Monday, July 16, 2007

God and Pain I

I’ve been doing some homework for a conference next month and have come across a passage which is also interesting for my ongoing thoughts about pleasure and pain in ancient philosophy. At M 9.162–5 Sextus offers the following argument against the existence of god. It is based on the idea that if god exists then god must possess wisdom and therefore know what is good, bad, and indifferent. He must therefore know pleasure and pain. Sextus insists that this in turn requires that god must have experienced pleasure and pain since that is the only way in which knowledge of these may be acquired. But if god must experience pain in order to have the wisdom essential to god’s being, and to experience pain is to be receptive of change and decay, then there is a central incoherence to the notion of god under scrutiny. God cannot be both unchanging and perfect and also wise. The argument in full is as follows:

εἰ δὲ ἐπιστήμην ἔχει τούτων, οἶδε ποῖά ἐστι τὰ ἀγαθὰ καὶ κακὰ καὶ ἀδιάφορα. (163) ἐπεὶ οὖν καὶ ὁ πόνος τῶν ἀδιαφόρων ἐστίν, οἶδε καὶ τὸν πόνον καὶ ποῖός τις ὑπάρχει τὴν φύσιν. εἰ δὲ τοῦτο, καὶ περιπέπτωκεν αὐτῷ• μὴ περιπεσὼν γὰρ οὐκ ἂν ἔσχε νόησιν αὐτοῦ, ἀλλ’ ὃν τρόπον ὁ μὴ περιπεπτωκὼς λευκῷ χρώματι καὶ μέλανι διὰ τὸ ἐκ γενετῆς εἶναι πηρὸς οὐ δύναται νόησιν ἔχειν χρώματος, οὕτως οὐδὲ θεὸς μὴ (164) περιπεπτωκὼς πόνῳ δύναται νόησιν ἔχειν τούτου. ὁπότε γὰρ ἡμεῖς οἱ περιπεσόντες πολλάκις τούτῳ τὴν ἰδιότητα τῆς περὶ τοὺς ποδαλγικοὺς ἀλγηδόνος οὐ δυνάμεθα τρανῶς γνωρίζειν, οὐδὲ διηγουμένων ἡμῖν τινων συμβαλεῖν, οὐδὲ παρ’ αὐτῶν τῶν πεπονθότων συμφώνως ἀκοῦσαι διὰ τὸ ἄλλους ἄλλως ταύτην ἑρμηνεύειν καὶ τοὺς μὲν στροφῇ, τοὺς δὲ κλάσει, τοὺς δὲ νύξει λέγειν ὅμοιον αὑτοῖς παρακολουθεῖν, ἦ πού γε θεὸς μηδ’ ὅλως πόνῳ περιπεπτωκὼς (165) <οὐ> δύναται πόνου νόησιν ἔχειν

This is Bury’s translation:

If he possesses knowledge of these [sc. of goods, bads, and indifferents], he knows what the goods things are and the evil and the indifferent. Since, then, suffering is one of the indifferent things, he knows both suffering and what its real nature is. And if so, he has experienced it; for without experience he would not have formed a notion of it, but, just as the man who has not experienced white colour and black, owing to his having been blind from birth, cannot possess a notion of colour, so too god cannot have a notion of suffering if he has not experienced it. For when we, who have often experienced it, are unable to discern distinctly the special quality of the pain suffered by gouty patients or to guess it from descriptions, or to get consistent accounts from the actual sufferers, since they explain it in different ways, and some say that they find it to resemble twisting, others bending, others stabbing, -- surely, if god has had no experience at all of suffering, he cannot possess a notion of suffering.

The claim that god is without pain or toil is not uncommon in Greek philosophical thought and can be traced back at least as far as Xenophanes (DK 21 B25). Sextus evidently feels that it has now become sufficiently central to a conception of divinity that if he can demonstrate that it is incompatible with another common characteristic of divinity, namely that god is wise, then this inconsistency is extremely damaging for a dogmatic theist. My principal interest in this passage is in Sextus’ apparent contention that the only way in which it is possible to acquire knowledge of pain is through experiencing it. The reference to the ‘special quality of the pain suffered by gouty patients’ and the idea that it cannot be grasped except by having gout is certainly suggestive of such a view. This is an interesting claim because it might be thought to anticipate in an important way a claim often made in more modern philosophical discussions of pleasure and pain that they are essentially first-personal private experiences. Some modern philosophers also make the additional claim that experience of pleasure and pain of this kind is incorrigible: a person cannot be mistaken in his assessment of whether he is experiencing pleasure and pain. Sextus, we should note at the outset, makes no such additional claim and in any case need not do so for the purposes of this destructive argument. He needs only the claim that in order to acquire knowledge of pain it is essential to experience pain. It is not, therefore, possible to claim that god may acquire knowledge of pain by experiencing the positive pleasure and being able to extrapolate from that positive experience what it would be like to experience its opposite, pain. Rather, knowledge of pain can come only from a direct and personal experience of pain.

I’m still thinking this through because I have the suspicion that some of what Sextus later says in this argument makes it less like the first-personal private sensation view. Something for a later entry, I think.

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