Feb 21

The Greatest Possible World: Comments on Leibniz, Voltaire, and Skeptical Theism

One can extract the following argument from Gottfried Leibniz in the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence:

(1) Acts of God cannot contain a flaw.

(2) The creation of the world was an act of God.

(3) Therefore, the world is without flaw.

This view was in response to certain aspects of Isaac Newton’s mechanical philosophy published mainly in OPTICKS and PHILOSOPHI NATURALIS PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA, commonly referred to as “the Principia.” Leibniz—one of the few people in the world who could actually understand Newton’s mathematics of fluxions—expected such a mechanical philosophy to work like the perfect clock or a perpetual motion machine. Newton, however, had proposed based on his analysis that God must occasionally intervene and recharge things. This is incredibly oversimplified, but the ideas of Newton aren’t the subject of this post; I just wanted to offer some context.

Leibniz argued that this need for intervention to keep things going implied an imperfect design, which God would never do. God would sooner create nothing at all than create something imperfect. So, since God created our world (universe), we can rest assured it is as good as it can possibly be.

At this point, we are tempted to laugh. How could Leibniz possibly think this world the best of all possible worlds? If you simply look around it shouldn’t take long to find something you might improve. This view was later famously skewered by Voltaire in Candide. As you may know, the unfortunate character Pangloss was modeled after Leibniz.

I’ve always felt the same way toward the argument. Furthermore, since I agree with premise (1), then the flaw found in the world is actually significant evidence against God. If a person denies (1), then we ought to seriously question what they think the act of a being perfect in every way would be like.

Yesterday, however, in a particularly charitable mood, I wondered whether Voltaire’s response commits a serious error. Consider the following reply as we extend the argument:

(4) Flaw is measured in terms of what is valued by God.

I wondered whether Voltaire or I could be accused of erroneously judging the flaw in the world based on my own values, rather than God’s supposed values. I consider this response to be appropriate, but not ultimately successful.

We then might wonder whether we have access to the things valued by God so that we might properly assess the argument. Does God value murder, for example, or love, charity, salvation, praise, or even the beauty of geometry? What is it that God values and has established in this act of creation as perfectly as possible? There are two routes one can take here. The first is to suppose that we do have fairly good access to what God values. After all, we have the Bible, we have our conscience, we are able to communicate with God (or at least one or two of the parts of God), and we were created in the image of God, which many have taken to mean we reason like God. This route should offer at least some tentatively testable claims. The other route is that of skeptical theism, which says we do not truly understand the goals or nature of God.

(5a) Humans have some amount of access to the values of God.


(5b) Humans do not have access to the values of God.

Let’s first consider the case that follows from (5a). Every conceivable answer seems to run into trouble. Does God want to maximize the number of souls freely choosing salvation, the number and diversity of living things, the good deeds accomplished, the praises God receives, etc.? I cannot conceive of any answer one might give down this road that would avoid the same ridicule aimed at Pangloss. How could one maintain with even a shred of dignity that these things could not be improved by a single iota?

Hence, we are faced with the attractiveness of skeptical theism. Its lure has shown up in nearly every persuasive argument against theism as a mechanism to retreat behind the fog of God’s different-ness. This argument is effective because it is technically correct. We really don’t know what a particular god might plan to do or think about or value.

As I have said on several occasions, I consider this skeptical theist response to be untenable when compared to how believers actually behave. Believers, for example, act is if they know a great many things about God. They think they even have a strange sort of conversation through prayer. They think they know the way to salvation. They think they know, in general, what God wants to do and how God wants them to behave. Sometimes they’re even so bold as to attribute a political position to this God. The inconsistency that skeptical theism presents when compared to almost every believer on the planet is astounding. This is the sort of desperate appeal extreme skeptics invoke when they say you don’t know that we aren’t in The Matrix. Is it technically true? Yes. Is it respectable? Not at all. So, I simply don’t find this response to be valid unless the believer is prepared to truly live the life of a skeptic and avoid hypocrisy. But don’t hold your breath for that to happen.

In conclusion, I think we are still on solid ground to conclude that the lack of a perfectly maximized good from among those values commonly attributed to God is significant evidence against such a God’s existence.

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  1. Paul So

    I think Skeptical Theism as instantiated in (5b) is incoherent. While you conceded that it might be “technically” correct, but sacrifice a lot of what ordinary believers believe, I want to argue that skeptical theism is self-refuting. If we have not access or knowledge about what God values, then it follows that we cannot know whether our actions commensurate with God’s values. We cannot know whether our actions are considered “bad” or “good” by God, so it follows that we no longer can have a problem of evil, since the question “Why does God allow evil?” presupposes that we do know what God considers evil. So I want to set up my arguments in the following premises and conclusion:

    (1) If (5b) Humans do not have access to the values of God, then Humans cannot know what God values
    (2) If Humans cannot know what God values, then Humans cannot know whether God considers their actions good or evil
    (3) If Humans cannot know whether God considers their actions good or evil, then we cannot address “why God allows evil” since this presupposes that we know which actions God considers to be evil.
    (4) Humans do not have access to the values of God
    C1: Therefore, we cannot know which actions God considers to be evil

    If this is the case, then how can Skeptical Theism account for humans being accountable in spite of our ignorance of which actions are good or evil?

  2. Mike

    I don’t know if that makes it self refuting but I do think it raises a worthwhile point. Namely, if we really don’t have some kind of handle on what God wants us to do, etc. then why should we ever do something like save a drowning person? After all, if no one was there, the excuse would be that God must have had a reason. So, you might be interfering with God’s plan by saving someone. I think those kinds of objections go pretty powerfully against our moral intuitions.

  3. Moose

    Hey buddy. I think this is the best blog you have written. Highly entertaining. You may be hitting your stride. I really enjoyed the blog about church camp too. Keep up the good work. Just to give you a heads up I will probably start describing myself as a skeptical theist. Thanks for the new vocabulary word.

  4. Mike

    Thanks, Moose.

    If something like God exists, then skeptical theism may very well be correct. The problem for me comes in when you start comparing it to how people actually think and talk about God. I have no problem admitting we don’t have a good way to understand a God-like being. I do have a problem with someone saying that on the one hand and then going out and telling people they do understand what this God wants them to do with their lives, how this God wants them to behave, vote, etc.

    I’m glad you liked the church camp piece. I think I might try and tell more personal stories. People might find that interesting, especially since I grew up in a kind of weird religious environment.

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