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

I’ve agreed to be a judge for a debate between Peter Hurford, of, and cl, of The Warfare Is Mental. My analysis of Peter’s opening speech can be found here.

I’ve had a range of reactions to cl’s first round rebuttal.  Right at the outset I was shocked by the early concession that needless suffering exists. Cl has theological motivations for this move, but it is unclear to me whether cl is conceding to the same definition Peter put forth. I also found that this debate took an unexpected turn. That is, I did not expect cl to address the Black Death as a moral issue. I found this move quite ingenious. Nonetheless, I am confused by the fact that cl argues, correctly in my opinion, that Peter is arguing from ignorance, yet cl does not use this point as a defeater for specific theodicies.  The Free Will argument, and the Natural Law argument were not specifically addressed in this rebuttal. I realize that cl had a monumental task to address all of Peter’s arguments, but I think cl could have used the argument from ignorance defense as a quick response.  Otherwise, this is a fascinating counter-punch to Peter’s 1000-hand slap.


My commentary is recorded below. Cl’s rebuttal is in block quotes, my comments are in red.

I’ve concluded that needless suffering exists. On my view, sin caused death, suffering and so-called “natural evil.” According to Genesis, God made the world good and humans had eternal life. Sin entailed a fall from the highest possible good. It was not necessary, God did not desire it. The suffering sin produced cannot possibly be logically required for the higher good to obtain because the highest possible good had already obtained. Criticisms that God “could have made a world without suffering” are nullified.

Cl agrees with Peter that needless suffering exists, so the issue rests on whether or not needless suffering is inconsistent with the existence of the God of Abraham.  I’m not completely clear on whether cl agrees with Peter’s definition, especially in light of the comment that “the highest possible good had already obtained”.  I think cl may have the felix cupla doctrine in mind, though a clarification is in order here.  Does this suggest that all suffering is necessary by Peter’s definition, insofar as any bit of suffering is sufficient to necessitate Christ’s redeeming act?

Even though suffering is needless, eliminating suffering doesn’t eliminate any higher good. Suffering isn’t necessary to produce goods. Obviously, Jesus didn’t believe that removing suffering eliminated higher good, else no sick would have been healed, nor would commands to heal be issued. In fact, we would have been commanded to ignore suffering. This defangs Peter’s “obstruction of divine justice” argument on the spot.

Cl appears to be correct on this point.  The God of Abraham consistently commands tithing and care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  The alleviation of suffering does not obstruct divine justice, but is a part of it.  Cl does not precisely explain where Peter’s logic breaks down though, which would be helpful. This addresses a point raised in the introduction and conclusion of Peter’s piece.  (3 points)

This might complicate judging, but that’s where the logic lead. I’ll counter as many of Peter’s arguments as I can, and see where the second round takes us.

Inherently Fallacious

I recently said that most POE arguments reduce to ignorance and/or incredulity. [1] I stand by my words. Peter’s inability to conceive of a higher good or logical requirement does not justify even the provisional assumption that none exists, and to posture otherwise is to argue from incredulity. [2] Similarly, my inability to identify a higher good or logical requirement does not justify even the provisional assumption that none exists, and to posture otherwise is to argue from ignorance. [3] Things that seem intuitively true can be false (e.g. geocentrism), and things that seem intuitively false can be true (e.g. quantum mechanics). Peter needs more than intuition to mount a successful POE argument.

Cl argues by analogy that Peter’s argument is informally fallacious.  This point is really directed to the burden of proof that lies at the center of the debate (arguing from ignorance essentially is an attempt to shift the burden of proof).  Cl centers on the issue of who has the obligation to identify a higher good, or the logical necessity by which some suffering might arise.  This is odd since cl appears to have conceded the point that needless suffering does exist and is Biblical.  But this point seems to be that we cannot know if suffering is necessary or needless.  I tend to agree with cl that if the distinction between “needless suffering” and “necessary suffering” involves whether there is a logical possibility of bringing about associated higher goods without that suffering, then the burden falls on the person making the claim to prove this modal point. (3 points)

Honest Oversights Or Theatrics?

Peter offers analogies that should raise the suspicion of any rational person. To claim that reindeer can fly one must unjustifiedly assign a property (flight) to a member of a class (ruminant mammal). This is unjustified because no other member shares said property (no ruminant mammals fly). However, to claim that Peter’s examples of suffering might be logically required to obtain higher goods, one need only assume that a member of a class shares the same properties as other members (Peter agrees that many members of the class “suffering” are logically required to obtain higher goods).

Regarding Theodicy #6, to claim that rewarding temporal suffering with eternal joy is “the equivalent of punching someone in the face and then giving them $1,000″ is to mistakenly equate a cheap, finite reward ($1,000) with an infinitely valuable one (eternal joy).

