In January Justin Schieber and I engaged in a written debate featured at Strange Notions on the topic of whether we should expect God to create only perfect creatures. Schieber argued that we should, and thus the fact that something other than perfect creatures (e.g. us) exists provides evidence against God. I objected that we have no reason to expect that God would necessarily create only perfect creatures. And thus, the fact that we exist does not provide evidence against the existence of God.
After we finished the debate we both decided that there was still more to say and so we kept arguing. That written conversation was eventually recorded and is now featured as the latest installment (episode 3) at Schieber’s Real Atheology Podcast. You can listen to it here complete with the background ambient noise of an actual bar. (How cool is that?) Think of it as a bonus chapter to our book An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar. This exchange very much catches the tone of the book.
If you prefer reading to listening, I’ve included the full transcript below as Parts 1 and 2. And if you’ve already read the Part 1 exchange at Strange Notions, feel free to skip down to the continuance of the exchange at Part 2.
Justin: Well, Randal, we’ve officially made it out alive.
It’s been an interesting year. 2016 saw the somber losses of some of the most beloved names in popular culture as well as the death of sensible political discourse culminating with the election of a buffoon to the White House.
Randal: At least we bucked the trend toward polarization that increasingly characterizes the public square by actually talking to each other.
Justin: And yet, even after all our conversations and the publication of an entire conversational book, your theism and my atheism are still alive and kicking.
Randal: Yeah, but it should hardly be surprising. People don’t change their perspectives overnight, especially about such weighty matters as religion … or politics.
Justin: Very true. Thankfully, we didn’t approach this book with the sole purpose of changing each other’s mind. We made a point to step out of the trenches of the atheist/theist battlefield for a chance to engage in some… doxastic diplomacy.
Randal: Hard to believe that after a couple hundred pages we were only getting started. So how about we pursue the conversation a bit further now? Any ideas?
Justin: I’ve got one. So, theists believe that God is the terminus of all explanation – that God is seated causally and logically prior to everything we know and everything we don’t (with the possible exception of abstracta like universals or numbers). I think most would also agree that God didn’t need to create any of this. In other words, if he exists, any act of creation that followed was a free choice rather than an act of necessity.
Justin: Moreover, God is, in every way, perfect. In that light, we can be confident that, if God exists, then prior to creating anything, all that existed was pure perfection. But at present, there exists a universe made up of finite constituents.
That fact is more surprising on theism than it is on a view which states that the natural world is an uncreated, causally-closed system. Why? Well, because nearly every reason that we might appeal to in order to explain why God has created such a universe would far better motivate God to either refrain from creation acts altogether or create something entirely different.
Randal: So you think that we should expect God to create an infinite universe? I’m not sure I follow your reasoning here.
Justin: Not quite. See, I think that if God is to have reasons to create at all, those reasons would lead him to create one or more of what philosopher Evan Fales calls perfect creatures. A perfect creature is a person just like God in every way but whereas God is uncreated, a perfect creature is created. A perfect creature is maximal in his power, his knowledge, and most importantly, his moral perfection.
Randal: Okay, so your claim is that if God existed, he would create only perfect creatures. Since non-perfect creatures exist, that counts as evidence against God. But why do you think God would be restricted to creating only those perfect creatures?
Justin: It’s not so much because non-perfect creatures exist, although that’s also true. It’s because finite things exist generally. If God is to be taken as the quality standard of all things moral and ontological, then creating perfect creatures is going to best scratch any creative itch God might have given that these creatures are infinite and perfect in every way like their creator, God, the ultimate standard.
Randal: So you say. But if I can identify a possible divine “itch” which could not be scratched by creating perfect creatures, then that would constitute a defeater to your argument. So here’s one: by creating imperfect creatures who grow into moral perfection (or what Christians call being sanctified), God actualizes particular goods not available by creatures that are perfect from the beginning. These goods include the sense of moral history, of personal growth, of dynamic discovery, of learning to love and serve the creator. There are a whole range of goods God can actualize only by creating non-perfect creatures who have the capacity to grow. So what basis do you have to think God wouldn’t desire to actualize this range of goods?
Justin: Great question. So, let’s focus on your first suggestion; ‘God’s itch to create persons who can grow into moral perfection requires him to create imperfect creatures.’
First, I don’t think it’s possible for finite persons to grow into moral perfection. But, let’s assume this is possible. To see the problem with this general approach, let me ask you a simple question. What’s so good about moral growth?
