Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Best of All Possible Theodicies

For a long time I have been rather contemptuous at attempts of theodicy. This is because most of the attempts make a mockery out of some deeply important matter or they somehow undermine exactly what they were trying to defend.

But there is one answer that I have found which seems to do a fairly good job at it without causing any serious metaphysical casualties. This would be Leibniz's "best of all possible worlds" solution. In it, God is constrained based on the inherent nature of the world He's creating to balance opposing values and in God's mathematics there is a required minimum of evil that must exist in order for the world to be possible. Indeed, perhaps at each moment, God is doing His divine calculus and selecting (perhaps through being the ultimate observer in Quantum Physics) the world with the least amount of evil in it.

The focus point where this argument seems to depend on is that God is not as omnipotent as previously thought. For if He's constricted by the nature of the universe then He cannot do 'anything.' But this is an old issue and is really as relevant as God not being able to create a rock that He cannot lift. It is a logical impossibility. So too, it is simply a logical impossibility to create a world desired by God without some evil in it.

As JA relates a counterargument, "But doesn’t that limit God’s knowledge and power? Doesn’t that say that God couldn’t think of a better way to accomplish his goals other than torturing innocent people?"

The answer is, as explained above, yes, it is a limit of sorts on God's power. And no, there is no better way.

It is rather easy for us in our limited perspectives to scoff at this and say how simple it might be to change this or that little detail and make the world a much better place - thus undermining the whole concept that the world is already the best. For example, mightn't the world be a much better place if God gave Hitler a heart attack in his youth? But the truth of the matter is that we have no idea if the world would, in fact, be any better. It could be much worse.

If you've ever seen any of those movies like the Butterfly Effect or famous Twilight Zone episodes (or even that one from the Simpsons) where people who think they're being clever travel back in time to fix something that went wrong in the past, they never appreciate the intricacies of the timeline and inevitably only manage to make things worse (Dr. Sam Becket, notwithstanding). The point is that it's easy to say that something could be made better with some little change here or there, but without the absolute perspective - which only God can have - such notions are due to mere ignorance.


A good article on the topic: here.

18 comments:

Jewish Atheist said...

That kind of ad hoc explanation could be used to justify anything. Dad beats you for your own good. It looks like evolution occurred because God's trying to trick us.

The idea that all possible universes without the Holocaust would be worse because of it makes no sense at all. Your hypothesis is not technically falsifiable, but it's not very satisfying, either.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"That kind of ad hoc explanation could be used to justify anything.

I don't think it's an ad hoc solution. Clearly it is a theodicy and designed to solve the problem of evil, but it also takes deep stances on God, the nature of the world, and the nature of evil which can be broadly applied.

"Dad beats you for your own good."

Could be, but Dad isn't omniscient.

"It looks like evolution occurred because God's trying to trick us."

Could be, but that's unreasonable to assume. Why is it unreasonable to believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds?

"The idea that all possible universes without the Holocaust would be worse because of it makes no sense at all."

How do you figure? Maybe without the Holocaust, some guy in 200 years would try fascism on his own but this time with weapons that could destroy the world. It's impossible to know.

Orthoprax said...

And, JA, btw, if you're depending on it being an ad hoc argument to keep it from being satisfying - then really you're just using Occam's razor. Even though in your post you said the problem of evil was the one argument that didn't depend on it. ;-)

CyberKitten said...

Isn't this just another variation of 'God moves in mysterious ways' that we cannot possibly understand?

Why does Ebola, Typhoid & AIDS exist? Because things would be *much* worse if they didn't.....

Yeah... Right. How to justify *everything* in one easy lesson......

Also.... If this is the 'best of all possible worlds'... how do we explain things getting better over time (at least for some if not all societies). Is 'the best' getting better - or is it the 'best possible world' at that particular moment?

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"Isn't this just another variation of 'God moves in mysterious ways' that we cannot possibly understand?"

Yes, but it's more specific.

"Why does Ebola, Typhoid & AIDS exist? Because things would be *much* worse if they didn't.....
Yeah... Right. How to justify *everything* in one easy lesson......"

And? You'd prefer a separate explanation for every evil? I should think a generalized theory would be more compelling.

"Also.... If this is the 'best of all possible worlds'... how do we explain things getting better over time (at least for some if not all societies). Is 'the best' getting better - or is it the 'best possible world' at that particular moment?"

It would be the best at that moment. Things are always happening so God needs to keep recalculating. Perhaps part of the plan is for humanity to make things better.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: Yes, but it's more specific.

Well, I for one am impressed... [sarcasm mode now off].

Orthoprax said: You'd prefer a separate explanation for every evil? I should think a generalized theory would be more compelling.

Why would a General Theory of Evil (AKA God's Will) be more compelling? If we could understand each individual evil (surely a *lot* easier than understanding it all at the same time) maybe we could work towards eliminating some of it... Oh, I forgot. We can't do that can we? God *needs* evil to make all the good stuff happen.

Orthoprax said: It would be the best at that moment. Things are always happening so God needs to keep recalculating. Perhaps part of the plan is for humanity to make things better.

So... evil happens (God's Will). Good things happen (God's Will). Things improve (God's Will) and things sometimes get worse (God's Will). So... Let me get this right. Everything happens (or doesn't) due to God's Will. Therefore the Theory of Everything is: God's Will. I feel *so* much better now that I understand everything. Thanks, you've made my day!

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"Why would a General Theory of Evil (AKA God's Will) be more compelling?"

For the same reason any general theory is more compelling than one that explains only a small number of phenomena. It's more parsimonious.

"So... Let me get this right. Everything happens (or doesn't) due to God's Will."

