Voltaire and his evidential argument from evil

All people experience suffering at some time. One of the main questions regarding suffering is, “Should there be suffering if God exists?”. This is known as the problem of evil, and one can turn the problem into an argument against the existence of God. One of the modern philosophers who is often overlooked on the problem of evil is Voltaire. Voltaire specifically talks about natural suffering, which made sense in light of the recent Lisbon earthquake that occurred during his life. Voltaire also responded to some traditional theists’ optimism toward the problem of evil. In this paper, firstly, we will look at various theodicies that Voltaire responded to in Candide with regards to the problem of evil. Secondly, there will be an examination of Voltaire’s argument insofar as we’ll see what Voltaire is correct about and what Voltaire is allegedly wrong about. My third and final (and I think completely original) goal with this essay is to propose that Voltaire was plausibly the earliest proponent of the evidential argument from evil; thus, this entails he endorsed the evidential problem of evil from horrors/gratuitous suffering/great amount of suffering which I will also have to argue for; I will argue that Voltaire endorsed the evidential argument from in evil in the theodicy section. But before we get into that, I am going to explain what the evidential argument from suffering or evil is.

I want to first note that even if somehow Voltaire was a classical theist instead of deist, this does nothing to erase the fact the he brought up the argument from evil. The fact is, Voltaire saw the problem of evil (as do I and most theists) as posing a problem for classical theism which entails that it poses a problem for Christian theism as well. At they very least, Voltaire was indirectly influenced by Epicurus whether he actually knew that Epicurus’ was plausibly the first person to state the logical argument from evil. It is indeed an interesting question whether Voltaire was a deist, but the consensus is that he was a deist the best explanation seems to be that deism fits Voltaire better than any other worldview. Hence, I think we can bypass the discussion in this paper because the question is whether Voltaire actually endorsed the argument, not whether he thought it was a cogent argument at the end of the day.

The evidential argument argues that suffering, if sound, provides good grounds for thinking God does not exist. This is unlike logical arguments from evil which claim that evil and God are logically incompatible with each other; God and evil can’t both exist.[1] Evidential arguments from evil can come in different forms. For example, one can argue that there appears to be very good reasons to think that there are instances pointless suffering, but the problem is that pointless suffering wouldn’t exist if God existed. Therefore, it is likely that God doesn’t exist. Other formulations argue that the amount of evil or suffering in the world is surprising given the hypothesis of theism.[2] Furthermore, there are formulations of the argument that claim that views like naturalism or finite theism are better explanations for suffering rather than theism. Now how does this relate to Voltaire? For one, Voltaire placed heavy emphasis on experience when trying to get answers about reality.[3] Because of this, we can start to see where the argument from suffering starts to come in. We have many experiences of natural suffering in our lives and hence it is undeniable that suffering exists. Natural suffering would be things like hurricanes, cancer, infant death, tornadoes, animal suffering, etc. The focus on the subject of natural suffering, and not just suffering in the abstract sense like the logical argument from evil/suffering, makes sense in light of Voltaire’s time, because the Lisbon earthquake occurred in Voltaire’s lifetime.

To Voltaire he thinks it is surprising that so much suffering exists if God exists.[4] Sure we can cook up some ad hoc excuse, but nevertheless, we would expect less suffering if God existed. Why? Because if an all-powerful and all-good being could eliminate so much suffering, we’d expect Him to get rid of the suffering, unless God had a good reason for allowing the suffering. The trouble is that many instances of natural suffering, including the Lisbon earthquake, don’t appear to serve any greater good. Certainly, it is possible that God has a good reason for allowing so much suffering, but for the purpose of the evidential argument from evil, these need to be plausible reasons. This is a specific formulation of the evidential argument from suffering, which is known as the evidential argument from apparently pointless evil.

Plausibly, God wouldn’t allow suffering unless He has a good reason. In other words, if God exists, then pointless evil does not exist, and this is by far the least controversial premise of the evidential argument from pointless evil. This is elaborated by Ryan Stringer when he says, “The premise that if God exists, then there is no gratuitous evil in the world is a necessary truth based on the properties of God. As a morally perfect being, God has all the requisite power and knowledge to give him complete control over the existence of evil, but he will never permit or create evil if he has no morally sufficient reason to do so. Because God has control over evil that he has no morally sufficient reason to permit or create and yet would never permit or create this kind of evil, this kind of evil will not exist if God does. And since this kind of evil is what “gratuitous evil” is by definition, it follows that gratuitous evil will not exist if God does. So God’s existence entails the nonexistence of gratuitous evil.”[5]

So, it is true that if God exists, pointless evil will not exist.

