Questions on Pain, Numbers, and Knowledge

Questions on Pain, Numbers, and Knowledge

Dr. Craig takes questions from France, Sweden, and other parts of the world concerning the problem of pain, numbers, propositional knowledge, and answering atheist assertions.

Transcript Questions on Pain, Numbers, and Knowledge

KEVIN HARRIS: We get lots of letters, Dr. Craig, at You can always go to the Question and Answer section and look through the archives there. The chances are the question that might be on your mind has been addressed. This one says,

Dear Dr. Craig, Thank you for your ministry which has been a blessing to me in strengthening my Christian conviction. I am wondering if the problem of pain is coherent based on definitional grounds. Granted that there is pain in the universe, suppose it was eliminated. Atheists would no longer be able to argue that a loving God would not allow his creatures to experience pain. Pain would simply no longer be a part of the universe. But there would still be discomfort, and an atheist could argue that a loving God would not allow his creatures to suffer discomfort. If discomfort were eliminated from the universe, inconvenience would remain, and the atheist could still make the same argument about that. It would appear that pain is, therefore, just one species of unhappiness along with discomfort, inconvenience, boredom, and so on. It seems to me that the atheist has to say what is so different about pain relative to the other species of unhappiness. That is, the atheist has the obligation to define pain in a clear and distinct way. Further, the atheist would have to relate that distinction to what would be expected from a loving God.

Perhaps I have not read widely enough but I am not sure if atheists have done this. If the atheist cannot make the distinction then he or she seems committed to the argument that a loving God would never allow his creatures to experience unhappiness. That argument would seem to be more easily challenged. For example, it could be converted to the proposition that a loving God would always ensure that his creatures are happy. In such a situation, the Christian would be defending the proposition that a loving God would permit his creatures to suffer unhappiness. This seems to be easier as, for example, it would have less involvement of the emotional aspects of pain. Can you please tell me if this is a valid argument? --Malcolm

DR. CRAIG: This is a point that has occurred to me, and I think Malcolm has expressed it very well. Not only is it the fact that even if pain were eliminated you could still have things to complain about, but pain could be a lot worse than it is. As Richard Swinburne has pointed out, there is a kind of upper threshold to the pain that the human organism can experience and then we just blackout. It is not as though there is an infinite scale of pain that we might go through, as awful as it is. Pain could be a lot worse than it is. But then as Malcolm says if you eliminate pain there would still be grounds for complaint – discomfort. If you eliminate discomfort then there is inconvenience. In one sense, no matter where on the scale you are, the atheist could always have something to complain about and indict God for. I think that he is quite right in saying that it would be very difficult for the atheist to prove that if a loving God exists that he would always ensure that his creatures are happy. That would be to treat the creatures not as serious moral agents but as spoiled immature brats. I like the argument. I think it does help to put the problem of pain in perspective, and gives the atheist something to think about.

KEVIN HARRIS: Next question:

Dear Dr. Craig, I really appreciate your explanation of and distinction between showing verses knowing Christianity to be true. Having an external resource validate that my internal convictions can be correct despite my inability to convey a proper argument was a relief. That being said, I still value an airtight argument which can be difficult to form on spiritual matters which are unseen. When I enter into conversations with people who do not believe like me (that would be any non-Christian), I have difficulty balancing the fact that (1) there is reasonable evidence to support the faith and logic to support belief in Christ, and (2) knowing all which I proclaim to be true is unseen as of now and (2b) acknowledging that I do not know everything, objective knowledge is not attainable and that I am a finite being, and my beliefs are formed from subjective experiences. How do I enter into conversations valuing logic and respecting the pursuit of knowledge while holding the view that Christ is self-authenticating? I am especially interested since, as I know it, coming to see spiritual truths comes down to the position of the heart – that is, whether or not one is truly wanting to know God.

DR. CRAIG: I guess I just don't see the incompatibility that this person feels. It seems to me that you can have on the one hand reasonable evidence to support belief in Christ while also having the warrant that comes from the Holy Spirit. The reasonable evidence doesn't need to be certain nor does it need to be such that you know everything. He equates having objective knowledge with knowing everything. That surely is not correct. The evidence and arguments for Christianity can provide warrant for the belief of Christianity without providing certainty or without you knowing everything. That is not incompatible with having some other source of information for the same truths. This could be most clearly seen by imagining that you didn’t have that other source of warrant – that all you had was the argument and evidence. How would the value of the argument and evidence be affected by your not having this independent witness of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me it would be exactly the same – it would be unchanged. So having an additional warrant doesn't do anything to detract from the warrant that argument and evidence provides. It would just mean that the argument and evidence that you get is, as he says, that of a finite being. It is not going to be certainty. But that is not required for objective knowledge.

KEVIN HARRIS: The person says that they really appreciate and value airtight arguments, but those are kind of hard to come by.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. Maybe that is the assumption here – he is looking for knockdown argument, airtight arguments. You are not going to get those regardless of whether you believe there is an external or another warrant of the Holy Spirit or not. Apologetics doesn’t deal with knockdown arguments.

