Sunday, March 9, 2008

The First Cause is not an evil person

If the First Cause of the universe is a person—and I think there is good reason to think both that the universe has a First Cause and that the First Cause is a person—there are three possibilities: this person is evil, or good, or neither good nor evil (either neutral or a mix or beyond good and evil). Here I want to argue against the first of these options.

Here is one set of considerations. We might see evil as ontologically inferior to the good. For instance, we might see evil as a privation of the good. Or we might see evil as a twisting of the good: The good can stand on its own axiologically, but evil is a twisting, something parasitic. Seen from that point of view, evil can never be seen to be the victor. Whatever power evil has is a good power twisted to bad ends. Human cruelty is only an evil because human nature has a power of transcending cruelty. Evil can only mock the good, but can never win. Suppose we see things this way. Then evil only makes sense against a background of goodness. And hence the cause that the universe originates in, since that cause is the ultimate background, cannot but be perfectly good. If, further, perfect good is stable, then we might think that this cause still is perfectly good.

Moreover, if we see evil as metaphysically inferior to the good, then the idea that the First Cause is an evil person makes the First Cause be rather stupid, and so we have an inductive argument against the worst of the three options under consideration. For whatever gets created, there will be more good than evil. Behind the twisting of human nature in a serial killer, there is the good of human nature.if it weren.t good, and if it weren.t in some way metaphysically superior to the evil so as to provide a standard against which that evil is to be measured, then the twisting would not be an evil. So by creating, the First Cause makes more good than evil come into existence, and if the First Cause is evil, then to do that is, well, stupid. But the fine-tuning of the universe suggests that the First Cause is highly intelligent.

Furthermore, I think it is fair to say that there is much more good than evil in the human world. Consider the constant opportunities available for malice, opportunities that would result in no punishment at all. We can count, with almost total certainty, that if we ask strangers for the time, they will not look at the time, and subtract ten minutes just to make sure late for whatever appointment we are rushing. Is it not wondrous that I regularly find myself around many omnivorous animals armed with teeth and guns (I am in Texas!), but have never yet suffered serious harm from them? At least on the assumption that these omnivorous animals were created by an evil being, there would be some cause for surprise. When the rules of morality are transgressed, rarely are they transgressed wantonly. Granted, there have been genocides of massive proportions. But it is noteworthy that even there, there tends to be a background that makes the cruelty not be entirely wanton: a destructive ideology or a vengeful, and often mistaken, justice. The victims are demonized. This demonization is itself an evil, but it is an evil that underscores the fact that the victims need to be seen as demonic before most of us will be induced to be cruel to them. The hypothesis that the First Cause is evil is not a very plausible one.


Anonymous said...


"Consider the constant opportunities available for malice, opportunities that would result in no punishment at all. ... "

You seem to suggest that most humans are, all-round, morally good.

So, shouldn't, then, the proportion of mortal sins in human moral acts be tinier than it, according to Christian tradition, is?

Shouldn't we count as mortal sins only such extraordinary acts as genocides? But, again, it would not be in accord with the tradition.

And, shouldn't then the proportion of damned among humans be very tiny? But I suspect Christians should not believe this. I mean: Christian tradition seems to say at least that the scenario when a greater than a very tiny proportion of humans is damned can be true.

Does not this tradition also suggest that people are morally worse than it appears? As Chesterton wrote in his Orthodoxy: "Historic Christianity was accused, not entirely without reason, of carrying martyrdom and asceticism to a point, desolate
and pessimistic. ... St. Jerome, in denouncing all evil,
could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer."

But I think you just want to say that, assuming evil creator, people would be even worse than they, according to Christian tradition, are.

Chesterton also wrote: "St. Francis, in praising all good, could be a more shouting
optimist than Walt Whitman. ... The optimist could pour out all the praise he liked on the gay music of the march, the golden trumpets, and the purple banners going into battle. But he must not call the fight needless. The pessimist might draw as darkly as he chose the sickening marches or the sanguine wounds. But he must not call the fight hopeless." In this phase, your argument gets somewhat muddier, but that's normal.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't know how common mortal sin is. Nor do I know how many are damned. The Tradition says "many". But how many is many? Probably more than one. But it seems to me that when we're talking of something as terrible as damnation, two would be many.

