Tuesday, 3 October 2017

A World Without Suffering

Here is an exchange from Craig-Land on the question “why didn't the creator god create a world without suffering?”  In this discussion, which was initiated by someone else, I was granting the existence of a creator god, for the sake of the argument, so the simple answer “because there is no creator god” was not a response available to me.

The theist side of the discussion is pretty much as presented (modified only by formatting and some minor grammatical and spelling corrections, which I am hoping haven’t changed the argument at all).  I’ve added some links and recrafted some statements in an attempt to bridge the gap with respect to context.  I’ve not tried to polish my argument after the fact.


Theist: What is suffering? If suffering is defined as an experience, then a world without suffering is a world without the experience of suffering. In so far as we can tell, any living creature with a nervous system and a brain with memory capability has the potential to experience suffering. So, any world without suffering is basically a world without living creatures who possess nervous systems and brains with memory.

I think that you are opening the door to equivocation here.  I agree that pain is experiential, as widely defined: Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described interms of such damage.  If one experiences pain, one suffers.  The somatosensory system is co-opted for associating a type of pain (discomfort) with situations that are negative but which do not actually involve tissue damage - such as pain of loss, social rejection and so on.

Can we agree that, as you describe it, you are equating "pain" and "suffering"?  (I don't want to get all new-age and suggest that pain is inevitable while suffering is optional, if we think of laboratory monkeys, for example, it doesn't do us any good ethically speaking to say “sure, we're callously ensuring that they feel pain, but it's up to them whether or not they suffer”.)

So, if we are talking about pain, we have to then consider the purpose of pain.  It's originally there to minimise tissue damage, doing something that risks doing or does do tissue damage elicits a pain response (so long as the nerve fibres are functional).  For the most part, the brain/nervous system doesn't care whether the host is salvageable or not, so suffering (the experience of pain) can continue until death but in some instances, pain signals will be shut down as part of a fight or flight strategy, and it's possible to not feel pain merely because (relatively minor) damage has not yet been noticed (if it's major damage and you're not full of adrenaline, you'll almost certainly feel it).  But sometimes, the system gives up on pain messaging and instead floods the brain with opioids.

The question then becomes could the organism be motivated to avoid (further) tissue damage without causing suffering?  It seems to me that, taking a designer’s perspective, it's possible.  For example, an organism such as a human could get a message that it really, really wants to move its hand away from the heater element, rather than getting a pain message.  This could be actualised using the same "pain" receptors, but with different processing in the brain - if the brain were designed, of course, rather than just being the result of a mindless evolutionary process.  This could even be pleasurable in that satisfying the requirement to move away from a damaging situation could be rewarded by brief activation of the brain's pleasure centres.

It'd be an interesting study, seeing if an organism could be persuaded to not damage itself via a mix of positive and neutral input, rather than positive and negative input.  It could be simulated in software, and might even be a mechanism by which intelligent machines could be (ethically) trained to not damage themselves.

I do understand that pain provides some urgency to act, but I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility that we could be motivated to avoid damage without the suffering associated with pain.  And this means that it could be possible to have a world with sentient creatures with brains and nervous systems that do not experience suffering, so long as we don't define suffering as "the uncomfortable experience we get when tissue damage is happening or about to happen, which makes us prefer to act in some preventative manner".

(Note: as mentioned above, non-tissue damage related suffering involves co-opting of the somatosensory system.  If pain was experienced as just another message in the brain, then events that manifest to us as emotional or psychological pain would also be experienced differently.  For example, the pain of loneliness would be interpreted as "my situation isn't optimal for a social creature, I would prefer to do something about it".)

Theist: God could have made a world without living creatures, which would entail no suffering; but could God have made a world with living creatures who could not experience suffering? Some people might answer this question with an unequivocal yes, saying something to the effect of if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, then certainly he would know of a way and would have the means to create such a world. This is a poorly justified reason though, because it's making the mistake that God can do anything that's conceivable - which isn't true. Can God make squared-circles? Can God make an object which both occupies a space and yet does not occupy it? No and no. More reasonable, it would be better to think that God can do anything that's logically possible. By this, God can't break the Law of Non-Contradiction. But wait, does this mean God is no longer all-powerful? Hardly. Especially if we define all-powerful as possessing all power to do anything logical.

