Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The God of Eth

Most people who believe in God take their belief to be pretty reasonable. “Perhaps God’s existence can’t be conclusively proved”, they’ll say, “but it’s a fairly sensible thing to believe – far more sensible than, say, belief in fairies or Santa Claus.” But are they right?

Christians, Muslims and Jews believe that God is both all-powerful and all-good. Indeed, God is often characterized as an infinitely loving father. Yet most of the popular arguments for the existence of God allow us to deduce little if anything about his moral character. Take the argument from design, for example. Even if we can show that the universe does show signs of design, what’s the evidence that this creator is all-good?

There is also a well-known argument that, even if the universe was created by an all-powerful being, that being is not all-good. The argument is called the problem of evil, and runs roughly as follows: if God is both all-powerful and all-good, why is there so much suffering in the world? Why does God inflict earthquakes, floods, famines and the Black Death upon us? Why was he busy inflicting acute suffering on the animal kingdom for millions of years before we even made an appearance (including the literally unimaginable suffering caused by the several mass extinctions that have repeatedly wiped the majority of species from the face of the earth)? Why does he give children cancer? Why does he make life so grindingly miserable for so many? Why does he arrange for millions of us to end our lives horrendously scarred - in many cases both physically and psychologically crippled – by the world he created for us?

This hardly sounds like the behaviour of a supremely compassionate and loving father-figure, does it? Surely there’s overwhelming evidence that the universe is not under the control of a limitlessly powerful and benevolent character?

Many find this argument compelling. But of course there are plenty who believe the problem of evil can be dealt with.

How? Religious thinkers have, over the centuries, developed a number of ingenious solutions. Here are some four examples.

1. The free will solution. God gave us free will. We are not helpless automata, but free agents capable of make our own choices and acting on them. As a result of God having given us free will, we sometimes choose to do wrong. We start, wars, steal, and so on. So some suffering results from our possessing free will. However, it is still better that we have free will. Free will is a very great good that more than compensates for the suffering it can bring.

2. The “character-building” solution. We know that a bad experience can sometimes make us stronger. We can learn, be enriched, through suffering. For example, people who have suffered a terrible disease sometimes say they gained greatly from it. Similarly, by causing us pain and suffering, God allows us to grow and develop both morally and spiritually. It is only through our experiencing this suffering that we can ultimately become the noble souls God wants us to be.

3. Some goods require evils. Theists often point out that God inevitably had to include quite a bit of suffering in his creation in order that certain important goods could exist. Take, for example, charity and sympathy. Charity is a great virtue. Yet you can only be charitable if there exist others who are needy. Similarly, you can only sympathize with someone whom you perceive to be suffering. Charity and sympathy are so-called “second order” goods that require “first order” evils like neediness and suffering (or at least the appearance of such evils) to exist. It’s argued that these second order goods outweigh the first order evils, which is why God allows the evils to occur.

4. Play the mystery card. Some theists point out that God works in mysterious ways. It’s arrogant of us to suppose that we can understand the mind of an infinitely powerful and wise being. The evil God inflicts upon us is, actually, all for the best. It’s just that we, being mere humans, can’t see how.

Many believe these and other similar moves largely take the sting out of the problem of evil. Some think they deal with the problem altogether. I find them utterly inadequate. The following dialogue is my attempt to convey why.

Welcome to Eth, a modestly-proportioned planet on the far side of our Galaxy. Here, beneath the great marble spires of Eth’s finest university, the debate of the age is taking place. Arrayed on either side of the University’s Great Chamber are Eth’s finest scholars and thinkers. They are here to decide the most controversial and emotive issue dividing the inhabitants of Eth – does God exist?

To the right of the Great Chamber are arrayed the believers. To the left sit the skeptics. The public galleries are near to bursting with those waiting to hear the proceedings. At the end of the debate, the audience will vote.

Booblefrip - the bird-like Professor of Origin - and Gizimoth - the portly Arch-logos-Inquisitor - lead the debate.


GIZIMOTH: Here, on Eth, many of us believe in God, do we not?
BOOBLEFRIP: Certainly.
GIZIMOTH: So what is God like?
BOOBLEFRIP: Well, God is all-powerful, of course. God can do anything. He created the entire universe, including every last one of us. God’s awesome power knows no bounds!

A whisper of approval ripples across the believers on the right side of the Great Chamber.

GIZIMOTH: Let’s agree about that, then. God, if he exists, is omnipotent. But here on Eth, those who believe in God also attribute another property to him, don’t they?
BOOBLEFRIP: Yes. As you know, we also believe that God is all-evil.
GIZIMOTH: Can you explain what you mean by that?
BOOBLEFRIP: Not only does God’s power know no bounds, neither does he depravity. His cruelty is infinite. His malice without end.

Booblefrip casts a cool look across the right side of the chamber.

GIZIMOTH: I see. All powerful. And all-evil. Now Professor Booblefrip, do you think that could briefly explain why you think it’s reasonable to believe in such a being? What grounds can you provide to justify belief in this evil God?

