Friday, June 09, 2006

June Open Thread

I haven't had time to blog much recently, so readers are invited to take over the reins in the comments here! Two quick announcements before I disappear:

(1) We're woefully short of submissions for the upcoming Philosophers' Carnival. I guess it's a busy time of year. But if you've blogged some philosophy in the last couple of weeks, do consider submitting something by Sunday!

(2) A big (albeit belated) thankyou to Stephen of Singpolyma for helping me get my sidebar categories working again!

Anyway, over to you... What philosophical problems have been on your mind recently?


  1. I've been thinking about the solution to the problem of evil proposed by G. Schlesinger.

    One way to understand the problem of evil is as follows:

    1. The actual world is not the best possible world.
    2. If there were an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, then the actual world would be the best possible world (because God would have made it so).
    3. Thus, there is no omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.

    Schlesinger's solution, if I understand it, is just to say that there is no best possible world: for any given possible world, it is always possible to imagine a better one. Thus, premise 2 has to be false.

    Schlesinger has his own argument for the view that there is no best possible world, which I won't run through here. But that view seems to me to be very plausible for a bunch of reasons. E.g. I think for any world with a finite number of elated people, you can always make that world better by adding another elated person; and I think there is no possible world with an infinite number of elated people.

    I have 2 questions (directed to anyone who wants to answer them):

    1. Do you think it's the case that there is no best possible world?

    2. If there is no best possible world, does that make you comfortable with the idea that an omniscient, omnibenevolent God made the world we live in, with all its flaws and horrors? Why or why not?

  2. David,

    Schlesinger's "solution" is not especially good. If there is no best possible world, then it cannot be a moral requirement that God actualize the best world. That much is true, and conceded on all sides (Leibnizians aside, I suppose). But it might be a moral requirement that, for any world God does actualize, there is no better world that he could have actualized instead. This principle does not require that God that God actulize the best possible world. It requires that God actualize an unimprovable world. Under some assumptions these principles are equivalent. This is the principle that Bill Rowe uses (he calls it Principle B) in his improvability argument against God's existence. Rowe's argument (in one of its forms) is the paper 'Can God Be Free?' in Faith and Philosophy Vol. 19, No. 4 (2002). (It is also in his book of the same title, with OUP, 2004).
    For what its worth I argue that Rowe's argument fails in 'Rowe's Argument from Improvability' in the latest volume of Philosophical Papers. Rowe has a reponse to my argument in the same volume.

  3. I'll answer 1. yes and 2. no. Just because nobody's perfect, that doesn't mean that you can get away with torture. If "best possible" is unreachable, then there must be some other standard for what we can expect of a world that is created by an omnipotent, omnibenevolent world-creator (perhaps unimprovability or perhaps something else), and whatever it is I doubt that our world lives up to it. The POE argument will go through with a much weaker premise 2, for instance, one that focuses on the large amount of basically pointless misery and suffering in our world.

  4. Mike,

    I haven't read the Rowe, your response to it, or much of anything else on Schlesinger's argument (I only read Schlesinger's 1964 piece a few days ago, and hadn't previously been very interested in the POE.) So I'll undoubtedly sound pretty uninformed in this comment.

    First, it seems to me that, if God is omnipotent, there is no possible world he cannot actualize. So if there is no best possible world, then for any given world, there is a better world he could have actualized. Thus, the requirement

    Principle B (?): For any world God does actualize, there is no better world that he could have actualized instead.

    seems to entail that God must not actualize any world at all. But that seems to make the requirement clearly unreasonable. It would seem to say that God shouldn't make anything if he can't make the best thing!

    Secondly, you say that you argue that Rowe's argument fails. Maybe you are criticizing Rowe's argument along the lines above (but probably along different, more carefully thought-out lines). But if you think Rowe's argument fails, then what is it that YOU think is wrong with Schlesinger's solution? I'm a bit confused about that, because in your comment you seem to offer Rowe's argument as evidence that Schlesinger's argument is a failure, but then you seem to think Rowe's argument is itself a failure.


    I pretty much agree with you. I think Schlesinger might, too -- I think he wants to call the problem you raise "the problem of suffering," as against the problem he is trying to solve, which is "the problem of evil." So I think he grants that it is still a puzzle why God wouldn't make our world an awful lot better than it is. In particular, it's puzzling why God didn't at least create a world with inhabitants so happy and well-off that the problem of evil would not be so pressing to them (even though a version of that problem would remain, since theirs would still not be the best possible world). But this seems like a more complicated problem to me. Before running into Schlesinger's argument, I had thought that the imperfections of our world presented close-to-decisive evidence against the existence of an omnibenevolent, omnipotent God. Now I'm less sure that they do.

  5. I agree that the "It requires that God actualize an unimprovable world."
    That is the bottom line on the problem of evil.

    I see a couple of defenses
    1) God is NOT omni-benevolent, (e.g. just fairly benevolent or even almost unimaginably benevolent).
    2) God is not omnipotent (just almost omnipotent let’s say)
    And here come the tricky ones
    3) This world IS perfect*
    4) god is optimizing a variable that is impossible to perfect - for example preference where some preferences involve some people preferring others preferences to be thwarted.**

    * This sounds a bit strange since evil apparently exists but here are two examples
    1) Assume that this multiverse actualizes all possibilities AND re-actualizing a second possibility identically to a previous one doesn't add value. (I think these are much harder to dispute than it sounds)
    2) We measure value in totally the wrong way and if we understood all the facts we would also change our minds - just like a cell in a human body might complain about being rubbed off but most humans don’t care at all about it. – this isn’t very exciting for the individual humans (to think that we are like skin cells with basically no value in ourselves) but it could still be true from the view on high.
    ** This seems unlikely - it seems to require some sort of additional observer (because the current situation STILL does not appear optimal) one could argue they were ghosts or angels.

