Is There Gratuitous Suffering?

A new interlocutor, G. Ehrlich, has engaged me in comments on the previous post on a range of matters. But, in his view, the main matters are these:

Consider the point I made about what I take to be involved in “reasonable deliberation” (as opposed to “dogmatic insistence on the truth of the initial premises). I suggested that reasonable deliberation generally involves not (or not simply) holding premises for which one has further evidences (I granted that you had this) but also “an openness both to the possibility of contrary evidence (at least when we’re talking about substantive premises such as the one you offer) and to the contrary evidence itself, with corresponding willingness to revise one’s confidence in one’s former premises.” I offered this characterization to further motivate the questions I had just previously asked: “Can you imagine encountering anything that would count for you as evidence that we are not living in the best of all possible worlds? Is there nothing that counts against all your supposed evidence for that initial premise?”

We have yet to hear your answer to these questions. They are, at least to my mind, particularly pressing insofar as you apparently reject what I suppose most thinkers would regard as rather strong prima facie evidence to the contrary: the prolonged suffering of a baby deer in some remote forest just before it dies in isolation from all witnesses. Given your apparent rejection of such prima facie evidence (we find this rejection in your insistence that such suffering either never occurs or that its avoidance would be like squaring a circle), what could count for you as evidence against the claim that ours is the best of all possible worlds?

I think we share a lot of common ground here. We agree, for example, that one ought to have good reasons for what one believes or, at least, be able to reply adequately to challenges to that belief. We agree that if one cannot adequately defend one’s beliefs, including one’s premisses, one ought to change one’s beliefs, or premisses, or something. One shouldn’t just keep believing things that one cannot adequately defend.

But let’s stop there for a moment. Why shouldn’t I be entitled to keep believing things that I cannot adequately defend?

Suppose, for example, I believe something because I have believed it all my life and it seems to make good sense of whatever it is it is supposed to describe or explain. It seems to fit the facts. Perhaps it is, in fact, true. So when someone comes along and offers apparently strong arguments against my belief, I could certainly accede to those arguments and give up my belief. But couldn’t I also decide that, while the arguments against my belief certainly seem sound for the moment, perhaps they are not as sound as they appear? Perhaps, in fact, they are not sound at all, and I am just not sophisticated enough to see immediately why they are not sound. Indeed, since my belief has seemed to me to be true for quite a long time and over quite a number of relevant circumstances, wouldn’t it be rather reckless of me to drop a belief simply because I can’t defend it well right now? Wouldn’t such an attitude dispose me to credulity and even abuse at the hands of magicians or charlatans or con men or preachers of false doctrines?

When I think, furthermore, that lots of apparently capable people hold to that belief also, it would seem reckless indeed to drop that belief simply because I can’t defend it adequately, for perhaps some of them can. Indeed, isn’t it very likely that some of them can, since it is exceedingly unlikely that I am now encountering a brand new, devastating argument never before encountered and handled well by any of my fellow-believers? So perhaps I might ask around a bit, do some reading, get some expert counsel, before I drop my belief at the first sign of serious trouble.

That’s what a scientist ought to do. That’s what a scholar of any discipline ought to do. That’s what any rational person ought to do.

Still, Brother Ehrlich and I agree, I’m sure, that to postpone the day of reckoning is one thing, but to blithely shrug off potential defeaters to one’s belief is quite another. Honesty requires one to grant opposing evidence and argument proper recognition and to deal with them in accordance with their evident power. Trivial challenges can properly be swatted away in hopes they buzz off and don’t return. Serious challenges deserve serious answers, however, and no religion or philosophy is worth much if it cannot stand up to serious scrutiny.

Such a religion or philosophy is especially contemptible, moreover, if it advises its practitioners to avoid proper investigation of the challenges in the name of “faith.” Such a reflexive resistance to probing questions isn’t really faith, since faith is trust in something or someone grounded in what one believes about that something or someone. No, faith that silences all doubts and questions isn’t faith–it’s fanaticism. And Brother Ehrlich and I agree that fanaticism is a Bad Thing.

In the particular instance before us, however, I don’t feel terribly troubled by Brother Ehrlich’s challenge. Understandably, that puzzles him, since the suffering little deer seems to be a pretty good challenge.

Now, among the many things on which Brother Ehrlich and I agree is perhaps a surprising one, namely, the concept of God. More specifically, we agree that the suffering of a baby deer to no adequately good purpose counts against belief in an all-good, all-powerful God. (This objection to theism is what is technically called the problem of “gratuitous” evil.)

Not for Brother Ehrlich, nor for me, the idea of a Deity who creates the universe and then steps away to let it run without caring for its members. Not for Brother Ehrlich, nor for me, the idea of a vague, impersonal Force that births the cosmos but has no interest in it. And not for Brother Ehrlich, nor for me, Harold (“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”) Kushner’s well-meaning-but-inadequate God who can’t manage the world very well, and especially its evil. No, we agree on what is in truth a Biblical view of God, a God truly  worthy of worship who cares about the welfare of all creatures, including a baby deer dying painfully and alone.

