Friday, 20 February 2009

The best possible world?

Matthew Paris is an intelligent man.  I often enjoy reading his comment, but his most recent column in The Times shows up the poverty of the religious mind.

In the column, he says,

Fascinating to read on The Times's letters page last week a discussion among Darwinian Christians about how a loving God could have allowed (for instance) the creation of worms that burrow into animals' eyes. This took the debate full circle: back to 30 years before this paper was founded, and the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, featured in Voltaire's Candide.

The catastrophe provoked anguish about how God could allow such suffering. The 17th-century thinker Gottfried Leibniz had asserted that (1) a loving God would have created the best world He could; (2) there exists a loving God; ergo (3) this must be the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire mocks this, through his ludicrously optimistic Dr Pangloss.

I feel for Leibniz, a mathematician and a genius, who only asserts that if you believe in a loving God it follows that, good or bad, the world could not have been better. Voltaire's shallow knockabout does not answer a logical sequence whose sole vulnerable assertion was that there exists a beneficent God. If Voltaire did not believe this he should have had the guts to say so. Instead he cheated. As a boy I stopped reading Candide here and have ignored Voltaire since.


What a glib answer!  Voltaire’s argument is flippant, and that’s the point, it is also a serious discussion about suffering.

You do not even need take the idea of evolution seriously (as I take it Paris does) which implies that there has been suffering and death on a monumental scale for hundreds of millions of years to see the flaw in Leibniz’s argument.  What a supporter of Leibniz is committed to is that not a single one of any instance of suffering could be removed or even mitigated without the world becoming a worse place.

We now have anaesthetics.  Does Paris really believe that the application of a narcotic (by God) to a suffering child (in circumstances where it would be given today) especially in circumstances where not only that child, but also all witnesses to that suffering would shortly also die (such as in a family during the Black Death or in a remote sea wreak) would have been a bad thing?  Does he support the use of pain relieving drugs today?

The idea we live in the best possible world does not need logical refutation, the fact that it is so easily mocked and derided in its own terms is evidence that it is a faulty idea.

Laughter is our best weapon.  That’s why it’s rare to see religious leaders happy!

1 comment:

  1. I don't think it is a glib comment. He is saying Voltaire should have had the guts to attack the notion of a beneficent God directly. My own feeling is that atheists spend far too much time and energy fighting theists on the theists own ground, accepting idiotic positions "for the sake of argument".