Last week, I received an email out of the blue from a complete stranger, asking me questions about God. It was sent with an earnest curiosity, and so I took the time to answer. Below is an edited version of the conversation, given some literary license and with his identity changed.
Dear Professor Kemple,
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Here goes…
If God is omniscient and omnipotent, does that mean He created this Universe with specific physical laws which would inevitably to interaction in such a way as to create unpleasant events (like earthquakes), and while it can be argued these are part of a larger system that is good as a whole (plate tectonics indirectly help us by providing an atmosphere) couldn’t God, being all powerful and all knowing, have created a fundamentally different set of physical laws that don’t force rely on indirect or crude processes for progress or the well-being of humans?
I’m going to try to be brief, but feel free to ask follow-up questions.
This is a question which turns its terms inside-out, by attempting to impose on God the strictures of human conceptions. I presume, whether or not this is your intent, that it is part of an argument against the existence of God—that is, if there is a God, having these characteristics, why wouldn’t He do this or that, etc., etc.? Let me deconstruct the problems with such a question piece by piece.
First, using temporal language of God is always inaccurate. To say “God created… knew… have created, etc.” all presuppose past and future applying to God as though His actions unfold in time (thereby presupposing time as pre-existing God, or at least existing somehow independently of Him).
Second, we have to ask ourselves what we really mean by our terms of “good”, “evil”, “pleasant” and “unpleasant”. Undoubtedly, you’re aware that many things which are pleasant are not good, and contrariwise, many things which are unpleasant are good—infidelity might result in pleasure but is not good, and starting an exercise regimen is undoubtedly unpleasant, but most likely good. Good, in short, is determined by the goal of teleological fulfillment.
This opens a metaphysical digression, however: what are the ultimate reasons that something is deemed good? The roots of our answer lie in Aristotle–both in the discussions of the good which he makes in the Metaphysics as well as his discussion in the Nicomachean Ethics. The opening statement of the latter gives us the basic position: “Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and choice, is held to aim at some good.” In short, everything we do (and especially the things we do consciously), we do because we are seeking some good. Even plants do things for the sake of some good, and to the best that we can tell, without anything like consciousness. “Seeking good” is, possibly, an attribute of every entity within the universe—even the inorganic, while it cannot be said to “seek”, is disposed in itself to something good, such that in the absence of impediments, the elements of the universe tend towards greater stability (this being, however, a very complex theoretical issue).
What’s common to all the things we observe, however, in their pursuit (or disposition towards) some good, is that the acquisition of the good consists in some greater state of actuality than the absence of the good. The absence of food leads to the absence of energy which leads to the absence of life; the presence of food leads to the presence of energy which leads to the continuation and possibly furtherance of life through reproduction. Thus it is good for the lion to eat the zebra; arguably, it isn’t so good for that individual zebra, but at the same time, it is likely good for the zebra species and the ecosystem as a whole; too many zebras could lead to a famine for all zebras, etc. Sometimes—oftentimes—the greater good requires the sacrifice of the individual good.
But to end the digression and get back to answering your question more directly: yes, of course God could create a universe which operates fundamentally otherwise than ours does—or order the components of our universe in a “cleaner” way; in fact, to infinite gradations of “better”. And yet the end result would still be imperfect, and at a distance infinite from perfection. In order to have a universe where everything is all good, all the time, it would have to be perfect—which means that it would itself be God, two infinite perfections being impossible.
This is the problem with all “best of all possible worlds” theodicies: they presume that because we can know good, we can know it completely, such as to prescribe what would be good for the whole. How often do we lay out plas about what would be good in our own lives, or in the lives of those around us, only to end in a situation worse than it would have been had we never planned anything at all? Sometimes, we need not even fail in our plan in order for things to be worse; sometimes, getting just what we want, just what we planned, is the worst of all. This is especially the case when pleasure is identified with “the good”, pleasure being rather a consequent of teleology-fulfilling action and therefore contingent upon the habituated status of the individual, as regards those things that fulfill one’s teleological orientation. Saturation of our pleasure-seeking is typically quite awful.
In short: why should God’s actions need to conform to our ideas of “good”, given just how very wrong we are about so very many things? Can most of us meaningfully, articulately say what we mean by “good”? I find most objections to the existence of God from the presence of evil consist in little more than a narrowly-human conception of “good”, experience of its absence, and anger at having had to suffer.
To the contrary, I propose this to think over: our good consists not in the attainment of pleasure, but in taking pleasure at acclimating ourselves to what is truly good for ourselves. The difficulty, of course, is determining in what that true good really is; but I can assure you it is not a universe in which everything goes smoothly according to pre-determined plans.
Dear Professor Kemple,
Thank you so much for your reply. This is very helpful. But I do have some follow-up questions:
As regards #1, I should clarify that by “unpleasant” I didn’t mean “unpleasurable” as much as “will cause sentient beings to suffer.” For example, as you bring up, predatory action requires one animal to physically devour another animal. Does that mean God doesn’t love those animals or wants them to be permanently prey?
As regards #2, I guess my thought is: wouldn’t God want a Universe that doesn’t require nasty experiences? There could still be all the war and conflict and misery rational beings can cause on each other, but why would God want such an inefficient process of creation?
