The Humean Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering: On Avoiding the Evils of 'Appearance'
Wykstra (Stephen)
Source: International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 16, No. 2 (1984), pp. 73-93
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Author’s Introduction

  1. Many of us - believers as well as nonbelievers, car mechanics as well as philosophers - have at some times in our lives felt instances of suffering in this world to be evidence against theism, according to which the universe is the creation of a wholly good Being who loves his creatures, and who lacks nothing in wisdom and power. If it has proven hard to turn this feeling into a good argument, it has, perhaps, proven just as hard to get rid of it. Indeed, the most logically sophisticated responses to the "problem of evil" can leave one wondering whether our intuitive perplexities have not been lost in the gears of the formal machinery brought to bear on them. Maybe this is an unavoidable epiphenomenon of analysis; nevertheless, I want to try to mitigate it here.
  2. For this reason (and a second forthcoming one), my springboard will be William Rowe's recent formulation of the case from suffering against theism. Rowe exemplifies the recent turn away from "logical" (or "deductive," or "demonstrative") formulations, construing the case instead as "evidential" (or "inductive," or "probabilistic") in nature. The crux of his argument is that much suffering "does not appear to serve any outweighing good." This "does not appear" defence is succinct and non-technical, affording considerable insight into our ordinary intuitions, but also making itself easy prey to misconstrual. I shall thus be amplifying Rowe's argument and defending it against specious criticisms, as well as - ultimately - rebutting it. This close attention to Rowe and his critics, however, is not an end- in-itself. It is a means of elucidating and vindicating a perspective from which we can see why a theist should, as Hume puts it, "never retract his belief on account of the suffering atheologians are inclined to adduce as evidence against theism. Vindicating this perspective requires coming to close grips with the most lucid atheological evidential case one can find - and this is my second reason for taking Rowe's work as a springboard.
  3. I begin by giving an overview of Rowe's case, amplifying both its "conceptual" and "evidential" strands, and teasing out some difficulties in the construals given it by two critics, Bruce Reichenbach and Alvin Plantinga. Section 2 clarifies Rowe's crucial "does not appear" claim and its role in his argument. Against Reichenbach, I argue that Rowe's reliance on this claim cannot be dismissed as an appeal to ignorance, for he is using "appears" in what Chisholm calls its "epistemic" sense, making his inference construable as a plausible application of "the Principle of Credulity." I then argue that Richard Swinburne is mistaken in building into this principle a restriction that would preclude the application Rowe tacitly gives it.
  4. Having clarified Rowe's case by defending it against two specious criticisms, Section 3 diagnoses the real defect in Rowe's argument: his "does not appear" claim contravenes a general condition that must be satisfied if we are to be entitled to this sort of claim. This condition - "the Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access" - is explained, defended, and used to argue that the suffering in the world is not, as Rowe thinks, strong evidence against theism, and in fact isn't even weak evidence against it. The basic problem, I suggest, was identified by Hume as the main obstacle to any evidential case from suffering against "theism."
  5. I conclude by giving an account of why we sometimes feel the credibility of theism weakened so much by cognizance of suffering and tragedy. For this feeling, if I am not mistaken, stems from a correct intuition about the bearing of suffering on theism; and we cannot understand why suffering does not really disconfirm theism unless we appreciate why, by an intuition not to be dismissed, it sometimes seems to.

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