Evil God

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Stephen Law, his evil god, and radical skepticism

My contention is that Stephen Law’s epistemological approach to his “evil god challenge” to Christianity entails radical skepticism. Because his challenge entails radical skepticism, Law has forced his cohorts to choose between the seeming irrationality of that position or a denial of the power of the “evil God challenge.”

Entailment of Skepticism

Stephen Law’s “evil God challenge” presents the following:

Suppose the universe has a creator. Suppose also that this being is omnipotent and omniscient. But suppose he is not maximally good. Rather, imagine that he is maximally evil. His depravity is without limit. His cruelty knows no bounds. There is no other god or gods – just this supremely wicked being. Call this the evil-god hypothesis. (Law, “The Evil God Challenge,” 4, cited below)

Now, the point of this challenge is:

the challenge of explaining why the good-god hypothesis should be considered significantly
more reasonable than the evil-god hypothesis.

Law argues in his paper that any theodicy used for the “good god” can be equally used for the “evil god.” Therefore, the theist has yet to show why one should favor the good god over the evil god, and so cannot rationally hold to belief in the good god over the evil god.

Law’s primary support for this supposition is his symmetry thesis:

I shall call the suggestion that, in terms of reasonableness, there is indeed such a rough symmetry between the good-god and evil-god hypotheses, the symmetry thesis.

Nowhere does Law explain what “rough symmetry” means or how balanced the evidence really is between the good god and evil god. Rather, he just uses the phrase “rough symmetry” and argues as though this is enough to discredit the good god hypothesis.

Now notice that the very heart of Law’s argument is something similar to this:

1) If one has no reason to believe that hypothesis a is “significantly more reasonable” than hypothesis b, one cannot rationally hold a over b

It is exactly at this point that Law’s entire epistemology must collapse into radical skepticism. Why? Simply because I can construct parallel but contradictory accounts for nearly any object of knowledge that is not a necessary truth. Just because Law is able to [unsuccessfully, in my opinion] construct a “parallel” system of explanation to that of the ‘good god’ hypothesis does not mean that his parallel is on the same level or even a challenge to that hypothesis.

To see why constructing parallel explanation of reality does not somehow undermine reality, consider two scenarios I constructed to outline this exact point.

The 5 minutes ago challenge

Scenario 1: Our universe was created 5 minutes ago with all our memories and experiences implanted into us.

Those who are familiar with epistemology and philosophy of mind will recognize this as a very pervasive scenario throughout the literature. But how does one go about solving a problem like this? Consider a defense of what seems to be everyday experience.

a) it does not seem to me as though the universe was created 5 minutes ago. I have vivid memories of ten years ago and can interact with others about some of those memories.

The problem with a), of course, is that it exactly lines up with the notion that the universe was created 5 minutes ago with our memories and experiences implanted inside our heads.

Unless I’m very much mistaken, I think I could construct a similarly parallel account for any possible defense of experience of more than 5 minutes ago.

Therefore, I conclude with Law that because the “5 minutes ago” hypothesis is has “rough symmetry” with the hypothesis that our universe is 16 billion years old and the like, it is unreasonable to embrace either proposition. After all, the 5 minutes ago thesis seems extremely improbable, and it is roughly symmetric to the ‘everyday experience’ hypothesis. Law’s symmetry principle applies and undermines all of our experience.

The Cartesian Demon Hypothesis

Scenario 2: A Cartesian Demon (again, those familiar with philosophical literature will likely recognize this one) has us all under some kind of magic Matrix-like spell where we live our whole lives in our minds even though in reality our bodies are being tortured. The demon delights in our blissful ignorance of the horrible state of our souls and so he continues to implant memories as our lives continue on.

Again, I can’t think of any defense of everyday experience I can’t parallel. Therefore, we should not believe that our everyday experience is correct, according to Law.

I could continue with examples. The problem of other minds is another that immediately jumps out: how do we know there are actually minds in those walking people we see around us. They could just as easily be [philosophical, not pop-fiction] zombies walking around mechanically acting as though they have minds inside them. Again, parallels=>skepticism about whether other minds exist.

Ultimately, Law’s “symmetry thesis” leads us into radical skepticism and even solipsism. That seems to me enough to reject it.

Challenge to Christianity?

So how exactly does Law’s evil god challenge present any difficulties for Christianity? Honestly, I’m not sure. Unless one is convinced of the solipsistic scenarios outlined above, one should not be convinced of Law’s evil god challenge. His symmetry thesis is the only way he can press this challenge, and that same thesis undermines all knowledge of experience and induction. It doesn’t seem like much of a challenge to me.

