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Thread: Philosophically Speaking, "Is Suffering a Challenge to God's Existence?"

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    Registered User Melanie's Avatar
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    Philosophically Speaking, "Is Suffering a Challenge to God's Existence?"

    This particular discussion has next to nothing to do with religion. It's not about what God says, nor about the Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon, etc. There are no scriptures to quote. Many people without any religious persuasion believe a God exists, many don't. It's about whether our suffering is a challenge to his existence. I watched this video and the transcript of the video by Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College and found it to be a unique approach to the question from a philosophical perspective…

    "Isn't human suffering proof that a just, all-powerful God must not exist? On the contrary, says Boston College Professor of Philosophy Peter Kreeft. How can "suffering" exist without an objective standard against which to judge it? Absent a standard, there is no justice. If there is no justice, there is no injustice. And if there is no injustice, there is no suffering. On the other hand, if justice exists, God exists".

    VIDEO:

    http://www.prageruniversity.com/Reli...l#.VZEnkUv7VFI

    TRANSCRIPT OF THE VIDEO:

    All good people are appalled by the sufferings of the innocent. When an innocent person is struck by a painful disease, or tortured or murdered, we naturally feel sadness, helplessness, and often rage.

    Many people have claimed that such suffering is a proof that God does not exist. Their argument goes like this:

    God is all good and all powerful.
    Such a God would not permit unnecessary
    suffering.
    Yet, we constantly observe unjust suffering.
    Therefore, at least one of the premises about God must be false. Either God is not all good or He is not powerful. Or He just doesn't exist.

    What's wrong with this argument?

    First, let's examine what we mean when we say that God would not permit unjust suffering.

    There are two categories of suffering: Suffering caused by human beings, which we call moral evils, and suffering caused by nature, for instance earthquakes or cancer.

    Free will explains how God could be good and allow moral evil. Because God has given people free will, they are free to behave against God's will. The fact that they do evil does not prove that God is not good.

    In addition, if there were no God, there would be no absolute standard of good. Every judgment presupposes a standard. And that's true of our moral judgments, too. What is our standard for judging evil to be evil? The most we could say about evil -- if there were no God -- was that we, in our subjective taste, didn't like it when people did certain things to other people. We wouldn't have a basis for saying an act was 'bad', only that we didn't like it. So the problem of human evil exists only if God exists.

    As for natural suffering, that poses what appears to be a more difficult question.

    We see an innocent child suffer, say from an incurable disease. We complain. Understandable. We don't like it. Understandable. We feel it is wrong, unfair, and shouldn't happen. Understandable, but illogical, unless you believe in God!

    For, if you do not believe in God, your subjective feelings are the only basis upon which you can object to natural suffering. OK, you don't like it. But how is your not liking something evidence for God not existing? Think about it. It's just the opposite. Our judgments of good and evil, natural as well as human, presuppose God as the standard. If there's no God, there's neither good nor evil. There's just nature doing what it does.

    If nature is all there is, there is absolutely no need to explain why one person suffers and another doesn't. Unjust suffering is a problem only because we have a sense of what is just and unjust. But where does this sense come from? Certainly, not from Nature. There's nothing just about nature. Nature is only about survival.

    What, in other words, does it mean for suffering to be 'unnecessary or wrong?' How is that determined? Against what standard? Your private standard means nothing. My private standard means nothing. We can talk meaningfully about suffering being 'unnecessary' or wrong only if we have an underlying belief that a standard of right and wrong objectively exists. And if that standard really exists, that means there is a God.

    Moreover, the believer in God has an incomparably easier time than the atheist psychologically as well as logically in dealing with the problem of natural suffering.

    If you accept that a good God exists, it is possible to also believe that this God somehow sets things right, if not in this world, then in the next.

    For the atheist, on the other hand, no suffering is ever set right. There is no ultimate justice. The bad win and the good suffer. Earthquakes and cancer kill. End of story. Literally.