Again, this seems to be equivocation, although you did sort of define your way out of it.  You seem to be saying that because we can put words together to describe an impossible thing, then that thing is conceivable.  This isn't really true.  We can say "squared-circle" and even put effort into squaring the circle (which doesn't seem to be what you are talking about), or finding a "married bachelor" or "boiling ice", or any number of impossible things, but that does not make the referents conceivable.  The things you listed are not really conceivable, they are merely describable.

And there's no real "Law" associated with the Law of Non-Contradiction (or the Law of Identity or the Law of Excluded Middle) that your creator god could be guilty of breaking (ed – see also The Problem with Theodicies).  This sort of Law is merely a description of a state of affairs.  You seem to be guilty of reification again, but it could be that you were talking metaphorically.  We both agree that (metaphorically) your god cannot break the LNC (etc) in this universe “as created”, we merely disagree on what impact that has on the omnipotence of your god and whether the inability to break the LNC (etc) necessitates suffering.

Theist: The more important question is: would God be violating the Law of Non-Contradiction if he made a world that contained human beings who could not experience suffering? If the very definition of what it means to be human is to possess a nervous system and a brain with memory, then no, God could not make a world with humans and without suffering. Some other being would be required. Perhaps, a being with a slightly tweaked nervous system that does not register any pain at all, or is extremely numb to it. Would these beings be "human" in so far as we know what it is to be "human"? It's hard to say, but there is some merit to this line of thought because it yields what could be called the “Human Evolution Defence”.

Okay, here is where you are walking through that door to equivocation that I mentioned above.  You wrote earlier about "a living creature".  Here you are talking about "human beings".  Now your argument is presuppositional, implying that your god was obliged to make "human beings" and thus, given that "human beings" are the sort of creatures that suffer, then suffering was unavoidable.  So, the title of this discussion should perhaps be "A World With Human Beings As They Are But Without Suffering", which I agree is impossible.  But you cannot simply define your way into argumentative success.

Theist: Where the Free-Will Defence presupposes that God cannot create beings with free will that would never choose evil, the Human Evolution Defence presupposes that God cannot create human beings as we know them to be (which is to say "like us") that could not experience suffering. We have reason to suspect that nervous systems and memories like ours conferred an evolutionary advantage, and so we might also suspect that God could have let the human species develop as is such that we could procure said evolutionary advantages. Certainly, nervous systems with a high threshold for pain or ones that could (be) completely numb () would have been () evolutionary disadvantageous as pain reinforces basic cause and effect (fire = hot, hot = painful, therefore, don't touch the fire). Furthermore, a world in which the experience of pain and suffering does exist but is supernaturally pacified by God after-the-fact might also entail unintended evolutionary consequences or provide negative evolutionary reinforcement (I doubt one could say otherwise for certain).

If your god made the universe and set it up in such a way that "human beings" or something very similar to them developed by purely natural means (which sounds like a god of deism or pantheism), then I guess that's fine.  It's really no different to the atheistic position in any meaningful way.  But, for your argument to stand, we would have to be limited to the only life that we both know that we have, this one.

If you are going to shuffle over to another part of theism, in which a more perfect existence after this one is available, in which there is no suffering (Rev 21:4), then you have a problem because your god could have bypassed this world with suffering and established that world without suffering - and there is no logical objection against doing so (while there may theological or dogmatic objections).

The objection that is most frequently raised is that of filtering, identifying those persons or souls which are qualified for the life after this one.  The problem here though is that the biblical god is generally described as omniscient (Heb 4:13, 1 John 3:20, Psa 147:5, 1 Sam 2:3, Job 28:24 (although this last one could just be instantaneous, "now" omniscience)), in which case it knows the inevitable (Rom 2:28-30) result of the filtering process anyway, so it doesn't seem to need to actually carry it out.

And that's before we get into the doctrine of grace, which implies that the saved are selected anyway, such that one cannot act to be saved (and I'm aware that the doctrine of grace, "The Doctrine of Grace teaches that we are totally unable to save ourselves, to help in our salvation, to do anything to merit all or any part of our salvation, or to keep our salvation", is controversial since it opens the possibility that a total heathen like myself could potentially be saved, despite a life of spurning your god, while a devoted, sainted believer like, say, Mother Theresa could end up consigned to the flames, because our acts count for nothing).

The claim that a creator god could not create a world without suffering appears to be tantamount to abandonment of the afterlife.  Would a theist really want to abandon the afterlife?

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