Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Wheat and tares

A recent exchange I had with an unbeliever on Facebook:

Its impossible to explain away unnecessary suffering like child cancer without appealing to unsatisfying answers like 'its a mystery' or 'child cancer is part of God's plan'. We can all imagine a world in which unnecessary suffering like child cancer does not exist yet freewill does. Thus such suffering is gratuitous and unnecessary.

I don't subscribe to the freewill defense. That said, your objection is superficial. Sure, we can all imagine a world without children dying of cancer. The problem is that people who imagine a better world mentally eliminate the evils while leaving everything else in place, including the goods. But removing some evils removes second-order goods that are contingent on the existence of the underlying evils. So that's the dilemma. 

To take your own example, childhood cancer is an opportunity to develop certain virtues which would never exist in an idyllic world. 

Likewise, if a couple had a child who dies of cancer, they may have a replacement child to compensate. And the replacement child may have kids of his own, and grandkids.

That compensatory good would not exist if the older child hadn't died. So it's a tradeoff between one life and another, or one set of lives and another. Moreover, the cancer created the opportunity for two children to exist instead of one.

How is it NECESSARY that we need unnecessary suffering to have goodness?

That's a loaded question since you smuggled your own assumption into the formulation of the question. Sure, it's tautology to say unnecessary suffering is unnecessary, but that simply begs the question regarding the existence of gratuitous suffering.

but i'm saying CUT OUT THE MIDDLE MAN. Have the good without the tragedy.

But it wouldn't be the same good. Evil is gratuitous if God could prevent it without losing some distinctive good or permitting some equally grave or greater evil. 

Once again, the cancer analogy. You are saying we shouldn't eliminate cancer or polio because of all the secondary good it has. Why can't that good happen without the cancer or polio?

i) The argument from evil is not about what humans should do but about what God (allegedly) should do. God and humans don't have the same responsibilities. God has foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge. We don't. Therefore–unlike God–we're in no position to consider long-term outcomes. 

Likewise, as social creatures, we have emotional investments that God does not. 

There's some overlap between divine goodness and human goodness, but they don't overlap. 

ii) Would a world in which children never die be a better world? Better in some respects. But better for whom?

If humans were immortal from the outset, then humans would have to stop reproducing after a few generations. That means most humans who exist in a world with infant morality wouldn't exist. Is it better for them never to have the opportunity to enjoy the gift of life?

It may be better for the children who don't die, but it's hardly better for the children whose existence is edged out under that alternate scenario. 

Every child is unique. Those are incommensurable goods. 

iii) Moreover, a world in which no one died from illness or senescence would be a world chockfull of selfish people who'd never risk their life or health to save someone else from, say, a house fire. There'd be too much to lose. 

iv) A future without childhood cancer might be better, but a past without childhood cancer wouldn't be better for the people you care about, since they wouldn't exist. Better relative to whom? It is better for your loved ones if the past is the same up to their birth and maturity, then diverges after they have their prime of life. 

v) Unfortunately, there's a human tendency to take friends and family for granted. We act as though they will always be available. There are so many lost opportunities.

When, however, a friend or family member gets cancer, we make up for lost time. That intensifies the remaining time we have with them. 

vi) Regarding polio, many healthy people squander the gift of life. To be disabled can prompt people to make the most of fewer opportunities. 

vii) Suppose one teenage boy has polio while another teenage boy from the same general vicinity is a football star. He comes from a dirty poor family. He's counting on a football scholarship to pay his way through college and make a better life for himself.

Now let's change a variable. Suppose the other boy doesn't have polio, and he's a better athlete. The boy from the poor family who was banking on a football scholarship loses that opportunity. 

In each of these scenarios, there are tradeoffs. Each scenario has second-order goods. By eliminating the evil, you eliminate a distinctive good. Evil can be both beneficial and harmful. 

vii) In general, it's good for humans to work to eradicate polio. But there are situations where we wouldn't eliminate a short-term evil if we knew the end-result. Normal people will avoid actions that harm their loves ones. Yet what is good for my beloved may be bad for your beloved, or vice versa.

