Is there a ‘Problem of Good’?

The alleged ‘Problem of Good’ refers to the fact that if a good God doesn’t exist, then why is there so much pleasure, beauty, and good-will in the world? And aren’t all the good things in the world evidence that an evil god doesn’t exist?

I do think that the existence of pleasure and experience of beauty is indeed evidence against an evil god. I also think that the existence of pleasure and beauty could be some evidence for God’s existence, but we must tread carefully here. The existence of some goodness in the world wouldn’t actually be surprising on the hypothesis of an indifferent deity or a deity that is a mixture of good and evil. So even if goodness makes the existence of God more likely than it would have been otherwise (i.e. not having that specific piece of data), that doesn’t mean the hypothesis is confirmed.

The upshot is that goodness is surprising on the evil god hypothesis and badness is surprising on the good God hypothesis. This is not incompatible with saying that theism and misotheism (evil god) fare worse than some other hypothesis when explaining the fact that the world is a MIXTURE of goodness/badness. It’s not implausible to suppose that neither theism nor misotheism predict a mixture, and it’s true that an indifferent or limited deity would not be a bad hypothesis to explain the data (or worse than classical theism).

But zooming out, an indifferent deity is a sub-set of the class known as ‘indifference’. Indifference includes naturalism, non-supernaturalism, pantheism, etc. Indifference doesn’t predict maximal goodness or maximal evilness. Theism and misotheism do seem to predict these!

Evil god challenge

If we can rule out an evil god based on the existence of so much good, then why can’t we rule out a good God based on the existence of so much evil? At face value, the cases are symmetrical. One might try to argue that we can rule out evil god on the basis of conceptual arguments, however, that doesn’t mean we couldn’t also rule out the existence of a good God on the basis of conceptual arguments. And whether or not one has conceptual arguments, you are still dealing with epistemic probabilities (1); (2).

Another objection to the evil god challenge is skeptical theism…or in this case skeptical misotheism:
We can’t rule out an evil god on the basis of all the good things in the world. That’s because we have no reason for thinking that our knowledge of evils is representative of all the evils there are.
One problem with this suggestion is that it really does seem like the existence of so much good in the world at least lowers the probability of an evil god existing. Secondly, taking the skeptical misotheism route might actually be a reductio ad absurdum of skeptical theism. If skeptical theism means that you must accept skeptical misotheism, then that’s a step too far. Therefore, one should go back and examine skeptical theism because we have an implausible implication. In addition, if one can’t rule out the existence of an evil god based on the existence of so much good (and it appears that we can), then one must try and rule out evil god based on conceptual arguments. But, once again, there are also conceptual arguments against a good God. Thus, skeptical theism by itself isn’t even a total refutation of the evil-god challenge. In fact appealing to our cognitive limitations, as skeptical theism emphasizes, will immunize arguments for an evil god!

One might also try and escape the evil god challenge by appealing to moral arguments for God. The problem here is that these moral arguments must be good enough to make a good God significantly more likely than an evil god. Secondly, there are also moral arguments for an evil god. An evil god explains the existence of moral disagreement better than a good God, and an evil god also explains the existence of psychopaths better than a good God. Thirdly, there are other arguments against a good God. For instance, the argument from divine hiddenness. The result is that even if the existence of a good God gets a boost from moral arguments, one must then also consider arguments like divine hiddenness.


(1) That’s also why it doesn’t matter when some theists argue that theism has a probability of 1. What they are saying is that the objective probability is 1. Even worse, all they are showing is that if (this particular version of) theism is true, then it has an objective probability of 1. And even if theism is necessarily true, that doesn’t mean one is entitled to place their confidence level (in theism) at 1. On the contrary, placing one’s confidence level in a proposition at 1 is irrational. That’s because the implication is that no evidence could/would/should change your mind.

(2) I’ve noticed that debates around God’s existence often get bogged down by prior probabilities. But unless someone is incredibly UNGENEROUS and (irrationally) assigns an epistemic probability of 0 or 1 to God’s existence, then we are still going to have to look at the data in the world.


