Stephen Law and Glenn Peoples revisit the “evil god” challenge

Since the Law vs Craig debate I’ve been interested in the “evil god” challenge and so I was very excited to hear that Stephen would be discussing the issue with Glenn Peoples on the Unbelievable? radio show. Having followed Peoples’ blog Say Hello To My Little Friend for a while, I was keen to hear his take on the matter. The podcast of the discussion has finally been released and having given it a listen, I can make some comments.

Many interesting issues were brought up by the thinkers, but it also seemed like there was a fair amount of talking past each other. I think this was largely because they thought they were in agreement over a core issue when in fact they weren’t.

As a very quick recap, the evil god challenge basically points out that the evidence of goodness in the world seems to discount the hypothesis that the creator god is maximally evil. But it also points out that most of the salvaging work that a believer in good God can do in defence against the evidence of evil can be flipped by the proponent of evil god to defend against the evidence of goodness. But this defence still obviously fails (so Law claims), and so, since the two cases are roughly even, so too do the defences of good God as a shield against the evidence of evil.

Now Peoples agreed that, roughly, good God fairs the same with the evidence of evil in the world as evil god fairs with the evidence of goodness in the world. However what failed to be made explicit in the discussion was that Peoples thought the two faired equally well in handling the alleged evidence against them, but Law thought the two handled the evidence equally poorly. Thus Glenn thought that there was no particular problem in relation to the empirical evidence of goodness and evil in the world for belief in either good God or evil god. But Law’s contention was that both hypotheses were equally made highly improbable by the empirical evidence and that it would take a large amount of counter-balancing evidence to believe either of them.

Because of this fundamental difference there was no agreement between the two on what role Peoples’ moral argument for good God’s existence was supposed to play in diffusing the evil god challenge. Peoples thought that all he had to do was use the moral argument to slightly tip the evidence in good God’s favour (though he would himself say the tipping from that argument would be more than slight), whereas Law required that the argument negate all the evidence against good God he supposes that the evidence of evil marshals against that belief, and indeed make the good God hypothesis sufficiently more probable than not to warrant the conviction that such a being exists.

As I explained in my previous post on the evil god challenge, I think that evil does indeed count as evidence against the existence of good God (or more accurately, it renders other hypotheses more rational to believe, relative to evil alone). I think that Law probably sees evil as constituting greater evidence against good God than I do, but nonetheless we both agree that to be rational, the believer in good God needs some grounds for believing that God is in fact good that outweighs the evidence against that belief. Can the moral argument provide that basis?

Here is a recap of the moral argument:

1. If [good] God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties exist.
3. Therefore [good] God exists.

Stephen does not believe the first premise but he grants it for the sake of argument seeing as he thinks it doesn’t ultimately help the believer in good God, and I shall grant the same. He thinks the premise irrelevant because one can make the following argument with that same premise:

1. If [good] God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. [good] God does not exist.
3. Therefore objective moral values and duties do not exist.

The question, then, is whether there is greater support for the premise 2a “Objective moral values and duties exist” or 2b “[good] God does not exist”. Stephen argues that there is far greater support for 2b seeing as it enjoys large empirical support whereas 2a is derived from intuition only. He compares the relation between the two to the example of belief in a flat earth in times gone (it was either that or geocentrism – either way the point is the same); such a belief would have been considered obviously true, that is, until strong empirical evidence was stacked against it, which in fact was exactly what happened. So too, Law thinks, it is reasonable to believe 2a so long as there is no strong empirical evidence against it. But if the first premise of the moral argument is true, and evil is decent empirical evidence against good God, then 2b is better supported than 2a.

To further weaken 2a Law comments that evolution could explain how we have moral intuitions even if those intuitions didn’t produce true beliefs. In response I’d say that mere explanations are easy to come by. It is possible to give any ‘just-so’ story to explain anything, what matters is a powerful explanation. Perhaps if evolution predicted, or made probable the existence of false moral intuitions then Stephen would have a point, but he did not develop his case in this way.

At any rate that is a secondary considertation. I think his comparison between moral intuition and the past belief in a flat earth is the main point, although a comparison not quite justified. Still I shall argue that ultimately the point he wants to make goes through.

The disanalogy between the two is down to the fact that it is psychologically possible to believe that the earth, contrary to first impressions, is round, but it is not psychologically possible to abandon the belief that moral facts exist. It is perfectly possible for psychologically healthly adult human persons to believe that the earth is roughly spherical. But it seems that psychological healthy persons cannot help but believe that there are moral facts, at least deep down. A person may voice their philosophical commitment to some non-realist view of morality, but it seems that nobody can get by acting consistently with that belief. No sane human being really treats the question of whether we should rape small children like it is as open to preference as the question of whether we as a nation should drive on the left or right side of the road. Moral intuitions, then, are not exactly equivalent to the kind of intuitions that express false notions about science.

Can moral intuitions rationally be denied then? Yes, I think so, though it will be unpleasant.

Imagine the doctor tells you that you have a rare disease whereby your cognitive faculties often produce the belief that you are seeing pink elephants. When this happens you truly believe in these pink elephant apparitions and behave accordingly. But later, in a moment of philosophical reflection you remember your doctor’s instructions and acknowledge that your belief in pink elephants is false. The next day the beliefs return and it is again only in a time of reflection that you dismiss these beliefs.

Now it is true here that you are unable to live without (at least sometimes) believing and acting as if pink elephants exist. Yet when you enter the philosophy classroom (so to speak), you deny the existence of pink elephants. Would it be fair to accuse you of irrationality because of your denial? Would it be fair to say that you ought to always believe in pink elephants because you are unable to consistently deny it? I would think not.

Well is this situation not comparable to a person who believes, say, that her cognitive faculties evolved to produce moral beliefs which are pragmatically beneficial but are not actually true? This person denies moral realism and is unable to live consistently with that denial. But is she irrational in not accepting moral realism? I’m not convinced she is.

Therefore it is possible that the evidence for 2b outweighs that for 2a. I’m not exactly sure how much weight I’d put on each, but it certainly seems plausible that a person could rationally deny 2a because of 2b. So if a moral argument doesn’t necessarily help the good God hypothesis, what can be said?

It is possible that the Christian could bring in some uniquely Christian arguments such as the resurrection, and argue that the facts surrounding that event are best explained by a morally good God. But I’ll leave that aside for now and simply say that most believers in good God believe that his moral character is good not from some argument but in something like the manner that Plantinga describes, that is, in a properly basic way. Like the man in court who knows from his properly basic memory beliefs that he is innocent despite the publically accessible evidence in favour of his guilt, the theist, certainly the Christian theist, can rationally believe in good God in a properly basic way, even if there is some evidence against the belief.

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the “evil god” argument

William Lane Craig has recently responded to the “evil god” argument put forward by Stephen Law in their debate, and Law has himself responded to that response.

I thought that now might be a good time to share my own thoughts on the argument, and where my agreements/disagreements with these two thinkers lay.

First of all, here’s a summary of a basic evidential argument from evil (as given in Philosophy of Religion by C. Stephen Evans & R. Zachary Manis):

1. If God exists he does not allow any pointless evil.
2. Probably, there is pointless evil in the world.
3. Therefore, God probably does not exist.

Craig’s response to this argument is to challenge the justification for (2) by noting our cognitive limitations in relation to God’s, employing what is known as the “skeptical theist” defence. The proponent of skeptical theism points out that the supposed justification for thinking that (2) is true is simply that it appears that it is. Sure, the skeptical theist says, we may utterly fail to discern any justifiable reason for, say, the agonising death of a deer whose legs are crushed beneath a fallen tree, but why think that our inability to discern such a reason is evidence that there is no reason? This failing on our part would only be evidence against there actually being such a reason if it’s likely that, were there a reason, we would be able to spot it. But why would we be likely to know the reasons why an all-intelligent being allows something horrible to occur? God’s cognitive capabilities far exceed our own, and thus it would hardly be surprising if God has reasons that we would fail to discern.

