Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
The Virtual Worlds Defense and why Theodicy Falls Short
06/29/2014Posted by on
The Problem of Evil – the incongruity of a being that is all powerful, all knowing, and all good with (unjustified) suffering in the world, is one of those philosophical debates that I am mostly bored with. The challenge of theodicy – finding an answer to that incongruity – has been attempted for thousands upon thousands of years. Yet it seems every week I find theists (but pretty much always Christians) and non-theists (but pretty much always former Christians) going at it like they’ve just discovered the last well in the desert. The persistence of the debate is not driven by new innovative debate, mind you. It’s the same arguments, with the same defenses, and the same scoffing from all sides. The simple conclusion is that its not really a philosophical debate so much as a tribal one, where truth is secondary to identity construction.
The thing is, I actually find the Problem of Evil easy to solve as a logic puzzle. I don’t think the logic in the following theodicy is original to me, but I’ve never read it in its original form, so I’ve taken to calling it the Virtual World Defense. It is, as follows:
Virtual worlds can exist. If we look at the development of video games, you see a trend line towards increasing fidelity to reality, increased immersion of the player, and increased persistence (a world with containing and reacting to multiple players). Whether or not we reach it with our technology, you can imagine a video game that is fully authentic, fully immersive, and fully persistent, without actually being real.
Dissociation between real life and virtual worlds are possible. When Hamlet stabs Pollonius in a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one character dies, one character becomes a killer, but both actors are fine. The audience is in turn moved, but without being scarred by being the witness to an actual killing. This remains true with video games – we can temporarily take on the role of opposing soldiers and engage in violence without damaging friendships.
Temporary evils, like pain and fear, when suffered in a virtual world bring benefits in reality that are brought about by the high-fidelity simulation of genuine harm in the virtual world. Simulations of extreme conditions give greater benefit to their players with increased fidelity. This can be the thrill from simulated extreme sports or combat, or fear of pain and embarrassment in a training simulation. Since the pain is temporary and safe, large benefits are gained at negligible cost.
Forgetting the world is virtual makes and/or heightens the benefits. Greater responses to art are found when disbelief is suspended, and forgetting the false reality during a simulation improves the simulation.
A rational, self interested being seeking good for themselves and others would choose to experience a virtual world with high fidelity of pain and a strong suspension of disbelief. How many of us, given the opportunity, would be willing to try the ultimate video game that changed our circumstances into those not our own, just to learn from it? To survive in a world of no sanitation, to be dropped in a war zone or shot into outer space. How many would experience death itself, so long as they knew they could come back? And for at least some of these things, I’d want to take friends and family along.
An eternal afterlife makes our real world functionally a virtual world. Life is temporary. We forget real pain the further we are away from it, and we forget virtual pain even faster, even if the lessons remain. Eternity implies experiencing an amount of time without limit. Even our life times would be like a session of a video game, or a staging of a play.
An afterlife without (unjust) suffering is possible. This is in fact how they are typically portrayed.
Ergo, so long as there is an eternal afterlife without (unjust) suffering, there is no Problem of Evil.
There is a problem here. The Virtual World Defense is logically sound, except maybe for some quibbles about whether a being that feels reward without risk is a square circle. It is also, in my opinion, totally uncompelling. What I’ve suggested is that this world doesn’t matter at all. It is a lark, or a test, or a lesson, maybe. That’s a hell of a thing to tell someone that just lost their child. It’s appalling to think that the villains of history are of no greater consequence than a griefer on an MMO. If I thought that were true, I’d quit today, despite having no rational, logical reason to do so.
I think ultimately this is a problem we have in our dialogue. We’re so caught up in proving our superior rationality and logic we’re missing the basic emotional and intuitive components of ourselves. I see no contradiction in being a man of logic and writing off certain kinds of logic puzzles as ultimately worthless. I think we’d do each other all a big favor if we made that sorting, and figure out what kind of answers are the result of intellectual exercise and what kind of answers are actually human.