Sophisticated Theology: Plantinga explains why God makes animals suffer

Theologians don’t get more sophisticated than Alvin Plantinga, philosopher of religion (emeritus) at Notre Dame and Calvin College. He’s loaded with honors, and was once president of the Western Division of the American Philosophical Association.  He’s written a gazillion books, many of which say the same thing, and I’ve posted about his bizarre defenses of Christianity several times before (e.g., here, here, and here).

My latest incursion into Sophisticated Theology™ involves reading Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (2011, Oxford University Press).  His thesis is, as usual, that there is no conflict between science and religion, but a profound one between science and naturalism.  I won’t reprise his argument except to say that involves the specious claim that natural selection could not have given us senses that enable us to reliably detect the truth, so that ability must have been conferred by God (see my post on that argument here).

Today I want to highlight one bit of bizarre apologetics that Plantinga offers in his new book. It stems from the oft-made criticism that the existence of “natural” evil—that is, evils like childhood cancers and deaths by tsunamis—conflicts with the idea of a loving and all-powerful God. Lately this argument has been applied to the idea of natural selection: why would God use a process of creation that would lead to the suffering of so many animals? Couldn’t God have done it otherwise? This argument is part of Philip Kitcher’s “Enlightenment case against supernaturalism” in his excellent short book Living With Darwin. As Kitcher says there (p. 127):

When you consider the millions of years in which sentient creatures have suffered, the uncounted number of extended and agonizing deaths, it simply rings hollow to suppose that all this is needed so that, at the very tail end of history, our species can manifest the allegedly transcendent good of free and virtuous action.

Well, Plantinga, who can explain anything using his convoluted apologetics, has an answer on pp. 58-59 of his book.  It is so stunningly absurd, even humorous, that I must convey it in full. Read this to get the full import of Sophisticated Theology™:

The same [why God permits suffering] goes for processes in the natural world that cause pain and suffering. Various candidates for these reasons have been suggested. . .

God wanted to create a really good world; among all the possible worlds, he wanted to choose one of very great goodness.  But what sorts of properties make for a good world? What are the good-making properties for worlds? Many and various: containing rational creatures who live together in harmony, containing happy creatures, containing creatures who know and love God, and many more. Among good-making properties for worlds, however, there is one of special, transcendent importance, and it is a property that according to Christians characterizes our world.  For according to the Christian story, God, the almighty first being of the universe and creator of everything else, was willing to undergo enormous suffering in order to redeem creatures who had turned their backs on him.  He created human beings; they rebelled against him and constantly go contrary to his will. Instead of treating them as some Oriental monarch would, he sent his Son, the Word, the second person of the Trinity into the world. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was subjected to ridicule, rejection, and finally the cruel and humiliating death of the cross. Horrifying as that is, Jesus, the Word, the son of God, suffered something vastly more horrifying: abandonment by God, exclusion from his love and affection: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This overwhelming display of love and mercy is not merely the greatest story ever told; it is the greatest story that could be told. No other great-making property of a world can match this one.

If so, however, perhaps all the best possible worlds contain incarnation and atonement, or at any rate atonement. But any world that contains atonement will contain sin and evil and consequent suffering and pain. Furthermore, if the remedy is to be proportionate to the sickness, such a world will contain a great deal of sin and a great deal of suffering and pain. Still further, it may very well contain sin and suffering, not just on the part of human beings but perhaps also on the part of other creatures as well. Indeed, some of these other creatures might be vastly more powerful than human beings, and some of them—Satan and his minions, for example—may have been permitted to play a role in the evolution of life on earth, steering it in the direction of predation, waste and pain. (Some may snort with disdain at this suggestion; it is none the worse for that.)

And that, brothers and sisters, is the best that modern theology has to offer. It is the kind of theology that people like Dawkins and I are accused of ignoring—or of not taking seriously.

No wonder Plantinga notes that this argument “is unlikely to become popular among secularists”! It not only claims that animals have to suffer because Jesus did, as well as we miserable sinners, but floats the idea that “Satan and his minions” also have a bit part in the creation of suffering.  Eagles, lions, ichneumon wasps—all the sufferings inflicted on animals by other animals?  They come from Satan! And why, exactly, did God allow Satan to do that? What is the purpose of animals suffering unnecessary pain?  (Naturalistic evolution, of course, explains all this: pain is an adaptation to detect damage, and predation the inevitable result of a new food supply.)

