The Problem of Pleasure

In my blog and previous book I’ve written about the problems of pain and suffering. They are major stumbling blocks to belief and have caused many earnest souls to question their faith or shed Christianity altogether. (Bart Ehrman comes to mind.)

In his book, Soul Survivor, Philip Yancey approaches the dilemma from the opposite direction:

It struck me, after reading my umpteenth book on the problem of pain that I have never even seen a book on “the problem of pleasure.” Nor have I met a philosopher who goes around shaking his or her head in perplexity over the question of why we experience pleasure. Yet it looms as a large question: the philosophical question, for atheists, to the problem of pain for Christians. On the issue of pleasure, Christians can breathe easier. A good and loving God would want his creatures to experience delight, joy and personal fulfillment. Christians start from that assumption and then look for ways to explain the origin of suffering. But should not atheists have an equal obligation to explain the origin of pleasure in a world of randomness and meaninglessness?

Citing G. K. Chesterton, Yancey claims that Christianity is the only reasonable explanation for pleasure. “Moments of pleasure are the remnants washed ashore from a shipwreck, bits of paradise extended through time.” In other words, God made us to enjoy life but sin messed things up.


Harmonic Resonance

Just as there’s something in us that recoils from suffering, there’s also something that resonates with pleasure. I don’t mean the excesses of hedonism but the small sips of life’s ambrosia: a child’s laugh, beautiful music, the touch of warm skin, variegated sunsets, a good night’s sleep, ocean waves, a well-turned phrase, fresh fruits (and the 10,000 taste buds to enjoy them).

Pain plays a vital role in the survival of the species, but what is the evolutionary purpose of pleasure? Procreation, yes; but why romantic love and superfluous orgasms? Preservation, yes; but why would a selfish gene waste resources on a conscious self?

The most basic question of all was succulently put by the philosopher Martin Heidegger: “Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?” Reason has no answer. Accept it or not, revelation has a simple one—because God willed it. This can never be scientifically proven, but as Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests: “Asking science to explain life and vital matters is equivalent to asking a grammarian to explain poetry.”

Perhaps pleasure is to life what poetry is to prose and implies an artist who creates for the sheer joy of sharing.

“The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful
and has no one to thank.” –G. K. Chesterton

7 thoughts on “The Problem of Pleasure

  1. If Reason’s answer to why there is something rather than nothing is “it just is”, what is Revelation’s answer to why there is God rather than no-God? Most atheists I know see these questions as more or less equivalent (despite the category difference between “existence” and “God”) and ask why their “it just is” answer to the existence question is considered invalid, while the theists answer “It just is” to the existence-of-God question is valid (and vice-versa for the theists). Atheists seem to despise Heidegger for precisely this question.

  2. I’m not so sure “Christians can breathe easier” on this issue of the “problem of pleasure” for isn’t it just this pleasure which leads one into “sin” and isn’t this “sin” the ultimate slap to God’s proverbial face? And brings his “wrath” upon the world! It would seem that a world in which God would be more pleased, would be a world with less pleasure, such that people were not tempted to indulge and/or participate in unsanctioned (read against God’s rules) pleasures.

    It is the world which contains these pleasures and it is this world in which the Bible instructs “do not love the world nor the things in it”. As for the most pleasurable of pleasures it seems, according to Jesus that angels do not have sex, and neither will anyone else come the resurrection. What has become of the pleasures so highly valued in this article to the Christian? The wages of death according to the Bible.

  3. Good point, Tracy. I think the questions are equivalent. There is a faith component–or a “we can’t know” component–to either answer.

  4. Mike, you asked, “Why would a selfish gene waste resources on a conscious self?” But perhaps you forgot to consider that the most numerous and widespread species are not very conscious, there’s the entire plant kingdom for starters, not to mention bacteria, fungi, amoeba, worms with only a couple hundred neurons in their “brains,” and limitless species of beetles and other insects. In fact it’s clear that the vast majority of species do not waste resources on a conscious self with flexible decision-making properties. In fact, the MOST conscious species only arose very late in the history of evolution and only among three groups of mammals: primates (apes & humans), cetacea (dolphins, whales), and elephants.