These are textbook examples of the fallacy from false analogy. [4] Magic notwithstanding, there is no remote possibility of reindeer flying. However, since several members of the class “suffering” are logically required to obtain higher goods, the possibility of Peter’s examples following suit seems significant. So why would he imply only a “remote possibility” that his examples might be logically required to obtain higher goods? Why would he imply that a measly $1,000 is commensurate to eternal joy?

For an analogy to be successfully rebutted, a relevant difference must be found.  Cl has achieved this.  (3 points)

Taking The Offensive

Peter claimed his examples are “proof beyond reasonable doubt” that needless suffering exists. Citing geneticist Stephen O’Brien, PBS writes:

The areas that were hardest hit by the Black Plague match those where the gene for HIV resistance is the most common today. [5]

Modern science—the atheist’s oracle—suggests the plague may have facilitated HIV resistance. That the pertinent mutation might not have obtained given a different genetic algorithm seems fair grounds for at least the provisional assumption of logical requirement. Now, Peter can say, “But God could have just zapped it away,” or some other variant of “Why didn’t God do it the way I want,” but that’s purely ad hoc not to mention it ignores the fact God already gave us a world without disease and we ruined it.

Here cl offers a good possible higher good for the Bubonic plague.  The issue, of course is whether it meets Peter’s definition of necessary suffering.  Cl anticipates Peter’s response and insists that it is ad hoc.  This point needs to be developed further.  I think cl is saying that while Peter might be able to argue for alternative that he personally finds more desirable, he cannot show that they are more desirable simpliciter.  This could be spelled out more clearly. (2 points)

Alternatively, historians such as Bowsky (1971) and Bridbury (1983) suggest the plague may have been a key turning point in European economic development: wages would not have risen had there not been such a drastic increase in the demand for laborers. Isn’t a deficit of laborers logically required in order to spur demand? Why does Peter act stumped? Are these not grounds to doubt Peter’s claim that his examples are “proof beyond reasonable doubt” of needless suffering?

Cl seems to be doing two things here that may be working at cross purposes.  Cl is engaging in Peter’s demand to provide a logically possible reason to think the suffering is not needless  But earlier Cl says that it is Peter’s responsibility to prove that it is needless rather than necessary.


Let’s look at #4. To say “God could have instilled any of these lessons, love for God, or character from birth” is just a mere assertion that does not explain why God should have done that over some other route. Peter continues,

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.

According to the Bible, God suffered terribly. Per the same logic securing his previous conclusion, mustn’t Peter concede that, since God has suffered, we have reason to believe suffering might be logically necessary for those things?

This point may require a bit more development.  God has suffering in time, but it is not clear that suffering was necessary for God to possess his character. (1 point)

Peter’s note that the soul-building theodicy cannot explain animal suffering is irrelevant. One cannot justifiedly fault a theodicy for not explaining a particular type of suffering when another theodicy can (consequence for sin). #4, defanged.

Here I think cl is hitting on my worry about Peter’s argument.  By arguing that each theodicy individually does not explain all varieties of suffering, we cannot conclude that all of the theodicies taken together will not explain all varieties of suffering (composition).  The question, then, is whether cl has a theodicy for every type of suffering.  Up to this point, it does not seem that cl has been able to “defang” the problem of animal suffering.  Whether it is cl’s burden at all is another question.  Nonetheless, if cl is going to engage these theodicies, it seems that cl has accepted the burden. 

Same with Theodicy #5. Peter writes,

…God could have made something meaningful instead that did not involve suffering…

God did. We ruined it.

Cl is defending a Biblical God.  However pithy this point is, I think it is an important one.  The question on the table is whether suffering is incompatible with the Abrahamic God.  Presumably this God is described in scripture, so Peter must explain why suffering is incompatible with the God described in scripture. (1 point)

…removing the suffering of nonhuman animals and removing birth defects would require an unfathomable amount of re-engineering biology…

That’s irrelevant. God didn’t allow these things so we could solve puzzles.

A possible explanation, but I am not sure if it is emotionally satisfying.  Again, it is not clear whether cl is accepting the burden, or shifting it.  Here it looks like cl does not feel compelled to offer a reason.

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.

The Black Death was a moral evil that deserved punishment. Regarding Theodicy #2, Peter said victims “were not especially more sinful” than people today. According to the Bible, that’s false. Filthiness is sin.

I must admit that I did not anticipate this move.  One wonders whether cl is arguing that all cleanliness laws are still in effect.  Nonetheless, cl has the backing of scripture.  Certain it is likely that the bubonic plague would have been mitigated had hygiene been more of a priority.  Interestingly enough, this point does not even require that 14th century humans would understand the relationship between hygiene and disease.  They need only understand the virtue and godliness of cleanliness and, as a side effect, they would have been better off.

