Carl Sagan, the Implausibility of Existence, and Suffering


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!


Carl Sagan and his daughter Sasha.



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