See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

The Virtual Worlds Defense and why Theodicy Falls Short

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.


12 responses to “The Virtual Worlds Defense and why Theodicy Falls Short

  1. Cam 07/01/2014 at 09:31

    Do you take public comments on your posts? I wandered over from Unequally Yoked where I post as Cam. Pretty sure you’ve replied to some of my posts before and I’ve usually found the discussions interesting or valuable.

    I see the theodicy you offer here as a lovechild of ‘Greater Good’ and “Magic Eraser”. Magic Eraser theodicies usually try to argue that things that happen in this world don’t matter and should be excluded from moral calculus, because God can erase our memories of the events, bend time and space so that events never occurred, magically take away the pain we feel about past events, or something to that effect. Greater Good theodicies are essentially consequentialist, and try to argue that the benefits that come from suffering outweigh the harms (e.g. suffering makes us stronger, therefore suffering is not-bad or even positively-good). Your premises 3 and 4 are Greater Good, your premise 6 is Magic Eraser. I don’t think it actually matters that you combine two theodicies, so long as you realize what you’re arguing at each step and what the argument is supposed to achieve, so that there’s no shifting goalposts. ( If you WERE to split this argument into two theodicies, one would not need P3 at all, the other would not need P6 at all.

    In any case, I feel this theodicy fails because it is non-consensual and rapey. I would argue that we don’t consent to the suffering we experience in this life. If we did consent at some point before our mortal birth (but how would you know?) this consent does not carry on throughout our lives. Consent must be ongoing and knowledgeable. So we’re done at this point, it is absolutely and indisputably game-over for this theodicy in its current state. You argue that “a rational, self interested being seeking good for themselves and others would choose to experience a virtual world… ” but that has nothing to do with consent. Bob could argue that “a rational, self-interested person would sleep with me tonight” – if that argument was true and valid, would that then give Bob the moral right to sleep with somebody against their will? Hella no it wouldn’t.

    Other problems involve how you draw a distinction between virtual pain and actual pain – in the moment, in the virtual world, it feels real and all the consequences are real at the time, even if the consequences are ‘erased’ later. The subjective experience of suffering is sufficient for most moral systems to class that experience as ‘bad’, I believe. Further, it’s generally not okay to punch somebody in the face and break their nose even if their nose is going to heal later.

    Finally, the Free Will defense of evil generally fails because:
    a) it does not account for natural evil, like earthquakes
    b) we do not have maximal free will. God places restrictions on what we physically can do- we can’t shoot lasers out of our eyes, for example. Considering the breadth and intensity of suffering in this world, does it LOOK like the minimum possible suffering to run a good moral simulator? People will often reply to this that we can’t know, and that’s a valid road to go down, but its a road that involves refraining from making any comments at all about the goodness of the world or the goodness of god, and religious people usually don’t like refraining from those things.
    c) why do we need morality in our universe at all? Suppose that there was no suffering and therefore no morality. What would be so bad about this? What about a universe where the only moral options are to ‘give’ or ‘not give’. In a moral conundrum, you could either improve somebody else’s life or leave them as they are, you couldn’t make their situation worse. Love would be about giving as much and as often as we can. There wouldn’t be, just as an example, stomach cancer or rape. Why would this be a possible world worse than our current world? Why wouldn’t a benevolent god who IS love itself actualize that possible world?


    • Cam 07/01/2014 at 09:47

      One last point- if this world is a simulation, why on earth is it possible to remove another player from the simulation (murder)? Presuming that the simulation is good and that God wants all sentient minds to play it (otherwise why are we even in it?) why would God let person X remove person Y from the simulation and thus negate all the benefits person Y would have gained from playing the simulation?

      Wait and if this life is a simulation why do we play it for roughly 80 years, and why did players centuries ago only need roughly 60 years? Wait why do people even die in utero? At what point does a sperm and an egg create a ‘player’? Why are players inserted into the simulation via sexual reproduction involving millions of sperm? Why does human conception, which is essentially entry into the simulation, involve a procedure that can go wrong?

