Tuesday, January 11, 2005


The tsunami seems to have provoked a crisis of opinion over theodicy (see here, here, and here, for example). This is irrational. Everyone dies, most of them in painful ways; few die painlessly in their sleep. And hardly anyone lives a peaceful life completely free from any tragic events. The whole world is teeming with examples of pain, suffering, evil, disasters (major and minor), accidents, desperate circumstances, poverty, hunger, disease.

So, while a tsunami that claimed 150,000 victims might seem overwhelming to think of at once, that figure is about one forty-millionth [correction: forty-thousandth] of the world's population. If people were already prepared to maintain religious faith in the face of a 100% death rate (and all the lesser evils that already exist in the world), it is irrational to act as if the problem of evil has suddenly arisen simply because a minute percentage of the world's population faced death in one incident.

Stuart Buck


Blogger Michael Drake said...

I don't think anyone is saying the problem has "arisen" from the tragedy. It's just that a vivid example of natural evil like this makes the problem more cognitively available (as it were) and so it's natural that it would provoke discussion on the topic.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Well, sure, the tsunami made the reality of death more cognitively available -- but that a heuristic bias, is it not?

4:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your numbers are off. If 150,000 people are 1 40-millionth of the worlds population, then the world population is 6 trillion (6 E 12). That's about 3 orders of magnitude too high.

Actually, one in 40,000 people died in the tsunami. If the average life span is 65 years, one person in about 23,000 dies every day anyway. So we can think of 12/26/2004 as a really bad day, but not that far out of the ordinary.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Oops! I'll correct that. (The overall point is still the same, though.)

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

C.S. Lewis points out a similar thought in his book "The Problem of Pain".

"We must never make the problem of pain worse than it is by vague talk about the 'unimaginable sum of human misery'. Suppose that I have a toothache of intesity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must also remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone's consciousness. There is no such thing as sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain."

5:59 PM  
Blogger Michael Drake said...

"[cognitive availability is] a heuristic bias, is it not?"

Sure, but it's a bias that generally has us tuning out the steady drip of human anguish rather than drawing our attention to it. Mass catrastrophes like this one defeat that bias by making such anguish more salient.

5:07 PM  

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