Peter Hurford v. cl on Needless Suffering, Peter’s First

I’ve agreed to be a judge for a debate between Peter Hurford, of, and cl, of The Warfare Is Mental.

Peter’s first speech went up on Valentine’s Day, and I’ve had some time to digest the contents.  As a judge, I’m trying to walk a line of providing substantive commentary and transparency in my assessment while not providing fodder to be used by th e opponent.  Consequently, my commentary may, at times, involve some hand-waving in the direction of my thinking without being explicit.

Peter’s complete first speech can be found here and a complete index of the debate is found here.

The debate topic is on whether needless suffering exists, and whether its existence duly undermines belief in the traditional Abrahamic God.  Peter is arguing in the affirmative on both counts. I will providing running commentary in my assessment.  My comments will appear in red.  For those of you who want to cut to the chase, Peter presented several arguments of varying degrees of strength.  I think there were some issues of development, and the occasional  missed-step, but they were made up by the volume of his examples. It is for this reason that I award Peter the maximum of points possible this round, i.e. 12 points.

Now onto the specifics. . .

Peter writes:

Hello. I am Peter Hurford, I am the author of and I am an atheist. I am here because I am involved in a debate with Cl, the author of The Warfare is Mental and somewhat of a Christian theist. While I think there are many reasons to not believe in various gods and many additional reasons to not believe in specifically benevolent gods, we are here to talk about only one part of one issue: the existence of needless suffering.

What is Needless Suffering?

What is this needless suffering that I claim exists? Needless suffering is also called unnecessary suffering, gratuitous suffering, or just plain evil. Put simply, needless suffering is anything that causes pain to an entity capable of feeling it and is not logically required in order to realize a higher benefit for that entity or other entities. Should this needless suffering exist, we as a collective society are worse off, and could be better off by eliminating it.

Commentary: Generally, I would say that this is a clear definition of needless suffering.  Much of the debate will hinge on this definition, as it will dictate the kind of response cl will have to provide.  An important feature, which Peter will point out later, is that needless suffering is “not logically required” in order to realize a higher benefit.  This is an important caveat, and I think it was good of Peter to flag it himself.  I do recommend caution where Peter suggests that needless suffering is synonymous with “just plain evil”, however.  This begs moral implications into the debate, so I want to see this worked out and not just defined into “needless suffering”.

Furthermore, should no needless suffering exist, we are in the best of all possible worlds and any attempt to remove suffering would make us worse off because we would lose the associated outweighing benefit and decreasing the net benefit to all people.

The argument here suggests that the absence of needless suffering is a sufficient condition for this being the best of all possible worlds. I suggest that this is backwards.  I think Peter intends to hold that this be the best of all possible worlds, no needless suffering would exist.  The difference is, of course, that among the possible worlds where no needless suffering exists, other positive attributes may yet exist by which one particular world is deemed the best, viz. a world with the least amount of necessary suffering.  So if Peter intends to defend an argument that cl’s world-view implies that we ought not to remove suffering, his first premise appears to be false.  If we convert the first premise, then it still may be the case that we ought to remove suffering, because the best possible world might also contain the least amount of suffering simplicter.  This issue arises again when Peter address the argument from ignorance.

As it stands, this argument is valid, though there is little defense for soundness, and in fact one premise appears to be false prime facie and so needs a more development.  (1 point)

What would be an example of necessary suffering? Consider the pain of surgery and recovery – this involves a lot of suffering, but it is still in our best interest to take this suffering on because it would allow us to avoid the pain that a debilitating disease might give us later on.This is the general logic of necessary suffering – however, I’d argue that this pain isn’t actually necessary because we can attain this higher, either by God omnipotently removing the disease or God preventing us from having the disease in the first place. This is why the “logically required” part is so important, for God can often get the higher benefit just by willing it.

Peter’s point is that what qualifies as necessary or needless suffering is relative to the capacity of the agents involved.  If an omnipotent agent, like God, exists, then the distinction is made on the basis of logical possibility, since logical possibility is the only limit placed on God’s capacity.  Peter’s set up is very helpful and clear.

