Oct 08 2012

The paradox of purpose

In my last post, I looked at the problem of purpose: when you say that suffering has a divine purpose, you create confusion as to whether or not it’s ok to oppose that suffering, since doing so risks opposing God. But there are other problems as well. Today I’d like to look at the paradox of purpose (hey this is starting to sound like a 3-point alliteration sermon!).

The thing about purpose is that it necessarily involves a person who (a) has a choice and (b) knows the consequences of that choice. If I accidentally fall off a very tall bridge, there’s no point in asking me what my purpose is in accelerating downwards at a rate of 32 ft/sec2. I have no purpose in doing so, because I have no choice. Likewise if I dial the wrong number and wake up a stranger in the middle of the night, it’s meaningless to ask me what my purpose was in waking them up. Yes, I did deliberately dial the number, not knowing it was wrong, but I did not realize that my actions would have that consequence. Waking the stranger was something I did not do on purpose.

That’s important, because it means that whenever do you have a legitimate purpose for something, it means you necessarily bear the moral responsibility for what happens. You had a choice, you knew the consequences, you knew the alternatives, and you deliberately made the choice that you knew would create the suffering. Otherwise, it’s not really purpose.

The paradox of purpose, then, is that when you claim that there exists a divine purpose for all suffering (as the Bad Catholic does), you are necessarily giving God the moral responsibility for all suffering, thus making Him not a loving God, but a cruel one. He did not have to choose the suffering. He had alternatives that did not involve the suffering. He had complete aware of the exact consequences that would result from His choices. And yet He still chose the suffering.

Christians have various ways to get out of this paradox—or at least to try to. Unfortunately, these ways all involve denying God’s purpose for suffering. For example, they may say that God had no choice, that suffering must necessarily happen in order to prevent an even worse evil of some kind. Well, ok, let’s suppose that’s true. Let’s suppose that some power greater than God Himself is forcing Him to choose to involve His beloved children in the kind of suffering we see in the world. That would reconcile the suffering with the notion of a loving God, but it means that God’s purpose is nullified. As a loving God, He’d prefer not to inflict leukemia on a young couple’s new, frail baby, but He has no choice. The leukemia happens, not because God selected it, but because He was forced to by some greater power. It’s meaningless, in that case, to talk about God having a purpose for choosing the disease, since He had no choice.

This is particularly true if you believe that God is the only self-existent Being, because then there can be no higher power forcing God to choose evil—unless that higher power resides within the nature of God Himself. The cruelty that chooses suffering when other alternatives are possible is a cruelty that must necessarily spring from God’s own nature, which again makes Him a cruel God rather than a loving one. Somehow I don’t get much comfort from the notion that suffering is the purpose of a cruel God, do you?

But if there is no higher power forcing God to be cruel, then His purpose for choosing suffering instead of one of the kinder alternatives must be that He wants to make the crueler choice—that His cruelty is not a matter of necessity, but of preference. So again, He’s a cruel God, not because He hasto be, but because He wants to be. Either way, you’re screwed: the whole point of presuming purpose is to give the sufferer the comfort of believing he’s in the hands of a loving God, yet ascribing divine purpose to suffering makes God either weak or cruel, neither of which is particularly comforting.

In the end, this notion of divine purpose boils down to being some rather muddled, wishful thinking. We’d all like to think that when we’re in trouble, when we’re afraid, when we’re in pain, some kind of relief and/or reward is waiting for us just around the corner, in the hands of a “daddy” who can never disappoint us. But wishful thinking isn’t reality, and denying reality for the sake of fantasy is like taking drugs. It may have some value in terms of numbing down our minds, but it’s of no use in discovering the truth about why we suffer.



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  1. 1

    There’s something about this topic that just lends itself to alliteration, don’t you think?


  2. 2

    The theist might argue that suffering is permitted in order to form character or to teach a lesson.

    The child who puts his hand on a hot stove element learns quickly not to do it again, and even if though the parent does what he or she can to minimize the suffering, to eliminate it all together would do little to help the child understand that stove elements are dangerous.

    Of course, I don’t see how this analogy could stand with all types of suffering – there is far too much pointless suffering out there to merely build character and create wisdom.

    How would you respond to this analogy?

    1. 2.1

      It seems rather difficult to learn from terminal lung cancer how not to get it again.

      1. Len

        But all the relatives and friends of the person suffering from terminal lung cancer will all learn how to not get it. Er, wait, what?

      2. Randomfactor

        And the object lesson of not living where tsunamis happen is gratefully learned by those already on higher ground.

    2. 2.2

      I wonder what the parent learns about leaving hot stoves unattended. Maybe the character defect doesn’t reside in the curious child, but in the careless parent. With God we supposedly have a being who doesn’t just leave hot stoves unattended, who not only invented stoves that can get too hot to safely touch, but who created the need for harmfully hot stoves in the first place.

  3. 3

    Animal trainers have learned that it is far easier, and far kinder, to teach through positive reinforcement than through punishment. That an omniscient, omnipotent deity uses a less efficient and more cruel method to “teach a lesson” indicates that something else is more important than learning the lesson. For some reason, it seems that punishment for the sake of punishment is more important than actually changing the behavior of the individual.

