Exploring Stephen Law’s Evil God Challenge

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Last night, I went out hear Stephen Law talk about his Evil God Challenge as part of the DC Center for Inquiry’s “Voice of Reason” series.  Stephen Law is a professor Heythrop College at the University of London and is the editor of Think–a philosophy journal.  His Evil God Challenge is meant to knock the wind out of the conventional Christian responses to the Problem of Evil.  Here’s the gist:

Imagine that, instead of the Judeo-Christian God (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent) there was an Evil God that was all-powerful, all-knowing, and totally evil.  People who believe in this god are frequently asked by skeptics: “How can you believe in Evil God?  Isn’t that hypothesis falsified by the existence of good in the world?”

“Nuh-uh” say the believers in Evil God.  “We have plenty of explanations for the Problem of Good.  For example…”

  • Evil God allows good to exist only so that greater evil may be achieved
  • Evil God likes evil best when we freely choose it, but allowing us free will means that some people may choose good
  • Evil God works in mysterious ways

Not every Judeo-Christian argument can be successfully transposed in this way, but Law doesn’t need to flip them all for his point to stand.  If we think these are weak arguments when mustered by the proponents of Evil God, should we give them any more credence when mustered for actual religions?

Arguments for Evil God may cut two ways, but Cthulhu only cuts one way: Fatally.

Not every theodicy argument has an easy mapping into Law’s hypothetical, but he doesn’t need to debunk every one individually to raise doubts.  However, there may be a bigger weakness in Law’s strategy. Law is assuming that a god’s benevolence is logically separable from omnipotence and omniscience. Law essentially assumes that God’s goodness is the equivalent of Euclid’s fifth postulate. He can sub in something else without a contradiction. I’m not so sure.

Knowledge creates constraints. If I know Pythagoras’s theorem perfectly, I’m not free to contradict it. If I told you I understood the theorem and believed it to be false, you would conclude that I didn’t really know it at all.

It’s hard to be sure, at these dizzying heights of abstraction and perfection, but it seems plausible the knowledge of moral law constrains your ability to transgress it. If you had perfect knowledge of the gravity of your choices and the harm you were doing, how could it be possible to freely choose evil. We make it easier by pushing away that knowledge. We kill from far away, where we can’t see faces, we want to make the poor and homeless invisible, we define other humans as lesser people than us.

So if a god had perfect knowledge of the Good, regardless of zer power, how would it be logically possible to will evil? Law’s hypothetical fails before he gets up to resolving the contradiction of good in the world, because the very idea is rooted in a contradiction.

I posed this question to Law during Q&A, and he said the contradiction, whether or not it existed, was irrelevant.  Poking around online, I found he expanded on this point during an argument with Edward Feser (author of The Last Superstition):

Assume an evil God is conceptually impossible. Nevertheless, there might also be powerful empirical evidence against an evil God. In fact there is – far too much good in the world. And if that empirical evidence is sufficient to rule an evil God out beyond reasonable doubt (at least until some very good counter-argument etc. is forthcoming), why then isn’t the evil we see sufficient to rule a good god out beyond reasonable doubt(at least until some very good counter-argument etc. is forthcoming)?

I don’t buy this. In math, at least, you aren’t allowed to start with a logical contradiction as a premise. Once you throw a divide-by-zero in, it doesn’t matter if the rest of the proof is internally coherent, you still wouldn’t draw parallels between it and valid reasoning.

So, given this contradiction, what use is the Evil God Challenge?  Well, it’s a pretty good reminder of the danger of sophistry.  It’s easy to get sucked into debating the Problem of Good for an Evil God without pausing to consider whether the idea of an Evil God is coherent at all.  So, be vigilant!

In a similar way, it doesn’t really make sense to raise the Problem of Evil, unless there’s some god on the table with some evidence going for zer.  I don’t bother coming up with objections to the way a hypothetical god designed the world unless my interlocutor has come up with some argument that makes it plausible the world has a creator in the first place.  So this should never be your starting argument.

But is there another out for Law?  One could object and say that omniscience doesn’t need to be included in the properties of an Evil God for the trick to work. Law’s explanations of the Problem of Good would hold together just as well for an Evil Grad Student, running unpleasant simulations on a supercomputer.

The trouble is, that an Evil Grad Student couldn’t serve as a First Cause, couldn’t be a solution to the problem that probably put us on to the question of theodicy in the first place.  We’d be privileging the hypothesis in discussing the problem of evil or the problem of good if we didn’t have a good, rent-paying idea of God that was begging the question in the first place.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Patrick

    Law’s response to you is valid.

    Proposition: Leah is a married bachelor.
    Fact: Leah is a woman.
    Even if we don’t know enough to know that the adjective “married” cannot be applied to the noun “bachelor” without contradiction, the fact that Leah is a woman is evidence against her being a bachelor.

    There’s nothing wrong with gathering evidence for or against a proposition before establishing whether the proposition is coherent. The proposition isn’t being used as a premise, so its incoherence isn’t a problem.

    • leahlibresco

      I think the proposition is being used as a premise. Without the omnipotence and omniscience of an Evil God, there’s no Problem of Good to explain in the first place. Otherwise you’d just say “Why is there good? Because Evil God’s power is limited and Evil God can’t always forsee the consequences of its actions.” You never end up in this rhetorical spur unless you’ve got a being that wills evil and is omniscient and omnipotent. And then you’re caught in the contradiction.

      • Patrick

        The omni attributes aren’t necessary for the evidential problem of evil.

        • leahlibresco

          Can you flesh out why? Why can’t evil otherwise just be the result of the limits on God’s power and/or knowledge?

          • Patrick

            Hypothesis: Leah is incredibly evil.

            Counter argument: We have evidence of Leah’s actions. She’s generally nice to people, and never does anything particular evil. If she were incredibly evil, surely she’d do less nice things, and more evil things.

            Nothing in the counter argument requires that Leah be omniscient or omnipotent.

          • deiseach

            Hypothesis: Leah is incredibly evil.

            Counter argument: While I exist, there is one entity at least that is even more evil than Leah :-)

          • leahlibresco

            Ok, now I think I understand your objection. You’re saying you don’t need to know everything about Agent X’s properties to reason about whether Agent X is evil.

            I still disagree. You can use me in the example because we have some shared expectations for how human agents behave. If I told you that some agent Y gave people shelter in a storm and hid them from the Nazis, my judgement of whether Y is good is pretty dependent on knowing whether Y is a person or a cave.

            The ability of any agent to act in accordance with its will and the data that informs that agent’s actions informs how we interpret those actions. And if you don’t make some specifications for the nature of god, we’re probably going to default to human characteristics and standards — a questionable model.

          • leahlibresco

            That’s the gist of why we want to know something about a generic agent when we’re judging it. Here, the entire point is to set up a symmetry between the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Good and if the two problems are about categorically different agents, I don’t think the correspondence holds.

          • Patrick

            No, I’m saying that your objection, and your continued reasoning on the subject, is off topic.

            Bob: Proposition X.

            Joe: Not proposition X, because of evidence Y.

            Bob: But excuse Z explains why evidence Y is plausible if X is true.

            Stephen Law: Imagine BizarroBob, arguing against BizarroJoe, about proposition P, evidence Q, and excuse R. The relationship between P, Q, and R is analogous to the relationship between X, Y, and Z. So we should judge them similarly. And we reject R as ludicrous. Shouldn’t we then reject Z as ludicrous?

            People who don’t understand this argument: We have other reasons besides Q to reject P. We’d like to talk for ages about P, because we think P is really silly.

            Law: This isn’t about P, its about Z. I don’t need P to be true, or even plausible. I just need for its relationship to Q and R to be analogous to X’s relationship to Y and Z.

          • Alex

            Good points Patrick. I believe that unlike Feser or Leah, Craig tackled the evil god challenge head on by stating that the existence of good in the world is not evidence against an evil god. Rather, we can rule out the existence of an evil by questioning its coherence and other means etc.

            I believe that this argument addresses the evil god challenge, however, I am not sure if most theists would agree with Craig.

          • Patrick

            Alex: Yes, that would answer the evil god challenge.

            Craig has other answers he could go with anyway. He’s a divine command theorist, and an endorser of biblically commanded genocide. He’s pretty much immune to the problem of evil, because he worships a mad, gibbering demon. Why is there evil in the universe? Because God can only be satiated with the blood of the innocent, obviously.

        • Daniel A. Duran

          “The omni attributes aren’t necessary for the evidential problem of evil.”

