Home > Christian Civilization > The Power of Coherence

The Power of Coherence

This essay is a result of many big ideas combining and colliding in the best and worst kind of pyrotechnics my brain is capable of producing.  If it’s a mess, I hope it’s a mess worth making.  Though I can’t hand it off to someone else, maybe I can leave a trace of something worth keeping.  Metaphors, like anything else in a collision, get mixed up.  But, this is my try.

I believe that, with some of the bigger truths, reason only gets you halfway there.  Something else helps you complete the journey.  I’ll, for lack of a better term, label that something “coherence”.  An argument which doesn’t quite bring together deduction or induction, all the way through, can nonetheless fit. I claim that Christianity fits in this way.

If we try to imagine the sort of world that would be necessary were a loving deity to exist, it seems that our world resembles this  ideal world in peculiar ways. Even apparent objections seem to fade away. The “problem of pain”, so difficult to understand, seems much more comprehensible if we look at it in this way. There are essentially two “horns”  to the problem of pain. First, nature, though ordered, is capricious and destructive. Second, man can, and often desires to, do harm. But, when we try to make sense of these two problems- try to make them coherent- we find they’re not problems at all, but necessities. Let us deal with each in turn.

Nature is Capricious and Destructive

What is meant by nature in this context? Lewis defined nature as “the whole show”, but I think in this instance we’re dealing with a fairly specific vision of nature. Nature, here, is simply the process by which change occurs. Carbon matter decays, cells mutate, low pressure areas form over water causing hurricanes, etc.

What is meant by “capricious and destructive”? Surely we don’t call hurricanes destructive because we think bits of ocean ought not fling themselves at high speeds, over great distances. No, we only object to hurricanes- think them a problem for a world with a loving God- because they destroy creatures who’d rather not be destroyed. Cancer is cancerous because it affects us.

Absent us, these things are just processes. Now, in order for anything to happen, there must be a change between states. If it starts “raining” it must have ended “not raining”. This is true even in a world without life, but life adds a special character to the process. When an event happens, and states change, life is impacted. And to be impacted is to be moved.  And if you’re moved, you’re moved away from something.  And as long as you have a sense of preference, you’re capable of preferring the original state.  That’s the start of this argument.  Before, we get to the finish, let’s move on to the second “problem” with pain.

Man Does Harm

In, I think, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis points out that it is essentially impossible to imagine a world in which men were free, but not free to go wrong. An infinitely powerful God could, perhaps, make man a different sort of physical creature, capable of inflicting less damage. We could envision a slug with a brain, squirming around on it’s belly, limited in its choices by a finite form, in the same way we’re limited by a lack of wings or by a defined skeletal structure.

Still, this isn’t very helpful. Surely the objection to the existence of pain can’t be that there is simply “too much” of it. Too much is a relative term. It must have something to relate to. An atheist might well say “Look at those Bangladeshi orphans. They’re born without every advantage. They’re vulnerable to disease, malnutrition, they lack an education system or any way to meaningfully better themselves. How could a loving God allow for such pain?”

Our atheist might well say this, but it wouldn’t get him anywhere. Because what he really means is “Look at these Bangladeshi orphans who have more pain than I do; fewer opportunities, greater grief. How could a loving God not square this away?” The atheist cannot possibly mean that the Bangladeshi’s simply have too much pain, in the abstract. He implies a standard. Absent that standard he’s talking nonsense, akin to the man who says, “that hat is too dark” without any implied “to wear in the sun” or “to match my clothes” or “to satisfy my aesthetic taste”. But, even our sentient slug would exist in a world with such standards.  Even a sentient slug could “go wrong” on this smaller scale.

Therefore, any meaningful objection to pain must be an objection to pain as such. But, of course, any objection to pain as such is an objection to differences. As long you and I are in different situations, and we have different preferences, and we are distinct individuals who’s actions influence our environment, we will be at loggerheads.  If I am taller, you are necessarily shorter.  And in a concrete environment there will certain advantages to my height, and certain advantages to your lack of height.  This will inevitably create pain when we’re competing for scarce resources.

