A Response to the Problem of an ‘Evil God’ as Raised by Stephen Law

by Max Andrews

The following is a guest blog post by Michael Rundle. Michael has a BA in Theology with Honors (PGCE).  His area of research is in the philosophy of René Descartes and twentieth century theology.

__________

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

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 reminds me 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 to 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 attack is going to be an a priori one it is worth noting first 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 evil god 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, 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 the last proposition 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. 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 evil god in this case since the type of my existence has no bearing on this criticism (eg. whether I am a brain in a vat or in the Matrix). The doubt employed to rescue evil god would have to doubt that there is even any kind of res cogitans (thinking thing) 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.

(Edit: 20 Jan, 2011. 13:40) Another attack 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 defended against this point 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.

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 per se 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 himself in order to put his evil god back 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 just as there is no powerful empirical evidence against a good God.

Neither can Law appeal to a mysterious evil god hypothesis as he himself has pointed out that such appeals are merely ad hoc.

I hope to have shown that I take the evil god challenge seriously, as I think it should. However, since I have given good reasons for thinking evil god is completely 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 suggest 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

 


26 Responses to “A Response to the Problem of an ‘Evil God’ as Raised by Stephen Law”

  1. “However, if the last proposition follows, and logically it appears to, then our very existence appears to contradict the proposal of any logically possible evil god.”

    As you say, you are focusing purely on one attribute – maximum selfishness. But a maximally evil being would have have several competing attributes. A maximally cruel being would HAVE to create other beings in order to exercise its cruelty. This might overcome its selfishness.

    So perhaps we’ve shown that maximum cruelty is not compatible with maximum selfishness, or at least that one must over-ride the other. You already said this: “…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.” This seems invite that very reply. It is a similar reply to one given to ‘The Problem of Evil’ by supporters of a ‘maximally GREAT God’. With the latter the argument goes that certain requirements of a ‘max good’ God – eg, stops all suffering – are incompatible with other aspects – eg allows free will.

    That said, empirically we do not seem to exist under the bondage of a maximally evil being. However, we do not seem to exist under the patronage of a maximally benevolent one either. And equally, I do not think you have ruled out a hypothetical existence of the former either.

  2. I think this is more a problem of the very concept of talking about a ‘maximally x’ entity, where x has several different competing aspects. And what does it even mean to be ‘maximally perfect’? What would a ‘maximally perfect dog’ mean? Different people prize different qualities in dogs – whose ‘perfect’ is it? What does ‘maximally just’ even mean? It begs the question of what justice is. Different people will have different concepts of what it means to be kind or just or any of the other qualities we ascribe to a benevolent God. Even calling these qualities ‘positive’ is to beg the question.

    • Are you a subjectivist? Are saying there’s no sense of objective justice? Objective good?

      • I’m not sure, probably not. But I think you’d still need to establish criteria before you use terms like ‘ultimate justice’ or ‘ultimately kind’ or ‘ultimately tolerant’. And I could easily see these three qualities alone being in conflict with each other. Three different judges embodying one each of these qualities might come to very different judgments on the same defendant.

  3. Thank you Ryan. Food for thought. There may very well be another line of attack you raise and that is whether the attributes of evil god can actually logically combine without some terribly convoluted ad hoc monster taken on blind faith. I think this is an area worthy of further thought. The criticism I like the best, which you raise, is the issue of finding a way of reconciling maximum selfishness with being maximum cruel. Surely, at the very least, the atheist now bears some burden to demonstrate how they might logically blend? If they cannot demonstrate that there could be a being which is both logically maximally selfish whilst being maximally cruel then their proposal has still taken a huge blow.

    I am hoping this will move the discussion beyond the stand-off which currently appears to exist between Feser and Law. I think the challenge is more serious than Feser will admit.

    I am, somewhat, ignoring the issue of an objective definition of justice but no more than the atheist who borrows the Christian definition of ‘good’ in order to create their concept of ‘evil’ god. I think the question is which concept is more logical and coherent.

    Where I would disagree with you is whether we can tell anything about what kind of god exists on the basis of empirical data about suffering or happiness. Such matters are simply too subjective to constitute evidence one way or the other.

    Thanks for your thoughts Ryan. This is the kind of feedback I’m after.

    • Please feel free to call me my first name. You’re a Christian, you can use Christian names. In what respect are atheists ‘borrowing’ from Christianity when talking about ‘good’? The term does predate Christ you know!

      I also see no burden on atheists to show how max selfishness blends with max cruelty. I already explained why. This just flags up that the problems in describing a being as being maximal in more than one facet, a problem that exists just as much when describing a being that is maximal in features you prize, again as I already explained.

      • I’m being humorous regarding my name. Call me by my surname if you wish! Seriously, tone is hard to judge in text, so please take my posts as friendly.

      • Sorry Andrew. In my haste I used your surname – probably because it’s a common first name here too.

        The point is that I think there is a more rational case which can be made for an omnipotent, omniscient, all-good God than a case can be made for evil god. Keep in mind that Law sees the postulation of evil god as a replacement for the metaphysical consequences of arguments such as the cosmological and teleological arguments. He is asking why the inference from these arguments cannot be evil god. Therefore it’s quite important that Law defend this evil god has being maximally evil otherwise it’s just not a contender to sufficiently explain these arguments.

        So let the case study begin:
        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. Either way – evil god is no longer a good contender for a First Cause argument of any kind [and that is what Law wants evil god to be].

