Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Evil God Challenge

Which one represents the true nature of "God"?
If you like a good disagreement among philosophers, you should check out the discussion between Stephen Law and Edward Feser. I won't recall the full play-by-play here, but the point of contention is the coherence of Law's Evil God Challenge.

Law illustrates the evil god challenge like so:
One author dismisses the evidential problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God as “worthless”. Why is it worthless? The author sweeps the problem to one side because they suppose it’s entirely dealt with by two points. The first point is: they suppose we can look forward to a limitless afterlife in which we’ll enjoy the beatific vision, and this is going to more than compensate us for all the horror we experience in this life. The author quotes St. Paul, who said: “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us.” The second point the author makes is this: that the pain etc. we experience now is the price paid for greater goods to be gained later. They illustrate by pointing out how suffering of child being forced to learn the violin is the price justifiably paid for great good of that child’s later being able to play violin (they admit this isn’t suffering on quite the scale of Auschwitz, but insist the same basic principle applies). Indeed, this particular author adds that, by supposing evil constitutes good evidence against a good God, the atheist is just assuming there’s no God and thus no wondrous afterlife etc. that more than compensates the evils we experience now. So the atheist’s argument based on suffering is hopelessly circular. Indeed, this author says that atheists who run such an argument need “a course in logic”!

But now here’s where the evil God challenge comes in. All these points made above can be flipped in defence of belief in an evil god. A defender of belief in an evil god can say we can look forward to an afterlife of unremitting terror and suffering, and this will more than compensate us for any good enjoyed now. Moreover, these goods we experience now are actually the price paid for greater evils (I give loads of examples in my paper). Moreover, by assuming that the goods we see around us constitute good evidence against an evil God, the evil-god-rejecter is just assuming there’s no evil God and thus no hellish afterlife that more than ou[t]weighs the goods. So this objection against belief in an evil god is hopelessly circular. Clearly, this critic of the evil god hypothesis needs” a course in logic”!
Feser's critique of the evil god challenge is nicely presented here:
Law claims that the evidence for the existence of a good God is no better than the evidence for the existence of an evil god, and that any theodicy a theist might put forward as a way of reconciling the fact of evil with the existence of a good God has a parallel in a reverse-theodicy a believer in an evil god could put forward to reconcile the presence of good in the world with the existence of an evil god. Now, no one actually believes in an evil god. Therefore, Law concludes, since (he claims) the evidence for a good God is no better than that for an evil God, no one should believe in a good God either. That’s the “evil god challenge.”

The trouble is that Law regards this as a challenge to theism generally, and it simply isn’t. It applies at most only to one, historically idiosyncratic version of theism.  So, suppose you regard the divine attributes as in principle metaphysically separable -- that something that is, for example, omnipotent or omniscient could nevertheless fail to be all-good. Suppose also that you regard good and evil as on a metaphysical par, neither more fundamental than the other. And suppose that you consider the grounds for belief in God to consist in an inductive inference to the effect that God is the best explanation of various bits of evidence -- the orderliness of the world, the good we find in it, etc. Given those specific metaphysical and epistemological assumptions -- the sort that might be made by someone beholden to a “theistic personalist” conception of God and who thinks Paley-style “design arguments” and the like are the best reason to believe in God -- Law’s challenge might be a problem. (Or maybe not. But since I have no time either for theistic personalism or for Paley-style “design arguments,” I really couldn’t care less.)
Feser gives a good summary of Law's position, and Law's argument isn't particularly difficult at any rate. Yet at this stage I think Law has the better of the debate. Law says that Feser could overcome the evil god challenge by coming up "with some really extraordinarily good argument for the existence of a good god, an argument that’s so very, very compelling that it more than outweighs the mountain of evidence against such a god constituted by the vast quantities of horror and suffering we see around us."

But Feser's response is a variety of "not MY god," in that he claims his argument is not subject to the evil god challenge. Feser's argument for god, he claims, is different--making Law's challenge "irrelevant." Feser explains:
His “evil god hypothesis” doesn’t stalemate the arguments for classical theism, for two reasons. First, unlike the “good god” of theistic personalism, the God of classical theism isn’t in the same genus as Law’s “evil god.” The God of classical theism isn’t the same kind of thing as Law’s “evil god” at all. (Indeed, unlike everything else that exists, the God of classical theism isn’t in a genus or kind in the first place -- that’s part of the whole point of classical theism.) So there is no parallel between alternative “hypotheses” of the sort Law needs in order to get his “challenge” off the ground.

Second, the arguments typically employed by classical theists simply cannot be stalemated by “evidential” considerations because they are typically not “evidential” or inductive or probabilistic arguments in the first place. If an Aristotelian argument from motion, or Aquinas’s “existence argument,” or Neo-Platonic arguments work at all, they get you demonstratively to something that is pure actuality, or subsistent being itself, or an absolute unity; and the other metaphysical theses alluded to get you from there to something that is of necessity perfectly good (indeed, something that is goodness itself). To suggest that what is purely actual or subsistent being itself might, given the “evidence,” be evil, is simply unintelligible. To make such a suggestion would merely be to show that the one making it doesn’t understand the metaphysical concepts in question.
I don't hear Feser saying much here. His first argument basically accuses Law of using a straw man as the "good" god. The second argument is bizarre. Although the classical God is conceived as pure and transcendent, the argument to purity and transcendence begins with inferences from reality. I don't see why it makes a difference whether we are talking about pure and transcendent evil as well as pure and transcendent good. In neither case do I buy Feser's appeal to exceptionalism.

Law puts the matter best in his comment to Feser: "Anyway, that's my take for what it's worth. I don't doubt you will continue to maintain that the evil god challenge "doesn't apply" to your sort of theism, despite the fact that it actually very nicely reveals the inadequacy of the theodicies you offered in your book."


  1. Feser's first response to the challenge is only half accurate. He is right to state it's about a specific variety of theism. He is wrong to leave out (perhaps deliberately) the omnibelevolant God the argument is seeking to refute.

    The Bible states God is love. It uses agape to define his love for us--the epitome of love itself--manifested in God.

    By this understanding, it appears Law's argument is devastating, because the belief in an evil God, as he shows, is completely absurd.

    Then he goes on to ask the theist--how can they say that an all loving God--by their very logic--is not any less absurd?

    What Feser has done is avoid addressing this by skipping over the "love" aspect of God's character. Sly, but obviously a dodge.

  2. We start with the assumption that God is good, because that's the Bible's description of God. If the Bible would describe God as being perfectly evil, then, yes, you could reconcile the facts on the ground with an evil God. Possibly.

    The fact is that there is so much more good than there is evil on this earth. Most of what people consider "evil" -- such as losing a child, or having an illness, or losing a job -- is actually merely a negation of the amount of good that they EXPECTED to have. The only real evil on this earth is physical or emotional pain. And the vast majority of our lives are free from major pain. AS PROOF, THE VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE DO NOT COMMIT SUICIDE. In short, it's much easier to reconcile the facts on the ground with a good God than an evil God.

  3. abele derer,

    Often, philosophy will attempt to establish truths about gods without recourse to holy books such as the Bible. Why? Because if a particular god can only be established as existing via a certain text, then we must also establish the authenticity and authority of that text. In the case of the Bible, authenticity and intrinsic authority are very much up in the air, if not downright doubtful. Thus, the Bible's description of God as "good" has no overriding value. We're looking for the philosopher's God.

    Nevertheless, I wonder if the Bible really does describe God as good. Some people read the Torah and make the case that it describes God as "the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

  4. Tristan,

    You are right about Feser. He usually comes across much more convincing, but the EGC has his number, no matter how many times he insists that it doesn't apply to his god.

  5. I don't see how one could philosophically prove that a "good" God exists, unless through observing that most of our lives are pleasureful (an idea I brought up in my previous post).
    Philosophically, it's a challenge to prove that any god exists, let alone a) one b) that happens to be perfectly good.

    Regarding your second point (the synonym-laden Dawkins quote), I agree that there are some actions of God (reported in the Bible) that you would consider unjust. You are entitled to your opinion. However, according to the Bible, God was fully justified in all His actions: "He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is" (Deuteronomy 32:4, NLT).
    So, to get back to my point, those who believe in a good God do so because the Bible says that He's good. That He does some stuff that you consider bad does not make it illogical for me to believe in a good God.

