The week before last I reviewed the book An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar, coauthored by theist Randal Rauser and atheist Justin Schieber. Once again I must reiterate that it is really quite an important book, in terms of its unique approach to dialoguing such matters. I do highly recommend giving it a read.
In the book, both Rauser and Schieber give several arguments each for their respective positions, which they then proceed to discuss together. Both focus on evidential arguments that are fairly representative of typical contemporary philosophy of religion. In this post, I want to discuss one part of their discussion that I found problematic.
The general format of their arguments would go something like this: X is a fact about the world. X is better explained by hypothesis H1 than hypothesis H2 (or, X is more surprising on H2 than it is on H1). Therefore, X is more likely on, or is evidence for, or supports, H1. Rauser defended the hypothesis of “theism”, and Schieber “atheism”. Rauser argued that theism is a better explanation for facts like moral perception and obligation, and incredible mathematical patterns in nature, while Schieber argued that atheism is a better explanation for facts like massive theological difference, the hostility of the universe for life, and evolution.
Of course, in order for these arguments to proceed, they first had to define their respective hypotheses, which they did in the first chapter. They admit that there are different concepts of “God” that have been subscribed to throughout history and various cultures/worldviews, so they agree to limit their discussion to “classical theism”, which, Schieber acknowledges, “for various reasons, both historical and philosophical . . . reigns supreme” in the Western world . Rauser qualifies that at least “in academic discussion classical theism is the go-to definition and the one we should assume as well” . Schieber gives his definition thereof: “At least as I’ve understood it, classical theism assumes a non-physical agent (God) who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good” . Rauser agrees, then adds several qualifications. First he expands on what he takes it to mean to be an “agent”, saying: “For God to be a person/agent means that God has a mind, he’s conscious, and he can act with intentions or purposes” . Then he adds what is perhaps the most significant point: “God is a necessarily existent being. In other words, God could not fail to exist . . . This means that God exists in himself. There is nothing outside God to explain his existence” . So their final, working definition of “classical theism” as hypothesis:
“God is a necessarily existent nonphysical agent who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good. That certainly doesn’t say everything a theist will want to say. But it is good enough for our discussion to get going” .
Now, I certainly don’t want to nitpick or argue against what has just been said. I can basically affirm, in a general sense, the given definition, although I would want to make some serious qualifications. This also certainly isn’t the starting definition I personally would want to work with, but it is a fairly standard, straightforward view that is appropriate for their use. My own quibbles aside, I do think this is at least a “minimum” description of characteristics that the vast majority of classical theists would be willing to accept (even if with qualifications to certain terms).
“Classical theism” as it is often used today just refers to the mainstream understanding of God that is the dominant form of theism discussed in philosophy. My problem with this, however, is that it just isn’t really classical in the true sense. A difficulty is that, often, when people debate the existence of God, they don’t adequately define their terms, and so they can end up completely arguing past each other, not even addressing the real views of the other person. For this reason I greatly applaud Rauser and Schieber here, for beginning their book by making it known to each other and to the readers what exactly they’ll be arguing for and against. But this difficulty remains in much discussion, and it is an interesting problem. How can we hope to debate the mere existence of something, when we don’t even have a basic definition/understanding of what it is we’re trying to determine the existence of? If two people are talking about God, and one is arguing that a god like Zeus doesn’t exist, and the other is arguing that a God like the one Rauser and Schieber defines does exist, but they both just use the term “god”, then their discussion is hardly going to be an example of meaningful communication and interaction. People who think a God like the above defined one exists, for the most part probably completely reject the existence of a “Zeus-like” deity.
So, again, I can applaud Rauser’s and Schieber’s establishment of a definition, and I can, basically, affirm it as a definition of God I would (generally, but with qualification) agree with, at least in a very “minimal” sense. But, also again, my problem (and it is not here a problem with Rauser and Schieber and their book, at all) is that this just isn’t classical enough for me.