      Wait what was the point of the world pre-humanity, with all the dinosaurs and stuff?

      gah christianity just never makes sense , its beyond repair dude


      • K. Chen 07/01/2014 at 23:35

        I think anaivethinker alluded to this in his own post, but I don’t find it a particularly good objection to a theodicy (or a designer God, for that matter) that the designer would do things in a way that is intuitive. In real life, there are plenty of occasions where I am convinced that what someone is doing is absurd, but it turns out to be, in fact, quite clever. Good Omens captures it well, I think: “God moves in extremely mysterious, not to say, circuitous ways. God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players* [i.e., everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.” I suppose Pratchett and Gaiman were mocking, but it seems to be not only a joyful and useful descriptor of the divine will, but of life generally. A lifetime spent playing games has taught me that you can’t evaluate play until you know the rules and you know, at a minimum, the class of things you do not know. It seems that life, writ large has that same thing going on.

        Which is another way of saying that just because a theodicy doesn’t make sense, doesn’t mean it isn’t logical, rational, and/or true. The answer to most of your questions here is a simple “why not?” (and/or, play again, and/or, it isn’t that important). And, as a side note, none of it can be usefully equated to Christianity.


    • K. Chen 07/01/2014 at 23:28

      Welcome! I have no comment policy, but you can be assured I will do my best to act like a philosopher king, or something.

      In any case, I feel this theodicy fails because it is non-consensual and rapey. I would argue that we don’t consent to the suffering we experience in this life. If we did consent at some point before our mortal birth (but how would you know?) this consent does not carry on throughout our lives. Consent must be ongoing and knowledgeable

      Some objections:
      1. Is consent actually an accurate and precise barometer of good? I don’t see any reason to assume it is. Life happens without our consent. We are born without consent, we die without consent. If I buy a surprise birthday present for someone, I do it without their consent. Actually, any sort of surprise, lacks consent. I think that proves more than you might think.
      2. Why must consent be ongoing and knowledgeable and what exactly does that mean. If I choose to play a first person shooter, I generally don’t choose to get shot, even if I willingly accept the risk of being shot. If it turns out that the server I’m playing on has, without my knowledge, much better players, was I somehow violated the moment I wished to withdraw my consent?

      If I asked someone to induce a dream in me via drug, it seems very likely, almost certain that I would experience the dream without recalling this salient fact. The dream may be wonderful, it may be terrible, but it was asked for. Would you have it that the dream inducer and I are both violating the consent of, well, me, at least while I am dreaming. Or if you prefer, the me that is dreaming?

      I’m not going to get into the rest for reasons I’ve already alluded to.


      • Cam 07/22/2014 at 01:40

        “Is consent actually an accurate and precise barometer of good? I don’t see any reason to assume it is.”
        That’s up to you. I won’t go into my reasons for valuing consent (hereafter I’ll use the term ‘bodily integrity’ for reasons explained further below).
        However, the position you’re taking here has consequences for your theodicy, and this comes down to why people try come up with theodicies at all and what they’re supposed to do. A theodicy tries to resolve the problem of evil, and generally needs to be built on some sort of moral framework. (See for further explanation: You’re certainly able to say that you don’t think X or Y is an important value, or Z isn’t a sensible moral system, and therefore X,Y,Z don’t need to be part of your theodicy, that’s fine.
        BUT, your new position here basically needs to be “I have a great theodicy for anyone who doesn’t really value bodily integrity”. Your theodicy could be worthless to anyone who values bodily integrity, and that’s a non-negligible proportion of the population (I hope). Contrast this with your original claims, which were that the problem of evil was ‘not really a philosophical debate so much as a tribal one… easy to solve as a logic puzzle… ultimately worthless’.
        I think you’re not at the stage of dismissing the problem of evil yet given the massive caveat of ‘assuming we don’t value bodily integrity’, or rather you’re free to scoff at it, but your theodicy won’t appeal much to most other people. As a further example, imagine if I said “I have a great theodicy, so long as we agree that physical pain is irrelevant to our moral system” or “…so long as we agree that the reality we experience is just the feverish dream of an ice-snake curled up in Yggerdiza, the seventh dimension.” Good theodicies need to be based on agreed moral systems and agreed factual interpretations of the world.

