Tuesday, February 05, 2013

God and Reason - Lecture 3 - John North - The Problem of Pain

I attended the third lecture in the "God and Reason" short course given by Christian professors at my university. (This time I was also able to stay for the question-and-answer period, since my son's soccer schedule has a week break in it. I probably won't be able to do that in the future.)

This week's lecture was delivered by Prof. John North of the English department. I have known John North for 20 or so years, back to when our university had a weekly staff and faculty newspaper edited by Chris Redmond, the Gazette. He wrote good letters to the editor about the importance of the library for the University and the importance of scholarship. He is a scholar of some repute in his own field, too. And I learned some other impressive things about him that I didn't know before (more on this below).

Once again the talk was well-delivered (not a big surprise since Prof. North has won a teaching award) and easy to follow. Despite this, I would say that the emphasis was much more on the "god" and hardly at all on the "reason". And despite it supposedly being about "the problem of pain", more time was devoted to a summary of the dogma believed by most Christians. As usual, my comments are in brackets.

Prof. North started with answers to the argument that "a good God would not allow pain". (He gave as examples tsunamis and animal suffering.) He gave the following answers:

Answer 1: "because I cannot see the value in pain, there must be none" is unwarranted self-confidence, cf. God's answer to Job. [This is only relevant if one assumes that there is a god that has some plan that involves pain. But if one is simply trying to decide if a god's supposed attributes fit the evidence we see, then this answer doesn't really address the evidence.]

Answer 2: "to be free is to be free to choose evil with its consequences". Not to be free is to be an automaton. [I found this extremely unsatisfying. The best rejoinder I have heard is from the physicist Stephen Weinberg: "It seems a bit unfair to my relatives to be murdered in order to provide an opportunity for free will for Germans, but even putting that aside, how does free will account for cancer? Is it an opportunity of free will for tumors?"]

Answer 3: C. S. Lewis, "They say of some temporal suffering, 'No future bliss can make up for it,' not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory." [Assumes facts not in evidence. We have no evidence of "Heaven", or backward causality. Are we supposed to accept this just because C. S. Lewis says so? How can C. S. Lewis possibly know with any certainty about this supposed glory? It reminds me of Ambrose Bierce's classic definition of faith: "belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel."]

Why pain? He gave two answers: protection for our body, and protection for our soul.

He discussed his work as a volunteer chaplain at our local hospital, where he is on class for 2 shifts from 7 PM to 7 AM to help comfort dying people. He estimates that he has helped over 800 people on their deathbeds, by comforting them through prayer and Bible reading. [This is an impressive commitment to people who are suffering.]

The rest of the talk was an exposition of what many Christians believe, in an evangelical mode. I tried to write down some of it but the parade of Bible quotes was too familiar and boring. Here are a few things:

"unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." --- Matthew 18.

[Here we have Christian exclusivity -- only Christianity has the answer and you won't enter heaven unless you accept everything Christians say as gospel. And we also have the denial of intellect and reason -- you must think like a child, not as an adult.]

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." -- Mark 12:30-31.

[This kind of stuff disgusts me. Here we have the spectacle of a god commanding everybody to love him -- the kind of megalomaniacal behavior we would rightly shun or laugh at if it came from a friend or family member. Yet we are supposed to view god as some cosmic Mafioso and rejoice in it. I find that sick.]

The Apostle's Creed: "I believe in God, the father almighty..."

Christians are guilty: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

"For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it." (James 2:10)

[Here we have a clear violation of the principle of proportionality - a basic principle of law recognized in almost all human societies, namely, that punishment should be proportionate to the crime. Another example of how Jesus' teachings are not models of ethical behavior.]

"If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them."

"Confession, repentance, and forgiveness is the only hope
- between myself and God - between myself and every other person."
This, Professor North asserted, is the ultimate solution to the problem of pain.

[Of course, it is no solution at all. "Confession, repentance, and forgiveness" did nothing for my relatives who were murdered by their Christian neighbors in the Holocaust. "Confession, repentance, and forgiveness" did nothing for my father who died of Alzheimer's. And it does nothing for the millions of people who lived throughout time before the supposed revelation of Jesus and nothing for the millions of people alive today who have never heard the message of Christianity. This is just a cop-out.]

