Saturday, April 7, 2007

God of Eth (part 2)

Before we return to mirrors, Alex has posted a very good comment on the God of Eth (scroll down).

Alex says: I’m surprised that some one as distinguished as your self sees this as a tidy reversal on the theists arguments.

Well I admit the God of Eth is as it stands a thought experiment designed simply to provide a challenge - to give believers a jolt, if you like. There are innumerable moves that might be made to defend God, and it is hard to anticipate them all in one short article (well, it's impossible).

Theists may conclude the argument must therefore be weak and inconclusive. But that would a mistake I think. After all, there are innumerable moves that might be made to defend belief in an Evil God, too, far more than I mentioned (try coming up with your own - it's fun). Yet it remains blindingly obvious to anyone with eyes to see that there is no such being. The question is: why isn't the same true of the good God hypothesis?

Alex then says. The all evil God experiment unravels for this very simple reason: Evil is the perversion of an already extant good.

I am aware of this move, of course. It's broadly Augustinian. But this also looks reversible, doesn't it? I can say "Good is just the absence or perversion (from evil God's point of view) of an extant evil." Make up some examples for yourself: Good sex is just evil sex plus consent and respect; good pain is just evil pain that also provides useful knowledge.

Seems to me that maybe the only reason it looks to you like evil things are merely a perversion of extant goods is that you have your good-God glasses on. Put my evil-God glasses on and everything switches. What grounds do you have for thinking you're wearing the right glasses?

In fact, there may be an asymmetry here that you could exploit, but you need to do much more work to bring it out.

But in any case, even if you are right about this asymmetry, you objection still assumes a great deal. You say:

God is necessarily not subject to any standard.

But actually, a standard of good and evil independent of God's judgement is something even many Christians accept (because they know about Plato's famous Euthyphro dilemma - ask e.g. Leibniz). And once we acknowledge such an independent standard, it is then open to evil God to approve of what is independently evil in exactly the same way as it is open to good God to approve of what is independently good.

So, not withstanding the possible reversibility of "evil is a perversion of good", your objection also assumes something that even many Christians, for good reason, reject.

Having said that, it was a very interesting try. Maybe it could be developed further...

36 comments:

Alex said...

Hey Stephen,
Good sex is just evil sex plus consent and respect; good pain is just evil pain that also provides useful knowledge.

I think it is you who have the work to do if you want to think that evil could possibly be extant apart from a former good. Your example of good being a perversion of an extant evil reveals as much. In each case you “add” the good into the equation. However, in reality all evil is the twisting or subtraction of existing values or information. I challenge you to discover an evil that could exist without a standard of good first existing for you to call it evil.

Evil as we know it is necessarily a perversion or corruption. In your thought experiment you use evil in the same way that we understand it. Therefore it requires the existence of a prior good to corrupt.

Regarding the Euthyphro dilemma, I also do not find this as problematic as you may. I do in fact see God choosing what is good and what is evil according to a standard. However, I do not see that standard as something that is over God. That standard is His own eternal character.

The argument may then be made who decided His character? To which we get into the nether regions of eternity where we as finite beings really have a hard time even getting our heads around. The short answer is no one, it’s eternal.

At any rate, in your “evil God” universe where evil God was the source of all things, evil would necessarily be of a very different nature than what we understand in this universe.

Again, I think it’s a very interesting experiment, but from everything you’ve said so far, I think my point still stands.

Good chatting with you.

Jeremy said...

OK - good sex is just rape minus disrespect and force.

Or:
Good pain is just evil pain minus the pointlessness.

(Both of these examples are arguable as to their accuracy, but should suffice to show that it is theoretically possible to claim that good is the privation of existing evil.)

Stephen Law said...

Hello Alex

First, a clarification: I am not committed to saying evil can exist without good, as you suggest. I could take the view that each requires the other, but that neither is basic. It's you that's insisting one is basic (the other being an addition to, subtraction form, absence of (Augustine), or, as you put it "perversion of" the other). I am merely asking why we should consider good basic rather than evil?

I think Jeremy is on the right track. We might try to characterize evil as good plus or minus something. Similarly we try to characterize good as evil plus or minus something.

Actually, I would want to concede that there are examples where good seems to be more than a mere lack of bad stuff. Pleasure is more than an absence of pain, for example.

But then there are examples where bad stuff is more than a mere lack of good stuff. Pain and suffering are not just an absence of pleasure, etc.

Of course you can gerrymander definitions of pain and suffering in terms of absences or perversions (or whatever) of good. But then Jeremy and I can gerrymander our own mirror definitions of pleasure (or any other goods you care to mention) in terms of evil.

