CORNEA and the Evidential Problem of Evil

The evidential argument from evil contends that the facts about evil provide us with a good defense for the conclusion that belief in God is unjustified or false. Some instances of evil appear so intense and unnecessary that they raise a challenge to the existence of an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing being, such as God is traditionally conceived to be. Unlike the logical argument from evil, this argument does not attempt to demonstrate a logical inconsistency on the part of theists, but instead pursues the more moderate aim of disputing the plausibility of theistic belief. In this essay, I consider Stephen Wykstra’s response to William Rowe’s formulation of the evidential problem of evil. I will argue that Wykstra’s position is undermined by objections like those brought by Richard Swinburne and Daniel Howard-Snyder. I begin by laying out the problem and its counter-argument, followed by a comparison of Wykstra’s principle with an alternative from Swinburne, and I then come to the conclusion through discussion of some other specific issues arising from Wykstra’s view.

I. Evil and Epistemic Access

In his paper on “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” William Rowe says that the only reasons for which an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god would allow suffering would be either because it would come at the cost of some greater good or it would lead to an evil that is equally bad or worse.1 Yet certain evils are pointless in that they do not lead to greater goods or produce other evils equal to or surpassing them. An example is given of a fawn that endures terrible suffering for several days before dying, after it becomes trapped in a forest fire sparked by a lightning strike. These are instances of suffering that God would have prevented, according to Rowe, since they do not fit with the reasons God has for allowing suffering. Pointless evils thus constitute reason to believe that God does not exist.

Responses to the evidential argument can be either direct or they can be indirect. A direct response tries to defend some greater good that is accomplished in allowing an evil, whereas an indirect response takes a different approach to explaining an evil that does not aim at a greater good. Stephen Wykstra takes an indirect approach in his postulation of CORNEA, attempting to turn the argument around on the atheist.2 If we are justified in thinking an evil is pointless, then, if it were not pointless, we would be likely to tell the difference. Wykstra refers to the underlying principle here as the Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access, which he abbreviates to CORNEA. From CORNEA, though, we also find that if an allegedly pointless evil is really not pointless, then we would not be able to tell the difference. So Wykstra argues that no one is justified in thinking an evil is pointless, which means that Rowe’s evidential argument is unsuccessful in disputing the plausibility of belief in God.

Is it reasonable to think that the appearance of pointless evils means that these evils are in fact pointless? Wykstra refers to this as a “noseeum inference.” If we cannot see reasons why God would allow some suffering, that must be because there are no such reasons. We no see ‘um, so they ain’t there. There is some intuitive sense behind this objection. I may look outside my apartment window and see no worms in the grass, but this would not be a good basis for inferring that there really are no worms there. On occasion, this idea has been expressed by scientists and other thinkers as: absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence.

Theologically, Wykstra’s counter-argument also has appeal. Drawing on the common analogy between the divine-human relationship and a parent-child relationship, it can be imagined that we should no more be able to discern some of the purposes of God than we are able to discern some of the purposes of our parents when we are children. The Abrahamic religions each emphasize the omniscience of God in contrast to the finite, limited knowledge of human beings. Rowe himself acknowledges these points in his discussion on how an indirect response to the evidential argument might succeed. But, says Wykstra, our inability to tell what purposes God has for specific evils is not the central problem. It’s rather our unjustified inferences from what seem to be the case to what is the case that are the real issue.

II. Credulity Versus CORNEA

Richard Swinburne proposes something he calls the Principle of Credulity in his paper, “Does Theism Need a Theodicy?” Other things being equal, we are justified in believing that things are as they seem to be. Our inclinations to belief are rational, as he puts it, unless conflicting reasons come to light. Were we to suspend believing with justification until our beliefs were justified by other beliefs, none of our beliefs could ever be justified. “Where basic beliefs are abandoned,” Swinburne explains, “they are abandoned under the pressure of stronger beliefs with which the former seem to conflict.”3 Following from this, we have grounds for thinking that Rowe’s inference about pointless evils is rational in the absence of reasons against it.

The Principle of Credulity seems a better alternative to CORNEA in a number of ways. Daniel Howard-Snyder points out in his reply to Wykstra that a consequence of CORNEA is the denial of justified false beliefs.4 In many cases, we rationally hold some belief that is false without being able to tell the difference. We may not be able to tell the difference between a zebra and a mule painted to look like one. Moreover, there are some skeptical scenarios which CORNEA would prevent us from escaping whatsoever. If we are not justified in believing something under Wykstra’s specified condition, then we can’t be justified in believing things if we are a brain in a vat, or if we are being deceived by a Cartesian demon. I side with Howard-Snyder and Swinburne in thinking that we would hold some justified beliefs even in those circumstances, and so this is another reason to think that CORNEA is false (more on this below).

