An evil god is the least of your worries…

As I explained not so long ago, I go through seasons as a blogger, and as a thinker. A topos which is coming back to the fore, after a hiatus, is my study of Summa contra gentiles (SCG) by St. Thomas Aquinas. I started a blog a couple years devoted precisely to that study, but marriage, kids, and settling in the USA after almost a decade away kind of got in the way. engaging unbeliefAmidst the embers, I have (finally!) nearly completed Curtis Chang’s Engaging Unbelief, which discusses Aquinas’s apologetical strategy in SCG (as well as St. Augustine’s equally ambitious strategy in Civitate Dei–one more book I have yet to read!). I bought Chang’s book in my last year of college and, true to form, have not gotten around to reading it straight through until now. Even so, Chang’s book was a kind of talisman for me, and played a subtly providential role in drawing me to Taiwan and into the Catholic Church.

In any event, for this reason and for that, I’ve been drawn back into SCG and I wanted to share an interesting connection between some of its contents and Crude’s recent, very shrewd portrayal of an apologetical strategy for “mere theism.” Crude’s basic point is that, even if we give the atheist his objection that “something had to create God,” this still defeats atheism. A background axiom for Crude is that he’s a theist before a Catholic, which is to say that even if his particularly Christian beliefs were defeated, he’d still have every assurance of the truth of theism simpliciter. I agree, though I also have trouble fathoming what being a mere theist would even be like. Honestly, while I might not go “full rebel” if I lost hope in Christ, I would not find any compelling reasons to live a particularly moral life just because I knew Theos existed.

But I digress.

Aside from the “who created God?” objection, which Crude’s approach parries, another objection he parries is the “evil God” objection, made popular by Stephen Law. Crude’s approach is an admittedly kamikaze approach, as far as one’s particular religious commitments go, but it gets the job done. Meanwhile, as I argued in the discussion about Law’s “evil God” objection at Dr. Feser’s blog, I believe there are strong metaphysical reasons why Law’s argument is incoherent. Even though Crude’s approach is willing to tolerate the concept of an evil God in order that such a god would falsify atheism, I think such tolerance is a bridge too far. I’m fairly certain that Crude would agree, insisting that his “mere theism” approach is primarily a rhetorical strategy meant to short-circuit or circumvent the prevalent confusion on the part of atheists that atheism is vindicated until they are rationally convinced of the whole Christian theology of God. This atheistic gambit is not only logically defective but also disingenuous; as often as you hear that the arguments for the Christian God [ahem…] are as good as those for Zeus, Odin, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc., you’re hearing a refusal to acknowledge the fact that establishing the existence of Zeus or Odin would disprove atheism as handily as would proof of the Christian God.

So much, then, for the kamikaze approach to mere theism. What does Aquinas have to say about the putative existence of an “evil god”?

dr Evil

In book I, chapter 39, Aquinas argues that “there cannot be evil in God” (in Deo non potest esse malum). Atheists like Law must face the fact that, if the words are to retain any sense, “God” simply cannot be “evil”. As my comments in the thread at Feser’s blog aimed to show, despite how much he mocks “the privation theoy of evil,” Law himself cannot escape its logic: his entire argument requires that the world ought to appear less evil if it is to be taken as evidence of a good God. Even though he spurns the idea that evil is a privation of good, his account of an evil world is parasitic on a good ideal; this is no surprise, though, since all evil is parasitic on good (SCG I, 11). Based on the conclusions of several preceding chapters, Aquinas contends that “God is goodness, and not simply good [Deus autem est bonitas, non solum bonus]. There cannot, therefore, be any non-goodness in Him. Thus, there cannot possibly be evil in God.” He adds that

“since God is His own being, nothing can be said of Him by participation…. If, then, evil is said of God, it will not be said by participation, but essentially. But evil cannot be so said of anything as to be its essence, for it would lose its being, which is a good (Sic autem malum de nullo dici potest ut sit essentia alicuius: ei enim esse deficeret, quod bonum est)….”

