January 10, 2005

What If There Is No Best Possible World?

In a thread about the problem of evil at Brian W's weblog, John Fischer mentioned a defense against the problem of evil based on the idea that there is no best possible world. Often we see the problem of evil (perhaps more accurately described as "the problem of suffering") in the following terms: A good being will actualize or create the best world it can. God, being omnipotent, can create any world whatsoever. So why didn't God create the best of all possible worlds? But if there's no best possible world, perhaps the question doesn't arise.

[The thread was inspired by some bishops' remarks about how God could have allowed the tsunami. I have nothing to say about that but: How awful.]

Here is my reconstruction of the argument. (Fischer thinks that Hasker and van Inwagen have made these arguments; I don't know if my version of the argument tracks theirs.) (And I see that Jonathan Ichikawa blogged it first.)

(1) There is no best world. (Assumed for the sake of argument.)
(2) If it were legitimate to criticize God for creating a world because a better world could have been created instead, then (by (1)) it would be legitimate to criticize Him for creating any world whatsoever.
(3) So if the antecedent of (2) holds, God is free from criticism only if He creates no world.
(4) But it would be better for God to create some worlds (such as arguendo this one) than no world.
(5) So God could be legitimately criticized for creating no world.
(6) So the antecedent of (2) must be false—it is not legitimate to criticize God for creating an decent enough world, even if a better world is available.

[(6) assumes there is a course of action that is free from criticism--not every course of action is unacceptable for the good being. This may be false when your action has put you in a moral bind, but it seems that it should be true for God faced with a choice of what to create out of the void.]

But the argument, I think, is subtly invalid--and this corresponds to a pretty obvious flaw. (Again, I don't know if this corresponds to the way it's originally presented.)

The argument is a reductio of the antecedent of (2)--that it's legitimate to criticize God for creating a decent enough world if He could have created a better world instead. But that reductio only establishes the following:

(6a) There is some decent enough world such that God would be exempt from criticism for creating it, even though He could have created a better world instead.

It does not establish that this world is such a world. There may be a principled way of picking out the worlds such that God can be created for not creating a better one (even though they are decent enough). And our world can be such a one.

In fact, I don't think we should say simply that a benevolent being would create the best world possible. Rather--a benevolent being should create a world with as much good as possible, and as little evil. And even if there is a better world than any given possible world, it doesn't seem as though there's a world with less evil than any possible world. Suppose God created world W. Consider world W*, which is exactly like world W but with all the evil removed. If W* has at least as much good as W, then it is legitimate to criticize God for having created W rather than W*.

This will be true even if there are better worlds than W* (say W* has 1 trillion happy people and another possible world has 2 trillion). So it doesn't violate the assumption that there is no best possible world. If there are two goals, "Minimize evil" and "maximize good," then the first goal can be attained with perfection, and we can criticize for imperfection with respect to that goal; even if the second goal can't be attained with perfection, and we can't criticize with respect to the second goal.

Now, there's a big assumption here: That W* will have at least as much good as W. Perhaps removing the evil from W would also remove so much good that we would conclude that it is better to create W than W*. But that's just to say: Perhaps the evil in W is necessary for some appropriate greater good. So to block the argument that God should have created W* instead of W, we need a successful theodicy. The argument (1)-(6) doesn't seem to have got us anywhere.

Now, the idea of a world with absolutely all the evil removed doesn't really appeal to me. In comments here I called it "literally anodyne"--bland through lack of pain. If it's necessary to have some evil for there to be any good, then there may be no lowest acceptable level of evil. That would mean that there would be no such thing as perfection with respect to the goal of minimizing evil, and would block the foregoing argument.

But there's still a problem, raised by what Marilyn Adams calls "horrendous evil":

evils the participation in (the doing or suffering of) which gives one reason prima facie to doubt whether one's life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to one on the whole [from "Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God." linked]

It seems as though, by definition, horrendous evils cannot be necessary for there to be an acceptable level of goodness in the world. So, if God has created world W that includes horrendous evil, we can criticize him for not creating world W**--just like W but with the horrendous evil removed--instead. And even if W has more total good than W**, it's still unacceptable to create W rather than W**. That amounts to making someone suffer a horrendous evil for someone else's good, which is unacceptable.

Since our world seems to contain horrendous evil, this is a problem for the theist. The only solution that preserves God's benevolence will be one in which the horrendous evil is actually a necessary part of a greater good, in ways that we are not capable of understanding in this life. Adams suggests that this could be possible only by God's "integrating participation in horrendous evils into a person's relationship with God." We perhaps cannot see how God could do this now; but God being God, He may do things that we are incapable of comprehending now.

