Friday, September 10, 2010

Rites of initiation and the problem of evil

As an initiation rite, Brazil's Satere-Mawe people make gloves with hundreds of bullet ants woven in, stinger pointing inward, and the boy who wants to become a man is expected to wear them for ten minutes, and the incredible pain lasts for hours. According to the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, the bullet ant sting is the worst of the Hymenopteran stings. Schmidt describes the experience of a single sting as follows: "Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel." (Here is a man dedicated to science.)

Now, consider this. The boy suffers horribly for a large part of a day, but then he's a man for half a century. The memory of having stood up to close to the worst pain that nature fling at him has a deep value. How much value? It need not be so great, actually, for the ordeal to be worth it. Let us suppose that the disvalue of the suffering is 10,000 units. Then as long as he gets a mere four units of value from the suffering for every week of his life (say, he remembers the experience four times a week, and it gives him one unit of value each time), it is worth it. The longer his future life as a man, the greater the value. (This is just for priming intuitions. In fact, we need to contend with incommensurability.)

Now, maybe, in this case the pain is just much too great to pay off sufficiently in added meaningfulness over a future 50 years. Having skimmed (too painful to read carefully!) the description of the pain, I myself doubt it is worth it. Though it has to be noted that unless the adult men of that community are by and large sadists, in their judgment it is worth it, and they're better judges than wimpy I! Still, let us grant that it's not worth it.

But still, maybe a minute of wearing the ant-gloves would be worth it, if it made more meaningful a future manhood of fifty years. Scaling, ten minutes might be worth it if it made more meaningful a future manhood of five hundred years.

The point here is that a painful initiation ritual will be worthwhile if it makes more meaningful a future state of sufficient length. But now suppose that I am going to live for a million years. Then it does not seem absurd to say that a year of quite severe suffering could be worthwhile as an initiation ritual. Suppose I am going to live for a billion years. Then a hundred years of suffering might well be worthwhile, given the added value over the course of the subsequent 999,999,900 years.

But in fact if theism is true, then very likely we will live forever, since it is very likely that a good God would want persons to live forever. If so, then a suffering-filled initiation ritual that lasts for about a century would surely be justified, even if it only added a little value to each subsequent day (as long as the value did not quickly tend to zero in the limit as time goes to infinity).

Let's put it this way. It seems not improbable that if God made a person that was going to blissfully exist for a year, God could have justification to allow that person to suffer intensely for a second first. If he made a person that was going to blissfully exist for a ten years, he might easily find justification to allow that person to suffer for ten seconds first. And, by the same reckoning, if the person were to exist for three billion years, he might find justification to allow her to suffer intensely for about 90 years. After all, 90 years is to 3 billion years as a second is to a year.

Or consider it this way. Suppose you're going to live for three billion years, but every year you will experience a second of intense suffering, in a way that contributes to the meaningfulness of the rest of your life. It does not seem absurd to suppose that God could have a reason to arrange things so. But if so, then it likewise should not seem absurd to suppose that God could arrange it so you'd suffer 90 years, and then live out 2,999,999,910 years of bliss. And if we live not just for three billion years, but forever, this is even easier to imagine.

In the face of eternity, a finite amount of suffering is just a blip.

But does it not beg the question to suppose eternal life in responding to the problem of evil? Not at all. The problem of evil is an argument against theism. Theism makes eternal life for any created persons very likely. Thus, if the problem of evil is to make a significant dent in the probability of theism, the problem of evil has to work even if there is eternal life, or else a good argument against eternal life is needed.


Unknown said...

Favorite. Post. Ever. Brilliant connections. Incisive Point.

brian_g said...

I must confess that I'm not really sure I like this sort of solution to the problem of evil. The way I see it is that we observe some evil in the world which counts as evidence against God. Then we propose some plausible good reason for allowing the evil which, if true, would make it reasonable to believe in God. But how do we know the plausible reason is true? This seems to be the same mistake the atheist makes. Theists argue that the fine-tuning of the universe provides evidence for God. Atheists then provide a possible scenario, which if true would make atheism reasonable. (The multi-verse hypothesis) But how do we know that the multi-verse hypothesis is true?

