Monday, 16 October 2017

The How Many Problem

The How Many Problem can be expressed like this:

How many individuals does god need (or want) to save?  How many sentient beings are justifiably cast into hell in order to achieve this goal?

I'll just clarify a few things:

It is standard christian theology that the god wants to save individuals, without this the sacrifice of Jesus would be meaningless.  Even in judaism  and islam you have the concept of prophets who are instructed by their god to pass on a message of salvation to the faithful.

The actual method of salvation is immaterial.  It could be via simple belief, rebirth baptism, grace or "coming to know and love god".  Whatever the mechanism, which could be far more subtle and complex than the examples given, this doesn't change the requirement to save individuals.

The nature of salvation is immaterial.  It could be floating around on clouds with a harp, it could be bodily resurrection, it could be something more ethereal, just not being hell or, again, something more subtle and complex than these.  What matters is that this salvation is apparently important - to the god.

We know that one individual saved does not appear to be sufficient - Adam and Eve could have sufficed, Jesus could have sufficed, Jesus' acolytes could have sufficed, thousands of early christians could have sufficed.  Even today, with billions of christians, there is still an apparent need to seek more converts (and presumably more saved).

The god in question is apparently omniscient and omnipotent and, in some readings, unchanging in its nature.  Therefore, the idea that anything is served by having billions upon billions of imperfect humans interacting with it is problematic.  Nevertheless, this is an aspect of the christian creed.  The question remains - how many is enough, what figure does the thinking theist settle on and why is this large number (at least in the billions) better than the number that immediately follows it?

The nature of hell is immaterial (as in it doesn’t matter what the nature is, I am not claiming here that hell has a particular nature).  Perhaps it is all fire and brimstone, perhaps it is a long cold dark time spent away from god, perhaps it's just like this earth with all the joy and happiness sucked out of it - forever - or perhaps it is something more subtle and complex than that.  The point I am alluding to here is that those sentient beings who are not saved are apparently destined for some sort of hell (and not simple oblivion) and they will suffer there, at least for some longish period of time if not literally for a future eternity.  This is an ultimate problem of evil that is not solved by appealing to the greater good of saving some maximal number of souls, because the souls in hell are already damned.

The theist, to respond to this problem must identify a number, or a possible mechanism for setting a number, of individuals to be saved.

If this cannot be done, then the conclusion is that the god would need (or want) an infinite number of saved individuals.  It would further follow that, with any percentage failure rate higher than zero as the god churns through the souls in attempt to save them, there would be an infinite number of damned individuals.

To avoid that, we arrive at theological zombies.  But theological zombies bring their own problems (deception on the part of god, an emptiness on the part of the soul in the process of being saved in a universe otherwise inhabited by theological zombies, the level of imperfection of the soul in the process of being saved if this world is the best possible world in which it would be saved).

So, again, I ask the question: how many?