Thought-experiment August: (5) The God of Eth and the problem of good

{A note on thought experiments: OK, some of you good folk keeping trying to ‘kobayashi maru’ the conditions of the test and rearrange it, or say you would never believe the conditions would hold, or end run the solution. In a thought experement all of the conditions are stipulated and held ‘as if’ they are true to force you to think through the implications of a particular problem. That’s why Enstein’s famous thought experiment of riding bukaroo style on a light wave worked even though it was quite impossible.}

This thought experiment comes from philosopher Stephen Law. It is worth reading in its original form, but I will summarize:

The alien race on the planet Eth believes in a deity that is all powerful (omnipotent), his influence is everywhere (omnipresent), and he is purely evil. Booblefrip, the one of the lead debaters in Law’s dialogue says, “Not only does God’s power know no bounds, neither does his depravity. His cruelty is infinite. His malice without end.”

He offers classic theological ontological arguments to prove this god exists as well as arguments from design (the idea that because the world is full of designed things, they must have been designed by an outside agent). When asked why he thinks he is evil, he admits it is an assumption, but, adds, “it’s obvious our creator is very clearly evil! Take a look around you! Witness the horrendous suffering he inflicts upon us. The floods. The ethquakes. Cancer. The vile, rotting stench of god’s creation is overwhelming!”

Then his interlocutor points out that god can’t be all evil, what about the good and beautiful things in the world? The problem of good.

Booblefrip gives the free will argument that since god wanted free agents, some good was inevitably a part of that necessary freedom. If people can’t choose the good they can’t be truly evil.

He then argues that some natural goods (sunsets, altruism, etc.) are left in place in order to contrast the evil and reflect god’s evil more abundantly.

He also gives the argument that the goods are not a part of god, but sort of like holes in god’s influence that he permits, places where god has withdrawn to allow his purposes of evil to flourish.

Lastly he points out that some evils actually take goods to be manifest: For example, some truth telling must be allowed if lying is actually to have a place in people’s lives, he says, “The evil of dishonesty requires that there be a certain amount of honesty.” God allows some goods that evil might be fully manifest.

What Law does here is turn classic Christian arguments from natural theology on their head and shows they work exactly the same way for an opposite (and horrifying) conclusion.

Of course, Mormonism has never relied on the arguments from natural theology. So in what ways do we escape the possibility of Laws’ upside-down universe?

(To me this is important because I see natural theology arguments produced by well-meaning LDS people all the time. It especially arrises in “Intelligent Design” arguments where misinformed Mormon defenders of ID grab these ideas from Greek neoplatonists (as I show here), and in so doing unwittingly harm deeper LDS theology.)

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16 comments to Thought-experiment August: (5) The God of Eth and the problem of good

  • I love this particular thought experiment. God explains everything and therefore nothing.

    I don’t understand I.D. at all. There is simply no evidence that species were individually created without a common descent. If God wanted to reveal his thumbprint, so to speak, on “individual creation,” then one way to do it would be to create a uniquely operating genetic code for every species. Yet, there is a virtually universal genetic code.

    At another blog site I was accused of arguing like an atheist because I brought up the example of viruses that cast off decoy particles to fool immune systems. Yet, how does one explain such things without natural selection?

    So, I guess people can believe what they want. But, as for me, I am stuck with the data, which I cannot ignore. I am just a messenger, not an atheist.

  • Someone called S. Faux an atheist? That would be like someone saying Ardis didn’t know her history . . . oh wait, the creationist crowd did that recently too. It just goes to show they get crazier and crazier.

    And I suppose I am an atheist when it comes to the neoplatonist god of Plotinus, which the Mormon creationist crowd keep trying to sneak into our beliefs (not explicitly but certainly implicitly).

  • This is a very interesting critique of “natural theology” and I’m glad you posted it. This thought experiment will have me thinking more than many.

    For me the best “evidence” that there is something to our religion is not philosophical arguments but is what is discussed by Alma with his seed: if you test applying true principles of the gospel to your lives you will find them enriching. False principles will fall by the wayside upon application.

    As for being an atheist, I am an atheist too when it comes to the supernatural traditional Christian God whose every act contradicts reality.

    However, I am not an atheist to a being who, growing up in a vast universe of “intelligences” learned to do the things we attribute to God: heal the sick, raise the dead, end war and poverty, etc… and therefore has become more intelligent then the rest and truly deserving of our wanting to be like Him and giving Him our discipleship.

    I believe this is the God Joseph ultimately was talking about before him martyrdom in places like the King Follett Discourse and therefore I do believe in what I take to be the “Mormon God”.

    This God is no more supernatural than Einstein is when Einstein showed us how gravity works or whoever was the first human to discover how to control fire.

    He is therefore like man who has finally arrived at all the goals that will bring man a fullness of joy.

    This is the being I want to be like and hence the one I will worship. I have faith such a being exists. And even if He didn’t, nothing should stop us from becoming such a being ourselves. Hence, I believe Mormonism, and the God of Mormonism, should be something that occurs naturally in our big vast evolving universe/multiverse.

    I am sure this is not a view widely shared among the LDS, but it is my personal belief. Here’s to brother Joseph!

