Respected atheist philosopher Stephen Law may be best known for his Evil God Challenge. I would explain it to you but Stephen just produced this excellent animated video (starring a reasonable facsimile of the man himself) which unpacks the argument in under four minutes:
While the evil God argument is one of the most intriguing recent developments in the philosophy of religion, I remain unpersuaded by it (even when it is animated … though the animation is great). To explain why, I’ll provide a quick (under four minute) rebuttal.
My rebuttal consists of an analogy between (1) theism (2) evil God belief (3) atheism and (i) moral objectivism (ii) moral subjectivism (iii) moral non-cognitivism.
Let’s begin with moral objectivism. This is the view that successful moral utterances express moral truths and those truths obtain independently of human opinions. Thus, the moral objectivist believes that moral propositions like “Courage is good” or “Rape is evil” are objectively true, that their truth obtains independent of human beliefs about them.
Next, we have moral non-cognitivism. This is the view that successful moral utterances do not express moral truths at all. Rather, they express emotions which motivate us to action. On this view moral propositions like “Courage is good” or “Rape is evil” lack a truth value.
Keen to undermine the moral objectivist’s justification for accepting the objective facticity of successful moral utterances, the moral non-cognitivist argues as follows: all the publicly available evidence which the moral objectivist appeals to in order to justify belief in moral objectivism could equally be applied to justify moral subjectivism, the view that successful moral utterances express moral truths which do not obtain independently of human opinions.
Given that the evidence underdetermines moral objectivism/subjectivism, the moral non-cognitivist charges that the proper response is to reject the facticity of moral discourse altogether. Moral discourse doesn’t express objective or subjective facts; rather, it expresses non-cognitive cheers and boos.
This argument for moral non-cognitivism by way of moral subjectivism parallels Law’s argument for atheism by way of evil God belief. Just as moral objectivism/subjectivism cancel each other out, leaving non-cognitivism in their wake, so God/evil God cancel each other out, leaving atheism in their wake.
So how should the moral objectivist reply? To begin with, she can note that the underdetermination obtains not merely between objectivism and subjectivism, but between objectivism, subjectivism, and non-cognitivism. Thus, if the underdetermination of evidence to belief is sufficient to undermine the first two positions, it should undermine the third as well. In other words, if the argument works at all, it only works to support skepticism or agnosticism, not moral non-cognitivism.
As it goes with morality so it goes with metaphysics: metaphysical underdetermination does not merely obtain between theism and evil God belief, but between theism, evil God belief, and atheism. Thus, if the argument works at all, it only works to support skepticism or agnosticism, not atheism.
So should we be skeptics or agnostics? Is that the proper response? I don’t think so. When the moral objectivist looks out at the world, she seems to perceive objective good and evil. Others may insist that she does not. But why think that the existence of disagreement is sufficient to undermine her conviction? Granted, it may give her pause. But if, after reflection, it still seems to her that she is perceiving objective moral facts, then she is surely justified in believing this.
Likewise, the theist may find that disagreement with atheists (I’ve never met an evil God adherent) may give her pause. But if, after reflection, it still seems to the theist that she is perceiving God, then she surely is justified in believing this.
(For a somewhat different approach to the evil God debate see my forthcoming book with Justin Schieber, An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar.)