16 thoughts on “Is there a ‘Problem of Good’?

  1. David Robertson

    Never really thought about the “problem of good” before, interesting. What are your thoughts on a God responsible for both good and evil, but one who is not indifferent to the universe, but intimately involved. There are Biblical passages that hint at this, and its definitely been considered in Hindu theology. This conception may come under the label of panentheism.

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      At face value, I would have to say that a conception of God that has her more knowledgeable (by either experience or acquaintance) about evil, seems to make the problem of evil worse.

      1. David Robertson

        If you have time, could you please elaborate? Say in Eastern traditions, particularly Hinduism which contains a panentheistic conception. Evil has ultimately been seen as illusory, clouding our vision from the divine being entirely present and within everything in the universe (and also transcending it). Or theres the yinyang and related concepts which posit evil is simply necessary for good to exist in the first place, similar to how we need to know cold in order to experience hot. I think in Abrahamic traditions theres a similar strain of thought and the Adam and Eve myth sheds light on it. We need to know and be capable of doing evil for us to be good, otherwise we just programmed and in a sense we are not actually “good”, just this neutral thing.

        I enjoy your blog and your perspective. Gets me thinking.

  2. I dunno. On the basis of good and evil both existing, one can argue for a good God, for an evil god, for no god, or for an uninvolved god (i.e., some form of Deism). That line of argument thus seems unhelpful since it can support any of the opposed conclusions. That’s even if we ignore the problem of anthropomorphizing a transcendent God and assuming we know what He would do, which IMHO is the trickiest problem of all.

  3. If we want to posit an evil Creator, then it can be demonstrated that there is no “problem” of good because good does not exist. Good has never existed, not as something distasteful or hurtful to the Creator. Good is neither a wave of dissent, nor an infection, for good is not the equal and opposite of evil. Good is not evil’s privation, that which exists in its absence, but rather an evil unto itself; a deceptively dressed mechanism to greater evil, more adept evil, more capable evil. Good and evil are the same thing, interchangeable just as matter and energy are interchangeable as E=mc2. Evil produces suffering directly, and so too, eventually, does good. Given enough time to play through, good is in fact seen to be the greater evil for it is a mechanism of amplification; broadening, magnifying, and deepening the ecology of suffering there to be experienced by the Creator’s avatars, his proxies.

    I wrote a book on just this: On the Problem of Good, with a foreword by Stephen Law. Granted, the book is an exercise in Poe’s Law, but so solid is the case that it concludes with this formal challenge:

    This essay presents the conclusive, historically verifiable corporeality of this world: a defiled experiment draped in ethical ugliness; a laboratory concealed inside a complexity machine; an evolving nursery where profoundly ignorant surrogates are grown to probe and explore those things an uncreated aseitic being, God, could never directly explore or experience; a world where good, despite all persuasive appearances, does not exist.

    The challenge, then, standing before anyone determined to contest the near certain existence of the overseer of this experiment (the principle inquisitor and reason for why there is something rather than nothing, the Creator, The Owner of All Infernal Names) is to identify something, anything (an object, a system, a gene, or a meme) that can be shown with historically compelling evidence to unambiguously contravene the pattern/patterns demonstrated here; something, anything that can be shown to be wholly and entirely good; something, anything that does not eventually give rise to, or frame, or enable equal or greater evil, be it expeditiously, or idly through the full course of time.

    I explore every possible example, from existence itself to economics and genetic/memetic evolution. Here’s just one (abridged) case study:

    Consider the good medicine.

    On first inspection few could see anything but immeasurable good in the wonders of modern medical practices and their astounding effects on, for example, child mortality rates and life expectancy. Outwardly, this mastery over the naturally corrosive effects and uncertainty of life itself appears beyond reproach, but consider the truth as revealed from a greater elevation and a broader spectrum of time: More bodies doing more things over a longer time can only be scored as a breath-taking augmentation in the overall market of suffering.