Why Does Needless Suffering Matter?

Why does this matter? If we make two relatively non-controversial assumptions: (1) theism is about the existence of a single benevolent, omnipotent god and (2) a benevolent god would have no reason to allow needless suffering; the existence of needless suffering would be strong indication that theism is false. This is called the Problem of Evil, even though the debate isn’t about evil actions per se, but rather needless suffering as a whole.

These assumptions do appear to be non-controversial.  The first is a standard bare-bone conception of theism.  The second assumption appears to be correct analytically.  That is, if God had a reason to allow some bit of suffering, then it would not be needless.  Then again, it might seem that God might be unaware of some possible way to achieve a higher good, but still will some bit of suffering for that higher good.  In such a case, God might have a reason, though the evil is still needless, because God did not consider every possible alternative.  A solution to this might be to appeal to God’s omniscience, which is an attribute typically ascribed to God.  I suggest this only as a help, and because I think it is immaterial to the overall debate.  Peter might be assuming that omniscience is implied by omnipotence, but I think this should be made explicit.

However, Cl and I agreed that we will only be debating the existence of needless suffering, and not debating either of these two assumptions. If you want to see a comprehensive defense of these two assumptions, as well as additional justifications for atheism, please look to my website. For now on, I continue with the intent just to defend the proposition that needless suffering exists as I’ve defined it.

Why Think that Needless Suffering Exists?

While the pains of surgery that I mentioned before are an example of needless suffering, especially in the third-world where they are routinely done without anesthetic, I’d like to focus on three horrors that I find especially clear and compelling: (A) babies that suffer intensely and then die from birth defects, (B) nonhuman animals that suffer intensely in the wild and within our factory farms, and (C) the Bubonic Plague that killed over 25 million people in the fourteenth century.What makes these three examples instances of needless suffering? Namely that no higher benefit can be identified that would logically require any of these examples. Let me briefly consider some potential benefits (called theodicies) that Cl or others might argue, and explain why they are inadequate:

Up to this point, Peter has been framing the debate through definitions and examples.  It is important to note how he has framed this debate, in understanding how I am evaluating him.  Fundamentally, the way Peter has framed this debate has implications with regard to the burden of proof.  Peter is challenging his opponent to explain how these are NOT examples of needless suffering.   The issue is complicated because he claims that certain classes of suffering justification on the basis that they are logically required for a higher benefit.  For me, the whole question of onus hinges on the definitions Peter uses. This is a point Peter addresses more specifically in his conclusion.

Theodicy #1: Free Will
The idea that suffering is necessary for Free Will is one of the most famous defenses against the Problem of Evil. However…

  • The Free Will Defense fails because only a compatibilist theory of free will makes sense – God could have easily created people that had genuine free choice yet never chose rephrensible actions, as this is often the kind of free will that God seems to have himself, or the kind of free will of people residing in Heaven.
  • But I need not draw Cl into a long debate over the nature of free will, since it is quite clear that there is no free will involved in any of the examples I mentioned.

Peter presents two arguments against the free will defense.  The first is that the Free Will defense depends upon incompatibilist theories of free will.  Peter says that such theories because only compatiblist versions make sense.  We must conclude that the Free Will defense fails.  This is a valid argument, but the justification needs some attention.  He writes that God could have created genuinely free people that never perform reprehensible actions, but it is not clear why this shows incompatiblism nonsensical, but perhaps I am missing the point.  I award 1 point for validity here and 1 points for soundness.  I think that Peter could have spelled this out more clearly.  (2 points total).

Peter’s second point is that a Free Will defense has been pre-empted on the basis of the fact that his examples lack the involvement of free will.  Factory farming may be relevant here though (1 points).

Theodicy #2: Punishment of Sin
Second, another very commonly given reason that suffering is necessary is because God needs to use it to punish sin, and sin must be punished in order for there to be less of it, and less sin is a higher benefit.

