyond this world. In other words, human immortality is essential to this type of theodicy. Now this implicit reference to life after death is outright philosophical and theological cheating. it's a downright breaking of the rules of the game. Moreover, there is no gurantee that the person-making process will succeed, no matter how much time it is given.

    Just as a quick thought to finish, what about animal suffering? What about all the suffering which occurred before we humans evolved? What was the purpose of that? Animals are non-moral!
    There were no humas to feel sorry for, or care for animals at that stage in evolution so Swinburne cannot account for this.

    I would love to go on and on about this but shall stop for now. I shall come back later with a more shocking revelation about Swinburne and torture. Thankyou for reading, I hope you enjoyed it.

  6. Hi savvymum

    Thanks for that - very interesting (but rather more restrained than you had indicated it would be!)

    Your comment about Swinburne hiding and mixing presuppositions is entirely consistent with what I've found & commented about the rest of the book. There are so many of these around that it's hardly surprising that I missed a couple!

  7. I'm really late to this party, but hopefully you'll pick up some readers from the comments link in Rosenhouse's Evolution Blog.

    My problem with all conceptions of a god with the essentials -- perfectly good and all-powerful -- is that proponents conveniently address them independently, which helps to hide the contradictions.

    "He then argues God's right to inflict harm, that parents have a right to do some degree of harm to their children for their own long-term good, and that God, being so much more than parents to us all, similarly has a right to inflict harm for the good of our souls."

    Parents are not omnipotent. We *must* inflict this harm for the greater good, because it's the only way to accomplish the greater good. His description here is of a very weak god.

    Obviously, Swinburne's entire argument is special pleading on top of special pleading. But, even within that seemingly limitless level of conjuring, he still can't avoid contradiction.