The Best of All Worlds

Article by   April 2016

One of my favorite aspects of teaching "Intro to Philosophy" is the chance to expose  students to a sampling of, as Matthew Arnold once put it, "the best which has been thought and said." This takes planning, of course -- before each semester I make sure to build into the class schedule ample time to read and discuss some of the greatest works in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and philosophy of religion. What I've found is that each semester, without exception, students display a surprising measure of fascination with the question of whether this world, our world, represents the best of all possible worlds. (In terms of overall student interest, only the issue of drug legalization excites them more.) 

At first glance, this question seems like a strange one to obsess over. The immediate reaction is that of course this isn't the best of all worlds; in fact, given how much is wrong with the world, there is no way it's even close. In reacting this way, students reveal a fundamental outlook of theirs: they intuitively sense that the nature and scope of human misery is so depressingly vast that the idea that our world could be improved upon is beyond reasonable dispute for them. Their reactions make sense -- all it takes is a morning with the newspaper to confront the reality that we could have done far better than this.

If the question admits of such an obvious answer, how is that they end up developing such an interest in it?

It helps that at this point I immediately change the subject.

Actually, what appears to them to be an intellectual detour is really just the next step in exploring our original question. I use their collective reaction -- an overwhelming sense that our world is brimming with pain and suffering -- to get them to think about whether the presence of evil really does condemn our world to a substandard status. So we look at the problem of evil. 

If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, then evil shouldn't exist, right? After all, if he is omnipotent he has the power to resist its encroachment into our world; if he is omniscient he knows how to do so; and if he is omni-benevolent he will have the desire to do so. Yet there is evil. And not just instances of it that are insignificant and rare. No, we encounter a seemingly inexhaustible supply of it, some of it intense enough to fall under Marilyn McCord Adams' category of horror. Does the undeniable presence of evil give us a strong reason to doubt that there is being like the one described above?

At this point some of them get restless. "Wait a second -- What does this have to do with the earlier question of our world being the best? I feel like we've moved from one topic to a completely different one."

"How so?" I reply.

"Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that we come to agree that even though there's evil, God exists. Let's say we assume that. You're not trying to tell us that because God exists, we should see this world as the greatest, are you?"

I love moments like these. Few experiences are more gratifying for professors than witnessing students working hard to make conceptual connections. I gave them a question early on, and now, after having seemingly shifted gears, some of them are trying to discern just what my overall purpose is. At this point I say "Let's just see where this goes" and continue down the path of exploration.

I write on the board four propositions:

(1) God is omnipotent

(2) God is omniscient

(3) God is omnipresent

(4) Evil exists

I ask them: How can all four of these claims be true together? After some discussion, I offer two accounts that try to provide an answer. The first is a variation of the free will defense, which has a long intellectual and ecclesiastical tradition, as well as an able contemporary proponent in the philosopher Alvin Plantinga. The second is a Reformed supralapsarian theodicy, a position that does not utilize free will to explain the presence of evil but looks instead to the design and will of God.

Is a world populated by persons with free will better than a world populated by unfree persons? We consider various examples -- from literature, from TV and film, from the world of music, even -- in order to tease out their underlying valorization of free will as a supreme good. For example, what is most disconcerting to them about Huxley's Brave New World is the lack of genuine free will. Many of them are able to sense, as Plantinga himself argues, that true moral goodness is possible only for creatures likewise capable of moral evil (we'll leave aside, for the moment, whether and how this claim might apply to God). The Free Will Defense holds that, for human beings, free will is such a surpassingly valuable endowment that it outweighs the evil that results from it.

