Sunday, March 08, 2009

Theistic Evolution and the Problem of Evil

I'm finishing the chapter of my philosophy book on the problem of evil today, and one of the last things to do is a textbox on evolution and the problem of evil. I'd be delighted for any feedback you have to offer on this textbox.
Theistic Evolution and the Problem of Evil
One of the strengths of Augustine's free will theodicy is the way that it accounts for natural evil. Why is it that, in nature, the most vicious and cunning of animals tend to thrive, while the weak tend to get eaten? Why do the most virtuous of people get cancer, die in earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, and floods? The free will theodicy suggests all the apparent inequities of nature are a consequence of Adam's sin.

One of the challenges for a theistic evolutionist--someone who believes God has directed the process of evolution--is to account for these sorts of things. A theistic evolutionist might believe that an Adam existed, perhaps the first homo sapiens with a soul or the first human on whom God somehow imprinted his image. They might even believe that spiritual death entered the world through Adam's sin. But a theistic evolutionist will need to have millions of years of animal death, pain, and suffering long before Adam.

Some of the earliest objections by Christians to evolution did not derive so much from perceived conflicts with the Bible. For example, William Jennings Bryan, who argued against evolution in the famous 1925 Scope's Trial, opposed evolution because of what seemed to him its philosophical implications. Indeed, in the decades before Bryan, some of the richest and most powerful Americans subscribed to a kind of "social Darwinism."

Following Darwin's idea of the "survival of the fittest," they took their success as an indication that nature had "selected" them. And with this view came the corresponding sense that it was perfectly appropriate for them to ignore, run over, and in general "eat" any of the weak or less powerful who got in their way. We see this same philosophy in Adolph Hitler's approach to those he considered inferior, the ease with which he eliminated the infirm and those whom he thought corrupted the purer race.

If we assume that the evolutionary dynamics of nature are not a result of human sin or the sin of Satan, then would we have to conclude that God created the world with these dynamics? Did God create a world where the fittest survive, not from love of their neighbor, but precisely because they can beat their neighbor to the food or because a male can impregnate more females than his rival, perhaps including his rival's mate? To say the least, these considerations would invite some rethinking of what good and evil are, as well as of what it would mean to say that God is love. We will discuss some of these issues further in chapter 8, "Science and Faith."


Bob said...

Not got time for a long comment. But the idea that there can be no effect on creation because of Adam's sin, because creation - along with death, decay and the 'survival of the fittest etc - had existed long before man came on the scene is surely a logical fallacy. It assumes that God's interaction with time is of the same nature as our own, that God is time-bound, and such terms as 'before' and 'after' constrain God in the same way that they constrain us. The implication of Romans 8:20 is that the ripples of human sin spread throughout time to affect creation - spread, indeed, in all directions. It is not impossible for human sinfulness to impact creation, and to impact it both before and after the fact. At least worth a thought.

Ken Schenck said...

Very interesting, indeed ingenious. Have you come across this idea somewhere or is it your own?

circuitrider said...

The "millions of years' theory is probably the largest obstacle in trying to make the Bible fit into modern "science." When you use the Bible as the starting point of interpretation, everything fits. God could not have pronounced creation "very good" if there were millions of years of sin, suffering, death, and disease.Society thinks of man as basically good. As Wesleyans we believe that man is born a sinner in need of regeneration.Before sin we were all vegetarian from what I understand from Scripture. The fact that all creation groans shows us how devastating the effect of Adam's disobedience.As far as sin being presentbefore satan's fall, I'll leave that one to those more educated than myself.
I think the best explanation for the "Wild" side of animals is first, God allowed them to eat each other for food, lifting the vegetarian model.Secondly, some believe he put a fear of humans into them after spreading out from the Ark for their own protection.That's what I'm inclined to believe, but just an opinion...keith 1 Cor 13

::athada:: said...

Do theistic evolutionists (or Christians, for that matter) have to believe that "God has directed the process of evolution"? Is seems to be a bit of a contradiction: the natural mechanisms of evolution that a supernatural being "directed". Which to some might leave you with a God who interjects every so often (how often?) to keep it on course (how on course?).

