CPBD 013: Richard Otte – Evil and Miracles

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 15, 2010 in Podcast,Problem of Evil


(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview Christian philosopher of religion Richard Otte. Among other things, we discuss:

  • What do arguments have to do with the rationality of belief?
  • The problem of evil and Plantinga’s free will defense
  • Evidential arguments from evil (Rowe and Draper)
  • Hume, probability, and miracles

guest richard otteDownload CPBD episode 013 with Richard Otte. Total time is 47:48.

Richard Otte links:

Things we discussed:

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Christof Jans January 15, 2010 at 1:01 pm


You seem to agree with Richard Otte’s statement that Plantinga’s free-will defense is sound. I am surprised by that.
Plantinga’s free-will defense assumes incompatibilism (I think). However, I thought you were a compatibilist (correct me if I’m wrong, I thought you were compatibilist because of http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=5552 ).
As far as I can see, Plantinga’s defense fails if you assume compatibilism.

So, are you not a compatibilist? Or if you are, why do you think Plantinga’s argument is sound ?


John D January 15, 2010 at 1:33 pm

The Hanna-link appears to be broken.


lukeprog January 15, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Christof Jans,

I don’t know if Plantinga’s free will defense is sound.

I think Plantinga’s free will defense assumes libertarianism. (For example, you could be an incompatibilist determinist, which wouldn’t jive with the FWD.) I don’t accept libertarianism, but I’m not familiar enough to know of any argument saying that libertarianism is logically impossible, which is what you’d need to show that Plantinga’s FWD fails.


lukeprog January 15, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Okay, fixed the Hanna link.


J Wahler January 15, 2010 at 6:59 pm


I’ve really enjoyed your interviewing posture on these last few podcast…I think it’s great you let these great thinkers speak without rebutting. Far more restraint than I would certainly have. I enjoyed Ottes’ coy dismissal of approaches that tend toward a kind of explainationism. I also found interesting his objections to Drapers ‘indifference’ hypothesis as it concerned anyone’s ability to weigh ‘priors’ in determining a better inference for evidential suffering, but in the next breath committing to an orthodoxly conceived monotheism. What kind of things are you wanting to say but don’t in these fantastic interviews? That would be a great kind of journal supplement to these fantastic interviews….”What Luke was Thinking and Wanted to Say During and in Response To This Podcast”.

Also, it may just be me, but do the intro beats bleed into the interview too much? I have a real hard time hearing the speaker because the intro music is a bit too high for the first two or three minutes.


lukeprog January 15, 2010 at 8:03 pm

J Wahler,

Thanks for the feedback.


Steven Carr January 16, 2010 at 12:01 am

Plantinga’s free will defense?

I’m afraid there is now a battle going on in academia as to who should get the kudos for having thought of this.

It was Pat Robertson who claimed that natural disasters could be the work of demonic agents acting freely.

Why does Plantinga get the credit for something he heard on the 700 Club?


Steven Carr January 16, 2010 at 12:04 am

And isn’t Plantinga’s defense just as sound as my defense of the idea that all people except me have just one leg.

I defy anybody to produce a logical proof that they have two legs that cannot be refuted by Plantinga’s methods.


Steven Carr January 16, 2010 at 12:20 am


Here Otte uses the objection I raised against Plantinga’s defense. People choose in circumstances where there is an (alleged) omniscient being who knows which way people will choose. This blasts Plantinga’s logic to pieces.

Plantinga just ignored his own god in his own defense.

Otte is reduced to claiming that he could have a defense against the free will problem, even if he cannot show that it is true.

2000 years of Christian philosophy, and their best defenders are reduced to ‘saving the appearances’ defense.

Yes, it looks like the world is round, but it could still be flat….


Dan January 16, 2010 at 2:54 am

I agree about the music. The first 4 minutes of the interview are a bit hard to hear with the music playing of it, mainly because both of you are coming through the phone. But great interview. Pleasant, respectful, informative.


