The Right Coast

January 13, 2005
The God of bad things
by Tom Smith

Prompted by Gail's theological musings, I opine. The other night at dinner, the kids were asking my lovely wife Jeanne about God and the tsunami. She gave various standard answers, and they proceeded, philosophically speaking, to rip her to shreds. I know it's bragging, but my middle boy Patrick when he was only 8 or 9, when debating with his brother Luke about whether God could do anything, came up with "Can God create a job he can't do? If he can, there's something he can't do. If he can't, there's something he can't do. Either way, there's something he can't do." She never had a chance.

I am drawn by the argument that we live in the best of all possible worlds, because we live in the only possible world. I realize that makes me a determinist. Maybe I am teetering on the edge of Jansenism or worse, some form of Protestantism. Can't we make the universe a better place than it would otherwise be by our choices? Of course. It's just that your choices are not metaphysically free, a concept that makes no sense to me anyway. If I had decided to accept my prestigious fellowship to the prestigious philosophy graduate program back when I was foolish enough to think that might be a good idea, I could no doubt espouse this view in a much more sophisticated way. But that seems not to have been my destiny. Of course, there may be another universe somewhere where a guy very much like me is grading papers on Plato by fraternity boys and wondering why the hell he did not go to law school when he had the chance.

If you talk to a philosopher about these issues, you immediately encounter a problem. This is that many philosophers will not talk to you about these issues because they consider you too stupid to be worth talking to. If you can get past that, you will often discover that they think the universe could obviously be much better than it is. For example, it would be a much better universe if, and insert here some disastrous moral, political or social scheme. It should be borne in mind that philosophers who know how the universe could be bettered ordered have only the vaguest idea how an automobile works.

I tend to think God had a choice (I think he is free) between this universe and none, or perhaps this one and one that was just a very boring pre-atomic soup. Some philosophers would probably genuinely prefer the latter because in this universe, they are just tenured at very middling departments, are going no further, and can't afford to get a new transmission for their Volvo. I am glad God made the choice he did, but then, I haven't had to watch my children be swept away in a giant wave.

I hope this clears everything up, and in any event, my low battery alarm just went off.