The Problem of Good: Part 1

In a lecture entitled The Faith Question (2008), I argued that the occurrence apparently pointless suffering decreases the probability of theism and makes more sense on the backdrop of naturalism. With that said, the warrant for competing worldviews does not hinge entirely on the problem of suffering. In fact, an often neglected source of evidence for theism is the problem of good.

the problem of goodThis argument goes as follows:

  1. God has good reason to actualize goods such as consciousness, beauty, morally significant freedom[1], justice, and self-giving love – as well as creatures with the potential to experience and realize those goods.
  2. The actual world contains those goods.
  3. Naturalism gives us little reason to expect those goods.
  4. Therefore, (2) is evidence for theism.

Premise (1) seems very at home with the traditional concept of God. While God could have chosen not to create anything, he has reason to create a world containing such goods, especially because God is by definition a perfectly good being who delights in such things.

Premise (2) is quite reasonable as well. We may not fully understand how those values came to be in the history of the cosmos, but they exist nonetheless, however incomplete or imperfect they are.

What about premise (3)? To what extent would we expect these goods on naturalism? Perhaps the best approach to this question is from the perspective of multiple worlds (or a multiverse). According to our current understanding of this hypothesis, very few of the worlds in the multiverse are hospitable to life, let alone to the goods in premise (1). And within such a limited set of hospitable worlds, there is no guarantee that those goods will actually arise in the process of cosmic evolution. Perhaps a fraction of those worlds contain only amoebas but none of the goods consonant with personal agents (this is a generous concession to say the least!). If so, then these goods are quite surprising on naturalism but unsurprising on theism, since God (as a benevolent creator) would have reason to populate worlds with them.

The surprising existence of goods in a naturalistic worldview can be interpreted in at least two ways, depending on whether the future of this world is causally open or closed:

First, if many possible futures are compatible with this world’s initial state (i.e. its future is open), then we are left without a complete explanation of why goods emerged and not something else. I say “complete explanation” because a partial account of how they emerged can be given in terms of cosmic and biological evolution. But if evolution could have taken many different paths, we still have not explained why the goods-path won out over the others. A naturalistic account of the processes involved in the emergence of goods does not obviate the need for a further explanation of why other paths did not win out instead.

Second, if only one possible future in terms of cosmic and biological evolution is compatible with this world’s initial state (i.e. its future is closed), then we could similarly ask why, among so meagre a handful of hospitable candidates, the beginning of this world was so precisely calibrated as to make goods not only possible but physically inevitable!

But the hypothesis of theism can readily explain these surprises. On the first interpretation, God providentially guides[2] natural processes so that they lead to the goods he envisions. On the second interpretation, God calibrates the initial state of this world by “stacking the deck”[3] in favour of his goals. Either way, theism gives us reason to expect goods whereas naturalism gives us little reason to do so.

What do you, the reader, think about the problem of good. Is it really a problem? How might naturalism shore up its resources for explaining the surprises mentioned above? Note: in part 2 of this blog post (forthcoming) I will address possible objections to the above argument.

[1] The value of morally significant freedom still remains even if we are compatibilists who believe that human responsibility and determinism are not at odds with each other.

[2] Some theologically inclined physicists speculate that quantum chaos (QC) provides a key to understanding how God might act within the causal “gappyness” of the quantum world to affect major changes that suit his purposes. QC suggests that minor quantum changes can be iterated and rapidly amplified within systems that are extremely sensitive to changes in their initial conditions. However, the jury is still out on the viability of this theory.

[3] For an excellent discussion of  “deck stacking” as a form of divine action, see Michael Murray, Natural Providence (or Design Trouble), cited on December 30th, 2012, from:

2 thoughts on “The Problem of Good: Part 1”

  1. Great post! My favorite argument for God.

    “Naturalism gives us little reason to expect those goods.”
    A thought for the side of the argument I don’t want to win 🙂
    On a purely naturalistic account of evolution, you might say there was a random genetic mutation that had the result in making us feel (what we’ve come to call) aesthetic pleasure, “warm fuzzies” about good moral things, etc. These may be an evolutionary, selected-for advantage (may create motivation to keep going), a “bug” that has yet to be selected out (maybe the ‘fittest’ is or in some future context will come to be, those who don’t care about ‘goods’ in the sense that you talk about them), or just a random feature we’ve acquired. Either way, the upshot would be that creatures like us are wired to experience certain things as good in roughly way that we are wired to experience certain things as red, but that, as there are no “real” red things “out there” (some would say, the property of red is simply “projected” onto things by us), there are no “real” good things out there (the property of good is simply “projected” onto things by us).

