Thursday, May 5, 2011

Morality and Possible Worlds, Part 2

The Best Possible World
            The best possible world inherently involves moral perfection. That is, whatever is the greatest logically possible maximal state of affairs constitutes the best possible world. With respect to the problem of evil it is sometimes asserted there is no logical contradiction in stating “a possible world exists in which everyone freely chooses the good and is saved.” Plantinga frames it this way: “Surely it is possible to do only what is right . . . it is possible, in that broadly logical sense, that there be a world containing free creatures who always do what is right. There is certainly no contradiction or inconsistency in this idea.”[1]
            The idea of whether or not God could create such a world (that is, if such a world is feasible to create given free will) has been the general focus of the debate. There are those who would grant that assumption (such a world is both possible and feasible). These people would assume that this actual world is therefore the best possible world. The argument for this will be explored.
Leibniz’ Argument
            Gottfried W. Leibniz (1646-1716) made amazing contributions to the Christian philosophical community. He asked the famous question at the heart of the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Leibniz also embraced the “best possible world” argument.
            This argument was summarized by Plantinga as follows.
            Before God created anything at all, He was confronted with an enormous range of choices . . . Being perfectly good, He must have chosen to create the best world He could; being omnipotent, He was able to create any possible world He pleased . . . Hence, this world, the one He did create, must be the best possible.[2]

