Stephen Law’s Evil God Hypothesis
There were a number of points that Stephen Law made in his book Believing Bullshit which I didn’t have time to address in my already bloated review. One of those was his so-called “Evil God hypothesis” (henceforth the EGH), a clever, if abortive, attempt to undermine theodicies (see pp. 24-27).
First off, what is a theodicy? Theodicies attempt to reconcile the existence of a loving and omnipotent God with the existence of evil in the world by pointing out reasons that God could have for allowing evil. Law’s EGH points out that the same type of reasoning used by the theodicist to reconcile a maximally good God to the evil we find in the world can be used to reconcile a maximally evil God to the good in the world. Given that such arguments don’t persuade us that an evil god exists, neither should they persuade us that a good God exists.
Law has a delightful little section where he quickly summarizes three “evil theodicies” which could be used to defend the existence of a maximally evil God. He begins with the so-called “reverse free will theodicy” which he summarizes like this:
“Evil god could have made us puppet beings that always did the wrong thing, so that we always acted to maximize pain and suffering. but then the world would have lacked one of the most profound and important forms of evil–moral evil: evil freely done of our own volition for which we can be held morally responsible.” (26)
Law drives the point home with a “character-destroying theodicy” and a “reverse laws of nature theodicy”.
And yet, despite all these impressive theodicies for a maximally evil deity, we don’t seriously consider that such an entity might exist. This brings us to the punchline of the EGH:
“The fact is, the amount of good that exists clearly is sufficient to place beyond reasonable doubt the conclusion that there is no evil god, notwithstanding such ingenious and convoluted attempts to try to explain it away. But if it remains fairly obvious that there is no evil god, given the available evidence, why isn’t it equally obvious that there is no good God either?” (27)
Frankly I was surprised when I read this argument because it evinced a rather glaring misunderstanding of what it is theodices attempt to do. The point of a theodicy is not to provide evidence for the claim that God exists to persuade those who do not already accept that claim. Rather, the point is to deal with putative defeaters to the claim by demonstrating that those defeaters do not work.
Here’s an illustration of what I mean. Let’s say that Jones devises an experiment in order to prove that he can generate phlegm in a test tube under controlled conditions. Jones runs the experiment and sure enough afterward a substance appears in the test tube. However, Jones’ detractors argue that the substance is not phlegm because it is brown and yellow, not green. By pointing this out the detractors have presented a defeater to Jones’ claim that he produced phlegm. After all, phlegm is supposed to be green, isn’t it?
Well, maybe not. Jones then provides a defeater to their defeater. “Phlegm isn’t necessarily green,” he says. “It can be yellowish and/or brownish.” Let’s carefully note what Jones’ rebuttal accomplishes. It doesn’t establish the truth of the claim “Jones’ experiment did produce phlegm.” But it does undermine our conviction in the truth of the claim “Jones’ experiment did not produce phlegm.” In other words, it keeps Jones’ claim that he did produce phlegm in the running and should keep open minds listening.
That’s precisely what a theodicy aims to do. It doesn’t seek to establish the truth of the claim “God exists” but it does seek to undermine our conviction in the truth of the claim “God does not exist”, at least with respect to the existence of evil. (A person may have other reasons to reject the existence of God of course. But then no argument can deal with everything.)
Now let’s think about the EGH again. If there were in fact people who believed in the existence of a maximally evil god then they could develop precisely the kinds of arguments that Law outlines in his book. Such arguments, if successful, would not establish the truth of the claim “an evil god exists” but they would undermine at least one defeater to that claim (i.e. the defeater that there is too much good in the world for such a god to exist.)
Finally, let me note that atheists argue this way as well. At issue is this proposition:
Moral Realist Thesis (MRT): “There are moral facts which obtain irrespective of whether any human individual or community believes them.”
Many people are moral realists who believe that MRT is true. Many of those people also argue that MRT is inconsistent with atheism and thus they argue from MRT to the existence of God. (Even the great atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie famously conceded the force of such an argument.) But here’s the interesting thing. Many atheists have argued that MRT is consistent with atheism and thus that MRT does not constitute a defeater for atheism. If Law’s EGH critique of defeater-defeater arguments like theodicies had any merit then the theist could use it against the atheist’s attempt to reconcile atheism to MRT. So in retrospect it is actually a good thing for the atheist that Law’s argument is without merit.