Appeared-to-Blogly

January 7, 2012

Is it Possible to Rationally Believe there are Gratuitous Evils?

Filed under: Epistemology,Uncategorized — camcintosh @ 3:57 am

Here is an only somewhat facetious remark about gratuitous evils that I have not seen mentioned in discussions on the problem of evil (maybe because it’s so bad? but if it is, I don’t see why).

A gratuitous evil is an evil for which there is no outweighing good—an evil that serves no ultimate purpose, and so is unnecessary. But for any gratuitous evil you pick (or even gratuitous evil as a category), it seems at least possible that the act of discussing or thinking about it renders it non-gratuitous. For the very discussion about whether some evil is gratuitous may serve as an outweighing good of some kind (perhaps deepening one’s philosophical or existential grip of reality, or one’s understanding of God and his ways).

If so, the only way evil could be gratuitous would be if no one thought about it at all. But if no one thought about it at all, it could never serve as a defeater for the rationality of belief in God. One cannot think about gratuitous evil as a defeater for belief in God without thereby generating a defeater for the belief that there are gratuitous evils. Thus, it would not be possible to rationally believe there are gratuitous evils, even if there were such.

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7 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the interesting post. Wouldn’t it be possible to conceive of gratuitous evils without there actually being any? For instance, suppose that my thinking about or discussing the story of Sisyphus somehow betters my (philosophical or existential) condition, as you suggest. Here I receive the benefits of some unfortunate circumstance without the circumstance in question at all being actual. Might not God have brought about a similar situation in cases of gratuitous evils? Perhaps he somehow providentially ensured our coming to think about such matters… Despite the fact that such evils do not exist.

    The evidential argument could therefore be reframed. Since your objection (if correct) would dispense with gratuitous evils, one could refocus the argument on evils that would otherwise be gratuitous absent our conceiving of them. Since God could conceivably make us aware of the notion of a gratuitous evil without actualizing said evils, perhaps this would be sufficient to engender the atheologian’s desired conclusion. Perhaps not?

    Comment by Xan — January 8, 2012 @ 12:23 am | Reply

  2. Thanks for the equally interesting comment, Xan. Two comments in response.

    First, I’m not sure if it’s possible to conceive of gratuitous evils without there actually being any. But there’s a lot that needs to be spelled out here. Do you take conceivability to entail possibility? I’m reading your comment that way, as you’e contrasting what’s at least conceivable (i.e., merely possible) with what is actual. But I take God’s nature to delimit what is and is not possible. Anything incompatible with God’s nature would therefore not represent a genuine possibility. I think gratuitous evil falls into this category. And I’m skeptical that it is possible to conceive of impossibilities. It may therefore be better to speak of only being able to apparently conceive of gratuitous evils. So, I’m not sure if it is possible to conceivable of gratuitous evils if there are none. Is what is apparently conceivable enough to get your point off the ground? Not sure.

    Secondly, the attempt at reframing still seems to me to run into self-referential problems. For example, “evils that would otherwise be gratuitous absent our conceiving of them” seems rather much like “the class of truths no human has ever though about.” How should we think about reference in these kinds of statements?

    If you’re told there is a man who turns invisible every time you look his way, and furthermore take your seeing no man as evidence for that claim, are we rational to believe in such a man on those grounds? Would reframing the argument in terms of the man that would otherwise be visible absent our looking his way be an improvement?

    Comment by camcintosh — January 8, 2012 @ 3:33 am | Reply

  3. You wrote:

    First, I’m not sure if it’s possible to conceive of gratuitous evils without there actually being any. But there’s a lot that needs to be spelled out here. Do you take conceivability to entail possibility? I’m reading your comment that way, as you’e contrasting what’s at least conceivable (i.e., merely possible) with what is actual. But I take God’s nature to delimit what is and is not possible. Anything incompatible with God’s nature would therefore not represent a genuine possibility. I think gratuitous evil falls into this category. And I’m skeptical that it is possible to conceive of impossibilities. It may therefore be better to speak of only being able to apparently conceive of gratuitous evils. So, I’m not sure if it is possible to conceivable of gratuitous evils if there are none. Is what is apparently conceivable enough to get your point off the ground? Not sure.

    I’ve been assuming that gratuitous evils are in themselves logically possible. They may be metaphysically impossible insofar as they’re incompatible with God’s existence, but the notion of a gratuitous evil doesn’t itself involve any contradiction. But, if you’re claiming that gratuitous evils are metaphysically impossible (insofar as they’re inconsistent with God’s nature), isn’t this a different claim than the one offered in your original post? If this were true, then the sort of epistemic defense you originally offer would be superfluous. I’m curious to hear why the state of affairs of both the existence of God and the existence of gratuitous evils is metaphysically impossible. Certainly God’s cognizance of some evil, and only God’s cognizance, is not sufficient for dispensing with the evil’s pointlessness? But perhaps I’m wrong about this.

    Secondly, the attempt at reframing still seems to me to run into self-referential problems. For example, “evils that would otherwise be gratuitous absent our conceiving of them” seems rather much like “the class of truths no human has ever though about.” How should we think about reference in these kinds of statements?

