Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen? A Thought Experiment.
So for those who believe in a benign and loving God, one of the hardest tests of faith is when something truly terrible happens. The question that is so hard to answer is “Why has God done this to me? Or “Why did He let this happen to me”. Usually the answer is somewhat cryptic and unsatisfying.
Expanding on an idea from Iain M Banks in The Hydrogen Sonata (The Simming Problem), perhaps the answer is that God is trapped in an ethical deadlock.
In straightforward situations, working out what’s going to happen should be easy. For example, if God notices a rogue asteroid heading towards the Earth, He could simply nudge it out of the way. The knock-on effects would be fairly simple to determine and the outcome would be unequivocally good news for the residents of planet earth.
The problem comes when He wants to intervene in large-scale human conflict. Take the battle of Cannae in 216BC, where the General Hannibal led his troops to victory over the Roman army. Hannibal’s army shrank from 50,000 to only 23,000 as they crossed the Alps to meet the Romans. In the ensuing battle, Hannibal used excellent (canny) tactics to defeat the Roman army, but the battle resulted in 10,000 Carthaginian and 50,000 Roman lives lost. In 216BC, 87,000 people dying is a colossal number.
In the run up to this battle, we assume that God could see that what ever happened, a lot of lives would be lost (unless He has decided people no longer are allowed free will). Perhaps though, He wants to intervene subtly to make this the end of the larger conflict. A decisive battle. But who should win?
To understand this, God must look far into the possible futures. Which society should run Europe; Rome or Carthage? Both have strengths and flaws. Both would try to conquer their world, bringing both progress and civilisation along with terrible suffering for their victims. It’s a complex problem and one that is fundamentally chaotic; minor changes in the starting conditions can lead to major changes in the outcomes.
So God starts to run some more detailed mental models, or simulations. What He discovers is that to really work out what is going to happen, He needs to understand the psyche and thought processes of a number of key people. But a simulation like this is so detailed that the people in it are effectively conscious. To understand what they will do, God has effectively replicated their consciousness in a simulation in order to play the scenario in fast forward and see how it will pan out.
This is where the problems start. Once God has made his decision (Hannibal should win this one, but ultimately Carthage should lose to Rome), what does he do with the 100 or so variations that he is running as simulations? These are mini worlds populated with sentient creatures, also with free will. To just switch them off is effectively a form of genocide, albeit a painless one. If the situation was sufficiently complex, say He ran 1000 variants, then ending the simulations might snuff out more beings than the ones He set out to save in the real world. So the only ethically consistent move is to keep them running indefinitely. Since God has infinite capacity, there is no technical reason not to, so OK.
The alternative of course is for God to make a big splash. Turn up with Thunder and Floods and Plagues and pick the winners. The Old Testament is full of God’s adventures in supporting one side over the other. Unfortunately, God comes out of this period with quite a lot of blood on His hands.
Perhaps, shortly after the Carthage episode, God is sick of being dragged into the fights of His children and goes for another tactic. In sending His son to earth, God makes another grand gesture that, 2000 years later, still seems to be largely unappreciated. So God decides to take a subtler approach. He will intervene only when strictly necessary to avoid major pain and suffering.
But what are the outcomes of His intervention? Say we look forward to another great conflict; World war 1. It will be obvious to God as the 20th century begins that another almighty fight is brewing; how should He intervene? To know the answer He must find the optimal point to interfere; if He were to kill off key figures too early, another would take their place and the War to End All Wars may be delayed but still ultimately occur — horrifically it might even happen when war-making technology has progressed further and the death toll could be even higher.
Again, God must run the numbers. He must simulate different actions and their consequences. But He must do this in the knowledge that those more detailed simulations will continue indefinitely, also fully populated with sentient beings. Many human historians would agree that some conflict was inevitable at the turn of the 20th Century, so for God running his various scenarios it will soon become clear that nearly all (maybe 90 in 100, maybe 99) will result in an horrific war that costs the lives of millions. So here is the quandary, here is the essence of my thought experiment.
In order to work out how to prevent WW1, God must simulate this War and it’s outcomes over and over again, searching for the version where lives are saved and the world turns out better. In the process He must condemn 100 times more souls to the torment of the war He would prevent. So God must do nothing, or influence the very fringes, saving individuals here and there and hoping not to make things worse.
Why does God let bad things happen? Because to prevent it would cause more pain. The world is too complex for even an omnipotent being to influence. Of course he could just take control of everyone and make them be nice to each other, but by removing our free will He is left with nothing but some dolls to play with.