I was able to tune into a debate between Richard Carrier and David Marshall last night via a live stream, which unfortunately was probably not the best in taking on the traffic since it froze up a few times during the event. Nonetheless, I was able to hear the main points, the rebuttals, etc., and I’m sure each side with cheer their champion and deride their opponent. Rather, I thought I’d focus on one point, and one that has been a major discussion point for quite some time: the problem of evil/suffering.
Famously articulated millennia ago by the philosopher Epicurus, it has been a difficult thing to explain. Why is there such suffering in the world if there is an all-powerful and all-good super-being controlling the universe? At best I think it can be shown that it is logically possible for there to be suffering in the world yet there be an omnipotent, omniscience god running the show, but there is still the evidential aspect to the problem. In other words, should it not be the case that excess suffering is evidence against such a being? In the debate, Carrier brought up how Jesus (in the gospels) knew nothing about the germ theory of disease, knowledge which would have saved millions and brought down child mortality by orders of magnitude. If you had some knowledge, would you not pass it on to help others? If someone you knew had this knowledge and ability to help without harm to themselves and chose not to, would you consider that person outstanding moral? Marshall admits this is a problem, but says no worldview is perfect (though he seems to grossly underestimate how much of a problem it is), and there are notable responses to the problem.
Marshall doesn’t specify the solutions or responses to the problem of evil, but the most famous as probably that of free will and the soul-making (also called Irenaean) theodicy. The former theodicy requires that the concept of libertarian/contra-causal free will to be in operation, which isn’t popular among philosophers and to me is both incoherent and undesirable (I’ll have to talk about that at a later time). Instead, I want to look at the soul-making version of the defense of god with evil in the universe.
The basic idea is that there is suffering the world to make us better overall, giving a justification to its presence. For example, there is pain during weight-lifting, but the result (if done right) is greater strength. The idea is ultimately that there is a greater good, which is something the free will defense has in common, and perhaps all theodicies (minus the denial of the existence of evil). However, too much suffering isn’t good; in the weight-lifting example, if you tear your muscles in the process you will get a lot of pain and become weaker. So the apologist has to posit that God delivers the correct amount of suffering to bring about the greatest good in the world. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides several points that make this theodicy rather weak, notably terminal suffering (such as with cancer or genocides as with the Holocaust), the suffering and death of infants, and animal suffering (what’s the point of harming them). All very good points, but I’m sure they can lead to infinities of apologetic responses.
Instead, I want to look at this a little bit more scientifically. The question should be this: is the suffering in the here and now and in the past something that has increased virtue and worthiness of people, thus providing a greater good? On the hypothesis that the suffering the world is ultimately for some good, the suffering in the past as well as in the present has some justification. So let us consider if the great suffering of the past can make sense.
If this soul-maker hypothesis is correct, that god/God has made a world with suffering/evil in it to make better souls, what we should expect is that the greater suffering did better in making people better in character, morals, virtues, etc. So, let us consider two metrics: suffering and virtuosity. We can talk about this in historical terms, namely the average suffering in the past over other times, and the moral character of people over time. Suffering can include starvation, war, disease, etc. Moral character has the aspects of being more empathetic, more giving, fewer robberies, fewer murders, etc. It is difficult to talk about this with individuals, but instead we should talk about populations. After all, we are talking about suffering in the world which affects everyone, so we should look at populations.
Now, the talk about how much things stunk in the past, I am primarily relying on Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature. What Pinker shows is that, on all relevant metrics, the world is better to live in now than in was in the past. Some things are obvious and don’t need the greatest of citations, namely how we have lowered the problem of famine, disease, and poverty in the industrialized world. After all, some diseases have been completely eliminated or reduced to almost nothing (namely small pox), and treatments continue to improve the human condition. We also have fewer major wars and deaths per capita from war. Very good is that infant mortality has plummeted in the last few centuries; even in the last 50-some years it has been cut down by a third in the world, and it used to be orders of magnitude worse in the past.