The universe must have come from somewhere


BOOBLEFRIP: Well, I don’t say I can conclusively prove beyond doubt that God exists. But it seems to me that there are at least two rather good reasons for believing in God. First, it seems obvious to me, as it does to many, that the universe must have come from somewhere. Don’t you agree?
GIZIMOTH: Of course. The scientists assembled here will tell you that there is a perfectly good scientific explanation for the existence of the universe – the Big bang. About 14 billion years ago an unimaginably violent explosion occurred in which all matter and energy came into existence, and in which space and even time itself began.
BOOBLEFRIP: We’re all familiar with the Big Bang theory, Professor Gizimoth. But of course, the Big Bang really only postpones the mystery of why there is anything at all, doesn’t it? For now we need to explain why there was a Big Bang. Why did the Big bang happen? Science can’t explain that, can it? There’s a real mystery here, isn’t there?
GIZIMOTH: Hmm. Perhaps
BOOBLEFRIP: The only satisfactory explanation we have for why the universe came into existence in the first place is that God created. So there’s my first reason to believe in God.

Gizimoth frowns: he’s clearly not buying Booblefrip’s argument. But he encourages Booblefrip to continue.

Evidence of design

GIZIMOTH: And your second reason?
Booblemat: Take a look around you, at the wonders of universe. Life. Conscious beings like ourselves. Do you suppose that all this appeared just be chance? Surely not. The universe shows clear signs of design. And where there’s design, there’s a designer!
GIZIMOTH: But science can explain life. What about the theory of natural selection? That explains how over millions of years, life forms evolved and developed. It explains how complex life-forms can gradually evolve from even the simplest of bacteria. Science can perfectly well explain life without introducing your supernatural designer.
BOOBLEFRIP: Natural selection can’t explain everything. For example, it can’t explain why the universe was set up to allow natural selection to take place in the first place, can it?
GIZIMOTH: Hmm. Well no, it can’t explain that.
BOOBLEFRIP: Did you know that, if the laws governing the universe had been only very slightly different, the universe would not have survived more than a second or two? Either that or it would have quickly dissipated into a thin sterile soup incapable of producing life. For life to emerge and evolve, you need very specific conditions. The universe must be set up in an extremely precise fashion. And of course we know that it was set up in just this way, don’t we!
GIZIMOTH: I guess so.
BOOBLEFRIP: Now that it should just happen to be set up in just this way by chance is too much to swallow. That would be a fluke of cosmic proportions. It’s much more sensible, surely, to suppose that someone deliberately designed the universe this way, so as to produce life, and ultimately ourselves. That someone is God!

Another warm ripple of approval arose from the right side of the Great Chamber. The assembled academics felt that, so far at least, Booblefrip was getting the better of the argument.

But Gizimoth was perplexed.


GIZIMOTH: Very well, let’s suppose the universe does show clear signs of having been designed by an intelligent being.
BOOBLEFRIP: Ah. A convert!
GIZIMOTH: Not at all. I’m supposing this only for the sake of argument. You still haven’t given me much reason to suppose that this designer is all-evil, have you?
BOOBLEFRIP: But God is, by definition, all-evil.
GIZIMOTH: But why define God that way? Why not suppose, instead, that God is neither good nor evil? Or why not suppose he is all-good?

Booblefrip thinks Gizimoth has gone too far.

BOOBLEFRIP: What a bizarre suggestion. It’s obvious our creator is very clearly evil! Take a look around you! Witness the horrendous suffering he inflicts upon us. The floods. The ethquakes. Cancer. The vile, rotting stench of God’s creation is overwhelming!

The problem of good

GIZIMOTH: Yes, our creator may do some evil. But it’s not clear he’s all-evil, is it? It’s certainly not obvious that his wickedness is infinite, that his malice and cruelty know no bounds. You’re deliberately ignoring a famous argument against the existence of God – the problem of good.
BOOBLEFRIP: I’m familiar with the problem of good – we theologians of Eth have debating it for centuries. But it’s not fatal to belief in God.
GIZIMOTH: Really? Let’s see. The problem of good, as you know, is essentially very simple. If the universe was designed by an all-powerful, all-evil God, then why is there so much good in the world?
BOOBLEFRIP: That’s the supposed problem, yes.
GIZIMOTH: Why, for example, does God allow at least some people to live out happy, contented and fulfilled lives? Why doesn’t he torture them instead? If God is all-powerful, he certainly could torture them, couldn’t he?
BOOBLEFRIP: Well, yes, he could.
GIZIMOTH: In fact he could make their lives utterly miserable. And we know that, as he is also supremely evil, he must want them suffer. Yet he gives some people every care and attention. Why? It makes no sense, does it?
BOOBLEFRIP: Perhaps not at first sight, no.
GIZIMOTH: Here’s another example. Why does God allow us to do good deeds, to help our fellow Ethians? He even allows us to lay down our lives for each other. These selfless actions improve the quality of our lives no end. So why does God allow them. Why doesn’t he force us to be nasty and do evil, just like him?
BOOBLEFRIP: I grant you that God’s allowing so much noble and selfless behaviour might seem like very good evidence that he is not all-evil. But appearances are deceptive.
GIZIMOTH: Also, if God’s is absolutely evil, why did he put so much beauty in the world for us to enjoy? Why did he create such sublime sunsets?
BOOBLEFRIP: Good question.
GIZIMOTH: And why does God give us children, which bring us immeasurable happiness? You see? There are countless ways in which our lives are enriched by God’s creation.
BOOBLEFRIP: But there’s also evil!
GIZIMOTH: True, there’s evil in the world. But there’s an awful lot of good. Far too much good, in fact, for anyone reasonably to conclude that the universe was created by an all-evil God. Belief in a supremely wicked creator is palpably absurd.

There is much quiet nodding to the left of the Great Chamber. Gizimoth’s argument has struck a chord with the unbelievers. But Booblefrip thinks Gizimoth’s argument is far from conclusive.