          On the contrary, It is essential for the evidential argument from evil for God *not* to be infinite or perfect in any shape or form. If God is perfect or “omni” as you say, he would be necessary and no matter the amount of evidence you marshal against God you would not decrease the probability of its existence.

          You might as well try bring “evidence” against the triangularity of triangles or the proposition 2+2=4 and people would say you have no clue as to what you’re talking about. The same would happen if god is infinite or perfect, using the evidential argument against god would show that you have no idea of what we mean when we say “God.”

          I think this is one of the biggest problems with atheists today; they think God is another contingent, empirical fact. It is a hypothesis “out there” and can be assigned probabilities and be falsified or what have you. And then atheists conveniently forget all that talk of god ‘being the ground of existence’, or ‘unmoved mover’, ‘greatest thing that can be thought’, ‘maximally perfect;,and ‘its own reason for being’, etc. etc.

          • http://www.realphilosophers.org Tom

            Daniel,

            I take it that when people say ‘God is perfect,’ they mean the “is” of predication, not the “is” of identity.

            When we say that God is perfect, we mean that if God exists, then God is perfect. I agree to that conditional. But that conditional is precisely why the various arguments from evil are so powerful. The hypothesis that a perfect being exists makes various predictions, and atheists contend that some of those predictions are empirically falsified.

            (You might want to propound one of the ontological arguments. If so, we can talk about that.)

            Certainly no one will find empirical evidence against the triangularity of triangles. (Analogously, no one will find empirical evidence that the God defined to be perfect is not perfect.) But someone might find empirical evidence against the existence of triangles. (Not in the actual world of course, but certainly in some worlds.)

            One more analogy: Suppose that ‘Sparkly’ is the name of a necessarily existing unicorn that lives in the Taj Mahal. Is it possible to have empirical evidence against the existence of Sparkly? Of course; go to the Taj Mahal and look around. This is true even though Sparkly is defined as a necessary being.

          • Daniel A. Duran

            Tom

            “When we say that God is perfect, we mean that if God exists, then God is perfect. I agree to that conditional. But that conditional is precisely why the various arguments from evil are so powerful.”

            You’re missing the point; if god exists he necessarily exists and if god does not exist he is impossible. We don’t even need to posit a metaphysical proof for God’s actual existence to know that much.

            “The hypothesis that a perfect being exists makes various predictions, and atheists contend that some of those predictions are empirically falsified.”

            The existence of god pertains to *metaphysics,* it is not an empirical proposition. Saying that god is a scientific hypothesis is like saying that the discovery of the good and the beautiful pertains solely to physics.

            “But someone might find empirical evidence against the existence of triangles.”

            Irrelevant, I was very explicit when I said that triangularity cannot be disproved empirically, so why are you changing the topic as to whether triangles physically exist in some possible world? This has nothing to do with what I said and has no bearing on God since the existence is precisely like the triangularity of a triangle. (And if he does not exist, god is like the notion of a married bachelor).

            “One more analogy: Suppose that ‘Sparkly’ is the name of a necessarily existing unicorn that lives in the Taj Mahal. Is it possible to have empirical evidence against the existence of Sparkly? Of course; go to the Taj Mahal and look around. This is true even though Sparkly is defined as a necessary being.”

            Either you have no idea of what a necessary being; you’re accusing me of asserting god is necessary or both. Either way, you’re analogy equivocates since no finite being can exist of necessity.

            BTW, If you think god is like an unicorn, you have a very impoverished idea of what we’re talking about when we speak of God.

          • http://www.realphilosophers.org Tom

            Daniel,

            Thanks for your reply.

            I agree that there is a widely accepted view of God according to which He is de re necessary, which does entail that if He exists, He exists necessarily, and if He does not exist, then He is impossible. I hope I never denied that.

            You write,

            The existence of god pertains to *metaphysics,* it is not an empirical proposition. Saying that god is a scientific hypothesis is like saying that the discovery of the good and the beautiful pertains solely to physics.

            I haven’t yet seen an argument that the hypothesis that (say) an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being exists does not make empirical predictions. Whether it does, and whether those predictions have been falsified, are precisely the subjects of the debate over the Problem of Evil. No one needs to say that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis, and I certainly don’t think I’ve ever claimed that God’s existence pertains solely to science. Instead, I’m joining a long intellectual tradition by believing that the hypothesis that the Anselmian God exists does make an empirical prediction: that there will be less evil in the world than there is. If you want to discuss that, we certainly can.

            Last, you write,

            Either you have no idea of what a necessary being;

            A necessary being is a being that cannot possibly not exist; or a being that exists in all possible worlds; or the intersection of all possible sets of entities; or the intersection of all possible ontologies. Any of these will work, right?

            you’re accusing me of asserting god is necessary

            You said here that God is necessary, right?

            no finite being can exist of necessity.

            I understand what it means to say that a set is infinite or transfinite, or a number, but not yet what it would mean to say a god is. But why can’t finite being exist of necessity? The number five is finite. Is it possible for five not to have existed? Is there a logical contradiction in Sparkly’s description? If not, why do you think Sparkly is impossible?

          • Daniel A. Duran

            Tom, thank you for the polite reply.
            “I haven’t yet seen an argument that the hypothesis that (say) an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being exists does not make empirical predictions.”
            Not even ontological arguments?

            “I haven’t yet seen an argument that the hypothesis that (say) an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being exists does not make empirical predictions. Whether it does, and whether those predictions have been falsified, are precisely the subjects of the debate over the Problem of Evil…I’m joining a long intellectual tradition by believing that the hypothesis that the Anselmian God exists does make an empirical prediction: that there will be less evil in the world than there is.”
            Tom, my point is simple. If god exists he’s meta-physically necessary, no amount of empirical evidence will make it any less necessary. I am not talking about the logical argument from evil; I am addressing the evidential argument.
            “You said here that God is necessary, right?”
            Yes, I did. What I mean by saying that you think I am “asserting god is necessary” is that you think I’m not entitled to say god is necessary if he exists. That was the point of your burlesque reference to unicorns, (never mind, I take back what I said about you being polite) ”sparky” being a necessary being is your way of saying that I am arbitrarily saying that god is necessary.

            “but not yet what it would mean to say a god is(necessary). But why can’t finite being exist of necessity?”
            Because the former cannot be surpassed by any nature while the latter can. And if something can be surpassed in nature it is incoherent to call it necessary (cannot cease to exist, it is its own reason for its own existence, etc).

            The number five is finite. Is it possible for five not to have existed?”

            Actually, I am inclined to believe (though I am not sure) that if there was nothing, there would not be a number five.
            Anyway, five is a concept not the instantiation of some being. Remember that by necessity I am speaking of of metaphysical necessity. I’m not speaking of the necessity of concepts or logic per se.

          • Daniel A. Duran

            Tom, disregard the first paragraph, I misunderstood what you said there.

          • http://www.realphilosophers.org Tom

            Daniel,

            I agree that if the God we’re talking about exists, then He is metaphysically necessary. Evidence doesn’t make something “less necessary.” I think we’re discussing this below, so I won’t repeat myself here.

            I hope I haven’t said that I don’t think you can say God is necessary if He exists. That’s perfectly fine with me.

            You write,

            if something can be surpassed in nature it is incoherent to call it necessary (cannot cease to exist, it is its own reason for its own existence, etc)

            Then we may be using ‘necessary’ differently. The parenthetical expressions you list don’t mean exactly the same thing as ‘necessary’ to me.

            By ‘x is necessary at time t‘ I mean ‘it is impossible for x not to exist at t.’ (I guess we could call this ‘strict metaphysical necessity’ or ‘SMN.’) Saying that a being has SMN doesn’t commit me to saying that the being is unsurpassable, does it? Many philosophers think various universals (properties, relations, propositions, numbers, maybe merely possible worlds) are de re metaphysically necessary, indeed in the SMN sense, but those things don’t seem to be infinite or unsurpassable.

            Last, and on that subject, I think numbers are objectively existing things. Even if no minds ever existed, it would still be true (right?) that there are eight planets in the solar system, and that three is prime.

          • Ray

            Sam says:

            “theists already see God as having a higher-level view of Good than we do, seeing value in suffering and pain in this world.”

            “What we perceive in a negative light, suffering and misfortune, are cosmically good, and the Evil God is right to pursue them.”

            “Actually, the Aristotelian terminology is that which is based on common usage”

            I call BS.

            Oh, and Tom, you’re absolutely right about epistemic necessity vs logical necessity. Until these sophists run Aquinas through a proof checker and get a positive result, empirical evidence is all we have to go on.

          • Sam Urfer

            You are confused. The middle quote is the Evil God believer, making a perfectly credible statement of Evil God anti-Theodicy.

