Was Stephen Law guilty of a bait and switch?

Posted on 10/19/11 22 Comments

In my summary of the debate I argued that Law was guilty of a bait and switch. I wrote: 

“In his closing Law made a striking admission. His argument from the evidential problem of evil is not actually aiming to show that God does not exist. In other words, his argument is consistent with many forms of theism. Law’s argument is not that God does not exist but rather that a maximally good God who cares about his creatures does not exist. Based on this Law observes that Craig’s first argument for the kalaam cosmological argument is actually irrelevant to his argument. In other words, Law is willing to concede (at least for the debate) that a divine being may have created the universe so long as we don’t recognize that divine being as maximally good (or, I would clarify, as that maximal goodness being expressed in omnibenevolence).”

Landon Hedrick responded by asserting that I was wrong. I. was. wrong. Here is the offending statement:

Regarding the “bait and switch,” I’m afraid you and Craig are wrong on this one. The evidential argument from evil aims to prove that God does not exist, given that “God” is conceived of as an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect being. Law had in mind that there can be other “theistic” hypotheses, in which there is a being that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally neutral (or even maximally evil). So he’s saying that the argument doesn’t disprove those other hypotheses, only what you might call the “perfect God hypothesis.”

Here’s why this isn’t a bait and switch. Most philosophers think that omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection are essential attributes of God. That means that any being lacking any of those properties would not be, properly speaking, “God.” Craig himself believes this, as he explicitly said during the debate! He pointed out in his first rebuttal, I think, that it’s misleading to talk about the “Evil God” as “God,” since God is by definition perfectly good. But then if God is, by definition, perfectly good, Law’s evidential argument from evil was right on topic after all, since it aims to disprove such a being. My guess is that you, like Craig, believe that any being that isn’t morally perfect cannot be “God.” (Am I right?) Then why the complaint that the conclusion of the argument is consistent with theism?

Now as I respond to Landon’s charge keep in mind that I have only listened to the debate to this point up to and including Craig’s first rebuttal.

So am I flat-out wrong? I think it is not quite that simple. What we have here is admittedly a strategic move on Stephen Law’s part. In his opener he opted to leave it open that a being of great power brought the world into existence. In other words, he didn’t touch the kalam cosmological argument. Yes, this lifts from his shoulders the burden of providing a plausible account for the origin of the universe. But it does so at significant cost.

Here’s the cost. Even if Law is successful in his argument, a person could walk away from the debate persuaded that a being of infinite power brought the universe into existence. And that is not all. The fact is that that person could walk away holding a doctrine of God like that of leading Christian theologian and ethicist James Gustafson which affirms God’s perfect goodness but denies omnibenevolence. And that’s the point I made above. Law focuses his whole argument so narrowly that it only critiques one attribute in the classical theist’s package. His argument is in fact consistent with many Christian theologies of God. Any pro-atheist argument which is consistent with the existence of God as defined in some orthodox Christian theologies is a very weak argument indeed.

I’ll concede it is probably too strong to call Law’s method a “bait and switch”. However, it is worth underscoring just how modest his argument is. It is almost as glaring as if he had decided to rebut atemporal views of God while ignoring the fact that many theologians understand God to be a temporal being.

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  • Walter

    I agree that this was a calculated attack on a specific formula for God that Craig affirms, but it was not a strong pro-atheist argument. Law’s arguments would do nothing to persuade me to abandon my belief in deism. They are however good arguments to use against those who hide behind skeptical theism to promote belief in a maximally benevolent god despite seeming evidence to the contrary.

    • Robert

      His argument is in fact consistent with many Christian theologies of God.

      Can you lay out exactly what you think Stephen Law’s argument is? I really have no idea how you can come to this conclusion, so I need to know what you think Law was trying to say.

      • Robert

        Oops. That was not a reply to Walter, but a question for Randal instead.

