CPBD 060: Stephen Law – The Evil God Challenge

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 15, 2010 in Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Stephen Law. Among other things, we discuss:

  • How to raise our children so as to avoid fascism
  • If we can be quite sure an all-evil God does not exist, why can’t we be sure an all-good God does not exist?
  • Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion

Download CPBD episode 060 with Stephen Law. Total time is 40:51.

Stephen Law links:

Links for things we discussed:

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk August 15, 2010 at 2:15 pm

No comments yet.

“Evil God Challenge” – I basically agree that this is an effective argument.

Weaknesses of Dawkins’ book – yes, the section on morality is weak. Notice that there is no mention whatsoever of Euthyphro.


TaiChi August 15, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Interesting idea about a conceptual interpretation of Dawkins’ argument. Although I think Law is roughly right to say that a representation must have as much structural complexity as that which it represents, I’m not sure that there’s a clear inference from this representational complexity to improbability. If one thinks that the representational complexity is ontologically fundamental, then I think the argument goes through; but if the representational complexity is taken to be accounted for by a simple mind, then the complexity is not ontologically fundamental, and so does not make for improbability. Of course, it might be objected that representational complexity cannot be produced by a simple mind, but then I think we’re back to a scientific argument, rather than a conceptual one.
Which is not all that bad. Really, why should the atheist be at all concerned that the implausibility of God rests on scientific knowledge? Isn’t science our best guide to what the world is like? Isn’t the scientific method the gold standard when it comes to deciding matters of fact? And what do we have, on the other hand, in favor of an anti-scientific conception of a creator? Mere conjecture, the result of no epistemic procedure at all, whose only guiding rule seems to be to avoid embarrassment by an advancing science. Dialectically, I can see why it would be advantageous to conceptually rule God out, but I don’t for a moment think that Dawkins’ argument is weakened by its reliance on scientific premises.


Rhys Wilkins August 15, 2010 at 6:45 pm

I can’t help but chortle when Christian apologists attempt to use the ontological argment as a disproof of the existence of an evil god.


Eric August 17, 2010 at 5:39 pm

In the Thomistic tradition, God is ‘pure act’ (i.e. without potentiality, or ‘fully real,’ or possessing every perfection, etc.), so, if evil is understood as a privation (or, more specifically, a privation of ‘form’), and if privation implies potentiality, the notion of an evil god is incoherent (since it posits pure act in potency). I certainly don’t think this ‘solves’ the problems Professor Law raises, but it does answer his question about why the notion of evil as a privation is minimally problematic for his evil god thought experiment.


dgsinclair August 18, 2010 at 4:04 pm

OK, so I’ve listened to this interview twice (my new minimum for passing judgement ;), and I make the following comments.

1. It seems like the Evil God challenge is mostly made on the Ontological level

I think he has a point here, which is why I broached the subject in Ontology of the Devil. In fact, as I was preparing a sermon on the main Natural Theology arguments for God, I was not convinced by the Ontological argument, and so only presented the Cosmological, Axiological (moral), and Teliological.

My problem with the argument, in case you can’t click on the link above, is that when arguing that God is both great and good, we could easily argue that God is great and evil – esp. since the weight of the ontological argument seems to rest, not on the property of goodness/badness, but on an attribute of greatness, that of existence (necessary v. contingent).

So if the goodness/badness is not really part of the argument, we could argue for a great being independent of the qualities of goodness/badness.

I am not saying this is a foolproof argument, I’m just saying I’m not entirely sure why a good/great God is more likely than an evil/great God.

And I guess that sums up the Evil God challenge. I actually submitted this question to two apologists (one of which was Bill Craig), but haven’t gotten any answers yet. Hopefully, your guest will hit his radar and he can respond. In the meantime, allow me to conjecture.

2. Why the Evil God fails in the Cosmological argument

As your guest indicated, attacking the Evil God based on the definitions of morality is probably the best attack. If I understand that correctly, here’s why.

By (accepted?) definition, Evil destroys but does not build – that is, evil could not create a world of order and beauty with any type or sense of Goodness – it can only destroy what order a creator could make.

And this may mean that goodness and greatness really ARE tied together – that is, evil and greatness may actually be mutually exclusive, or rather, greatness may require goodness, and THIS is probably part of the traditional Ontological argument – or it ought to be ;).

I don’t see how an evil god would have the attributes that would lead to creating beauty, or ordered life, since it’s whole goal is to destroy. Creation may be incompatible with evil. I mean, sure, it could use intelligence to create destruction, but could evil motives exist to want to create life and beauty in the first place? I think this is MUCH less likely than the GOOD motives for doing such, making a GOOD god much more likely, ontologically and cosmologically speaking.

3. Evil as the absence of Good

Your guest failed to really mention which evils can’t be explained as a deficiency of some sort. He mentioned pain, but pain can be seen as an abscence of health or normative function.

I don’t think this definition of evil can be easily dismissed, and I find this argument/theodicy fairly sound. The anaology of dark being the absence of light makes lots of sense – darkness isn’t a substance at all.

Of course, darkness could be ‘embodied’ in say, smoke, just like evil could be embodied in human beings. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not still merely an absence of good.

4. Promoting thinking to combat moral sheepism

I am glad to hear him say that if we promote thinking and positive dissent, that will go a long way in preventing totalitarianism. I am glad he is not in favor of ‘straight jacketing’ people by restricting speech.

The problem here, though, is that as the movie Expelled show, most secularists don’t follow this egalitarian path when it comes to their own ‘origins myth’ of evolution. The respect for dissent is absent.

I am as against blasphemy laws as I am against hate speech laws, just another type of ‘straight jacketing.’

5. The evidential problem of good, free will, and moral evil

I don’t think that the free will theodicy can be flipped and still remain logically consistent, for this reason.

If God is great and Evil, whence do we get definitions for or existence of what is ‘good’ – it sounds like the Evil God will die on the horns of the Euthyphro dilemma – while Bill Craig’s solution for the dilemma is that God IS the good, an evil God could not provide such a source for goodness.

Additionally, if only an evil god exists, no one would ever do good unless you want to say that good is the absence of evil, which is akin to saying that light is the absence of darkness – that if you take darkness away, you have light.

With an evil God, you have no source of goodness. With a good god, you can have evil without a source of evil.

6. Appeals to mystery and best of all possible worlds

As I’ve said before, the appeal to mystery is really only done in two issues in scripture – freewill/predestination, and the problem of suffering, and I argue that, since we are limited in our abilities, some topics may be outside of our ability to understand, and there may be good reasons why these two subjects, out of all of the moral dilemmas that we can understand, go beyond our reason (I haven’t figured out what attribute makes these special in that way yet).

Not that there aren’t theodicies for these problems, but merely that, rather than this problem being logically inconsistent, we could altneratly say that the appeal to mystery might be acceptable here. It says ‘this is one of the (few) subjects that man’s limited reason can work out.’

I’m ok with that in these few instances, especially since it has been proven POSSIBLE that evil and a good god can exist.

So why can’t we appeal to mystery for the problem of good, while allowing it for the problem of evil? I suppose you could. But if you do that, then you can’t use the problem of evil against God while accepting it for evil.

However, just like I think the cosmological argument can not be flipped (due to the non-creative nature of evil, and the illogic of the idea of light being the absence of evil), I am thinking that
there may be a reason why a logical ‘diabolodicy’ could not be created for the problem of Good

7. Complexity as an argument against God

I think this argument is a repeat of the spurious ‘who created God’ question.

The reason you can’t say ‘if you think it’s implausible for a complex creation to exist, why do you not think it implausible that God exists?’ is because:

a. We KNOW that the universe had a beginning, therefore it had a cause (Cosomological)

b. We DON’T know that God had a beginning, and in most definitions, God is timeless or outside of time, AND because God is also a given first cause (whether or not you think there is some regression of creator Gods to the all-mighty first God), the argument from complexity does not apply to the likelihood of God.

c. there is no real infinity, no infinite regression in reality, so you can’t say that there is some infinite past which explains why no god exists. Does that make sense?


G'DIsraeli August 24, 2010 at 4:58 am

A very enjoyable listen.


Bram van Dijk August 26, 2010 at 11:53 pm

1. No comment.

2. “Evil god fails cosmological argument”.
I don’t think so. Just like the free will theodicy states that some evil is necessary for a greater good, an evil god may have to build something for any evil to occur. Besides, your claim that evil is per definition destructive only works if your next point is true (and I don’t think it is).

3. “Evil as the absence of good”.
Pain is some real existing proces in your brain. So pain is not the absense of health. In the contrary, ontologically health is the absence of any disease.

So if you still consider pain to be the absence of health, then this has nothing to do with the reality of what pain is, but only with semantics. By the same reasoning any goodness can be considered to be the absence of evil.

Basically, evil can be considered as the absence of evil, but it can be shown for examples that it is something in itself.

4. No comment

5. “free will defense of evil god”
I don’t understand how you can think that the evil god suffers from the Euthyphro dilemma, while the good god does not.
Even if you accept Craigs third horn (which I do not), then you can say that the evil god demands evil because he is evil.

Maybe this has to do with your point 3, but even if you consider evil as the absence of good (which I do not) then this still seems to work: the evil gods demands things that aren’t good because he lacks any goodness.

6. “mystery”
The whole point is that both the evil and the good god are possible, but that they should be somewhat equally probable. So I don’t understand your point. Unless you want to argue that the mystery card is only necessary for the evil god, which would make the evil god less probable than the good god.

7. “complexity”
While I agree that the “who created god”-question is not a very good argument I am puzzeled by two things you say:
-”we don’t know that god had a beginning”
-”there is no real infinity”
These two seem to contradict each other. If god had no beginning, then god is infinite. If god is infinite, then there is a real infinity.

This all seems to move towards a special pleading towards god. “The universe needs an explanation, but god doesn’t” but then dressed up in fancy philosophical language about beginnings and infinity.


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