This is the second part of a presentation of a philosophy paper by Peter van Inwagen. You can find the first part here.

In the first part, I presented van Inwagen’s specific reaction to a certain specific argument. This argument presents the claim that the pain of the world gives a prima facie case for the hypothesis that the ultimate source of the world is indifferent to it. Van Inwagen replies simply by showing that the case fails because the premises do not entail the conclusion. However, this discussion is unsatisfactory as it stands because it is too dry. It doesn’t really grapple with the problem of pain. It grapples only with the structure of a certain logical (or illogical) argument.

Van Inwagen is aware of this and he devotes the first and main part of his paper to making it clear that the problem of pain is not solvable by the route of philosophical analysis. Much of his text is devoted to making it clear that we are not in a position to claim the ability to make reliable value-judgements about matters that are too large for us.

The matters that are under consideration here include the innate nature of the physical world, right down to the patterns that we discover in fundamental physics, and up to the pains and joys of sentient life. We can try to get these matters in view, but we cannot in the end form reliable judgements about what the possibilities are, let alone which possibilities are preferable. How do you say whether a painful existence is preferable to another existence which you do not know to be even possible?

We know that there can be a world with sentient creatures in it, such that those sentient creatures are subject to parasitism, earthquake, disease, forest fires and so on, and such that the world operates according to deep-seated regularities. We are inhabitants of such a world. The deep-seated regularities are the ones which we call the laws of nature. Science is the study of these patterns.

We can also imagine that it might be possible for there to be a world containing sentient creatures, but in which those creatures were protected from all calamities, apart from grief for departed loved-ones, until they died peacefully in old age, because the protection was provided by the suspension of the laws of nature at every turn.

But what we cannot claim is that there can be a regular world (one with innate regularities that were not frequently prevented or interrupted) such that it supported sentient creatures and also had protection from suffering. We just do not know whether or not that is possible, even in principle.

To clarify, here are the elements we are considering.

Let ‘SC’ be ‘sentient creatures’ (in which we may include animals such as mammals and birds).

Let ‘R’ be the operation of regular universal patterns of the world, by which it develops from moment to moment, such that these basic patterns hold either always or almost always, everywhere.

Let ‘UMP’ be universal miraculous protection. This is the action of a protective omnipotent power that prevented the operation of regular laws of nature whenever they were such as to cause large amounts of suffering.

Let ‘S’ be suffering. That is, the patterns of suffering, of both humans and other animals, especially vertebrates, approximately as they are found on Earth.

Now here is a summary of the first part of van Inwagen’s paper.

We can assert with confidence the following:

  1.  R and UMP are mutually inconsistent.
  2.  SC, R and S are not mutually inconsistent (we know this from our experience).
  3.  SC and UMP are consistent with the absence of S.


4.  we do not know whether SC and R can be consistent with the absence of S.

That is to say, we do not know whether there can, in principle, be a world free to develop according to its own regularities, without conscious supervision that overrides or otherwise manipulates those regularities, such that sentient creatures come to exist in that world, without large amounts of suffering (as well as joy).

We really do not know, but it is reasonable to suppose that this is an impossibility. It is reasonable to suppose that a world with both innate regularities and sentient creatures cannot avoid being a world with the kind of suffering that is found in our world, prior to the arrival of humans. (The last qualification is made so that we are not discussing the contribution that is owing to human choices). One may argue that it is reasonable to suppose this, because this is the implication of scientific study in geology and biology, for example. Most of what we have learned about our own world suggests that impersonal processes cannot be so configured that they cause only good and no bad. At least, that is the case if those processes are open enough to allow them to furnish sentient creatures with a degree of self-determination and independence. To achieve that desirable outcome (only good complex open processes, with no bad ones) there must be personal agency involved in the processes. Or so it is reasonable to believe.

Again, this is not an area of sure knowledge. I am talking about what is reasonable, not what is certain. I am describing a reasonable position to take.

Supposing then that the last item (SC and R with no S) is strictly impossible, we are left with the following options:

item A:  the world as we know it, which combines SC, R and S.


item B:  a miraculous pain-free world, which combines SC and UMP with no R or S.


item C:  SC, R and personal agents acting in the world so as to manage or eliminate S.


Now we consider objections to theism.

People object to theism for two reasons. First, they find item A to be morally objectionable. Second, they find theism to be less likely than the alternatives.

The answer to the first of these objections is not to reply that there is nothing morally problematic about the world, but to say that we honestly don’t think we are in a position to make value-judgements about matters concerning the very existence and nature of the universe and its patterns (the lesson of the important Biblical book called Job). Our capacity for reliable moral judgement is not adequate to this task, because it has only been honed to deal with smaller matters. We hesitate to say that a complete non-existence of our world would have been a morally better option, and we also hesitate to say that we could judge item B above to be better than item A. We suspect that item B does not allow a truly valuable existence to the sentient creatures, but we really don’t know.

We also don’t know, as I already said, whether one can have R and SC without S unless there are personal agents involved (so as to get item C). In this area we maintain the reasonable belief that the only way to get R and SC without S is by the route identified in item C. That is the gist of the first part of Peter van Inwagen’s paper. In my presentation, I have added item C to his list; he focuses on A and B.

The main point van Inwagen makes is the limited nature of human capacity to make a trustworthy value judgement about cosmic existential matters. I think this is right. When people attempt to do that, they are speaking in almost complete ignorance. Our moral faculties have been developed to permit us to handle the smaller matters of our immediate relations with each other and the other animals; the extension of such faculties to the consideration of existence itself and the nature of the universe is too great an extension to allow any conclusions we might make to be reliable. So the value judgement sometimes made in the name of atheism (the one which says that if the world was created then the creator is morally deficient) is not reliable. It is not new, of course. It is already voiced by Job’s wife in the book (Job) that is one of the oldest books in the Bible. To this day, it remains unreliable and insufficiently thought through. Again, this does not disallow us raising moral objections to things that are morally objectionable, such as every specific example of senseless suffering. I will say more about that in the next post. But it does disallow our attempt to pronounce judgement upon the merits or otherwise of the whole creation, of the very threads of which it is the weaving.



[Tapestry with the Arms of the Giovio Family (detail); wikimedia commons]