“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes, solemnly, as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”
I like the way Holmes sets up the problem. Either there’s a reason for suffering, or there isn’t. (There are no other possibilities.) So let’s consider the possibility that there is no reason for suffering. If that’s the case, then the universe is ruled by chance, and according to Holmes, this is unthinkable. If we keep in mind Holmes’s maxim “that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” (“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”), the only remaining possibility is that there’s a reason for suffering. Hence, even if the human intellect never finds an answer for suffering, we can be confident that there is an answer.
Proponents of the Argument from Evil will, of course, object. “I have no difficulty believing that the universe is governed by chance,” one will say. But I have to side with Holmes on this one. The fundamental constants of our universe were finely tuned for life, and even with a life-permitting universe, we still need a designer to create living organisms. Moreover, it can hardly be a coincidence that protons, neutrons, and electrons, when placed in a certain order, form living organisms. These properties can’t be for naught. Consciousness, our moral sensibility, our hunger and thirst for something beyond ourselves—all of this points not to chance, but to something divine.
But perhaps a skeptic will argue, “Well, even if there’s a reason for suffering, this doesn’t point to an all-powerful, wholly good God.” This is absolutely correct, and Holmes’s argument only serves to rule out the absurd, not to settle our minds on some positive conception of God. Nevertheless, Holmes also holds that we can know that
“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of
While I do not share Holmes’s optimism that natural theology can be built up “as an exact science,” he is correct to note that the world is filled with “extras.” We may add a million more examples of life’s embellishments—the beauty of the cosmos, the joy of friendships, a child’s smile. None of this was necessary for our existence, so it is all extra. This doesn’t prove that God is all-powerful or wholly good, but it is definitely consistent with such a view.