That's one way of looking at it, but how could it be any other way? Could something happen that is not God's will? But that isn't the point of Leibniz's argument. His argument deals with the nature of reality and how that _limits_ God.

"I feel *so* much better now that I understand everything. Thanks, you've made my day!"

I thought sarcasm mode was off.

In any case, I don't think you've actually made any arguments at all.

Baal Habos said...

OP,

>The answer is, as explained above, yes, it is a limit of sorts on God's power. And no, there is no better way.


Fine, so let God not create a world of animate objects. Let him occupy himself in ways where no-one gets hurt.

Orthoprax said...

Baal,

And where no one exists? Is that really a better option?

As I asked someone else, if you had the option to make everything never to have happened, would you choose to do so?

Baal Habos said...

OP, if it meant inflicting the kind of pain we see in this world, I think I'd opt for no creation. To say otherwise is to say that humanity suffering is there for God's whim. The other alternative, that there some hidden purpose, is getting to CyberKitten's argument, that we don't understand God.

So the only thing you've added to the equation that we can't understand God's will, is that God is not perfect. So for the same money, you can buy a perfect God, just like OJ does,

Orthoprax said...

Baal,

"OP, if it meant inflicting the kind of pain we see in this world, I think I'd opt for no creation."

Seriously? Wow. Think about what you're saying outside of the contexts of this debate.

"To say otherwise is to say that humanity suffering is there for God's whim. The other alternative, that there some hidden purpose, is getting to CyberKitten's argument, that we don't understand God."

I'm not clear of what you're saying here. In this argument God's creation is the best that could be created. It's meant to be the best that can be for humanity with evil being a necessary condition.

"So the only thing you've added to the equation that we can't understand God's will, is that God is not perfect. So for the same money, you can buy a perfect God, just like OJ does,"

No, I don't see how perfection is affected by the argument. And in any case, OJ doesn't offer any particular theodicy.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: For the same reason any general theory is more compelling than one that explains only a small number of phenomena. It's more parsimonious.

Except that I don't think that the 'theory' you're proposing actually *explains* anything.

Orthoprax said: That's one way of looking at it, but how could it be any other way? Could something happen that is not God's will?

Easily... if there *is* no God.

Orthoprax said: I thought sarcasm mode was off.

Sorry, it's my factory default setting which automatically switches on when I see 'arguments' such as this put forward.....

Orthoprax said: In any case, I don't think you've actually made any arguments at all.

Strangely I was thinking the exact same thing. Simply saying 'God Wills It' to every question is not a meaningful answer (to anything). There are *reasons* why things are how they are and why things happen as they do. It is mankinds turning away from the "God did it" glib answer that has allowed us to actually *do* something about the human condition that the simple acceptence of theological 'answers' would never have allowed us to do. Understanding the *reasons* for things gives us the power to fix problems and diminish the amount of 'evil' in the world. Something that millennia of religious study has singularly failed to do.

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"Except that I don't think that the 'theory' you're proposing actually *explains* anything."

Ok. Why not? It's a theodicy. It explains how evil can exist in a world created by a good God.

You may believe it to be a poor explanation, but I have yet to see any sort of refutation from you except sarcasm.

"Easily... if there *is* no God."

Ok..but in any theodicy the presumption is that God exists. If you want to discuss other issues, you may, but this isn't the post for it.

"Strangely I was thinking the exact same thing. Simply saying 'God Wills It' to every question is not a meaningful answer (to anything)."

Ok, but I wasn't offering that as explanation. You said it, not me. It may be a truism, but it's not useful.

If you want to make up your own arguments to defeat then go right ahead. When you want to discuss Leibniz, this post will still be here.

Nate said...

Liebnitz's arguments are very week. Most of his theories were simply him trying to justify belief in God in light of Spinoza's much stronger arguments against a diety. A great book on the subject is Matthew Stewart's "The Courtier and the Heretic"

woodrow said...

Rather than saying God couldn't possibly create a better world (which seems to limit God's power) isn't it easier just to say that God isn't all good? Given that existence is better than nonexistence, clearly God (as the creator of existence) is more good than bad. Why can't we just settle for that?

Orthoprax said...

Nate,

"Liebnitz's arguments are very week."

Do you have any examples of this?


Woodrow,

"Rather than saying God couldn't possibly create a better world (which seems to limit God's power) isn't it easier just to say that God isn't all good? Given that existence is better than nonexistence, clearly God (as the creator of existence) is more good than bad. Why can't we just settle for that?"

The great thing about Leibniz's theodicy is that it doesn't really limit God, it only extends that which is impossible. God can still do anything possible, but the best world cannot exist without evil anymore than a triangle can exist without three corners.

It is an intrinsic characteristic of the best existence, in Leibniz's view.

Making God a 'little bad' on the other hand, introduces many other theological difficulties. Like how does that impinge on God's simplicity? Within God are contradictory impulses?

Anonymous said...

Why can't G-d be all good and just not be all giving. In fact, to just give with no restriction is not good, but spoiling. G-d loves man and wants man to connect to the ultimate good, G-d, by choice, otherwise the connection will be false.

The fact that we have free will, to believe or not, to do good or bad are necessary for our connection to G-d. If the choice was easy, there would be no growth process to believe and connect with G-d, completely opposing the idea of the meaning of our existence. In essence, without evil, obstacles, or choice, we'd live in a world with no opportunity for growth, reward, and the ultimate purpose, connection with G-d.

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

Your idea doesn't take into account apparently gratuitous evil for which any spiritual growth is totally subsumed by the magnitude of destruction.

It's like, ok, I get the idea of having a challenge - but then how does that explain having children born with horrible disfigurements?

It doesn't satisfy.