    If you’re told there is a man who turns invisible every time you look his way, and furthermore take your seeing no man as evidence for that claim, are we rational to believe in such a man on those grounds? Would reframing the argument in terms of the man that would otherwise be visible absent our looking his way be an improvement?

    I don’t think we have a problem of self-referentiality here. Let’s grant for the moment that gratuitous evils are consistent with God’s existence. Suppose there’s some logically possible world in which some (purported) gratuitous evil e exists (at time t), but in which no other sentient creatures other than God exist (at t). God has two options: either create sentient creatures other than himself (after t) or don’t. Suppose that he does. Given the soundness of your account, e would no longer count as gratuitous so long as sentient creatures are made aware of the kind: gratuitous evils; but, it remains true that it would have otherwise been gratuitous if God chose not to create sentient creatures in that world. I think what’s involved here are merely counterfactual conditionals, not problems of self-referentiality.

    Comment by Xan — January 8, 2012 @ 12:37 pm | Reply

  4. To be quite honest, I’m not sure why I suggested that God’s existence is compatible with the existence of gratuitous evils. That doesn’t make any sense. The point I was attempting to make (albeit terribly) was this: gratuitous evils may be metaphysically impossible, but surely they are (in themselves) strictly logically possible. It seems that God could communicate the logical possibility of this sort of evil to us, without ever having to actualize evils that come close to instantiating it. Actualizing the state of affairs of the fawn in the woods isn’t necessary; merely hypothetically telling us about it would be sufficient.

    Comment by Xan — January 8, 2012 @ 12:47 pm | Reply

  5. Chad, did you have in mind that this deflected *evidential* arguments from gratuitous evil, or just logical ones? Regarding the latter, wouldn’t they admit up front that there are *possible* justifications which render apparently gratuitous evil not-gratuitious? Regarding the former, wouldn’t they say that though it is *possible* there are outweighing goods, it’s not *probable* or *likely* that there are, and that includes the possible good you mention? After all, they’re aware of all sorts of possible justifications, but they think none of them likely to justify the given example. There is no reason they can see that justifies it, including the one you mention. You may respond with some claim about noseeum inferences, but doesn’t that put us back exactly where we’re at? So I guess I’m not seeing how your suggestion would advance matters?

    Comment by Paul M. — January 12, 2012 @ 11:06 am | Reply

  6. Good points, Paul. You’re going to put me out of business here.

    I suppose the sticking point in your comment is the claim that “There is no reason they can see that justifies it, including the one you mention.” I would find such a reply hard to take seriously. How are we to understand “no reason they can see” (which is a noseeum inference, btw)? More precisely, are we to believe that they really can’t see a reason *that would make probable* the existence of gratuitous evils on theism, including the reason I gave? If they say they can’t see any goods that could come from the very dialogue on gratuitous evils, that would effectively be admitting the conversation is meaningless. So they must say that they can’t see any outweighing goods that could come from the very dialogue on gratuitous evils. But then I’d want to ask why the goods of the conversation don’t count as outweighing goods. I’d be dubious of any probability judgments there. So the suggestion might at least end with a conclusion like: either

    (1) It is not possible to rationally believe there are gratuitous evils, even if there were such

    or

    (2) Pr(dialogue about gratuitous evils is itself an outweighing good|theism) = inscrutable

    The best move on their part I can think of would be to say

    (3) Pr(dialogue about gratuitous evils is itself an outweighing good|theism) = low

    But again, why think (3) is true over (2)? What do you think?

    Comment by camcintosh — January 12, 2012 @ 9:17 pm | Reply

  7. Chad, I agree that they make a noseeum inference (and yes, it’s that they can’t see that your reason is a likely outweighing reason, even if it is a *possible* one). Whether this is a good move or not is what is currently debated. Not only is it debated whether the inference is good or not, there are tangential issues like whether criticisms of noseeum inference here involve the skeptical theist in problems of moral skepticism or moral nihilism. So part of my point is that if we’re already debating noseeum inferences, and the question you raise in the post brings us right to that debate, how does your question *move* the debate? I mean, they already know of possible goods like soul-building, abilities to exercise free will, trust in God, etc., and they don’t think *those* are outweighing goods, so why would they think discussing the matter is an outweighing good?

    As for your question, I suppose they might say that they just don’t find is plausible that having a nice and civil discussion, while sipping coffee, wearing sweater vests, and stroking your chin at the intellectual stimulation you’re receiving, outweighs the rape, torture, and murder, all over a 5 day period, of a little 4 yr. old girl. They’ll assign it a low probability then. Maybe the’ll just give you the incredulous stare, or purse their lips together and slowly say while shaking their head side to side, “Meh, I just don’t have that intuition?” :-)

    I agree with you about noseeum inferences, and I don’t think those are good moves to make on their part. My only worry was that it seems that your question puts us where we’re already at. That is, if none of the other “possible” outweighing goods rules out an evidential argument from evil, why would yours?

    (P.S. I’m all paid up, so hopefully I’ll see you there this spring :-)

    Comment by Paul M. — January 13, 2012 @ 1:15 pm | Reply


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