            The first quote was not worded perfectly. The point I was going for was that if “good” and “evil” are going to be used *as you define them*, in a banal immediate-felt-need sense, then frankly God is not a cosmic sugar-daddy. Omnibenevolence does not mean everyone getting their way all the time, particularly if cancer or premature death might be better overall. Similarly, Evil-God is not bound by limited perceptions of what “goods” are necessary to maximize suffering (it being understood that in reality, what are perceived “goods” to non-Evil God devotees are in fact evils, while perceived “evils” are perfections in Meta-Evil-Physics).

            The understanding of “Good” as a perfection, and evil as a privation, were indeed derived by the philosophers from everyday usage of the terms, thought through rationally. Read some Plato sometime, it’s good for digestion.

          • Sam Urfer

            You all also realize, of course, that entire religions have actually been devoted to belief in an Evil-God, Right?

    • Daniel A. Duran

      To Patrick:

      “There’s nothing wrong with gathering evidence for or against a proposition before establishing whether the proposition is coherent. The proposition isn’t being used as a premise, so its incoherence isn’t a problem.”

      Patrick, what in heaven’s name are you reading?

      Stephen Law is not tentatively “gathering evidence for or against a proposition before establishing whether the proposition is coherent.” Law is unambiguously stating that empirical evidence is valid against an impossibility:

      “Assume an evil God is conceptually impossible. Nevertheless, there might also be powerful empirical evidence against an evil God…”

      In other words if something is impossible (evil god, good god, married bachelors, 2+2=5, the principle of identity, etc,) then there can be empirical evidence against it.

      I’ll leave to you guys whether it makes sense to say that empirical observation can increase or decrease the like-hood of a logical impossibility.

      • Patrick

        “I’ll leave to you guys whether it makes sense to say that empirical observation can increase or decrease the like-hood of a logical impossibility.”

        That’s not how probability based epistemology works., though I can see how you made the mistake. The fact that the prior probability of a hypothesis is zero does not mean that there can never be evidence against it. There can be multiple reasons why a proposition is false.

        If nothing else, maybe an idea is logically impossible for two independent reasons!

        • Daniel A. Duran

          “That’s not how probability based epistemology works., though I can see how you made the mistake.”

          What mistake? Read, what I wrote “*I’ll leave to you guys* whether it makes sense to say that empirical observation can increase or decrease the like-hood of a logical impossibility.” if you pay attention you will notice I did not commit myself to one position or another.

          Leah said that a perfect God cannot be evil (or as she says “god had perfect knowledge of the Good”). What does Law say to Miss Libresco? He says that evil god and good god might be equally impossible because of the evidence at hand. This is a non-sequitur; isn’t Miss Libresco’s point precisely that one notion of god is possible and the other is not? No, his reply is not good or valid despite of what you said.

          • Alex

            “He says that evil god and good god might be equally impossible because of the evidence at hand”

            That’s not what he’s arguing. He’s arguing that if the existence of good is evidence against a hypothetical evil god then the existence of evil is evidence against the existence of a good god. You may deny the first premise as William Craig has done and end this debate, but simply stating that an evil god is incoherent doesn’t address the argument. You need more than that (as per my earlier post, the supposed impossibility of an evil god is part of Craig’s counter-argument but it’s not the whole story).

            Also I think it quite rude to end your post with – I am right despite what you said -without engaging with any of the points made. It sends the message that you aren’t open to honest discussion. (Not that I am accusing you of that).

  • lavalamp

    I think it’s at least symmetric. It’s not like we’re certain that a “good god” is coherent.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    “Law is assuming that a god’s benevolence is logically separable from omnipotence and omniscience. Law essentially assumes that God’s goodness is the equivalent of Euclid’s fifth postulate. He can sub in something else without a contradiction. I’m not so sure.”

    What if Law assumes that, instead of omniscience and omnipotence being logically entwined with benevolence, those two qualities were logically intertwined with malevolence? Could you re-map the arguments that connect omni-science/potence with benevolence to an argument that connects omni-science/potence with malevolence?

  • Ben L

    I think you’ve also applied our standards of good and evil on god without enough justification – maybe you are drawing on a lot of theology you are familiar with that I’m not. It seems to me omniscience and morality are separate. Moral harm is subjective, maybe “evil” god has some reason to favor things we think are evil – moral law isn’t like physics, or geometry. The analogy doesn’t follow unless you believe in objective good and evil, which is often justified with god as the source. Why couldn’t you (logically) have a god as an objective source of good and evil, but the god be evil (from our perspective)?

    • leahlibresco

      I do think moral law is objective, like math.

      If you talk about a god as the objective source of good and evil whose rulings look like evil to us, you’re into Divine Command Theory. I don’t truck with that system, but in it, there’s no way to distinguish Evil God from the standard model.

      • lavalamp

        “I do think moral law is objective, like math.”

        I think you can construct most or all of the correct parts of human morality from something like “I should seek pleasure and avoid pain” and game theory. But I don’t think “I should seek pleasure and avoid pain” can be derived from game theory, that’s just our preference.

        I don’t see why omniscience or omnipotence should cause force a diety to share that preference for us. “I should seek pleasure and avoid pain” is an “ought” statement, and you can’t get there from an “is” (omniscience/omnipotence).

        • Daniel A. Duran

          “I don’t see why omniscience or omnipotence should cause force a diety to share that preference for us. “I should seek pleasure and avoid pain” is an “ought” statement, and you can’t get there from an “is” (omniscience/omnipotence).”

          A person might say that your distinction begs the question against moral realists and the moral realist will proceed to say that there’s no is-ought distinction and that the former entails the latter. You’re better off saying that God has no obligation towards creatures.

          • lavalamp

            I think that value statements are different from the morality you can build from them. Game theory can’t do any work until you tell it what the various agents are trying to do; it can tell you the optimal way to accomplish your goals, but it can’t tell you what your goals should be. There’s no reason all sufficiently powerful entities should converge to the same set of goals. (see: http://lesswrong.com/lw/rn/no_universally_compelling_arguments/)

            I realize that might just sound like a restatement of the bit you think is begging the question. I could give a more detailed argument if I knew what the objections to this position were…

        • Daniel A. Duran

          I am short on time and this is a big topic. You might want to read this article by catholic convert (well, I think he is Catholic) David Oderberg as he explains better than me the problems behind the fact value dichotomy. ;-)

          http://payingattentiontothesky.com/2011/02/04/the-fact-value-distinction-by-david-oderberg/

          • lavalamp

            I don’t buy those problems, because I think moral facts are facts (derivable via game theory) about human-human systems, given the desires of those humans. Richard Carrier probably says it better: http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2011/03/moral-ontology.html

            I think moralities are objective (because game theory) but different for different beings (because values are not necessarily shared), which seems to make me some sort of hybrid moral realist. That’s ok, I don’t care about the label that much.

      • Daniel A. Duran

        Leah, I don’t follow… what’s the standard model?

      • leahlibresco

        Daniel, by ‘standard model’ I meant the Judeo-Christian God Law is trying to debunk

        • Daniel A. Duran

          Oh, now i get it. ;-)

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

    I think the connection being made should be between existence and goodness, not omni-whatever and goodness. Existence is good. God is existence, being-itself, “I AM.” Therefore God is good. Attack either premise you like. If you want to redefine existence as evil you can, but that’s seems kinda dumb because then your moral imperative becomes to destroy things, and for a God that would mean wiping out the universe and itself. Game over, nothing to talk about. Evil-God therefore makes no sense. Evil, as a privation, makes Evil-God nothingness itself. In other words it would not and could not exist. Even the devils are good insofar as they have existence.

    • anodognosic

      Baldly unproven assertions: existence is good, evil is privation.

      So meaningless it’s not even wrong: God is being-itself.

      • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

        Enroll yourself in remedial metaphysics. Please.

        • Patrick

          Internally consistent metaphysics are not the same as evidentially supported positions. Stephen Law has a book on that, ironically.

          • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

            That’s exactly my point. Thank you for agreeing with me.

  • Touchstone

    The omnipotent being doesn’t have to be “evil” in a “transgresses the moral law” sense for Law’s argument to work. The being can simply be “evil” in a “wants things dramatically contrary to our most basic moral intuitions,[1] which don’t map on to the real moral law” sense. The omnipotent being can define the Good and we can just be horribly, horribly wrong about what the good is. That is, maybe omnibenevolence implies wanting mass murder.

    The problem of theodicy Law is identifying is that we people tend to believe in two things that are in tension: a deity that is omniscient, omnipotent, and defines the Good through its nature and a deity that conforms to our human notions of what the Good is.

