The Evil God Challenge

There exists an all-knowing, all-powerful, conscious mind who created the universe and human beings. And of course, this being is perfectly, flawlessly evil.

So is what I just wrote really all that less likely than what theists believe? The typical version of the god hypothesis postulates an all-knowing, all-powerful, conscious being who created the universe and human beings that’s omni-benevolent. Maybe these two versions of the god hypothesis aren’t equally reasonable, but it’s not at all obvious that they’re that different. Most of my neighbors believe the Good God Hypothesis, but nearly everyone considers the Evil God Hypothesis to be absolutely ridiculous, even though they’re identical except for one being omni-benevolent and the other being omni-malevolent. Many of the most popular arguments for god don’t give us any indication of god’s moral characteristics; they work just as well for evil god. An unmoved-mover or intelligent designer wouldn’t need to be supremely benevolent. So if those arguments do work, and we consider nothing else, good god and bizarro god are tied.

And again, I’m not sure if the evil god hypothesis is exactly as likely as the good god hypothesis. There may be some differences, but the point is just that they’re not that different. To treat one as highly likely and the other as completely ridiculous is not justifiable. Everything about the two hypotheses is identical except for god’s moral orientation. For what it’s worth, what bothers me most about the god hypothesis isn’t the omni-benevolence. If we’re talking about an invisible, disembodied mind with incoherent attributes and telepathic powers who’s all-good, it’s not the “all-good” part that’s inspiring the most doubt.

“People who believe in god typically believe that, even if you can’t prove that god exists, it’s not unreasonable to believe that the ‘three O’s’ god — omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent — exists. Whereas they do consider the omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-malevolent god hypothesis to be downright ludicrous. The challenge is to explain these very different positions that they give these two god hypotheses on the scale of reasonableness.”  Stephen Law

The Problem of Good

There are objections to an evil god that may have occurred to you. I’m sure you’re wondering — if evil god exists, why is there an abundance of good in the world? Why are we humans allowed to help each other, and feel love, or really have any positive experiences at all? But this objection is just the equal and opposite version of the problem of evil that the good god hypothesis suffers from.How could an omniscient, omnipotent, omni-malevolent god allow good in the world?

Is god willing to prevent good, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is god able, but not willing? Then he is benevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh good?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?

As it happens, many of the typical responses to the problem of evil work equally well for the problem of good.

“In response to the problem of evil, religious people will . . . cook up explanations for the evil. So they may say, ‘Well, yes, god allows some people to do evil things. It’s sad, but that’s the price god has to pay for free will. He could’ve made us puppets that always did the right thing, but if you’re a puppet being, you’re not morally responsible for your actions. So moral goodness — good deeds done of your own volition — [are] not going to exist. And it’s particularly important that they do exist; it’s the most important form of goodness. So a good god will cut our strings, set us free, and as a result, some of us choose to do evil, but that’s the price paid for the greater good.”  Stephen Law

Another common reply to the problem of evil is a soul-building theodicy. Essentially, no pain, no gain. God allows evil because we achieve heights through suffering that we wouldn’t have been able to reach without the suffering. Suffering changes you in ways that god finds desirable, so in the end, it’s worth it. Christians also invoke the afterlife as an equalizer. We don’t need to worry about the suffering in this life because all will be made right in the next, so in the end, justice will be served. Hitler will go to hell and children with cancer will go to heaven. And then there’s skeptical theism, which, if you haven’t heard of, is the view that we shouldn’t have much confidence in our ability to judge whether gratuitous evil exists. Maybe the evil we see is working towards some greater good or lesser evil, and we just don’t know it. Just because you can’t think of a reason why god would allow evil doesn’t mean there are no reasons. You’re just a limited human being, you don’t know what reasons god might have for allowing suffering.

I have objections to all these responses, but let’s just grant all of them for the sake of argument. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, you can flip all of these responses and they work just as well for evil god. So evil god could be cutting our puppet strings and setting us free so that moral evil can exist — the worst kind of evil, because you’re truly responsible for it. Tragically, some of us choose to do good, but that’s the price evil god pays for the greater evil, just like good god allows evil actions for the greater good, though it pains him so. As for soul building, ‘no pain, no gain,’ we can just as easily say ‘no gain, no pain.’ Just as good god allows evil because we achieve heights not possible without suffering, evil god allows good because it allows us to achieve depths not possible without some amount of good. It’s much more cruel to give something good and rip it away than for us to never even know what we’re missing. And if the free will and soul-building explanations don’t adequately explain the good in the world to your eye, you can just say that everything will be made right in the afterlife — eternal suffering awaits us in the afterlife to balance everything out in accordance with evil god’s will. And if none of that works for you, you can always play the skeptical theist card and say, “Well, just because you can’t think of a reason why god would allow good doesn’t mean there are no reasons. You’re just a limited human being, and the good we see could be working to some greater evil or lesser good, and you just don’t know it.”

So it appears that there’s a symmetry forming between good god and evil god. It’s disputed whether or not there’s a perfect symmetry, but the key phrase here is “significantly more reasonable.” Even if they’re not equally plausible, one is not significantly more reasonable than the other. So there’s the problem of good for evil god, but there’s the equal and opposite problem for a good god who allows the abundance of suffering we see. At the very least, we would have to admit that the existence of gratuitous good is less likely on the evil god hypothesis, and the same is true for suffering and an omni-god who’s supposed to be benevolent.

Confusion and Hiddenness

Earlier, I said that I wasn’t so sure that evil god would have the same likelihood as good god on balance. You might have assumed I meant that good god might be slightly more reasonable, but I don’t think that’s clear at all. There is empirical data in our world that makes a lot more sense on an evil god than a good god. For example, the multitude of incompatible revelations and religious experiences in the world. It would be trivially easy for god to make it obvious what he wanted, or at least what he definitely doesn’t want. Even Christians who are reading the same book and supposedly in direct contact with god get entirely different answers when they ask the same questions. If good god exists, this is bewildering; but on the evil god hypothesis, it makes perfect sense. God’s hiddenness and silence also make more sense on the evil god hypothesis. (If you want my full thoughts on divine hiddenness, you can go back to episode twenty-one; that’s actually one of my favorites.) I think divine hiddenness, along with the multitude of religions in the world and confusion within religions is so incredibly awkward on the good god hypothesis that I think evil god might be slightly more plausible than good god. I’m not married to that position, but it’s not important to the broader point here. Whether you think evil god edges ahead of good god or vice versa, or whether you think they’re symmetrical claims, the purpose of the challenge is to point out that neither one is significantly more reasonable than the other.

Whatever credence we assign to evil god, whether it’s high or low, it has to be very close to the credence in good god. If you think our credence in evil god should be extremely low, then you have to bite the bullet and put good god at a similarly low probability. If you’re a theist and you think our credence in good god should be high, then you have to bite the bullet and assign similarly high credence to evil god. Even if they’re not perfectly equal, when it comes to evidence, they’re just not that different.



CA38 The Evil God Challenge

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The Evil God Challenge — Stephen Law [Cambridge University Press]

Stephen Law — Evil God Challenge [The Panpsycast]

Evil God Challenge — CFI UK [YouTube]


2 thoughts on “The Evil God Challenge

  1. Evil god only slightly more plausible? I think your trying to be nice. All the animals, all the elements, in a constant state of struggle, clinging to life each day to preserve or fight the inevitable. Each one in a constant state of anxiety with tiny little pauses for relaxation. Virtually all the catch phrases of religion are false, exact opposites of what we see in reality. God is love, mercy, patient, etc, are all disprovable ad nauseum when we strictly observe the physical world. Misery abounds at every level. If it’s true that god created this place, and if it’s true that the Atom is 99.9% empty space as physics has pointed out, god has used the least amount of material to create the most amount of misery. The creation (artificial world) is to house the misery for his will and pleasure to experience and witness and re-live for eternally yearning for the one thing he cannot experience. Pain. Read “On the Problem of Good” by john zande. Absolutely telling research and exposè of the nature of “If” there was a god. Great post again Emerson. Loved it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicely laid out. Great work. It’s an interesting subject, even if we’re being (secretly) mischievous. But I have to agree with Jim above; if we really do apply teleology, and honestly appraise the history of this universe and its tendency to complexity, then the conclusion of an evil god is unavoidable.

    Liked by 1 person

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