The Evidential Problem of Evil: An Investigator’s Perspective

Photo by Lanare Seve via Wikimeida Commons

As you may imagine, first responders observe many horrendous things. Things that can leave an unwanted imprint in one’s mind for years. It is common knowledge that many first responders are traumatized by what they see when they work accidents and crime scenes. Fortunately, other than several calls that I responded to when working as a uniformed police officer, I did not see that much gore on the streets. This was the case because I spent the majority of my time with the Portsmouth Police Department as a narcotics detective whose main task was to stem the drug trade in at risk communities, I was not responding to calls where dead bodies or critically injured patients were present. However, by virtue of this sort of work, I did see another type of destruction that was present in neighborhoods and individuals. I did observe an evil of sorts (i.e. deprivation of the good of holistic/healthy living) present. A vivid example of this was when our squad patrolled on foot when groups of adults were spotted loitering in high crime areas. Oftentimes, these groups were composed of drug dealers and drug buyers transacting their business in broad daylight. In addition to the buying and selling of illegal narcotics in these groups, some indiscreet addicts would use their narcotics in plain view as well. In order to lessen the risk of being arrested with drugs on their person, the street dealers would often secrete their drug supplies inside of random containers such as crumpled cups, discarded bags or even a nearby downspout. Because of this, we would often search in nooks and crannies for their stashes of dope near these groups. Many times, we were rewarded for our rummaging when a stash of drugs was found. We always had a mini-celebration when we were able to get one of these caches of drugs off the streets. I mention this because one of the heart-rending memories I have of my time patrolling these at-risk neighborhoods was observing little children trying to play. I would see the streets and common areas littered with used hypodermic needles and crack pipes that had been left on the ground. The kids would ride their tricycles and play with their toys in this sort of environment. Innocent children playing intersecting with the cruelty of drug abuse troubled me. It truly reminded me that there was not only the good of innocent children playing here, but also the presence of “evil” (or deprivation of good) in these communities.

We all have had brushes with the problem of evil whether we see it as such. A loved one whose life disintegrates into a death spiral of drug dependence or a friend whose life is snuffed out too early by the recklessness of someone else. These are examples of evil that we have seen and have experienced ourselves. There has been/is a long-standing philosophical debate about “the problem of evil” that has lasted for centuries. Skeptical philosophers (those who believe that the existence of evil in the world disproves the existence of an all-powerful and good God) state that if God really is good and all-powerful, then He would not allow evil to persist in a world that he created. One of these arguments against the existence of God is known as the “evidential argument” that is based upon what can be observed in the world and making an inference from these observations. If this argument is in fact based upon what one observes, then it seems to me that accepted principles of evidence/argumentation would apply to this discussion. It is my contention that bringing in accepted principles of evidence and argumentation would assist in this debate.

One example of a well-known evidential argument was given by a prominent philosopher, William L. Rowe. He offered a hypothetical scenario where the confluence ( or combination) of two chance events results in the unnecessary intense suffering of a fawn.

“Suppose in some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in agony for days before death relieves its suffering. So far as we can see, the fawn’s intense suffering is pointless. For there does not appear to be any greater good such that the prevention of the fawn’s suffering would require either the loss of that good or the occurrence of an evil equally bad or worse evil so connected to the fawn’s suffering that it would have had to occur had the fawn’s suffering been prevented. Could an omnipotent, omniscient being have prevented the fawn’s apparently pointless suffering? [1]”

The chance events of Rowe’s scenario are the backdrop for the evil observed in the fawn’s pointless suffering. Why would God allow these random events to result in the suffering of the fawn? If there was some reason for it that would lead to the greater good, Rowe reasons there may be a good explanation why the fawn had to suffer. How would accepted principles of argumentation assist in offering a counter balance to this problem presented by Rowe?

