Does the universe exist for entertainment value?


Creation of the universe in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Here’s a video of a squirrel stealing a chocolate bar. It’s funny.

Cognitive biases can have bad consequences, but without them we wouldn’t be able to enjoy funny animal videos like this. After all, there’s nothing inherently funny about an animal seeing something it wants and then taking it. All the humour in this video is due to reflexively attributing human-like mental states to the utterly alien mind of the squirrel.

Maybe cognitive biases are a bit like certain recreational drugs. They can really mess people up, but they can also give people fun new perspectives on things and send them into fits of giggles. And they’re here to stay, so instead of just moaning about them or trying to get rid of them, we should pursue policies including education and institutional reforms that promote safe and responsible use.

Now this occurs to me: A lot of entertainment (especially magic and comedy) runs on cognitive bias. If these forms of entertainment produce unique goods, then certain goods can only be realized if there are finite beings, because only finite beings could be subject to cognitive biases. And if it is in the nature of certain goods that they can only be realized if there are finite beings, an infinite being has reason to create finite beings. If an infinite being would bring it about that all goods are at least potentially realized, then an infinite being would create finite beings. So what I’m getting at is that if God created the universe, they created it because of funny animal videos.

Here’s one possible objection. An infinite being must be infinitely good. Infinite goodness necessarily involves the realization of all possible goods. So if there is something an infinite being is not capable of, that thing must not be necessary for the realization of any good, and it follows that anything that does require something that the infinite being is not capable of in order to be realized cannot be a unique kind of good.

However, I think this objection assumes a voluntarist conception of the good, whereby what is good depends on the will or nature of an infinite being, rather than the other way round. But suppose we reject voluntarism, and instead view the good as defined by standards that hold independently of what an infinite being wills. We can then say that infinite goodness involves the realization of all possible goods to the extent that this is logically possible. This makes it conceivable that the realization of all possible goods could be outside the realm of possibility for an infinite being.

Of course there are all sorts of other possible objections one could raise from various theological perspectives; the idea that God was under any kind of obligation to create the universe seems to conflict with the doctrine of divine sufficiency, for example. As it happens, though, I don’t think the universe was created by an infinite being, and my point isn’t really theological anyway — it’s humanistic. Humans aren’t perfect; we struggle with a wide range of limitations, from the mildly irritating — “if we were truly created by God,” Dara O’Briain asks, “why do we occasionally bite the inside of our own mouths?” — to the truly tragic, and the effects of cognitive bias are found across that whole range. Regardless of how our various imperfections actually came about, the fact that even if we had been designed by a perfect being we would still have this particular imperfection may help us overcome some of the frustrations of the human condition.

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