But let’s start with the iconic opposing question: Why is there evil? That opposing question stands as the traditional route into this complex, daunting corner of philosophy. Academicians, philosophers, theologians, social scientists, commentators, and just ordinary individuals have pondered that question endlessly. Start an internet search with “Why is there e… ” and the search engine will generate many and multiple variations of the question “Why is there evil?” without need to even type any further than the initial “e” in evil.
In contrast, the inquiry in the title above, of why is there good, appears a path less traveled. Start an internet search with “why is there g… ” and the question “Why is there good?” will likely not appear.
Why then consider why there is good? For that very reason, i.e. the question of good provides a less common path, and thus a hopefully revealing route, to insights into the deep questions about good and evil.
So, then, why is there good? Why are we blessed with the gentleness of a little child’s smile, the delicacy of a soft Merlot wine, the kindness of stranger to pick up a dropped glove, the heroism of a first responder to enter a fire, the good fortune of minable resources like iron and oil, the wonder of our human intelligence, the refreshing ability to laugh, the exhilaration of sport, the intrigue of a well-written mystery, the joy of family and friends, the basic existence of a stable universe, and many other enjoyable abilities and experiences.
So why is there good?
If the question offers a different path, let’s start down that path, and let’s do so at the beginning, literally, at the hypothesized beginning of our actuality, at the Big Bang.
Basis One for Good: Low Entropy of the Initial Universe
What does the Big Bang have to do with good? What possibly could be the connection? Very simply, the Big Bang, as now hypothesized, produced a very productive state of affairs.
The Big Bang explosion (not really an explosion, but on the assumption we all understand that the Big Bang, in current theory, actually created matter, space and time, while an explosion requires matter, space and time to already exist, we will label the Big Bang an explosion) generated a low entropy condition. By low entropy, we mean very organized, and for the early universe, extremely well organized. And once such a condition exists, once we have an enormously organized initial condition, on the gigantic scale of the early universe, everything else might be just a clock winding down. With so much low entropy, one could argue that good became inevitable.
We do need to take two side tracks here. First, why does low entropy provide an efficient engine for producing anything? We need to touch a bit of physics and define entropy. In basic terms, entropy measures the level of disorder, with low entropy signifying orderly (and thus high entropy signifying disorderly). Now, if we are given an orderly collection matter, aka low entropy, we can produce work.
Take propane gas, the type used for outdoor grills. If we have an organized collection of that gas, say a collection of the gas compressed into a container, we can cook our barbecue. But disburse that gas by opening the valve to the air, and in a few minutes that propane escapes, spreads out, and becomes disorganized. The propane becomes useless. Note the sum of the chemical energy in the disbursed propane remains the same as the propane when collected in the tank. However, once disbursed, we can no longer access that energy since the propane molecules are scattered about.
But a bit more thought shows an issue. Didn’t the initial universe start as disbursed, with everything spread out just about as evenly as possible?
We now need to take our second side track here, to explain what about the early universe provided a low entropy – aka, organized – situation. After all, the early universe, as hypothesized under the Big Bang, did begin with gases evenly spread across many light years of space. Didn’t we just say that when we disbursed the propane, let it spread out, that increased entropy. So how can the early universe have a low entropy if all the gas is widely and evenly disbursed?
Our propane scenario lacks one essential item, gravity. Though gravity exists in our propane scenario, the amount of matter involved is too small for gravity to be a factor.
Once we scale up to astronomical distances, and astronomical quantities of matter, gravity becomes significant, and as such enters into entropy considerations. Gravity adds an element to entropy calculations that turns conditions upside down. Low entropy, in the face of gravity, now involves uniform dispersal of matter.
Think of a collection of small magnets on a drum head. Lay then down carefully, evenly spaced. Hit the drumhead. The magnets collect together (or alternately push further apart – the exact reaction depends on the alignment of the poles of the magnets when you placed them down). Though not a precise analogy, this magnet scenario allows us to grasp that a uniform distribution provides low entropy in the face of an attractive force.
This provides a set of rather long side tracks on why the universe provided low entropy, given its uniform distribution.
And low entropy, as discussed, allows for production of work. Given the size of the universe, the amount of work towered to nothing less than spectacular, almost unimaginable. The low entropy universe generated an essentially innumerable large number of stars and planets, with each star pumping out gargantuan amounts of energy, and with each planet containing a rich palette of materials and conditions. And this continued and continues for billions of years. With this tremendous scale and range of work output, life and intelligence likely emerges almost inevitably, and with life and intelligence emerges good.
That stands as the key. The low entropy of the initial universe enabled so much work for such a long time across such a large expanse that good essentially emerged by inevitable chance.
If the universe had not been uniformly distributed, say if the Big Bang produced large star-size clumps of iron, few if any stars would have ignited, and the universe would be a dark, lifeless place. One might label that good under some definition, but by most considerations a lifeless, cold, dark universe would not contain good by our common sense of the word.
Basis Two: DNA
The low entropy of the early universe does provide favorable – immensely favorable – conditions for the work production, enormous work production on a grand scale. With all the change and dynamism resulting from that work output, the emergence of good becomes highly probable, if not essentially inevitable.
But unfortunately not something we can demonstrate. Modeling the universe, at least at the detail required to test for the emergence of good, still lies beyond, well beyond, our scientific capabilities. So though conceptually plausible, we can not definitely declare low entropy the basis for good.
And even if we could so demonstrate, even if the low entropy condition, at the scale of the universe, inevitably produced good, we might desire a more proximate cause for good.
So let’s shorten our time horizon. What other phenomena, more recent, provides a key to the emergence of good. Well, we have a tacit assumption that life is necessary for good (this assumption can be argued, but for now let’s accept it). So what enabled life?
The appearance of DNA (for conceptual simplicity we will consider RNA to be included here, without need to mention the interplay of RNA and DNA, or the likelihood that RNA preceded DNA) provides such an enabler. DNA provides a mechanism for the work of the universe to be converted to repeatable algorithms, and for improvements in those algorithms to be incrementally added.
You stand in your kitchen, energetic. You randomly pull ingredients from everywhere – shelves, pantry, refrigerator, freezer, utility closet – then mix them in random ways in random proportions, and then you process them randomly – cutting, beating, mixing, freezing, baking, microwaving – for random lengths of time. On the trust that you did this randomly (so for example, you would not stop if your random efforts involves putting cayenne pepper and dishwasher powder into a California burgundy), this random process would rarely produce an item you would dare serve to guests.
But if you started writing down menus for the occasional palatable outcome, then you have recorded a repeatable algorithm.
We can consider natural processes in the same manner. Nature, driven by the work produced from the low entropy state, randomly created astronomical objects (stars, comets, planets, moons, meteors, and so on), and then on a small scale randomly mixed molecular constituents together (water, gases, inorganic and organic chemicals). In this randomness, complex objects likely appeared which we would label as alive.
But absent DNA (or equivalent), and despite the tremendous work available in the low entropy, the universe would not have been able to sustain the fleeting life-like complexity. Absent DNA or its equivalent, no recording process would exist to pass on the complexity into the future. The life would dissipate.
DNA, or some equivalent, changes the creation/destruction cycles. DNA stores algorithms, and thus can continue into the future the processes that create complexity. Just like a menu turns cooking from a hit-or-miss proposition to a predictable effort, DNA turns random natural combinations of life into sustainable life processes.
In a further marvelous twist, DNA has embedded itself in a reproduction cycle that not only stores the existing algorithms, but adds improvements, discards detriments, and adapts to changes. We know that phenomena as evolution, i.e. the host living entity for the DNA reproduces the next generation only to the degree the host’s features allow it to sustain itself in the current generation.
Why does DNA provide a possible key to the good? DNA, or similar information storage structure, enables life. Absent DNA (or equivalent) and given the complexity of life, random natural processes would only in sporadic and isolated circumstances create life, and then almost certainly not sustain it.
And as implied before, from a metaphysical perspective, for this discussion, good implies life. A lifeless universe could be considered good, but we are asking the question of why is there good, and if life didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be here to ask it. So we will hold the postulate, for right here, that good implies the existence of life.
Basis Three: Human Intelligence and Culture
Low entropy and DNA provide an interesting, and conceptually logical and supportable, foundation for good. They do not, from a practical viewpoint, provide one that is a conversationally compelling. Why is there good, someone asks. You respond that good emerges from the initial low entropy state of the universe. As logical as that might (or might not) be, such a response would likely be greeted with skepticism or a blank stare.
More importantly, and more scientifically, while low entropy and/or DNA might enable life, and life might be good, life doesn’t imply by itself the emergence of one critical component of the good, at least in this discussion. That would be an ability to evaluate and appreciate what is good. Intelligence is needed. And just as we can not yet model the universe to determine definitively if good is inevitable from low entropy, we can not yet model evolution with sufficient detail to determine definitively if human-level intelligence is inevitable, given DNA and life. Evolution has produced millions of species, but only one, humans, has gained the capability to discuss good.
So let’s again shorten our time frame. Low entropy appeared some 13 billion years ago, and DNA arose as much as 3 billion years ago. We can now turn to an emergence critical to good that appeared as recent as several millenniums in the past, or at most several tens of millennium. That would be the emergence of human culture.
