My last post has provoked a few replies. Especially the part about the problem of evil.
In my review of the new book by Giberson and Collins I was critical of their treatment of the problem. Michael Ruse, always classy, opens his response thusly:
Given that they are both committed Christians, as well as totally convinced that modern science is essentially right and good, the book is intended to defend Christianity against the critics who argue that science and religion are incompatible. Expectedly, it has got all of the junior New Atheists jumping with joyous ire, and all over the blogs are stern condemnations: “this is not a good book” “the authors’s [sic] frequently murky prose”; “I was struck by just how unserious they are on this issue.” You get the idea.
Those quotes come from my review, but I suppose it was asking too much that Ruse actually mention me by name. Apparently describing a pro-religion book as not good, or protesting that its prose is murky, is now a level of rhetoric vitriolic enough to get you dismissed as a New Atheist, if only a junior one. Of course, Ruse might have quoted the context surrounding those criticisms, since I rather clearly expressed regret that I found the book so inadequate and recommended a better book defending the same basic ideas. But that basic nod to fairness would have required conceding that I wasn’t just writing an angry screed.
Ruse’s criticism is especially rich considering that he next writes, “I am not about to defend Giberson and Collins…,” and after a paragraph complaining about some of the rhetoric directed at Collins, especially from Sam Harris, he continues, “In fact, my suspicion is that some of the Giberson-Collins arguments simply don’t work.” He singles out their argument that humans are the inevitable end product of evolution, which I only mentioned in passing, and argues, quite correctly, that their argument isn’t very good.
Evidently, then, Ruse also was not impressed by the book.
At any rate, my description of Giberson and Collins as “unserious” centered around their badly inadequate treatment of the problem of evil. I felt they had failed to consider some obvious counterpoints to their argument, as I explained at length. Ruse simply ignored what I wrote, and offers instead his own argument (different from the one offered by Giberson and Collins, incidentally):
Where I do want to defend Giberson and Collins is over the problem of evil. Let me say that I am not sure that the problem of evil — how could a loving, all powerful God allow evil — can be solved. I am with the chap in the Brothers Karamazov who said that even if everything is good in the end, the cost is not worth it. My salvation, Mother Teresa’s salvation, is not worth the agony of Anne Frank and her sister in Bergen-Belsen. It just isn’t. But I am not sure that biology, Darwinian evolutionary biology, exacerbates it.
After quoting Darwin, who plainly did think that the general awfulness of nature militated against a belief in God, and after writing a bit about free will Ruse continues:
In the case of physical evil, the dreadful earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, the traditional Christian answer, for all that Voltaire parodied it, is that of Leibniz — working by law results in good things and bad things, but overall the good outweighs the bad. God is constrained in what He does and in total He does the very best possible. Now of course there are questions about whether God had to create through law, although if He had not done so, it would be a very different world (and not arguably better) than the one we have now. For a start, He would have had to eliminate the thousands of pieces of evidence of evolution, or He would be a deceiver along the lines that Philip Gosse rather foolishly welcomed in the nineteenth century (on the grounds that God was testing our faith).
I’m afraid I don’t see how this makes any sense at all. Imagine the state of the universe at some moment shortly after evolution has produced modern human beings. God, presumably, could have created the world supernaturally in a state that was identical in every morally relevant way. That world would contain free human beings embedded within a natural world adequate for their needs. Had He done so we would have been spared the millions of years of evolutionary bloodsport that has horrified everyone who has ever considered it. That universe would differ from ours only in that it would lack that awful history, which seems to me a clear improvement over the world we have. There would be no evidence of evolution to erase because evolution would never have occurred.
Furthermore, the whole idea of “creating through law” needs to be clarified. Whatever you think God did, it seems clear that He did certain things supernaturally and allowed certain other things to unfold by natural law. The only question is the balance He employed. In Ruse’s version God’s moment of supernatural intervention ended with the Big Bang. My version simply has God fast-forwarding the tape and letting natural laws take over from a later stage. What theological purpose was served by Ruse’s scenario that would not be served by mine?
I would note, incidentally, that for most of Christian history people thought that humans were created supernaturally and instantaneously, without noticing, apparently, that such a notion was theologically problematic. Ruse, writing a short blog post, can be forgiven for not exploring these details. But if you would care to read his two books on this subject you will find that he provides scarcely more detail in either one of them.
But supposing that God did (and had to) create through law, then Richard Dawkins of all people offers a piece of candy to the Christian. Dawkins argues that the only physical way to get organic adaptation — the design-like nature of living beings — is through natural selection, that very painful mechanism that worried Darwin! Other mechanisms are either false (such as Lamarckism, the inheritance of acquired characteristics) or inadequate (such as saltationism, change by sudden jumps). In other words, although Darwinism does not speak to all cases of physical evil — the earthquakes — it does speak to the physical evil that it itself is supposed to bring on. It is Darwinism with suffering, or nothing.
Dawkins, of course, only argued that the alternatives to natural selection that had been proposed over the years were not adequate to the task of producing complex adaptations. He certainly was not discoursing on what sets of natural laws could exist in any logically possible world. To make his case Ruse must argue that it is logically impossible to have a system of natural laws that is, in even the slightest way, more benign that Darwinian natural selection. I can’t imagine how he will make that argument, but certainly Dawkins is very little help to him.
We’re on difficult ground here, since none of us has any experience in designing life-sustaining universes. But hypothesizing that God was logically required to employ Darwinism as His creative mechanism for achieving some worthy good, without further argument, is not at all a solution to the problem of evil. It is simply something you must take as axiomatic if traditional Christian faith is to survive what we have learned about natural history. If you can persuade yourself that it is true then go in peace. Just don’t be surprised that so many take the alternate route of thinking that traditional faith must be seriously adjusted, if not abandoned altogether, upon encountering the modern understanding of natural history.