You challenge me "to discover an evil that could exist without a standard of good first existing for you to call it evil."

Hmm. That's complex. Seems to me I can say any standard or measure of good is thereby a measure of evil. They are the two ends of the same measuring stick. You can count off decreasing goodness or decreasing evilness from each respective end of the stick. So I don't have to meet this challenge (as I can admit that nothing can be called good or evil without there being some standard of both).

I still don't see you have yet established any asymmetry.

BUT, here's another idea. When I discussed the God of Eth with Richard Swinburne and Tim Mawson (Oxford dons both expert on religion) they did both suggest that there is this asymmetry between good and bad: To say something is good is immediately to give a reason to do it; to say something is bad is not.

Is this right, and if so, can we do something with it? I am still thinking about this....

The Barefoot Bum said...

I interpret Law's argument a different way than Alex does.

Law is not, I think, making any sort of positive assertions about good and evil, and I'm sure he's not making a positive assertion that an evil god exists.

Rather he's showing that we can talk about good and evil in two different ways—good-centric and evil-centric—without finding any principled way to differentiate between the two ways.

The best I see Alex doing here is bringing up unsubstantiated assertions and metaphysical bullshit in an attempt to shift the burden of proof.

This is pretty typical "argumentation" from religious fanatics (the Muslims are even worse at it), and they're typically impervious to counterarguments. Unless you can prove them absolutely wrong with perfect certainty, they feel justified in asserting their unsubstantiated delusions with absolute certainty.

Stephen Law said...

I don't think Alex has misinterpreted me.

But there's a lot of stuff needs unpicking in his argument. Not sure how much detail to go into.

Alex argues that there is an asymmetry between the good God hypothesis and the evil God hypothesis. I think his arg is this:

(i) evil is merely an absence of or perversion of good, so my evil God hypothesis presupposes there is standard of good.

(ii) there can be no standard of good without a good God (or, if you like, such a standard just is God).

Unfortunately, these are both dubious.

First, I cannot see that we have been given any reason to suppose evil is an absence or perversion of good, rather than good being an absence of evil.

However, it may, nevertheless be true that I presuppose a standard of good/evil by describing things as evil.

But even if I do, it doesn't follow that the existence of such a standard of good/evil requires a good God (any more than it does an evil one).

BUT BB is right that the onus is on Alex to demonstrate an asymmetry. So far as I can see, he hasn't yet done so.

So we still have not been given any reason to think the good God God hypothesis is any more reasonable than the evil God hypothesis (which is downright silly).

Matt M said...

Barefoot Bum,

I know Alex from another blog, and, though I don't share his views, he's certainly not a "religious fanatic" in any sense of term.

Stephen Law said...

Quite right Matt - there's no reason at all to suppose Alex is a religious fanatic. Unless BB considers all religious folk fanatics?

Tom Freeman said...

I’d like to echo the ‘let’s-disagree-spectacularly-but-be-nice-while-we-do-it’ vibe.

If, as per Alex, one bases morality on god’s character, then I think Stephen’s argument that there are no grounds for presupposing an asymmetry still holds.

Say we switch to discussing whether god is loving or hateful. These are simply descriptive character traits, and so we can go over the whole issue of whether either notion of a creator, given the mix of happiness and suffering and compassion and selfishness in the world, is at all likely. And we can do this without needing to get into what sort of standard we might use as the basis of morality and how good relates to evil.

(BTW Stephen – the Eth dialogue was delicious. I generally try to avoid gormless, breathless fandom but sometimes there isn’t really a choice.)

Alex said...

Matt, Tom and Stephen,
Glad I don't come off as a fanatic. Thanks for saying so! Now if only the same could be said of my rambling long-winded style...

Stephen,
You make several very good points here. I’ll start from the beginning.

I am not committed to saying evil can exist without good…

That is good. But to then affirm that neither is basic, I think is untenable. Let me try and frame it up a little different. I would assert that Good cannot exist without at least the possibility for evil. Now this gets a bit into the realm of free will, but I think that is an assumed part of each of our arguments. If freedom is to be allowed (which is a good quality in it’s initial state btw) the possibility of evil must be part of the equation. So the subtle difference I am trying to point out is that good can exist without evil, but it cannot exist without the possibility for evil.

Now evil (as we understand it) is a different story. Evil cannot exist at all without a standard to pervert. If the standard was different, then what could be called evil would be different as well.  And I think that’s the biggest problem with evil God experiment you constructed. Under the rule of evil God any sort of moral judgment would be of a completely different sort than what we know in this universe. Am I making any sense here, or am I just talking in circles?

