In Saturday's Globe and Mail, philosopher Michael Ruse has a positive review of the new book by Richard Dawkins: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Ruse concludes, "I hope you can [...] put your abilities to good use and read Richard Dawkins's wonderful new book."
Indeed, I'm looking forward to reading The Greatest Show on Earth, which has been on my must-read list since its publication a few weeks ago. It's nice to see Ruse giving Dawkins such a favourable review, since there has been an appearance of bad blood between them in recent years, but Ruse cannnot refrain (dare I say?) from having another crack at Dawkins' expressions of his well-known atheism. He explains one of Dawkins' points as follows:
Dawkins cannot refrain from having another crack at the evolution-is-cruel-and-hence-God-cannot-possibly-exist argument. Associated with this is a fairly detailed discussion of how often organisms are built on what Americans would call Rube Goldberg and the British would call Heath Robinson lines, that is to say cobbled together without regard for the niceties of fine design simply to get things working, probably in the most outlandish way possible. All of this apparently is taken to be a refutation of the God of Christianity.
Actually, it sounds like a pretty good refutation to me. Indeed, I've often put the same argument, and I'm far from the first to do so. The idea of a loving, providential, but all-powerful-and-knowing God seems pretty much coherent to me (though some philosophers doubt this), but it is very difficult to reconcile with the facts of the world made known to us by biological evolution.
In response, Ruse says:
To which I suspect Christians will respond: Whoever thought they needed Dawkins and evolution to tell them about any of this? The problem of evil goes back a long way before Darwin; this is not to say that it can be solved, but it is to say that evolution does not uniquely have an essential role in refuting Christianity.
But surely this misses the point. Ruse is correct that the Problem of Evil already existed prior to Darwin, but I doubt that Dawkins believes or states otherwise. In any event, it doesn't follow that biological evolution is irrelevant to the problem.
Arguments about the Problem of Evil, including attempts by religious apologists to solve it, are based, in part, on the facts we have about the world. They are also, of course, based on concepts of God. The idea is that a God of a certain kind would seem to have both the power and the motivation to act in ways that he has evidently not acted, given the facts about the world that are available to us. The better informed we are about the world, the better our discussion of this problem. But, as it happens, the more we know about life on Earth, including its history, the more intractable the Problem of Evil becomes and the more remote become the prospects of solving it satisfactorily.
To take just one obvious example, evolution knocks on the head the argument that evil and suffering (if these are distinguishable) were only brought into the world by Adam's fall from grace 6000 years ago (and can thus all be attributed to human free will). If a believer is going to rely on free will, assuming that the required concept of free will is coherent and plausible in any event, she will be forced into what may be an unpalatable position - perhaps developing a demonological defence in which the evil and suffering result from some rebellion against God by angelic beings billions of years ago.
The point isn't that there was no evidence against the existence of a benign creator before Darwin came along. I doubt that Richard Dawkins or any atheist thinks that. The point is that the totality of the evidence changes dramatically when you take evolution into account; when you do that, it becomes all the more likely that no loving and providential (yet all-knowing and all-powerful) God exists.
Although Ruse makes it clear that he is not a Christian, he offers his own pet theodicy:
Moreover, many Christians think that miraculous creation is simply not the way of the Lord. God is outside time and (as Saint Augustine argued) created by implanting seeds that would then develop naturally. Hence, on theological grounds, one has reason to think that God created through unbroken law, that is to say through evolution.
But why should we accept this as a satisfactory response? If God is all-powerful, he is quite capable of miraculous creation, and his existence outside of time does not remove this power (indeed, he could create the entirety of space-time from outside it). So the question remains, What could motivate a loving God to create through a process that foreseeably, to such a being, leads to all the suffering (not to mention design flaws, waste, etc.)? What Ruse says here is no more satisfactory than any of the other recent attempts to offer an answer to the evolution-enhanced Problem of Evil, such as the weak arguments that Andrew Sullivan has been making, and which Jason Rosenhouse has been tearing apart.
Ruse is not a Christian, but he has certainly become an arch-accommodationist of religious thinking. I see that his next book is to be entitled Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science; he says, doubtless accurately, that Richard Dawkins won't like it.
I can hardly wait.