The Problem and Blessing of Pain

by Mark T. Nelson, Kenneth and Peggy Monroe Professor of Philosophy

When you think about philosophy, what immediately comes to mind? A sense that it’s an abstract undertaking dealing with hypothetical issues far removed from ordinary life? In fact, philosophy wrestles with issues drawn directly from our everyday experiences to help us make sense of life. And tangible factors and discoveries can play an important role in our understanding. Let me explain.

The biggest class I teach is “Philosophical Perspectives”; it’s our required “Introduction to Philosophy” course. I teach a section of it every semester, usually to about 40 students.

I try to accomplish a number of things in this class. I introduce the main topics and branches of philosophy. We work on skills of logical reasoning. I also ask my students to read a lot of classic works of philosophy.

Some of those philosophers are Christian, such as Thomas Aquinas and Pascal, but others are not. I want to talk about one of the non-Christians: the 18th century Scottish philosopher of skepticism, David Hume.

Some of you may not recognize that name, but others will remember studying Hume in their college philosophy classes, maybe even at Westmont.

I ask my students to read Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, a withering attack on Christian belief, and then to write a paper about it.

Why would a Christian philosopher teaching Christian students at a Christian college make them read this critic of Christian belief? I do it for several reasons.

For one thing, Hume was a major figure in the Western intellectual tradition. At Westmont we think that if our graduates are going to be educated, cultured persons they should know something about that tradition. For another, Hume is a brilliant thinker and an elegant writer, and I want to expose my students to someone who writes and argues with real style.

Most importantly, I want our students to consider important challenges to Christian belief, and I want them to have resources for answering these challenges and to think these things through for themselves. Students accomplish this in the safe environment of the classroom during a calm and deliberate hour, so that when they hit these challenges outside the classroom, out on the ocean of life, they won’t be swamped by them.

As the title suggests, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion contains a dialogue and features three main characters. There’s Cleanthes, who believes in God and gives a scientific “design” argument to support this belief. There’s Demea, who also believes in God, but is more mystical and feeling-oriented. Demea doesn’t like Cleanthes’ design argument, thinking it a bit vulgar to offer scientific arguments for God. And there’s Philo, who is generally thought to speak for Hume. He plays Cleanthes and Demea off against each other and generally tries to make Christian belief look foolish.

In the last part of the dialogue, they discuss arguments against belief in God, focusing especially on the problem of evil, an age-old philosophical issue. Philo presents the problem of evil in a short, snappy quotation from the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. He says, “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered: is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” (198)

My students write a paper on this quotation, and the first thing I ask them to do is to explain those questions in their own words.

I’m pleased to say that most of our students understand this passage well. They clearly see that Hume is focusing on the fact that there is a lot of evil, especially pain and suffering. They clearly see that Hume thinks this makes it hard to believe in God, especially the kind of God Christians believe in: one who is supposed to be perfectly good and perfectly powerful. A good God would want to eliminate suffering, and a powerful God would be able to do it. But I don’t want them just to understand Hume. I want them to respond to him.

One way to respond is to deny that there really is much evil, and Hume has Cleanthes try that line of argument for a while. But it’s not very plausible, and Hume is actually pretty funny about it. He has Demea make this rather biting reply to Cleanthes, “Were a stranger to drop on a sudden into this world, I would show him, as a specimen of its ills, an hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with malefactors and debtors, a field of battle strewed with carcasses, a fleet foundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine, or pestilence.

“To turn the gay side of life to him and give him a notion of its pleasures; whither should I conduct him? To a ball, to an opera, to court? He might justly think that I was only showing him a diversity of distress and sorrow.”

In other words, if you want someone to know what suffering is, make them sit through a three-hour opera!

Philo agrees with Demea that evil undeniably exists and goes on to identify what he considers the main causes of that evil. He boils them down to four factors:

  1. The fact that humans (and animals) were created with the physical capacity to feel pain and suffering when he could have built us without pain nerves at all.
  2. The fact that God apparently lets nature operate according to laws of cause and effect when he could intervene and perform a miracle every time someone was about to be hurt or killed.
  3. The apparent fact that God was stingy when he was handing out natural attributes instead of generously endowing us with more skills and abilities and power. (Philo sounds like a true Scot here when he complains, e.g., that God should have given every person a more industrious and diligent disposition and a “greater bent for business and application”!)
  4. The fact that God’s workmanship when he made nature was poor, because it constantly gets out of balance and runs to extremes, to disastrous effect. He could have made it so that it would never flood in the Midwest at the same time there’s chronic drought in California, but apparently he could not be bothered.

Philo summarizes it thus: “On the concurrence, then, of these four circumstances, does all or the greatest part of natural evil depend. Were all living creatures incapable of pain, or were the world administered by particular volitions, evil never could have found access into the universe: and were animals endowed with a large stock of powers and faculties, beyond what strict necessity requires; or were the several springs and principles of the universe so accurately framed as to preserve always the just temperament and medium; there must have been very little ill in comparison of what we feel at present.” (210)

Each of these factors deserves careful thought, but I shall focus on the first one. Here’s how Philo explains it, “The first circumstance which introduces evil, is that contrivance or economy of the animal creation, by which pains, as well as pleasures, are employed to excite all creatures to action, and make them vigilant in the great work of self-preservation. Now pleasure alone, in its various degrees, seems to human understanding sufficient for this purpose. All animals might be constantly in a state of enjoyment: but when urged by any of the necessities of nature, such as thirst, hunger, weariness; instead of pain, they might feel a diminution of pleasure, by which they might be prompted to seek that object which is necessary to their subsistence. Men pursue pleasure as eagerly as they avoid pain; at least they might have been so constituted. It seems, therefore, plainly possible to carry on the business of life without any pain. Why then is any animal ever rendered susceptible of such a sensation?” (205)

Hume says that the main problem is that we feel pain at all. If we couldn’t feel pain, then most of the things that we now think of as evil wouldn’t be evil—or they wouldn’t be as evil. It seems that he has a point: If Migraines didn’t hurt, no one would mind having them! We couldn’t feel pain if God hadn’t made us with the nerves, the physical capacity, to feel pain!

