Wednesday, February 6, 2013

God and Reason Part 3: "The Problem of Pain"

The speaker this week was Prof. John North. He's been at the University for over 40 years now. That surprised me. Though he and I did cross paths during my undergrad days. My girlfriend and I, along with some other friends, were going to rent a house he owned. We all agreed, and returned to our co-op jobs. However, a few months later we called to confirm, and he decided to rent it to someone else. We were pretty pissed.

Prof. North is a great, impassioned speaker. More of a preacher, really. Very loud at times, and then suddenly quiet. He certainly had my attention.

His talk, however, had little of substance for someone like me. Rather than a scholarly, persuasive argument, it seemed more of an emotional plea. And emotional it was. At times, it seemed Prof. North was on the verge of tears. Not surprisingly, since he told us of his experiences as a volunteer Chaplain at the Grand River Hospital. He estimates that he's visited over 800 dying patrons in his 27 years of service.

His arguments for the function of pain were weak, and half-hearted. He spoke more in metaphors than in defensible clarity.

He told the Bible story of Lazarus and Dives. Dives was rich, and ate like a king every day. Lazarus was poor, and survived on the discarded scraps from Dives' table. But they both died, and - of course - Dives ended up in Hell, and Lazarus ended up in Heaven. Dives begged Abraham to have Lazarus bring him just a drop of water. But Abraham said it couldn't be done.

What's the moral of the story? If you have lots of money, you should give it to the church to make sure you don't end up like poor Dives.

I agree with Jeff Shallit's assessment of pain. It's a motivator. Your brain actively creates pain as a behavioural mechanism. And I agree with Jeff that there is nothing noble about enduring pain for no reason. Pain has no cosmic rationale. Suffering is not in service of some greater good. Pain is your way of making the best of a bad situation. The universe never said anything about fairness. In fact, fairness is a construct invented by social species.

Much of Prof. North's talk was an affirmation of his faith, describing how he sees his religion, and laying out the passages that he finds most compelling.

His speech was moving. But emotion is not the same thing as reality. I find music can make me very emotional. But I don't worship music, or think it controls the universe. My brain is a machine, and if I pull the right strings, I can induce a feeling of awe, and wonder, and reverence. Of course, drugs can do this for you too. Perhaps religion is addictive in this sense.

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