Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Butler Society talk - Oxford


I'm speaking at Oxford University's Joseph Butler Society (devoted to philosophy of religion) this Monday, 4th Feb.

I'll be reading a paper that develops my "evil god hypothesis" in some detail (it's a work in progress, so the discussion will be useful).

For a brief and breezy intro to the main idea, see my The God of Eth.

The event is open to all. Be at Oriel College 8.15pm for 8.30pm

20 comments:

Enigman said...

Hi, my problem with Satanism is, why bother? If one wants to be evil why not just do whatever one wants, it's not as if magick works. And prima facie the world shows little sign of design. Don't we believe in a creator because we want there to be (and it's not implausible that there is) a point to life, with the role of a theodicy just being to justify the parenthetic bit?

Stephen Law said...

Hi Enigman

Just so we are clear - my evil God is not Satan, for Satan is not omnipotent.

My point, of course, is that it *is* implausible that there is a creator that is all-powerful and all-good. Very implausible indeed!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I do find Booblefrip's arguments plausible. Not convincing admittedly, but not as absurd as Gizimoth's arguments. I'm not sure /why/ belief in an all-evil God is supposed to be downright silly: I think it's unnecessary, but that's a different point.

I'd like to have seen more stress on the problem of evil with respect to the suffering of non-human creatures, including those existing before mankind was around to have free will.

Enigman said...

Thanks (...I wish I could get to Oxford for your talk, as I liked your story, and I too found Booblefrip's arguments convincing, much more so than the standard arguments for a good creator, although as I say, I don't think we do begin with the arguments for a creator and then prove She's good, but then since the standard "proofs" often assume that we do, so I do think you've hit upon something deeply wrong with them :)

Need Satanists take the Church's story about Him being merely very potent (and certainly not impotent) literally though? I think that you (via Booblefrip, an angel of Satan whose words you recorded faithfully?) have shown that Satan is omnipotent! (not really :)

Joe Litobarski said...

Hi Stephen

I read your article in the Skeptical Inquirer, and found it original and entertaining. Small problem - it's also very convincing in its argument about the existence of an all-evil god.

In the conclusion, you say: "Booblefrip’s defense merely flips around the standard explanations that theists offer in defense of belief in a good God."

But I don't think this is the case. It is not possible to simply imagine a world with an "all-evil" god and then draw conclusions from that about an "all-good" god. This is because the concepts of "all-evil" and "all-good" are not mirror-images of each other, they are actually qualitatively different.

The idea that an all-good god would allow evil is much more troubling to (for example) a Catholic than the idea that an all-evil god would allow good is to a Gnostic. This is because being all-good carries with it a sense of moral purity, whilst being all-evil has no problem with corruption of ideals.

We can observe evil people doing very good things, and still label them evil. But if we observe good people doing very evil things, we no longer label them good. If Hitler had brought about world peace through the genocide of half the world's population, we could still justifiably label him "evil". If Ghandi had brought about world peace, but had secretly been murdering his followers and selling their children into slavery, could we still honestly label him "good"?

Although I'm not a believer myself, I actually found Booblefrip's argument very persuasive. It seems to make more sense that an all-evil being would allow good than vice-versa. Your article was almost enough to convert me to Gnosticism, which I'm not sure was the desired effect.

Still - a very original take on the problem.

Regards
Joe

Ibrahim Lawson said...

An ALL (100%) good god would not allow even the illusion of suffering. You might think an ALL evil god could allow the illusion of good, if in fact it was not good but evil after all; but if he was really totally committed to the maximum human suffering he would not permit even a glimmer of illusory good, even if that were only to allow second order evils (the dashing of hope etc). The revealing weakness of the Ghandi vs Hitler argument is that we cannot say that anyone is totally evil or totally good, though the former is commonly attributed to Herr Schickelgruber.

The ‘moral orders’ argument for free will really does fail at the first hurdle. One simple question for believers is this: is it logically possible for god to have created a world in which people had free will but as a matter of fact never chose to exercise it for evil? And if so, would this world not be better (more perfect) than this one? And has god not already in fact created such a world, i.e. paradise? (or would you rather believe that in heaven either no one has free will or there is evil caused by its inevitable, albeit occasional, misuse?)

Cassanders said...

@ Ibrahim,
A couple of points.
Do you see any reason why the rest of us should take the statement that your god has created a "perfect" existence AKA paradise (with the attribute: absence of suffering), to be A FACT? :-)

Now if I for the sake of the argument accept such a notion, are there any reasons why humans should endure a life full of suffering BEFORE entering such a place/existence?

While I realize that there are obvious belief-supporting carrot/atick -elements for the populus inbuilt in the notions of eternal bliss and punishments, I also see a number of problems.