            For Leibniz, a being who does not create the best possible world is not acting consistently “with supreme wisdom and goodness,” and therefore is not the best himself.[3] Such an idea was scandalous to Leibniz (and indeed to all orthodox Christians). Perfect being theology entailed there existed a Perfect Moral Being (PMB). Without the PMB, God, as he was known, did not really exist. The argument, syllogistically, looks like this:
            1. If the PMB creates, then the PMB must create the best world possible for him to create.
            2. The PMB is omnipotent.
            3. Therefore, the PMB can create the best logically possible world.
            4. The PMB created this actual world.
            5. Therefore, the actual world is the best logically possible world.
            The conclusion very nearly strikes some as absurd prima facie. However, since the argument is logically valid a premise must be denied in order to avoid the conclusion. Atheists will deny (4) and substitute their own premise. Others may deny (2) or amend it to exclude the ability to actualize just any logically possible world.[4] [5] One may also deny (1), saying God may have no obligation to create the best possible world. Still others argue from the implicit assumption that there even is a best possible world. It is to this consideration this paper will turn.
Is There a Best Possible World?
            Plantinga questions whether there even is such a thing as a best possible world. “No matter how marvelous a world is—containing no matter how many persons enjoying unalloyed bliss—isn’t it possible that there be an even better world containing even more persons enjoying even more unalloyed bliss?”[6] For Plantinga, the idea is that whatever world postulated will always have another world with at least one better feature.
            Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder have argued that there is no best possible world. In a roundabout way, they postulated a world-randomizer that selected a world to actualize for a God-like being. Much like Plantinga, for any world, say number 297, there exists a better world (numbered higher in proportion to each world’s value) 298. 299 is better than 298, and so on ad infinitum. In that case, however, there just is no best possible world. Each successive world is better than the last (and in turn, all others before it). Just as natural numbers are not exhausted, so the goodness of each world also is not exhausted. “Although he can create any of them, he can’t create the best of them because there is no best.”[7]
            In this case, the Howard-Snyders argue, “there is no contradiction in supposing that an essentially morally unsurpassable, essentially omnipotent and omniscient being could create a world inferior to some other world he, or some other possible being, could have created.”[8] The best possible world is never attained precisely because that which cannot be attained does not actually exist.
God’s Free Will as it Pertains to Actualizing a World
            Now the discussion must turn to God’s free will in actualizing the world. Even granting Leibniz’ assumption of a best possible world, is God constrained to create it? This paper contends that the PMB is not constrained to create any particular world.
            First, the PMB cannot be asked to create a world that is logically impossible. Since standard PMB theology asserts logic and truth are within the grounds of his nature, he cannot act contrary to that.[9] So worlds which have broad logical possibilities may nonetheless actually be impossible, logically, for God to create (such as those worlds which are not strictly logically possible [like John’s being an abstract object]).
            Second, Roger Turner discusses the difference between creating and actualizing a particular world. According to Turner, “For God to create something in the strict sense, there must have been a time when that thing God creates did not exist. This is not true for any possible world W.”[10] Hence, God must be viewed in terms of actualizing a particular world that already has certain features.
            Next, Turner also argues it is God’s nature alone that may limit him, if anything at all.[11] No one thinks God is not free in the relevant sense when we say he cannot sin. Therefore, no one should think God is not free by not creating a bad world where everyone always does evil.
            Perhaps one may object that this misses the point. Yes, God may be said to be free to create other worlds and not particularly constrained to create this actual world. Yet it seems nonetheless God must create this actual world (if the best possible world exists). What is the answer?
            The Howard-Snyders argue since any world, even if deliberately chosen, will be a world than which some omnipotent PMB could have done better, and since there is no best possible world, it is only incumbent upon the PMB to actualize a good world.[12] Even on the assumption the best possible world exists, it seems such a world could never be instantiated. It seems the PMB is not morally required to actualize such a world after all, even if it exists.
Is the Best Possible World Achievable?
            This idea was alluded to in the section on possible worlds. Norman Geisler argues even if a best possible world is conceivable it may be that such a world cannot be achieved. “It may be that God in His infinite foreknowledge foresaw that no such world [a world of free creatures who never choose to sin] would actually materialize.”[13]
            Because of the diversity of creatures and their free will, it is entirely plausible the best logically possible world containing free creatures is simply not feasible to create. Plantinga follows this viewing of free will forming a sort of “delimiter” to the worlds that God can actualize. He maintains, “Whether or not it is within God’s power to actualize depends upon what Maurice would do if he were free in a certain situation . . . It is, of course, up to God whether or not to create Maurice . . . but if He creates Maurice and creates him free with respect to this action, then whether or not he actually performs the action is up to Maurice, not God.”[14] In this sense, it seems the best possible world, if one exists at all, is not entirely achievable.
God and Moral Obligation
            In our discussion of God and any moral obligations that may be incumbent upon him, we should consider possible/achievable worlds and moral preferability among worlds. Specifically, one must ask whether God has any moral obligations whatsoever. Craig answers in the negative, writing, “I don’t think God has any moral duties. For moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, and presumably God doesn’t issue commands to Himself. Therefore, He has no obligations to live up to.”[15]
            Indeed, with respect to the discussion over whether God is actually constrained to create this, or any other, possible world, Craig believes one cannot claim that either. “If God is essentially good, then there is no possible world in which He does evil . . . God acts in the complete absence of any causal constraint whatsoever . . . That God is acting freely is evident in the fact that His will is not inclined necessarily toward any particular finite good.”[16] God is not constrained to create any particular world. Leibniz’ PMB axiom (as I call the first premise of his argument) has some potential difficulties.
The Perfect Moral Being Axiom Problems