Nor does it seem likely that even an infinitely powerful God could create a free world with infinite resources.  If we view resources as anything from food to spots on a basketball team (which seems like the proper attitude), the difficulty will immediately become plain.  If you want to play for New York Knicks, but can’t make it on the 5 man squad because you’re short, what is God to do?  Perhaps he could create another basketball team, with the same name and history.  Let’s just suppose he could.  But, who will be your teammates?  Your opponents?   The NBA is popular enough, so you might find a few takers in the beginning, but eventually you’ll end up with players without a team, or a team without opponents.

Or is God…drafting people into the NBA?  What if some of these folks want to play in the MLB?  If he’s altering them to prefer basketball then we’re back to a question of free will.  But, let’s suppose that God could manage such a feat; creating an infinite number of basketball teams, with an infinite number of players freely interested in playing the game.  Now what if I want to win?  And what if you want to win?  And what if we’re playing each other?  Can we both win?  Can I both win and lose?  An infinitely powerful God can’t violate the law of non-contradiction anymore than can a finitely powerful human.


Logic has taken us this far.  Reason has been our guide.  It must soon leave us, giving way to a more powerful force.  But, before we wave it away, let’s sum up the preceding argument.  First, events in nature imply change.  Insofar as we are free individuals with preferences, we’re capable of resenting this change, and thus feeling pain.  Second, if we have different capabilities, with different ideas, we will have different experiences, which will make us more or less happy relative to each other.  It turns out that the objections to the problem of pain don’t hold up, but perhaps it’s not a problem at all?  Atheism doesn’t, after all, appear to have a “problem of pain”.  Even if we concede that an infinitely powerful, infinitely good God may well need to create a world which can bring about pain, how does this convince us that such a being exists?

But, something odd happens when we look at the claims of Christianity.  What does it tell us about creation or, more specifically, the opening scenes of man?  Genesis 2:17, “But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die”.  Genesis 2:25, “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed”.  Genesis 3:5, “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil”.  Genesis 3:7 “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons”.  Genesis 3:10, “And he [God] said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself”.  And the beginning part of Genesis 3:11, “And he said, who told thee that thou wast naked?”

Here, we have the famous fall of man.  It’s fascinating and, in some ways, perplexing, but how does it fit into the preceding argument?  In this sequence, Adam starts out free.  God forbids him to eat from the tree, which would be altogether pointless if Adam wasn’t, in fact, capable of doing so.  What did we say about pain?  Why do people experience it?  Because they have preferences and ideas.  But, Adam doesn’t have preferences and ideas.  That’s precisely what he doesn’t have.  That’s what the “knowledge of good and evil” is all about.  He doesn’t know about “the good” and he doesn’t know about “his good”.  He’d be equally content playing basketball or washing dishes.  Nature’s change and flux can’t phase him.

And it seems to me that the first thing Adam and Eve do, after eating of the fruit, emphasizes this.  They hide their nakedness.  They’re ashamed, but not because being naked is inherently evil; rather, by disobeying God and gaining “knowledge”, preference, etc,- they’ve created the idea of evil.  The narrative is perfect and coherent.  It fills gaps that we barely notice. And the rest of it?  The idea that redemption is a journey and, as in a story, the happy ever after needs the context of that journey to make sense; to be satisfying.  It is, confusions and turmoils included, the most powerful and “right” description of how man is and how he ought to be.

  1. Douglas
    October 25, 2009 at 2:00 am

    didn’t read a word, but didn’t want you to feel unloved. Don’t feel bad, noone ever reads my stuff.

  2. October 25, 2009 at 3:29 am

    Hmm. You make several good points. I like your distinction between coherence and logic. Let me think on it some more.