Law’s Odd Conclusion and My Conclusion all at once

Law’s conclusion states that:

The problem facing defenders of classical monotheism is this: until they can provide good grounds for supposing the symmetry thesis is false,
they lack good grounds for supposing that the good-god hypothesis is any more reasonable than the evil-god hypothesis – the latter hypothesis being something that surely even they will admit is very unreasonable indeed.

Now, one again must see exactly where this is leading. Suppose, as a theist, I find the evidence for the existence of a god to be very convincing. Suppose further that I find the theodicies Law parodies to be sound. Suppose that I think that Law’s evil god hypothesis meets these theodicies equally. Now, according to Law, I am in the state of “symmetry”; I have no reason to prefer the good god over the evil. Law maintains that this means not just that I can’t rationally hold to either, but rather that because the evil god hypothesis is “very unreasonable indeed” I should also reject the good god.

But of course the theist we are supposing to exist believes that the good good hypothesis is extraordinarily reasonable. And because Law’s thesis works, according to them, following Law, they have no reason to believe the evil god is any less probable than the good god. Thus, according to this theist, the evil god hypothesis is not improbable but rather extraordinarily probable.

What Law has done is pretty simple. He’s argued that the good and evil gods must be on the same level of rationality. Because he (apparently) and others reject the evil god out-of-hand, he argues that they are on equal footing and so one should reject the good god. But again, what if the theist agrees that these hypotheses must be on equal footing and that it’s not that both are improbable but rather that both are extraordinarily probable?

All Law has said in response to such a person is that the evil god is “very unreasonable indeed” but why? Law has just spent over 20 pages arguing that the evil god is actually reasonable. Suddenly, the evil god is worthy of rejecting a priori? How does that work out? Law hasn’t done anything to dissuade the convinced believer. The only way his argument works is if one thinks that the good god hypothesis is barely rational. If one follows his conclusion and thinks god’s existence is very likely, then they must follow it all the way through: the evil god’s existence is very likely too. Law just imports this unreasonableness from his own a priori denial of the existence of God.

So what, at this point, does the believer do? Well, it seems we’re back to my first point. One can either believe the symmetry thesis and thus devolve into radical skepticism, or one can reject it and thus throw Law’s argument out the window where it belongs.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there are other reasons to reject the “evil god challenge.” First, it doesn’t take into account the whole range of theistic argument. For example, the ontological argument is based upon the notion of God as maximally great. Law would have to argue that an evil being could be maximally great. Good luck.


William Lane Craig and Stephen Law debated some time back. I wrote a review summarizing and analyzing the arguments.

Glenn Andrew Peoples presents Law with a formidable challenge on the Unbelievable? Podcast. 

Edward Feser weighs in on the evil God challenge.

Glenn Andrew Peoples’ podcast on the evil God challenge is phenomenal.

Max Andrews weighs in, arguing that even though Law’s argument is much like the Cartesian demon, we should take it seriously.

Luke Nix at Faithful Thinker comments on the same argument from a different angle.


[Cited as directed here:] STEPHEN LAW The evil god challenge. Religious Studies, Available on CJO doi:10.1017/S0034412509990369



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Really Recommended Posts 02/03/12

Says the Madman, “Humanity is Dead, and We Are Its Murderers”– An insightful post which argues that naturalism has undermined the worth and value of humans.

Zombies of Christianity– I really enjoyed this discussion of the diversity of doctrine in Christianity and how to approach it.

My latest post on abortion generated some controversy, but I’d like to point out that scientifically, the unborn simply is a human being. One can find this not only in numerous medical textbooks on embryology, but also in the words of abortions-rights advocates themselves. Check out this phenomenal post which outlines the fact that the unborn are human beings, period- Medical Testimony.

C.S. Lewis is one of the greatest Christian Apologists of all time. Check out this post which brings us Beyond Mere Christianity.  Interested in literary apologetics? Check out Holly Ordway’s guest post on my blog here.

A Response to the Problem of an ‘Evil God’ as Raised by Stephen Law.– An excellent article, which I don’t fully agree with (I think Edward Feser answers the challenge correctly, for example), but which provides a thorough critique of Law’s position.

The Artist: A Film Review and Reflection- Holly Ordway shares her thoughts on “The Artist.”

How Many Atheists in America? Fewer than You Might Think– Pretty self explanatory.

Really Recommended Posts 11/5/11

Over at Hope’s Reason, Steve Bedard wrote a succinct post on the “Roots of Religion.”

A debate between Paul Copan and Norman Bacrac on “Is God a Moral Monster?

Josiah Concept ministries has been featuring a series on “True Christianity.” Great stuff. Check out Part 3.

Philochristos has a great section on Mormon Epistemology that has a number of posts worth checking out.

