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«This paper appears in American Philosophical Quarterly 48 (2011): 361-372. The published version can be found online at: ...»

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THEISM AND MODAL COLLAPSE

Klaas J. Kraay

Ryerson University

This paper appears in American Philosophical Quarterly 48 (2011): 361-372. The published

version can be found online at: http://apq.press.illinois.edu/48/4/kraay.html.

God is traditionally taken to be a necessarily existing being who is unsurpassably powerful,

knowledgeable, and good. The familiar problem of actual evil claims that the presence of

gratuitous suffering in the actual world constitutes evidence against the existence of such a being. In contrast, the problem of possible evil claims that the possibility of bad worlds constitutes evidence against theism. How? It seems plausible to suppose that there are very bad possible worlds. But if God exists in every world, then God exists in those, too. And if God exists in very bad worlds, some say, God is culpable for not ensuring that they are better. This paper considers this argument, surveys some responses, and offers a novel solution. Along the way, it argues that theists should maintain that the actual world is a multiverse featuring all and only universes worthy of being created and sustained by God, and – more controversially – it recommends that theists embrace modal collapse: the claim that this multiverse is the only possible world.

1. GULESERIAN’S CHALLENGE: THE PROBLEM OF POSSIBLE EVIL

Traditional theism (sometimes called “Anselmian theism”) holds that God is a necessary being for whom omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection are essential attributes. Theodore Guleserian (1983) thinks that careful reflection on certain modal intuitions about very bad possible worlds can show this idea of God to be untenable. He begins by marshalling some standard consequences of possible world semantics for theism. On theism, it is taken for granted that God exists in every possible world.1 Each world, of course, is actual at itself. Theists also maintain that in each world, God allows that world to be actual.2 Moreover, on theism, it is a necessary truth that God allows a world to be actual only if so doing is morally permissible. So it follows it is morally permissible for God to allow any world at all to be actual. But, says Guleserian, [t]his is a surprising and counterintuitive consequence of [theism]. It tells us that in every possible world there is an OOM [omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect] being for whom it is morally permissible to allow that world to be actual.

This implies that there is no possible world in which it is true that no OOM being ought to allow that world to be actual. But it surely is plausible to suppose that we can conceive of some possible worlds that are so full of misery and so lacking in redeeming value that, necessarily, no OOM being ought to – or would – allow them to be actual (p. 224).

The remainder of Guleserian’s paper defends the inference from the conceivability of morally impermissible worlds to the claim that such worlds are indeed possible.3 Guleserian’s argument may be expressed with reference to the following inconsistent set

of propositions:4

(1) Necessarily, there exists a being (God) who is essentially unsurpassable in power, knowledge, and goodness.

(2) Every possible world is actual at itself.

(3) Necessarily, if w is a possible word, then it is true in w that God permits w to be actual.

(4) Necessarily, if it is true in w that God permits w to be actual, it is morally acceptable5 for God to do so.

(5) There is at least one on-balance-bad world, w.6 (6) It is not morally acceptable that, in w, God permits the overall bad world w to be actual when it is within God’s power to prevent this.

Guleserian thinks that there is good reason for the theist to maintain (2)-(6). Absent better reasons to believe (1), then the theist should reject this claim, and either eschew belief in God altogether, or at least revise her view of the divine attributes.

2. GARCIA AND TIDMAN ON JUSTIFIED MODAL DISAGREEMENT

All sides in this debate grant (2), (3), and (4). Laura Garcia (1984) and Paul Tidman (1993) appear to grant (6), and so they understand the disagreement between the theist and Guleserian to concern whether (1) or (5) is more plausible.7 Garcia and Tidman appear to concede that, in the end,8 there is about as much intuitive support for (1) as there is for (5).9 Moreover, they both insist that the theist and her critic can rationally ‘agree to disagree’ in the absence of decisive arguments for either (1) or (5). Tidman appears to suggest that modal intuitions should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and concludes that “[o]n this view each side would be free to continue to hold to their respective beliefs on the matter in the absence of a good reason to give up those beliefs” (p. 194). Similarly, Garcia suggests that “[o]ur intuitions give us no conclusive basis for choosing between [(1) and (5)], so that someone who opts for either one or the other is being intellectually responsible, is within his or her epistemic rights” (pp. 384-5).