        I would suggest your murderer analogy is a category error since this murderer is not postulated as, in any way, maximally selfish. Also the analogy breaks down since the jogger already exists unlike with evil god where he must bring them into existence and the only positive aspect I suggested was existence itself and not the location of existence. This is the problem with arguing from analogies. They must be more analogous than disanalogous and I don’t think this one is.

        Thanks Andrew!

    • “The criticism I like the best, which you raise, is the issue of finding a way of reconciling maximum selfishness with being maximum cruel.”

      So imagine the following scenario: a sadistic murderer leaves his empty house, drags a jogger in from the streets, then beats him up and kills the unfortunate fellow in his front room. Would you say about this beast: “At least one can say the murderer is not selfish, for otherwise he would not have wanted to share his front room with the man he was torturing and killing. Therefore one can at least ascribe that positive aspect to his character.”

      I’m guessing you would say no such thing!

    • “Also the analogy breaks down since the jogger already exists”

      No, the analogy is fine – I said the murderer has his whole house to himself until he brings back his victim, then he’s sharing the front room with the jogger. But I’d wager that NO-ONE would say this is a sign the murderer is not selfish. And this applies regardless of whether I was trying to convince you the murderer was ‘max evil’ or not. You still wouldn’t label the act as an unselfish one; doing so would produce exactly the same queasy feeling you said you got from labelling the criminal ‘good’ for indulging in his nature in your original blog above.

      If a God created beings merely to torture, I’d call that a selfish act, not an unselfish one, as he’s putting his own sadistic desires before those of his creations. So there’s the resolution between max selfishness and max cruelty.

      Finally, some argue that selfishness is actually a virtue! I believe the objectivists, led by my near anagram namesake, Ayn Rand.

    • “But now evil god must sacrifice being maximally powerful since his very existence depends upon the existence of something other than himself.”

      The flip of this argument is that before a perfect being creates anything, it would be the only thing that exists, and therefore all existence would be perfect. As soon as it creates anything, perfection would be reduced, which creates a conflict. Furthermore, if a perfect being creates something with intention it must be done with desire; desire denotes a wish to improve, which further denotes that the current state is less than perfect.

      These conflicts for a maximally great being are at least as problematic as for a maximally evil one.

  4. Good stuff, however Dr. Law still doesn’t do anything at all to discrediting “Christian Theism” or any religion for that matter in regards to the “existence” of God.

    As if the Christian God would have just been deceptive and lied to us all, but this does nothing to whether or not he exists. Ok so we humans could be decieved from a higher power, what is our solution? Fight God?

    So this argument from Law does nothing.

    An Evil god is capable of lying.

    Anyways MR did a great job, I would have also brung up the fact that there is no reason for an afterlife. So why make us mortal when we can suffer eternally in this form we are in now?

    • Also wouldn’t an evil god be deceptive to the point where we cannot even trust our own reality? Doesn’t Law have to address this, as his whole epistemology could be in shambles.

      How do we know what we see is what is real?

      Back to my original point, Law states the Christian God is debunked if an evil god exists well I don’t see that as true at all hence deception is a trait of evilness.

      So even calling Law’s bluff does nothing to the “existence”

      Though we don’t even need to go that way, as Michael pointed out an evil god is weaker in the sense of dependency on another being to play bad guy.

      • “Also wouldn’t an evil god be deceptive to the point where we cannot even trust our own reality?”

        Why would that follow?

      • It follows in a way of a simulation.

        An Evil god being a deciever opens up the possibility of a solipsism with purpose.

      • The devil is pretty evil, but even he is supposed to mix truths in with his lies in order to deceive more successfully. Given that, it’s not much of a stretch to see that an evil God would not need to deceive us completely all the time.

  5. It’s an interesting argument.

    If you ignore the issue of natural evil (no small feat) and consider the free will defence for evil from free agents then it looks like a good God has logical restrictions that explain the existence of evil.
    The evil god has no such restrictions as he would not be required(in a strong sense) to allow free agents the opportunity to do good.
    I’m not sure I can extend this to natural evil however.

    • Thanks John.
      I think Law would reply by saying that even though evil god would not be required to allow free moral agents the opportunity to do good it makes sense that he would decide to since it might make the experience of evil even more painful. What hurts more? To watch someone die a painful death whom I have no feelings for or someone I love? Well, clearly the latter is worse and therefore evil god has some reason for permitting some degree of good to exist. I think that’s how any argument from restrictions won’t manage to respond to Law.

  6. Why couldn’t a maximally selfish God desire to own/control things outside himself?
    Couldn’t someone argue that, in fact, a maximally selfish God would desire to own/control as many things as compossible? Why wouldn’t a maximally selfish God at least prefer a world with worshippers?

    • Prima facie, you’ll have to define ‘control’ and the degree of weak and strong acutalizations. Also, defining selfish here is important. Biblically, God is very jealous but that doesn’t entail selfish, at least how I would define selfish. How do you define your terms?

  7. Why would selfishness prevent the evil God from creating anything? He’s not creating us and this world to share anything with us. He’s creating it to torture us.

    • Ignore my previous comment. I just saw your edit. I’m not satisfied, but it’s something.

    • Would his creating us to torture us be a good or right thing for him to do? (Which covers value and deontic imperatives) If it’s not the good thing for him to do then he would not do it if Thomas is correct in that we never do anything in which we believe has no good or right justification.

  8. Have you notified Law that his challenge has been met? I didn’t see any comments from him.

  9. Trackbacks

Leave a Reply