The imperfect universe and the idea of a perfect being

All things sick and cancerous
All evil great and small
All things foul and dangerous
The Lord God made them all

Monty Python’s version of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”

Introduction

I’m far from the first to question the idea that god as the perfect being fits together with our world as it is. The problem of evil has been used as an argument against the existence of god: how could there be a perfectly good and all-powerful being and there still be evil in the world? Wouldn’t the perfectly good want to fix it and the all-powerful be able to? (Personally, I don’t need an argument against when we haven’t got an argument for.) There have been attempts to argue against this, but they’re all dodging the issue: the argument proves that there can’t be a god that’s perfectly good and all-powerful in the sense assumed in the argument, and it’s not easy to come up with a sense for both that’s satisfactory but doesn’t run afoul of this argument. Honestly, I think theists should just see reason on this point and admit that god doesn’t have both attributes, but it seems as if surprisingly few do.

But that’s an old thing. I want to go a step further. Not only is god’s “perfection” incompatible with the imperfect world without selectiveness and doublethink — the whole idea of a perfect being barely makes sense at all, and especially not in conjunction with the imperfect supposedly created world. Existence in this world is based on happening and striving towards something, and both imply imperfection. Even the attributes postulated for god would make sense only inside this world, but they don’t make sense in the supposed perfection. The divine attributes are anthropomorphisms. But then again, take unchanging perfection seriously, and you’ve got nothing left. The perfect doesn’t need to do anything, but to exist, you need to do something. Perfection doesn’t make sense.

The perfect being

The very way people typically conceive of god shows they are thinking in terms of an imperfect universe, not a perfect god. “God” is made a thing that needs to do things. He is the creator, and omnipotent. If something is already perfect in itself, why would it need to create an (imperfect) universe besides itself? You can make up all sorts of answers, but it’s logically clear that all of them will either have god lacking something or acting randomly. Either god had a reason to do so or not, and if he did, doing so must have led to an improvement compared to the state of just god, and if not, it was random by definition.

Similarly to being omnipotent. We’d sure like to be omnipotent — because we’re not, and we need power to do things, because things are not perfect for us already. If they were, we would have no need for any power. If the universe itself were perfect for us, we would need no power to alter it. God would not need to be omnipotent for the same reason he would not need to create anything.

More subtly, the same point applies to omnibenevolence. I won’t analyse it in detail here — there will be a post in the future — but the concept of goodness is one whose nature it is to guide actions. We will choose the good (in a moral or other sense) and avoid the bad, insofar as we’re rational (which we often are not). Obviously we only need to do this because there is a distinction between what is good and what is bad — because everything is not perfect already. Of course, god could be good to us, although it’s unclear why he’d care (see below), and then we’d get to the whole problem of evil on top of the question of why create anything and why such a world if anything.

God has been thought to be eternal in the sense of being outside time, and also more generally unchanging, because why would the perfect need to change? This makes a natural contrast to the world even assuming it makes sense to think of such a god and such a world. The world is a world of changing, perishing, imperfect things. The question, however, is why these realities would exist side by side and why we should assume it. We could go the Platonic way and look at abstract ideas as being the unchanging reality, and sure, why not, but what has that to do with anything? They’re just logical structures that we only see manifesting through something in the imperfect world. The very idea of the imperfectness comes from the fact that when we look at anything we have reason to think to exist, it is crucially unlike these ideas, even the ones that describe that very thing.

If god is made into enough of a philosophical principle, then these problems are helped at least a little. If god is some kind of a principle of existence, or nature itself, or the supreme moral good… But you can’t make such a move and then add the supernatural and the anthropomorphic elements back again, or you’ll lose what you just gained. If god is such a philosophical principle, why should it be the other things as well?

We have evidence of a causal world with no purpose. We have evidence of purpose emerging and struggling to survive in a world indifferent to it. This makes our (human) world one of goals and actions. Also one of caring, which is intimately tied to these things, as it is what motivates. Even the idea of god-the-perfect as loving is thus an anthropomorphism. We might as well point out, though this is less clear, that information processing is a kind of action, and it is used for action, so so much for omniscience and omnicognisance. God’s supposed attributes all seem to be derived from this imperfect world. He would not even be an agent.