This is a very curious position. Suppose that two epistemic peers agree that (a) their respective claims logically preclude each other,10 and that (b) no compelling arguments settle the matter, and furthermore, that (c) both claims are equally supported by intuition. Whatever the temptation for the disputants to maintain their original position, it seems that both have a rebutting defeater which precludes continued rational acceptance of their stance. The only rational response, absent further considerations,11 is to suspend judgment.12 It is implausible, then, for Garcia and Tidman to maintain that each side is rationally entitled to its original position. The next section consider different responses to Guleserian’s argument.





3. MORRIS’ REJECTION OF (5); ALMEIDA’S REJECTION OF (6)

Thomas Morris (1987) appears to agree that this set is inconsistent, and that (2), (3), (4), and (6) should be accepted by theists. Morris urges that the theist should maintain (1) and willingly sacrifice (5). Morris rejects Guleserian’s meta-modal assumption that “genuine, broadly logical or metaphysical possibility is established by the consultation of logical and semantic intuitions alone” because, “[f]or the theist, Anselmian intuitions may rule out what logical and semantic intuitions alone do not” (pp. 51-2). Morris urges that the Anselmian God 2 …is a delimiter of possibilities. If there is a being who exists necessarily, and is necessarily omnipotent, omniscient, and good, then many states of affairs which otherwise would represent genuine possibilities, and which by all non-theistic tests of logic and semantics do represent possibilities, are strictly impossible in the strongest sense. In particular, worlds containing certain sorts of disvalue or evil are metaphysically ruled out by the nature of God, divinely precluded from the realm of real possibility (p. 48).13 Michael Almeida (2011) agrees that the set is inconsistent, and that (2), (3), and (4) are unimpeachable. But while Morris rejects (5), Almeida targets (6). Almeida considers w, a world in which Smith – a good and just person – suffers some undeserved, terrible affliction that God could have prevented without thereby permitting a greater evil or preventing a greater good.

One might expect an unsurpassable being to prevent this affliction. But according to Almeida,

this expectation is misguided:

Suppose … that the perfect being in w had prevented all of Smith’s undeserved suffering. Would it then have been true that there is no bad world w in which a moral agent no less good and just than Smith endures the same preventable suffering that Smith endures in w? The unfortunate answer is no. It is necessarily true that there is a bad world w that includes a moral agent no less good and just than Smith that endures the same preventable suffering that Smith endures in w.

So an Anselmian God simply could not ensure that there is no on-balance very bad world w at which good agents suffer undeserved evils …No matter what the perfect being in w had done or prevented or changed, it would be true that there is a bad world w that includes a perfect being that actualizes w [or permits w to be actual] (p. 9).14 In short, since bad worlds necessarily exist, God cannot be blamed for their existence. Almeida says that God’s predicament is tragically similar to that of a lifeguard who can prevent each of two persons from drowning, but cannot prevent both persons from drowning. The existence of just such situations inclines us to reject the following principle:15 (6*) It is not morally acceptable for a lifeguard knowingly to permit someone to drown, when it is within the lifeguard’s power to prevent this.

Just as reflection on ‘lifeguard situations’ teaches us that (6*) is too strict, Almeida argues, reflection on the necessity of bad worlds should incline us to reject (6).

4. MODAL INTUITIONS AND MORAL INTUITIONS

The Anselmian theist, of course, is committed to (1), and (2), (3), and (4) seem unimpeachable.

