I've been listening to the William Lane Craig - Stephen Law debate on the existence of God. Against the existence of God, Law deploys the evidential argument from evil in the form of the evil god hypothesis. The point of the evil god hypothesis is to force theists to re-examine their assumptions about good and evil in the world and what it means for God by flipping the argument on its head. Craig summarizes the argument like this:
The claim of the argument is that given the existence of an evil god, it is highly improbable that the goods in the world would exist (Pr (goodsevil god << 0.5)). By the same token, given the existence of God, it is highly improbable that the suffering in the world would exist (Pr (sufferingGod << 0.5)). So just as the goods in the world constitute overwhelming evidence against the existence of an evil god, the suffering in the world constitutes overwhelming evidence against the existence of God.
A hidden assumption of the argument is the metaphysical symmetry of good and evil: Good and evil are equally fundamental metaphysical principles (yin and yang, so to speak) and therefore can be substituted for each other in an argument like this. I expected Craig to attack this symmetry but was surprised to see that he in fact agrees with it. His response to the argument is:
I suspect that Law thinks that theists will try to deny the symmetry between these two cases. But that would be a mistake. The two situations strike me as symmetrical—I would just say that in neither case would we be justified in thinking that the probability is low. Just as a good Creator/Designer could have good reasons for permitting the suffering in the world, so an evil Creator/Designer could have malicious reasons for allowing the goods in the world, precisely for the reasons Law explains. My initial response, then, still holds: we’re just not in a position to make these kinds of probability judgements with any sort of confidence.
So Craig thinks that no conclusions about the moral nature of God can be known from reflection on the natural world. This is the price he is willing to pay to defuse the atheist's argument from evil. How, then, does Craig argue to the moral nature of God? He argues that the reality of objective moral values requires a good God as its metaphysical foundation.
I'm not going to address that latter argument here, because I think Craig's concession on the metaphysical implications of good and evil in the world is not only much too high a price to pay to defuse the argument from evil, but is not necessary. Furthermore, St. Paul tells us in Romans 1:18-21 that not only God's existence, but also that He is worthy of worship (and therefore good), are things that can be seen from creation. So if we are to concede that God can't be known to be good from philosophical reflection on nature, we are not only engaging in poor philosophy but contradicting St. Paul.
What about the metphysical symmetry of good and evil that lies behind the evil god hypothesis? It just isn't so. As explained by the classical philosophers from Socrates to Aquinas, good is the more fundamental metaphysical principles, as evil is parasitic on the good. In The Republic, Socrates uses the example of a gang of thieves. The gang may act in an evil manner to its victims, but to the extent that the gang members are evil to each other - lying, cheating, killing each other - the gang itself loses its effectiveness as a criminal force. In other words, the only way they can be evil is if they are to some extent good. Or, the way Socrates puts it, the only way the gang can effectively be unjust to others is if they are just with themselves. But the converse doesn't hold; a just association of men (which distinguishes the city from a gang) doesn't need to base its justice on a foundation of injustice. The city can be honest and non-murderous with other cities as much as it can be internally within itself. (This isn't to say that the real city won't involve some injustice or sometimes act unjustly with other cities; the point is that such actions are not a necessary precondition for the city to be at all.)
Or consider a standard item in the catalog of horrors in the argument from evil: Childhood disease. In order for there to be childhood disease (the evil), there first must be a child (the good). The evil is parasitic on the good and cannot exist without it. But a child can very well live without disease (and, indeed, we hope he does), which shows the prmary metaphysical nature of the good and the secondary nature of evil.
In the actual debate, Stephen Law brought up the case of lizards who incapacitate their victims with venom then eat them alive. Craig's response to this was to point out the necessity of predation in a balanced ecosystem; without the predators, the system would collapse and even the victims Law feels sorry for would end up disappearing along with the predators. This is a reasonable answer, but we can go further and more deeply than that. Even if we could show that the removal of predators would not unbalance an ecosystem, would this be something we would want to do? We can solve the problem of lizards eating live prey by driving the lizards to extinction. Is this something Law would favor? I suspect not, and this shows that despite their mode of life, the existence of lizards is a fundamental good, and driving them to extinction would simply be throwing out the more fundamental good (life) with the lesser evil (predation). The environmental movement, in fact, spends a lot of effort to save from extinction predators (wolves, sharks, eagles, etc.) that would otherwise perish, and not simply from the point of view of ecological balance, but because a world with eagles in it is better than a world without them.
Let's turn to the evil god himself. The hypothesis is that this god creates just enough good that he can maximize evil. But we need to make a distinction between the evil this god does to others and the evil he does to himself. Surely this god is not intent on maximizing the evil he does to himself - he could do that by killing himself and being done with it. What he wants to do is maximize the evil done to others while maximizing his own good.
As a creator god, he creates beings with certain natures, ends and purposes. He then commits evil on those creatures by violating their natures and purposes. But in doing so, he's only violating the natures and purposes he himself put into those creatures. So in the end, he's only frustrating himself in performing evil on his creation; in othe words, in being evil to his creation, he's also being evil to himself. And this contradicts our hypothesis about him, that he want's to do evil to others but not to himself.
To make this point clearer, think of the creator god on the analogy of an artist. His creation is his Mona Lisa; he puts all his talent, knowledge and effort into creating a beautiful painting with the enigmatic smile. He does this so that his later evil will be all the greater. Then, at the end, he destroys the work by painting Groucho Marx glasses and mustache on it. He's done a great evil to the painting, to be sure, but he's done an even greater evil to himself. He's thwarted his own native artistic efforts that found expression in the painting before he ruined it. He's ruined himself even more than the painting. This result is simply a consequence of the metaphysical primacy of good and the parasitic nature of evil.
A good god, on the other hand, does not contradict himself by doing good. Rather, he expresses his glory in his work, of which da Vinci expressing his nature in the Mona Lisa is but a poor analogy. And just as we can know something of da Vinci by meditating on the Mona Lisa, we can know something of God by meditating on his creation. Closing off this road to the God's good nature is much to high a price to pay to neuter the evidential problem of evil.