"Only Jesus Christ, God become man, is big enough to forgive me. Forgiveness costs. Ever tried it? Accusing is more common. "The Accuser" is one of the names of Satan."

"Jesus is the creater and sustainer of the universe, the stars, galaxies, insects, and every person."

[So then, Jesus is also the creator and sustainer of killer tsunamis, the Black Plague, and all the mass murderers that have ever lived, including Hitler. Nice guy!]

"Jesus died for me, rose again for me, ascended into heaven. He sees every sparrow that falls."

[He may see every sparrow fall, but he doesn't help them. Isn't it strange that Jesus can do parlor tricks like turn water into wine, but he can't stop world hunger?]

"200,000 Christians are martyred every year." [Probably exaggerated; searches reveal many different such claims, with no really definitive source or account of methodology.]

"Why are people killing Christians?" [For most of them, probably the same reason they kill Muslims and atheists: for personal gain, because of ethnic tensions, because they are "different", and because their religion and culture tells them they should.]

At that point the floor was opened for questions. I asked about the millions of people who lived before Jesus and the millions of people who live today without ever having heard of Jesus. If the "solution to the problem of pain" is "confession, repentance, forgiveness" then all those millions cannot have any solution for their pain. (This is one of the reasons I abandoned Christianity long ago.)

I know that some Christians respond to the effect that the Christian god's existence is obvious to everyone and therefore no one has any excuse to not believe. Of course, this isn't so; monotheism is a relatively recent invention and polytheism was a common belief for thousands of years. Prof. North answered somewhat differently: that in the future all time, both past and future, will become present. And, further, that everyone walks around with a hole in their hearts that only the Christian god can fill. Finally, he said there are some things that he doesn't understand about his god, but he believes nevertheless.

[You can see here how reason has been abandoned. There is no evidence that in the future 'all time will become present time'; this is just meaningless verbiage concocted out of thin air.]

Now, here is my solution to the problem of pain: pain is an evolved response that is present in people, just like every other mammal. The effect of pain is to help an animal avoid harm in the environment, such as extreme heat, extreme cold, bodily damage, and so forth. As social animals, we have also evolved standards of behavior that we share with other primates (see, e.g., the work of Frans de Waal) and many of us can feel pain if we do not live up to these standards. We can also feel pain if life goals (such as love and reproduction) are stymied. Pain systems are not perfect and sometimes go wrong, causing people to feel pain even in the absence of harmful stimuli (e.g., phantom limb pain). Pain is not divine retribution and needless suffering does not enoble you. There is no inherent "meaning" in suffering, although some people may find their own personal meaning through it, and some people may learn empathy through it. Through science we have found methods for alleviating pain (e.g., anaesthesia, antidepressants). I feel acutely grateful to scientists like Crawford Long and William Morton for their discoveries, which work for everyone, not just members of the same sect.

To me that is a much more satisfying explanation of pain, and it is in accordance with the facts that we see. It doesn't require positing an involved theology with magical beings for which there is no evidence. If the Christian god really wanted to alleviate pain, he could have revealed the recipe for diethyl ether in the bible. He didn't.

If I find the time I will talk about my experiences after the talk.


Jeff Orchard said...

If I recall correctly, his answer to your question involved collapsing time so that the past and future all become present.


So maybe that means the people long ago who existed before Jesus actually DID get to know Jesus, but it was the anti-matter Jesus.

Oh, and he said something about people walking around with a hole in their hearts that only God could fill. And he also said, rightfully so, that he doesn't have answers to all questions. In particular, I'd say he doesn't have CORRECT answers to lots of questions.

He used that collapsing-time trick on a couple occasions. It's a convenient bit of magic to pull one out of a sticky spot.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Thanks, Jeff, your memory is better than mine and I will update to reflect that.

The Thought Criminal said...

There is no universally satisfying answer to "the problem of pain" that I've ever seen, everything anyone says about a problem like that is bound to be incomplete or unsatisfying. Though the point that because we can't find an answer to the problem doesn't mean that there is one there.

