The Problem of No Best World

Author: Kirk Lougheed
Category: Philosophy of Religion
Word Count: 1000

In the words of St. Anselm, God is the being than which no greater can be conceived. Philosophers have long wondered about what sort of world God is obligated to create given his status as the very best possible being. By best being, philosophers typically mean that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and wholly good. Given that God is the best being, some take it as obvious that if God creates any world, then it would have to be the very best possible world. Consider the following quick argument: As the very best being, God must choose the best option when one is available. There must be a best world available to create since if there were no such world, then God would lack a good reason for creating any particular world. So initially there is reason to believe that if God exists then God would create the very best world. While it might be an objection from the outset that God is not under any obligation to create, many philosophers assume that existence itself is a good. If this assumption is right, then God’s creating a world is better than his not creating.1

Many philosophers, including some who believe that God exists, find the claim that our world is the best world highly implausible. That is, it is obvious that our world is not the best world since it contains so much evil and suffering. It is easy to imagine a much better world than our world.  But then, is it possible for God to exist if our world is not the best world? That is, if the quick argument above is successful, not only must God create, but God must create the very best world.  If God did not create the best world, then the best being failed to do the best. So there is a tension between the claim that ‘God exists’ and the claim that ‘our world is not the best world.’ Theists, atheists, and agnostics have all offered a variety of responses to this problem.

The Problem

One prominent response suggests that God could create a less-than-best world because for any world God could create, there could always a better world God could create.2 In contemporary philosophy of religion, this is known as the problem of no best world. For example, imagine that our world had one less violent human act, or one less tragic natural disaster. Or imagine that our world contained one more happy human. It is easy to imagine lots of different ways that this world might be improved. This line of thinking might entail that there is an infinite list of increasingly good worlds from which God can choose to create. On this scenario, while God is the best being, there is simply no best option to select. Thus, it can plausibly be argued that God would be justified in creating a less-than-best world provided that that world meets some minimum requirement of goodness for there simply is no best world for God to choose. So God can select any one of the sufficiently good worlds to create. There are worlds that are better than ours which God could have created, but all things considered, our world is still a good overall world. This response, if successful, would demonstrate that the existence of God is compatible with God creating a less-than-best world and thus would solve the problem of no best world.

The Moral Surpassability Objection

Creation of a less-than-best world is problematic, however, because if God creates a world when there is a better world, then it is possible that God’s work is morally surpasssable.3 And as the best being, God is supposed to be morally unsurpassable. Note that this objection is not demanding that God do the impossible by creating the best world when there is no such world to create. Rather, it is pointing out that if there really is an infinite list of increasingly better worlds, then God’s creation is always going to be morally surpassable. Again, this result is supposed to be impossible if God is the best being. Where does this objection leave us? It entails that either God does not exist because God’s creative work could always be surpassed. Or it entails that this scenario cannot be true, and that God did in fact create the best world. But then we are back to being stuck with the highly counter-intuitive conclusion that our world, with all of its evil and suffering, is the very best world God could have created.

The Multiverse Hypothesis

The idea that God creates a multiverse containing many isolated universes offers a unique solution to the problem of no best world. Recently, multiverse theories have gained respectability in the scientific community. Interestingly, considering the problem of no best world actually provides independent philosophical reasons for positing the existence of a multiverse. To avoid the claim that God created a unique best world—and that no better world exists—some theists posit that God created a multiverse containing all of the universes that meet some minimum requirement of goodness.4 Perhaps there is an infinite list of increasingly better universes. On this scenario, God creates all of the good universes and the entire multiverse can be considered the best possible creation. Our universe is just one among many that God creates and so the intuition that God could have created something much better is preserved on the multiverse scenario.

The moral surpassiblity objection to God’s creation of world a less-than-best world is compelling. If God really is all-knowing, all-powerful, and wholly good, then it cannot be true that God’s creative work could be surpassed by an inferior being. Thus, the theist should posit that God creates a unique best world, or a multiverse that contains all of the sufficiently good universes. While these views are not without philosophical worries, they are promising ways for the theist to avoid the problem of no best world. If either of these positions is not convincing, then we are left with a powerful argument for atheism.

Notes

1There are more complex problems here about whether or not God is genuinely free, but I will not worry about them here.

2See Myron A. Penner, “Divine Creation and Perfect Goodness in a no best world scenario,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 59, no. 1 (2006): 25-47; and Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder, “How an Unsurpassable Being can Create a Surpassable World,”  Faith and Philosophy. vol. 11 (1994): 260-268.

3William Rowe. Can God Be Free? New York, Oxford University Press, 2004.

4See Klaas, Kraay. “Theism and Modal Collapse,” American Philosophical Quarterly. vol.48 (2011): 361-372.

References

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Howard-Snyder, Daniel and Frances. “How an Unsurpassable Being Can Create a Surpassable World.” In Faith and Philosophy. vol. 11 (1994): 260-268

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———. “Theism and Modal Collapse.” American Philosophical Quaterly Vol 48 (2011): 361-372.

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Monton, Bradley. “Against Multiverse Theodices” Philo. Vol.13, No.2 (2010):113-135.

Penner, Myron A. “Divine Creation and Perfect Goodness in a ‘No Best World’ Scenario.” International   Journal for Philosophy of Religion 59, no. 1 (2006): 25-47.

Rowe, William. Can God Be Free? New York, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Weinstock, Jerome A. “Must God Create the Best World?” Sophia Vol.14, Iss.2 (1975):32-39.

Wielenberg, Erik J. “A Morally Unsurpassable God Must Create the Best.” Religious Studies vol.40 (2004): 43-62.

Kirk Lougheed is an MA student in philosophy at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.

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