Today was my day for another post at Times and Seasons. This time, I went for a very, very short post about the connection between suffering and empathy, with a little help from neuroscience, my favorite band (Thrice), and quotes from the books of Alma and Matthew. The message: Every Scar is a Bridge to Someone’s Broken Heart.
One common atheist argument is that you should disbelieve in God because there is no evidence of God. The argument is commonly made by analogy to other mythical creatures like the tooth fairy or the flying spaghetti monster or a celestial teapot. There’s no evidence of the tooth fairy, but that doesn’t mean that we’re neutral about the existence of tooth fairies. We’re pretty sure, based on the lack of evidence, that they do not actually exist. Here’s Richard Dawkins making this case:
It is often said, mainly by the ‘no-contests’, that although there is no positive evidence for the existence of God, nor is there evidence against his existence. So it is best to keep an open mind and be agnostic. At first sight that seems an unassailable position, at least in the weak sense of Pascal’s wager. But on second thoughts it seems a cop-out, because the same could be said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can’t prove that there aren’t any, so shouldn’t we be agnostic with respect to fairies?
The problem with this argument is that it seems to contradict basic logic: lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. And yet the intuition seems solid. We don’t merely not believe in the tooth fairy, we actually disbelieve in its existence.
Most people either write off the “lack of evidence isn’t evidence of lack” line as a kind of irrelevant technicality or try to treat disbelief as something other than a form of belief. These approaches are sloppy and incorrect, and they create a warped skepticism in which negative beliefs are given an irrational and unearned privilege over positive beliefs. That’s not real skepticism, it’s just inverse credulity combined with dodgy semantics. It makes a mockery of the proud tradition of philosophical skepticism by creating a mirror image of blind faith. In the old days, the existence of God was accepted without proof. These days, a kind of hostile disbelief in God is accepted without proof instead. Meet the new orthodoxy, same in process and approach as the old orthodoxy.
Luckily, however, there actually is a way to reconcile our intuition that we should be skeptical of the tooth fairy (not merely neutral) with the rules of logic. The term that comes to the rescue is compossibility. This is a term I learned from reading an incredibly great sci-fi book, but the term originates with Leibniz. From Wikipedia:
According to Leibniz a complete individual thing (for example a person) is characterized by all its properties, and these determine its relations with other individuals. The existence of one individual may contradict the existence of another. A possible world is made up of individuals that are compossible — that is, individuals that can exist together.
Let’s take a look at how the concept of compossibility can be used to provide a solid rational backing for the intuition that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist without requiring us to contradict the principle that lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. Except, instead of a tooth fairy, I’m going to go with the proposition that there’s an invisible unicorn in your backyard. Now, should you have:
Belief | You think that there is a unicorn.
Non-Belief | You do not think that there is a unicorn.
Disbelief | You do not think that there is a unicorn and you think that there is not a unicorn.
Here’s how compossibility comes to the rescue. A unicorn is basically a horse with a horn on its head. Horses are large mammals. If you had a large mammal in your back yard then, even if we concede it’s invisible, it would still leave hoofprints and unicorn poo behind, and it would probably also be rather noisy. Do you see any hoofprints? Smell unicorn poo? Do you hear a large 4-legged beast walking around and breathing heavily? Nope? Then you don’t just have a lack of evidence. You really do in fact, based on compossibility, have evidence of a lack. These things should be there, and they are not. Therefore, the invisible unicorn is not compossible with the state of your backyard (e.g. free of unicorn poo).
Now, I might tell you that the reason there are no hoofprints and that there is no unicorn poo is that the unicorn is actually not just a horse with a horn on its head. It’s a magical creature that only looks like a horse. In fact, however, it is light as a feather (no hoofprints) and subsists on love (no material food, ergo no unicorn poo). This new definition of an invisible unicorn is more compossible with the state of your backyard (hoofprint and unicorn poo free!), but it’s actually not more believable because now it’s asking you to believe other things that are not compossible with your experience of the world. Where, if invisible unicorns are common, do the dead ones go? Why aren’t people stumbling and falling over invisible unicorn corpses? Or hitting them with their cars? And if they are rare, how do they keep up a viable breeding density? And if they don’t breed, where do they come from? Etc.
These questions are, of course, all a bit absurd. The point is that our human intuition is, generally speaking, pretty good at doing this kind of analysis unconsciously and quickly. You don’t really need to go through all the specific questions. You can just take the basic concept of a unicorn and see that such an animal remaining undetected is highly improbable. So you’ve got a good reason to suspect that if there’s no evidence then it actually is not present. The more the definition gets altered to make the lack of evidence seem credible, the more the definition itself becomes incredible. You start asking where the unicorn poo goes and you end up asking questions about the thermodynamics of a creature that converts love to kinetic energy to move its body.
So our disbelief in things like the tooth fairy doesn’t come from what we don’t know. It comes from what we do know. It comes from everyday knowledge about biology and human nature and physics. Skepticism of things like invisible unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters or celestial teapots is not properly rationalized by knee-jerk preference for disbelief, but by deliberation about compossibility.
So how does this apply to the real argument at hand: the existence of God? I’m not going to try to convince anyone that God is real using compossibility. I’m just going to differentiate between good arguments for the non-existence of God and bad arguments for the non-existence of God. Bad arguments might take the form of, “Well, there’s no evidence so we should disbelieve.” That’s not a logically sound position to take. It’s just prejudice wrapped up in rational terminology. The argument is bad both because it’s a poor argument but also because it just doesn’t lead to any productive thought or discussion. It’s a waste of everybody’s time.
But a very good argument for the non-existence of God is to rely on something like the Problem of Evil. This turns out to be a compossibility argument again: how are (1) an all-powerful God and (2) a benevolent God and (3) the crappy state of affairs here on Earth all compossible? Just like skepticism of the invisible unicorn in your backyard, skepticism of a benevolent and all-powerful God based on the injustice and miserable suffering on Earth is a skepticism with reason behind it. Such skepticism is good both because it’s logically stronger, and also because it can lead to useful discussion.
I’m not going to answer how they can co-exist. Sorry to disappoint.
Actually, my answer is that I cannot completely know why suffering and evil exist. There’s plenty of good answers that I believe cover areas of evil, such as how evil can result from human moral freedom, suffering can bring about greater good, etc. but sooner or later we reach what we would call pointless suffering–suffering that seems to serve no purpose.
But today it dawned on me that labeling suffering as pointless is presuming knowledge a human being cannot possibly possess if God does indeed exist. I just finished reading the book of Job, and the deeper I grow in faith, the more God’s answer seems completely justified:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, 7 when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Truly, who can fathom why God made the world the way he did? Can we see all ends and declare with utmost certainty that we know suffering is pointless, that God had no point in allowing evil? Logic is a powerful human engine, but even logic has its limitations. Can any one human being presume to see all ends and render judgment on whether suffering has a purpose or not?
What’s more, if we presume God exists, I would argue instead that no suffering can be pointless by definition. Any suffering we endure can be offered to the glory of God. I still don’t why suffering exists, but I now know what I can do with any and all suffering that comes my way. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:
My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.
It’s not an easy philosophy to carry out by any means. But I don’t think rejecting God makes the situation any better. In fact, I’d argue it makes it worse. Saying God doesn’t exist in response to the problem of evil doesn’t solve the riddle to why we suffer. It simply removes any right or basis we could possibly have for questioning why we suffer. Nature certainly doesn’t care one way or the other if we suffer and die.
The above may seem like an argument from ignorance. I don’t know, so I give up. Actually, I think it strikes a middle way: I don’t know, so I won’t presume to know in order to answer why we suffer. I think there’s much value in knowing what you cannot know, and if God exists, I definitely do not have the knowledge, either empirical or theoretical, to see all ends and explain why all suffering has ever happened and will continue to happen. But that ignorance doesn’t really bother me. As an atheist I said we shouldn’t invent answers where we simply don’t know, and I will continue to assert the same as a Christian. Better to say I don’t know than invent a false answer that presumes knowledge beyond my capacity.
As a final thought, I remember talking to a deacon who had given funerals for children. Parents often ask why their child died, and the deacon always answers, “I don’t know.” He said it’s the best answer because, truly, he doesn’t know, and trying to discern or invent an answer to a child’s death will do nothing but hurt already bereaved parents. I think that’s a good approach. There’s a real temptation for Christians to have an answer for all suffering because God is so often called to account. We should resist that temptation. Instead, let us weep with those who weep and remember that even the very wise, as Gandalf famously said, cannot see all ends.
After taking a break from posting at Times And Seasons for the last couple of months, I posted this morning about the necessary role of pain and suffering in human life and our society’s maladaptive response to it. I have lots more posts in progress, so I will be returning to every Monday or at least every other Monday for the foreseeable future.
Dr. Felitti ran an incredibly successful preventative health program, but one of the initiatives had a puzzling problem. Aimed at helping people who were significantly overweight, he found that about 50% of the population would drop out before completing the program, even though they were making good progress. His efforts to uncover this mystery led to something even bigger. In a massive study with over 17,000 participants, Dr. Felittie and others discovered that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)–things like physical or sexual abuse–created a staggering toll on adult health: “chronic disease,… mental illness, doing time in prison, and work issues, such as absenteeism.” What was really surprising, however, was the extent of the exposure to ACEs. Over 2/3rds of study participants had experienced at least one form of adverse childhood experience, and of that population, 87% have experienced two or more. Dr. Felitti, upon seeing the results for the first time, says “I wept. I saw how much people had suffered and I wept.”
Suffering, as I noted in my last post, is an intrinsic part of reality. We are expected to mourn with those who mourn. Confronting suffering, pain, and sin head-on is the life of Christian. If our example is Jesus Christ, a man who “loved people in great misery who were taken from Him and did not understand Him” and was then “beaten and executed for espionage and treason,” how then can we as disciples not look misery in the face? We can shy away from music that is filled with angst, despair, and sadness. We can look at it as “unworthy.” But we might miss out on something beautiful. As philosopher Roger Scruton noted, “Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in anunlimited variety of ways…[I]t speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend.”
There are lots of great songs in that post. Song full of loss and longing. Here is just one.
Every so often as a teenager I would feel overcome by personal failures. This would culminate in an evening spent in recrimination and prayer as I tried to stoke the embers of idealism against the chill of disappointment. After a few hours of listening to my favorite music, I would feel renewed fiery ambition. In that spirit of fervor, I often scribbled hasty notes full of schedules and goals to guide my new life. At last I would go to sleep secure in my hopeful exhaustion that this time would be different. And yet each time I rose the following morning to look at the notes I had left myself, they seemed as foreign as if they’d been written by an alien hand. I had passed through the low valley and traversed the high peak, and both had left me unscathed. For good or for ill nothing had changed. I was as I had always been.