Theism and the just-world hypothesis: would it be unreasonable for a Game of Thrones character to believe in an all-good, omnipotent creator?
June 12, 2013 — 0:00

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Afterlife Atheism & Agnosticism Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 5

[X-posted at Newapps] As the third season of Game of Thrones has ended, this interesting reflection, written by Adam Brereton, contends that A Song of Fire and Ice by G.R.R. Martin and the TV series based on it simply don’t work, because they do not obey what Chesterton has termed “elfin ethics”:

according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an ‘if’. The note of the fairy utterance always is, ‘You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word “cow”‘; or ‘You may live happily with the King’s daughter, if you do not show her an onion.’ The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.

In GOT, however, this rule doesn’t apply: people who do break oaths (like Robb Stark) get killed in a horrible way, but people who are honorable, try to do the right thing and don’t break oaths (like Eddard Stark) also get killed in a horrible way. In this, Martin differs from other fantasy writers, like H.P. Lovecraft or J.R.R. Tolkien. We can expect something like the massacre of the Starks at the Red Wedding to occur on a biweekly basis. So, Brereton concludes

Westeros just doesn’t work. Unlike Tolkien, Lovecraft and Peake, it is not a consistent creation. Where does the good exist?…In Martin’s broken world, good only resides in individual acts, only as long they don’t get you killed, which more often than not they do.

The intuition that fantasy works should have some moral compass, or indeed, that fantasy universes should ultimately be just worlds, is compelling. Indeed, as Mitch Hodge argues in this draft paper, we even have a strong intuition that the world, au fond, is a morally just place. People intuitively regard the world as a just place: the good prosper, the wicked suffer.

Sometimes this intuitive belief is threatened, for instance, when an apparently good person suffers misfortune. Several cultural solutions cope with these anomalies, for example, there is a cross-culturally attested tendency to blame the victim, who allegedly did something wrong earlier in life, or in a previous life (the concept of karma). Hodge argues that this intuition may be one of the driving forces to explain why cross-culturally, we believe that the afterlife is a place where “you get what’s coming to you”. Those who behave morally right get rewarded, those who do not get punished.

In A Song of Fire and Ice/GOT, this intuition is violated time and again: we have no reason at all to suppose the GOT universe is a just world. Suppose you are a character in the book series or TV series, would you be reasonable in assuming that the creator of that world is omnipotent and all-good? My intuition is that it would be reasonable to assume your universe is created by someone who is omnipotent, or at least so powerful it would be beyond your comprehension. You could apply the usual cosmological, ontological and other arguments for the existence of God. But it seems also to me that you would be unreasonable in assuming that the creator is omnibenevolent. Indeed (I’m not making any claims here about Martin’s character), it would seem more rational to assume that the creator is cruel and bent on seeing his creatures suffer. You could then, Stephen Law wise, make the reasonable assumption that God’s ultimate purpose is to create suffering and evil, and that all good things are merely there to make the suffering more acute and smartly felt. The joyous anticipation that Robb Stark and Talisa felt about their unborn baby was just there so that Robb could watch in horror as his wife was stabbed fatally in the womb on that fatal day, before being killed himself. 

The question now is: if GOT characters are unjustified in assuming their creator is all-good, are we not similarly unjustified in assuming our creator is all-good, as our world is arguably more like Westeros than like Middle Earth? There are, of course, classical theodicies that Westeros inhabitants could resort to, such as the free will defense, the argument that original sin is responsible, various forms of soul building, etc. But my intuition is that these responses ultimately fail in Westeros because they cannot adequately salvage our belief that the world is a just place, and without this belief, we have little reason to think there is an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.

If they fail in Westeros, what makes our world different from Westeros? As Hodge points out, perhaps the reasonable belief in some form of afterlife may salvage our belief that the world is ultimately a just place. But ultimately, we also require the reasonable belief that this world would be ultimately healed, so next to a new heaven we also require a new earth, as described in Revelation 21 (“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”) Ultimately, therefore, a reasonable theism (as a philosophical assumption) will have to make many auxilliary assumptions besides arguing for God’s existence. 