  • Nonhuman animals don’t have original sin, let alone can make moral decisions capable of being sensibly punished.
  • Babies with original sin don’t need to be punished for the original sin because they have not made any conscious choice to reject God or act malevolently.
  • Given how uncorrelated sinful behavior is with suffering, this theodicy is highly implausible.  Those who suffered through the Bubonic Plague were not especially more sinful than those today who have the advantages of modern medicine.

Peter argues that punishment of sin cannot be a higher benefit to explain the necessity of suffering because nonhuman animals don’t have original sin and are nonmoral, i.e. (B).  In other words, this explanation is not sufficient to explain the existence of all necessary suffering, though it might explain some.  This is similar to Peter’s previous point, that his examples don’t depend on Free Will.  This argument only leads to the conclusion that punishment of sin is insufficient to account for all types of suffering. Nonetheless, Peter makes a fair point here.  He then extends the point to all three varieties of examples, arguing that babies may have original sin, but they do not merit punishment.  Furthermore, it seems that many by sin rise, and many by virtue fall, i.e. suffering does not appear to be correlated to punishment.  Again, these are fair points, though Peter could have developed his examples in further detail.  (3 points).

Theodicy #3: Need for Natural Law
Third and even more generally, yet another theodicy says that birth defects and the suffering of nonhuman animals at the hands of natural disasters is necessary to have the kind of consistent physics needed for our world.

  • There’s no reason why an omnipotent God couldn’t make a different world that has consistent physics yet does not contain these examples, or why he couldn’t just maintain such a world with divine will.
  • None of the examples I mentioned are remotely fundamental to physics – the world could still operate just fine without the Bubonic Plague, birth defects, and/or nonhuman animal suffering.

As this stands, I accept Peter’s possibility, that God could have created a different set of physical laws so that such examples do not exist.  However, it does seem that Peter needs to tie this back to his initial contention of needless suffering as a variety of pain that is not logically necessary to bring about a higher benefit, since natural laws are not necessarily the higher benefits in question, but the varieties of phenomena that follow from these ordered natural laws, e.g. the ability to develop science or to act in the world in meaningful ways.  Peter’s argument here is only that there could be another set of laws where his examples of suffering would not come about, but it seems he must also explain why such a world would retain all the benefits of this world, at the very least. (1 point) 

Peter then argues that none of the examples he lists necessarily follow from or are fundamental to the physics of this world.  This suggests that such things are accidents of history rather than determined from the physical laws of nature.  I would like to see Peter develop this point a bit further, especially in light of his contention that the only coherent view of free-will is compatiblism. Again, this argument needs to be developed further. (1 point)

Theodicy #4: Drawing Closer to God / Lessons Learned / Building Virtue
Fourth, a very common theodicy is referred to as soul-making, which has typically been three different things – God using suffering to draw people closer to him, using suffering to teach lessons, or using suffering to build people’s character.

  • All three of these seemingly different defenses can be defeated in the same way – God could have instilled any of these lessons, love for God, or character from birth.
  • Given that God knows all lessons, has infinite love for himself, and is of perfect virtue, yet has not suffered, there is no reason to think that suffering is logically necessary for these three things.
  • None of these elements of soul-making are at all relevant to nonhuman animals or those who die too young, since they are incapable of any of these three things.

Peter defends the view that virtues, character, lessons, and the drive to become closer to God could have been instantly willed into a creature without the need for obstacles and suffering, i.e. it is logically possible for God to will such things as part of our character, so it is logically possible to avoid this suffering while attaining the higher benefits.   If the matter is logical possibility, then it would be helpful to know precisely what is meant by virtue, character, and love.

A stronger argument is that God is, by nature, all of these things yet has not suffered.  So if God is logically possible, then suffering is not necessary for knowledge, virtue, love, etc.  There is an implicit enthymemic argument here, which does validly lead to the conclusion that it is not logically impossible for a loving, wise, and virtuous being to exist without suffering.  The key question will be whether such a being can be created.

