XFiles Friday: the best of all possible worlds

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, Appendix 1.)

We’re watching a kind of textual cartoon in which Geisler and Turek have a straw-man atheist (Mr. Straw) grilling a Christian (Dr. Geistur) on the question of evil. So far, the atheist seems to be giving the Christian a pretty hard time, and the Christian, despite his smug and triumphant tone, is floundering.

It goes no better for the Christian when Mr. Straw asks why God created people knowing that so many of them would end up eternally damned in Hell.

GEISTUR: Good question. There are only five options God had. He could have: 1) not created at all; 2) created a non-free world of robots; 3) created a free world where we would not sin; 4) created a free world where we would sin, but everyone would accept God’s salvation; or 5) created the world we have now—a world where we would sin, and some would be saved but the rest would be lost.

Or at least, those are the only 5 options Geisler and Turek could think of, so naturally an all-wise and all-knowing God would be incapable of finding or creating a sixth alternative. Right?

That’s the problem with creating God in your own image: you may want to claim that He has the power to make things be whatever He wants them to be, but in actual practice, He can’t exceed the limits of your imagination. He’s restricted to being and doing only what you believe He should, because you’re the one that’s creating Him. So the five options that Dr. Geistur imagines for God are indeed the only five options He has available.

Even given those five options, however, Geistur has a hard time making the last option look like the best (or only) possible alternative. Let’s look at his excuses one by one.

GEISTUR: …The first option can’t even be compared to the other four because something and nothing have nothing in common. Comparing a real world and a non-world is not even like comparing apples and oranges, since they both are fruit. It is like comparing apples and non-apples, insisting that non-apples taste better. In logic, this is called a category mistake. It’s like asking “What color is math?” Math is not a color, so the question is meaningless.

Hmm, grass is not a color either, but the question “What color is grass?” is hardly a meaningless question. Plus, a chocolate bar is a non-apple, and some people do think chocolate tastes better than apples. But quibbles aside, it’s clear that Geistur is attempting to brush off this question without really addressing it. Sure, if you’re really determined, you might think of some instances where it would be meaningless to compare a thing with the absence of a thing, but that’s not a universal principle.

For example, if you have sex with someone other than your spouse, that’s adultery. If you don’t have sex outside of marriage, that’s not adultery. Is Geistur saying that it would be a category error to claim that non-adultery is better than adultery? Good health is not disease; disease is not good health. Can we not determine whether the presence of one is better or worse than its absence? Can we not compare the presence of poisons in our food to the absence of poison, and say which is better?

If we’re talking about God’s choice of actions, we can certainly say that it’s better not to do anything than to do something that results in endless suffering for untold billions of people. Morally, that should be a no-brainer. Plus, even if it were true that you couldn’t compare non-creation with the creation of evil and endless suffering, that’s still no reason for God to create endless suffering. If you can’t compare the two, then neither is better, and God has no reason to prefer to create suffering. Geistur ignores this factor as well, and moves on to the next alternative.

STRAW: Ok, so why didn’t God make his second option—a robot world?

GEISTUR: He could have, but that wouldn’t have been a moral world. It would have been a world with no evil, but with no moral good either.

And why would you need morality, if there were no evil? Once again, Geistur’s God is constrained by the limits of His creator: the fallible mortal man, Dr. Geistur.

Personally, I think it’s rather fascinating that Geistur is convinced a world where God exists and evil doesn’t, a world in which men are the unblemished image of God and obey His will perfectly, would necessarily be a world in which no moral good would exist. What does that tell us about God’s nature and God’s will? Even more ironic, Geistur is trying to make it sound like Robot World would be a bad thing. But how could it be “bad” if morality does not exist, and there is neither good nor evil?

Geistur just moves on to the next two options (with some carefully scripted help from Mr. Straw).

STRAW: So why didn’t he make worlds three or four? Those worlds would allow love, and they certainly would be better worlds than this one.

GEISTUR: Yes, but  not everything conceivable is actually achievable with free creatures… God can’t force free creatures not to sin. Forced freedom is a contradiction.

Interestingly, Geistur concedes that at least two of the five options would be better than the one God supposedly chose. His excuse for why God didn’t choose one of them? Same as Rabbi Kushner’s: God lacks the power to pull either of them off. Despite His allegedly unlimited power and allegedly unlimited wisdom and alleged sovereignty over the affairs of men, God can’t create a world in which free men would fail to sin.

Straw’s next line should have been “Will we have free will in heaven?” but I rather suspect Geistur’s head would have exploded.

Geistur’s God may be constrained by the conceptual limits of His creator, but we’re not, so let’s look at some of the ways a moderately clever God could have created world three. (World four is uninteresting because it involves God creating a sinful world full of suffering and injustice, and why go through all that when there are better alternatives available?)

