Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Existential(?) Argument from Suffering...

I want to bounce an idea off some people out there to see what kind of comments I get. Please understand that it is not my intention to get into an all-encompasing discussion about the atheistic argument that the existence of suffering supposedly disproves the existence of the Christian God (I am actually contemplating writing a book on the subject, you know, in all that free time I have).

The point of this post is just to put one solitary idea out there and see what you all think. It is my thinking, unless you can convince me otherwise, that the so-called argument from suffering is at its core an existential argument, not one of logical necessity. Let me explain what I mean by this.

The atheistic argument basically says that the Christian God is supposedly all-loving and also all-powerful. However, suffering exists in the world. If God is all-loving, then He should want to stop suffering, and if He is all-powerful then He should have the ability to stop the suffering. Yet suffering exists. Therefore God, if He exists, must either not be loving or not be all-powerful.

Now I believe there are plenty of problems with this argument that I'm not going to get into now (we may do individual posts later on separate points just so we can stay focused). For the time being, though, I want to ask one question. Does the conclusion of this argument necessarily follow, BY LOGICAL NECESSITY, from its premises. In other words, is the objection due to suffering truly an existential objection, meaning that when someone objects to the suffering they are really saying, "I cannot personally bring myself to accept that a loving God exists in this world" as opposed to, "Because suffering exists, it is a logical certainty that a loving God cannot."

This argument takes into account God's lovingness and His omnipotence, but it fails to take into account His omniscience. In other words, while we are finite, God is infinite. Therefore, we have a limited capability to understand all the potential consequences of an action. God is not so limited.

Rather than "reinventing the wheel", the following paragraphs are quoted from an earlier discussion I had with John Loftus on a similar (albeit broader) topic:

"Probably the most common reason people give for disbelief in God is the problem of suffering, and they use it as though, in and of itself, it disproves the existence of a loving God. But it does not.

Here is a simple illustration. Suppose you are in a room with three other people. Two are standing up against a wall, and in front of them is a man who is holding a gun in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. He turns to you and says, 'You get to choose. Either I will shoot person #1 in the head and kill him, or I will give person #2 a paper cut. What will it be?'

Now I am assuming person #2 is not a hemophiliac and is not going to die from a paper cut. What do you choose? If you acknowledge that the better choice is to give person #2 a paper cut, then you have acknowledged that the concept of a 'greater good' exists, and sometimes some degree of suffering may be justified for the greater good.

This is important because once you acknowledge the possibility of a greater good, you also must admit that it is AT LEAST THEORETICALLY possible that there could be a 'loving' reason to allow the suffering in the world, even if we do not know what that reason may be.

This is crucial to any conversation on suffering because it shows that suffering in the world, in and of itself, does not disprove the existence of a loving God. But far too many people believe that it does."

"It is impossible to conclude from an action alone whether or not it is loving. Allowing someone to give a paper cut to someone else would not appear loving, but in the context I demonstrated, it could be. Is giving someone flowers loving? Generally we would say yes. But if you give them to someone you know to be deathly allergic, that's not very loving. In order to label something as loving or not you need to understand the context.

Actions in this world can have any number of possible consequences. So in order to fully understand the full context of any action, you must be able to understand all the potential consequences. Only an all-knowing mind can do that. Finite human minds can only understand a certain number of forseeable consequences to any action. So we draw our conclusions about whether something is loving based upon the limited amount of information we can process. But it is a mistake to take our inherently limited knowledge and use it to conclude that an infinite mind does not exist.

Isn't it reasonable that an infinite mind would be capable of comprehending more of the consequences than a finite mind? And isn't it then also reasonable that the infinite mind may arrive at a different (and more well-informed) conclusion than the finite mind? So its not that God's actions are not in accord with our notion of loving. We all understand that actions which we may not otherwise consider to be loving can become so depending on the context. God's actions are perfectly in accord with this concept. We are just incapable of understanding the full context. So it is our conclusion that is wrong, not God's."

Now you may disagree as to whether or not there actually is a reason for suffering. That's not the point of the proposition I'm putting out here. My point is simply that the existence of suffering does not per se, as a matter of logical necessity, disprove the existence of a loving God. There could be a "greater good" that we are simply incapable of understanding.

So that's the thought for the day. Please chime in with your thoughts. Does the argument from suffering prove, as a matter of logical necessity, that a loving God cannot exist, or is it in essence an existential objection? As they say on American Idol, the phone lines are now open...


DagoodS said...

Ten Minas Ministries,

Not sure I will be much help for you. I agree with your premise that the Problem of Suffering does not make a solely loving God logically impossible.

I would agree that, from what we can observe, it is logically possible for a solely loving God to have a reason suffering exists.

I can’t help but wonder—does that make it persuasive? For many non-theists, the dismissal of the Problem of Suffering by “it is logically possible my God has a reason, but we don’t know what it could be” is too trite. Too dismissive. It seems to be that the best Christianity has to offer is that “it might be true.”

Hopefully to explain a little better, can I turn the table a bit? As near as I can tell, it is “logically possible” for natural abiogenesis to occur. Even if we say the odds are 1 in 10 to the billionth millionth power. That “1” makes it logically possible.

If you raise the issue of natural abiogenesis, and I respond with “We can’t know how it happened, but it is logically possible” does that give you pause? Do you find it persuasive or compelling? Or do you feel as if I dismissed something that should not be so easily brushed away?

Anyway—your entire premise is correct (in my opinion) that it is not a logical defeater.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

We agree 100% on this one. By no means would I ever argue that the mere fact that it is possible means that it is true, or even likely. But believe it or not I have engaged in a few debates in the past with people who have argued that the existence of suffering is essentially a violation of the law of non-contradiction, meaning that as a matter of logical necessity the existence of a loving God and suffering are mutually exclusive. I was hoping that someone out there might hold this view so that I could "test my opinions by fire", so to speak. We learn most by talking to people who disagree with us!

So this really is more of an opening chapter (quite literally if I ever get around to writing a book!), just to make sure that everyone is on the same page. It simply "sets the stage" for the discussion. But I agree with you that more argument would be necessary for me to show that the existence of God is the most likely explanation for the evidence. Merely pointing out that they are logically consistent, in and of itself, won't do it. That's what the rest of the chapters are for!