The suspected primary culprit of the pandemic is Yersinia pestis, a bacterium carried by fleas living on rats which permeated the large, filthy cities of the era. [6]

The importance of hygiene was recognised only in the nineteenth century; until then it was common that the streets were filthy, with live animals of all sorts around and human parasites abounding. [7]

Take heed, foolish humans! We were warned not to become “defiled” by rats or other animals designated as “unclean” [8] and warned not to eat anything they touched. [9] God commanded us to bury dung outside city limits, [10] to avoid contact with bodily discharges because they are “unclean,” [11] to cleanse anything a person with bodily discharge touches, [12] to evacuate and seal up any house with “greenish or reddish” mildew, [13] and if the mildew persists after seven days, to “scrape the walls” inside the house, [14] remove any contaminated stones [15] and dump them outside city limits. [16]

Among other things, Wikipedia lists, “decay or decomposure of the skin while the person is still alive, high fever, and extreme fatigue” as symptoms of bubonic plague, [17] and God specifically warned that failure to obey would result in—wait for it—wasting diseases and fever that would drain away our life. [18]

This is by far the most thoroughly developed argument of the debate.  Cl makes direct connections between God’s commands, and the 14th century violations of those commands.  As a thorough inductive argument that makes use of historical sources, cl certainly merits full points for this argument (3 points).

Moral evil is any evil act, event or state of affairs that is directly attributable to the actions of a moral agent. The Black Death ravished Europe because moral agents sinned by disobeying God’s Holy Word and allowing filthiness, vermin and parasites to defile them. God warned us. We didn’t need to suffer the bubonic plague to get to Heaven, we only needed to listen to God’s Word.

I would say that this nearly rebuts one of Peter’s primary examples of needless suffering.  By making the Black Death a moral issue, where God’s commands were violated, a free will defense becomes all the more plausible, and necessary.  Of course, we still must find out whether the free-will defense is still on the table, and it has yet to be addressed in this debate by cl.  I think it is relevant here.

Bringing It All Home

This evidence is so strong even Peter claims it proves God’s goodness and glory “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” leaving him no rational alternative but to abandon atheism and acknowledge the God of the Bible. Peter recently wrote,

…knowledge of the germ theory of disease contained in the Bible rather than left to be discovered by fallible scientists would have saved billions of lives. Why [God] didn’t do so, given that it would prove [God’s] glory and goodness beyond a shadow of a doubt, is unknown.” [19, emphasis mine]

My list is just the tip of the iceberg, and already we have something akin to modern hygiene and germ theory, delivered 3,000 years before Pasteur was so much as a twinkle in his father’s eye—by people atheists often denigrate as ignorant goat-herders. Another source notes,

Jews who obeyed these godly instructions during the time of the black plague were not affected in the same way as others. [20]

Might that be because God provided clear, comprehensive hygienic commands in the Torah? I agree with Peter that a “god” who makes people suffer pointlessly is worthy of condemnation, cruel, malevolent, and fundamentally opposed to love and compassion, [21] but as my arguments have undeniably demonstrated, God did exactly what Peter asked for, and much more. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy to forfeit eternal life for an argument so weak it commits one to doubting God’s existence simply because they stubbed their toe?

Cl’s final move here is a nice attempt at an early KO.  I am very much interested to see how Peter will respond.  Cl claims to have met Peter’s direct challenge to the point of even using Peter’s own words to prove that God exists.

As I mentioned in my previous commentary, Peter unleashed several arguments–perhaps more than any one mere mortal could handle.

 Overall, cl is able to clash with several of Peter’s arguments, and has taken large strides to address one of Peter’s primary examples.  I still await cl’s response to the problem of nonhuman animal suffering, and birth defects. 

There were a few hiccups here and there.  A major weak point occurred in cl’s response to the 4th theodicy.  The theodicy claims that suffering is necessary to build personal/moral character.  Peter pointed out that it was not necessary for God.  Cl suggests that it might very well be necessary, since God did suffer.  Again, God’s suffering occurred once God entered into creation, so I think a bit more is needed there.

Cl hits the maximum amount of points, i.e. 12.  Although cl skirts close to the word limit at 1517, no points are deducted, since there is a 50 word leeway.  Two theodicies were not addressed, namely the free will theodicy, and natural law.  I think the free will theodicy should not have been ignored in light of the moral issues raised by the Black Death.  Thus, I deduct 2 points from the total score.  Cl earns 10 points this round from me.

Posted on February 22, 2012, in Debate and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Animal suffering is not the result of a Fall. Animals were suffering millions of years before humans appeared.


  1. Pingback: DBT01: Index | TheWarfareIsMental

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