Monthly Archives: January 2012

Why A Posteriori Arguments Against God’s Existence Fail, pt. 2

A few weeks ago I posted my argument against any and all a posteriori arguments. I thought I would revisit the argument again today and try to spell it out more clearly and concisely.

By a posteriori argument, I merely mean any argument that seeks to disprove God’s existence on the basis of some fact of the world, be it evil, evolution, “divine hiddenness”, the success of the natural sciences, or the failure of mind/body dualism. These arguments essentially boil down to something like:

1. If God exists, we would expect to observe X.

2. X is not the case.

3. Therefore, God does not exist.

The argument is in the form of a modus tollens deduction, which is a perfectly valid form of argumentation. My response is a kind of dilemma that puts the atheist in the awkward position of defending the soundness of the argument. I contend that any successful defense of the soundness of such arguments requires one to commit an informal fallacy of begging the question.

But first I think it is important to unpack my concept of God. I believe God is the greatest conceivable being, a definition common to classical theism. Here, Dr. William Lane Craig discusses this concept of God, and its implications. I would agree with what he says:

Dr. Craig points that since God is conceived of as a necessary being, if God possibly exists, then God actually exists. Now my argument is much more humble than this, as I do not even suppose that God’s existence is logically possible. What I offer is the following dilemma:

1. If the a posteriori argument is to be sound, then the truth of the conditional premise must be based on appeals to possibility or impossibility.

2. If the truth of the conditional premise is supported on the grounds of possibility, then there must be a possible world where the antecedent and consequent obtain, be it a fact of the actual world or counterfactually.

3. If God’s existence possibly obtains, then God actually exists.

4. If God actually exists, then either the first or second premise of the a posteriori argument must be false and the argument unsound.

5. If the truth of the conditional premise is supported on the ground of impossibility, then there is no possible world where the antecedent obtains and this counterpossible conditional is trivially true.

6. If the conditional premise is true because it is a counterpossible conditional, then the support for the first premise is nothing more than the assumption of the conclusion, which is to beg the question.

7. Therefore, either the a posteriori argument is unsound or question-begging.

Now one might challenge my argument by saying that the atheist need not assume that God is possible or impossible at the outset. However, if the argument is to be any good, the atheist must provide reasons that compel her interlocutor to think there is epistemic warrant for accepting the truth of the premises. After all, the conditional premise might be false. If the atheist draws out implications from the concept of God, then we must ask how it could be that the concept of God supplies those implications. The atheist is limited here. She cannot admit that the implications are drawn from a coherent conceptual analysis of God, since this would suggest that in at least one possible world where God exists and such implications follow. That would mean that God is logically possible, and so actual. Thus, the only alternative is that the implication is drawn out of an incoherent or impossible concept. But then anything could be said to be implied by the impossible, so the implication is merely a trivial one. The atheist would have to admit that “If God exists, gratuitous evil would not exist” is just as true as “If God exists, light bulbs wouldn’t exist”. If that is all the atheist is saying, then the argument is no more interesting than its theistic cousin “Either God exists, or 2+2 is 5, and since 2+2 is not 5, God exists.” More to the point, if the conditional premise is trivially true because it is counterpossible, then the atheist’s argument is simply fallacious. Clearly the atheist intends to disprove God on a posteriori concerns, but she ends up appealing to the impossibility of God, a priori, as epistemic warrant for the truth of the conditional premise. Since no argument is given for the impossibility of God, and it is just smuggled into the first premise, this is textbook question-begging.

Let’s suppose that the atheist admits this much, but then claims that she will back up her a priori assumption that God is impossible by way of an argument. But then she is arguing about God’s existence purely on a priori concerns, and that is not the original argument offered at all. So, I think this adequately demonstrates that the atheist is limited to presenting a priori arguments in favor of that position and that a posteriori arguments are useless in disproving God’s existence.

Why A Posteriori Arguments Against God’s Existence Fail

[The argument is further developed here]

Many argue that God does not exist on a posteriori, or empirical, grounds.  Consider, for instance, the problem of evil:

  1.  If God were to exist, there would not be any gratuitous evil in the world.
  2. There is gratuitous evil in the world.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

The argument is certainly a valid modus tollens deduction.  Much ink has been spilled by theists to defend against this argument.  But when the argument is presented to a theist, he should ask the proponent to put in the leg-work. Ask why theists ought to think the premises are true.  In particular, ask whythe first premise is true.

