Monday, June 11, 2007

We Are Wired to Resist the Truth About Pointless Suffering

Here are a couple of conclusions discovered in psychological studies that have profound importance for God believers and non-believers who are considering the question of gratuitous and inscrutable evil and the existence of God.

First, Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness points out that, “research shows that when people are given electric shocks, they actually feel less pain when they believe that they are suffering for something of great value.” The study he’s referring to is P.G. Zimbardo “Control of Pain Motivation by Cognitive Dissonance,” Science 151: 217-19 (1966).

Second, a number of researchers have shown that when test subjects are confronted with puzzling, random, or unexplained sequences of events they spontaneously form hypotheses about a causal relationship between them. They provide causal explanations even when none are apparent, they infer them even when not instructed to, and they remember described scenarios by means of causal cues better than by non-causal memory cues. See B. Weiner, “’Spontaneous Causal’ Thinking,” Psychological Bulletin 97: 74-84( 1985). R.R. Hassin, J.A. Bargh, and J. S. Uleman, “Spontaneous Causal Inferences,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 38: 515-22 (2002).

One of the most contentious topics among believers and non-believers is the compatibility of an omni-God with the presence of inscrutable evil in the world. And anyone who has engaged in one of these conversations will note the powerful presence of the sentiment that “everything happens for a reason.” I cannot count the number of times that I have heard people insist on this platitude in response to the question of evil. And it is also obvious how much comfort people derive from that thought alone.

And what these psychological studies make clear is that humans possess a powerful epistemic, and emotional craving a causal explanation for everything they encounter. We find unexplained, random, seemingly unconnected events frustrating to the point of madness. And when it comes to the question of events that create pain, that urge is even stronger. The Zimbardo study shows that the pain actually feel less intense as long as the subject believes that it is occurring for some worthy cause. This sheds new light on the frequent comment by believers, “I just couldn’t face the world or my life if there were no God.” They aren’t kidding. We have a powerful cognitive mechanism that generates causal inferences and explanations even when there isn’t one present.
And in the case of pain, we have an additionally powerful subconscious motive or urge to explain it away in some fashion—it will literally feel less painful if we do.

So the atheist who presses the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God is up against powerful human psychological tendencies. What gives the problem of evil objection to the existence of God the most force is the line of argument that there are events that generate massive amounts of suffering and death in the world—like the Thailand tsunami that killed over 230,000 people. And that an omni-God would never tolerate such events. So an omni-God doesn’t exist. And if there is no omni-God who permits such events as part of some grand cosmic plan, then those events are in fact random, pointless, and without any sort of redeeming payoff. And it is that last implication of the atheist’s argument that people find so deeply unpalatable. Our cognitive constitution is configured to resist that sort of conclusion, even when it is obviously true, with all its might.


Jon said...

Interesting. When I first read Thomas Paine's 'Age of Reason' I not only felt exitement at new knowledge, but a temporary sickness due to my childhood Christian indoctrination. Those same feelings occured while reading Smith's 'The Case Against God'. Due to my new scientific and philosophical outlook, I no longer have those feelings when engaged in those 'specific' kinds of thoughts. I also feel less pain when my girfried scratches my back only when 'in bed'. These are my existential explanations.

Anonymous said...

I think it's better for us to view this "being up against powerful psychological tendencies" as really the proper starting point for a positive atheist existential ethics/philosophy.

It's long been recognized that human beings are such that it's in our nature to desire to create order out of chaos.

The real question is then: what is the best way (most truthful, most successful way) of realizing our order-creating nature in the world?

Thus, we atheists need to press home the realities of the human condition: that although we live in an absurd world where there is no absolute presence of god to provide meaning to random events, those events are still meaningful from a human perspective: we hate disorder and strive to control it.

On the atheist view then, we can be motivated in a powerful way by the meaning of our own existence.

The god thesis is simply unecessary, on the wrong track, and dangerous, for all the obvious reasons.

Matt McCormick said...

I'm sympathetic to Steve's point. We often fabricate order and meaning out of a world that doesn't have any. And we need to keep that fact about our constitutions clearly in mind. But I'm not as optimistic about the existentialism point that he has made here before: the fact that we create meaning in a world that is absurd itself gives meaning to our struggle. First, I don't think most people will see it that way. Camus's and Sartre's agendas along these lines just never caught on. Ultimately, there's no avoiding the absurdity of building our little sand castles. There's a pretty clear survival value to this psychological function of construing suffering as less bad when it's meaningful or for a good cause. Take that away, and we're just more miserable. The question is, does the illusion ultimately do us more harm? Steve thinks yes, I'm not sure how to calculate that one. MM

wesley said...

I think that the illusion does do us more harm. Look at how much suffering one can inflict when it is percieved that there is a reason for inflicting that suffering. God's will doesn't stop at natural disasters. It extends to laughing soldiers throwing cigarette butts at a writhing Iraqi teenagers and ecstatic terrorists running into the midst of a Saturday fruit market. It is some sort of sick fatalism to suppose there is an overarching meaning in suffering.
If there's a purpose to suffering, there's a purpose to those who inflict it; it is not a stretch of the imagination to think that most of them believe they are doing God's work. Thinking that there is a cosmic purpose to suffering is a stupefying, numbing cruelty that denies compassion and makes it alot easier to perform horrendous actions and disregard life in general.

Josh May said...

A bit of a marginal comment:

The "everything happens for a reason" line is surprisingly prevalent. I've been waiting for a while now to hear it again and derisively reply:

"Yes, of course. (I'm pretty confident in the principle of sufficient reason, broadly construed.) But it's not true that everything happens for a good reason."

And, of course, the latter is what they mean to say.