Repost: Brittany Maynard and the Problem of Evil

Photo of Brittany Maynard

In case you’ve been under a rock (or you’re reading this in the future when it is an old, archived post), Brittany Maynard, a women with terminal brain cancer, died by assisted suicide last weekend in the U.S. state of Oregon, where it is legal.

Brittany’s life and death are an especially tragic combination of two or more aspects of the problem of evil.

First, the tragic nature of her story is an example of the evidence appealed to in the atheistic argument from triumph and tragedy. According to that argument, facts about the types and distribution of triumphs and tragedies are more probable on naturalism than on theism. The point here is not that (a) theism predicts the nonexistence of tragedies or (b) literally every human being suffers tragedies or enjoys triumphs. Rather, the focus of this argument is on the distribution of triumph and tragedy. Out of those people who do experience triumphs or tragedies, the number of people who experience tragedies is greater than the number of people who experience triumphs. Moreover, we know that the number of extreme tragedies (call them “horrific tragedies”) is much greater than the number of extreme triumphs (call them “glorious triumphs”).

Second, the gratuitous (and apparently morally random) biological pain caused by her condition if allowed to progress until death is more probable on naturalism than on theism (see: the atheistic argument from the biological role of pain and pleasure). Note: the problem is not the presence of physical pain and pleasure in general, since physical pain and pleasure can be (and often is) biologically useful. Rather, the problem is the fact that much pain and pleasure is biologically gratuitous (i.e., it does not contribute to the biological goals of survival or reproduction) and apparently morally random (i.e., much of it is not apparently connected to “greater goods” such as the exercise of free will). While it’s possible that God exists and has unknown moral reasons for allowing biologically gratuitous pain and pleasure, the fact that such pain and pleasure exists is not what we would have predicted “beforehand” on theism. In contrast, naturalism–combined with the background knowledge that human beings exist and are the products of unguided evolution–does predict this. So, all other evidence held equal, the biological role of pain and pleasure is very much more probable on naturalism than on theism.

Third, if Brittany did not feel God’s comforting presence during the end of her life — and I have no idea if she did or not — her story would also be an example of another atheistic argument at the intersection of arguments from evil and arguments from hiddenness: the argument from divine silence during tragedies.

Fourth, if there are religious groups which do support Euthanasia, then the argument from ethical confusion applies. In fact, if (a) there is sincere ethical disagreement among theists regarding Euthanasia and (b) if Euthanasia is not objectively morally wrong, then ethical disagreement becomes an additional, independent instance of the problem of evil for theists. We would then have a situation where, if theism were true, a perfectly loving God allowed theists who, in this hypothetical situation, wrongly believed Euthanasia was morally wrong and that belief contributed to Brittany’s suffering. And that state of affairs is more probable on naturalism than on theism. This last point (about suffering caused by moral condemnation) is not hypothetical. Before her death, Brittany spoke about the emotional toll the criticism of her choice took on her:

“When people criticize me for not waiting longer, or, you know, whatever they’ve decided is best for me, it hurts,” she says, “because really, I risk it every day, every day that I wake up.”

So Brittany’s tragic story exemplifies at least two, if not four, different arguments from evil for naturalism and against theism.

Sometimes theists object to these kinds of arguments on the basis that they focus on the “God of the philosophers,” rather than, say, Christian theism or Islamic (sp?) theism. This common yet confused objection reveals the objector’s misunderstanding of probability theory. Since Christian theism entails theism, it follows necessarily that the probability of Christian theism can be no greater than the probability of theism. (The two values may be equal or Christian theism may be less probable than theism.) We can state this point as a general principle: if A entails B, then it follows necessarily that Pr(A) <= Pr(B).