Saturday, November 1, 2008

The problem of pain vs. atheists?

This guy was my first ever troll. He's a crazy man who believes crazy things. On October 30th, he posted an article about his take of the problem of evil - and from his point of view the problem is with atheists. I'd give a direct link, but his blog is about as user-friendly as a whip-sword.

See, for him, the problem is pain. And it's a problem, and we atheists can't solve it. I used to consider myself a philosopher - I certainly studied it long enough - and I'd never heard of it as a serious refutation of the problem of evil. I mean, as atheists, we believe that "shit happens". Not to mention from a biological perspective, pain serves all kinds of useful functions (like us knowing when we're being injured). That it occasionally incapacitates the subject is one of those things that just happens to be the case - like bad backs and acne. Much of our biology is pretty slap-dash, as befits something that arose out of negentropic stochastic chemical processes.

The Problem of Pain is the name of a book by C.S. Lewis. But it was him trying to answer the normal problem of evil. Or, in other words, why does his god - whom he claims is all-loving and all-powerful - allow suffering to exist.

So, y'know, I wasn't aware pain was a problem for atheists. But this guy apparently thinks it is. Allow me to quote: "See: if something painful happens, and the person it happens to can't fix it except by causing more pain -- in fact, more pain than they are experiencing in the first place -- they don't have a way to choose their actions."

Well, of course, that's nonsense. If I get cancer and the only way to cure it is chemotherapy which will, in the short run, will be far worse than the cancer, I'll still choose to get the chemo. Duh. Because, as a human, I can understand the options - comfort in the short term and a lingering death later on, or suffering in the short term and a an overall greatly improved.

He goes on to say: "You know: as if somehow some suffering ultimately has a therapeutic or, if we dare say it, redemptive purpose." His argument seems to be - albeit stated in an awkward way - that because atheists have a the faculty commonly described as "will" and they can accept pain for a greater purpose (such as willing to accept chemo to overcome cancer), that atheists themselves have answered the question of evil because, wait for it, we accept that sometimes pain is necessary to be better people.

The problem he has with the problem of pain, however, is that atheists aren't either all-benevolent or all-powerful. With our limited powers, yeah, we'll accept chemo to get rid of cancer. But none of us are invested with omnipotence. An atheist can't just will cancer away with no pain or suffering, not for themselves or others. Many of us would, if we could, because the pain of chemotheraphy does not make cancer patients better human beings, except insofar as it prolongs their lives. They don't come out the other side with more character. They're just alive.

The common Christian conception of god, however, is all-powerful, however. Instead of making cancer patients go through chemo, their god could just decide that there was no such thing as cancer. Furthermore, this being could decide that there is no reason for redemption, either. That redemption just didn't mean anything in this universe, or any other universe, because - out of his infinite kindness and compassion - their god wouldn't want us to suffer.

The funny thing is, he even knows this. He says, "[John Loftus' view] is that God ought to be good enough and powerful enough and intelligent enough to create a world where these crappy choices ought not to have to be made." But then he goes on to say, "It's an interesting redirection of the question, but it is where we turn the bend from exposing the atheist short-comings to actually advancing the Christian faith -- and I'll get you back with that another day."

So while he admits the argument needs to be addressed, he doesn't actually address it. I don't much read the guy's blog - it's . . . not my cup of tea, shall we say - but I'm almost curious to see if he does try to follow this up. Because I just don't see pain as being a problem for atheists. It exists along with a lot of other crappy things like earthquakes that level cities and pop music. Pain exists because it exists, and because it serves a useful biological function (one that far outstrips its occasional down sides). I just don't see how that's a problem for atheists in the first place.

Still, a pretty bizarre argument. But to try to argue the problem of evil while maintaining your belief in an all-loving, all-forgiving, all-powerful god requires a lot of bizarre thinking.


Sergio said...

Well put.

Does this guy work in the Christian Comics Industry? It seems like it from the way his blog is set up.

Frank Turk said...

Lol. "Troll". That's funny.

I think you need to read the whole series, Chris. The "problem of pain" is John Loftus' repositioning of the problem of evil in order to dismiss God from consideration. As in: pain is undesirable; God doesn't do anything about it; therefore, God must be either uncaring, unable, or unaware of our problem. It's an existentialist approach to the problem of "evil" without mucking the thing up by using the theistic category "evil".

But if we -concede- that "evil" (that is, pain) is a problem which disqualifies God, it's still a problem which has to be addressed. It's just a different problem for you, the atheist.

See: you yourself will say "I just don't see pain as being a problem for atheists. It exists along with a lot of other crappy things like earthquakes that level cities and pop music. Pain exists because it exists, and because it serves a useful biological function (one that far outstrips its occasional down sides)."

If you say this, you have actually overthrown the problem of evil/pain in the case of God because you can see that pain has some positive implications. If pain is actually good for us, it's not a problem that God doesn't do anything about it: He shouldn't do anythiung about it as it actually benefits us.

But if you don't say something like this, you can never set criteria for choosing how or if you will ever do something about pain -- either your own or someone else's. As in one of my examples, you can't explain why it is worth destroying 60 million lives in WWII in order to spare 6 million Jewish lives.

