Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Coolest of All Possible Worlds (a Theodicy for the 21st Century)

If I knew that there were a planet with life on the far side of the galaxy, with no hope of contact with us, what would I wish for it? Not that it be merely bacteria, nor that it be merely happy cows, but rather that it soar with the heights of civilization, science, the arts, philosophy -- right? Wouldn't that be better, cooler? Let's, see, what else....

"Really cool wars?" suggests one of my TAs (Will Swanson), when I run the idea by him.

Yesterday, another one of my TAs (Meredith McFadden) was guest lecturing to my course, Philosophy 5 ("Evil"), on "the problem of evil": If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent, this should be the best of all possible worlds, shouldn't it? But it doesn't look like the best of all possible worlds. There are of course some traditional theological responses to this problem, though they all face considerable obstacles. However, with the help of Will's suggestion about wars, we might construct a somewhat different theodicy. In this theodicy, God is not omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent but rather:
(1.) omnipotent,
(2.) omniscient, and
(3.) super-cool.

Thus, instead of creating the best of all possible worlds, God creates the coolest of all possible worlds. The question then arises: Do we in fact live in the coolest of all possible worlds?

My first inclination is to say no. But the super-cool theologian can respond to some of the obvious objections. The issue isn't entirely straightforward.

Objection 1: The world would be cooler if magic were real.
Reply 1: No, if magic were real, we would just call it physics. Maybe, in this sense, magnetism is magic. It's much cooler for magic to be imaginary. (I owe this point also to Will.)

Objection 2: The world would be cooler if aliens were real.
Reply 2: The universe is large enough that aliens probably are real. We're not in contact with them (yet?), but it's not obviously cooler to have a universe in which every intelligent species is in contact with other intelligent species than to have a universe in which some intelligent species are isolated.

Objection 3: The world would be cooler if dorky person X didn't exist.
Reply 3: Although joy seems to be possible without suffering (a problem for traditional theodicies, especially those with a Heaven), coolness is arguably impossible without uncoolness as a contrast. For example, The Rolling Stones wouldn't have been nearly so cool if there weren't also dorky Beatles-imitators to contrast with.

Objection 4: The Holocaust was seriously uncool, and in a way that cannot be fully counterbalanced by any contrast effect.

Now before I reply let me say that I don't think this reply ultimately works, and I am reluctant to say anything good about the Holocaust. But theologians who think that this is the best of all possible worlds are in an even worse position, because all the super-cool theologian needs to say is that the world is cooler for having had the Holocaust than for not having had it -- not that the world is better all things considered for having had the Holocaust.

Reply 4: Let's suppose that the super-cool theologian does in fact buy into the idea of cool wars -- buys into the idea that violence, disaster, and tragedy can make for a cooler world than a world in which people are always placid and happy. Maybe The Lord of the Rings can be a model here. If Tolkien's world is cool, well, Sauron perpetrates some serious death and horror, and that's essential to the coolness of the world. If we think about Tolkien's world or a world on the other side of the galaxy, maybe we can warm up to the idea that huge amounts of horrible tragedy and undeserved suffering can belong in a maximally cool world, if there's also enough triumph at the end. Will likes Nietzsche, and maybe this attitude fits with Nietzschean yes-saying to even the most horrible aspects of the world.

Alternatively, maybe we can do some natural theology here: We can try to infer the attributes of God by looking out at the world God chose to create. If God was going for coolness, God must have thought a world with the Holocaust would be cooler than one without. Maybe this says something about God's moral character. Maybe we're like soldier ants God finds it cool to shake up and watch fight? A God with little sympathy for us but an interest in "cool wars" might think Nazis are the coolest bad guys, in part because because of the irredeemably evil awfulness of the Holocaust. I can't say that I would be fond of such a God, but if "coolness" isn't sharply separable from benevolence, super-cool theology is no real alternative to orthodoxy.

A Euthyphro question arises. Is something cool because it is seen as cool by the super-cool God, or is God super-cool because God loves things that are cool -- things that would be cool regardless of God's preferences? Although there are surely limits -- an uncool dork God seems possible -- to some extent it seems God could make things cool by finding them cool. For example, if God started wearing hightop sneakers, that might make hightop sneakers cooler than they would be if God weren't wearing them. I doubt this works for the Holocaust though.

The picture, then, would be an unbenevolent God who is entirely willing to inflict vast undeserved suffering in the interests of a "cool" historical arc, with maybe some triumphs and awesomeness down the road that we can't yet anticipate, and for whom uncoolness is justified mainly to make current and future coolness pop out ever more coolly. I can't say we have great evidence for this view. But a sufficiently motivated theist might find it avoids some of the problems that flow from assuming divine benevolence.