We also live a world with greater comforts, from climate-controlled homes to every flavor of chip you can imagine. By comparison we live in a golden age when looking at glorious civilizations of the past, including ancient China, Rome, Egypt, medieval Arabia, or feudal Europe. Objectively, there is a lot less suffering in the world on average than there was in the past. The magnitude is even greater when going into prehistory and before the first governments and civilizations proper.
So, on the soul-making theodicy, by living in this world of relative comfort we ought to be less virtuous overall than our ancestors. Is that the case? As it appears from the data, it couldn’t be further from the truth. For example, murder rates have plummeted over history, as have thefts, rapes, and other such crimes. Even mass murders like that from Rwanda or Nazi Germany are on the decline historically.
We are also, as noted, less at war and wars are less costly in human capital. In the ancient past there was an almost constant state of conflict even if there were no state actors, and now peace is desired to such extents that is frightens some.
We are also getting more and more intelligent with time, a virtue of note. In fact, the IQ scale has to be renormalized in what is called the Flynn effect–average IQ scores increase by about 3 points every decade or about 9 points a generation. Believe it or not, but we are actually more logically-thinking than our ancestors, and the average person in Victorian days would have been technically retarded by our current IQ tests.
Let’s also consider a mad-dash of other moral improvements in the world. Slavery is unconscionable, overt racism is shamed, torture is outlawed and condemned, executions are becoming fewer in the first world (many nations outright stopping the practice), child labor is widely banned, social welfare programs help the needy, and we care more about those suffering in other parts of the world and even animals.
Now, it is certainly the case that the world population is not the paragon on virtue, nor are we all angels by any stretch of the imagination. However, the evidence points out rather well that we are better on average when it comes to the virtues now than in the past. While we have to admit to allowing Jersey Shore on television, we don’t have gladiator games or public executions. That seems like an improvement if there ever was one.
What this all means is that we are in an age that is not only more peaceful and with less suffering on average, but we also live in a time when we are more virtuous. So when it comes to suffering making us better overall, there is much to be desired. Worse is actually the problem of past suffering; if we have less suffering now but are more virtuous than in the past, then that means the greater suffering in the past was not useful in making people more virtuous. If anything, such suffering caused moral failings–more poverty, more thievery; fewer resources, more conflict for resources; more that is unknown, more superstition and the harm it does to people and animals. This all means that the immense, blood-curdling suffering in the past is not justified and was excessive. Thus, the soul-making theodicy expects the opposite to what we see and thus fails; the past was not the best-possible world, because we live in a world now that is better on all counts.
Now, there is perhaps one virtue that has gone down, but that virtue is one defined by the apologist, and that is religiosity. As suffering and inequality have gone down, secularism has gone up, typified in Western Europe and to some degree in the US. The “evil secular world” has gotten larger while the religious world has gotten smaller–fewer adherents and not as prominent in laws and actions as it was in, say, the Middle Ages. This means that you have to value faithfulness to God as paramount in virtue rather than honesty, compassion, humility, charity, etc. Unfortunately, this will make God into the ultimate wife-beater, using his power to force his victim to love him all the more as he/she deserves the punishment. If the soul-maker apologist goes down this route, they basically are saying psychological damage is good no matter what if it makes you never get out of line. Perhaps it is following the old proverb from the Bible: spare the rod, spoil the child (Proverbs 13:24).
(It should be noted that such violence does not endear the child to their parents and makes them more, not less, violent. This is one of the reasons that beatings are not allowed in schools–they don’t work and make things worse. So the soul-making theodicy and the Bible fail again.)
Overall then, when we combine the empirical with the philosophical, we see that the soul-making theodicy is one without much force. We didn’t live in the best-possible world for making good souls in the past compared to now, so it wasn’t the best possible world, hence the suffering was unnecessary, making God not omni-benevolent. I won’t claim that undoes all other theodicies, but it should be considered when evaluating the problem of evil/suffering.