What follows is a short argument for atheism, or at least against the classical concept of God. I’m going not suggesting it is very serious but it’s interesting because it highlights what is behind some of the more popular atheistic arguments.
First we must introduce the notion of a certain kind of possible world, which, with due deference to US comics, we’ll term a bizarro world. A bizarro world is a world consisting of the existence of only a random assortment of concrete objects with minimal thematic or aesthetic unity. Key to the concept is the seeming uselessness or lack of purpose of these collections. Examples might be a world including only cocktail umbrellas, a world consisting of a porcelain elephant, five blades of grass and a cashew nutshell and a world the sole inhabitant of which is a paper machete globule of Israeli train tables the size of Mount Everest. Presumably there are an innumerable quantity of such worlds: we can envisage them from collections of objects selected from the actual world as well as all sorts of possible things objects humans and nature never got round to producing. Such worlds present a problem for theism however, as an atheist can argue along the following lines:
1. bizarro worlds are possible.
2. A bizarro world is such that no rational being could have a reason to actualise it.
3. Supposing orthodox theism to be true then God’s nature, i.e. the conjunction of Omnibenevolence and Omnipotence, partially determines what worlds can be actualised.
4 Following from the above for any world that God actualises God must possess a sufficient reason to actualise that world.
5. Were theism true then bizarro worlds would not be possible (this follows from 2, 3 and 4).
6. But bizarro worlds are possible, ergo theism must be false.
Of course an argument such as the above lacks much dialectical force. The theist is likely to dig their heels in and claim that all the argument proves is that, since we have prior strong reasons to hold God exists, bizarro worlds are not in fact possible. It’s interesting though as it helps pinpoint some of the issues that lie behind an argument against the classical concept of God theists have historically shown great respect for, that is the problem of evil.
As readers will have noticed the argument from bizarro worlds works on the same principle as the modal problem of evil (MPOE), which can be roughly summarised as: if God (construed as an omnipotent, omnibenevolent necessary being) exists, then a world containing gratuitous evil should not even be possible; yet, as such worlds do appear possible, we are forced to conclude God does not exist1. Both the argument from bizarro worlds and the MPOE are instances of a more fundamental problem, which is the notion of worlds which in principle could furnish no sufficient reason for a rational being to actualise them. In the former argument God’s choice of world is constrained by rationality and in the later by the axiological aspects of the Divine Nature (of course how close a conceptual fit there is between rationality and morality depends on one’s meta-ethics).
The argument from bizarro worlds may actually have more force to it than the MPOE. Whilst it’s controversial as to exactly what an instance of evil must amount to in order to qualify as gratuitous a bizarro world can be easily constructed from selected contents of just about any room (more technically the advocate of bizarro worlds could claim they have the Brouwer axiom—if S is actual S is necessarily possible—on their side). Whilst this might not serve as a defeater to theism it's arguably more suited to fulfilling one of the MPOE’s initial purposes, that of serving as an equally plausible possibility scenario to that of the possibility premise of Plantinga’s modal ontological argument.
If the theist elects to take the argument seriously, how might they respond? Out of the argument premises 1 and 2 seem the best candidates to attack, as presumably the theist does not want to stray too far from orthodoxy by abandoning either Omnibenevolence or Omnipotence.
Let’s look at number 1, the claim that bizarro worlds are possible. What justification might the atheist offer for this claim? Two arguments, both conceptually connected, come to mind immediately; these are the subtraction argument and a standard argument from conceivability.
The first, the subtraction argument, holds that for any world with a finite number of concrete beings there is a world with one less being and that by following this process of subtraction to its logical conclusion we arrive at a world empty of all concrete beings2. The subtraction argument is often presented as an argument for metaphysical nihilism, the claim than an empty world is possible. Fortunately, most of its champions now realize that so formulated it merely begs the question against theism and other accounts of necessary beings. G Rodriguez-Pereyra has offered a more modest version of the argument which restricts the premises to spatial concrete beings; for the purposes of this essay the argument can restricted even further to contingent spatial concrete beings. Unless there are hidden necessary a posteriori Rundle-esque principles necessitating the existence of contingent beings, the weakened argument should be acceptable to most philosophers.
If the core premises behind the subtraction argument are accepted we have a ready argument for bizarro worlds: because this world includes the contents of innumerable bizarro worlds it's possible via subtraction to end up with a world constituted by only such objects. But such a world just is a bizarro world. Ergo, such worlds are possible.
