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Do We NEED to Suffer? The Argument from Tectonic Plates

I decided to take a stroll down memory lane and look at posts I made at the beginning of the blog, and came upon this one, made almost exactly eight years ago today.  Since I’ve been talking about Ecclesiastes and the meaning of life, and, consequently, the meaning of suffering, it is particularly relevant, now more than ever in recent history.   It’s ultimately about whether humans *have* to suffer if God created the world and life in it.  And weirdly, it involves a connection between Dinesh D’Souza and tectonic plates.


I have always found it interesting that when I talk about how there can be suffering in the world if there is a good God who is in charge of it, someone will tell me that it is all because of “free will.” I think most of us – not Sam Harris, of course, or some others, but most of us – think that there is such a thing as free will, that our actions are not completely determined for us but to some extent (not completely! Or even nearly completely) we can decide what to do (we can’t decide to walk on the ceiling without special equipment; most of us can’t decide to understand the general theory of relativity; and so on. But we can decide whether to cross the street, or go to a movie, or punch our neighbor in the nose). Moreover, most of us would agree that a good deal of suffering happens as the result of humans exercising free will. Your own broken nose may be because your neighbor was exercising his own free will. You may have chosen to jilt a boyfriend. You may have decided to burn down a church. Kings have started wars; Nazis have implemented the Final Solution. And on and on.

When someone tells me that all suffering is the result of free will, however, I quickly tell them that I don’t believe it. People do not….

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  1. Avatar
    Poohbear  April 21, 2020

    Tectonic plates served one interesting facet in the Genesis account. Through the process of “subduction” we have tectonic plates AND continents. Subduction created the granite which rose above the water line and formed the first earth on an oceanic planet. First evidence for this, via oxygen isotopes, was in 2020. Thus God separated the water from the earth.
    We need to be careful about what we mock.

    First the “heavens” and then the earth.
    And we are now observers on the waters (for earth was an ocean, cloud planet.)
    Then the skies opened
    And the land rose
    And life emerged on the land (fresh water actually)
    and then “God commanded the seas to bring forth life.”
    and finally man.
    This first Genesis account is written in symbolic language,but the underlying sequence is readily apparent.

    Without a creator we are left with that most unscientific of propositions – without reason whatsoever the universe created itself before it existed.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2020

      It is striking, though, that the most brilliant cosmologists ever to have been on the human stage decidedly do not think their views are unscientific.

      • Avatar
        Poohbear  April 24, 2020

        Science tells us there’s a reason, a natural cause and effect for all things. This just makes the Beginning even more unfathomable. Not even the most genius of minds claims an answer for this.

    • Avatar
      flcombs  April 23, 2020

      Even more unscientific is declaring a creator that is eternal while claiming the universe had to be created. One can easily ask, “where did the creator come from”, or did God create himself?

      • Avatar
        Poohbear  April 25, 2020

        Cosmologists claim that what lies “outside” of the universe is a nonsensical question, like asking what is north of the North Pole. The expanding universe doesn’t expand into anything, it’s creating space and time as it expands. This makes the First Event interesting – a non-existent universe cannot create itself.
        What lies outside, without time, space or even physical laws, is beyond our comprehension. Asking what appears to be a clever question about the nature of this realm is pointless.

        • Avatar
          flcombs  April 28, 2020

          You may have missed out on concepts of multiverses and others where what we call the universe isn’t all there is anyway. But I’m not saying it is true. Just that it is also ridiculous for people to make up a god and give him the attributes they need to explain what they don’t understand. So if the universe can’t be eternal in one form or another, etc. Without having to be created, there is no reason that a god also had to have been created. You can’t have whatever definitions you wish for one and forbid them to the other.

  2. Avatar
    adammcguk  April 21, 2020

    I have been thinking about this exact issue recently. Christian astrophysicist Hugh Ross just posted a podcast (https://rtbpodcast.podbean.com/e/rtblive-extra-global-warming-qa-with-dr-hugh-ross/). He thinks “natural evil” is a misnomer because we live in the best of all possible worlds given God’s plan for humanity. Everything is finely tuned, not just universe-wide, but on the earth, with the exception of when humans don’t fulfil their stewardship.

    It’s an interesting attempt to answer natural evil. You mention D’Souza’s claim that tectonic plates are required for the origin of human life, and then claim this isn’t consistent with Adam/Eve special creation. Yet, if tectonic plates are necessary for the *continued* flourishing of humanity, then that would be a way through your objection. Dr Ross claims that natural cycles on Earth can be seen as finely-tuned.

