Here is a post for the philosophers of religion amongst you. Can we rule out an evil god on the grounds that the world is not nearly evil enough? Of course we can. But then why can’t we similarly rule out a good god on the grounds that the world isn’t nearly good enough?
Back in 2011 I debated philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig on the existence of God (link). I presented the evidential problem of evil as my main argument against the existence of God. In particular, I pointed out that, for almost the entire two hundred thousand year sweep of human history, one third to a half of each generation has died, usually horribly, before reaching their fifth birthday. This caused immense suffering to both all those kids and also their parents who had to watch helpless as their children were killed on an industrial scale.
That evil is certainly ‘inscrutable’ in the sense that we can see no good reason why God would allow it. This and much of the other evil we see around us strikes many of us as ‘gratuitous’: we suppose there is no good God-justifying reason for it. And God, if he exists, won’t allow gratuitous evils. So it seems we can reasonably rule out an all-powerful all-good God on the grounds that the world just ain’t good enough.
I strengthened this standard argument against the existence of God by pointing out that, surely, we can reasonably rule out an all-evil and all-powerful creator on the grounds that the world just isn’t nearly evil enough. There exists much inscrutable good – good for which we can identify no evil-creator-justifying reason. Much of that good is, surely, gratuitous: there’s no evil-creator justifying reason for it. But if such an evil creator exists, then gratuitous good won’t exist. So we can quite reasonably rule out an evil creator on grounds that the world just isn’t evil enough.
That last thought strikes me as particularly plausible. Surely most of us can see this just isn’t the sort of world a supremely evil and powerful deity would create. But then why can’t we similarly see that this just isn’t the sort of world a supremely good and powerful deity would create? I drew this plausible thought to the attention of Craig and the debate audience.
During our debate, and also in his subsequent posting on our debate, Craig decided, on being presented with this plausible thought, to bite the bullet and reject it. He insisted that, actually, we can’t reasonably rule out either a good creator or an evil creator on the basis of the evil or good we see around us. Here’s Craig denying we can reasonably rule out a good God on the basis of observed evils:
“The fact is that when we see an incidence of evil or suffering enter our lives, we are simply not in a position to say with any kind of confidence that God lacks morally sufficient reasons for permitting that to occur. We’re simply not in a position to make those kinds of judgments competently.
And, therefore, it’s simply impossible for the atheist to show that it’s improbable or impossible that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil and suffering in the world.”
And here is Craig denying we can reasonably rule out an evil creator (‘anti-God’) on the basis of observed goods:
“I agree that you cannot disprove anti-God by just looking inductively at the good things in the world.”
[quoting Wykstra] “‘Just as the inscrutable evil in the world doesn’t give much evidence that there’s no totally good creator, so the inscrutable good in the world doesn’t give much evidence that there’s no totally evil Creator’” (source – see debate transcript and here)
I consider Craig’s response here – to just bite the bullet and say we can’t reasonably rule out an evil creator on the grounds that the world isn’t nearly evil enough – mistaken, and certainly highly counter-intuitive, and said so in our debate (‘Pull the other one’, I said.).
Now in his latest Reasonable Faith podcast available here (with full transcript), Craig is asked to comment on a TED talk in which the speaker suggests that perhaps this universe was created by a 100% evil creator that is, say, just 80% effective. Craig immediately brushes this suggestion aside as ridiculous. His response is below.
“I must say, Kevin, that seems to me to under
estimate enormously what an 80% effective deity could do to make life miserable for us. I mean for most people life is very good. Otherwise we’d all commit suicide. But when people go through hard times they typical look to the future with hope that things will get better. And when you go through bad times you, ah, will often find that some good things come out of it. Life for most people is worth living. That’s just an undeniable fact of the matter. So if there were a being that were really 100% malevolent I mean goodness sake we have no idea what sort of a torture chamber or something we might be living even if he’s only 80% effective.”
So here is Craig dismissing the thought that there’s a 100% evil creator. Why? Apparently on the grounds that the world isn’t nearly evil enough (even if the evil creator were only 80% effective). There’s just too much good stuff. We should expect something much more like a torture chamber if there were such a 100% evil creator.
But then Craig is now making precisely the point that I made back in 2011, which he then rejected.
Of course, the fact is Craig is correct to say we can reasonably rule out a 100% evil creator on the grounds that the world isn’t evil enough. And if we can do that, then why can’t we reasonably rule out a 100% good creator on the grounds that the world isn’t good enough?
I wonder how Craig will now respond? He appears to have been caught in a straightforward contradiction.
My thanks to Aron Zavaro for drawing my attention to Craig’s recent podcast.
POSTSCRIPT 21 Jan. Some may think, ‘Well so what if Craig got caught out in some contradiction? None of us are fully rational. We all make mistakes. No doubt Stephen Law has also contradicted himself on occasion.’
True enough. But this would be to underestimate the significance of this particular contradiction, if that’s what it is. For what it strongly suggests is that the leading intellectual response to the problem of evil – to say, “Ah, but for all we know our creator has good reasons for allowing these things” – is actually counter-intuitive and not fully accepted by at least some of those saying it. Saying it may supply them with a convenient get-of-jail-free card in debate, but it’s a belief they don’t consistently maintain.