    What about the multiverse argument re: this? Suppose that the odds of there being creatures that experience things this way are very low. So what? Well, it may take away some of the coolness of an event that is low-odds happening, if “this low-odds event” is “creatures that ‘project’ beauty onto the world exist” rather than “good things exist.” If we suppose that the former rather than the latter is going on, we might not really take anything of significance about some divine force guiding things in a certain direction away from the fact that it is low odds. (The odds for having the same penny circulate through my hands several times in my lifetime are also low, but – unless there is something special about the penny * other * than it’s circulating through my hands twice – I’m not prone to infer anything about God’s plan for me and that penny from that event.)

    Then again… 2 counter-thoughts. (No nice conclusion/wrap-up/upshot discussion at the end though… 🙁 )

    Maybe the projection language is misleading.

    1. Suppose there is a sense in which beauty/goodness ‘really’ is out there, independently of us, and that it also takes (a) certain kind of creature(s) to ‘see’ it. Then, suppose our systems are set up to see it. Maybe, given our systems, we can’t imagine what it would mean for goodness to exist without those systems also existing. Not being able to imagine it might lead us to think in terms of projection, but it shouldn’t. We’d need a better story for why we should believe in projection.

    2. To say that I ‘project’ red onto the world sounds a little strange. There “really are” red things, someone might respond — “projection” makes it sound as if redness is “fake,” she might say, but really a better way to talk about it is just to say that redness is a two-place relation between an object and a perceiver. (Now if we wanted to talk about one-place relation property of redness re: an object, we’d have to say that object has a ‘disposition to look red to creatures xyz’.) Maybe that’s how goodness is too. We make something beautiful by coming to see it a certain way; in a sense it isn’t beautiful before that, but (one might say) that doesn’t take away from the goodness of it being come to be seen as beautiful and so for the first time having its beauty really come to life. (We could say that, before it is actually seen, the object has the dispositional property of ‘could be seen as beautiful by certain people.’)

    It looks like the problem with this is that – just as there is no ‘wrong’ way to see colors, when we really get down to it – there would be no ‘wrong’ way to see the goodness/badness properties of the world. And that can’t be! To solve for that, we’d could posit some kind of virtue-theory rules that tell us what kinds of people we should be. Certain objects have the disposition to be seen as beautiful by certain people… And ‘certain’ people here is, the people with a virtuous (aesthetic in this case, and/or but moral, more broadly) perceptual system!

    1. Hi Marilie,

      Thank you for your thoughts on this important matter. The bulk of your concern seems to be that if evolutionary psychology can reduce the human experience of goodness to a mere evolutionary adaptation, then we are no longer warranted in believing that goodness exists “out there” independent of us. Your concern can be explored in at least four ways, which I have listed below:

      First, with a few refinements, the problem of good (POG) can be reformulated so that it does not presuppose axiological realism (AR), a.k.a. realism about states of objective moral value. In its refined version, the argument only claims that there are states of affairs in the world which (on theism) God would deem preferable, regardless of whether they really have any objective value or whether we prefer them for evolutionary reasons. To be sure, theism probably implies AR, but a reformulated POG need not presuppose it.

      Second, it is worth noting that an analogous refinement was made to the evidential argument from evil against the existence of God some decades ago. The refined argument does not claim that gratuitous suffering is objectively evil, only that its occurrence is very hard to square with the concept of an all-powerful, loving God. What matters to the success of the argument is that God would not allow such suffering to occur, not that this suffering is objectively evil or that some meta-ethical theory (namely, AR) shows it to be evil.

      Third, beliefs can be both adaptive and epistemically warranted. Our cognitive faculties would not have been adaptive if they regularly misinterpreted key features of our environment. Belief in the reality of the external world would be an example of a cognitive attitude that is both adaptive and warranted. But what about beliefs which are adaptive yet false? Couldn’t the belief that goodness is “out there” be one of these? This is a definite possibility!

      However, and fourthly, we need to beware of the limits of evolutionary explanations of belief. Not only can beliefs be warranted if grounded in a reliable cognitive process that evolved to aid our survival, but they can also be warranted if based on reasons which are distinct from survival concerns. At some point our evolutionary past, our ancestors began to interpret the world symbolically, so that they attained a measure of critical distance from their instinctual beliefs. By adapting a symbol system, our ancestors’ “hard-wired” instincts (say, for aggression, sex, cooperation, etc) could to some degree be weighed and evaluated, allowing them to discern which beliefs were true and which actions were right.

      Now, it seems quite plausible that our ancestors’ perception of goodness could have been grounded or based on reasons in the sort of way I’ve sketched above. But even if one grants that the belief in “goodness out there” was originally adaptive but false, this tells us why that belief was widely held – not whether it is actually warranted. So overall, explanations from evolutionary psychology do not necessarily compete with, or undercut, the epistemic warrant for the belief in “goodness out there.”


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