Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The atheistic problem of pain

One thing I really don't get. Pain is supposed to be a big problem for the theist, and is hence supposed to be a reason to be a naturalist instead. (Most problem of evil atheists, so far as I can tell, are naturalists). So, they say, the distribution of pain and suffering in the world is not what you should expect with a good God but precisely what you should expect with no God. Really? In a godless, naturalistic world, the existence of pain or any other conscious state or quale is exactly what we should not expect. Of course, you can I suppose have organism with dispositions to behave in certain ways, but the actual internally experienced state of pain is a huge, hard problem for atheistic naturalism, a problem that I personally consider to be logically impossible to solve. Going from theism to atheism to solve the problem of pain is like going from the frying pan to the fire.


Anonymous said...

Vic, can you please number your premises and place them in a valid argument form here? ;-)

Victor Reppert said...

1. If naturalism is true, then consciousness does not emerge.
2. If consciousness does not emerge, then pain does not exist.
3. Therefore, if naturalism is true, then pain does not exist.
4. Pain exists.
5. Therefore, naturalism is false.

Anonymous said...

From the problem of evil to the problem of consciousness we go. The later problem is not my forte, but I suspect it is yours. One way to look at it is to ask a question about the soul here.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Premise 1 is the weak premise. If conscious states are just (really complicated) states of brains (individuated functionally or causally or some other way neuroscience hasn't figured out) that serve some useful adaptive role (e.g., conscious states help you plan and guide behavior in interesting ways), then it isn't surprising that evolution has stumbled upon consciousness.

Note I am not so sure naturalists can account for consciousness. I am presently an agnostic. But theism doesn't provide an obvious solution either. If they invoke the soul as the seat of consciousness, you are left with the same types of problems: why does this nonphysical substance (the mind) have these conscious properties? Can't we imagine the soul stripped of qualia, retaining only its causal/functional properties?

I think you need some kind of panpsychism or dual aspect theory in either case. Ojects (whether they be souls or physical) have two types of properties: on one hand their causal functional properties, and their experiential conscious properties on the other. Chalmers, for instance, is a naturalist but not a materialist, because he advocates a form of dual aspect theory.

The problem is that this leaves you with epiphenomenalism (you can subtract the phenomenal aspects leaving the causal/functional roles the same). It is not clear that any sort of theism is required, or helpful, for solving these problems.

Don Jr. said...


I agree that the first premise is the place to attack if one is going to attack, but I do not think it is a weak (or false) premise.

When you spoke of mind as an immaterial substance you seemed to mix in a sort physical account with that concept (which is easy to do since the term "substance" is used). It's not so much that the mind has these conscious properties; it's more that these conscious properties constitute the mind. I think maybe the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry entitled "Dualism" might help, especially the last section (Section 5.2.2., "Unity and Substance Dualism").

Also, theism doesn't have an official position on this. Theism does hold that the mind or soul exists. But some theists are substance dualists, some are not.

Lastly, one of the reasons for a dualistic approach to this issue is that we have good reason, I think, to have the mental play some sort of causal role (as the argument from reason argues). It seems that my thoughts can cause other thoughts and can also lead to actions (this is stated very loosely). Epiphenomenalism, though, as you noted, leaves the causal roles the same, so it doesn't help one in this area if this is viewed as an issue. The mental plays no active role. Mentally, we are literally just along for the ride. (None of this, of course, is to say that substance dualism doesn't have its concerns.)

Blue Devil Knight said...

Don you are right I was focusing on substance dualism. I am sympathetic to property dualism, but of a sort in which the mental properties are (nonphysical) properties of physical processes rather than dangling properties that are somehow bound together into single unified subjects (perhaps that's where theism could help: God solves the binding problem :)).

You said:
Lastly, one of the reasons for a dualistic approach to this issue is that we have good reason, I think, to have the mental play some sort of causal role (as the argument from reason argues). It seems that my thoughts can cause other thoughts and can also lead to actions (this is stated very loosely).

