Optimization Problem

I was in Los Angeles and I saw Candide. It had Kelsey Grammar and was generally a great show, but I’ve always had a bit of a hard time warming up to Candide conceptually. I may actually have a hard time with satire generally speaking – there’s an extremely fine line between highlighting the absurdities of a worldview and creating a straw man to represent it, and the genre frequently runs afoul of it.

If you’re unfamiliar with Candide, it’s a novella written by Voltaire, of “I may not agree with what you say but would die to defend your right to say it” fame – he may never have said it, but many will nevertheless die for the right to declare that he did. It was written primarily to lampoon the theory of ‘optimism’ proposed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a theory that suggests that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Of course, a million awful things happen in this stupid world every minute, so Voltaire understandably considered this to be a tough pill to swallow and wrote a story about infinity terrible things happening to some happy-go-lucky kid and everyone around him to illustrate that point.

The thing is, optimism was a proposed solution to a pretty tricky pickle of a problem: How can an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent god allow all the shitty things that happen to happen? Optimism is just the proposal that “well, maybe we don’t understand the entirety of the problem, and God, who we must assume does, is optimizing (or has optimized) the system that is the universe in the best possible way – which is unfortunately still not that great, at least for us, at least much of the time.”

As with most god stuff, this just raises further questions. For instance, we assume that god is benevolent, but how much are we actually covered under his benevolence? The Christian deity is generally considered to be a big fan of humanity in general, but he still may have a lot else on the go such that he occasionally has to put our well-being on the back-burner. As an analogy, is the most benevolent boss the one who treats you individually best, the one who treats all the employees best, or the one who ensures the future stability of the company?

Trick question, the most benevolent boss is no boss, which is why capitalism is bad and I’m an atheist. This neatly sidesteps the question of how a kind and loving god allows bad things to happen to good people, since I believe that god is neither kind nor loving nor existent. I also have my doubts about good people – bad things I retain faith in.

In a sense, though, we do live in at least one of the best of all possible worlds – we live on a planet that sustains us, for now, in a universe that has mostly consistent laws of physical reality that we can be born and prosper in. It seems normal to us because we live here, but it really is astoundingly unlikely. However, being a creature with the capacity to observe the miracle of existence has a one-hundred-percent correlation with being in a place that can precipitate that existence – so, something that is galactically very unlikely is, from our perspective, rooted in a world that must be able to create and sustain the brain that houses that perspective, a certainty.

Similarly, the characters in Candide survive, improbably, over and over. They survive because Voltaire, a just and benevolent author, has decided in His infinite wisdom that they must, because otherwise they wouldn’t be around to deliver the moral at the end about the evils of moralizing when there’s manual labor to be done.

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