(This is a sequel to my previous post in response to Professor Anthony Grayling, entitled Is the notion of God logically contradictory?)
In a recent short essay, entitled God and Disaster, Professor Anthony Grayling, a leading atheist philosopher and Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, lamented the loss of life from the recent earthquake in Japan and the tsunami that followed it. He then went on to voice his perplexity at television reports of people going to church after the massive earthquake which hit Christchurch, New Zealand, on February 22, killing over 200 people. Grayling concluded by wondering how such people could believe in such an “incoherent fiction” as the idea of a Deity. “This,” he wrote, “is a perennial puzzle.”
Before I address the substance of Professor Grayling’s essay, I’d like readers to keep one simple question uppermost in their minds: exactly what does Grayling want God to do, in order to prevent human suffering?
Let me begin with a short word about myself. Like Professor Grayling, I possess a Ph.D. in philosophy. Unlike him, I live and work in Japan, and I was working in Yokohama, Japan, when the earthquake struck on Friday, March 11th at 2:46 p.m. local time. After the quake hit, I spent the night with several hundred people in a shopping mall near Yokohama station, as the trains had stopped running. On the Sunday after the quake, I also attended my local church, where the congregation is almost entirely Japanese. Despite the tragic loss of life – the death toll is expected to exceed 20,000 – the earthquake did not weaken my belief in God. It did, however, reinforce my conviction that attempts to rationalize suffering – such as Leibniz’s optimistic assertion that we live in the best of all possible worlds, which Voltaire savagely satirized in his novel Candide – are fundamentally wrong-headed. Whole towns were swept away by the tsunami following the quake. The suffering that people experience in disasters is absurd and pointless; on this point, the atheists are surely right.
The views I present in this essay are mine, and I take sole responsibility for them. My aim is to show that two mistaken theological assumptions – the notion that God can do anything imaginable and the notion that God always does things for the best – lie at the heart of the contemporary “New Atheist” insistence that senseless suffering renders belief in God irrational. In passing, I also point out examples of invalid arguments for Darwinian evolution which rely on the assumption that that God can do anything imaginable. (Most readers will be aware that I have no problem with common descent; it is evolution by an unguided process requiring no input of information by an Intelligent Designer at any stage which I reject.) I conclude my essay by defending a traditional (and rather unfashionable) answer to the problem of suffering, which addresses Professor Grayling’s theological problems.
In his essay, God and Disaster, Professor Grayling writes of God:
For if he is not competent to stop an earthquake or save its victims, he is definitely not competent to create a world. And if he is powerful enough to do both, but created a dangerous world that inflicts violent and agonizing sufferings arbitrarily on sentient creatures, then he is vile.
1. Pegasus and the perils of picture thinking
What’s gone wrong here? Professor Grayling has allowed himself to misled by “picture thinking” – the idea that if anything is picturable, it’s possible. Because Grayling can mentally picture a Shangri-la where nobody ever gets hurt in earthquakes and tsunamis, he would expect a benevolent Deity to make the world of his dreams. But the problem with this line of thinking is that it conflates two distinct notions: picturability and conceivability. Only the latter can tell us what is possible. Picture thinking cannot.
To appreciate the difference between picturability (or imaginability) and conceivability, consider these two cases, discussed by philosopher Edward Feser in his theological polemic, The Last Superstition (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008, p. 105):
You can form no clear mental image of a chiliagon – a thousand-sided figure – certainly not one that’s at all distinct from your mental image of a 997-sided figure or a 1002-sided figure. Still, your intellect can easily grasp the concept of a chiliagon. You can form no mental image of a triangle that is not equilateral, isosceles or scalene. But the concept of triangularity that exists in your intellect, which abstracts away from these features of concrete triangles, applies equally to all of them. And so forth.
And that brings me to Pegasus, the winged horse. Is Pegasus possible? Certainly he’s picturable, as the image on the left at the beginning of this post clearly proves. But is he conceivable? Surely not. Just ask yourself a simple question: how does he fly? According to the laws of aerodynamics which obtain in our universe, this should be impossible. Picturability, then, is not a reliable guide to possibility. To argue that a better world is possible simply because we can picture it is to engage in childish thinking.
