Why We Have No Idea What God Should Allow

Why We Have No Idea What God Should Allow

God Speed by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900

Exactly one year ago tonight, one of your neighbours fell asleep. During the night, he was restless. We do not know what his bodily position was at precisely 1:37 am but let’s call it position #16.

Question: Thinking through all the moral implications to the end of history, should God have permitted your neighbour sleeping in position #16 at precisely 1:37 am one year ago?

To answer that question, you need to know two sets of information:

  1. the net moral value of all the consequences of position #16 as they increase exponentially into the future to the end of time, interacting with millions or billions of other causal chains.

  2. the net moral value of all the consequences to the end of an alternate history if position #16 is prevented and some other position or event is substituted instead.

You can then compare the moral values of both sets of information and decide which is the better option. At that point, you might be better informed as to whether position #16 should have been permitted by God.

Preposterous?

Sir Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for most of World War II. During that time, he made decisions that immediately affected the lives of millions of people as well as the course of the war which, in turn, has produced a world today that is likely very different from what might have been had Winston Churchill not existed.

“… the slight difference in the positioning of her internal organs coupled with the millions of genetic possibilities present at every conception, would have virtually guaranteed that a different Churchill would have been conceived and Winston would never have existed.”

If, on the night that Winston Churchill was conceived, Lady Randolph Churchill had fallen asleep in a slightly different position from the one she actually fell asleep in, then the slight difference in the positioning of her internal organs coupled with the millions of genetic possibilities present at every conception, would have virtually guaranteed that a different Churchill would have been conceived and Winston would never have existed. The long-term consequences would be that there would have been a different Prime Minister during World War II, making different decisions, resulting in a very different world from what we live in today.

Sometimes (maybe all the time) a very tiny change in the past can have a huge effect in the future. A popular short story written by Ray Bradbury illustrates this effect.(1)

Pointless Evil:

Philosophers and theologians both generally agree that a perfectly good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God will not permit pointless evil—defined as events that neither bring about a greater good nor prevent a greater evil. The problem is knowing which ones are pointless evils when each event in this world produces an exponentially increasing number of consequences affecting an increasing number of interacting causal chains of events to the end of time.

“An event that appears to be good in the short term might be a pointless evil if the sum total of all its consequences to the end of time results in a greater evil.”

An event that appears to be good in the short term might be a pointless evil if the sum total of all its consequences to the end of time results in a greater evil. Not only do we have to know the intrinsic moral value of possibly billions of consequences stretching to the end of time, we must also know the intrinsic moral value of billions of consequences in other alternate time-lines that could result from preventing the event.

Clearly, our knowledge is far too minuscule to know all this information, with the result that we have no idea as to what God should and should not permit in this world. (2)

What about massive evils?

History indicates that Ghenghis Khan and his army killed more than one million people in the city of Nishapur during his conquest of Persia. (3) Surely this evil is so great that any alternative would be better! The difficulty in deleting this event from history is that each person who was killed represents a primary event, not to mention each person who did the killing, as well as each person who heard about it. So deleting the Nishapur massacre from history would require changing more than one million primary events in the past rather than merely just one, such as a person’s sleeping position. The result is that the effect on future history is even more incalculable than in the Winston Churchill case. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga has suggested, for all we know, this world we live in may be the best possible out of countless alternatives if this world contains people with free will who do not always cooperate with a perfectly good God. (4)

Can this lead to moral indecision on our part?

What if this evening you are walking down the street and see an elderly woman in a side alley who appears to be in dire need of help. Your first thought is to help her but then you remember what this article said. For all you know, helping her could result in a horrendous evil world in the future … or maybe not. You are then left in a state of moral indecision.

There is an ancient statement from God that says,

“whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (5)

So the solution is an intuitive moral principle we can call the ‘act-on-what-you-know’ principle …

The ‘act-on-what-you-know’ principle: You are morally obligated to act on the basis of what you could reasonably be expected to know.

The fascinating thing about this principle is that there may be a huge difference between what you could reasonably be expected to know and what an all-knowing God knows. The result is that there will likely be many events that, so far as you can see, should not be allowed but from an all-knowing perspective must be allowed.

The other result of the above principle is that if every human being applied it all the time, it would likely substantially skew future history in the direction of a much better world.

Conclusion:

Perhaps this seems all horribly utilitarian-- what about the individual who is permitted to suffer due to some horrendously massive calculation of net moral value to the end of history? Some have suggested that this may be necessary, but the individual must still be compensated in some final, “balancing of the scales” after death. We will look into this, and other questions, in an upcoming article. In the meantime, we see that the complexity of billions of interacting causal chains stretching to the end of time, each including millions of individual events, makes it impossible for us to be in a position to judge God on what He permits in this world. All we can do is act on the basis of what we could reasonably be expected to know, taking moral responsibility for our own decisions.

Further Reading:

  1. Kirk Durston, ‘The consequential complexity of history and gratuitous evil’, Religious Studies, (2000), 36, 65-80.

  2. Kirk Durston, ‘The Failure of Type-4 Arguments From Evil, in the Face of the Consequential Complexity of History, Philo (2006), 8, No. 2.

  3. Kirk Durston, ‘The complexity of history and evil: A reply to Trakakis’, Religious Studies, (2006), 42, 86-99.

References:

  1. Ray Bradbury, ‘A Sound of Thunder’, Collier’s, 1952.

  2. Kirk Durston, ‘The consequential complexity of history and gratuitous evil’, Religious Studies, (2000), 36, 65-80.

  3. Rashid al-Din, (1247-1318). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Destruction_under_the_Mongol_Empire

  4. Alvin Plantinga, "God, Evil, and the Metaphysics of Freedom," The Problem of Evil, ibid., p. 86.  Plantinga's paper was originally part of his book The Nature of Necessity(Clarendon Press, 1974), pp. 164-193.

  5. James 4:17, English Standard Version

 

 

 



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