Smith’s Probabilistic Argument From Evil


“Cries of terror and extreme agony rent the night, intermingled with the sounds of jaws snapping bones and flesh being torn from limbs” vividly described Quentin Smith his dark night cabin in the woods experience. “One animal was being savagely attacked, killed and then devoured by another”(Smith 1991, 159).

Self-evidence  of this instances of the law of predation, “the natural law that animals must savagely kill and devour each other in order to survive”, according to Smith, is a sufficient evidence that God does not exist.

Smith outlined his probabilistic argument as follows:

(1) God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

(2) If God exists, then there exist no instances of an ultimately evil natural law.

(3) It is probable that the law of predation is ultimately evil.

(4) It is probable that there exist instances of the law of predation.

Therefore, it is probable that

(5) God does not exist. (ibid, 160)

Smith robustly defended only premise (3). He deemed, I believe, that if true, this case gives justification to his intuition that God cannot co-exist with such gruesome and horrific evil.

Let us grant, for argument sake, that premises (3) and (4) are true, would Smith be justified in his intuition that it is probable that God does not exist?  Is this a sufficient evidence that God does not exist? I don’t think so. It might be true that the existence of God is very unlikely  given Smith’s-like background data, but this, by itself, is not a sufficient evidence that God does not exist.

A just-so example to explain why I find Smith’s case unconvincing:

Think of following background data B of a 24 years old Saudi-Arabian man, Hassan: 99% of Saudi-Arabians’ men are Moslem. Hassan’s entire family is Moslem. Considering only B, the probability that Hassan is a Moslem is, unquestionably, very high. Am I, then, justified in holding the intuition that Hassan is a Moslem? Is B a sufficient evidence that Hassan is a Moslem? No. There could be other background data OB, that I am ignorant about, that could reduce the probability of Hassan being a Moslem to nearly zero. If that could be the case, then B is not a sufficient evidence that Hassan is a Moslem. Example: Hassan working with C1 Christian’s Insider Movement. Given OB, though we grant B, it is very unlikely that Hassan is a Moslem.

Theist could, for the argument sake, bite Smith’s bullet, and accept that it is probable, given evil natural laws, that God does not exist, but this, by itself, is not a sufficient evidence that God does not exist.


Smith, Quentin (1991) An atheological argument from evil natural laws. Philosophy of Religion 29: 156-174, 1991 Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Cover image: Miguel’s Illustration

9 thoughts on “Smith’s Probabilistic Argument From Evil

  1. What a worthless argument. Honestly. Probabilistic arguments really do neither side of the God debate any good, unless in conjunction with a deductive proof.
    I’d have to ask Smith what his standard of “evil” is, and where it came from. That’s terribly important if he wants his argument to be taken seriously.

  2. Is there perhaps some misunderstanding over the nature of a “probabilistic argument?” Such an argument does not attempt to be eliminatively dispositive, but rather to establish a higher probability of truth. If, to take your example, the background data on the percentage of Islamic believers in the general population were to be accepted as a good method for determining the statistical probability of religious adherence for any given individual in that population, then a 99% probability is actually very good reason, contra your assertion, to accept the intuition that Hassan is, in fact, a Muslim. To see why, let’s look at another situation. Say you had good data that suggested that there was a 99% probability that bridges of a certain age would collapse if one attempted to drive a car over them. When approaching a given bridge of that age, how likely would you be to attempt to drive over it?

    Smith is not attempting to *dispositively* prove the non-existence of the Christian god, but rather to show that it is more likely than not that such a being does not exist. If you grant premises 3 & 4, then his argument succeeds: he has demonstrated that the probability that this being exists is lower than the probability that it does not. He has NOT demonstrated, NOR did he ATTEMPT to demonstrate that the Christian god does not exist, merely that it’s existence is highly unlikely.

    To put this another way, you say: “Theist could, for the argument sake, bite Smith’s bullet, and accept that it is probable, given evil natural laws, that God does not exist,…” THAT is all that Smith was attempting to demonstrate.

    • I totally agree with you Bill. If you read Smith’s article, including his outline, it seems he makes a jump of something is probable true, to something is justifiably true.

      As I contended given only certain data, as the chance of the bridge because of its age would collapse, then it is most likely that it would collapse given only that data. But there could be unknown data, as the bridge was maintained yesterday, that could overrule the first data. That being the case, Smith is justified only on the base of ignoring other data.

      Did that make sense Bill?

