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.