As Good as It Gets?

Is this world as we know it the best of all possible worlds? What is the role of evil in this assessment? And is the verdict clearly split along theistic lines?

The prospect of thinking about and finding new worlds attracts some people to science fiction and space exploration. Worlds that in some ways could be better than ours. This issue seems to mesmerize humanity. Since centuries before space travel was possible, the evaluation of our world – whether it could be better, and how so – has been pondered by philosophers. Today we’ll look at this question: is this world as we know it the best of all possible worlds?

Stating the Question

Let’s begin by articulating the question we’re trying to answer, to then refine it and review what philosophers have said about it. Here’s the question: is this world – the one we know and inhabit – the best of all possible worlds?

There are three elements to this question that need precise definitions. The first one is the idea of “possible world.” What constitutes a possible world? What makes a given hypothetical or candidate world possible?

The second is the idea of existence. Can multiple worlds exist at the same time? A popular positive example is the multiverse. Philosophically, it isn’t a new idea, but in recent years it’s gained a more mainstream appeal, with some theoretical physicists and other scientists embracing it. From this perspective, the question becomes: if multiple universes or worlds coexist in parallel, is the one we perceive or inhabit the best? Ruling out the concurrent existence of multiple worlds yields a slightly different question: if there are multiple hypothetically possible universes, but only one can exist at any given time, are we living in the best possible one? Or put it another way, what could be different about our world that would make it better, and is that change possible?

Our third element to define is the comparison criteria or “rubric.” When comparing two or more worlds, what do we mean by “better”? How are we measuring good and bad? On which dimensions?

Lebniz’s Answer

In philosophy, the expression “the best of all possible worlds” is generally attributed to German thinker Gottfried Leibniz. If you like mathematics, you might remember him as the person who developed differential and integral calculus. He developed its fundamentals roughly in parallel with Isaac Newton, but independently from him. It is Leibniz’s notation that we use today. So even if you don’t like mathematics, you can actually thank him for making things less troublesome for you. Trust me, you do not want to learn calculus using Newton’s notation!

Here’s how Leibniz addressed our question and its defining elements. He believed that only one real universe exists, but that God could ideate infinite potential universes. He also argued that God is good and makes reasonable decisions. From these premises, Leibniz concluded that God chose the best possible world to exist.

But… “best”, compared to what?

Non-Theistic Objections

The main objections to Leibniz’s idea were non-theistic and involved the Problem of Evil. In essence, the Problem of Evil states – if God is all good, all-knowing and almighty, then He can, wants, and will stop all evil. The fact that He doesn’t puts His existence in doubt. If you want a general overview on this, check out our namesake episode on this issue.

For today’s discussion, I’ll just define two key concepts. The first is theodicy – a justification or vindication of God. The Problem of Evil rests on the assertion that an all-good, all-knowing and almighty God would never allow evil. In response, a theodicy argues that God has His own higher motives to allow evil.

Two common theodicies are the freewill theodicy and the higher order goods theodicy. The free will theodicy argues that God meant for us to experience the immense value of freedom, including whether to have Him in our lives. With this came the possibility of evil behaviour. But in trading these off, God chose a world with freedom over a world with no evil, but no freedom either. In other words, He chose the best possible logical world.

The higher order goods theodicy claims that certain goods can only develop and be evidenced in the face of certain evils. For example, with no danger, with no oppression, there cannot be courage.

In a sense, Leibniz appealed to these theodicies to justify his assertion that we live in the best of all possible worlds. God being omniscient and almighty, He could foresee all hypothetically possible worlds, and will into existence this one, where the theodicies of free will and higher order goods yield maximal effects.

In his criticism, German physician Emil duBois-Reymond imagined Leibniz envisioning God as some sort of “optimizing mathematician.” Other notable objectors include Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, particularly on the grounds of natural evil – the second key concept I need to define around the problem of evil. Moral evil stems from human decisions. Natural evil refers to things like earthquakes or hurricanes. Leibniz’s theodicies explain fairly well why this is the best of all possible worlds despite the existence of moral evil, but natural evil is more problematic for these theodicies.

No Absolute Theistic/Non-Theistic Split

Up to this point, the debate around our question has been distinctly theistic. Leibniz’s arguments are clearly Christian. Is this viewpoint biblical and universally held? If you’re an atheist, how do you reason about this question?

It may be surprise you to learn that this positive assessment of our world is mostly split along theistic lines – but not entirely. Not all theists are for it, and not all atheists are against it. More specifically, several prominent theist philosophers have taken issue with the defining elements – the premises of possibility, existence and goodness from a theistic viewpoint.

For instance, contemporary Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, interviewed on “Closer to Truth”, argues that there could be several worlds of equal goodness, and God could have freely chosen any of them. He doesn’t see God constrained by the need to create the best possible world. He argues that worlds could be like natural numbers: think of a large one, and you can think of a larger one. Think of a best possible world, and with a few small changes, you can think of a better world.

In stronger terms, Dr. Lloyd Strickland, professor of philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University, claims that this question is nonsensical from a theistic worldview, because of how theism defines possibility. If God exists and is perfect, He will only act in perfect ways and produce perfect things. Therefore, any world that is worse than this in any way isn’t really possible; the only world a perfect God will create is by definition as good as it gets, but strictly speaking, there are no other possible worlds to compare it against.

What about non-theists? Would any of them admit this to be the best possible world? Generally speaking, these viewpoints don’t think of our world in those terms, primarily because of the Problem of Evil. duBois-Reymond, the first Leibniz critic I mentioned, would appear to have found some common ground here; but I would say that, more accurately, he appropriated the argument from his naturalistic worldview. An early convert to Darwinism, duBois Reymond saw every stable snapshot of evolution, having organisms well adapted to their environments, as a potential articulation of the best of all possible worlds.

My Opinion

Here’s what I think about all this. From a Christian perspective, it seems to me that the importance of this question depends on who is in focus. If God is in focus, the question is very important philosophically and theologically, because of what it reveals about God’s character. Answering this question involves carefully pondering other hard questions about God. Is He constrained in some way? Is His will completely free? Is His hand ever forced? Thinking through the idea of the best possible world can help shed light on these issues.

However, if humans are in focus, I think the question matters much less. Naturally, the outcome of the God-in-focus approach impacts how humans perceive and relate to and even worship God. But for human-centred Christian implications, it’s helpful to look at what’s clearly revealed in the Bible. In it, we’re told that this world is “very good.” Christians are not of the world. We don’t expect ultimate joy and worth and fulfillment from it. We understand that it’s transient – a place to learn about God, make a decision about Him, and live for Him. And we believe in a world to come that will undoubtedly be better – the absolute best.

At this point, if you don’t believe in the Bible, from a non-theistic perspective this articulation may seem comical, or rich – “oh, so convenient”. I appreciate the idea of not placing emotions ahead of intellectual soundness. And that, in my mind, is where the beauty of apologetics and theology comes in. Our worldview is strongly, epistemically solid; it just so happens that it’s also emotionally rewarding. It leads to a life filled with hope and optimism. Yes, this world can be rough at times, but that’s not all there is.

The alternative viewpoint, in my humble opinion, is intellectually weak and emotionally distressing. Think about it. Order, information, life, emerging purely from randomness – that’s not particularly sound from an intellectual perspective. But ultimately, if that were the case, and if that’s all there is, then in due course it will all freeze to death. Legacy, transcendence, significance – it all becomes meaningless. How can a random, slowly dying universe be the best possible outcome?

Christianity may not unilaterally declare this the best possible world, but it definitely offers a significantly better characterization of it on very solid intellectual and epistemic grounds.

Published: August 8, 2021