    [1] e.g. mass murder, senseless death of innocent children, etc. Obviously, some religious people think God wants things that are contrary to some of their moral intuitions, and try to override those intuitions. But very few people believe in a God who actively advocates the slaughter of innocent children.

    • keddaw

      “But very few people believe in a God who actively advocates the slaughter of innocent children.”

      Do you people ever read the Bible?

      Elisha? The prophet turned and saw them, and he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two shebears came out of the woods and tore forty two of the children to pieces. – 2 Kings 2:23-24

      Noah’s Flood? (i.e. every child alive, apart from Noah’s).

      …And if they give birth, I will slaughter their beloved children. – Hosea 9:11-16

      Sodom and Gomorrah?

      Then I heard the LORD say to the other men, “Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all – old and young, girls and women and little children.” – Ezekiel 9:5-7

      “This is what the LORD says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.’ ” — Exodus 11:4–6

      If even then you remain hostile toward me and refuse to obey, I will inflict you with seven more disasters for your sins. I will release wild animals that will kill your children and destroy your cattle, so your numbers will dwindle and your roads will be deserted. – Leviticus 26:21-22

      Their little children will be dashed to death right before their eyes. …They will have no mercy on helpless babies and will show no compassion for the children. – Isaiah 13:15-18

      You want to try that “very few people” thing again?

      • http://last-conformer.net Gilbert

        I’m a little confused whom “you people” is supposed to refer to here.

        • keddaw

          It refers to people who make claims such as: “very few people believe in a God who actively advocates the slaughter of innocent children” yet are aware that vast swathes of America believe very deeply in the Bible and the God thereof.

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    Though Brian Greed above does not make this point explicitly, I think that what he says is an example of it: good and evil may not be symmetrical. Therefore flipping them–even flipping the fairly simple arguments given–may not work.

    I’m using “may” deliberately here. I haven’t thought this through yet. But this is the first place from which I’d develop an objection.

    The other thought I’d have is that this requires that we’d be able to recognize good and evil reliably. Since I think my moral compass is, you know, pretty much right on, it shouldn’t be a problem for /me/ [note: irony], but I’m not convinced that this is something I’d advocate as a general heuristic. As much as I think there’s an objection morality out there somewhere, I’m not sure how accessible it is.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      Sorry, Brian Green. Brian Greed is a pretty awesome comic book villain name, though.

      • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

        Hmm, why do I suddenly feel like I need more money? :)

        I agree with your point, by the way. Good and evil are not symmetrical. Catholic (and most Christian as far as I know) theology is non-dualistic on good and evil. Evil does not have its own existence, it is parasitic on the good.

  • http://www.realphilosophers.org Tom

    I think this is a very interesting topic.

    If you had perfect knowledge of the gravity of your choices and the harm you were doing, how could it be possible to freely choose evil.

    This claim points us to a certain debate about moral motivation. There are many ‘internalisms’ and ‘externalisms’ in metaethics and moral psychology, but one such pair is this:

    Internalism: Moral facts are sufficient reasons to act.
    Externalism: Moral facts are insufficient reasons to act.

    Internalism is called such because the motivation is “internal” to the fact; the fact itself is a motivation. (Why should I be good? Because that’s what goodness is.) Externalism says ‘no; you need something else to give you a reason.’

    I think this internalism is clearly correct. If something is a moral obligation, there’s no further question about why you should act that way. If so, then it might follow from omniscience that a being would have the motivation to act according to its moral obligations.

    Nevertheless, such a being might be irrational, or suffer from akrasia (weakness of will), and so fail to act according to its moral motivations, even though it has a pro tanto desire to. If so, it might even fail spectacularly, consistently committing evil even though it knows that it ought to do what is right. And after all, we are familiar with many people who commit a wrong while thinking to themselves, ‘I really shouldn’t do this, but …’ So I’m not yet convinced that an omniscient being would be morally perfect.

    You might respond that the being’s omnipotence would allow it to overcome its akrasia or irrationality. But if it really were akratic or irrational, it might have an undefeated desire to remain morally imperfect, and so would never form the motivation to change.

    Moreover, I think we can describe a being that had 100% control over contingent states of affairs in the physical universe, and 100% knowledge of contingent states of affairs in the physical universe, and was perfectly evil. And then we can pose the original problem. What evidence is there, if any, against the existence of such a being? Even if we thought the being was impossible (and I don’t think this one is), we can still ask whether there is empirical evidence against such a being. (There could be empirical evidence against impossibilities. I think square non-squares are impossible, and I think there’s also a lot of empirical evidence for that.)

    So the epistemological point seems to stand. If there’s no empirical evidence against such a being, that’s surprising. But if there is, why isn’t there similar empirical evidence against the Anselmian (omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect) God?

    • anodognosic

      “If something is a moral obligation, there’s no further question about why you should act that way.”

      Way to define yourself out of a thorny problem.

      So aliens from a distant planet, the Mantodeans, make contact with Earth. They are perfectly rational beings, have an advanced scientific society, mostly peaceful, and in a lot of ways are a lot like us. They have a complex moral system. But we learn that a central tenet of their moral system is that the females rip out the still-beating hearts of males after copulation. This seems to be deeply ingrained, present in every Mantodean society, likely a result of particular selection pressures in their evolution. The practice is universally celebrated, except for perhaps a tiny minority, at most 2%, who are considered morally deficient individuals for their beliefs. The males submit to it willingly, and die with the satisfaction of knowing that they have fulfilled the greatest good that a Mantodean is called upon to do. Upon finding out, you are reasonably outraged, and you decide that you absolutely must convince them that this practice is morally abhorrent. Go.

      • http://www.realphilosophers.org Tom

        anodognosic,

        I’m not sure we’re addressing exactly the same problem here.

        It might be impossible for any number of reasons to convince rational people that they are acting impermissibly. Maybe they suffer from akrasia; maybe they have prudential reasons that psychologically outweigh their moral reasons; and so on.

        My position is that if there are such things as moral obligations, then knowing that something is a moral obligation is enough to give you a reason to obey that obligation.

        If these aliens really believe that it’s wrong to do something, then (I claim) there’s no question for them of why or for what reason they shouldn’t engage in that behavior. To say something is wrong just is to say that you have a moral reason not to engage in it.

        Why should I not act wrongly? Because that’s just what wrongness is: the presence of a moral reason not to act that way. If there are moral obligations, then an omniscient being would have reason not to act impermissibly. But as I mentioned in my original comment, such a being might not have an undefeated reason not to act impermissibly; its moral reasons might be defeated by akrasia, outweighing prudential reasons, irrationality, and so on. And if the being is the sort I describe, one that has 100% knowledge but only of contingent physical facts, then it might also simply not know what its moral obligations are.

      • leahlibresco

        Anodognosic (and anyone else if they haven’t read it), may I recommend Yudkowsky’s short story Three Worlds Collide?

        • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

          I read it a while back on your recommendation (thanks) and found it to be not so ethically problematic from a natural law perspective. The other aliens are living as they are made to live, properly fulfilling their functions. The problem is in trying to improperly apply teleologies across species lines. Human notions of flourishing do not translate to the other two, nor the other two to each others or humans. Yudkowsky seemed to think it a lot more complicated than that. What do you think is the lesson from the story?

  • deiseach

    “And if that empirical evidence is sufficient to rule an evil God out beyond reasonable doubt …why then isn’t the evil we see sufficient to rule a good god out beyond reasonable doubt”

    So is he saying here that there is too much good to believe in an Evil God but also too much evil to believe in a Good God? So how much is too much? Is it like saying there is too much water to call Earth, well, “Earth” but too much land to call it “Ocean”? I can see how if you believed in a system something like Michael Moorcock’s Law and Chaos in his “Eternal Champion” stories, then the idea of the Cosmic Balance which is a force of neutrality over and above the equal and warring forces would be appealing, the eternal interplay of yin and yang, but even Gnosticism in its multifarious forms has some notion of a higher and more distant deity above the Yahweh/Sophia or Ahura Mazda/Angra Mainyu duality. It certainly is appealing to say that entropy and order balance one another well enough that no deity need apply, but we do know that entropy is increasing and will ‘win’ in the end, so maybe Evil God is really out there and just awaiting his inevitable triumph.

    Mainstream Christianity holds that God and the Devil are not equals and rivals; the counterpart of Satan is Michael, not God. So that still leaves the problem of evil for monotheists to grapple with.

