The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Pain

I am a big fan of the music of Micah Schnabel even though he is an atheist and I am what I like to call an agno-theist or a hopeful agnostic (I do not know that there is a God but I hope that there is). In his song “Oh What a Bummer”, Schnabel sings, “Well God bless me? No thank you, I’ve seen her work, and I can’t say I’m a fan.” What Schnabel is alluding to is what philosophers call the Problem of Evil.

The Problem of Evil asks, if God is both good and omnipotent, why is there evil, pain, and suffering in the world? If God has the power to prevent evil, why does God not do so?

In its conventional formulation, the Problem of Evil makes no distinction between evils inflicted by humans on others, and the pain and suffering caused by events outside of human control like disease and natural disasters. I believe such a distinction should be made. I would call the latter issue the Problem of Pain.

Such a distinction makes the Problem of Evil less difficult to contend with. In my opinion, God is not responsible for the things humans do to each other (or to animals or anything else). We are responsible for our own actions.

It could be countered that if God had given us better natures, we would not inflict such evil upon each other. But I find this line of reasoning unconvincing. It sounds to me like oppressors and exploiters saying “we can not be blamed, we can not help but oppress and exploit because that is the nature God gave us.” I do not accept this. Humans can not blame God for human actions. In another song (Emergency Room), Micah Schnabel sings, “this is the society that we’ve made…”.

The Problem of Pain, as I have defined it, is more difficult to contend with. Why do humans suffer from events beyond anyone’s control? Why are there disasters, diseases, and why even death in the world? Why does anyone have to die? Or to suffer from things beyond our ability to control while alive?

Ivan Karamazov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov puts this problem in a most devastating form: “Tell me yourself-I challenge you: let’s assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let’s say the little girl…would you agree to do it? Tell me and don’t lie!” Essentially Ivan is saying, what if you could create a perfect world of peace and happiness but to do so would require a single child to suffer? Would you? Ivan’s brother Alyosha answers that no, he would not create such a world if it required even a single innocent child to suffer.

So why do we suffer from events beyond anyone’s control if God is both good and omnipotent? One answer is to ask, what does it mean to be omnipotent? Does it mean having the ability to do anything imaginable? Or does it mean being able to do anything possible but not what is logically impossible? In the latter case, it has been suggested, perhaps we do in fact live in “the best of all possible worlds.”

A limitation of this argument is that it confines itself to our one planet, Earth. Modern science gives us a much more expansive view of the universe. Could it be though that we live in the “best of all possible universes”? If we extend our perspective to cover the universe as a whole, this traditional argument makes even more sense, at least to my mind.

Biology is an extension of chemistry, which is, like astronomy and geology, an extension of physics. If God set the universe in motion at the Big Bang with the laws of physics as we know them, then everything is a consequence of the laws of physics, except our apparent free will, which physics has been unable to explain. Evolution through natural selection has produced some results that are not great for us. Natural disasters are the result of geological processes. But everything ultimately works the way it does because physics is what it is.

If the laws of physics were different, would the universe be a better place? Even if we assume God had the power to make the laws of physics in our universe different than what they are, it is hard to imagine what changes could have led to better results for us. What fundamental forces would need to be different so that viruses and infectious bacteria would never evolve? If gravity were weaker, we would be in less danger from falling debris during natural disasters. But what negative consequences would that have?

The evil we do to one another is our own responsibility. I can not imagine how the laws of physics being different could result in a universe in which we experience less pain from events outside of human control. Maybe there could be a set of physical laws and fundamental forces that would result in a less painful existence for us. If so, I do not think we can ever really know since the only physics we can know is the what we have. I find it just as easy to believe that no such possibility could exist. In that case, we do live in the best of all possible universes and God can not be held responsible for our painful experiences.

Deists have traditionally believed that God created the world but does not intervene any further in it. A modern version might see God setting the universe in motion, perhaps at the Big Bang, but intervening no further. Deists have traditionally believed in an afterlife, however. An afterlife does not fit neatly into our modern scientific understanding of the universe. But neither does free will. If there is something about us that can act outside the physical chain of cause and effect, then perhaps that something could survive the death of our physical bodies.

Deists do not believe in miracles. This is why Thomas Jefferson edited the Gospels to remove the miracles. But if we possess a mind that can cause effects in the physical universe (like neurons firing, perhaps) without an earlier cause acting on it, then perhaps God, as the ultimate mind, has an even greater ability to do so. The philosophical problem with miracles would be that if God has the ability to act contrary to, or at least outside of, the laws of physics on the scale required for a miracle, why does God not do so to prevent all of our pain and suffering? This would in effect lead to a universe without physical laws governing it but held together solely by God’s will. Perhaps there are reasons why such a universe can not be, or would not be desirable, even if God can and sometimes does cause things to happen outside of the ordinary chain of cause and effect.

Or maybe the Deists are right and there are no miracles. Either way, it is just as easy for me to imagine a universe with an ultimate consciousness behind it as it is to imagine one without any such consciousness. Even if there is no afterlife, if there is a consciousness that can observe and remember all that happens in the universe, that would be enough, I think, so that our actions and lives are not meaningless. A universe without an eternal consciousness is meaningless. So I hope that there is a God.

If there is a God, why God made the laws of physics as they are and why they are not violated very often if at all is beyond our comprehension as humans. But I find it plausible that the laws of physics are no worse than any possible alternative could have been. That does leave the question Ivan raised though: why create a universe at all if it has to involve suffering? Our universe is far from perfect from our perspective. And far more than a single child has to suffer. So why does anything exist instead of nothing?

To this I can only answer that I believe existence is worth it even though we have to suffer for it. I believe most people feel the same way most of the time. People will sometimes say “I wish I was never born.” But how many really mean it deep down? Usually if they do really mean it, it is only for a time. Most of us, most of the time, seem to fundamentally accept and value our existence. We do not wish to “return the ticket”, as Ivan Karamazov claims he wishes to do.

Originally published at http://niknotes2020.wordpress.com on November 15, 2020.

I’ve decided to try my hand at a blog. I started a Word Press site, but thought I’d post my writings on Mediums as well.