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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