One is the risk of skewed perspectives when comparing a time-limited endurance of (earthly)pain to eternal pain or bliss, respectively.

If we add the recurring traditions (of a great number of religions BTW) to view pain as PURIFICATION, quite sinister practices can be expected as a consequense.
...."we inflict this pain out of love you see,-to ensure your eternal bliss"....

Cassanders
In Cod we trust

Stephen Law said...

Hello Ibrahim - you don't believe God is all good, then?

Hi Joe - I agree actually that the mirroring is not perfect. You point out one asymmetry. In my more academic, worked out version of this argument, I point up several other asymmetries. Some asymmetries slightly favour the evil God hypothesis and some slightly favour the good God hypothesis. My view is that in terms of reasonableness they are roughly evenly balanced. ie.e. the asymmetries more or less balance out.

Joe Litobarski said...

Hello Ibrahim

You raise some interesting points.

"You might think an ALL evil god could allow the illusion of good, if in fact it was not good but evil after all; but if he was really totally committed to the maximum human suffering he would not permit even a glimmer of illusory good, even if that were only to allow second order evils (the dashing of hope etc)."

This thought had crossed my mind. I will try to answer you (but I may not succeed).

I do not think that there is an evil code which an individual (or deity) must follow to be evil. I think that a person is defined as evil because they do not follow a moral code, and instead behave entirely selfishly.

So this hypothetical omnimalevolent demiurge can do exactly what it wants; while the hypothetical (or not) godhead is all-good only because her actions are constrained by her morality.

"The revealing weakness of the Ghandi vs Hitler argument is that we cannot say that anyone is totally evil or totally good"

That's all very well, but the argument whose weakness you are revealing is not actually the argument I made. At no point did I say Hitler was totally evil. I said we could justifiably label him an evil person (I think I'm on safe ground by saying that). Nor did I say Gandhi was totally good. I used the example of Gandhi because he is the stereotype, rightly or wrongly, of a good person.

"The ‘moral orders’ argument for free will really does fail at the first hurdle."

I'm not sure what the 'moral orders' argument is. I'm guessing that it says there's some sort of ordered ranking system of good and evil behaviour, with 100% good at the top and 100% evil at the bottom?

Why does it fail at the first hurdle? Because 100% good and evil are not realistically attainable, or because they are not logically coherent states?

I actually disagree with both positions, but I'd be interested to know which one (if either) you're advocating.

"One simple question for believers is this..."

To paraphrase the Godfather: If you consider the problem of evil just a simple question, te salute!

"(or would you rather believe that in heaven either no one has free will or there is evil caused by its inevitable, albeit occasional, misuse?)"

I'd rather think that in heaven, everyone has 100% free will, without any consequences. Unless they want consequences, in which case they could have them. That would be my idea of heaven.

Joe Litobarski said...

Hi Stephen

"In my more academic, worked out version of this argument, I point up several other asymmetries. Some asymmetries slightly favour the evil God hypothesis and some slightly favour the good God hypothesis. My view is that in terms of reasonableness they are roughly evenly balanced. ie.e. the asymmetries more or less balance out."

I'd be very interested in reading your paper. Where/when will it be published?

Regards
Joe

Stephen Law said...

Joe - thanks - it's currently under submission. Email me direct and i will send you a copy...

Anonymous said...

Ibrahim Lawson said...
"One simple question for believers is this: is it logically possible for god to have created a world in which people had free will but as a matter of fact never chose to exercise it for evil? "

As I understand it, that is exactly what Roman Catholics believe that their god did for his human mother, the blessed virgin Mary.

Kyle said...

Your argument assumes that the reason theists reject belief in an all-evil God is because of the problem of good. I have never actually heard or read anyone use the problem of good as their reason for not believing in an all-evil God. Perhaps I am wrong?

This then means that I have no need to worry about your argument. All a response to the problem of evil is required to do is so that there is no problem. The fact that these reasons can then be shown to knock down another argument is no concern of mine.

I will happily reject both the problem of evil and the problem of good.

Anonymous said...

In one sense the "all-evil" variant is fractionally more plausible in that by allowing both good and evil to be present in some measure the deity has demonstrated capriciousness - a quality which many would consider evil.

The argument for truth vs lying doesn't quite seem right. The issue is surely one of deception. Someone who automatically and consistently says the opposite of what she means will be a liar but deceive no-one who knows her.

Not sure about jealously either - I think that merely requires things to be different - not necessarily better.

One final quibble (and I am not sure I am expressing this very well) is that both the "all-good" and "all-evil" deities allow both good and evil in their universes. Does this not point simply to either "maximally good" or "maximally evil" deities?

Ibrahim Lawson said...