  3. October 25, 2009 at 3:43 am

    The thing is, I didn’t make half the points I wanted to make, because I decided that a semi-complete tackling of “the problem of pain” was necessary to set-up the idea of coherence, and by that point it was just too dang long. Most of my original ideas- which make the idea of coherence more, well, coherent- are still in my notes.

  4. mac
    October 25, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Interesting, at least to the degree I was able to absorb it. Maybe your notes on the idea of coherence will make it, for me, more coherent.

  5. October 25, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Well, having read C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, I kinda filled in the blanks in that bit, heh. Also, I know exactly what you mean because this year, my church read a book called “The Story,” which is a sort of “novelization” of the Bible. It really speaks to your point on coherence, because “The Story” shows how the entire Bible fits together as a single coherent story.

  6. October 26, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    Nice post Matt! Interesting, I hadn’t thought about this answer to the problem of pain before. Let me see if I understand you and play devil’s advocate for a bit..

    Ok, you say any objection to pain as such is an objection to differences. So for example, I would consider being hungry being in pain, because I’m used to being full, and that is the state I prefer; whereas the Bangladeshi orphan does not think of it as pain, because for him, it’s normal. Is that right?

    Thing is, I disagree that that’s the right definition of pain. In the problem of pain, people object to things or events that violate their sense of right and wrong. They’re not objecting to disproportionality or unfairness, which seems to be more what you were talking about. In other words, the problem is not just that the orphan is hungry and I’m not – there would be a problem of pain even if the whole world was hungry.

    I think the pain they are talking about is something objective – when we know that things are supposed to happen a certain way, and don’t. For example, the pain of blindness: there’s a big difference between ‘sightless’ and blind. No one thinks it unjust that plants are sightless; but there’s something sad about a person (or even, say, a dog) being blind. Think of things like broken arms and whatever too, for other examples.

    The problem of the starving child falls under the same thing, even if it’s less obvious. Why we know it’s a problem is food for another huge discussion.. I would say it comes from God: from our inherent sense of the value of each person, from our universal desire for happiness, and the unconscious knowledge that we are supposed to be happy, that that is what we’re made for. (So, the coherence still works!)

    So I don’t agree that logic takes away the problem of pain, because it seems to me that in addition to the pain you talk about, there is pain that is objective (maybe you would call it ‘evil’ instead?), and this is the kind that the problem is dealing with.

    What are your thoughts? Looking forward to your going deeper into the idea of coherence too..

  7. October 27, 2009 at 1:18 am

    Hmm. I think I have a tendency to take on opposing arguments on their own terms. So, for instance, I absolutely believe in the idea of objective pain, objective good, objective right and wrong- my favorite C.S. Lewis book, The Abolition of Man, goes into this a bit. But, here I was more trying to imagine pain from the ground up; trying to understand what an atheist really means when he says “There’s pain therefore no God”. And I’m not sure he means that he has an intuitive sense that pain is wrong. Or well, he probably means that, since he probably hasn’t thought about it very seriously, but I’m supposing he’s an ideal atheist. I suppose I was doing something odd. I was trying to start in the atheist’s world- where certain things couldn’t be inherently wrong, just relatively wrong- and then come out saying that, even in the atheists world, even on the strength of pure reasoning, it’s nonsense to talk about the problem of pain the way it’s generally talked about. They thing they mean something, but they obviously mean something else. Or they say they mean something, but they can’t possibly mean it, without proving themselves idiots.

    I do this sort of thing with other issues too. For instance, when I’m arguing about abortion, I like to ask pro-choicers what their position would be if pregnancy was 9 and 1/2 minutes instead of 9 and 1/2 months. Assuming that a woman could know she was pregnant right away, would she be morally justified in having an abortion? Would the state be justified in proscribing her right to choose? If the answers are no and yes respectively, then they don’t mean what they think they do when they bring up abortion and virtue of “choice”. Instead, they mean something like “pregnancy is harsh, draining and long, and this burden outweighs the fetus’ rights”. Which is a different argument entirely; one that doesn’t rest on rights at all, but rather on competing interests.

