The Problem of Evil v the Problem of Suffering.


Using our cognitive limitations to explain away the existence of evil must logically lead to a complete collapse of the Christian worldview. From Philosophical Disquisitions.

Everyone who knows anything about Christian theology, or who has ever argued with Christians, knows about the Problem of Evil. The simplest argument goes like this:

1. If an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God exists, then evil cannot exist.
2. Evil exists.
3. There is no omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God.

This argument is logically airtight but conceptually complex, which makes it more vulnerable to attacks. There are a number of variants of the Problem of Evil which either nail down some specifically unexplainable kind of evil or deal with attacks by demonstrating that they also lead to contradictions.

As examples of the former, one can talk about “gratuitous evils” (such as a deer dying in a forest fire without any witnesses), unbelief, evil in the Bible, or poor design; as an example of the latter, the Moral Argument from Evil demonstrates that if the theodicies are true and all the evil that happens is justified, then there is no reason for Christians to try to intervene to stop evil, which is clearly absurd.

Even though the arguments are numerous and the approaches to the topic are many, the gist of it is simple: evil exists in this world, and we shouldn’t expect this to be true if this world was created by a just God.

Antinatalists have a similar argument, although again it takes different forms: for the sake of nomenclature, let’s call its general form the Problem of Suffering. We can express it like this:

1. Creating suffering is an evil act.
2. Procreation entails the creation of suffering.
3. Procreation is an evil act.

Variants of this argument include Benatar’s Asymmetry, the consent argument, anti-frustrationism, ecological arguments (e.g. VHEMT), and so on.

What is being argued here is not the non-existence of God, but rather the ethical status of procreation. Still, we can partially rephrase the Problem of Evil to show the obvious parallel:

1. Creating evil is itself an evil act.
2. God’s creative act included the creation of evil.
3. God’s creative act was an evil act.

You can probably guess the rest of the argument. The point here is that both arguments are about the creation of suffering and harm.

Obviously most atheists will accept the Problem of Evil but not the Problem of Suffering, since most atheists are not antinatalists. But why? I would say most atheists would accept human suffering as an evil, and that therefore they would consider the creation of suffering to be an evil act as well. And the premise that procreation entails suffering is equally obviously true. So there does not seem to be any substantial difference between the two arguments.

I anticipate certain objections. I think it is likely that people would answer, for example, that the parent does not create the evil itself but only the conditions for it. But this is equally true of God: I don’t think anyone claims that God literally created a forest fire or an HIV infection, that these are the result of natural law and human action subject to cause and effect, that God is only the most distal cause. The same is true of parents in relation to the suffering experienced by their children.

A further objection along these lines would be that parents, unlike God, are not omniscient, but I don’t really see the relevance in this case; parents are aware of the risks in having children, and therefore should naturally assume that they could happen to their children as well. Granted, breeders are not known for their sense of reality, but they don’t lack knowledge. They just don’t care. People who are committed to an indefensible course of action usually don’t care about the consequences, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it.

Natalists attempts to reframe the issue are about as successful as the theodicies to the Problem of Evil. In fact, we can see some obvious parallels between theodicies and reframings.

For example, natalists will argue that pleasure cannot exist without suffering, that they are both part of life and that therefore we must just passively accept people going around creating more and more suffering. This is very similar to the theodicy which states that good cannot exist without evil, and that therefore we must accept that God just had to create evil. But obviously atheists do not accept this rationalization.

Another rationalization holds that our lives contain more pleasure than suffering, and that therefore procreation is “worth it.” This is similar to the theodicy which states that suffering is necessary for some “greater good,” which in this case would be the pleasures in one’s life. Again, this theodicy is not accepted by atheists, so why should we accept it in the case of the Problem of Suffering?

I think we could go down the line of the theodicies and convert them easily into rationalizations of procreation. But since they are already unconvincing in their theodicy form, they don’t really matter either.

Some people try to argue that suffering is not really evil, and generally try to make a relativist argument. But this is no help here since relativism goes against the Problem of Evil as well: if there’s no such thing as objective moral standards, then there can be no universally observable concept of evil, and we can hardly fault God for the existence of something that doesn’t exist.

Compounding this fatal flaw is the fact that most, if not all, instances of evil in the Problem of Evil are also instances of suffering referred by the Problem of Suffering; if the latter are all invalid, then the Problem of Evil is rather trivialized, I would think (I could be wrong on this, but if anyone can name me an instance of evil from the Problem of Evil that does not generate suffering in some sentient life, I’d love to hear it).

The Problem of Evil has attained such a prominent place because it is so very obvious (which is also why it’s been discovered so early and why it’s been such a theological preoccupation). The Problem of Suffering is equally obvious and I’m sure it has popped up in the minds of a lot of people from all eras and places. For obvious reasons, it has never been fashionable enough to get its own name.

I don’t think the parallel between divine creation and breeding is particularly surprising. Breeders are by nature arrogant and authoritarian, and God has the arrogance and authoritarianism of the breeder times trillions. The idea that God is a substitute father figure is not by far new, but it seems to fit perfectly here, although it seems to me equally fruitful to look at the father as a mini-God. Do fathers not want to breed “in their own image” (the image of the “bloodline” or “genes”) and do they not seek to keep their children in naive ignorance like God does in the Garden of Eden myth?

The sum total of that human perversity we call “pedagogy” or “child-raising,” after all, consists of deciding what to do with one’s total control over another human being. It has nothing to do with love. This can also be said about most religions and cults; despite their self-serving rhetoric, they have little to do with love and a great deal to do with control over other human beings on all possible dynamics.

I’ve already written an entry in the past linking atheism to anarchism, which a lot of atheists resisted. So I want to reiterate here that I am not stating that atheists must become antinatalists or anything of the sort. What I am saying is that logically speaking the Problem of Evil should lead one to accept the Problem of Suffering and antinatalism in general, that there is a strong parallel in the arguments and objections. Whining that your poor fee fees have been hurt (like I’ve gotten by the shovelful after my atheism/anarchism entry) will be mocked mercilessly.

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12 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil v the Problem of Suffering.

  1. Cann Abyss May 2 2014 at 4:14 Reply

    In my opinion, it is better to never be exposed to existence in the first place, than to be forced into existence.

    What kind of person willingly gives birth to a creature that doesn’t yet know if he or she desires to exist? Many people grow up to regret being born. How could a parent live with the knowledge that their own child never wished to be born? Or what if their child has no ambition, or becomes addicted to drugs or a life of crime?!

    That’s why I’ll never reproduce.

  2. Dan May 19 2014 at 19:20 Reply

    “What I am saying is that logically speaking the Problem of Evil should lead one to accept the Problem of Suffering and antinatalism in general”

    True, I think that’s what brought me to this philosophy which I didn’t know was an actual philosophy until recently. But the conclusion I reach is that breeding is only a problem now, not inherently. I think originally creation/breeding was an enormous responsibility that those in power failed at. Now that we have a mess, it’s a moral question. Perhaps the original parent (GOD) was the first to shirk responsibility so that’s where we need to return. In a way, I think atheism and AN have another similarity in that they are actually MORE spiritual than it appears on the surface.

    • Dan May 19 2014 at 19:24 Reply

      Of course the typical Christian answer would be that GOD did rectify the mess by way of Jesus, but that’s merely shifting responsibility.

    • Francois Tremblay May 19 2014 at 20:02 Reply

      We agree on that latter point, at least.

      • Dan May 20 2014 at 16:55 Reply

        Cool. Maybe I’m not a true AN because while I think breeding now poses a moral question, I’m not sure I can say it has always been this way. Perhaps there was a “garden of eden” where everything was simple and without flaws, but over time have become needlessly complex and painful. I think the moral significance of consent is relative to the conditions present. If life was pure love and happiness, I don’t think the problem we are discusing would exist.

        • Francois Tremblay May 20 2014 at 17:02 Reply

          Yes, that’s true. But then we wouldn’t have many other problems, either. And this blog wouldn’t exist. What a happy day that would be.

          But no, I gotta keep writing. :)

          • Dan May 23 2014 at 14:30

            Lol. I guess my point is that with limited knowledge of our history or origins, it is hard to say that even if we can stop certain things by not breeding, whether that change will be effective or permanent. I’m just theorizing here but of course in the present, the “right” thing would appear to be putting an end to future suffering.

    • Cann Abyss May 20 2014 at 4:04 Reply

      I think breeding has always been a problem. The problem being that nobody cares about their own suffering enough to prevent themselves from birthing another human who is most likely not going to care about their own suffering enough to prevent themselves from birthing another human etc etc and here we are now! Generations of idiots suffering through time, never thinking that their suffering is tragic and evil enough to rectify by refusing to breed by any means possible. For instance, my teeth are royally screwed up and I owe the dentist thousands of dollars. I can barely pay rent right now. And millions of Americans are in my exact shoes, AND THEY WILL STILL BREED REGARDLESS OF BEING POOR AND IN PAIN!!!!!!!!

      • Francois Tremblay May 20 2014 at 4:17 Reply

        Yep. Life is not worth making more of it. Let’s take care of the people who already exist, and give them an easy exit if they need one.

  3. Hada May 23 2014 at 10:22 Reply

    I enjoyed the post.

    Your blog is excellent François. Thank you!!!

    Keep posting.

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