This is the website/blog of Philosopher Stephen Law. Stephen is retired, formerly Reader in philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. He is editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK, and has published books including The Philosophy Gym, The Complete Philosophy Files, and Believing Bullshit.
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God, Evil, and Theodicies
Here's the penultimate draft of something in Free Inquiry, out now.
Evil God and Mirror
problem of evil is perhaps the best-known objection to standard monotheism,
that's to say, to belief in God defined as omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient
(all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good). In fact there are two problems of
evil, the logical and the evidential. Here I focus on the 'evidential' problem,
which is often presented as follows:
gratuitous evil exists, then God does not exist.
God does not exist.
in this context comes in two varieties: (i) moral
evils such as the morally bad things we do as free moral agents (we start wars,
murder, steal, etc.) and (ii) natural
evils such as natural diseases and disasters that cause great suffering. So-called
'gratuitous' evils are evils for which there exists no God-justifying reason. Perhaps God has good reason to allow some
evils into his creation if that is the price that must be paid for greater
goods (there are examples below). But surely God, as defined above, won't allow
pointless, gratuitous evils: evils he
lacks a good reason to allow. So it appears the first premise of our argument is
true: if gratuitous evils exist, then God does not exist.
the second premise true? Surely it is. Consider human suffering. Take, for
example, the appalling psychological suffering a parent must go through who has
to watch, helpless, as their child dies slowly of starvation or an agonizing
disease. The consensus among population experts is that, over the sweep of
human prehistory - around two hundred thousands years - the parents of
each generation have had to watch, on average, between a third and a half of
their under-five children die. It's only very recently that
we have managed to bring childhood mortality rates down. The appalling
suffering of these preceding generations of children and their parents was not
something they brought on themselves.
consider animal suffering. A while ago I watched a wildlife documentary about
Komodo dragons poisoning, tracking for a week or so, and then, finally, when
their victim became too weak to defend itself, disembowelling and eating alive,
a water buffalo.The cameraman said this
had been his first ever wildlife assignment, and it would probably also be his
last, because he couldn’t cope with the depth of suffering he had been forced
to witness. That was just one poor creature. Each day, millions of animals are
similarly forced to tear each other limb from limb to survive. And this has
been going on for hundreds of millions of years. This is, in many ways, a
beautiful world. But it’s also a staggeringly cruel and horrific world for very
many of its inhabitants.
horror on an almost unimaginably vast scale is built into the very fabric of
the world we find ourselves forced to inhabit.
as we look back across the aeons, we witness suffering of such depth and on such
a vast scale that it becomes highly implausible that there's a good, God
justifying reason, not just for some of it, but for every last ounce it. And if
there is any gratuitous evil at all, then there is no God.
How might theists respond to this argument? The
problem can sidestepped by simply dropping any one of the three
omni-attributes. Suggest, for example, that God is omnipotent and omniscient,
but not omnibenevolent. He knows about the suffering and has the ability to
prevent it, but, being less than entirely good, chooses not to. However, for
most religious monotheists, these moves are unavailable. Most religious
monotheists are fully committed to the three-Os God.
How else might theists respond to the argument?
One strategy is to construct theodicies or explanations for the evils we
observe. Here are some examples:
God desires that we do good of our own free
will. He could have made us puppet beings that always did the right thing, but
puppet beings aren't responsible for their actions, and so deserve neither
praise not blame. To allow moral goodness
- good done by free agents of their own volition - God had to cut our strings
and set us free. Given that freedom, some then choose to do evil. That is the
price God unavoidably pays for the very great good of allowing moral goodness
enter his creation.
Those who have suffered sometimes say they don't
regret their suffering. We can learn valuable lessons as a result of having
been through, say, a difficult illness The pain and suffering of others also
gives us opportunities - for example, to help others and act in morally
virtuous ways. Much pain and suffering can be explained in terms of the opportunities
it offers to grow and develop morally and spiritually. No pain, no gain.
The laws of nature that govern our universe
bring various goods. Perhaps the most obvious good is this: in order for us to
be able to interact effectively with each other as free moral agents, we need
to know we live in a stable, regular universe. Suppose I see you are cold and
hungry. Here is an opportunity for me to help you. I might light a fire to warm
you and cook you some food, for example. But I can only do this if I know that
a spark produces a flame, that a flame produces heat, that the heat will warm
you and cook the food, and so on. Without knowledge of such regularities, we can't
properly interact with each other as free moral agents. So God creates such
regularities to allow for these and other goods. However, these same laws of
nature also result in tectonic plate movements that in turn cause earthquakes
and tsunamis that cause great suffering. That suffering is the unavoidable price
God pays for such greater goods.
