Atheist Tooley’s Problem Of Evil Refuted

William Lane Craig April 2010 News Letter

William Lane Craig

Michael Tooley has developed a very complicated argument against God’s existence based on concrete examples of terrible evils in the world like the famous Lisbon earthquake. Alvin Plantinga has remarked that Tooley has thereby done us a service, for if an argument as carefully developed as his fails, it’s very unlikely that any better argument from evil against God’s existence will be found. Here is part of my response to Dr. Tooley’s argument:

Dr. Tooley argues that the evil in the world renders God’s existence improbable. I disagree. I think his argument has multiple weaknesses.

First, in general, Dr. Tooley’s argument is based on a theory of logical probability which is highly controverted and irrelevant to real life situations. His premise (16)—that the probability of the wrong-making properties of an action’s outweighing its right-making properties is greater than ½—that premise is based on a theory of probability which is rejected by almost all probability theorists today, in part because the probabilities that it yields are dependent upon arbitrary choices made by the theorist and are therefore not objective. Many other approaches to probabilistic reasoning have been developed which do not share the failings of Dr. Tooley’s approach,1 and these do not support his key premise.

Secondly, consider Dr. Tooley’s first premise, that if the action of choosing to permit some state of affairs is morally wrong, then God would never perform that action. I want to challenge this premise on two grounds.

(i) Whether some action is wrong depends on the person involved. For example, it would be wrong for a mother to choose to permit her child to throw a tantrum in the grocery store. She should discipline her child. But it wouldn’t be wrong for you to choose to permit her child to do that. On the contrary, it’d be wrong for you to try to discipline her child, since you have no right to. So we always have to ask, “Wrong for whom?” This is crucial because God, I think, has the right to do or permit things that we do not. For example, it would be wrong for Dr. Tooley to pull out a gun and kill me; but if God wanted to end my life now, that’s His prerogative. So Dr. Tooley’s first premise is malformed and therefore cannot be true.

(ii) Naturalism can’t make sense of moral rightness/wrongness. Rightness and wrongness have to do with our moral obligations and prohibitions. But these arise as a result of moral imperatives. As we saw in my defense of the moral argument, atheists can make no sense of moral imperatives because they lack a moral lawgiver to issue such imperatives. That’s why on atheism there are no objective moral duties. So Dr. Tooley’s first premise makes sense only if God exists. So his argument against God’s existence presupposes God’s existence and therefore can’t even get off the ground.

Thirdly, consider Dr. Tooley’s premise (12):

The property of choosing not to prevent an event [like the Lisbon earthquake] is a wrong-making property of actions.

Dr. Tooley just takes this premise for granted. But I don’t think it’s clearly true at all. Again, I have two reasons:

(i) Even though the event of all those people dying is horrible and even bad, it just doesn’t follow from that that it’s wrong for God to permit it to happen. Badness doesn’t entail wrongness.

(ii) More fundamentally, we shouldn’t think of the wrongness/rightness of an action as a sum of wrong- and right-making properties. Consider the property of sticking a knife into somebody’s heart. That might seem like a wrong-making property. But suppose we’re given the additional information that the agent involved is a heart surgeon. Suddenly, the property doesn’t seem wrong-making after all. Yet being a surgeon is not a right-making property which somehow balances out the wrong-making property of sticking a knife into someone. Rather it’s a context in which we now see that what we thought was a wrong-making property may not have been wrong after all and may even be good! If it’s right for someone to permit some event, then his action is just right as a whole. So it doesn’t make sense to think of the wrongness of an action as a sum of known and unknown wrong- and right-making properties, as Dr. Tooley does.

Fourthly, consider Dr. Tooley’s premise (15) that we know of no right-making property of the action that would outbalance the known wrong-making property. I’ve already rejected this whole approach to assessing the moral worth of actions. But waiving that, on the moral theory I’ve defended I do know of such a property. On my view the wrongness of an action is determined by its being forbidden by God. An action is morally permissible if it is not forbidden by God. Now obviously, God didn’t forbid permitting the Lisbon earthquake. So it has the right-making property of being permitted by God. Dr. Tooley has to assume that my view is unjustified, which is what he’s supposed to be proving. His argument turns out to be reasoning in a circle.

It seems to me, then, that Dr. Tooley’s argument, despite its complexity, has at least three false premises. It’s therefore a bad argument for atheism.

1 Peter Walley, “Inferences from Multinomial Data: Learning about a Bag of Marbles,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society B 58/1 (1996): 3-57.

Additional from the April ’10 Newsletter

Listening to Craig’s Podcast William Lane Craig on Tooley Problem of Evil

Related Articles:

Craig’s Explanation of Moral Argument for The Existence of God

Zangomatic: Is God Good?

Since Evil & Suffering Exist, A Loving God Cannot …?