A response to the problem of an ‘evil god’ as raised by Stephen Law

Stephen Law has suggested that arguments such as the cosmological and teleological arguments could serve equally well to support an evil god hypothesis.

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He says:

The challenge is to explain why the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-good god should be considered significantly more reasonable than the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-evil god.” [1]

This is reminiscent of the evil demon in Descartes’ Meditations. However, whereas Descartes was introducing the evil demon hypothesis for epistemological reasons Law is raising the evil god hypothesis as a challenge to theism. His challenge is for theological reasons.

Some responses to Law have failed to grasp his argument or have suggested Law’s argument fails to challenge Christian theism (eg. Edward Feser). I think that is incorrect and Law’s challenge should be taken seriously just as Descartes took the evil demon seriously. More reasonable responses to Law have appealed to the fact that Christian theism has other arguments in addition which move us toward a specifically Christian God (such as the moral argument). Whilst I think there is some value in such responses I think there is a better approach.

I will argue that the case for Christian theism is far more rational than the evil god hypothesis on the basis of an a priori argument rather than the successive addition of other a posteriori arguments.

As soon as we look at the proposal we find a problem with Law’s challenge. Whereas Christian theists have been very specific with their definition of a good God, Law is quite vague about what the exact nature of this evil god is.

Law states:

“The challenge is to explain why the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-good god should be considered significantly more reasonable than the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-evil god.” [2]

In describing the evil god he continues:

“Rather, imagine that he is maximally evil. His depravity is without limit. His cruelty knows no bounds. There is no other god or gods – just this supremely wicked being. Call this the evil-god hypothesis.” [3]

So we have the proposal of a “maximally evil” god. Since my response is going to be an a priori one it is worth noting that Law has made reference to such possible attacks and he mentions those of Plato and Daniels. He describes the replies as such:

“A rather different argument would be: ‘But by bringing about evil, your evil god thereby aims to satisfy his own desire for evil; and the satisfaction of a desire is an intrinsic good. Thus the idea of a maximally evil god aiming to produce an intrinsic good involves a contradiction.’

This argument also fails. Even if we grant the dubious assumption that the satisfying of any desire – even an evil one – is an intrinsic good, the most we have revealed, here, is another local asymmetry – that, in aiming to maximize evil, evil god would have also to aim to achieve at least one intrinsic good (namely, the satisfaction of his desire to maximize evil). What we have established, perhaps, is that there are certain logical limits on God’s evilness (just as there are also logical limits on His power: He can’t make a stone so heavy that it cannot be lifted). Evil god can still be maximally evil – as evil as it is logically possible to be.

We have not yet established a contradiction in the notion of a maximally evil being.

There is, in any case, a more general point to be made about arguments attempting to show that an evil god is an impossibility and that the evil-god challenge is thus met. The point is this: even supposing an evil god is, for some reason X, an impossibility, we can still ask the hypothetical question: setting aside the fact that so-and-so establishes that an evil god is an impossibility, how reasonable would it otherwise be to suppose that such an evil being exists? If the answer is ‘highly unreasonable’, i.e. because of the problem of good, then the evil-god challenge can still be run. We can still ask theists to explain why, if they would otherwise reject the evil-god hypothesis as highly unreasonable, do they not take the same view regarding the good-god hypothesis?” [4]

I do agree with Law that it appears to be a huge assumption to think that the satisfaction of a desire is, to some extent, necessarily some kind of good. Could we ever bring ourselves to say that the satisfaction of the mass-murderer in accomplishing his goals is some kind of good? I seriously doubt it.

For now I want to aim my criticism of the evil god hypothesis not at some dubious assumption and neither do I wish it to be a problem which could be replied to by asserting some evil god who is maximally great in a logically bound sense. I am therefore aiming my criticism at a logically maximally evil god concept. I am going to argue that such a being is logically impossible with the fact of our existence per se.

As I noted earlier, since Law is ambiguous about the specific attributes of evil god, one has to think he means a god with the completely opposing attributes to the broadly traditional monotheistic God. Therefore such an evil god would be maximally cruel, unjust, selfish etc.

I am going to focus on the quality of being maximally selfish. That is to say, this evil god is exclusively concerned with itself. Not only is it exclusively concerned with itself but it is exclusively concerned with itself to the logically maximum degree possible. My argument would run as follows.

1. Any maximally logical great being (MLGB) in any possible world would need to have all their characteristics to the logical maximum.

2. An evil MLGB in any possible world would have selfishness to its maximum extent.

3. An evil MLGB in any possible world would not be willing to share anything at all being maximally selfish and completely self-absorbed.