Despite their morbid preoccupation with sin (especially other people’s), Christians don’t necessarily have a good understanding of why people sin. Instead of understanding the real reasons, they superstitiously give credit to a magical “sin nature” (or “law of sin” as Paul called it) that works mysteriously and inexplicably to cause us to want to do evil just for the sake of being bad. It’s like cartoon bad guys: they don’t have a reason to want to destroy freedom and justice and truth and such, they’re just, well, bad guys.

Real people aren’t cartoon bad guys. They do things for reasons, and those reasons seem good at the time. Address the underlying reasons why people “sin,” and they’ll no longer have any motivation to do wrong. Poof, there’s world three, a world in which people freely choose not to sin because they have no reason to sin.

How? Well, let’s look at a few of the reasons why people do bad things: ignorance, misunderstanding, unsatisfied appetites and biological drives, competition for scarce resources, and so on. Those are all factors that can be addressed, at Creation time, by a wise, good and loving Creator, without compromising the free will of the creatures. Don’t design creatures that need to eat each other for food. Equip them to survive and thrive on sunlight or some other limitless energy source. Don’t give them biological territorial instincts or irresistable and indiscriminate sex drives. Wire their brains to enable perfect empathy and understanding of others, and let them perceive instantly why the good choices are more desirable than the evil choices.

And of course don’t give them a sin nature that will enslave them and force them to do evil against their will. That was what Paul was complaining about, but it’s hardly mandatory that we have such a thing. For that matter, it’s silly to protest that “free will” prevents God from being involved when our free will is already being violated by some kind of magical sin nature. If free will is what we don’t have, then God runs no risk of causing us to lose it.

Geistur’s final score: three swings, three misses. The real world is simply not consistent with what Geistur wants us to believe about the existence and nature of his imaginary God, and when he tries to make excuses for why this is so, his answers are not consistent with reality or with each other. He ducks and dodges and dances away, but he never does provide us with answers that have the easy and automatic self-consistency of real-world truth.

Hang in there folks, we’re almost to the end (of Appendix 1). Geistur is going to try one last time to convince us that evil isn’t all bad, the end justifies the means, and it’s all for our own good. Stay tuned.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “XFiles Friday: the best of all possible worlds”

  1. Tacroy Says:

    GEISTUR: Yes, but not everything conceivable is actually achievable with free creatures… God can’t force free creatures not to sin. Forced freedom is a contradiction.

    I really don’t understand why apologists think that this is a good argument. God can enforce a universal maximum speed limit, why is a universal ban on sin any harder?

  2. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Well, it’s not so much that it’s a good argument, it’s just the best they’ve got. 😉

    The key word is “limit.” Our free will is already limited in any number of ways (I’m perfectly willing to be inconceivably wealthy, for instance). A reasonably clever human could find ways to apply reasonable limits to human freedom that would prevent sin while still leaving us with a reasonable amount of freedom. Good parents do that sort of thing routinely. So an omni-X deity would certainly be able to do at least that well. But Christians don’t have a good comeback for that one, so they talk about silly things like “forced freedom” instead.

  3. Dale Masten Says:

    Spot on.

  4. David E Says:

    “….God can’t create a world in which free men would fail to sin.”

    Hmmm. Let’s do some actual thinking about that (something our authors seem to have carefully avoided).

    Take one sin in particular as a sample case: child molestation.

    Imagine that we live in a world with free will but that God interferes every time child molestation is attempted and makes the person black out (or otherwise prevents it—the ways are limited only by one’s imagination and logical possibility and God’s imagination is presumably boundless).

    Would this eliminate the pedophile’s ability to sin in regard to their sexual desire for children? Not at all. They could talk among themselves in person or on the internet about what they’d like to do if God didn’t keep interfering. They could buy comic books and animated movies depicting the acts they wish they could do but can’t and can otherwise indulge their fantasies in sinful ways.

    One rather important difference though: no where, ever, in the entire world, would a child be harmed by a pedophile.

    Tell me that wouldn’t be a better world.

    And, of course, there’s the other obvious, and even better, option (one which would allow God to remain hidden in case the apologist is so twisted as to think, as so many have done, that divine hiddenness is more important than preventing child rape):

    Simply don’t saddle any humans with the impulse toward child rape in the first place.

  5. g Says:

    World four is indeed clearly worse than world three, but it also (a) is clearly better than world five and (b) is even more plainly achievable than world three.

    Oh, they also forgot world three-and-a-half: a world full of creatures with at least as much freedom as we have now, in which some of them do in fact do wrong things, but *far fewer and far less wrong than at present*. This one is also very obviously achievable, and also very obviously worse than world five.

    No wonder Geisler and Turek were so keen to give their stand-in the job of enumerating “all” the possibilities.