    Just as fire and water are necessary for life and yet also risk destroying life, perhaps what we view as gratuitous natural evil is really a necessity? You note that God cannot be expected to instantiate states of affairs that entail logical contradictions, but then you ask why the laws of physics restrain God. Perhaps given God’s purposes for humanity, the laws of physics must be as they are now.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2020

      My view is that anyone who thinks we live “in the best of all possible worlds” needs to read Voltaire’s Candide…..

      • Avatar
        adammcguk  April 22, 2020

        Question in line with your newest book: In the age to come, is such natural evil said to disappear (lamb lying with the lion)? If so, a world with less/no natural evil is conceivable. Therefore, God must have a morally sufficient reason to allow the natural world to be the way it is now.

        Thinking out loud. Needed for free will? Without natural evil, can life still be meaningful? Lack of challenges to overcome? If there were no natural evil, would that make God’s existence so overwhelmingly evident so as to be coercive and deprive a free will choice to follow him?

        If natural evil is needed now but not in the age to come, what does that say about the type of life in the age to come? No mountains to climb in case we injure ourselves?

        Any theologians here with ideas?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 24, 2020

          Yup, it’s an important line of argumentation! (Theologians, of course, traditionally have talked about “sin” messing it all up, so it wasn’t actually created this way. It’s all our fault!)

          • Avatar
            adammcguk  April 24, 2020

            Saying that, didn’t Adam and Eve have to keep eating from the tree of life to ensure they wouldn’t die? Wouldn’t this mean that the initial conditions in Genesis had some natural evils?

            Also, I suppose theologians might suggest the Satan and associated dark powers as behind some of the natural evil, so God isn’t directly implicated. Darwin wrote to a friend that “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.” Perhaps, like Caiaphas, he spoke more truly than he knew. I’m sceptical of this as a sound interpretation of natural evil in the Bible. Genesis 6 mentions sons of God having relations with daughters of men. How much independence did God give these cosmic forces to change the world and its natural forces for evil?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 26, 2020

            No, Genesis doesn’t say whether one bite would do the trick or not. But my sense is that ancient Hebrew authors simply did not think of “free will” the way we do (and that simply seems to be “common” sense to us) in our post-Enlightenment world. They simply had no philosophical problems / issues with it, the way we do.

        • Avatar
          David_Jordan  May 3, 2020

          I’m no theologian but I would address your thinking aloud to the parents of the very many babies who die (for example) of malaria after almost indescribable suffering.
          God is either fiction or monster. Or love is meaningless.
          Take your pick.
          I’m going with God being fiction and love having meaning.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  April 26, 2020

        Or read Darwin. What we often forget is that natural selection doesn’t necessarily choose the “best” option; it chooses one that happens to be “good enough.”

    • tompicard
      tompicard  April 24, 2020

      Not familiar with Hugh Ross I will check that out
      but would agree with the
      >He thinks “natural evil” is a misnomer because
      >we live in the best of all possible worlds given God’s
      >plan for humanity. Everything is finely tuned, not just
      > universe-wide, but on the earth, with the exception of when
      > humans don’t fulfil their stewardship.
      other than the phrase with the we line “in the best of all possible worlds”, that makes it simple as Dr Ehrman has done to recommend “Candide”

      there is no reason to say tectonic plates or resulting earthquakes are “evil”. I do not know anywhere in the bible that is implied, same with rivers overflowing their banks or the reverse lack rain
      maybe lack of rain is associated with people not following God, but of course Jesus said
      God causes the rain to fall on both good and evil

      • Avatar
        dankoh  April 26, 2020

        Interesting tidbit about rain: Back in 1986, when the state of Georgia went to the Supreme Court to get a ruling upholding its sodomy laws, Georgia suffered its worst drought ever from March, when the arguments were made, through July, more than a month after the Court agreed with Georgia. It got so bad that the governor asked people in his state to pray for rain. That same day, Georgia got rain – hail, thunderstorms, hurricane-force winds.

        The ancient Hittites called hail etc. as signs the storm god was angry with them. Looks like they had a point!

        PS: Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, has yet to be hit by any natural disaster.