4. An evil MLGB in any possible world would be capable of not creating anything else.

5. An evil MLGB in any possible world would not have the will to create anything due to its supreme selfishness.

6. An evil MLGB in any possible world would not create anything.

However, if 6 follows, and logically it appears to, then our very existence appears to contradict the proposal of any logically possible evil god. In fact, I could take 6 further and add that any evil MLGB would not even have the thought of considering the creation of anything else since that would be, even in some small sense, to think of others which would be a good. For an evil MLGB to have a good thought is illogical.

The response to the evil god hypothesis is, therefore, not that it is highly unreasonable that such a being exists but that it is completely unreasonable that such a being should exist given the existence of other beings.

We can now show an evil god to be an illogical concept by adding:

7. Something other than evil god exists.

Not even hyperbolic scepticism will rescue the evil god hypothesis in this case since the mode of my existence has no bearing on this criticism. The doubt employed to rescue evil god would have to doubt that there is even any kind of res cogitans at all. Unless, that is, the thinking thing is itself the evil god. But if this is so then evil god is no longer maximally great in terms of its omniscience since our own experience contradicts such a notion. Therefore none of us can possibly be evil god.

Another reply might be made upon premise #5. Some might posit that an evil god could create something else for purely evil intentions. The reason for that is to create more opportunities to be evil. However, this premise can be answered by stating that this creation of torture and sadism, whilst consistent with his evilness, is not consistent with his supreme selfishness. We must remember that this evil god is supremely selfish. He has selfishness to the absolutely logically maximum possible degree. This means that such a being could never give any thought whatsoever to anything else – let alone giving existence to any other creature. I am not claiming that creation is, per se, a selfless act and I don’t need to. I only need to show it is incompatible with being maximally selfish. Thus our mere existence remains completely incompatible with the evil god hypothesis.

Another possible reply might insist that in order for evil god to maximize his evilness this might require some lack of maximal selfishness [to accommodate for the fact that we do exist]. In this scenario evil god is unable to be completely self-consumed. In that case the atheist must make some case for a coherent evil god who is no longer maximally selfish. Perhaps evil god sacrifices some selfishness in order to be maximally evil in terms of the suffering it causes to something outside itself. However, if evilness itself requires some object which it can be evil toward then this god cannot be a necessary being but must be contingent. The existence of evil god would only make any sense in relationship to some other being to which it could be evil in relationship to. The necessary relationship is one where evil god is the perpetrator and there is some victim. But now evil god must sacrifice being maximally powerful since his very existence depends upon the existence of something other than himself. So this reply opens up a plethora of other philosophical problems for evil god where the atheist may well open himself up to the charge of moulding evil god ad hoc and Law, himself, noted the desire to avoid creating an ad hoc evil god concept.

By contrast, there exist several proposals of a coherently good God made by Christian philosophers and therefore a posteriori arguments for the existence of God can only, logically, be proposed for a good God. There already exist very good, rational grounds for thinking an omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good God exist through Alvin Plantinga’s modal ontological argument. As Plantinga has stated, the argument is not a proof of God’s existence but makes the existence of such a God completely rational. There are also the more traditional responses given by theists to show the attributes of an all-good God are coherent, such as in Richard Swinburne’s ‘The Coherence of Theism’. Certainly, if Law were to reject the coherence of the God of Christianity he would have to demonstrate it in order to put his evil god on par with the Christian God.

Law has already hinted at the direction he would take if it were shown that evil god is completely incoherent. He says:

“The point is this: even supposing an evil god is, for some reason X, an impossibility, we can still ask the hypothetical question: setting aside the fact that so-and-so establishes that an evil god is an impossibility, how reasonable would it otherwise be to suppose that such an evil being exists ? If the answer is ‘highly unreasonable’, i.e. because of the problem of good, then the evil-god challenge can still be run. We can still ask theists to explain why, if they would otherwise reject the evil-god hypothesis as highly unreasonable, do they not take the same view regarding the good-god hypothesis?” [5]

I reject this is so. As Law himself, among others, has pointed out; the empirical evidence alone is not enough to make such a judgement with any confidence. The good we experience could be part of evil god’s ruse and all the flipped theodicies can work in favour of evil god. In my opinion, there is no powerful empirical evidence against evil god from observing good in our world just as there is no powerful empirical evidence against a good God from observing evil in the world.

Law could make a last-stand appeal to a mysterious evil god hypothesis but this would be a concession of defeat as he himself has pointed out that such appeals are merely invoking mystery in the place of reasonable explanation and therefore are to be rejected.

I hope to have shown that I take the evil god challenge seriously, as I think it should be. However, since I have given good reasons for thinking evil god is illogical and, in addition to that, I reject the empirical experience of good and evil as pointing toward either a good God or an evil one I would dare claim I have met the challenge as given by Law.

[1] Stephen Law, ‘The evil-god challenge’, Religious Studies, (Cambridge University Press 2009), p.1

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p.4

[4] Ibid., p.19,20

[5] Ibid., p.20

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About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
This entry was posted in Atheism, Theodicy, Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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