One of the main arguments against theism is called the argument from evil. This argument basically says that if a deity existed, he would not allow evil to exist. But before accepting such an argument, we must ask ourselves: could there actually be a universe without evil?
It may seem very easy to imagine such a universe. We simply imagine a universe filled with planets containing only happy, smiling people. Wouldn't that qualify as an "evil free" universe? But we commit a fallacy when we imagine such a universe, a fallacy I might call the snapshot fallacy. The snapshot fallacy is the fallacy of assuming that we can get a decent model of a possible universe by describing a single moment of time in that universe's history. A universe is not a static thing, but something that persists for billions of years. So any model or idea of a universe (whether scientific or philosophical) must consider not just one moment of time, but a huge length of time – a billion years at least.
A person using the argument from evil might say: no problem, we can just imagine a universe without evil existing for a billion years – a billion years of happy planets filled with nothing but happy smiling faces. But would such a universe actually be a universe without evil? I think not. It seems that such an “evil free” universe would actually have some very serious evils of its own. Below is a list of some of them.
One great evil of such an “evil free" universe is that it would be boring. Imagine you have been living in such a universe for a thousand years. You wake up one day and say “Let me check the news.” You go to your favorite news web site, and the main banner says, “Another perfect day.” You click on the smaller headlines looking for something interesting, but it's hard to find something very interesting. They're all just stories about perfect people having perfect days. You certainly can't go out and do something dangerous, since neither death nor serious injury is allowed in your universe.
The newspapers of Utopia are boring
Very bored, you turn on your television, trying to find an interesting movie. But the movies are boring. There has been no war, death, or illness in your universe. No one has ever faced any real danger, since neither serious injury nor death are allowed in your universe. So while you might be able to find a mildly interesting movie like Meet the Fockers or When Harry Met Sally, you cannot find any really stirring movie such as Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, Doctor Zhivago, or Titanic.
Now imagine that this goes on for thousands and millions of years. You eventually are so bored with your living that perhaps you yearn for the escape of death – but that cannot ever happen, because death is an evil, and you are in an “evil free" universe.
Do you get the idea? It's the very real evil of boredom.
Consider your freedom in the universe we currently live in. You have the freedom to be good, and also the freedom to shoot someone. You have the freedom to give money to charity, and the freedom to steal money from your local church. But how would things be in an “evil free” universe? Presumably you would not have such freedom. You could only speculate on how things might work – perhaps if you wanted to shoot someone, your gun would suddenly be too hot to handle, or your hand would get a jolt of electricity from the sky. Or, if you tried to steal money from your roommate, perhaps you would suddenly become immobile. Regardless of how it would work, the result would be that you wouldn't be so free.
We regard freedom as being a very great good. We are told again and again: it's okay to empty our country's treasury (or go deep into national debt), and okay to lose lives and limbs of our soldiers, because they are fighting for freedom. So if freedom is such a great good, what should we call a lack of freedom? We might call it an evil. Indeed, we might call the restrictions on conduct in an “evil free” universe to be itself an evil – an evil we might call the evil of restriction.
One of the most central aspects of our universe is the opportunities it allows for different types of rising from a lower state to a higher state, or from a less desirable state to a more desirable state. Such opportunities can exist on a personal level, a national level, or a planetary level. A person can rise from a state of poverty and ignorance to a state of wealth and wisdom. A nation can rise from a lowly, primitive state to a much more exalted and advanced state. A species can arise from a cave-dwelling state to a star-exploring state. One can use the words progress or evolution to describe such risings from a low state to a much higher state, but our language is weak in words to describe such ascents. But such risings from low states to higher states are the life blood of the stories that hold our interest.
But what if there were no such opportunities? What if we lived in a universe in which everyone had the same kind of life-story, a life-story that could never be something like “I traveled a long journey upward from the lowly anguish of poverty and ignorance, and ascended to the top of the mountain” but could only be something like this: “I started out thousands of years ago in a state of complete comfort and happiness, and now here I am centuries later, still existing in that same state of comfort and happiness”? And what if the tale of every country and every species was never anything more stirring than this: “They started out in a perfectly desirable state, and always kept existing in that same perfectly desirable state, ending up after their long journey exactly as they were when they began”?
There would, of course, be a certain problem with such a situation, and we might call that problem the evil of stagnation.
The Evil of Non-Appreciation
If we have experiences with suffering, unhappiness and hardship, this makes us more likely to appreciate and enjoy times of comfort and happiness. But imagine if there had never been suffering, unhappiness, or hardship. Would we appreciate the comfort and happiness we had? No, we would not. In fact, we would be completely blasé and complacent about our pain-free life. We would be like some spoiled “silver spoon” billionaire's son who never fully appreciated a delicious meal and stylish, roomy houses and fine clothes because he had never experienced anything else. The result would be a serious evil: the evil of non-appreciation.