(I should also point out, somewhat contra what I’ve just said, that some classical theists would consider the project of “defining God” as just plainly impossible, and even laughably so. But here, when I refer to definitions, I mean something more like offering characteristics. Aquinas, in the Summa Theologiae, after he gives arguments for the existence of God, then goes on to discuss the nature of God. But he preambles this by saying “we cannot know what God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not” and then “it can be shown how God is not, by denying Him whatever is opposed to the idea of Him” .
If you take a look at what someone like Aquinas (arguably the very paradigm of real “classical theism”) says about the nature of God, it’s going to be significantly different, at least in terms of fundamentals, than the definition we’ve just examined. Philosopher Edward Feser argues that the defining characteristic of classical theism is its understanding of God as “absolutely metaphysically ultimate” . For a philosopher like Brian Davies, this means primarily that God is “causally responsible for the existence of everything other than himself” . Both agree with Aquinas, who takes “divine simplicity” (God is utterly non-composite, is not comprised of parts at all, either physical or metaphysical, and is the only such being) as absolutely central to the concept of God; it is, in fact, the very first divine attribute he considers. For, on his view, if something is not utterly “simple” in this way, it just cannot be absolutely metaphysically ultimate. Anything non-simple will have to have something else that explains its existence. Other fundamental qualities he attributes to God include immutability, impassibility, eternality, timelessness, and goodness/perfection (but not quite how Rauser and Schieber and most contemporary philosophers would use “goodness” and”perfection”). Brian Davies makes the distinction between classical theism and what he calls “theistic personalism”, which denies some of these things of God, and which instead insists that God is essentially “a person without a body”, but to a much higher degree than human persons . Many non-philosophically inclined atheists and theists today would probably hold something like this, that “God” is just a “big invisible person in the sky with powers”. But, also, many of the most well-known contemporary theistic philosophers of religion Davies would also classify as theistic personalists, including Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and William Lane Craig. (I am hesitant to say whether I think Rauser is a classical theist or a theistic personalist, as so defined, since this is just not a distinction either he or Schieber acknowledge/make use of, and they’d probably fit both under their more general understanding of “classical theism” broadly. Based on the entire book, I think Rauser might be more likely to fall under the category of theistic personalism, at least in some ways. This is not meant necessarily as a criticism, since I’m not here arguing against theistic personalism. Rauser himself may disagree and consider himself firmly within the limits of classical theism; I won’t argue that here either, I’m merely pointing out what it seems to me from having read the book. Admittedly, he does agree that God is necessarily existent, which he might associate with some of the more classical attributes just listed).
So Classical Theism (in its really classical sense), holds that, whatever else we can say of God, we have to affirm that he is absolutely metaphysically ultimate. If we don’t say this of God, then we’re just not talking about “God” at all. For Aquinas, this means that God is Pure Act and Subsistent Being Itself. Now, there might be very good reasons, in a book such as Rauser’s and Schieber’s, not to start off talking about God in these terms. First, so far as I’m aware, neither are Thomists, so one could hardly expect them to use Thomistic concepts in their discussion. But even if Rauser happened to be a Thomist, it would just be way outside the scope of their book’s intentions to take time to lay out such hefty metaphysical foundations before proceeding to their main focus. So their definition very much works for what they’re doing. But it also raises some issues, and it is to one of these that I now want to turn.
In the same chapter, Schieber poses a question about the idea of God they’ve just laid out:
“Are there any reasons, besides historical contingency, for this focus on considering the traditional view of God over, say, a God that is identical in every way but, instead of being perfectly good and loving, is perfectly evil?” .
Now, here, many people, especially theists, will want to pause and perhaps scratch their heads. An evil God? Does anyone anywhere believe in such an odd thing? In other words, many simply take the idea of “God” in itself to just include goodness. Within the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for instance, from which most people who adhere to some form of classical theism come, it is just taken for granted, not to mention its formalization in religious doctrine, that God is “good” in some sense. But Schieber doesn’t deny this:
“You’re certainly right that the traditional definition of God involves moral perfection. But I want to get prior to that. If the quibble here is just on the use of the word God, then that’s fair . . . My question is why we should take that traditional view more seriously than a view that suggests a maximally evil being” .