BOOBLEFRIP: Look, I admit that the amount of good in the world might seem to undermine belief in an all-powerful, all-evil god. But actually, we believers can explain why a supremely evil God would allow all these good things to happen.
GIZIMOTH: By all means try.

The free-will solution

BOOBLEFRIP: Surely you are familiar with the free-will defence?
GIZIMOTH: Perhaps you would care to explain it.
BOOBLEFRIP: Very well. God’s malevolence is without end. True, he let’s us do good. He allows us to act selflessly for the betterment of others, for example. But there’s a reason for that.
GIZIMOTH: What reason?
BOOBLEFRIP: God gave us free will.
GIZIMOTH: Free will?
BOOBLEFRIP: Yes. God could have made us mere automata that always did the wrong thing. But he didn’t do that. He gave us the freedom to choose how we act.
GIZIMOTH: Why?
BOOBLEFRIP: By giving us free will God actually increased the amount of suffering there is in the world. He made the world far more terrible than it would otherwise have been!
GIZIMOTH: How?
BOOBLEFRIP: Think about it. Yes God could have tortured us for all eternity with a red hot poker. But he would have got very bored very quickly. How much for fun for him to mess with our minds - to induce more complex, psychological forms of suffering.
GIZIMOTH: Psychological suffering?
BOOBLEFRIP: Yes. Take temptation. By giving us free-will, God can be sure we will agonize endlessly about what we should do. For free will brings with it the exquisite torture of temptation. And then, when we succumb to temptation, we feel guilty. Knowing that, being free, we could have done otherwise, we feel awful about what we have done. We end up torturing ourselves. The exquisitely evil irony of it all!
GIZIMOTH: Hmm.
BOOBLEFRIP: By giving us free-will God allowed for far deeper and more complex forms of suffering than would otherwise be possible. Special, psychological forms of suffering.
GIZIMOTH: But what about the good people sometimes do?
BOOBLEFRIP: It’s true that people do sometimes choose to act selflessly and nobly, and that this can produce good. But this good is far outweighed by the additional suffering free-will brings. Just take a look at the world, for goodness sake! It’s a world full of people who not only behave despicably, but also agonize endlessly about what they have done!

The problem of natural goods

GIZIMOTH: But this is ridiculous!
BOOBLEFRIP: Why?
GIZIMOTH: Well, for a start, this only explains the good that we bring about by acting freely. It doesn’t explain the existence of naturally occurring goods.
BOOBLEFRIP: Such as?
GIZIMOTH: Well, what about the glories of nature: sublime sunsets, stunning landscapes, the splendor of the heavens? We’re not responsible for these things, are we?
BOOBLEFRIP: No. God is.
GIZIMOTH: But why would an all-evil God create something that gives us pleasure? Also, why does he give us beautiful children to love? And why does he choose to give some people extraordinary good fortune – health, wealth and happiness in abundance? Surely the existence of these things provides us with overwhelming evidence that, even if the universe has a creator, he’s not all bad?

The “character-destroying” solution

BOOBLEFRIP: You’re mistaken, Gizimoth. Such things are exactly what we should expect if God is supremely evil.
GIZIMOTH: But why?
BOOBLEFRIP: Some natural beauty is certainly to be expected. If everything was uniformly ugly, we wouldn’t be tormented by the ugliness half as much as if it were laced with some beauty. To truly appreciate the ghastliness of the environment most of us inhabit – a urine stained, concrete and asphalt wasteland peppered with advertising hoardings, drug addicts and dog dirt – we need to be reminded every now and then that things could have been different. God put some natural beauty into the world to make our appreciation of the ugliness and dreariness of day-to-day life all the more acute.
GIZIMOTH: Hmm. But why would a supremely wicked God give us beautiful children to love?
BOOBLEFRIP: Because he knows we’ll spend our entire lives worrying about them. Only a parent can know the depth of torture a child brings.
GIZIMOTH: Why does he give us healthy young bodies?
BOOBLEFRIP: Well, after 10 or 15 years they slowly and inevitably slide into decay, disease and decrepitude until we end up hopelessly ugly, incontinent and smelling of urine. Then we die, having lived out a short and ultimately meaningless existence. You see, by giving us something, and then snatching it away, our evil creator can make us suffer even more than if we had never had it.
GIZIMOTH: But then why does God allow some people live out such contented lives?
BOOBLEFRIP: Of course an evil God is going to bestow upon a few people lavish lifestyles, good health and immense success. Their happiness is designed to make the suffering of the rest of us even more acute! We’ll be wracked by feelings of envy, jealousy and failure! Who can be content while they have so much more!
GIZIMOTH: Oh honestly.
BOOBLEFRIP: Don’t you see? The world clearly was designed to produce life, to produce conscious beings like ourselves. Why? So that it’s designer can torture us. The world is designed to physically and psychologically crush us, so that we are ultimately overwhelmed by life’s futility and bow out in despair.

Gizimoth is becoming frustrated. Every time he comes up with another piece of evidence that the universe wasn’t designed by a supremely evil deity, Booblefrip turns out to have yet another ingenious explanation up his sleeve. And yet, thinks Gizimoth, the evidence against the existence of an utterly evil God is overwhelming.

