09 February, 2007

The Problem of Pain - I

Not so very long ago, I witnessed one of nature's many little horrors and it gave me cause to reflect on the problems that pain and suffering can present for theists who postulate the existence of an all-good, all-powerful god.

While walking the dogs in the late afternoon, I noticed a stray cat in the backyard. Of course, the dogs did as well, but this particular cat has been hanging around the neighborhood lately, so they didn't immediately take much notice. However, as we walked around the backyard and got closer, both they and I noticed that the cat appeared to be very interested in something on the ground directly in front of it. As we drew closer, I saw that the cat had apparently caught and was eating a small rabbit. Ah well..."nature red in tooth and claw", right?

Then I noticed that the rabbit was still alive. *shudder*

It comes rather close to being one of the most horrible things I've ever personally seen. And it made me wonder: where is the lesson in this?

Theistic responses to the problem of pain focus on attempting to answer this question: why would God allow such ostensibly gratuitous suffering? What purpose could it possibly serve? Human-caused suffering is a moral issue and often answered by the so-called "freewill defense", wherein the gift of free will is said to come at a price: the ability to choose evil as a necessary by-product (ignore for a moment the very real possibility that the ability to choose evil and the actual choice of evil are two separate and not necessarily intersecting realities...perhaps I'll reflect on that in another post). At any rate, the "freewill defense" isn't applicable here as the present example is one of natural evil and thus not a moral issue.

Theistic responses to natural, seemingly gratuitous evil generally take one of two approaches: theodicies or so-called "skeptical theism", each of which I'll touch on, below.

Theodicies are attempts to construct rationales or justificatory schema for the occurences of natural evil. In so doing, they attempt to show that the gratuitous aspect of such evils is merely appearance and that God does indeed have specific reasons for allowing or condoning such occurrences. The term apparently originated with Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz whose "best of all possible worlds" theodicy was lampooned by Voltaire in "Candide". Although Leibniz' theodicy could actually be seen as a "formalized" form of the skeptical theism approach, in that he argues that every evil action in the world has a corresponding good associated with it without actually specifying those specific goods, it is generally regarded as the first theodicy. There is a reasonably good discussion of theodicies available at Wikipedia.

The "skeptical theist" approach is predicated upon the ineffable nature of God & His "grand design" and uses the necessarily incomplete nature of human knowledge to argue that just because a particular evil seems gratuitous, God may in fact have a reason for permitting it, albeit one beyond human ken.

While there is certainly some room for overlap between these two approaches, generally it is the case that theodicies will employ a specific rationale while the skeptical theist will eschew specificity. In other words, the proponent of a theodicy will argue, "God has a perfectly good reason for permitting such horrendous evils and here it is" whereas the skeptical theist will maintain, "God has a perfectly good reason for permitting such horrendous evils, but we are unable to discern it due to our epistemic state. Rest assured, however, it is there."

There are numerous problems with both approaches, some subtle, some not so. My point in al of this is not really to explore these issues, but to explain why I believe that in principle all such theistic attempts to dispositively answer evidential arguments of this type are doomed. This post has served as the preliminary to that explication, which should follow in a day or two...

No comments: