I mentioned that interview with Swinburne in What Philosophers Think.
It’s based on a discussion of a paper he gave at a Congress, about God and evil. He says the usual sort of thing –
…it’s a good thing that humans should have free will, not just free will to choose between alternative television channels, but free will to choose significantly between good and bad – good and evil in the terms of the paper. But, they can’t have that unless there is the actual possibility of them bringing about evil The possibility of evil occurring unprevented is the necessary condition for them having a free choice between good and evil.
That’s the same problem we had with his discussion with Dennett. Why is it a good thing that humans should have free will? We don’t even agree that it’s a good thing (for the universe, or the planet, or other biological systems, or anyone or anything other than humans themselves, which doesn’t seem to be what he means, or surely he would have said that, instead of saying ‘objectively’) that humans exist, so why would it be a good thing that, existing, humans should have free will? Why should that be any more of a good thing than that humans should have moles, or teeth, or calf muscles? Never mind – it gets more interesting, when the discussion turns to ‘natural evil’.
Human suffering as the result of disease – very frequent, not the result of free choice, or at any rate not the result of free choice unless there are bad angels at work causing it. That is possible, but it’s not something I would wish to promote very strongly. That sort of suffering is necessary because it gives the sufferer the opportunity to either be sorry for himself or to deal with it courageously. If he didn’t suffer he wouldn’t have the opportunity to deal with his suffering in either a courageous way or in a self-pitying way. It also gives other people – friends, spouse, children etc. – the opportunity to be sympathetic, to try and help him, for showing sympathy, feeling sympathy and doing something about it or not to bother. That is to say this is the grit that makes possible the pearl of different kinds of reaction. If the world was without any natural evil and suffering we wouldn’t have the opportunity, or nearly as much opportunity, to show courage, patience and sympathy. Of course I’m not suggesting that God ought to multiply suffering ad infinitum in order to give us endless opportunity, but I do think the world would be a poorer place if we didn’t have some opportunity to show ourselves at our best in this kind of way.
Actually, that is exactly what you’re suggesting, you simp. You can’t help suggesting that, because of what you’re saying. Because look – if the suffering as a result of disease is not real suffering, if it’s trivial, if it’s a mere mild lassitude or a slight ache in the calf muscle, then courage is beside the point, it’s not needed. For the courage to be actual courage, as opposed to just dramatizing, or downright joking (like howling the place down when you bump your elbow slightly, to make the dog look puzzled), it has to be real suffering. Right? So – the worse the suffering is, the more courage is needed, and the more courageous the courage is. So, if you’re fool enough to think the courage is worth the price of the suffering, then you do indeed think the more the merrier, or ‘that God ought to multiply suffering ad infinitum‘. That’s exactly what you are saying in that revolting passage. You might as well say people should whip their children every few hours so that the children can bear it courageously and the parents can show them sympathy. It makes just that much sense.
We’ve seen this argument before. Some rabbi on Thought for the Day – I think arguing against the legal right to die, on the grounds that he wouldn’t have wanted his father to have had that option, because then he would have missed the opportunity to show his father compassion – during his suffering. So he wanted his father to suffer so that he could show him compassion – badly enough that he was glad his father wasn’t able to choose whether to suffer (and get the compassion) or not. Excuse me, but I think that’s disgusting.
Then there’s a really dreadful passage about being of use to others. ‘I brought out several examples of that, of which, of course, the most striking would be the person who dies for his country in a just war.’ Julian asks about suffering that seems to be of no use to anyone, and cites the Battle of the Somme as an example.
Well, that particular soldier’s life is also of use…someone sent him there, some general high up has taken a decision about this matter…Innumerable people, through negligence, through stirring up hatred, through not bothering, have contributed to war. It’s a great good for them that they are allowed to make big differences to things, and they can only make big differences to things if there are going to be possible victims.
That’s – beyond disgusting. That’s blood-curdling. That’s enough to make you run screaming from the room. As Julian (more politely) notes.
Swinburne had already said that his argument wouldn’t convince the committed atheist and wouldn’t make much difference to the committed believer. Reconciling God and evil is of most value to the undecided or unsure. Leaving the interview, I was unsure as to whether the very precise reconciliation Swinburne describes will have the effect of clearing the way for belief in God or making the very idea of God a more chilling one.