But even if someone is in a state of mortal sin, it seems to me unlikely to be the case that the majority of her actions are sinful. (There is a heresy, condemned by the Council of Trent, according to which every action of an unjustified sinner is sinful.) An embezzler will tell you what time it is when asked (unless perhaps lying will further her financial interests). You do not have to be afraid when walking the streets that some adulterer--of whom, if we believe the statistics, there are not insignificant numbers--will murder you or you try to swindle you out of your money at the first opportunity.

While a single mortal sin is sufficient to separate one from God in a way that is irreversible without God's grace (which grace he generously bestows), our nature still asserts itself despite this separation, and few of the mortal sinner's actions are wrong.

Josh said...

This is good. In my second stage cosmological argument, I leave it open whether the first cause is infinitely bad or infinitely good (I argue that it must be one extreme or the other). BTW, I've made considerable adjustments to my stage I cosmo arg in light of your feedback. Many thanks to you.

Alexander R Pruss said...

When I said I don't know how common mortal sin was, I meant more: "I don't know how common mortal sin is in a life." I wouldn't be surprised if almost everybody committed a mortal sin at some point. But even someone who is in a state of mortal sin need not be committing mortal sins daily, and I suspect is unlikely to be committing them hourly!

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

Thanks for the explication, Alex.

I have had in my mind such pessimistic words as Romans 3:9-18.

"Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. 10As it is written:
"There is no one righteous, not even one;
11there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
12All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one."
13"Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit."
"The poison of vipers is on their lips."
14"Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."
15"Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16ruin and misery mark their ways,
17and the way of peace they do not know."
18"There is no fear of God before their eyes.""


Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, there are two ways of comparing people. (A) One way is against always doing the right thing. And then by and large we see them doing significantly worse than that. (B) The other way is against always doing the wrong thing. And then by and large we see them doing significantly better than that.

The Scriptures focus on (A). But the difference in (B) strikes me as greater than the difference in (A).

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Alex. Again illuminating. Vlastimil

MG said...


The omnivorous animals made me laugh.

What do you think of the idea that the evil creator hypothesis might explain the apparent overall good of the world as deception and irony? It would be extremely deceptive to give humans the impression that life is good on the whole and hence that the first Cause is good, and then disappoint them postmortem. Is it not possible that this would be more satisfying to the evil creator than if they had not had the illusion of flourishing, and hence of a good Cause of their flourishing? If so, it seems like your inductive considerations in the final paragraph of your post are undercut.

(this possibility was considered by Sandra Menssen and Thomas Sullivan in "The Agnostic Inquirer"--I figure I should credit my sources)

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's a neat idea. But wouldn't we then expect that there would be even more apparent good?

And the irony would be biggest if everybody was a theist and believed in an afterlife... But maybe free will would frustrate an evil first cause?

Philo Lehmar said...

Hi Dr. Pruss, I was wondering what you think of the following ideas:

We can start by talking about non-moral goodness first. Either the First Cause is neutral, a mix of good and bad, purely good, or purely bad.

We can rule out the first option if we accept that being and goodness are convertible. I think David Oderberg's 'Being and Goodness' argues persuasively for this.

We can rule out the second and last option if we can show that the First Cause is a simple being. A simple being cannot be a mix of anything. And bad is explanatorily dependent on good, as you point out. But if X has two features, F1 and F2, such that F2 depends on F1 for its existence, then F1 and F2 are distinct, and so X is not a simple being. So if the First Cause is purely bad (or even partly bad), then it isn't a simple being. So if it is a simple being, then it isn't purely bad.

And so, the First Cause is purely good - i.e. purely non-morally good. And if the First Cause is a person and is purely non-morally good, then it is purely morally good too. The thing is, we first have to show that the First Cause is a simple being.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Simplicity was central to Aquinas' arguments, and I do think this is a good strategy.
Personally, I find the idea of a complex necessary being a little incredible. Why this compound and but another?