Doing the Impossible
January 19, 2015 — 8:52

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Uncategorized  Tags:   Comments: 22

Suppose it is true, as so many theists believe, that there is no best possible world (I think this is false, as I argued here). Certainly, the most common theistic response to this metaphysical fact is that it presents no insurmountable problem for the perfect being theist. God cannot be required to actualize the best world–or the unsurpassed world–since there is no such world. Here’s an argument that’s often given against the claim in (C).

C. A perfect being cannot actualize a sub-optimal world.

1. There are infinitely many improving worlds with no upper bound. (Assume)

2. There is no best possible world. (From 1)

3. If there is no best possible world, then God is not required to actualize the best possible world. (Ought-Can)

4. ∴ God is not required to actualize the best possible world. (From 2,3)

5. ∴ A perfect being is permitted to actualize a sub-optimal world (From 4)

But what does (5) have to do with the claim in (C)? Nothing that I can tell. (C) tells us what a perfect being necessarily does not do. (5) tells us what a perfect being is permitted to do. (C) is a metaphysical claim about the nature of a perfect being. (5) is a moral claim about what a perfect being is permitted to do. All we can conclude from (C) and (5) is (6).

6. A perfect being cannot do everything he is permitted to do.

(6) is perfectly compatible with (C). (C) makes no moral claims at all. But we cannot conclude (7), since (7) does not follow from (5).

7. A perfect being can actualize a sub-optimal world.

To get to (7) from (5) we need the principle in (P).

P. A perfect being can do everything he is permitted to do.

But (P) is false, since may does not imply can. God is permitted to square the circle, there is no moral objection to his doing so. Yet it’s impossible that he do so, he can’t do it.

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New claim (C’):

C’. A Quad cannot actualize a three-angled triangle.

1′. There are no non-three-angled triangles. Fact

2′. If there are no non-three-angled triangles, then a Quad is not required to actualize a non-three-angled triangle. (Ought-Can)

3′. ∴ A Quad is not required to actualize a non-three-angled triangle. (From 2,3)

4′. ∴ A Quad is permitted to actualize a three-angled triangle (From 4)

From (C’) and (4′) the most we can conclude is (5′).

5′.  A Quad cannot do everything he is permitted to do.

We cannot get to (6′).

6′. A Quad can actualize a three-angled triangle.

In order to derive (6′) we need the principle in (P’).

P’. A Quad can do everything that he is permitted to do.

But, again, (P’) is false.

Comments:
  • Kevin Corbett

    I would like to understand the implications of this argument a bit more. By this logic, do you suppose that theists who believe there is no best possible world should give up their theism, because:

    1. There is no best possible world
    2. A perfect being cannot actualize a sub-optimal world (apparently not contradicted by 1-5 above)
    3. At least one world suboptimal (by 1) world obtains, our own.
    4. Therefore, there is no perfect being.

    January 19, 2015 — 12:27
  • Michael Almeida

    I don’t think I conclude that anyone should give up their theism. Do I? What this argument shows is that a familiar way of trying to evade the problem of no best world is unsuccessful. There may well be other ways to do it. I point out that the claim that God is not morally required to actualize the best world does not entail that (C) is false. What follows instead is that God cannot do everything he is permitted to do. It is not surprising that God cannot do everything he is permitted to do, since that holds for everyone. You might try replacing (P) with (P1):
    P1. If God is permitted to do A and A is intrinsically possible, then God can do A.
    But (P1) is also false. God is permitted to forget the sum of 2 + 2–he would violate no moral obligation in doing so–but he cannot do it.

    January 19, 2015 — 12:36
    • Kevin Corbett

      Can you explain then, what is the rationale behind C? Why cannot God actualize a suboptimal world?

      January 19, 2015 — 13:06
  • Michael Almeida

    God’s a rationally perfect being–that’s what I mean by ‘perfect’–he is an optimizer. I do not mean that he always does the best he can; it is easy to imagine a being who always does the best he can, in every world in which he exists, and who is not rationally perfect. It would be the counterpart for rational action of Plantinga’s McEar for omnipotence.

