Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Problem of Evil - character-building solution

Here's a popular explanation for the suffering and moral depravity that God allows into his creation:

We know that a bad experience can sometimes make us stronger. We can learn, be enriched, through suffering. For example, people who have suffered a terrible disease sometimes say they gained greatly from it. Similarly, by causing us pain and suffering, God allows us to grow and develop both morally and spiritually. It is only through our experiencing this suffering that we can ultimately become the noble souls God wants us to be. The suffering is for our benefit!


I don't find this remotely plausible. Here's an analogy.

The secretive headmaster

Suppose you come across a school. You observe that it has a strange regime. The teachers horribly flog some children within an inch of their lives for no reason whatever. Others receive fantastic rewards, again for no reason all. The headmaster knows everything that’s going on in the school. He knows that many children leave physically and psychologically crippled. And he is in complete control.

What sort of headmaster runs this school, do you think…?

Is he a highly benevolent person with the best interests of his pupils at heart?

Surely not. Pretty obviously, this sort of regime is more likely to break the pupils’ characters them build them! We would no doubt consider someone who maintained the headmaster was not only all-powerful but exceptionally benevolent to have a screw loose.

But then, given the random way in which pain and suffering and rewards are distributed, why suppose that the world is run by an all-knowing, supremely benevolent headmaster? Isn't it very obvious indeed that it's not?

The evidential problem of evil

I also want to remind commentators on preceding posts that the problem of evil I use to argue against theism is the evidential problem, not the logical problem.

The logical problem is that of explaining why an all-good and powerful god would permit any evil. Surely any evil, and the existence of such a God, are logically incompatible?

This problem can easily be dealt with by noting that some evil might be the price paid for a greater good. When theists try to deal with the "problem of evil" they often try to deal with this one, i.e. the comparatively easy one. Then they think they've "solved" the "problem of evil".

They haven't.

The evidential problem, by contrast, points to the sheer quantity of suffering and moral depravity in the world.

Why, for example, would he unleash literally unimaginable quantities of suffering on sentient beings over many hundreds of millions of years? (he was "building character!"). Indeed, he has repeatedly wiped much of the life from the face of the earth in mass extinction events, the second to last of which wiped out 95% of all species.

Maybe all-good and powerful god would allow some suffering for a greater good, but this much? No. It's surely ridiculous to suppose that every last ounce of this enormous amount of suffering can be accounted for by supposing it's for the sake of a greater good.

If you disagree - do explain!

I'll now be incommunicado for a week but will respond when I return.

46 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

[The logical Problem of Evil] can easily be dealt with by noting that some evil might be the price paid for a greater good.

This is not so easy. An omnipotent being would not need to pay any price for a greater good; an omnipotent being is not constrained in any way, it doesn't have to "pay" anything.

We can conclude from the logical PoE that everything that happens is inherently absolutely perfectly good. Thus, making the distinction between "good" and "evil" is making the exact same distinction between existent and non-existent.

Sinan said...

There are many dimensions to personal experience - the problem with most expositions of the problem of evil from a point of view antagonistic to religion is that they look at an instance of evil in the experience of an entity as almost absolute.

For example, the case of an African girl born with AIDS - sitting comfortably in our Surrey living rooms, we tend to imagine that the fact that she has this disease rules out her a)having a whole lot of good in her life, or, even more unimaginably b) enjoying her life.

Of course, we forget the great love and mercy that her family and friends have for her, the great love she has for them, the beauty of the generosity of doctors and aid-workers in her life - and of course all the things she loves, hobbies, games, stories. We forget that her illness is an opportunity and responsibility to everyone in her environment to help her, to have empathy for her, and to do good works, and thereby to grow as people themselves.

What we forget most of all is the great spiritual strength that coming to terms with life, death and all that at an early age has for someone.

I have spent many years of my life in the Middle East, where I have known many people whose lives have been ripped apart by war, family members killed, homes destroyed.

They are almost without exception some of the strongest, most alive, most forebearing, most loving people that I have met. In fact it seems that pasty-faced 'philosophers' crouching behind their computer screens have more of a 'problem' with evil than those who actually experience real calamities in their lives.

Perhaps those who have actually experienced these things just see them as elements that go up to make this reality such a majestic and beautiful thing. They do not identify an attribute of this life with the whole - and 'evil' for them is not having difficult things beyond their control happen - it is rather ungratefullness, selfishness, and rebellion against God.

So basically we imagine that an accident or attribute of a being actually completely encompasses and characterises that being. This is simply wrong.

Of course, 'good' as a predicate is variable in its scope and quality depending on who the subject is. So if applied to God, who is obviously of a very different order to the human being, 'good' is going to mean something quite different. Saying 'God is good' should not be the same as saying 'God is good merely in the limitary sense that I understand it as a human' - because the attributes of a human are obviously not the same as the attributes of God, just as the attributes of a pile of sand, or a cloud, or a fish, or a planet, are not going to be the same as human attributes. We are talking about different orders of being here.

Of course species become extinct, and people die. That is simply the nature of this order of being. Physical entities experience physical deterioration as time passes. But in fact, on an experiential level, we know that intolerable and difficult things almost always become more tolerable as time passes. Human beings become accustomed to things, they learn how to deal with them, how to get by with them. We 'get used' to things.