Accordingly, the Anselmian must choose to follow Morris and reject (5), or follow Almeida and reject (6). Both alternatives have drawbacks for the theist. Morris’ rejection of (5) is costly, since it requires him to deny that some possible worlds are bad overall. This claim does not appear to be extravagant. For one thing, many have held that the actual world is bad overall, from which it follows a fortiori that some possible world is bad overall. That aside, we seem readily able to conceive (for example) of a possible world – let’s call it w – in which all creatures experience horrific, undeserved, unremitting, gratuitous suffering for the duration of their existence. And as Guleserian suggests, our ability to conceive of this suggests that w is indeed possible. One response is to deny that w is bad overall, but this strains credulity. Another response is to deny 3 that our conceivings are reliable (if defeasible) guides to genuine metaphysical possibility, but this seems an extreme form of modal skepticism.16 A third response is to deny that we are really conceiving what we think we are conceiving, but there seems to be no motivation for this move.17 So Morris’ rejection of (5) comes at a price.

Morris is willing to sacrifice modal intuitions in favour of (5) in order to save moral intuitions in favour of (6). In contrast, Almeida trusts his modal intuitions in favour of (5), and is willing to sacrifice moral intuitions in favour of (6). For Almeida, it is utterly obvious that there are bad possible worlds, and since they exist necessarily, in those worlds God simply cannot be faulted for permitting them to be actual. But there are costs here too. Consider w, the world in which all creatures experience horrific, undeserved, unremitting, gratuitous suffering for the duration of their existence. In w, theism teaches that the creator is essentially, unsurpassably omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good, and (presumably) that these creatures owe their maker gratitude and praise for their horrible lives. Theism, on this view, maintains these things even though it is perfectly true that God could have prevented or alleviated these creatures’ suffering.

If Almeida is right that bad worlds exist necessarily, then none of this counts against the existence of God, nor against the doctrine that God is essentially unsurpassable, in any way whatsoever. This is a highly surprising and counterintuitive consequence for theism. Theists have generally held that no possible amount of (divinely-permitted, divinely-preventable) gratuitous suffering is compatible with theism.18 But on Almeida’s view, every possible amount of such suffering is compatible with the existence of the Anselmian God.19 Accordingly, Almeida’s move requires theists to dramatically revise their understanding of God. To the extent, then, that theists are committed to the traditional view concerning gratuitous evil and God, Almeida’s view will be considered costly.20

5. MODAL COLLAPSE: PARTIAL AND TOTAL

The Anselmian theist thus faces an unpalatable dilemma: reject (6) and accept the consequences just noted, or else reject (5) and accept partial modal collapse: the constriction of (what we thought was) logical space to exclude bad worlds. As will now be shown, matters are even worse for a particular sort of Anselmian theist: one who holds that there is a unique best of all possible worlds.

If there is a unique unsurpassable world, it is reasonable for the theist to expect that God would not permit any other world to be actual. In fact, there is good reason to think that it would be morally unacceptable for God to allow any other world to be actual.21 This way of thinking suggests (6′) in the set below. But if it is morally unacceptable for God to permit any world other than the unique best to be actual, it seems that this is the only world that could be actual – which is just to say that it is the only possible world.22 And this means that (if theism is true) nothing could possibly be otherwise than it is: total modal collapse ensues. This argument can

be expressed with reference to the set below:

(1) Necessarily, there exists a being (God) who is essentially unsurpassable in power, knowledge, and goodness.

(2) Every possible world is actual at itself.

(3) Necessarily, if w is a possible word, then it is true in w that God permits w to be actual.

(4) Necessarily, if it is true in w that God permits w to be actual, it is morally acceptable for God to do so.

(5′) There is a unique best of all possible worlds.

(6′) It is not morally acceptable for God to permit a worse world to be actual when a better alternative is available.

(7′) There are possible worlds other than the unique best.

4 Notice that (1)-(4) in this set are the same as before. (5′) and (7′) are new claims which express the ontology now under examination, and (6′) captures the same moral intuition appealed to in (6). As before, the set is inconsistent. So the Anselmian theist who endorses (1), (2), (3), (4), and (5′) faces another dilemma: reject (6′) and give up compelling moral intuitions, or reject (7′) and accept total modal collapse.23 Neither alternative seems particularly palatable.



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