      • randal

        The point is that the existence of evil in the world is compatible with a perfectly good God if it is understood that “perfectly good” does not necessarily map onto the world in the way that omnibenevolence would. That is James Gustafson’s view, and I dare say it is the view of very many Calvinists too.

  • Jag Levak

    “I thought Law was arguing the case for atheism”

    That does not appear to have been the topic of the debate.

    “Even if Law is successful in his argument, a person could walk away from the debate persuaded that a being of infinite power brought the universe into existence.”

    He could have knocked down infinite goodness, infinite power, infinite knowledge, and any notion that the universe was created by a being at all, and that still would have left the door open for thousands of gods humans have worshipped. Going after all conceivable gods would have been well beyond the scope of the question under consideration, which was concerned only with the existence of big “G”, proper name, God. Law’s decision to restrict his focus seemed pretty sensible to me.

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  • http://landonhedrick.blogspot.com Landon Hedrick

    Randal,

    It’s not clear to me why you think the kalam cosmological argument establishes that the creator of the universe is omnipotent. Craig claims that the personal creator must be enormously powerful, but he doesn’t say that the creator is omnipotent, because the conceptual analysis he engages in at the end of the kalam argument does not establish the latter claim. So, at best, leaving the kalam argument unrefuted would allow the audience to walk away believing that some powerful immaterial person created the universe.

    Your more general complaint is that the evidential argument from evil, as formulated by Law, is not really an argument for atheism. You seem to think that it’s an argument against some conception of God that theists can reject without thereby embracing atheism. As you put the point: “Law’s argument is not that God does not exist but rather that a maximally good God who cares about his creatures does not exist.”

    My point is that theists generally think that the property of being maximally good is essential to God, and this of course entails that God cares about his creatures. This is why the argument from evil is generally considered an argument for atheism, not just a modest argument against one narrow version of theism. I suspect that Craig would say that if the evidential argument from evil is sound, then atheism is true. (In other words, he wouldn’t say what you seem prepared to say: “Okay, maybe God isn’t maximally good after all.” He would just deny that such a being could be God.)

    • randal

      “It’s not clear to me why you think the kalam cosmological argument establishes that the creator of the universe is omnipotent.”

      Of course it need not be. A highly developed civilization from another universe could have conceivably created this one.

      “My point is that theists generally think that the property of being maximally good is essential to God, and this of course entails that God cares about his creatures.”

      “I suspect that Craig would say that if the evidential argument from evil is sound, then atheism is true. (In other words, he wouldn’t say what you seem prepared to say: “Okay, maybe God isn’t maximally good after all.” He would just deny that such a being could be God.)”

      I doubt that. Let’s say that Craig is forced to give up the view that God is omnibenevolent. You really think he’d become an atheist? Perhaps. Or perhaps he’d adopt the theology of James Gustafson. Anyway, I’ll speak for myself. I suspect that I’d probably lean toward a theology more like Gustafson’s if I felt the evidential problem from argument really had painted me into a corner.

      • http://landonhedrick.blogspot.com Landon Hedrick

        Randal,

        It seems like you’re conceding the point regarding the kalam cosmological argument, so I’ll just reply to the other part of your comment.

        You wrote: “I doubt that. Let’s say that Craig is forced to give up the view that God is omnibenevolent. You really think he’d become an atheist?”

        I think you’re misunderstanding how Craig is conceiving the topic. I take it that Craig thinks God is essentially maximally good, which means that God is maximally good in every possible world in which he exists. Any being lacking this property would therefore not be God, according to Craig. And the evidential argument from evil seeks to disprove such a being (who is also conceived to be omnipotent and omniscient). As evidence that Craig holds the view I’m claiming he holds, I submit the following evidence:

        “A statement like “God is good” may be taken as a synthetic statement expressing a proposition that is metaphysically necessary both in the sense that the proposition is true in all possible worlds and in the sense that goodness is an essential property of God.” (Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 531)

        “God is essentially compassionate, fair, kind, impartial and so forth, and his commandments are reflections of his own character. Thus they are not arbitrary, and we need not trouble ourselves about counterfactuals with impossible antecedents like “If God were to command child abuse,…” God may be said to be good in the sense that he possesses all these moral virtues–and he does so essentially and to the maximal degree!” (ibid.)