In Rowe’s scenario, he presents it as if it happened or could happen in the real world. It is reasonable that such a scenario has happened and even repeatedly throughout “fawn history.” So, Rowe is presenting this problem as a proof for atheism or as evidence against theism (the idea that there is a God who exists and is all-powerful and all good). In courtroom argumentation, a lawyer first presents his case against a defendant. After this, the opposing counsel is allowed to present a cross-examination against the evidence that has been given through testimony. In cross-examining Rowe’s scenario, it appears that Rowe’s case is undermined by offering evidence of the utility of these “random events” that caused the fawn’s demise. In fact, some of the random events that Rowe offers are actually very important in maintaining flourishing physical life on earth. So, a brief offering of evidence for the utility of lightning as well as the utility of wildfires is offered to cross-examine Rowe’s contention.

THE UTILITY OF LIGHTNING

Staccoto Lightning by Griffinstorm Wikimedia Commons

Even though our pets may not like the rumbling and the flashing of a thunderstorm, I have heard some of my friends and family comment about enjoying the spectacle of a powerful thunderstorm moving through their area as well as enjoying them myself. It is known that lightning traveling through our atmosphere produces a large amount of nitrogen. A 2004 article on the Environmental Health Perspectives page of the National Institute of Health entitled “Global Nitrogen: Cycling Out of Control” describes how lightning “fixes” nitrogen in the atmosphere, and how it is deposited in the soil. Animals and plants receive this essential compound through eating plants and other animals. In turn, the plants obtain their nitrogen from the soil and water. The replenishment of nitrogen in the soil is aided by approximately 3-10 teragrams (Tg) per year of “fixed” nitrogen provided by lightning moving through the atmosphere. The lightning fixes this nitrogen by converting it into a form of nitrogen that can be consumed by plants and animals. This “fixed” or reactive form of nitrogen produced by lightning is then precipitated into the soil. This precipitation of the “fixed” nitrogen into the soil is especially important to eco-systems where certain nitrogen producing plants are scarce. Thus, without the lightning providing this usable form of nitrogen, plants and animals in these nitrogen scarce environments would lack the nitrogen needed for their overall health, to include fawns. [2]

THE UTILITY OF WILDFIRES

Public Domain

There is no need to research the utility of fire for the flourishing of the denizens of our planet as the need for it is self-evident. We all rely on it for mobility, heat, cooking, and the crafting of various materials, etc. Thus, if we did not have fire for all of these purposes, then our world would be severely impacted by its absence. However, what Rowe discusses is a forest fire which adds a chance element into his scenario. Nevertheless, it is also known that naturally occurring forest fires are an important part of the eco-system of a forest. Will Donavan, in his article, “Why Are Wildfires Good for the Environment?” cites Dr. Timothy Mihuc, Professor of Environmental Science at the SUNY at Plattsburgh, who discusses the many benefits of naturally occurring forest fires. Dr. Mihuc lists these benefits of forest fires (that do not impact human development) as 1) being regenerative for the forest 2) renewing the watershed and the forest soil 3) “resetting the clock for the ecosystem. [3]” In addition to these reasons, Mihuc also explains that forest fires are essential in aiding the germination of a number of tree seeds to regenerate the population of trees in the forest. In addition to these benefits, Mihuc also explains how smaller forest fire sites can also retard larger, more devastating forest fires. He explains that the patchwork mosaic of the smaller sites where younger forest “patches” are located (as a result of earlier forest fires) aid in the defense of larger, more devastating fires that can become catastrophic (when naturally occurring forest fires are suppressed). [4]

In addition to the usefulness of forest fires to flora, it also aids wildlife in several ways. An example of this can be read on a NCSU website publication entitled “Using Fire to Improve Wildlife Habitat. ” In this article the author shows a number of benefits that forest fires bring to the fauna of a habitat. One benefit observed is the culling of pine type forests. If fires are artificially prevented, then the habitat of birds is disrupted as their food supply and “proper cover” disappear. In addition to the benefits for birds, the article lists the observation of wildlife biologist Herbert Stoddard where he recognized a number of benefits of wildfires for animals to include: 1) the germination of herbaceous plants, grasses, legumes 2) some of these plants flower after a fire and harbor insects as well as provides seeds that feed quail, turkey, and songbirds 3) New growth provides cover for smaller mammals, young turkeys, and quail 4) Wildlife move into newly burned areas to feed on newly exposed insects and seeds 5) shrubs producing fleshy fruit are more productive after a fire 6) whitetail deer will enjoy better food sources such as young hardwoods which sprout back 5 years after a fire and are more nutritious than the older hardwoods. As you can see even fawns benefit from naturally occurring forest fires.

