Where Stephen Law goes wrong with his evil god argument

Posted on 10/20/11 28 Comments

The Atheist Missionary asked me to respond to Stephen Law’s evil god argument. His challenge came with an extended quote from Law. I’ve quoted the most important parts below:

“Most people will happily conclude there’s no evil god purely on the basis of the evidential problem of good (whether or not there are other reasons to reject the evil god hypothesis). So why isn’t the problem of evil similarly fatal to belief in a good god?

“Now Craig, quite amazingly, actually chose to play that sceptical card on the night, endorsing the (highly counter-intuitive and, by him on the night, pretty much unjustified) claim that observation of the the world can give us no grounds at all for supposing there’s no evil god (or good god).

“But note that that STILL doesn’t help Craig at all, so far as explaining why it’s more reasonable to believe in a good god rather than an evil god (the latter belief being absurd).

“The point is this: whether or not Craig plays the sceptical card, he’s still left having to explain why belief in his good god is very significantly more reasonable than the obviously absurd belief that there’s an evil god.”

I think Law is simply mistaken in his assumption that the Christian theist is committed to the view that the world provides evidence for the existence of a maximally good god over a maximally evil one.

Imagine for a moment that you are a detective called to a hotel room to the scene of a death. There you find an apparently distraught husband who tells you his wife slipped off the balcony and plunged ten stories to her untimely demise. A close study of the scene provides a range of evidence which could be reconciled with two different scenarios:

Scenario 1: The husband was a loving, caring spouse who witnessed his wife slip and fall and is now truly distraught over the loss.

Scenario 2: The husband was a conniving, uncaring spouse who pushed his wife and is now feigning sadness over the loss.

Life is full of situations like this where the evidence available to us is ambiguous. So the fact is that if you are to come to a conclusion on whether the husband was in fact a great spouse or a horrible one, it will not be based simply on the evidence available in the room.

So what will it be based on?

Consider the dead woman’s sister. She enters the room and immediately confirms scenario 2. She doesn’t affirm scenario 2 because of the ambiguous evidence available in the room however. Rather, she affirms it based on beliefs she brings to the room including the beliefs that her sister’s husband wanted a divorce, told her he’d kill her, and took out a fat life insurance policy on her a week before.

Law’s problem is that he treats reasoning about God as being limited to the ambiguous evidence in the hotel room. But the fact is that people bring a range of beliefs to the “hotel room” of life and interpret the evidence in light of those beliefs, whether those beliefs include “A good God exists” or “An evil god exists” or “No god exists.”

**Please note, today and tomorrow (Oct. 20-21) I’m speaking at a conference so my responses may be delayed.

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  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Law’s problem is that he treats reasoning about God as being limited to the ambiguous evidence in the hotel room. But the fact is that people bring a range of beliefs to the “hotel room” of life and interpret the evidence in light of those beliefs, whether those beliefs include “A good God exists” or “An evil god exists” or “No god exists.”

    So no amount of evidence of good in the world can establish a good God exists? Isn’t that Law’s point?

  • http://www.thepolemicalmedic.com Thrasymachus

    I don’t think Law is actually making this argument. Although, in everyone’s defense, it is pretty easy to mistake what line of argument Law was making (and, ultimately, that’s his fault).

    Law’s evil god argument is that we find evil god silly *because* of the good we observe in the world. There may be *other* reasons to think evil god is false, but the evidence of the good in the world alone is *sufficient* to refute this hypothesis.

    So, Law goes, if we think the great amounts of good are *sufficient* to refute evil god, then we can use the great amounts of evil as *sufficient* to refute god. So Craig needs to provide reasons against this. The sceptical theism approach can’t be ‘flipped’ like a theodicy, but it can be rebutted: so long as we find it plausible that lots of good does refute evil god, then there is no warrant for ‘one sided’ scepticism for god only.

    I’m not convinced by this argument: I’m not sure I should find evil god implausible just by looking at the good in the world. Law didn’t articulate this point clearly enough (lots of people have made the same interpretation you have, including Craig). But Craig didn’t – as far as I can hear – engage with it properly.

    • randal

      “Law’s evil god argument is that we find evil god silly *because* of the good we observe in the world. There may be *other* reasons to think evil god is false, but the evidence of the good in the world alone is *sufficient* to refute this hypothesis.”

      Who is the “we” here? I reject the evil God hypothesis but not because there is so much good that the very notion is silly, or grossly implausible or whatever. I can readily conceive an especially cruel and vindictive higher power who allows us to have various pleasures in our four score and ten as a way to intensify the sufferings he will impose on us in the afterlife. Starving is even worse when you have tasted wonderful food. Loneliness is even more agonizing when you’ve experienced intoxicating intimacy. Listening to Justin Beiber is even worse when you know well the Steve Miller Band.

      • http://www.thepolemicalmedic.com Thrasymachus

        Yeah, and Law uses precisely those flips to show the theodicy resources theist has can be used to defend evil God. Law is using evil god as an intuition pump: despite the theodicy and sceptical evil-theist moves we could make for evil-god, we just find the good as overwhelming counterveiling evidence for evil-god. So, by symmetry, we should say the same about the ePoE.

        • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David Parker

          “so long as we find it plausible that lots of good does refute evil god”

          But why should the theist find this plausible? It isn’t plausible to me at all.

          Besides, if an evil God exists necessarily, then evidential considerations apply only after showing that the probability calculus doesn’t run as usual here. And thus the grand question: How can contingent evidence support noncontingent propositions? (see here)

          To hold this line, all the theist needs to affirm is that if God exists, he exists necessarily. He needn’t affirm the ontological argument itself, only the first premise from the modal ontological argument.

        • randal

          “Yeah, and Law uses precisely those flips to show the theodicy resources theist has can be used to defend evil God.”

          That is completely irrelevant to the Christian theist. I can appeal to apparent age to explain the rugged look of my new stonewashed jeans. A young earth creationist can appeal to apparent age to explain the young age of an earth with apparently 3.8 billion year old rocks. But the fact that they can do that doesn’t worry me about dating my stonewash jeans one bit.

  • Stephen Law

    Thrasymachus has it right.

    Though I thought it was perfectly clear what I meant until Craig suggested this other thing is what I meant, which has confused some people. Though not this *Christian* commentator: http://apologiapad.wordpress.com/tag/debates/

    He writes: “Craig didn’t help himself in that he actually misunderstood the argument. He thought that the argument was trying to show that, on an inductive survey of the evidence, an evil creator god is as likely as a good creator god. But that wasn’t the argument.”

    • randal

      Stephen, where is your evidence that people reason in this way? I certainly don’t. In my view the evil in the world is perfectly compatible with an evil God who is simply out to play with our emotions, letting us experience some pleasure before he subjects us to eternal torment.

      I agree that as Christians, atheists, or whatever our plausibility structures are all operative in selecting certain hypotheses for live consideration and disregarding others. But to suggest that a Christian rejects certain theological claims because of the good experienced is just wrong.

    • David Parker

      Stephen,

      I’m confused by your objection to the first premise of the moral argument.

      Are you reading it as a strict entailment? (If God does not exist, OMV’s do not exist)

      There seems to be a distinction between conceptual forms of this argument and explanatory forms.

      Which do you take Craig to be using in the debate?

      1) (probable adduction) If God doesn’t exist, then OMV’s do not exist
      1′) (necessary truth) If God doesn’t exist, then OMV’s do not exist

      Your response about ruling out every possible atheistic explanation confuses me because that would imply that he was arguing that the condition was true in all possible worlds. Not so with adduction to an actually true conditional that might not be true in all possible worlds.

      As you rightly point out, there are possible explanations. But scientists don’t need to rule out every possible theory, and neither does Craig right?

      And if Craig is making a conceptual argument, then your response is valid; however, then the “best explanation” part doesn’t matter. Either a particular concept of OMV entails God’s existence or it doesn’t. You could have just replied, “yeah that’s nice, but how about this other concept of OMV that fits the cases better and is compatible with atheism.”

      Am I way off here?

      • Stephen Law

        Hi David

        “As you rightly point out, there are possible explanations. But scientists don’t need to rule out every possible theory, and neither does Craig right?”

        No, but to show their explanation is, or is probably right they need to rule out more than just ONE alternative.

        As to how Craig understands his conditional, ask him. But even if it’s just material implication, he still needs to show there is, or probably is, no atheist-friendly account. Rejecting one account that no one has ever even endorsed, to my knowledge, obviously doesn’t do that.

        Saying “well I can’t see how an atheist account could do it” ain’t an argument. It’s just a sneeky way of trying to shift the burden of proof.

        Remember, he has to show his premise that if no God then no objective moral value is true or probably true. I don’t have to show it’s false.

        And also remember that even if the first premise IS true, it STILL doesn’t prove God or undercut the problem of evil. Obviously!

  • Stephen Law

    PS What I actually said on the night in my opening speech is here (I read it).

    http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2011/10/opening-speech-craig-debate.html

    I don’t think it’s ambiguous at all. But I can certainly see how Craig succeeded in confusing people about what my argument was, though.

    My closing speech and other stuff I used (and also didn’t use) is all there too, if anyone’s interested.

    • ogtracy

      I think it was you who confused us, Law. Conceding the existence of God in a debate titled ‘Does God exist’ and then going on the question the characteristics of that God is a bit confusing, don’t you think?

    • http://markmaneyia.tumblr.com/ Mark

      Dr. Law,

      Does that mean if one thinks the great amounts of good in the world *aren’t* sufficient to refute evil god that one is then justified in saying (at least in principle) that we *can’t* use the great amounts of evil in the world as sufficient to refute good god?

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        Mark – Sounds about right. Randal himself above admits that the world doesn’t contain enough evidence to establish one or the other.

  • Stephen Law

    Dear Ogtracy – I didn’t concede there was any sort of god, of course. Craig said I did. But then he retracted the claim, when pressed by Brierley in the Q&A, admitting it was debate tactics. You fell for it, nevertheless.