Why do people hate Tim Tebow so much? Is it a reflection of Christophobia? Check out what First Things has to say on the topic. See also Erik Manning’s discussion.

What do you mean by literal? N.T. Wright makes some great points about interpretation of Scripture.

A serious challenge to Stephen Law’s “evil god” theory is brought up by Edward Feser. For a quick explanation of the challenge, see his posts on the topic.

Many people have been wishing that William Lane Craig had used the ontological argument in the debate with Stephen Law. Why? Well, because it would have really undermined his ‘evil god’ challenge. See Doug Geivett’s thoughts.

William Lane Craig vs. Stephen Law- Thoughts and Links

Recently, William Lane Craig debated Stephen Law on the topic “Does God exist?” Remember the topic as I review the debate.

Craig 1

William Lane Craig presented a different set of arguments from his normal 5. This time, he argued the cosmological and moral arguments along with the argument from the resurrection. My guess is that the short time allowed was the reason for this change of strategy. Craig argued that actual infinites cannot exist in reality. He pointed out that transfinite math simply does not allow addition or subtraction of infinity, because it is absurd, but in the real world, if an infinite did exist, nothing could prevent it from having things added or taken away. Thus, Craig concluded, there cannot be an infinite past.

He then briefly outlined the empirical case for a finite past, citing Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin’s paper which shows that every model of the universe’s past must account for entropy, and therefore must be finite. I don’t want to get sidetracked from my review of the debate here, but so many people seem to either ignore or miss the point of this argument. It’s not that entropy only disallows an infinite universe that is one state, rather, entropy disallows an infinite past for oscillating universe models, bubble universes, and any other types of strategies people have tried to raise in order to rebut cosmological arguments. I recently got an e-mail in which someone said I’m being dishonest by only referencing the Big Bang as evidence for a finite universe, when there may have been previous universes. Well that’s simply wrong, even if there were previous universes, they would have to take entropy into account. If the past is infinite, all the energy available for the generation of universes would have been used up.

Anyway, Craig went on to argue the moral argument: If objective moral values exist, then God exists. They do, so God does. A great point Craig made is that any argument against the existence of objective moral values must rely upon premises which aren’t as plausible as the objective morals themselves. That’s an excellent point that many tend to ignore.

As far as the resurrection is concerned, Craig presented the “three facts” argument. He pointed out that three facts are agreed upon throughout scholarship on the topic: that the tomb was found empty, different individuals saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death, the disciples’ belief in Jesus resurrection despite having every predisposition to the contrary. These facts, argued Craig, are best explained by Jesus’ resurrection.

Law 1

Law began by arguing about animal suffering. He said that the extraordinary amount of suffering which is experienced by animals every day is such that it can weigh against the existence of God. He noted that some people dismiss this as “merely animals” but argued, “I wonder if they’d say the same thing if I took a red hot poker to their… cat.” Note how Law distorted his original argument, however. Certainly, I’d be extraordinarily angry with Stephen Law if he took a hot poker to my cat (I don’t have one any more but I used to). But the reason would be because Law is a moral agent. He is capable of knowing what he’s doing, and would clearly have to be sadistic in order to do such an action. If, however, an eagle came and carried my cat away, I would be extremely upset, but I would not accuse the eagle of having done a morally wrong action, because the eagle is not a moral agent. Yet Law used that very emotional image of himself–a moral agent–as an analogy for animal suffering. There’s clearly a major issue with such an argument.

Law went on to argue that there’s no reason to think that the God whose existence Craig is arguing for is not an evil god. Here I think Law had some decent points… for arguing against bare theism, but not against Christianity (see “Analysis” below). He argued that for certain theodicies, there can be parallel arguments constructed for an evil god. He also noted that Craig’s arguments could work just as well for an evil god (a notable exception would be the moral argument, more on that later… and it’s pretty hard to see how the resurrection would fit into his ‘evil god’ scenario). Law also argued that if the good in the world refutes an evil god, the evil in the world should refute a good God. Law didn’t do anything to rebut Craig’s arguments for the existence of God.

Craig 2

Craig quickly attacked Law’s appeal to emotion with animal suffering. He noted that it was very much anthropopathism to assume that animals had the same response to suffering as humans. In fact, he went on to note three hierarchies of suffering, and pointed out that animals do not have the capacity to be aware of the fact that they are suffering. So despite the suffering of animals, they are not even aware of that fact–something which Craig credited to God’s mercy. Animal suffering, he argued, is also necessary for a number of reasons, one of which is the stability of ecosystems. Without predation, all life on earth would be wiped out. Thus, it is fair to say that animal suffering fits into the divine plan.