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    Wait, I just noticed: we’ve gone right to those being unsatisfying answers to the Problem of Good. But why do we say that? I’m not sure they are. If I was attacking Evil God-ism, I wouldn’t do it on reverse-theodicy grounds anyway. The Problem of Good seems to me to be easily answerable: all of this good is just a ploy to make us trust enough in the universe that we will be collectively weak enough for the Final Reaping to be the most painful reaping possible. (Source: http://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0448.html)

    • leahlibresco

      Love OotS. Do you read Gunnerkrigg Court, Christian? It’s excellent.

      • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

        Indeed. I picked it from here.

  • Daniel A. Duran

    The “evil god challenge” is a bad argument as it makes several questionable claims:
    1-It assumes the notion of a perfect and morally evil god is coherent.
    2-it assumes God’s goodness and badness is identical to moral good and moral badness.
    3-it assumes that the existence of god is a matter of probability.

    Law has been rebutted many times for using this argument but he is too personally invested in it (it is his ‘baby’) and won’t stop using it. Read Feser’s post and the comment section to get an idea of what I mean: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/11/crickets-still-chirping.html#more

  • David

    And this post is a perfect example of why no one thinks Leah is very likely to remain an atheist.

    • Touchstone

      I think Leah is quite likely to remain an atheist.

      The ability to recognize potential flaws or weaknesses in the argument from evil is no more a sign that one is abandoning atheism than the ability to recognize potential flaws or weaknesses in the argument from fine tuning is a a sign that one is abandoning Christianity.

  • Roz

    I’m not a philosopher. In fact, some of the posts above make my hair hurt.

    Intuitively, however, one of the strongest arguments against Evil God is this:

    Presume this god made the universe in a way that would please him – ergo congruent with his evil nature.

    Infer, then, that humankind would also be made in the mold of what would please an all powerful being who was purely evil. (If he’s not all powerful, then the theory bleeds out – you’re not really talking about something that can defined as God.)

    What, then, could be the explanation of the fact that among the yearnings we experience are longings for love, friendship, well-being, relationships, beauty, peace — but not (at least in people who haven’t had to adapt to grievous harm in their pasts) to become a more damaging betrayer, to find new and more effective ways to insult, hurt, harm, kill or destroy. We’re capable of these things, but we don’t aspire to them as if they were an achievement. We are naturally inclined toward good, even if we pick a dysfunctional way to achieve it.

    Is there any construct under which such a creation of a wholly evil creator is a rational expectation?

    • Alex

      You’re assuming an awful lot about what an Evil God would want. The same sort of assumptions that atheists often make about what the God of the Bible should have wrote down or done. I don’t think that these sorts of assumptions are justified however I would refer to Touchstone’s post for a more direct treatment of the issue of what an Evil god would be like, but all of this is tangential to the actual argument.

      • Daniel A. Duran

        “That’s not what he’s arguing.”

        It is one of the things he’s arguing for, read the yellow box in Leah’s main post.

        “but simply stating that an evil god is incoherent doesn’t address the argument.”

        I love how you assert that we do not address the argument without telling us what we’re missing, I don’t think you can get more vague than that. I hope you won’t mind if I dismiss what you wrote as a mere bluff on your part. ;-)

        “Also I think it quite rude to end your post with – I am right despite what you said -without engaging with any of the points made. It sends the message that you aren’t open to honest discussion.”

        It is false of you to say that I have not addressed the argument. Read all my posts and you will find different arguments against law’s evil god challenge in particular and evidential arguments from evil in general.

        Please don’t make up false information about me, thanks.

        P.S. before you call someone rude and then say that he seems dishonest you might want to take a long hard look at the mirror, just a tip.

  • Ray

    I think it’s ironic, given how you used them, that your two examples from math are equivalent (given Euclid’s other axioms): i.e. the Pythagorean theorem and Euclid’s fifth postulate.

  • Daniel A. Duran

    Leah, there are several reasons as to why the evil god challenge fails and since people keep missing them I will point them out.

    1-God is not a moral agent. Having a good car does not mean the car can be morally good or bad. A newborn baby can be well behaved or not but he cannot be morally virtuous or evil. Too many atheists and neo-theists think God is like another person that has obligations and duties towards other people. God is not like that. If there’s one thing the bible emphasizes over and over is that god owes nothing to creatures. Granted, God is good and benevolent insofar that he gives people rewards that they are not entitled to have and god is good in that he cannot commit evil. When Law says that there’s evidence against a good God, he’s assuming god is a moral agent like another person down the street with obligations and duties; this sort of anthropomorphism is flat out wrong.

    2-God is a necessary being. You cannot marshal evidence in favor of the existence of married bachelors or provide evidence against the proposition 2+2=4. If a person named Bobby came up to you and said “I have new evidence in favor of the hypothesis that an octagon has ten sides,” you would say that Bobby is confused or has no clue of what he’s talking about. Bobby is like Law and all too many atheists in that regard: if God exists, he necessarily exists and if he does not exist he is impossible. Law’s argument and all evidential arguments against God are irrelevant to this conception of God. Law’s argument would have some bite if God were contingent, but very few theists would say that God is a contingent being.

    3-Evil god is impossible. Since evil has no physical nature and is an imperfection and since good is convertible with being, then the notion of an evil God is incoherent. There can be a good God but there cannot be an evil god. Since many people like Edward Feser have flogged this horse almost to dead I will not further elaborate on it.

    • Patrick

      1. Your first objection is wrong for two reasons. First, the problem of evil applies as long as God is hypothesized to have certain desires. It doesn’t matter if God has a moral obligation to do certain things, just that God has a desire to do those things. To analogize, imagine that I propose the Problem of South Park. Ted claims that Jim loves to watch South Park. I respond by saying, “Jim knows when South Park is on, has a television that gets it, and has free time when its airing. I can’t think of any reason why he wouldn’t watch South Park if he wanted to. But he never does. This is evidence that Jim doesn’t actually love watching South Park.” Nothing in that argument requires that Jim have an obligation to watch South Park. Its just an inference about Jim’s mental state regarding South Park, based on the evidence from his behavior.

      Second, the evil god challenge is about a specific list of theodicies. If your belief system doesn’t engage in theodicies, then it is as irrelevant to you as an attack on the validity of Mormonism is irrelevant to a Muslim. If your concept of God’s “goodness” is such that it predicts nothing about God’s behavior, then the problem of evil itself isn’t relevant to your belief system, and you’ve got no reason to even worry about Law’s argument. Instead of getting up in everyone’s face about it, just say, “Oh, my belief’s about God don’t predict anything about God’s behavior, so I guess this conversation doesn’t involve me.”

      2. The idea of a necessary being is probably incoherent. We have plausible explanations for how and why statements like “2+2=4″ are necessary. Their truth exists in the form of the relationships between the ideas involved. Given the definitions used of 2, +, =, and 4, “2+2=4″ can’t be false. No similar account exists for how a being could possibly be necessary. And before you bring it up, the medieval Christian philosophers were not referring to modal necessity. They were beginning with a set of premises about the world, and reasoning that a God was necessary to explain them.

      3. Feser’s point is irrelevant on at least two different levels. First, it doesn’t address the relationship between evidence and theodicies that Law is addressing, so Law’s argument can stand even if Feser is right. The argument is about what evidential weight we’d give to certain arguments from a believer in an evil god with an argument. Feser seems to think that instead its an argument where he’s supposed to shadow box with an imaginary believer in an evil god. Its not.

      Second, Law explicitly hypothesizes a theist with a belief system very different from Feser’s. It isn’t enough for Feser to just proclaim that according to his metaphysics, the other theist’s metaphysics aren’t true. We already knew that. That was built right into the hypothetical.

      • Daniel A. Duran

        “the problem of evil applies as long as God is hypothesized to have certain desires. It doesn’t matter if God has a moral obligation to do certain things, just that God has a desire to do those things.”

        Why should we go with your assumption that God has desires that push him to do this action or that action? If god is driven to act in any given way, then God is not free, period. Most theists will reject your assumption outright since they believe god is absolutely free. Furthermore, a reason as to why God is not a moral agent is precisely because he’s free. If God has duties outside himself, then
        he’s not free.

        “the evil god challenge is about a specific list of theodicies.”

        In case you missed the memo, the *evil*(as in morally bad) god challenge is the counter part of the *good* (as in morally good)God. It is also about a specific assumption or conception of God.

        “If your concept of God’s “goodness” is such that it predicts nothing about God’s behavior.”

        Apparently you did not make it to the part where I say that god cannot do evil or that good things come from his benevolence.

        “instead of getting up in everyone’s face about it, just say, “Oh, my belief’s about God don’t predict anything about God’s behavior, so I guess this conversation doesn’t involve me.”

