by Bradley Yam, SY ’21
Imagine that you are given a glove that granted you magical god-like powers over all of human life everywhere. You would only need to snap your fingers, and it would in some way make the world perfect. It would be whatever version of perfect you choose. Minmax human suffering and happiness? Done. Eradicate systemic oppression and inequality? Done. Eliminate scarcity of everything, everywhere? Done!
If this sounds like some purple giant from the latest Marvel’s Avengers movie, and if you knew the plot of the movie, you would be suspicious of this line of questioning. “But we all know that Thanos was crazy, after all, if we had that kind of power, we would surely use it for good. It would be unreasonable, irresponsible not to. After all, isn’t that what being at Yale is all about? Making the word a better place? Fixing the injustices of the world?” In fact, this is also one of our perennial gripes with the idea of an all-powerful, loving God, that he hasn’t already fixed the world. This is theodicy: answering why is the world bad if God is good. I am going to argue that if we take the question of Thanos’ glove seriously, we might not have a solution to theodicy, but we will ask the question of theodicy differently.
For the uninitiated, in the latest Marvel Avengers blockbuster, Thanos gains the Infinity Gauntlet, the glove grainting sovereignty over Soul, Reality, Mind, Space, Time and Power. The wielder of the glove gains god-like dominion over the universe. Our purple giant Thanos uses this unrestrained power to exterminate half of all life in the universe in order to end the suffering caused by overpopulation. You can complain about Thanos’ failure at Economics 101, but Marvel chose to portray him as basically altruistic. Thanos, unlike almost every other character on the good side, sacrifices his emotions in favour of his ideals. He sets aside his own interests, for the sake of what he thinks is the higher good. Regardless of how we feel about those ideals, we are led into admiring his methodical and relentless pursuit of his goals over the last gazillion movies. Now this is the kind of pursuit that Yalies can resonate with.
Thanos’ unyielding and unswerving determination confronts us with the potential problems with our own expectations of the perfect world. We all think we could do better than Thanos, but we seldom stop to consider that in his position, we might do far, far worse. That the world is not yet prefect is clear to everyone. Yet, if we press the the more rigorous flipside of the theodical question, “what is a reasonable version of the best possible world?”, there is unlikely to be any consensus at all! We might all agree that a marginal increase in freedom, a marginal increase in equality, and a marginal decrease in suffering are all good things, but our imagination fails us when we try to take the limit of those ideals. All our utopias turn into dystopias. We trust the old adage that good things can be taken too far. We criticize Thanos, but cannot really offer the perfect alternative.
Since it seems impossible to concur on what to do with Thanos’ glove, we ought to ask the questions related to theodicy with at least a sense of our lack of complete knowledge. The question: “Why does evil exist?” is still valid, because it is apparent that evil does indeed exist! But that hardly puts the nail in the coffin for the an all-powerful, benevolent God – because we ourselves are unable to articulate what exactly we would expect an all-powerful, benevolent God to do! In effect, we are left with a mystery: we don’t want things to stay as they are, but we do not know what we want them to become. If we are seekers of the truth, then we need to confront that mystery, not use it to explain God away.
We will think about what that mystery suggests to us in the second half (yet to be published) part of this article. For now, as privileged and empowered people, we need to be conscious that of our desire “to seek, to strive, and not to yield” after our ideals. We only imagine that we might do good, but we are all always wearing Thanos’ glove- will you snap?