KEVIN HARRIS: I thought the ontological argument was airtight. [laughter]

DR. CRAIG: Well, it depends on whether you think the first premise is true which is something you can’t compel someone to agree with.

KEVIN HARRIS: The next question:

Dear Dr. Craig, It seems that if God existed he would have the power to give me propositional knowledge of his existence. But I have no such propositional knowledge. I only have arguments with varying degrees of certainty and probability. Why can’t God give me undeniable proof of his existence? Surely God would have the power to do that.

DR. CRAIG: Do you notice this is making exactly the same assumption about knowledge as the previous question. Arguments and evidence do give this person propositional knowledge. You don’t have to know the proposition with certainty in order to have knowledge. It is this false equation between certainty and knowledge that is at the root of this person’s difficulty. If he has good arguments for God’s existence that make the conclusion of the argument decently probable with respect to the evidence then it does give him propositional knowledge of God’s existence. The conclusion of the argument is a proposition, and the argument gives warrant for that proposition. So God has given him propositional knowledge of his existence.

What God has not given him is undeniable proof of his existence. He says God would surely have the power to do that. Well, maybe he would. I don’t know. But there is no need for God to provide undeniable proof of his existence. God knows what sort of proof is sufficient and what will lead to the greatest knowledge of God, and I think we can say God provides the right amount of evidence such that people whose hearts are properly disposed to seek God will find him and will come to propositional knowledge of his existence, but more than that to a personal knowledge of God as well.


Thank you Dr. Craig for all your marvelous work, and may the Eternal continue to bless you now and forever. I came to know you during a phase of deep research of the Lord when a basic Christian education was not sufficient anymore. God led me to your site where I find so many answers I was looking for for years. I followed all of your Defenders class and following your third row of it right now. I am even trying to implant some apologetics in my local church and deo volente will arrive for it.

DR. CRAIG: The letter is from a person in France. There are some infelicities in the expression, but it is clear enough.

KEVIN HARRIS: You speak French, Dr. Craig; I’ll get you to do some of this.

Let it be known that you have influence in France also. Evangelicals there are few (0.5 million against 65 million citizens, counting 10 million Muslims). That is a minority. Yet we do not abandon at all. At the contrary, a reformation is coming up and it passes by good theology and proper teachings. So, yes, the teachings of our Americans grands frères . . .

DR. CRAIG: Ah, our grands frères – our American “big brothers” – are very important, he says, to the French church. And I say praise God! What a humble and upbeat attitude for a fellow who finds himself in a tremendously secular society. Yet he is hoping for a new reformation. God bless him. That is wonderful.


Now to the point. As I said, I am following your Defenders class, third session.

DR. CRAIG: By that he means the third series of the Defenders lectures.


I just listened to your lecture about the challenge of Platonism. You seemed to be inclined for anti-realism of abstract objects which is a bizarre view for me. Here is why. Because of my sciences studies (Technological Bachelor – it is a French thing – in Physical Measurements) I can personally acknowledge with Galileo that mathematics is the language that God used for creation. The uncanny efficiency of mathematics is used by yourself as an argument for the existence of God. All our universe is conceived and can be described with numbers and mathematical objects. This fact is not only consistent with conceptualism, but rather demonstrating of the truth of this view. How then can we say that numbers and mathematical objects are just fictions made by men which accidentally work very, very efficiently. Did I miss something in my comprehension of anti-realism? May our God bless you over and over without end. --Stephen

DR. CRAIG: Thank you Stephen so much for this wonderful letter. I do think he is missing something. What he is missing is that the truth of mathematics doesn’t carry with it an ontology of mathematics. That is to say, you can believe that 2+3=5 without believing that there are objects designated by 2+3 and by 5, and that those are the same object. That is a metaphysical assumption that goes far beyond the affirmation of mathematical truth.

I am inclined to agree with him that there are mathematical truths and that mathematics is, as he says, the language of nature, and I do think this is a powerful argument for God’s existence. This fact is, as he says, consistent with conceptualism which is the view that mathematical objects are ideas either in human minds or more plausibly in God’s mind. They are ideas in the mind of God. But I don’t think that this demonstrates the truth of conceptualism. Conceptualism is one ontological alternative among many. I don’t think that the truth of mathematics requires that you be a conceptualist, though it is consistent with it.

The view is not that mathematics just accidentally works very, very efficiently. That is not the view I am defending. The view would be that there are objective mathematical truths, and this doesn’t require an ontology of mathematical objects anymore than, for example, to say that the truth “Wednesday is between Tuesday and Thursday” commits you to an ontology according to which Wednesdays exist – that there are objects called Wednesdays. When I say, “The faculty meeting is Wednesday,” I think that statement is true but that doesn’t commit you to the reality of an object designated by the word Wednesday. I would say the same thing about mathematical truths. They don’t carry an ontology with them. The question of the applicability and efficacy of mathematics is why is it that the world is discoverable through mathematics. I think the best answer is theism – God has created the world to have a physical structure that corresponds to the blueprint that he had in mind when he made the world. He has built the world on this mathematical structure. That is why pure mathematics is so useful in understanding the way the world works and describing the world.

