Some Thoughts on Incompatibility Principles: Part 1

I want to take this post as an opportunity to get some ideas on a few different thoughts that I have been having about incompatibility principles. Incompatibility principles are propositions that claim that God and evil are incompatible on some level. Every argument from evil needs one. There are of course many different types of incompatibility principles, but the hands down two most famous ones are “If God exists, then evil does not exist” and “If God exists, then gratuitous evil does not exist.” Given the failure of the logical problem of evil, this post will not deal with the former.

There are many different directions that my thoughts have taken. I guess the best place to start would be with Stephen Griffith’s “The Problem of Pomegranates.”[1] Picture a world with no evil except for a girl named Sarah who likes to poke people. In this world, there are trillions upon trillions of people and Sarah only interacts with a very small portion of them. However, her obsession with constantly poking others annoys everyone around her. And, it also damages  her relationships with her loved ones. This is a kind of suffering, a kind of evil, and a gratuitous one at that. Suppose the inhabitants of this fictional world were to make the following argument:

1. If God exists, then gratuitous evil does not exist.

2. Gratuitous evil does exist.

3. Therefore, God does not exist.

This argument is obviously ridiculous when it comes from the citizens of this world. Either premise 1 or 2 is false; and, in this scenario, premise 2 is obviously true. Thus, premise 1 fails in this scenario.The proponent of the problem of evil needs to give us some account of how their version of the problem of evil should be taken as a good argument and the problem of pomegranates should not. After all, there is gratuitous evil in this world since the difficult-to-openness of the pomegranates could be prevented without losing any greater good or allowing any greater evil. They must give us some criterion that explains when certain evils offer evidence against God’s existence. I think a proper evaluation of why the problem of pomegranates is not a good argument against God’s existence undermines any argument from evil.

We, of course, are not just concerned with why the evil of Sarah the poker is not incompatible with God’s existence; there are a whole host of other gratuitous evils that seem to be compatible with His existence. There seems to be a similarity between these particular instances of gratuitous evil: they are insignificant when compared to the option as a whole. The reason that it is ok for God to allow these things is because they have such small consequences in the end. However, the evils that we see such as rape and murder are anything but insignificant. So, it seems that, on this account, evils such as the problem of pomegranates are not evidence against God’s existence; but, evils like the ones in our world do provide evidence against His existence. And, this is exactly what the proponent of the problem of evil was looking for. Now they can reformulate premise 1 to be the following:

1′. If God exists, then in each instance in which God actualizes a world, He will actualize one that is a member of the set of worlds without gratuitous evil that He has the ability to actualize in that instance of world-actualization unless the evil is insignificant.

There certainly seems to be something behind this moral principle. A donkey choosing between a pile with 10,000 pieces of hay and another with only 9,999 pieces of hay has no moral obligation to choose the one with more hay. An engineer who has created a rode with a bump so small that no one would ever notice has done nothing wrong. A God who has created a world with no evil except Sarah the poker is not immoral. However, a donkey should choose 10,000 pieces of hay instead of one piece of hay. An engineer should not create a rode with an impassable mountain in the middle. God has an obligation to not create a world with severe suffering if He can. Now the proponent of the problem of evil has a principle they can use to avoid the issue with the problem of pomegranates.

There is, however, a complication for the proponent of the problem of evil. How could we ever know that the evils that we see are significant? How could we ever know the scope of God’s creation? Maybe it is the case that God has created trillions and trillions (or even more) of other universes with no gratuitous evil at all. If this were true, then the evils we see would not be significant enough to provide evidence against God’s existence. If what I have said is true, then we have a new kind of skeptical scenario that the skeptical theist can employ to undermine the problem of evil. In other words, since we cannot know the scope of God’s creation, we cannot use the evils we perceive, gratuitous or not, as evidence against God’s existence.

1. Griffith, Stephen. “The Problem of Pomegranates.” Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil. Edited by Peter van Inwagen. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W. B. Eerdmans Pub., 2004


  • December 23, 2010 at 8:52 pm // Reply

    Nice, clear and thorough post, Trevor. Will your next step be in providing counter-arguments to objections against skeptical theism? :)

    • Alexander,

      The next step in this series will not have anything to do with skeptical theism. Although, I think I will post on skeptical theism at a later time. I am still researching it at the moment.

  • Hey Trevor, what do you think is a criterion for determining that an evil is insignificant? Not necessarily one that we could use, but how do you think beings arbitrarily more knowledgeable than us could use?

    • Matthew,

      Well, the idea is that the insignificance (or significance) is in relation to the whole option that the thing that is insignificant is a part of. So, if God created a world with only Sarah the Poker and one other person, Sarah the Poker’s existence might not be insignificant. Her poking, especially when constantly aimed at one person in particular, might result in a lot of suffering, maybe even enough suffering to offer evidence against God’s existence. She might poke the other inhabitant of her world to a long and painful death; and, then she could take her own life to escape the loneliness of having no other beings to communicate with. In such a situation, Sarah the Poker’s existence would be a significant evil that could only be rectified with God’s existence by a strong enough good that could compensate.

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