Posted on Nov 2, 2011
Stephen Law brought an “evil God” challenge with him to his debate with William Lane Craig, claiming that Craig’s arguments for God are next to worthless in that they could prove the existence of a supremely evil God just as well as a supremely good God. Practicing his typically admirable discipline, Craig refused even to take the bait. That particular debate, he said, was about the existence of God, not about God’s character.
Leave it to Edward Feser then to dispense with this argument, which he does rather handily:
No doubt Law gets away with presenting his “evil-god challenge” as if it were a threat to theism in general because most of his readers and listeners are as ignorant as he evidently is of the classical theistic tradition. But while that may be good rhetorical strategy, it is bad philosophy.
It’s bad philosophy, says Feser, because classical theism is completely incompatible with an evil God. Many readers here are undoubtedly flummoxed by the very thought, and well you might be! If you’re scratching your head, wondering why anyone would think an “evil God” is worth talking about, I won’t mind if you skip the rest of this article. I’m only bringing it up here because some Ph.D. philosopher thought it worth discussing. Thankfully other Ph.D. philosophers know better. I’m not one of them, but I have reasons to think I know better, too; reasons that ought to make sense even to a complete unbeliever.
Law himself should know better. Elsewhere Feser points out, most reasonably,
I am not here attempting to convince the uninitiated or hostile reader that this complex metaphysical picture I have been describing is correct or even plausible. That would take at least a book…. I am also not saying that no reasonable person who familiarizes himself with it could disagree with that picture. I am merely saying that before one disagrees with it, one ought at least to try to understand it. And the things Law says seem to me to show that he does not understand it.
Dr. Feser’s answer to Law is perfectly adequate and decisive, yet I wonder whether more might be added to it, an additional argument that might show that Law’s conception is impossible even for the “uninitiated or hostile reader.” For it seems to me there’s something incoherent about an “evil God,” even apart from the arguments that can be made for classical theism.
The incoherency of which I speak has to do with the nature of evil. Classically, evil is understood to be privation; a lack or failure in the created thing to be ordered rightly with respect to the Creator, to its own nature, and to the rest of creation. On this view God could hardly be evil, unless God is eternally opposed to himself, ordering himself against himself. This seems to be a problem with Law’s position, and it’s that he does not appear to address, at least not in the article in which he introduces the “evil God.” It seems to me he bears the burden of showing how his alternate “evil God” conception has any meaning whatsoever. Perhaps he has tried to do so somewhere else. Since I don’t know, I’ll give him the benefit of that doubt.
But Law tells us he means something else by “evil:” not privation, but rather pain and suffering. It could be that his hypothetical “evil God” is one who takes supreme delight in causing the maximum possible misery among his creatures. There’s something self-contradictory about that, too, I’m quite sure, even if we take it only as some atheist’s twisted conception of what some hypothetical god might possibly be like. It seems to me that Law’s own treatment of this issue (pages 19-20 in his article) fails to fully address the problem. This god of whom he conceives (not the capital-G God of any monotheistic religion) would be a supreme being who maximizes his own delight by creating a world where delight is minimized among his creatures. He produces his own greatest joy by producing his creation’s greatest misery. He creates from himself only, and makes his creation utterly unlike himself in the most important way possible.
I won’t pretend I’ve done all the philosophical work I’m touching on here, but I have an intuition that this, too, is simply incoherent and self-contradictory even for a non-believer to propose. If I’m right, then there is yet one more response we could make to Law’s challenge. He says, “The arguments for God are worthless because they prove an evil God just as much as they prove a good God.” But “evil God” is a strictly incoherent, impossible, and therefore meaningless pairing of words. No argument, under any evidential or reasoning basis whatsoever, could ever count in favor of a self-contradictory state of affairs.
Or in other words, if I am right, then his argument is logically equivalent to something like this: “The arguments for God are worthless because I can use them to prove a round square just as easily as you can use them to prove a good God.” I don’t think he can do that. Does he think he can? Or have I missed something?
(Update: the argument I am making is incomplete at this point; I continue it below.)