        Anyway so that’s where I think we end up, but these are just some things I’d like to address as maybe being irrelevant or illogical:
        a) “If I buy a surprise birthday present for someone, I do it without their consent” and “if i choose to play a shooter”
        This is my fault, I should have been clear that I was referring to consent as regards bodily integrity, bodily autonomy, or basic freedoms of body and mind, however you want to describe it. Essentially, if somebody is controlling our body or mind without consent or against our will, I would view that as immoral or undesirable. So your point about birthday presents and video games doesn’t really involve bodily integrity or assaults on our freedom.

        b) “Life happens without our consent. We are born without consent, we die without consent.”
        Perhaps, but the morality of this is exactly what we’re arguing, exactly what I’m challenging in your theodicy. If you make this point then you’re assuming what you’ve been asked to prove. see

        c) “Why must consent be ongoing and knowledgeable and what exactly does that mean…Would you have it that the dream inducer and I are both violating the consent of, well, me, at least while I am dreaming.”
        I get this from constructions of consent in law (fellow law student!) but you see this reasoning a lot in feminist discourse too. ‘Ongoing’ usually refers to some right to withdraw consent to events, interactions, etc that have an extended duration. ‘Knowledge’ is a common test and usually refers to consent potentially not existing in situations where the party did not have the appropriate level of knowledge, or even cognitive ability. In this context, I think it would mean that we shouldn’t argue that perhaps we consented to suffering before we were born, and God just erased our memory of that consent. However this is really interesting and I’m not confident enough to opine strongly here. I think a case could be made that an omnipotent deity could create a world where we could withdraw our consent to suffer (assuming that consent was made before birth) without any adverse consequences. There’s no immediately obvious logical contradiction there to me, though religious people seem to be able to come up with all manner of things that their omnipotent deity cannot actually do.


  2. anaivethinker 06/30/2014 at 00:35

    The essence of the problem runs deeper than that though. Why can’t an omnipotent deity create a reality in which evil and suffering do not exist which also fulfills our emotional needs or desires for “high fidelity of pain and strong suspension of disbelief”? Is the deity not omnipotent? And, if this is need/desire is met by our brutal reality, will it not be met by the afterlife? (As a tangent, even freewill cannot justify evil and suffering if the afterlife is devoid of these and contains freewill, because this would mean a reality can be actualized in which freewill coexists without evil/suffering).

    As a Christian, I will have to say there is no solution. The first story in scripture says it is essentially humanity’s fault. Then in Job we find that indeed even the innocent suffer by God’s approval. When God speaks to Job in the whorl wind, no justification is given. If there is a rational justification, it is veiled in mystery. The character of God is not clearly expressed by how things happen here on earth. The character of God is seen in how he manifested on earth and joined in the struggle of the human condition, suffered, was mocked, tortured, and died for the purpose of giving us the spiritual power to live. This is how to understand the character of God, not in how this temporary universe is constructed which will fade away into an oblivion at the hand of Dark Energy. . .


    • K. Chen 06/30/2014 at 15:07

      I’m not sure if I can adequately address the free will defense without a full blog post, so let me start with the question of omnipotence and fulfilling needs with suffering. I alluded in the post to the issue of square circles: which is to say, can an omnipotent being, by definition capable of doing anything, create an square that is also a circle? Tautologically, it is impossible, a circle has no sides, and a square has some. Most would not consider this to be a limit on omnipotence which my be rephrased from “capable of all things” to “capable of all possible things.”

