Law, Craig, and Lewis on the Problem of Evil
Hurricanes and Animal Suffering: Law, Craig, and Lewis on the Problem of Evil
One common reason people question the existence of God is the presence of evil in this world. For many people, this is an emotional issue, rather than an intellectual one. Suffering intense pain and loss can shake the faith of even the strongest Christian, and in such cases an intellectual answer can be inadequate. A listening ear, a loving gesture of kindness, and an empathetic presence will often speak louder than words. As the patriarch Job discovered, even though God did not directly answer all his intellectual questions, God’s appearance to Job at the end of the book allowed Job to say, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you,” and that was sufficient.[i]
For other people, however, the presence of evil in this world is an intellectual stumbling block that hinders them from believing in God’s existence. This stumbling block is commonly called the Problem of Evil, and it is usually phrased this way: “If an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God exists, why does evil exist in the world?”[ii] Non-Christians can find this conundrum a genuine obstacle to faith, and even Christians may find that this problem presents them with a mystery to which they are unable to respond. Many will either suggest inadequate answers to this problem or profess ignorance of the subject. This is not acceptable for those who value deep philosophical inquiry and who are courageous enough to tackle tough questions in more than a superficial way. Left unattended, the Problem of Evil can prove to be an insurmountable wall or a mental off-limits area that hinders intellectual and philosophical growth.
On October 17, 2011, the philosophers William Craig (a theist) and Stephen Law (an atheist) met in Westminster Central Hall to debate the existence of God. Within the discussion was an exchange on the Problem of Natural Evil. Philosophers generally agree that two forms of evil exist. The first category is moral evil, which consists of evils such as murder, theft, and lying committed by moral agents against others. The second form of evil is that of natural evil. Natural evil does not involve moral agents and is often referred to generally as the pain and suffering associated with natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. The Problem of Natural Evil is fundamentally different from that of moral evil, and theists address it less frequently.
Law’s primary argument was that the existence of natural evil made the existence of God improbable. Law argued that in a world where God exists, natural evil would not exist. He reasoned that if God were all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful, he would have the power and interest to remove this evil. Since natural evil exists however, he postulated that it is improbable that God exists.[iii] Law gave two primary examples of natural evil that formed the backbone of his argument. The first example was human suffering due to natural disasters, and the second was animal suffering due to the painful interactions between predators and prey. To Law, it seemed improbable that an omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent God would subject his creation to such suffering.[iv] Law’s version of the Problem of Evil differs slightly from the classical statement of the problem. Past philosophers typically stated that the existence of evil was a logical contradiction to the existence of God, and therefore it is impossible for both to coexist.[v] Modern philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, however, have argued that God may have morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil in the universe.[vi] In response, today’s atheist philosophers like Law have reformulated the Problem of Evil as a probabilistic argument; that is, that although God may have morally sufficient reasons to permit evil, it seems improbable given the overwhelming amount of evil we observe.
Craig also raised questions about the nature of animal suffering itself. Quoting from Michael Murray’s book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, he stated that there is a three-level hierarchy to pain awareness. The first level is a mere reaction to stimuli, which is present in nearly all organisms. The second level coincides with sentience, which is the actual experience of pain itself. The third level applies to conscious beings that are self-aware that they are in pain. Craig claimed that most animals do not attain to this third level of selfawareness, and without it most animals do not suffer in the same way that humans do. This third-order pain awareness is centered on the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is only present in humans and some high-order primates.[xii] If most animals are not truly self-conscious as humans are, then it follows that they do not suffer as humans do. The problem of animal suffering, therefore, becomes insignificant.
Much of Craig’s response to Law is logical, persuasive, and to be commended, but some of his claims may be reasonably questioned and warrant further explanation. Regarding Craig’s response to natural disasters, his reasoning that the current world may be the world that maximizes goodness may not adequately refute Law’s evidential argument of evil. Law stated that all the natural evil in the world makes God’s existence an improbability. Craig’s argument addresses the logical problem of evil, but it does not address Law’s probabilistic questions about God’s existence. While Craig was correct in his assertion that we cannot know the full extent of God’s purpose, he provides no reasoning to shift the burden of proof to the atheist. By relegating his theodicy to an ignorance of God’s overall design, Craig fails to present a strong case for the plausibility of God’s existence. As Craig pointed out “Maybe only in a world suffused with natural and moral evil would the maximum number of people come to freely know God and find eternal life.”[xiii] Since it is all pure speculation, Craig gave an opening for Law to assert that although God may have a reason for suffering; given the sheer volume of evidence for natural evil and its worldwide impact, it is more probable and rational to infer that he does not.
