Friday, December 16, 2011

Stephen Law and the Evil God Challenge: The Evidently Problematic Argument

                William Lane Craig recently completed his tour of the United Kingdom in which he participated in several debates and several lectures. The kick-off event of the tour was a debate with British philosopher Stephen Law, who is an atheist and is the editor of the journal Think, produced by the Royal Institute of Philosophy. In this post, I want to examine the main argument that Law offered during the debate, as well as to examine his subsequent defense of it in his radio debate with philosopher Glenn Peoples.

                Law’s main argument was actually a combination of an argument and a challenge to theists. He contended that the evidential problem of evil fatally undermines belief in a good God, and to pre-empt some theodicies that theists might offer, he issued what he calls the “Evil God Challenge.” The EGC essentially asks the theist to imagine meeting someone who believed in an evil God. A God who wants to maximize the amount of pain or suffering that creatures experience. A God who is essentially hateful and cruel. Law claims that people naturally and justifiably recoil from and reject such an idea because, he says, the amount of good in the world just seems too great for there to be a malevolent omnipotent being trying to maximize evil. Now Law envisions that the proponent of the Evil God Hypothesis (EGH) offers a number of reverse theodicies to show that the amount of good in the world really is not inconsistent with an evil God. For instance, Evil God allows freedom of the will so that evil will be increased by free, wicked choices that men make. Or Evil God allows some good in order to maximize the pain one experiences by the loss of something good. Etc… But Law still thinks that people justifiably deny the existence of an evil God. It just seems so obvious that no such being exists. So, Law challenges, if a theist thinks that the amount of good in the world defeats the idea of an evil God, why does the theist not also admit that the amount of evil in the world defeats the idea of a good God (that is, why does the theist not admit that the evidential problem of evil carries)? This is the Evil God Challenge.

                I think the challenge misfires on a number of levels. Fist and most importantly, the challenge assumes that a theist will deny the EGH on the basis of the amount of good in the world. Surely the world contains far too much good to be the creation of an evil god, right? Well, maybe not, since Law can reverse many theodicies used to defend the good God hypothesis (GGH) so that they defend the EGH equally well. Consequently, the EGH is as immune to criticism which is based on the amount of good the world contains as the GGH is to criticism which is based on the amount of evil the world contains. How immune it is depends on what the theist is willing to concede. So why do theists dismiss the EGH on the basis of what Law calls the evidential problem of good, but accept the GGH despite the evidential problem of evil? This seems inconsistent, and so seems to undermine the rationality of theism.

                Law is correct that this is inconsistent and that it undermines the theist’s position. But this is only for the theist who thinks that the EGH is falsified by the amount of good in the world. Because the challenge is, in part, to explain why the evidential problem of evil fails against the GGH but the evidential problem of good does not fail against the EGH. But suppose a theist agrees that each evidential problem fails. In this case there is no inconsistency, and hence the Evil God Challenge fails to apply.

                Law cannot carry his argument if the theist merely rejects the EGH; the EGH must be rejected because of the evidential problem of good. But as I’ve argued in an earlier post, arguments from evil (or good) are very difficult to sustain, and rely almost entirely upon intuition. This seems to be the case with the EGC as well. The theist naturally and intuitively thinks that God is good rather than evil, and so rejects the EGH. However, because this rejection is natural and intuitive, the theist may not fully understand his reasons for rejecting it, and for thinking that a good, rather than an evil, God exists. So the EGC can tend to catch the theist off guard, causing him to fire off the first thing that comes to mind: there’s just too much good in the world. But if the theist gives it more careful thought he will see that these are inadequate grounds for rejecting the EGH. So, if the theist gives it more careful thought, he will see that Law’s challenge is not really problematic. One need not be (and should not be) inconsistent in rejecting the EGH.

                But why does Law think that very often a theist will reject the EGH because of the good in the world? He says that theists often give this reason, and I think we’ll take him at his word. But what I do not accept is that the EGC still somehow applies to theists who reject the EGH on the basis of, say, the moral argument or the ontological argument rather than the good in the world. Law seems to think that this is the only way a theist could respond, because he seems to think the EGC carries broadly and covers theism generally rather than applying only to those whose inconsistencies it exposes.  

If all Law wants to know is how the existence of an evil God is any less supported than that of a good God, then he should ask that instead. He notes that the Kālam Cosmological Argument (which I’ve endorsed) and the fine-tuning argument, and many other key arguments for God’s existence say nothing of the moral properties of God. There could as easily be an evil prime mover instead of a good one. I think Law is right. Obviously the moral properties of the creator or designer cannot be deduced from the mere presence of creation or design. So far, then, an evil God is just as likely as a good one. But Law seems to think it stops there. He seems to think that is all the reason the typical theist has to believe that God is good.

In a recent radio debate between Law and Christian philosopher Glenn Peoples, Law was given a bit more. Peoples rebutted Law’s challenge by saying that on the basis of some of the main arguments for God’s existence, God could be either good or bad. But someone who believes that God is good might do so because of a moral argument for God's existence which relies on a verisimilitudinous moral sense. We sense moral facts and feel obligation to do what is good, and this seems to imply that the person to whom we are morally obligated and from whom moral values derive is Himself good. Law, on the other hand, wanted to say that even if we grant that arguments for God’s existence (that is, except the moral argument) go through, we still don’t know whether this God is good or bad in the basis of those arguments. Moreover, the idea of an evil God is “clearly absurd.” How then is the idea of a good God also not clearly absurd?

Again, the theist can afford to concede to Law that the EGH is clearly absurd. But a reflective person might note that the mere presence of good in the world is not the thing which makes it absurd. If Law asserts the GGH and the EGH just are clearly absurd, then it seems he is begging the question in favor of the evidential problem of evil. What he needs to show is that the evidential problem of evil succeeds in defeating theism. If it does not, then it’s not at all clear that theism is absurd.

Law notes (rightly) that the EGH admits some of the same defenses as the GGH. But Law seems to think this implies that the GGH and the EGH are equally well evidenced. This is why he asks why we ought to think that the GGH is any more plausible than the absurd EGH. But this seems to imply that Law sees theodicies as some sort of evidence of truth. That is, that a theodicy which defends the GGH should be construed as evidence that the GGH is actually true. Only if Law assumes this does it make any sense to think that the GGH and the EGH are equally evidenced if they share some useful defenses. I think it is fair to note here what should be pretty obvious without noting it: that an explanation of how A is not less probable given B is not evidence that A is actual. So the EGH and the GGH could share all of the same theodicies and it could still be the case that the GGH is far more probable and highly evidenced than the EGH.

This leads into the topic of the actual evidence for a good God vs. an evil God. In the debate with Glenn Peoples (of whom I’m a fan), Law asserts that there is a scale, as it were, which is equally balanced with evidence for a good and an evil God (via the evidential problems of evil and good). Law asks the theist to offer something which tips the scale in favor of a good God, but he expects that something to be significantly big. One might wonder if Law is doing as I argued John Loftus does concerning the problem of evil in raising the proof-bar unreasonably high. Peoples predictably mentioned the moral argument (the argument which infers a good God from our moral sense and experiences of morality as in some sense commands issued by a being which constitute our moral duties and the commission of which we are held responsible for). The moral argument rests upon two premises which seem pretty plausible: that moral facts would not exist if God did not, and that moral facts do exist. This is not enough for Law because he thinks that each premise is questionable. He says that ethicists commonly reject the first premise (he does not explain why) and that evolution provides us with an explanation of why we would think the second premise is true even if it is false.

Here Peoples defends the moral argument by noting that Law has done nothing to undermine the first premise (P1) except to state that it is questionable (the big question is “why?”). But Law claims that he does not have to defeat P1 because even if P1 is true, he can still reject the moral argument itself by denying P2, that there are moral facts. Law thinks that the evidential problem of evil is such powerful evidence against a good God that it overwhelms the moral argument, even the existence of moral facts themselves. Peoples rightly and bluntly summarizes Law’s view by noting that, in essence, Law thinks it is more obvious that God does not exist than that it is wrong to torture babies for fun. It is unlikely that many others will agree with Law here. But this gives us another opportunity to explore another layer to Law’s position: the possibility that it is self-defeating.

Suppose Law is right to reject P2 of the moral argument; suppose moral facts do not exist. It becomes very difficult to see how there could be an evidential problem of “evil” in this case. So if P2 is false, the grounds Law offers for rejecting the GGH seem to evaporate.  Additionally, Peoples significantly points out in his post-mortem of the debate that Law undercuts his own position by arguing that, via the processes of unguided evolution, we come to believe that something is true even though it is false. Peoples references the work of Alvin Plantinga here, which I hope to address in a later blog post. The short version is that Law seems to admit that evolution produces cognitive faculties which are not necessarily aimed at producing true belief. It can be beneficial to believe false things, as Law argues in the case of moral facts. But if we have reason to think that our brains are not necessarily trying to produce true belief, in what sense can they be trusted to produce true beliefs? Or can they?

To summarize, Law says that theists who dismiss an evil God because there’s too much good in the world should also as a matter of consistency dismiss a good god because there’s too much evil in the world. His “evil God challenge” (EGC) is to explain why they do not do this. I argue that if we suppose the reason that one dismisses an evil God is not at all because of the amount of good in the world, but because of the moral argument for a good God, or just because there’s no reason to suppose that God is in fact evil, or because of the ontological argument, etc… then there is no longer an inconsistency when the theist maintains that the amount of evil in the world does not disprove a good God. Ergo the challenge fails to challenge a theist such as this. Additionally, Law seems to beg the question in favor of the evidential problem of evil, and seems to think that theodicies are treated as evidences of the truth of the views they are constructed to defend. Law thinks (wrongly) that there is equal evidence for good and evil deities, and demands something much more powerful than a logically valid, deductive argument with premises that Law asserts can be challenged but declines to actually challenge, and which most people find plausible. As well, he does not address the ontological argument which, if successful, concludes that a necessarily good God exists. Law declines to address the moral argument with specifics because he thinks it is far more obvious that God does not exist than that moral facts exist (a view which will likely not be widely shared), and as an explanation of why we might think there are moral facts when there are not, Law appeals to evolutionary biology. One might justifiably ask Law whether evolutionary biology also undermines his intuition of the power of the evidential argument from evil, for instance. At any rate, if one denies that there are moral facts, then one denies that God could even in principle violate one, and so one denies that there is any problem of evil, evidential or logical, because there just is no evil. Hence if there are no moral facts, Law’s intuition about the problem posed to God by evil becomes highly questionable. And if Law admits that evolution might supply humans with reasoning faculties which are not really aimed at producing true beliefs, then one wonders why we should think anything we believe is true. We cannot use our own reasoning to show that it is, since that is begging the question. For these and other reasons, I (not casually, though) dismiss the Evil God Challenge; I do not see that it succeeds in doing anything important, and the way that Law defends it seems to undermine his own case for atheism. 


  1. Thanks for the measured discussion of my ideas - I appreciate it. Some comments on my recent exchange with Peoples is here if anyone's interested...

  2. Hi Daniel, just wanted to say I enjoyed your article. Keep up the great work!

  3. JC, thank you for the encouragement. Out of curiosity, may I ask how you stumbled across my blog?

  4. I would also like to encourage you to keep writing. I found this through Glenn's website.