And then, a bit further on:
“There are reasons we might want to examine the maximally evil being vs. God question. For example, nearly every argument that might be used to support the God hypothesis seems to provide equal support for the maximally evil being hypothesis!” (emphasis mine) .
Here we need to pause, since Schieber has just made a very sweeping and serious assertion. His question, I think, is fair, at least in the framework they’re working in, on the basis of the definition they’re using. But that’s precisely my issue with that definition, since it opens the door to questions such as this on its own.
But, before we discuss that, I think we should examine the concept of an “evil god” more broadly. The concept is associated with what has come to be called the “evil god challenge”, which is developed most fully by philosopher Stephen Law (although I’m not sure if it originated with him). Basically, the evil god challenge (as Law presents it) is meant as an argument against the existence of any god, period, by way of a sort of extrapolation on traditional evidential problems of evil. It goes something like this:
Suppose someone was to assert that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly evil agent who has created the world out of wicked intent in order to inflict pain and suffering on its inhabitants. Law thinks that an initial response to this position would be to claim that it is absurd, since, even though there’s certainly suffering in the world, there’s also much goodness and happiness; and if such a malevolent being created the world for the sole purpose of inflicting pain, how could that explain the existence of goodness and happiness? But, says Law, that’s just precisely what the problem of evil is, when considered in relation to a “perfectly good God”. And, he suggests, any sort of ordinary “theodicy” given to explain why a good God might allow the existence of evil, can just as surely be “flipped” and applied to the existence of goodness on the evil God hypothesis. So, he insists, insofar as one rejects the evil God hypothesis, one should, to be consistent, likewise reject the good God hypothesis .
Schieber seems to be making a related claim, although different in important respects. Schieber doesn’t seem to (here, at least) be arguing that an “evil god challenge” should suffice to reject any sort of theism; nor is he using it in relation to the problem of evil and theodicies. Instead, he’s asking a more basic question. What legitimate reason do we have for including the concept of “goodness” in our definition of God, rather than the concept of “evil”. And, in support of this, he asserts that “nearly every argument that might be used to support the God hypothesis seems to provide equal support for the maximally evil being hypothesis!” What he means by that is something like this: Take, for example, Rauser’s “mathematical patterns” argument, which argues (to give a simplistic summary) that the existence of incredible mathematical patterns in nature is analogical to the use of patterned motifs architects and engineers use in their designs, which is more likely on the hypothesis that the universe has been “designed” by some ultimate Mind. Now, regardless of whether the argument has much force, what it at most (Schieber would perhaps say) can support is the existence of an ultimate Agent; but it doesn’t say anything about the “moral standing” of this Agent. For all we know, the Agent is completely malevolent and wicked, and designed the universe so as to have a place to run torturous and cruel experiments on powerless creatures. The same could apply, perhaps to fine tuning arguments, intelligent design arguments, even something like the kalam cosmological argument. All these, at most, support the proposition that there is some all powerful Agent who has created/designed the world. All of these would be just as likely, and thus offer just as much support, however, on the hypothesis of an evil Agent as a good one. Or so Schieber wants to argue.
How does Rauser respond? Interestingly enough, he takes a pretty classical approach here by appealing to “privation” theory. To see this, I’m going to lay out a brief overview of their discussion on this point:
- Schieber claims that nearly every argument in favor of theism equally supports the evil god hypothesis.
- Rauser interjects, pointing out that certain moral arguments would not favor an evil god hypothesis.
- Schieber responds that, while some moral arguments would indeed not favor the evil god hypothesis, a mirrored version of each moral argument would offer equal support of the evil god hypothesis (similar to Law’s evil god challenge).
- Rauser denies that such “mirrored” versions are possible by pointing out the privation view, in which values like “beauty” are positive aspects of something, but values like “ugliness” are just the privation of that positive aspect.
To which Schieber replies:
“These are the kinds of Western theological assumptions we should at least be wary of. The idea that ugliness is merely the absence of beauty or goodness is a cultural assumption. It’s no more plausible than its mirrored version that states that beauty is just the absence of ugliness!” .