Randal: In other words, what’s so good about acquiring moral virtue? That strikes me as a strange question. It’s like asking what’s the value of climbing a mountain when you can be dropped off at the top via a helicopter. There is intrinsic virtue in undertaking the journey up the mountain. And there is intrinsic value in acquiring moral virtue over time. Why would you think otherwise?
Justin: My point is simple. Reasons for valuing moral growth in imperfect creatures that already exist are not the same as reasons to create imperfect creatures in the first place. So, without imperfect creatures already existing, there is no reason to create them to be imperfect. Moreover, the introduction of imperfect creatures will bring with them failures of moral will and the various evils that result from those failures.
Randal: So you just made two points. First you said that the reasons for creating imperfect creatures would not be the same as valuing imperfect creatures that were already created. But this isn’t correct: the same valuation could be operative in both cases. If God values courage, for example, that could lead him both to create beings who acquire courage and to value creatures that presently exist who have acquired courage.
On the second point, you’re correct to observe that creating imperfect creatures who grow brings with it some degree of moral failure. But so what? You haven’t shown that the degree of moral failure outweighs the value of having creatures with a moral history who acquire virtue over time. And that’s what you need to show if you’re to sustain an objection to God’s existence based on the existence of imperfect creatures.
Justin: You’ve argued God could value courage and yet, you’ve provided no good reason to think that God antecedently does value courage. All the reasons you have provided were extracted from the fact that courage and moral growth are very good things to have if we already exist as finite, imperfect persons. Moreover, if things like courage and moral growth are such great things, then God utterly lacking in both of these abilities should be seen as a fault, rather than a feature.
I’m afraid that appealing merely to the possibility of reasons for creating such beings won’t cut it against my inference to the best explanation. Abductive inferences allow for these possibilities. At best, you’d be adding finite value to an already infinitely valuable state of affairs and at worst, as already discussed, you’d be introducing the plenitude of evils we see resulting from the choices of imperfect creatures. With the choice of worlds before an infinite God, it isn’t even close. This is a piece of evidence against theism.
Randal: No surprise, I disagree. I’d like to make three points of rebuttal. First, you said I’ve given no reason to think God values virtues like courage. But unless and until you can defend a sweeping skepticism about our moral intuitions, I think we remain justified in thinking that God would value courage in his creatures.
You also suggested that if a virtue like courage is valuable then God ought to exemplify courage. That’s incorrect: God is by definition omniscient and omnipotent, and no being who is all-knowing and all-powerful can exhibit courage. Thus, God cannot exhibit courage.
Finally, your argument rested on the claim that if God were to create, he would create perfect creatures. I provided a reason to reject that claim, namely the goods that arise from creating imperfect creatures who grow into perfection. This very real possibility is sufficient to undermine your claim that God would only create perfect creatures.
Justin: You’ve made it abundantly clear that your moral intuitions point toward courage and moral growth as being profoundly valuable things such that they can serve as an excuse for God’s exiting prior purity without creating perfect creatures.
Randal: I’d prefer to say “reason” rather than “excuse.”
Justin: Fair point. I’ve argued that your moral intuitions about courage and moral growth are not only perfectly consistent with but are far better explained by the fact that we finite creatures value these things intuitively because we already exist. So, I don’t think these anthropocentric theodicies you’ve offered are capable of the weight you’ve placed upon them.
Randal: Sorry to interject again, but I never endorsed anthropocentrism.
Justin: I didn’t claim you endorsed anthropocentrism. Though, perhaps I was wrong to categorize your explanation of the value of courage (which heavily couched in the perspective of a human living in the actual world) as anthropocentric. Nevertheless, from within theistic assumptions, how do you hold that courage and moral growth are of such great value despite their not being modeled in the nature of the divine? I assume you are not defending a view wherein at least some values enjoy a kind of aseity independent of God. In other words, I must again ask, on theism, what’s so great about courage and moral growth?
On the other hand, a view which states that the natural world is an uncreated, causally-closed system will, if it brings about life at all, bring about life moderated and shaped by selective pressures. There is no plausible, or more accurately, possible evolutionary story wherein perfect creatures could arise. This practical entailment of this godless view makes the absence of perfect creatures a certainty and therefore a better explanation of these facts than a view like theism that doesn’t share this entailment.
Randal: You ask, what’s so great about courage and moral growth if God himself does not undergo courage and moral growth? The question itself supposes that for a personal quality to be of value, it must be exemplified in God. But this is mistaken.
I take it to be of value, for example, that a cheetah can run with speed and grace because when it does so it is being that which it was designed to be, that is, a cheetah. The cheetah’s value is not dependent on the fact that God is the perfect model of running on the savannah. Rather, a cheetah’s value comes relative to fulfilling the purpose for which it was made, a purpose that need not be modelled in God.
And so it is for human persons. Our value is not dependent on the attributes we develop first being modelled in God. God doesn’t need to be courageous for courage to be of value for human beings.
If you don’t value courage and its acquisition, then perhaps the best I can do is point to monumental instances of courage and hope that you share my intuitive recognition of the value of those examples. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer returning to Germany to fight the Nazis and ultimately giving his life in the concentration camps. I believe God values beings that exercise courage in the way Bohoeffer did. And that’s a good reason to create creatures like that instead of merely the perfect creatures you’ve described.
Justin: With respect to your comments about courage specifically, I’m not sure they are of much help. To be sure, your praises of Bonhoeffer’s behavior in the face of adversity go a great distance toward demonstrating the value of courage in a world pre-packed and full of evils to overcome and press against.
But I’m afraid these insights have done nothing to demonstrate the value of courage in a world where there exist no such evils to press against. For that reason, I’m suggesting it is simply an error to pose that the value of courage (or of persons being courageous) could serve plausible motivation for God to create anything other than perfect creatures in a state of affairs at which nothing but God existed.
To make use of a different cheetah illustration, we would both raise a skeptical brow to any argument from a theologian suggesting God created a physical world because he very specifically valued spotted fur – how remarkably ad hoc! We’d be liable to raise the other brow if, when asked to justify this assumption, our good theologian rambled on about the instrumental value of these spots for the camouflage they offer in certain physical environments of the physical world.
Randal: You suggest that being a courageous person is only of value if one has occasion to exercise their courage. I think you’re quite wrong about that. Virtue is of value — and vice is of disvalue — irrespective of whether one has occasion to act on that virtue or vice.
Imagine that Jones has a character disposition such that if she were ever to see a small, furry animal, she would torture that animal for fun. This is the only significant defect in her character, but admittedly it’s a doozy. Now it could be that Jones never encounters a small, furry animal throughout her life and thus neither Jones nor the rest of us is ever aware of her disposition to torture. By your reasoning, her disposition to torture would not constitute a defect of her moral character because she never had occasion to act upon it. I disagree. I think this remains a defect of objective disvalue, whether she ever encounters a small, furry animal or not.
And so it is with courage and cowardice. It is objectively preferable to have the virtue of courage rather than the vice of cowardice irrespective of whether you ever have occasion to exercise your courage.
Justin: Interesting point. But I want to be sure I am understanding you correctly.
Are you saying that the character disposition of courage (and the goodness of it) within Jones is consistent with there never actually being a time or state of affairs in which that courageous disposition motivates an action in Jones? If, on your view, a courageous person brings value partly in virtue of their courage, “Irrespective of whether one has occasion to act on that virtue…”, then I feel compelled to point out that, on your view, perfect creatures are perfectly capable of a courageous disposition that far exceeds that of any limited, finite, and imperfect creature.
It seems then that your claim about the goodness of courage cannot plausibly explain why God created specifically finite creatures and the universe in which they reside rather than bringing forth perfect creatures. On the other hand, a view which states that the natural world is an uncreated, causally-closed system, we’d fully expect any existing creatures to exist as limited, finite, and imperfect creatures.
Randal: I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Your definition of “perfect creature” includes the attributes of being omnipotent — all-powerful — and omniscient — all-knowing. Any being that has absolute power could not possibly face risk or threat. And any creature that knows all true propositions (and believes no false ones) would know he/she could not possibly face any risk or threat. But in order to exemplify courage one must either be under potential threat or face potential risk, or they must believe they are under threat or face potential risk. From this it follows that your perfect creatures cannot possibly exercise courage. If God values courage, and presumably he does, he has a good reason to create beings like us who can exercise courage and experience moral growth rather than merely create perfect creatures with no ability to exercise courage or experience moral growth.
Justin: Okay, I think I can agree with you on that point.
Recall though, that when I asked you what’s so good about courage, you appealed to your moral intuition. In response, I argued that your moral intuitions about courage are not only perfectly consistent with but are also far better explained by the fact that we finite creatures intuitively value these things because we already exist and face challenges that only we finite creatures could face.
Let me try to explain. Things like courage are instrumentally good for the world-context in which we finite creatures already exist. We develop in ourselves courage as a means to overcome evil (in possible worlds where it exists) and strive toward deeper and more basic goods. What makes courage seem so good are the deeper goods toward which courage is often rightfully aimed. With this distinction between instrumental (or worldly) goods and the deeper, more basic goods toward which they are aimed in mind, it’s still far from obvious – indeed the waters are quite murky – why God would create imperfect, finite creatures in the first place rather than perfect creatures.
On the other hand, an uncreated causally-closed system is a system in which any creatures that come to be will always be finite and imperfect. So the finitude of the creatures that exist is not surprising on the causally-closed and uncreated world hypothesis.
Randal: What you call the instrumental goodness of courage is rooted in a deeper intrinsic goodness, the goodness of being the kind of creature who combines wisdom and selflessness when under threat. After all, that’s just what courage is: it consists of the golden mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. The kind of creatures you describe cannot exemplify this intrinsic virtue because they can never be under threat or believe they’re under threat. Since God values this intrinsic good he created creatures like us who can exemplify it.
Justin: Oh, ok. So, I think we might be reaching out in different directions with how we are using these words. But alas, I’ll wait my turn.
Randal: Your position is analogous to claiming that a perfect gardener would only include orchids in his garden. I have no beef with the presence of orchids in the garden: my only point is that roses have their own qualities too. And thus, the gardener could have good reasons for including roses as well. So if we walk into a garden and the first thing we see is roses, that isn’t evidence that there isn’t a perfect gardener.
By the same token, I have no theological problem with God creating what you call perfect creatures. My only point here is that he’d have good reasons to create us as well. Just as roses have qualities that orchids lack, so we have qualities that perfect creatures lack. And thus the existence of imperfect creatures like human beings is not evidence against the existence of God.
Justin: So, as I said, I worry we may be talking past each other.
When I talk of deeper goods or basic goods, I have in mind those goods which are plausibly foundational rather than those which are derived from deeper goods and which apply only in certain worldly contexts which presuppose the existence of evil – like courage. For example, I agree with you that selflessness is plausibly a deeper moral good in this sense just as I agree that wisdom is as well. On theism, those goods would already exist to the greatest possible degree and purest possible forms in the person of God prior to creation. These goods would also exist in any created perfect creatures if God had felt so moved.
This is not the case with the worldly and evil-presupposing good of courage.
My point is something similar to what philosopher J.L. Schellenberg has argued. If every worldly (or derived) good that permits or presupposes evil (for example, courage) is greatly exceeded by deeper, purer good(s) of the same general type, existing prior to creation in God, then any world with good(s) that permit or presuppose evil is exceeded by a world ‘modeling’ the relevant and corresponding deeper goods in the person of God or perfect creatures.
Randal: I don’t think we’re talking past one another. I think we just disagree. Look, orange may be derived from a combination of yellow and red, but that doesn’t change the fact that orange is a color in its own right and a tableau that includes orange may well be richer than one that is limited to red and yellow.
Likewise, courage may be derivative of knowledge, power, and finitude, but that doesn’t change the fact that courage has value in its own right and a tableau that includes courage is richer than one which is limited to examples of unlimited power (omnipotence) and knowledge (omniscience).
To sum up, I deny the claim that a tableau without courage is obviously better than one with it. There is value with including orange brushstrokes on the canvas. And thus, God may have good reason to create a world with imperfect creatures who can exemplify courage.
Justin: I guess you’re right. We just disagree. Unlike you, I think that that the goodness of courage must ultimately reduce to more fundamental ethical facts that, if theism is true, are best exemplified in the nature of God prior to creation.
It seems clear to me that, on theism, any new value that things like courage bring to the table as mere tokens of an already existing deeper type of good is relatively small. Because of this, it’s not clear to me that a perfectly good God would be likely to create them especially given the intense evils they require for their existence. I hold this is probably the case for other so-called reasons for why God might possibly create us finite beings.
At the end of the day, I think the uncreated and causally closed universe hypothesis offers a superior explanation for the fact that the creatures that exist in our world are finite creatures limited in precisely the ways in which God is infinite. Power, knowledge, and goodness.
Randal: Orange may be derivative of yellow and red, but it’s still different and it has value in its own right. Courage may likewise be derivative of power and knowledge sans perfection, but it likewise has intrinsic value all its own. And thus, God could have excellent reasons to create beings that can exemplify courage. Anyway, that’s how I see it.