This post is to complete a sequence about pain and suffering and how we respond. I didn’t want to leave this as a purely philosophical issue. Indeed the substance of my last post was that this is not an area that is correctly addressed that way. Our practical response is more important than any philosophical point-scoring. So here I will first briefly repeat the conclusion so far, and then add a final point.
In two previous posts I presented a paper of Peter van Inwagen, concerning the pain and suffering of the world, and what can and cannot be concluded from it. They can be found here:
I affirmed that the capacity of human beings to make moral judgements is important, but it cannot be trusted as reliable when faced with really big questions, where we just don’t know what all the parameters are. Questions such as the moral value of the universe as a whole, for example. We just do not know enough to pass judgement on a question as big as that, or on any question which amounts to the same thing, such as whether it would be better for the laws of nature to be other than as they are. And this means that when faced with the question posed by the pain of the world, we cannot answer it in the position of grand inquisitor, passing judgement on whether or not the world is good.
Now I will add a further comment that is also important in this context.
It is a tremendously good thing that the human race has discovered things like vaccination and mosquito nets. I am fully in favour of things like the global polio eradication initiative. And if I could eliminate for ever the current ten worst parasites worldwide then I think I would do it without hesitation. So it is allowable to object to the world, to say that we can make a better job of it, in specific cases like this. I think we are not just allowed to, but are meant to, eradicate things like ebola and river blindness. And yet this does not amount to saying to God, “You should never have allowed there to be viruses and parasites”. This is because I think that sort of objection probably amounts to saying, “You should have turned the world into a different sort of project altogether, one which cannot thwart you, and which amounts to a puppet.”
So instead we have parasites and the job of dealing with them. Before modern technology, they could have been largely avoided in humans if people had lived more peaceably and given their energies to understanding the world and arranging equitable living conditions for everyone, instead of fighting for supremacy. With modern technology we can address public health issues with the real prospect of large amounts of success, except that comparatively well-off people are hesitant about paying the modest cost involved. We don’t find it easy to assess the relative merits of making an extra payment to the world health organization, for example, as compared to taking one more trip to the local cinema. So there remains the great problem of the human will, which is solved another way.
The long-term project that the world might be about, it seems to me, is one in which we, the conscious decision-makers of the world, freely choose to make the world achieve the goodness of which it is capable. Also, I guess, without the action of conscious agents such as ourselves, it is not possible for this to happen, because impersonal processes cannot make it happen. Such processes are indifferent to good and bad. But conscious agents such as ourselves are not indifferent to good and bad, and can do something about it. God could supervise the world more directly—by what we would call miracles—but then it would not be a world. It would be a puppet. So God achieves the overall project of a good world in the only way it can be achieved—through the willing, freely chosen cooperation of every agent, to the extent to which each is free.
That is a guess about the overall project; a guess that is much too big for me to make, of course. But I mention it because it is very much in keeping with traditional Christian understanding of the big picture. In the Lord’s prayer, for example, we are not encouraged to try to get away and go to somewhere else called heaven; we are told to desire that things be done on Earth as they are done ‘in heaven’, which is to say, in the framework of absolute goodness.