Maybe this is just semantics, but it stuck out to me.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for pointing out the ambiguity, Adam. By directed I did not mean a Calvinist direction of every mutation, but occasional intervention at key points.

Bob said...

It's an approach that I find helpful at a number of points - salvation, which is eternal in the heart of God, present in my experience, and for which I still wait; the interval between death and resurrection, as I die 'in time' and am reborn in eternity. Sprang from a number of lectures given by my Theology tutor in college, Dr. Bruce Milne, so I wouldn't claim it as completely original.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

It seems to me that if we begin with a natural universe, such as our Founding Fathers understood, then we disengage the universe and a "superintending" God. Deism does support an "order and structure", but does not support a supernatural God. So, those who would support a "theistic evolutionary" theory, would also support sociological, and psychological "developments" in understanding social structures via science.

But, what about the natural universe and "god"? With quantum and string theory, as well as relativity, many are in a quandry as to how to describe God and the universe..."time" is an important dimension...

The quesiton on my mind today is, how can enforcement of morality be moral? Morality presupposes (at least in my mind), choice. But, it also presupposes a "way of interpreting morality"...Is specified behavior (morality) within a specific "culture" (social structure, i.e. government, family, denomination, religion) "trump" the ethical, meaning, the wider issues of morality...? At what point does one's commitment to "god" trump one's commitment to "man"? Or should man always come first, as a means to "god"?

I wrote about this more on my blog....Political/religious ideology that supports man's "bringing in the Kingdom" in responsible "stewardship" is similar to Shairh'is law, it seems to me. We are not in need of theological explaination, when the political ideological systems are attacking what the West has understood in modernity, reason.

Traditional faith is not based on reason, but faith apart from reason. Reason is based in the sceintific method, whereas, faith is based on religious texts, and "supernaturalistic "revelation" which support a "supernaturalistic God", as taught by the interpretive authority..(Pope, pastor, inman, witch doctor, tribal chief, monk, shaman, teacher, etc.). I am committed to reason.

Anonymous said...

I found it amusing that you used the male-impregnating-females as your illustration of evolutionary competition. It casts females in a passive role and limits male "strategy" to impregnation rather than ensuring his offspring survive to breed as well. Anyway, Studies of various primates show that females have strategies all their own.

Just reflecting on a point that jumped out at me. Perhaps in your book you can make sure you present a more nuanced portrait of evolutionary thought.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Scott. My intention is not to villify evolution but to engage genuinely with traditionally Christian concerns. I realize that for many who have either struggled through the question of evolution and faith, or those for whom it has never been an issue, such questions seem an indication of stupidity and backwardness.

But this is not the person I imagine will be reading this book. I suspect its readers will be strongly resistant to the idea of evolution. In that respect, even acknowledging that there are devout Christians who affirm theistic evolution will be broadening.

In any case, the question of men seemed to bring out the tension far better than that of women would have. It seems to bring out better the seeming contrast between evolutionary "morality" as it relates to the animal kingdom in contrast to Christian morality as it relates to husbands.

Jonathan Parsons said...

Oddly enough, I presented a paper that dealt with part of this topic at the WPS meeting last week!

Bob, I don't see how the discussion of time really helps that much here. I certainly don't see how discussing "God as being outside of time" helps at all. To assume "God is outside of time" implies a certain understanding of time itself--i.e., "space-time." However, if you hold a more metaphysical rather than physical understanding of time, then the logical conclusion must be that God DOES exist in time. This is an incredibly simplified version, but here is how I view time:
Time is the plane on which events take place and is also the distance between events. An event is defined as when any entity that exists either gains or loses a property. Anything that acts gains or loses properties, which is an event and events exist in time. Therefore, if God acts AT ALL, then God exists in time.

