traditional belief in God can't live up to even the most minimal standards of ... beings called 'Ethians' (because they live on Eth, a planet at the far side of the ...
THE GOD OF ETH AND THE GOD OF EARTH Michael Bergmann and Jeffrey Brower
Stephen Law has recently argued, using a dialogue set on the fictional planet Eth, that traditional belief in God is “silly”. But theists on Earth should not be convinced.
Is it reasonable to believe in God—that is, a being who is at once all-powerful and all-good? The question is not whether the existence of such a being can be proven beyond any shadow of doubt, but only whether, unlike belief in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, it’s fairly sensible. Put that way, those with even a passing familiarity with intellectual history might be excused for thinking the answer to the question is “Yes”. After all, many, if not most, of the great thinkers of the past—including all the great Jewish, Muslim, and Christian writers—have believed in a God in this sense, and most of them certainly seem sensible enough. But appearances can be deceiving, as Stephen Law reminds us in a recent article on this topic (“The God of Eth”, Think: Philosophy for Everyone, Issue 9, Spring 2005). Indeed, the sad truth of the matter, he argues, is that traditional belief in God can’t live up to even the most minimal standards of rationality. But is Law’s argument convincing? Not at all. In fact, as we shall demonstrate in what follows, Law’s argument doesn’t even engage traditional belief in God, much less identify anything wrong with it. Law’s case against traditional theistic belief involves a story about an imaginary race of beings called ‘Ethians’ (because they live on Eth, a planet at the far side of the galaxy). Like traditional theists on earth, Law tells us, many of these creatures believe in an all-powerful God. The difference is that, instead of taking God to be all-good, the Ethians take him to be all-evil.
2 Law thinks that if we consider the reasons the Ethians offer in defense of their belief in a supremely evil God, we’ll have no choice but to conclude that these reasons are both (a) utterly feeble, if not downright silly, and (b) exactly on a par with the traditional reasons offered in defense of belief in a supremely good God. Let’s consider whether he’s right about this. First, how according to Law do the Ethians defend their belief in a supremely evil God? Initially, we are told, their belief is grounded in some familiar theistic arguments—the cosmological argument (which appeals to the need for an explanation of why the universe exists at all) and the design argument (which appeals to the fine-tuning or apparent design exhibited by the universe). Taken by themselves, Law notes, these arguments don’t say anything about the moral character of God; at most they establish the existence of an extremely powerful designer or creator of the universe. What, then, are the Ethians’ reasons for thinking that this same being is supremely evil? Here Law presents the Ethians as being surprised by the question itself. The answer is so obvious, they seem to think, that no justification for it is required. “God is by definition perfectly evil”. Or: “It’s obvious our creator is very clearly evil! Take a look around you!” Of course, once we look around us, we also see much that is good, and this raises an objection. If God were really all-evil, why would he allow so much good, or indeed any good at all? The Ethians, however, are experts in deflecting objections of this sort, having available to them all the resources that traditional theists use in responding to the problem of evil (free will defense, soul-making hypotheses, the limitations of the human mind, etc.). Indeed, as Law describes things, the Ethians regard their ability to deflect objections of this sort as providing good grounds for their original confidence, if not further evidence for thinking that God is perfectly evil. So much for the Ethians’ reasons for belief in an all-evil God. Let us now consider what can be inferred from them. The first thing to notice is that Law seems right to suggest that the Ethians’ reasons are incredibly feeble. There may well be some justification for their belief in an all-powerful being
3 (though Law might dispute even this). But their belief in the supreme evilness of this being is clearly ill-founded. For the Ethians to say that God is evil by definition is obviously questionbegging, and for them to infer that God is all-evil from the existence of some evil in the world is at best irresponsible. What is worse, for them to think that their ability to deflect objections in any way supports their original view is just plain confused. The Ethians may, thereby, succeed in warding off certain objections to the view that God is all-evil, but such success will only enable them to prevent their already irrational belief from becoming more irrational. Now if Law were right that the Ethians’ grounds for belief in their God were exactly on a par with the grounds of belief here on earth in an all-powerful, all-loving God, then traditional theistic belief would be in trouble. But it is precisely here that Law fails us. He provides no positive reason for thinking they are on a par, but simply lets the suggestion of a parallel emerge from his description of the Ethians. Even the suggestion of such a parallel, however, is nothing but a caricature of traditional theistic belief—and this for several reasons. First, the Ethians’ appeal to the cosmological- and design-type arguments to support their beliefs suggests that traditional theists, too, are committed to thinking that belief in God must be justified on the basis of some such argument. But this is a serious misrepresentation. The beliefs of many, if not most, traditional theists—and certainly those of most ordinary religious believers—are not based (at least in the first place) on arguments at all, but on something more like experience or testimony. Law might assert that this just goes to show the irrationality of such beliefs. But this would be to overlook some of the most important developments in contemporary epistemology and philosophy of religion. It is widely recognized by contemporary epistemologists that many beliefs based on experience or testimony can be rational even in the absence of argument. And in the last thirty years, some of the best contemporary epistemologists have applied this point to the topic of religious belief, building a powerful case for the claim that belief in God, even belief in an all-good God, can be justified on the basis of experience or testimony, even in the absence of argument. This proposal might seem suspicious to the
4 uninitiated. For them, however, we recommend for starters a careful reading of William Alston’s Perceiving God (Cornell 1991) or Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford 2000). These books, written by two of the most widely respected and influential philosophers in the field of (non-religious) epistemology, not only provide us with two different well-developed accounts of how religious belief can be rational apart from dependence on arguments, but also address at length the natural objections that readers will be tempted to raise against such views. Second, the Ethians’ surprise at being asked to justify their belief that God is supremely evil suggests that traditional theists have not given much thought to questions about the rationality of belief in God’s goodness. But this too is a complete misrepresentation. Traditional theists have almost always recognized the need for evidence of God’s goodness, and many of them have gone to great lengths to provide arguments in support of it (though as we have already indicated, not all theists regard such arguments as necessary). We find it particularly surprising that, despite Law’s apparent familiarity with traditional cosmological and design arguments, he shows no awareness of the fact that traditional proponents of these arguments typically view them as just part (indeed usually the smallest part) of a larger argument for the existence of a being with the other attributes traditionally associated with God, including goodness. To cite only the most obvious example, Thomas Aquinas’s famous “five ways” or proofs for God’s existence, which include both cosmological and design arguments, take up a single page of his Summa Theologiae, whereas his proofs of the divine attributes take up nearly a hundred and fifty pages, and his discussion of perfection and goodness, no less than eleven pages. Somewhat less surprising, but still disconcerting, is the fact that Law says nothing about those traditional theists (such as Augustine, Anselm, and Descartes) who have offered arguments (often referred to as ‘ontological arguments’) which attempt to establish God’s existence, supreme power, and supreme goodness all at once. In any case, no traditional theists we know of have ever argued for God’s perfect goodness by appealing to a stipulative definition or by simply inferring it from the existence of some good in the world.
5 Finally, we come to the Ethians’ use of various strategies for responding to the problem caused for their view by the existence of the many good things on their planet. Here is perhaps the closest we come to getting anything like a genuine parallel. For just as traditional theists appeal to free will, character-building, mystery, and so forth in responding to the problem of evil, so too the Ethians appeal to the same things in responding to the problem of good. We are skeptical of Law’s claim that these defenses can be developed just as powerfully in defense of an all-evil God as they can be developed in defense of an all-good God. But no matter. Even if they can, there is still a crucial disanalogy that Law’s discussion masks. No traditional theist we know of has ever suggested that responses to the problem of evil are intended to provide positive evidence for the existence of a good God. On the contrary, when traditional theists respond to the problem of evil, they always take themselves to be deflecting criticisms away from beliefs that are already rational to begin with (due to the evidence on which they are based, whether it be experiential, testimonial, or argumentative). And this makes all the difference for the plausibility of their responses. Consider, for example, traditional theists’ attempt to “play the mystery card”, pointing out that, for all we know, a being with infinite power and knowledge might have reasons we aren’t aware of for permitting the evils we see. If such theists really intended to play this card by itself to establish the existence of a good God, their response would make little sense: for by itself, this response lends no positive support whatsoever to that conclusion; at best it undermines one important argument for atheism, thereby lending some support to agnosticism. But if, as traditional theists actually suppose, we already have independent evidence for God’s goodness, then playing the mystery card makes good sense. For in that case, it can be used to deflect the argument from evil, showing that it fails to provide any reason to give up an already rational belief in God. In this way, playing the mystery card has the effect of preserving the rationality of theism, despite the fact that it doesn’t give us any positive evidence for God’s goodness.
6 In short, when it comes to evaluating theistic responses to the problem of evil (or good), everything hangs on the prior evidence we have for our beliefs about God’s character. Not only is it a gross misrepresentation, therefore, to suggest, as Law does, that traditional theists make no serious attempt to identify positive evidence for God’s goodness, it also prevents us from properly determining how successful their response to the problem of evil is. Law concludes his article by issuing a challenge to traditional theists. If the Ethians’ responses to the problem of good are utterly inadequate, why can’t the same be said for traditional theistic responses to the problem of evil? “That’s the question” he says “the theist needs to answer.” By now, however, the answer should be clear. It’s precisely because traditional theists have (whereas the Ethians have not) offered respectable accounts of the independent evidence they have for their beliefs about God’s moral character. For all these reasons, it is hard to see how Law’s story of the God of Eth has done anything to touch, much less undermine, traditional belief in the existence of a being who is at once all powerful and all good. Of course, in saying this we don’t mean to suggest for a moment that we have in this article demonstrated the rationality of such belief. Our point is just this: if Law wants to mount a real attack on traditional theism, he will need at the very least to engage some of the actual support that has been identified here on earth for belief in God’s goodness, explaining why it fails, rather than completely ignoring it.