There is a flaw in this argument; namely, that one cannot use subtraction to reach a world with just any contingent beings even if they happen to exist in the actual world to begin with. Consider: this world contains greenness and spatiality tropes, both of which are contingent beings, yet a world containing the former without the latter is impossible Some beings, even though themselves contingent, are necessarily co-instantiated along with other beings. The example given used property-instances as an example but if one a suitably strong variant on origins essentialism the thesis can be extended to certain kinds of substance too. Of course, either of these examples immediately serve as counter-examples to the claim that we can construct bizarro worlds via subtraction only that contingent beings are not naively subtractable, i.e. pace logical atomism the non-existence of one entity might entail the non-existence of others.
The second is the tried and tested conceivability argument to the effect that if a given state-of-affairs is conceivable then we have prima facie reason to think it possible (one can flesh this out by appealing to different degrees of conceivability—the ability to construct a sensory imaginative picture or a phenomenological seeming, as in this case, constituting a relatively high degree). We can conceive and indeed imagine a collection of these objects and nothing else. Thus, we have reason to think a world consisting only of them is possible3.
The point is often made that conceivability scenarios depending on visual depiction such as the above are not very effective at capturing global possibilities. How for instance is one to tell from picture alone that the world is empty of mental entities or billions of organisms on the subatomic level each living a meaningful life?4 Depending on what degree of necessity one attributes to the laws of nature it might not be possible to strictly only have the stipulated bizarro objects without attendant micro-level entities e.g. streams of photons, ‘loose' particles, fields and so forth.
Let’s put concerns about such entities aside though. (It’s hard to see how a world is made less bizarre by the addition of a stray cloud of photons.) Where I think the capacity to reasonably represent global possibilities breaks down is not in the case of scientific unobservables but temporal history. Even if we can use visual depiction to represent a state of affairs S there seems to be no way that depiction alone can capture temporal totality. For example let G stand for there existing a green dog; since we can clearly and distinctly imagine this, we have reason to think it must be the case in at least one possible world (and thus possible tout court). This however is different from concluding that there exists a world consisting of nothing but G—for sure we can stipulate it as such but that tells against the scenario deriving its value from the depicted scene itself. Even if conceivability can give us a worldwide state of affairs I do not see how such can provide more than a relatively narrow time slice of a world, at least in any detail.
So the arguments for permitting bizarro worlds are inconclusive. If a theist grants the possibility of such worlds they might still try to attack point 2, the claim that bizarro worlds are such that no rational being could possess a reason to actualise them. Again, I can think of two potential responses the theist might give.
The first is to outright challenge the claim. Why should it be the case that no rational being (in this case God) could have a reason to actualise such a world? Surely the implied reason behind this is that such worlds serve no purpose—they are by their very nature absurd and antipathetic to any axiologically worthy function. But perhaps one might hold that the absurdity of such worlds is actually a positive? True in philosophical contexts absurdity is often associated with nihilism, the feeling of psychological instability upon supposedly recognizing the disparity between the appearance of value and the amoral reality which actually is the case5. Outside of philosophical discourse however, (in the arts and in entertainment for example) absurdity has equally strong connotations of playfulness, comedy and whimsicalness; we can and often do find the incongruous entertaining without any thought of cosmic nihilism. Perhaps then such worlds are best seen as proof that God recognises the value of humour or chaotic art (thus making such worlds a contender for divine Dadaism). Such an approach would appeal to process theists and others who stress God’s creativity and spontaneity. It perhaps fits less well with classical theism and other such account with hold to a ‘strong’ simplicity view of divine mental activity.
Although the above considerations might give us cause to believe God has motivations to allow such configurations of objects to exist I’m not sure how plausible it should be that the entire of creation for all eternity or at least the duration of contingent existence should consist in the contents of a bizarro world. Note also such an approach is not open to those who hold that God is obliged to create the best, either in the case of a single possible world or by choosing from an upper tier of worlds.
The second is to appeal to the Molinist distinction between strong and weak actualisation. The former refers to God’s bringing about a state-of-affairs through direct causal activity, say bringing about a bizarro world by creating its contents ex nihilo, and the latter to God’s permitting the actions of free agents to lead to the actualisation of said state of affairs, say by agents bringing it about that the universe consists solely of a collection of bizarro objects. Granted that God might lack a reason to strongly actualise a bizarro world perhaps the good of creating free agents obliges him to keep it open as a possibility in case they should actualise such a world.
Here is an illustratory scenario: the physical universe complete with humanity and other sentiment organisms exist for a certain time before succumbing to some kind of entropic fate. After the breakup of the last spaceship in the universal disintegration of particles there is a split second within which bizarro world contents are the only concrete entities in the universe. That these objects are the last and only concrete entities in existence is the result of numerous causal chains initiated by free agents, e.g. the agents deciding to take them in the space ship, where they were stored and so forth.
