The "It's hopelessly impressionistic!" response to the evidential problem of evil

Monday, May 3, 2010
The suggestion that the evidential problem of evil is pretty useless as an argument against the existence of God because it is based on claims about suffering, etc. that are hopelessly "impressionistic" has come up several times recently.

David Hart made the move in response to my contribution to 50 Voices of Disbelief (see this post). And now "Fun with Formal Ideas" runs the same move in a comment on the preceding post.

So it's worth dealing with. Here's the comment on the preceding post (nb by "Eth" commentator means the God of Eth):

"Eth is impressionistic, Stephen, it is not founded in any facts, data or evidence where these may be considered synonymous or statistically significant and relies finally upon a appeal to common sense."

David Hart said:

"Nicholas Everitt and Stephen Law recycle the old (and incorrigibly impressionistic) argument that claims of God’s omnipotence seem incompatible with claims of his goodness."

{POST SCRIPT: as TAM's transcript of the radio prog reveals, Denis Alexander also hints at the "It's hopelessly impressionistic" move. Re. huge amounts of suffering, Alexander says: "we simply are not in a position to measure those kind of things, we can measure certain things in science and so forth but..."}

The objection seems to be that assessments of how much good or evil exists are so subjective and unreliable as to be pretty worthless as evidence. Pain and suffering, for example, cannot be given numerical values, or reliably measured using a calibrated instrument in the way, say, mass or velocity can. Ditto happiness, etc.

Does this really deal the evidential problem of evil a fatal blow?

I don't see why.

The evidential problem of evil (and mirror problem in the God of Eth) is based on the empirical observation that the universe is filled with immense amounts of seemingly pointless suffering. This provides us with excellent evidence there is no all-powerful all-good God, in the same way immense amounts of (from an evil God's point of view) seemingly pointless good is excellent evidence there's no evil God either.

Consider a different scenario - a school run by an all-powerful headmaster whom we never see. But we can see how his school is run. Many pupils are beaten senseless, forced to eat shit, and left physically and psychologically crippled by their experiences. Others have wonderful gifts bestowed on them - great food, education, etc. The distribution of these goods and evils appears to be pretty random.

Now consider two hypotheses - that the school is run by a supremely wicked headmaster, and that the school is run by a supremely good headmaster. Both are pretty decisively ruled out by what we observe of the way the school is run.

Notice that the fact that we cannot give numerical values to the pleasures and pains we observe being dealt out, or place them on some sort of objective, calibrated weighing scale, is largely irrelevant. It does not follow that the argument against each hypothesis is based on evidence that is "hopelessly impressionistic".

If that *did* follow, no conclusions about the moral properties of any individual could ever be drawn on the basis of the pleasures or pains they knowingly inflicted. For the reasoning we used would similarly be based on assessments that were "hopelessly impressionistic"!

The "hopelessly impressionistic" response to the evidential problem of evil is, in short, mere smokescreen.

For the evidential problem of evil and my version of it go here.

What complicates things is that the "hopelessly impressionistic" move is often mixed together with a "no-see-um" move (I think Hart is running a combination of the two - though it's hard to be sure).