Evil requires God for its existence, says Craig

In a debate with Stephen Law, William Lane Craig argues that the presence of evil in the world actually proves the existence of God (listen to Craig’s first rebuttal, especially at the 47 minute mark).

The argument apparently runs as follows:

1. Evil exists

2. Therefore, objective morals exist.

3. Therefore, a creator must exist to provide these objective morals.

Law responds by attacking premise 1, yet the argument is flawed in other places too.

To say that evil exists is really, as Law suggests, to say that great suffering exists. And this claim requires no assumptions about the existence of objective morality. It is simply enough to note that suffering is unpleasant, and that there is lots of it. It is an observation of human biology and its interaction with the world, plain and simple.

I agree with the conclusion of step 2, namely that objective morality exists, but not for the reason specified. And this is one place where Craig relies on vague definitions to carry his argument. He does not (in this debate, at least), actually tell us what he means by “objective morality”. What he seems to mean by it is “absolute morality”, namely some quasi-law of nature set in place by God that dictates what the proper behavior of human beings is. There is, however, no evidence that this kind of morality exists.

If, on the other hand, we use the definition of “objective” that is more commonly used in the philosophical literature, then a different picture emerges. This definition states that an objective claim (or prescription, in the case of morality)  is one that does not rely on the opinions or circumstances of the person making it. And there are plenty of moral prescriptions that are objective in this sense. For instance “do not commit murder” is a very simple moral prescription that has the same meaning no matter who uses it.

What we actually find, then, is that many possible objective moralities exist. The big question is which of these is better than all the others. However, to answer this question, we must have some metric by which to compare different moral systems. As I’ve argued in my essay on morality, there seems little point in basing such a metric on anything other than the most fundamental, universal desires that humans have, such as the desire to be happy and free of suffering. Morality is, I maintain, a tool devised by humans, for humans. If it does not serve our most fundamental needs, then it is not doing its job.

So, while there seems no absolutely correct answer to the question “what is the best morality?”, we certainly can say that objective moralities exist. And we’ve done this without any appeal to the supernatural.

The final proposition of Craig’s argument is that God is needed to provide objective morality. Again, there is no reason to think this is true. Many objective moralities have been devised by philosophers, none of whom claim to be gods! Even if we take the alternative definition of “objective” to mean “absolute”, there is no reason to invoke God, just as there is no reason to invoke God to explain the existence of the law of gravity.

Craig seems to prefer debating scientists rather than fellow philosophers, and I don’t blame him. The vast majority of philosophers consider Craig’s arguments to be entirely unconvincing. What passes as sophisticated argumentation among theologians is sophistry among philosophers.

All the more pity, then, that Stephen Law – a philosopher – fared so badly in his debate with Craig. Instead of familiarizing himself with Craig’s arguments, which Craig uses in almost every debate, Law discussed instead the problem of evil, which is not directly relevant to the topic of the debate (the existence of God).

Finally, a quick word in the implications of Craig’s argument: that the presence of evil in the world is actually evidence of God’s existence. This is surely a case of shooting oneself in the foot, if ever there was one. What sort of “benevolent” God would insist on the existence of evil, or do nothing to expel it? This, of course, is an issue of theodicy, and I won’t discuss it further in this post. My point is simply to show that even after Craig uses his terribly bad argument for God, the God he is left with is morally confusing, to say the least.

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6 Responses to Evil requires God for its existence, says Craig

  1. RuediG says:

    Keith, Evil is a moral term. Who says that “happiness” or “unpleasantness” are moral terms? Unpleasantness may hurt, but why would this make it intrinsically (im)moral or evil?

  2. kpharri says:

    Hi Ruedi

    It is true that “evil” is usually a moral term, but the “problem of evil” usually refers to the presence of suffering in the world, not to the making of immoral, i.e. evil, decisions. One could say that the problem of evil is misnamed.

    But let’s be generous to Craig, and assume that he is not talking about things like natural disasters, disease, and accidents, which all lie outside the formal definition of “evil”. Instead, let us assume that he has, for whatever reason, chosen to focus on the much less prominent phenomenon of evil acts, i.e. those that at least one person considers to be “bad”, for example murder, rape, theft, etc. (Murder, by the way, is only the 15th most common cause of death in the U.S. – see http://www.cdc.gov/NCHS/data/nvsr/nvsr58/nvsr58_19.pdf.)

    In this case, I grant Craig’s first premise, namely that evil exists. But we must remind ourselves that it does not exist as an inherent property of those acts in the same way that the property of tallness is inherent to giraffes, say, or the property of transparency is inherent to bodies of pure liquid water. Evil, rather, is a subjective normative claim about certain acts, just like beauty is a subjective normative claim about the physical appearance of people and objects. You can’t actually measure beauty in objects, you can only ask people whether they consider objects to be beautiful.

    Immediately we see, then, that we cannot get to step 2 of Craig’s argument, because we cannot conclude that evil is an objective phenomenon. Take, for instance, a culture that considers polygamy to be morally permissible. How do we know whether that culture is “wrong” about their view of marriage? Perhaps they are right and polygamy is not evil, but good. Or perhaps Western society is right, and polygamy really is evil. We cannot settle the matter by simply going out and measuring the “evilness” of polygamy like we can go out and measure the transparency of water. The only way we can judge polygamy as good or evil is by assessing it against some metric we have already decided to use, and there are many such metrics to choose from.

    It is important to note, however, that this lack of an inherent, objectively measurable property of “evilness” does not prevent us from devising a system of behavioral guidelines whose purpose is to fulfill some agreed-upon goal, such as maximizing happiness. If the members of a society wish to maximize their happiness, it is perfectly possible for them to develop a set of objective moral prescriptions aimed at furthering this goal.

  3. kpharri says:

    To address the second part of your comment: there is nothing intrinsically immoral or evil about happiness or unpleasantness. It just so happens that most people like to be happy and to avoid anything that is gratuitously unpleasant (i.e., that has no long term benefit). People therefore devise behavioral guidelines designed to enhance the former and suppress the latter. They happen to call this system of guidelines “morality”, but they could use any other word if they wished.

  4. RuediG says:

    Keith,

    I haven’t looked into the philosophical discussion enough to know what WLC actually means when (and if?) he says “Evil exists.” That seems very vague:

    Does he mean some “personified evil”, a “thing” that exists, maybe even like “Satan”? I would be surprised if that’s what he means.

    Does he mean that it exists in the sense of “everybody agrees that action X is morally objectionable, yet such action X does exist”?

    Does he mean that “everybody considers at least some action X morally objectionable, even if everybody might be thinking of a different X”?

    All of this begs the question, In principle could something be morally objectionable even if nobody on earth objects to it? (I think that would be the biblical position.)

    It also begs the question what “morally objectionable” means; it could just mean – as per your second reply – that society agreed to dislike something and chose to use the word “immoral” to characterize it.

  5. kpharri says:

    I think the problem with the debate format is that these definitional details are not usually properly explored. Someone can throw out a statement like “objective morals exist” without ever explaining what “objective” means, and his opponent may simply not notice, in the heat of battle, that it is a serious enough problem to warrant objection.

    The other day I was thinking how nice it would be to see a day-long or even week-long workshop or conference that brings believers and atheists together for a series of talks and discussions that could take place in an unhurried environment, and see what comes of it.

    • RuediG says:

      That could indeed be a lot of fun! Especially if everybody stayed on their best (or at least better) behavior… 🙂
      I’m sure there’s got to be some gorgeous place in the Rockies which would be suitable for something like that.

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