The Modal Problem Improved
January 6, 2015 — 22:45

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Existence of God Problem of Evil Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 13

There’s a good version of the modal problem of evil in Ted Guleserian’s (TG), ‘God and Possible Worlds: The Modal Problem of Evil’ (GPW) in Nous (1983). GPW is directly largely to Plantinga’s modal realism+theism and similar views. But I think the problem is more difficult than he suggests. TG tries to show that there is a possible world in which there is pointless and preventable evil. And so he invites a response of modal skepticism about such a world. He would have been better advised to provide a series of worlds, a G series and a B series, and then ask how the evil in the B series could be necessary to a greater good: i.e., how the evil in the B series could be justified evil.

It’s a common view among theists that there is no best possible world. This position helps to explain, among other things, why our world is not the best possible. Instead, there is a series of worlds, w0, w1, w2, . . ., wn of better and better worlds with no upper bound on positive value. w0 might include n happy people (or n completely fulfilled people or n people experiencing the beatific vision, etc). w1 includes n + 1 happy people, w2 include n + 2. And so on upward. There’s an addition argument here that’s hard to resist; worlds can get better in this respect, no matter how good. Call that the G series.

There is also a series, w-1, w-2, w-3, . . ., w-n of worse and worse worlds with no lower bound on disvalue. w-1 includes n suffering people, w-2 includes n + 1 suffering people, and so on downward. There’s an addition argument here that’s hard to resist; worlds can get worse in this respect, no matter how bad they are. Call that the B series.

The modal argument of evil charges that the evil in, say, w-3, is not necessary to a greater good, since, obviously, there is a better world in the B series–w-2, say–that includes less suffering and is better. Of course, this understates the problem. There is a much better world in the G series that includes much less suffering and evil. So, clearly, the evil in the B series is not necessary to any greater good.

This is a much more difficult version of the modal argument from evil. It is a version that retreating to a credible form of modal skepticism won’t help. This is not to say, of course, that I don’t think there is a solution.

  • Mike:

    “There is a much better world in the G series that includes much less suffering and evil.”

    This hasn’t been argued for. All you have is that there is an upward series of better and better worlds. That series might be a series of worlds which have more and more suffering and evil (and, of course, even more more and more good). Or it might be a series of worlds that have all the same sufferings and evils that our world does, but that have additional goods that unconnected with these sufferings and evils (e.g., a world just like this one, but with an extra happy angelic mathematician).

    All that said, I do not feel the pull of the upward series.

    Consider this claim: (N) There is an infinite sequence of English-language novels, each one better than the preceding.

    While we can always add an interesting incident that illuminates the characters to a good novel, eventually the novel suffers aesthetically. There is either a loss of artistic unity (the author has too much to say) or there is undue prolixity (the author has too little to say for the length).

    Now it’s not obvious that the same is true for worlds, but it’s also not obvious that it’s not, especially if worlds are seen as divine works of art.

    January 7, 2015 — 10:50
  • Michael Almeida

    This hasn’t been argued for. All you have is that there is an upward series of better and better worlds. That series might be a series of worlds which have more and more suffering and evil (and, of course, even more more and more good).

    Hi Alex,

    Oh, that’s quite right. If I were writing it up, I’d probably start with w0 for both the upward and downward series. So, think of it as an ‘addition argument’ that in some interesting ways parallels the subtraction arguments we’ve talked about. I’m not saying anything that most theists don’t already say in other contexts, and what I independently find highly credible. Take w0 and add one more happy person (or, one more cherub, whatever you like). The addition of the cherub yields the slightly better world w1 (of course, don’t take the addition too literally). Add two more happy cherubs and we have w2… and so on upward. All I wish to say so far is that we can get a better world if we add some valuable beings having valuable experiences. Does the series go infinitely upward? You suggest some interesting reasons why it would not. I’m inclined to believe it would, though I’m also inclined to believe that there is a best world. But either way, it does not matter to the argument. Let’s say that there is a finite upward series in improving worlds, if you find that more credible.

    I begin again at w0 and and add one unhappy or suffering person. The addition of the unhappy person yields the slightly worse world, w-1. The addition of two unhappy people yields, w-2, and so on downward. Again, I’m inclined to believe that the sequence is infinite and that there is a worst world. But let the series be finite, if you like.

    If there are two series (G series and B series) as described, then there is a world w-3 in the B series that includes gratuitous evil. There is some suffering person in w-3 that is not suffering in the better world w-2, since that being does not exist in w-2. And we can remove the suffering beings in the B series all the way up and into the G series, without any cost in value. So, if there are such finite series’, and it is really hard to deny that there are such series’, then there is gratuitous evil in the pluriverse. That’s how this new modal argument from evil goes.