One of the reasons we freak out at the mention of difficult, 'evil' things, is that culturally we don't have a mechanism for dealing with them. Without having a reason for our existence, a spiritual power to tap into, it is very difficult to deal with things that are inconvenient. Without the ability to transcend evil in our pursuit of good and in our purification of our own selves, evil becomes a sort of absolute - which in reality is but a reflection of the wretchedness of our constricted selves.

And by the way Stephen, citizens of a land objecting to their treatment by an unjust leader is not the same as creations of God objecting to the creation. God created their reactions to good and their reactions to bad, God created their very objections, and he created it all from 'nothing'. Every single thing, the paramaters of our experience, were created and defined by God.

We have the power to make the evil good through our reaction to it. Everything is in the eye of the beholder.

Kyle P. said...

Sinan said, "Of course, we forget the great love and mercy that her family and friends have for her, the great love she has for them, the beauty of the generosity of doctors and aid-workers in her life - and of course all the things she loves, hobbies, games, stories. We forget that her illness is an opportunity and responsibility to everyone in her environment to help her, to have empathy for her, and to do good works, and thereby to grow as people themselves."

This is utterly ridiculous. If this were true, why do you not go about breaking people's legs, and shooting them? After all, this will provide the MOST opportunity for someone to show the people you shoot in the stomach compassion, mercy, and spiritual strength. In fact, I would argue that this leads to a Doctrine of Evil, if you will, in which the most good can be caused by doing the most evil. If that's the case, then why would we even think that evil is evil? You've lost all meaning of the word!

Sally_bm said...

Sorry to hijack your blog with another writer's work Stephen, but I think this bit of Dostoyevsky brilliantly expresses the problem of evil. I'm sorry it's so long too; in case you don’t want to read it all, a key part of the message is: “if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price”. “truth” here can be replaced with “harmony” too, by Dostoyevsky's argument. The extract is said by Ivan (Dostoyevsky) in Chapter 35 (/4) of the Three Brothers Karamazov.

“With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly…— but… what comfort is it to me…? — I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself… Surely I haven’t suffered simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else... I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? … in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? … And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old… I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’... But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures… I don’t want to cry aloud [‘Thou art just, O Lord’] then… I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? …What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? ... And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs!… Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering... Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket”

Kyle P. said...

By the way, barefoot bum, nice post. My typical reply to even atheists who say that some evil might be the price paid for greater good is: What makes one good any "gooder" than another? Why can we not simply have many, many different "goods", just not the ones which come at the cost of great pain/suffering/evil? It makes no sense whatsoever to me. I would gladly sacrifice all of the times that I may have to save someone's life as a kidney donor, for example, if it meant that no one would ever have kidney problems.

Jackie said...

My favorite response to the character building excuse for evil: why didn't the omnipotent god just create us with all the character it wants us to have?

I've given fairly thurough discussion of the problem of evil on my blog starting with this post.

Eric said...

Stephen, I would like to ask you to clarify what you mean when you talk about the 'sheer quantity' of suffering. It seems to me as if this could be understood in two ways: first, simply in terms of the number of sentient beings who have suffered; second, in terms of the total quantity of suffering itself.

In the first sense, we simply note that suffering is universal, at least insofar as every sentient being suffers, though the suffering of each may differ in intensity. I of course have no problem with such a notion. But the second sense assumes that suffering is cumulative, i.e. that if two beings suffer as much as is possible -- suppose we can quantify suffering, and 10 is the maximum -- then the total suffering is 20, or at least more than 10. I know this sounds a bit odd, so I'd like to try to clarify it a bit.

If you're only talking about the number of beings who have suffered, then it's not clear that the quantity of suffering can in any way exceed the maximum that can be suffered by any one individual. This seems to mitigate such an appeal to numbers, first since not all experience the maximum suffering, and second since no one being can exceed the upper limit on suffering. But if you're saying that suffering is somehow cumulative, which would surely strengthen your position, since you wouldn't be limited to the maximum suffering any one being can withstand, then you'd have to explain in what sense it's cumulative, since this is not at all clear.

I'd also like to point out the fact that there seems to be a big difference between contemplating suffering abstractly, and its consequences for theism, and experiencing suffering. Those who experience great suffering very often find their faith strengthened, not weakened. (I'm speaking anecdotally here; I have no actual data on the issue, but I think we're all familiar with this sort of thing.) This existential dimension of suffering seems to me to count as evidence against the problem of evil, since presumably those who are actually experiencing the suffering are in the best position to relate it to their faith committments. And it's worth remembering that, as far as we can tell, people's faith was much stronger in the past, when, it seems safe to assume, people suffered much more per capita (at least much more than we do today in the industrialized world, with our relativley easy access to the tremendous advantages of modern health care, food production and distribution, and the general accoutrements -- some of which we now consider necessities! -- of a middle class lifestyle).

Barefootbum, an omnipotent being *can* do anything (that is logically possible, anyway), but this doesn't mean that it will, especially if such a being possesses other attributes, e.g. if it is also good, or is also just. An omnipotent being who is also just may require a price to be paid under certain conditions, if paying that price is a necessary condition of a just outcome.