I don't think it's good reasoning to answer an evidence based argument with a merely possible counter argument.

I think that we do have one thing on our side. If the atheist is specifically trying to propose a problem for Christian theism, as opposed to theism in general, he's got to show there is a problem for the whole package. Why might he be in this position? If we consider the moral argument for God.
1) If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
2) Objective moral values do exists.
Therefore, God exists.
If the atheist denies 2, then the only objection he has to theism from evil, is that it's self-inconsistent. This cannot be theism in general, it must be specifically theism that accepts objective moral values. One example of this would be Christian theism.

brian_g said...

I also find it interesting that people can place high value on suffering or that it can accomplish something of high value. That seems to be evidence that counts against the problem of evil. Why is it that rational people find that their suffering was worth it. Doesn't that in itself make it more probable then not that their suffering was worth it?

Alexander R Pruss said...


The point on suffering is a nice one, and I will try to remember it.

As for the "propose some plausible good reason", I think it is a fine argumentative move as long as the reason isn't too unlikely. The prosecution presents some evidence against your client. You point out that there is a hypothesis which (a) if true makes your client innocent, (b) is plausible, and (c) fits the evidence as well as the hypothesis of your client being guilty. Well, that seriously weakens the prosecution's case. And the more plausible your hypothesis (or, more precisely, the higher the conditional probability of the hypothesis on the condition of your client's innocence) the better the response.

In regard to the problem of evil, in the typical debate (though sometimes it's turned around, as in Aquinas' De Malo, where evil is used as an argument for the existence of God) the theist is on the defensive.

As for the multiple worlds parallel, as long as the multiple universe hypothesis is not too unlikely given atheism, it is a perfectly legitimate response to the fine-tuning argument. There are specific questions about how well it works as a response, but I do not question the legitimacy of the move as such.

Tom said...

I think the problem people have with suffering is two-fold.

First, there is no solid evidence that suffering contributes to the meaningfulness of the rest of your life. The claim that it does is a claim of faith.

Second, there is a difference between suffering rationally accepted -- as with rites of initiation and generally true of martyrs -- and inescapable suffering -- in particular the suffering of children too young to understand any notion of a meaning to suffering. Even if one accepts that the first kind of suffering can contribute to a life's meaningfulness, the existence of the second kind seems inconsistent with a loving God. Christianity does not offer any explanations for this sort of suffering, just hope.

Mr Veale said...

"The boy suffers horribly for a large part of a day, but then he's a man for half a century."

Mrs Veale has just commented that every woman who has given birth must be wondering what all the fuss is about...

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think these considerations suggest that the hope is reasonable. What the atheist needs to show is that the probability of something analogous to a 75 year long initiation ritual into an infinite life is significantly improbable GIVEN theism. But just as a two second initiation ritual into a life of 100 years would not seem improbable, a 75 year ritual for a life of infinite length seems not improbable.
As for consent, I think God is closer to us than we ourselves are. We have even less rights of autonomy against God than we do against ourselves.
I suspect that people who suffered as children do sometimes--often?--find that this contributes to the meaningfulness of their lives, when their future lives lack the sufferings and lack bad consequences.
In the rites, I also doubt that the boy's consent is very voluntary--both due to immaturity and social pressure.
As for birth, I do think the decision to forgo anaesthesia has some very similar features.

Unknown said...

(1) If eternal life renders cases where I do not consent to suffer no different from cases where I do, then this reasoning should apply across the board. For example, it should apply to the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. Or consider a case where instead of one second of intense suffering we have one second of genocide. All the victims pass to the next life and - after a period of time - come to appreciate the value of the evil they experienced. (Or else they choose atheism on their death beds and so get an eternity of suffering to match that of their mortal lives.) Could it really be the case that the effect God achieves by these means cannot -possibly- be achieved by more desirable, more humane, means?

(2) It should be recognised that the Christian position does have a good degree of internal consistency. It is just that it is not very palatable from the external viewpoint. To see both of these points it may suffice to consider the place of Hell in the idea that eternal bliss justifies evil. Suppose that God inflicts horrible suffering upon a child. The child grows up and becomes a serial killer. He then spends an eternity in Hell. In cases of this sort, is the suffering - which would otherwise have required an afterlife of AWESOME to justify - now abrogated? If so, how? A common response is to say that it is abrogated by free will - i.e. by the fact that the child chooses to develop into a serial killer on the basis of the suffering he experiences. This response can be nuanced in order not to sound AS implausible: there is a moment, say, in the inner spiritual life of the child, where he curses the name of God and sets his heart against salvation, etc.

There are, of course, far less sinister ways to turn away from God than by becoming a serial killer. For example, after a life of near-constant suffering an atheist forms the belief that, even if God exists, he does not want to go to Heaven. You might think that by denying this wish God leaves the suffering experienced during the life of the atheist unjustified, whereas by granting the wish he denies the free will of the atheist, and may even cause the atheist to suffer more by prolonging his existence. But in fact the suffering is perfectly justified by the fact that the atheist is an atheist. God only needs to worry about the suffering of the believers, who presumably desire the afterlife - the afterlife which, remember, God needs to give them in order to justify the suffering which he also (according to the Christian) needs to give them.

(3) One final speculation. There may be a difference between a second of suffering for a life of happiness, and 75 years of suffering for an eternity of bliss. Specifically, there may be a quantity and/or quality of suffering so great that even an infinite bliss cannot restore, much like there is, according to the Christian, a quantity or quality of evil which places one beyond redemption and subject to eternal damnation. Is it not somewhat tenuous to assert both that the power of human depravity can overcome even an infinite patience, and that there is no possible suffering which could render its victim numb to the restorative effects of even an infinite bliss?


Alexander R Pruss said...

The consent point applies in the case of God. God does not morally need our consent for allowing us to suffer. But we often need the consent of others. I do not want to overemphasize the moral differences between us and God, but the case of consent is very plausible. Compare how our parents can consent on our behalf when we're not very mature. And by divine standards, we adults aren't very mature.
If the added-on meaning is partly constituted by memories of the suffering, then that can't be produced in any other way. (Of course, there could be false memories, but the value then is not the same.)
The hypothesis that there is a degree of suffering that cannot be redeemed may have some prima facie plausibility, but it is empirically improbable that any human has experienced such suffering. For just about any suffering one names, there have been people who had that or worse and who have not been crushed by it, who have incorporated it into their life story in a redemptive way, even in this life. Granted, not everyone has done that in this life. But the above shows it can be done.
As for hell, it is Christian doctrine that nobody suffers a whit more than they deserve there. (Note that the total suffering in hell could perhaps even be finite: it could symptotically and quickly go to zero.) Moreover, it is plausible that the sentence takes into account prior sufferings in this life.

awatkins909 said...

Aquinas argues for the existence of God given the existence of evil!? Where can I find "De Malo"?

awatkins909 said...

brian_g: I would reject the first premise of the argument from morality. I don't think that argument works, though I'm sure some could defend it in some way.

About all this: Why couldn't God simply allow us to not suffer? Certainly there must be natural evil and moral evil given the nature of existence that is not identical to God. Any creation, in virtue of the fact that it is not God, must necessarily be imperfect. However, the qualitative experience of suffering could just as well be removed I think. On the other hand, as was said, suffering can be quite redemptive. Also, maybe suffering, in itself, is not evil. Maybe it's how one deals with suffering that makes it good or bad. 'Dunno.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's the De Malo. There may be a cheaper edition.

brian_g said...


What about this

1a) If God does not exist, then free will does not exist.