I am merely asking why we should consider good basic rather than evil

That is the right question. However, you do not seem to accept my answer. The good and evil we talk about in this world must be in relationship to the character of God. I can see no other way that such words could have meaning otherwise. Having said that, the question you raise is a valid one. How do we know which end of the spectrum God is on? But I don’t think the answer is really that hard to find. If evil is the violation of a standard, then the ultimate authority must be the standard not the violation. Therefore whatever is evil is not the highest power, but the standard which it violates.

Of course you may say that evil does not need to violate a standard to be evil, but I think you would do violence to any usage of the word by trying to maintain that.

I would agree with you that evil is not simply the absence of good and that good is not simply the absence of evil. You are right to say that “something more” is involved with a moral good, but the example you use is a bit lacking. Pleasure on it’s own is neither morally good or morally evil. For instance pleasure experienced by a murderer when they kill their victim is not actually a morally good sensation. Sensations are only good or evil when compared to a standard. So when the end of the “why is it good or bad to do such and such?” chain is reached the only answer that is adequate to silence the questions is that the action in question is either in accordance or in violation of the character of God.

Hmm. That's complex. Seems to me I can say any standard or measure of good is thereby a measure of evil. They are the two ends of the same measuring stick.

We can agree on this at least. The problem for your evil God experiment is that though the terms good and evil are terms of measurement I still cannot see how what we call evil could exist prior to a standard that we would call good. It's very possible I'm missing something here, if that's the case please point it out to me.

So here's my two positions as they now stand.

(i) evil is the use of an extant good that is in violation of the character of God.

(ii) if it were possible for the character of God to possess the attributes we now call evil as the core of His being, the standard by which all good and evil are measured would be shifted. This would basically make morality completely different than what we now understand it.

I am not prepared to speculate on the meaning of words like good and evil in such a world. Surly it would not be the same as was used in the Eth thought experiment.

I apologize that my thought process is not more concise. I have a long way to go in terms of refining my thinking and argumentation style. However, I must say this has been a fascinating conversation and I'm more than willing to continue if you can bear the heavy handed form my thoughts often manifest. Hopefully I addressed a few of your objections in this last post. I composed most of it before your last comment. Feel free to point out the lose ends I left. I'll do my best to see if the threads connect.

Ah yes... And as Tom Freeman once said "... I say this without irony but with just a little wryness – I hope you all have a very happy..." Easter!

I'll be back in touch monday if time allows.

Jeremy said...

Hi Stephen,

I'm genuinely interested in Richard Swinburne et al.'s comments re: a possible asymmetry between good and bad, but I'm also a little confused. If it is good to love and care for your children, I suppose you could say that it immediately provides a reason for doing it. But surely the converse then still holds? If it is bad to maim one's children, then does this not also immediately provide a reason for not doing it?

I don't really see any possibility for asymmetry here. Am I missing something?

Stephen Law said...

Jeremy

It could go like this:

If a world is good, that immediately gives any being a reason to create it. If a world is bad, that doesn't immediately give any being a reason to create it. The being would have to have some further reason to bring it into existence (like, being evil).

So the evil God hypothesis involves a more complex explanation for the existence of the world.

So the good God explanation is simpler, and therefore better.

Something like that, anyway....

Of course, even if there is an asymmetry here, it may well only tilt the scales a bit in the good God direction. Other considerations, I think, tilt the scales in the evil god direction (will post something on this later), so it may all still balance out, more or less.

And of course, the fact remains there's overwhelming evidence against both beings, given the quantities of both good and evil in the world. Which is my main point.

Even if scales of probability did tip a bit more towards one God than the other, that main point would remain.

The theist's best bet, I think is to come up with strong grounds for supposing a specifically good God exists. Then they could at least say that these grounds can then weigh against the problem evil, leaving the existence of the good God at least in the balance.

I take it that is what Alex is trying to do? (I am struggling a bit to follow his argument)

Jeremy said...

Stephen

I've thought really hard about Swinburne and Mawson's contention, but I honestly don't think it holds water. I can't see any necessary asymmetry without making some pretty dubious assumptions. Perhaps others have some ideas, but I fear the harder I listen the more clearly I hear the sound of barrels being scraped. Interesting nonetheless.

Alex said...

Stephen & Co.

Let's just focus on this for now:

I would contend that good can exist without evil. Would you agree?

I would also say that evil cannot exist without good.

If this is the case it dooms the evil god experiment.

When Tom mentions above whether God is loving or hateful there is the assumption that loving is "good" and "hateful" is bad, but is that true? If one loves torture of innocence, is that good? If one hates truth, is that bad? These words only have meaning if they are held up to an ultimate standard.

So the question is: could the ultimate source of all things be evil? If that could possibly be the case where does this virtue of good come from? It could not arise out of evil God, since evil God does not know good. He is pure evil. (If such a thing could exist) How then does this good arise? It just doesn't pan out.

Love gives. Love creates. Evil takes and destroys. Evil destroys others as well as it's self. That's the very nature of evil.

Stephen Law said...

Thanks for the comments, Alex.

You say:

"I would contend that good can exist without evil. Would you agree?

I would also say that evil cannot exist without good."

I don't yet see any reason at all why we should accept this. I know it seems obvious to you. But I cannot see it at all. All your arguments so far seem to be circular.

You suggest his point, if correct, "dooms the evil god experiment."

Actually even if good can exist without evil but not vice verse, that still doesn't "doom" the thought experiment. That is merely AN asymmetry, but perhaps not a fatal one (that would need to be shown). After all, I can - in fact, I shortly will, show an asymmetry favouring belief in the evil God. These asymmetries may even out. See my previous post.

Alex also says:

"So the question is: could the ultimate source of all things be evil? If that could possibly be the case where does this virtue of good come from? It could not arise out of evil God, since evil God does not know good. He is pure evil. (If such a thing could exist) How then does this good arise? It just doesn't pan out."

Yes, exactly. Exactly the same problem arises for belief in Good God of course - if God is pure good, why does evil exist?

Probably the best explanation is - it's the price paid for greater good. Which is, of course, exactly the move I mirror with evil God.

Alex said...

Hey Stephen,
Thanks for being gracious enough to continue responding to me. I am no philosopher and I'd imagine it's a bit frustrating watching me hack through my thoughts. I really am interested in this topic, so I will try and keep going.

Stephen says:
"I don't yet see any reason at all why we should accept this. I know it seems obvious to you. But I cannot see it at all. All your arguments so far seem to be circular."

Perhaps we should define our terms, as we seem to be talking about two different things. I have this "evil is the perversion, or violation of a good" thing going on, but you see it different. For the life of me I cannot conceive how the word evil could retain any meaning in a different framing. Little help.

Stephen also says:
"Actually even if good can exist without evil but not vice verse, that still doesn't "doom" the thought experiment. That is merely AN asymmetry..."

Assuming my point stands, I don't see how this is simply an inconvenient asymmetry. If x is dependent upon y and God must be dependent on on nothing to remain God, then God cannot be x. So for evil God to exist you need to maintain that God can be dependent on an ethic that transcends Him. At that point I don't even know what we are talking about anymore.

So for evil God to exist:

i) evil must be able to exist as an independent ethic

ii) if evil cannot stand as an independent ethic, then God must be able to remain God while being subservient to an standard that transcends Him.

Thoughts?

Matt M said...

Perhaps this might help clarify things a bit...

Stephen Law said...

Hi Alex. Well you can simply define evil as a perversion of good, if you like.

But then that's the just your definition, isn't it? Not an argument.

Remember the onus is on you to show your definition is correct. We have already come up with grounds for supposing its wrong.

Matt M said...

I think that the source of disagreement here is the definition of 'good and evil'.

For Stephen, they seem to be separate from God, and can therefore be used to judge Him/Her/It/Them - which allows, in theory, evil God.

For Alex, good and God seem to be synonymous. Good is simply that which is congruent with Him/Her/It/Them, while evil is that which isn't - which makes evil God logically impossible.

Stephen Law said...

I think Matt is right about Alex. But not so about me - I don't have to commit myself on the separability of God and good/evil, do I?

I could after all say that God and evil are synonymous, and that Alex's God is the logically impossible one (though I don't have to say that either).

Alex's move reminds me of the Jesuit (I think it was) who, when presented with evidence that the Earth moves, said, "But the DEFINITION of the Earth is that which does not move - so we can safely ignore your evidence!"

Matt M said...

I could after all say that God and evil are synonymous

Not if evil is defined as non-congruent with God, surely? He'd have to be God and not-God at the same time.

Stephen Law said...

Yes Matt, but now you are begging the question...

(...in the same way that I would be if I were to say: You can't say God is synonymous with good because good is defined as whatever is non-congruent with evil.)

By the way, it occurs to me maybe Alex is also offering this argument, or something like it:

things can only be described as good/evil if perfect goodness exists.

But isn't that like arguing (like Plato):

things can only be described as equal/unequal if perfect equality exists (in, say, Platonic heaven)?

The latter is clearly a terrible argument, isn't it?