We need now to take another side track, and cover explicitly an item only touched on in passing – what do we mean by the good. A quick scan for a definition of good shows an easy dozen, and on some sites several dozen, different meanings or shades of meanings.
Our starting paragraph for this article highlighted the question of why is there evil. When that question is asked, the question generally implies why do events occur that disrupt, harm and/or destroy the human fabric. “Why is there evil?” implies questions such as why is their crime, why is there disease, why are there disasters, why are there hate and discord, why is there war, why do we suffer.
Our quest here involves exploring those questions but from the opposite direction by asking why is there good. Thus in our focus on the good, we are not asking why is a screwdriver a good tool, or why does a hybrid car achieve good gas mileage, or why does cotton make a good fabric. Those are functional and utilitarian senses of good, not good in the sense of uplifting the human spirit, or fulfilling human goals, or advancing the human intellect. Here we aim to juxtapose our angst over the horror of evil, with an equally weighty consideration of why there is good.
Our angst over evil stems from its destructive impact on our human core; and our regret and despair over its existence; and our first person pain when we are its victim; and our evaluation that evil should be eliminated and avoided just due to its intrinsic nature. So good, to be in an opposing juxtaposition, must involve something constructive to our core spirit; something we don’t regret but desire to exist; something that provides first person pleasure or fulfillment; and something we aim to achieve due to its intrinsic worth and value.
Thus arises the proposition that human culture, and the emergence of human culture, provide the basis for good. Human culture accelerated mankind’s conceptual and social advancement, creating both the intellectual tools to understand good, and the complex societies required to both achieve and appreciate good.
If we are looking at good as the antithesis of evil, then mankind in its development of culture created both the means to achieve good, and the acumen to comprehend good and to understand its value.
Could pre-cultural human groups have good? In a general sense yes, but not really in the specific sense defined here. Good occurred in those groups, as in good harvests. But absent an extensive culture, including language in some form, it is unlikely early man seriously pondered or even knew the concept of good, nor thought in general terms of values, nor set their life objectives based on noble ideas of the good.
Basis Three – Addendum: Social Evolution
So we have our third candidate for the foundation of good, i.e. human culture. Human culture appears a reasonable basis for good, and we might agree that human culture enables good, and thus creates the environment where a young adult sets his or her sight on the nobility of becoming a first responder, where a philanthropist donates millions to charity, where a stranger returns a dropped wallet to its owner, and where an adventurer climbs a high peak for the awe, exertion and beauty.
Implicit, however, in our citing of human culture as the basis for good might be the assumption that humans built the culture, that mankind through its free will, good intentions and noble vision created culture, and thus good. Culture contains sophistication and complexity, and that sophistication and complexity arose through the focus, volition and intention of mankind. The good came from the goodness of mankind.
But let’s not be presumptuous. Biological evolution progressed and progresses without direction or intent. No guiding consciousness (absent a transcendental intelligence, which we will get to) directs biological evolution. Life emerged unwilled and undirected.
If we took several thousand robots, lacking consciousness or will, but programmed simply to create optimal conditions for their existence, continuation and functional improvement, would they create culture? Might they invent many critical aspects of culture, i.e. language, division of labor, law, planning, currency? Further, could not altruism, and cooperation, and appreciation, emerge in a robot society, not out of any nobility or empathy of robots (they would have none), but simply due to the productive and beneficial impact of such attributes. We can imagine even further. Might robots, after sufficient time, invent art and music, not due to any appreciation of beauty or intrinsic attraction to form (they would have none) but due to the improvements art and music algorithms create in their underlying capability to create useful algorithms?
I would say yes to all those possibilities. No free will or values or consciousness would be necessary.
So we might need two conceptions of human culture as foundations for good. One conception starts with humans and humanity containing good inherently within their consciousness, intellect and free will. This conception involves the emergence of good from the noble characteristic of humanity.
But we could also have a second conception. In this conception, the good emerges from a social evolution that proceeds as mechanically as biological evolution. Mankind did not have a guiding intentionality or morality or internal goodness. Rather our cultural advancement rested and rests on unintentional steps guided only by those steps’ ability to sustain culture, i.e. randomness stumbling forward.
Basis Four: Superior/Guiding Intelligence
Our fourth foundation for the good takes us into tricky territory. We now consider whether the good emerged from the guidance and intervention of an external and superior intelligence. In a more familiar statement, we ask did God create the good.
Why venture into this part of the metaphysical arena? Because despite any caution, or ground rule, or logic, that warns to keep the spiritual separate from the philosophical, God stands as the gorilla in the china closet. Too many individuals believe in, and too much of history dwells on, and too much of our current cultural content involves, this entity labeled God.