I think this a perfectly reasonable response to the argument. But here’s where Stephen Law’s “evil god” argument kicks in. He thinks we can run a parallel argument:

1. If evil god exists he does not allow any pointless good.
2. Probably, there is pointless good in the world.
3. Therefore, evil god probably does not exist.

In this argument, a particular good is pointless if it does not contribute to a greater evil. After all, evil god is perfectly bad, and entirely hate-filled, so he wouldn’t allow anything good unless it contributed to a greater evil. But it seems like there are goods that don’t contribute to any greater evil. What about some particularly beautiful yet undiscovered species of flower? What about the excessive cuteness of children? Aren’t these evidence against evil god?

Law notes that the same theodicies open to the defender of God are open to evil god (one can have a reverse free will defence, or a soul-destroying theodicy etc). But also, Law claims that the tactics of skeptical theism are just as available to the evil god proponent too. What justifies us in thinking that, just because many goods seem ‘pointless’, then many goods are pointless? Evil god is omniscient and supremely intelligent, so we can say in regard to him too that we aren’t likely to know whether or not there are greater evils that justify the goods. The arguments against both God and evil god seem to be even, Law says. BUT, he claims, nobody takes skeptical theism seriously in regard to discounting all the evidence against evil god. Nobody thinks that, after pointing to the smile of a child, or a stunning sunset, that a defender of the belief in evil god would be rational in saying, “hold on, we can’t recklessly draw such an inference here – we simply aren’t likely to be able to discern evil god’s reasons for permitting all this gratuitous good.” But since there is parity between the evidential argument from evil and the evidential argument from goodness, if skeptical theism doesn’t bail evil god out, it doesn’t bail God out either.

Craig denies that the defender of evil god would be irrational to appeal to skeptical theism. He claims that one simply cannot confidently conclude what the character of the creator is like based on the evidence of evil and good in the world. Which of them is correct? Is skeptical theism in defence of evil god justified? Or is the existence of inscrutable goods evidence against evil god? I actually think they’re both right.

It is quite clear to me that it is not at all likely that we’d be able to discern all the underlying reasons for an omniscient good being or an omniscient evil being to run the world as he does. But that isn’t the whole story. The above isn’t the only form an evidential argument from evil/goodness can take. I think skeptical theism shows this form to be a weak one, but a stronger one can be made through a comparative case.

the comparative argument

In a comparative argument, the God hypothesis, or the evil god hypothesis, is pitted against another hypothesis and judged on its power to explain some data, in this case, the existence of certain quantities/kinds of evil/good. Following Paul Draper, we can call this hypothesis “the Hypothesis of Indifference”, though I will describe it in my own way as follows:

HI: the universe is not ordered or guided by any all-powerful intelligent being that has a primary preference for good things, or a primary preference for bad things, nor a primary preference for the well-being of creatures, or a primary preference for the suffering of creatures.

HI is consistent with naturalism, and also a deism whereby god’s character is morally indifferent, but it isn’t consistent with theism, nor belief in evil god. Now, what about the data which the hypotheses will be “fighting” over? Let’s call the following observation about the world ‘O’:

O: There is roughly the same amount of good in the world as there is evil, and there is roughly the same amount of inscrutable evil/good as there is “meaningful” evil/good.

The truth of O is no doubt contentious, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true. It certainly doesn’t seem obviously false. Note: “meaningful evil/good” should here be understood as evil which, through an agent’s intention or not, contributes to a good, or good which, through an agent’s intention or not, contributes to an evil.

We can ask then, whether O is more surprising on theism/the evil god hypothesis, than on HI. For simplicity, we’ll keep to a comparison between HI and theism (the God hypothesis) – seeing as there is parity between the two, what counts for one will count for the other anyway. A comparative argument from evil might run like this then:

1. O is probable given HI.
2. O is improbable given theism.
3. Therefore, HI is a better explanation of O than theism.

Is (1) defensible? Well seeing as on HI there is no preference for either a wholly good, or wholly evil universe, it figures that, just by luck, the distribution of both would be about even. And since, on HI, there is no intelligent agent intending to bring about good or pleasurable states of affairs, there will likely be instances where evil or suffering fail to contribute to goods or pleasure, but also instances where such contributions occur via luck or incidentally, thus balancing out. So O is not all that surprising given HI. But is O surprising given theism?

I’d have to say that we can’t be sure. Again the considerations of skeptical theism (I think rightly) come into play. Can we really say with confidence that God couldn’t have achieved the amount of good there is (or will be) in the world without the amount of evil there is? I’d have to say that we can’t be so confident. I think the probability of O on theism is inscrutable. Thus (2) is a little strong and needs to be replaced by the following:

(2*): The probability of O on theism is inscrutable.

Does the conclusion still follow from (1) and (2*)? Yes, I think so. Put it this way; if you knew that one horse had a high chance of winning the race, but as for another, you had no clue as to their odds, you’d be a fool to pick the one you didn’t know about, even if in reality that horse had an even higher chance of winning. So yes, HI is a better explanation of O than theism. O is thus evidence against theism.

retaining rationality

Is HI’s explanatory power over theism in regards to O a problem for the theist? Does it make her theism irrational? I don’t think so. Perhaps relative to O theism is improbable, but theism is probable all things considered. Perhaps the theist’s being evidentially challenged here is no more significant than the kind of evidential challenge found in the following scenario:

Say (1) there is a pet store that I know is nearing the end of its transition from being an all-purpose pet store, to one that sells only cats and things relating to proper keeping of cats: the only non-cat left for sale is a solitary dog. Say also (2), I have a friend who is very familiar with the contents of this store, and is heading out to buy a single pet from there tomorrow. And (3) this friend has told me that she is going to buy that solitary dog. Now relative to (1) and (2), (4): “my friend is going to buy a cat” is much more probable than (3). (1) and (2) count as evidence against (3) in favour of (4). But surely I am rational in still believing that my friend is buying the dog. After all, I know that she is! But if I didn’t know (3), I would be much more justified in believing (4) over (3).

Similarly, O might not be a problem for the theist if she has good grounds for her theism! But if she didn’t know that theism were true, or didn’t have good grounds to so believe, she would be more justified in believing HI over theism. And by virtue of the symmetry of the circumstances, the same would be true of the evil god hypothesis. The evil god hypothesis isn’t the best explanation of O, but for someone who has good grounds for believing in evil god, this fact need not make the belief irrational.

So both Craig and Law are right. Skeptical theism is a perfectly legitimate move, but, nonetheless evil is evidence against God, and goodness is evidence against evil god. The agnostic, atheist and evil god proponent are justified in believing that evil counts against the existence of God. The agnostic, atheist and theist are justified in believing that good counts against the existence of evil god. But both the theist and evil god-believer need not be deterred when their own beliefs encounter this evidential challenge.

Bill Craig loses a debate! (and all sorts of goodies are revealed)

William Lane Craig recently debated Stephen Law on the question “Does God Exist?” (the audio is available here)

I’ve listened/watched/read loads of Craig’s debates and I think he’s comfortably won every encounter. However, I think that Stephen Law actually got the best of him in this excellent debate, and provided better arguments for the claim that “God does not exist” than Craig did for the claim that “God does exist”, at least so long as “God” is defined with philosophical rigour. In fact, the brilliance of Law’s approach to the debate is that it completely concentrated on disproving (or providing evidence against) one of God’s attributes, not ALL of them; in particular, he attacked the good character of God. He employed an argument involving the notion of an “Evil God” and Craig in fact let out an admission which gave Law’s strategy great power, which is that the definition of God necessarily implies God’s goodness. And indeed that is the philosophically correct way to understand God. But that means that, so long as Law could successfully argue against God’s goodness, Law would, by virtue of doing that, be arguing against the existence of God. So long as one attribute of God is shown to be rationally untenable, God full stop is shown to be rationally untenable. I think he pulled off his strategy brilliantly.

