Reflections On Plantinga's "Refutation" of the Logical Problem of Evil

We did not deal with the Logical Problem of Suffering (or Evil) in my recent anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering. It's said Alvin Plantinga answered atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie's Logical Problem of Evil argument. Mackie even acknowledged that he did. Here are some reflections on it.

First, Plantinga didn't do anything significant by arguing it’s logically possible God exists given suffering. Possibilities don’t count; only probabilities do. All we need to say is that it’s extremely improbable for God to exist given suffering. But that says it all!

Second, the real issue is whether or not a theistic God is probable given suffering. It's not significant to say such a God is still possible. All kinds of strange things are possible, which is an extremely low standard. Show that it's probable God exists given suffering, and that would be impressive.

Third, Plantinga did not argue with integrity when throwing up an illegitimate ad hoc hypothesis that all natural evil is caused by Satan, something Richard Swinburne pointed out. Ad hoc hypotheses are illegitimate since their sole purpose is to save a proposition from refutation. So Plantinga did not honestly answer Mackie.

If we throw out illegitimate ad hoc hypotheses then the logical problem remains. The kill or be killed law of predation still has no resolution, nor do other natural evils. For this problem must be solved with integrity for it to be solved at all.

Lastly, Dr. Kyle Johnson has argued it's impossible to have a justified belief in demons. So if it's impossible to have a justified belief in demons then Plantinga's Free Will Defense fails. But wait! There's more...

Matthew Flannagan responded on Facebook:
I think this just misunderstands Plantinga's argument. J L Mackie, his interlocutor had argued that core theistic beliefs were logically inconsistent and entailed a contradiction. Mackie wasn't arguing something more modest such as that evil decreases the probability of theism, in fact he was clear his objection was logical consistency not scientific evidence. Now in that context, logical possibly *is* what is at issue. All that is needed to rebut the claim that two propositions are logically inconsistent is show it is logically possible for both to be true. Unless you think it is logically possible for logically incompatible beliefs to be true you have to grant this.

It's true Plantinga , in his response to Mackie did not address the evidental problem but that is because that isn't the problem Mackie raised and he was responding to Mackie. It is also true that Plantinga did offer different arguments against evidential arguments from evil in other writings when he was responding to people who had raised that issue.
My counter-response:
I failed to mention how often Christian theists have hailed Plantinga's "refutation" as an immensely important victory. One hears this so often I can be excused for not mentioning it.

For one, it's not a significant victory at all, even if true. For two, it provides an example of how Christian apologists do not argue with integrity, as I mentioned. For three, it's not even correct to say Plantinga refuted Mackie, despite Mackie's concession, since I provided one counter argument from Kyle Johnson. There are others.

Dr. Kyle Johnson responded:
It all depends on how you interpret Mackie. He wondered how "God exists" and "evil exists" are logically compatible. But does "evil exists" just mean "there is at least one evil event?" If so, yeah all Plantinga has to do is tell a story in which those two propositions are true, and he's answered Mackie's specific worry--but is not the more interesting or damming problem. If Mackie means "the evil of the world exists," then just telling a story in which God and evil co-exist doesn't solve the problem--and that's the problem that Sterba is pointing to in his most recent book and article. How is the existence of God logically compatible with the evil that actually exists in the world? That's the real problem.

What's more, if Plantinga tries to answer that problem (as he does with the logical problem of natural evil) with some kind of "demons did it" story--there are multiple problems there. I lay out others in a different paper I link to below, but let me paste a couple of paragraphs from my new paper, to try to explain one major issue with it.

"Now, some might think that one solution is enough to “solve” Sterba’s problem, but in all fairness it is not. Alvin Plantinga has argued that, to answer arguments which suggest that A and B are logically incompatible, one must only tell a single story in which A and B are true together—and the story need not be true or even believable (see Plantinga 1974, p. 58). While it is technically true that such a story demonstrates that A and B are logically compatible, it’s not clear this tactic always solves the problem. If it is the only story a person can think of—the only way they can imagine that A and B are true together—then, if that person thinks that A and B are true together, it’s a story that person must embrace. If the story is absurd, that is a problem. What’s more, if it is established that the story in question is the only way that A and B could be true together, then everyone who believes A and B must accept the absurd story as true; and, again, that’s a problem. Even though it is a story in which both A and B are true, if the story entails things that such persons are not willing to embrace, especially if it conflicts with things that such persons believe because they also believe A or B, then it does not function as a satisfactory answer to how, logically, such persons can believe both A and B—and that, rather than the mere logical compatibility of A and B, is the real issue.

To put it more formally, suppose you believe both A and B, but I have argued that A and B cannot be true together. You reply with a story, S, in which A and B are true together. However, I then observe that, because you believe A, you also believe C; and because you believe B, you also believe D—and I observe that story S is one that entails that both C and D are false. Since story S is not something you can believe, but it is the only explanation you have offered as to how A and B could be true together, you have not successfully defended your ability to believe both A and B. You could logically believe both A and B if you also believed S—but you do not, so you cannot. For example, in 2011, I argued that the only way to solve the logical problem of natural evil—to logically reconcile God’s existence with the fact that the inevitability of natural disasters is woven into the very laws of our universe—is to embrace the idea that someone or something else created our universe (e.g., that we live in a computer simulation). Since theists actively reject the notion that we live in a computer simulation, this solution cannot be used by theists to logically reconcile their belief in God with natural evil."
Johnson again: "I just published on this topic. It talks briefly about why Plantinga may not have actually solved Mackie's problem, but that even if he did, Mackie's problem is the very low hanging fruit (as it were), and that Plantinga certainly does not solve the more interesting damning version of the logical argument. It's not all about Plantinga, but it talks about him and the beginning and end. The end explains why Plantinga's "All I have to do is tell a story in which A and B are true" strategy doesn't really work to solve the problem." LINK


John W. Loftus is a philosopher and counter-apologist credited with 12 critically acclaimed books, including The Case against Miracles, God and Horrendous Suffering, and Varieties of Jesus Mythicism. Please support DC by sharing our posts, or by subscribing, donating, or buying our books at Amazon. Thank you so much!