Mild spoilers for How I Met Your Mother 5.15, “Rabbit or Duck” (February 8) and The Bible, Genesis 1:1
On Sunday, a football game was televised on CBS. More Americans watched it live than have watched any other television show in history. CBS ran a clever spot for How I Met Your Mother that just showed the show’s break-out character, sex-obsessed Barney Stinson, holding up a poster with his telephone number on it. (A friend I was with called immediately and got to a voicemailbox message by Neil Patrick Harris, in character.) This fed nicely into the next day’s show, in which Barney receives call after call from women interested in him because they saw him on TV.
Barney, sadly, runs into a problem. No matter how attractive the woman sitting across from him is, each time the phone rings he thinks that the next girl might be a little bit hotter. So he abandons whichever woman he is with to pursue the next one. And this slowly drives him crazy.
The show does a nice job of pointing out the problem faced by having too many choices. There’s a vast literature in psychology on this point, which has been summarized in an easy-to-understand book by Barry Schwartz called The Paradox of Choice. The basic point is that more choices can lead to less happiness.
But there is a different problem suggested by Barney’s particular struggle, and it is a problem that many philosophers and theologians have suggested might be one faced by God. God’s problem is this.
God decides to create a world, because that’s what a good God does. But being God, not just any world will do. God must choose the best possible world to create; anything less would be un-godlike. But there is no best possible world. There are infinitely many possible worlds that God could choose to create, and if we lined them all up from worst to best, the line would go on forever. So for each world that God could create, there would always be a better one. If this is the case, then it seems like God would not create any world.
So that leaves you with three choices. (1) There is no God, and this is just another reason why. (2) There is a best possible world, which we know because God created one (spoiler: it’s this one), so it is not true that for each possible world, there is a better one that God could have created. (4) God does not have to create the best possible world, just one that is good enough. This problem has been noticed for hundreds of years, so each of these has been defended by someone.
Barney’s situation is disanalogous to God’s in a lot of ways. For one, Barney doesn’t know if the next girl is hotter than the last, but God presumably knows if there is a better world. For another, God’s motivation seems a lot, well, healthier, than Barney’s.
But they both reveal the same problem. When presented with many choices, a reasonable maxim for acting (sleep with the hottest woman, create the best possible world) can lead one to not acting, which is worse than any (or many) of the alternatives. If one could be a satisficer (pick one that is just good enough) instead of a maximizer (pick the best one), one might be able to lead a much happier life.