    1. 3.1

      Good point.

  4. 4
    One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login

    As long as the purpose and its mechanism is left quite vague, the believer can feel, not that her suffering benefits her or there is some as yet unseen reward for it, but that her suffering is a byproduct of some larger plan which is “meant” to somehow benefit others. This idea leads to the whole “grace” concept and the idea of “offering up” one’s suffering.

    Screwy as it seems, the idea that you can mystically bank your suffering as a contribution to the welfare of some other (even when that other is unnamed, unknown) is psychologically powerful and can afford genuine relief of emotional stress.

    1. 4.1

      As the saying goes: if we’re here to help others, then what are the others here for?

  5. 5

    1. Is all suffering cruel and/or wrong?
    2. Is it possible to gain certain qualities of character that we view as morally “good” (mercy, kindness, courage, etc), without at least some hardship?

    1. 5.1
      Deacon Duncan

      I would answer yes to both questions. There may be times when we voluntarily suffer in order to obtain something we prefer strongly enough to outweigh the negative aspects of suffering, but the virtue involved comes from the positive nature of the end, not from the negative nature of the means. And you can certainly be kind without suffering. Courage and mercy would be purely moot if there were no danger to threaten us with suffering, and no affliction to be relieved by mercy. So yes, ideally we could have a much nicer world without suffering. The only thing suffering really prepares us for is more suffering.

      1. NotAnAtheist

        How can you be kind without suffering? If there is truly no suffering at all, who is there to be “kind” to?

        While I agree that a world where courage and mercy are unnecessary may make for a “nicer” world, I’m not sure how it’d be a better one. On the flip side, I’m not sure how one would argue that a world with the current amount of suffering is a “better” one, or the “best” one either. At least, not without some sort of presuppositions involved.

        If you don’t think courage, kindness, mercy, and compassion are qualities that should be developed in people, then your “nicer” world may very well be the best possible world. If you think that all of those are positive qualities that should exist, then perhaps a world without pain is not the best.

        I would also question if a world without suffering or pain, can be a world where success is possible. If we remove all pain, we have to remove the pain and suffering that is involved in failure don’t we? If failure is impossible, does success have any meaning?

      2. Nick Gotts

        Of course you could be kind without suffering. Logically, all conscious beings could be immune from suffering, indeed always in a state of bliss, but bliss of varying intensity. Then A could accept a decrease in the intensity of their bliss so that B gets an increase in theirs. Nor is pain and suffering an inevitable correlate of failure – one might merely be aware of a slight diminution of bliss. But in any case, if it were, could the “benefit” of success “having meaning” possibly justify that agonies of quadrillions of organisms over billions of years?

        That our world is full of suffering clearly indicates that either there is no god, or whatever gods there are are not both omnipotent and benevolent.

      3. NotAnAtheist

        Logically, all conscious beings could be immune from suffering, indeed always in a state of bliss, but bliss of varying intensity.

        I’m not sure that’s true first of all. At least for me, there is often diminishing returns when it comes to “bliss”. Perhaps you are different and you obtain the same amount of bliss each time, every time you have an identical experience, and this occurs for all such times. That doesn’t happen for me.

        Even if it was logically possible to have a world where everyone lives in “bliss” but of “varying intensities”, would a lesser intensity of bliss be called “less bliss”? Or something like pain?

        To a person who’s experienced nothing but the finest of food since birth, would they regard eating garbage as a lessening of their “bliss”? Or would they regard it as actually suffering?

        But in any case, if it were, could the “benefit” of success “having meaning” possibly justify that agonies of quadrillions of organisms over billions of years?

        This to me is a different question. It is one thing to believe that some amount of pain and suffering is in fact necessary, it is another to say that the current amount (whatever that is) is some how justfied. I’m not going to try and argue that the current (or past) amount of suffering is somehow “justified” or “correct”. I will say that IMO the idea that one can have a world that never had any “pain” or “suffering” and that that world is both logically possible and better seems foolish to me.

  6. 6
    Marcus Ranum

    I am not sure what “purpose” is and why I would have one. I suppose I might have evolved to interpret my actions as having intent, and therefore purpose (my purpose is my intent) and meaning (whether or not I succeeded with my intent or not) but that seems to be entirely an internal state. I think that before someone talks about us having a “purpose” maybe they should describe the scope they’re talking about – is their “purpose” cosmic in scope or is it planetary or personal?

    I think (there’s a problem involving the speed of light) that it’d be hard for me to affect anything on the other side of the universe let alone at a galactic level. So if I felt I had a sense of galactic purpose, I’m almost certainly wrong unless my “purpose” is to ‘accomplish nothing, then die’ which is a pretty low bar. If we say that our purpose is entirely internal then I suspect it can only be something we imagined.

    Suppose my parents had a “purpose” for me when they raised me. Whether I fulfill that purpose for them depends entirely on their inner states – how they interpret my life. I’m actually not privy to it and even if they try over and over to explain it to me, at best I’ll be trying to fulfil my interpretation of their purpose. I could be completely wrong, though. This seems like purpose is entirely imaginary. Perhaps someone who believes god has a purpose for them can explain the process whereby a purpose is shared.

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