It seems to us that there are pointless evils, and because of this, we should conclude that those instances are pointless unless we have good reasons for supposing otherwise. It is possible that there are good reasons that we are not aware of, but it is also possible that there are not good reasons. For example, once again, in Voltaire’s time, the Lisbon earthquake seems to be pointless; it does not seem to serve any greater good. Not only that, but it did not appear to be necessary in order to serve a greater good. That is, God could accomplish a greater good without using the Lisbon earthquake or an instance of natural suffering in order to serve a greater good if there is a greater good. If these instances of suffering like the Lisbon earthquake are really pointless instances of suffering, it follows that God does not exist because pointless suffering would not exist if God existed (as established earlier).

But Voltaire’s argument could also be seen in a different evidential formulation that deals with the quantity of suffering instead of certain qualities of suffering, and this makes sense in regards to specific examples that Voltaire cited regarding suffering in our world (i.e. horrific suffering). It is a fact that there are many instances of suffering, but this is not surprising on the hypothesis of non-theism. On non-theism, there is no God to order reality in such a way where there could plausibly be no suffering. and could have ordered life in other ways that do not so much pain. Lastly, I just want to clarify that Voltaire is speaking of suffering in terms of quality or quantity which is not like the logical argument from natural suffering which only deals with natural suffering in the abstract sense, insofar as the logical argument is claiming that the presence of any natural suffering is incompatible with God’s existence (e.g. cutting your finger).

It should be emphasized that Leibniz is where most of the literature is focused, at least insofar as Voltaire is making fun of Leibniz’s approach. Leibniz proposed that God would create the best possible world, thus this is the best possible world.[6] Voltaire questioned how this could plausible be the best possible world.[7] We find ourselves in a world with lots of suffering like hurricanes, disease, earthquakes, baby death, and so on. Wouldn’t something like Heaven, for instance, be a better state of affairs than our current situation?

The idea that there is a “best of all possible worlds” is a problem according to Plantinga.[8] So, does it even make sense to talk about a best possible world? What does that even mean? We can always conceive of a state of affairs where there is one more car, one more person, one more computer, one more pillow, one more marriage, etc. If this is the case, there is no best possible world because there is always room for improvement. It would be logically impossible for God to actualize the best possible world because there is no such thing. It would be like asking God to create a something north of the north poll. The traditional notion of omnipotence does not involve the ability to do logically impossible tasks like create a square-circle.

Therefore, Leibniz theodicy is a failure and there is going to have to be another route to take if one wants to come up with a sound theodicy. But, Voltaire does not take Plantinga’s approach when objecting to the notion that there is a best possible world; rather, he seems to obviously take the approach that it is extremely implausible that this is the best possible world.

Hence, according to Voltaire, one can conceive of a better world than ours, a world with one less instance of suffering or a world with no horrendous instances of suffering, so the point of Candide is to respond to Leibniz’s optimism which includes Leibniz’s doctrine of the best possible world.

Rousseau was also a person during Voltaire’s time that proposed a solution to the problem of evil and the problem of natural evil. Rousseau pointed out the a lot of the suffering and damage in the Lisbon earthquake was the fault of humans because of the way they constructed the buildings, which means that they were not prepared.[9] The obvious response to Rousseau is that this does not account for all the damage and suffering the earthquake inflicted. It is true that some natural suffering in the Lisbon earthquake can be explained partly to human responsibility. However, in our world there are a lot of situations that are not the result of human responsibility like hurricanes or meteors. Likewise, with the Lisbon earthquake, it is implausible to think that humans are the only ones responsible for the suffering that it inflicted on people.

Voltaire, in Candide, goes through all the seemingly implausible greater good theodicies that are proposed and then wonders how this can be the best world given, for example, the amount of horrendous suffering and no obvious justification for this suffering in the sense that the goods that are proposed by apologists often do not need any suffering, or the goods  do not plausibly outweigh the suffering. The point is that if this is the best of all possible worlds, then it seems there should be great goods that would outweigh suffering, otherwise we are committing ourselves to saying suffering is not outweighed by greater goods. And it is not clear how this could be the best possible world if suffering is not outweighed all the potentially great goods. In fact, such a suggestion would seem to be not only unclear but implausible as well, because it seems that a world where good outweighs evil is better than world that does not.

At the beginning of Candide, Pangloss and Candide both favor optimism regarding suffering, but before that, Pangloss is mainly offering theodicies to explain away why God allows awful instances of suffering.[10] Voltaire then attempts to knock all of them down. The historical Lisbon earthquake is the obvious example that comes to mind, which is what Candide seems to be centered around.[11] It is hard to think of a reason why God would allow the Lisbon Earthquake. Voltaire takes this skepticism towards there being a good reason for why God allowed to Lisbon Earthquake and applies it to other situations in the book. One such situation is when Pangloss argues that there is a plausibly good explanation for syphilis.[12] He says syphilis was necessary in order for those to have enjoyed chocolate because Columbus traveled to the new world, but unfortunately, syphilis was brought back with chocolate. The immediate objection is that syphilis is not necessary in order for God to allow humans to eat chocolate. Further, it does not appear that eating chocolate would outweigh the suffering of suffering caused by syphilis; hence, chocolate would not be an outweighing good.