There are only so many conditions under which Premise 1 would be true.  Either the antecedent is true and the consequent is true, or the antecedent is false.  But it would be odd to defend the truth of the first premise by arguing that the antecedent is false, since that would beg the question of the argument.  I take the first premise to be a counterfactual statement suggesting that in possible worlds were God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.  But unless the concept of God is logically coherent, how would we know that in a possible world where God exists, it necessarily would be the case that gratuitous evil would not? It seems to me that one could only be justified in making that supposition if, at the very least, one presumes that God is logically possible and that his existence is relevant to a certain set of states of affairs. Otherwise, one would have to admit that just about any state of affairs is implied by the supposition that God exists, including contradictory states of affairs, e.g. gratuitous evil would exist in great quantities.

It seems to me that if one wants to defend the soundness of an argument like the argument from evil in a non-question begging way, then it must be supposed that God, a necessary being, is logically possible. If it is argued that the first premise is true because God is logically impossible, then any defense for the truth of Premise 1 would beg the question for the conclusion, i.e. the defense would amount to arguing that the antecedent “God exists” is necessarily false, which is clearly the conclusion that the argument is trying to reach.

If the non-theist wants to argue in a non-question begging manner, she must explicate precisely what relevant aspects of the concept of God entails the state of affairs she suggests.  But in the process, she must admit that there is at least a possible world where God exists along with those states of affairs. And if God is logically possible, then God necessarily exists.   But if God, a necessary being, is possible, then God exists in all possible worlds including the actual world.  This means that the first premise is false since all possible states of affairs can obtain given the existence of a necessary being.  God’s existence would have to cohere with any possible state of affairs, including those that exist in this world.  Therefore, no state of affairs could count against God’s existence, including gratuitous evil, if gratuitous evil is logically possible.

So the non-theist, in defending an a posteriori argument like the problem of evil, must either fallaciously beg the question, or if she argues that the counterfactual premises is substantive, then it is clear that the premise is false.  Either way, the argument will not run.

Note that this dilemma would work against any a posteriori argument where it is assumed that God’s existences necessarily entails some state of affairs.

A Response to Law’s “Evil-God Challenge” via Aquinas and Pascal

I’ve been spending a bit of time thinking about Stephen Law’s Evil-God Challenge.   Though I don’t think the challenge is without a response, I think it is something all theists should take the time to ponder.

Law describes the challenge in the following way:

The challenge is to explain why the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-good god should be considered significantly more reasonable than the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-evil god. Theists typically dismiss the evil-god hypothesis out of hand because of the problem of good – there is surely too much good in the world for it to be the creation of such a being. But then why doesn’t the problem of evil provide equally good grounds for dismissing belief in a good god? (Law 2010, 1).

Law develops a symmetry thesis between Good-God and evil-god.  Any reason that a theist might offer to think the Good-God hypothesis is reasonable, can be flipped to show that the Evil-god hypothesis is equally reasonable.   The theist rejects the view that evil should count against the Good-God thesis on the grounds of various defenses, or theodicies.  Law points out that the proponent of evil-god could offer parallel defenses for why evil-god might allow so much good, thus restoring parity in reasonableness between the two hypotheses. If you are interested in how Dr. Law flips each of these theodicies, I recommend reading his article, and blog.

Glenn Peoples’ recent podcast outlines some responses to the “Evil-God Challenge” primarily by way of the moral argument. In the first section of the podcast, Peoples points out that if Law wants to interact with classical theism, as he claims to do throughout his paper, then he must contend with the actual views of the classical theist with regard to fundamental concepts of God, good, and evil.  The classical theist views goodness as a transcendental property of being whereas evil is thought to be a privation of being.  Peoples points out that the concept of a god that is omnipotent, omniscient, and maximally evil is incoherent for the classical theist.

