The Problem of Evil, Addendum

There’s a bit in my lecture notes here that I think is interesting, so I’m going to reproduce it.

As we puzzle out the question of how can God be good, omniscient, and omnipotent, one of the answers we get is that all the evil in the world leads to some kind of good, and so we get a variation on the argument: there is evil in the world, but all that evil is bent towards an ultimate good purpose. And so the atheist says, “well, no, there’s evil in the world that is unredeemed, so this argument doesn’t hold.”

So we get a brief digression into I guess an epistemological question, which is “how do we know that there is unredeemed evil?” The universe is complicated obviously, and chains of causation and proximate causes and so forth et cetera. I’m going to reproduce the next part directly:

Do we have grounds for thinking [that the premise of unredeemed evil] holds?
Atheist: According to accepted principles of evidence, it is reasonable to conclude from the fact that our search for an X fails, that there is no X.
Theist: Is that right? Let’s consider the pattern of inference more carefully.
(a) There are no observed elephents in this room.
(b) There are no elephants in this room.
(c ) There are no observed bacteria on the floor (I’ve looked carefully!).
(d) There are no bacteria on the floor.
Detectibility Condition “Failure to see something (an elephant, a person, a reason) gives us reason to believe it is not there only if we are justified in believing that if it were there, we would see it. (Russell, section 2, paragraph 8)
Atheist: But this doesn’t fit the theist’s own practice. If there were invisible elephants here, she wouldn’t see them; still she feels justified in believing non are present.
Simplicity Condition: One should believe the simplest explanation of one’s data.

You can see how this is straightforward, right? It’s an answer to the question of, why should I believe in some invisible things (bacteria), but not others (the reason for evil)? Or, likewise, why should I disbelieve some invisible things (invisible elephants), but not disbelieve other invisible things (the reason)?

The atheist comes up with two conditions, detectibility and simplicity, in order to work it out but hold on guys I just noticed something.

“Billions of invisible organisms multiplying beyond the scope of our vision on every surface we come in contact with” is hardly a simple explanation, especially considering the data we’ve got — if I’m just observing the room, isn’t the simplest explanation for the fact that I don’t see these organisms that they don’t exist?

Obviously I believe most of the claims of science, but it’s important I think to remember that I’ve observed them personally only rarely, and in some cases (as in epidemiology), it’s not even possible to observe them individually, since they only reveal themselves statistically.

So, what does this mean about the Simplicity Condition?

  1. I think that it’s a useful guideline, but the simplicity of an explanation has to be judged according to the proper context — “bacteria” is hardly a simple explanation when I’m just looking at a room, but becomes a simple explanation when compared to the large body of scientific evidence affirming their existence.
  2. In fact, before the invention of the electron microscope, a lot of these theories about life force, poisonous winds, or spiritual intervention were not especially irrational — they were simple explanations based on the information that people had at the time.
  3. Huge swaths of information that we “have” and use to make rational inferences about are not actually directly-observed phenomena, but instead rely heavily on what we might call “trusted institutions” — academia, for instance. Like a big chunk of any individual’s human mind is actually stored elsewhere, and human beings are individually better-equipped to navigate the world because of how we plug into those institutions.

But what does this tell us about the Problem of Evil?

  1. Nothing, basically, because the context for “simplicity” in this case is, “everything that has ever happened or will happen in the history of the universe”.
  2. So doesn’t that mean this could be true? Sure, it could be, but accepting that it could be true would require by the same standard that I accept a million other things be true as well, to the point where theorizing on the subject is thoroughly useless.
  3. Let’s say then that it’s good if an explanation is simple, but an ideal explanation is sufficient, in the sense that it answers the question in front of us fully and doesn’t require addition tinkering, and necessary, in the sense that for the answer to the question to be yes, our explanation must be true.
  4. (i.e., we might say that if I have a cold, and all the evidence I have indicates that it could be germs OR it could be a miasma, then neither of those explanations are necessary, and that means I don’t have enough evidence to make a dispositive claim one way or the other.)
  5. Obviously, this is as improbable as finding a sufficient context for “simplicity”, but at least we know what we ought to be working towards.