by Jack Denning
“Well, it’s interesting,” said the first person, a denizen of our universe. “There are certainly aspects of our world that appear to have been ‘designed’ by an intelligent agent. Living creatures, traditionally, were seen this way, for example. But then we discovered how natural selection acts on genetic variation to explain how the diversity of life arose from simpler life forms, and we are confident additional natural laws will be discovered to explain the origin of life itself. The appearance of design, it turns out, is just appearance. Nothing more.”
“That’s not too far from our position,” said the second person, from a different universe. “In our universe, life seems to have been designed as well. In fact, all physical objects appear to have been designed. Every planet is a perfect sphere. Every continent and island on every planet is a perfect square. Every single three-dimensional object in our universe takes the form of one of the five Platonic solids, and all two-dimensional objects take the form of a simple polygon. But like you, we’ve discovered natural laws that explain this. It only appears to have been designed.”
“Yes, yes,” said the third person, an inhabitant of yet a third universe. “It is the same with us. But it is not a simple matter of being complex, or of being arranged according to certain patterns. In our universe, every configuration of objects spells out a coherent sentence. Everywhere you look in our sky, the stars spell a sentence, every collection of molecules twists around to spell something out as well, always in the language of the observer. And as it turns out, nearly all of those sentences are variations of ‘I am the Creator and Designer of the universe! Believe in me!’ But we also have discovered laws of nature that explain this. The universe runs just fine without any supernatural supervision. It just appears to be the product of an intelligent agent organizing things in order to communicate with us.”
The fourth person had grown more and more incredulous as the conversation went on. Finally he spoke: “My universe is almost total chaos. There is hardly any order at all; life and civilization arose from a random and localized order that fell back into disarray when civilization had reached a certain point. There are only a few natural laws that are consistent. Yet even that small amount of structure is enough to convince us that there must be a cosmic designer who constructed it. Yes, the small amount of order is explicable by the few (the very few) natural laws, but who designed the natural laws? Who organized my universe in such a way that matter and energy tends to behave the same way in repeated and repeatable experiences? It seems to me, the more natural laws you have, the more order you have, the more obvious it is that there is a God. Yet you have many more natural laws than we do, and you use them to argue against God. At any rate, as I say, the presence of a single law is sufficient: for how could there be any law at all that we could rely on to continue into the future without an intelligent agent who constructed the universe so that it follows a law in the first place?”
Later, they had another discussion. The third person said, “In our universe, the only people who suffer misfortune are those who do not believe in God. This may suggest to a simple mind that there is some cosmic justice being played out, with the sin of unbelief being subject to punishment. But of course, such a scenario is incompatible with the existence of a morally perfect God, the only kind of God worthy of worship and worthy of the name ‘God.’ In fact, if such a God did exist, it would be his believers who should be most prone to misfortune, as they would be the only ones with the context in which suffering is redeemable. They would be the only ones who could handle it. An omnibenevolent God would not visit suffering on those for whom that suffering could be nothing but brute, unredeemable horror. Thus, the fact that only unbelievers suffer in our universe is incompatible with the existence of God. If God exists, we should not expect that only unbelievers would be those who experience suffering. We may not understand why things work out the way they do, but we can rule out the possibility of God from the outset.”
“That’s interesting,” said the second person. “In our universe it is only those who believe in God who suffer misfortune. To a simple mind, this might suggest punishment, as you mentioned, but of course a morally perfect God would not punish people for doing what he wanted. But others claim something like what you have, that only the suffering of those who believe in God would be redeemable. But we have rejected this as well: an omnibenevolent God would not single out those who are obeying his commands to suffer for doing so. Does any parent punish his obedient children for their obedience while allowing his disobedient children to get off scot-free? This would be the height of injustice. A perfectly just God is the only kind of God worth worshiping and worthy of the name ‘God.’ The fact that only believers suffer in our universe is incompatible with the existence of a perfectly just God. Like you, we may not understand why things work out the way they do, but we can rule out God as a possibility.”
The first person, from our universe, spoke up. “Hmm. For us, it’s different. Both believers and unbelievers suffer in our universe. There is no readily apparent reason for this distribution, no universal explanation for it, since the same suffering would have different purposes depending on the theistic proclivities of those who experience it. If a morally perfect God existed, then misfortune would either be exclusively aimed at those who do not believe, as a form of punishment, or at those who do believe, since they are the ones with a ready-made context for it to fit into. The fact that those who believe in God suffer the same misfortunes as those who do not believe convinces us that there is no rhyme or reason to it, and thus no morally perfect, perfectly just God, the only kind of God worthy of worship and worthy of the name ‘God.’ Thus, the fact that both believers and unbelievers suffer in our universe is incompatible with the existence of God. If God exists, we should not expect that both believers and unbelievers experience suffering to roughly equal extents. Even though we do not understand precisely how it all works, we know immediately that there is no God involved.”
The person from the fourth universe didn’t say anything. He wasn’t there. They’d asked him to leave.
Jack Denning is a teacher in Portlandia where he lives with his family and his piano.