God and perfection

The 20th century discovery that the known Universe actually had a beginning seemed to give succor to those who attempt to formulate rational arguments for God’s existence. It is our common sense notion that if something began to exist, it did not just pop into existence out of nothing. It could not have been self-created or self-caused. Something, or Someone, external to it must have been responsible.

Even more importantly, this fact of a beginning seems to be consistent with traditional creation stories. Scientific confirmation of Genesis! Or Pangu and the egg.

But I’m not going to use this discussion to revisit all of the valid philosophical and scientific explanations for how a Universe really could come into existence from “nothing”, absent a creator (this has been dealt with far more competently by others).

What I what to point out is that a Universe that begins to exist seems to pose problems for at least one attribute that theists often attribute to their God. That attribute is perfection.

Before (if that is the right word) the physical Universe was formed, the immaterial reality that existed was by definition perfect, because God is perfect. There could have been nothing lacking in this reality; no possible room for improvement. No reason to change.  Then, for some reason, the perfect God altered reality by creating an imperfect physical Universe.

Now, had the imperfect physical Universe always existed, perhaps as some necessary manifestation of God’s nature, then there might be a way to reconcile these two things. Maybe the analogy of “without darkness, there is no light” could be wheeled out to explain why evil must always exist with good, why suffering must accompany happiness.

I find the above argument specious (I don’t need to experience abject suffering to know happiness), but not even that rickety old argument is available explain why a perfect God, doing just fine in infinity without darkness and evil and this mystical necessity of yin/yang, would suddenly BRING INTO existence an imperfect Universe.

The theist might push back that our definition of perfection is off. Perhaps perfection does not necessarily mean unchanging or static, that there may be different versions of perfection, and therefore perfection does not rule out creative acts. A perfect being can choose to alter a perfect reality into a different kind of perfect reality. In fact, the theist might turn this around and note that by definition, anything a perfect being does must somehow be perfect, including bringing material Universes and sinful creatures into existence.

But is this explanation just doing violence to the meaning of perfection? God was not merely changing the paint color of reality – by engaging in an additive, creative act, He was bringing something into existence to fulfill a specific purpose, to achieve an end. So can a state of reality with unfulfilled ends (which was certainly the case before the existence of the Universe and is probably the case now, as the Universe still contains imperfect beings) be just as perfect as one with fulfilled ends? It does not seem to follow.

Maybe perfection simply means “without error”. An unfulfilled end is not really an error or mistake. But it is a state of incompleteness, which is also contrary to the concept of perfection.

Or, the theist might focus on the concept of love. Perfect God did not have to do a bloody thing; rather, he freely chose to create beings to be objects of his perfect self-giving love. Everything is still perfect. Except that it isn’t, because many of these imperfect beings will fail to accept that love, which is of course a worse state of affairs. We are still back at the same contradiction.

Perhaps it is an error to conflate God with the Universe. God is perfect, the Universe isn’t, but God is separate from the Universe. Of course, this falls apart immediately – God is supposed to be omnipresent, and we still have the problem of perfection begetting imperfection.

Maybe there is no contradiction and it is a fallacy to assert that there is. Perhaps the Universe as a whole is perfect even though some of its components, like Satan or the DMV, are not. But how could independent, imperfect agents such are ourselves aggregate with the other aspects of the universe to create “perfection”?

The theist believes that a state of reality with a perfect God, maximal love and no material Universe, is just as perfect as a state of reality with a perfect God plus a material Universe containing imperfect beings, evil, and unfulfilled ends. I think that this is an utterly incoherent statement.

If God was really perfect, then we would not be here. It’s not like we would have been missed.

It’s far more rational to ditch this notion of a perfect God than to shoehorn it into an imperfect Universe that began to exist.

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