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.
“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.
“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.
- Stephen Law, ‘The Evil-God Challenge’, Religious Studies, (Cambridge University Press 2009), p.1
- Ibid., p.4
- Ibid., p.19,20
- Ibid., p.20