        “On to Craig’s second point. Here he takes on Law’s evil God argument by arguing that the concept of an evil God is contradictory since God is essentially morally good. Thus, you cannot have an evil God, though you could have an evil non-divine creator of the universe.” (Your summary of Craig’s first rebuttal in the Craig-Law debate)

        Now, if one were to prove that no existing being is omnipotent, omniscient, and maximally good (by, say, defending the evidential argument from evil, as Law did in the debate), then he/she will have thereby proven that God does not exist–on the assumption that omnipotence and omniscience are similarly thought to be essential attributes of God, as Craig believes.

        There’s another debate to have, perhaps equally interesting (if not more), which is: Was the universe created by an intelligent, powerful person? You might even debate whether or not it’s fitting to call such a being “God,” regardless of its other attributes. But Craig is taking very a popular view here, I think. I’m not familiar with James Gustafson or his views on the matter.

        • randal

          On the omnipotence bit, sure the kalam cosmological argument wouldn’t establish that the creator is omnipotent any more than the Bible establishes it. Christians don’t believe God is omnipotent because of any description of what God has done whether it be as told in the Bible or a three step argument.

          You write: “I think you’re misunderstanding how Craig is conceiving the topic.” I don’t think so. I fully agree with everything you say about Craig’s stated views on the matter. That’s not the point. The point is whether, if faced with an insurmountable case from the problem of evil, he’d abandon theism altogether or instead revisit his stated assumptions. And I just don’t think we can know how he would respond in that situation. Like many Christians, Craig believes he has experienced the providential hand of God in his life at many times. Would he suddenly abandon all that or would he conclude — at least tentatively — that God is perhaps not omnibenevolent after all. But he’s still much better than you and me. Again, I don’t know.

          • http://landonhedrick.blogspot.com Landon Hedrick

            Randal,

            Regarding the omnipotence thing, my original intention was to comment on your claim that by neglecting the kalam argument Law was allowing the audience to walk away convinced that there’s an omnipotent creator of the universe. My point was just that they would be unwarranted in concluding that the creator was omnipotent on the basis of the argument. Rather, Law was allowing the audience to walk away convinced that there was a powerful, personal creator of the universe. But this is consistent with theism or atheism, as traditionally construed.

            You wrote: “The point is whether, if faced with an insurmountable case from the problem of evil, he’d abandon theism altogether or instead revisit his stated assumptions.”

            So here we have Craig claiming that God is essentially maximally good, such that any being that isn’t maximally good cannot, by definition, be God. Now supposing Craig gets convinced that no such person exists. My claim is that he’s committed to saying that God does not exist, even if he still believes in a creator/intelligent designer. You’re saying that he might just go back and deny what he used to claim–that God is *essentially* maximally good. In that way he might retain “theism,” though the word “theism” would then have a different meaning than it does for Craig now.

            Personally, I think there’s an interesting issue here, but I’m beginning to see that it’s related to an issue that’s too deep to get to the bottom of here on this blog. In fact, it’s closely related to some issues that I’ve been considering working on for my dissertation. So I’m not wanting to cover the issue comprehensively in these comments.