KEVIN HARRIS: From Sweden:

Dear Dr. Craig, First thanks for your work. I am a Christian student from Sweden. I read your book On Guard and become encouraged to try to defend my belief in God. On a blog I wrote about the kalam argument and got an answer from an atheist that I don’t know how to answer. I’ve tried to find an answer on but have been struggling. My English is not very good; please excuse me for that.

The atheist wrote, “Everything that exists must be manifested physically in any form. It does not matter if it exists outside the universe. Physics is not limited to the universe. If there is something outside the universe like a Creator God maybe it consists of tomar instead of atoms or of kaverks instead of quarks or phitons instead of photons. It must consist of something otherwise it does not exist. Seemingly abstract things like thoughts and ideas are also physically in our minds or written down on paper. That a Creator God can exist as a consciousness without to exist physically is just waffle. So to exist is to be manifested physically thus a Creator God must be physical before it can create. Thus it has either (1) always existed or (2) been created out of nothing or of something else. Whatever the option then the same can be said about the universe and therefore creates God only a regression and no solution to the problem of how something can exist. That an omnipotent Creator God must have come from nothing is even more amazing than that dead matter come from nothing. Of two unlikely options, you choose the most improbable. God exists only as a castle in the air but something more has not been demonstrated.” Before the atheist wrote this I tried to explain the kalam argument, and that if you agree with the first two premises you then can analyze what properties the first cause must have. Then I wrote as a summary, “Thus if everything physical has a cause, the first reason must be non-physical and non-caused.” Maybe my summary was wrong. So my questions are: How can I answer the atheist? Was my summary wrong? If I argue with “something cannot come from nothing,” what does God’s mind come from? Please try to answer despite my ambiguity and messiness. Any help would be much appreciated. --Simon

DR. CRAIG: Simon, I really commend him for really making the effort here to grapple with these ideas and share them with a non-believer. It is very evident that this atheist is just a materialist. He is just a physicalist. He says everything that exists must exist physically – it must consist of something otherwise it doesn’t exist. That needs to be proved. He is making a blanket assertion that there are no immaterial realities. That is just to assume that God does not exist. He is assuming the truth of materialism. This is not really any sort of objection – it is not an argument. It is just an opposing metaphysical point of view. Simon’s atheist friend needs to now give him some good argument to think this is true because Simon has given an argument that I think very plausibly shows that there is an immaterial reality! The idea that there can be physics that is not limited to the universe is science fiction. There is no physics that isn’t applicable to the universe unless you are talking about, say, a multiverse proposal where you have a physical reality outside our limited universe. But that whole thing is still, in a sense, “the universe.” So I don’t think this is a very challenging argument or objection that has been raised. It is just an assertion of an opposing point of view.

In answer to his questions, to take them in reverse order: “If I argue with ‘something cannot come from nothing,’ what does God’s mind come from?” God’s mind doesn’t come from anywhere. God exists eternally which means either timelessly or from eternity past, but he doesn’t come from anywhere. That is why God doesn’t need a cause. He didn’t come into being.

Secondly he says, “Was my summary wrong?” I don’t think he summarizes the kalam argument adequately. He says, “Thus if everything physical has a cause, the first reason must be non-physical and non-caused.” I agree with that statement, but that is not the summary of the kalam argument. But I think that is true that anything physical has a cause because the universe began to exist. The physical universe is not eternal. It began to exist and so there has to be a transcendent cause beyond the universe, beyond space and time, which is therefore immaterial and non-physical. So the kalam argument is really an argument against materialism. You can’t refute the argument just by asserting the truth of materialism because that is the thing that is under attack – that is at issue. It would beg the question to just assert materialism.

Question number one: “How can I answer the atheist?” What you point out to him is that he is not offering an argument against your view, he has just asserted the truth of materialism, and it is precisely that which you are challenging.

KEVIN HARRIS: When the physicalist – the materialist – said thoughts and ideas in the brain are physical, that just assumes rather than showing that it could be interaction.

DR. CRAIG: Exactly. I didn’t even make that point but this assumes a kind of crude physical reductionism according to which my idea of Pegasus is somehow a physical thing in my brain which is just ridiculous because they have different properties. An idea, for example, is clear or confused but a neuron is not clear or confused. It has spatial location and a weight and a mass; the idea of the number 2 doesn’t have those kinds of things. So this kind of crude physical reductionism, I think, is really very implausible. But wholly apart from that, the atheist in this case is just making assertions.

I think there is a general lesson that I would like our listeners to draw from this. I very often get questions where the person will say, “What should I say to this objection?” When you read the objection, the objection is not an argument. It is just the assertion of a contrary point of view. It will be just the assertion of materialism or the assertion of relativism or the assertion of nihilism. People need to understand – those aren’t arguments. They are merely the statement of the contrary position. If you’ve given a good argument, it is not refuted by the person simply asserting the contradictory of your conclusion.