Some goods require evils

GIZIMOTH: This is ridiculous. You have an answer for everything!
BOOBLEFRIP: Yes, I do have an answer to all your arguments. So far, you’ve given me not the slightest reason to suppose that the world was not created by a supremely evil being. But if you’re unhappy with my answers, let me try a rather different approach. There are some evils that require goods in order to exist, aren’t there?
GIZIMOTH: Such as?
BOOBLEFRIP: Take the evil of jealousy. Jealousy requires there be something to be being jealous of. God gave good things to some people so that others would feel jealous. Or take lying. Lying requires that people often tell the truth – otherwise there would be no point in lying because no one would believe you. The evil of dishonesty requires that there be a certain amount of honesty.
GIZIMOTH: And you think these evils outweigh the goods they depend on?
BOOBLEFRIP: Exactly. God allows some good things into his creation. It’s the price he has to pay for these greater evils.

Play The Mystery Card


GIZIMOTH: These tricksy replies of yours are patently absurd. You can’t seriously maintain that the world you see around you – a world full of natural beauty and laughing children – is really the handiwork of an infinitely evil God?
BOOBLEFRIP: I do maintain that, yes. True, I may not be able to account for every last drop of good in the world. But remember that we are dealing here with the mind of God. Who are you to suppose you can understand the mind of an infinitely intelligent and knowledgeable being? Isn’t it arrogant of you to suppose that you can figure out God’s master plan?
GIZIMOTH: I’m arrogant?

There’s some subtle nodding from the believers on the right.

BOOBLEFRIP: Yes. Arrogant. Evil God works in mysterious ways. Ultimately, everything really is all for the worst. It’s just that, being mere humans, we can’t always figure out how.
GIZIMOTH: Oh, really. This is…
BOOBLEFRIP: I think it’s arrogant of you to suppose otherwise – to suppose that you must be able to figure it all out.

The verdict


At the end of the debate, the audience vote. After the deliberation, a spokesperson steps forward with their verdict.


THE VERDICT: It seems to us that Booblefrip has made a powerful case for supposing the world was created by God. In addition, Booblefrip has provided a compelling defence of belief in this evil being. He has successfully explained why even an evil God would allow a great deal of good. And so the motion is carried – we are persuaded that Evil God exists.

Are you persuaded by Booblefrip’s defence of belief in a supremely evil God? Of course not. His explanations are clearly feeble. Surely, despite Booblefrip’s convoluted maneuverings, belief in a supremely evil God remains palpably absurd.

But of course, Booblefrip’s defence merely flips round the standard explanations that theists offer in defence of belief in a good God. His attempts to explain what good there is in the world mirror the theist’s attempts to explain the evil. If Booblefrip’s explanations are deeply inadequate, why aren’t the theist’s explanations? That’s the question the theist needs to answer.

Of course, theists consider belief in an all-evil God to be downright silly. And rightly so: there’s clearly far too much good in the world.

But then here is my challenge to theists. If you consider belief in an evil God downright ridiculous, why on Earth do you suppose that the good God hypothesis is, at the very least, not unreasonable? The onus is surely on you to come up with some much better arguments for specifically an all good God (can this be done? I think not, though try e.g. religious experience and miracles if you like) and/or to deal much more effectively with the problem of evil

This is (Mark Vernon take note) a challenge to agnostics too. If you think agnosticism about an evil god is ridiculous (and I am betting you do), why on Earth do you suppose agnosticism is the rational position to take re. the good God hypothesis?

Surely, even if the universe does have a designer/creator, isn’t it patently obvious that this being is neither all-evil, nor all-good?

34 comments:

Jeremy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeremy said...

Hehe - what a great inversion of the usual arguments! The (original) arguments for a supremely beneficient creator are quite clearly ridiculous, yet there is a long tradition of actually regarding them as uncontroversial and highly plausible. It can be hard to shake off the "anaesthetic of familiarity" and expose the argument for what it is - which is what makes this post so wonderful. Thanks!

dolls like us said...

My answers are not as all knowing as yours but mine is simple . God is smarter then we are we are not suppose to understand everything in life if we did their wouldn't be a reason for a God .

Alex said...

Hey Stephen,
here is my challenge to theists. If you consider belief in an evil God downright ridiculous, why on Earth do you suppose that the good God hypothesis is, at the very least, not unreasonable?

Just so you know I am coming at this from the Christian perspective. You are correct that I do feel the “all evil God” thought experiment ridiculous. I’m surprised that some one as distinguished as your self sees this as a tidy reversal on the theists arguments.

The all evil God experiment unravels for this very simple reason:

Evil is the perversion of an already extant good.

Anything you can think of that you would call evil is the perversion of something that in it’s unperverted state is good. A lie is the perversion of an already extant truth. Rape is the abuse of one of the best things this world has to offer: sex. The immoral use of physical pain is the perversion of our “good” natural warning reflex. Just ask a leper how great it is going through life without any sense of pain.

I am not convinced that your clever thought experiment (as entertaining as it was!) is nearly as problematic for the traditional stance that God is good. At the end of the day your “evil God” could not be God at all; for God is necessarily not subject to any standard. He would simply be the perversion of a extant standard of good. Evil is a parasite. It cannot exist in a vacuum. Therefore this evil God could not be God at all.

So if evil is the perversion of good, and good must exist before evil even has a chance to become a reality; it’s starting to sound like perhaps God is good after all.

Jeremy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeremy said...

Well, in the spirit of the original post, it is as true to say that good is the perversion of an already extant evil.

The two statements are simply mirror images - it is impossible to logically claim one as self-evident and at the same time describe the other as absurd.

Stephen Law said...

Jeremy - you beat me to it. See latest main post.

Alex - I thought your comment so interesting I have given a reply as a main posting.