I would develop a classical theist’s response to the evil-god challenge in the following way.  Good-God can be perfectly and completely good.  But in classical theism complete evil cannot exist.  Evil-god must, at the very least, exist, which is a good.  Law points out that evil-god must seek to fulfill his desire for evil.  But desire fulfillment is a good thing.  So Law admits that there are certain logical limits to how depraved evil-god could be.  He compares this to the limits many classical theists put on God’s omniscience, e.g. God cannot create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it (Law 2010, 18).  The problem, though, is that while there may be symmetry in the ways in which evil-god and Good-God are omnipotent, there is no symmetry between the way in which Good-God can be good and evil-god can be evil.  Thus, of the two “gods” Good-God is superlative and pure with regard to moral-value, whereas evil-God is somewhat adulterated and mediocre in comparison.

This is where Aquinas’ Fourth-Way becomes extremely important in the classical theist’s defense against Law’s argument.  Aquinas writes:

The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God (ST I, Q. 1, A. 3).

Presented with either the completely good Good-God and the mostly evil evil-god, I think that the classical theist would find that it is more reasonable to think that a Good-God is the cause of the various degrees of goodness in the universe.  Evil-god, being somewhat good though mostly evil, is not the best explanation for the moral character of various entities throughout this world, since a more complete superlative explanation is forthcoming, caeteris paribus.  After all, there would seem to be some degree of goodness predicated of evil-god that cannot be accounted for by his evil nature alone.

To sum up, the classical theist would say that it is logically impossible that evil-God is perfectly evil, and that this means that there is asymmetry between the Good-God and evil-god hypotheses.    Further, the classical theist would say that the adulterated nature of evil-god’s moral character does not provide the best explanation for the gradations of goodness (and evil) we observe since a more complete paradigm can be postulated beyond evil-god as found in Good-God.

A second response that I would like to offer to the evil-God challenge is more of the pragmatic variety and is inspired by Blaise Pascal.  I consider this argument something of a fail-safe.  If all other attempts to address the challenge fail, there are still reasons to believe Good-God over evil-god simply because one has little to gain from belief in evil-god and possibly much to lose.  Conversely, belief in Good-God offers us little to lose and everything to gain.  Law asked for a reason to believe one over the other, but he didn’t say that the reason couldn’t be of a practical nature.

As a matter of fact Pascal did not think that the existence of God could be settled by theoretical arguments alone, yet he thought belief in God was far more rational than disbelief.  His wager is  essentially a quadrilemma resulting from crossing two sets of disjunctions:  1. Either you believe God exists or you don’t, and  2. Either God exists, or God does not exist.  Pascal’s wager takes into consideration  the possible outcomes of believing or not believing in God:

  1. If you believe in God and God exists, you have the opportunity to develop the proper relationship with God so that you could attain eternal life.
  2. If you believe in God and God does not exist, you your life on the presumption of this error, with some finite harms associated with living under such false presumptions.
  3. If you disbelief in God and God exists, you give up on the opportunity to develop a relationship with God and risk eternal damnation.
  4. If you disbelieve God and God does not exist, you are correct in your belief about God and have a more accurate conception of reality than theists–a small boon.

As a response to the evil-god challenge, I am suggesting that we simply add a bit more to the possible disjunctions.  We might say that the possibilities are that evil-god exist, Good-God exists, or neither of them exist.  You could believe in evil-God, believe in Good-God, or believe in no gods.  The result is nine possible outcomes:

  1. If you believe in Good-God and Good-God exists, then you have a shot at eternal salvation, an infinite gain.
  2. If you believe in Good-God and evil-god exists, then you will be tormented eternally, or annihilated.
  3. If you believe in Good-God and no God exists, then you will be in error and suffer the consequences of behaving a certain way due to an erroneous belief.
  4. If you believe in evil-God and God-God exists, it is possible that you have offended and blasphemed Good-God and denied Him the worship and adoration due.  Salvation is in jeopardy.
  5. If you believe in evil-God and evil-God exists, then evil-God will torment you, because he wants to maximize evil and wouldn’t want to reward even correct belief.
  6. If you believe in evil-God and no-God exists, then you have lived your life with an erroneous belief and suffer the limitations in your behavior due to this error.
  7. If you believe in no gods and Good-God exists, then once again it is possible that you have offended and blasphemed Good-God and denied Him the worship and adoration due.  Salvation is in jeopardy.
  8. If you believe in no gods and Evil-God exists, then he will torment or annihilate you, for he cares little that you were an atheist.
  9. If you believe in no gods and no gods exist, congratulations.  You believed something that is true, and you have the opportunity to live according to this true belief.  A small boon.