    January 7, 2015 — 11:14
  • Remark

    Hi Dr Almeida,

    What Dr Pruss has written reminds me of a passage from Leibniz, where he suggests that evil contributes to the world’s beauty much as dull color and discord contribute to the beauty of art and music. He (Leibniz) claims that it is only when viewed from the perspective of eternity that the world’s true beauty can be seen. Presumably, he means that the world is a perdurant, such that it is illegitimate to make judgements about it based on only the short temporal segments we experience.
    On this understanding, evil is robbed of its moral significance and given an aesthetic one. This, by itself, does not eliminate the possibility of gratuitous evil, for this can now be described using aesthetic language. Thus, a world containing gratuitous evil would be one with ‘too much dullness or discord’, say. But what has not been considered is the duration of worlds. Perhaps all possible worlds (on this view) perdure only long enough for their beauty to remain untarnished by ‘too much’ bad stuff. If so, then in no possible world is evil gratuitous. All worlds are as beautiful as they can be; the only difference is how long they remain in existence.
    Again, just an idea. The modal problem is very perplexing! Incidentally, I’m not suggesting that Dr Pruss would endorse such an argument.

    January 8, 2015 — 5:54
    • Remark

      Oops, I forgot to add that the series of possible worlds is to be ranked in terms of both their longevity and aesthetic splendour. E.g., a (relatively) short-lived world could have an aesthetic value of n overall (in virtue of which it is as beautiful as it could be); a slightly longer-lived word could have an aesthetic value of n+1, and so on. In no world is there such a degree of ugliness that its beauty is threatened. Were such ugliness to pose a threat, God would annihilate that world.

      I have the feeling I’m grabbing at straws!

      January 8, 2015 — 7:27
      • Michael Almeida

        I don’t think Leibniz denied that there was genuine evil, though of course he affirmed that ours was the best possible world. Leibniz argued that God did not exist in the less-than-best possible worlds, and he could not actualize them, so it looks like there is no genuine modal problem for him. On the other hand, Leibniz was probably stuck with necessitarianism in spite of himself. The less-than-best worlds he talks about are not genuinely possible worlds (though they exist).

        January 8, 2015 — 8:55
        • Kevin Corbett

          I think (or at least according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy @ the later Lebiniz did in fact adopt the privation view of evil (which would deny it positive existence).

          January 8, 2015 — 10:59
          • Michael Almeida

            It is hard to keep track of Leibniz’s rather loose use of words and the positions he held. I trust the SEP entry, but I don’t for a second think it matters to this discussion. If you inform me that the torturing of a child is really just a privation, and not a positive evil, my attitude toward the torture does not turn to one of relief. I’m not in the least inclined to say that I don’t mind it so much now. It is still a horrible evil, whatever it’s nature turns out to be, and the world is better off without it. One easy way to see this is to consider being informed that your own suffering at the hands of another is not so bad since it’s only a privation. Privation or not, it feels the same terrible way, and it is reasonable to believe that a perfect being wouldn’t permit it.

            January 8, 2015 — 11:54
          • Kevin Corbet

            Well, the issue is probably beyond me, I just thought it worth pointing out that Lebiniz view, or at least, as you say, his language, was rather shifty on the matter.

            January 8, 2015 — 14:08
  • Michael Almeida

    agreed, it’s pretty shifty.

    January 8, 2015 — 14:10
    • Remark

      Well – where are we at? Basically, either the modal problem (as presented) is somehow misconceived, or else theism is false. The difficulty we have is that, in defending theism against gratuitous evil (GE), we are trying to falsify a thesis (about GE) that seems unfalsifiable: the mere possibility of GE rules out theism a priori. This looks highly suspicious to me, so I reckon the problem must be misconceived. How, I’m not sure. At this stage, if Dr Almeida has a solution up his sleeve, it would be great if he were to spell it out. Waiting with great anticipation!

      January 9, 2015 — 10:15
  • Michael Almeida

    Hi Remark,

    I have a preferred solution to this problem, but that’ll have to wait. I can say that there are folks who see the problem and who have offered solutions. There is the multiverse solution (MS), for instance, according to which every on balance good universe is actual and there is just one possible world. MS explains away our modal intuitions that there are worlds containing gratuitous evil by claiming that there are universes (not worlds, but universes) that contain evil that serves no greater purposes to the universe. Those evils, at the same time, are non-gratuitous relative to the world, since they are necessary to actualization of the best (the only) possible world. So, in a way, they have their cake and eat it too. There is gratuitous evil, in one sense, but not in the sense relevant to the existence of God.

    January 9, 2015 — 10:27
    • Remark

      Hi Dr Almeida,

      Thank you for your response. I’m not a fan of MS, really. As far as I know, advocates of MS claim, in effect, that the actual world consists of your G-series universes. But there are still issues with this. Is the number of universes infinite or finite? Is there a best universe among them, or are they all equally good (on balance)? If they are equally good, what reason could God have for creating more than one (Leibniz’ problem again)? If they are all good yet unequal, what reason could God have for creating those universes at the bottom end of the series? The world would look better overall if He didn’t. Where might the cut-off point be, especially if the series has infinitely many members? Why might God want there to be beings who are much better off in some universes than in others? In my view, there are lots of other issues as well. Sorry for posing so many questions!

      January 9, 2015 — 10:49
      • Michael Almeida

        I try to answer some of these questions in a new post on multiverses.

        January 9, 2015 — 11:55
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