      • No, it doesn’t. If a statement is “probably true”, then THAT is the justification for accepting that it’s true, or at the very least of withholding acceptance of its counterfactual. You seem to be making a great deal out of the distinction between “Probably true” and “certainly true”. In the world of logic, the only things that are “certainly true” are deductive truths. But if we were to depend only upon deductive truths for knowledge, we could have no real knowledge beyond a few simple, basic facts (the law of non-contradiction, for example). The vast majority of human knowledge is built upon an *inductive* foundation, which simply doesn’t (and can’t!) guarantee certainty. When we say that we “know” something to be true, we are *by necessity* speaking of a probabilistic evaluation of possibility and while it’s certainly true that there are varying degrees of probability, 99% is a pretty good bet. If a statement is 99% probably true, it would be irrational to withhold assent.

        What you might mean to be arguing is that we are simply not in a position to evaluate the probability of the truth of premise 3. Perhaps God has a good reason for creating the “law of predation” and thus it’s not “ultimately evil”. This is an approach known as “skeptical theism” and while it may undercut the argument, it has the unfortunate side-effect of rendering its advocate incapable of judging the moral value of ANY action. A child was brutally murdered? Most people would judge that an evil act, but how do you know that God didn’t have a good reason for that?

        It seems to me that you’re also getting the reasoning here somewhat backwards. Statements aren’t true by default; they must be proven to be true. If someone presents us with an assertion of fact we are generally warranted in *rejecting* its truth unless she presents compelling evidence for it. “God exists” is a statement that needs to be proved, not disproved. Evidential arguments (or inductive, or “probabilistic”) like Smith’s aren’t intended to prove that god doesn’t exist. They don’t have to; all they need to do is show that there’s good reason not to accept the premise that it does. If you accept, arguendo, that this argument gives 99% confidence in the conclusion, then his argument succeeds and you have good reason to reject the assertion “god exists”. Saying, “well, there might be some reason we don’t know of or that Smith hasn’t thought of that would vitiate his argument” doesn’t address the argument AT ALL. One could say that of any argument: “perhaps he’s wrong.” But surely you can see that this doesn’t really attack the argument. If you really want to address this argument, you should provide some concrete reasons why Smith’s premises don’t hold up. Personally, I find premise 3 exceedingly problematic (Doesn’t acting in an evil manner at the very least presume that the actor understands the difference between good and evil? Does Smith contend that animals are moral agents?), but your mileage may vary.

  3. Roy,

    Wonderful response. I was first introduced to the concept that all of nature points to the Eucharist, or Lords Table for us reformed folk, by a non-Christian Joseph Campbell in “The Power or Myth”. That was about 20 years ago. It struck me as extraordinarily faith-affirming – a precious gem hidden in plain sight pointing to Christ that I had overlooked. I still find it faith affirming in a fallen, sin stricken world.

  4. I love how (1) assumes the existance of God, and His characteristics, before tearing apart that same argument. I’m not disputing those characteristics of God (though they may be incomplete) but considering Smith’s aim is to disprove the existance of God, he is beginning with the assumption that God has (and is limited to) those characteristics. Shoots himself in the foot a bit I think!

  5. Great post,
    My answer to Smitty.

    (1) God is love
    (2) Man is evil. (Not love)
    (3) God has expressed His love for man on the Cross of Christ.
    (4) Evil still exists.
    (5) Man has not loved God in return.

    Therefore, it is probable that evil is the result of the absence of God, only in the hearts of men.

    Thanks for thinking,
    God bless

  6. Great post Prayson.

    As a Christian, I claim that the Central Point of all history, of all creation, is the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. I also claim that creation has been corrupted, and that many things we now see are twisted copies of the truth.

    What then is this Center Point, and how could it relate to predation being a nearly universal feature of life; what could that universal feature be, of which predation is the twisted image?

    Jesus died so that I might live. Even as a Christian, I have trouble articulating how this “works,” but interestingly enough, it seems in accord with a pattern we see, and proclaims itself the unfallen example of that pattern. I live because of the sacrifice of another. I “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood” in the Eucharist. Life based on the sacrificial death of another creature is so prevalent in this creation that it must somehow be part of a central theme.

    I think that theme is a “Me first” twist on an Ideal of self sacrifice for the good of another. The distance between “Give” and “Take” is very small. If one examines only the transaction, where things start and where they end up, giving and taking are identical. The twist is the attitude of the participants. Taking is “what’s yours is mine”, giving is “what’s mine is yours”; almost the same, and yet how different could they be.

    So predation can perhaps be seen as a fallen and twisted remnant of a great good running through Edenic creation: Life always exist by the sacrifice of other life, but perhaps one can imagine, only just barely imagine a scene where the lamb willingly gives it’s body so that the lion can live, and the lion eats, full of wonder and humility towards this incredible being that would so lay its life down for its friends.

    Themes run through the creation, and everything bears the mark of that which (or who) made it.

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