I have greater responsibilities for my family than I have for your family. By contrast, God doesn't have greater responsibilities for any particular family.

How God balances out good and evil is different from how a conscientious human might.

You've got a hidden assumption in there. Its like the old cliche of you can't have joy without suffering. Well yes, yes you can.

Since I didn't use that in my argument, you're objection misses the target.

but must appeal to a mystery (God knows all counterfactuals but we don't so it must be hiding in that knowledge!) and have no reason to believe it besides the fact that rejecting it is really damaging to your view on God.

Responsible humans would sometimes make difference choices if they knew the long-terms consequences of their actions. There's nothing mysterious about that principle. Naturally, God has a different perspective. The proverbial God's-eye view.

Well I can easily imagine a world identical to ours WITHOUT child cancer.

Actually, you can't. A world without childhood cancer would not be identical to ours. A world without childhood cancer with have different genealogies. 

It's like the parable of the wheat and the tares (Mt 13:24-30,36-43). Human lives are mutually entangled. It isn't possible to uproot the tares without uprooting some of the wheat. Pull out the evil and you pull out some of the good that's intertwined with the evil.


  1. 1. A world without polio would have been a world without the need for a Jonas Salk (or Albert Sabin) to develop a vaccine for polio. This would have been a world in which Salk would not have had to use his aptitude for medical and scientific research in this direction. Nor for Salk to demonstrate courage in injecting himself with his own vaccine before he had tested it on other humans. Nor later refuse to patent his vaccine, which set an idealistic example for future medical and scientific researchers.

    A world without polio would have been a world in which FDR did not have polio and therefore would not have needed to establish the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis aka the March of Dimes Foundation which was the primary organization responsible for funding Salk's research on the polio vaccine. A world without polio would have been a world in which charitable individuals including celebrities like Walt Disney and Mickey Rooney would not have needed to be charitable and contribute their money as well as other resources (e.g. time, efforts) to the March of Dimes Foundation.

    A world without polio would not have had a debate between whether to use an inactivated vaccine as Salk wished or an attenuated vaccine as Sabin wished in developing a polio vaccine. Sabin like many others thought Salk was dangerous in wanting to use an inactivated virus, but Salk demonstrated it worked, which changed the prevailing scientific thought of the day. If this debate had never occurred, then it could have had repercussions in the development of other non-related vaccines, which in turn could have had repercussions for individuals with diseases helped by vaccination.

    2. A story from a British pastor named Melvin Tinker:

    In a small town in Australia, there was a Christian woman who was crippled with arthritis, her body was more or less continually racked with pain. One neighbour who lived a few houses down the street knew this, and was struck by the gracious way she coped with it, never complaining, always being positive. This impressed her so much that she decided to go to the woman's church to find out more about a belief which could make such a difference to a life. Eventually she became a Christian. She then began to take her young son along to church, and he also became a Christian. Today, that son is one of the finest New Testament scholars in the world and a model Christian man, his name is Peter O'Brien. I am sure that if we had been able to say to that woman, "Keep on, put up with your suffering because it is going to be such a witness that a young boy is going to be converted through it, and he is going to be greatly used by God to influence thousands of ministers throughout the world," then that would undoubtedly have made her suffering easier to bear. But she didn't know any of that. All she could do was to trust God.


  2. I'd add if God told every single person what his purpose(s) was for their suffering, then it could potentially backfire or be self-defeating. Imagine if God told parents with a child with cancer that the purpose for their child's suffering and their suffering watching their child go through this difficult ordeal was to draw them closer together as a family. However, if God revealed to them this purpose, then it's possible they could balk at God's revelation, and refuse to have a child in the first place.

    Or imagine if God told someone with polio that the purpose for their polio was so that it would make them more patient, kind, loving, and so forth toward others. However, if God revealed this to them in advance, then it could have the opposite effect and cause them to hold a grudge against God. Why couldn't God have made me a better person by some other means? And so forth.