    If nature is all there is, how can a sensitive person remain sane in a world in which tsunamis wipe out whole towns, evil men torture and murder innocent victims, and disease attacks people indiscriminately? The answer is: it's not possible.

    Is that how you want to live?

    I'm Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College.
    Last edited by Melanie; 07-03-2015 at 09:51 PM.
    Live in the sunshine. Swim in the sea. Drink the wild air ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

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    Maybe YesNo's Avatar
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    It makes sense that "unjust suffering" would not exist without there being some standard by which one can call that suffering "unjust" and if all we have is a subjective standard then being unjust is the same thing as personally not liking something.

    One might try to turn the subjective not liking something into a more objective moral standard without invoking a God by using a group of individuals. But suffering does not affect every individual in a group in the same way. For example, one person buys a stock from another and then the market turns either up or down. One of those people will suffer and the other will be glad they got rid of the stock or bought it.

    The losers suffer. The winners don't. Although maybe they both do if suffering can be considered as whatever is either pleasurable or painful. If suffering is considered as what causes feelings of pleasure or pain, it might be the sign of a blessing for two reasons. First, it motivates us to do something to increase pleasure and avoid pain. This drives evolution, in the broad sense of that term, because it adds intention to changes that occur. Second, it might get us to realize that neither pleasure nor pain is ultimately important and make us ask why we are here at all.
    Last edited by YesNo; 06-30-2015 at 09:04 AM.

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    First of all, many people think "free will" is incompatible with an omniscient God. That's because an omniscient God would always know what choice a person will make, and will have known it from the time of Creation. So, given an omniscient God, Creation involved God's knowledge of and approval of ("it is good") human suffering. In addition, if God knows what choices we will make before we make them (a condition of omniscience), free will is a delusion.

    Second, I don't understand the conflation of "suffering" and "justice". Suffering is subjective by its nature; people can suffer whether there is an objective standard of justice or not.

    Third, even if you do believe in God, "your subjective feelings are the only basis upon which you can object to natural suffering." For who can know the mind of God? Perhaps God's judgment is objective -- human judgment is not, whether the human is a believer or a non-believer.

    Finally, Kreeft says, "Moreover, the believer in God has an incomparably easier time than the atheist psychologically as well as logically in dealing with the problem of natural suffering." This may be true; the heroin addict may have an easier time than the non-addict dealing with his own physical pain. But so what? Kreeft seems to suggest that we should believe what is comforting over believing what is true, which seems a strange position for a philosopher to take.

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    Registered User WyattGwyon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    First of all, many people think "free will" is incompatible with an omniscient God. That's because an omniscient God would always know what choice a person will make, and will have known it from the time of Creation. So, given an omniscient God, Creation involved God's knowledge of and approval of ("it is good") human suffering. In addition, if God knows what choices we will make before we make them (a condition of omniscience), free will is a delusion.
    For reasons I believe you will work out on your own, one might have to add omnipotence to the above formulation. But yes, this argument nails it: If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then free will is logically impossible and this God is morally culpable for all evil and suffering.

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by WyattGwyon View Post
    For reasons I believe you will work out on your own, one might have to add omnipotence to the above formulation. But yes, this argument nails it: If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then free will is logically impossible and this God is morally culpable for all evil and suffering.
    I think God's omniscience alone may eliminate the possibility of free will (although you are correct that we would need to add omnipotence in order to find God responsible for our actions or our suffering). After all, whether God is omnipotent or not, if He knows all of our actions before we perform them, we cannot do other than what God knows we will do. It is true that without omnipotence it is possible that God KNOWS the future, but is not RESPONSIBLE for it. Nonetheless, by some definitions of "free will", mere omniscience is sufficient make it logically impossible for us to choose to do other than what God knows we will do.

