The evidential argument from evil
At least one way of formulating the evidential argument from evil is as follows:
(1) If God exists, then there are no gratuitous evils.
(2) Probably, there are gratuitous evils.
(3) Therefore, probably, God does not exist.
An evil can be defined as “gratuitous” if (a) nothing at all justifies it, or else (b) it is excessive for the purpose it serves.
Premise (2) can be defended as follows:
(i) Some evils persistently appear to be gratuitous.
(ii) Therefore, probably, they are gratuitous.
Skeptical theism can be understood as the attempt to undermine the inference from (i) to (ii).
Although skeptical theists might put forth various epistemological principles or theses (e.g., Wykstra’s CORNEA), it seems to me a more promising route is for the skeptical theist to inquire into what it is to appear in general, i.e. to take a phenomenological approach.
What appears? A phenomenological approach
Phenomenological reflection reveals that the appearance of the world is always mediated by two factors: the lived body and the thought-life. For example: a person appears blurry, not because he or she is blurry, but because one has bad eyesight (lived body). Another example: a person who learns that he or she has been adopted would experience his or her parents differently, not because of a change in them, nor because of a change in the lived body, but because of a change with respect to how he or she understands his or her parents (thought-life).
Can evil events appear to be gratuitous?
The lived body and the thought-life make the world accessible to consciousness but also hide things. With respect to evils in the world, it is precisely the lived body and the thought-life that make it impossible to judge that they are gratuitous.
To say that an evil is gratuitous is to say that nothing that comes before it or after it in time justifies its occurrence, i.e. nothing outside of it justifies its presence in history. The gratuity of an evil is therefore a relational property which it bears to everything else in time.
A relation cannot be perceived in the absence of one or more of the relata. One cannot see that one cat is fatter than another unless both are visible, just as one cannot see that x > 100 unless knows the value of x.
The lived body makes it impossible to see the relations which any evil event bears to all other events in history. This is because our lived bodies are themselves stuck in time, subject to its flow and limiting our perspective on things. They make it impossible for us to adopt the transhistorical, transtemporal perspective necessary to see if an event is or is not justified by anything that comes before or after it. For this reason, the judgment that an evil event is gratuitous is not founded in the apparent gratuity of the evil itself so much as in the inevitably limited scope of one’s own vision of history.
And even if one were to assume the possibility of adopting such a transhistorical perspective, it would still not follow that the judgment of the gratuity of an evil would be justified. The point of the evidential argument from evil is not establish that we, with our habits of thought, would have prevented certain evils from happening. Rather, the point is to establish that some things in the world are such that God would have prevented them. But we cannot take for granted that our thought-life is comparable to that of God. We cannot simply take for granted that we think sufficiently similarly to God so as to make judgments in His place. And the evidence we might take ourselves to have at our disposal — e.g., the Bible — suggests that God does not consider that evils which appear to us to be gratuitous are such that He would prevent them.
The apparent gratuity of evil reconsidered
For this reason, the inference in the evidential argument from evil fails. It fails because the gratuity of an evil is not something which can appear to us — once it is understood what this purported gratuity would actually consist in.
Of course, we do not see what justifies the evil in question. This is because our lived bodies and thought-life limit our vision. But this is not the same as saying that the evil appears to be gratuitous. That would be like saying that because a person appears blurry, therefore, probably he or she is blurry. What is missing is the “to me”. The person appears blurry to me, and that is because of my lived body. Likewise, a wall might appear to be unscalable. But it is not valid therefore to infer that it is unscalable, but only that it is unscalable to me. It could very well be scalable to a person or creature with a different body than mine. So also, mutatis mutandis, in the case of evil events. They appear gratuitous to us, but that is because we are not God.