            Nevertheless, I have some more evidence for Craig’s view of the matter which seems to directly favor what I’ve been saying, as he pretty much explicitly says it in this video:

            http://www.closertotruth.com/video-profile/How-Free-is-God-William-Lane-Craig-/641

            (Let me know if that convinces you. I don’t know how Craig could have been any more clear.) If your only point in response is to note that, psychologically, we don’t know what Craig would do when confronted with a version of the argument from evil that he thought was sound, then that’s just irrelevant. My point was not to determine what Craig would really do in such a scenario, but to comment on what he’s committed to. The fact of the matter is, you were commenting on a debate in which Stephen Law aimed to disprove the traditional concept of God (which Craig subscribes to), and you were wanting to claim that Law’s argument only purports to disprove *some* versions of theism, leaving other versions of theism intact. But most philosophers think that the argument from evil is an argument for atheism, and they think this because it’s supposed to be part of the concept of God that he has these various attributes which would entail that we not find so much evil in the world. So your complaint against Law is really a complaint against all those philosophers who look at the argument in the traditional way–seeing the argument from evil as an argument for atheism, rather than an argument against a very limited range of possible theistic views. But Law can’t be faulted for engaging in the debate in the traditional manner, which most philosophers (I take it) accept. The fact that you apparently take a non-traditional approach to theism would mean that, if you were the one debating Law, we would have been more warranted in criticizing you for moving the goalposts (if you had made this sort of criticism in the debate).

            Interestingly, while flipping through some old volumes of “Religious Studies” (journal) earlier today, I came across a paper by James Rachels which was directly relevant to our discussion. I thought it’d be worth quoting him:

            “It is necessarily true that God (if He exists) is worthy of worship. Any being who is not worthy of worship cannot be God, just as any being who is not omnipotent, or who is not perfectly good, cannot be God. This is reflected in the attitudes of religious believers who recognize that, whatever else God may be, He is a being before whom men should bow down. Moreover, He is unique in this; to worship anyone or anything else is blasphemy.” (“God and Human Attitudes” by James Rachels, Religious Studies 7 [1971], p. 325)

            “This objection rests on a misunderstanding of the assertion that (necessarily) God is perfectly good. This can be intelligibly asserted only because the principle that ‘No being who is not perfectly good may bear the title ‘God’.’ We cannot determine whether some being is God without first checking on whether he is perfectly good; and we cannot decide whether he is perfectly good without knowing (among other things) whether his commands to us are right.” (p. 335)

            • randal

              Landon, I’ll get to this comment this evening or tomorrow. I’m speaking at this conference again today. On the upside, I just heard a good personal anecdote about William Lane Craig from the plenary speaker. :) On the downside, I’m not at liberty to share it. :(

            • randal

              “My point was just that they would be unwarranted in concluding that the creator was omnipotent on the basis of the argument.”

              Correct. They would conclude that an agent of great power created the universe. If they had independent reasons for believing that agent was God then they could conclude that the agent is omnipotent.

              “Law was allowing the audience to walk away convinced that there was a powerful, personal creator of the universe. But this is consistent with theism or atheism, as traditionally construed.”

              Sure. But you know the old saying “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…” Most atheists would be rather unhappy about accepting that some super-powerful agent created the universe. And I don’t know a naturalist who would accept it.

              “My claim is that he’s committed to saying that God does not exist, even if he still believes in a creator/intelligent designer.”

              I agree one hundred percent that that is Craig’s present view. I just am doubtful that his present view can settle the matter of what he might believe in different circumstances.

              Consider Evangelist Bob. He’s a health and wealth preacher. As such he is committed to the view that any Christian who is sick has become sick because of their lack of faith. A person can ask “I wonder what Bob would say if he became very sick?” You could answer “He’d conclude he didn’t have enough faith.” According to his present views consistency would indeed demand that. But would he necessarily maintain consistency with his present views if he found himself in that situation? I don’t know, but I doubt it. Same point here. If Craig abamdoned the divine omnibenevolence would he maintain consistency by rejecting Christianity or would he rework his theology and maintain his Christianity? It seems hopeless to speculate in my view.

              Many Christians would agree that the attribute of perfect goodness is manifest in the utmost care for the flourishing of every sentient creature. But many other Christians deny this interpretation even while they continue to affirm the attribute of perfect goodness.

