So you think that the existence of suffering proves that there is no God. But can I ask a question? How would you eliminate suffering? What would a world without suffering look like? You have free rein—make it any way you like.

Why don’t we start with something specific. People often cite the story told by the character Ivan in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: parents punished their little daughter for bedwetting by locking her in a frozen outhouse. Ivan cannot accept a God who would let that happen.

OK, how would you prevent it? Can you imagine a world where there is no child abuse? Not just that one awful case—there’s no point in stopping only one act of abuse. How would you stop child abuse entirely? Would you make it so that an angry parent could not think of any way to hurt a child?

Could a parent imagine striking a child, but be paralyzed and unable to raise an arm?

Could he strike at the child, but the blow would not land?

The blow would land, but the child would not feel it as painful?

Maybe you could make it so that parents could not get angry in the first place—how about that? Would that mean that no one, anywhere, could get angry? Why stop with parents?

(We’ll get to earthquakes and tsunamis later. One thing at a time.)

How about making it powerfully instinctive to protect children, but with some small room for evil people to do wrong? Child abuse would be so contrary to normal human nature that people would recoil in horror, as they do to Ivan’s story.

Wait—that’s the system we have now.

OK, let’s try something simpler. What about a boy who loves his dog? The dog grows old and sick. The boy is worried. Would you make it so that no beloved pet dies?

Or does a bittersweet thought arise that, even though such a loss is painful, it will help the boy grow in maturity and compassion? But you can’t allow that, really. We’re trying to make a world without suffering, not one where suffering has hidden meaning. Besides, if the boy is going to live in a world without suffering, he won’t ever need to feel compassion.

All right, the boy loves the dog, so you won’t let it die. What if the next year he discovers girls? Would you let the dog die then?

In a perfect world, would staying alive be based on whether someone loves you? Can you foresee that causing any kind of suffering?

What about dislike, in general? Racism, for example: would you eliminate it by making everyone look the same? Or would you eliminate our ability to notice differences? Or could we notice differences, but be unable to have negative thoughts? Would you create humans who love everybody and hate nobody, and have no choice about it?

You have to change something. The way things are now, there’s a lot of suffering.

Maybe you don’t expect to eliminate suffering entirely—you just want to set some limits. But there already are limits. A bad guy can’t kill you and dig you up and kill you again. He can’t kill children you haven’t had yet. Even if he holds you captive, your thoughts are still free. And scientists don’t struggle to cure that terrible disease where your skin suddenly melts away in the shower; there are lots of diseases that don’t exist.

There are limits, but you think they should be in different places. Let’s keep trying to do that.

OK, earthquakes. Would you have constructed the world some other way, without plate tectonics? Great! That was an easy one.

But if “Earthquake” was the worst kind of natural disaster, whatever was number two now automatically becomes number one--tidal waves, maybe, or volcanoes. People won’t be grateful for the non-existence of earthquakes, like they’re not grateful for the non-existence of Skin Melt Disease. As long as there are any natural disasters, something’s going to be worst.

And, yes, it’s unfair that some victims of disaster are miraculously saved, while others die. How do you want to make it fair? Nobody gets miracles, or everybody does?

Let’s just go ahead and eliminate all natural disasters, anything caused by changes in weather, earth, or sea. But even stuff that’s just sitting there can kill you. You can fall into a pool of water and drown.

Would you make it so that couldn’t happen? Would you do that by changing the nature of water, or changing the nature of lungs?

Maybe water would have a tough skin, so you’d hit the surface and bounce. But how would we drink it? Would you change the way our bodies take in water? Or maybe we wouldn’t need water? Would we need something else instead?

Don’t forget gravity. We’ve eliminated earthquakes, but what kills people in earthquakes is being crushed by things that fall on them.

Stuff can fall, even without an earthquake. Would you make it so gravity doesn’t pull things down on people? …No, that whole train of thought is problematic.