Enigman said...

I agree with Kyle P, but some theists note that although the problem of evil is supposed to be a problem for theists, it is usually posed in terms of suffering, and suffering (rather than evil) can be a good thing under some theisms, e.g. it allows us to share in the suffering of Christ for our sins, according to some (whence some theists beat themselves up, funnily enough). So, such suffering does not argue, not even evidentially, against such theistic hypotheses - you may not like those hypotheses, but that is a different matter entirely, they say.

I could go further, and suppose that God might have only ever made evil beings, and then punished them for being evil. What a naughty God, I'd think; but for some theists that would be good, and by our existing standards (not just because it would then be the divine will). But if so then a world of suffering could (if such beings had, like us, a propensity to commit evil acts) be a good thing - whence again, it need not be evidence against a good God (those beings would not call such a God "good" of course). We may all intuit that it is evidence really, but most atheists know that we should not trust our intuitions about such things (as they often point out to theists who are talking about moral facts, faith, free will and so forth).

But of course, the problem with suffering is that it clearly is a problem, one that ought to go away, because it is bad, it is evil. One way to make it go away would be for us all to stop having children. But maybe the goods of having children outweight the evils that will almost certainly occur to them (the quantity of evil in the world being as it is) if they come into this world. Unfortunately, if so then Stephen's argument against theism falls down - we do think that even actual goods (let alone divine add-ons after life) can outweigh the actual quantity of evils. And if not then should some of us stop the rest of us from making children? Surely not, but we do have such powers, if we choose to use them (democracy and scientific methods of sterilization or painless death), and their use would clearly be almost as good as Stephen's problem of evil is bad, on this disjunct, so I wonder if we do clearly know enough about such values to rationally think ourselves able to judge the evidence in this case.

So, some theists argue that since suffering is good, and since it is good to give good things to others, hence it is good to cause suffering to others. Nonetheless, the problem of suffering requires an answer of some sort, and some theisms do at least promise hope of (i) something we can do about it (the brotherhood of Man, the Golden Rule as a moral fact, divine intervention and so forth) and (ii) it being not as bad as we think it is already (dead loved ones being in Heaven, evil winners getting corrected in Purgatory, more psychological depth to the suffering around us and so forth).

Religion is the opium of the people, and if the revolutionary operation that will cure the disease is still a way away, maybe that is at least something. Loved ones die and there is great suffering to those left behind, so it would be a good thing were there an evidentially justified belief in a pleasant afterlife (whether or not there is one, although of course such a belief would mean that it was not unlikely). In short, suffering is not an argument against theism, but is rather the main reason for it (and what does it matter how unlikely something is if it is your only hope? one might wonder).

jeremy said...

I agree Jackie - an omnipotent god would certainly have the ability to create us with the wisdom, fortitude, etc. that we have to presently gain through suffering.

To borrow Stephen's headmaster example, I suppose the equivalent would be for the headmaster to have two equivalent ways of educating his students - one using brutal beatings and one without.

And in our world, (some) theists would be arguing that the headmaster's beatings are for the greater good - while ignoring the much more moral alternatives.

P.S. This sort of thing reminds me of the "what if God lived on earth test" I often use to evaluate a god's character. For some reason he seems to get away with a lot of immoral things from up there in heaven, whereas if you or I did them, we would be uniformly condemned (e.g. my headmaster example). The phrase comes from the Yiddish saying, "If God lived on earth, people would break his windows."

Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott said...

I think it's fair to say people react to suffering differently. If we all agree to this point then you must concede that some sufferers will be left weaker, not stronger.

Even if there is only one person left weak through suffering, God's behaviour has to be put into question surely?

Unfortunately the fact is there are millions left weak from suffering than stronger. I think some of it comes from if you have faith before, or find faith whilst suffering.

It seems sad to say it but many religious groups "prey" on suffering people. Or perhaps it is just because suffering people respond more.

We can give examples. For instance last century supplied us with a pretty big test for religious belief. The Holocaust. I know many Jewish people went through it and stayed faithful to their God. I know many didn't. I just can't fathom why a God would allow that much suffering.

But here's another example to think on. People who are abused are more likely to abuse. This seems to be an circle of suffering, often concern young innocents. To echo a previous post Ivan Karamazov has some strong points.

It should cry out to each and every one of us when we hear a of a child being abused. But what of the people being abused in secret? If no one knows where is the chance to do good? Don't even for a second think of saying it gives the abuser a shot of redemption. That's plain inhumane.

To give a real life example, Michael Tully has just been jailed for the systematic rape of a 12 year old. This 12 year old was subjected to S&M, as well as the most violent sex crimes imaginable.Judge Andrew Patience QC added "I doubt if I shall ever forget what it has been my duty to see." At one point she is seen to mouth "Help me" at the camera.

Would it really have been that much of a problem for Him to help? Tully could have choked on his food, just before starting to abuse the child. Or been found building the dungeon below his rented house. Or been hit by a car. Good old fashioned lightening would have seemed strange, but not bizarre. But no. Nothing. Not a jot. I wouldn't pray to that God even if I found he existed.