This exposes one of the other key defects of Law’s notion of an evil God: insofar as that “god” would be the cause of all lesser evils, it would be the most evil thing, but the more evil a thing is, the less substantial, the less existent it is, and thus the less potent it is. If Law wants to take seriously the theological terms which he’s trying to hoist by their own petard, he would have to agree that a maximally evil god is not only ontologically incoherent, but also the worst possible candidate for being The Creator of All (though I am anticipating the upcoming argument). God could not be essentially evil, and thus could not be the exemplary evil which grounds the evil of all created things. As we already knew, Law is just blowing smoke.

There is a related argument against an evil God which Aquinas adduces, in book III, chapter 15, although it is basically just the summation of the prior fourteen chapters: “There cannot be any highest evil which would be the first source of all evils” (patet quod non potest esse aliquod summum malum, quod sit omnium malorum principium). Aquinas explains:

This is the case because, first of all, The highest evil ought to be quite dissociated from any good; just as the highest good is that which is completely separate from evil. Now, no evil can exist in complete separation from the good, for we have shown that evil is based upon the good. Therefore, the highest evil is nothing.” Besides, that which is a first principle is not caused by anything. But every evil is caused by a good, as we have shown. Therefore, evil is not a first principle.

I think Aquinas’s arguments speak for themselves, so I will spare you my glosses. However, to bring things full circle, I think it would not harm Crude’s “mere theism” apologetic to embed the axiom that, whatever form the God takes which falsifies atheism, it would be a good God.

atheist debate me

While it is rhetorically effective to corner the atheist who secretly just wants to beat on Christianity with the veritable ineluctability of theism, I think there needs to be at least a minimum perimeter outside of which theism no longer makes any sense. One such fence post, I propose, is that theism can countenance no “evil god.”

But maybe I’m wrong.

About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to An evil god is the least of your worries…

  1. I think the question was settled when Dr. Feser absolutely crushed Law’s argument. I don’t even give it any mind anymore.

  2. Crude says:

    Mind you, I’m fairly certain that Crude would agree, insisting that his “mere theism” approach is primarily a rhetorical strategy meant to short-circuit or circumvent the prevalent confusion on the part of atheists that atheism is vindicated until they are rationally convinced of the whole Christian theology of God. This is not only logically defective but also disingenuous; as often as you hear that the arguments for the Christian God [ahem…] are as good as those for Zeus, Odin, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc., you’re hearing a refusal to acknowledge how establishing the existence of Zeus or Odin would disprove atheism as handily as would proof of the Christian God.

    Actually, this isn’t just a rhetorical strategy. That aspect exists, but part of my argument is that – intellectually – these gods are live options. We don’t just get to rule them out as non-existent because we don’t like them, or because they’re alien to us. But I think this is precisely what happens in many cases, and I think there is no – I mean zero, none, nyet – intellectual defense of it all, all too often. Hence, Stephen Law talks about his Evil God and demands that one grant the possibility of an Evil God or give up belief in a Good God. But if someone does exactly that and grants the possibility, Law freaks out because you’re not supposed to do that. His argument is powerless against someone willing to call his bluff – and this is way, way before the (in my view, correct and valid) arguments that show his views are undercut by classical theism at the start.

    Keep in mind that I’m also playing on the typical atheist’s grounds. They are the ones who insist that the Christian God is just one more god alongside so many others – Zeus, Thor, Odin, etc. And, let’s be frank – Zeus isn’t a good god (let’s put that stoic version of him aside for the moment.) He’s not omnipotent. He’s not omnibenevolent. He’s not omniscient. Hell, he’s not even eternal. He’s a third generation space alien. But he’s a god – by the atheist’s own reckoning – and that means he, and various things like him, are another thing the atheist has to guard against intellectually to maintain his atheism. I’ve said before, the atheist arguments don’t only fail to work against the God of Classical Theism. They hardly dent Zeus.

