Draper’s Evidential Argument Against Theism From Pain and Pleasure

I came across a link to a recent paper by Jeffery Jay Lowder talking about Draper’s Evidential Argument from Pain and Pleasure, and more specifically William Lane Craig’s attempts to disprove such evidential arguments from evil in general. From the start, the paper turns out to be a really bad one because what Lowder is replying to is a set of general arguments, but Craig does not seem to address Draper’s argument specifically, and none of the objections are aimed specifically at that argument … and yet Lowder sets it all up as if that argument is the only one worth mentioning. While I only skimmed the objections and counters and there might be some cases where Draper’s argument is immune to Craig’s arguments in a way that other aren’t, it’s not particularly good to address a general criticism by appealing to a specific argument. Even if that argument does, in fact, survive the challenges, it doesn’t a) mean that most arguments do, making them still useful to make against other arguments of that type or b) that that specific argument doesn’t have specific flaws that invalidate it anyway, making it irrelevant that it survives the general objections. Lowder’s main idea seems to be that general arguments aren’t likely to work anyway:

For example, he refers to ‘the probabilistic problem of evil’ (italics mine) even though Craig knows that there are many different kinds of probabilistic (or evidential) arguments from evil. Even if he successfully identifies a flaw in one version of the evidential argument from evil, it doesn’t follow that said flaw will apply to all versions of the evidential argument from evil. Consider an analogy. There is no ‘the’ cosmological argument but instead a family of arguments known as “cosmological arguments” consisting of multiple, independent arguments, such as the kalam cosmological argument, the Leibnizian cosmological argument, and the Thomistic cosmological argument. Each of these arguments are logically independent in the sense that each argument succeeds or fails independently of the others, and the different arguments could be combined together to create a cumulative case for theism.

Similarly, there is no ‘the’ evidential argument from evil but instead a family of arguments known as “evidential arguments from evil,” consisting of multiple, independent arguments, such as pain and pleasure, flourishing and languishing,[4] virtue and vice,[5] triumph and tragedy,[6] autonomy and heteronomy,[7] divine silence in the face of tragedies,[8] social evil,[9] and the failure of theodicies.[10] Each of these arguments are logically independent in the sense that each argument succeeds or fails independently of the others, and the different arguments could be combined together to create a cumulative case against theism.

The problem is that anything that could be called a “family’ of arguments is not, in fact, logically independent so that they all succeed or fail independently of the others. All of them start from a common premise or set of premises and shake out their argument in different ways. This means that while there may be cases where an argument against one or a set of them doesn’t apply to the others, it will always be possible to come up with arguments that undercut the majority of them, due to that shared, common base. Moreover, there is no reason to think that the arguments are complementary and together form an argument. They may well just be different variations on the same theme, and so if you can undercut the theme you can undercut all of them. Thus, it is problematic to focus on one specific argument and use it to reply to a general assault, as that one might be “eccentric” wrt that specific objection but that most of the arguments in that family will indeed face significant issues from the criticism. And, of course, if the one argument happens to be the only one to survive the general objections but won’t work for other reasons, that doesn’t in any way save the family of arguments.

And it’s that last part that I want to focus on, rather than on Craig’s objections and Lowder’s objections to the objections. It’s risky to try to address what seem to be obvious objections to Draper’s argument only from a summary given by someone else, but I’m not writing a formal paper and since Lowder seems to think that Draper’s argument is a good one I can be assured that he will present it reasonably fairly and, if he presents it unfairly, will do so in a light that is more favourable to the argument rather than less. I couldn’t do this if Craig was summarizing it and would have to look it up myself, but with Lowder I can assume that if my assessment is wrong it’s either because he left out some specific detail. I don’t have to worry that he presented the argument in a more dubious form than Draper did.

So let’s look at the argument, as summarized by Lowder:

1.1 Observation 1: Moral Agents Experiencing Biologically Useful Pain and Pleasure

Suppose you are a teenager sleeping in a hotel that has caught on fire. The hotel is old and doesn’t have any smoke alarms. The fire gets closer and closer to you until you are actually in pain from the smoke and the intense heat. Your pain wakes you up in time to escape, so you go on to survive and start a family in your twenties. In this case your pain was biologically useful because it contributed to the biological “goal” of survival. The naturalistic explanation for the unfolding of this scenario is obvious. If human beings are the products of evolution by natural selection, we would expect physical pain and pleasure to motivate human behavior in ways that aid survival and reproduction.