“Pegasus-thinking”, as I shall call it, is a besetting sin of Darwinists – by which I mean, advocates of an unguided evolutionary process whose principal mechanism is natural selection winnowing random variation. For instance, Professor Jerry Coyne argues in his book, Why Evolution is True (Viking Adult Press, 2009) that the male prostate gland is badly designed because the urethra runs through it, making men liable to enlargement and infection in later life. Aside from the fact that Coyne’s argument open to question on empirical grounds – creationist Jonathan Sarfati asserts that the risk of enlargement appears to be largely diet-related in his 2008 article, The Prostate Gland – is it ‘badly designed’? – Coyne is essentially arguing that because we can imagine a better design, therefore one is possible; and since we don’t find it in Nature, it follows that Nature is not the work of an Intelligent Creator. The question-begging underlying this argument should be readily apparent.
Professor Coyne also contends that the female reproductive tract would have been better designed if women gave birth through their abdomens. But this supposition is absurdly counterfactual: if humans did that, they wouldn’t be human. They would be some other kind of animal. In any case, Coyne’s argument overlooks the fact that for at least some human beings, at least, the size of the birth canal would not have been a problem, as the pelvis was considerably wider (see the BBC article, Human ancestors born big-brained, 14 November 2008).
Why a world without earthquakes and tsunamis would be a world without people
What has this to do with earthquakes and tsunamis? Quite a lot, actually. Consider the question: why do earthquakes happen? The answer, in a nutshell, is that earthquakes are a necessary consequence of plate tectonics, and that on a planet which is wholly or partly covered by oceans, tsunamis are a necessary consequence of earthquakes. Moreover, oceans are a pre-requisite for plate tectonics, as they lubricate and facilitate the movement of the Earth’s plates. The Earth’s crust is soaked with water, and water plays an important role in the development of shear zones. Plate tectonics requires weak surfaces in the crust along which crustal slices can move.
Now, it is easy to picture a world without earthquakes or tsunamis, but is not until we try to conceive such a world that we realize what we’re asking for: at the very least, a world without plate tectonics. However, given the laws of Nature which obtain in our cosmos, a world without plate tectonics would also be a world without life. As Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee put it in their best-selling book, Rare Earth (Copernicus, New York, 2000, p. 220): “It may be that plate tectonics is the central requirement for life on a planet.” A few years ago, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez explained the significance of plate tectonics to award-winning Christian journalist and former legal editor of The Chicago Tribune, Lee Strobel, who is also the author of the best-seller, The Case for a Creator (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2004, p. 226):
“You see, greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, absorb infrared energy and help warm the planet. So they’re absolutely crucial. The problem is that their concentration in the atmosphere needs to be regulated as the sun slowly brightens. Otherwise, the Earth would not be able to stabilize its surface temperature, which would be disastrous.
“Plate tectonics cycles fragments of the Earth’s crust – including limestone, which is made up of calcium, carbon dioxide, and oxygen atoms – down into the mantle. There, the planet’s internal heat releases the carbon dioxide, which is then continually vented to the atmosphere through volcanoes. It’s quite an elaborate process, but the end result is a kind of thermostat that keeps the greenhouse gases in balance and our surface temperature under control.
So my advice to Professor Grayling is: be careful what you wish for. If you’re demanding a world with no earthquakes or tsunamis, then given the laws of nature in our cosmos, what you’re asking for is a world with no life. Is that what you really want, Professor?
Why not a perfect world from the get-go?
However, Professor Grayling might wish for a world with different laws, in which life could flourish but earthquakes and tsunamis would never occur. Certainly, we can imagine other worlds, as we can imagine Xanadu and Narnia – but as the example of Pegasus illustrates, that doesn’t make them possible. To know if they were genuinely possible, we’d have to be able to intellectually conceive of these worlds and their laws of Nature, in their entirety – and we cannot. The reason is that all our concepts are drawn from the world as we know it, with the laws of Nature that we are familiar with.
Of course, a skeptic might employ an ad hominem argument against religious believers. He might ask why God could not have simply placed all human beings in a perfect world – say, Paradise or Heaven – from the get-go, thereby eliminating suffering at one stroke. The skeptic might urge that while we cannot presently conceive of such a world, it should be possible for God to make such a world – and in any case, religious believers look forward to living in such a world.
Let’s play along with the skeptic, and suppose God placed all of us in a perfect world, from the get-go. (For argument’s sake, I shall leave aside the question of what would happen if some people broke the rules in this perfect world, and just assume that this never happens.) The question I would then ask is: would we be the same individuals, if we had all been created in such perfect world? Surely not. For our personal identity is bound up with where we come from. Just as I wouldn’t be the person who I am if I’d had different parents, so too I wouldn’t be the same individual if I’d been originally created in Heaven instead of on Earth. I’d be someone else. A skeptic who wishes that she hadn’t been created on Earth, but in Heaven, is therefore wishing herself out of existence! I for one would never make a wish like that. Much as I hate the destruction tsunamis cause, I am intellectually compelled to acknowledge the fact that my very identity as a human individual is bound up with the fact that I was born in a world where tsunamis are likely to happen.