Before we react positively or negatively to the postulate of God creating the good, let’s explicitly define God for our discussion. The very reason we must consider God, i.e. the ubiquity and historical impact of the concept, means each and all come to the discussion with long-considered (and dare say in cases engrained) conceptualizations and evaluations.
For our considerations here, a God should have these characteristics
- Exhibit intelligence superior to modern humans
- Exist outside our current time-space actuality
- Possess consciousness and values
- Influence human events
The God figures of the current organized religions fit, in general, within this definition. So for example a God that exists as a spiritual being, outside time and space, offering us salvation through grace, and hearing and answering our prayers, aka a God like a Christian God, fits.
But that would not be the only conceptualizations that fit. Consider, within the definition, God could be messages transmitted across time from advanced humans a hundred thousand years in the future. These advanced humans transmit these messages to selected individuals, in a sophisticated but covert manner. These receiving individuals judge they have received messages from God.
How does that fit the definition? We certainly might suppose humans hundreds of thousands of years in the future would have vastly superior intelligence. And to the degree that civilization can send information across time, then that civilization has utilized a time-space actuality outside any we currently can access.
Why wouldn’t future civilization just tell us who they are? Good question, but circular time paradoxes may require extreme subtlety by future civilizations in sending messages backward. Is time message travel a realistic possibility? The quantum world has and continues to reveal itself as strange place, so message transfer across time wouldn’t be outlandish. Why do they do this? Because the future civilization understands circular causality and sending back messages triggers superior human advancement.
Is this formulation of God too unconventional? No more so than the actual formulation of the Christian God.
Let’s take another example. God could be a mathematical model determined and set in motion by an advanced extra-terrestrial civilization, or consciousness existing in alternate dimensions or composed of alternate matter.
This example, though on the edge of feasibility, has threads in science fiction. For example, the Foundation series, by Isaac Asimov, builds on such a mathematical model called psychohistory, a postulated socio-psychological science that can predict the grand sweep of cultural advancement. Science fiction is just that fiction, but science fiction (at least in the case of what I will label as hard science fiction) generally contains sufficient plausibility for the reader to assess it could happen.
But has science, and logic, and human rationality, shown God not to be a supportable concept. Do we need God at all as the basis for existence? Doesn’t God just add baggage?
Let me return to the Asimov foundation series. Our God concept based on that series would involve an intelligence superior enough to predict the future. Let’s postulate this superior intelligence, working in time cycles unknown to humanity, works to direct mankind through minimal interventions. This intelligence, just like in the Foundation series, could even use traditional religion as an intermediate step, almost a subterfuge in the grander scheme. That is important – our current religious conception of God could be a partial, rudimentary, or even just diversionary step by the actual god.
Now, as many might point out, and as I would admit, the Asimov Foundation existed inside our actuality. But as just hypothesized, the keeper of psychohistory would not of necessity need to be in our actuality. An advanced and or extra-terrestrial civilization, based on a silicon-like fabric (aka computer-like), might think thousands and millions of times faster than humans. As such, we could consider that to be fitting our definition of being outside our current time-space actuality.
Alternately, I will cite Star Trek, with Q Continuum, with the Q Continuum fitting broadly within the definition of God given above. So God could be a Q Continuum like set of beings, implementing a psychohistory type plan with a minimal set of interventions. (So the periodic appearance of saviors would represent one type of occasional intervention.) Star Trek stands a science fiction, but I would again offer that science fiction of the type of Star Trek needs enough plausibility for us to conceive the scenario might exist.
Now, some might claim proofs that no God can exist. I would also offer caution about proofs about the non-existence of God. Most proofs relate in general to the traditional God conceptions, and we have just covered that God could have manifestations significantly different. Further, even for the traditional God, proving his (or her or its) non-existence involves proving a negative, a very arduous and error-fraught task. Just proving we don’t need a God, by saying for example we don’t need a God to explain evolution, doesn’t prove the lack of existence or intervention of a god. (I don’t need a private jet for vacation travel, but still might have used one.)
Why this discussion. As we think of good, the generic concept of God should remain on the table. I would offer that logic so dictates. We can not be sure we can disprove the existence of God, especially considering God could exist in ways unlike traditional Gods.
Finally, let’s not reject the possibility of a God because actively considering God passes a judgment that one lacks logic and sophistication, or indicates one has insufficient education or intellect, or one has deceived oneself in the face of science. Just like multi-universes stands as a currently plausible possibility, God by the generic definition above stands as a hypothesis not yet disproved, and I would judge it faulty to too readily discard God.
But while I argue we can not reject God, as defined here, as a source of good, we must evaluate that proposition through logic, evidence and reason. Faith, prayer, belief, self-revelation, sacred texts, prophetic sayings, historic tales and other spiritual mechanisms proffered as insights into God, and God as the source of good, stand as evidence, but evidence to be evaluated through verification, consistency, literary analysis, objectivity and so on.
Good as a Reflection on Evil
We have walked down the path of some possible bases for the existence of good. We covered four. Others might exist.
But our original, first thought was about evil. And we have surveyed the bases for good motivated by a desire to look at evil, and good, from an alternate perspective.
So what now is that perspective?
Given that there is existence (i.e. we will bypass a discussion of why is there something rather than nothing), I will argue that our discussion of the bases for good demonstrates that the existence of good vs. evil is just happenstance. Good has come to existence, and evil has come to existence, in the same manner a sequence of balls rolling down a triangular array of nails creates a random distribution of balls across the bottom.
The existence of good and evil emerged as happenstance.
Why do I come to that conclusion? The low entropy of the universe, from our current understanding, is a fortuitous situation. Absent our finding that the universe must be as it is, low entropy is good luck. So to the degree low entropy serves as the basis for good, then good occurs due a bit of luck.
I would argue that similarly, that the emergence and structure of DNA, and the appearance and organization of human culture, are just happenstance. If we ran our universe multiple times, or alternate universes, would DNA and culture always arise?
And if they did, would good always arise? Let’s assume humanity is not currently a collection of zombies, and thus can evaluate and appreciate good and suffer the angst of evil. But if we reran the universe, could we not conceive a universe just like the current one (low entropy, DNA and culture), but where humanity is a collection of zombies, or robots.
So if we ran the universe multiple times, I would offer we can not be sure good would arise, or evil. Good is not essential or fundamental. It follows from the mechanical/physical conditions of the universe.
Is good from God a different situation? I would say no. The existence of God is simply a fortuitous event. If God exists, and caused good, then we had good fortune. If God doesn’t exist, and we have good, well then we wouldn’t be surprised. Our current thinking includes scenarios where God is not necessary for our existence, nor for good. At the same time, our current thinking doesn’t preclude God either, so whether or not God caused good could be considered of limited consequence, since either way good can arise.
In our culture, and philosophy, and our search for purpose, good and evil often carry with them tremendous metaphysical connotations. Mankind works to create holistic paradigms with which to feel comfortable about the existence of good and evil. Good and evil become the basis for conclusions about the nature of existence and the content of the transcendental. We connote and impress meaning and purpose on the existence of good and evil. We create philosophical and theological structures into which to fit good.
And that is all reasonable and proper.
However, this survey of the good, this walk down the path of the causality of good, points to good emerging via good fortune, as an outcome, as an almost mechanical result of the physics and chemistry and biology of actuality. Good occurred not because existence inherently contained good, or the metaphysical structure of reality contained good as an essential and primal element. By this walk, good didn’t precede existence, or have a reality that transcended or caused existence. Good was not and is not primal, fundamental. Rather, good is a by-product of happenstance.
Good is accidental.
This conclusion provides a rather dry, lifeless outlook on good (and by extension evil.) For us, we would like good to stand, well, as something good, intrinsically worthy, a state and process primal, pre-existing, basic. We would want good to have a noble metaphysical stature. We would want good to be inherent, fundamental, a first principle from which concepts flow.
But the conclusion here, a conclusion that good has no more inevitability or purpose than red being the color of an apple, could grate our sensibility. This conclusion, that good is accidental, a by-product, appears to degrade good.
But I would offer this. If good, and by extension evil, do not carry ponderous weights, if they stand as random parts of actuality that are just probabilistic outcomes, maybe that is good in itself. If good and evil don’t precede reality, but flow accidentally from reality, maybe we might and should welcome that.
For then we, mankind, might not blame ourselves for the existence of evil. Good and evil might not be our intrinsic fault; rather they just are. Good and evil may not reflect our inherent nature, or be artifacts of our purpose or meaning; rather they just are.
So we should continue to seek the good, and eliminate the evil, but without the weight of any overarching burden that humanity, or you or I, are battling something deep in existence, or the alternately without grand thoughts that we are pursuing something inevitable in the fundamental nature of our purpose.
We seek good simply because we are fortunate enough to have it, and to be able to create it, and to enjoy it.
A flower exhibits beauty and brings joy. In that moment of appreciation, we don’t (generally) dwell on its philosophical meaning or implications. It is just good. That is the same for good itself. By this walk, good is just good, and leave it at that.