The three theodicies outlined above are for
illustrative purposes only. There are many more. Each theodicy, considered in isolation,
has its limitations. For example, while the free will theodicy might explain
some human suffering - that caused by our free human actions - it hardly
explains the hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering before we
arrived on the scene. Nor does it explain two hundred thousand years of parents
and children suffering as a result of causes beyond their control. There's a
similar problem with the character-building theodicy. Perhaps some suffering is
necessary to build our characters. But why hundreds of millions of years of
animal suffering? Was God trying to build the character of the dinosaurs with
the K-T mass extinction event? And how plausible is it that the distribution of
human suffering is there to improve our characters? Slowly killing children on
an industrial scale doesn't very obviously improve either their characters or
the characters of their parents. Indeed, many of us bow out of this life not with
our characters improved by our suffering, but in utter despair, psychological
and physically crippled by the torments that have been inflicted on us.
Still, it might be suggested that these and
other theodicies, even if they don't individually deal with the evidential
problem of evil, do at least collectively begin to bring it down to size. We
can, say some theists, begin to see that it's not so very unreasonable to believe in God, notwithstanding all this horrific
Many theists would add that we should
acknowledge that even if we can't explain all that suffering, it does not
follow, and it is not reasonable for us to conclude, that there is no
explanation. Why suppose that there are gratuitous evils? Because we cannot
think of a God-justifying reason for them? But if there are God-justifying
reasons for those evils, those reasons could easily lie beyond our ken - beyond
our limited human comprehension. So we're not justified in concluding that there
are any gratuitous evils. This is the response of the so-called 'skeptical
theist': the theist who is skeptical about our ability to know God-justifying
reasons. Skeptical theism is currently one of the leading philosophical
responses to the problem of evil.
Do these and other theodicies, perhaps in
combination with skeptical theism, deal successfully with the evidential
problem of evil? I don't believe so. To see why, consider a different god
Suppose that there is indeed a single omnipotent
and omniscient deity. Only this being is not omnibenevolent but omnimalevolent. His cruelty is beyond our comprehension.
His malice knows no bounds. Who believes in a God like that? Almost no one, of
course. But why not?
After all, notice that many of the most popular
arguments for the existence of God provide no clue as to his moral character.
Teleological or design arguments, for example, typically conclude only that
there is some intelligence behind the universe. Such arguments, as they stand,
supply no more support for a good God than they do an evil god. The same is
true of many cosmological arguments (arguments for a first cause or prime
mover, etc. based on the thought that the universe requires some cause or
So why not believe in an evil God? There is an
obvious argument against evil God, of course: the evidential problem of good:
If gratuitous good exist, evil god does not
Gratuitous good exists.
Therefore, evil god does not exist.
Yes, the universe contains much evil. But it
also contains a great deal of good. Arguably far too much good to allow anyone
reasonably to believe this world is the creation of such a powerful and malevolent
being. Why all the love, laughter, ice-cream, and rainbows? Why does an evil
God allow us to see beauty, allow us to help each and reduce suffering, give us
children to love who love us unconditionally in return? Perhaps an evil god will
allow some goods as the price paid for greater evils, but surely at least some
of the goods we observe are gratuitous in the sense that there's no evil-god-justifying reason for them. Surely,
if the world were the creation of an evil god, it would like much more like a
vast torture chamber.
Notice the evidential argument from good mirrors
the evidential argument from evil. In each case, we note that the world just
doesn't look as we should expect if there really was such an omnipotent deity
responsible for it.
Is the evidential argument from good an
effective argument against belief in an evil God? What if, in its defence, I
make the following suggestion?
Why would an evil God allow us to help each and
so reduce suffering? Surely an evil God would clamp down on such benevolent
behaviour, which thwarts his evil desires? Here's an explanation. Evil god
desires that we do evil of our own free will. He could have made us puppet
beings that always did the bad thing, but puppet beings are not responsible for
their actions, and so deserve neither praise not blame for their actions. To
allow moral evil - evil done by free
agents of their own volition - evil god had to cut our strings and set us free.
given that freedom, some of us choose to do good. That is the price paid by
evil god for the very great evil of allowing moral evil to enter his creation.
Clearly, the above free will theodicy mirrors
the standard free will theodicy that I outlined earlier. And in fact very many
theodicies (if not all) can be similarly mirrored. Here are two more examples.
character-destroying mirror theodicy
Why does an evil god allow love, ice-cream,
rainbows, and healthy, wealthy, happy folk? Again, explanations are available. Consider
the suffering of parents who had had to watch around a third of their children
die under five for the last two hundred thousand years. If these parents did
not love their children, they would not suffer nearly so much. Love is a
necessary precondition of some of the most appalling forms of suffering. Evil god
will also allow some goods - rainbows, for example - as a contrast: to make the
dreariness and ugliness of the rest of his creation all the more obvious. And he
will no doubt give a few people wonderful things - great wealth and privilege,
for example, in order to make the rest of us feel resentful and jealous.
Resentment and jealousy are so-called 'second order' evils requiring the 'first
order' good of some people having great stuff. Why would an evil god give us
delicious ice-cream? Ice-cream has to be tasty to tempt us to eat it, and to make
ourselves fat, miserable, and guilt-wracked for succumbing to that temptation. We can begin to see
that what goods there are all exist for an evil reason: to intensify our pain
Without a stable, law-governed universe, various
important evils are unavailable to an evil god. Suppose I want to commit some
horrible crime - kill you and your family, say. That's something an evil god
will want to allow. But to commit such a crime, I need to know that when I
strike a match it will produce a flame, when a pour petrol through your
letterbox and throw the match it will ignite, and that the resulting fireball
will kill you and your family. Without knowledge of such regularities, we cannot
properly interact with each other as free moral agents, and thereby create
moral evil. So evil God creates such regularities. However, the downside to the
same laws of nature that result in the fireball is beautiful rainbows and other
goods. Beautiful rainbows are the price evil god pays for such evils.
Notice that a defender in belief in an evil God,
just like a standard theist, can also supplement their theodicies by appealing
to skeptical theism. For if reasons that would justify a good God in allowing
evils are likely to be beyond our ken, then reasons justifying an evil god in
allowing goods are no less likely to be beyond our ken. If our inability to
think of God-justifying reasons for observed evils fails to justify the
conclusion there are no such reasons, then our inability to think of evil-god-justifying
reasons for observed goods similarly fails to justify the conclusion that there
are no such evil reasons.
It appears that these various defences of belief
in an evil God are about as effective as the standard theistic defences of
belief in a good God.
So why is belief
in a good God very significantly more reasonable than belief in an evil god? Theists
invariably do think belief in a good God, if not 'proved', is at least by no
means unreasonable. Yet they consider
the evil god hypothesis absurd, which surely it is. How do they account for
this difference in reasonableness?
After all, these two god hypotheses appear to
receive roughly similar support from the standard teleological and cosmological
arguments, at least considered in isolation. Both hypotheses face an evidential
problem (in the form of good or evil) but then in each case a response is
available in form of theodicies and appeals to skeptical theism.
Yet, surely, the evil god hypothesis is absurd. Surely, we can reasonably
rule out an evil god on the basis of observation, notwithstanding the various
ingenious mirror theodicies we have now cooked up, plus skeptical theism. So
why is the good God hypothesis significantly less absurd? I don't believe there is a satisfactory answer
to this question.
True, answers have been offered. Some theists
insist there are cogent arguments for a good God not mirrored by arguments for
an evil god. There are moral arguments specifically for a good God, for
example. However, even many theists find these arguments unpersuasive.
Or perhaps the theist will insist that religious
miracles, religious experiences, and scripture supports belief in a good God,
there being no comparable evidence for an evil god? But there are numerous
religions and each has its own stock of miracles, religious experiences, and scriptures.
These religions contradict each other, having received incompatible messages
and directives from their respective god(s). This is a recipe for endless
strife and conflict. Now isn't revealing himself in such dangerously misleading
ways just the sort of recipe an evil god would follow? Surely a good God would
avoid generating such confusion and hostility? So perhaps miracles, etc. are,
on closer examination, better evidence for an evil god than a good God.
We might not know why the universe exists. But
surely we can still reasonably rule out the suggestion that it is the creation
of either of these two gods.
What we haven't done, as yet, is explain
precisely what is wrong with the
theodicies, mirror-theodicies, and also with skeptical theism, as responses to
the problems of evil and good. Explaining that requires more space than is
available here. But I'll finish with this suggestion: that the strategy of
constructing theodicies/mirror theodicies to explain away the observed good/evil
suffers the same fundamental defect as the strategy of Young Earth Creationists
who, in response to powerful evidence that the Earth is much older then 6,000
years, proceed to cook up endless convoluted explanations in terms the biblical
Flood, etc. to explain that evidence away. When we are presented with powerful
evidence against what we believe, it is always possible to cook up
such explanations. That doesn't mean it's not good evidence.
(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen
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