A World Without Pain

GAZAGRIEFMahmudHams:AFP:Getty This post on vegetarians opposed to genetically engineering pain-free animals is fascinating in itself. But you can't help but free associate to Jerry Coyne's assertion that suffering disproves God's existence. Pain in the physical world is actually a necessity for survival and hugely beneficial to society. Pain and suffering are not synonymous, of course, but they are obviously related (I think of suffering as the long-term, self-conscious experience of pain). Consider the case of Gabby Gingras, a girl born without the ability to feel pain:

"Pain teaches," said her mother, Trish Gingras. "Pain protects. Pain can save you from a lot of bad things in life." Gabby, who is 5, suffers from an extremely rare disorder called congenital insensitivity to pain. For unknown reasons, the connection between the nerves that sense pain and the brain's recognition of pain is missing. Her other sensory areas — touch, heat, vibration, and the ability to perceive movement — are normal.

Some of the complications this has caused:

Gabby can't tell when she's hurting herself.

"She started cutting teeth and she had bit down through the skin. She would have bit down to the bone had I let her. It was just chewed up," Trish Gingras said.

"We decided to pull her teeth because she was mutilating her fingers," Steve Gingras said.

Learning to walk just made Gabby more vulnerable. By the time she was 2½, she had been injured and hospitalized multiple times. At age 2, Gabby broke her jaw and didn't know it until infection caused a fever. To treat the infection, she had to be on an IV medication for six weeks.

Her eyes were especially at risk.

"You'd look away for one second, you'd look back and she'd have her fingers in her eye," Steve Gingras said. "You're watching your child go blind right in front of you."

Her desperate parents tried restraints and then goggles. But by the time Gabby was 4, she needed to have her left eye removed. Her right eye was also damaged, and she wears a lens over it to help her see better. Although Gabby is legally blind with 20/200 eyesight, she can still see shapes.

Maybe one can imagine a physical existence where pain does not exist. But not on this planet, where pain has helped organisms survive and prosper, and where suffering has often prodded humankind's spiritual dimension. This complex interaction between good and bad – captured graphically in the Gospels' Passion stories, where intense suffering is inextricably bound up with salvation – seems too much for the Coyne position. But it should not be too much for anyone capable of more than a sophomoric understanding of human experience.

(Photo: a Gazan child mourning the death of his father under Israeli assault last January. By Mahumd Hams/AFP/Getty.)