Paul Draper’s Argument from Evil (part 4)

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 19, 2010 in Guest Post,Problem of Evil

Now that looks painful.

Now that looks painful.

Guest blogger John D of Philosophical Disquisitions summarizes contemporary articles in philosophy of religion in plain talk so that you can be up to speed on the God debate as it ensues at the highest levels of thought. Visit John’s blog for more helpful summaries of contemporary philosophical works.


In this series I am looking at Paul Draper’s article “Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists”. In it, Draper argues that certain observations (O) we have made concerning the biological utility of pain and pleasure are more surprising on the hypothesis of theism (T) than they are on the hypothesis of indifference (HI).

In part 2, I summarised Draper’s basic argument. In part 3, we saw how standard theistic answers to the problem of evil do nothing to undermine this basic argument. In this final part, we will see whether there are any other considerations that can tip the balance of probabilities in favor of theism.

An analogy will help set things up. When Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, he showed how it could explain certain facts about the geographical distribution of species and the existence of atrophied organs better than the alternative hypothesis of special creation.

Now, over one hundred and fifty years later, as evolution continues to grow as an explanatory theory and as a scientific research program, no evidence has been found that could resurrect special creation. We are still waiting for those rabbits in the pre-Cambrian.

Is there any reason to think that the hypothesis of theism could overcome the hypothesis of indifference? Draper thinks there are four reasons why this would be difficult.

First, HI is not ad-hoc and it’s difficult to see how T could be more intrinsically probable than HI. After all, T is a very specific supernatural claim with a strong ontological commitment at its core. HI is neither of these things: it is consistent with a variety of naturalistic and supernatural claims and it contains no positive ontological commitments.

Second, most of the other arguments for the existence of God are not rationally compelling. That is to say, even the majority of theists do not think they do enough to coerce people to believe.

Third, most of these arguments – e.g. argument from design, cosmological argument, argument from consciousness – do nothing to establish the moral character of the divine being. At best, they establish the existence of an omniscient and omnipotent being, but that being could be morally indifferent. This would be consistent with the hypothesis of indifference.

Fourth, the popular brands of religious experience epistemology, such as those promoted by William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga, tend to be morally ambiguous. While theists might be inclined to believe in a good God when life is sweet and satisfying, they can also have experiences of indifference and moral ambiguity (the dark night of the soul) that undermine that belief.

In other words, such believers might have non-propositional evidence for the existence of some creative force, but that evidence is unable to outweigh the propositional evidence in favor of moral indifference.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

TaiChi June 20, 2010 at 7:54 pm

I’ve really nothing to add here, but I wanted to thank you for your excellent exposition of Draper’s argument. I guess the lack of responses just goes to show how solid the argument is – I certainly can’t think of anything wrong with it.


Michael July 11, 2010 at 6:39 pm

I had a nice time going through the paper and JohnD’s commentary today, so I have to thank him as well. I appreciate that he took the time and effort to write this post series.

That being said, I am somewhat more skeptical about whether the argument is a good one than I was earlier today. Two things might account for this. First, I was collecting pdf files of responses to this argument, briefly skimming over parts of them, notably parts that questioned whether the argument, even if it is successful, gives a good reason for a theist to reject theism. Second, I was also thinking about the deductive problem of evil given by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong in God?: A Debate Between A Christian And An Atheist, and suddenly I remembered part of something that he said that would be a strong blow to this argument being a good reason to reject theism. He was remarking about the fine-tuning argument, but his comments can easily be applied to this argument.

He said that, “This point can be made more technically by distinguishing likelihood from from conditional probability. The likelihood of fine-tuning and intelligent life, given that a traditional God exists, seems high. Nonetheless, the probability of such a God, given that intelligent life exists, still might be low. To see which figure is relevant, consider the following analogy: The likelihood of hearing noises in your attic, given that there are ghosts in your attic, is high. In contrast, the probability of noises in your attic, given ghosts in your attic, is low. The low probability shows why noises give you no reason to believe in ghosts, even if you have no other explanation for the noises. The point is not that ghosts are inherently improbable, but only that there are too many other possibilities to justify jumping to the conclusion that ghosts caused the noise, without assuming that there are ghosts in the area. You also should not believe that the noises were caused by bats until you have additional independent reason to assume that there are bats in the area (and the noise was caused by bats as opposed to squirrels, birds, wind, and so on)” (Sinnott-Armstrong, pg. 48).

The opponent of the ghost hypothesis can accept that given that ghosts are in the attic (or bats in the area), the probability of there being noises is high, but then he or she can respond by saying, “So what? That is not relevant, and it does not give me a reason to stop denying the ghost hypothesis.” Likewise, the theist can respond by asking “So what?” as well. Even if the Pr(O|T) < Pr(O|HI), that does not imply that given O, T is improbable and HI is probable.

The idea of formulating the problem of evil probabilistically does appeal to me, but perhaps Draper was arguing the wrong thing. Instead of arguing that the Pr(O|T) < Pr(O|HI), perhaps he should have argued one of two things: a) Pr(T|O) < Pr(HI|O), or b) Pr(O|T) < Pr(~O|T). Option b appeals to me more than option a does since much of Draper's remarks about how low the Pr(O|T) is could be applied to an argument trying to prove option b.

I'm sure that there are other criticisms to this argument, and I would not be surprised if Draper's modified versions sidestep this criticism, but I need to do more research to find out.


Michael July 11, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Then again, maybe the situation is different than the situation of ghosts in one’s attic.


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