Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Theodicy I Find Acceptable! (Just Not in Our Universe)

I've been thinking about God and fiction again all weekend. I think my previous post on this topic had the issue of jumping between my perspective and my characters' perspective too much. I don't think it's fair to mix these up. From my perspective, we can say, I am obviously not God. However, I still might be God from my characters' perspectives, and this is the point that counts. So let's try to look at the issue from my characters' perspectives, then.

Okay. So, from my perspective, I created their universe. There then remain two possibilities. Either they could meaningfully "transcend" their universe and come to interact with me and other people in my universe, or they couldn't. If the former is true, then, by definition, I can't be God, because, by definition, God is the "uncaused cause" or the "unmoved mover." If my characters have the capacity of transcendence, then they clearly would realize that I am far from being an uncaused cause or unmoved mover. Thus, if my characters can transcend, I cannot be God, not only from my perspective but also from theirs! However, it seems obvious that, even if they can't transcend their universe from my perspective, from their perspective, they can. This is because they are capable of knowing that they are fictional characters. If I create them that way, they will be aware of their own fictionality. Since I have created such characters, I know that this is clearly possible. A character who is conscious of her own fictionality is clearly one who realizes the limitations and boundaries on her author, since that character is aware of the existence of a "real world" that subsumes her own and that provides limitations on the mindset of the author. So that character might be mad at the author, but cannot place ultimate blame on him and cannot think of him as God.

One might argue - but you are still creating some characters who aren't aware of their own fictionality; thus, those characters cannot make any such argument. I think in order to deal with this argument we really have to place ourselves into the perspective of one of these characters. So, switching gears for a moment and imagining myself as a character in a text by a transcendent, sufficiently-advanced alien (a hypothesis which may well be true): I certainly have no knowledge of my fictionality. However, I can safely believe there are three possibilities. Either my universe was created by no one, or it was created by an imminent God, or it was created by a sufficiently advanced alien. Note that these possibilities are not, in fact, mutually exclusive. The universe in Paradise Lost, for example, was created by both an imminent God (the God that appears in the text) AND a sufficiently advanced alien (John Milton). If the universe was created by no one, then it is meaningless to call God evil. If the universe was created by an imminent God, then I call that God evil. If the universe was created by a sufficiently advanced alien, then I do not call her evil, because she is not ultimately to blame for suffering - suffering was presumably part of the very cause that led her, a deeply moved mover, to create the universe. I believe that is meaningful to distinguish universes created by no one from those created by John Milton, in the sense that, while it's never possible to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that your universe wasn't created by John Milton, it is, as mentioned above, possible to prove that your universe is. If John Milton makes you aware of the fact that your universe was created by John Milton, then you will know that your universe was created by John Milton (it is a justified true belief); this is something that is very unlikely to happen if your universe was not created by John Milton, and so, were I to be granted this belief, I would be pretty likely to take it at face value and not be skeptical about it. Thus, regardless of whether or not I know for sure that the universe was created by John Milton, as long as the possibility of knowing this is open to me (which it clearly is), John Milton is not evil from my perspective.

But this opens up a rather odd corollary that has useful and, I think, extremely satisfying implications for theodicy. The thing is, my third possibility is that the universe was in fact created by an immanent God (a possibility which I can clearly imagine, given the existence of, say, Paradise Lost. The immanent God Itself may be, in fact, a fictional character created by a sufficiently advanced alien, but, as long as the God believes Itself to be immanent, it still counts (I would want to say that, despite the fact that Milton created Paradise Lost's God, this is still justifiably a representation of God, not a sufficiently advanced alien. If we can say that fictional characters have properties, and obviously we can, then in the world of the fiction it is completely true that God is God.). I would like to say that this God is evil, a villainous character - and I'm not the only one, if you look at the kind of arguments people have about Paradise Lost. This God, which is, from Its own perspective, an uncaused cause (even if from our perspective It is not), deliberately chose to create the universe and be the cause of a great deal of suffering, for no good reason.

However, the immanent God is also, by definition, omnipotent within the realm of its universe, which means that, among the other things It can do, It can most certainly cause the people of the universe to believe, with full conviction, that they are fictional characters. This may or may not be true; from God's perspective, it certainly isn't true. But God can make them believe it, anyway. Which means that there is in fact a way for an immanent God to create a universe and yet not be evil - It just has to have Its people believe that they are fictional characters.

Is it enough for this to be possible? I was already saying that I am not evil if I create a fictional universe, even if I don't let all my characters know that they are fictional. But I am not within the fictional universe and therefore don't have to admit to the reality of my characters, and, in order for my characters to be talking and thinking about me and not a fictional immanent God in their world, I have to be not God. I am not the God of their world because I am not immanent and don't believe myself to be God; my moral decisions thus are made on that basis (and they will be able to come to understand if my moral decisions are made on that basis). But God really is God and believes Itself to be God; God's moral decisions thus have to be based on a genuine belief in the importance and reality of Its subjects (since God is not aware of any limitations on Its powers, and, in fact, within Its own universe, there are no limitations). Thus, God's responsibilities are different from mine. God is less evil and more good, even if It is fully immanent, to the extent that It lets Its conscious creations believe (even if falsely) that they are fictional characters.

So God, the source of all goodness, is in fact morally justifiable only if It lies? But I don't think this is as bad a result as it might sound. Because the whole point is that it isn't really a lie - if you believe you are a fictional character, then you are, or there is no meaningful difference between believing yourself to be a fictional character and actually being a fictional character (how can you prove that you're not a fictional character? Is this even a meaningful concept?). And being a fictional character seems to be the one thing that could justify suffering to me. Because if your suffering is purely fiction, then you are aware that it is not real, not important - you have perspective. My suffering seems real to me and that is why I hate it; were I to not experience my suffering as real, I would not have this reaction. In fact, this is precisely the point of the dream I relate here. One of the most exciting, pleasurable dreams I ever had, which involved suffering, but that was okay, because the suffering in the dream was known by the character experiencing the suffering to be only fake suffering, in service of a larger goal of creating suspense. That suffering is okay, because it is justified in the mind of the character who knows that she is really only a smaller part of a larger mind.

So, I can actually see an immanent God as non-evil! If you happen to be omnipotent and omniscient and want to create a universe, I will now give you permission! However, our universe is still not that universe, because we DO NOT KNOW that we are merely ideas in the mind of God. Or perhaps some people do know that, but I don't. And if an immanent God created me, then there was no need to create me without this belief.

I also really like this theodicy a lot because I think it fits with my love of Hitherby. I've often thought about how, even though there is just as much suffering and pain in Hitherby as there is in the real world, I always feel like I'd rather live in the Hitherby universe. I've never been quite sure why, except for the very vague thought that I liked the metaphysics better than the metaphysics of our universe. But now I think I have a better sense of why - the reason is because, even if Hitherby doesn't quite fit the ideal of having everyone know that they are a fictional character (and, in fact, part of the point of Hitherby is that even fictional characters can become real characters who feel real pain), it seems to come much closer to that ideal than our world. I still wouldn't quite call the God of Hitherby omnibenevolent, but It seems to be far less evil than the theoretical immanent God of our world. More like the level of evil of a regular human being or a sufficiently advanced alien than the level of brazen evil I see in that idea.

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