Alex said...

Hey Stephen,

We have already come up with grounds for supposing its wrong.

Where was that again?

I could after all say that God and evil are synonymous

But Stephen, by doing this you shift the ultimate standard by which all things are measured. By doing that, what we call evil could no longer be called such.

Let me try and illustrate.

The words 'good' and 'evil' only have meaning as they relate to a mind. On the temporal level we call things good and evil as they relate to our nature of our minds. If something is called good, it is congruent with our nature. If something is called evil it goes against our nature.

Those of us who are moral realists extrapolate that simple concept to the eternal reality as well. We ask if x is ultimately good or evil. Or in other words, is x congruent or incongruent with the character of God?

This all seems pretty self evident to me. I am still amazed how you can conceive of an eternal violation of a standard that does not exist.

Let me try an make my point again as clearly as I can:

If there is no transcendent standard that rises above God, then God is the standard by which all things are measured. If God could be in His very nature what we now call evil (hateful, lying, murderous, destructive, without mercy, etc...) (all of which are either perversions or absences of good I might add.) then the standard by which good and evil is judged would be shifted as well.

To evil God hate, lies, murder and destruction would be good because it would be a reflection of who He was. Suddenly you no longer have evil God. You have a different God. The reality that would flow from such a being would be so different that those of us living in this world could not even recognize it. I would argue that if there was no prior standard of good for this God to leech off of, evil God would simply destroy it's self. That's what evil does, right?

This asymmetry you mention is no little issue that can be simply massaged out with a little mental gymnastics. The more I go over this the more I see how self-contradictory and fatally flawed this thought experiment is.

How do you define evil Stephen? If good did not exist, what would evil be? Is still don't see how you are getting around this.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Alex

You ask how I define evil

I am simply using the terms good an evil in the ordinary, familiar, pre-theoretical way we are all pretty familiar with. Many cultures have something like these concepts, including Buddhism (no God), and Confucianism (a secular belief system with no God). So, these notions are certainly are not a priori dependent upon the concept of your particular God. Are they?

Now you keep insisting that I have no right to these terms unless I accept the existence of your God.

Indeed, you keep offering me various definitions of good and evil that make them dependent upon the notion of (indeed, the existence of) God.

But, again I ask, how have you justified these assertions? So far as I can see, you give no argument for why we should accept them (other than circular arguments). Instead, you just insist they are “obvious”.

So, to repeat, I am using the ordinery pre-theoretcial notion of good and evil (or good and bad).

I don’t have to commit myself to any particular philosophical definition of good and evil (or good and bad).

I could say, with Moore that they are indefinable.

Alternatively, I might perhaps define “good” and evil” in a utilitarian way: evil is what maximizes suffering and reduces true happiness; good is what maximizes true happiness and reduces suffering.

There are lots of other options open to me as well.

By the way, you certainly cannot just assume, as you do, that moral realism is unavailable to me. Where’s your argument for that (I want an argument, not yet another religious definition)?

But in any case, the evil God hypothesis might perhaps be set up without the notions of good and evil. Let’s say good and evil do not exist. Let’s say your God doesn’t exist. Let’s say that there exists instead an all-powerful being with a boundless enthusiasm for maximizing suffering. We can now consider this as a hypothesis without buying into the vocabulary of good and evil.

So, let’s get back to the challenge. Where’s the asymmetry revealing that the good god hypothesis is far more reasonable than the evil (or, if you prefer, maximally cruel) god hypothesis?

In one paragraph, if you can.

Remember, you need to give me more than your own particular preferred religious definitions. That might do in religious circles. But not here, when we are doing philosophy. Here, you need to make a case – give grounds for supposing that what you say is actually true.

Alex said...

Stephen,
these notions are certainly are not a priori dependent upon the concept of your particular God. Are they?

On a temporal level no. But if you want to attach any ultimate meaning to the words, then yes; they would need to be derived from an ultimate source. Since you were using the title 'evil God' over and over I just assumed you meant for it to be taken that way.

You seem to be grabbing at smoke here and defining good and evil which ever way you see fit. This noncommittal type of argument seems impossible to work from. I have given you a concrete definition of good an evil as held by the majority of believing scholars I know of. It makes perfect sense if you work outwards from the experiential reality that we live in.

If good and evil can only be defined as they relate to a perceiving mind, then for an ultimate good and evil to exist it must pertain to an ultimate perceiving mind. Since we call things 'good' that are in conformity with our character then the ultimate 'good' must be in conformity with the character of the ultimate perceiving mind.

Having said that one can ask (as Matt did just recently in an email) "how do we know our good is God's good?" Maybe this is what you've been hinting at all along, I'm not sure. But then it wouldn't be the 'evil God' thought experiment, it would be the "God who's good is what we call evil" thought experiment.

you certainly cannot just assume, as you do, that moral realism is unavailable to me. Where’s your argument for that

That's a tricky one. I see no reason to believe that there is any such quality as 'morality' if all there is to this universe is matter and energy. Having said that, morality is the product of conscious minds. Since we know there are conscious minds we know that moral propositions can be made. I would maintain that our sentience is evidence that there is more than matter and energy to this world, but the atheist will simply argue that our sentience is evidence that matter and energy can find some pretty unique states to exist in. So really it comes down to the level of moral realism one can maintain. The atheist can say "It's real to me" whereas the theist can say "It's real to me and all of reality".

Since you tow the atheist line, this type of conversation is quite difficult. When you start talking about good and evil you seem to use the words in a way that most theists would reject from the start. Having said that, perhaps it's best to move on to the 'suffering loving God' thought experiment.

I see the asymmetry like this:
If maximally cruel God is the ruler of this world, he is simply very bad at what he does. I will grant that he would need to let some pleasure flourish in order to inflict his cruelty, but on the whole I have seen far to many lives well lived, loves flourish, kindness win out over cruelty, and non-violence triumph over brute force. Under the rule of cruel god there are far to many that leave this life with the comfort of a life well lived. Maybe he makes up for that in his ultimately cruel afterlife? Sort of a "Surprise! life isn't all roses after all!" thing? Not sure. I guess you can make that up as you go.

Now under the rule of the God I believe in, one might say He is very inept at establishing His goodness in this life. Just look around. People are doing terrible things to each-other all the time. However if our ultimate purpose is love and love must be chosen, then the restraint God shows in allowing us the honor of our freedom is remarkable – yes – but it is also somewhat more understandable. I think the free will argument is better than you might suppose.

I can imagine a world where an all loving God grants us the freedom to either love Him or reject Him. I can also imagine an ultimate troll in the sky who's bent on inflicting maximal suffering, it's just that he doesn't seem to line up with the reality we experience. He would have to be much better at allowing pleasure than he is at inflicting suffering. In short the quantity of his ineptness is inexplicable, whereas the evil experienced in Good God's world at least comes with an explanation.

Sorry for the length. You raised more points than I could pack into a quick paragraph.

Stephen Law said...

Hello Alex

Thanks for the comments.

You said: “I have given you a concrete definition of good an evil as held by the majority of believing scholars I know of.”

Yes, obviously many “believing scholars” will define “good” in such a way that God’s existence is presupposed.

The overwhelming majority of scholars, on the other hand, would not dream of defining “good” that way. And for good reasons.

Remember, my evil God hypothesis does not require that I buy into any particular theory about moral value (except yours, of course). Your attack on the evil God hypothesis simply presupposed that your theory must be correct. So far, you have failed to provide any non-circular case for supposing your theory is correct. You merely assert that this is what good/bad is. And assertion is not argument.

Alex, you also say “If good and evil can only be defined as they relate to a perceiving mind, then for an ultimate good and evil to exist it must pertain to an ultimate perceiving mind.”

Yes, but maybe ultimate good and evil don’t exist, just things that are more or less good and evil (just as perfect equality doesn’t exist, just things that are more or less equal).

Moreover, why should I even accept that good/evil exist only relative to a mind? You may be right, but again you give me assertion, not argument.

You also assume atheists suppose all there is, ultimately, is matter and energy. Atheists don’t have to commit to materialism. I don’t, in fact. This is a very common mistake about atheism.

But anyway, all the above is irrelevant given we can restage my evil god challenge without even using the words “good”, “evil” and “bad”. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: your response to my evil (or maximally cruel) god challenge.

You suggest the evil God would have to be very bad at what he does – there’s not enough bad stuff and too much good. You say “In short the quantity of his ineptness is inexplicable, whereas the evil experienced in Good God's world at least comes with an explanation”(free will).

Well now I am slightly baffled. I thought I provided a whole series of explanations, and recently added a couple more (see God of Eth part 3), for why an evil God would allow good stuff into the world. I even provided a free-will explanation.

So, why are my explanations of why an evil good would allow good rubbish, but your explanations of why a good god would allow evil sound? Answering this question is the challenge you have to meet.

Remember, if you cannot meet the evil God challenge, you will have to admit you have no grounds for supposing belief in a good god is any more reasonable than the belief in an evil God.

And belief in an evil God is very silly indeed, isn't it?