1.2 Observation 2: Sentient Beings Experiencing Biologically Useful Pain and Pleasure

Most human beings are what philosophers call moral agents, people who can be held responsible for their actions and the consequences of their actions. But some human beings (such as young children and humans with certain mental disabilities), as well as nonhuman sentient animals (such as primates and dolphins), are moral patients—sentient beings who can be harmed from their own point of view, but are not responsible for their actions.

On naturalism, among biological sentient beings we would expect both moral patients and moral agents to experience biologically useful pain and pleasure. For biological moral patients (such as nonhuman primates and dolphins) are biologically similar to biological moral agents (such as human beings). On theism, however, we would predict that biological moral patients do not suffer the same kind of pain as biological moral agents. Such pain plays no known moral role in the lives of the biological moral patients who experience it. For example, such pain isn’t necessary for free will, doesn’t seem to influence moral patients to freely choose right actions over wrong ones, doesn’t enable moral patients to acquire moral virtue, and doesn’t usually increase their knowledge of God. Indeed, as if to underscore the point, theists typically emphasize that concepts like moral freedom, moral obligation, moral virtue, and salvation do not even apply to nonhuman animals, and thus do not apply to the majority of moral patients.

1.3 Observation 3: Sentient Beings Experiencing Pain and Pleasure Not Known to be Useful

But not all physical pain and pleasure is biologically useful. For example, consider an animal trapped in a forest fire that suffers horrific pain as it slowly burns to death.[11] On the one hand, this kind of pain is biologically appropriate: it is biologically useful in general that animals feel pain when they come in contact with fire. But, on the other hand, this specific instance of pain is not biologically useful because it does not contribute to the biological goals of survival or reproduction.

On naturalism, this is just what we would expect. If naturalism is true, all animals are the byproducts of unguided evolution by natural selection, which is both indifferent to suffering and incapable of fine-tuning animals to prevent such pain. Thus, the kind of pain and pleasure that we actually find is what we would expect if naturalism were true.

But if theism were true, God could “fine tune” animals so that they only experience physical pain and pleasure when it is morally necessary. So theism leads us to expect that pain and pleasure are fundamentally moral phenomena that just happen to be connected to the biological goals of survival and reproduction. That’s a huge coincidence that naturalism doesn’t need.

But there are a number of problems here:

1) Why is it presumed that pain and pleasure are fundamentally moral phenomena? This presumes that the main purpose of pain and pleasure is, in fact, for moral reasons, or for moral guidance. This then seems to presume that what makes something moral or immoral is the amount of pain and pleasure it causes. This works for a vaguely Utilitarian view of morality, but it doesn’t work for one that is: Kantian, Stoic or, most importantly here, a Divine Command Theory. In fact, it is only hedonistic moral philosophies that would consider pain and pleasure to have that special moral status, and the majority of theistic moral theories aren’t hedonistic. Given this, there is no reason for a theistic view to accept that pain and pleasure have a special moral status.

2) This then leads to the counter that pain and pleasure in fact do have a primary purpose, which is that they are biologically useful. They are biologically useful in both moral agents and moral patients, and they should be understood as primarily aimed at providing that. In fact, from the theistic perspective it’s fairly clear that pain and pleasure can often interfere with proper moral reasoning, an idea that is common in non-hedonistic philosophies and, in fact, even in hedonistic ones. The pain and pleasure that someone feels is good to guide them to specific non-moral wants, but that specific person being in — or contemplating — great pain or pleasure can encourage them to act in immoral ways, either by treating others as means and not also as ends (Kant), to prefer vices or indifferents to virtues (Stoics), ignoring God’s commands (DCT) or even to causing more overall pain than other actions would have (Utilitarianism). From this, we ought to conclude that, in general, pain and pleasure have no special status.

