The third talk at the CFI ‘Science vs. Religion’ event was a discussion by the philosopher and head of CFI London Stephen Law on ‘the empirical evidence against God’.
From the title of the talk I was expecting a whistle stop tour through topics such as abiogenesis, evolution and some of the scientific theories of the origin of the universe however none of these subjects were touched and, in actual fact, I didn’t really note any ’empirical evidence’ being discussed. Instead, what Stephen Law presented in his talk, seemed to me to be more a philosophical argument against the monotheistic concept of God. I realise it is a distinct possibility that the philosophical definition of empirical means something entirely different than from what I understand, however, my definition of empirical is something like ‘evidence that can be scientifically identified and tested’ and in this regard Law’s talk was somewhat lacking.
With that said the philosophical argument he did present was quite interesting and entertaining and from my perspective it seemed to be quite well argued. The central thesis of the argument was that you could replace a ‘Good God’ with an ‘Evil God’ in the most common arguments used to defend a Good God’s existence and they work just as well in reverse, suggesting that they are not particularly compelling arguments as they can be used to defend the existence of any type of God, even seemingly absurd ones like ‘Evil God’.
Looking at how he constructed his argument in a bit more detail; he first was clear to identify that the God concept he was dealing with was the one found amongst the major monotheistic religious traditions i.e. an omnipotent, omniscient and maximally good God (this is thus the God I mean from here on out when I refer to God).
With that clarified he then set about examining the common arguments for this God’s existence and was quick to point out that the most popular arguments (such as the cosmological argument) are actually only arguments for a creator and say nothing about the moral character or the views of the creator. I think the examples he supplied were rather limited but then he did have a lot to fit in to an hour and his criticism is in my experience quite valid. As I’ve often noticed that it is somewhat taken for granted by religious apologists that if they can produce a compelling argument for a divine creator that it must obviously be their chosen deity who is responsible… which doesn’t actually follow.
Anyhow, after discussing a few other examples he then went on to discuss some of the compelling arguments against the typical monotheistic God and, in particular, he focused on the issue of the existence of evil in the world which he argued was somewhat incongruent with a good God who is all powerful and all knowing and hates suffering and pain. Pointing out that the sheer quantity of evil including millions of years of mass extinctions of animals, the astronomical amount of suffering that humans have endured throughout history via genocides, wars, holocausts etc. etc. and the existence of horrifically painful and debilitating disease was something an all powerful God who was also maximally good might have sought to avoid when he was setting up the universe.
From these two points he summarised that since the arguments for the existence of God are pretty feeble and there is strong evidence against God’s existence could one, in fact, say “it’s pretty obvious there’s no God”? The answer he supplied was that it’s not so simple, as there are defences which contend that the arguments against God (such as the problem of the existence of evil) can be explained away without requiring a change in God’s character. These defences are called ‘theodicies‘ and Law set out some of the most popular ones which are frequently invoked against the problem of the existence of evil and a Good God namely:
- Free Will– Humans have the free will to do good or bad. God could have made us all puppets who couldn’t do evil but that would have removed the value from doing good acts. The existence of evil is thus necessary for good acts to have real value.
- Character Building– The existence of evil and suffering enables us to appreciate goodness and happiness or to put it in the words of Mickey from Rocky ‘no pain, no gain’.
- Appeal to Mystery– God’s plan is so complex and beyond are capability to understand that we simply cannot understand why evil is necessary but it must be so.
Law acknowledged that these were only three out of hundreds and possibly thousands of theodicies but he again highlighted that these examples were very common and went on to state that the argument he was about to present against them also applied to almost every theodicy he was aware of. His argument, as mentioned above, boiled down to the fact that if the same defences worked for a nonsensical deity then they weren’t particularly compelling defences.
This was when Evil God made his appearence. Law explained that he was postulating the existence of an Evil God who shared all the characteristics of the monotheistic God except for the rather significant provision, that instead of being maximally good, he was maximally evil. He then returned to the arguments he had laid out for Good God noting that the popular arguments for a creator god fit Evil God just as much as Good God and then he went on to discuss the evidence against Evil God namely the issue of the existence of Good! Pointing out that there has been thousands of years of self sacrifice, caring and altrusim among humans in all societies and that many animals have been displaying for millenia deep unconditional love for their offspring.
The theodicies that explain this:
- Free Will– Evil God hates love and compassion and all that and he could have made people suffer for all eternity. However, without the choice to do evil there would be no real value in people doing it as they have no choice. As a result evil God invented free choice because although it let’s good into the world it also enables people to truly perform pure evil.
- Soul Destruction– In contrast to character building Evil God included happiness and goodness so that people could truly appreciate it when they experience evil and suffering. This is also why he allows certain people to be succesfull and happy which makes much more people jealous and unhappy (plus succesful and beautiful people are also often unhappy themselves!). Beautiful inspiring scenery also provides the potential for even more suffering when such things are destroyed.
- Appeal to Mystery- Evil God’s plan is beyond our comprehension. Love may seem like a strange addition to an Evil God’s creation for example but consider the suffering that love creates with jealousy, divorce, unexpected deaths etc. etc. Everything is all just part of his evil plan that we mere mortals cannot fathom.
After laying these points out Law also remarked that another possible ‘trump card’ theodicy for Evil God was that surely the most evil thing that Evil God could do would be to trick people into believing he was actually a Good God and get them to worhsip him and then make the final reveal after they died and he sent them to hell. Thus, effectively making any evidence for a Good God become further evidence for Evil God!
Law’s talk overall was somewhat lighthearted yet he was presenting an argument he regarded as valid and I have to admit despite finding it initially uncompelling I’ve found it hard to come up with ny argument that would make Evil God any less well supported than Good God. If anyone has any suggestions please drop them in the comment section or better yet leave the comment AND email Stephen Law and see what he says, his e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.