  3. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  April 21, 2020

    It might make sense to believe in a god or gods that are not all-powerful. Omnipotence seems to be demanding too much of anything. Or a god or gods that are not creators of this universe at all, but outside of it and aware of it but not able to do much about it. Not very useful! If we were like robots, all empty inside, no subjective experience at all, there would be no issue of suffering. Little kids blow up toy soldiers, for instance, but the toy soldiers aren’t suffering– at least I hope not. So the problem of suffering could be the problem of consciousness in another form. And the issue of consciousness might be more fundamental. If organisms had no conscious experience, there would be no suffering. There would be nothing there to FEEL.

  4. Avatar
    Scott  April 21, 2020

    Thank you for reposting this. This argument (God needs tectonic plates) has come up in my Sunday School and at least one sermon following the Indian Ocean tsunami. It turns out that this piece of “logic” was being peddled by none other than our own Methodist Adam Hamilton. This man was so big that he had been sarcastically referred to as the Pope of Methodism. It was a supreme disappointment to me that a leader in a denomination that has occasionally avoided the worst impulses of more conservative churches was spreading such easily refuted theology. However, it is reassuring to know that I am not alone in viewing such explanations as the trite, just-so stories that they are.

  5. Avatar
    Hon Wai  April 21, 2020

    There is and has been for decades a huge cottage industry by preachers, theologians and Christian philosophers trying to defend the compatibility of existence of natural evil with an omnipotent all-loving God. There is of course no shortage of robust rebuttals against theodicy. Here is one quick and easy rebuttal to D’Souza’s view that tectonic plates, hurricanes and other natural environmental conditions causing human suffering, are essential for existence of human life in the first place: it is incompatible with Christian eschatology that one day God will bring about a new heaven and new earth where embodied human beings will live in peace and happiness without suffering. That is, according to this eschatology, it is perfectly feasible for God to create a world without natural evil. The challenge for D’Souza is to answer why didn’t God create such a world in the first place.

  6. Shahin
    Shahin  April 21, 2020

    The answer is “Reincarnation”
    Both the Bible and the Quran have multiple indications to it. Unfortunately the majority of the Jews, Christians and Muslims deny it, but it has been said in the Hebrew Bible that reward and punishment are to be given on erath, not somewhere else.
    Proverbs 11: 31 Behold, the righteous shall be recompensed in the earth: much more the wicked and the sinner.
    Also the Quran asserts that all people enter the fire (Hell), but the righteous will be saved:
    Quran 19:71 There is not one of you but shall approach it. That is a fixed ordinance of thy Lord. 72 Then We shall rescue those who kept from evil, and leave the evil-doers crouching there.

    The Quran directly points to the multiple creation of people:
    Quran 2: 28 How disbelieve ye in Allah when ye were dead and He gave life to you! Then He will give you death, then life again, and then unto Him ye will return

    However, not every hardship in life is necessarily a punishment:
    Quran 2:155 And surely We shall try you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives and crops; but give glad tidings to the steadfast

  7. Avatar
    WhenBeliefDies  April 21, 2020

    Suffering (slipped disk here) is the very things that helped me to realise that life is far bigger than the tiny windows through which we view it. One moment we are going along this path healthy and whole (if we are lucky), the next everything has changed due to a car crash, a financial withdrawal, COVID-19 or something similar.

    I don’t pretend to be happy that people suffer, I think there is a lot we can to do either alleviate it, or even better to stop it before it happens in the first place (like building better housing in earthquake regions. But I hope it can be useful, I want it to be useful.

    Could it be that without suffering we would unable to be empathetic? It’s something I tell myself when I am suffering and trying to look for a silver lining. But something in the back of my head always seems to say it isn’t true.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2020

      Yes, I think it’s true that it would be hard to be as empathetic if there were no suffering. I just wish the suffering involved hangnails instead of massive starvation.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  April 23, 2020

        “ Yes, I think it’s true that it would be hard to be as empathetic if there were no suffering.”

        On the other hand, if there was – literally – no suffering, why would empathy be needed? Would it even be a thing?

        It’s kind of like saying that the reason we need gardens is because they give us a place to put our fertilizer.

  8. fefferdan
    fefferdan  April 21, 2020

    Bart: ” Are we really to believe that a God who created this universe is unable to create a world that could sustain life and not have tectonic plates?” Yes we are, or at least, I am. I prefer a less-than-all-powerful God to an Almighty one who could have avoided natural evil but instead predestined catastrophic earthquakes, floods, mosquitoes and corona viruses. Friends accuse me of Deism, but thankfully that is no longer a hanging offense. And it’s better than the idea another friend seriously espouses, that God is an evil monster for creating the world as he did.