It’s easy to see why appeals to weak actualisation like the above fail. In order for the state-of-affairs, S, that reports the existence of just the bizarro objects to be weakly actualised, it has to be partly brought about by the actions of contingent agents. But if contingent agents have existed then of course S cannot represent an omni-temporal global possibility—by allowing that there have existed other beings we are straight-up admitting that S is but a mere temporal slice of a far richer world.
Secondly, there is a disparity between our ability to represent an existential state-of-affairs and our ability to represent it as a totality. We may well be able to muster intuitive support for a state-of-affairs holding in some possible world; yet the appeals to phenomenological depiction used in some of these conceivability arguments leave it underdetermined as to whether said state alone constitutes a world or whether it’s part of some larger conjunction. Even if the issue of unobservables is out, such arguments seem ill-equipped to capture temporal totalities. As with evil worlds, it's not sufficient for the designated state-of-affairs—in this case existence of only bizarre objects—to occur as part of the temporal history of a universe—instead it has to constitute a complete way the world might have been.
1. The modal problem of evil is first formulated by Theodore Guleserian in the brilliant essay ‘God and Possible Worlds: The Modal Problem of Evil’. Guleserian asks us to consider the possibility of a world containing gratuitous natural evil, his example being a world consisting solely of a colony of non-agential sentiment beings which experience terrible suffering throughout the majority of their existence. A subtle and equally brilliant attempt to justify the possibility of an evil world, this time appealing to moral evil, is given by Richard Gale in Nature and Existence of God. The best theistic treatment of the problem I have yet encountered is Paul Tidman’s ‘The Epistemology of Evil Possibilities’.
2. For exhaustive coverage of the subtraction argument see Geraldine Coggins’ Could There Have Been Nothing? Against Metaphysical Nihilism. Alexander Pruss and Joshua Rasmussen present a good discussion of the argument applied to theistic contexts in their Necessary Existence.
3. This is one form of conceivability argument (one which draws on imagining), which has been discussed by David Schrader and Brian Leftow. An alternative version might draw from coherence: that the concept of bizarro worlds appears coherent gives us prima facie reason to think such a world is possible. A minimal sense of coherency as freedom from apparent contradiction can only provide a weak justification, as it’s prone to various counter-examples e.g. coherent but a posteriori impossible scenarios like water’s being XYZ. I will leave it as an open question whether there are more fulsome notions of coherence that can support such reasoning.
4. For the purposes of this essay I am ignoring the question of whether one could have a bizarro world consisting solely of immaterial entities, say a world with a number of disembodied minds each thinking a bizarre thought (one might even have a bizarro world filled with entities idly contemplating other bizarro worlds). The possibility of such a world could be supported with an argument on Cartesian lines—we know indubitably that it’s possible for a mind to think x1 thought or x2 thought or x3 thought… because we ourselves can think these thoughts ergo it’s possible there to be a mind thinking thought x1 and a mind thinking thought x2 and a mind thinking thought x3. As cogito scenarios ‘I am aware that I think x’ are as a close as humans can come to absolute certainty it’s unlikely there should be any gap between the phenomenological feel of such a scenario, ‘my appearing to think x’ and what it depicts ‘my thinking x’. A world where rational beings only undertake valueless mental activity seems closer to a problem of evil scenario than the worlds composed of arbitrary material objects as discussed above.
5. Most philosophers will be familiar with Thomas Nagel’s essay ‘The Absurd’ which uses the term in this way. It also has associations with Albert Camus’ work.
Chandler, Hugh ‘Does God Necessarily Exist?’ Unpublished paper. Available for download here
Coggins, Geraldine (2010) Could There Have Been Nothing? Against Metaphysical Nihilism, Palgrave Macmillan
Gale, Richard (1999). On the Nature and Existence of God. Cambridge University Press
Guleserian, Theodore (1983) ‘God and Possible Worlds: The Modal Problem of Evil’ Noûs
Vol. 17, No. 2
Leftow, Brian ‘Necessity’ (2010) in Meister and Taliaferro eds. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology, Cambridge University Press
Nagel, Thomas ‘The Absurd’ (1971) The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 20. Available here
Pruss, Alexander and Rasmussen, Joshua (2018) Necessary Existence, Oxford University Press
Tidman, Paul (1993) ‘The Epistemology of Evil Possibilities’ Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 10 No.2
Schrader, David E. ‘The Antinomy of Divine Necessity’ International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 30, No. 1