The paradox of purpose »« Meanwhile, over at Patheos

The problem of purpose

I want to continue looking at the Bad Catholic’s post at Patheos because there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. Like this introduction:

Any philosophy that claims that there exists nothing supernatural cannot grant purpose to suffering.

If some natural, secular purpose could be granted to the man suffering, then his pain would cease to be suffering and begin to be useful pain.

He goes on to compare the young athlete’s muscular aches and pains, endured for the sake of fitness, with the inescapable aches and pains of old age, as an example of useful pain versus pointless suffering. In order to be suffering, he says, suffering “requires the lack of a natural, secular answer.” And by “answer” he means “a good reason”—some overriding benefit good enough to justify the means used to achieve it.

In a way, he has a point. If we presume that the world owes us an existence of endless comfort and pleasure—not just that we would like more comfort and pleasure, but that the universe owes it to us as an ontological necessity—then I’ll grant you, Christianity does a better job of pandering to that presumption by promising a purpose for every speck of suffering endured by man.

The advantage of atheistic philosophy, on the other hand, is that only atheistic philosophy can clearly distinguish between “useful pain” and pointless suffering. The very “benefit” espoused by the Bad Catholic is, in fact, a serious moral and ethical problem, because if all suffering has a divine purpose, then it is unclear, at best, whether we should ever take any steps to try and reduce or eliminate suffering. If all suffering is God’s will, ordained by the perfect wisdom, love, and goodness of God, then those who oppose that suffering are opposing God’s will.

You can try and rationalize away the dilemma by supposing that maybe God has also appointed you to bring an end to some particular bit of suffering, but if you do, you’re just guessing. God doesn’t show up and call you over, and declare (in the presence of witnesses) that He has chosen you and appointed you to bring an end to this suffering. You have to appoint yourself, assuming that if you succeed, then it must have been God’s will. And even then, your best guide as to how and when to oppose suffering is to resort to the secular, atheistic understanding of the problem.

Secular philosophy is not burdened with superstitious presumptions of purpose, and is therefore morally and ethically free to approach pointless suffering as a thing devoid of merit, which can and should be minimized and eliminated wherever possible. Indeed, all suffering is intrinsically meritless—even “useful pain” is only something we endure because we lack an alternative that achieves the same results without the pain. If there were some kind of magical pill the athlete could take that would make him or her instantly fit, without the aches and pains of working out, there would be no benefit in choosing the more painful path to fitness. (Think about it: if you tried, I’m sure you could find a more painful way to, say, tie your shoes in the morning. But would that make you a better person?)

Purpose, as applied to suffering, is a problem. It’s a moral and ethical problem for the person (or Person) who is deliberately choosing to cause or allow the suffering of others, and it’s a moral and ethical problem for anyone who would then (sinfully) choose to oppose that purpose by seeking to end the suffering. Atheism does not suffer from such superstition-induced ethical dilemmas, and is free to directly address the problem of suffering itself. And in the end, even religious philosophy has to come down to the secular level, if it is to be any real comfort to the afflicted.