    Second, every step in the growth of conscious awareness in a species contains both advantages and drawbacks, per Timothy Anders:

    “The evolutionary process is not at all a perfect one and many traits created by it are not even adaptive. It is precisely because of this that we suffer from such unadaptive traits as back pain, fallen arches, impacted wisdom teeth, varicose veins, appendicitis, cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, schizophrenia, manic-depression, alcoholism, painful childbirth, and a host of other maladies which genetic evolution has created, but which natural selection has done nothing to eliminate.”Moreover, each evolutionary change tends to bring with it new forms of pain and suffering that had not existed before…”For example, sexuality is not absolutely superior to asexuality, and the evolution of the former has brought with it many forms of conflict and suffering that do not exist in organisms that reproduce without sex…”Sociality is not absolutely superior to solitary life, and its evolution has created new forms of competition and conflict that are less frequent, or even unknown among asocial animals…”Bipedalism [walking on two legs] is by no means absolutely superior to quadrupedalism [walking on four], and the evolution of a two-legged gait in Homo sapiens has brought with it countless adverse side effects…”Intelligence and behavioral flexibility are by no means absolutely superior to instinctive behavior, and their evolution had brought with it many forms of [intellectual angst and] emotional pain that are virtually unknown in the nonhuman world…”No animal has undergone more major changes during the course of its evolution than Homo Sapiens, and no animal has inherited a greater capacity for pain and suffering. With every evolutionary change we have sustained, we have discovered new ways to protect our genes and new ways to suffer for their benefit. With every passing generation, the aggregate price paid for their preservation has become dearer and dearer. And our genes – unlike us – remain blissfully ignorant of the staggering mass of suffering that has been endured for the sake of their perpetuation.”TIMOTHY ANDERS IN “THE ROOTS OF EVIL,” A SUB-SECTION IN THE EVOLUTION OF EVIL: AN INQUIRY INTO THE ULTIMATE ORIGINS OF HUMAN SUFFERING

  5. Thanks for commenting, Edward. I think what you say underscores my original point. Most species don’t develop consciousness, much less the ability to enjoy pleasure; these aren’t essential for existence. So why do humans have them? We certainly aren’t perfect physically, but the “aggregate price” we have paid to this point is offset by: self-awareness, intelligence, language, society, longevity, joy, pleasure, etc., albeit mixed with suffering, angst, moral evil and political parties.

  6. I have not read Yancey’s book, but I wonder two things: Does he consider the fact that many babies die of starvation or malaria before they ever get to experience pleasure? Others are born with horrible deformities or mental conditions that severely limit the pleasure they can experience in life. Still others have terrible accidents that prevent them from enjoying life much (if at all). I’m sure there are additional examples that have not yet come to my mind. Second, how does Yancey get from the existence of pleasure to Christianity being the only possible explanation? Would he argue that dogs can become Christians too because they also experience pleasure? And has he seriously considered all the thousands of other world views that have existed since the first humans developed them or all the additional ones that we’ll develop in the future? And what if we’re just a transitional species and not really the pinnacle of creation, and only the pinnacle will be “saved”? I fear Yancey assumes too much.

  7. Mike, One might as well ask why any species with highly specialized
    features develops them. An enlarged cerebrum and forebrain is a
    specialized feature in only three groups of mammalian species as I said,
    primates (including humans), cetacea, and elephants. The rest of our
    heritage such as our specialized glands and hormones that promote
    mammalian emotions, bonding, aggression, are shared by all mammals and
    even have earlier reptilian homologues. But as I said, you are only
    pointing your finger at one highly specialized feature found in three
    mammalian groupings. There are countless numbers of specializations in
    nature, and they arise AT THE COST of precursor species that did not
    have them. For instance, all the upright apes in the past that we know
    only from their fossils that had larger than average brain capacities
    when compared with those of living ape species, all of those ancient
    larger brained species are EXTINCT, including several known species of
    early human, all EXTINCT. Or take another specialization, the sonar of
    dolphin species is a further specialization that not all cetacea have.
    And there is some evidence and hypotheses as to the natural steps and
    stages by which it arose, we also have more evidence than ever before
    that the cetacea evolved from land-lubbing ancestors, now all EXTINCT.
    There is also one species of bedbug, the only one we know of, that will
    stab-rape a fellow male of its own species if the male is stab-raping
    the abdomen of a female bed bug. That’s a highly specialized behavior
    that no other species of bed-bug have yet been seen to engage in. And
    there’s the one species of beetle out of hundreds of cousin species,
    that can both produce explosive chemicals and also aim them at enemies.
    Related species can only shoot the chemicals out in no particular
    direction, mostly coating their own carapaces, and further cousins have
    the chambers and the chemicals but don’t mix them up or shoot them. So
    only a single species of such beetles ever evolved the highly
    specialized capacity to both mix the chemicals and shoot them in a
    direction they choose to shoot them. That’s as it should be, that’s
    natural selection, i.e., the most highly specialized anatomies and
    physiologies are not the rule, but the exception, just as the large
    brains of the three groups I mentioned are not the rule among mammals
    but the exception, neither did the earliest cetacea, nor the earliest
    elephants (having evolved from tapir-like ancestors), nor the earliest
    upright apes have the uniquely large brains that their present day
    descendants possess.

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