Hello. I am Peter Hurford, I am the author of Greatplay.net and I am an atheist. I am here because I am involved in a debate with Cl, the author of The Warfare is Mental and somewhat of a Christian theist. While I think there are many reasons to not believe in various gods and many additional reasons to not believe in specifically benevolent gods, we are here to talk about only one part of one issue: the existence of needless suffering.
What is Needless Suffering?
What is this needless suffering that I claim exists? Needless suffering is also called unnecessary suffering, gratuitous suffering, or just plain evil. Put simply, needless suffering is anything that causes pain to an entity capable of feeling it and is not logically required in order to realize a higher benefit for that entity or other entities. Should this needless suffering exist, we as a collective society are worse off, and could be better off by eliminating it.
Furthermore, should no needless suffering exist, we are in the best of all possible worlds and any attempt to remove suffering would make us worse off because we would lose the associated outweighing benefit and decreasing the net benefit to all people.
What would be an example of necessary suffering? Consider the pain of surgery and recovery – this involves a lot of suffering, but it is still in our best interest to take this suffering on because it would allow us to avoid the pain that a debilitating disease might give us later on.
This is the general logic of necessary suffering – however, I’d argue that this pain isn’t actually necessary because we can attain this higher, either by God omnipotently removing the disease or God preventing us from having the disease in the first place. This is why the “logically required” part is so important, for God can often get the higher benefit just by willing it.
Why Does Needless Suffering Matter?
Why does this matter? If we make two relatively non-controversial assumptions: (1) theism is about the existence of a single benevolent, omnipotent god and (2) a benevolent god would have no reason to allow needless suffering; the existence of needless suffering would be strong indication that theism is false. This is called the Problem of Evil, even though the debate isn’t about evil actions per se, but rather needless suffering as a whole.
However, Cl and I agreed that we will only be debating the existence of needless suffering, and not debating either of these two assumptions. If you want to see a comprehensive defense of these two assumptions, as well as additional justifications for atheism, please look to my website. For now on, I continue with the intent just to defend the proposition that needless suffering exists as I’ve defined it.
Why Think that Needless Suffering Exists?
While the pains of surgery that I mentioned before are an example of needless suffering, especially in the third-world where they are routinely done without anesthetic, I’d like to focus on three horrors that I find especially clear and compelling: (A) babies that suffer intensely and then die from birth defects, (B) nonhuman animals that suffer intensely in the wild and within our factory farms, and (C) the Bubonic Plague that killed over 25 million people in the fourteenth century.
What makes these three examples instances of needless suffering? Namely that no higher benefit can be identified that would logically require any of these examples. Let me briefly consider some potential benefits (called theodicies) that Cl or others might argue, and explain why they are inadequate:
Theodicy #1: Free Will
The idea that suffering is necessary for Free Will is one of the most famous defenses against the Problem of Evil. However…
- The Free Will Defense fails because only a compatibilist theory of free will makes sense – God could have easily created people that had genuine free choice yet never chose rephrensible actions, as this is often the kind of free will that God seems to have himself, or the kind of free will of people residing in Heaven.
- But I need not draw Cl into a long debate over the nature of free will, since it is quite clear that there is no free will involved in any of the examples I mentioned.
Theodicy #2: Punishment of Sin
Second, another very commonly given reason that suffering is necessary is because God needs to use it to punish sin, and sin must be punished in order for there to be less of it, and less sin is a higher benefit.
- Nonhuman animals don’t have original sin, let alone can make moral decisions capable of being sensibly punished.
- Babies with original sin don’t need to be punished for the original sin because they have not made any conscious choice to reject God or act malevolently.
- Given how uncorrelated sinful behavior is with suffering, this theodicy is highly implausible. Those who suffered through the Bubonic Plague were not especially more sinful than those today who have the advantages of modern medicine.
Theodicy #3: Need for Natural Law
Third and even more generally, yet another theodicy says that birth defects and the suffering of nonhuman animals at the hands of natural disasters is necessary to have the kind of consistent physics needed for our world.
- There’s no reason why an omnipotent God couldn’t make a different world that has consistent physics yet does not contain these examples, or why he couldn’t just maintain such a world with divine will.
- None of the examples I mentioned are remotely fundamental to physics – the world could still operate just fine without the Bubonic Plague, birth defects, and/or nonhuman animal suffering.
Theodicy #4: Drawing Closer to God / Lessons Learned / Building Virtue
Fourth, a very common theodicy is referred to as soul-making, which has typically been three different things – God using suffering to draw people closer to him, using suffering to teach lessons, or using suffering to build people’s character.
- All three of these seemingly different defenses can be defeated in the same way – God could have instilled any of these lessons, love for God, or character from birth.
- Given that God knows all lessons, has infinite love for himself, and is of perfect virtue, yet has not suffered, there is no reason to think that suffering is logically necessary for these three things.
- None of these elements of soul-making are at all relevant to nonhuman animals or those who die too young, since they are incapable of any of these three things.
Theodicy #5: The Need for Genuine Human Accomplishment
Fifth, it is argued that suffering is necessary to give humans things to do that make a meaningful impact, and nothing is more meaningful than alleviating the suffering of others.
- This response fails because God could have made something meaningful instead that did not involve suffering – given that our purpose and drive for meaning is allegedly God-given in the first place.
- All of the examples I mentioned are so structural and complicated that humanity has no hope of solving these problems for thousands of years – removing the suffering of nonhuman animals and removing birth defects would require an unfathomable amount of re-engineering biology.
- We often don’t have even the slightest chance of ameliorating the suffering, even if the issue is complicated. In the 14th century, humans were tasked with stopping the bubonic plague – not only did they have very little medical resources and containment plans, they lacked a germ theory of disease altogether.
- Unless Heaven is undesirable, there still should be genuine human accomplishment there, despite there being no needless suffering.
Theodicy #6: The Benefits of Heaven
Sixth and last, it is suggested that all this suffering is inconsequential because all will be corrected in Heaven.
- This is controversial however, because it is undecided theologically whether babies who die from birth defects or nonhuman animals actually go to Heaven.
- Heaven does not make the suffering any more needless now even if Heaven is compensation, because Heaven could still be given without the suffering. It’s the equivalent of punching someone in the face and then giving them $1000.
Now, I have certainly not addressed every potential benefit that might be argued for suffering in general, or for these particular instances. However, if Cl or someone else has a different higher benefit that would logically require these three examples, I’d be happy to consider it in my rejoinder.
An Argument from Ignorance?
Now that all the common theodicies are dispensed with, I’d like to turn to a different kind of reply – that we don’t need any specific theodicy because God simply could have an unknown purpose for allowing suffering. Cl charges me with unfairly reasoning from “I can’t see a higher benefit from this suffering” to “There is no higher benefit to this suffering”, which is an argument from ignorance.
How do we know that reindeer cannot fly? Sure, we’ve investigated reindeer and not found any biological wings, helicopter blades, or jetpacks – but maybe they defy gravity through some undiscovered means. Sure, we’ve never observed a flying reindeer and observed millions of reindeer that don’t fly their entire lives, but this could just mean reindeer are holding out on us. Is this an argument from ignorance? Are we unfairly reasoning from “I can’t see a reason why reindeer are incapable of flight” to “Reindeer cannot fly”?
No – claims like reindeer being incapable of flight are not absolute, but rather provisional based on the analysis of tons of evidence. Of course there’s a remote possibility that we might be mistaken, but this doesn’t prevent us from claiming the knowledge of reindeer being incapable of flight based on an evidential inference.
We can accept the existence of needless suffering provisionally, based on there being no actual reason for an unknown purpose. This is why the Problem of Evil I argue is evidential, not logical. While I do accept the burden of proof to demonstrate the existence of needless suffering, it is unreasonable to demand I give proof in the mathematical sense – rather, proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof enough.
Secondly, How do we really know that rape and murder is bad? Certainly there could be some higher benefit that rape and murder play in our society and we actually could be making the world worse off by banning rape and murder. If we were to worry about these exceedingly unlikely chances that the suffering we observe is actually necessary for a higher benefit, there is no way we could reason morally that we ought to actually stop raping and murdering.
It is special pleading to suggest that we should only question some instances of suffering (like my examples), and not question other instances of suffering (like rape and murder).
For these reasons, I conclude that needless suffering exists, and I challenge Cl to provide the higher benefit that logically requires the three examples I gave of (A) babies that suffer intensely and then die from birth defects, (B) nonhuman animals that suffer intensely in the wild and within our factory farms, and (C) the Bubonic Plague that killed over 25 million people in the fourteenth century.
Secondly, if these three examples aren’t needless, I don’t know what is. Thus I would like to also challenge Cl to explain what suffering would have to look like to be considered needless by Cl. I am honored to take place in this debate and I look forward to Cl’s rebuttal.
First, with 1909 words used for my opening statement, I reserve the remaining 91 to be used in future statements as in accordance with the current debate rules. Second, I’d like to hereby release all copyright of the content of this essay, in full with no rights reserved, to Cl. Third, I’d also thank Garren, TaiChi, and Joseph for helping me with thinking through my argument, crushing my own fallacies, and crafting my arguments even more compelling. Lastly, I’d also like to thank Daniel, Andrés, Matt, and Adamoriens for agreeing to judge this debate.