Stephen Law

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The Ontological Argument and an Evil god

800px-Extermination_of_Evil_TenkeiseiI shared a video about the ontological argument that gives the absolute bare-bones of the argument on my Facebook recently. A friend came along and raised a point that that friend said had bothered them for a while. The objection was that could not such an argument be used to argue for the existence of an evil god just as much as for a good God? I typed up a response I would like to also share here.

The first thing I’d point out is that such an objection to the argument assumes that evil is itself ontologically extant rather than a deprivation. That is, it assumes evil is itself a thing, rather than being that which is not-good. Although that is not an implausible position, it would take establishment of evil as a real existing thing in order for the argument to work.

Another difficulty is that it seems intuitively false that maximal greatness could include “maximal evil.” That’s a reason things like the maximally great pizza don’t really work as objections to the argument–maximally great pizzas are not only nonsensical (for greatness of pizza depends upon one’s taste) but they also have nothing intrinsic in them to entail maximal greatness. Such an objection would have to establish not only that evil exist on its own rather than as a deprivation, but also that evil is a kind of “great-making property.” Since it seems clear that evil is not a “great-making property,” the burden of proof is on any who wishes to demonstrate that it is.

A third problem is that the argument must see maximally good and maximally evil as epistemically on par with each other. For the argument to work, evil and good have to be effectively even when it comes to probability. But that is a very complex argument to make.

Finally, if all of these difficulties were overcome, the one making the argument has effectively made an argument for radical skepticism, to the point that we could not really be epistemically sure of anything. I’ve argued for this last point at length. Basically, the point is that if it is true that if A and B are epistemically on par with each other, we have no way of distinguishing between A and B, then it follows that we cannot be sure of anything or making distinctions in everyday life. For it is the case that we can construct for ANY scenario X a scenario Y that is epistemically on par with it (at least in principle) such that Y _may_ be the case instead. And if that’s true, and the point made by the notion of an evil God is true, then we must adhere to radical skepticism. In other words, a reductio ad abusdum defeats the argument.

 

Really Recommended Posts 12/4/15- Star Wars theology, women in the early church, and more!

snowl-owl-post-arpingstoneWe have already made it to December! Can you believe it? I can’t. That doesn’t mean I won’t keep delivering the goods, however! This week we have posts on women in the early church, dinosaurs and young earth creationism, an evil god?, the theology of Star Wars, and the Planned Parenthood shooting. As always, let me know what you think–and be sure to let the authors know as well. Also, because it’s already snowed a couple times, we’re switching back to the snowy owl to bring our post, Hogwarts style.

A Theology of Star Wars– Star Wars Episode VII comes out soon. I bet that’s news to you! I may or may not have my tickets to an early showing. The world will never know. Anyway, here’s a free e-book (sign up to newsletter required) on Star Wars and Christian theology. I haven’t gotten through the whole thing yet, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far.

Four Myths about Women in the Early Church– The topic of women in the early church is quite interesting. I’ve only read one book on the topic, but I’d like to explore further. This post highlights some myths about women in the early church that are largely taken as givens. In the debate over women in the church and home, it is important to get our facts straight.

Is an Evil God as likely as an All-Good God?– Edward Feser analyzes Stephen Law’s (in)famous “evil God challenge,” in which Law alleges that the evidence for the existence of God cannot bring us to a good God, so an evil God is just as likely. I have analyzed Law’s argument myself, and I believe I demonstrate that the assumptions behind his argument would yield radical skepticism if held consistently.

Why Pro-Life Advocates are not responsible for the Planned Parenthood Shooting– Some have alleged that the recent, horrific attack on a Planned Parenthood building can be blamed on the pro-life movement. Here is an analysis of that ad hominem attack vs. pro-life advocates that gets at the heart of the issue.

Where did all the Dinosaurs go? Ken Ham’s Climate and Human Induced Dinosaur extinction hypothesis– Young earth creationists must deal with the evidence we have about dinosaurs and their lives. Here is an analysis of Ken Ham’s hypothesis regarding what happened to all the dinosaurs after they purportedly survived a global flood alongside humans.

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.

Links

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.

Source:

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

SDG.

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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 01/14/2012

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of these. The holiday season had me a bit too busy to explore other sites! Sorry all! But here’s a new slew of posts I really recommend for your reading!

Did Jesus even exist?– the title is pretty self-explanatory. Rather than focusing on varied historical accounts, though, this post surveys several non-believers quotes on the topic.

Undesigned Scriptural Coincidences: The Ring of Truth– One of the old, forgotten arguments of historical apologetics is experiencing a major revival thanks in large part to the contributions of philosopher Tim McGrew. Christian Apologetics UK has this simply phenomenal post on the topic. Basically, the argument shows that without intending to do so, writers in the Bible omit and fill in each others’ details that they wouldn’t have seen as all that important. In doing so, however, they demonstrate the truth of the Biblical account. Check out this post!

Does the Bible teach that faith is opposed to logic and evidence?– Check out this post on the Biblical view of faith.

What if God were really bad?– Glenn Peoples is one of my favorite philosophers. He’s insightful, witty, and just plain interesting. In his latest podcast, he confronts Stephen Law’s “Evil God challenge” head on. Check it out!

William Lane Craig rebuts the “Flying Spaghetti Monster”– Self-explanatory. Check out Craig’s answer to a question about the FSM.

Nicolas Steno: bishop and scientist– I love posts that are mini-biographies of Christians who also did science. Check this one out, I bet you didn’t know about this guy!

Stephen Hawking: God Could not Create the Universe Because There Was No Time for Him to Do So– Jason Dulle provides an analysis of Hawking’s argument against creation. This is an excellent post and I highly recommend it.

Modal Realism, the Multiverse, and the Problem of Evil– Considerations of the multiverse with the problem of evil. Succinct and interesting!

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.

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