3) We might still wish to conclude that there would be special “pains” and “pleasures” that moral agents would experience and moral patients would not. But we have a word for such things: conscience. Particularly, guilt when we do something immoral and the sort of satisfaction we get from helping others and doing what is moral. And moral agents — humans, in particular — seem to at least have a more developed conscience than non-human animals do, even if they can be seen to have these inner feelings at all. Sure, many animals often look “guilty”, but that in and of itself wouldn’t prove that they really were or that they really understand what that means and can tie it to moral reasoning. So it seems that focusing on pain and pleasure ignores the actual morally relevant emotions and feelings that would be relevant to the discussion.

So, after working through all this, we can see what is doing all of the work: the idea of biologically appropriate pain, which is pain that would be biologically useful, except in this particular case there is nothing that can be done about it, so it is not useful. Draper’s argument stands entirely on the idea that God could eliminate that pain, and if He doesn’t, then that’s a reason — or at least makes it less probable — that God exists. In short, under a naturalistic or at least indifferent worldview we would see that creatures would experience pain even when it had no use whatsoever, but in a theistic worldview creatures ought not experience pain unnecessarily, when it serves no purpose.

This, however, also suffers from some issues. First, it again presumes that pain and pleasure have a special moral status. But there are a number of moral theories that deny this. For example, under Stoicism pain and pleasure are themselves indifferents, and the agent ought not consider them necessarily bad or good. Thus, it is not unreasonable that if God needed to, say, cause pain in me in order to promote the development of someone else that wouldn’t be immoral or even wrong. For example, imagine that I am working with someone on a project, and that person needs to improve their self-reliance. As long as I am working with them, they won’t do that, and my own personality is such that if I am able to work on it, I will. So an outside force decides to give me a week long flu that keeps me away from work and forces them to do the job themselves without relying on me, which gives them self-reliance at the cost of my feeling miserable for a week. This is probably acceptable under Stoicism and, if the long-term benefits of that person learning self-reliance outweigh my being miserable for a week, would work even for Utilitarianism. (Kantians would disapprove because I was used as a means and not as an end in myself). So it isn’t clear that we can look at pain that the moral patient can’t avoid and say that therefore that pain had no purpose.

And note that my view is taking the strong position here, and claiming that causing such pain wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. All God would be accused of doing here is allowing that pain in those cases.

From this, we see that we actually have to establish that, in fact, God doesn’t fine tune the pain of moral patients so that when it serves no purpose to anyone the moral patient doesn’t feel it. From this, we have to find a case where we a) know that the moral patient feels pain and b) it has no impact on any other creature that they felt pain. But the only cases where that would hold are cases where no other creature can possibly know that the moral patient felt pain, as in any case where any creature knows that the moral patient felt pain that stimulus can, in fact, impact behaviour, either biologically — an animal knows that that moral patient is in pain and so knows to avoid that area or that thing — or morally. In the last case, it would be the idea that knowing that the creature was in pain there might encourage people to act in certain ways towards that creature, or develop new ideas, or sympathy, or whatever. Again, under non-hedonistic philosophies, this isn’t as important, but it becomes difficult to say that even then it would have no use, and they are not required to show that it has more use than otherwise. And even Utilitarian views would allow it if it had more use. And, strangely enough, even Kantians could accept it because there is no requirement in Kant to treat moral patients as ends in themselves, only moral agents.

So the only case where a moral patient could be feeling pain that had no use is by definition a case where we cannot know whether or not they are feeling pain. At this point, Draper’s Evidential Argument fails because it, well, can’t provide any evidence for itself.

As summarized by Lowder, Draper’s Evidential Argument From Pain and Pleasure fails on two counts. First, the primary difference between the theistic and indifferent worldview — that pain and pleasure should have mostly a biological purpose on the latter but more than that on the former — fails for most moral theories and particularly for theistic theories of the sort Lowder and Draper are attacking. And second the main pillar of the argument — purposeless suffering — also fails for many moral theories and truly purposeless suffering cannot be tested for by definition. Thus, most theisms seem to have little to fear from that specific Argument From Evil.


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