Tom Freeman said...

Alex,

If you’re unconvinced that cruel god would be compatible with the goodness that there actually is, how about this:

On the planet Ath, there is heated debate about the existence of god, whom scriptures tell to be the creator of the universe, quite (but not maximally) cruel and semi-competent.

Easier to swallow? In fact, given the modesty of the hypothesis, isn’t it prima facie more likely than either of the omnipotent gods (whether maximally loving or maximally cruel)? But still, none of us believes it for a minute...

Stephen Law said...

That is an excellent point Tom.

Stephen Law said...

By the way Alex, if your point is that there is much more good than bad (or happiness than suffering) in the world (is it?) - well that's certainly debatable.

It's quite nice for the middle-classes in the Home Counties at the moment.

But let's not forget what life is like, and has been like, for the majority of humans over the several million years they have inhabited this planet.

And let's also not forget the quite extraordinary suffering of the animal kingdom (watch a few installments of Planet Earth) running back thousands of millions of years, including several mass extinctions that wiped the majority of species from the face of the Earth - literally unimaginable amounts of suffering.

I certainly don't see how human free will explains any of that.

On the other hand, my evil God hypothesis seems to fit it quite well.

Steelman said...

Alex said: "If good and evil can only be defined as they relate to a perceiving mind, then for an ultimate good and evil to exist it must pertain to an ultimate perceiving mind. Since we call things 'good' that are in conformity with our character then the ultimate 'good' must be in conformity with the character of the ultimate perceiving mind."

This sounds a bit like Anselm's argument, discussed earlier on this blog. I don't think the existence of perceiving human minds necessarily indicates the existence of an ultimate, yet undefined, perceiving mind (i.e., God, 'good' or otherwise). At least not any more than the existence of social insect minds indicate the existence of some sort of ultimate hive mind.

I think you're right about concepts of good and evil only being defined as they relate to perceiving minds. Think of a lioness attacking and eating a baby water buffalo that has strayed from its mother and the heard. The baby perceives its mother as good and the lioness as evil. The lioness perceives the baby as good (to eat!), the horns and hooves of the mother and herd as evil. The lioness's cubs perceive their mother, and her milk (produced courtesy of the baby water buffalo), as good. Of course, neither the hunter nor the prey possesses the cognitive ability to develop abstract concepts about good and evil. However, it seems that, in this case, who or what is 'good' or 'evil' depends entirely on perception (and who or what's for dinner).

I wonder if the God of Eth thought experiment doesn't appear irrelevant to those outside the sphere of western religious philosophy? To a Taoist or Buddhist the concept of an "all evil" or "all good" creator doesn't fit in a universe that runs on a theory of balance.

Steelman said...

Stephen Law said: "You also assume atheists suppose all there is, ultimately, is matter and energy. Atheists don’t have to commit to materialism. I don’t, in fact. This is a very common mistake about atheism."

I know atheism is defined as an absence of belief in God(s). Recently though, it has popularly become a term that may also entail an absence of belief in any aspect of the supernatural (i.e., materialism, yes?). Can you tell me what non-material things you are referring to when you say you don't commit to materialism? Mind as something other than an emergent property of matter and energy, perhaps?

Alex said...

Hey Stephen,
"The overwhelming majority of scholars, on the other hand, would not dream of defining “good” that way. And for good reasons."

The overwhelming majority of scholars you mention then must work outward from the observable reality we inhabit and evaluate good and evil according to their personal opinions. If that's all you go on, moral relativism is your only option. I would say that these opinions we hold about good and evil either point to something larger than ourselves or they really have no meaning at all. Unless we are more than dust all our high minded moral proclamations are utterly meaningless.

Stephen, you may try to make moral statements based on your conscious experience, but if at the same time you want to affirm that your conscious experience is nothing but blind energy and chance reacting on towards heat death, then any talk of "good" and "evil" is absurd. There's an immediate contradiction.

However it would seem you are throwing me a curve ball here. You mention: "Atheists don’t have to commit to materialism. I don’t, in fact."

Little help. Every atheist I've ever met has tried to affirm materialism. What are you up to here?

Now, on to the Maximally cruel thought experiment.

I have to admit that last attempt of mine was pretty half-hearted. Let's take another shot.

After a little more thought, I don't believe it is even possible for us to have a "cruel God" thought experiment that is wholly divorced from the words 'good' and 'evil'. Here's why:

If cruel god was the source of all existence and according to his character cruelty would be a 'good' thing to him. Not only that, but cruelty would be a 'good' thing to all of reality, since all reality was rooted in him. What then would cruel god call an action that was outside of his character? Once again, we have 'good and 'evil'. We are now right back to where we started.

