Over at The New York Times, Gary Gutting has an interview with philosopher Michael Ruse. It is part of a series on philosophy and religion. There are several interesting nuggets in the interview, but I just want to discuss this one:
G.G.: Do you think that evolution lends support to the atheistic argument from evil: that it makes no sense to think that an all-good, all-powerful God would have used so wasteful and brutal a process as evolution to create living things?
M.R.: Although in some philosophy of religion circles it is now thought that we can counter the argument from evil, I don’t think this is so. More than that, I don’t want it to be so. I don’t want an argument that convinces me that the death under the guillotine of Sophie Scholl (one of the leaders of the White Rose group opposed to the Nazis) or of Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen ultimately contributes to the greater good. If my eternal salvation depends on the deaths of these two young women, then forget it.
This said, I have never really thought that the pains brought on by the evolutionary process, in particular the struggle for survival and reproduction, much affect the Christian conception of God. For all of Voltaire’s devastating wit in “Candide,” I am a bit of a Leibnizian on these matters. If God is to do everything through unbroken law, and I can think of good theological reasons why this should be so, then pain and suffering are part of it all. Paradoxically and humorously I am with Dawkins here. He argues that the only way naturally you can get the design-like features of organisms — the hand and the eye — is through evolution by natural selection, brought on by the struggle. Other mechanisms just don’t work. So God is off the hook.
That first paragraph is pretty good! I agree completely that philosophers of religion have not been successful at defusing the problem of evil, and I also agree that there is something a bit tawdry about the whole enterprise of theodicy.
But that second paragraph is not correct. It is way too facile. And if you’re inclined to absolve Ruse on the grounds that this was just a short interview, then I invite you to consult his book Can A Darwinian Be A Christian?. He floats the same argument there, but is no less facile in his presentation.
First, we need to make a distinction between the logical and evidential forms of the argument from evil. The logical form of the argument asserts there is a contradiction entailed in believing both that God exists and evil exists. In this form, it takes only a single evil act to get the argument going, and the argument gains nothing in force from running up the tally of evil events. This form of the argument has had some powerful defenders over the years, and there are some strong arguments to make on its behalf, but most philosophers nowadays regard the argument as overly ambitious. I agree with that consensus.
The evidential argument claims merely that the massive quantities of evil and suffering in the world constitute strong evidence against the proposition that there is a just and loving God in charge of it all. This is a stronger argument in my view, since it places a far greater burden on the theist. Refuting the logical argument only requires the bare possibility of a reason for God permitting evil. That’s a mighty low hurdle. Defusing the evidential argument, by contrast, requires a compelling reason for God permitting evil, or perhaps a compelling reason why finite human beings are incapable in principle of understanding the reasons for evil. Here, theists have been entirely unsuccessful.
Once it is clear that we are talking about the evidential argument, we see that evolution plainly exacerbates the problem of evil. This was well-put by Philip Kitcher, in his book Living With Darwin:
Many people have been troubled by human suffering, and that of other sentient creatures, and have wondered how those pains are compatible with the designs of an all-powerful and loving God. Darwin’s account of the history of life greatly enlarges the scale on which suffering take place. Through millions of years, billions of animals experience vast amounts of pain, supposedly so that, after an enormous number of extinctions of entire species, on the tip of one twig of the evolutionary tree, there may emerge a species with the special properties that make us able to worship the Creator… Moreover, animal suffering isn’t incidental to the unfolding of life, but integral to it…Our conception of a providential Creator must suppose that He has constructed a shaggy-dog story, a history of life that consists of a three-billion year curtain-raiser to the main event, in which millions of sentient beings suffer, often acutely, and that suffering is not a by-product but constitutive of the script the Creator has chosen to write…Indeed, if we imagine a human observer presiding over a miniaturized version of the whole show, peering down on his “creation,” it is extremely hard to equip the face with a kindly expression.
Well said, though Betrand Russell said it even better in Religion and Science:
Religion, in our day, has accommodated itself to the doctrine of evolution, and has even derived new arguments from it. We are told that “through the ages one increasing purpose runs,” and that evolution is the unfolding of an idea which has been in the mind of God throughout. It appears that during those ages which so troubled Hugh Miller, when animals were torturing each other with ferocious horns and agonizing stings, Omnipotence was quietly waiting for the ultimate emergence of man, with his still more exquisite powers of torture and his far more widely diffused cruelty. Why the Creator should have preferred to reach His goal by a process, instead of going straight to it, these modern theologians do not tell us. Nor do they say much to allay our doubts as to the gloriousness of the consummation. It is difficult not to feel, as the boy did after being taught the alphabet, that it was not worth going through so much to get so little.
Indeed. It seems Russell experienced the same frustration as I have. Theologians, and philosophers like Ruse, like to toss off the possibility that God was for some reason constrained to create through a process of Darwinian evolution, but they seldom get around to telling us why. What are those good reasons for thinking that God had to do everything through unbroken law? The relentless suffering of the evolutionary process (not to mention the fact that evolution is hardly guaranteed to actually go anywhere) seems like a very good reason not to create in that way. And we know that God does not always feel constrained to act through unbroken law, since He is also said to perform miracles and answer prayers. So why must His creating be done through unbroken law, when his subsequent interactions with humanity are not so constrained?
Theologian John Haught has attempted to put meat on the bones of this idea. I will leave you with a quote from his book God After Darwin, just to show you the sort of argle-bargle you will encounter in seeking an answer to this question. I will leave it’s refutation as an exercise to the reader. (For the really curious, I give a fuller discussion in my book Among the Creationists.):
In fact, an evolutionary theology might agree…that the idea of an instantaneously complete creation is theologically unthinkable. Any universe that might conceivably burst into being fully formed could never have become truly differentiated from its creator. It would not have had the time or opportunity to become a world that stands out distinctly in dialogical relationship to God. Such a “world” would be a purely passive mirroring of the divine will. Indeed, it would not be a world at all, but instead an eternal dimension of God’s own being. A universe sculpted to finished perfection in the first instant of its existence would be frozen in place forever. It could not give rise to beings endowed with freedom or even with life, since by definition living and freedom-endowed organisms are inherently self-transcending realities whose very nature is to move beyond their present state of being.
I dare you to make sense out of that.