As far as the question of suffering is concerned, I don't think the question "why does suffering exist?" is the ultimate concern, but rather "will suffering be accounted for?" Traditional theodicies generally deal with moral criteria for how God can be justified for the existence of suffering, but why should the existence of suffering be understood as a moral issue only if we think about "natural suffering"? Personally, I am more in line with Kant when he states "nature has no moral compass." A prerequisite for moral action is rational action. Animals are not rational creatures, so how can animals be understood as moral creatures? God is a rational being and a moral being, but "being a moral being" involves acting towards other moral beings--i.e., an action is "moral or immoral" only when the recipient of the intended action is a moral entity as well. It is only because rational, moral agents exist that the natural realm can appear to in a "moral" way. How I see the Christian religion as fitting in here is in the fact that while we suffer now, we do not suffer in vain. This is for two reasons: God Himself becomes incarnate and experiences suffering and through His resurrection ultimately defeats death and suffering. God is the agent that steps into the natural realm of chaos to bring peace. God is the agent that creates the possibility of moral action in a realm that isn't even conducive for moral action. So, although we may live within a natural realm of suffering we have the hope that our suffering is not in vain. Logically we can ask the question "well, why did things HAVE to be this way rather than another way?" but ultimately I think that question misses the point. The fact of the matter is, this is the world we live in. The fact of the matter is, we can't take science hostage for the sake of a consistent theology. :)
The fact of the matter is, God did send His Son for the sake of reconciling all things to Himself so that justice will be completed.

Sorry for the lengthy response. :)

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Jonathan for helping me wrestle with this... I might add that RJS is wrestling with this over on Scot McKnight's blog this week also. I am very sympathetic to what she is trying to do. However, since we came across 1 Corinthians 15:21 today in Corinthians class, I can't agree with the attractive but apparently incorrect interpretation that would say he is only thinking of spiritual death entering the world through Adam.

Bob said...

Jonathan - I think you're assuming too much here. To exist above and beyond time does not exclude existing in time also. For example - a sphere exists 'in' two dimensions - as a circle. But it also transcends two dimensions. Those two things are not exclusive. Similarly, existing in time does not preclude existing beyond time. And just as existing in 3 dimensions as well as in two changes the distance between two points from a singular value to an infinite number of values, just so existing beyond time as well as in time changes the distance between two events from a single (signed) value to an infinite number of values.

Or so it seems to me...

::athada:: said...


The idea of the "ripple effect" of Adam's sin is intriguing. The issue of death and decay has been a big frustration as I've come to accept evolution. I had never heard of this suggestion before.

However, why wouldn't/couldn't God's restoration of all things, when heaven's arrival on earth, ripple backwards to now (let it be so)?

Jonathan Parsons said...

Bob, how you describe it now makes perfect sense to me. :) I think there is a difference between saying "God transcends time" and "God exists outside of time." I think--generally--people tend to think that God "exists outside of time" but somehow acts within time. THAT contention is something that I find problematic. Also, a metaphysical understanding of time is not concerned with dimensions but predication. Physical dimensions are not necessary for predication, but an understanding of "space-time" relies completely on physical properties.

Ken, again you make the rabbit hole deeper! :) I am probably the last person who should be discussing biblical interpretation and I agree that we need to include physical as well as spiritual death as being problematic. However, do we need to concede that general physical death entered the world due to Adam's sin or rather the noetic effects of physical death? "Death" for an animal is only the end of physiological processes, but "death" for human beings is something completely different. Rational creatures are the only type of creatures that can appreciate and cognize the psychological and emotional weight of physical death, so physical death is only problematic for those who can appreciate it. Personally, I have always wrestled with the understanding of how the end of a physiological process is the result of a spiritual problem. Spiritual death is the result of sin and it seems to me that the psychological, emotional and spiritual weight of physical death has a lot to do with the fact that we are spiritually corrupted. So, is it possible for us to consistently hold that death as the end of physiological processes is not "a result" of Adam, but rather the psychological, emotional and spiritual effects of physical death IS due to Adam's sin? Obviously Paul was not a psychologist or aesthetic philosopher, so if I am just way off here by all means . . . . :)

dopderbeck said...

Jonathan -- many TE's look to Moltmann's notion of kenosis in the creation. God knew that giving the creation some freedom would result in suffering, but he enters into that suffering in the incarnation. The incarnation is not "Plan B," but is part and parcel of God's plan for creation. This draws in many ways on how Athanasius and the early Fathers thought of creation and theosis. It also draws on Augustine's notion of evil as nothingness and the allowance of evil for a greater good. Check out a book by Daniel Harrell, "Nature's Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith."