Stephen Law’s evil god challenge

Stephen Law’s evil god challenge is an attempt to answer theodicies. For those who aren’t familiar with the term theodicy, it refers to attempts to justify God’s allowing suffering/evil, despite being omnipotent; omniscient and benevolent (the problem of evil). Alvin Plantinga (and others) have drawn a distinction between a defence and a theodicy, which I intend to cover in later posts, but the free will defence is covered by Law’s challenge.

This post should probably have followed certain other posts I plan to write but recent discussions on blogs I follow has inspired me to put this post in now, and fill the gaps in later. I will just have to make time for a lot more blogging.

In a nutshell, the evil god challenge proposes an omnipotent; omniscient and malevolent god, so basically an analogous version of the God of Abrahamic tradition, just not the kind of deity you’d take home to meet mum and dad. He then uses reverse theodicies to support this evil god against the problem of good. While using the term Abrahamic (my term, not Law’s) may be sufficiently vague to allow for the analogy, Christians could have a legitimate philosophical complaint against it being analogous to their God, which I will address in a moment.

Some attempts to diffuse the challenge, like Leah Libresco’s (which was written while she was still an atheist), use Lewis’ maths/moral law analogy. My issue here is that things get rather vague when you use one possibly bad analogy to try to debunk another possibly bad analogy. The idea that God is not a moral agent, and therefore is neither morally good nor evil has also been used. I didn’t like that at first, but will probably do a post on that idea at some point as it opens up an interesting theological discussion.

Analogy can be judged by how far the comparison can be pushed when compared to the original idea, if it can’t be pushed to extremes, it isn’t a good analogy (in philosophy anyway). In Christianity, God is said to be loving, and would like that love returned, while belief and acceptance is important, so is that “thy will be done” thing. God wants His followers to be good and loving. The evil god would be hateful, and would demand hate, which is problematic, since his will is evil and hate, and to show him hate would be not “thy will be done” and thus he would require goodness. So what does he really want? While I would happily expand on this in a philosophy essay, I find it theologically unfulfilling. The reason I bring it up is that generally the maths analogy is trying to create a contradiction before you start, this does that without adding an extra analogy.

The issues that Law misses are:

  • For most believers the problem is absurd, since belief is largely a question of faith. Unless Law would be willing to commit to having faith in his evil god, the discussion probably wouldn’t go anywhere. To be fair to him though, he probably intends this to be used against vocal apologists, not the average believer.
  • Christians don’t see the problem of evil as evidence against God’s existence, so it’s a poor assumption to think they would see good as evidence against an evil god. William Lane Craig actually does reject the premise that good is evidence against the evil god hypothesis. I’m really not sure how good this argument is.
  • Many theists support moral arguments, so the mere fact that we can have a discussion on morality acts (as they see it) as evidence for God. Law doesn’t cover this in the paper, but in a video I saw, he points out that he doesn’t need to believe that there’s any sense in moral claims, just that theists make moral claims and therefore the discussion is tailored to suit their world view. I think this adequately addresses that complaint.
  • Many theists actually see evil/suffering as evidence of their beliefs: the devil may be attacking them because they are getting to close to God, or God is testing their faith. He could expand the challenge to include a good fallen angel hypothesis, but he may have to give up the evidential problem of evil.
  • This challenge addresses the evidential problem of evil, where quantity of suffering is important, while (expanding on the previous point) theists often see more evil as evidence of the nearness of the end of days (“like in the days of Noah”) – the results of sin.

While we could probably debate these at large, I will come back to some of those points in later posts, since I doubt that a post of about 890 words can cover the full scope of the challenge to theodicy. I also want to examine some ways the challenge can be expanded on, where it seems Law has left some obvious and useful arguments out. Any feedback on these points would be useful, so if you object to any, feel that any deserve more examination, or simply feel I’ve neglected anything, comment below, and let me know what you think.


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