Readers may be interested, or bemused, to know that one of the basic Islamic beliefs is that Allah creates both good and evil and instructs us to say, in the Qur'an, "I seek the protection of Allah from the evil He has created". You may wonder how this squares with the belief in His all-goodness.

Joe Litobarski said...

Anonymous said: "In one sense the "all-evil" variant is fractionally more plausible in that by allowing both good and evil to be present in some measure the deity has demonstrated capriciousness - a quality which many would consider evil."

This is exactly my point. But then you say: "One final quibble (and I am not sure I am expressing this very well) is that both the "all-good" and "all-evil" deities allow both good and evil in their universes. Does this not point simply to either "maximally good" or "maximally evil" deities?"

Surely if a being is all-evil, it possesses the capacity to be as capricious as it wants?

And Ibrahim, I would be very interested to hear how this problem has been reconciled within Islam; especially if it is a different solution to those put forward by Christian theologians.

Anonymous said...

Joe

Yes I should probably have gone back and edited my post for consistency.

I was concerned I hadn't quite got the language right but hopefully here is a better attempt.

An all-evil deity will simply cause evil under all circumstances.

A maximally-evil deity will allow some good if it results in a greater ammount of evil overall.


On reflection I think that a truly capricious deity would actually be neither since it might take a day off causing suffering just on a whim. The requirement to do evil would impose some limits. Possibly along the lines of "Earthquake or plague? Hmm.. which is it to be?" rather than "Heads its earthquake, tails its a good harvest"

Of course either of the rather utilitarian evil deities might at any time appear (to its creations) to be capricious in order to cause them further misery.

Ibrahim Lawson said...

Well Joe, I’m no theologian, but I have read some and worked with some. The standard argument is the one where the greater good stemming from the evil ‘absorbs’ and justifies it – the greater good being the free-will to accept or reject Allah, to fight against evil, to chose the right path or whatever free will is supposed to be good for.

When questioned as to why Allah didn’t just put us straight into paradise, or in fact leave us there in the first place, the usual answer is that we have to earn it. When asked why Allah sets up this test, which some fail - because of him, moreover – we usually eventually get to the idea that Allah did that and we cannot understand why. Like, why did He create the universe in the first place?

This brings us to three basic principles in Islamic theology – or rather three different basic positions. It’s best maybe to illustrate these with reference to an issue such as ‘Does Allah have hands?- and if so what are they like?

Allah says in the Qur’an that He does have a hand. So how should we understand this? One group, the rationalists, say that since Allah is non-material, any reference to His hand is metaphorical (in that case, why confuse us with this talk of hands? Maimonides pushed this as far as it would go in his ‘Guide for the Perplexed’ and seemed to conclude that we could know nothing of God since no humanly understandable attribute could be ascribed to him). Another group, the literalists (many of the Saudi persuasion) say that He literally has a hand, and other body parts, since otherwise He would not call it a hand, which raises questions as to its spatial location, for example, but it’s best if we don’t go there, according to them. The vast majority, the sunnis following the sunni imams in theology, say something like ‘He can’t have physical hand, but it’s not metaphorical (once you start on that, everything becomes metaphorical, i.e. not really, really true), so He has a hand and it is a hand but that is all you can say, ‘bi laa kayf’ – without a ‘how’ (sometimes translated as ‘a-modally’). We reach the limits of what can be understood, but must believe it anyway.

This ‘paradox’ occurs several times in different forms in Islam, and I think it is the crux of the matter. The ‘problem’ only arises when you try to adopt a standpoint outside of time and place, of specific, embodied context. To take a trivial example: while crossing a busy road is not the moment to start wondering whether you really have free will or not.

Knowing when and how to apply universal principles to specific situations, and the problem of casuistry (that there can be an infinite distance between the two) is an issue of phronesis, which is pertinent here I believe. Forcing this issue takes us beyond narrow considerations of classical rationalism and the ‘crystalline purity of logic’ to the point of having to accept responsibility for our actions on some other basis; this can trigger a breakdown/breakthrough to a more experiential apprehension of the flow of events and our place in it. This is where the ‘mystical’ leads us.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephen,

Are we going to get a report on how this event went?

Stephen Law said...

Ok, then. It went v well from my point of view as I got a lot of useful feedback. There are some changes I will now make as a result.

I guess there were 10-15 people, mostly grad students. When questions started I got a bit flustered to begin with, and so didn't deal as elegantly with a point someone made about evil being the absence of good as I could have (in retrospect). But no one blew the paper out of the water. Indeed, one believer contacted me afterwards and was kind enough to say that it was the strongest argument he had yet heard against the rationality of theism, and that it had "quite unsettled him". So I guess that's a result!