        I find it curious that you feel that “I’m getting on your face.” If your sensitive nature feels violated by anything I say you can skip my posts and watch South Park instead.

        “No similar account exists for how a being could possibly be necessary. And before you bring it up, the medieval Christian philosophers were not referring to modal necessity.”

        How odd, I have books where the necessity (or impossibility!) of God is defended with great detail. And also I thought that modal logic began in the Middle Ages…hmm.

        Well, isn’t your lucky day today?

        Last night I was reading a modal argument for the existence of a necessary being from the early 14th century.

        http://www.ewtn.com/library/theology/godasfir.htm

        So apparently there are explanations on the necessity of god and even there are modal arguments for a necessary being written in the Middle Ages. No need to thank me.

        “First, it doesn’t address the relationship between evidence and theodicies that Law is addressing, so Law’s argument can stand even if Feser is right. The argument is about what evidential weight we’d give to certain arguments from a believer in an evil god with an argument.”

        If you ignore the points I made previously , yes, it might be the case that some conceptions of God are vulnerable to the evil God challenge . And *if* the argument shows that evil god is as likely as a good god, then the conclusion Law seeks will follow. But what does that conclusion amount to? Not very much, I am afraid: “we’ve no good reason to think god is good rather than evil.”
        My five year old niece came up with a better argument, “I don’t think God exists since he made bees.”
        “What’s wrong with bees, sweetie?”
        “Well, they sometime sting other kids and that’s not nice.”
        Perhaps in his next debate William lane Craig will accept the challenge of a real heavy weigh like my diminutive niece and let people like Law learn a thing or two.

        “Second, Law explicitly hypothesizes a theist with a belief system very different from Feser’s.”

        Stephen Law disagrees with you. If you bothered to read his paper you would know that it aims to the “central claim classical of monotheism.” And he has also said that the metaphysics of people like Feser and other classical theists are vulnerable to his evil God challenge. http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/10/laws-evil-god-challenge.html

        • Patrick

          “Stephen Law disagrees with you. If you bothered to read his paper you would know that it aims to the “central claim classical of monotheism.” And he has also said that the metaphysics of people like Feser and other classical theists are vulnerable to his evil God challenge. ”

          The theist I was referring to was the believer in the evil god, who obviously has a different metaphysics than the believer in a good god. I’m sorry for not being more clear; that was probably my fault as there are two theists in Law’s argument, the believer in the good God, and the believer in the evil God.

          I’ll just drop the rest, as I feel that my points as they stand look adequate even with your attempted refutation.

    • http://www.realphilosophers.org Tom

      Daniel,

      I’m glad to see some explicit criticisms of this ‘evil God challenge.’ I’ll try to respond, I take it on Law’s behalf.

      (1) St. Anselm believed that God is conceptually maximally great. We tend to think that moral goodness is a great-making feature. Therefore, Anselm’s God is also maximally morally good. (A maximally great being would be great in all the ways it’s possible to be great.) So it looks as if you believe in a different God than Anselm’s God, indeed that you believe in a conceptually suboptimal kind of God. Is that correct?

      (2) I’ve actually never encountered this sort of objection before. Do you think that it’s impossible to have empirical evidence for or against the existence of a non-contingent being, or for or against the truth of a non-contingent truth? Why do you think that?

      I can certainly imagine someone having evidence for impossibilities. Suppose a mathematics professor tells you that 6,332 x 8,002 = 50,685,264. Don’t you thereby acquire evidence that 6,332 x 8,002 = 50,685,264, even though that proposition cannot possibly be true?

      Or suppose I tell you that necessarily, all squares are circular. Isn’t there lots of empirical evidence against that claim? Suppose I tell you that all squares have four sides. Isn’t there lots of empirical evidence for that claim?

      (3) I don’t understand this passage:

      Since evil has no physical nature and is an imperfection and since good is convertible with being, then the notion of an evil God is incoherent.

      In particular, I don’t understand what “good is convertible with being” means and I don’t understand how the premises are supposed to imply the conclusion.

      • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

        I think (2) is a bit overstated, but it can be weakened to “probabilistic arguments on things already known to be necessarily true or known to be necessarily false are never convincing, so arguments on their relative strength are always irrelevant.” That is both true and dispositive of Law’s argument.

        As for (1) and (3) both St. Anselm and Daniel A. Duran talk in a language different from yours. Gyula Klima’s Grammar of “God” and “Being”[pdf] is a good introduction to the that language. If you already get what I mean by “speaking a different language” you can probably get away with only reading sections 6&7. Then you can read St. Thomas explaining the convertability of good and being, an explanation that, by the way, would sound like total gibberish in your language.

        I do understand that assigning you ~15 pages of reading in response to a blog comment sounds like a cop-out. You are certainly under no obligation to do that reading. But on the other hand it might be worth it. You’d gain a more general tool, because many of us Catholic nerds talk in that language all the time and so did all medieval Catholic nerds.

        • http://www.realphilosophers.org Tom

          Gilbert,

          Thanks for your comments. I’m happy to pick up some theological knowledge.

          (2): If we already know something to be necessarily true or impossible, then certainly we won’t bother with probabilistic arguments, but on that assumption, we wouldn’t bother even with deductive arguments, would we? If the conclusion of the argument is C, then if we already knew that not-C, we would eo ipso know that the argument for C was unsound, right?

          Now, I haven’t yet seen how the theist already knows (in that strong sense) that God is a necessary (and therefore actual) being, or that Evil God is an impossible being. For example, the version of Evil God I suggested is quite modest:

          Evil God: a being with 100% control over, and knowledge of, contingent physical states of affairs, but one who is wholly evil.

          Surely we don’t yet know whether that being exists, unless we already know that God exists, right? (And that’s (in perhaps a roundabout way) what the ‘Evil God’ challenge is really supposed to inform us about.) So arguing that God exists, so Evil God is impossible, does seem to beg the question. (The Thomistic challenge seems irrelevant to this God.)

          All this aside, I can see how the question of empirical evidence for or against necessities can still teach us something about epistemology, and isn’t that what Law’s original point is about? Thinking about Evil God helps us get our epistemology straight, and the idea is that in turn, this epistemology will bode poorly for various theodicies and skeptical defenses against the Problem of Evil.

          As for (1) and (3), I guess I don’t understand the Thomistic claim that “everything is perfect so far as it is actual” (I.1.A). And the passage on Anselm in the article you linked doesn’t seem to contradict my understanding of Anselmian “greatness.” And finally, if Anselmian greatness is less great-making than the kind of greatness I’m thinking about, then surely Anselm’s God will have the latter, right?

      • Daniel A. Duran

        A lot of people (most people?) will reject this argument out of hand since they don’t believe in ontological arguments.

        But even if we concede that we can know what constitutes a pure perfection on purely aprioristic grounds, you haven’t established that moral obligation is compossible with infinite being. As it turns out, there are good reasons to reject the notion that being subject to censure and praise is a perfection. Here’s one example; do you think freedom is perfection in an infinite being? If yes, then having obligation and duties toward us is incompatible with God being free. God being Free and having obligations is a contradictory pair of propositions.

        “So it looks as if you believe in a different God than Anselm’s God…”

        I don’t believe in “Anselm’s god”? How curious, Anselm of Canterbury said that God “is not debtor,” in other words, God is not a moral agent or that he owe us anything. So apparently St. Anselm does not believe in “Anselm’s god” either! ;-)

        But we all know that “Anselm’s God” really stands for “Tom’s God.” You’re the one that believes in a different God than Anselm’s God.

        “Do you think that it’s impossible to have empirical evidence for or against the existence of a non-contingent being, or for or against the truth of a non-contingent truth? Why do you think that?”

        This is like the fourth time we go over this. I’ll let you answer this one now. What evidence will increase the probability of there being married bachelors? What evidence will decrease the probability of a triangle having three sides?

        “Or suppose I tell you that necessarily, all squares are circular. Isn’t there lots of empirical evidence against that claim?”

        what evidence will increase the probability of a square-circles having three sides?

        “Suppose I tell you that all squares have four sides. Isn’t there lots of empirical evidence for that claim?”

        What evidence will decrease the probability of a square having four sides?

        “In particular, I don’t understand what “good is convertible with being” means and I don’t understand how the premises are supposed to imply the conclusion.”

        Traditional theists will say that evil is not a thing. When you say this thing or that thing is evil, you’re not describing a physical thing. Falling into a hole might be bad, but a hole is not a thing. Going blind might be evil but is not a thing. Evil is the privation of some being. And anything that exists is good or can be conceived as being good. When someone tells you being is convertible with good they are saying that some being can be conceived as being good or is conceptually good. And since evil cannot physically exist, there cannot be an evil God.

        I don’t like talking about privation theory since people have trouble grasping it it, but the above is the gist of it. you can go to those sites Gilbert is mentioning to learn more about it.

        • http://www.realphilosophers.org Tom

          Daniel,

          Re ontological arguments, I haven’t found a sound one yet, but I don’t mean to rule out a priori the possibility that any might be sound.

          Re God’s moral obligations, it seems to me perfectly consistent to say that God is subject to supererogations. He may not be obligated to do anything in particular, but He might also be praiseworthy for acting according to commonsense moral reasons. Anselm himself thought that we could be justified in believing in instances of the schema, ‘Suppose God did not have [property] F. Then we could imagine a greater being, one with F.’ God seems to me greater if He satisfies commonsense supererogations, such as the supererogation to reduce pointless suffering and premature death in the world.

          Re evidence and necessities, just to be clear, I think we’re talking about epistemic probability here. Evidence itself rarely decreases a priori or frequency probability.

          Now, if we already have a huge amount of evidence against the existence of something–here, married bachelors–then it’s difficult to imagine evidence for the existence of those things, yes. If we already had a huge amount of evidence for God’s existence, that in itself would be evidence that evidential arguments from evil are weak. (If there’s lots of evidence for God’s existence, then as William Rowe points out, we can present a G. E. Moore shift against evidential arguments from evil.)

          On the other hand, if we don’t start out with solid evidence either way, then we could have evidence for impossibilities. As I mentioned, if a mathematics professor tells you that 6,332 x 8,002 = 50,685,264, don’t you thereby acquire evidence that 6,332 x 8,002 = 50,685,264, even though that proposition cannot possibly be true?

          Of course ‘God exists’ and ‘there are no married bachelors’ are very different. You’re right that they’re similar in that they’re necessarily true if true at all. But the evidence we have for the latter seems much, much better than the evidence for the former. It might be helpful to put the point this way: Perhaps we can’t have probabilistic evidence against epistemic necessities, but we can surely have probabilistic evidence against metaphysical necessities.

          Re evil, for the last several decades (at least since 1979, and probably before), discussions of the Problem of Evil have taken ‘evil’ to refer at least in part to descriptively defined states of affairs: intense suffering and premature death. We can also conjoin descriptively defined moral evil: human actions that violate widely accepted moral norms. Those three things–intense suffering, premature death, and actions that violate widely accepted moral norms–are definitely “things.” And as I mentioned, we tend to expect at least a supererogation to reduce or eliminate those things. A maximally great being (such as Anselm’s God) would maximally satisfy its supererogations.

          • Daniel A. Duran

            “Re ontological arguments, I haven’t found a sound one yet, but I don’t mean to rule out a priori the possibility that any might be sound.”

            let’s stop here for a second.

            Why are you using arguments you don’t believe are sound? Please don’t tell me that they might turn to be valid, lots and lots of arguments can turn out to be sound and valid. Are you debating for the sake of debating or are you trying to get to the truth of things? Are you trying to score “debating points” as if this were a game?

            Do you realize that there are people that have jobs and work to do and they are taking time from their work in order, like a good Samaritan, to try to answer what they take to be your sincerely held convictions?
            And then your turn around and say “ha, ha, fool ya! I don’t believe in the argument I gave you to begin with !”

            look, kid. There’s such a thing as grown ups being busy and by “busy” I am not talking of playing Play station or Xbox and other thing you might have in mind. So I suggest you to get somebody of your degree of maturity, and is not serious about this and play with him instead,OK?

          • Daniel A. Duran

            Apologies if I sound intemperate or rude, I am extremely busy this week and don’t like it when people throw arguments without any commitment on their part and just for the sake of the argument. And since you’re not rude or mocking people I’ll try to address what you said.
            Just need some time until I am less busy.

          • http://www.realphilosophers.org Tom

            Daniel,

            I haven’t employed any ontological arguments for the existence of any kind of god. At least, I haven’t employed any arguments that philosophers call ‘ontological arguments,’ arguments according to which the very nature or essence or definition of God or of existence is enough to justify belief in God.

          • Parmandur

            “intense suffering, premature death, and actions that violate widely accepted moral norms–are definitely ‘things.’”

            No, they are not things at all. That is the point: suffering is the privation of comfort, premature death is the privation of mature death (or life for that matter), and actions that violate norms are in privation of conforming to the norms. The word “evil” means “lack of good,” in these cases specific goods.

          • Ray

            comfort is the privation of suffering, life is the privation of death, and actions that conform to moral norms are in privation of freedom from the norms.

            Seems just as plausible. Heck the last one almost sounds good.

          • Sam Urfer

            *sigh*

            Thank you for missing the point. The word “evil” means a lack, of something not being there that ought to be there. It is not a force. Evil > Good as Dark > Light, or Cold > Heat. Cold is not a *thing*, it is a privation of a thing, namely heat. Darkness is not a *thing*, it is a privation of a thing, namely light. Indeed, it is often overlooked how modern science in regards to things like heat and light lend better support to traditional Christian Metaphysics far more than ancient learning ever did.

            This “evil god” challenge is a strawman, and not a very interesting one at that.

          • Ray

            Not in any dictionary run by any organization lacking an apologetic agenda. Anyway, just because you guys have a 800 year head start on inventing bizarre definitions for ordinary English words and finding creative ways to say you refuse to admit the possibility that you might be wrong, (declaring this that or the other thing to be a “necessary being”) doesn’t mean that the Evil God supporters can’t do exactly the same thing.

            It’s silly, but then so is Scholasticism.

          • Sam Urfer

            Get real. The challenge makes no sense, based on basic uses of terms like “good” or “evil” in classical theology. Certain confused modern theologies might, admittedly, get bamboozled by Law’s sophistry. But that hardly makes it any more worthwhile for dealing with reality.

            Good is being. Evil is non-being, no-thing. These are basic terms for how small sects like the Catholic Church (which last I checked was a paltry 1.2 billion people or so) deal with things. And no, this is not just an ivory tower position with Catholics. This is normal usage of the words, taught to children (ideally).

            You can not imagine an omnipotent nothing. You cannot conceive of an omnipresent lack of existence. The “evil god” is not a valid concept, based on normative Catholic (not exactly esoteric) usage of “evil” and “god.”

          • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

            Ray, you are so silly. Like you get to just re-define our terms for us when you don’t like them. You can say whatever you like, but if you refuse to actually engage what we are talking about then what’s the point? Sam’s response to you is right on target.

            Sam, DSPT?

          • Patrick

            Sam’s response isn’t on target, its horrible.

            First of all, obviously the believer in an evil god would have a different metaphysics than a believer in a “good” god. Unless you can actually demonstrate that your metaphysics are true and that his are not, claiming that his beliefs are incompatible with your metaphysics isn’t a good way to dismiss his views. Without that, its just screaming “NO!” while covering your ears.

            Second, it doesn’t matter whether the evil god actually exists. This isn’t about whether a believer in a “good” god has grounds to dismiss the views of the believer in the evil god! The point of the evil god challenge is to question whether a specific set of theodicies would be convincing if offered in defense of a position counter to the one they’re usually offered for, and if not, to ask what that says about the theodicies.

            I don’t know why this is always so hard. Law’s argument isn’t even that unique: “imagine how your argument would sound if used by a position other than your own” isn’t breaking new ground. But instead of just doing it, everyone does everything in their power to avoid the subject.

            We can make it easier, if you like. Instead of a believer in an evil god, imagine someone who believes that Actual God created entities capable of crafting and controlling universes, and endowed them with libertarian free will. This believer claims that there are probably thousands of such universes, but that we reside in one created by an incredibly evil entity. There. Now evil can remain the deprivation of the good, if you’re literally incapable of imagining, for the sake of an entirely separate argument, a conversation with someone who doesn’t believe the same things as you.

            Now we look at whether the theodicies in question are valid. Can we do that? Ever?

          • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

            Patrick, first, your XYZ PQR analogizing above was very helpful, I meant to say that earlier. So thanks. Second, I think the evilgod problem has different “attractors” in it for atheists and theists. Theists see it and since they find the empirical problem of evil to be relatively unproblematic, look for a more interesting issue (to them) to address, which is the logical coherence of the alternate system and whether the analogy works or not. Atheists, correct me if I’m wrong, see the empirical aspects of good and evil (theodicies) and find that to be the attractive question and then poke at that.