As it happens, Ruse is not the only one writing about the problem of evil. Josh Rosenau takes a stab at it:
This idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god is pretty common, but the more I consider those three properties, the harder it is to see how anything could be all of those at once. And for the problem of evil to be a problem, it’s really important that we assume an omnibenevolent deity.
Consider: Stating than an omnipotent, omniscient deity is also omnibenevolent essentially restricts what that deity can do: it can’t do evil. Which creates several problems. First, it’s a restriction on what the deity can do, so now the deity isn’t omnipotent. Evil actions are like kryptonite for Superman or the color yellow for (Golden Age) Green Lantern. A god who isn’t completely omnipotent has far fewer problems with the problem of evil.
Really, Josh? You’re going there? You’re going to argue that there is a fundamental contradiction among the traditional attributes of God? Keep up like this and people will start thinking you’re a New Atheist.
Theologians have been at this long enough to have come up with ways of finessing the various apparent contradictions in the traditional attributes. Usually you end up in endless semantical disputes about what these words actually mean. Personally I have never understood how to reconcile God’s perfect foreknowledge with human free will. (The problem is that if God knows ahead of time that I will choose X over Y, and if it is logically impossible that God could be wrong, then it is logically impossible for me to choose Y when the situation arises. Then in what sense do I have a free choice?) I know that theologians have their answers to this, but I frankly don’t care enough to wade through the relevant literature. That is why I tend to avoid these sorts of arguments.
But I do think it is incorrect to claim that the problem of evil does not present itself unless we assume an omnibenevolent deity. Such an assumption only seems necessary if you are putting forth the logical problem of evil (that there is a logical contradiction entailed by the statements, “God exists” and “Evil exists”). The inductive argument (that evil is strong evidence against God) can get by with something less. God is often said to be perfectly just, for example, which is not the same thing as perfectly good but which would certainly make us wonder about what justice is exemplified by letting animals suffer simply as links in an evolutionary chain. We could also point to the sheer profligacy of evil and suffering in natural history and argue that any God presiding over this is not only not perfectly good, but is actually downright sinister. Recall David Hull’s famous statement:
Whatever the God implied by evolutionary theory and the data of natural
history may be like, He is not the Protestant God of waste not, want not.
He is also not a loving God who cares about His productions. He is not
even the awful God portrayed in the book of Job. The God of the
Galapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is
certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.
I would think that a theist might be willing to sacrifice omnibenevolence while not thinking he has thereby defused Hull’s observation.
John Wilkins has also weighed in. He writes:
How theists resolve this is to me beside the point; that they must is not. Evil exists, so if you believe in a “tri-omni” deity (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent), you had better find a reconciliation. I happen to think, as a matter of logic, there is none.
That sounds like he is endorsing the logical problem of evil, which is interesting, since that position is not very popular these days among philosophers of religion. Nowadays it is usually the inductive argument that philosophers defend, quite successfully in my view. The logical argument is generally thought to be overly ambitious.
More to the point, though, is this:
But now consider whether or not Darwinian evolution is incompatible with that kind of theism (there are many others that are not vulnerable to the PoE, in which gods are not one of the tri-omni kind), any more than anything else. For example, if we accept that the universe is not deterministic, and has some irreducible randomness in it, as modern physics appears to claim, then why is Darwinian evolution any more problematic than physics? If we accept the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, is God any more able to know the world than we are? And so forth. All of modern science presents a challenge to tri-omni deities. Hence, weather, subatomic physics, and even logic itself present limitations upon the tri-omni deity. Darwin is at best a local sideshow exemplifying this on the crust of one planet of the universe — essentially Darwinian evolution is almost none of the problem for theism, as it applies to a domain less than 1 part in 1.3 to the power of 41 of the universe, by my calculations.
Surely, though, this overlooks something. One traditional response to the problem of evil in Christendom has been that evil and suffering are the result of human sin. None of it was part of God’s good creation. I would think that one could understand the laws of physics perfectly without realizing that natural history has a long and bloody history that long predates the appearance of humanity. Such a person could reasonably think he has an adequate answer to the problem of evil, but this answer could not survive the acceptance of evolution.
That is what evolution contributes to the problem. It tells us that any proposed solution based entirely on human needs is not adequate. You can’t discount natural evil as the result of human sin, because natural evil long predates human sin. You can’t argue that natural evil is necessary for “soul-making” (as John Hick has argued) because natural evil long predates creatures with souls. You can’t argue that natural evil is necessary for humans to obtain moral knowledge (as Richard Swinburne has argued) because natural evil long predates the existence of moral agents. You might be able to tweak these arguments to account for evolution, but the fact that tweaking is necessary shows that evolution adds something to the problem.
There are other aspects of John’s argument that I find puzzling. One could easily argue that a lack of causal determinism, or things like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, are necessary for humans to have free will. I don’t know if that’s correct, but it’s certainly possible. The randomness of physics might then be necessary to provide for some human need, but I don’t see how that helps you account for the awfulness of the evolutionary process. You could have a universe with our laws of physics but where humans were created directly, and not by a long process. That universe does not have the same problem of evil that our universe has.
There is certainly a large literature devoted to devising specifically evolutionary theodicies, or, from the other side, arguing that no such theodicy is possible. If I am confused about what evolution contributes to the problem then at least I am in good company. In the end, though, it is just ncredible to me that people argue that the revelation that God created through a process of singular cruelty and awfulness contributes nothing at all to our understanding of the problem of evil.