I don't see how dualism helps you here. It seems an even better reason for a naturalistic approach. If the mind is a complicated neuronal state, there is no problem of epiphenomenalism, as complicated neuronal states obviously can influence action. It is not clear how nonphysical properties would causally interact with a world.

Don Jr. said...


Epiphenomenalism seems at a glance to be a good solution to the mind-body problem, but upon closer anlysis I think it has many holes. (Some of these are noted in that entry on dualism I cited earlier.) If it not clear how the non-physical could interact with the physical (and it is admitted, I think, by most dualist that this is unknown), it is equally puzzling how the physical could influence the non-physical (which is a condition of epiphenomenalism). This is one issue, I think, with epiphenomenalism--that it doesn't solve the problem of interaction.

Also, it doesn't allow (at all) for mental causation. The mental is said to "ride on" the physical. But the mental plays no causal role whatsoever, not even in the mental realm. This seems to be problematic, at least for me, since it is very adverse to the way reality appears to be.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Don: I'm not sure what you are arguing against.

My argument is that either consciousness is a complicated neural process (in which case epiphenomenalism is not a problem), or some kind of dual aspect theory (or property dualism) is true (in which case epiphenomenalism is a problem).

This makes me think that consciousness is a complicated neural process.

Don Jr. said...


My last comments weren't meant as a full-blown argument, but could you be specific about what is unclear in them.

Edwardtbabinski said...


Do you know what the game you're playing is called? There probably is a name for it in philosophical circles. But I would say it's called "changing one's focus," and it applies to Biblical interpretation as much as it does to philosophy. One Biblical interpreter will take some verses and emphasize the hell out of them, and interpret everything else in light of them, downplaying whatever any other verses say that rival or conflict with the verses he has chosen to focus upon.

The same thing applies in philosophy. If you start with "naturalism is not true," then that is your focus. But you don't have to start there, because all questions and ideas are interrelated, hence you can begin with pain itself, and consider the fact and endless examples of pain and suffering in all its forms, both petty and grotesque, including the pain and suffering in the mental realms as well, even the suffering cause by simple miscomunication, boredom, lack of intelligence, aggravation, and a zillion other pains, throughout the natural and mental worlds, including worm-like parasites living simply to invade human eyeballs and damage them. Mark Twain (who has seen some of his own children along with his wife die from illness) wrote an elegant little tale about the pains in nature vis a vis the supposed "providence" of a "God." And he pointed out that if "lightning" and "diseases like typhoid" were there to build character and make us "good," then maybe we ought to give up working so hard and diligently all these centuries to rid ourselves of such natural pain-inducing creations, because they are part of God's plan to train our characters.

At the very least, if you DO concentrate on all the examples of pain-inducing things in nature then even if you DO believe in a prime-mover, or designer, or God, you still have to wonder what's up, and just what kind of "God" is that? A loving father? Based on what cosmic evidence? Everything this God makes dies, and has died from the first cell on this planet to everything that nature killed or that was eaten or parasitized by other creatures, or died by itself.

C. S. Lewis wrote the year he died that he did not dread the idea of atheism the most, but finally dying and finding out, "This is God, deceive yourself no longer."

Anonymous said...

Not sure whether this discussion is still going on, I was surfing the web around Lewis and wound up here. I just have a comment, if God exists (whatever that means) and he is omniscient, and therefore there is no free will, he *knows* exactly how things will unfold, what's the point of suffering then? It can't be a test of our faith, like Job, cus God knows what Job will do [Note: kinda machoist to kill wife and children, where is the individual if one just gets new ones..]. If it was just to show the devil how his creation turned out, if it was just a game, why will I bother embracing such an arrogant figure?

As a scientist, the simplest assumption is that there is no such god, I dont need it to explain nature, nor pain. That's just our own business, evolution made us that way cus it was more efficient to build up societies and survive, but go ahead, think of heaven...but *dont decieve yourself* ...


Anonymous said...

Pain is nothing more than a signal from our body dechipered by our brain tellings us that something is happening to you that is harmful to your well being. Thats it.