2a) If free will does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

Therefore, If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

or this

1b)If God does not exist, then everything is caused by a combination of chance and necessity.

2b) If everything is cause by a combination of chance and necessity, objective moral values do not exist.

Therefore, If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

Anonymous said...

Nice stuff, but some worries.

1) As above, I'm not sure this is the sort of move you can make if you aren't a Universalist. If one's post mortem situation ain't so great, then having a very unpleasant initiation isn't great either. But that's no great worry - you can either offer some idea of desert, or just go "well, okay then, I'll be a Universalist".

2) Following James above, I have serious worries about whether it's that plausible there aren't 'better ways' to achieve the sort of post-mortem goods in mind that don't require torture, genocide, and so on. Surely many people do defeat (borrowing from Chrisholm) vast and horrendous evils, yet not all do, and it is unclear whether they could have gained similar sorts of goods without this vast evil.

It seems a bit implausible to me that these evils really are required by those people the evils actually happen to, primarily because the pattern of horrors doesn't seem to have anything to do with someones moral/spiritual/whatever state, but rather just blind misfortune.

3) I doubt this explanation, taken alone, will be as good as how well Atheism explains evil. Given an entirely uncaring cosmos, vast evils and suffering are exactly what you'd expect to see.

4) All that said though, I like this. It seems a pretty good arrow in Theist's quiver, and I suspect it can be combined fruitfully with other theodicies or scepticial Theist responses.

awatkins909 said...

I think the first one works, brian_g. ;-) However, that changes the argument to a whole other question, namely, whether free will exists without God.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It's actually far from clear that the evils we observe are what would be expected on atheism.

First of all, many of the evils we observe involve suffering. But suffering requires consciousness, and it is far from clear that consciousness would be expected on atheism.

Second, many of the evils we observe are moral evils. Moral evil requires moral truths and responsible agents, and it is far from clear that moral truths or responsible agents would be expected on atheism.

I think the following is true. Some of the goods one can gain from evils are goods one couldn't gain without the evils. For instance, the goods of forgiveness and memories of overcoming. Now, there is a question whether equal or better goods than forgiveness and memories of overcoming could be had without the evil. I think that the answer is negative, if only due to incommensurability.

Eli said...

"But does it not beg the question to suppose eternal life in responding to the problem of evil? Not at all. The problem of evil is an argument against theism. Theism makes eternal life for any created persons very likely. Thus, if the problem of evil is to make a significant dent in the probability of theism, the problem of evil has to work even if there is eternal life, or else a good argument against eternal life is needed."

...or an argument in favor of incommensurability, which can be taken to include any argument in favor of a moral system on which commensurability doesn't ever work or only works in minor cases.

Alexander R Pruss said...

However, incommensurability cuts both ways. It makes it easier to justify permitting evils when they lead to an incommensurable good.

I think that even with widespread incommensurability (and I am actually about as strong a believe in widespread incommensurability) as they come, there will facts about what kinds of trades are worth making. It would not be worth enduring a hundred years of pain to figure out a very, very minor scientific truth; it would be worth enduring a pinprick to figure out Relativity Theory. But pain and knowledge are incommensurable.

Matt said...

I'm hoping you might say a little more about how its being 'worth' it to make tradeoffs in extreme cases is compatible with incommensurability, as per your last comment.

(Incidentally, I wonder if basic goods theorists like Finnis would agree with you.)

Sam Calvin said...

If you think that counterfactuals of human freedom have truth values and God knows them, what if God knows the answer to the question "How much suffering would you be willing to endure voluntarily for My sake?" and sees to it that you do not suffer beyond the answer to that question?

Alexander R Pruss said...

That would be a cool partial solution to the problem of evil if Molinism were right. I think it needs a little bit more work. Some who reject God also suffer--and it is implausible to say that they would be willing to suffer for God's sake. Maybe they are being punished?

Unfortunately, I don't think Molinism is correct.