I often hear for example people say “earthquakes are unpleasant for us, but they help ultimately provide us with an atmosphere”. Great point, but why wouldn’t God want to be more direct/efficient in creating an atmosphere? In the way a video game designer can decide what fundamental laws of reality apply to the game, couldn’t God do the same? I get your point about gradations… it just seems to make more sense to create something like pure energy beings?
I apologize if I seem a bit thick, I’m just thinking these things through.
I believe it was C.S. Lewis who once described High Anglicanism (and Catholicism) as being “dense” and “murky” religions, because they were full of content and mystery; and that kind of thickness is quite alright by me.
#1. What is “unpleasurable” and what is “suffering” are experiences on the same continuum; that is, what we experience as unpleasant is the lack of an anticipated or expected good, and so is suffering—what we tend to signify by the two terms is a difference in degree more than a difference in kind. A shoe which is perhaps too tight, or which rubs the ankle, is unpleasant; fill that shoe with tacks, and it is downright painful; make someone walk five miles in those tack-filled shoes, and I think we’d say that person suffers. But just as one may undergo what is unpleasant (say, the physical discomfort which comes with some exercise) for the greater good, so too one can suffer for the greater good as well (say, Christ’s passion—a word the Latin root of which, not coincidentally, means “to suffer”).
Do the experiences of death or suffering mean that the one who allows them does not love the one who suffers? Don’t parents often allow their children difficult, painful, and even heart-breaking experiences for that child’s greater good—or even, in extreme cases, for the greater good of the many? I am reminded of a passage in St. Augustine’s Confessions (highly-recommended reading if you never have) wherein he describes in-depth his sorrow at the death of a close friend: how he was inconsolable for a long time, finding pleasure in nothing, and filled with a sullen anger. In the much-later written autobiographical retrospective of the Confessions, he says that he realizes his error at the time: loving the earthly and therefore temporal existence of his friend as though his friend were eternal. He had imposed a desire on the object which did not fit the nature of the object.
We see this all the time in human behavior: people disconsolate not only at the loss of loved fellow human beings, but pets, or failures in pursuit of love interests (where disproportion enters our actions all the time), and so on. And this leads me into…
#2. A “nasty” experience is relative. If you have good friendships with people from vastly different socio-economic statuses, this should be kind of obvious. To use a personal instance: I was extremely poor during graduate school. I lived first in a ghetto apartment in the most gang-ridden section of Houston (which twice experienced roach infestations), and then in an old, falling-apart, barely-livable apartment run by slum lords (the day I moved in, there was a gas leak from the stove and the ceiling fan was shooting off sparks; when I had a hole in the roof, leading to a leak every time it rained, it took them three months to fix—good times). Consequently, my standard of living environments is pretty low, and, short of infestations and potentially-explosive situations, not a lot bothers me.
Contrariwise, I know someone who has been fairly wealthy all his life, who is deeply bothered by having cabinet doors which do not sit perfectly flush.
Now, you might think the latter person is unreasonable (and I’d agree that it’s a bit silly to get upset over), but you also have to consider that he has ever experienced anything less than high-quality production all his life. And so my point is this: what seems to us an existence without nasty experiences would certainly still have them so long as it allowed for any sort of deviation from absolute perfection. What seem like minor nuisances from our current perspective would, in the life of a “more perfect” kind, be “nasty” experiences. Conversely, things could be much worse for us than they are now—think of 18th century dentistry; or think of how much worse the world could have come into being, with constant earthquakes and volcanic eruptions contemporaneous with human existence. Our lives, and even the lives of other animals, as they are today would seem glorious by comparison.
In other words, God could always create something more or less efficient than there is today, and from within any one such creation, we can always complain that He could have created something more efficient than He has.
One way of looking at this issue is the way Thomas Aquinas proposes in Book II of his Summa Contra Gentiles. There, he discusses “why” God created the universe at all, the answer being that God, being all good, is naturally diffusive of Himself—goodness being something which seeks to share itself (think of the way you want to tell those you love when you have good news, or to share knowledge of a good food, or beer, or whatever). Because God is infinite, however (and thus His goodness is infinite), if He wants to share His goodness with others, those others must be less-perfect, and thus less-good, than He Himself is; their perfections and goodnesses must be finite, and therefore infinitely less-good and less-perfect than God (for the distance between anything finite and anything infinite is itself an infinite distance). Consequently, there is no “most perfect” being that God could create; it’s a logical impossibility.
Furthermore, God’s own goodness is therefore more perfectly represented not by creating a single great being, but by a diversity of beings, which can by their very nature of diversity better represent the infinite goodness of God in their plurality of goodnesses than any singular being can in its individual goodness. For all we know, there are actually beings of pure energy—along with a hierarchy of Angels (that is, beings of no material constriction whatsoever, not even that of pure energy) or other beings that we do not yet understand or have not yet encountered.
Ultimately, the diffusion of God’s goodness is greater if given not only to beings of pure energy, but also to beings that are transitory, material, that undergo varying degrees of suffering—to a wide plurality of existences, which better reflect the infinity of His goodness than simply beings which are eternal, unchanging, and without suffering—keeping in mind that suffering is experience of the absence of good, which experience is a continuum concomitant with being oneself somehow imperfect.