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

If we're talking about Christians I'm not sure this thought experiment really holds up, because evil is already explained in that particular mythology as something separate from and antagonistic to the designs of God. To a theist, Good and Evil a more often used as proper nouns to name two polar forces that influence people to act in certain ways. To an atheist, good and evil are simply modifiers used to differentiate between favourable and unfavourable actions on single continuous scale. To a Christian, the idea of God being capable of evil doesn’t make sense in the same way that considering whether a hammer is actually a monkey wrench doesn’t really make sense either. A hammer is a hammer; and God is good.

I think that's where Alex is coming from when he says,
"At the end of the day your “evil God” could not be God at all..."

So, I think the issue for the prosecution is not so much whether God could arguably be evil – regarding the Christian’s definition of Evil, He simply cannot be - but whether God, by allowing a lesser power (Satan) to pervert his creation, is in fact at the very least guilty of willful negligence. Why does God allow Satan to run amuck? One might say that God is too good for revenge, or that God has deemed the presence of Satan to be necessary for the concept of free will. Both are slightly evasive answers, but they nevertheless serve to attenuate the full implications of an all-powerful creator overseeing a creation contaminated with evil. Basically, by passing the buck.

zrenneh said...

Hi Rev Dr. Incitatus,
Your argument "A hammer is a hammer, and God is good" is a non-sequitur. The only thing which follows from a "hammer is a hammer, and God is..." is
"God".

Nutcasenightmare said...

I was philosophizing with someone earlier today, and she raised another counter to the problem of evil. It's ironic how much it contributes to The God Of Eth's reversal, rather than protecting theism.

She mentioned Satan, and how he tempts us into doing evil. I ask her if that meant Satan was as omnipotent as God. She said yes.

How ironic, if she knew about this article. Christians' view on Satan is basically the same as the God of Eth: totally powerful and totally evil.

Of course, she may be wrong on the omnipotence of Satan, but it's an intersting point. It's also interesting Stephen Law's never (as far as I know) mentioned Satan. (Of course, Satan's strictly in Christianity only.)

Other than that, I'd like to argue against the four solutions to the problem of evil.

FREE WILL: You have to assume things aren't fatalist, (which some religious people do) and God gives us the benefit of the doubt of true free will. And you have to assume divine intervention/miracles don't exist to prevent good/evil- yet theists point to religious experiences. (Stephen Law argued this further in God to Eth 3)

CHARACTER BUILDING: All kind of experiences build character. Love builds character. Hate builds character. Hobbies build character. Chewing gum builds character. Mosquito bites build character. (Do I sound like Calvin's dad from Calvin and Hobbes?) From everything we experience, we learn more. So this arguement is kinda moot. Besides, I can build characters in ways other than PAIN!

CONTRASTING GOOD WITH EVIL: Do I really need to experience evil to truly understand the value of good? It would be good if someone told me a joke even if no-one's tried to kill me or something.

Do some goods really require evil? Yes. But in that case, I'd say it's better if the evil never existed in the first place. And of course, you could use the moot argument of 'CHARACTER BUILDING' to say goods can come out of all evil: but that's to say morality is subjective, thus making it impossible to say God is either completely good/evil.

MYSTERY CARD: You coward. Ironically, the mystery card implies you can't label God anything if he's that mysterious. If God is so mysterious, we can even say He's evil and similar to the God of Eth, for all we know.

Of course, Stephen Law's way of reversing the morality of God is the best way to expose the flaws in religion as a whole if the theist's arguments are true. I'm just trying to add on, to the flaws in the arguments themselves. (and that Satan thing)

Martin said...

I enjoyed reading this. Do you know that there is an article by Christopher New with ideas to much the same effect as your God of Eth arguments? It's in Ratio, Vol. 6, Issue 1, pp. 36-43 (1993): "Antitheism: A Reflection".

Here's the abstract: "Why is there no sustained tradition of argument concerning the existence of a supreme (omniscient and omnipotent) being who is perfectly evil, as there is about one who is perfectly good? Arguments which are reflections of the ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments, and arguments based on personal experience or the occurrence of antimiracles (harmful events not explicable by science) could have provided at least as good grounds for belief in such a being (ie for antitheism) as their originals in fact provide for theism. An imaginary encyclopedia entry, in which fictional antitheistic arguments and thinkers are presented, illustrates this point. The reason for the nonexistence of a tradition of antitheism seems therefore to be that it is merely emotionally, not that it is rationally, less inviting than theism."

Stephen Law said...

Hello Martin

Yes I recently discovered I was not the first to develop the idea. In fact New didn't realize but he was himself beaten to it by Stephen Cahn in "Cacodeamony" and Hare and Madden in their book on problem of evil.

I have just produced an "academic" version of my paper explaining how my version differs from these earlier versions, and which provides a stronger version of the challenge than in "The God of Eth". "The God of Eth" was meant only as a thought-provoker. Hopefully I'll get it published. When I do, I'll post it here.

John Uebersax said...

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for giving the link to this article. You're right, this is a much broader presentation of the topic than your St. Augustine post; you lay out the classical defenses quite clearly; a good summary.

Let me see if I can take advantage of the ambient brainpower here to present some other arguments :

1. The first is a direct response to your reversal example. It basically falls back on Plato's epistemological theory of anamnesis or reminiscence: that we already know important metaphysical truths, but have, in the process of embodiment, forgotten them.

Thus, applied to the problem of evil, somewhere in the background of 'believers' minds is an argument like this: I have dim, but occasionally more clear "intuitions" or noetic insights that (a) God exists, and (b) God is all-good. This causes me to adjust, re-weight, or more carefully evaluate the evidence against an all-good God posed by apparent evil.

