Carl Sagan, the Implausibility of Existence, and Suffering

nickcarltyler

Carl Sagan and his son Nick.

The convergence of an atheist’s words of comfort to his daughter and a theist’s argument for why God allows evil and suffering.  

Carl Sagan’s daughter reports that when she “veered into a kind of mini-existential crisis” about ceasing to exist at death, her famous atheist parents told her the following:

“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars.

He speaks of the incredible uniqueness of each individual – a uniqueness that is inextricably linked to the cause and effect nature of this universe.  Change one thing and we wouldn’t exist!

When I read this, it struck me how curiously this explanation sounded like an argument for why God might allow suffering in this world that I had recently come across.  This was given by Oxford philosopher, Vince Vitale in a book titled “Why Suffering” (Co-authored with Ravi Zacharias).

Vitale argues that indeed we are a product of this very specific, cause and effect universe.  Change one thing and we wouldn’t exist.  Included in this is a very specific combination of good and evil (much depending on the choices of free will beings – us!).

Here he explains:

“What It Takes To Be You

It’s typical to think of the problem of evil like this: we picture ourselves in this world of suffering; then we picture ourselves in a world with far less suffering. And then we wonder, “Shouldn’t God have created us in the other world – the world with far less suffering?”

That’s a reasonable thought. But it’s a thought that relies on a philosophical mistake. It relies on the assumption that it would still be you and me who would exist in that other world. And that is highly controversial. Let me explain.

There was a pivotal moment early on in my parents’ dating relationship. They were on their second date. They were standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, overlooking the picturesque New York City skyline, and my dad noticed a ring on my mom’s finger. So he asked about it, and she said, “Oh, that’s just some ring one of my old boyfriends gave me. I just wear it ‘cause I think it looks nice.”

“Oh, yeah, it is nice,” my dad said, “let me see it.”

So mom took it off and handed it to him, and my dad hurled it off the bridge and watched it sink to the bottom of the East River! “You’re with me now,” he said; “you won’t be needing that anymore.”

And my mom loved it!

Now it was a pretty risky move my dad made hurling my mom’s ring off the Brooklyn Bridge. She loved it, but what if she hadn’t? What if she had concluded my dad was nuts and ran off with her old boyfriend instead? What would that have meant for me? (If you can believe it, fifty years later my dad still asks my mom who that old boyfriend was and my mom still flatly refuses to say!)

I might be tempted to think that if mom wound up with her old boyfriend I could have been better off. I might have been taller. I might have been better looking. Maybe the other guy was royalty. That would have been cool! I could’ve lived in a castle!

But, actually, that’s not right. There’s a problem with wishing my mom wound up with the other guy, and the problem is this: ‘I’ never would have existed.

Maybe some other child would have existed. And maybe he would have been taller and better looking and lived in a castle. But part of what makes me who I am – the individual that I am – is my beginning: the parents I have, the sperm and egg I came from, the combination of genes that’s true of me.

Asking “Why didn’t God create me in a world with less suffering?” is similar to saying “I wish my mom had married the other guy.” I’m sure my mom and her old boyfriend would have had some very nice kids, but ‘I’ would not have been one of them.

We often wish we could take some piece of suffering out of our world while keeping everything else the same. But it doesn’t work that way. Changing anything changes everything, and everyone.

Why didn’t God create a different world? Well, it depends on what God was after. It depends on what God values. And what if one of the things He values, values greatly, is you, and the people you love, and each person who will ever live?

Sometimes we wish God had made a very different sort of world, but in doing so we unwittingly wish ourselves out of existence. And so the problem of suffering is reframed in the form of a question:

Could God have wronged you by creating a world in which you came to exist and are offered eternal life, rather than creating a different world in which you never would have lived?”

Read more here. (Note that this is a only part of Vitale’s theodicy.  See the link for a full treatment.)

Most importantly, before the creation of the world,  God not only saw all of mankind in this world of “x” amount of good and “y” amount of evil, He saw that He’d have to enter this world and suffer for us in order to free us from it.  Sure, He could have made another world, but would we exist in it?

Sagan was not far from this argument was he?   You “must be grateful that you’re you at this very second,” he told his daughter.  Yes!  Grateful, indeed, for this world with its specific combination of marble and mud with which we are inextricably linked.  God saw this world and loved us … specifically us!