    January 19, 2015 — 13:11
    • Kevin Corbett

      Isn’t that just saying, God has to actualize the best possible world because, as an optimizer, he has to actualize the best possible world? Why does God being a rationally perfect being imply he has to actualize the best possible world?

      January 19, 2015 — 13:26
  • Michael Almeida

    see above

    January 19, 2015 — 14:41
    • Remark

      Hi Dr Almeida,

      Just a minor observation. Leibniz, like yourself, believed that a best world is possible. And, like yourself, he considered what God would do (or would have done) if the concept of a BPW were incoherent. Leibniz concluded, from your steps 1 and 2, that God would create (or would have created) no world at all. For, whatever possible world He picked out, He could always pick out a better. God’s creating no world rather than a particular one would not be the result of a decision. Rather, it would be because He would be unable to make any decision at all.

      January 20, 2015 — 5:32
      • Interesting note. But I think there could be another solution. Let´s say there is some level of amount of goodness which is sufficiently high (without concretizing what exactly it means), call it MLA. Then God could create all the worlds which contains MLA. What do you think?

        January 20, 2015 — 5:52
        • Remark

          Hi Jakub,

          I think we must then return to Dr Almeida’s thread on the multiverse (solution), for your suggestion (it seems to me) involves all that was said there. I, personally, am not a keen advocate of the theistic multiverse idea, for reasons that I tried to explain in that thread.

          On another matter, I do not quite understand the idea of God’s being *permitted* to do such and such, unless all that means is that He has a morally sufficient reason for doing such and such. If not, then whose permission does God require? And, of course, there is the old issue raised by Euthyphro: does God create (or determine) the standard of what is morally permissible, or must He act according to a higher standard. And quite a lot flows from an answer to that, which may relate to the present discussion.

          January 20, 2015 — 6:50
        • Michael Almeida

          The good enough worlds solution has been urged many times, but it miserably fails each time. The failure is for reasons largely unnoticed (unfortunately); God exists in every world and therefore possibly actualizes each world, full stop.

          January 20, 2015 — 7:53
      • Michael Almeida

        On current view of possible world, it is not possible not to actualize a world–though it is possible to create nothing. There are worlds in which there is nothing concrete, but there are no worlds in which there is nothing. So, there being nothing is not a possibility.

        January 20, 2015 — 7:47
  • Remark

    Just a simple question: would the BPW, or for that matter, any world at all describable as good or bad, necessarily contain sentient beings who were intelligent enough to make judgements about good and bad? Imagine: W1 contains verdant pastures, excellent conditions for plant life, calm seas, the most colourful sunsets etc. W2 contains constant nuclear explosions, no life-forms, an atmosphere of hydrogen cyanide, etc. In neither world does sentient life exist. Is W1 better than W2?

    January 20, 2015 — 10:30
    • Michael Almeida

      I think that the addition of sentient beings sometimes makes a world world, sometimes better. It depends on other facts about the world. Subtracting sentient beings from your second world, for instance, would likely make it better.

      January 20, 2015 — 10:58
      • Remark

        Well, if W2 lacked sentient beings, then from whose point of view could it be better, or worse, than W1? It could be judged from God’s point of view or, possibly, from an absolute point of view that is independent of sentience. I’m not at all sure what the last possibility could amount to. I can understand (I think) that a world could contain concrete objects independently of any perceiving mind (or what it would be to be that world), but I’m less confident about judgements being formed about worlds where no beings exist to make them.

        I’m wondering whether a world devoid of sentience could have moral/aesthetic properties, or have judgements made about it.

        January 20, 2015 — 11:25
  • Michael Almeida

    If you have some good reason to believe that moral properties are not objective–i.e. do not exist independently of consciousness of them–then there would not be such properties in the world you describe. I have no such argument.

    January 20, 2015 — 11:28
    • Remark

      No, I have no such argument (to hand) either. Still, unless viewed from some absolute or God’s pov, what could be the point in a world’s possessing objective moral properties if there were no beings capable of recognising them? “Thou shalt not kill” seems devoid of all meaning to me if there are no agents capable of killing, or of doing anything whatsoever.