THE SUFFERING OF A FAWN IN A FOREST FIRE

In his scenario that he uses to support his atheism, Rowe does offer the proposition that if a greater good for the suffering of the fawn could be justified, then perhaps this suffering could be explained as justifiable in some sense.  [6] It seems that there is justification for the fawn’s intense suffering in that there are substantial benefits for the deer population and other wildlife that come from forest fires and lightning which created the fawn’s dilemma in the first place. Even though some animals may become trapped in a wildfire, like Rowe’s hypothetical fawn, most wildlife have the ability to flee from them.

In addition to the suffering of the fawn that may incidentally happen as a result of a wildfire, there are implications of an environment where deer may overpopulate and threaten human well-being. A recent study notes the correlation between increased vehicular accidents and decreased hunting permit purchases. Timothy Hallock concludes that the data coming from his analysis of hunting permits and deer-vehicle collisions in NY state that deer-vehicle collisions will increase if the deer population is not regulated. [7] In a class I taught where a North Carolina State Trooper was in attendance, I offered Rowe’s “forest and fawn” scenario as a point of discussion. The trooper immediately discussed his experience with the ubiquity (or prevalence of) of these deer-vehicle collisions and how they threatened human lives. His experience came from investigating many traffic accidents where deer were involved. The experience of the trooper demonstrates the need for culling the deer population in order to reduce risk to humans. Although no one wants to see an animal suffer, it is important to note that the proper maintenance of an animal population is important to human safety. Thus, animals may suffer when hunted in order to bring a population under control or may be culled by a wildfire.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, the use of facts and evidence in a cross-examination (accepted principles of evidence/argumentation) of Rowe’s evidential argument for atheism is an effective way to counter Rowe’s evidential argument against a theistic God that allows the suffering of a fawn burned by a fire in the forest. Because the evidential problem of evil is based upon actual or supposed circumstances that occur or could occur, then this opens the discussion up to a presentation of evidence against Rowe’s evidence/argument thus weakening his case for atheism. It was shown that both lightning and wildfires have a substantial positive benefit for both flora and fauna, to include the deer population. It is also believed that due to the evidential nature of Rowe’s argument, other legal principles of argumentation could be arrayed against this particular scenario. Even as Rowe has made a positive case for atheism and then a cross-examination has been given that counters Rowe’s claim, a positive case could be given supporting the existence of the “God of theism” to further weaken Rowe’s assertion. In such a case supporting the existence of a “theistic God,” evidence could be given that supports the inference that such a god exists by what is observed by a witness in the cosmos around her. A myriad of examples of design in nature that inures to the benefit of both animals and humans could be offered as evidence against Rowe’s evidential case for atheism/against theism. After all, Rowe’s scenario points to purported events that he uses to draw an inference that God does not exist. Thus, in order to counter his inference that he adduces from actual or supposed events that likely occur, then it is wholly proper to offer counter examples observed in the cosmos where inferences can be made that the theistic God exists. However, the scope of such an undertaking exceeds what should be written in a blog post. But for the limited purpose of this blog, it is believed the use of cross-examination by means of offering evidence to counter Rowe’s evidence for atheism is wholly appropriate and effective.

[1] This scenario, authored by William Rowe (1931-2015), a former philosopher and professor emeritus at Purdue University, is found in a chapter that was included in the volume, The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams. The chapter is entitled, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1990. The scenario is located on p. 129-130.

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1247398/

[3] https://blog.suny.edu/2013/08/ask-an-expert-why-are-wildfires-good/

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/using-fire-to-improve-wildlife-habitat

[6] Rowe, p. 127

[7] Timothy J. Hallock, Jr. 2016. Journal of Environmental and Resource Economics at Colby. “The Effects of the Deer Population on the Number of Car Accidents.” Vol. 3, Issue 1, Art. 14. https://digitalcommons.colby.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1044&context=jerec date of access: 26 January 2019.

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