Oh the Cognitive Dissonance!

Father Raniero Cantalamessa, officially Preacher of the Papal Household (Tyson lifts left eyebrow, scratches head), thinks the atheist bus ads released last year have helped to serve God’s cause.”

Ok, that’s cool, I can see how something of the sort might cause a backlash and energize the faithful–makes sense to me. But then he says this:

Suffering is certainly a mystery for everyone, especially the suffering of innocent people, but without faith in God it becomes immensely more absurd.

Um… what?! Suffering only makes sense if there is a loving, caring God watching over us as we fulfill his master plan for the universe? You mean, if we are naturally evolved beings struggling to survive in a sometimes hostile world, each of us slightly different than the other, carrying our small genetic mutations forward into an ecosystem that cannot possibly support every living creature, having to both cooperate and to compete for our own and our offspring’s survival–that in such a case suffering does NOT make sense, our lives are somehow MORE absurd?

Father Cantalamessa, can’t you see that suffering only becomes understandable IF we are natural beings in a natural world? Otherwise you will be forced to invent a plethora of complicated excuses for your “loving” God to justify our suffering. You will have to posist that somehow we have angered or disobeyed him, you will have to imagine that in our suffering we deserve it, you will need to imagine that we are both free but also fulfilling His plan at the same time, you will need to invent elaborate contortions of logic to account for natural disasters and child-rapists and reality TV shows… Oh, Father Cantalmessa, what is going on in that head of yours? I must have missed-out on that mutation…

7 Responses

  1. Hmmm. I have to say, I disagree that the ONLY way suffering becomes understandable is if we are natural beings in a natural world. What’s meant by ‘understandable’? If we mean intellectually understandable, then certainly looking at the process of evolution as a scientist would, we can understand that pain is the nearly inevitable natural consequence of the fight for survival.

    As a recovering Catholic I have mixed feelings about defending comments from Preachers of the Papal Household, but I wonder if by ‘absurd,’ he means emotionally absurd rather than intellectually absurd, as in, ‘meaningless’ rather than ‘illogical’ If we mean whether suffering is emotionally understandable, then we’re asking whether suffering has meaning versus whether it is meaningless.

    And that throws us into a moral dimension beyond the scientific facts of competition and survival and pain, which are amoral in and of themselves. If we talk about suffering versus pain, we are in that moral dimension, and we are talking about questions of meaning rather than questions covered by scientific explanations.

    In a purely emotionless world, we would have neither suffering nor justice nor redemption nor mercy. And in a purely amoral world — perhaps, the world as experienced by bacteria? — we would just have pain as a consequence; but there would be no suffering per se. Pain would simply exist. Or not. For suffering, you need to have the capacity to have a fairly complex emotional life. (I don’t limit that capacity to human beings myself; I doubt bacteria suffer, but I think dogs do.)

    Concepts like suffering and justice and redemption are all moral concepts, and moral concepts are based on emotional intuitions, not logic-based arguments. And seeing as we do not live as purely logical beings, or on the emotional level of bacteria, and seeing as we do readily perceive moral concepts like innocence and suffering, we exist simultaneously in a moral dimension in which we desire that the moral instances of suffering get moral responses: such as justice, or perhaps redemption, or perhaps both.

    If the innocent who suffer do not get justice, we ask ‘why’ — not in the sense of “Gee, why would the nervous system of that child report pain? Oh yes, when you burn someone with a cigarette it goes along xyz neural pathways,” but we ask to understand ‘why’ in a moral sense, in an emotional sense, asking for a moral explanation and a moral response. As in: “Why would a child have to suffer the experience of being deliberately burned with a cigarette? And shouldn’t the perpetrator be called to accounts?”

    What is perfectly understandable in a ‘natural beings in the natural world’ sense is that if you light a cigarette and grind it into someone else, it causes that person physical pain. But could we conclude that a description of, say, the physiological response to a cigarette burn is sufficient for a full understanding of the problem that Father Cantalamessa is talking about? And if we are still asking ‘why’ after we understand the physiology involved, then I think we are asking not about pain, but about suffering; and therefore we are asking about moral meaning and moral intelligibility versus moral meaninglessness, moral absurdity.

    Justice and redemption as responses to suffering are rarely observed in the natural world. If the natural world is all there is, if massive unanswered suffering is all we’ll ever get, then I suspect Father Cantalamessa concludes that suffering is indeed rendered meaningless. Or ‘absurd.’

  2. I hear you on the use of the word absurd, and I suspect it was NOT the “intelligible-ness” sense that F. C. had in mind… but (to my mind) the alternate usage of absurd isn’t any better at pointing us toward a god to make sense of it… it simply means both options are absurd…

    I would say we are natural beings, and i would say we have morality… i see no problem there… the absurdity, then, becomes an existential one… the absurdity appears as a result of our “thrown-ness” i.e. into the world (as Heidegger would say)… in both our tight association with our own pasts and the simultaneous freedom of our future (to use a more Sartrean conception)…

    …either way, i see the god of the Catholics as equally (if not more) absurd…

  3. Right, I don’t think a god-concept is logically necessary or morally inevitable; but I do think Cantalamessa’s entire worldview is built around this idea that unredeemed suffering is ipso facto rendered meaningless. (And that’s just a guess from this particular ex-Catholic.)

    And to follow up on your remarks about absurdity and the existential, it is only as self-reflective beings that we are able to carry concepts like past and future and suffering and meaning. Whether we think that capacity came from a happy accident of nature or something more doesn’t change the fact that, in an existential sense, we don’t perceive satisfactory ‘answers’ to suffering in things as they are.

    Re Sartre, if we stick with entirely naturalistic explanations then the freedom of the future is arguable; depending on how deterministic you think chains of natural causes are. And that is absurd as well, I think: that we would be agonizing over suffering we are powerless to prevent, and thinking we can choose over a future that has been determined by our genes, our environment, our moment-to-moment mental functioning. It FEELS like we are free, but I’ve seen at least one paper by neuroscientists that says we make our decisions before we’re even consciously aware of them. (William James again was ahead of his time.)

    So perhaps all that suffering is simply inevitable, somehow the inevitable effect of mindless causes, and we are trapped pointlessly wondering why.

    On that cheery thought, I am going to make what feels like a free choice to have breakfast . . . but which decision has probably been bubbling up pre-made several moments ago, or indeed, if we trace all the causation backwards, eons ago. 😉

  4. P.S.

    I like the word ‘thrown-ness.’

  5. After reading all your commentaries to each other I think what Anna said about the difference between “pain” and “suffering”. I think that priest guy is equating (imo) the helplessness and hopelessness we feel when we are suffering and that , in his opinion, you feel less hopeless and helpless when you believe in god.

    In order to suffer, you have to be empathetic and not just sympathetic and empathy, I think, drives us to connect with others, reach out to them and feel a bond so we feel less alone.

    For some people god is that bond, or that illusion of a bond. For others there is just the natural bond we have as beings that can feel emotions, and not bacteria.

  6. I meant to add the difference between pain and suffering was an interesting point…duh,, didn’t finish my sentence correctly. ggaaahh.

  7. how can Golden Earrings radar love not be on this list
    and I never roadtrip without Deep Purples Highway star thumping the bass tubs at some point

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