Philo engages in a little thought-experiment here. He says suppose God had designed animals (and people) so that they were just like they are now, except with no pain nerves at all. Suppose that everyone started out the day feeling complete pleasure—100 percent—but as the day went on and you needed to eat something, you wouldn’t feel pain, but only a drop in your level of pleasure, say down to 80. Maybe a little later, when your body was dehydrated, you would drop down to 60, and that would give you a clue that you needed to eat food and drink water. Philo asks, “Couldn’t God have done it that way?” You have to be careful how you answer here. If you say, “No, God couldn’t do that,” you seem to be limiting God’s power. But if you say, “Yes, God could have made us to function without pain nerves, but simply chose not to,” then that seems to compromise God’s goodness.

This is one of the challenges I want our students to wrestle with. I ask them, “Can a Christian theist make an adequate response?”

The students impress me with the hard thought they put into their papers, the perceptiveness of their answers, and how they gravitate almost instinctively to the classic Christian responses to this problem: ideas about the effect of sin on the world, the reality of free will, our inability to grasp the whole of God’s plan, and so on.

Those are all necessary parts of a good answer, but there’s a different part they’re less likely to come up with on their own. Coincidentally, this answer is connected to my family, but to explain the connection, I must change the subject abruptly. Do you know why people with leprosy (or Hansen’s Disease) often go blind? They stop blinking. Why do they stop blinking? The answer lies in the main problem that Hansen’s disease causes: It takes away the ability to feel pain. Surgery can correct secondary problems such as the collapse of cartilage, the loss of eyebrows, the claw-like contraction of the hand, but it can’t restore the sensation of pain.

Dr. Paul Brand, my father-in-law, helped discover this fact about Hansen’s disease. An English Christian orthopedic surgeon, he spent his career working with leprosy patients, first in the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, and later in the National Hansen’s Disease Center in Carville, La.

Previously, people thought—erroneously—that the disease caused the patient’s flesh to go bad. But Dr. Paul, as he is known, thought that couldn’t be it.

He got an important insight into the true nature of the disease in the early days of his work in Karagiri. On an early tour of the hospital grounds, they came to a locked gate. Paul, who was then a fit young man in the prime of life, was unable to turn the key in the rusty lock. He then watched a young patient turn the stubborn key with ease, oblivious to the fact that he had pushed the key through the back of his hand in the process! People who feel pain couldn’t unlock the gate; they had the brute strength, but the pain they felt in their hand as they tried to turn the resisting key would make them stop before they succeeded. But Hansens’ patients received no such warning.

This is the true nature of the disease. Removing the ability to feel pain causes the human body to begin to self-destruct.

A thousand times a day, the normal person does something that is harmful or potentially harmful to the body, and the body sends messages saying: stop. But someone with Hansen’s disease never receives those messages, unable to avoid the harm.

Hume was wrong. Our ability to feel pain isn’t regrettable. He got something else wrong too.

Consider the reason so many people with Hansen’s disease go blind. When the eye functions properly, it has this marvelous capacity to clean and lubricate itself. Our blink reflex activates this healing; it’s triggered by pain. We sense slight, almost subliminal pains, when our eyes start to dry out or we get stuff in them. If we stop feeling pain in the eye, we stop blinking, and our eyes dry out, gunk accumulates, our vision turns cloudy, and we rub our eyes, which causes abrasions and leads to infection. Before you know it, you lose the eye.

My mother-in-law, Dr. Margaret—an ophthalmologist—helped figure this out. Once they identified the problem, the solution seemed obvious: Get the Hansen’s Disease patients to start blinking again. At first, they simply told them, “Try to blink more often.” But that wasn’t enough. As a last resort, Dr. Paul adapted an experimental surgical procedure. He attached the eyelid to the muscle of the jaws. Whenever patients moved their jaws, they would automatically blink, too. They performed this surgery on scores of patients, gave them chewing gum and told them to get busy. It probably looked a little odd to outsiders, but the patients were happy with the result.

Hume’s Philo seems to suggest that our desire for pleasure would be just as good a motivator as our desire to avoid pain and would work just as well to prompt us to do everything necessary for our physical survival. But Dr. Margaret saw this simply wasn’t true. The patients knew as well as anyone they could achieve health, wellbeing and happiness if only they would blink more. But the abstract desire for well-being simply wasn’t vivid, concrete and insistent enough to motivate them to blink. They needed pain.

You can read these and other stories from the Brands’ remarkable career as medical missionaries in Dr. Paul’s medical autobiography, The Gift of Pain, which he co-wrote with Philip Yancey. This book recounts how my wife, Pauline, grew up in an exotic, even eccentric, household where they regularly heard their parents exclaim, “Thank God for pain!”

My mother-in-law and father-in-law not only gave me their daughter, but they’ve given me fruitful ways of thinking about the problem of evil and helping my students think about how to respond to it, too. It’s been an unexpected blessing in my life and my work as a philosopher.

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