A skeptic might be prepared to bite the bullet and say: “All right. If God were omnibenevolent as well as omnipotent and omniscient, then He shouldn’t have created me. He should have created a different kind of world: one in which my coming into being would be an impossibility, but also one in which there would be no problem of suffering.”
I’d like to make three points in reply. First, it is irrational for the skeptic to say, “God should never have created me”; in wishing herself out of existence, she is doing something that no sane, self-respecting human being should ever do. Second, given the fact that the skeptic does actually exist, the only moral question she can meaningfully ask vis-à-vis an omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient Being is how this Being (if it exists) should behave towards her, and vice versa. The question of whether the Being should have created her simply does not arise; it’s too late to ask that. Finally, I would argue that there can be no such thing as the wrongful creation of a person, in any case. Creating a person is not the sort of thing that can intelligibly be described as bad.
I conclude that it is senseless for skeptics to wish that God had made a world in which they could never have come into being. The only question they can sensibly ask is: given that we are here, is there anything that God should be doing for us that He isn’t already doing?
2. Tsunamis and Theodicy: why religious believers aren’t Panglossians
In his essay, God and Disaster, Anthony Grayling declares himself puzzled by the existence of people who continue to believe in God in the face of massive earthquakes and tsunamis. For my part, I am puzzled by the existence of philosophers who appear to be congenitally incapable of grasping what theists actually believe. For Professor Grayling should know that the traditional belief of churchgoers is not that suffering and death are terrible but necessary instruments by which God achieves some “higher purpose,” but rather that God Himself hates suffering and death, and that He originally intended to create a world in which people would never die. His plan was thwarted when the first human beings chose to make themselves the ultimate arbiters of good and evil. Ever since that fateful choice was made, humanity has suffered the consequences, including death; but God has promised us that one day, there will be a new heavens and a new earth, and death shall be no more. That is the faith of churchgoers the world over; and it is my faith too.
To be sure, the 17th century philosopher Leibniz may have believed that everything always happens for the best, but he does not speak for me, or for most religious believers. Leibniz’s hyper-optimism was brilliantly lampooned and brought into everlasting ridicule by Voltaire: in his novel Candide, Doctor Pangloss is always sprouting the sentiment that everything happens for the best, no matter what calamities befall him and his companions – a view that his pupil Candide comes to reject at the end of the novel. To this day, I have yet to meet a religious believer who is a Panglossian. And despite the more recent attempts of Professor John Hick, a leading philosopher of religion, to portray the world as a “soul-making” garden, where suffering is the only way in which souls can grow towards spiritual maturity, most religious believers know in their bones that the world was never meant to be the way it is now. They know that God did not intend a world in which innocent children die. In his recent book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (B & H Academic, Nashville, Tennessee, 2009, page 45), Professor William Dembski forcefully rejects Hick’s view, and chooses what I, as a religious believer, would regard as a much more appropriate metaphor for the world we live in: he likens this world to an insane asylum.
Professor Grayling should have known these facts about the faith of believing churchgoers. Unless he has been on Mars for the past six years, he would surely have heard of (and read) a memorable essay on suffering by Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, entitled Tsunami and Theodicy (published in the March 2005 issue of the journal First Things, in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, and republished in the January 2010 issue of the same journal). Hart has very harsh words, with which I wholly concur, for those who would claim that there is always a reason for suffering and death, and that every instance of pain and loss is necessary in the grand scheme of things:
[Such a view] requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.
It is true that believers often speak of God as bringing good out of tragic evils. But this does not mean that God intended or willed these evils to happen, in order to achieve some greater good in the grand scheme of things. Nor does it mean that we are better people for suffering these evils. Rather, it simply means that God can heal any hurt, no matter how great it may be, simply because He is God. God never intended tsunamis have no place in God’s plan for human beings; God hates the destruction they cause.
Hart points out that the spiritual idiom of the New Testament is that of “a cosmic struggle between good and evil, of Christ’s triumph over the principalities of this world, of the overthrow of hell.” Believers look forward to a future in which “there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new'” (Revelation 21:4-5). I shall quote the second-last paragraph of Hart’s moving essay:
I do not believe we Christians are obliged – or even allowed – to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
To a skeptic, Hart’s anticipation of a future life will sound like a hollow promise: “pie in the sky when you die” as the radical Swedish immigrant laborer Joe Hill put it in his song, The Preacher and the Slave, in 1911. In his essay, Professor Grayling asks why believers bother praying to a God who seems utterly powerless:
If they were going to pray for their god to look after the souls of those who had died, why would they think he would do so since he had just caused, or allowed, their bodies to be suddenly and violently crushed or drowned?