  6. Everything you are saying reinforces the EGC. Read the argument.

  7. The EGC does not challenge the vast majority of people who believe in a good God. It challenges nobody, except maybe three philosophers who believe in a good God due to philosophical reasons. I have yet to hear a decent philosophical reason that points to a good God. I have, however, heard good philosophical reasons that show why a good God would do evil. The EGC does not challege any of those reasons. It merely states that those reasons could be used to defend and EG. OK, fine, so what? We have no positive reason to believe in an EG. (I read the the EGC way before you posted it here).

  8. "I have yet to hear a decent philosophical reason that points to a good God."

    Please refer to Western philosophy from about 400 to 1400.

    "I have, however, heard good philosophical reasons that show why a good God would do evil. "

    Perhaps you mean "would do things that seem evil to us." Many folks consider it contrary to the definition and essence of God to do evil. God is incapable of evil, in other words.

    But this is why the evidential problem of evil is potent. If God doesn't do evil and is not a source of evil, then where does evil com from? Of course there are very many attempts to answer this question or to make the question simply go away.

    Any reason you give for disbelieving in an evil god can be flipped to serve as a reason to disbelieve in a good god.

    Now if you actually meant that God can do evil and not "God does things that appear evil to us," then you believe in a different God than most Judeo-Christians. Your position, then, is essentially, "He's an asshole but still my God."

  9. I meant the former -- he does things that appear to be evil.

    But you seem to agree that one who believes in a good God due to biblical revelation(and only employ philosophical arguments in order to show that the "evil" we see isn't NECCESARILY evil), the EGC isn't relevant. So we don't disagree with each other, do we?

    Can you please mention one of those arguments that a good God exists?

  10. "Can you please mention one of those arguments that a good God exists?"

    Well, you could review the Jewish Encyclopedia on "God." There you will find reference to:

    * God being "merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth" (Ex. xxxiv. 6-7).

    * Good and evil proceed from God, as do life and death (Ecclus. [Sirach] xi. 14). Yet sin is not caused by God, but by man's own choice (ib. xv. 11 et seq.).

    * God's "benevolence is due not to any incapacity of His for evil, but to His free preference for the good ("De Plantatione Noe," § 20)."

    * He is complete in Himself, and contains within His own being the sum of all conceivable good ("De Mutatione Nominum," § 4).

    * The anthropomorphic representation of God as suffering pain with men merely illustrates His goodness (Sanh. vi. 5).

    But then, at the JE, there is also this:

    * The final cause some philosophers have held to be material, an atom. But in going one degree higher, and in assuming the existence of a creator, man must know him as the highest; that is to say, God is the noblest but also the most subtile goal of speculative reflection. Many represent God as corporeal, because they do not push their ascending knowledge far enough beyond the corporeal to the abstract and incorporeal. The Creator being the originator of all bodies, He of necessity must be apprehended as supramundane, supercorporeal. Those that ascribe to God motion and rest, wrath and goodness, also apperceive Him as corporeal. The correct conception culminates in the representation of God as free from all accidents (ib.). If this conception be too abstract, and is to be replaced by one more material and concrete, reflection is forced to recede. The final cause must be, by the very postulates of reason, an abstract being. God-perception is thus the rise from the sensual to the supersensual and highest limits of thought.

    Christian arguments for God's goodness are many. Here is one from Anselm, from the Monologion, as given by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "In the first chapter of the Monologion Anselm argues that there must be some one thing that is supremely good, through which all good things have their goodness. For whenever we say that different things are F in different degrees, we must understand them as being F through F-ness; F-ness itself is the same in each of them. Thus, for example, all more or less just things “must be more or less just through justice, which is not different in diverse things” (M 1). Now we speak of things as being good in different degrees. So by the principle just stated, these things must be good through some one thing. Clearly that thing is itself a great good, since it is the source of the goodness of all other things. Moreover, that thing is good through itself; after all, if all good things are good through that thing, it follows trivially that that thing, being good, is good through itself. Things that are good through another (i.e., things whose goodness derives from something other than themselves) cannot be equal to or greater than the good thing that is good through itself, and so that which is good through itself is supremely good. Anselm concludes, “Now that which is supremely good is also supremely great. There is, therefore, some one thing that is supremely good and supremely great—in other words, supreme among all existing things” (M 1). In chapter 2 he applies the principle of chapter 1 in order to derive (again) the conclusion that there is something supremely great." (

  11. Cool! A picture of Calvin's God and Jesus arm-wrestling.


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