              • http://landonhedrick.blogspot.com Landon Hedrick

                Randal,

                I understand that most atheists would reject the notion that there was a personal creator of the universe. But I’m just taking Craig at his word when he (implicitly) insists that the creator could be someone other than God. Why don’t you take Craig at his word too?

                As for what Craig would do in this hypothetical scenario, again, that’s a question about his psychology and it’s irrelevant to the real issue here. I’m just commenting on what Craig is committed to, given the positions he holds. And I think that’s sufficient to establish that Law wasn’t guilty of bait and switch.

                • randal

                  “I’m just commenting on what Craig is committed to, given the positions he holds. And I think that’s sufficient to establish that Law wasn’t guilty of bait and switch.”

                  I already am in print as saying he was not really guilty of a bait and switch. I think Law sought to pursue a very interesting but relatively narrow surgical strike to Craig’s position. Whether it blew up the Deathstar or was merely a glancing blow is something I’ll leave to others to decide. But I will note (as I have already) that Law’s relatively narrow focus would, even if perfectly successful, leave many atheists (and certainly many naturalists) unsatisfied and leave at least some Christians saying “I never held that view of God to begin with.”

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  • http://www.theaunicornist.com Mike D

    “In other words, he didn’t touch the kalam cosmological argument. Yes, this lifts from his shoulders the burden of providing a plausible account for the origin of the universe. But it does so at significant cost.”

    Uh, no. That’s sort of like a Bronze Age physician claiming that it’s the burden of naturalists to prove that demons don’t cause colds. The non-believer does not have to provide an alternative account for the origin of the universe (assuming the universe even has an ‘origin’); ‘I don’t know – nobody does!’ is a valid epistemic answer. The fact that a naturalistic answer is either unapparent or unknown does not mean that a supernatural explanation becomes valid by default.

    The burden is entirely on Craig to prove the assertion that God is the only plausible explanation for the existence of the universe, and all his opponent needs to do is argue that the Craig has not succeeded. People are welcome to dis/agree on the efficacy of those arguments, but the non-believer has no burden to provide an ‘alternative’ explanation.

    • randal

      When two individuals enter a debate they both shoulder a burden of proof because they both have a positive case to argue. Part of Craig’s case consisted of providing an agent-causal account of the universe’s origin. Insofar as Law failed to address that argument he hurt his own case since an agent-causal account of the universe’s origin is prima facie evidence for theism but not atheism.

      • http://landonhedrick.blogspot.com Landon Hedrick

        Here’s something interesting about the kalam cosmological argument. The reason we want to say it’s not evidence for atheism is because the argument’s conclusion is compatible with theism, since the creator might be God.

        But now that sword cuts both ways, because the argument’s conclusion is also compatible with atheism, since the creator might be Evil God (by Craig’s own admission, and he thinks that this would be an atheistic view).

        Oh, but I think Mike is a little mixed up regarding the burden of proof. Craig did shoulder his burden of defending the kalam argument, which means that insofar as that argument supports his case for theism, Law has a burden to undermine the argument. Law just didn’t bother with it because it happens to not support theism over atheism.

        • randal

          Of course a rock dated at 3.8 billion years ago is compatible with the hypothesis that God created rocks 10,000 years ago with apparent age. But if a God who deceives people by creating rocks with apparent age is not a live option in your plausibility structure then you won’t consider it. And most people don’t consider an evil god a live option within their plausibility structure. So the fact that an argument is amenable to multiple different scenarios is not a unique problem for the kalam.

          • http://landonhedrick.blogspot.com Landon Hedrick

            Randal,

            I’ve been thinking about something similar regarding this issue. The fact that the hypotheses are underdetermined by the evidence does naturally lead one to worry that pressing this objection will land us in skepticism. But I don’t see how that will save the proponent of the kalam cosmological argument here, because it would still remain the case that it doesn’t establish theism over the alternatives. I’ll be thinking more about this.