Ryan January 16, 2010 at 4:48 am

Re: Plantinga and incompatibilist free will, Quentin Smith wrote that Plantinga waffles between different meanings of freedom:

Luke, I responded to your post on ‘Who Designed the Designer’ here:

Also, let me know what you think of ‘Letters’.


lukeprog January 16, 2010 at 7:30 am


You always crack me up.


Briang January 16, 2010 at 8:47 am

I liked the interview. I only wish there was more time to discuss Hume on miracles. I’ve been wanting to read John Earman’s book on Hume, but it sounds like Robert J. Fogelin defense of Hume is worth my time.
Otte said that Fogelin interprets Hume as a bayesian. Which sounds like my reading of Hume. I think Hume is using frequencies to determine probability. However, the interview touched on this so briefly, that I didn’t really get a taste of ether Fogelin or Earman’s work.


Dan January 17, 2010 at 1:38 pm

I forget who said this, but I think it was Millican who said that it was a profound misinterpretation of Hume to suggest that Hume, according to his expistemology of miracles, wouldn’t be able to believe that he was born. Otte argues this, but with respect to Hume’s example of an indian prince.

Very misleading.

I liked the interview, but Otte squirmed too much and employed too much “maybe-” and “possibly-” kind of apologetics. Plantiga does this too, when he says to so many objections that “he doesn’t see why it couldn’t be the case that God could do x…”.

Luke, I like your podcasts, but you let him get away with a bit to much in the interview.


Steve Maitzen February 5, 2010 at 8:42 am

Interesting, informative interview. I think Otte is asking the wrong question about evidential arguments from evil. If, as he says, the crucial task in assessing such arguments is to compare the probability of the data on (say) Christianity with the probability of the data on atheism, then how does Otte reject radical skeptical hypotheses? Let

ED = the evil demon hypothesis

CR = commonsense realism about the external world

Data = my first-person sense impressions (including apparently of other people perceiving things themselves)

It’s by no means easy to show that Prob(Data, given CR) > Prob(Data, given ED). Timothy McGrew tries it in The Foundations of Knowledge (1995), but not successfully, in my opinion. Alston has also argued that such a strategy is unpromising.

I reject radical skeptical hypotheses (as I presume Otte does too) *not* because the probability comparison favors CR. I reject them mainly for the neo-Moorean reasons given by Peter Klein (“Skepticism and Closure,” 1995). I think Otte’s only real hope of rejecting them is to abandon the idea that it’s a contest of probabilities.


lukeprog February 5, 2010 at 8:51 am


Where did Alston argue that Otte’s strategy is unpromising?

I shall have to read Klein. Do you have other recommendations of recent work on skepticism?


Steve Maitzen February 5, 2010 at 9:20 am

lukeprog: Where did Alston argue that Otte’s strategy is unpromising?I shall have to read Klein. Do you have other recommendations of recent work on skepticism?  

I don’t know that Alston ever addresses Otte directly, but in Perceiving God (1993), pp. 123-135, Alston trenchantly criticizes the idea that CR beats ED and other skeptical hypotheses in a probability contest. As for other work on radical skepticism, I’ve enjoyed teaching DeRose and Warfield’s anthology Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader (Oxford, 1999) in recent years; I guess that’s getting a bit dated. –Steve


Rob March 13, 2010 at 3:50 pm


I’m working my way through these podcasts. So far, I found this one the most infuriating.

Around the 23 minute mark, Otte says:

“Suppose there’s no supernatural beings. And we just came about by chance. How likely would it be that our minds would be reliable at knowing there was no good reason for God to permit evil?”

This is so confused. First, with no supernatural beings, “coming about by chance” is not the only thing on offer. Natural selection, for example. Second, how can we “know” anything about a non-existent being?

It’s like asking what unicorn farts smell like in a universe without unicorns.

I guess he was trying to shoehorn the EAAN into this interview, but in a particularly befuddled way.