    It's a tricky subject. "Free" may simply mean "unconstrained by natural forces", in which case God's prior knowledge of our "choices" might NOT eliminate the possibility of "free will". In other words, although our choices are predetermined, they may still be "free" (under certain definitions of "free"). Personally, I don't see it as an insurmountable logical problem for religion. Some possible responses are:

    1) God is super-powerful and super-knowledgeable, so we CALL Him "omniscient and omnipotent", but there's a touch of hyperbole involved. After all, we know that Odin is constantly referred to as "Odin the all-knowing" -- but he relies on those two ravens to bring him news, so he clearly isn't "all-knowing". Every religion likes to brag up its own God.

    2) The petty suffering of humans is irrelevant to the big picture. Of course we are important TO US, and our religions go on about how God made us in His own image, but "as flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods". Blaming God for our suffering is bit like mosquitoes complaining when we swat them. Why should God care?

    3) Perhaps certain virtues, which cannot exist without suffering, are so "good" that they outweigh the "evil" of suffering. Courage ("fortitude") couldn't exist without suffering. So a world without suffering would be a world without courage. Perhaps God thinks the trade-off is worth it. Anyone who has read "The Worm Ouroboros" by E.R, Eddison may sympathize with this viewpoint.

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    Maybe YesNo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    First of all, many people think "free will" is incompatible with an omniscient God. That's because an omniscient God would always know what choice a person will make, and will have known it from the time of Creation. So, given an omniscient God, Creation involved God's knowledge of and approval of ("it is good") human suffering. In addition, if God knows what choices we will make before we make them (a condition of omniscience), free will is a delusion.
    I don't see anything wrong with suffering by which I include both pleasure and pain. However, the existence of these experiences imply we can make choices.

    For example, sex is pleasurable, but we don't have to have sex. Leaving a partner, since we are a pair-bonding species, is painful, but we can still leave.

    If we were completely determined, there would be no need for suffering. You don't have to give a deterministic machine a pleasant experience nor threaten it with a punishment to make it do what you want.

    So the bottom line is that we are not completely determined.

    Since we are not determined, how is some God able to know our future choices which don't yet exist? There is nothing there yet to know. The most such a God would know is our disposition to behave in one way or another.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    Second, I don't understand the conflation of "suffering" and "justice". Suffering is subjective by its nature; people can suffer whether there is an objective standard of justice or not.
    This confuses me as well and perhaps I misunderstood the talk. I don't see suffering as just or unjust.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    Third, even if you do believe in God, "your subjective feelings are the only basis upon which you can object to natural suffering." For who can know the mind of God? Perhaps God's judgment is objective -- human judgment is not, whether the human is a believer or a non-believer.
    How do you know you cannot know the mind of God, at least in some way, whether you are a believer or not? This assumes the existence of some God-object totally separate from an individual. That God might not exist, and I find such a God uninteresting, but it is not hard to imagine a more panentheistic version of a deity that one can relate to.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    Finally, Kreeft says, "Moreover, the believer in God has an incomparably easier time than the atheist psychologically as well as logically in dealing with the problem of natural suffering." This may be true; the heroin addict may have an easier time than the non-addict dealing with his own physical pain. But so what? Kreeft seems to suggest that we should believe what is comforting over believing what is true, which seems a strange position for a philosopher to take.
    Assume it is true, and I think it is, that a theist is likely to be happier and live longer and have a healthier family than an atheist, why wouldn't an atheist fake belief to get those benefits? It would be like exercising or dieting or therapy even though you don't believe in exercising, dieting or therapy.

    Given the benefits, the claim that a basic panentheistic belief is false needs evidence or argument to support it. One cannot just claim it is false.

    To show that such a belief makes sense, one need simply point to the existence of the world around us. It is not something we are individually making up and it is consistent enough to run experiments against.
    Last edited by YesNo; 06-30-2015 at 07:35 PM.