In addition, Pangloss also tells Candide:

“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunégonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbéd the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”[13]

Pangloss’ response here is, yet again, weak. In order for humans to enjoy citrons and nuts, they do not have to go through suffering.[14] These may be greater goods, but it is not obvious that these would be sufficient to outweigh the existence of horrendous suffering. So, Pangloss continually misses the point that in addition to God not allowing pointless suffering, there is also the point that God would not allow allow suffering unless there is an outweighing greater good and suffering is necessary in order to bring about that outweighing greater good. If the suffering is not necessary in order to bring about a greater good, God would not allow it. But this is exactly what the evidential argument (from pointless suffering) is about! Hence, we have evidence that Voltaire is endorsing an evidential argument from evil.

Another theodicy is when Pangloss suggests,”… all this is for the best, since if there is a volcano at Lisbon, it cannot be somewhere else, since it is unthinkable that things should not be where they are, since everything is well” (326).[15] At first blush, this suggestion seems absolutely meaningless and pure sophistry, and there is some truth to this first glance. Surely the volcano could have been somewhere else, especially since God is all-powerful. Once again, this seems to be focusing on pointless suffering which is a form of the evidential argument from evil. Furthermore, it is not as if the volcano had to erupt and God could not intervene. Everything is not well with a volcano exploding and it is certainly not the best possible world if that even makes sense. Moreover, citing Volcanoes and such seems to count in favor of evidential arguments from evil that focus on the amount of suffering and horrendous instances of suffering, not evil in the abstract sense since that is the logical argument from evil! Therefore, we have more evidence that we are dealing here with an evidential argument from evil.

Yet another theodicy is when…”All this was indispensable,” replied the one-eyed doctor, “for private misfortunes make the general good, so that the more private misfortunes there are the greater is the general good.”[16] All my points that I have just made apply to this example as well.

At the very end of the book, Pangloss seems to concede that his answers are in fact not good.[17] Also, Candide accepts moving beyond the  philosophical arguments regarding suffering and just living life and “cultivating the garden,” which can be looked at as if Candide has given about being optimistic towards the problem of evil.  Voltaire’s conclusion matches up with Candide’s conclusion, and Voltaire agrees with Pangloss that Pangloss’ replies to the problem of evil are absolutely terrible.

I could go on and cite dozens of more examples that Voltaire uses regarding suffering, but I hope we can see why that would be unnecessary. The point is that it would be bizarre to cite horrendous instances of suffering if he were dealing with the logical problem of evil because citing horrendous instances of suffering is not necessary in order to run the logical problem of evil. So it seems that, for Voltaire, the existence of any evil is not the problem at hand when it comes to God’s existence, rather what is surprising is the amount of horrendous evil and seemingly pointless evil in our world.

But, also note that what else we can draw from such examples to further support my claim that Voltaire was endorsing the evidential argument; this is my second argument for my claim, so let us now get into my second argument. Voltaire seems to be granting that one can always cook up some ad hoc excuse or logical possibility in response to the problem of evil, and we can see this by the absurd theodicies that he objects to (In fact, as of today, there does not seem to be any very good theodicy at all) which can be seen as a parody to how bad most theodicies really are (or how Voltaire sees the situation), such that, he thinks he is taking most theodicies to their logical conclusions. But of course that does not count against the evidential argument, but that does count against the logical argument from evil because the logical argument is focused on a contradiction; hence, a logical possibility would apply to the latter but not the former. Therefore, it would make no sense to try and apply Voltaire’s critique to the logical argument and not the evidential argument instead. It might be objected that Voltaire just missed the point here. However, this presupposes that Voltaire was objecting to a totally different argument than the logical argument from evil which just is the evidential argument from evil! It might be objected that if Voltaire was conflating these problems/arguments, then he was not consciously aware the he was endorsing a brand new argument from evil. The problem with this response it that it is irrelevant whether someone knows that their proposal is new. Secondly, I think we need to be as charitable to Voltaire as possible, for it is always better to be cautious and charitable. We do not want to automatically paint Voltaire as a stupid person in regards to this issue. Voltaire seemed to think a lot about the problem of evil; therefore, once could say he was at least somewhat of an expert when it came to the problem of evil. To, at face value, dismiss Voltaire by saying he was conflating logical possibilities with probabilities/plausibility is not at all charitable. We need a reason to think he was conflating these two things, and I do not see a reason as of now to think that is the case (but of course there could be for all we know).

But, I also want to propose a third argument for why Voltaire can at least be seen as plausibly proposing the evidential argument from evil. If we think about the logical argument from evil, we know that the argument dates back to at least Epicurus. This argument received a lot of attention from theists and Christian theists in the middle ages. In fact, we can see serious responses to the logical argument dating back to at least Augustine, and then we can see the argument at least going all the way to Aquinas in the middle ages if not further. Augustine and Aquinas had a lot to say about the matter. Now given that so much was already said on the logical argument from evil, it would not be surprising that we’d see someone like Voltaire propose a different way of looking at the problem of evil, mainly, the evidential argument from evil. Given thousands of years of the logical argument existing and given hundreds upon hundreds of years of Christian theists responding to the argument from evil, what else would we expect than for secular persons, particularly in the modern era, to finally propose a new problem, especially if they thought the logical argument had been solved? In fact, it would be surprising if an evidential argument from evil was not at least implicitly proposed before William Rowe in the 20th century who explicitly came up with a formal argument which was not informal like Voltaire’s if Voltaire did in fact implicitly come up with the argument, just as it would be surprising if an informal argument (or discussion) to the non-existence of God from divine hiddenness was not proposed before J.L. Schellenberg.[18] But my proposal is that Voltaire was the first to propose the problem in any form! But also my proposal says that Voltaire was at least an individual to propose the problem even if he was not the first.

Moving on, Voltaire doesn’t really reply to any potentially serious objections in Candide, and because of this I am now going to lay out more serious objections than the objections Voltaire addressed. Before I critique Voltaire’s argument, let me point out what he gets right or what we can take away from his argument. Firstly, Voltaire was right to object to Leibniz best of all possible worlds theodicy. It does not seem that there is such a thing as a best possible world, and if there is such a thing, it is not obvious that this is the best one (in fact such a suggestion seems very improbable). Secondly, it is probably true or probable, if we are honest with ourselves, that the argument from evil is the greatest emotional and/or intellectual challenge to belief in the traditional concept of God (it certainly is for me), a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. Most people on both sides grant that it is at least the greatest emotional challenge to belief in God for the obvious reality that suffering is very discomforting and we cannot imagine why a perfectly loving being would let us suffer so much because, for instance, our loving parents do not let us undergo horrible suffering

It is also probable that if some theist or Christian theist is having a hard time wrestling with the intellectual challenge that the argument from evil brings, they have an epistemic duty to investigate for the truth and try to seek answers to their questions. For me at least, and for many others, the argument from evil is the most serious intellectual challenge to belief in a being who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good (i.e. God). As such, the problem of evil is not to be taken lightly, especially since a simple hand waving of the problem can easily look like someone is overstating their case, which also hurts someone’s credibility.

The first problem I have with Voltaire’s argument is that if there is pointless evil and it is best explained on the hypothesis that God does not exist, this is not the end of the game as Voltaire might think. In other words, we cannot just conclude that God does not exist because of pointless suffering.[19] There are other pieces of data in the world that call for explanation. Such pieces of data would include, but is not limited to: the beginning of the universe, the contingency of the universe, the existence of moral facts and duties, the fine-tuning of the universe, the reality of change, the existence of final causation, the existence of degrees of perfection, the reality of efficient causality, and the logical possibility of God existing. Together, all these pieces of data are used in deductive arguments which, if said arguments are sound, lead to the conclusion that God exists. Even if the best explanation for suffering is God’s non-existence, this does not take into account that the hypothesis that theism is true could win out because it better explains the other data of human experience besides suffering. This also applies when talking about the probabilities potentially involved. Probabilities are relative to background knowledge; what we know prior to looking at the evidence or the prior probability. Perhaps the posterior probability of theism being false, given suffering, is more likely than not. Nevertheless, this assumes that all other things are equal. The theist will contest that all other things are not equal.

Voltaire might try to weaken my point. He might say that most arguments for God’s existence are not of the God that we are talking about in the argument from evil. In the argument from evil, we are talking about an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnibenevolent being; this is the classical conception of God. I do grant to Voltaire that most contemporary arguments for the existence of God, taken in isolation, do not get us to the classical conception of God that I just mentioned, and this is a well known problem in natural theology or the Philosophy of Religion.

However, my reply is that we do not have to take each of the arguments in isolation; rather, we can derive certain attributes of God from each single argument and put the arguments together to get a rich understanding of God with all the different attributes. For example, the moral argument gets us to a very good being or a being that is all-good, and either one is sufficient to to deal with the attribute of goodness that is subscribed to God in the problem of evil because such a being would care about us and care about removing evil. Well what about the attributes of God like Omnipotence (or power) that come up in the evidential problem of evil? Well a being that created the universe from nothing, the cosmological argument from the origins of the universe (i.e. the Kalam cosmological argument), would have to be very powerful if not Omnipotent; he could remove evil. The fine-tuning argument also gets us to a powerful being because such a being designed the cosmos, and surely such a being would be able to stop evil or suffering.

Secondly, there are contemporary arguments for the existence of God that are for the classical conception of God, for instance, the ontological argument. The contemporary ontological argument argues for the metaphysical possibility of God existing to the actual existence of God; in fact, it argues that it is necessary that God actually exists. The being in the argument has all the traditional attributes of God. Voltaire might argue that the argument is not persuasive, but the argument, I propose, can come at the end of someone who is weighing the arguments for God. Once we have a cumulative case for God, we can use these arguments as a posteriori evidence that it is metaphysically possible that God exists in addition to the support that there’s evidence that God is metaphysically possible because it is also a priori epistemically possible that this is the case.

Thirdly, there are classical arguments to the existence of God that give all the attributes of the classical conception of God. Contrary to popular opinion, Aquinas’ arguments, if sound, do get you to a God with all these attributes, in fact, all of his five ways (including his 6th argument) get you to this conception of God.[20] Most people do not know this because deriving these attributes is the second step in each of his arguments. What happens is that people see a quick summary or excerpt of the arguments in certain texts and conclude that Aquinas did not argue for the classical conception of God but some deistic conception of God, but nothing could be further from the truth! We must be charitable and not assume Thomas Aquinas was an idiot and did not notice that not getting to the classical conception of God from arguments would be a problem; he was well aware of this fact and thus dealt with it. In addition, Samuel Clark argued for all the traditional attributes of God from his version of the contingency argument for the existence of God.[21] Finally, Anselm’s ontological argument, if sound, also gets us to a God who is Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnibenevolent.[22]

The other problem that Voltaire has to deal with is what is known as skeptical theism.[23] Skeptical theism proposes that for all we know what seems like pointless evil or suffering really is not pointless. Well why is that? Because if God exists, many reasons for allowing evil would not be available to us or we are not in a position to expect that we would know many of God’s reasons for allowing evil.[24] Hence, the mere fact that we cannot see any explanation for an apparently pointless instance of suffering, does not in fact mean the suffering is gratuitous. It is true that if a non-theist does not have good reasons for believing in God, skeptical theism will not be an undercutter for the non-theist to conclude to the existence of pointless suffering in the world from the fact that there appears to be pointless suffering in the world. However, if skeptical theism is a good objection, the theist is not epistemically obligated to conclude that there is indeed pointless suffering from the mere appearance of pointless suffering. Given skeptical theism, for all we know, for example, the apparent gratuitous suffering of those involved in an earthquake, such as the Lisbon earthquake, might not be pointless at all. For all we know, God’s morally sufficient reasons for allowing the earthquake might not emerge until decades later after the earthquake takes place. Perhaps the morally sufficient reason ends of being that many people freely entering into a relationship with God.

Voltaire could respond by saying that I am somewhat making his point to an extent. Voltaire could say that his whole point is that all the evidence points to the reality that many instances of suffering do not lead to greater goods or greater goods that could have been accomplished without suffering; do not be so optimistic, in other words. Voltaire is constantly being sarcastic about people who ignore all the suffering that is right in front of them and suppose that it is all for the best.[25] Even though Voltaire might have only been specifically looking at the best possible world theodicy, it seems he could say similar things about skeptical theism. He might say, “Seriously? There is a greater good for a volcano being in a certain spot, and that greater good could not have been accomplished without the volcano and its suffering? Clearly, if the greater good was for something like candy to be enjoyed, this could be accomplished by God without this volcano existence which inflicts suffering; it’s obvious that candy can be had/enjoyed without suffering.

It also does not seem skeptical theism applies to a person who does not believe in God. If a person does not believe in God, there is no morally sufficient reason available in the actual world unless God actually exists. In addition, does skeptical theism undermine the theist’s own belief such that she needs to give up skeptical theism. For example, by the theist’s reasoning, for all we know, God has a good reason to start a false religion which could include Christianity. In addition, God might have a good reason to not raise Jesus from the dead. And for all we know, God might have a good reason to make the universe appear to be designed when it is in fact not. And for all we know, God might have a good reason to make it appear that I am experiencing God, when in fact I am not actually experience God. Finally, but not limited to, God might have a good reason to make it appear as if the universe has a beginning.[26] These beliefs could have originally been epistemically justified but they are undermined once one accepts skeptical theism; thus these original beliefs in conjunction with skeptical theism entail that skeptical theism is an undercutting defeater of the beliefs. Hence, the theist must abandon skeptical theism or else his/her belief in theism is irrational.? At the very least, the theist should plausibly accept that the best explanation for suffering is the hypothesis of non-theism, while maintaining they can maintain theism because God better explains other pieces of data better than non-theism even if God does not best explain suffering or evil.

Let us now see if Voltaire really was the first Philosopher to endorse the evidential argument from evil.

There are only three plausibly potential philosophers who could be said to propose the earliest versions of the evidential argument from evil, and one of them I think is the earliest, Voltaire. The three candidates are Bayle, Hume, and Voltaire.

It might first be objected that why not consider that there was someone who raised an evidential argument from evil before the modern era? Well with Epicurus, he himself raised the logical argument from evil. Later after that, Augustine and Aquinas each focused on this formulation in the times at the end Ancient Philosophy and middles ages respectively. Moreover, the philosophers, before Bacon’s particular inductive method, were focused on deductive and logical arguments rather than probabilistic arguments or evidential arguments.[27] Of course with this induction we can make different arguments from the deductive that focus on best explanations and probabilities.

Now of the three philosophers, let us start with Hume. Hume is famous for quoting Epicurus logical argument from suffering.[28] Hume does not quote any evidential argument from suffering and one of the reasons is because there was no evidential version prior to the modern/contemporary era of philosophy. What Hume is focused on rather is the fact that from the observation of suffering we cannot conclude that the Creator is all-good.[29] If we could infer anything, we would conclude that God’s attribute of being all-good is bizarre from the fact of suffering. Notice that Hume is just focusing on the any instance of suffering, not suffering of quantity or quality. For Hume, we might be able to infer a designer, but that says nothing about whether he is good if we could even infer such a thing.[30] In addition, Hume is noted for citing Epicurus’ famous quote regarding the logical argument from evil which is not the evidential argument from evil.

Once again, Hume is famous for quoting Epicurus regarding the logical argument from evil. Even if Hume was not endorsing the argument, this is evidence that Hume considered the argument from evil to be a problem of logical consistency between the propositions “God exists” and “Evil exists”; there was no argument from Hume that talked about apparent pointless evils or horrors. When did Hume write?

Bayle also does not seem to be looking at an evidential argument; rather, he was addressing the logical argument from evil, in particular, Bayle was looking at various theodicies someone would give in respond to the logical argument from evil. Bayle wondered whether someone should give theodicies that are a priori or a posteriori, and Bayle is skeptical of giving a priori reasons to suffering because suffering is an empirical phenomena, but he nevertheless speaks of evil in the general or abstract sense insofar as he is talking about the existence of any evil as opposed to the amount of evil or pointless evil; that is Bayle’s concern.[31] Even if Bayle was the first person to formulate the evidential argument from suffering, it would still be the case that Voltaire is plausibly one of the earliest or the earliest proponent(s) of the evidential argument even if not the first person.

The main point is that there is no evidence that Bayle or Hume were the first people to endorse the argument, and there is evidence against the notion. The evidence against the notion, and my main argument to support my claim that Voltaire was the first, comes from when each person published their work on the problem (who was influenced by who if at all before writing?) Bayle and Hume alike seemed to publish their works on the problem of evil after Voltaire. No this wouldn’t definitely prove the notion that Voltaire was the first to think of the problem, but it would serve as evidence in favor of the proposition, and this is a different issue to who published on the topic first. However, someone publishing first on the topic does indeed seem to count in favor of someone thinking about the topic first before all the other plausible candidates because in order to publish on something you have to have an idea that something! And of course there is no way to absolutely prove that anyone who first publishes on an idea was the first to think of the idea. Secondly, I do think we have evidence of who the first person was to think of the problem of evil in any sense which serves as evidence in favor of the person who first thought of the evidential problem of evil. Bayle does not seem to be a good candidate because he did not even wrestle with the problem in an emotion or logical sense until the 1680’s. So it seems that it comes down to Voltaire and Hume.

Voltaire first wrestled with the problem of evil when he was a teenager which was well before 1650. But what about Hume? Well Hume was still a baby when Voltaire was a teenager, so it is hard to see how Voltaire did not ponder the problem before Hume given that Voltaire wrestled with it in his teenage years.[32] But remember, we are mainly concerned not so much concerned who thought of the problem of evil first, but who thought of the evidential argument from evil. But it seems to me that the former is evidence for the latter. In addition, in general, we are more focused on who was the first to really write on the evidential argument from evil.

Voltaire published Candide in January 1659, but Hume’s work, “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” of which evil was talked about was not even finished until 1676, and Hume’s discussion of the problem of evil didn’t even show up until Book X which was very much towards the end of the book.[33] What about with Bayle? Well one of Bayle’s writing on the subject is found in his work, “Dictionary”, but this work wasn’t even finished until 1706.[34] So if anything, Bayle and Hume were influenced by Voltaire if they really were endorsing evidential arguments from evil. In addition, the earliest work of Bayle includes the problem of evil, but that was from 1675-77 which is way after when Voltaire officially published Candide. Therefore, it seems we might have a knockdown case that Voltaire was the first person to propose the evidential argument from evil in the relevant sense of adding it to the literature or writing it down. So if Voltaire endorsed the evidential argument from evil, which is plausible, then we have proof that Voltaire was the first. One cannot just mention other possible candidates, for all we know, before Voltaire because one can always escape an argument by saying “for all we know it is possible that your claim is not true”. This will not suffice.

In addition, I have noted why there are no other plausible candidates in the ancient times or middle ages. Not to mention that lack of discussion of the problem of evil in the modern era before Voltaire. They must argue why those candidates are plausible So once again, even if Bayle and Hume did propose the evidential argument from evil, that would not mean that they were the first ones to do so. I notice that my main argument here is very simple and to the point, but I mean it to be simple. The only way to challenge it is to challenge the history of our case.

But for good reasons, most historians would not disagree with the dates that I have cited and for good reasons. Therefore, the burden of proof is on the skeptic here. In addition, there might also be additional reasons that we don’t know of as of yet that will also support my claim. But the historical dates are what are in question here. If someone rejects the dates, they can use that to try and get out of my argument. But I have already noted why such a position is untenable given what the historians say and the arguments that they give. I am not an historian here so I have to take their word for it. But if someone rejects their word, they must show why their historians reasons for the publication dates are wrong. In fact, one would seem to have to be almost a total skeptic regarding the discipline of history when we consider something else. Many times, especially as we see nowadays, the authors have written down the exact dates that they wrote their works, and/or the date is written in print at the beginning of the book. I know that this is obvious, but my point is that I am trying to knock down objections to my argument. Now certainly, one could form a conspiracy theory about dates, but that can easily turn into a slippery slope into absurdity. In order for someone to come with such a theory while not falling into absurdity would be for the person to take on the burden in particular cases why certain authors or publishers would fake dates, and these hyper-skeptics must also be careful to not fall into the cognitive bias known as “hindsight bias”. Someone might also object that it is at least possible that the historians are wrong. But regarding objections to arguments, mere possibilities will not suffice (and they are cheap). One can see this by noting the other option which is “It is possible that I am not wrong at all” or “Maybe it is not the case that I am wrong”. In other words, we can see a sort of cancellation effect. Moreover, one can bring up possibilities about anything no matter how improbable. I am very confident that I do not have to offer any more replies in response this objection.

But, once again, why think that Voltaire himself actually endorsed the evidential argument from evil? Well I have already touched on this earlier on in this paper. I noted that Voltaire seems to give examples of pointless suffering, that is, suffering that does not appear to serve any greater good. Sure you can cook up any ad hoc excuse or logical possibility, but it is just not plausible that the suffering we experience is not pointless. I also noted that the specific examples that Voltaire gives makes sense in light of the evidential argument from evil. Voltaire talks about earthquakes, diseases, etc. In other words, Voltaire is not just noting an abstract sense or evil or an evil like scratching your finger; rather, he is focused on things like horrendous instances of suffering in the world and the amount of suffering in the world. So if Voltaire endorsed the evidential argument from evil, he was plausibly the earliest (and/or certainly one of the earliest) proponent(s) of the argument.

In addition, I proposed an argument which proceeds by process of elimination to the earliest proponent of the evidential argument from evil. Here it is:
These are the most plausible candidates for who endorsed the argument from evil first:

  1. Bayle, Hume, Voltaire
  2. Not Bayle or Hume
  3. Therefore, Voltaire

It is important to note that the main proof I gave earlier in the paper for premise 2 had to do with the dates that the authors publish their work

Now one can argue that there might be other candidates in the pool. Maybe but maybe not. The burden of proof will be on that person to offer another candidate because I have already argued why these candidates are the only ones that are plausibly in the pool of options. Someone might also object that Bayle or Hume might not be plausible for the first one to endorse the argument, but that does not mean Voltaire is also plausible. My first response is to note that I have already given reasons to think that Voltaire is the first, as well as reasons to think he did endorse the argument. In addition, it seems to me that the burden of proof is on the skeptic to show that it is implausible that Voltaire was the first or undercut my reasons for the claim (if he did endorse the argument) given that it is unlikely that Bayle and Hume were the first. In other words, the implausibility of the first candidate being Hume or Bayle counts as evidence in favor of Voltaire. Moreover, we can see how the implausibility of Bayle and Hume being the first candidates of the evidential argument from evil outdoes any possibility that it might plausibly be the case that it is also implausible that Voltaire was the first candidate as well as Hume and Bayle.

But also, it should be noted that since these are the logical options, it follows that one of the options must be correct if some (or all of them proposed) the evidential argument from evil.  And I have argued why at least Voltaire proposed the argument (and Voltaire being seen as someone who proposed the evidential argument from evil does not seem to be implausible to the extreme and for the sake the argument, perhaps it is not extremely implausible for Bayle or Hume either even if they are not the most likely)and why Bayle and Hume did not. And because of this, for the sake of the argument, we can grant that Hume and Bayle also endorsed the evidential argument from evil because that problem right here is who is the first person to endorse the evidential argument from evil. I finally want to note that Voltaire did not use the label “evidential argument”. However, we must not confuse a label with the concept itself. It is true the the label “evidential argument” was not invented until the 1900’s. But this is no more of a problem than concluding that Epicurus was obviously the earliest or one of the earliest endorsers of the logical argument from evil (the concept itself), even though he did not use that label and even though that label was not invented until way after his death.

In conclusion, I want to be clear that my original proposal here is not meant to be some thesis paper on the matter. Rather, it is to get the conversation started in the literature. Perhaps, someone will find additional reasons to support my claim. Perhaps, my claim will plausibly need to be abandoned. If my claim cannot be backed up my good reasons, then we should not believe it. But I think the more interesting aim would be for the skeptic to show that my claim is false or very probably false. This would bypass all of the discussion of examining my reasons for thinking the claim is true and/or examining the question of whether there are other plausible reasons that someone else can give to support my claim in the future.





Anselm. Proslogion. Stuttgart: F. Frommann Verlag (Günther Holzboog), 1961. Print.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Coyote Canyon Press (June 19, 2010)


Bayle, Pierre. Historical and Critical Dictionary: Selections. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill,                 1965. Print.


Hume, David, Dialogues concerning natural religion. (1986), Hackett.


Leibniz, Gottfried. The Monadology. Oxford: Clarendon, 1898. Print.


Lennon, Thomas M. and Hickson, Michael, “Pierre Bayle”, The Stanford Encyclopedia                   of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL                                              = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/bayle/&gt;.


Mackie, J.L. 1955. “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind 64: 200-212.


Plantinga, Alvin. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974. Print.


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The First and Second Discourses. New York: St. Martin’s, 1964. Print.

Rowe, William. “The Empirical Argument from Evil,” in Audi and Wainwright.       (1986), Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment, Ithaca:                          Cornell University Press, 227–47

Shank, J.B., “Voltaire”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition),        Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =             <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/voltaire/&gt;.


Stringer, Ryan. “Evil and Skeptical Theism (2012).”< http://infidels.org/evil-skeptical/&gt;.


Tooley, Michael, “The Problem of Evil”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy               (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =             <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/evil/&gt;.


Trakakis, Nick, “Evidential Problem of Evil Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.    Retrieved April 21, 2016, from http://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-evi/


Voltaire, Candide. New York: Dover Publications. 1991


Wykstra, Stephen J. 1986. “Rowe’s Noseeum Arguments from Evil,” in Daniel Howard-               Snyder (ed.), The Evidential Argument from Evil, pp.126-50.


[1] Mackie, J.L. 1955. “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind 64: 200-212.


[2] Tooley, Michael, “The Problem of Evil”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy                        (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =          <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/evil/&gt;.


[3] Shank, J.B., “Voltaire”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition),     Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =             <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/voltaire/&gt;.





[7] Voltaire, Candide. New York: Dover Publications. 1991




[10]Voltaire, Candide. New York: Dover Publications. 1991


[11] Voltaire, Candide. New York: Dover Publications. 1991


[12]Voltaire, Candide. New York: Dover Publications. 1991


[13] Voltaire, Candide. New York: Dover Publications. 1991


[14] Voltaire, Candide. New York: Dover Publications. 1991


[15] Voltaire, Candide. New York: Dover Publications. 1991


[16] Voltaire, Candide. New York: Dover Publications. 1991


[17] Voltaire, Candide. New York: Dover Publications. 1991



















2 thoughts on “Voltaire and his evidential argument from evil

  1. There was no “Problem of Evil” until monotheistic religions came about. Prior to that all gods and goddesses had various and sundry characters, usually a mix of good and bad. Monotheistic religions, which insist there is only one god, create this problem: can the one god be “all good” and if you make that claim whence comes evil?

    In Christianity and the others, they actually create demigods and call them by other names (angels, demons, etc.). Many refer to the “Devil” or Satan as the enemy of God. Why does no one then ask: how can an all-powerful god, who is able to create billions and billions of galaxies, not able to handle a single evil non-god, like that? He should be able to snap his fingers and away Satan does. Where did Satan come from anyway, did not God create him? And if Satan exists because of Yahweh’s sufferance, then evil is not Satan’s problem, but Yahweh’s.

    This is not a core issue, it is an issue of monotheism only.

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