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.

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12 thoughts on “Pascal’s Fire 3: Evolution, suffering, and omnipotence

  1. So what happens to heaven then? If the goods necessitate the evils, that makes it sound like we’re permanently stuck with both.

  2. Seems to me that a certain evil can be a causal precondition for a certain good without being a permanent feature, right? So, the evil associated with, say, the evolutionary process may result in the existence of creatures (us) who are capable of sharing God’s life in heaven without the associated evils being necessary at that point.

    Of course, there’s the question why God didn’t just create heaven populated with human beings straight away, i.e. why go through the messy process of evolving them (us)? But I guess that’s where we get into questions of what God could or couldn’t have done which I am not at all confident about trying to answer.

  3. Around 300 BC Epicurus was teaching that, through the random temporary clustering and subsequent dispersal of atoms, innumerable universes were constantly forming and dissolving. In The City of God, Augustine granted the possibility of innumerable universes, but he attributed them not to randomness but to the fertile imagination of God. Thence Leibniz more than a thousand years later.

    How could we ever distinguish between Epicurus’ self-organizing random universe and God’s decision to build a material version of a self-organizing random universe that already existed in his mind? Occam’s Razor suggests we stick with the more parsimonious Epicurian version.

    I’m no systematic theologian, but I’m not persuaded that it’s Biblical to regard the Fall as the cause of death and suffering throughout nature. Presumably the proof text is Romans 8:18-22. In Romans 8:20 Paul says that “the creation was subjected to futility.” Futility isn’t death; it’s pointlessness – cf. Ecclesiastes for the OT treatise on futility (“vanity” in the KJV). Then in v.21 Paul says that the creation “will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Corruption in the Bible can be physical, but it can also be moral. The creation will be freed from “corruption” to “glory;” i.e., from futility to magnificence, from worthlessness to something of great value. “For we know,” Paul continues, “that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth.” The creation isn’t suffering death throes; it’s suffering in the (thus far) futile effort to give birth to something glorious.

    Are there other Biblical passages stating more unambiguously that man’s sin caused death and suffering to occur in nature?

  4. So I posted a comment earlier today, and it shows up in the “leave your comment” section but not on the bottom of the main post. Let’s see if this one works better, or if there’s some sort of time zone delay between Europe and USA.

    Another brief thought while I’m here, related to my prior invisible post. The creation is “subject to futility,” says Paul; i.e., it’s pointless. Darwinian nature, and even human culture as an adaptive mechanism, are rudderless drifters heading nowhere in particular. Does redemption enable mankind to move in a direction; e.g, toward truth, beauty and justice rather than mere adaptability?

    Finally, here’s the “word verification” that this blog has assigned me to repeat in order to legitimize this comment: “iwpiated.” Can anyone tell me the theological significance of this term? Is iwpiation once for all, or can I become de-iwpiated through acts of reckless wilfullness?

  5. Very interesting post.

    If God chooses to actualize one of his possible worlds, and that world of necessity contains both good and evil, then God is ultimately responsible for bringing evil into existence, because (on the assumption God is absolutely free) God could have chosen not to actualize such a world.

    Many, if not most, theodicies are about absolving God of his responsibility for all evil. In my opinion, no theodicy succeeds at this. Given that evil exists, and assuming that God created the universe, then at the very least we know God created a universe that contains the potential for evil. Therein lies God’s responsibility.

    If I scatter mines on the surface of a field and then tell a group of children to go play in the field, “But don’t touch the mines,” there’s a chance those children will come out of the field unscathed.

    Should a child decide to handle a mine and perish, we could argue that the child is at fault for having ignored my order… or we could admit that I should never had scattered mines over the field to begin with. Ultimately, I am responsible for that child’s death.

    Kevin

    PS: I watched Robert Wright’s interview with Keith Ward over at Meaningoflife.tv, and found Ward quite intelligent and affable.

  6. I think it’s plausible that God brought evil into the world, not by leading us into temptation but by defining what shall be regarded as evil. The OT laws seem pretty random. You can always try to rationalize — pigs are dirty so they carry disease, God is protecting us from pig-borne pathogens, blah blah blah — but Yahweh made no such justifications. “This is clean; that, unclean.” By defining otherwise neutral acts as evil, God created evil.

    To create evil, however, isn’t to do evil. For all we know, after establishing the Law Yahweh never again ate pork in his life.

    Who defined death as evil? “The sting of death is sin,” says Paul (I Cor. 15:56) — not the other way around. “… and the power of sin is the Law,” Paul continues. Without the Law, which defines what God deems evil, there is no sin.

  7. Uncleaness is not evil or sin. Every one and everything is unclean at somepoint according to the laws in the Torah. Anyone who handles a corpse, gives birth, menstruates, or has sex is unclean for a while. Uncleaness is a fact of life, something that one is purified from

    And while I agree with you on your point K, it is a dangerous thing to base a theological point or a refutation of another theological point based on what word is used in English translation. There are thousands of them, all with their own theological agendas based largely on who they are marketed too.

  8. As to the preceding comments, it seems to me that the Law treats uncleanness as sin. E.g., Lev. 5:1-4 lumps together as offences an unwillingness to testify in court, the touching any unclean thing, and the swearing oaths. V. 5f: “So it shall be when he becomes guilty of one of these things, that he shall confess that in which he has sinned. He shall also bring his guilt offering to Yahweh for his sin which he has isinned.”

    This seems a consistent pattern in the Law: contact with the unclean is sinful. It’s also sinful to make inappropriate contact with clean things — e.g., drinking wine in the tabernacle (Lev. 10:9f). Unclean acts are sinful and require guilt offerings even if they’re performed unintentionally — Lev. 5:2,3,15).

    I think the Jews believed that the Law revealed the inherent uncleanness of things. According to this thinking, the Gentiles were under condemnation because they were ignorant of clean vs. unclean; consequently they sinned all the time without realizing it, and without ever making atonement via guilt offerings. This line of reasoning is, I think, dismissed in the New Testament.

    There is nothing intrinsically unclean about the things proscribed in the Law, hence there is nothing inherently sinful about having contact with them. Things are clean and unclean only because God declared them such specifically as part of the Mosaic covenant he made with the Jews. This whole mechanism linking the unclean to sin and guilt isn’t a revelation of universal truth; it’s a specific act of covenantal creation by Yahweh.

    There might be universally unclean acts inherent in the universe. More likely there are universal offenses of man against man and of man against God. But there are also intrinsically value-neutral acts that can be declared wrong by God. And it’s not all that easy to tell these two kinds of sin apart.

    In my opinion this is one of Nietzsche’s main points: moral standards aren’t objective; they’re relative to gods, rulers, and societies. But Nietzsche doesn’t want to abandon the distinction between good and evil; he wants us to acknowledge that defining good and evil is an act of creation. To an extent I believe Nietzsche is right about this. The Talmudic elaboration on the Law isn’t necessarily the revelation of eternal ethical truths; it might also legitimately be regarded as the collective creation of a bunch of rabbinic scholars.

    The ability to create legal and ethical systems is something we Judeo-Christians have always been good at. Maybe it’s part of being made in the image and likeness.

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