When I start unpacking the second response to the problem of evil, it seems to many students as though I'm now repudiating the entirety of what I've just spent a considerable amount of time arguing for. (Ah! Philosophy) This second position, the Reformed theodicy, does not utilize -- indeed, entirely rejects -- the libertarian account of free will that Plantinga's defense prioritizes. Instead, it explains the presence of evil as a component of the world that helps communicate who God is to his people. I compare for my students two worlds: the world of the Garden of Eden and the post-Edenic world of biblical history. In the Garden of Eden, God's creation knows God to be a caretaker -- a wise, benevolent master; yet in the sin-stained world of post-fall human experience, God's people come to know him in a deeper, more gratitude-inducing way. Indeed, the world of the cross and resurrection shows us something about who God is that Edenic life might never have. But notice what is needed to draw out these truths about God: the presence of sin. The cross required sin and evil in order to do its work of showing us how loving and just God is. So the Reformed supralapsarian theodicy understands sin's presence as instrumentally useful; as directed toward a greater good: the fullest communication of who God is to his people.

More discussion follows. And then I put them on the spot.

"Earlier you all expressed skepticism -- incredulity even -- over whether this world could ever be construed as the best. But do you see how, if we assume God exists, accepting either the Free Will Defense or the Reformed Supralapsarian Theodicy takes us some distance toward explaining the presence of evil a little bit?"

"OK, so..." one of them will start, "the first one holds that having free will means evil will have to follow and the second one says that evil is a tool used to get to some better result."

"Good. Good."

I note for them that this doesn't yet tell us whether our world is the best. It only tells us that there is an explanation for the presence of evil. But why should we see this world as best?

If we assume God's existence, and we commit to one of those two accounts being true, then there is a powerful theological principle we need to take seriously, which is this: whatever God does, it's in his nature to do perfectly.

I ask my students: "Given the conception of God that we've given, would God create a world that is less than best?"

Some say yes, others say no, but one consideration that at this point in the discussion seems compelling to many is that God has to do what's best, otherwise there is some deficiency in him that in inconsistent with the theological profile we drew up earlier. But what sort of deficiency might this be? When I ask, the answer always comes: some kind of moral deficiency. Students have a sense that if he has the power and wisdom and goodness to create the best, for God to create less than the best represents a kind of ethical scandal.

Doesn't this make God a prisoner? Is he now just a cosmic machine, needing to produce the best outcomes in all respects, continually and for eternity?

No, he did not have to create. Yet once he decided to do so, he was required to make the very best world it is possible to make. Some push back against this claim and disagree that he needed to create the absolute best. In doing so, they voice a position also taken by some very able contemporary philosophers of religion. I tell them it's a contentious topic and ask them to instead focus with me on a question that seems to be at the center of it all. This is the question of what "best" means. 

Some instances of "best" or "greatest" are straightforward, whereas others are not. The best type of pizza is New York style -- that's undeniable. Kidding. Some actually, to their shame, deny it. The point is that since those words -- "best" and "greatest" -- are value judgments, and since value judgments are always relative to some standard, the question becomes, Whose standard we now using? In this case, it will end up being false that this is the best of all worlds, if "best" here is relativized to a yardstick radically different from God's own set of priorities. But if we're adopting God's hierarchy of values for the purposes of evaluating whether this is the best of all worlds, there is room to see this world, our world, as indeed the very best.

After all our philosophical prodding, this conclusion still seems indefensible to many people. When Gottfried Leibniz, one of history's brightest intellectual lights, advanced his view that we are living in the best of all worlds, he was absolutely savaged by Voltaire in his Candide. For Voltaire and others, our first reaction comes closest to the truth: the manifold experiences of misery that we're familiar with seem to falsify the notion that we're living in the best of all worlds.

But I'm happy to report that for others, the arguments do make some sense. Perhaps this is the very best of all worlds. Though our vantage points, epistemically imperfect as they are, work well enough to give us the strong impression that there is more wrong with our world than we could ever make right -- they are superseded by an even stronger conviction that God is actively directing the sweep of human history toward its glorious fulfillment, the restitutionis omnium. And isn't that the world, seen now in a mirror dimly, that we will one day fully know?


Berny Belvedere is a professor of philosophy at Florida International University, Miami Dade College, and St. Thomas University. He has written on ethics, politics, economics, pop culture, and more, at a number of publications, including First Things, The Federalist, The ERLC, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere. He lives in Miami, Florida with his wife and two children.

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