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Exploring Stephen Law’s Evil God Challenge

Exploring Stephen Law’s Evil God Challenge March 6, 2012

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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.

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