Craig countered Law’s argument about the ‘evil god’ by noting that the moral argument specifically rebuts Law’s assertions. Not only that, but Law was arguing against a kind of theism which does not exist. Christians don’t survey the world and conclude God is good, rather, they believe God is good because that’s the type of being God is, necessarily.

Craig presented a number of reasons for thinking a good God would allow evil, which would therefore discount the rebutting evidence of evil. He also agreed with Law that looking at the world alone would lead to a draw, but that, as already noted, the moral argument and the type of being God is would defeat an ‘evil god’ scenario.

Law 2

Law argued that Craig had made a straw man of his position by saying that theism is not inductive. Then he went on to argue that the moral argument is the only one Craig can rely on to establish the goodness of God. He cited Swinburne as a Christian who did not believe objective morality relies on God. He ended his second segment by arguing that surely there is enough evil in the world to make the existence of God improbable.

Craig 3

Craig noted that Law has a strange kind of atheism which grants the existence of God but attacks the character. He pointed out that Law had still not rebutted any of his arguments, but focused merely on the character of God. He also pointed out that appealing to Swinburne was a mere appeal to authority and that he could cite a number of atheistic philosophers who agreed with his premises.

Law 3

Law argued that there are no objective moral values (curious, considering the citations Craig read in the debate). He then attempted to rebut the argument from the resurrection by citing an instance where a number of people believed they saw a UFO when it was really the planet Venus.

Craig Conclusion

Craig once more noted that Law had yet to rebut any of his arguments and that Law persisted in maintaining a strange atheism in which God exists, but may or may not be good. He noted that Law’s attempt to rebut the resurrection did not take into account the religio-historical context of that event and that all claims of experience must be measured by objective criteria, which the resurrection passes. He concluded that because his arguments stood undefeated, God exists.

Law Conclusion

Law basically said “why not believe in an evil god?” and argued that Craig still did not justify objective morals.


Law came in with a pretty interesting argument which was unfortunately not the topic of the debate. I think it would be really interesting to see Law vs. Craig on a topic like “Is God good?” His arguments had some weight, but I think Craig did an excellent job rebutting them while remaining on track. Law essentially ignored the cosmological argument and put the topic of the debate aside in favor of arguing about whether God is good. As far as the topic of the debate goes, it’s clear that Craig established the existence of God. In fact, Law was essentially granting that point (in the Q&A he argued that it is not the case that because he didn’t rebut the arguments, he agrees God exists… but it is important to note that he did not rebut the arguments so, on the face of it, it seems that the arguments stand unchallenged). As far as Law’s good points go, I think he had the best points I’ve seen an atheist raise in a debate with Craig so far, but Craig was able to adequately rebut them while sustaining his primary argument: that God exists.

Finally, on the “evil god” hypothesis: Law failed to realize that the concept of “greatest possible being” is central to Christian theism and did not take that into account. Craig perfectly illustrated this when he acknowledged that a “creator” on its own cannot be shown to be good or evil, but went on to point out that that doesn’t affect Christian theism, which holds that God is the greatest possible being. Law was, in a sense, arguing against “bare theism,” which is, as he points out, incoherent. Yet Craig was arguing to establish the Christian God–the greatest conceivable being. Law’s arguments therefore seem to only underscore the coherence of Christian theism, by demonstrating that only with a correct concept of God can theism be coherent.

[The following section in brackets added after the post was up and had several comments.]

[I’d like to point out more explicitly why Law’s argument doesn’t work. The reason is  because his concept of ‘god’ is incoherent. Theism claims that God is the greatest possible being. But Law is arguing that this being could be evil. Each of his arguments about the evil god were designed to argue that God ‘could be’ evil. But then Law would have to assert that evil is a property such that it makes beings great. I don’t see how he could argue this. He’d have to first argue the ontological reality of evil–which would establish the existence of objective morality and thus back up Craig’s moral argument. Then he’d have to argue that evil is, in fact, a property. Finally, he’d have to establish that evil is a great-making property. I don’t see any way he could possibly do this, and the burden of proof is definitely upon him to show these concepts are coherent. Unless and until he does that, his arguments are simply incoherent.]


Stephen Law, his evil god, and radical skepticism– I analyze Stephen Law’s evil god challenge further and conclude that it entails radical skepticism.

http://www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable– follow the rest of Craig’s tour through England.

Download the debate at Apologetics 315.

Check out more analysis of the debate at Thinking Matters.

Was Stephen Law Guilty of a Bait and Switch? 

An analysis of Law’s argument for an “evil god.”

Doug Geivett writes about “The Missing Ontological Argument” and Law’s misunderstanding of theism.



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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