  • By the way, at this point everyone says: but what about the need for priesthood, the Savior, etc…

    I don’t know the answers to all the details. If I did I would be Him.

    But I do believe he is both the God described by Joseph before his martyrdom and interestingly enough, the *natural* product of an almost unnumerable number of intelligences each striving for a perfect society in an ever evolving universe/multiverse. (So yes, I believe Mormonism is a natural occurring phenomena.)

  • So in what ways do we escape the possibility of Laws’ upside-down universe?

    By faith?

    I like the thought experiment though. I think it works. Just like us, the people in the thought experiment can escape the logical problem of evil (good in this case) by arguing for libertarian free will but just like us they are still saddled with the lesser problem of evil (good) associated with an occasionally intervening God.

  • Mark D.

    This is an epistemological question. If you do not feel the spirit (or something like it), and do not have faith that the feeling is legitimate, then there is no rational basis for a belief in God, or normative morality for that matter.

    Of course, similarly, if one does not take a leap of faith beyond solipsism, there is no rational basis to believe in anything.

    By the way, a belief in LFW in no way shape or form entails any substantive variety of Platonism. If LFW exists, and actions, choices, and moral responsibility are non-epiphenomenal, then to some degree or another, ID is necessary for a comprehensive description of humanity.

  • DB

    Law seems to have confused Christianity with mysticism, animism, and other primitive religions which are based on man’s interpretation of the natural world. Christianity, and Judaism before it rejected Christ, is based on man’s communication with God. Doctrines, commandments, and principles of faith are communicated directly from God to chosen individuals and faith in those doctrines, commandments, and principles are communicated through the Holy Spirit to all mankind. Of course, to an atheist who doesn’t believe in God and communication with God, Christianity, mysticism, animism, and all religions are one and the same and therefore the atheist must assume that Christianity’s arguments for God are in fact the same as those of all other religions. It’s easy to understand Law’s confusion, but his argument doesn’t hold water.

    Unfortunately, even in the Mormon church, the philosophies of men, or natural theology arguments as SteveP refers to them, are often intermixed with the true doctrines and principles of the gospel. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other and many people are more than willing accept both as true doctrine. Perhaps that’s why many fail when their faith is tried. If someone cannot distinguish the philosophies of men (natural theology arguments) from true doctrine and bases his faith on both, when those philosophies are proven to be wrong he will also reject both. I suppose that we as Mormons too often are quick to recognize the philosophies of men (natural theology arguments) that have crept into the theologies of other religions but fail to recognize or even look for those that have crept into our own.

  • Sorry my head hurts, way to much thinking, I will keep trying to figure it out though..give me a min.!

  • Mark D.

    I don’t think that there is a much more serious conceit than to assume that the “philosophies of men” are wrong by definition. I guess we will have to shut BYU down then.

  • DB

    Mark D.

    I have reread my comment and I don’t see anywhere where I wrote that the “philosophies of men” are “wrong by definition” and I believe my comment clearly referred only to “philosophies of men” that are taught and accepted as the word of God. Are all of these wrong? Probably not. Are they the word of God? Absolutely not. Are there many people who believe in the “philosophies of men” thinking that they are in fact the word of God? Yes.

  • I think “philosophies of men” is often meant as a systematic rejection of philosophy as such. To the extent that philosophy keys into truth, whether ethical, epistemological or ontological I think it is tying into Logos, the word of God in every sense.

  • Mark D.

    My point is that natural theology, like other “philosophies of men”, have the potential to be as true as any thought that crosses God’s mind. That is what we mean when we talk about the unity of truth, is it not?

    God himself, presumably doesn’t receive or need to receive much in the way of revelation from higher powers. So what is the internal structure of his own theology? Natural theology, of course. God presumably does think about these things.

  • Anybody notice that not only have we failed to resolve the problem of good/evil, we’ve failed to solve the problem of telling whether we’re actually following the “Devil” of Eth?

    That alone should indicate that there’s a lot more to this thought experiment. How do we define good or evil in our limited categories?

  • Perhaps the LDS belief that God has limitations, such as he cannot create ex nihilo, and that we are created from matter separate from God, keeps us from falling into the trap this thought experiment attempts.

    God never created us ex nihilo, nor any matter, either, and so is not responsible for creating good OR evil. They just are, and he uses them according to his view of right and wrong.

    Of course, evil also has its god in LDS theology: Lucifer. And he sets forth, as does Eth, to attempt to bring greater evil into the universe. But he did not create it, either.

  • yanply

    Im a newcomer to this blog and this a very interesting and healthy debate. Im not a biologist or physist so excuse my naivete, just one with a testimony of the gospel. Could you, Steve, or someone less busy, point me to your (Steve’s) comments on reconciling evolution with the scriptures and the information found in the BYU evolution packet? Are they not to be taken literally, if so, always? or when and which? I would probably find it eventually, but have been looking for a few days and need some help. Love the blog and the respectful discourse!

  • Could I make a suggestion? I feel youve got some thing good here. But what if you added a few links to some website that backs up what you are stating? Or perhaps you can give us one thing to look at, some thing that would connect what youre expressing to some thing real? Only a proposition.

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