[Revised March 13]


Marcus Arvan said...

Eric: fun post, but I have to demur with respect to your reply to objection 1. Every time I watch a Harry Potter film, I can't help but think to myself: the world would be immeasurably cooler if it were like *that*. Maybe it's true that if magic existed, we would just call it physics. Still, it would be much *cooler* physics than the one we have.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Maybe the physics would be cooler, Marcus, but the fiction might be less cool as a result. The determined super-cool theologian might argue it's not worth the trade-off.

Howie Berman said...

Cool for us or cool for God? Would anything be cool for a perfectly sentient being like God?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Cool for God. I don't see why an omniscient God couldn't find some things cooler than others, but tell me more.

Howie Berman said...

I guess if God saw everything was good, after the creation, he could see everything as cool; but, if you know everything, how can everything not be boring and old hat? Maybe for a lesser God like Zeus things could be cool, like himself egotist that he is. The question is: how can we have a theory of mind for God? Perhaps we can take other supposedly transcendent being like Einstein or Feynman. But Von Neuman who remembered everything, might prove the best test case. He was overwhelmed with tedium, or so I hear

Callan S. said...

The world would be better if children were constantly under threat of death while supervising adults did little to nothing about it?

Depends if in Harry Potter it was always faux threat of death and whatever mechanics make it faux are included. However, it'd still terrorfy children, wouldn't it?

Anyway, you don't want to know about the minecraft levels my son thinks are cool enough to make. Hint: They involve alot of lava.

It is funny to balance entire universes on something as semantically nebulous as 'cool'. As well as deeply satisfying to do (probably more so if one weren't a philosopher and inclined to think ones own sense of cool is not universal)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Howie: I don't know if intimate familiarity with something implies that one will no longer see it as cool -- but I agree divine theory-of-mind is a tricky enterprise!

Callan: The nebulousness of "cool" is arguably one of the favorable features of this theodicy. In contrast, "good" is just so darn stubbornly immobile.

Jorge A. said...

As usual, "Mr. Cool Guy" is pushing the rest of us into lockers.

I say we barge in on his house, set it on fire, and make HIM live through an endless series of reincarnations full of struggling and suffering.

(Yes, I am conflating Christian, Gnostic, and Hindu mythology... because what would be cooler than that?)

On a more serious (?) note, does coolness really require bona-fide pain qualia? If it does, then I might say that the Venn diagram circles of coolness and evil are largely overlapping.

For example: I think the little wars my virtual men in Starcraft fight are "cool" but they'd be substantially less cool (to me) if I knew my marines actually felt pain when a Zergling gets its ugly claws on them.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jorge: Yeah, that all sounds right to me. And yet I find myself knocked into uncertainty by Will's challenge to me at the beginning of the post. If I were wishing for the reality of an alien civilization on the other side of the galaxy, I feel torn between wishing for one of placid happiness and wishing for one with great tragedy and suffering mixed with great triumph and overcoming. Maybe this is benevolence vs. some aesthetic virtue like coolness.

Anonymous said...

It is fantastic to see someone writing about this sort of thing !

Maybe at present there is a limited number of people and in the future a near infinite number and we are creating a back story for those in the future where our interests are almost insignificant in comparison.

Maybe we are creating a near infinite number of back stories for them (all the planets all the aliens).


Anonymous said...

Hi, this is the alien civilization at the other end of the galaxy responding. Just stop telling us how to live our lives, okay? That's, like, seriously uncool, man.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

GNZ: A classic move if one allows a big enough view.

Anon: Hey, you guys weren't supposed to be communicating with us!

Callan S. said...

Jorge, it might be a bit off topic, but in a way (ignoring determinism for now) if you were going to give an amount of free will/free choice to beings, it'd have to involve some amount of capacity for loss (since as their god, you wouldn't be holding/guiding their hand, as that would be you puppeteering them).

Atleast your starcraft marines get to shoot the enemy when they see them, they don't have to wait for your permission.

Callan S. said...

Eric, yeah, why is 'good' so stubborn?

Perhaps 'cool' just doesn't undergo as much scrutiny. Cool tends to be things you don't need - a cool jacket, or a cool car. You can go without, so no one insists they have to have it (like they might insist they have to not starve to death and so need to invade land X for farming land)

Evan P said...

I think this approach makes an ontological argument more plausible as well. In particular, I am more swayed of the fact that existence in reality is cooler than existence in a fiction than I am of similar propositions regarding perfection.