In all fairness, Rauser did not (nor was he really trying to) present an in depth, comprehensive defense of the privation theory of evil; but, nevertheless, Scheiber’s statement here just entirely misunderstands classical natural law theory and the privation view of evil as its corollary. Now, Schieber is hardly a proponent of natural law theory, nor (I suspect) does he accept much of the scholastic metaphysical framework from which I will be building the rest of my response. That’s fine, since what follows is not meant as a critique of the book itself or the views discussed therein; it’s meant rather as a general examination of this idea of an “evil god” from a (real) classical theistic point of view.
On natural law theory, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, particularly in my series on Aquinas’s Fourth Way, “goodness” is defined in terms of natural ends. The “good” of something is just the fulfillment of its natural ends, and the “bad” is hence the lack of fulfillment thereof. Or, as Brian Davies puts it, badness is “a gap between what is actually there and what could be there (and should be there) but is not” . To say that goodness is the “absence” of evil is not merely to say that there’s an absence of positive qualities; it’s also to say that the natural ends of something, which ought to be fulfilled, the fulfillment of which the thing in question is naturally and inherently directed to by its very nature, if not realized, are therefore not meeting the very purpose for which it acts/exists, the purpose which is intrinsic to its essence.
Schieber might very well object to this notion of goodness, as many others have. What he cannot say (correctly, anyways), is that this is merely a “cultural assumption” that Western philosophers and theologians have made. This is a view that has its roots in the ethics and metaphysics of Aristotle, and which is rigorously defended by the likes of Augustine and Aquinas. What can also not be seriously maintained is the statement that “it’s no more plausible than its mirrored version that states that beauty is just the absence of ugliness”.
This claim, when properly understood, is about as “plausible” as saying that genocide is good and loving one’s neighbor is evil. What it amounts to is just a redefinition of terms, not a change of meaning. On classical natural law theory, goodness just is the fulfillment of natural ends, and badness just is the privation of the good. If we wanted to, I suppose, we could “switch” terms, and call the fulfillment of ends “badness” and the privation thereof “good”, but that would merely be a semantic alteration with no actual ontological effect whatsoever.
To spell this out a bit, let’s look at a simple example. One natural end of living things is to survive. Most living things require some sort of food sustenance in order to do so. As such, eating food necessary for survival is “good” for living animals, and not eating food necessary for survival is “bad” for them. Badness here, as we’ve said, refers to the privation of good, the un-fulfillment of natural ends. How could we possibly make sense of an assertion that goodness is actually the privation of badness? If that were the case, we’d have to say that living things are naturally ordered, in their very essence, to not survive, to die, and thus not to eat; but that even though they are inherently ordered to die, to fulfill these ends and do what they’re naturally directed to do is actually bad for them, and to frustrate/work against/fail to fulfill these ends is good for them.
As I’ve also explained elsewhere, the scholastic view is that goodness and being are equivalent, interchangeable. This is best explained by the Davies quote above. To say that badness is an absence/privation is to say that there is a gap between what is there and what is potentially there and ought to be there. When what is potentially/ought to be there is there, this potential is actualized, and there is no longer any “gap” in being, there is a fullness of being; when it is not there, it is not actualized and remains a mere potential, and hence there is a lack or absence of real being that ought to be there. Schieber says his “mirrored” version is just as plausible as the traditional view; but, in fact, the mirrored version is hardly even coherent. Since the definition of badness just is an absence of being, to say, on the mirrored version, that goodness is an “absence of badness” is to really say that goodness is an “absence of an absence of being”, which, of course, would just be “being”. So the mirrored version is either nonsensical, or else it’s just completely identical to the traditional version. The point, on the traditional view, is that “evil” and “badness” in themselves are not real, positive aspects of being at all; they are the lack thereof. It gets more complicated than this, however, especially when you consider something like pain, which assuredly is a real, positive aspect of being. But in order to say that pain is “bad”, you have to say that something about pain is contrary to the natural ends of the thing that experiences the pain, i.e. that the thing ought not feel pain. We’ll save these complicated aspects for a more extended discussion.