  6. David,

    I'm guessing it won't be helpful, but the arguments (as either Rowe or Schlesinger present them) require formal representation beyond what I can provide in a comment. The arguments include some subtle modal errors that demand attentiveness that isn't blog-apt. I guess I'd urge you to read Rowe to see where Schlesinger goes wrong. But as I said, that probably isn't helpful to you.

  7. I like Blogosophy's response:

    "If No Best Possible World were sound, then since the argument doesn't depend on any actual features of the world--and particularly doesn't depend on the nature or amount of evil and suffering in the world--it would be sound even if the world were literally Hell on Earth... But if that's the case there's something horribly wrong with any definition of benevolent that's compatible with the No Best Possible World defense; we wouldn't ordinarily call a being benevolent if it created only Hell and condemned *everyone* to it. So either NBPW requires that you adopt an unacceptable definition of benevolent, or it is unsound."

  8. (Related issues were discussed a bit in my post on natural evil.)

  9. Klaas Kraay has an interesting paper online discussing the subject:

    Divine Unsurpassability

    Perhaps I'm missing something, but Blogosophy's response seems a little odd to me. If the NBPW defense works, it works because the argument it is a response has a false premise even in a world that is hell on earth. So whether it works or not is really irrelevant to the question of how benevolence is defined (because the best-possible-world premise in the original argument is irrelevant to the question of how benevolence is defined). The NBPW defense, I take it, isn't a defense that tells us what divine benevolence allows or doesn't, but a defense that tells us a given premise in certain formulations of the argument from evil is based on a controvertible assumption.

  10. (I should have noted, by the way, that Klaas's paper is a work in progress, and so should be read with that in mind.)

  11. Good point. I think Blogosophy is understanding the NBPW proponent as making the more ambitious claim that NBPW resolves the problem of evil (rather than merely "certain formulations" of it). But we could clarify the dialectic by offering one of the other formulations, say appealing to the notion of 'gratuitous suffering' rather than imperfection, and seeing how the theist then responds to that (since NBPW is clearly no defence against those versions of the PoE).

  12. Who's "God" is at issue anyway?

    Since Rowe is considering the concept of "God" in a detached way, some theologians/religious writers like Kierkegaard or Tillich would argue that he is not talking about "God" if "God" is that toward which humans direct their ultimate concern.

  13. Thanks for the opportunity to seek feedback Richard, I should really start one of these things myself but...
    I barely have time to keep up with reading them as it is.

    Okay well I've been thinking about a few things, and writing papers on them...

    1. The prioritisation of health care and professional obligations of health care professionals.

    Basically my interest here is an apparent problem, it is neccesary that doctors be involved in both the decision making and enforcement aspects of health care prioritisation for it to work. But we typically think that doctors are obligated to seek the best possible care for each individual patient. How are these compatible?

    I'm presenting this paper at the Association of legal and social philosophy conference in Dublin at the end of the month see:

    Interested to hear people's thoughts.

    2. Research ethics (Which is mostly what I have been doing) several things come up at the moment:
    A. What counts as research?
    B. Suppose as a genetics researcher you discover non-paternity? What should you do?
    C. Whether scientifically poor research ought to be rejected by an ethics committee?

    3. Finally I am putting the finishing touches on a paper on using the community of inquiry teaching methodology (Also know as philosophy for children) for teaching in the bioethics context. If anyone has any opinions I'd welcome them...

  14. "But we typically think that doctors are obligated to seek the best possible care for each individual patient. How are these compatible?"

    The former is an illusion - there will always be tradeoffs. The closest you could get if for them to think they were providing the best possible care.

    “B. Suppose as a genetics researcher you discover non-paternity? What should you do?”

    The general approach to these sorts of dilemmas is to keep patient privacy. This is a simple rule of thumb that prevents an industry from getting into awkward situations, and making enemies. So that is likely to be the pragmatic answer from that perspective.
    There are other perspectives of course

  15. Thanks Genius

    In regard to 1 I agree it is illusory, the problem is health care professionals don't neccesarily recognise this... With all the problems that that entails. I conclude the paper by suggesting that part of the ethics curriculum in med schools should include content on prioritisation.

    In regards to B, the really question for me is should participants have the choice of having this information revealed, since it is important medical info.

  16. I am still not entirely sure what you mean with regard to B.

    In regard to C
    I guess that pragmatically ethics committees positions are driven by a desire not to make enemies - i.e. cause offense or open the institution up to legal action, and at the same time maximize return - i.e. minimize wasting resources (including the credibility of the institution) and maximize research value.
    Not entirely unreasonable...

    Maybe that isnt exactly what you meant though?

  17. An interesting question Richard,
    Presumably you consider sperm and eggs (to take an extreme example) as pretty much without value (I think you would consider “biting the bullet and including infants in that from previous posts).
    Presumably also to a utilitarian it is considered to be no significant loss to kill a person an instant before they would have died anyway (no desires thwarted, no significant effect on life story, no reduction in happiness).

    But since utilitarianism effectively weighs everything against everything else how do you weigh these two (potential and current value) against each other?

    I know you could argue that an indirect utilitarian just declares a set of rules but I am asking the deeper question here. Therefore I am avoiding asking a hypothetical.

    Of course the fact that we can have rules that allow abortion implies we could also have ones that put priority on youth for medical care (in fact we effectively do).

    E.g. what would be a framework for considering what indirect rules are optimal?


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