My second objection is that I don't see how a maximally cruel god could even know what it was to be kind or loving; even to the extent to allow them for what you call a "greater cruelty". If cruel god was the source of all things, how could ethics such as love, kindness or freedom arise? I still maintain that a maximally cruel god would destroy himself before he ever got around to creating anything. Your maximally cruel god simply could not exist as maximally cruel.

Tom makes in interesting point:

What about a mediocre god? Could there exist a "god, whom scriptures tell to be the creator of the universe, quite (but not maximally) cruel and semi-competent"?

One would have to then ask, semi-competent compared to what? Whatever reality a god creates puts his character as the ultimate standard for that reality. Thats not an assertion. It's true by the very definition of god. The term semi-competent assumes there is a such thing as fully competent. If semi-competent god is the ultimate reality from which all things flow, there simply can be no talk of semi-competence in relation to him. It's self-refuting.

Now if you'll excuse me it's my birthday today, so I'm off to do a little celebrating! And that my friends is a good thing! ;-)

Jeremy said...

Hmm - I second steelman's latest post. I would love to hear some good alternatives to materialism (emphasis on "good").

And Alex, to take only your penultimate paragraph -

Whatever reality a god creates puts his character as the ultimate standard for that reality. Thats not an assertion.

Yes, it is an assertion. For example, if good and evil are really objective things, then there is no reason why somebody with the power to create the universe couldn't fall short of their steep standards. Alternatively, if they are subjective things, then there wouldn't be any ultimate moral standards.

The term semi-competent assumes there is a such thing as fully competent.

No, the term 'semi-competent' assumes there is such an idea as 'fully competent'. (Or does the term 'semi-hollow unicorn' assume there is such a thing as 'hollow unicorn'?)

Afterall, we are, I am suddenly reminded, quite capable of imagining things that don't exist...

Alex said...

Hey Jeremy,

You say:
"if good and evil are really objective things, then there is no reason why somebody with the power to create the universe couldn't fall short of their steep standards. "

Yes, but here you are imagining a being that is subject to a standard outside of it's self. This could not be God by the very definition of what God is.

You go on to say:
"Alternatively, if they are subjective things, then there wouldn't be any ultimate moral standards."

Right, I agree with you here. I assert that all moral standards are hinged on God's eternal character. This gives me the ability to claim there is an objective moral standard. By objective I mean:

1. existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality.
2. not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts.

Now I admit this is an assertion I make. I'm not really sure how I could put this into the form of an argument. I'll think on that.

Stephen Law said...

Atheism is rejection of belief in God or gods. You can reject belief in god or gods while still allowing that there is, or may be, more than the merely natural/material/scientifically explicable.

Here's just one example. I'm an atheist, but neutral on property dualism. Many atheist philosophers are property dualists (some are even substance dualists). Yet property dualists deny all properties are material properties and that the material ultimately explains everything.

I could also be, say, a Platonist about maths without believing in God, couldn't I?

So no, atheists are not materialists by default.

I'll get back to Alex's args later when I've got time - bit snowed under with book....

Stephen Law said...

Hello Alex

Sorry about delay. This is your interesting suggestion (I know you made it before):

"If cruel god was the source of all existence and according to his character cruelty would be a 'good' thing to him. Not only that, but cruelty would be a 'good' thing to all of reality, since all reality was rooted in him."

Well, this begs the question about good being whatever the supreme being says it is. But anyway, let's continue...

"What then would cruel god call an action that was outside of his character? Once again, we have 'good and 'evil'. We are now right back to where we started."

Well it doesn't matter what he calls it (he can call it squoggle" if he likes). The question is what would he mean by "squoggle"? "Squoggle" might then mean whatever he doesn't approve of.

Aren't you missing a bit of argument here. What's the problem for the evil God hypothesis, exactly?

You also say:

"I don't see how a maximally cruel god could even know what it was to be kind or loving; even to the extent to allow them for what you call a "greater cruelty". If cruel god was the source of all things, how could ethics such as love, kindness or freedom arise? I still maintain that a maximally cruel god would destroy himself before he ever got around to creating anything. Your maximally cruel god simply could not exist as maximally cruel."

If I understand you corectly, there's the same problem for the good god. Why then does evil exist. How, indeed, does it exist even just as something of which a maximally good God might know about?

If your answer is, because evil is just the negation/privation/perversion of good, well where back to where we started... I can just switch that round. You will then say I can't because.. good is the negation of evil, not vice verse, but then again, you beg the question. Round and round we go...

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