            There are three major issues with respect to the PMB axiom.[17] First, there is the difficulty of the “ought implies can” problem. This idea is that one cannot be held morally culpable for acting (or refraining to act) in a situation in which he cannot act or refrain from acting as he does. It is the same basic principle of moral responsibility that guides us not to punish the mentally disabled or young children; no one would think of trying a two-year-old for murder if it accidentally shot someone with a gun lying about. One does not bear moral responsibility unless he is able to act and able to understand that act. If God cannot actualize the best possible world (because it does not exist or has overriding features [such as free will]), then he cannot be held morally culpable for not creating such a world. In that case the PMB axiom is false.
            Second, the best possible world is one in which no one exists but God himself. The Howard-Snyders point out, referring to the PMB as “Jove,” that “Jove doesn’t have the option of making it the case that there is no actual world . . . if he refrains from using his creative powers, a world will nevertheless be actual . . . That world will have no concrete being other than Jove in it.”[18] In other words, even a world with only God in it is nonetheless a world.
            It is here where I must part company with Dr. Geisler. In his discussion on options for creating (including God’s refraining from creating), he mentions “[not creating being better than creating] assumes that nothing is better than something. This is a gigantic category mistake.”[19] Since God is a necessary being any and every possible world will be populated at least by God. Craig agrees, saying, “In a possible world in which God creates nothing, there is only He Himself, the paradigm and locus of goodness . . . That’s a pretty good world, to say the least!”[20]
            If every world is populated by at least God, then the worlds with the greatest balance of morally good acts to bad (and the one with the least amount of damned) are worlds in which God creates either nothing at all or worlds with no free creatures.[21] The best possible world is one in which God simply exists with nothing else whatsoever. This is the point, and this is the problem. If the PMB axiom is correct, it seems the best possible world for which God would be responsible for actualizing are worlds in which nothing moral exists but God himself.
            The third problem for the PMB axiom is that if the second issue is not a problem—that is, supposing the best possible world(s) does not contain only God—and if there is a best possible world, then God could have created creatures who never sin or refrained from creating at all. This is due to the fact this is clearly not the best possible world. That is, it is simple to imagine another world with one more good act and one fewer evil one; a world where one more is saved and one fewer is lost. In this case, the only options are that the PMB axiom is false, our intuition about broad logical possibility is false (which is impossible to prove without question-begging), or that the PMB does not exist. Since the latter two seem quite unacceptable this paper opts for the falsehood of the PMB axiom.
            Steinberg argues God must always choose to do his best (as opposed to doing the objectively best).[22] In this case, however, we see no reason God cannot choose in accordance with his goals, so long as the world he does choose to actualize is also good (which it already is, by definition).
Standard for the PMB
            The standard for the PMB was hinted at in the preceding section. An argument for God’s moral justification in creating the actual world will be presented in this section. First of all, ought implies can. This is extremely relevant, as any standard one places upon the PMB must include this idea. Second, creations which bear God’s image have intrinsic good. The logic is as follows: A. God is good (PMB assumption). B. Whatever God creates is good extrinsically (Gen. 1:31). C. Because of A, anything created in God’s image is intrinsically good. D. Humans were created in God’s image. E. Therefore, (from A-D) humans have intrinsic and extrinsic good.
            Third, one must grant in worlds that contain actions for which God is not causally responsible (or beyond his control because of free will) God does not bear any moral responsibility or culpability for those actions in those worlds. Therefore, any world in which God is not directly causally responsible for sin is intrinsically good given creatures bearing God’s image exist. That is, because God is good and there are creatures that are intrinsically good, we can call a world good so long as God avoids moral culpability for the actions of those creatures.
            If this actual world meets the aforementioned standard and the AMP, then God is morally justified in creating this actual world. Syllogistically, the argument is as follows:
            1. God is intrinsically good.
            2. Whatever God creates is extrinsically and intrinsically good if and only if it is in God’s image.
            3. Humans are created by God in his image.
            4. Therefore, humans are intrinsically good.
            5. Any world bears intrinsic good in which God is not directly causally responsible for sin.
            6. God is not directly causally responsible for sin.
            7. Therefore, this actual world is intrinsically good.
            8. If this world is good and meets the AMP, then God is morally justified in creating this actual world.
            9. This world is good and meets the AMP.
            10. Therefore, God is morally justified.
            Critics may cry foul at (9), but (8) seems very plausibly true. If that is the case, the objector must beg the question against the conclusion unless he has some external, overriding reason to think God is not morally justified in creating this actual world. However, without positive evidence, the objector has no case and no reason to think that the AMP is not met in this actual world, especially given free will.
            The problem of evil is not merely a logical or evidential one. It is one that is very emotional as well. For as moral beings we are rightly outraged at the evil that exists in this present world. Randy Alcorn notes of evil’s affect on a person, “Logical arguments won’t satisfy you . . . You need help with the emotional problem of evil . . . You will not find relief unless you gain perspective.”[23] Apologists must always be sensitive not to minimize the real hurt and suffering moral evil has caused in the lives of others—even if the hurt is self-inflicted.
            We must show these people there is a God who brings good out of bad; he is the one who will cause his people to praise him through eternity.[24] Genesis 50:20 states the evil meant for Joseph was meant by God for good. This is the reality we must proclaim.
            This paper discussed the concept of possible worlds and various axioms for moral preferability among worlds. It also offered up its own principle of the AMP. We turned to a discussion on the best possible world and whether God was constrained to create it. We argued even if there were to be a best possible world, God need not create that one, so long as the world he created was intrinsically good.[25] We then offered an argument for God’s moral justification in creating the actual world. The problem of evil in the hearts and minds of people is not going away any time soon. Apologists have a wonderful arsenal to bear on this problem, and they may assert boldly there is no need to call God evil.