So how does this view of goodness relate to the concept of an “evil god”? Here is where I take issue with definitions that at base say that God is just an “omnipotent, omniscient, nonphysical Agent”. So far as I can tell, this definition leaves things completely open as to the “moral standing” of the Agent (if it does in fact even have such a moral standing), and for one to, at the beginning, assign the attribute of being “perfectly good” is completely arbitrary. As I’ve said, the core concept of Classical Theism is that God is the ultimate metaphysical reality, and this means, as Aquinas argues, that God is necessarily Pure Act and Subsistent Being Itself. Could Being Itself be evil?
No. Not at all.
First, the idea that the God of Classical Theism could be either perfectly good or “perfectly evil” is in itself deeply confused. For this assumes that God is basically a being among beings, one of a kind or class. Consider two persons, Person X and Person Y. X and Y are similar in almost every single measurable way. They both like the same music, the same books and movies, the same food; they both look exactly the same; they both have almost all the same attributes. The one and only difference between these two people is that Person X prefers dogs, and Person Y prefers cats. So, obviously, by extension, Person X is a perfectly good person, and Person Y is perfectly evil (Ha ha, just kidding. Cats are fine. From a distance). In order to make sense of this account of two entities which are completely identical in every possible way except for a single attribute, we have to say that they are each an instance of the same kind or class of thing. But Classical Theism ardently denies that God can considered as such. God is not one of a kind of thing at all, God is completely and totally unique and separate from all other actual and possible existing things. So to say that there could even conceptually be a theoretical God G and God E, both of which are exactly the same in every possible way except one is good and the other evil, is extremely misguided.
But, besides this, more importantly, the notion of a “perfectly evil God”, on Classical Theism, is just absolutely metaphysically impossible. Indeed, to say that a “purely evil God exists” is literally a contradiction in terms. God, on Classical Theism, is Being Itself. And Being, as I’ve explained, is equivalent to goodness. So God, on Classical Theism, is also “Goodness Itself”. This is not some trivial remark about God’s possible moral standing. To say that God is Goodness Itself is not to say that God is an Agent who happens to be very moral and virtuous, but could, theoretically, possibly be immoral or wicked. It is rather to say that God is the fullness of Being and Actuality Itself, that which all things desire by their very nature, who is the Final Cause and Ultimate End of all existence. Something purely evil, literally, would be non-existent; because existence in itself is good. To say that a “perfectly evil God exists” would be literally to say that “non-existent Existence Itself exists”. (Note: in reality, a “purely evil” being would seem to be, not just something that doesn’t exist, but something that ought to exist but doesn’t. I’m not sure how exactly something which doesn’t exist in the first place can be said to ought to exist. I just don’t find the notion of a truly “perfectly evil” anything to be coherent.)
In short, the God of Classical Theism, who is Being Itself, just cannot even in principle be thought of as “evil” in any sense, where evil is taken to be the privation of goodness and being. There cannot be any privation in God, since God by definition is the ultimate perfection of being. And, I might add, the classical arguments for the existence of God, such as Aquinas’s Five Ways, all establish this without any possibility of a “mirrored” version therof.
Again, Schieber may be working with a completely different understanding of God and “goodness/evil.” On a more theistic personalist account, Schieber’s question (it seems to me) might be very legitimate. But it is certainly not on any account of really classical Classical Theism.
. Rauser, Randal and Justin Schieber. An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar: Talking about God, the Universe, and Everything. New York: Prometheus Books, 2016. Print, 24.
. Ibid., 25.
. Ibid., 26.
. Ibid., 27.
. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 1265-1274. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Coyote Canyon Press, 2010. ebook. I, Q. 3.
. See his post here: <http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/09/classical-theism.html>.
. Davies, Brian. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print, 2.
. Ibid., 9.
. Rauser and Schieber. An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar. 28.
. Ibid., 29.
. For an example of Law’s defense of this challenge, see his debate with William Lane Craig here: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7FhphWDokA>.
. Rauser and Schieber. An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar. 30.
. Davies, Brian. The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. Print, 148.
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