I believe this is one reason why your reversal argument, while clever and, at a literal level, logically plausible, doesn't have really persuade. One reads it argument and says, "well, perhaps I *ought* to believe this, but I really don't."

The difficulty, I believe, is that all people have the latent belief, waiting to be awakened, that God exists and is all-good. This belief is not completely dormant; it is merely, as we would say nowadays, sub- or unconscious. But there is no corresponding latent belief in an all-evil God.

Perhaps this argument ultimately reduces to an appeal to mysticism -- I'm not sure. One could counter it, I suppose, by claiming that we just *want* to believe in an all-good God; we're just biased. So I don't present this so much because of it's obvious logical power, as because I actually believe that this is what's going on here.

2. Pascal's wager. Whether there is an all-good God or not, it profits us little to interpret evil as precluding an all-good God; but if there is an all-good God who permits evil, it profits us to stay the course.

3. Here is a radical argument: that we ourselves create and choose evil.

Did you ever see the 50's sci-fi movie, Forbidden Planet? A group of space travelers land on a distant planet, uninhabited except for a scientist (Dr. Morbius) and his daughter. A much earlier race existed there but long since vanished. They'd built a machine that translated their thoughts into reality. But they hadn't counted on the existence of their id. The collective force of their primitive id materialized a terrible monster -- literally evil incarnate -- that destroyed them all.

Now -- as art has a way of doing -- that may symbolically have some degree of real truth. In a sense, what are armies and wars but collective materializations of negative human thoughts and motives? While consciously we disapprove of them, at an un- or subconscious level we support them. This presents a major difficulty in defining who "we" are. Are "we" the parts that suffer from this collective evil, the ones that oppose it, or the ones that propagate it?

This seems definitely to apply to certain man-made evils -- war being the prime example. But, by extension, if we posit a basic Freudian death wish thanatos, that may indirectly contribute to many other evils -- such as failure to adequately immunize children in Africa, to distribute food, etc.

4. There is an important variation on the argument of self-produced evil: that we 'knowingly' allow ourselves to become innocent victims of evil. This is a little like the character-building argument, but with a different emphasis. What if by voluntarily accepting some evils in our lives, we may benefit others. For example, we may set a good example for others who experience such evil but lack our strength and resources to cope with it.

What if, before we were born, God showed us our life, complete with trials and suffering and asked: would you like this life? And then we, for the sake of (a) earning merit; (b) pleasing God; and (c) helping others, accept the assignment. Part of the bargain is that we will then forget all this once we come to earth.

Ultimately, this seems related to the Christian doctrine of Christ's atoning sacrifice, and his voluntary acceptance of "evil." He could have escaped the cross; that is, he could have prevented this evil from happening; but he chose to accept it. That is an example given to Christians to follow. This would be, in one sense, character building, but, in another, motivated by the wish to help others.

5. Diabolical deceit. If there is an all-good God, and if there is also a devil, then it would be logical for the devil to deceive us, making us doubt God's goodness. To that end the devil would promote our mis-interpretation of events as evil, make us fail to see our own complicitness, make us not see their redemptive potential, and induce us to not consider explanations consistent with an all-good God.

Therefore when we do these things, we must to some extent question the credibility of our own conclusions. On the one hand, this seems like complex a logical position to justify -- to admit the fallibility of our logical conclusions. (I.e., how could we be sure of that conclusion?) But on the other hand, it is a perfectly normal position to take for any person who can look back at past events and see that they were previously led by erroneous but seemingly correct logic to false conclusions.

John Uebersax said...

One more pivotal argument:

6. The underweighting of positive evidence of an all-good God.

This is related to the principle of anamnesis. It suggests that, despite all the actual or seemingly evil things happening, there are also a vast number of positive events occurring, which we fail to notice or duly appreciate.

For example, there is the miracle of human life itself. This is, arguably, something of inestimable value; and therefore potentially immensely powerful evidence of an all-good God. Nobody holding a newborn infant, one might argue, doubts that there is an all-good God; we just tend forget this in an hour or two.

Given the choice before birth -- to live a human life, with the suffering and the joys, or not -- we would choose the life.

And one more:

7. Reductio ad absurdum.

The basic agnostic argument goes: how can an all-good allow evil in our lives? But, carried to its logical extreme, the argument could be: "How can an all-good God not give us a completely perfect, paradisical existence? Why doesn't God bring us immediately to a perfectly happy state? If God is all-good, He should want this. But everything isn't perfect. Therefore God doesn't exist."

It seems unlikely that this argument would impress anyone - it seems innately implausible. But if this is implausible, there must be some reason for that. And it would seem like any reason that could be applied against this more extreme argument could be applied to the argument that evil precludes an all-good God; it's just a matter of degree.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I don't know if you will read this Stephen - I followed your link from your post on Sye's argument.

Reading the God of Eth, believe it or not, reminded me of the revelation I had as a teenager when I decided, that in the Bible, that I had studied all my childhood, I couldn't really tell the difference between God and Satan, though I still thought Jesus was a standout character.

At around the same time, at the impressionable age of 16, I read Camus' La Peste (The Plague) which, in a fictional, but totally plausible context, makes one examine this whole issue philosophically. I still consider it to be one of the most influential books I read.

I don't know if you ever saw Hal Hartlee's made-for-TV movie about the second coming, called The Book of Life, which he made for the second millenium, commissioned by a French cinema institution, if my memory serves me correctly. It starred Martin Donovan as Jesus, and Jesus rejects his father, God, and decides not to end the world. It was done only slightly tongue-in-cheek.

I still call myself a theist by the way.

Regards, Paul.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Paul - yes read your comment. No I have not come across those things. Sounds like I should though...

The Daughter of Mustafah said...

Hello Steven, Guess Who? me.

I was wondering if you were willing to come to my school and give a lecture on this and see the theists prespective on things, i think it would be beneficial and fun.

Do you have any Free time this year?

Stephen Law said...

Hello Daughter of M - yes, I should think so. Email me direct...

Michael said...

Got sent here from elsewhere, and I know this is old, but I have time on my hands so I thought I'd comment. In general I find the arguments, other than free will, to be fairly unconvincing.

However, I think that you've encountered a real problem with the evil = good idea. I don't think that they really are polar opposites - that in fact that is an equivocation that will destroy the very idea of anything being good or evil. There are numerous arguments against the equivalence of good and evil, but here are two you might not want to consider -

A) Nothing can be all-evil because evil contradicts itself. For example, one cannot be completely slothful and also completely murderous - a lazy person would never even get up. However, it is entirely possible to be entirely good - one can quite easily (temptation and human weakness aside) be loving, faithful, honest, and the rest without contradiction - in fact, an all-good universe could exist. This may show that the laws of the universe, as set up by a theorized God, are oriented toward the good, or it may just be a result of the way 'good' has been defined.

B) Though this partakes somewhat of the last argument, consider Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, accepted by most Christian as a good ethical guide, with a few qualifications. He has the idea of the good being a 'mean' between two extremes. For example, courage is a mean between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. One can be all-good - but being evil requires going to one side, meaning one is not partaking of the other side, meaning one is not all-evil. After all, there is always one amd only one right answer in a system wherein good and evil have real meaning - and to any question there can be many wrong answers.

None of this, of course, proves that God exists - only that if he does, he cannot be all-evil. You say that it's a common but ridiculous hypothesis that God must be good - but it's a common and much more ridiculous hypothesis that good and evil are two equal sides of the same coin.

Devony said...

Hello there Stephen,

I was directed here from a friend's blog who reposted the God of Eth (with permission). I prefer not to make my own personal thoughts on god, (or the lack thereof) private because I am not intending to proselytize either way, but rather to explore thoughts on the matter as objectively as possible.

I am familiar with the arguements that you set out to demonstrate in this story, have heard them debated to death and so it isn't they that interest me so much as one of your comments at the end being: "...why on Earth do you suppose agnosticism is the rational position to take re. the good God hypothesis?

Surely, even if the universe does have a designer/creator, isn’t it patently obvious that this being is neither all-evil, nor all-good?"

So...here is what I am curious about...

Why must the alternative to 'good god' be a 'half n half god'? Do you have some other idea if not either of those; if so, what is it?

Isn't perhaps another approach to the 'good god' theory that rather than being either, the answer is neither? Or perhaps indifferent?

I'd bring up a 'no god at all' option but you specifically mentioned agnosticism so pointing to atheism as an option didn't seem appropriate.

It would seem to me that applying either good, or bad to the idea of god is boxing something theoretically larger than human comprehension in a very small (and malleable) moralistic, manmade box - which seems directly contrary to the idea of god at all.

Anyway, just wondering about your thoughts and hoping for an elaboration :)

Thanks,
Ammie

Stephen Law said...

Hello Ammie

There are many ideas of God. The God of Eth doesn't rule them all out. But it does rule out the good and evil god hypotheses discussed here. We can be very confident they don't exist.

The mysterious ineffable god is of course a convenient fall back position for anyone who sees the strength of the argument here, but then you give up saying god is good, worthy of worship, and many other things the faithful want to say about god. You can't eat your cake and still have it.

Devony said...

Stephen,

Thank you so much for your answer it really was what I was mostly what I was hoping to hear.

God aside, I think I struggle greatly with the idea that anything about life in this universe can be 'good' or 'bad' without people to name it thus, including 'acts of god'.

I wouldn't (personally) even say the ineffable god is convenient as a fallback simply because if he is so incomprehensible and mysterious, then how do people suppose they can comprehend *anything* about him, including good/evil? (and then this line of questioning can be taken much farther of course but it is mostly me just pondering out :).

As a total aside, have you ever had a cake mearly to admire it? Who does that? The whole point of the cake is to eat it!

I don't suppose I like that rule (or its implications) much about not being able to have it and eat it too, so whoever it was that coined that phrase is fired. As the saying goes, "If you want breakthrough results, you can't operate by conventional rules."

Thanks again for your reply :)
~Ammie

Stephen Law said...

No problem Ammie!

Jack said...

Ah, the old good/evil switcheroo. Nice to see that again! Wasn't it Russell who used this neat idea first? I'll have to check my notes...

Gregory said...

Stephen, I just heard the last part of your lecture about the education of children that you delivered via Second Life. I found it very interesting, so I decided to check out your blog.

I must admit that your Eth scenario is an argument that I had not heard. It is convincing in the context of a symmetric view of good and evil which is common today, but it doesn't work so well in an Aristotelian or Thomistic view of good and evil. I believe such a view is consistent with the classic Christian tradition, but Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas use philosophical language that is more useful for arguments like this.

Aristotle defines goodness as the fulfillment of one's purpose, or in the case of sentient beings, the object of desire. Evil is a privation of good; it is something lacking in the fulfillment of one's purpose. People only commit evil acts because they believe they are good for them. A person steals a car because he thinks it would be good for him. Even self-destructive behaviors like using dangerous drugs or even committing suicide are done because the person thinks there is some aspect of the act that is better than the negative aspect. E.g., the euphoria of the drug is desired above the later health that is sacrificed, or the escape of suicide is desired more than the good of continued life.