I could go on and on about the argument, but what’s the point? Despite Massimo’s caution, I aver that Plantinga’s idea is simply silly and laughable. Satan indeed! Must I take this seriously and discuss the evidence for The Hornéd One?

If I may be allowed an observation, I think that Plantinga has been driven mad by Christianity.

164 Comments

  1. joe piecuch
    Posted August 13, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    deranged as plantinga’s reasoning may be, and self serving the purposes towards which he employs it, he at least feels the need to address the issue of not just human suffering, but that of animals as well, rather than just shrugging it off (‘they taste good’), accepting it as a necessary price to pay (‘they make great boots’)or taking delight in it (“most adorable, i assure you!” – ben goren).

  2. corio37
    Posted August 13, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Plantinga’s sole argument is that spontaneously arriving at the belief “tigers are good to eat” would not be an evolutionary disadvantage provided it was accompanied by the belief “‘eating’ means ‘running away from really fast’” But if you apply this consistently, you merely end up with a tribal language in which ‘eat’ means ‘run away from’. The tribe’s beliefs remain true, they are just expressed differently from ours.

    But all this is nonsense on stilts anyway, since we KNOW how beliefs come into being, and how they are transmitted from one person to another. There’s simply no gaps for God or any other random-belief generator to occupy.

  3. Posted August 13, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on urbanperegrines.

  4. Steve in Oakland
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 12:44 am | Permalink

    Remember, evil is live spelled backwards. To paraphrase Anne Boleyn’s comment on treason, “Evil is whatever they say it is.”

  5. Ludo
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    In my opinion it suffices to laugh with theologians and their theology. Taking them seriously serves no purpose at all, and is really superfluous: they do that themselves 24 hours a day. Plain, honest laughter is even better than sarcasm or ridicule, which provides them with the suffering they crave and enjoy. And then, laughter, being contagious, might possibly humanize some of them?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaIJKM0sjdo

  6. Nick
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    So what we have here appears to be The Argument from Great* Story Telling. The athiests are winning, my friends.

    * matter of opinion, of course

  7. Pray Hard
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    By definition, in my opinion, religion, being socially sanctioned mental illness, cannot be sane, ever. And, the more insane it is, the more “believable” it becomes or must become to its adherents. Since it’s unacceptable to see it as the insanity it is, thus begins the endless, pointless search for hidden and or deeper meaning and or the “real” meaning of it. So we end up with acres and acres of fertile ground for wacko articles by experts.

  8. Iain Walker
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    “Among good-making properties for worlds, however, there is one of special, transcendent importance [...] God, the almighty first being of the universe and creator of everything else, was willing to undergo enormous suffering in order to redeem creatures who had turned their backs on him.” – Plantinga

    But in what way does Christ’s suffering redeem them? Symbolically at best, or in other words not at all, because taken literally, the doctrine of vicarious atonement is morally incoherent, a bizarre form of auto-scapegoating that makes a nonsense of individual moral agency. And even if we suppose that humans need to be redeemed, why go about it this way? Can’t God come up with something less melodramatic? What’s wrong with patient moral teaching or setting an example through virtuous living?

    “perhaps all the best possible worlds contain incarnation and atonement, or at any rate atonement. But any world that contains atonement will contain sin and evil and consequent suffering and pain. Furthermore, if the remedy is to be proportionate to the sickness, such a world will contain a great deal of sin and a great deal of suffering and pain.” – Plantinga

    This is a common trick in theodicies – claim that the solution is so intrinsically wonderful that it justifies the existence of initial problem. It’s like saying that the heroic performance of the surgeon who saved your life from a brain tumour is such a wonderful thing that it completely justifies your having the brain tumour in the first place. Except things like life-saving surgery or “redemptive” self-sacrifice are contingent goods – what makes them valuable is that they remedy existing evils. Without those evils, these goods are no longer required, and are simply irrelevant to totting up the amount of value in the world. To suggest as Plantinga and other theodicists do that you need the evils in order to bring about these goods is to get the arrow of moral justification back-to-front.

