On the "Evidential Problem of Evil"

Why Does God Allow "Pointless Suffering"? For a Greater Good?

by Luke Wadel
How Eternity Matters

It has been argued in the first atheistic essay at Thomas' Philosophy Page that "God's existence is evidently or probably inconsistent with the existence of evil." There, he cites William Rowe's syllogism as the "simple, concise proof":

  • There is, in all probability, at least one instance of suffering that is completely pointless.
  • If there were a God, He would not have allowed any completely pointless instances of suffering.
  • So, it is quite probable that God does not exist.
  • He defines "an instance of pointless suffering...[as] one that God 'could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good.'"

    Immediately there is a problem. What is "completely" pointless suffering? Suffering that God could have completely prevented? Or suffering completely without a greater good? For surely either there is a greater good or there is not; how is there "completely not"? One can speak of something being more or less pointless, but not, as far as I can see, while limited to the above definition of "pointless suffering." Since "complete pointlessness" is the crux of the matter and the point of persuasion, we shall have to fall back on the ordinary meaning of "pointless," that is, "without purpose."

    Thomas continues on a new line: "it seems that both theists and atheists admit the... premise: an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly benevolent God would not allow any instance of pointless suffering." Any pointless suffering now? I thought we were discussing completely pointless suffering. This is obviously a real transition in the argument, and it has a persuasive effect, though is inconsistent. If he were truly discussing "completely pointless suffering," that would be a convincing argument against God's goodness. But now the reader only waits for a proof that there has been somewhat pointless suffering. This change is almost invisible, and has the logic of any argument that starts out proving one thing, and switches to another.

    By substituting "any instance of pointless suffering," the argument is (of course) much easier to make, in fact supremely easy. For every instance of suffering is pointless: suffering is simply the painful perception of evil, and the whole point of evil is to be pointless. This cannot be underestimated.

    Should we be persuaded by this new argument? Certainly not, for surely when we stub our toes, take a paper cut, or miss a bus, which are pointless, we do not then undergo a crisis of faith and exclaim, "I no longer believe in God!" Anyone would think such a person to be mad. Indeed, we steer clear of such people, for fear that some very minor imperfection in us should stir them to similar dealings with us. Epictetus beautifully contrasts the theistic and atheistic positions here in question:

    Well, then, and have you not received faculties by which you will be able to bear all that happens? Have you not received greatness of soul? Have you not received manliness? Have you not received endurance? And why do I trouble myself about anything that can happen if I possess greatness of soul? What shall distract my mind or disturb me, or appear painful? Shall I not use the power for the purposes for which I received it, and shall I grieve and lament over what happens?

    "Yes, but my nose runs." For what purpose then, slave, have you hands? Is it not that you may wipe your nose? "Is it, then, consistent with reason that there should be running of noses in the world?" Nay, how much better it is to wipe your nose than to find fault.

    Epictetus, Discourses, I.6.

    So since the argument has developed, by wording and implication at least, to be radically different from Rowe's syllogism, let us go back to Rowe's more powerful argument, as Thomas himself admitedly if temporarily does.

    Professor Rowe mentions the example of a suffering young fawn: "[s]uppose in some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire, the fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering" (Rowe 88). Now it seems quite evident that "no greater good . . . would have been lost had the fawn's suffering been prevented" (Rowe 88). Thus, one just cannot escape the conclusion that such suffering was, in all probability, pointless.

    Now, it is clearly evident that traditional theistic solutions do not apply to the example of the young fawn.

    It is philosophically questionable whether the fawn truly suffers as we understand the term. It is quite clear that there is severe pain in this example, but relevant here are some findings of modern psychology which bear on the question. Studies have shown that hypnosis can be used in place of anesthetics. I do not have these studies on hand, but they have become common knowledge due to the extent to which such hypnosis has been used in dentistry. It is found that people under hypnosis can be subjected to very painful stimuli, without the nerves being blocked and with "part of the mind" being aware of it, and there is no suffering at all. Of course, that speaks directly only of humans in unusual conditions, but it pushes home the fact: suffering is much, much different when the intellect is hardly aware of it. Animals, of course, do not have intellect, but only stimulus-response (notwithstanding learned "intelligent" [always reflexive] responses). One wonders in what sense our concept of suffering applies at all to them; probably very little.

    Thomas backtracks again. Instead of continuing to assert that the supposed victory over theism is "clearly evident," which is in fact not clear, he proceeds, "the argument seeks to establish probable incompatibility between God and suffering, not logical incompatibility." He grasps, "is it reasonable to hold that throughout the entire course of human history, there was not at least one case of pointless suffering[?]"

    Perhaps he means to ask whether any instance of suffering is completely pointless. The "at least one" and "throughout the enitre course...of history" tend to pull from the reader a hesitant "that seems probable," and the atheist seems to have won. No doubt we would answer "yes" because we can think of several instances of pointless suffering, as Thomas does in the case of Hitler's barbarisms and excesses of the crusades.

    But once again, all suffering is pointless, and the fact remains that the pointlessness of it is not itself sufficient grounds for finding fault with God or denying his existence. To ask what point God has in mind for allowing Hitler and others to be evil (which is different from the "point of suffering") is to ask what point there is for a free will. So here it is: Free will is the necessary pre-condition for any virtue. Virtue, now, is its own point, which clearly outbalances the potential for temporary suffering.

    This brings us to the argument of Thomas' second atheist critique,

    Does God Have a Greater Good?

    Against my last paragraph concerning the necessity of free will and the possible consequences, Thomas lists three reasons, which shall be treated fairly quickly.
    "First, by saying that God allows evil for the purpose of a greater good, one put[s] limitations on God['s] power... Consequently, by requiring evil for specific goods, God is confined to causality and is, thus... neither omnipotent nor the maker of causal laws."
    It has always been admitted in theism, at least mainstream Western theisms like Christianity, Judaism and compatible philosophies, that God is limitted by causal and logical laws. What is it, I wonder, that gives people the idea that God can bend causal or logical laws? Omnipotence never meant exemption from such laws. The question of whether these laws are created is subject to problems of interpretation and has always been an aside related to but not determining omniscience.

    "Second, first order evils do not always result in second order goods... For example, misery often shapes insane individuals who rape and molest children."

    Misery controls no one in this manner. It is an excuse, perhaps often closely related to the temptation, but not a strict efficient cause. In any case, again, this does not argue against any mainstream theistic position. Noone said that every evil event gives rise to utopia.

    "Third, ...theism is still at odds with humanitarianism... If God uses evil to accomplish greater goods, then human beings ought not to fight against injustice because such would interfere with God's plans."
    Using an evil situation to a good purpose is not the same as planning the evil or supporting it.
    *For more on the problem of evil, click here.
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    ęCopyrite 1997 Luke Wadel. Written permission of the author is required for copying, electronically and otherwise. 1