    Anyway, I think you’re probably right about what atheists really mean when they talk about pain being a problem. And if I remember correctly (its been a few years since I read it), that’s a point Lewis makes in his Problem of Pain (or is it in Mere Christianity?); that we have an intuitive that things are off. I’ll have to think about it some more and figure out if it seriously conflicts with my points.

  8. MWS
    October 27, 2009 at 4:02 pm


    I think the first half was very well thought out. St. Aquinas also held that reason only takes us so far, and that revelation must take us the rest of the way, so you are in good company there. I think your point about pain, what it is that athiests are really objecting to, and the logical extension of their premise is very well laid out.

    Despite all of that, I think your argument starts to break down in the Garden of Eden. A couple questions:

    If Adam had no preference before eating the fruit (equally content to wash dishes or play basketball), then why did bother to disobey God, and risk death? If he had no preference, were all the his actions simply random and arbitrary expressions of his freedom? If so, how can God hold him accountable?

    Clearly, Adam and Eve gained some kind of “knowledge” they did not possess before the fall. But let me offer an alternative to why they felt the shame of nakedness. The “knowledge” that they gained was the distorted desires and corruption of a sinful nature. For the first time, Adam and Eve saw each other as objects to satisfy their own desires. They both knew it, and they knew each other knew it, and so they were ashamed as the other started leering at them. They’re new found “knowledge” distorted what was God’s intention for marriage and sexuality, and twisted it into the possession and objectification of the other.

    And so it goes with all the Capital Vices (not just lust). Emphasizing lust in the Biblical account makes this readily understandable to all of us, but really, when you get down to it, doesn’t ALL sins against our fellow man involve the objectification of the other, instead of the respect for the dignity with which man is created? The Bible says that not just man, but all of nature fell. The human soul was damaged, and even after baptism, we are left with the same sinful inclinations and desires of that fallen human spirit (what St. Augustine calls concupiscence).

    Great, thought provoking article though.

  9. MWS
    October 27, 2009 at 4:26 pm


    follow up to my last post:

    I think Adam and Eve already had knowledge of good and evil before the Fall. They lived in creation, which God said was good. They knew they were not to eat of the fruit, the partaking of which they knew was evil. They had an intimate relationship with God, which was good. And Adam had Eve, whom he thought was good. (funny, Eve never returned the compliment…..) The promise of such knowledge from the serpent (commonly interpreted to be Satan) was a lie, as Satan is the father of lies. The only thing Adam and Eve gained as a result of their sin was the experience of evil, and in that, man and nature fell.

    Atheists (like Alex over at Race) sometimes make the argument that what God created in Adam and Eve was a couple of blissful idiots. Thus, in their reading, Lucifer (the “light bearer”) is the hero, because at that point man really starts “living” and being a “thoughtful” and reflective being. In reality, they are buying into Lucifer’s lie as well. Adam and Eve HAD such knowledge BEFORE the Fall, they merely lacked the experience of evil.

  10. MWS
    October 27, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    Lucky Jack,

    Good comments. Looking specifically at the problem of blindness and trying to apply Matthew’s reasoning:

    If we were all blind, there would be no “blindness,” just “sightlessness” as you make the distinction. The reason we pity the blind is because we (or at least others) have sight. But if we were ALL sightless, would we experience the pain of sightlessness, since we wouldn’t know any better?

    Do we pity anyone who can’t fly? No. No human can fly (on their own). But if the ability to fly was the norm, and some poor child was born flightless, then we would consider flightlessness to be painful.

    The point of all this is NOT to minimize the real pain that many experience from blindness. The point is (as Matthew laid out) that our experience of what is painful is generally predicated on some standard of what should be. People should be able to see.

  11. October 27, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    Heh.. I’ve been starting replies, then realizing I missed the point again, for the last hour.. And now I have to go to work. So it’s time to admit, My brain hurts. I’ll try again later.

    Fun topic!

  1. October 26, 2009 at 10:58 pm

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