… If he is not powerful enough to do something about the world’s periodic murderous indifference to human beings, then in what sense is he a god? Instead he seems to be a big helpless ghost, useless to pray to and unworthy of praise.
But from a religious believer’s perspective, things look very different: God seems powerful, not powerless. We see history as a battle in which God is driving back the forces of evil. Examples abound: a Jew will cite the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon, and the survival of the Jewish people down the ages as proofs that God has a plan for His chosen people, while Christians look to Jesus Christ as the first to have been raised for the dead, and hope to share in the same destiny as their Redeemer. Above all, God is the One in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28); He is therefore anything but “helpless.”
3. Why I believe the Fall is the only logical explanation for human suffering
In section 1 above, I argued that earthquakes and tsunamis are an inseparable part of our world, before going on to explain in section 2 that religious believers look forward to a deliverance from suffering in the next world. But a skeptic might reasonably ask why God does not do more for people in this world. After all, a world in which earthquakes and tsunamis occur does not have to be a world in which people get killed by them. God could always warn people when they were coming, so nobody would ever get hurt by them. Professor Grayling hints at this possibility when he writes in his essay: “For if he [God] is not competent to stop an earthquake or save its victims, he is definitely not competent to create a world” (italics mine – VJT).
Well, Professor, I have news for you: according to most Jews, Christians and Muslims, that’s precisely the kind of world God originally planned when He made the first human beings. What went wrong? The Fall. Had it not happened, human beings would never have been killed by earthquakes or tsunamis. There was a time when God spoke to our first parents as clearly as we talk to each other now. (In this essay, I shall use the term “our first parents” to denote the first creatures with a human form that were capable of knowing God, regardless of how, when and where they arose.) But it was these human beings who, in their pride, chose to cut themselves off from God’s presence. Our first parents chose to arrogate to themselves the power to decide what is good and what is evil. It was they who chose the kind of world we would live in, and they chose a world in which God hides His face, because they preferred human autonomy to serving God, even if it came at the expense of enormous human suffering. By so choosing, they banished themselves from God’s presence, and entered into lifelong exile from their Maker, with whom they had once freely conversed.
This, then, is what Christians have traditionally believed about the Fall of our first parents:
(i) it occurred because of a freely chosen act of rebellion against God by our first parents;
(ii) before the Fall, our first parents were supernaturally preserved by God from suffering and death; however, they were not yet naturally immortal;
(iii) after the Fall, our first parents were no longer specially protected by God, with the result that automatically they became liable to pain, injury and death;
(iv) had our first parents passed the test God set for them, and chosen to serve God forever, they would not have died. They would have continued to live for some time on this earth, and at some later stage, they would have gone to Heaven, a world in which people are naturally immortal.
The fateful decision of our first parents to reject God affected not only themselves, but the whole of humanity: their descendants automatically they became liable to pain, injury and death, as well. The rupture between our first parents and God necessarily affected the whole of the human race, because a world in which innocent and as-yet-unfallen human beings could continue getting tsunami warnings from God while fallen human beings did not, clearly wouldn’t work: the old problem of freeloading would surface. The upshot of all this is that now the heavens are silent for everyone; the Divine telephone connection is broken. And while Christians believe that Jesus died for sinners on the cross, they also know that our travails continue: only at the end of human history will the connection between God and humanity be fully restored in the way God originally intended.
It is fashionable nowadays to scoff at the very notion of Original Sin, but the simple fact is that it is the only logical explanation for human suffering, in all its absurdity, as well as the loneliness and spiritual desolation that covers the human race like a pall. John Henry Newman was acutely aware of this fact, and articulated the case for Original Sin with penetrating clarity in chapter five of his Apologia pro Vita Sua (1865):
I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birthplace or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being. And so I argue about the world; – if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.
So in response to Professor Grayling’s challenge on the question of God and human disasters, I would answer: God is the one who is responsible for the existence of earthquakes and tsunamis, but it is our first parents who are responsible for the fact that they kill us. In the broken world in which we now live, we should not look for a meaning in the harm these disasters cause, because there is none. Instead, we should fight them tooth and nail, as best we can, and try to prevent their occurrence in the future, all the while looking forward to a world in which we will one day see our Creator face to face.