            So I think the disconnect on a certain level is just one of interest. Empirically-focused theodicies are just not a problem for the theists engaging here. God made nature free, so some evil is to be expected, and the overall level of that evil is irrelevant, same for the reversed version. Atheists, on the other hand, disagree.

            Now I’m sleepy so I might not be making sense, but that’s my late-night idea. The problem holds different attractors for the two sides. What do you think?

          • Sam Urfer

            Yup, DSPT. Learning from the Original Preachas. ;)

            It’s not that I can’t imagine someone claiming to believe in an evil god, but that I wouldn’t debate with them about theodicy on empirical terms. They wouldn’t mean an Evil “evil god,” but a a Good God whose values are diametrically opposed to ours, due to our limited perception of the Good. Which, based on purely empirical grounds, doesn’t seem terribly unlikely. So what? The argument would have to be based in metaphysics, not probability or empiricism.

          • http://www.realphilosophers.org Tom

            Parmandur and Sam,

            Parmandur writes,

            suffering is the privation of comfort, premature death is the privation of mature death (or life for that matter), and actions that violate norms are in privation of conforming to the norms.

            I choose to define those things differently. Here are some stipulative definitions, marked with asterisks: Suffering* is pain, which is c-fibers firing. Premature death* is any event at which human brain activity ceases before the human reaches the age of 70. Actions that violate moral norms* are events in which some human acts in some way that constitutes violating some widely held commonsense moral norm, such that more humans hold that norm than hold the denial of that norm.

            Evil* is the conjunction of suffering*, premature death*, and actions that violate moral norms*.

            Evil God* is a being that has complete control of, and knowledge of, all contingent physical states of affairs, and has the undefeated desire to maximize evil* in the world, and minimize the lack of evil* in the world.

            Now the ‘evil God* challenge’ is: what evidence is there against Evil God*?

          • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

            Many pixels have given their lives for this thread…

            Anyway, Sam, me too, mostly between 04-08. Good to see you here!

          • Sam Urfer

            You can define the terms however you like, that’s fine. Doesn’t make them so, but lets grant it for a second. Based on your definitions, and going just on “empirical evidence,” I think evil god believer has a pretty good case. So what?

            Doesn’t make an all-powerful non-existent, all-present nothing any less nonsensical once you bring in actual metaphysics to clear matters up by properly defining words like “good” or “evil”, which is necessary when contemplating ontology.

          • http://www.realphilosophers.org Tom

            Sam,

            You’re certainly right that the proposition that it is not unjustified to believe in Evil God* doesn’t yet clearly entail anything about believing in God Himself.

            Here’s one potential way to bridge that gap.

            I take it that God (the Anselmian-Thomistic sort of God, at least) and Evil God* probably do not exist at the same time. God would prevent Evil God* from existing, and perhaps a stronger case can be made that God and Evil God* are logically incompatible because both would have 100% control over physical states of affairs. Irresistible force vs. immovable object and all that.

            If so, then evidence for Evil God* is evidence against God, right? In turn, do we have any more evidence for God than for Evil God*? Probably not, at least, from “natural theology,” right?

          • Sam Urfer

            No, if Evil God existed, allowing your definiions, he wouldn’t be “evil”, but absolute Good metaphysically speaking. The “evil” would be in our illusion about what “good” is in reality, given your definition. What we perceive in a negative light, suffering and misfortune, are cosmically good, and the Evil God is right to pursue them. So what?

            This can only be debated on metaphysical grounds, empirically it seems perfectly plausible that Evil God has in fact designed the world to maximize goods that we perceive as evils.

          • Sam Urfer

            It is worth noting that theists already see God as having a higher-level view of Good than we do, seeing value in suffering and pain in this world.

          • Ray

            Shorter Sam:

            Thomists have so stripped the terms “good” and “evil” of their common sense meaning that Evil God* and the Thomist “good” God might very well be the same being.

          • Daniel A. Duran

            “it seems to me perfectly consistent to say that God is subject to supererogations…God seems to me greater if He satisfies commonsense supererogations…”

            Tom, even if you use an even weaker premise like God should or tends to act in certain way for something external to himself, then God is not free in a libertarian sense.

            “if we already have a huge amount of evidence against the existence of something–here, married bachelors–then it’s difficult to imagine evidence for the existence of those things, yes.”

            How can you use contingent premises to arrive to a non-contingent conclusion? Unlike married bachelors it is not self-evident whether God is necessary or impossible, how can you sort evidence in favor of God being probably necessary or probably impossible? I am willing to admit that my epistemology might be naïve, but I don’t see a cumulative case against 2+2=4 and cannot be imagine what it would be like.

            Likewise your mention of “necessary” unicorns as an example that necessary beings are subject to empirical research is a erroneous. Your use of “necessary” for the existence of unicorns is irrelevant; the existence of unicorns is fully contingent.
            But the reason you think you have a cumulative case against God is because you tie to the notion of God a most likely incompossible attribute like being well behaved or what not, and then you proceed to let the existence of God stand or fall together on the basis of that additional premise. Not everybody shares your conception of God as the great santa claus in the sky, period. And certainly many concepts of God do not stand or fall together on the basis of one dubious attribute despite what you might think.

            “Those three things–intense suffering, premature death, and actions that violate widely accepted moral norms–are definitely “things.””

            Suffering is a type of sensation whose “evil” has subjective component. Premature death is not a thing so I have no clue of what you’re talking about. And morally bad actions are actions that lack some of the things that make a moral action good; right reason, proper end , etc.

            “Then we may be using ‘necessary’ differently.”

            Yes, I was talking about causal necessity.

            “and on that subject, I think numbers are objectively existing things. Even if no minds ever existed”

            That’s no what I said. I said if reality collapsed into nothingness there would be no numbers, I mean, nothing means nothing, right? But like I said i might wrong on this account.

            “I haven’t employed any ontological arguments for the existence of any kind of god.”

            You have been talking about great making attributes and then you say these attributes can be known on a priori basis, how is that *not* an ontological argument?

          • Sam Urfer

            Actually, the Aristotelian terminology is that which is based on common usage, the “language of the market,” but thanks for playing anyways.

          • Sam Urfer

            Y’all seem to be missing the point that theodicy arguments have Evil God covered just fine, and in fact it is value neutral in that regard. The whole question is uninteresting. Metaphysics are far mor important than this sophistry.

  • Ed

    This discussion brings to mind the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. novel, “The Sirens of Titan” wherein it is revealed that the point of human history was to manufacture a spare part for an alien spaceship.

  • Andrew

    I’d think that the challenge of the supposition makes for great talk at the CFI water-cooler. But outside those walls, this is the atheists’ version of angels dancing on heads of pins.

    The challenge is a non starter, for some of the reasons listed above, and others like the nature of God. But I think it’s best and most simply refuted by considering that evil is a problem created solely by man and his moral defection and fall.

    Think of the young earth before humans came along – were some trilobites bad guys? did oceanic algae commit sin? If not, then evil began with us.

    If evil and God were possibly compatible and that he wills evil, surely we’d need to recognize that all life (and maybe rocks, molecules, atoms) would have committed evil long before we came along – why would he wait 13 billion years for things to go so horribly wrong? Why sit omnisciently with unlimited power watching the mere beauty of His creation for all but the last couple of hundred thousand years?

    You are correct Leah, that that our nature nudges to do moral good rather than evil. Our transgressions are often the result of a struggled justification (sub specie boni) in which we are motivated toward a good even while committing an evil act. Even the drug addict is searching for a good – a temporary euphoria, while destroying his body.

  • http://www.noctua.org.uk/ Paul Wright

    Coming late to the party, but I thought I’d point out that the comments on Law’s blog cover the same territory as some of the comments here: there are the Thomists with their special definitions of good and Capital Letter Concepts (Being-Itself and so on), and also a conversation about whether an omniscient being would have to be good.

    I think not, because I agree with Yudkowsky about there being no universally compelling arguments (I see someone’s already linked to that article). I don’t see a contradiction in an omniscient mind with goals which are completely foreign to humans and our morality or other goals. In fact, I’d argue that the Thomist version of God portrayed on these threads is such a being (for example, Brian implies that this God values free will at the expense of any amount of suffering): if such a God existed, we certainly shouldn’t worship it.

    There was some confusing upthread about whether Tom was making an ontological argument. He wasn’t, if by that we mean an argument which deduces God’s existence from God’s great-making properties. Rather, he was pointing out what looks like a problem with defining God as maximally great (without commenting on whether this gives us a reason to think God exists): God would be greater if he had prevented the Lisbon Earthquake or the Holocaust or whatever, even if we accept that God has no obligation to do so.


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