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Monday, 17 February 2014

What if God...

Perhaps the deepest question we can ask is the one closest to nonsense: “Why this, and not another?” It has many versions: Why something and not nothing? Why this goodness and not that goodness? Why me and not you? Why this way and not that? Why God, life, love, truth, being – and not something else?

Rummaging around in some of my old notes I found a bizarre tidbit of tongue-in-cheek philosophizing (at least I hope it was tongue-in-cheek – when I was younger I ventured way further out into the absurd than I do now...) which has some relation to the topic soon to be introduced. Unfortunately, it is uncomfortably close to Leibniz’s idea that we must necessarily be living in “the best of all possible worlds,” given God’s good nature. But I spoil my own thoughts by introducing a foreign body into them.

“I find it flattering that God, in His infinite wisdom and omnipotence, should –out of the infinite possibilities He undoubtedly could have conceived of and was conceiving of in time immemorial in His Perfect Mind – pick us, human beings, you and me, out from among all these potentials and choose to actualize that idea. God, being supremely perfect, seeing the numberless paths He could choose to tread as he “floated” in the void, seeing that which is utterly inconceivable to the human mind, not being limited by any physical laws, mental laws, or any laws for that matter (time and space existing at that point only in his mind, undistinguished along with the never-ending flow of ideas which must have been coming to Him, pure Creator that He was and is), chose us. I can't get over it. I’m simply flattered – the fact that I, we, exist is in fact the greatest compliment ever paid to us!”

It is obviously impossible for a human being to conjecture so abstractly as to have any inking whatsoever of that state of pure creative potentiality before creation. Nevertheless, it is in a dog’s nature to tug at his leash, fixed though it may be to the fence, and so too my mind tends toward impossible abstraction.

Here is an interesting nonsense question that came to it in a time of vain speculation. I present it only because someone clever enough might ask it without the ironist’s of it being a nonsense question. It might also help us tighten our grip on the appropriate conceptualization of goodness within its (only sensible) context: God.

What if God had constituted the created order according to a different Good? This would involve not switching “specific goods” (the wonder of sunlight, friendship, a moving melody, laughter, etc.) for other “specific goods” within the universe, nor would it involve a reverse-valuation of specific goods (e.g. pain is now pleasure!) – rather, the question presses us to a more comprehensive consideration: a whole re-making of the universe from the ground up in order to found it upon “a new Goodness.”

Another way of asking this is: What if everything we understand as Good was, in this hypothetical universe, simply different? That is, what if goodness there had nothing to do with what we think of as goodness here? We can only ask this if we presuppose that while there is nothing arbitrary about good things themselves – about what are good things and what are not (for example, on the level of corporeal goodness [as opposed to moral]:  there is a reason we like chocolate and consider it good,  but not boogers, and that reason is inscribed into our very bodies in the form of taste buds with particular receptors that apprehend chocolate thusly) – there is something arbitrary about the whole System of the Good and goodness in its totality. Thus we can ask: What if God inverted the universe in this (absolute, total) way? What would really change?
The answer: nothing. That is to say: nothing in our experience of the Good. Here is an imperfect analogy: it would be as though all the colors in the world were replaced all at once by other colors, a switch so complete that the interconnectedness and balance of the world of color was preserved. The experience in its entirety would not be at all different. And (returning to the question), because this foundational alteration of the Good is in truth still the Good, whatever it may be (it may be killing babies for all we know), the change is not morally significant in the slightest. We may say that in this hypothetical universe, pain and cruelty are now the good, but it is nonsense to judge that as an “abomination”: by saying that they are now the Good you have changed not just those things but everything. To judge them on our ground is to ignore the premise, that this universe exists with an entirely different Good which must be judged on its own terms.

Phenomenologically this question and its answer are intriguing. Basically we have seen that the created order could not apprehend or experience this inversion; moreover, from the divine perspective could it hardly be seen as an inversion. God is himself the Good: it is nonsense to suggest that just God could be different or just the Good could be different, since if you change one you necessarily change the other along with it and end up back where you started (like inverting a bracelet)! God made all things for himself – it is in this sense that God is the Good. To have a Good is to have a final telos of ultimate fruition, and to have this the universe must have a divine structure in which (small “g”) good things and (small “g”) goodness are caught up in like logs in a river. This final telos, by virtue of being a final telos, makes the particular content irrelevant since the pattern of experience which is structured on goodness is the same, perhaps the only unchanged element in this hypothetical.  Phenomenologically the experience of the Good is the experience of things working towards their final telos, their ultimate fruition for which they were designed for. However the universe is structured (and we are assuming that it is in fact possible for God to structure it differently), it could not be experienced differently by creatures insofar as experience works within a framework of good and bad. Thus we can hardly imagine the universe as any other way (that is, in reference to a Good) without tangling ourselves with faulty logic.

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