    What Plantinga’s theodicy is engaging in here is not real-world morality but story-book morality, with retroactive plotting determined by the Rule of Cool. Want your surgeon character to do something awesome? Give another character a brain tumour for him/her to operate on. Want your Messiah figure to do something even more awesome? Create a world that’s so messed up that he has to undergo painful self-sacrifice to make it better. Except vicarious atonement isn’t cool or awesome. It’s not a good-making property. It’s sick and nonsensical, and it does not justify setting up a world filled with pain and suffering just so that God can write himself into the story as the redeeming, self-sacrificing hero.

    “Still further, it may very well contain sin and suffering, not just on the part of human beings but perhaps also on the part of other creatures as well.” – Plantinga

    “May”? “Perhaps”? As a justification for animal suffering, that’s kind of … lacking in supporting arguments.

    “Satan and his minions, for example—may have been permitted to play a role in the evolution of life on earth, steering it in the direction of predation, waste and pain” – Plantinga

    Nonsense like this is the reason why Plantinga has been immortalised thus in the Philosophical Lexicon:

    alvinize, v. To stimulate protracted discussion by making a bizarre claim. “His contention that natural evil is due to Satanic agency alvinized his listeners.”

    planting, v. To use twentieth-century fertilizer to encourage new shoots from eleventh-century ideas which everyone thought had gone to seed; hence, plantinger, n. one who plantings.

    (http://www.philosophicallexicon.com/)

  9. Joshua Greve
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I have to wonder why you feel you can responsibly claim that Platigna’s explanation is the best Christianity has to offer.  Who are you trying to convince that this is where the search ends? Yourself? Other atheists or skeptics? Christians?  Either way, the attitude with which you write this article suggests you still have a bone to pick and that you personally have unfinished business, which his fine, but what I criticize is your lack of forthrightness about that.  Your words claim a sense of certainty but your style betrays that with a strong scent of exactly the opposite.  

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not “accusing” you of being a closet Christian or even a theist for the matter.  I am only suggesting that your writing gives the impression of a man who wants to seem much more certain than he actually is.  I point this out because Christians are often accused of the same thing by their antagonists and I don’t deny ha there is certainly truth to that accusation.  However, what is interesting is that I have run across far more Christians admitting to the doubts they struggle with than skeptic writers.  Oddly enough, it is just generally accepted that skeptics are honest (only lamely criticized that they might do so too brutally missing out on the ‘beauty’ of life… I think you and I can both agree that that is a weak argument at best) and Christians are delusional.

    I think either world view (that of the skeptic materialist and that of the hopeful theist) can be held with equal vigor and success, or lack thereof, by the delusional and (brutally) honest alike.

    Josh

  10. Posted August 14, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    “I think that Plantinga has been driven mad by Christianity.”

    You’re just now coming to that conclusion?

    Please, go back and re-watch that last video of the dimwit that you posted. Then see if there’s any reason to wonder?

    I think not.

  11. Joe Barron
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    As I read Plantinga’s theodicy, the one thing that kept recurring to me was, “What does any of this have to do with epistomolgy or rationality?” I thought Platinga’s book was about science. What is there about any of this that even remotely has to do with science? It is myth, pure and simple, and it is not subject to any legitiamte method for determing truth that anyone could devise. And how can he possibly “know” what kind of world God “wanted” to create? In this context, faith is not a form of knowledge. It is a form of making stuff up.

  12. Joe Barron
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    This is sort of an ontological argument for pain. The greatest thing that could ever happen is that Jesus died for our sins. Sin requires suffering, so suffering is the greatest thing there is.

  13. Posted January 15, 2013 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Great post, and yes, no real need to explain why the argument is so ridiculous – it speaks for itself.

    So, the best feature of a world is for the creator of it to have to suffer to fix some problem in the world. And the bigger the problem, the better. So more suffering really means a more awesome God!

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 4:17 am | Permalink

      Not aweSOME.

      awFUL.

      (Some might say, bloody awful) :)


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