Stephen Weinberg is a man who seems to willfully ignore the part that science has played in every mass slaughter in the modern period, pretending that is the responsibility of religion. His example of the Nazis attempted genocide is a good example of his lack of perception. It was the first truly scientific attempt at mass murder and, due to the fact that science is efficacious, it was far more effective than some other such attempts. He also has missed that anyone who murders someone else while believing themselves to be Christians are violating the explicit teachings of a man they pretend to believe is God, whereas there is no violation of materialistic or atheistic teachings by murdering every last member of any identified group. It would be rather stupid to blame the religion for people who violate its teachings while ignoring where the justification for the genocide or the Nazis came from. Which is rather clear in the history of German "racial hygiene" which was founded in what was widely considered to be science and which was developed by people employed by some of the most reputable universities and other institutions as scientists. That has been held to be an unspeakable record but I'm not going to ignore what's there to be seen in the written record of some of the foremost heroes of atheists today. That record couldn't be clearer.

Materialism has a far worse problem than the problem of pain, or the problem of evil. Materialism can't account for goodness, for generosity. I'd much rather have the problem of evil to explain than to have the problem of not being able to find a durable scientific explanation of the good that people do. An explanation that doesn't do what the present line on that problem does, turns good into just a different level of selfishness.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Materialism can't account for goodness, for generosity.

It can and has, in the theory of kin selection. You continue to lie about this.

Nazi genocide can be traced in a direct line to hundreds of years of Christian oppression of Jews. Ever read any Martin Luther?

The Thought Criminal said...

Kinship theory is the negation of morality, it merely presents selfless acts a higher order of selfishness. That is except when it suits the purposes of the alleged science to see it as a lower order of selfishness.

There is nothing in kinship theory that would have precluded "Aryans" from murdering every Jewish person, Romany and Pole in the world.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

That's because you don't understand the theory of kin selection. It describes what is, not what ought to be. In other words, kin selection is a scientific theory, not an ethical system.

You seem extremely confused about many things. I'd recommend Richard Alexander's book, "Darwinism and Human Affairs", which is the deepest and most insightful book I have read about ethical systems. It is a shame it is so little known.

The Thought Criminal said...

Any claim to explain morality with natural selection, a system that is inherently selfish, either by the individuals for themselves, or their closest biological relatives or their group within a species, is merely pretending that acts, by an individual, which costs them or their potential offspring, can be explained as selfishness. It begins in the faith (based on nothing but faith) that natural selection has universal explanatory powers and ends up twisting generosity into its opposite in order to make it fit their preferred framing. It turns science into ideology and it denies the essential nature of generosity and selflessness.

There is no way to reconcile real generosity with natural selection, it's only possible to deny that real generosity exists or that it is merely a different order of selfishness misunderstood. If you want to give up the dogma that natural selection can explain all, you could account for both things but I've never met a materialist who is willing to consider that.

Kinship theory is just one more of the many proposed patches to natural selection that have been made to it, beginning with both Darwin and Wallace. It's probably going to turn out to be one of the less successful ones.

The Thought Criminal said...

Oh, and Darwin left such an enormous record of his thoughts that I'm not much concerned with secondary and tertiary material except in so far as that can point to things in the primary record I might have missed. Relying also on what his family, friends and associates said of him, you know, the people who actually knew him and talked to him unrecorded unlike anyone alive today.

That record is very largely available free, online, from secular, non-ideological sources with no motive to distort it and every reason to reproduce it fully and accurately. I recommend that everyone read Darwin, himself, entire books and documents and not the carefully clipped quotes from both sides of the Darwin wars, and judge directly from what he said.
When I finally did that about six years ago I left the mythical Darwin behind. You should especially read what he was citing and presenting as reliable science in The Descent of Man.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Darwin left such an enormous record of his thoughts that I'm not much concerned with secondary and tertiary material

You seem extremely confused. No one is talking about Darwin's opinion about anything in this thread.

You also seem to be doing your absolute best to avoid reading everything I've cited. An honest person would say either, "I've read Alexander's book and I dispute it for these reasons" or "I haven't read Alexander's book; thank you, I'll put it on my list".

You are not an honest person.

The Thought Criminal said...

You recommended a book about Darwinism. I was being charitable in only mentioning Darwin.