Peter claims that there is no relevance between soul-building and nonhuman animals, since they cannot develop their moral character.  To full answer the question of relevance to nonhuman animals, we must consider whether their suffering may be necessary for human moral development.  Taken separately, each point could be developed further, but as  cumulative case, Peter does a good job of both defending his examples and arguing against the logical necessity of suffering for soul-making ( 3 points).

Theodicy #5: The Need for Genuine Human Accomplishment
Fifth, it is argued that suffering is necessary to give humans things to do that make a meaningful impact, and nothing is more meaningful than alleviating the suffering of others.

  • This response fails because God could have made something meaningful instead that did not involve suffering – given that our purpose and drive for meaning is allegedly God-given in the first place.
  • All of the examples I mentioned are so structural and complicated that humanity has no hope of solving these problems for thousands of years – removing the suffering of nonhuman animals and removing birth defects would require an unfathomable amount of re-engineering biology.
  • We often don’t have even the slightest chance of ameliorating the suffering, even if the issue is complicated. In the 14th century, humans were tasked with stopping the bubonic plague – not only did they have very little medical resources and containment plans, they lacked a germ theory of disease altogether.
  • Unless Heaven is undesirable, there still should be genuine human accomplishment there, despite there being no needless suffering.

Peter argues that if meaning is God-given, then it is arbitrary and need not be tied to accomplishments pertaining to suffering.  It would be helpful to draw out why we must think that God could choose to do otherwise than he did.

Peter also raises a point that these issues are not going to be quickly or easily resolved.  Perhaps they will never be solved.  A question might be raised as to what he means by “accomplishment” and why he connects it with the idea of complete resolution.  His first two points seem to depend upon such a connection.  But is caring for the dying, at the risk of one’s own life, a genuine human accomplishment even if it does not entirely alleviate suffering?

Peter  argues that heaven is desirable only if there are human accomplishments, but there is not supposed to be suffering in heaven.  But I think Peter may have made an invalid move here.  He said that the alleviation of suffering is the most meaningful human accomplishment, not the only form of human accomplishment.  It might be that heaven contains less meaningful forms of accomplishment, but is more desirable for other reasons.  I think there are many important questions.  I would award 2 points for the first two bullet points, but I think the last point is a bit of a non sequitur (2 points).

Theodicy #6: The Benefits of Heaven
Sixth and last, it is suggested that all this suffering is inconsequential because all will be corrected in Heaven.

  • This is controversial however, because it is undecided theologically whether babies who die from birth defects or nonhuman animals actually go to Heaven.
  • Heaven does not make the suffering any more needless now even if Heaven is compensation, because Heaven could still be given without the suffering. It’s the equivalent of punching someone in the face and then giving them $1000.

Peter notes that it is undecided as to whether babies and nonhuman animals will go to heaven, and so their suffering may not be made inconsequential in light of this fact. This does seem to be an open theological question, so it seems that (A) and (B) cannot be explained away with such an appeal (2 points).

Peter also points out that this view suggests that heaven is, in some way, compensation for suffering.  I understood this theodicy a little differently though, so I am a bit confused by this point.  If heaven is understood as compensation for suffering, then I would agree with Peter that it does not give a reason for suffering.  But if merited grace is gained through suffering and the alleviation of suffering, then heaven made possible.  I am not sure that Peter is attacking the strongest version of this argument, so it seems to me that he inadequately defends (C) by a straw man of salvation as merited compensation. (0 point).

Now, I have certainly not addressed every potential benefit that might be argued for suffering in general, or for these particular instances. However, if Cl or someone else has a different higher benefit that would logically require these three examples, I’d be happy to consider it in my rejoinder.

An Argument from Ignorance?