A further point could be made that it’s dubious that a thing can have an attribute that doesn’t manifest in any way, and likewise dubious that anything can exist without having such attributes. What would it mean to be blue but permanently invisible? Or to be round but have no spatial boundaries that interact with anything, as in: you can’t see the “round” thing being round because it doesn’t reflect light, you can go right through it without its borders stopping you, it doesn’t exert gravitational influence based on its supposed shape, etc. For god to have attributes, then, they should be able to manifest in some way. But either god would affect things purposefully, in which case he could lack something and not be perfect, or he would be a thing that affects other things mindlessly like a physical object, say an indestructible sphere floating around and crashing into things forever, and we would be disinclined to say that’s what we meant by perfect, even if in a way it makes more sense. If god were to exist outside the universe, then either he could affect things inside it (and thus in a way be inside anyway), but again that would have to be randomly — or he could be outside the universe and not do anything, which can only reasonably be interpreted as not existing.

That’s what we get when we look at what perfection would mean in this universe, or really at all: Not existing. This universe is dynamic, changing, imperfect, and so is any reasonable view of existence, unless you count existing as an abstract thing. Abstract things are just the possibility of a certain kind of logical structure manifesting. They are “perfect” because they are the ideas to which we compare things, so they are a perfect match for their ideal because they are it. Anyway, those aside (or not, either way), “the perfect existing thing” is a bit of a contradiction. The perfect has no need to exist; existence can contain nothing perfect in this sense.

A step back

It’s important to notice that I have not logically disproven the existence of god. The world could be set up in a number of ways, in spite of what I think I know about it, also if I am right. There could be some sense of god that describes something that can and does exist. There could be some sense of perfection that is possible, some sense of omnipotence and so forth that makes sense. I’m just looking at one view and extrapolating from it in a certain direction that I think bears looking at.

I am making a point, though, or maybe two. The usual idea of the perfect being, even in its more philosophical form, far from being a logically obvious thing, is an illogical hodgepodge of anthropomorphisms. We’ve conceived of the supreme being as superhuman, with that emphasis. Real perfection is… not real. We don’t observe it. It’s the impossible limit to which we aim in a world that is very unlike it. A perfect harmony. But in perfect harmony, there is no action, life or purpose, or any reason to care about anything.

There’s something from natural sciences that bears mentioning here: Complexity and life can only exist in a mid-state between total order and total chaos. If the particles in the universe would be in maximal state of disorder (and entropy), it would be a kind of lukewarm soup with every particle doing whatever — actually totally homogenous from our point of view. If they were in a very ordered state, it would still be totally homogenous, even more so in a sense, but arranged in a single unchanging crystal or something like that. It’s only halfway between these that there can be interesting structures like ourselves. There is a clear analogy in the ordered state to perfection in the sense that’s been discussed here. Be too perfect, and there’s nothing going on.

What I’m doing here is looking at all the evidence. There is order and harmony in nature, but also disorder and disharmony. There’s no perfection, and even imagining it leads to contradictions. Why go on supposing that there must be perfection in some mysterious sense? I can’t disprove the notion, but it’s not one that’s suggested by nature.

Some other views are. Even if you want to call something “god”, there’s no need to go the route of the illogical maximal being. Some views view god as part of the evolution of the universe — something like a goal rather than a beginning. We didn’t start with perfection, and we’re not going to reach it or at least haven’t yet, but we can move towards it. I also like Nicholas Maxwell’s idea that “god” should really be divided into two. For him, the “omnipotent” god is just the physical universe, containing all causal power there is, but of course morally indifferent. Meanwhile, the “omnibenevolent” god is the abstract highest good that we strive for. This makes some sense of the notions of both kinds of “perfection” while not offending reason and morality by suggesting that perfect goodness would allow all the evil in the world.

The kind of view of god I criticised here, or even view of “perfection”, is not the only possible one. But it’s not unusual… and we can learn more by seeing how it does not make sense than by trying to make it do so.

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