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    Registered User Melanie's Avatar
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    Why would you (wyatt and ecurb) think that just because God knows ahead of time what our choices/free-will are going to be that it means they aren't possible? If God is omniscient and omnipotent then why wouldn't it be possible for him to make his plan work despite his foreknowledge….for instance, perhaps shield himself from that knowledge in order to let his perfect plan run it's course….or whatever else he may well please. After all, being omnipotent means he can do anything. Even humans can, and do, shield themselves from what they know to be true if that's their will…like "love is blind". That phrase is too trite to describe God's actions but I use it as an example of what even humans can do without even being omnipotent. And I'm not suggesting that shielding his knowledge is the only choice out of gazillions that God has to work with. And I'm not suggesting that I know this to be the answer. After all, I'm not omniscient. I am, however, suggesting that if God is omnipotent then he can do anything he wants.
    Last edited by Melanie; 07-02-2015 at 08:50 AM.
    Live in the sunshine. Swim in the sea. Drink the wild air ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by YesNo View Post

    If we were completely determined, there would be no need for suffering. You don't have to give a deterministic machine a pleasant experience nor threaten it with a punishment to make it do what you want.

    So the bottom line is that we are not completely determined.

    Since we are not determined, how is some God able to know our future choices which don't yet exist? There is nothing there yet to know. The most such a God would know is our disposition to behave in one way or another.....

    Assume it is true, and I think it is, that a theist is likely to be happier and live longer and have a healthier family than an atheist, why wouldn't an atheist fake belief to get those benefits? It would be like exercising or dieting or therapy even though you don't believe in exercising, dieting or therapy.

    .
    Predetermination need not rely on God; things could be determined by physics. Now, I don't know enough modern physics, but I don't buy that it can prove randomness. Randomness might simply mean a pattern invisible to US. Proving randomness and uncertainty is like trying to prove a negative.

    I don't care, by the way, if things are predetermined or not. Why would I? We always behave as if we have choices, so predetermination is moot.

    I can't buy your "believe whatever makes you happy" philosophy. First of all, how can one believe what one doesn't really believe? Second, there may be moral virtue to truth.

    To Melanie: it's irrelevant to the argument whether God ""shield's himself from that knowledge". The point is that if God CAN have foreknowledge of all of our choices, free will is a delusion. Our choices are all predetermined. I agree, however, that this is not an important theological point in criticizing Christian belief. It's a minor, side argument.

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    Maybe YesNo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    Predetermination need not rely on God; things could be determined by physics. Now, I don't know enough modern physics, but I don't buy that it can prove randomness. Randomness might simply mean a pattern invisible to US. Proving randomness and uncertainty is like trying to prove a negative.

    I don't care, by the way, if things are predetermined or not. Why would I? We always behave as if we have choices, so predetermination is moot.

    I can't buy your "believe whatever makes you happy" philosophy. First of all, how can one believe what one doesn't really believe? Second, there may be moral virtue to truth.
    Perhaps the reason "we always behave as if we have choices" is because we actually do. Given the evidence of our behavior, belief that we are determined needs to be justified. It is part of the "moral virtue to truth".

    I assume when you mention "randomness" you are referring to quantum physics. As I understand it, the probabilities used there are not generally random like flipping a coin or throwing dice. That is, those probabilities need not generate a uniform distribution.

    The reason I mention this is because determinism and randomness get linked together as if they represented the universe, however, all I see from quantum physics is uncertainty. Quantum waves are not determined, but are disposed to manifest and behave in predicable but uncertain ways.

    Belief in determinism comes from a belief that the mathematical models of the universe, which are deterministic because that is the way mathematics is, are more than mere models, but are actually the way the universe works to a precision we could never measure and hence verify.

    You have a point about believing what one doesn't really believe. However, just because one cannot believe something does not make it false. A "moral virtue to truth" would need to justify non-belief. Otherwise, it is just a "moral virtue to belief".