Please read my series more closely -- you plainly are overlooking most of it in order to simply scoff at it.

Frank Turk said...

BTW, Chris, Loftus passed on these two debate theses:

[1] All flavors of atheism leave man philosophically unequipped to resolve the problem of evil.

[2] The message of the Christian Scripture is the only philosophically-credible resolution of the problem of evil.

I'll offer you what I offered him -- two debates, in this order, where you don't have to defend anything. I'll defend the affirmtive in both cases, hosted on any site you care to have host it -- my first choice being my own Dblog, but you could even start a new blog to host the debate -- you could admin and referee.

Here are my suggested rules:
• 1500-word opening statements from both sides
• 150-word limit for questions
• 500-word limit for answers
• 10 Q's and 10 A's from each side, alternating Q's and A's as we do at my D-blog
• 1000-word closer from both sides.
• a 500-word summary or analysis from you to close each exchange -- meaning you get the last word no matter what.

It's up to you. This seems to be a topic you like, so maybe you'd like a dialog rather than a monologue.

Chris Bradley said...


I think you don't understand what you're talking about very well. Pain serves a biological function, but it is not desirable to humans - well, not to most humans, anyway. While it serves a biological function, biology is a blind idiot stumbling around in the dark.

However, Christians contend that the universe is run by a benevolent and omnipotent god. The problem of suffering is quite a bit a problem for them. However, atheists don't posit benevolence in the universe. Pain serves a function in an uncaring, indifferent cosmos - however, in a universe where there is a supposedly all-loving, all-powerful god the purpose of pain, and its moral implications, must be considered. Just like humans have to consider the moral implications of torturing their dog (and we do - it's illegal).

Indeed, Christians believe in precisely such a place. They call it heaven. So, y'know, why not do it here?

So, no, my statement that pain is biologically useful doesn't support the existence of god, or lessen the problem of suffering, pain and evil for people who believe in an all-loving, all-powerful god, because an atheist does not contend that a god exists. Atheists do not contend there is moral overseer to creation - but that the universe is happenstance. So, it's irrelevant to the question of pain that pain serves a biological function - to an atheist it's biology, but to a Christian it's the will of god.

The problem is that pain is a problem only in a universe controlled by a supposedly all-loving and all-powerful god. Absent the belief in such a being, there simply is no "problem" with pain.

As to the "debate", this is a dialog! We're dialoging right now, aren't we? I see no reason to change forums. My preferred mode of conversation in these matters is individual.

And the only reason I saw the article in the first place is because I was cleaning out dead links - *points to sidebars* - and I saw the Problem of Evil. I don't read your blog. I don't want to read your blog.

I am also unwilling to limit what I say or how I say it. Some ideas can only be expressed in far more than 1500 words (while others require considerably fewer, but aren't the worse because of it). Some rebuttals will take more than 100 or 500 words. Some discussions need to go longer than ten posts, each. I find the formal debate format nearly useless in conveying ideas - having the same relation to actual discussion that high-school wrestling as to a war. It might be amusing to watch and participate in, but doesn't really change anything.

Frank Turk said...

Chris --

I think it's interesting that you are willing to say that if God does not exist, then pain can do something useful, but if if God does exist, pain must be an abomination and cannot do something useful for either those who are created or the one who did the creating.

As to heaven, I have a suspicion you don't really understand that concept. However, that would be a topic to take up in a measured debate. As to that debate, suit yourself.

Chris Bradley said...


We're talking about two difference universes, here!

In my materialist universe, pain can serve a useful function because terrible things sometimes happen - because there is no plan, no order, nothing like that.

In the universe Christians inhabit, the universe was designed by an omnipotent, omnipresent and infinitely loving and compassionate god.

In the first situation, the atheist scientific materialist universe that I believe exists, it is pointless to find "fault" with biology. You just have to accept it, even as you work to change those parts of it you don't like - so I believe in modern medicine, for instance, that alleviates far more pain than it causes.

In the second situation, well, the Christian god made everything, designed everything, so now I can find fault - because it's just lousy design!

I mean, not just this pain thing, but how about eating and breathing out of the same hole? Every year, tens of thousands of people choke to death - which could be fixed by having us eat and breath out of different holes.

Or how about our spines? Why don't they go down the center of our torsos instead of being all the way on our back? Not only is it structurally unsound - in the sense of virtually everyone on earth having terrible back pain at some point - it exposes one of our most important bits of anatomy. We'd be way better off if our spines were in our centers.

Or what about our genitals? It makes all the sense of combining an amusement park with a sewer.

Now, in a universe where no one designed anything, there's no one to blame for this shockingly poor design. However, in a universe where someone DID design things, we can now hold that designer to account.

Pain stinks. There's nothing pain does that couldn't be done in a different - better - way, such as removing the causes of pain, or having some other system in place to tell us when our bodies are being injured instead of having the subjective experience of pain. In a godless universe, we accept the things that stink even as we work to change them - for instance, humans spend a fair bit of effort both making the world safer for us to live (say, seat belts in cars) in while finding ways to manage or eliminate pain (say, oxycodone).

However, if you posit that someone made all of this, and that that maker is perfect and all-powerful, then, yeah, that creator has some explaining to do at the lousy designs he made!