If you want to go into the records of Darwinists beginning with Galton, Huxley, Haeckel, Leonard Darwin, Pearson, Schallmeyer, Fischer, Haldane, Charles Galton Darwin, Hamilton, and on to today, the record on Darwinian "morality" is far worse.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Galton, Huxley, Haeckel, Leonard Darwin, Pearson, Schallmeyer, Fischer, Haldane, Charles Galton Darwin, Hamilton

This has absolutely nothing to do with anything I have mentioned in this thread.

Either you are stupid, dishonest, or have a mental problem.

The Thought Criminal said...

You can't recommend a book about Darwinism and then ignore a line of the most prominent Darwinists its history. Including those who invented the same kinship theory you cited as refutation of the point that materialism can't account for morality. Not unless you want to disavow your entire line of argument.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

You can't recommend a book about Darwinism and then ignore a line of the most prominent Darwinists its history.

Alexander's arguments stand and fall on their own merits. Read the book for yourself.

The Thought Criminal said...

Darwinism without Darwin or the Darwinists? Geesh, I can hardly wait to see what it is you call "Darwinism". It will, though, have to wait till I can get to a library. But I'm not waiting with baited breath.

SLC said...

Steven Weinberg, another scientist who Mr. McCarthy bad mouths.

RBH said...

Jeff, I'm getting a popup to "Informationgetter" from your "direct line" link. Is that me or you? I don't get it from links in other OPs on Recursivity.

The Thought Criminal said...

As flattering as it is for SLC to try to make this all about me, I've got to ask what's wrong with exploring what Weinberg said in the context in which it was brought up?

Is he some kind of unquestionable authority?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

RBH: I don't know what the heck you are talking about!

SLC said...

Re Anthony McCarthy

I once took a course from Steven Weinberg. I knew Steven Weinberg. McCarthy ain't no Steven Weinberg.

Incidentally, Frankenberger claimed to be a devout Christian and his evil acts were carried out by others who professed to be devout Christians, both Lutherans and communicants of the Raping Children Church.

By the way, I would argue that Dialectical Materialism could be classified as a religion as it is a set of assertions based on no evidence, just like all religions.

The Thought Criminal said...

"Frankenberger claimed to be a devout Christian and his evil acts were carried out by others who professed to be devout Christians, both Lutherans and communicants of the Raping Children Church."

Well, Martin Bormann was an outspoken and anti-religious atheist. You think atheists should be answerable for him? I'm unaware of a single atheist who was murdered for trying to live up to the moral code of atheists. On the other hand, there were Catholics like Pan Wolski who hid Jews in Poland, were discovered by the Nazis and killed for it.

I really don't want to bring up the "Human Sexuality" editor of Prometheus Books and his involvement with Paidika but, well, I didn't bring up the topic.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Stay on the topic of the post or get lost. First warning.

The Thought Criminal said...

I'm not the one who brought up those things. Or didn't you notice.

I think I have all the material I need anyway.

SLC said...

To get back to the subject at hand, there are people who are unable to feel pain. this is a very dangerous condition for them. Those folks are very susceptible to serious injuries, particularly burns. I don't know if this is an inheritable condition but, if it is, I would expect that natural selection could minimize the population of such individuals because they would be unlikely to live long enough to begat descendents.

Surface reader said...

Here we have the spectacle of a god commanding everybody to love him -- the kind of megalomaniacal behavior
On the surface, it does indeed look like the Bible is doing that.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

On the surface, it does indeed look like the Bible is doing that.

Yeah, yeah. But if we were to understand the bible really deeply then we would know blah blah blah, right?

You forget something. The bible is supposed to be the revelation of an all-powerful being who - despite this power - just cannot manage to express herself clearly. Instead, she insists on just appearing to be a megalomaniac asshole.

The kinds of stories one has to make up to be a believer... it beggars imagination.

Diogenes said...

Thought Criminal:

Well, Martin Bormann was an outspoken and anti-religious atheist. You think atheists should be answerable for him?

I've never seen any evidence that Bormann was an atheist. Most likely another urban myth, like "Hitler the atheist Darwinist."

Bormann was anti-Christian at least after (about) 1941. He did use monotheistic arguments.

After 1941, Bormann made some anti-Christian statements and tried to push through some anti-Christian policies, but Hitler quashed his writings and overruled his policies. There were plenty of Christians in the Nazi Party who could and did undo Bormann's directives.