    It is a simple, hard, unignorable fact that a general population dying at 35 cannot, by and large, produce the same quantity or quality of suffering generated through the extended life of a general population dying at age 80 or 90. In a preferentially-scored portfolio of potential suffering, a 90 year old human avatar (exposed to the pangs of creeping irrelevance and suicidal cells) is a vastly superior product with a far greater potential yield than ten thousand babies born into some miserable sub-Saharan drought who will never live to experience dashed hopes, ruined dreams, perennial pain, psychological torment, confusion, misunderstanding, economic distress, political upheaval, love found, love lost, war, peace, prolonged anxiety, recovery, repair, disease and exhaustion in a game where warm survivors, not cold victims, are far more valuable to meeting the inquisitive needs and wants of The Owner of All Infernal Names.

  4. Interesting post. I think, though, that the fact that we humans recognize beauty and truth and goodness while at the same time recognizing evil and cruelty and abuse, argues for the existence of a God who gives humanity the ability to know both good and evil. In other words, we have a moral compass, which it’s hard to believe an evil god would give us. Wouldn’t evil simply want evil to win out, to eradicate good or suppress it, to dictate his will? Good, on the other hand, would seem to be interested in more than conquering, more than imposing his will. Good would want the good of the whole person, including the preservation of humankind’s right to choose. So good isn’t really a problem, or evil. Rather the existence of moral choice seems to me to be the realm of a good God and not an evil one.


    1. If we define evil as the ways and means by which suffering can be delivered and experienced, then it’s quite easy to demonstrate that good can only ever birth (and has only ever birthed) greater evil. This is historically verifiable.

    2. But the question is: Why? Why the dilemma?
      Let me head off the ‘free will’ response right here; it begs the question, merely transforming it to ‘why free will?’.
      Was God compelled to make things this way, and if not, can God explain It’s motive in doing so?
      This line of inquiry leads once again to the fork in the road. Down one lane lies a God who is not metaphysically privileged – just a very powerful person. Down the other is a God which is just incomprehensible.

  5. I found this a fascinating post but I’m not sure where you are heading with your argument. I suspect that you are going round and round in ever decreading circles until you disappear up where the sun don’t shine…
    The specious argument that nonTheists use that ‘I don’t believe in God’ is predicated on the theory that there is a God not to believe in, otherwise the statement would be ‘There is no God.’ BUT, and mine is a big but… if you accept the Anselmic ontological notion that God is ‘that which is greater than all else’ then an Atheist should acknowledge that ‘Science’ is their God. There then ensues, after both parties involved have spent 6 months poring over Semiotics and the likes of Wittgenstein an interesting debate about the meaning of language.
    You talk about an ‘evil god’ would that be a capricious god like the ancient gods of most cultures or an out and out wicked god like ‘Satan’?
    The possibility of an ‘Indiffertent god existing is nil because God the Creator could only have created Creation either out of his own self or out of Nothing
    . In the first scenario god could not be indifferent to his Creation because it is a part of him. In the second scenario god could not be indiffeent to his Creation because it exists in his mind and volition.
    It was/is fun reading your post but I have just started to read some of the comments too and need time to reflect on the impact of what these people have said before saying any more.

    1. Why create? Because curiosity is a stubborn power. Unable to die, powerless to be no more, incapable of even experiencing the thrill of the fear of approaching annihilation, is it not inevitable that an uncreated aseitic being—God—would come, eventually, to focus His impossible powers to contrive artificial environments (entire worlds) inside which profoundly ignorant avatars could be cultivated and grown to probe and explore this extraordinary curiosity; evolving surrogates through whom He, the Creator, could taste the fear He alone could never savour, feel the suffering He alone could never know, and meet every pedigree of oblivion denied to Him by dying vicariously. Is this no more unreasonable than a man walking to the top of a hill, or traversing a mountain range, or crossing an ocean just to see what was on the other side?

  6. Pingback: About the Cosmological argument for proving that there is a Creative Deity – Jeshuaist

  7. Pingback: Is There a “Problem of Goodness”? | The Thousand-Year View

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