Possible, Painful Worlds

Anthony Weber —  March 19, 2012 — 3 Comments

The sheer scope of the pain and suffering on earth is a daunting challenge for the theist. The previous post discussed the Logical Problem of Evi(Read Part 1 here).  The core argument of the Evidential Problem of Evil is that if this world could be better, then the traditional theistic God does not exist.  This inductive EPE argument has been popularized by William Rowe in the following manner:

  1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

                2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

                3. There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Rowe cites two primary example to support his argument:  a fictional story of a fawn being burned to death horribly in a forest fire, and the true story of a young girl from Flint, Michigan, who was cruelly raped and killed for no apparent reason. If there is a God, says Rowe, God is required by His nature to make a world that does not contain this seemingly gratuitous evil.  At minimum, says Rowe, it is unlikely that “an omnipotent, omniscient being could not have achieved at least some of those goods  (or prevented some of those evils) without permitting the instances of intense suffering that are supposedly related to them.”  Couldn’t God have created a world in which life is even a little bit better?

Here then is the crux of an argument about God that references possible worlds.  If someone could show that God could have created other, better worlds but did not, the traditional Christian theistic concept of God would be dealt a serious blow.

This concept of possible worlds has generated much controversy.  Some philosophers believe these possible worlds are real worlds, while others believe they are purely theoretical and should be appealed to only for the purpose of illustration.  Others wonder how crucial the argument even is, since the argument over the compatibility of God and the presence of evil has lost some of the impact it once had.  However, the widespread appeal of the argument certainly makes it worthy of a considered response.

The response to this problem of evil, like the problem itself, has a history.  Gottfried  Leibnitz  popularized the idea of possible worlds when he suggested that in spite of all we see around us, this world is still the best of all possible worlds. His basic argument was that since God’s will is perfect, and He has willed this world, then this world must be the best possible world.  Something about this world compelled God to create it rather than any other, and that is a good enough reason to believe as Leibnitz does (this is also known as the Principle of Sufficient Reason).

Voltaire strongly mocked him in the classic Candide, a story in which the hapless hero undergoes and sees horrific instances ofsuffering while attempting to adhere to the philosophy of his teacher, Pangloss, who told him that no matter what happened, it was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.  When Candide finds out that his childhood love had been killed, he asks if it had been from love sickness. “’No,’ says Pangloss,’ she was disemboweled by Bulgar soldiers after having been raped as much as a woman can be.’”

Pangloss goes on to say that he is dying from a venereal disease which had been passed on to him through a rather complex assembly of characters.  However, he assures Candide that “it was an indispensable element in the best of worlds.”  As the story unfolds, the hapless Candide sees the worst that humanity has to offer:  greed, slavery, debauchery, and cruelty.   In other words, says Voltaire, if this world is the best, God has a lot for which to be held accountable.

Since then, many philosophers have agreed: there is not much to be said for an ineffectual god whose excuse is that he always does the best he can.  Their conclusion? Voltaire was right: if there is a god, he is stuck alongside us picking up the pieces of history, which  are many and bloodied.  This is, of course, a pretty astonishing assumption.  On would have to show a compelling reason why our inability to understand God counts against him; as this has not been done, the conclusion hardly follows – though it could.

So who is right?  Is this world the best of all possible ones? The worst? Somewhere in the middle?  Are other worlds even possible?

(Up next: “Six Responses to Possible Worlds”


Anthony Weber


Anthony graduated from Cedarville University in 1995 with a degree in English Education, and from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana in 2004 with a Master's Degree in Theology and Philosophy. Anthony is a husband and father of three, an author ("Learning to Jump Again"), high school and college teacher, pastor, blogger (tcapologetics.org, empiresandmangers.blogspot.com), and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.