So how can I possibly maintain my belief in such a God in the face of a fact like the suffering deer? That, I take it, is Brother Ehrlich’s fundamental question. And the answer to that question is a combination of theodical arguments (which I think get us pretty far in imagining why an all-good, all-powerful God might have made and then maintained a universe such as ours) plus strong grounds to believe that God is indeed all-good and all-powerful even if God appears not to be–as I grant that God frequently and terribly has appeared not to be.

Those strong grounds go well beyond theodicy, for I have not found theodicy–for all its virtues–to be adequate to sustain belief in the kind of God Brother Ehrlich and I have in mind. Here is, I expect, yet another point on which we agree, namely, that theodicies don’t fully do the job they are intended to do. They really don’t fully justify the ways of God to human beings.

The strong grounds I have beyond theodicy, then, are the grounds to believe the following syllogism, which I’ll call Syllogism A:

Major premise: Jesus is good.

Minor premise: Jesus is God.

Conclusion: God is good.

If I have grounds to believe that Jesus is good and I have grounds to believe that Jesus is God, then it follows that God is good. Therefore, either there is no such thing in the real world (rather than in the imaginations of Brother Ehrlich and me) as a baby deer suffering forlornly or there is in fact a good reason for it  to suffer thus–in fact, a good enough reason to justify it suffering thus, even if such a reason remains opaque to our understanding.

What I did not make as clear earlier as I hope I am making now is that precisely since Brother Ehrlich and I seem to agree on so many things pertaining to this question, I could respond as I did because I believe the following syllogism also, which I’ll call Syllogism B:

Major Premise (from Syllogism A): God is good.

Minor Premise: Gratuitous evil is inconsistent with divine goodness.

Conclusion: There is no such thing as gratuitous evil.

I fully grant, and have fully granted in the previous post and comments, that to look at the world–not just at hypothetical baby deer but at actual children in cancer wards or actual victims of the latest natural disaster–is to look at abundant reasons to doubt the goodness and power of God. People have looked at the world since, well, ever and we have called God to account.

So how can good and wise people still believe in (such a) God? The reason they have faith is that they believe they have knowledge enough to justify their faith. They believe both that they know enough of the right sort of things about God and that they actually know God in personal acquaintance that they are willing to trust God anyway.

In the face of the world’s evil–or even just the evil in your own life–it would take a lot to believe in God. But that’s what Christians think they possess: beliefs about God + experience of God that combine into a sort of intellectual-cum-existential cumulative case to keep believing in God despite powerful appearances to the contrary.

I haven’t provided those grounds here, of course. I do that at some length elsewhere on this weblog and in my book, Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil. But I write what I do now because the structure of my reasoning was obviously unclear to Brother Ehrlich (and Sister Rebekah!), and I felt his serious questioning deserved a serious answer.

Given that structure, finally, I want to return to Brother Ehrlich’s last question: “What could count for you as evidence against the claim that ours is the best of all possible worlds?”

Since the centre of Christian belief is, unsurprisingly, Christ (and not, I should perhaps point out, “God-in-general,” for Christians are not mere “theists” but Christians), evidence that assails the Church’s Scripture and tradition about the nature and work of Jesus Christ would count decisively, crushingly, categorically against my claim that ours is the best of all possible worlds.

So: reasons to doubt the veracity of the Bible or reasons to doubt the Church’s traditional interpretation of the Bible in regard particularly to the identity and mission of Jesus would suffice entirely to destroy Christian confession. If Jesus can be shown not to have existed, or to have been a bad man, or to have been mentally ill, or to have taught a religion or philosophy quite different from what the New Testament says he taught, or to have escaped the Cross (as Islam teaches), or to have not escaped the grave–any of those would show that the Christian faith is a giant mistake.

Since, however, I believe that the evidence supporting the basic Christian picture is confirmed–quite massively, in fact–then I don’t harbor particularly strong intellectual worries about the goodness of God and, in particular, about gratuitous evil.

To be sure, I get angry with God at times for not running the world the way I wish he would. I positively rail against suffering in my life, or in the lives of those I love. And please don’t pass over this point too quickly: I do feel the apparent absurdity of a wonderfully good and powerful God letting my mother, for instance, struggle almost to death with cancer, and my father die of a massive heart attack twenty-five years younger than did his father or grandfather. I’m not playing around when it comes to this question in particular, despite whatever jocular tone I might occasionally adopt.

I feel badly even about a hypothetical baby deer. And I think I am supposed to feel badly about these things. Suffering is BAD. It’s not disguised good. And one day, the Bible promises, suffering will end . . . for all of creation, including baby deer.

Therefore, since I have very good reason–intellectual and existential–to believe that God is good, because I have very good reason to believe that Jesus is good and Jesus is God, then I carry on believing that such a God would allow not one atom of unnecessary (= gratuitous) evil into his cosmos.

I am not shutting my ears, or eyes, or brain, or heart against contrary evidence or argument. I’m just saying it would take an awful lot of evidence and argument to convince me at this point in my life that Jesus isn’t good or that Jesus isn’t God. That is the core issue, and on that core issue, I’m pretty convinced.