 [1] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1977), 32.

                [2] Ibid., 33. It should be noted the atheist J.L. Mackie agreed with Leibniz’ line of thought up to the conclusion: it was there Mackie said this was not the best possible world; therefore, God does not exist.

                [3] Gottfried W. Leibniz, Theodicy trans. E.M. Huggard, ed. Austin Farrer (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1985), section 201, 154.

                [4] Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 37. In this he discusses certain states of affairs’ being consistent with one another; the entire conjunctive state of affairs of everyone’s freely coming to Christ or refraining from evil may not be feasible given free will of each individual creature.

                [5] Another route to take is simply to deny (2) simpliciter. This is the option of the Open Theist; God, while very powerful, cannot do everything.

                [6] Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 34.

                [7] Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder, “How an Unsurpassable Being Can Create a Surpassable World,” in Faith and Philosophy 11 (April 1994): 260-68.

                [8] Ibid.

                [9] Note that even if an objector insists the PMB does not also ground truth and logic, he is at least beholden to them, so that he cannot act contrary to that standard.

                [10] Roger Turner, Christ the Redeemer and the Best of All Creatable Worlds (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University, 2009), 9. This is because of two things: first, possible worlds already exist as abstract objects. Second, since God is a maximally great being, he exists in all possible worlds; meaning there are no vacuous worlds.

                [11] Ibid., 17.

                [12] Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder.

                [13] Norman L. Geisler, If God, Why Evil? (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2011), 64.

                [14] Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 44.

                [15] William Lane Craig, “Question #114” <> accessed April 27, 2011.

                [16] Ibid.

                [17] As a reminder, the PMB axiom is that any essentially good and perfect moral being must create the best possible world.

                18 Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder.

                19 Geisler, 59.

William Lane
Craig, “Question #51,” <>, accessed April 27, 2011.

                21 There is an argument to be made, as Geisler does, that the good of free creatures outweighs the good of creating all non-moral creatures only. Geisler makes this argument on pp. 60-64.

                [22] Jesse R. Steinberg, “Leibniz, Creation, and the Best of All Possible Worlds,” in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 62 (2007): 123-33.

                [23] Randy Alcorn, If God is Good (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2009), 3-4.

                [24] Ibid., 282.

                [25] While it was not discussed, it seems quite extreme to claim evil as necessarily existing in this possible world. The idea is that certain things we find virtuous, such as courage, are only possible in the face of some evil. However, I would contest that a world in which courage is exemplified is not inherently morally preferable to a world in which no evil exists. Further, one’s character may be such that if he were to encounter evil, he would have courage. Since this character is formed by his actions, one may find such a counterfactual admirable, even in the lack of such evil.

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