TL;DR is Internet-speak for “too long; didn’t read.” This blog is now over four years old, and while the basic title-relevant posts can be followed more-or-less chronologically via the “The Story So Far” link at the top, this post is an attempt to summarize those four years in light of some recent tragic events.
The word theodicy, literally “the justice of God”, was coined by Gottfried Leibniz, a contemporary and rival of Isaac Newton, to refer to the question of “Why do bad things (or good things, for that matter) happen?” I have long considered this to be THE theological question. Depending on the reason, the existence or non-existence of God may be irrelevant.
We only know life directly at a human scale, which is (if you use nature’s more common exponential measurement scale rather than ten-fingered human linear measurement) about halfway between the smallest and biggest things in our part of the universe.
At the Milky Way end of this scale, physicists can prove that the universe is pretty well deterministic. If you know the location and momentum of every bit of the universe, you could determine, through the math of classical physics, both where it has been and where it is going (a concept called Laplace’s Demon).
This math got us to the Moon and caused Albert Einstein to remark that “God does NOT play dice with the world.” For the electrons and the other sub-atomic particles at the smallest end of the universe, however, quantum mechanics is the math that “works better,” and there is a lot of randomness down there. And also often, apparently, here in our human-sized world.
A single six-sided die has the property of uniform randomness, where each outcome, one through six, is equally likely. Add a second die to your game, however, and all of a sudden you have added a more complex stochastic random variable, where a roll of seven is six times as likely to occur as a roll of two. At your conception, 23 of your father’s chromosomes, chosen randomly from his 46 pairs, mix with 23 of your mother’s 46 (and adding a few random mutations) to form you. That’s a lot of dice!
Something strange happens with the simplest string of DNA making up some microorganisms, however. It appears to “choose” to move, in some very simplistic way, toward a light source, where it has a greater probability of reproducing, but no guarantee. And that movement favors random variations that use that light in some life-extending way. The more successful microorganisms evolve randomly, but also probabilistically. A time-lapse animated GIF showing the growth of a pea plant appears to show the plant “seeking” a vertical surface on which to “climb” (note the “human” language here).
The pea plant’s theodicy is pretty simple. If there is a vertical surface on which to climb, it has a far better chance of thriving and reproducing itself than if there is no climbing pole nearby, in which case it likely dies (“by the grace of God”?). And if the climbing pole is a stick positioned by a human, that pea plant’s progeny may wind up being eaten for someone’s Sunday dinner.
Now, it may be that human intelligence and “free will” are just more complicated versions of that pea plant. It’s a great metaphor, in any case. And yet, it at least appears to us that we can “tweak” the probabilities that face us daily. A Little Leaguer who learns to incrementally improve his odds of hitting a pitch from 25% of the time to 33% of the time at every successive level of competition may well wind up a multi-millionaire professional ballplayer.
People who “choose” to drive safely have a far lower chance of dying in an automobile crash, by several “orders of magnitude” (powers of 10). Vaccinated people continue to have a far lower chance of dying from Covid-19 than science deniers, even the most religious ones. It sure feels like I have some important free-will choices to make in this life.
And yet, safe drivers, even the most religious ones, sometimes die in automobile crashes, albeit at lottery-winner levels. Little kids die at the hands of men wielding high-lethality weapons. Sometimes who lives and who dies sure seems like the roll of the dice, regardless of what Albert Einstein said. If there is a God, where is “God’s justice”?
The age-adjusted death rate in Florida from renal cancer (cancer of the kidneys) over the most recent documented span of twenty years was remarkably constant. It never went lower than 3.0 and it never went higher than 3.7 per one hundred thousand Floridians over those years. If we try to answer the “Big Question” about why those people, and specifically why that consistent number of people died from renal cancer in Florida each year, most of whom likely prayed to God to be spared, you could give a statistical answer regarding tendency toward the mean. Or you might give a medical answer of percentage success of treatment. Or you might theologize about “God’s will.”
The aforementioned Gottfried Leibniz was the co-discoverer of the mathematics of calculus, and so it is no accident that his first-published explanation of theodicy looks like an economics graph showing maxima and minima. According to Leibniz, we live in “the best of all possible worlds,” where “good” has no meaning without countervailing “bad,” and vice versa. And so there then must be, he says, some point where the “curves” of “badness” and “goodness” reach some kind of equilibrium of maximum good, and that is “the best of all possible worlds.”
Let me say that this theodicy of Gottfried Leibniz will not ever go over well at a funeral. But then, I don’t think any of the preachers’ theological explanations will be working that well in Uvalde, Texas, or Buffalo, New York, either. This quote from novelist/theologian Frederick Buechner is perceptive:
“Understanding in terms of the divine economy why his children had to die, Job would still have to face their empty chairs at breakfast every morning. Carrying in his pocket straight from the horse’s mouth a complete theological explanation of his boils, he would still have to scratch and burn.” — Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking.
A departed friend and admitted religious skeptic left me with my favorite explanation of theodicy, which is likely not original with him. And likewise, this quote is not much good at funerals, either:
“If God is real, then the more we learn about reality, the more we learn about God.”
- Taraji P. Henson meets Gottfried Leibniz
- Your place in the universe
- Albert Einstein and his dice
- You are a lottery winner!
- Brains, minds and twisting vines
- Free Will in 1000 words
- Choosing to hit the baseball
For additional posts on theodicy, probability, volition and ethics, follow the Dice icon back or forward where it appears.