Anonymous said...

Kyle. P asked "What makes one good any "gooder" than another? Why can we not simply have many, many different "goods", just not the ones which come at the cost of great pain/suffering/evil?"

1) Do we not instinctively feel that something which is hard won is somehow ore worthwhile than something which is easily come by? Climbing a mountain rather than taking the chairlift perhaps. Or from the third party perspective receiving a gift from someone who has made it themselves and put a great deal of work into it rather than buying a (probably better quality) machine made one?

ii) The goods won through suffering don't have to be more valuable than other goods, simply more than enough to compensate for the suffering involved.
Its not really an argument I find comforting, as it leads to the worst aspects of some sorts of utilitarianism.

Anonymous said...

I was giving some thought to the logical PoE. Initially I could accept Stephens "noting that some evil might be the price paid for a greater good". On reflection I think it may be more difficult.

The examples usually given are things like showing charity (viewed as a great virtue) which is only considered possible if there is someone (including animals) who can benefit from it, or bearing ones misfortune bravely, which is obviously only possible if one actually suffers misfortune. The issue of an omnipotent god being able to sidestep logical issues (Stephen mentioned the example of a "round
corner" somewhere) is another matter.

The other way of looking at it is a utilitarian one, simply that to obtain the greatest good overall a number of individuals will suffer.

On further reflection I think that there may be two distinct logical Problems of Evil based on the two interpretations above. That is to say separate moral and physical aspects.

The physical aspect of the logical PoE still seems problematic. There would appear to be many examples where natural evils such as disease, earthquakes, tsunami have benefited no-one. If it were a necessary for someone to die young (perhaps to avoid the becoming a merciless dictator or inventing a doomsday weapon) there have got to be more humane agencies than ebola or cancer.

The moral aspect I think may also still be open to attack. Consider Milgrom's famous experiment - the subjects were given the opportunity to show mercy by not "electrocuting" the "test subject". No one actually suffered in this case but would the act of mercy been any less? It seems equally possible to construct scenarios for other virtuous acts. What if Bill Gates starts begging at a street corner (dressed in disguise, appropriately tattered clothes, mangy dog a rope etc)? Is giving him a few coins out of charity of lesser worth (to the giver) than if he were really poor?

What of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens story? He experienced great moral improvement as a result of a dream. True, there were people living in poverty but their real world suffering didn't persuade Scrooge; only the vision of the suffering they might have endured did that.

That seems to leave the case where personal suffering is (logically) necessary to show bravery and grace in the face of adversity. Does this need to be involuntary? Assuming that it is a logical necessity to test people ability to endure by pushing the to breaking point, is it still logically necessary to make them continue to suffer when they have manifestly shown themselves to be either craven cowards or saintly?

Anonymous said...

On the evidential PoE. The question surely is why is there not more evil than there is? Why have we been able so easily to cure or prevent some really nasty diseases that have caused untold suffering in the past? e.g. polio. Finding a vaccine deprives millions of the chance of enduring with fortitude, of the opportunity to care for the afflicted. Indeed it deprives researchers of a target to selflessly devote their lives to. It would surely have been better to allow the scientists to discover a mere palliative (preferably very costly)?

Some people obviously go to their graves having suffered not one jot nor indeed to have experienced the suffering of others or even to have had the power to do anything about it in any event. Nor have they necessarily the opportunity to do significant evil to others. If their characters are such that they cannot "benefit" from a bit of anguish why not populate the world with such people?

The Celtic Chimp said...

Sinan,

What a horrible view of 'beauty' you must have. Suffering is never beautiful. I would love to know how you would go about finding the good in rape, murder, child abuse and so on. What kind of reaction would ever make these things anything but evil? What kind of beholder would view these things in a positive way? Most parents who lose a child for example, never really 'get used to it'. The suggestion that it is ok for one person to suffer so others can benefit is disgusting.

You have by the way no idea of what good means to God, it may mean exactly the same thing it means to humans. How do religious people become so comfortable describing God? Just as you could not possibly know his/her/its attributes, you cannot by extension know what attributes it does not have. How would you react if you witnessed a child die painfully and someone tells you not to worry, it’s for the best?

You realize I hope that the assertion that God made everything about us, even our reactions to things, deliberately and particularly has some interesting implications. If you are correct then:
1. Free will doesn't exist in any meaningful sense
2. God wanted evil and suffering in the world. Every nasty, immoral act ever committed was intended by God.

If you take this horrible idea to its conclusion, it would be wrong to ever punish anyone for wrong doing. They were built to do that wrong. It would be like punishing a turetts suffer for swearing.
Let the child abuser roam free, think of all the second hand good that will come out of the evil he does. He will be a veritable goodness factory. Spiritual growth all round!
You don't want to mess with God's 'greater good' plan now do you?

The entire 'for a greater good' argument is ridiculous when dealing with an omnipotent God. God could have created mechanisms by which we would grow, learn, mature etc. without the need for suffering. Suffering and evil must be desirable then to God. How could such a God be all-good?

All this morally bankrupt, intellectually crippled, and hideously arrogant excuse making just so you can hold on to a childish fantasy. Everything we see in the world is very easily explained.

God does not exist.

When viewed that way, everything makes sense. No obfuscation, linguistic acrobatics or self – delusion required.

Eric said...

"Everything we see in the world is very easily explained."

It is? Everything? And not only can we explain everything, we can easily explain everything -- indeed, *very* easily explain *everything*? I fail to see how anyone could possibly say this in earnest.

The Celtic Chimp said...

eric,

How would you expect the world to be if there was no God, maybe something exactly like the one we find we already have?

NAL said...

... by causing us pain and suffering, God allows us to grow and develop both morally and spiritually.

So, when we as humans alleviate the pain and suffering of others, we are depriving them of the chance to grow and develop both morally and spiritually.

Duncan McKenzie said...

I'm not sure this analogy holds. It depends on the same rules applying to God as to humans.

Most people would agree that the headmaster of the school, who is responsible for causing suffering, is either evil or misguided. It is an evil thing to cause a student to suffer. If the suffering is extreme - if, for example, a child dies - most people would also agree that this constitutes an extreme evil, just as, in law, murder is a more serious crime than assault.

If God is all-powerful, he had the ability to create a universe without death. But in fact, the universe is filled with death - the food for which God makes us truly grateful is a plate of death; evolution involves death on an unimaginable scale, and all its products are creatures which die. God has caused death. Death is extreme suffering, and extreme suffering is built into the system.

If God is both good and all-powerful, then logically it follows that, in at least some circumstances (and a vast number of instances), causing or allowing suffering must be good rather than evil, despite the fact that, when practiced by humans, it is usually considered evil.

Consider the following analogy. Suppose a government passes a law against littering. The law states that anyone who litters is a criminal, and to avoid legal loopholes (for example, the litterer handing the paper to a second person who throws it away), the law is phrased broadly, so that anyone who is responsible for the crime of littering in any form is committing a crime. One day, a person drops some paper and is arrested. They say, "Fine, but if you arrest me, you must arrest the government. They made littering a crime, and therefore they are as responsible for the crime as I am. After all, if they hadn't passed the law, I could not have committed the crime."

This argument wouldn't hold up in court. The way in which the government is "responsible" for littering is fundamentally different for the way that the litterer is responsible.

In the same way, if God sets the rules for the universe and those within it, the rules that apply to the occupants need not apply to God. And this seems to jibe with the common view on the subject. If a person dies, a devout Christian may be happy that they have "gone to meet their maker", rather than cursing God for allowing such an evil outcome.

Paul C said...

"This argument wouldn't hold up in court. The way in which the government is "responsible" for littering is fundamentally different for the way that the litterer is responsible."

True, but a democratic government - and all the individuals working for it - must be subject to exactly the same laws of the land as the private citizen, so your analogy does not stand up.

"And this seems to jibe with the common view on the subject. If a person dies, a devout Christian may be happy that they have "gone to meet their maker", rather than cursing God for allowing such an evil outcome."

Unless of course the deceased didn't believe in the Christian god, in which case they've gone to hell - where they can enjoy an eternity of "character-building" suffering.

This conception of hell, of course, seems to put the final nail in the coffin of suffering being character-building, since it's clear that the suffering of hell is meant as a punishment.

Paul C said...

Sinan:I have known many people whose lives have been ripped apart by war, family members killed, homes destroyed.

Hey, me too! What a coincidence.

They are almost without exception some of the strongest, most alive, most forebearing, most loving people that I have met.

Yeah - the ones I met were utterly shattered by their experiences and had incredibly high suicide rates. My favourite guy was the Kurdish refugee who had been living in the mountains - he had a tumour which would have been curable had it been caught earlier. Crazy thing - it had eaten half his face and was starting to attack his brain! His family had no other source of income except what they could earn from begging, and when he died they were probably going to starve to death, because all the rest of their extended family had been killed by the Iraqi army.

But it was okay, because he was one of the most loving people I ever met.

Anonymous said...

NAL - you said "So, when we as humans alleviate the pain and suffering of others, we are depriving them of the chance to grow and develop both morally and spiritually."

The theist argument I have seen is that the act of compassion is a great good. Great enough to be worth (a) having some people suffer in the first place so as to be the recipients of charity etc. A little character building thrown in for free perhaps. (b) worth at least causing the personal development of the beneficiaries.

Sinan said...

A lot of you are patting yourselves on the back for your complete misunderstanding of what I was saying, so I'll try to clarify a little.

No, obviously we don't go around hurting each other in order to allow someone to do good acts in helping the people we have hurt.

I'm surprised at you for thinking this up. The moral law applies to humans on earth without exception. What I was saying is that the originator of every moral and evil act, God, may well make an evil act the cause of a lot of good in that it will be the cause of people coming to the aid of the victim of evil in a big way. This would be good for the helper, and good for the helped. Can you deny that?

Again, please don't be stupid, of course this doesn't mean we can contribute to this by doing evil acts ourselves in the hope that someone will come along and do good as a result. If that was God's law, there wouldn't be anyone left to do good. There is no question of us doing anything but good. But, the reality is that in this world there are many people who do not do good, and who do much evil. All I was saying is that the nature of good and evil is that evil can be a cause of good.

Everything is trying to climb up towards good. Why is it that after a difficulty or disaster, we speak of things 'getting back to normal'? It is because normality is experienced, by most people, as being good! The standard in our lives is this good, this normality, where everything is in its proper place. So it is clear that there is much much more good than evil in this life.

We are, most of the time, living in relative happiness and comfort. What is more, there is usually upward mobility - we can always become more forebearing, better people - and we can usually create new situations in out lives where things are 'better' for us. It is all within the power we believe we have, and all within the scope of the choices we believe we are making.

An act is, for God, morally value-free in merely human terms - because God is necessarily, by his nature, outside of the sphere of culpability. God assigns values to acts. You are speaking as if these acts, be they good or evil, have some sort of inherent, eternal moral value as good or evil. They do not - God makes some acts good, and some evil, and also makes our actions largely judged by our intentions.

Yes, it is very sad when people die. But if you will attack religion you cannot conveniently disassociate yourself from one of the main truths of religion, i.e that human souls live on eternally, and that there is justice for every act. That hereafter is the point of every good or evil act - it is the eternal meaning that these relative meanings will be manifesting in to, through the isthmus of the human soul.

Celtic chimp, of course God exists. And no, the world does not make any sense without its cause, sustainer, manifester, and giver of form and meaning, giver of being. That is not why God exists. God exists because he has revealed himself to humanity throughout history, through many different messengers and religions. God exists because the existence of the universe and 'everything' is derived from his existence, but he limitlessly transcends the contingent loci of his manifestation.

And no, I was not saying that the actual acts of evil, the actual crimes themselves are beautiful. Of course, they are horrifically ugly, abhorrent things - in themselves. But someone reacting to a great difficulty in their lives with courage is beautiful , and someone loving and helping someone in distress is beautiful, no? And humanity's struggle is a majestic and beautiful thing. And the recompense is eternal, just as meaning is eternal.

And no, but well done for noticing, I dont believe in free-will, except in so far as we imagine we have it from our own perspectives. I am a Muslim, and so I am an occasionalist, God is continually manifesting his attributes in the creation of being, he is creating every detail of every moment ceaselessly. It is all from him. I believe in the absolute unity of being.

And I believe that God also has attributes of rigour, which is why we find rigour in the world. He is the Abaser, the Constricter, the Compeller, the Subduer, the Humiliator, the Taker of Life.

But he is also the Loving, the Subtly Kind, The Shaper of Beauty, The Guardian, the Most Merciful, and the Most Compassionate, the Just, the Nourisher, the Protecting Friend. http://www.sufism.org/society/asma/

So why is he not being all those nice things to me, you may ask if you feel that this is the case. Well, since his 'time'-frame is eternal, and because of the nature of this world of his, he doesnt manifest your total meaning with him until you die - this being the world of action, and the next being the world of absolute meanings, beyond the sphere of moral action.

He is the First, the Last, the Manifest, and the Hidden, and you are all going back to Him from whom you came. Even the Celt!

I invite you to leave England, throw of your assumptions, and go on a spiritual search, find a master. Then everything will make sense, because you'll actually experience the meaning of being in a way that is far beyond the cognitive.

Anyway, I won't be here to respond to the slurry of insults I expect some of you will projectile vomit at me.

But goodbye, I love you!

Kyle P. said...

Anon said, "The theist argument I have seen is that the act of compassion is a great good. Great enough to be worth (a) having some people suffer in the first place so as to be the recipients of charity etc. A little character building thrown in for free perhaps. (b) worth at least causing the personal development of the beneficiaries."

Again, this is complete and utter bull flop. As I said in a previous post, I would gladly give up all the times when I had to be truly compassionate in order to remove the suffering that the people who I was compassionate to had to endure. I certainly agree that compassion is a good thing, but what use for it would we have if there were no suffering?

Anonymous said...

"I love you" = "God loves God"? Now, "the Subtly Kind," I like that; very witty. God the Witty? God the Most Amusing.

Paul C said...

Sinan, nobody is going to "projectile vomit" at you, but the problem is that your comments are devoid of meaning. You don't appear to have taken on board any of the points made by Stephen or the other commentators here. You also seem absolutely determined to ignore the actual experience of suffering in the real world, while accusing all of us of exactly the same thing, which is dreadfully ironic. Your hypothetical about the African child with AIDS was lovely, by the way, but it did suggest that you've never actually watched something like that happening. It's absolutely fucking heartbreaking, and everybody involved would much rather not go through it - even if somebody like you is around to tell them that you think it's a beautiful experience.

jeremy said...

Paul c - I couldn't agree more. I'm a doctor who has watched countless patients die, many of them actual African children with AIDS, and it is almost always, as you say, absolutely fucking heartbreaking.

It struck me the other day that there's a more cut-and-dry way of exposing sinan's (unwitting?) desperate justification. We know the suffering isn't worth it, because we all work in opposition to it, don't we? It seems rather hollow to say that the all suffering in the world is for a greater good, whilst also agreeing that we should toil to eliminate it.

We know the world as we find it could be better, because we routinely give antibiotics, food, shelter, kindness, and love to those so abandoned by god. And to try to turn around and say that this is itself god's will is also nonsense, for what then do we make of situations when these balms aren't available?

jeremy said...

Perhaps I should clarify:

Given both the fact that suffering exists and the fact that we generally agree that we should work in opposition to it, the theist is stuck.

To someone who accepts that god is omniscient/omnipotent/supremely good, suffering must impose an impossible intellectual burden. At least, it should if the theist is putting his money where his mouth is. Say we see a man being beaten up and robbed in the street. Do we help him?

If we do, we might be taking away a chance for his character to grow. On the other hand, we might be intended to be God's instrument in stopping the beating.

If the former is true, us stopping his beating would be contrary to god's will, and thus necessarily a sin. If the latter is true, not stopping the beating would be equally damning, cosmically speaking.

I suppose it's a bit like the problem Stephen had with Ibrahim "going nuclear". It's not that it isn't logically possible, it's only that it's a bit dishonest to argue that way, if that's not what you think as soon as you walk away from the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kyle P - "Again, this is complete and utter bull flop."

Yes in two senses. Firstly I hit the post button too early - the last bit should have read

"(b) worth at least pausing, the personal development of the beneficiaries."

by which I mean interrupting the character building effects of suffering.


Secondly, I'm inlined to agree with you on this. Nonetheless it does seem to be the sort of argument made by some (prominent) Christian apologists. (Swinburne I think was one) and despite one's initial unease at the idea that suffering is ever good, requires a reasoned response. At one extreme we have the obviously nasty infliction of pain on others "because it builds character and is thus good for them" through to sending ones reluctant children on a tough (but safe) adventure holiday to give them a sense of independence.

The theists tend to up the ante by (a) asserting that some moral goods are more valuable than others and certainly outweigh at least some sorts of suffering (b) some suffering is logically necessary to get some sorts of good (think adventure holiday).

Taken to extremes we get really awful disasters. Notice that the theists do not have to quantify goods vs suffering, they can simply appeal to "God's divine plan" i.e. the suffering must have been justified by the goods.

Duncan McKenzie said...

I think many people would say they have gained greatly from experiences which caused them to suffer, and even that suffering is more valuable in this sense than pleasure. I enjoy the good times, but I have learned more from the bad ones.

At the same time, what we lightly describe as suffering is horrible to experience. Even to observe suffering is itself a form of suffering. If we can reduce suffering, that's a good thing.

Does it follow from this that a world with no suffering would be one of unalloyed joy? Or would it be a monotonous bore? Is it necessary to have suffering to experience pleasure.

Roller coaster enthusiasts may enjoy a roller coaster that goes very high. It doesn't follow that they would be pleased by a uniformly high roller coaster. It's the change in heights that counts.

A heroin addict gets a jolt of pleasure from the heroin. As the body becomes accustomed to the drug, the same dose will no longer bring pleasure - it just makes the addict feel normal. When the drug is taken away, it causes physical pain. Again, what makes the difference seems to be the change rather than the absolute level.

When suffering is reduced, we appreciate the change in its level, rather than the absolute amount. Money can buy many good things, and a person who wins a lottery will probably be elated. A person who has been raised with billions and is used to their status will probably not feel especially excited about their wealth, and may be depressed.

Probably some suffering is essential in order to experience pleasure in any form. To put it in theological terms, good may not be possible with evil to compare it against. Not a new argument, but I think it has some truth.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy - sorry to have to argue it but your man in the street being beaten is one of those cases where the theist would claim that it would be God's will that you intervene and that if you did so this would be a greater overall good because you showed bravery, helped the less fortunate etc. despite the loss of character building to the victim. According to the free will defence it is a really, really great good that you have the choice.

The poor guy getting thrashed can of course have his "character improved" later when you have departed the scene, having done your good deed. Listen for the muffled cries of anguish behind you as you turn the next block...

Anonymous said...

As I understand it, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that their God created the Blessed Virgin Mary in such a way that, though she had free will, she always - and freely - chose not to sin.
This seems logically possible; but what puzzles me is why, if it could be done for one human being, a good god would chose not to do it for us all.

Anonymous said...

Another problem I have with the character building defence is - what about animals?
At least some types of animals give every appearance of suffering, we treat them as is they can suffer pain and we sympathize with them when they do so. So how is the character of an animal improved by suffering?v

jeremy said...

Hi Anonymous,

Listen for the muffled cries of anguish behind you as you turn the next block...

Made me laugh!

Not sure I agree though. An atheist can quite happily accept that some suffering is worth it (e.g. studying for exams), but he is not bound to hold this in all cases of suffering. To the atheist, some suffering is probably serving a greater good, and some isn't. Thus, he can quite easily assess the situation of a man being beaten up by thugs and decide to intervene (the man's suffering doesn't appear worth it!).

On the other hand, a theist subscribing to the view of an omnipotent/omniscient/supremely benevolent god isn't ever entitled to the latter view. All suffering must be for the greater good. I'm not sure free will gets them out of the pickle, because one has no guarentee that the choice one makes, using free will, will be in accordance with god's will.