  • Aaron Bartolome

    Are the GOT characters even justified in believing in a creator (of their universe) in the first place? Let’s assume that they are for now. Are the GOT characters justified in believing that their creator is wholly good? Not if their only evidence comes from what they casually observe in their world. Hume made the same point about our situation (in the real world!) long ago via Philo in the “Dialogues.”
    Defenses and theodicies might be helpful when our purpose is to rebut arguments from evil against the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good God. But of course, defenses and theodicies don’t provide positive evidence FOR the existence of God.
    If the GOT characters want adequate evidence for the existence of a perfectly good/loving creator, natural theology (certainly design arguments!) won’t help them.

    June 13, 2013 — 0:17
  • Adam Brereton

    Thanks for an interesting commentary on the piece. Will be bookmarking and visiting this blog often. Cheers, AB

    June 14, 2013 — 0:05
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Nice connections.
    I wonder what might justify the premise that a GOT character would be unreasonable in assuming that the creator is omnibenevolent. Must one suppose that a priori arguments for a morally perfect first cause fail?
    Also, I wonder: do any characters in the GOT world receive revelation from God? If not, then couldn’t someone think that’s a difference.

    July 1, 2013 — 15:31
  • Kamal

    Where do I begin?
    “Our world is arguably more like Westeros than like Middle Earth”? Arguably? Really? Have you seen the state of the world recently and for — I dunno — the last several thousand years? Rulers have been waging wars for their own sake, without concern for ethics or their fellow man, since time immemorial. People have always been doing all they think they can get away with to gain the upper hand, to win the extra dollar, to claim control of the extra plot of land. Many people love Martin’s books (if not the tv series) because of their realism. In the real world good does not always immediately triumph over evil, and cheaters often win (“the arc of the moral universe is long…”).
    So yes, it’s a lot like our world. And it’s supposed to be — except, of course, that there are no chosen people, there’s no omnipotent Father, there’s no murdered-then-resurrected Lord, and there’s no Spirit-led church. So of course on careful reflection the Westerosi (and those in Essos and the other continents, for that matter) would be unjustified in assuming that their creator is all-good. If they have a creator, s/he hasn’t done anything like the major things on which we base our carefully considered beliefs that our Creator is all-good. And that may well be in part because — as far as we know of that world so far — if they have a creator, s/he may not be all-good. General revelation and prevenient grace only go so far.
    As for Martin’s moral vision: if you’ve only been watching the tv series you simply haven’t seen enough to start to see the good side of it yet. There have already been hints of it, but those won’t become clear until it really begins to unfold, and that doesn’t happen until the second half of the third book (which is what the fourth season will be based on). It isn’t fully clear what his vision is yet: its unfolding has continued into the fourth and fifth books, but there’s still quite a lot of plot left to go before it becomes clear. I have my own doubts about the quality of his moral vision, but I’m optimistic about it. There’s a lot of room left for it to develop some classic themes of the triumph of good and the demise of evil in profound, subtle and unconventional ways, and I’m inclined to think that that’s the direction in which it’s heading.

    July 1, 2013 — 18:33
  • Interesting question. However, I think Kamal hits it on the head. Game of Thrones is very reflective of reality and particularly medieval history. George RR Martin has admitted he has been very influenced by it.
    Because of this, the question could easily become, ‘is it reasonable for us (here in the real world) to believe in an all good, omnipotent creator?’ Perhaps an even better question would be, why was religion and the idea of an all good, omnipotent creator so prevalent in medieval Europe, when life for the average person was so difficult?
    The one thing this piece lacks is discussion of the actual religions in Game of Thrones. For example, the exotic religion from afar is the monotheistic one. The religion of the seven, though polytheistic, is organized much like Catholicism.
    And perhaps, most interesting of all, is the threat from the north. It puts all the battles for the throne in perspective, essentially showing that they are nothing more than petty squabbles. The real threat looms, unconscious to most. This is definitely an allegory for the fact that we tend not to address what is important and instead narrowly pursue only our own interests. You could interpret that through the lens of religion, if you wanted.

    July 26, 2013 — 8:23
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