Overall, we see that belief in Good-God provides the best possible outcomes. Believing in evil-God offers no advantage whatsoever while believing in no gods offers the same possible limited outcome that Pascal expected the rational decision maker to reject in his original gambit.  But the only point we need to make is that it is not rational to believe evil-god from a pragmatic point of view whatsoever.

I don’t think Law could flip this without supposing that evil-God would offer infinite rewards for true-belief.  But if evil-god offers rewards, he fails to be maximally evil.   This would not be a matter of evil-god running up against the logical limits of evil, it would merely be an attempt by the proponent of the “Evil-God Challenge” to restore symmetry.  But in restoring symmetry in the wager, he destroys the symmetry between there being a maximally-Good God and a maximally evil-god–an integral hypothesis to the challenge.  Therefore, I don’t think any attempt to flip this theodicy could succeed.

There are some criticisms to Pascal’s wager and I cannot take them all on here.  I will limit myself to a couple.  1.  There are many revelations of God, what if we believe Good-God, but the wrong one?  2.  The wager motivates and insincere form of belief that may not be salvific.

Briefly, one could respond to the first point by saying that while the amount of revelations diminishes the possibility of correctly selecting the correct revelation of God, you can’t win if you don’t play.  In other words, this is not an argument against choosing to believe in a Good-God, it merely points out that such a belief may only be a necessary and not sufficient condition for reaping the reward.  So be it.  I don’t think this makes the decision to believe in Good-God any less rational.

Nonetheless, I do think that Christianity is the best religion to place one’s bet upon.  This is because I think the real true Good-God would offer a revelation.  Of the revealed religions, it is better to bet on a religion that believes immortality and some kind if salvation.  Why bet on a religion that offers no salvation when others that are on the table do?  Of salvific religions, it is better to bet on exclusivistic religion rather than a universal/pluralistic one.  After all, if a universalist religion is true, your going to be saved anyways.! Of exclusivistic religions, some offer salvation by works and others offer salvation through cooperation with grace.  It is more rational to be receptive to salvation by grace and do good works, then to do good works and not be receptive to God’s grace.  For if God wants good works, it is possible that those who believe salvation is a gift of grace might yet be saved if they also strive to live a good life.  So while the plurality of revealed religions might make the gambit a little more complicated, I still think we can still navigate it.  We are looking for a religion that is revealed, offers belief in salvation and immortality, is exclusivistic, and its theory of salvation is such that it is achieved through grace, but encourages good works.  I can only think of one religion that fits the bill.  And this does not even get into the historical arguments for the Resurrection!

My response to the second point actually draws upon my response to the first.  Pascal realized this objection, but noted that we can act into our belief.  Knowing that the rational decision is to believe in a Good-God, we can become sincere in our beliefs by participating in services, praying, and worshiping.  I think Pascal is describing a real phenomenon. The alternatives to belief in Good-God will eventually cease to be living options, if I can borrow a term from William James, and we will cease to entertain them in much the way we don’t entertain the possibility of Greek polytheism being true.  With only one living option, I think sincerity will set into place with time.

But even if we can’t act into the belief, Pascal does not think that the right belief will save us.  Rather, his wager removes obstacles to belief.  If the above analysis is correct, the most rational religion to believe is the one that claims salvation is a gift from God with which we must cooperate.  I may not be completely sincere in my belief, but some kind of belief is a necessary condition in cooperating with grace.  One does not earn one’s salvation through sincerity.  So if all we can do is cooperate with God’s grace for ulterior motives, then that is the best we can do.  I think God will meet us where we are and transform our insincere emotions to match the convictions of our wills.

Now this post has gone on far longer than I anticipated.  I would like to continue to refine my arguments.  But for now I hope to read some reactions from my readers.


Law, S. 2010. The Evil-God Challenge. Religious Studies. Vol. 46. Cambridge University Press. DOI: 10.1017/S0034412509990369