      If God cannot create square circles but still remains omnipotent, perhaps it is also true that God cannot have free lunches – the risk of sorrow is inherent to joy, the excitement of the chase is tied to being chased. The virtual world then has to have at least a compelling illusion of suffering, and God’s omnipotence can give the very best one.

      Of course, and this is a preview of arguments to come, one might say that goodness cannot exist without the potential for evil, and the free will to chose in between.

      Thanks for the comment!


      • anaivethinker 07/01/2014 at 00:48

        Hi K. Chen, I hope you don’t mind if I stir up some thoughts once more.

        The form of the virtual worlds defense is similar to that of Plantinga’s freewill defense in that God has an specific objective for the universe. The objective in Plantinga’s defense is freewill and in the virtual worlds defense is “high fidelity of pain and strong suspension of disbelief”. What is similar is that these objectives can only be met by including evil and suffering in the design. Here is the problem. Suppose that one of these solutions is correct (either freewill or virtual worlds). Then, before creation when God was thinking about what kind of laws (i.e., logical, natural, moral) to uphold, God knew that it would be impossible for his objective to be met without evil and suffering. So, why uphold these laws? Why not use omnipotence to create a meta-law to circumvent the law that would ultimately require evil and suffering to meet the objective?

        Assuming God’s character is pure good, we can state this problem as follows: If God is bound by some law that he cannot fulfill his objective with the inclusion of evil and suffering, then God is not omnipotent. If God created this law, then God knew that it would require evil and suffering to meet his objective. (Then, whatever “pure good” means would have to be compatible with creating a world with evil and suffering which goes against our moral intuition).

        Now, my honest opinion of the problem of evil and the proposed solutions are that they have a hidden assumption which is disagreeable or at least unjustified. These assume that we actually can understand the moral relationship of God with humans. If you reread Job (which I highly recommend) Job says at one point, “For [God] is not a mortal, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together. There is no umpire between us. . .” So, what exactly is the moral relationship between Creator and creature? Is it the same as the morality we can apprehend between ourselves?

        If we don’t know the moral relationship between Creator and creature, then the problem of evil and its proposed solutions are built on an assumption that may very well be false. The problem of evil and its proposed solutions assume that God’s moral relationship is apprehensible (i.e., similar to ours) and has made this universe for an objective such as freewill and that this objective justifies the inclusion of evil/suffering by the moral theory of consequentialism. Why think any of that is true?

        What blows my mind is the moral character of God could easily be apprehended if God became a human in some way. Indeed, Jesus healed sickness, taught us to love our neighbor and our enemy, rebuked evil, and ultimately suffered to provide us atonement. John said God’s moral character is love, we can see this through Jesus. What philosophical problem can we conjure to question God’s moral character in the face of Jesus? I think the problem is the problem of evil is just too simple. It doesn’t account for the benefits of certain forms of suffering, it does not account for justice put on a rain check until Judgment Day. It does not account for our inability to apprehend God and perhaps most importantly to me, it does not account for the flagrant revelation of God’s moral character in Jesus.


        • K. Chen 07/01/2014 at 23:17

          I enjoy that Alvin Plantiga is basically trolling every professionally atheist philosopher by using their own weapons against them, but I never found his writing actually the best way to describe the ideas he’s pursuing. Although, much can be said about my take on most professional philosophers. Anyway, onto the meat of the matter

          : If God is bound by some law that he cannot fulfill his objective with the inclusion of evil and suffering, then God is not omnipotent.

          I don’t accept this statement as true, because I would argue that squares cannot be circles is a law, and that a being can be both omnipotent and not be capable of making square circles. Let me introduce another idea to you. If God is omnibenovolent, is he capable of doing evil? One would think no – otherwise he would no longer be always good. But if he is not capable of doing evil, isn’t he therefor not omnipotent? I think it was in Fear and Trembling that it was declared that only those who work receive bread, and that this is justice. Is it really a limit on omnipotence that God cannot change morality by fiat and create a meta law that being a gadabout is just?

