Debate Round One: Commentary on Peter Hurford’s Opening Statement

by Matt DeStefano on February 21, 2012

I’m one of the three judges for the debate between cl and Peter Hurford. In the interest of keeping the judging as fair as possible, Peter and cl have agreed to have one atheist, one theist, and one agnostic serve as judges. I suppose I fall under the “atheist” category, and I want to thank them for including me in this discussion.

To qualify myself a bit in this particular subject, I spent a semester last year in a seminar class on the Problem of Evil, so I have a fairly extensive foundation in the state of affairs in philosophy regarding this debate, as well as a familiarity with the primary texts involved. While I certainly have a position on the issue, I’m going to attempt to remain as objective and impartial as humanly possible. My overall impression of Peter’s opening statement was very positive.

Needless Suffering

Peter begins by delineating what needless suffering entails:

“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.”

The language “an entity capable of feeling it” is a bit vague, but it seems he is referring to an idea roughly equivalent to sentience. None of his examples tie him to any necessary definition here, so we can operate under that assumption. He makes the claim by that if needless suffering exists, we do not live in the best possible world, which is to say by eliminating the needless suffering we will improve our world.

The pain of surgery and recovery, under Peter’s definition, would be an example of necessary suffering. We endure surgery and the pain of recovery in order to save us from more pain or severe consequences down the road.

I think this example actually fails as necessary suffering under Peter’s definition, though. The suffering of surgery is not “logically required” in order to realize a higher benefit – after all, God could magically remove a kidney without having a person endure the pain in surgery. I think this is a slip between natural/logical possibility and the entailment relationships, but it’s not terribly prudent to pursue it anymore here.

Assumptions & The Problem of Evil

Peter makes two assumptions: (1) Theism posits the existence of a God that is benevolent and omnipotent and (2) this God would have no reason to allow needless suffering. He omits omniscience here (I assume accidentally), but other than that this is a pretty basic description of the Problem of Evil. Knowing this debate isn’t about the general Problem of Evil, he makes a distinction:

“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.”

Peter is roughly reforming Rowe’s evidential argument from evil, arguing that God and needless suffering are mutually exclusive.

Peter’s 3 Examples of Needless Suffering

Peter has three examples of needless suffering in mind that he thinks are impossible for an omni-God to allow:

(a) Babies that suffer intensely and die from birth defects

(b) Nonhuman animals that suffer intensely in the wild and in our factory farms

(c) The Bubonic Plague that killed 25 million people in the 14th century.

Example (b) is a page right out of Rowe’s book. Rowe’s prototypical example of gratuitous evil (‘needless suffering’) is a small fawn, Bambi, dying a slow and painful death over a matter of weeks from egregioius burns. Examples (a) and (c) are evils that don’t result from human choice but rather are a consequence of living in our environment. Peter wishes to argue that these are needless because “no higher benefit can be identified that would logically require any of these examples.”

Peter then turns to theodicies, or attempts to explain why certain flavors of suffering might exist given the existence of God. He feels that by undermining the  cases for these theodicies, he buttresses the case for these being instances of unnecessary suffering.

Theodicy #1 Free Will  

Peter briefly talks about the Free-Will theodicy, but dismisses it fairly quickly as he says:

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.

I’m not sure this is entirely true (factory farming, human treatment of animals, fetal alcohol syndrome and other effects by poor choices of diet, activity, etc.), but it’s also rather inconsequential. The broad majority of specific instances of suffering under Peter’s examples do fall outside of the realm of human freedom.

Theodicy # 2 Punishment of Sin 

One popular theodicy is that suffering is punishment for sins, and Peter makes a three-prong case against this theodicy:

    • 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.

Peter’s third criticism of this theodicy seems to be the most profound. If suffering is punishment for sin, it doesn’t seem that it’s being doled out in a justifiable manner. Evil people can have lavish and extraordinarily pain-free lives, while saints and heroes can live their entire lives in the pits of suffering. It’s a strong criticism, and one that has certainly been echoed by a majority of phil-religion scholars.

Theodicy # 3 – The Need for Natural Law

Peter dismisses this theodicy by saying that (1) “there’s no reason an omnipotent God couldn’t make a world with a consistent physics that doesn’t have these examples” and (2) none of [his] examples are “remotely fundamental” to physics, and the world could operate just fine without the Bubonic plague.

I think Peter van Inwagen’s “massively irregular world” is a pretty good critique of Peter’s stated reasons. I’m not sure that the criticisms Peter levels at this argument actually address what the main thrust of this theodicy intends to illustrate. I don’t want to spend too much time editorializing, but the question a theist might ask of Peter is “What kind of world is one an atheist would find satisfactory? One in which God whimsically changes the laws of nature in order to prevent someone from stubbing their toe?”

Theodicy #4 – The Soul Building Defense

Again, Peter offers a three-pronged criticism of this theodicy:

    • 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.
Again, it seems that this theodicy doesn’t address the majority of Peter’s examples, and I think it fails for (1) and (2) which Peter mentions. It’s interesting that Peter says “God has infinite love for himself”, as I’m not sure if this is actually  a popular theological view – but his point that suffering is not logically necessary for learning lessons or loving God still reasonably stands.
I’m going to leave out analysis on theodicy #5 (genuine human accomplishment) and theodicy #6 (Reward of Heaven), as I’ve never seen those seriously advocated with any real success. I think Peter is spot on with both criticisms there,and I’d like to look at the last leg of his argument.
One of the common charges against the evidential problem of evil is the reasoning step from “There is probably unnecessary suffering” to “there is unnecessary suffering” or from “I can find no reason for suffering” to “there is no reason for suffering”. This is what Wykstra and others have criticized, which has resulted in the movement of “Skeptical Theism” movement. They argue that we can’t possibly discern God’s reasons for allowing suffering, and making this move is simply outside of our epistemic abilities. Peter uses an analogy for his response:

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”?

It’s a purposely, I imagine, ridiculous example but I think his point is a fair one. Are we simply to maintain an attitude of ignorance despite the failure (as Peter sees it, and has argued) of the theodicies to adequately explain the necessity of suffering? As he says:

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.

Of course, the skeptical theist may respond that the analogy is insufficient, and that while we may be able to reasonably discern whether or not reindeer can fly, we simply don’t have the faculties to comprehend what God’s possible motives for allowing suffering could be, and any proposals are empty gestures into thin air. (See Peter van Inwagen’s “Argument from Silence”)

Overall, Peter did a fantastic job in his Opening Statement. His arguments were valid, his definitions were clear, and he did a good job at providing epistemic warrant for accepting his premises and the rejections of the various theodicies. It’s certainly hard to judge this on a point scale (as our current system does seem to favor argument flooding), I will award Peter the full 12 points. I’m looking forward to the rest of this debate.

  • Peter Hurford

    The link to my website is broken!  Otherwise, thank you for the commentary and I look forward to responding to it when I can!

  • Matt DeStefano

    Sorry Peter, thanks for catching that. It’s fixed now. 

  • R0c1

    “What kind of world is one an atheist would find satisfactory? One in which God whimsically changes the laws of nature in order to prevent someone from stubbing their toe?”

    While it’s true that I don’t want God keeping me from every imaginable discomfort, I would happily take a divine insurance policy of “you and your family will never be burned or buried alive”.

    Have you ever heard of Fun Theory?

    “Fun Theory is part of the fully general reply to religion; in particular, it is the fully general reply to theodicy.  If you can’t say how God could have better created the world without sliding into an antiseptic Wellsian Utopia, you can’t carry Epicurus’s argument.  If, on the other hand, you have some idea of how you could build a world that was not only more pleasant but also a better medium for self-reliance, then you can see that permanently losing both your legs in a car accident when someone else crashes into you, doesn’t seem very eudaimonic.

    If we can imagine what the world might look like if it had been designed by anything remotely like a benevolently inclined superagent, we can look at the world around us, and see that this isn’t it.” —

  • Matt DeStefano

    Thanks, Anon. I’ve heard of ‘Fun Theory’ before but haven’t really investigated it any further than a post on Less Wrong. I’m not sure I see the direct applicability – are instances of ‘Fun Theory’ (or alternative universes proposed by it) supposed to serve as models to what an atheist has in mind considering the “best possible world”?

Previous post:

Next post: