Six Responses to Possible Worlds

Anthony Weber —  March 26, 2012 — 1 Comment

(Read Part 1: “The Problem of Pain”  and Part 2: “Possible, Painful Worlds”)

In response to the question of evil and the existence of possible worlds, a number of possibilities have been proposed.

First, would it have been better for God not to have created this world?  If He knew that evil would be present, perhaps He should not have created anything; in fact, He may have been morally obligated not to create this world if He knew there would be pain and suffering.

In response, theists have noted the idea of making a moral comparison between No World and Any World at all is nonsensical.  Norman Geisler says this is a category mistake, because “nothing” and “something” have nothing in common. Comparing a morally bad world and no world at all is like comparing rotten apples with non-existent oranges.

C.S. Lewis believed comparing being and non-being was just a word game, an argument that carryied no weight or significance. To Lewis, the more important issue was the reconciliation of the world as it is with the character and nature of God.

 A second possibility is that God could have created a world where people freely choose to do good every time they have a choice.  Given all possible worlds, there must be at least one world where every person freely chooses to do right every time; hence, this world is not the best.  A crucial aspect of this debate is the theory of middle knowledge.  This is the idea that God knows every choice in every situation of every possible free creature. The Jesuits called this “middle knowledge” because it is somewhere between God’s knowledge of the possible and the actual.

The Jesuit priest Luis Molina separated God’s knowledge into three categories:  natural knowledge, free knowledge, and middle knowledge.   Building from Molina, proponents of the “middle knowledge” theory argue that  God knows what a free creature could do (natural knowledge) and will do (middle knowledge) in any given situation, not because He creates circumstances that causally determine what the free creature will do, but because he knows how the creature will freely choose.

God knows that Agent X, placed in circumstance Y, will freely perform action Z.  (References in the Bible that appear to support this theory include 1 Samuel 23:6-13 and Matthew 11:20-24, where God provides information about what would have happened had a given situation occurred.)

The atheodicist can use this argument as well.  Using this theory as a base, why not argue that God, through middle knowledge, could have brought  about people he knew would always choose good?  And since He didn’t, well, we are back to our original critique.

Alvin Plantinga addresses this issue by submitting his theory concerning transworld depravity.  If there is middle knowledge,  God may have known in advance is that significantly free people would always commit at least one wrong action, no matter their world or circumstance.

God could have created a world where no one chooses to do moral evil, but then that would not be a world with free people.  Perhaps God has even actualized a world populated by people who, in spite of the horrors that have been committed, make the fewest possible wrong choices in any possible world  which contains free will. Hitler committed some of the world’s most horrible atrocities; is it possible that in every other world Hitler would have committed at least the same amount of evil?  And even if Hitler had not, perhaps someone else would have brought about the same horrors, if not more horrific ones.

Robert Adams – who believes universal transworld depravity is implausible – agrees with Plantinga that perhaps God could not create free creatures who would always choose to do moral good.  He also does not believe that God exercises middle knowledge, which adds an element of guesswork into God’s’ creation. However, Adams still believes that the existence of free will, which requires possibilities from which to choose, suggest the implausibility of a possible world of human perfection.

In fact, the idea of God creating only people who always freely choose good may in essence take away the idea of freedom.

In a world with true freedom of choice, God cannot actualize a scenario in which free people always will choose good any more than He could actualize a square circle; it is logically impossible.  If free will is true and genuine, God cannot make a world that forces a freely chosen decision in a contradictory direction. So once again, while this world seems to be theoretically desirable, there is much doubt that it could be actualized.

    A third possibility is that there is a possible world where people are free but must choose good, or (and this is certainly not a desirable world) where people are free but must choose evil. The apparently illogical self-contradiction aside, these possible worlds face the same criticism that faces the “no world’ scenario:  it is not a good analogy.  Comparing a world where there is freedom to a world where there is no freedom is comparing not just apples and oranges, but more aptly apples and non-apples.  For example, a world with no free creatures may be better in a physical sense, since it has less pain and sickness.  But physical improvement is not the only marker with which to judge the goodness of a world.

If we are to be free to be good, we must also be free to be bad.  And while this freedom allows for corruption to creep in, it also allows for goodness, and moral improvement, and hope.

But is this evil worth it?  According to the Free Will defense, yes. Therefore, the possible world under discussion, even if possible, would not be a better world.  A world with free people is more valuable than a world with none.  God has given people the dignity of being able to choose good or evil.  If people choose poorly, their decision in not God’s fault. 

A fourth possibility is that there could be a world where God would intervene so that pain is  lessened or removed.  This possible world does not question the presence of evil, but the amount and intensity. David Hume asks for the eradication of all evil: “In short, might not the deity exterminate all ill, wherever it were to be found, and produce all good, without any preparation or long process of cause and effects?” William Rowe, as noted earlier, asks for a much more modest intervention:  merely the nullifying of gratuitous evil, or evil for which we can see no apparent justification. John Roth has pointed to what He calls God’s largesse in giving freedom that has resulted in a wild world full of gratuitous pain. According to Roth, we have more power and freedom than we can handle.