          I’d say that even if we assume that we are more limited than God (and I do) it is no better to believe in a totally incomprehensible God than it is to believe in no God at all. Ineffability is probably the correct response from time to time – but if it is a constant refrain, we might as well be worshiping a Lovecraftian Horror.


          • anaivethinker 07/02/2014 at 21:48

            You said: “Is it really a limit on omnipotence that God cannot change morality by fiat and create a meta law that being a gadabout is just?” This question supposes a universe already set in motion and with creatures in which creating a meta-law may be an evil action therefore one that God would not undertake. The more important aspect is the origin of these laws especially before any creature existed that may suffer.

            You said: “I would argue that squares cannot be circles is a law, and that a being can be both omnipotent and not be capable of making square circles.” I think the more important aspect is to question where did the laws like this one originate from. Did God create them? In my view, God created absolutely everything. But, if you concede what I have, then God knew that this universe would contain evil and suffering. It was intentional and we have to make sense of omnibenevolence though an appeal to mystery.

            I guess the two options are 1) make omnipotence compatible with God not having created certain laws (i.e., logic), or 2) make God’s omnibenevolence veiled in mystery.

            Here’s one way to pit these two options against each other. What is your view on heaven or New Creation? Because if heaven has no evil and suffering, then God will have to use different laws from the current ones which is not compatible with option 1). So, God’s omnibenevolence being unknowable through philosophical inquiry seems to be favorable if heaven has no evil or suffering.


  3. Scott Szeljack 06/29/2014 at 23:19

    I recall The Problem of Evil being one of the topics that really cemented our friendship – we each discovered we’d come to the same “brilliant conclusion” that solved the problem of Aquinas answer of free will. (That freedom of choice must be such a great good that an omnipotent merciful being would allow it at the cost of allowing evil consequences, et cetra.) I think you’ve touched on an interesting topic, that when a logician seeks an answer to a puzzle, that is what he is given – an answer. Some answers are useful and have immediate application. Others, like the one you suggest, require something more to be of full value. Also, to touch on something, the virtual worlds defense should, I think, allow some impact of this world in its excusing. It is less “this world doesn’t matter” and more “this world is a journey”. As you discussed (and, an apt analogy, I agree) there is a stage upon which the actors of Hamlet unfold the play. A particularly good Hamlet (or Laertes, or Horatio, or whatever) can create a play that is stronger, better, and more interesting to its audience. A particularly bad actor can, conversely, make the play poorer, or miss cues, causing other actors to miss lines or have to improv. We can use virtual worlds to express ideas, emotions, and settings with minimal consequence, sure, but it’s always a letdown when the virtual world you go to explore turns out to be a bust; even though it is fake and doesn’t really matter, we, outside the world, still feel an emotional response when it is not what we expected. So is it with this world. In the great and grand scheme of things, none of this matters against the cosmic scale of eternity and the Afterlife. Yet, these pains, the loss and regret and remorse and worse things have weight, meaning to not only the characters on the stage but the actors themselves, because Forever is not only huge, it is infinitesimal. Which gives Evil an interesting duality: None of it (really) matters, because of the scale against which things are set, and all of it matters, because we (the actors) and we (the characters) are sometimes the same.


    • K. Chen 06/30/2014 at 14:59

      Yes, the free will defense still remains my preferred way of understanding the Problem of Evil, probably because free will is my way of understanding life.

      I really like this comment, because it touches on an attitude I have about life-as-a-test. I do believe that life is a test, but I also believe it is much, much more than a test. While I am willing to play act a villain in a virtual world for the sake of narrative and exploration, I still find meanspiritedness in a virtual world unacceptable. But it seems to me that if we accept that there is weight to the virtual world instead of an elaborate simulation, then perhaps it is no longer a theodicy?


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