Guest blogger John D of Philosophical Disquisitions summarizes contemporary articles in philosophy of religion in plain talk so that you can be up to speed on the God debate as it ensues at the highest levels of thought. Visit John’s blog for more helpful summaries of contemporary philosophical works.
Heaven is a place where people enjoy eternally a supremely worthwhile happiness… [A] man in Heaven would be in a situation of supreme value.
- Swinburne, “A Theodicy of Heaven and Hell” (1983)
In my most recent series of posts (on the topic of natural evil), I made some allusions to something called the problem of heaven. I did so in order to support certain criticisms of theistic responses to the problem of evil. Since these allusions were, no doubt, maddeningly vague, I decided it might behoove me to do a whole series on the problem of heaven. That is what you are now reading.
The series will be based on some material contained in chapter 6 of Graham Oppy’s book Arguing about Gods (pp. 314-329 to be precise). In that chapter, Oppy deals with the full gamut of logical and evidential problems of evil, only turning to the problem of heaven at the very end. This order of presentation makes sense because heaven only really poses a problem in light of certain standard theistic strategies for dealing with evil. In this post, we will first outline those strategies and then develop in full the problem of heaven. In future posts, we will deal with the possible theistic responses to the problem.
Free Will Defences and Free Will Theodicies
Arguments from evil typically work by pointing out the inconsistency between the existence of evil and the existence of a morally perfect being. Some arguments propose that the inconsistency is logical, i.e. no amount of evil is compatible with the existence of God; other arguments propose that the inconsistency is evidential, i.e. a small volume of evil is compatible but not a large volume (or, rather, a large volume reduces the probability of God’s existence).
To complicate things, as we saw in the last series, there are two main categories of evil that are discussed in these debates: (i) moral evil and (ii) natural evil. Moral evil is evil resulting from the actions of agents with free will; natural evil is evil resulting from the operation of the laws of nature. Focusing for now on moral evil, consider the following version of the logical problem (terminology is explained afterwards):
(1) Necessarily, a perfect being can just choose to make an A-universe. (Premise)
(2) Necessarily, A-universes are better than non-A-universes in which there are free agents. (Premise)
(3) Necessarily, if a perfect being has a choice between options, and one of those options is non-arbitrarily better than the other options, then the perfect being chooses the non-arbitrarily better option. (Premise)
(4) Hence, necessarily, if a perfect being makes a universe that contains free agents, then it makes an A-universe. (From 1, 2, and 3)
(5) Our universe contains free agents, but it is not an A-universe. (Premise)
(6) Hence, it is not the case that a perfect being made our universe (From 4 and 5)
This argument (which is Oppy’s creation) makes use of the unusual terminology “A-universes”. This is simply his name for universes that are non-arbitrarily better than all other universes containing free agents. He says that A-universes could contain free agents, but they would be free agents who always chose to do the good. And just to to clarify, by “free agent” here is meant an agent with libertarian free will.
The argument just given contains the typical non-theistic rationale for the logical problem of evil: God could have created a universe in which agents did not perform moral evils; and that universe could have contained agents with free will (provided they simply always chose to do the good). The fact that ours is not such a universe is proof that it was not created by a perfect being.
The, by now standard, reply to this argument is that of the free will defence. According to this defence, a proper analysis of the libertarian conception of free will reveals that premise (1) is false: it is not possible for a perfect being to create an A-universe because agents with libertarian freedom have to commit evil in some possible universes. This defence seems to successfully dissolve the logical problem of evil. But in order for it to work, we must assume that libertarian free will is such a great good that a perfect being is justified in creating a universe with it, instead of one without it. This, as we shall see, poses a problem for the traditional conception of heaven.
It’s worth also mentioning free will theodicies here. These are typically adopted in response to weaker versions of the problem of evil. They come in different forms but they share the assumption that it is possible (for all we know) that the kinds of evil we find in this universe are a perfect trade-off against the goods realised through the existence of free agents. This blunts the force of the problem of evil but does so at some costs. In particular, it also poses a problem for the traditional conception of heaven, as we are about to see.
The Problem of Heaven
You’ve probably had enough stage-setting by now and are anxious to get on to the main event, the problem of Heaven itself. So let’s formulate that now. Following tradition, we are generally led to believe that heaven is a place of supreme value: well worth spending eternity in anyway. What’s more, its supposedly a damn sight better than this veil of tears we’re currently landed in, what with its moral and natural evils and all that. All of this seems to be implied by the quotes from Swinburne given at the start of this post.
But this conception of Heaven raises some obvious questions: are we to assume that there no moral evil in Heaven? If so, then what about the great good of free will? Are there free agents in Heaven who always choose to do the good? If so, then why couldn’t the universe have been like that? If there is moral evil in Heaven, then in what sense is it a place of supreme value? These rhetorical jibes can be made into a respectable argument. As follows:
(1) Necessarily, there is no evil in heaven (premise).
(2) If there is morally significant free will in Heaven, then it is not the case that, necessarily, there is no moral evil in heaven (premise, from free will defence).
(3) Therefore, there is no morally significant freedom in heaven.
(4) Heaven is a domain in which the greatest goods are realised (premise).
(5) Therefore, the greatest goods are realised in a domain in which there is no morally significant free will.
(6) A perfect being can choose to create any domain that it is logically possible to create (premise, appeal to omnipotence).
(7) Therefore, a perfect being can choose to create a domain in which the greatest goods are realised and in which there is no moral evil.
(8) A world that contains the greatest goods and no moral evil is non-arbitrarily better than any world that contains the greatest goods, incomparably lesser goods, and the amounts and kinds of evils that are found in our universe.
(9) If a perfect being faces a choice among options and one of those options is non-arbitrarily better than the others, then the perfect being will choose the non-arbitrarily better one.
(10) Therefore, it is not the case that a perfect being made our universe.
Let’s talk about each of the premises of this argument. Premise (1) is justified by appeal to the orthodox conception of heaven. Premise (2) is justified by appeal to the libertarian conception of free will that motivates the free will defence. Premise (3) then follows. Premise (4) is justified by appeal to the orthodox conception of heaven. Premise (5) follows from (3) and (4). Premise (6) is justified by a standard philosophical parsing of omnipotence, and premise (7) follows when (6) and (5) are combined (and when you bear in mind that a world with no morally significant free will would have no moral evil). Premise (8) seems to be straightforward enough. Premise (9) is justified by appeal to the notion of a morally perfect being — the feeling is that such a being would surely always choose the morally best option. The conclusion (10) then follows from the conjunction of (7), (8) and (9).
The result is that we seem to have a powerful argument against the existence of God emanating from the traditional responses to the problem of evil and the orthodox conception of heaven.
There are, of course, some obvious ways out of this problem. In the remaining entries in this series we will consider three of them:
(i) There is, contra to tradition, evil in heaven.
(ii) There are alternative analyses of free will that avoid this problem.
(iii) Not all great goods are heavenly goods.
We’ll start with the first of those the next day.