Thus a defense against the problem of evil that does not rest on the no-best-possible-worlds idea at all. Yet I also find this defense unsatisfying by itself. For if it is meant to explain how this can be the best of all possible worlds--such that every horrendous evil is necessary for a greater good enjoyed by the person that suffers it--then every horrendous evil needs to be part of God's plan. And that's very difficult for me to swallow.

This is very shaky, since we're already conceding the point that we may be simply incapable of understanding the goods that God has in store for us in the afterlife. Still, is the world really better because these particular people had their villages wiped out in tsunamis, and these particular people are tortured or murdered by death squads, and these particular people aren't? That seems very close to the idea that God's goodness is essentially different from the goodness of ordinary beings, or that we simply can't understand God's plan. And that seems more like throwing up one's hands at the problem of evil, rather than solving it.

Here perhaps the no-best-possible-world argument can help. It is necessary, let us suppose, that some horrendous evils exist in order for us to enjoy the goods of the afterlife. Given any distribution of horrendous evils, there may be a better one possible. But there is no best possible distribution of horrendous evils, so we cannot criticize God for failing to create a better distribution (as per (1)-(6)). Perhaps God uses indeterminism to let the horrendous evils fall where they may. (And perhaps in the afterlife we will all share in each other's suffering and redemption.)

All this is a defense rather than a theodicy. I don't think any of it would hold any conviction to someone who did not antecedently believe in God. And for this reason I think these defenses need to be based in something like the considerations that the Archbishop of Canterbury cites in Brian's original post. If you perceive God shining through the everyday world, or if you have faith in God--or, maybe, if you think you have a logical proof of God's existence--then perhaps these arguments will help you see how God can permit such things. If not, then they will seem like strained metaphysical speculations.

Posted by Matt Weiner at January 10, 2005 11:25 PM

Maybe you should think about measuring the goodness of worlds on a scale that doesn't respond to perturbations in the state of things in the trivial linear fashion - i.e. if you take world X and make a small improvement. Rather like the NFL's quarterback rating. QBs can (and have) achieved the highest mathematically possible QB rating in games, even though they didn't complete every single pass, and obviously a QB could always have thrown for one more yard on any given Sunday. Conversely, it is possible to get a lower QB rating than one would get with a nullity, the 0/0/0/0 stat line - presumably the analog of a world that is worse than the vacuum of nonexistence. Though I haven't ever heard of a QB achieving the worst possible quarterback rating, and I'm not sure there is one. That suggests that while it may not be possible to improve on the current dismal state of affairs, things can always get worse, which is small comfort to theologians, though there is plenty of empirical evidence for it.

Posted by: F. Harris at January 13, 2005 01:39 AM

Addressing the important part of the comment: I'm pretty sure Eli Manning wound up with a 0.0 rating one of the games he played this year. He didn't finish the game though, and I'm not positive that anyone achieved a 0.0 rating this year while playing the whole game--though Jonathan Quinn, or Joey Harrington at Green Bay, might be candidates.

The thing about QB rating is that interceptions per pass attempt accounts for 1/4 of the score; so if you throw all incompletions you get 39.9 (I think) rating, but if you throw even one interception you can lose those points quickly. And completing some passes won't get you back above zero right away--you have to break a certain threshold of yards per attempt or completion percentage (not sure if throwing a TD always gets you points).

Posted by: Matt Weiner at January 13, 2005 10:04 AM

This would be funnier if you globally replaced "world" with "Katie Couric."

Posted by: Social Scientist at January 15, 2005 09:32 PM

What wouldn't? (And, hi!)

Posted by: Matt Weiner at January 16, 2005 01:43 PM

I’m taking a break from the fun over at “The Poorman Pub” for a bit.

Notice how there is no perfect human? Me too. According to some theories:
Guys who have large amygdalas are overly anxious and become avoidant or depressive nervous wrecks.
Guys who have tiny amygdalas are fearless psychopaths and wind up doing stupid and risky things.
Guys who have severed left-right brain connections are autistic.
Guys who have superior left-right brain connections become philosophers.

If measuring mental and emotional capabilities on a bell-curve, the ‘sweet spot’ would be right in the middle - the place where most regular joes are at. And then it’s mostly up to their environment. There’s probably a lot more but I like keeping it simple.

I think God or mother nature gave everyone a full spread of genes that covers all the above (at the very least) but in different quantities, making for a successful social animal that works best together as a group. Just about everybody can do everything, but you do have your talented hunters, gatherers, warriors, leaders, thinkers, nurturers, etc.. I think that evil happens most often when there is a breakdown in this cooperative natural order of things. Like with bad governments.

I don’t think there would be a perfect human world without some genetic re-engineering that included a whole lotta thought and planning, and as far as God is concerned, if things went perfectly in this dot known as the material world it wouldn’t be much of a hobby, would it?

Time for another beer.

Posted by: eric at January 17, 2005 08:40 PM