It's easy to say that this would not be a big factor, but some simple math suggests otherwise. Let's imagine a person named John who has a 70 year life with some unhappiness and hardships, followed by a million year afterlife of heavenly bliss. Then let's imagine a person named Bill who experiences nothing but a million and 70 years of comfort and happiness. Suppose that John's experience with unhappiness and hardships makes him enjoy his afterlife 10% more because he appreciates it more. The result may be that John experiences a total net amount of happiness more than 9% greater than Bill experiences, even taking into account John's 70 years of unhappiness.
The Evil of Low Diversity
Nowadays many people regard diversity as a good. For example, colleges often proudly say: we don't want uniformity and homogeneity in our college; we value diversity. Diversity is a good thing. We might say that one of our universe's best characteristics is its very high degree of diversity. On our planet we have a very high degree of diversity in life forms and in human beings. But the universe offers much richer diversity.
Considering the universe as a whole, we might consider with awe the staggering degree of diversity it contains. There is a diversity of life forms, a diversity of histories, a diversity of physical locations, an unimaginable degree of variety. This has non-trivial consequences. For one thing, it means that exploring different planets in the universe (whether physically or by receiving radio or television signals) will prove to be a source of endless abundant pleasure and fascination, because there is such a huge variety of planets.
But imagine there isn't so much variety. Imagine things are much, much more monochromatic, because every planet is in a state of perfection. This lack of variation and variety is itself a certain type of evil, which we might call the evil of low diversity.
All Possible Universes Have Serious Evils
These considerations lead to an important conclusion: viewing a universe from a proper perspective that includes huge vistas of time, it must be said that every possible universe has serious evils. While a perpetually pleasant pain-free universe may seem like an “evil free” universe if one considers it at a single instant of time (the snapshot fallacy), as soon as we fully and vividly imagine that universe persisting on in such a state for billions of years, we realize that such a universe would actually have serious evils such as the ones I have listed. One cannot evade such a consequence by imagining that the “evil free” universe lasts for a relatively short length of time, for such a universe would then have the evil of death, and the evil of its one demise. Nor can we imagine a truly evil-free universe by imagining an unpopulated universe, as that universe would have its own evils such as evils of low-diversity and evils of non-experience.
I may note that my list of five evils of an "evil free" universe is by no means complete. There are no doubt quite a few others that I have not mentioned.
But while a perpetually pleasant universe would have the evils I have mentioned, would it not be better than our universe? That depends on various unknowns regarding our universe. Some of the unknowns are as follows:
- Is there a life after death?
- If there is a life after death, how long does it last?
- If there is a life after death, what percentage of people experience bliss in such an afterlife?
- If someone first experiences earthly sadness and then moves on to a blissful state in an afterlife, will he enjoy such a state only slightly more (because of greater appreciation and contrast), or will he enjoy it very much more?
- Do the civilized species on planets such as ours eventually reach a state of great abundance and comfort because of scientific and technical progress?
- Do such civilized species typically exist in such a state for a period many times longer (possibly thousands of times longer) than the time length that they exist in widespread discomfort?
- If the latter hypothesis is true, could it be that the number of civilized species now existing in abundance and comfort is many times greater than the number of civilized species such as ours (considering the universe as a whole)? What is the ratio between these two numbers? Could it be as high as 100 to 1 or 1000 to 1, given the great age of the universe?
- For the average person living in our universe, what is the ratio between the number of years spent living in happiness and the number of years spent living in unhappiness (including time spent living in an afterlife)?
Under some sets of answers to these questions, we might judge that a perpetually pleasant universe is superior to our own universe. Under other plausible sets of answers to these questions, it might be right to judge that a perpetually pleasant universe is no better than our universe, or inferior to our universe. This point can easily be supported with specific hypothetical examples, but I will save that for another blog post. Here I may briefly note that in any universe in which the ratio of happiness to misery is very high (say 100 to 1 or 1000 to 1), considered over a billion-year time span, there is a large possibility that the existence of suffering and pain may be ultimately justifiable largely on the grounds that it leads to a greater net ratio of happiness compared to unhappiness or pleasure compared to pain, partially because of factors discussed above. Because of the possibility of an afterlife, and the possibility that our planet is untypical (being inhabited by an unusually primitive civilization), it is entirely possible that we live in a such a universe. The possibility of an afterlife cannot be excluded in such a discussion, as it is a possible consequence of the existence of a deity, which is exactly what is being debated.
We do not know the answers to the questions listed above. So we are in no position to judge whether our universe is inferior to some perpetually pleasant universe that we can imagine. This is one reason why the main argument for atheism (the argument from evil) is not valid. Another reason the argument is not valid is that a theist can defeat it (with great simplicity) by simply conceding the possibility of a deity with somewhat less than infinite power.