Oh, how I wish I could have asked Sagan how a random, mindless universe could create such an incredible mind like his!

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Carl Sagan and his daughter Sasha.

 

 

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14 thoughts on “Carl Sagan, the Implausibility of Existence, and Suffering

  1. This seems to suggest that a brief survey of the created order, one that never specifically mentions evil, is the best answer to the problem.

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    • It does suggest that, doesn’t it? But, this is not Vitale’s only argument and I included only a snippet of this part of it (because it reminded me of Sagan’s). It’s much richer than represented here and free-will and evil are very much a part of Vitale’s theodicy. Check out the link to his full article that I included (and better yet, his book co-authored with Ravi Zacharais).

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    • And for the record, I’m not completely sure that this particular part of Vitale’s theodicy is valid. I’m not enough of a philosopher to find any inconsistencies with classical theism. I will say that theodicies are notoriously limited when dealing with specific instances of suffering. I wrote a paper on C.S. Lewis’s approaches to evil and suffering for one of my classes at HBU. Check out the post “Dereliction on a Darkling Plain” for Lewis’s take. His approach is much more realistic, in my humble opinion. https://alongthebeamblog.wordpress.com/2016/05/18/dereliction-on-a-darkling-plain/

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    • Indeed. “Language more adequate” for finite beings such as ourselves is perhaps no language at all. Before His face, all of our babble is silenced.

      Yet, God understands our questions. He even cried out our deepest question from within His own suffering, taking up all of our limited theodicies into Himself on the Cross and into His resurrection. He knows our finitude and understands our weaknesses. This was Lewis’s approach – Christ’s cry of dereliction from the Cross forming the central feature of his theodicy.

      Still, I am convinced that it is not a waste of time to think about such things and discuss them in certain contexts (which much fear and trembling, though). Remember, God did not rebuke Elihu when he defended Him against the false accusations of Job and poor theology of his three friends. Elihu seems to prepare the way for God to speak to Job directly. There is a place for speaking on the problem of evil within the context of apologetics and defending God against atheists, etc.

      Still, in the end, we must be careful not to confuse spouting our little theodicies (like the twittering little birds that we are) with providing true comfort for the sufferer.

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    • Atheism tells me free-will is an illusion, a useful fiction. Christianity tells me that it isn’t for God doesn’t deal in “useful fictions.” So yes, I actually “prefer” Christianity in the fullest sense of the word. Stubbornly prefer it, too! Hee-Haw. 😉

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    • I do sincerely apologise if that is how you have construed my disparate commentary on your otherwise delightful blog. Do keep it up.

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    • Americans do seem to have an unhealthy penchant for literalism. It is a shame one cannot be more comfortable and indeed more generous and flexible with language. You prefer “U.K. donkey” to the actual epithet. That the a kind of cultural conditioning which robs the language of its elasticity and richness. You feel you might offend and in that regard, your restraint is a noble one. If your intentions are to offend, then by all means suppress the use of the word. But if you are intending it as a reference to the animal, say it and let the offenses fall where they may. If they come, they are a reflection, not of you, but your audience.

      Twitter and Google and Facebook are all, need it be said, “American” inventions that have left irreparable scars upon the King’s English, distilling them down to a very unpalatable utilitarian, dare I say very “fundamentalist” function. This is the heart of the problem in many of the exchanges between atheists and Christians today. They are often transacted in a very a surface-level understanding of vocabulary and language. Atheism actually suffers from a dialectical failure that few recognize. Unfortunately, many apologetic responses imbibe that deficiency and as a result have little or no affect on their hearers.

      The success of new atheism has been predicated upon a tragic cultural ignorance of the richness and depth of language, both spoken and written. Language, like the universe, is “emptied” (read, if you have not Lewis’s most brilliant essay “The Empty Universe.”) Meaninglessness has become the etymological order of the day, even though we are using words. No one is saying anything about anything, Lewis wryly notes. If more Christians could cultivate a deeper respect and understanding of the fluidity, nuance and sheer beauty of words (exercising patience in the process), I dare say there would be much more progress made in defending the Word and a lot less risk of being judged for the use of careless words). His soldiers must be wordsmiths. We must be willing to be despised for our eloquence which, paradoxically, can sometimes take the form of silence (as was the case with Jesus being questioned by Pilate). The tendency to associate only one literal-as-possible meaning to a word or an object and that “questions” should always have “words” as an answer, seem to be etymological crises that need to be rectified.