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    Registered User Iain Sparrow's Avatar
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    I'll first say that Peter Kreeft's philosophical stance on human suffering and God, has more holes than a slice of swiss cheese and should be slapped on a ham sandwich. His position that if it's not this it must be that is absurd. Worst of all is his lack of understanding of how atheists like myself approach human suffering, or for that matter the Meaning of Life, God and Everything.
    An atheist believes there is no intrinsic value to any human thought or endeavor, suffering, faith in a God, non belief, justice, redemption, etc, etc. A child dying of cancer is no more or less important than a leaf falling from a tree. It's meaningless.

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    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Iain Sparrow View Post
    An atheist believes there is no intrinsic value to any human thought or endeavor, suffering, faith in a God, non belief, justice, redemption, etc, etc. A child dying of cancer is no more or less important than a leaf falling from a tree. It's meaningless.
    Are you sure those aren't just the nihilists, Iain?

    https://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/jksa...%20Russell.pdf
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    I read (very quickly) Bertrand Russell's lecture. It's fun, but not particularly profound. I like the bit where he wonders whether the suffering of the good or the prosperity of the wicked is "more annoying".

    I cannot agree with the notion that fear is the foundation of religion. Why would fear of death make people invent hellfire? That makes no sense. In addition, Russell's complaints about Jesus cursing the fig tree or placing devils in swine seem trivial. Who cares? (I suppose Christians -- especially those who believe in the infallibility of the Bible -- might care, but why should anyone else?)

    Of course Russell is right that most people learn religion at their mother's knees, but the same could be said of atheistic moral principles, of faith in logic and reason, or of faith in science. Most religious people believe in God for the same reason I believe in the Punic Wars: people they trust have told them about Him. That's how humans learn, ever since we invented language.

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    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    I agree. Personally I've never been much impressed with Russell's rather classic statement of (non-Bolshevik) 20th century atheism. I only posted it to challenge Iain's assertion/assumption that:

    "An atheist believes there is no intrinsic value to any human thought or endeavor, suffering, faith in a God, non belief, justice, redemption, etc, etc. A child dying of cancer is no more or less important than a leaf falling from a tree. It's meaningless."

    All nihilists may be atheists, but not all atheists are nihilists. That may show Iain that he has other options, although whether he cares is his own business.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 07-01-2015 at 01:46 PM.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    Maybe YesNo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    I cannot agree with the notion that fear is the foundation of religion. Why would fear of death make people invent hellfire? That makes no sense. In addition, Russell's complaints about Jesus cursing the fig tree or placing devils in swine seem trivial. Who cares? (I suppose Christians -- especially those who believe in the infallibility of the Bible -- might care, but why should anyone else?)

    Of course Russell is right that most people learn religion at their mother's knees, but the same could be said of atheistic moral principles, of faith in logic and reason, or of faith in science. Most religious people believe in God for the same reason I believe in the Punic Wars: people they trust have told them about Him. That's how humans learn, ever since we invented language.
    The argument regarding "fear" may have been a rhetorical attempt to make religion look bad. I also don't care about Russell's particular complaints about Christians.

    The claim that "people learn religion at their mother's knees" I think has been shown by child developmental psychologists to be false. Children's belief comes prior to cultural conditioning. See Justin L. Barrett's "Born Believers: The Science of Children's Religious Belief" for a summary of the literature. If one thinks about the prevalence of religion across many cultures, it makes sense that belief should be rooted in our biology rather than in our cultures.

    The science that Russell's atheism relies on is out of date, which is to be expected since he gave the talk in 1927.

    In his argument against a First Cause Russell has this sentence:

    If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.

    What this sentence made me realize is that Russell likely believed the universe was eternal. It wasn't until the second half of the 20th century that the Big Bang became the accepted view.

    I can see atheism being a reasonable and scientific world view if one did not have the Big Bang, quantum physics and relativity. With these, I don't see any scientific justification for atheism.

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    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by YesNo View Post
    I can see atheism being a reasonable and scientific world view if one did not have the Big Bang, quantum physics and relativity. With these, I don't see any scientific justification for atheism.
    None of which makes the Judeo-Christian God (taken in the sense of supposed Biblical literalism) the theos in question, correct?
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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