They could try to justify their decision (to intervene) in the way you suggested, but they wouldn't have the slightest reason for assuming they were right. If things like the holocaust and Rwanda are for the greater good, it wouldn't be much effort to rationalise the man in the street's plight in the same manner.

(Let's hope they aren't this logically consistent though.)

Anonymous said...

jeremy -

"An atheist can quite happily accept that some suffering is worth it"

I think this is one of the reasons that Stephen and a lot of other philosophers accept the
case for the logical PoE. That is to say that the existence of some evil is logically
compatible with the good sort of God - I take this to mean that there is no other
logically possible way of achieving the goods that result from these eveils.
Intuitively "no gain without pain". I am less sure about this than I was, as
noted in my earlier post re Milgrom and Scrooge.


The free will thing seems to work in the mugging case.
The point about it (unless you are the Virgin Mary as another of my anonymous brethren posted) is that you have no guarantee.
The theist cannot determine
(unless the aggressor is wearing a dog collar or the victim a well known heretic) whether
it is Gods will that he intervene to save the victim, walk on, or even help the assailant.
He is placed in a situation (by God) where he has to use his judgment.
If God had not wanted him to use his judgment then the crime scene would have been out of reach.
Conceivably he could appeal to knowledge of scriptural precedent or throw of the holy dice
which he keeps in a little bag around his neck or whatever other means he has of determining Gods
will at such moments. If there is a priest to hand he could have a quick consultation.
I think Christian/Jew/Muslim would probably be OK with intervention on the basis of scripture,
but might have to back off again if the assailant could show just cause or it was a Sabbath.
Notice that even where guidance is available from some of these sources,
it is a free choice whether to consult or just wade in.

The trump card that the theist often plays is that "free will is the greatest good of all".
At a stroke this seems to excuse just about all man-made evil.

Anonymous said...

How amazing that about 30% of people posting here have actually witnessed an African child dying of AIDS!

Really amazing! Of course, if you don't believe that the soul lives on, it may well have be unfathomably disturbing.

Happily, most Africans, like most normal human beings, know that it does!

Yes, we have all witnessed death. When I was 17, a friend of mine of the same age was hit by a car and killed. Seeing her dead body was an extremely harrowing experience - and spending the next week at her mother's house, consoling her with all her other friends was too.

But it made us come to terms with death. And it made us come closer together. We are all going to die, after our few short decades of crawling around on the surface of the earth. We need to come to terms with it.

Anonymous said...

Another anonymous said " Of course, if you don't believe that the soul lives on, it may well have be unfathomably disturbing."


Irrespective of what you may believe w.r.t. an afterlife they are suffering in the here and now. Just because people have survived and possibly recovered from beatings and torture does not make that OK.

who was it who said...

In coming to terms with death, hope is good; and theists usually allow good works to be done on the Sabbath, etc. Why bother though, if it's not your problem? Atheists can bother if they want to. But if they tire they have excuses galore. Atheists may well not bother too much (beyond noting how suffering undealt with refutes theism), but the theist says it is always your problem. The theist may not bother, but she will always feel guilty about that, will see that as weak, not strong. For the theist, doing good is rational and good, not just the expression of an irrational squeamishness. Is the headmaster missing, or are you the headmaster? We want democracy, so we chop kings' heads off. Why assume that we did not (as unborn souls) demand our self-determination. that we did not volunteer for this (full of angelic pride)? If we do not assume that, then there is no problem of such suffering for theism. There is only the problem of suffering for all of us, and theism gives us the Golden Rule as objective moral fact, and hope.

...and who also said...

Compatibilists can assume freedom of choice whilst being rational agents, whilst knowing that they are simply embodying part of an entirely deterministic structure. We just have, they say, when we sense our (limited) freedoms, a view from inside the deterministic structure (and randomness is irrational of course). And for theists, our obeying the will of God in being good, is just the being good of the works of God.

Both compatibilism and theism are hard to imagine. And there is nothing that we can do to show that our freedoms are real, for all that we can clearly see that they are; if we try, we will just be behaving irrationally. And there is nothing that we can do to show that the lesson of suffering is that we should ignore God's messages to us; if we do, we will just end up behaving worse.

But your consciences, that tell you that suffering is bad (and that fascistic religious types are bad), that is the messenger of God. (They say that your freedom of will is a deterministic biochemical process.)

Anonymous said...

"Both compatibilism and theism are hard to imagine."

Think of a stage magician who offers someone a choice of cards. The choice is free yet somehow every time you see the show its always the 7 of diamonds.

Stephen Law said...

Eric - apologies for calling you "Gary" - don't know what came over me. Shall comment shortly...

Warsock said...

Hi Stephen,
My name is also Stephen Law, its always nice to google my (and your) own name and see what pops up. in this case, it was you :)

Stephen Law said...

Hi Stephen - thanks for stopping by!

Eric said...

Hi Stephen,

No problem! I'm looking forward to reading your comments!

Sam Norton said...

Stephen - have you seen this article?

Stephen Law said...

No - what on Earth is his point? That belief in God offers hope in the face of all this horror? That's to entirely miss the point: that the horror is fantastic evidence that there is no God.