Shiva stirred his tea with a fork. An ill omen.
Last night was Brahma’s turn to do the dishes, but apparently he hadn’t done them. Shiva made his way to the veranda, where Vishnu sat on the porch swing, reading his tablet. The final, only just recently clean teaspoon rested next to his mug on the railing. Shiva frowned. Smoke leaked from his ears. Before he could speak, Vishnu piped up.
“Did you see last month’s issue of Cato Unbound?”
“You know,” said Shiva, “Everyone says Cato Unbound is so, so good, but somehow I just never find the time.”
“Well,” said Vishnu. “The pagans really have tied themselves in a knot this time.”
“Oh dear,” said Shiva. “Walk me through it. Use small words and talk slowly, I haven’t had my caffeine.”
“Well, it’s like this. There’s a philosopher named Alvin Plantinga. And he asks us to imagine some things. First, imagine that the brain was created by the random, natural process called evolution.”
“But it wasn’t evolution,” said Brahma, emerging from the bungalow. “I created the brain. I should know, I remember it like it was yesterday. I’m the first person of the Holy Trinity, I’m the progenitor of progenitors! I breathed life into their sorry asses in the first days of Creation.”
“If you hadn’t,” said Vishnu, “some other god surely would have.”
“If you hadn’t,” said Shiva, “you’d probably expect some other god to do the dishes for you, too.”
“But that’s neither here nor there,” said Shiva. “I used a fork, see? It’s good enough for the purpose. You can do the dishes after breakfast. And anyway, I’m with Plantinga so far. Naturalism serves perfectly well to create a mind. Regardless of what may actually have happened.”
“He doesn’t stop there,” said Vishnu. “If naturalism serves perfectly well, and if it created the mind… then the poor mortals will have no way of knowing it. Not with certainty, anyway.”
“What?” said Shiva.
“Natural evolution produces things that, in their respective environments, are good at reproducing themselves,” said Vishnu. “Nothing less than that, and, unfortunately, nothing more. It’s almost definitional.”
“So?” said Shiva.
“What natural evolution doesn’t produce is a truth-finding device,” said Vishnu. “If the evolved brain finds a falsehood that helps it reproduce, well, bye-bye truth.”
“But an awful lot of false ideas hurt your reproductive chances,” said Shiva. “Wouldn’t that help minds evolve toward finding the truth?”
“Only insofar as it really did help them. A lot of times, the truth doesn’t matter at all to reproduction. Worse, sometimes being able to lie clearly helps your mating chances,” said Vishnu. “‘Look at me, I’m healthy, and wise, and and rich, and I promise I won’t leave you in the morning.’ A truth-finder would get in the way of all that.”
“Wouldn’t the truth-finder be gendered, then?” said Shiva. “Only females get one?”
“Anyway,” said Vishnu, “whatever correlation there might be between truth and reproduction, it certainly isn’t perfect. Evolved brains are fallible and always will be. Fallibility is baked into the system. Unless — of course — unless some god came along and infused them with the capacity for absolute truth.”
“Well,” said Brahma, “I never did that. I like my humans fallible. They’re so much more fun that way.”
“The next step in the argument is the best, of course,” said Vishnu. “But it requires imagining that you’re a human.”
“Ick,” said the other two.
“Just do it. Now look inside yourself — and what do you see? Truths! Analytical truths, and mathematical truths, and truths about morality, and truths about what you ate for breakfast. Who could possibly have put them there?”
“Prometheus,” said Brahma. “Duh.”
“Jehovah,” said Vishnu. “The one and only.”
“But as sure as I sit here now,” said Shiva, “Jehovah isn’t the one and only.” There was an uncomfortable pause. “I mean, we could call him up if you wanted.”
“Leave Jehovah out of this,” said Brahma. “Six millennia of teasing is quite enough, even for a god.”
Vishnu continued. “So the point is this — if you’re a human, and if you’re sure of any truths at all, you must be sure of the truth of the one great God. God’s truth is implicit in all truth. He’s what makes you able to believe in truth in the first place.”
“So all truth owes to Jehovah? And all doubt owes to the brain?” said Shiva. “My, that’s convenient.”
“Two things,” said Brahma. “First, to repeat myself: I happen to know, for a matter of absolute fact, that a god really did create man. I did it! And I created them fallible. I made them erroneous, superstitious, irrational, and prejudiced. Why did I make them that way? Because it amused me. And because, down on earth, I wanted the souls who were truly after my own heart to have important things to struggle against. I made error so I could have history. Second, even if I hadn’t created all life, and breathed folly into every last bit of it, the very same could have been true of Jehovah. And if it were, then humans would have absolutely no way of knowing it.”
“Why not?” asked Vishnu.
“Because,” said Brahma, “No one ever walks into folly self-aware. Anyone who commits an act of folly, or believes in some idiotic prejudice, is presently and sufficiently convinced that he’s found the truth. But beings like these can’t ever know if they’ve found the truth. If they stumble onto Plantinga’s argument, then for all they know, Plantinga’s argument about the origin of truth could just be another piece of folly. Because truth and error look and feel so similar, they might never know it.”
“Is there no hope for truth among mortals?” asked Shiva. “Is it all just an endless play of error?”
“Oh please,” said Brahma. “What fun would that be? Human minds aren’t perfect, no matter how much they tell themselves so, and no matter how powerfully the feeling of truth imposes itself upon them. But human minds are good enough for one thing, whatever their evolved purpose might have been: The slow correction of error is how humans discover truth. I — or evolution, or whatever — gave them everything they need for the task. I just didn’t do it for them.”
“Will you do something for me?” asked Shiva.
“What?” asked Brahma.