  9. Avatar
    Boltonian  April 21, 2020

    How can we live in anything other than a completely determined universe if cause and effect are true? What is free will? Where does it reside? How free is it? If my decisions result from a combination of my genes, prior history and the environment, how is there any freedom as I (however we describe ‘I’) have no control over any of those things? However, as the philosopher Peter Strawson argued in his illuminating essay, ‘Freedom and Resentment,’ in 1962, not one one of us behaves as if we did not possess free will. In fact, our entire moral order is based on that premise but that does not make it true. He was a ‘Compatabilist,’ in the David Hume tradition: determinism is true but so is the fact that none of us acts in accordance with that truth. It seems more likely to me that every effect has a prior cause than that free will exists – they can’t both be true. One or two philosophers have tried to argue that quantum theory resolves the paradox but I am afraid it doesn’t.

  10. epicurus
    epicurus  April 21, 2020

    God doesn’t seem to have a problem overriding people’s freewill, at least not in the Bible – Paul’s Damascus Road experience is one example.

  11. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  April 21, 2020

    If God is arbitrarily defined was one who created the universe and who is capable of intervening in it, then we inevitably get all these problems. Another definition is worth considering: a God who is created along with the universe, who is constrained to obey the laws of the universe, and whose actions involve urging us to intervene on the side of good. This seems like a more grownup God.

  12. Avatar
    RickR  April 21, 2020

    I understand your point against Dinesh’s position. Its a good argument. Of course, it’s not the only argument Dinesh has for the existence of God in spite of suffering. In his book on suffering he broadens out this point and adds many others. I wish he could respond to your forceful rebuttal. In the end, there is no conclusive argument for or against the existence of God. To explore the existence or non existence of God I think we have to accept that there are no proofs either way. The question for me is then, why do you believe or not believe?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2020

      He could have! We had three public debates on the matter! And yes, that is my question as well.

  13. Avatar
    Judith  April 21, 2020

    To blame God is to deny our own responsibility.

    • tompicard
      tompicard  April 22, 2020

      > To blame God is to deny our own responsibility.
      Indeed this is correct

      • Bart
        Bart  April 24, 2020

        It certainly can be and often is correct! But there are plenty of people who are angry with God about the suffering yet devote their entire lives to helping those who experience it. And lots of people who take responsibility don’t even believe in God, and so don’t blame him for a thing. I myself, for example, don’t blame God, since I’m an atheist. But I still think I’m responsible to help.

        • tompicard
          tompicard  April 24, 2020

          recent prophetic teaching is that God suffers in extremis to equal or greater degree than humans (His children)

        • Avatar
          Zak1010  April 25, 2020

          God created us with ears and eyes and said he will test us to see who will be grateful and who will be ungrateful.
          Who do you thank ? I mean, really – who does one thank?
          Mankind needs law.
          Why hasn’t anyone who deny the existence of God invented a Just universal book encompassing what mankind needs. Laws of economics, belief, family law – Gender laws, political, ritual, criminal, animal laws, etiquette …..ect.

  14. Avatar
    veritas  April 21, 2020

    Interesting thoughts. I myself question free will all the time, like Sam Harris. Because there are times where I am driven to a certain direction or decision without feeling it was my doing. For example, speakers often say,their best speeches have come when *something* overtakes them internally and words just roll out of their mouth smoothly, coherent and without much thinking. Oddly, they don’t remember much of what they said afterwards, feel exausted mentally and surprisingly, the original subject/thought presentation was changed somewhere along their talk unknowingly. Alternatively, if God’s plan was to redeem people through Jesus, the choice for Judas Iscariot as an Apostle was made for him. He could not have exercised *free will* to overturn his betrayal of Jesus and the plan of God and what was in store for him. He was chosen for that purpose.

  15. Avatar
    McLeod  April 21, 2020

    “(I stress this point because whenever I indicate in a public forum that I can’t explain such things, I get tons of emails from people who are more than happy to explain them to me!)”
    LOL! Exactly true. Explain thát to someone… Very funny

  16. Avatar
    godspell  April 21, 2020

    I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t have conflicts in his/her system of beliefs, and never having thought much of D’Souza (who I’ll never meet) doesn’t surprise me much that he’s got them too.

    I continue to think Job has more to say about this than Ecclesiastes, because the truth is, we have no idea what an all-powerful divine agency could or couldn’t do, and we shouldn’t pretend that we do. Where were we when the universe was created? Same place we’ll be when it ends–nowhere. Because the truth is, it wasn’t created for our benefit, and it’s pure egocentrism to think that it was. It’s also very human.