      Kudos to your blog for being a step in that direction.

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      • By the way, I don’t think that Facebook, etc. is totally to blame for destroying language. With all due respect, Europe was far ahead of the game on this with the likes of Russell, Huxley, Darwin, the Enlightenment, the nineteenth-century doubters, and even Marx who was educated in England. Americans just applied the Protestant ethic and “can do” inclinations to the needs of modernity, naively enshrining European Ivory Tower ideas into practical, everyday things. In other words, Mark Zukerburg’s not totally to blame. In fact, Europeans can take all the credit for the intellectual ideas (and their inherent reductionism). The problem is older and more systemic than American entrepreneurs. Just a thought ….

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    • With all gracious and due respect to American entrepreneurship, the European gentlmen you cite, and a majority of Enlightenment thinkers, were unsurpassed in their eloquence. No new atheist of which I am aware can write like Bertrand Russell or Charles Darwin or Jean Jaques Rousseau. I might even be so bold as to say that as far as Evangelicalism goes, few today write or think like Edwards or the Wesleyan borothers or Spurgeon or even Chesterton. It is not for lack of ability, I would argue, the intelligence is there (people thought St. Thomas a dolt when he was younger), but upon what the culture values most. It is plain we inhabit a post-linguistic society. Ours is the age of the image. Books will not need to be banned because no one will be reading them anymore. Writing has gone the way of a utilitarian reductionism while the image has increasingly become the dominant form of expression. As a result, eloquence is diminishing. The tragic irony of Russell and others is that while their words were sweet to the taste, they contained death. Their eloquence was their own tragic undoing and the culture’s as well.

      The other tragic consequence for language in the social media realm is that language and words are slowly being stripped of their oroginal incarnate context.

      I have no personal vendetta with cybertech entrepreneurs, but I do feel the dangers such technologies pose for language and the conveyance of the Gospels are very real.

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  2. To be more concise, the continued “proper” use of a word is of the utmost importance. The tragedy is when we, through our silence (i.e. refusal to say it) allow the corrupted use of the word to become the dominant means by which it is known. In very short order, the enemy takes hold of what once was good and redefines it and we fear to utter it any longer. Think of what he has done to the name of our Lord. You might call it a deconversion of language or the secularisation of words. When words lose their sacredness, they lose their meaning as well. But a proper Christianised stewardship of language preserves their sacredness.

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  3. New atheism’s understanding and use of language is akin to what philosopher Paul Avis says of the analytical tradition in modern philosophy, it is an obsession “with the search for precise, disciplined, stripped down language, purged of ambiguity and without fuzzy edges that would correspond as directly as possible to what is actually the case in the real world.”

    Tragically, I feel much of contemporary Christendom has likewise adopted this frightful approach, most especially at the popular level. We have been guilty of reducing the Christian faith to a “stripped down language” that atheism demands. By and large, I fear many have unwittingly caved to their demands. We have translated Christological wonder into “books of information” and a collection of dry abstractions neatly trimmed and fitted into concise Aristotelian syllogisms. The more they can get us to speak and write in such stripped down terms, the more they will advance their cause.

    Below is an example of the sort of poetic and linguistic brilliance that is wholly absent within atheism today (and by and large there are few Christians willing to engage it, though as you note, Malcom Guite certainly does a phenomenal job of it). Below, Coleridge brilliantly uses pagan myth as a symbol of Christ’s descent into our world.

    “How shall I yield you / Due entertainment, / Celestial quire?” Coleridge asks in wonder of the “divinities” who have come down and filled his “Terrestrial hall.” “Me rather, bright guests!” He can scarcely believe that the gods have descended to him in his lowly place to bear him aloft. “With your wings of upbuoyance / Bear aloft you your homes, to your banquets of joyance, / That the roofs of Olympus may echo my lyre! / Hah! we mount! on their pinions they waft up my soul!”

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