The primary basis for believing this world is not the best world is the argument that pain is bad and pleasure is good; therefore, the more pleasure and less pain the world has, the better the world would be. Pleasure evidently has an intrinsic value which is good in itself regardless of whether it is goal-directed. In a sense, this is a utilitarian argument concerning God’s character: a “good” God would provide the greatest good (pleasure) to the greatest number of people.

One problem with this view is that it is difficult to see how one can know that all instances of pain are bad; many instances of pain are good in themselves or lead to a good result.  The pain of a shot leads to a vaccination against disease; the discomfort of a strenuous workout leads to better health; the searing pain that tells us our hand is being burned on the stove enables us to prevent further damage.

Indeed, leprosy is such a destructive disease precisely because lepers cannot feel the damage that is done to the body, which results in infections that ultimately lead to death.  Dr. Paul Brand, after working in the United States’ only leprosarium, said, “If I had one gift I could give to people with leprosy, it would be the gift of pain.”

But what about the pain that accompanies wrong action?  Surely God could prevent that.  One should not have to suffer because of the decisions of others.  But who can describe the mechanism of creation and the laws which would govern its continued existence, and why should this even be considered?  Until this happens, perhaps we should accept that every possible world with sentient creatures similar to ourselves must contain a certain amount of evil, or it would be massively irregular.  After all, a world full of constant  interruption of natural law to mitigate our bad actions would most likely be a world of chaos.  One solution is to have a world without people, but is that really a better world than one with people?

As Lewis points out, there is really no way for God to achieve this pain-free utopian goal without removing free will.  The removal of even one negative effect would create a world without that effect, but we would not know this. Since we were not aware that God had already removed maximal pain, God would be put into the same position again.  We would demand He remove the next evil effect.  Where would this cycle end?

A world with only pleasure would not be a “good” world; its massive irregularity would be as great a defect as the presence of evil.  Perhaps God has more important things to do than maximize our pleasure.

This world would also take away the ability to build character, to act nobly and virtuously, and to display courage and temperance and fortitude.  The Savage of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in his defense of life with pain, tells Mustapha Mond, “What you need is something with tears for a change.  Nothing costs enough here.”

This would be, in Richard Swineburne’s words, a toy world in which nothing matters very much.   This ability to make moral choices and be rewarded or punished accordingly is a crucial part of the soul-making process, a process which is necessary in the formulation of what makes us truly human.

In an online article entitled “Augustine on Evil,” Greg Koukl has noted, “A world that had never been touched by evil would be a good place, but it wouldn’t be the best place possible. The best of all worlds would be a place where evil facilitated the development of virtues that are only able to exist where evil flourishes for a time.  This would produce a world populated by souls that were refined by overcoming evil with good.  The evil is momentary.  The good that results is eternal.”

From a logical perspective, it may not even be possible for a world to exist that contains only intrinsically good states of affairs, since every state of affairs is of such a nature that every possible world contains either the state or its negation.

A fifth possibility is that the idea of other possible worlds is incoherent, either philosophically or logically.

Is there a possible world where there are no possible worlds? If so, the idea is nullified: if our world has no possible worlds, there are clearly no possible worlds; if there is another actualized world in which there are no possible worlds, then ours doesn’t exist.

For reasons such as this, it is not actually clear which possibilities God could have chosen.  We have to consider metaphysical possibilities, not just conceptual or logical ones.  Conceptual possibility is not the same as metaphysical possibility.  Lewis wondered if this was perhaps the only possible world, because the idea that  God could have created something else but didn’t was too uncomfortably anthropomorphic for him.  A God of perfect goodness and wisdom would not need to engage in internal debate.

To Lewis, the idea that God would have ever needed to debate this issue undermines the character of the very God being argued against.  But since the existence of God is what is being argued, this should be addressed as a result of the argument, not during the process.  If the nature of the God being discussed is destroyed during the process of formulating the argument, the argument may as well be abandoned before it begins.

Finally,  getting caught up in speculation about what a best possible world would look like – at least from our perspective – may be an impossible exercise in futility.  We can always think of something slightly better.

The “degree of desirability of state,” to use Schlesinger’s terminology, has no limits. Fans of  Toy Story laugh when Buzz Lightyear  claims he is going “to infinity and beyond,” because the concept is absurd; is it any more absurd when applied to theoretically possible worlds?

  The sixth possibility is this world, the world in which we live:  a world where free creatures can and do sin, and as a result there is suffering.  Hume’s character Demea argued, as did Augustine (with what has been called the “principle of plentitude”), that in spite of individual cases of suffering, the good of the whole is more important and has been adequately accomplished in the best possible manner in this world.  This view sees the universe as an “organic whole,” whose value comes from something more than just the sum of the good and bad parts.  For example, Swineburne has noted that God could have created three types of worlds:  a finished, perfectly good universe that needs no improvement; an unfinished, evil universe that can never be improved; or a good universe that is partially finished, allowing for significant moral actions as our character is built rather than given to us. This partially finished universe has in it an overwhelming, intrinsic good (Free Will) that completes it and gives it a worth greater than the sum of its individual parts.

(Up next – and last in the series: “Pain and the Big Picture”)


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 (,, and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.