    Everything we have ever achieved has come about by virtue of our struggling against the constraints and dangers and adversities of mortal existence. Without all that, we’d just be cogs in a machine. Never really alive.

    I don’t accept the argument that if God existed (and wasn’t indifferent to us), everything would be peaches and cream. A finite being is incapable of judging or even perceiving an infinite one. Non sequitur. And it’s a strawman argument to say that means some suffer so others rejoice. We all suffer. And to take even one breath is to rejoice.

  17. Avatar
    FredLyon  April 21, 2020

    Well said, 8 years ago and still today!

  18. Avatar
    flshrP  April 21, 2020

    When non-physicists go on about the “laws of physics”, they should be aware that these “laws” are descriptive laws, not prescriptive laws. To say that the laws of physics are somehow connected to a creator god is a mistake since the laws of physics are not grounded in some celestial lawgiver.

    So what are these laws of physics? All of physics rests on a handful of conservation laws (conservation of mass- energy, conservation of linear momentum, conservation of angular momentum, conservation of electric charge, and several quantum mechanical conservation laws). These conservation laws come from symmetries of the void, i.e. from space-time symmetries, and from symmetries among families of fundamental particles. The mathematical basis of these conservation laws is group theory. Other less fundamental laws come from geometry, e.g. Newton’s law of universal gravitation arises from the geometry of a sphere and likewise for the electromagnetic field.

    It was the mathematician Emmy Noether who first worked out the connections between symmetries and conservation laws in physics (the Noether Theorem, 1915). That theorem plus Einstein’s General Relativity Theory and the Standard Model of Particle Physics are the fundamental components of modern physics.

  19. Avatar
    mtavares  April 21, 2020

    It’s interesting you mix free will and this topic together from a another perspective. I’m often baffled, when watching your debates and having my own discussions, at how some people almost can’t seem to acknowledge this distinction between natural evil and moral evil. It really makes me wonder if that in itself is a minor argument against free will.

    It’s not the main point of your post, but have you looked into the free will thing on its own at any length? If so, any details on where you landed? Other than Sam, have you happened to take a look at the work of Daniel Wegner?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2020

      Not Wegner, but I’ve read other things. The physiological arguments are most perplexing to me (which indicate that judgements are made for us by our brain before we exercise any conscious thought to them) The philosophical arguments are pretty compelling taht even if we have free will on some level, there’s nowhere near anything like actual/full free will.

      • Avatar
        Kirktrumb59  April 22, 2020

        Yep. Among many examples: Clin Neurophysiol. 2007;118(6):1179–1192 and ANN NEUROL 2016;80:5–12 Both by Mark Hallet.

        • Avatar
          mtavares  April 24, 2020

          Sounds like that is the sort of stuff Wegner talks about. The studies seem to suggest it’s as if one part of the brain is telling the other part of the brain what it did as a courtesy, and we have the illusion that “we” initiated it. Of course that is massively anthropomorphising what’s going on, but intriguing nonetheless. Heard an interesting quote from John Hopfield recently: “Consciousness may be your effort to explain to yourself that which you’ve already done.” May be a bit of a stretch, but I do wonder how this may play into the memory research you did in Jesus Before the Gospels.

          Thanks for that paper Kirk.

      • Avatar
        NTDeist  April 24, 2020

        Possibly our physical brain instinctively reacting to the physical world before our consciousness becomes aware of it. An argument for the separation of our consciousness from our physical brain.

  20. Avatar
    flshrP  April 21, 2020

    BTW, the great British-American mathematician John Conway passed away 11 April 2020 due to complications from COVID-19. He was an emeritus professor at Princeton University and is most widely known as the inventor of the computer game called The Game of Life (1970).

    This simulation of cellular automata illustrates how a few simple rules and a few initial conditions can result in a succession of generations (configurations) of increasing complexity, some of which persist for numerous generations. It illustrates the phenomena of emergence and self-organization that are central to numerous fields of science.

    The Game of Life implies that complexity does not necessarily require a designer who/that is more complex than the things being designed. In particular, it supports Darwinian evolution and refutes creationism (e.g. Paley’s argument from design).

    Interestingly, in 1980 Benoit Mandelbrot produced the first visualization of a fractal set, a complicated two or three dimensional pattern generated by a single mathematical equation that shows the feature of self-similarity. This feature is commonly found in nature. The Mandelbrot Set is another illustration of great complexity arising from extremely simple rules and a few initial conditions, as it does in the Game of Life.

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