    Now, an atheist conceivably can buckle here and fall back. Say that Zeus, etc, are in a very distinct category apart from the Christian God. But that happens to undercut a lot – and I mean a lot – of standard atheist apologetics upon the instant. Suddenly all that talk about ‘We’re both atheists, we just go one god further’, or that talk about the thousands of gods out there, and many more things become completely irrelevant to the question of the Christian God, the God of Classical Theism. Now, they’re irrelevant already in many ways, but we’re dealing with rhetoric, in particular rhetoric that you don’t exactly need a deep appreciation of metaphysics and scholastics to ‘get’.

    I think you also should recognize just what happens when someone responds to Law the way I do. Yes, an evil God (on those terms, which are not necessary to even accept – again, you know this vis a vis Aquinas, etc) is a live possibility. But so is a good God. So is the God of Christianity. So are many things. I can proceed from there, and I *can* proceed because I am a theist. The atheist is, insofar as that argument is concerned, done. Sorry Dawkins, house wins, you’re out of chips. The remaining players range from the pagans to the Catholics to the Jews to those gents from R’yleh. But they’re still in the game, and their arguments and evidence are still in play.

  3. Crude says:

    I agree that it is, and I agree with Feser’s argument. But I’ve got a weakness for arguments that work, or work even with assumptions I don’t share. I also have a habit of defending ideas I think are wrong if I think the arguments against them are bad. Which is why I keep going to bat for Intelligent Design.

  4. Jeff says:

    The argument one runs into when talking to intelligent lay Musilms and Jews is that “good” and “evil” only have reference to Man, God’s creation.

    God Himself cannot be bound by any such constraints.

  5. This is precisely, although not wholly, why Aquinas wrote SCG! 🙂

  6. Pingback: All bets are off? | FideCogitActio : "Omnis per gratiam"

  7. The irony. You have missed the point, just as Feser did, which is that it makes no difference to the the EGC whether or not an evil god is an incoherent concept. As I spelt out repeatedlyon both Feser’s bog and also in my original paper: if you would rule out an evil god *in any case* just on the basis of the amount of good that exists notwithstanding any conceptual incoherence involved in the concept(which was not even established, but hey ho) then you should rule out the good god on the same basis. At least deal with my argument rather than a straw man.

    Feser’s response to the EGC is probably the weakest I have come across – it’s actually dealt with in my paper which he clearly did not even bother to read properly. A better response, thought still inadequate, is to try sceptical theism (as Craig, in effect, did).

  8. I think, quite to the contrary, it was YOU who didn’t understand a word of what Dr. Feser wrote.

  9. Law:

    How do you define evil? How do you quantify it? If your case simply mouths the classical notion of evil, without accepting the larger assumptions involved in that notion, then it is incoherent. If, however, your case rejects that notion of evil, it is irrelevant, and borders on a straw man, since the classical theism which you claim to target is tied up with that notion et relata.

    “The irony,” as you might say.

  10. stephen law says:

    I wonder which “classical” position you personally have in mind, given I’ve come across several variants. Perhaps something like this one: if your God can unleash vast and horrific suffering for no good reason whatsoever (other than it’s God’s non-personal nature to do so) and yet still qualify as “good” as you define the term, then the problem of evil is solved!

    I’m starting a blog thread on this at http://www.stephenlaw.org now for anyone who wants to submit their classical or any other solution to the evil God challenge.

  11. Well, at least you’ve proven with this comment that we have absolutely no reason to take you seriously!

  12. stephen law says:

    Interesting that your posts here all take the form of statements and/or insults, rather than arguments and explanations (like mine).

  13. What an argument!

    I bet your position is this! Well I’ve crushed it, if it is!

  14. Crude says:

    if you would rule out an evil god *in any case* just on the basis of the amount of good that exists notwithstanding any conceptual incoherence involved in the concept(which was not even established, but hey ho) then you should rule out the good god on the same basis. At least deal with my argument rather than a straw man.

    Who in the world ‘rules out the existence of an evil god based on the amount of good that exists’? Really – who are these people? Point them out?

    I vaguely recall asking you about this in the past and your response was along the lines of, ‘Oh they’re out there, boy! Theeeeeey’re out there! But they’re HIDING. They don’t do this in formal arguments or anything. But I know they’re there!’