    Mark, yes you could take that route – and Craig actually did. It’s weaknesses are:
    (i) it is deeply counter intuitive
    (ii) there was no real supporting srgument for it – just assertion-
    (iii) in any case, it still leaves evil and good god as equally absurd (given Craig admitted the latter was absurd). Craig was asked why the good god hypothesis is significsntly more reasonable. He only had two arguments to show it was, and they were very weak. Hence, I actually won the argument on the night, so far as I can see.

    Check my blog for the actual crits of his two arguments for a good god, which I simply read out:

    http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2011/10/my-criticisms-of-craigs-moral-and.html

    • Brad Haggard

      Dr. Law,

      First let me say that I think you did a good job of centering the debate on your argument, and pressed Craig effectively on the evidential POE.

      The thing that left me unconvinced, however, what that you never gave an alternative account to any of Craig’s arguments. Not providing an alternative moral account leaves me thinking I’m still rational in my affirmation of the first premise, and if I attach enough weight to that, then it can overpower the force of the POE. If I take the further step of engaging in theodicy, then the POE becomes even less potent. I felt the same sort of emptiness in your response to Craig’s other arguments.

      So in sum, I think you presented probably the most cogent and succinct case that an atheist can give in a debate, but why should I rationally assent when you have no alternative accounts of the universe, design, morality, or the resurrection?

      • Walter

        So in sum, I think you presented probably the most cogent and succinct case that an atheist can give in a debate, but why should I rationally assent when you have no alternative accounts of the universe, design, morality, or the resurrection?

        There is a limit on these debates. Law would not have near enough time to flesh-out his complete worldview. I haven’t read that much at Law’s blog, but he probably has more detailed arguments concerning all that you mentioned.

        • Stephen Law

          Just to add to Walter’s response to Brad:

          Does the fact that I can’t explain why my apple tree died entail that I should remain agnostic on or even sympathetic to the suggestion that the fairies did it?

    • http://markmaneyia.tumblr.com/ Mark

      Hi Dr. Law,

      Thank you for taking the time to answer my question. I just have some follow up questions to get a better understanding where the force of the argument lies.

      (i) You say this is counterintuitive. But then you gave a good example in your blog posting you cited of how intuition, while a powerful thing, could be jettisoned if one felt they had ample evidence to reject it. You use the earth moving as an example. It just seems obvious that the earth doesn’t move, and yet most people feel they have ample evidence to convince them otherwise.

      So, if one felt they had sufficient evidence or reasons to think there was a god, would that override the “intuition factor”, at least in principle?

      (ii) Well, if Craig’s arguments for a god, in this case the Christian God, were found to be persuasive would not that count potentially as overriding evidence? I know you aren’t persuaded, but a lot of different people are.

      (iii) It may seem absurd, but I’m not sure everyone shares that intuition. Also, you seem to have given a convincing reason that it is ok to override one’s intuitions if one feels they have ample evidence to do so.

      So, it seems to me, that if one feels there is ample evidence or reasons for a god, then one is justified in believing in that god. As to the moral character of that god, one should remain agnostic unless they feel they have good overriding reasons to reasonably believe one way or the other. For the Christian, one could say the resurrection of Jesus shows that God’s moral character is good, even though one would have to admit there is a slim chance that God is specifically deceiving us with Jesus.

      Is that fair? Or am I missing something (which is very likely possible!)?

      • Stephen Law

        Hi Mark

        You say: “So, if one felt they had sufficient evidence or reasons to think there was a god, would that override the “intuition factor”, at least in principle?”

        Feeling you have sufficient reasons is not good enough. You have to have them.

        But yes, intuitions can be of course overridden in principle, by e.g. overwhelming evidence and/or argument to the contrary.

        Although the term “intuition” is loaded here. Is it a merely an “intuition” that the fact that someone who beats his wife and children regularly and bloodily etc. is good evidence he isn’t a very nice guy? (After all, he *might* have good reasons for doing so of which we are ignorant).

  • Robert

    Another discussion of this debate is at Philosophical Disquisitions.

  • TDC

    I don’t see how the argument from the resurrection gives us any clue about the nature of the creator if we are skeptical theists. How can we assume that it is more likely that the creator is being straightforward when we have no way of knowing whether He has good reasons to do otherwise (whether for good or ill)? Likewise with private revelation from God. If we, on the basis of our moral intuition or desire to give God the benefit of the doubt, place evidential value on how we think God would communicate with us and the ends He is working towards, then we are no longer skeptical theists.

    I think some kind of argument based on the ontology of morality is the only way out here. I hope I’m wrong, though.

  • The Atheist Missionary

    I’m not sure if Stephen will have time to answer all the questions posed here but it sure is neat when great minds like him and Randal are willing to engage on a public comment board. I love it. Thanks guys. TAM.

  • http://www.evangelicaluniversalist.com/forum Gene

    I don’t understand Law’s strategy (not his fault – more mine). Couldn’t a theist argue that an evil God might very well have some unknown reason for utilizing the good in the world – just as Craig argues that a good God may have some unknown reason for allowing evil in the world?

    Seems like the premise –
    “we find evil god silly *because* of the good we observe in the world” – isn’t an axiom.

    Gene

    • Robert

      Gene, For the theist to do that, they have to “bite the bullet” like some atheists do with the question of objective moral values. I find that interesting.

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