Broken Law (Updated)

So, a year after promising a reply to my detailed critique of his “evil god challenge,” Stephen Law’s long-awaited response (see the combox remarks he links to) mostly comes to this: You just don’t get it.  Go re-read my paper and this article by Wes Morriston.

“Courtier’s reply,” anyone?

Though he dismisses them as “awful,” Law does not respond in any substantive way to the points I made in my critique.  He does offer a few brief remarks intended to clarify his position, but they serve only to reinforce, rather than answer, my objections.  I’m not going to repeat everything I’ve said before -- if you haven’t already, go read my original post on Law (since which I’ve written a few other relevant posts, which I’ve linked to here).  But you might recall that the problem with Law’s position is as follows.

Law claims that the evidence for the existence of a good God is no better than the evidence for the existence of an evil god, and that any theodicy a theist might put forward as a way of reconciling the fact of evil with the existence of a good God has a parallel in a reverse-theodicy a believer in an evil god could put forward to reconcile the presence of good in the world with the existence of an evil god.  Now, no one actually believes in an evil god.  Therefore, Law concludes, since (he claims) the evidence for a good God is no better than that for an evil God, no one should believe in a good God either.  That’s the “evil god challenge.” 

The trouble is that Law regards this as a challenge to theism generally, and it simply isn’t.  It applies at most only to one, historically idiosyncratic version of theism.  So, suppose you regard the divine attributes as in principle metaphysically separable -- that something that is, for example, omnipotent or omniscient could nevertheless fail to be all-good.  Suppose also that you regard good and evil as on a metaphysical par, neither more fundamental than the other.  And suppose that you consider the grounds for belief in God to consist in an inductive inference to the effect that God is the best explanation of various bits of evidence -- the orderliness of the world, the good we find in it, etc.  Given those specific metaphysical and epistemological assumptions -- the sort that might be made by someone beholden to a “theistic personalist” conception of God and who thinks Paley-style “design arguments” and the like are the best reason to believe in God -- Law’s challenge might be a problem.  (Or maybe not.  But since I have no time either for theistic personalism or for Paley-style “design arguments,” I really couldn’t care less.)

But given different metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, Law’s “evil god challenge” is no challenge at all.  Hence, suppose that, like almost all of the most prominent theologians and philosophers of religion historically (Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, and Aristotelians, Neo-Platonists, and Thomists and other Scholastics generally) you are a classical theist.  You will hold, accordingly, that God is absolutely simple or non-composite, so that all of the divine attributes are one and thus metaphysically inseparable in principle.  You will also regard God, not as one being among others, but as subsistent being itself or pure actuality, beyond any genus.  And you will regard Him, not as one cause among others, but as that from which all finite causes -- which have, ultimately, only instrumental causality -- necessarily derive their causal power.  Suppose that you also hold that good and evil are not on a metaphysical par, but that evil is a privation of good.  And suppose you endorse the doctrine of the transcendentals, according to which being and goodness are convertible, so that whatever is being itself or pure actuality is also goodness itself, necessarily devoid of evil.  It follows from all this that nothing that is omnipotent could possibly be less than perfectly good, and indeed that nothing that is divine could possibly be less than perfectly good.  

Suppose, finally, that you also think there are demonstrative (as opposed to merely inductive or evidential) arguments for the existence of the God of classical theism -- that you endorse an Aristotelian argument from motion to a purely actual Unmoved Mover, say, or Aquinas’s “existence argument” in On Being and Essence for something that is subsistent being itself, or a Neo-Platonic argument for a source of the world that is an absolute unity.  If such arguments work at all, then given the background metaphysics, they prove conclusively (and not merely with some degree of probability) that there is a God who cannot in principle be anything less than perfectly good.

Given these very different metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, it is blindingly obvious that Law’s “evil god challenge” is completely irrelevant.  His “evil god hypothesis” doesn’t stalemate the arguments for classical theism, for two reasons.  First, unlike the “good god” of theistic personalism, the God of classical theism isn’t in the same genus as Law’s “evil god.”  The God of classical theism isn’t the same kind of thing as Law’s “evil god” at all.  (Indeed, unlike everything else that exists, the God of classical theism isn’t in a genus or kind in the first place -- that’s part of the whole point of classical theism.)  So there is no parallel between alternative “hypotheses” of the sort Law needs in order to get his “challenge” off the ground.  

Second, the arguments typically employed by classical theists simply cannot be stalemated by “evidential” considerations because they are typically not “evidential” or inductive or probabilistic arguments in the first place.  If an Aristotelian argument from motion, or Aquinas’s “existence argument,” or Neo-Platonic arguments work at all, they get you demonstratively to something that is pure actuality, or subsistent being itself, or an absolute unity; and the other metaphysical theses alluded to get you from there to something that is of necessity perfectly good (indeed, something that is goodness itself).  To suggest that what is purely actual or subsistent being itself might, given the “evidence,” be evil, is simply unintelligible.  To make such a suggestion would merely be to show that the one making it doesn’t understand the metaphysical concepts in question.

Now that does not mean that classical theism and the arguments for it are not subject to criticism.  A critic could try to show that there is something wrong with the doctrine of divine simplicity, or with the doctrine of privation, or with the doctrine of the transcendentals, or that there is some fallacy in one of the attempts to provide a demonstrative argument for the existence of the God of classical theism.  But even if an atheist could make such objections stick, it is those objections that will be doing the work, and not the “evil god challenge.”  The “evil god challenge” drops out as simply irrelevant.  

(Compare: Suppose someone presented a purported proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, to which two critics raised objections.  Critic A says that the purported proof contains a fallacy.  Critic B says that the inductive evidence the attempted proof provides can be stalemated by equally good evidence for a counter-theorem.  Critic A may or may not be correct.   Critic B is, as they say, “not even wrong.”  He is merely embarrassing himself, and even if critic A turns out to be right, critic B will still have been merely embarrassing himself.)

Now it is pretty clear that what Law should say to all this is: “Fine, the ‘evil god challenge’ is not a completely general challenge to theism, but only, specifically, to evidential arguments for theistic personalism.  That’s at least something, even if it is nowhere close to the atheistic knock-out punch I hoped it would be.”  But rather than make use of this dignified exit from the hole he finds himself in, Law has chosen to keep digging.  Still insisting that my criticisms are “awful,” Law makes several attempts to clarify his position.  In particular, he says this:

[CLARIFICATION I:] My point is that even if it could be shown that an evil god is an impossibility (and that does seem to be your strategy, after all), we might still ask, "But supposing it wasn't an impossibility, would an evil god not in any case be pretty conclusively ruled out on empirical grounds - e.g. given the amount of good we observe?" If the answer to that question is "yes", then the challenge remains to explain why a good god is not similarly ruled out.

And he says this:

[CLARIFICATION II:] My argument is that there is, on the face of it, overwhelming empirical evidence AGAINST the good god hypothesis (whether or not this god is thought of as a person, as being morally responsible, etc. personhood is not required).  Most people accept this, unless (i) they're religious, and (ii) it dawns on them what the consequences of this are re their belief in a good god, when many suddenly get radically skeptical!

The challenge is, then to explain, why, if the evil god hypothesis is ruled out pretty conclusively on empirical grounds, the same is not true of the good god hypothesis.

To these combox remarks, I replied with a combox remark of my own, to which Law responded with this and this:

[CLARIFICATION III:] Even if an evil God is a conceptual impossibility, the fact that he can ALSO be ruled out on empirical grounds (which you may dispute of course) raises the question, "well, why isn't a good god similarly ruled out on empirical grounds?" The question remains whether or evil god is ruled out on empirical grounds. Surely this is bloody obvious by now?

PS and of course my argument does not depend on the thought that Christians arrive at their views about god inductively based on observation of the world. As Edwars' [sic] criticism assumes that is my view, it fails. That's it.

Now as far as I can tell, CLARIFICATION I amounts to this: Yes, given all that classical theism stuff, the “evil god challenge” would fail.  But suppose that classical theism is wrong and that evidential arguments for a theistic personalist god are the best we can do.   In that case the “evil god challenge” applies!

This is a little like Critic B of our imagined proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem saying “OK, but suppose the proof in question were an inductive argument.  Then my objection would be a pretty powerful challenge, huh?”  More to the point, Law’s CLARIFICATION I implicitly concedes that my criticism is correct even as Law continues to maintain that it is “awful.”  Law has here made his “evil god challenge” completely trivial: It applies to those versions of theism to which it applies.  True, but hardly interesting.

CLARIFICATION II is simply baffling.  Law tells us that most non-religious people tend to agree with him that there is overwhelming evidence against the existence of a good God, however that God is conceived.  Well, maybe they do (which would not be surprising given that they’re non-religious).  But what’s Law’s point?  Is he saying that since those people don’t buy classical theism (or any other kind of theism), they should take the “evil god challenge” seriously?  Again, that may be true, but so what?  How does that show that the “evil god challenge” applies also to classical theism?  Once again Law reduces his position to a triviality: The “evil god challenge” needs to be taken seriously by anyone who isn’t convinced by those versions of theism to which the “evil god challenge” does not apply!  Again, true, but uninteresting.

CLARIFICATION III is about as good as the following argument from Critic B of our imagined proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem:  Even if Critic A is right that the proof contains a fallacy, my point is that the proof can ALSO be ruled out on empirical grounds (which you may dispute of course).  Surely this is bloody obvious by now?  

Again, Critic B would simply show by such a statement that he doesn’t understand the difference between an attempted mathematical proof and an empirical theory.  And Law’s remarks show that he doesn’t understand the difference between a purported metaphysical demonstration of the impossibility of an evil God (in the classical theist’s sense of “God”) and empirical theorizing about whether there is a “god” in some other sense, a sense that would leave it open whether this “god” is good or evil.

Law’s “PS” to CLARIFICATION III is also baffling.  He now tells that “of course” his argument doesn’t depend on the assumption that Christians arrive at their views about God inductively based on observation of the world.  Well, in that case, he needs to answer the following question: Take a classical theist who is working with the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions described above and who claims to have a demonstrative argument to the effect that there is a God who is pure actuality or subsistent being itself and who therefore (given the background metaphysics) cannot even in principle be anything less than perfectly good.  How exactly does the “evil god challenge” pose a challenge to such a theist?

In answering, Law should remember that it will not do to say: “Well, I don’t think the doctrine of privation, the doctrine or the transcendentals, divine simplicity, etc. are correct and/or that the attempted demonstration in question is sound.”   For in that case, it will be the various specific criticisms of these various metaphysical and epistemological assumptions that will be doing the philosophical work, and not the evil god challenge itself.  He should remember also that it will not do to say: “If we don’t make these various classical theistic background assumptions in metaphysics and epistemology, then the ‘evil god challenge’ applies.”  For that is true but completely trivial.

I think we’re done here.  On the other hand, Law also tells us that a more substantive reply is forthcoming.   I guess I can wait another year.

UPDATE 11/15: For readers who haven’t already noticed, Stephen Law has now replied to this post in two blog posts of his own (here and here) and in a number of combox remarks, both below and in his own comboxes.  In response, I’ve posted a number of comments of my own down below.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...