    And when it’s pointed out to you that we’re not ‘ruling out the possibility of an evil God based purely on the amount of good that exists’, you panic and say that’s not fair, or that we’re lying.

    Feser’s response to the EGC is probably the weakest I have come across – it’s actually dealt with in my paper which he clearly did not even bother to read properly.

    I wouldn’t trust you to estimate what was or wasn’t intellectually ‘weak’, particularly about your own arguments, which you are inordinately attached to. By the way – have you changed your mind about naturalism? Or are you still hiding your lack of faith in it, given that it would make you a pariah among the fringe atheist crowd whose attention you currently seek?

  15. Pingback: Well, shucks… | FideCogitActio : "Omnis per gratiam"

  16. IbnYaqob says:

    Still pushing this mishigoss Law? I spanked you over at your own blog till you threw me out in terror.

    Yeh you can’t refute the existence of a PanTheist view of God by refuting the Kalam Cosmological Argument. Why? Because the Kalam presupposes a creator deity and a Patheistic God is not a creator deity but is creation. It’s called a category mistake. His EGC is the same when applied to a Classic View of God.

    Law’s Evil God mishigoss presupposes a Theistic Personalist deity who is a moral agent unequivocally compared to a human moral agent.

    This argument has no meaning to a Classic Theist God, who is metaphysically and ontologically good & the source of moral goodness in created intellects but can’t coherently be conceived of as a moral agent or morally good in the unequivocal sense a human moral agent must be. A Classic Theist needs a Theodicy like a fish need a bicycle.

    >As I spelt out repeatedlyon both Feser’s bog and also in my original paper: if you would rule out an evil god *in any case* just on the basis of the amount of good that exists notwithstanding any conceptual incoherence involved in the concept(which was not even established, but hey ho) then you should rule out the good god on the same basis.

    Rather if you rule out a “god” who is a spectacular fail as a moral agent blah blah blah…etc..you should also rule out a “god” who is a perfect moral agent on the same basis.

    Newflash Steve. Nobody here much less Feser believes in either “god” exists since neither qualifies as a Classic Theistic God.

    BenYachov strikes again.

  17. IbnYaqob says:

    If you believe “god” is in fact a moral agent who is morally good in the unequivocal sense a human moral agent must be good & you employ theodicies to try to morally justify God’s inaction in the face of moral or physical evil then I would be the first to say (& I have said it in the past) that Law’s EGC is very powerful in generating skepticism about the existence of such a “god”.

    It’s great for spanking the Theistic Personalists & their dumb idols. But I am a Strong Atheist when it comes to belief in the existence of any type of Theistic Personalist concept of God or God who is a moral agent. I believe in the God of Abraham and Aquinas as such it’s a meaningless argument that can’t be applied in anyway to a Classic Theistic view of God.

    For a Classic God to be “evil” such a “god” would have to be infinitely less than Pure Act. Which would mean He wouldn’t exist. Law once said on Feser’s blog “Evil is not a privation”. So already he is not presuposing classic concept of God.

    He is deluded if he believes this argument is the omni-anti-theist argument he boasts it is & after dealing with him on his own blog I am convinced Law is deluded.

  18. [—
    insofar as that “god” would be the cause of all lesser evils, it would be the most evil thing, but the more evil a thing is, the less substantial, the less existent it is, and thus the less potent it is.
    —]
    Hence, no such thing as a summum malum as an antithesis to God, who is our summum bonum.

  19. Steve says:

    Who in the world ‘rules out the existence of an evil god based on the amount of good that exists’? Really – who are these people? Point them out?

    I was thinking the same thing. If this is really a premise in Law’s argument I don’t see how it could even get off the ground.

  20. The original Mr. X says:

    Yeah, I tried pointing that out over at Law’s blog. His response was basically to wave his hands and say “It’s obvious! Just like it’s obvious there’s no good God!”

Be kind, be (relatively) brief, be clear...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s