      I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the quality of worlds is meaningful only if there are beings capable of determining, or deciding upon, that quality. It seems to me that God, without reproach, could create the most rubbish world He could conceive as long as it was empty of minds, and that it is only in worlds containing minds that quality matters.

      January 20, 2015 — 11:46
  • Michael Almeida

    You’ve got several different questions together here: (i) would a world be better (other things equal) with sentient beings (ii) would an other wise bad world be creatable if there were no sentient beings (iii) what point is there is creating a world without sentient beings… I think I’d say this: the reason for actualizing s world appeals to the value of a world, and the value of a world is a metaphysical question. That is, the goodness of a world–quite apart from it’s being appreciated for it’s goodness–is the reason for actualizing it. The epistemological question concerning whether someone knows a world is good is being run together with the metaphysical question of it’s value. The former is not (directly) relevant to the question of whether it should be actualized. It might be indirectly relevant insofar as the knowledge of value is itself valuable.

    January 20, 2015 — 11:58
    • Remark

      Sometimes, metaphysical and epistemological issues come apart quite clearly, and sometimes they are much more entangled and less separable.

      To illustrate: some materialists would say that the issues are quite separate. Physical objects could exist independently of any perceiving mind (or any mind that knows of them). The metaphysical question of whether there are material objects, or whether they are possible, can be answered independently of the epistemological question of whether we can know that such objects exist or are possible.

      On the other hand, Berkeley would regard the metaphysical and epistemological questions as being much closer; that they are inseparable. That is, the metaphysical question of objects’ existence can be settled only by reference to the epistemological question of our (perceptual) experience of them. No perceiving (knowing) minds: no objects.

      It seems to me, then, that the two issues may or may not be intimately related, depending on what reality is assumed to be.

      So, I wonder whether the question of a world’s value is closer in kind to the materialist’s view of reality, or to Berkeley’s. I tend to be ‘an idealist’ when it comes to value: that value (good and bad) have no real existence or meaning independent of any valuer.

      Leibniz (again) claimed that the perfection of a world consisted in its degree of positive reality. The more stuff the world contained (according to certain rules) the more perfect it would be. So he would separate the issues in question. But he was not really speaking about value – just numbers.

      January 20, 2015 — 13:06
      • Kevin Corbett

        ” I tend to be ‘an idealist’ when it comes to value: that value (good and bad) have no real existence or meaning independent of any valuer.”

        You could still hold this without necessarily requiring there be other sentient beings, since God is a sentient being. It’s right there in Genesis: “God said: Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good.”

        January 20, 2015 — 13:36
        • Remark

          Yes. Here is the metaphysical question of whether there is light. There could have been light even if God had closed his eyes to it. But the light could not have been valued as good, or bad, unless a judgement was formed of it by a sentient being- in this case, God.

          Not even God could create pain, sensual pleasure, aesthetic delight, misery, sorrow, humiliation and grief unless he created sentient beings capable of enjoying or enduring them. (Excepting that He Himself could be the subject of such experiences.)

          January 20, 2015 — 14:13
  • Michael Almeida

    On the other hand, Berkeley would regard the metaphysical and epistemological questions as being much closer; that they are inseparable

    No, they’re separable here too. As I said above, epistemic considerations can indirectly make metaphysical differences. But I’m not sure why we’re having this conversation. If values are dependent on consciousness, then they have no objective (i.e., independent) existence. That’s of course true as well if Berkeley is right. But then as Kevin notes, all we need is God’s consciousness.

    January 20, 2015 — 14:13
  • Michael Almeida

    Yes. Here is the metaphysical question of whether there is light. There could have been light even if God had closed his eyes to it. But the light could not have been valued as good, or bad, unless a judgement was formed of it by a sentient being- in this case

    I have no idea what this means. Why couldn’t light waves be valuable in-themnselves? Why does someone have to observe it?

    Not even God could create pain, sensual pleasure, aesthetic delight, misery, sorrow, humiliation and grief unless he created sentient beings capable of enjoying or enduring them.

    Right, let’s say that those things are not objectively existing things, and so they could not exist without consciousness. But why think that their dis/value is not objective? The fact that in w no one is suffering painful experiences is a good feature of w, even if there are no sentient beings in w.

    January 20, 2015 — 14:24
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