Craig’s contention that the majority of animals do not have the self-consciousness necessary to suffer like humans neglected the fate of higher primates that have this self-consciousness. If even one species other than the human race has self-consciousness, it would still raise the question of why God would allow its suffering over millennia. In addition, there is evidence that Craig was mistaken in his argument that only humans and higher primates are aware of their own pain. As recently as last year an international group of prominent neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists, cognitive neuroscientists, and computational neuroscientists met at the University of Cambridge to assess the existence of conscious states in animals. They declared the following:
The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.[xiv]
The question of whether animals suffer consciously is close to being answered in the affirmative. That being the case, the question of animal suffering is still one worthy of consideration.
A different response to the Problem of Evil stems from the value of fellowship between human beings. God desires a world wherein multiple free-willed agents have the choice to love Him. But, just as importantly, he wants people to be in fellowship with one another.[xv] The Bible speaks of the value of fellowship as a way for people to encourage and protect each other in times of misfortune or spiritual crisis, since “if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.”[xvi] Therefore, God intends for us to be enriched not only by his presence, but also by the presence of others. In doing so, we receive support and guidance, and our fellowship allows us to glorify God and preserve our love for him, just as Christians did in the time of the Apostles.[xvii]
Fellowship, by definition, requires humans to interact with each other. Communication allows us to express thoughts and feelings towards other individuals. We are able to convey information, facilitating discussion and intellectual inquiry. Fundamentally, communication is the only way for us to learn about other people, and, therefore, is the only way for us to relate to others personally. There is no fellowship without communication.
C.S. Lewis wrote about the nature of a world where communication exists between free agents. In his work The Problem of Pain, Lewis argued that a world that facilitates communication would have to be a “neutral ground”—one that is generally unchangeable in its nature and independent of the agents themselves.[xviii] For instance, this world would have fixed laws, such as those of gravity, thermodynamics, stable matter, and the conservation of energy. If humans lived in a world where natural laws were arbitrary and changeable to suit individual desires, they would not be able to communicate due to the lack of an objective playing field. This would be akin to every person speaking a different language, where each language is understandable to that person and incomprehensible to everybody else. Because God wants fellowship amongst his creation, he created the world to promote this good; this fixed-state ensures that humans have the opportunity for communication, fellowship, and the knowledge of his beautiful creation.
While a fixed world is good for the actualization of God’s desires, the nature of an unchanging environment creates the possibility that not all states will be beneficial to everyone. Lewis cites this reality as the main reason for the existence of natural evil. Matter may bring people happiness or it may bring people suffering, just as fire may warm at one distance, but burn at another.[xix] The natural processes that bring water to drought-ridden regions also cause tornadoes to form in rural prairies. It is misguided to expect nature to be equally pleasurable to every member of society all at the same time. While these circumstances are not ideal, the possibility of these evils occurring under a world with fixed laws is a logical necessity.
If God intervened at every moment of suffering, nature would no longer be static, and His acts of power would be delegitimized. During unique periods in history, God occasionally disrupted the laws of nature (often referred to as miracles) to authenticate an important message.[xx] But if miracles became routine, they would no longer be exceptional, depriving God of the ability to use miracles to convey important messages. Since the laws of nature would continuously be violated, instability in the world would become a rule rather than an exception. Therefore, despite his power, God cannot intervene if his actions are contrary to his will for humanity.
In contrast, explanations for human suffering due to natural evil cannot be extended to animal suffering. It is arguable that animals do not have free will and only act according to their nature. Therefore, a different explanation is required to explain why animals have to suffer due to natural evil. In this area, Lewis offers a speculative explanation. He cites an ancient church teaching that when Satan rebelled, one result was the suffering of animals.[xxi] This idea is not contradictory to Scripture. The Bible speaks of Satan’s fall, and it is clear that he was the one to tempt man in the Garden of Eden.[xxii] Although Scripture may not explicitly mention the corruption of our world due to Satan’s fall, it is not far-fetched to posit that the corruption of our universe due to an evil force could be the cause of animal suffering. While the pain that animals experience is not the original state of the world, it is one that they must live with due to the presence of evil.
A less speculative answer to animal suffering is that we do not have the ability to judge which animals suffer and why they do. Lewis admits that animal suffering is “outside the range of our knowledge.”[xxiii] We form theodicies regarding human pain because, being humans ourselves, we can communicate human thoughts and ideas and therefore consider how and why we suffer. There is no such mechanism for animals. We can determine animal consciousness and their reaction to stimuli, but we do not know if animal cognition is composed of the same structures as it is in human beings. The problem of animal suffering is important, but, as humans, we do not have the capability to fully understand or solve it. Therefore, it cannot become the focus of the problem of natural evil.
Even with the problem of animal suffering remaining unanswered, it is still a far cry to arrive at Law’s conclusion that “it is improbable that God exists.” For Law to make the assertion that God is improbable, he would need to look at the full scope of the evidence for and against theism, rather than focusing on one particular aspect. Indeed, saying that God’s existence is improbable solely on the basis of suffering is no more justified than saying that an ostrich is unlikely to be a bird because it cannot fly. To legitimately say the Problem of Natural Evil makes God’s existence less probable, one must also consider other arguments for the existence of God and then prove that the Problem of Evil weighs heavier than all those other arguments combined. The classic theistic arguments that many consider to make God’s existence vastly more probable, such as the arguments from contingency, the ontological argument, the argument from objective morality, and the evidence of the resurrection need to be discounted before the argument from natural evil can be said to make God’s existence improbable.
For some, the intellectual problem of natural evil is a genuine concern and hindrance to belief in God. In response to Law’s referral to human suffering, Craig uses the logical argument that natural evil is the unfortunate but necessary condition for a world that includes morally free agents like humankind. Craig talks about the maximum good and the need to humbly recognize that we do not know the ultimate end and sum of all the actions that happen on earth. However, Craig fails to mention the importance of fellowship, and how God created a fixed world in order to facilitate this good. Lewis offers an intricate explanation as to why this fixed world can result in what many would call Natural Evil. Although the problem of animal suffering is important, we humans do not have the capability to solve it. Regardless, Law’s claim that natural evil points to the improbability of God’s existence is presumptuous. Eminent and influential philosophers throughout history, like Lewis and Craig, have given reasonable, cogent, and powerful arguments to the contrary.
i. Job 42:5. All Scripture quotations come from the New International Version.
ii. Chris Hauser, “The Divine Attributes: Why an Imperfect God Just Won’t Do,” The Dartmouth Apologia 7 (2013): 22.
iii. Stephen Law, Does God Exist? William Lane Craig vs. Stephen Law. Westminster Central Hall. Storey’s Gate, London, United Kingdom. 17 October 2011.
iv. Law, Does God Exist?
v. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Edinburgh: Nelson & Sons, 1947) 174-176.
vi. William L. Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16.4 (1979): 335.
vii. Craig, Does God Exist?
viii. Craig, Does God Exist?
ix. Craig, Does God Exist?
x. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 2009) 91.
xi. Craig, Does God Exist?
xii. Craig, Does God Exist?
xiii. Craig, Does God Exist?
xiv. Philip Low, et al. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals. Churchill College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK. 7 July 2012. Conference Presentation
xv. Romans 12:5, Galatians 5:13, I Corinthians 10:24, I John 1:7, II John 5.
xvi. Ecclesiastes 4:10.
xvii. Acts 2:42-47.
xviii. Lewis, 22.
xix. Lewis, 23.
xx. Hebrews 2:4.
xxi. Lewis, 137-138.
xxii. I Timothy 3:6.
xxiii. Lewis, 133.
Josh Tseng-Tham ’17 is from Toronto, Ontario. He is a double major in Economics and Government.
Alvin Plantinga, CS Lewis, evil, Michael Murray, science, Stephen Law, suffering, theodicy, William Craig