Now that all the common theodicies are dispensed with, I’d like to turn to a different kind of reply – that we don’t need any specific theodicy because God simply could have an unknown purpose for allowing suffering. Cl charges me with unfairly reasoning from “I can’t see a higher benefit from this suffering” to “There is no higher benefit to this suffering”, which is an argument from ignorance.How do we know that reindeer cannot fly? Sure, we’ve investigated reindeer and not found any biological wings, helicopter blades, or jetpacks – but maybe they defy gravity through some undiscovered means. Sure, we’ve never observed a flying reindeer and observed millions of reindeer that don’t fly their entire lives, but this could just mean reindeer are holding out on us. Is this an argument from ignorance? Are we unfairly reasoning from “I can’t see a reason why reindeer are incapable of flight” to “Reindeer cannot fly”?No – claims like reindeer being incapable of flight are not absolute, but rather provisional based on the analysis of tons of evidence. Of course there’s a remote possibility that we might be mistaken, but this doesn’t prevent us from claiming the knowledge of reindeer being incapable of flight based on an evidential inference.We can accept the existence of needless suffering provisionally, based on there being no actual reason for an unknown purpose. This is why the Problem of Evil I argue is evidential, not logical. While I do accept the burden of proof to demonstrate the existence of needless suffering, it is unreasonable to demand I give proof in the mathematical sense – rather, proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof enough.

Here Peter is using an argument from analogy to show that he has not committed the fallacy of arguing from ignorance.  He draws on our experience with reindeer, which leads us to the inductive conclusion that all reindeer are flightless.  This is a generalization based upon experiential data, though it arrives at a negative attribute.  This is to be contrasted Peter’s own argument, that we cannot seem to observe any higher purpose for certain forms of suffering, which leads to the conclusion that certain forms of suffering lack a higher purpose.  I can see the similarity that Peter is trying to draw, but I think there is a relevant difference, which I can only hand-wave towards.  Generally speaking, I think Peter’s definition of needless suffering places a stronger burden than mere inductive enumeration  (2 points).

Secondly, How do we really know that rape and murder is bad? Certainly there could be some higher benefit that rape and murder play in our society and we actually could be making the world worse off by banning rape and murder. If we were to worry about these exceedingly unlikely chances that the suffering we observe is actually necessary for a higher benefit, there is no way we could reason morally that we ought to actually stop raping and murdering.It is special pleading to suggest that we should only question some instances of suffering (like my examples), and not question other instances of suffering (like rape and murder).

Again, Peter seems to be appealing to an analogy.  this time it is between what we humans would permit in our society as needless and what is needless on a cosmic scale.  It seems to me that Peter has laid out some relevant differences in his definition of God that need to be addressed if this comparison is to be strengthened (1 point).

Concluding Challenge

For these reasons, I conclude that needless suffering exists, and I challenge Cl to provide the higher benefit that logically requires the three examples I gave of (A) babies that suffer intensely and then die from birth defects, (B) nonhuman animals that suffer intensely in the wild and within our factory farms, and (C) the Bubonic Plague that killed over 25 million people in the fourteenth century.Secondly, if these three examples aren’t needless, I don’t know what is. Thus I would like to also challenge Cl to explain what suffering would have to look like to be considered needless by Cl. I am honored to take place in this debate and I look forward to Cl’s rebuttal.

My overall estimation is that Peter has presented a strong case for his side.  He has accomplished this through clearly defining the terms of the debate, framing the question of the debate to put a heavier burden on cl (we will have to see if cl can reasonably argue for a shift of this burden back  on Peter), and providing several lines of argumentation.  Admittedly, the arguments were of varying degrees of strength with the strongest, in my estimation, being the argument against the theodicy from punishment of sin, and against the soul making theodicy.  Peter tended to avoid deductive syllogism, opting for a more cumulative case approach, which has advantages and disadvantages.  We will see if cl can capitalize on this, or be bogged down with the details!

Peter tackled quite a few arguments in this opening round, so I would say that some were left under-developed.  I hope to see him clarify some of these issues in subsequent rounds, e.g. whether his position on natural law, and the contingencies that arise from it, is consistent with his stance as a determinist. 

Peter has racked up the maximum amount of points in this round of 12.  No formal fallacies were committed. Since this is the first speech, points cannot be deducted for failure to address a previous argument.

Posted on February 20, 2012, in Debate and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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