Rob March 13, 2010 at 4:05 pm

And another thing. It seems to me evidential arguments from evil are not intended to show that no gods exist, but rather that we have evidence that a particular god does not exist. Consider the fire last year in India in which 5 infants burned alive in their incubators. For me, that is overwhelming evidence that if a god exists, he is either indifferent, an asshole, or feeble. Claims that God has good reasons to burn these babies alive cuts no ice with me as it is special pleading of the worst kind.


lukeprog March 13, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Yeah, there are so many things my guests say in my interviews, there’s no way I can even acknowledge or respond to them all.


Andrew Viceroy November 10, 2011 at 4:49 pm

I’ve been tinkering with something I’m calling the Extraction Rejoiner to Plantinga’s FWD. Please anyone, let me know if it fails and where:

In order for Plantinga’s defense against Mackie’s counterfactual worlds to hold, it must presume both that *actual* [and not just potential] evil *must always preclude* acts of goodness in *every* possible world and also that no extraction of pre-sinners from these worlds can take place (both of which are uncommon in popular theology).
First, even when we consider Plantinga’s defense that all possible worlds could, at some point, be necessarily tainted with evil, it’s impossible, by example of this world alone (especially if this is the only world that can exist), that in *every* possible world that could exist, there would *never* be a world where people would do one act of goodness, or more likely several acts of goodness, *before* any evil is instantiated (so evil would still only remain as *potential* at that point, just like in Eden before the fruit was bitten and God said, “it was good”… until it wasn’t)? The question is, ‘even if all worlds with libertarian agents in them would eventually invite actual evil into them (Plantingan worlds), why couldn’t the highly probable (even inevitable) pre-sinners be extracted from the highly probable Mackien worlds where goodness exists *before* evil is actually committed?’ (Rowe argues that there can only be one possible world for such a god- even that there must only be one possible world, “if the actual world is not the best world that and omniscient, omnipotent being could create, God does not exist.” […] “(B) If an omniscient being creates a world when there is a better world it could have created, then it is possible that there exist a being morally better than it.”)
More importantly, even if this was, according to Plantinga or Rowe, the only possible world that could exist, in the Christian account of this world’s ‘history,’ we are presented with beings who were, for at least a short time, free from evil (i.e. in Eden… and as Yahweh said of it, “it was good”- either because of the intrinsic value of free will there or for some other reason. All we need to know is that created worlds are not evil by default). Adam and Eve could have been extracted from Eden just before the snake incident (that is, if that eating of the fruit was evil *in itself*, aside from the disobedience. If that event was essential to Yahweh’s plan, then He is to blame for making the eating of the fruit a crime when it shouldn’t have been, because it was necessary for them to eat the fruit in order to achieve his ultimate goal/desire).
Why weren’t Adam and Eve extracted? Is God bound to the constraints of ‘natural death’ and if so, why? Where is it biblically supported that God cannot extract humans before a “natural” death, considering that Elijah was extracted by Yahweh “in a whirlwind to heaven” before death in 2 Kings 2:11 and that Enoch was extracted before death in Gen. 5:24 (as Paul says in Heb. 11:5, he was “translated”)? Won’t the projected Second Coming also be an example of God intervening by ending the whole shebang and extracting the last generation?
By both the secular and theological parameters of Plantinga’s defense, it fails to convince; first, because there are some kinds of possibilities (i.e. possibilities of impossibilities, namely, that ‘it may be impossible that any worlds would have good acts instantiated before evil ones’) that do not tenably serve as defenses in deductive arguments because they’ve already been shown to be impossible (by their instantiation in this world). Second, by the historical account of Christian theology regarding Eden (or even a metaphorical account of it, in principle), this world (as Plantinga and Rowe claim, is the only one god could have instantiated) is an example of humans doing good before doing evil for a certain amount of time, creating an actual example of a more valuable world than one with manifested sin in it (were it to be cut short in Eden). I realize that from here, one could press on about how a sinful world that has used sin to create value that it otherwise could not have (getting into the first, second, and third order goods and evils, as well as ‘soul building,’ etc) would aim to show itself to be a more valuable world than one without instantiated sin at all, but those arguments are a whole other can of worms. I would say that this kind of world is more valuable because it does not eternally exploit people as consequential means to ends, but we don’t even need to go there to show that Plantinga’s defense fails in light of the extraction rejoinder.
These Mackien pre-sinners are better off than Christians in this world, as they’ve never been tainted by sin (again, making these worlds more valuable). Not only did they “do some time” in the genuine free will realm of possible sin, but if His glory will make them unable to sin in heaven after that, they’re good to go. They seem like a good catch compared to the Christians of this world, even if they don’t have many (any?) good stories for the great banquet table when the heavenly dinner bell rings…


Zeb November 11, 2011 at 7:12 am


Sounds like a good argument within the context of metaphysical presumptions a lot of theists make. The two objections I would use are the possibility of sin outside time, and a slightly different understanding of free will than I think Plantinga uses.

First, the rebellion of Lucifer is a widely held but poorly defined Christian belief. I think most Christians would agree high that it must have happened prior to the Fall. So when? Of course the nature of angels is also poorly defined, at least within the common understanding, but one ordinary view is that they are eternal but still created beings. So if Lucifer is a timeless being, then his rebellion would be a timeless act. So there was no time in which creation was free from evil, even though God did not ever create evil.

Second, I don’t see why free will entails that evil must be actual rather than potential. I understand from second hand sources that Plantinga claims this, but I don’t know why and I reject it. So God creates the best possible world, and that world contains two free moral agents (for the sake of argument, though I am not a literalist). While he would not create agents who must sin, he cannot create agents who cannot sin. Then when Adam and Eve do sin, he cannot save the world from including evil because it is too late.


Andrew Viceroy November 11, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Thank you so much Zeb for your input. Yes, I am almost more in the context of apologetics the philosophy of religion per se.
As for the first objection, it seems that Eden was perfectly “good” to the point of not needing redemption; Adam and Eve walked and talked with Yahweh to the point that there was no need for this ontological curtain that seems to have arisen since partaking the fruit. There is definitely an important distinction between pre and post Eden however you slice it, based upon an ethical offence (or an epistemic shift or both).
Concerning the transfer from this world to the next, intuitively, there is often some sense that we might still need to be purified in order to relate to God in heaven (some icky ‘this-worldness’ we see Jesus alluding to when He tells Mary “can’t touch this!” in John 20:17). All Christians do still sin after accepting Christ, so the notion that there must be more spiritual ablution necessary before entering heaven is reasonable (and this tenacious residual property may help to harmonize a barrier explaining divine hiddenness psychologically, if not theologically). This intuitive, heavenly change is not really explained biblically, but most Christians will say that either His glory will make them unable to sin in heaven or that God will do something to them to make them forget about sin. In any case (whether it is an actual “spiritual change” or an effect of God’s presence), we can presume that He could/would do the same to the extracted pre-sinners of the Mackien worlds too. Anyway, it is enough to say that before A&E ate the fruit, “it was good,” even if Lucifer existed. If Lucifer’s mere existence is really enough to taint every possible world/person with evil, then Jesus incarnate was tainted as well (perhaps one could argue that conception by the Holy Spirit somehow negated that- I can’t argue with “magic fixed it” though) and one is committed to ‘original sin’ in the deepest way.
One could argue that evil is potential, perhaps using verses like Mat. 5:28 “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” but this still shows a temporal process implying a time when there was no sin- that it is not necessarily *in the act*, but it is still instantiated temporally, mentally. Was Jesus vulnerable to these thoughts? Why not? If not, what makes it so remarkable that he led a life without sin? Also, again, potential evil would also imply that Eden and Adam and Eve were tainted with evil, even though Yahweh said “it is good” and dwelled there. It almost seems to imply that heaven could not be without evil either. I guess if you follow Tillich and others who see evil as just an absence of good (‘non-being’/'being’), then it might be easier to work around using continuums. IDK, I’d have to think about it more under that kind of ontology. Thanks so much again for the reply.


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