Suffer Not. The Fools.

Although in these posts I have tended to focus on fairly formal philosophical points, albeit in a strictly non-academic fashion, I am motivated to give a slightly more autobiographical tale which deals with my furiously anti-theistic nature.

There are a number of traditional areas within philosophy for non-theists and theists to clash (and it is intended to arrange the –ism and its negation in that form, since the form of non-theism I am concerned with, atheism, is not a belief or belief system about something, it exists only to reject an assertion of belief). Early in life I felt the weakest, most trivial and most easy to be a theistic apologist for was the problem of evil.

The problem of evil is quite easily summed up. Monotheistic notions of god tend to focus on a list of omnis, the ideal or perfect embodiments of goodness, power and knowledge. Thoughtful people have noted that the world is, in many ways, appalling, which does not sit well with there being an all-powerful, all-benevolent being, with the perfect knowledge of how to use that power with that loving intention.

As just stated, as a child I felt theists could argue it away. The arguments are again fairly traditional. One is free will. We have free will, and it is a great good, because it lends genuine moral authority to our actions, and although it allows the possibility of evil action that is outweighed by the possibility of good. This fails. For one, in a previous post, I showed that the concept of free will is incoherent. For another, although ‘evil’ is naturally indexed to human agency, events covered by the problem of evil include more general horrors, such as natural disasters, extinctions, things which are typically caused by no human agency. But also that evil can easily befall anyone regardless of whether they have employed their apparent free will badly. It is not clear how a murdered infant is placed in the great good of free will. What is clear is that it requires a special level of delusion to maintain that it is.

Another argument is that from ignorance, which is and always has been an evasion of the most cringing and cowardly nature. It is rarely the first choice of dialectic for the theist, and tends to be employed whenever that theist runs up against the realisation they are clearly extemporising, or that the rehearsed positions given to them make little sense. The ignorance in question is that of how such frail, mortal, limited creatures as ourselves should be able to comprehend the nature of things such that we could question god, and the apparent paradox of evil. In one sense the strategy works. In the end a truly rational being has to concede one could always be mistaken. The flawed conclusion this is extended to is that we have no right to trust our own reason or judgement, especially when it touches upon questioning the divine. Even for theists the commitment is intermittently applied, as various specific epistemic claims are made about god, and mystery is appealed to, again, only when challenged and the utter lack of any evidential knowledge is confronted.

A subordinate part of criticising the argument from ignorance (or humility, as those not so antipathetical might render it) is the halfway house worthy strivers sometimes reach, which is to wonder why such disapprobation, torture, death and eternal damnation are cited consequences of trying to use faculties ostensibly granted by the being in question. Perhaps an apologist can claim it as a kind of test. After all, so much of religion is about dismissing reason in order to treat ludicrous beliefs and practices as if they were acceptable, why not just extend that to reason wholesale? In one sense that is unassailable. If you take that strategy it bypasses reason, and no argument can work against it. At this point in the autobiographical tale, however, timidity needed to be discarded. If that is the type of behaviour or decision required by god then I for one will have none of it. I would expect better of a petulant child, let alone the arbiter of the universe. Of course, that is not any kind of argument against theism, it is just a refusal to be infantilised and worthless.

The final point I want to highlight here (though certainly not the final point possible) is what truly made me restore this strand of despising religion to a place of value in arguments against preserving any notion of good in religion. It really is just a question of scale, and refusing to be selective. It seems to be difficult for most people to apprehend quite how widespread, constant, endless and absurd in magnitude suffering is. Why restrict suffering, pain, mishap to humanity? Theists in general imagine humanity to be the point of creation, or what creation is for, and perhaps this is not too troubling with standard creation myths. But only the most committed, delusional theists can accept the literal truth of creation myths. It doesn’t require any argument to accept the primacy of evidence relating to the development of life and the world. That is simply inescapable. And so to consider humanity a goal, a reason for it all, is to accept hundreds of millions of years of the kind of short, bloody, agonising, fear-filled existence every creature of a certain level of complexity has suffered in that time. Just to get to us? But of course, it wasn’t to get to us. It just was and it just is.  

All things bright and beautiful? Every little flower that opens is as likely to be feeding a parasite whose young devour their implanted host alive. Which is certainly dubious creation, for something benevolent, but it is fairly devoid of complex intention at the point of being enacted. We really need humanity to understand true horror. Or we would, if there were not a psychological mechanism whereby people learn to acclimatise, ignore or plain deny the horrors, everyday and exceptional, that we perpetrate upon ourselves and each other every day. For now I leave it simply a point about the existence of horror and suffering, and hope that anyone might muse upon its prevalence and how this sits with any idea of this being the best possible world, or any design of a benevolent being.

Perhaps later we might consider exactly which sections of humanity contribute most readily to human-derived suffering. It is a special talent and worthy of much discussion.

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