Pascal’s Fire 3: Evolution, suffering, and omnipotence
Ward takes the theory of evolution as established, at least in its main outlines, but he does question some of the interpretations often given of evolution, especially by “evangelical atheists” like Richard Dawkins. While it’s possible to see evolution as simply an interplay of randomness and the pressures of survivial, it’s also possible, he thinks, to discern some kind of tendency toward greater complexity, toward consciousness and intelligence. For one thing, it’s now believed that if the values of ceratin fundamental constituents of the universe, such as the strong and weak nuclear forces, were even slightly different the emergence of life as we know it, much less intelligent life, would’ve probably been impossible. The universe starts to look like it was “fine-tuned” to allow for the emergence of beings very much like ourselves.
So likewise in the case of the evolution of life on Earth. Ward suggests that there are reasons for thinking that consciousness and intelligence describe an evolutionary “niche” that tendencies inherent in the structure of the universe will seek to fill. That is, “given suitable sorts of progressive genetic change, there will be some organisms that climb to fill the ecological space available for intelligent agents” (p. 65). If this is right, then it wouldn’t be such a vast leap of speculation to think that a supremely intelligent creator might intend the evolutionary process to create finite personal beings who can appreciate the intelligibility and beauty of the universe, and, perhaps, enter into relationships with the creator.
Of course, evolution presents its own set of problems. One is that the process of evolution, with its competitive, frequently bloody, struggle for survival is incompatible with the purposes of a benevolent or loving God. The other is that a slow evolutionary development of life and humankind in particular seems to contradict the Christian doctrine of the fall from a paradisical state. According to evolutionary doctrine, death and suffering long preceded the existence of humans and, in fact, are an inextricable part of the very process by which living things came to be. This doesn’t necessarily rule out a historical fall of human beings into sin, but it does seem to rule out the idea that death and suffering as such are consequences of humankind’s fall (barring backwards causation!).
Ward’s solution is to invoke a kind of Leibnizian account of the creation of the word. The basic idea here is that there is a multiplicity (perhaps an infinity) of “possible worlds” which exists in the divine mind. God chooses which world (or worlds) to actualize. But each world comes as a package deal, so to speak. For God to choose to create a world that contains creatures like us, for instance, would seem to entail choosing to create a world that contained the processes necessary to bring us into being, namely the evolutionary process in all its messiness. We may think we can imagine a world that contained creatures like us which didn’t contain a process that allowed for suffering and death, but Ward cautions that we should be skeptical about this. The various parts of the universe, as we’ve seen, are interconnected at a very fundamental level, and it’s far from clear that you can have one part without its concommitants. If God wants to create a universe which is relatively self-organizing and which gives rise to intelligent life from its own internal resources, then God may have no choice but to create a world with a ceratin amount of suffering. “[I]f God opts for a law-like universe, it is impossible for God to determine everything for the best” (p. 67).
But, it may be objected, is God not omnipotent? Can God not do absolutely anything God wants? I think that is far too antrhopomorphic a view of God. We imagine a being that can do absolutely anything – like creating a universe of conscious physical beings evolving by natural selection without any pain at all – and presume that such a being could really exist. But how could we know this? We have no idea what a supremely intelligent mind would be like and what constraints there might be on what it could do.
We can say that God is omnipotent, if we mean that there is no possible power greater than that of God, and all power derives from the being of God. Such a being would be the most powerful being there could ever be, and there could be no power that could oppose it or destroy it. What more could we want? Yet such omnipotence might not be able to change absolutely anything. It could not, for example, change its own essential nature, and in that nature are rooted all the interconnected possibilities of being that are necessarily what they are. (p. 73)
In other words, if God chooses to actualize a particular kind of world, then there may be certain attendant evils which are inextricable parts of that world. I think there are a few premises that it might help to identify in order to get a better look at Ward’s argument here:
(1) All possible worlds are necessarily what they are.
(2) At least some of the evils contained in some possible worlds are necessarily connected with certain goods contained in those worlds.
(3) God cannot, without constant miraculous intervention, actualize the goods of a possible world without actualizing its attendant evils.
(4) God has sufficient reasons for actualizing a world (or worlds) which generally follows law-like patterns without intervening constantly to counteract or prevent the evils it contains.
So, God would be justified in actualizing a world containing certain evils in order to actualize certain goods for which those evils are necessary preconditions.
(1) seems true, indeed necessarily so. (2) is plausible given what we know about evolution and the conditions which were necessary to give rise to creatures like us. (3) seems to follow given (1) and (2); if certain evils are necessary preconditions for the existence of certain goods, then the only way to acheive those goods in that particular world would be by miraculous intervention. (4) is more difficult to assess. I take it that a world which unfolded according to certain law-like patterns and contained its own immanent principles that allowed life to develop is a good thing, but it’s hard to know if it is such a great good that it outweighs the evils which could presumably have been prevented by miraculous intervention. Of course, this is a problem for any thestic view, not just an evolutionary one. All theists are faced with the question of why God doesn’t miraculously intervene to prevent evil. Of course, Christians believe God has done something to decisively deal with evil, but that this act doesn’t have the shape or character we would expect.
However, that doesn’t justify the existence of evil in the first place unless we allow that the good of a law-like, relatively autonomous universe which gives rise to intelligent conscious beings outweighs the evils associated with the process of evolution. The traditional Christian view had a ready response to this: the world as God originally created it was without suffering or death, but sin, either committed by humans or by fallen angelic beings, disrupted the harmony of the universe, causing suffering and death to enter into the world. Thus, evil isn’t God’s fault, but the fault of intelligent beings misuse of their freedom (See here for a related discussion).
Needless to say, this seems implausible to many people in light of what we think we know about the evolutionary process, as I mentioned. Physical evil certainly predates the existence of human beings, and unless we’re willing to posit angelic sin as the cause of suffering and death in the physical world, it seems like we’re forced to conclude that they are constituent parts of a universe that gives rise to beings like us. But this leaves unanswered the question why God would prefer a universe that acted according to law-like regularities which produced suffering and death instead of intervening.
One possible solution might be to say something like this: If God chose to actualize a particular world but then intervened miraculously to counteract every instance of evil contained in that world, then God wouldn’t, in fact, be choosing to actualize that world. God would be choosing to actualize some very different world. And if the causal powers of the beings in that world were routinely interfered with and not allowed to produce their natural consequences, they wouldn’t have existence in the fullest sense, but some kind of phantom existence. In choosing to create a world, God allows something to come into existence that has a relative autonomy, so maybe it would go against the nature of that act of creation to be constantly intervening to counteract its natural consequences.
Still, Christians may be uneasy with accepting natural evil as a fundamental aspect of created reality. Even if we don’t read the opening chapters of Genesis as a literal historical account of the creation of the world, many Christians want to affirm that creation as originally made was characterized by a primordial peace and that death and suffering are accidental, not essential, features of creation. To accept Ward’s account would require reinterpreting the creation account as, perhaps, indicating God’s intentions for what creation will be after a period of development and/or in its consummated state in the eschatological age, rather than a picture of what creation was once upon a time.