Craig opened with only three of his usual arguments for God’s existence, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Moral Argument and a (very) minimal facts case for the resurrection of Jesus. Craig normally brings 5 arguments and I think his dropping two actually suited Law well. Law didn’t touch the KCA since his strategy was to target only God’s goodness and that argument doesn’t say anything about the character of the first cause of the universe. Craig didn’t go into nearly enough detail with the resurrection argument for it to be at all dialectically useful. I can’t imagine any non-Christian being persuaded from that extremely bare bones presentation. He reduced the standard 4 or 5 facts to a mere 3 and relied solely on authority to uphold them, rather than delve into the reasons why they are generally conceded as facts. As such, Law didn’t have to do much to shake the audience’s confidence in the case except point out some general worries that “supernatural” theories have when appealed to as the best explanation. Because of this the debate was entirely focussed on the moral argument and Law’s rather novel and intriguing argument from “Evil God”, or “Anti-God” as Craig re-named him.

Craig didn’t help himself in that he actually misunderstood the argument. He thought that the argument was trying to show that, on an inductive survey of the evidence, an evil creator god is as likely as a good creator god. But that wasn’t the argument. It was actually something like this:

1. There is just as much evidence from the goodness/evil of the world that the creator god is evil, as there is that the creator god is good.
2. We are justified in believing that evidence of goodness in the world demonstrates that there is not an evil creator god.
3. Therefore, we are equally justified in believing that the evidence of evil in the world demonstrates that there is not a good creator god.

The argument was thus designed to support the general evidential argument from evil, and undercut the attempts to soften the argument by appeals to “skeptical theism”. After all, Law contended, nobody takes considerations of sceptical theism seriously in dismissing evil god, so why good god? Craig did implicitly counter the argument by incidentally denying the second premise, but his misunderstanding meant that he didn’t make it explicit and so Law’s argument appeared unchallenged.

As for the moral argument, again Law took the upper hand and made similar criticisms that I myself made in a post here. That is, Craig didn’t show that, necessarily, atheism cannot account for objective moral values and duties. Now perhaps Law, and myself, have misunderstood the argument. Even granted that, Craig didn’t clarify it to make an adequate response and so failed to defend it. Craig also revealed something interesting about the moral argument; in the Q&A he spoke of it in terms of induction and “best explanation”. So perhaps it shouldn’t be formulated deductively, as it leads to confusion.

Moreover, although this wasn’t discussed as a feature of the debate, I wonder if Craig’s moral argument could be twisted to support the existence of “Anti-God”? Perhaps there is a transcendent being with all the attributes of God except necessary existence and moral goodness (to concede that maximal greatness entails moral goodness). We’ll give him moral badness instead and call him “Anti-God” as Craig does. What makes this argument any more or less compelling than the standard moral argument?

1. If Anti-God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties exist.
3. Therefore, Anti-God exists.

After all, what’s required for objective moral values and duties is a transcendent source of moral values and duties. But what stops that source being an inherent evil being, rather than an inherently good being? Either way, objective values find a source. Craig could say such a being can’t exist because God necessarily exists, but at that point he’s forced to use the ontological argument, and the moral argument ceases to be dialectically useful.

Again that argument wasn’t made, but I do find it interesting. I conclude that Stephen Law won because he provided a better case for the non-existence of God (who is necessarily good) than Craig did for the existence of God. However, I imagine that Craig might take the moral victory. After all, with the KCA untouched he did put forward an unchallenged case for an immaterial, all-powerful, spaceless, timeless, unchanging, personal being. Although not technically theism, it is theism in spirit. So perhaps both debaters can walk away happy. Law had a narrow and focussed objective, which he succeeded in achieving, but it may not have been broad enough to satisfy his fellow atheists.

Overall it’s a wonderful and refreshing debate that I highly recommend listening to. It was nice not to see Craig’s opponent make the same typical blunders and misunderstandings. Law clearly has a sharp mind and I’m keen to look into his work; I was smiling all throughout his inventive “Evil God” argument. Craig was by no means white-washed, but his opening hand set him up for a difficult time given Law’s tactics.

If it seems I’m being harsh on Craig, I should balance this with the fact that I’m extremely excited to hear him talk (and hopefully to meet him) at the be-thinking.org apologetics day conference this Saturday! Can’t wait!

EDIT: I now have some further comments on the evil god argument over here, and thoughts on Law’s discussion with Glenn Peoples on the argument over here.