Still, Wykstra and the skeptical theist might try and suggest that these broader considerations are somewhat beside the point. What matters is what we are justified in inferring about God and the providential plan with respect to the facts of evil. Our relationship to an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good god and its purposes will be quite different from our relationship to the empirical world and our epistemic access to it. Even allowing for some of this, though, troubles remain with skeptical theism. One of these is that CORNEA appears to undercut more than just our knowledge of what God would do regarding pointless evils, it also undercuts our general knowledge of any divine purposes and actions. If we are justified in claiming that, say, God created the world, God finely-tuned the universe, or God created human beings, then, were these statements false, should we not be able to tell the difference? But if these claims really are false, then Wykstra (and others) would not be able to tell the difference. This would mean that no one is justified in making these sorts of claims.

III. Teasing Out Some Problems

At this point, I want to connect this objection with Rowe’s observation that an indirect response to his argument should argue from God’s existence to the conclusion that there are no pointless evils. Wykstra notably does not take this exact approach, and it’s interesting how he propounds on the nature of God and our comparable limitations while yet giving no argument for belief in God. Instead, he chooses to focus on reasonability conditions for belief in general. But it seems that CORNEA poses problems for appealing to any beliefs or arguments in a rational defense of theism, as just mentioned. This would be very troubling considering how important some of our beliefs about God are to evaluating an argument from evil. If claims about the purposes and actions of God cannot justifiably be made – as CORNEA entails they cannot – then it is difficult to see how we can have any response to the problem of evil at all. It should also be said that some beliefs about a person do appear to be logically prior to our trusting them, which is no small matter in thinking about how we should view God’s interaction with us and with other beings in light of the facts of evil.

Another trouble here, which I believe is one of substantial importance, is the apparent implication for moral behavior. What does it mean for us if we cannot justifiably regard any instance of seemingly pointless evil as actually pointless? For all we know, the horrific suffering we witness, and that looks as if it is gratuitous, may be necessary to achieve some greater good or to prevent an evil equal or worse. How do we determine the reasonable course of action in situations like these? It could be argued that the wrong thing to do is to abstain when we do not know whether an instance of horrific suffering serves any higher purpose. However, this is a fairly unsatisfactory answer, not least of all because it hardly sounds like the kind of reason that can reliably move us to act. Countless evils have gone on unimpeded, when people could have intervened, because there was uncertainty about whether or not there was some justifying reason behind them. The response seems to only get us so far. How we decide to help can make all the difference, particularly if we may be able to better respond by recognizing the affronting nature of an evil as partly due to its pointlessness.

On this last point, there is reason to think that we could still tell the difference with respect to pointless evils even if CORNEA is true. Daniel Howard-Snyder has noted this by teasing out three different ways one can interpret a couple of the premises in Wykstra’s argument.5 The weakest interpretation holds that if an evil E had a point, then subject S would refrain from believing that E is pointless. The strong interpretation has it that if E had a point, S would believe that E has a point. Finally, the strongest way of interpreting Wykstra would be that if E had a point, S would know what E’s point is. For Wykstra to argue that we are never justified in claiming an evil is pointless, he needs to use the strongest interpretation here. But there are in fact two other ways of telling the difference between pointless evils and those that have a point. Wykstra himself refers to refraining from calling an evil pointless, which shows that the weakest interpretation is the relevant one, consequently leaving him with an argument that doesn’t have the required strength to deliver its conclusion.

IV. Conclusion

It may be an important issue for theists that we not make the leap from the appearance of pointless evils to concluding that pointless evils do exist. As Rowe’s argument shows, this constitutes a strong challenge to the belief in an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient god. The desire to see some instances of suffering as part of a greater plan, one that can ultimately be to our benefit, is an understandable desire for more meaning and justice in the world than there sometimes might appear to be, which is also often powerfully influential upon us. However, CORNEA has problems as an epistemic principle and it has some fairly unseemly implications. Not only are there good reasons for why we might want to trust some of our intuitions, including those about pointless evils, but there are good theological and moral reasons for why we might also wish to reject CORNEA. In conclusion then, I believe that Wykstra’s challenge to Rowe’s evidential argument is unsuccessful.

 

Sources:

1. William Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), p. 1-11.
2. Stephen Wykstra, “Rowe’s Noseeum Arguments from Evil,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, p. 126-150.
3. Richard Swinburne, “Does Theism Need a Theodicy?” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 18, vol. 2 (1988): 287-311.
4. Daniel Howard-Snyder, “Seeing Through CORNEA,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 32, vol. 1 (1992): 25-49.
5. Ibid.