Why not the best?


bniz: this universe must be in reality better than every other
possible universe…Leibniz

This universe must be in reality better than every other possible universe Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

Dr. Pangloss taught metaphysico- theologo- cosmolonigology. He could prove that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as allpangloss things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings… Voltaire (1694-1778), Candide

So she’s like all “problem of evil.” And I’m like, “theodicy, barmaid, theodicy!”

..if you wish for superficiality incarnate, you have only to read that charmingly written Theodicy of Leibniz, in which he sought to justify the ways of God to man, and to prove that the world we live in is the best of possible worlds… William James, Pragmatism wj

Philosopher Susan Neiman reminds us that eighteenth century thinkers like Voltaire saw the great Lisbon earthquake as a metaphysically game-changing event.

For some, Lisbon lessened either God’s beneficence or his power.

For others, the quake lessened their estimation of human reason  and a reasonable world. Nature, according to enlightened minds,  was a benign and intelligible force. Its well-oiled operation  reflected the intelligence and skill of a designer God. Could we,  though, retain our confidence in reason, and thus in God’s ways,  in the rubble of Lisbon?

voltaireWhere are our Voltaires, spotlighting the suffering wrought by natural phenomena (Katrina, quakes, tsunamis, tornadoes et al) and the challenges they pose to any rational theist?

Well, there’s Bart Ehrman. (BTW: Ehrman is a former classmate of my colleague Mike Hinz. We hope to bring him to our fair campus next year.) He’s a respected Bible scholar at the University of North Carolina who until quite recently considered himself a devout Christian.

The leading reason given by atheists and agnostics for their disbelief is the problem of suffering or evil. David Hume put it this way, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

In God’s Problem, Ehrman joins the skeptics. He writes:  “the Bible fails to answer our most important question– why we suffer.” Suffering, he says, “is not only senseless, it is also random, capricious, and unevenly distributed… Why are the sick wracked with unspeakable pain? Why are babies born with birth defects? Why are young children kidnapped, raped, and murdered? Why does a child die  of hunger every five seconds?”

That was Dostoevsky’s question too, in Brothers Karamazov (Book V, Ch. 4 – “Rebellion”), where Ivan asks:  “Are you fond of children, Alyosha? I know you are, and you will understand why I prefer to speak of them. If they, too, suffer horribly on earth, they must suffer for their fathers’ sins, they must be punished for their fathers, who have eaten  the apple; but that reasoning is of the other world and is incomprehensible for the heart of man here on earth…

dostoevskyI renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed… to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony.”

So is Ehrman the Christian-cum-agnostic in despair about evil? No. “The solution to life is to enjoy it while weecclesiastes can, because it is fleeting. The idea that this life is all there is should not be an occasion for despair and despondency. It should be a source of joy and dreams—joy of living for the moment, and dreams of trying to make the world a better place… This means working to alleviate suffering.”

Finally, consider a somewhat banal analogy. “Suppose you found yourself at school in a dormitory. Things are not too good.  The roof leaks, there are rats, the food is almost inedible, some students in fact starve to death.

dormThere is a closed door, behind which is the management, but the management never comes out. You get to speculate what the management must be like. Can you infer from the dormitory as you find it that the management, first, knows… …exactly what conditions are like, second, cares intensely for your welfare, and third, possesses unlimited resources for fixing things? The inference is crazy. You would be almost certain to infer that either the management doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or cannot do anything about it. Nor does it make things any better if occasionally you come across a student who declaims that he has become privy to the mind of the management, and is assured that the management indeed knows, cares, and has resources and ability to do what it wants. The overwhelming inference is not that the management is like that, but that this student is deluded. Perhaps his very deprivations have deluded him.” Simon Blackburn, Think

And perhaps belief runs hotter in nice dorms. Should it?

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2 Responses to “Why not the best?”

  1. Bob Teesdale Says:

    I think Simon Blackburn needs to rethink his analogy about God as the manager of the dorm. Who says God should be the manager that we call whenever we need something? I think it would be better to think of god as the general contractor who built the building. Do we blame him when we have let the place go to the rats? Or better still, we could think of God as the bricks and mortar the building was made of. Do we fault these when we have allowed our living conditions to become unbearable?

  2. Mike Says:

    Bob, the general contract analogy paints a Deistic picture for me, a creator who sat back in hands-off mode after he finished his building project. The manager of the dorm is more like the familiar Christian god we are encouraged to call on for any need, large or small. Why do you object to accuracy of that depiction?

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