With such a definition, the premise of your Eth scenario does not make sense because the people of Eth believe it is good to be evil. Therefore, they also belive that God is all-good.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Gregory. thanks for the comment. actually I partly anticipate the objection you make in the more academic version of this paper, called the evil god challenge. See the section "the desire argument" towards the end. Also see the bit on miracles etc. where I suggest an evil god may want to appear good. so the more sophisticated version is immune to objections i think

The point about evil being a privation of good is interesting but highly controversial and not accepted by many theists (I certainly don't accept it). But in any case, it is not required to produce the desire argument.

Anonymous said...

I tripped up on why an all evil god would give free will. An all good one may have more motive for this? But then again how much? Still, it all seems to be picking at finer points. I don't see how we can say that either exists.

"The natural tendency to believe in a good god"? How much of that comes from culture? Would someone brought up in, say, a Buddhist culture also share that natural tendency?

I'm agnostic, but I tend towards agnosticism concerning a neutral or inactive god based on what I do see. I'd happier accept a Brahman than a Jehova on the basis that Brahman just "is", life is beautiful, and we get on with it caring for those around us and all that good stuff.

There are more ideas out there than just the polar opposites of "good" and "evil", which seem human concepts anyway and on the surface very shallow. Not all cultures work in terms of these, Sankya for example having 3 "tammas", "rajas" and "sattva".

Clay said...

Stephen,

Its a nice summary, even if perhaps a little overplayed. I just recently finished Bart D. Ehrman's God's Problem about this same topic. I recommend it.

I consider myself agnostic, but I don't connect with the challenge at the end of your article. You seem to assume that there is only the option of believing in an all-good God or no God at all. What about the idea of a God that is not a personality, to do good or evil? Something more like a flowing energy or spiritual force (consciousness, if you will). The problem for me in full0on atheism is that it leaves spiritual experiences unexplained. Surely not all spiritual experiences are the result of mental delusions, right?

I acknowledge that I still have a hope for something beyond myself, even though I've given up on a personal God, because I feel like having some kind of spiritual component in my life is a healthy part of a well-rounded life. But I admit that this is a choice I make (to hold on to that hope) and that there is no solid reasonable argument. In this sense, I think we can learn something from Joseph Campbell, who studied the myths of many religions and although he saw them all as myth, he found beauty and wisdom in their metaphor.

David Bondeson said...

I can't get past the fact that I appear to be many months too late to participate in this discussion, as well as out-thought and dim-witted in comparison to many of the 'casual' posts to this article.

But it seems to me, in all of this, that we need to reformulate the notion of 'good.' We constantly seem to imply 'good' for God is the same as 'good' for us, while we lack the omnipotence and omniscience of God. It truly makes no sense that an all-powerful God would be more concerned with the well-being of his creations, over and against his own well-being.

For God to elevate our happiness and pleasure above his own glory would be for God to, in effect, make himself subserviant to humanity.

But Christians (I am one) will say, "Christ was sent on our behalf, sacrificing for our salvation." But ultimately, this is a self-serving endevor, because Christian salvation is only a means to God's glory. So evil allows God to work greater good through his omniscience and omnipotence; to display his character through eternal judgment and equally though etennal salvation.

This is all immensely self-serving, but doesn't it seem that an all-power Creator WOULD be? If his character is one balanced in justice and love, and if he brings glory to himself by displaying his character, doesn't this formulation hold weight?

Stephen Law said...

Thanks Dave. But why would a God justice and love unleash unimaginable horror sentient creatures over hundreds of millions of years before we even show up?

Of course people do say "good" means something different when applied to God, something that allows him to do such things while still being "good". But then same move can be made to defend an evil god ("evil" as applied to him means something different, something that allows him to create laughter and rainbows etc). So the symmetry between the two gods, in terms of reasonableness, remains, I think.

chorny said...

The free will argument is not сorrect - in Bible, both Yahweh and Satan frequently involve in human life. There are even several cases when Yahweh makes someone do something that Yahweh does not like, to punish him.

Toby Aldridge said...

I think it is pure stupidity to suddenly declare that the debate is irrelevant simply to draw a conclusion within the purposes of your argument.

Also, my problem with the arguments was that they were targeted at getting the upper-hand over the opponent, as opposed to proving your point.

Anonymous said...

(I can't seem to find how to quote a previous comment, so here)

To the comment stating:
"To a theist, Good and Evil a more often used as proper nouns to name two polar forces that influence people to act in certain ways."
"To a Christian, the idea of God being capable of evil doesn’t make sense in the same way that considering whether a hammer is actually a monkey wrench doesn’t really make sense either. A hammer is a hammer; and God is good."


The problem lies not in that somehow "God" when attached to "good" changes it's meaning, but simply theists (and in this case christians) find conviendent to change the definition of the word "good" whenever it suit them.
It's no long an issue of wether or not "is what God do good ?", but rather "what God does is good".

It's the multitude of such "re-definitions", sometime on, sometimes off, that makes any argumentation impossible.

Unless both parties use the same definitions for the word they employ, no discution can be had. If not, they might as well be talking in different languages

Yossi Preminger said...

Sounds like Eth might be the home of the Ilwrath from Star-Control, who worship the evil gods Dogar and Kazon:
http://wiki.uqm.stack.nl/Dogar_and_Kazon