Friday, 29 November 2013

The Evil God Challenge and the "classical" theist's response

On another blog, FideCogitActio, some theists of a "classical" stripe (that's to say, like Brian Davies, Edward Feser) are criticisng the Evil God Challenge (or I suppose, trying to show how it can be met, or sidestepped). The main post includes this:

In book I, chapter 39, Aquinas argues that “there cannot be evil in God” (in Deo non potest esse malum). Atheists like Law must face the fact that, if the words are to retain any sense, “God” simply cannot be “evil”. As my comments in the thread at Feser’s blog aimed to show, despite how much he mocks “the privation theory of evil,” Law himself cannot escape its logic: his entire argument requires that the world ought to appear less evil if it is to be taken as evidence of a good God. Even though he spurns the idea that evil is a privation of good, his account of an evil world is parasitic on a good ideal; this is no surprise, though, since all evil is parasitic on good (SCG I, 11). Based on the conclusions of several preceding chapters, Aquinas contends that ”God is goodness, and not simply good [Deus autem est bonitas, non solum bonus]. There cannot, therefore, be any non-goodness in Him. Thus, there cannot possibly be evil in God.” He adds that

“since God is His own being, nothing can be said of Him by participation…. If, then, evil is said of God, it will not be said by participation, but essentially. But evil cannot be so said of anything as to be its essence, for it would lose its being, which is a good (Sic autem malum de nullo dici potest ut sit essentia alicuius: ei enim esse deficeret, quod bonum est)….”
This exposes one of the other key defects of Law’s notion of an evil God: insofar as that “god” would be the cause of all lesser evils, it would be the most evil thing, but the more evil a thing is, the less substantial, the less existent it is, and thus the less potent it is. If Law wants to take seriously the theological terms which he’s trying to hoist by their own petard, he would have to agree that a maximally evil god is not only ontologically incoherent, but also the worst possible candidate for being The Creator of All (though I am anticipating the upcoming argument). God could not be essentially evil, and thus could not be the exemplary evil which grounds the evil of all created things. As we already knew, Law is just blowing smoke.

My responses thus far:

You have missed the point, just as Feser did, which is that it makes no difference to the EGC whether or not an evil god is an incoherent concept. As I spelt out repeatedly (on both Feser’s bog and also in my original paper): if you would rule out an evil god *in any case* just on the basis of the amount of good that exists notwithstanding any conceptual incoherence involved in the concept (which was not even established, but hey ho) then you should rule out the good god on the same basis. At least deal with my argument rather than a straw man.

Feser’s response to the EGC is probably the weakest I have come across – it’s actually dealt with in my paper, which he clearly did not even bother to read properly. A better response, thought still inadequate, is to try sceptical theism (as Craig, in effect, did).

I wonder which “classical” position you personally have in mind, given I’ve come across several variants. Perhaps something like this one: if your God can unleash vast and horrific suffering for no good reason whatsoever (other than it’s God’s non-personal nature to do so) and yet still qualify as “good” as you define the term, then the problem of evil is solved!

To this I now add:

The "evil is a privation" move might appear to solve the problem of evil at a stroke - define "good" such that what God creates - the cosmic cheese, as it were - is always "good", and define "evil" as holes or "privations" in that cheese, and voila: no problem of evil! "Hey that young kid's slow and horrific death by cancer is just a privation of good, so no evidence against theism there!" But of course this does not really deal with the problem. The holes in the cheese clearly exist, and were created by God, and we might ask why the cosmic cheesemaker made them, and indeed made them so horrifically large.

What if "good" is defined thinly, such that "good" applies trivially to God plus whatever God creates, no matter how horrific and agonizing it might be. This suggestion deals with the problem of evil, though in a way that will probably leave a lot of Christians, etc. somewhat perplexed (and perhaps concerned about  questions such as: (i) Why should an impersonal cosmic sluice through which all stuff pours - all of which qualifies by definition as "good" no matter how agonizing and pestilential much or even all of it happens to be - deserve our worship? (ii) Would someone's [e.g. Jesus] having gone round behaving like Caligula [or Satan] be any evidence at all against his being divinely "good" [apparently not!]).

We should be on the look out for some "moving the semantic goalposts" here. As defined above "good", is a pretty thin notion. Once the theist attempts to give more substance to the concept of divine "goodness" (beyond saying e.g. "good" = God and whatever he does), the evidential problem of evil is likely to re-emerge.

E.g. is God's "goodness" a sound basis for supposing he won't constantly lie to and deceive us for no benevolent reason"? If not, how can the theist reasonably believe any divine pronouncement or revelation? If so, why is God's "goodness" not similarly a sound basis for supposing God won't unleash untold agony for no benevolent reason [which re-introduces the problem of evil])?

The temptation for the theist caught in this dilemma will be to assert the content when it suits them ("But of course God doesn't lie regularly - he is good!") but then whip it away whenever the problem of evil raises its threatening head ("Oh how unsophisticated of you - you fail to realize I refer to God in the classical sense!")

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