The Best of All Possible Worlds and Voltaire

God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. In the Christian belief, he created the universe and the earth we live in. He placed Adam and Eve upon it and through their progeny we are here today. Presupposing that this world was created by this omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, would we expect it to be the best possible world? If God loves us, he would want us to experience the greatest heights of joy and fulfillment and also avoid the deepest miseries and suffering. In reality we live in a paradox. We live in a world with the worst of murderers, dictators, rapists, and all manner of evil doers. There is also healthy levels of beauty, kindness, variety and love. Is it true that there must be utter evil for there to be summum bonum? Or as the Book of Mormon puts it:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, …righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad…. 2 Nephi 2:11

According to this, God created opposition in all things in order for there to be a righteousness relative to a wickedness. In order for good to exist, there must be an opposite force that we are able to compare goodness to. What is good and why ought we do that which is good? An essential element in this equation is free agency. Mormons believe we were created with free agency, or free will, as one of its supreme doctrines. They believe God created us to choose “to act and … to be acted upon” (v14). And, “God gave unto man that he should act for himself” (v16). We thus are free to choose our own destiny. We are agents that choose to act in a free will environment. In Mormon (and most other religions) teachings God does this to “prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” (Abraham 3:25) But how much influence can God have in our lives without crossing the free will boundary? In the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy it states:

If it is a good for human beings that they freely choose to respond in love to God and to act in obedience to His will, then God must maintain an ‘epistemic distance’ from them lest they be overwhelmed by His goodness and respond out of necessity, rather than freedom

In other words, God cannot reveal himself or overextend his influence to a degree in which us humans would be compelled to follow his commandments, otherwise it could be said that we did not have free will to choose, but were compelled by God’s influence to follow him.

There seems to now be two distinct questions that are inexorably connected. How do we explain the profound human misery of millions upon millions of people in a world created by an omnibenevolent God? And, to what extent do we have free will?

I will begin with the latter. Free will often is described as being able to do otherwise. If we were able to rewind our life and be exposed to the same environment we were raised, made the same choices up to a point, and then are met with a choice, do we think we could have chosen otherwise at this point? If not, to what extent do we have free will? If so, how do we determine ourselves as the originator or the ultimate source of our choices? We each have our unique genetic dispositions, our culture of origin, our parents influence or lack thereof. Our character was shaped by these external forces, including very real, out of our control, traumas and positive pivotal moments that shaped our character and thus our subsequent choices. Can we really say we choose our choices or are they predetermined? The Man in Black from the show Westworld puts it this way:

What is a person, but a collection of choices

Where do those choices come from?

Do I have a choice?

Were any of these choices truly mine to begin with?

If we do not have free will as we think we do, does God have free will? Can he choose to do something evil? Mormon theology binds God to the rules of justice and mercy. In Alma 42:25 it says “What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God.” In this respect God is without free will, his will is determined, determined by the demands of justice and mercy. But, there is something of a little tricky here in this idea. God decides what is sin and what is morally good to be the bases of mercy and justice. But how does God also keep an epistemic distance to make sure he isn’t influencing us too much? Does this matter? Does morality come from God? Thoughts on this question could fill libraries. For this post I will go in the following direction: If he is the essence of goodness anything he does or commands his servants to do must then also be good or moral (except in the many instances in which Mormon prophets denounce as heretics and blasphemy previous prophets and doctrines…). Thus creating a system of justice and mercy to judge our actions against. There is plenty of good and moral commandments and teachings from God (and his supposed prophets) to be judged accordingly against. But there are also a whole lot of what I would consider bad or immoral commandments from God and his prophets.

How do we decide if that which God commands is good? Is that a decision that should even be an option? Is everything that is commanded from God good because he is by definition all-good? These commandments would include:

Mormon Centric

  • Take on polygamous wives, mostly behind the back of your first wife, sometimes with mother daughter pairs and girls as young as 14. Sometimes marry other faithful men’s wives (polyandry pg 51)
  • Command 12 consecutive prophets to withhold priesthood blessings and eternal salvation from descendants of an entire race (1949 First Presidency Statement)
  • Teach that same gender attraction was one of the most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood (Alma 39:5)
  • Command Nephi to chop off the head of Laban (1 Nephi 4:10) (moral relativity?)
  • Constant admonition against homosexuality. To further clarify, an Apostle challenges the idea that homosexuality is born innate, “not so, why would Heavenly Father do that to anyone?” (October 2010 SL Tribune)

How are we to look upon commandments like these from God and declare, “everything that God does is good, or in the best interest of his people and his designs.” While reviewing the list, I suppose God could command his prophets to do and say just about anything and his people would be hard pressed to oppose it. In this mess one philosopher attempted to reconcile God’s ability to will this world to be any other than what it currently is. Leibniz, in the early 1700’s argued that God, being both perfectly good and perfectly powerful, cannot fail to will the best possible world. Leibniz said:

It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and Goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things. (Reflections on the Common Concept of Justice)

To this theological philosophy Voltaire wrote critically in his famous book Candide (1759). The story is about Candide, a simple man, who first accepts the philosophy that “all is for the best, in this the best of all possible worlds.” But as he experiences the horrors of war, poverty, the maliciousness of man, and the hypocrisy of the church, he begins to doubt the veracity of said philosophy. He eventually forfeits this philosophy for a philosophy of reason + action in which he declares personal experience the great moral teacher. The book attempts to discuss the age-old question, why do bad things happen to good people? To illustrate some of the opposing views to Leibniz’s philosophy here are some excerpts from the book. Martin is a character that represents the pessimistic outlook on life:

‘Do you believe,’ said Candide, ‘that men have always massacred each other as they do to-day, that they have always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates, brigands, idiots, thieves, scoundrels, gluttons, drunkards, misers, envious, ambitious, bloody-minded, calumniators, debauchees, fanatics, hypocrites, and fools?’ ‘Do you believe,’ said Martin, ‘that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them?’

Martin in particular concluded that man was born to live either in the convulsions of misery, or in the lethargy of boredom.

Life is messy, miserable and indifferent. It always has been. Ultimately Candide comes to realize that life experience is the best teacher. Experience gives Candide knowledge to outgrow his mentor’s belief in the “best of all possible worlds” philosophy, or absolutist optimism. He cannot understand way a loving God would be so indifferent to the suffering of his people. Candide learns that you can look upon your own suffering and realize that likely someone else has it worse. This perspective can help foster gratitude and empathy. It is a more optimistic outlook than the meaningless existence that Martin professes. Voltaire understood that your garden, or life, does not grow on optimism alone but upon reason and action learned by personal experience.

Voltaire also satirized free will with his character Candide. In this part of the book Candide was tricked into joining the army and found himself in such dire circumstances that he was nearly executed:

He was asked which he would like the best, to be whipped six-and-thirty times through all the regiment, or to receive at once twelve balls of lead in his brain. He vainly said that human will is free, and that he chose neither the one nor the other. He was forced to make a choice.

I believe in many instances free will is withheld from us. Like Candide not having a third option to not be beaten or executed. We do not necessarily have a choice in the outcome of a serious accident, a relationship, family relations, wars, countries of origin, etc. Knowing this, I do not believe that a God would ethically have substantive influence on the outcome of a human’s life. There is too much suffering in the world to believe an all-good, all-knowing God would either positively influence our life or create a world in which this would be the best of all possible options. It’s absurd. Absurd as the sarcastic line from Candide:

“Oh, Pangloss!” cried Candide, “what a strange genealogy! Is not the Devil the original stock of [Syphilis]?” “Not at all,” replied this great man, “it was a thing unavoidable, a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds; for if Columbus had not in an island of America caught this disease, which contaminates the source of life, frequently even hinders generation, and which is evidently opposed to the great end of nature, we should have neither chocolate nor cochineal.”

In order to contemplate the idea that this world, (or this plan) authored by God, is the best possible world or plan, we must take into account the entire landscape of human experience including their ability or inability to choose what is thrust upon them. How do we answer the suffering of millions of homo sapiens for hundreds of thousands of years prior to God revealing himself to Moses a few thousand years ago? What about the suffering of the billions of individuals that are born into complete poverty and the most appalling conditions. Is the world to those people the best of all possible worlds? Is it moral to assert that these people were either less valiant in the pre-earth life (as is a common Mormon belief) or that their earth life experience is not important, but what is important is their life after dying? We cannot possibly believe this is the best of all possible worlds and also believe that God is all-good.

Each year 11 million children under the age of 5 die. That’s about 29,000 a day, or 21 a minute. Imagine the parents of each of these children praying to a God to heal their child? Imagine the profundity of these prayers being offered on their behalf? Those prayers will go unanswered. Those children will die. This begs the question, to what extent does God actually choose to not prevent such suffering? In this light, God must either not be all-good or he is not all-powerful to stop this tragedy. Does this God have free will to intercede? We have to deal with that problematic ‘epistemic distance’ that keeps people from being compelled to believe but allows them to choose freely to believe in him.

In conclusion, we must ask ourselves first, to what degree does God influence our lives if at all? And what questions or discussions come from that answer?  I personally do not find the God taught by Mormonism to be moral, let alone convincing. Second, how much free agency do I actually possess? If God is influencing me, and I have pure free will, how do we reconcile incredible human suffering with a God that helps people find lost keys, or heals a friends child but not mine? Too often we hear the response, “we will know when we die” or “God is mysterious.” These issues are far too important to leave on the alter of a possible finite existence. One must ask themselves as Voltaire did, “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?”

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