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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, February 25, 2008

Ayala's Darwin's Gift

I've just sent Cosmos magazine a review of Francisco J. Ayala's new book, Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion. Ayala considers the theory of biological evolution to be a gift not only to our scientific understanding of the world, in explaining what appears to be the design of living organisms, but also to theology, since it explains how the clumsy mechanisms of adaptation have led to natural evils, such as the cruelty and misery that we frequently observe in the animal world and examples of just plain poor functional design. Ayala thinks that evolution lets God off the hook, since it entails that the world was not specifically designed by a being that intended such natural evils as deliberate features. God is allowed to be at arm's length from the outcomes of His creation.

Can anyone spot what's obviously wrong with this? Bear in mind that the Abrahamic God is supposedly omnipotent and ommiscient, as well as benevolent (and hence, one might assume along with Ayala, not the sort of being that would want such evils to come about).


Blake Stacey said...


[shakes head]

[blinks again]

Say what? How can Ayala possibly claim that a process which requires suffering is compatible with a loving god? Natural selection requires that organisms die. Those which have any degree of intelligence, emotion and sensitivity to pain will, hey presto, suffer on their way to death. It's like taking the Problem of Evil and multiplying it by Deep Time.

Russell Blackford said...

It does seem odd that an all-powerful, all-knowing God wouldn't

(a) foresee the horrible consequences of using such a clumsy method, and

(b) use its unlimited power to design a universe without all the foreseen natural evils

I don't go into this in the review, but even if there are no truths about the future, as some theologians apparently think, such a God could work out from first principles that allowing a Darwinian process to take place would be a recipe for suffering and other bad stuff to happen.

So why would a benevolent God not simply create a universe that it has specifically designed, with no engineering flaws, no need for suffering, etc., etc.?

I'm afraid that defenders of God's ways are really going to be stuck, like it or not, with the claim that God's goodness does not consist in the kind of benevolence that's implied here ... that there is something that God values more than having a universe without suffering. For me at least, that's a pretty disconcerting idea.

Blake Stacey said...

The irony is that I could almost see the Old Testament God coming up with a thing like natural selection. Visiting pain upon a body's descendants unto the Nth generation is right up His alley.

And Yahweh Elohim said unto the woman, because of this thing thou hast done, thou art cursed to live in pain, to bring forth children in pain and sorrow, to watch them die ere they can tell the good from the evil;

Yea, and thy children shall bring forth children in pain and sorrow, for as many generations as shine stars in the firmament;

And the children of Man and Woman which by the draw of the lot are best fit to scape the thistles and thorns of the land, they shall survive,

while the rest shall return to dust, their seed never to sprout.

Russell Blackford said...

The other that's kind of neat is that the imperfection that really seems to rile Ayala -and which cannot possibly be God's deliberate design - is that so many spontaneous abortions take place - ending, as he reports, about 20 per cent of pregnancies during the first two months.

"I shudder in terror," he says, "at the thought that some people of faith implicitly attribute this calamity to God's faulty design."

Anonymous said...

Hi Russell

"Can anyone spot what's obviously wrong with this?"

I honestly have no idea what he is arguing so I can't say identify his obvious mistakes just that they're obviously there. Is this some sort of free will defence, or process theology or what?

Incidentally I am trying over on Brian's blog to argue I can remain agnostic in the face of evolution - needless to say it didn't occur to me to say that evolution itself was a justification for evil.

Brian said...

Incidentally I am trying over on Brian's blog to argue I can remain agnostic in the face of evolution
And I'm here at Russell's blog trying to find some clever bit of reasoning to deploy against Thomas, Coathangrr and Lee. Damn philosophy and it's intricacies.

I just can't see, how a purposeless, profligately wasteful process that requires many die at the expense of the (relative) few can be seen as the handiwork of a 3O god. Reminds of what that Epicurus guy said:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

A 3O god would know that evolution will lead to pain and suffering, and yet does nothing. Not to mention the problems he'd have in arriving at humans due to the inherent purposelessness of evolution. A theologian would probably give god a deistic spin and say he knew all along that evolution would lead to man, and the suffering was just required in the best of all possible world that could lead to a sentient being with the free will to embrace his all loving god who really only wants a hug from his tortured, imperfect creation. Either god or I need counselling..... :P

Russell Blackford said...

I don't see how evolution even prevents you from being a theist, much less an agnostic, though I think it does tend to undermine providentialism. Someone who believes in a providential God is going to have some explaining to do about why He uses such indirect and wasteful, etc., means but, I mean, there's no logical incompatibility.

Yeah, it seems crazy using evolution as itself a justification for evil - or of God, in the face of certain natural evils. I had in mind the sorts of problems that Blake and I are discussing.

Russell Blackford said...

Ah, Brian, I see - you're running a problem of evil line. I basically agree with that.

The only "out" that I see for Abrahamists is that God is not actually all-benevolent. He is all-good, but His goodness does not consist in all-benevolence (though he might be quite benevolent as well). E.g., it might turn out that some things are so valuable that a good God would bring them about even though they require suffering - perhaps the instanciation in the world of certain kinds of virtue.

I don't believe this - it seems desperate to me - but I see no logical inconsistency in it.

Brian said...

I don't believe this - it seems desperate to me - but I see no logical inconsistency in it.

It's logically inconsistent with omni benevolence. Except for very low values of omni benevolence I suppose. :) Sort of super-benevolence or just plain benevolent. But omni?

Blake Stacey said...

My favorite "solution" to the 3O problem is that we're living in the scratch-work which a 3O god used to figure out how to make a world without suffering. See, God used His omni-powers to imagine a world with certain properties and then deduce that those properties would lead to pain and anguish, but God's imagination is so powerful that It predicted the trajectory of every single atom in the universe, and consciousness emerged from the interactions of those imaginary atoms.

We're all agents in the beta release of the Matrix, man!

Brian said...

We're all agents in the beta release of the Matrix, man!
Isn't that verging on gnostic? Meta-worlds, beta-worlds. Heretic.

Russell Blackford said...

Brian, that's why I said that on this scenario God's all-goodness does not consist in omnibenevolence. I'm not sure that the God of the orthodox Abrahamic theologians necessarily has to be all-benevolent, just all-good (whatever that might amount to).

I find it a disturbing scenario, but I think it's what a lot of theodicists are, in effect, saying.

Of course it doesn't help Ayala at all, but we've let that topic a long way behind by now.

Brian said...

Sorry for derailing your thread. I'll sneak back to my blog for some derailing.

But first:
I find it a disturbing scenario, but I think it's what a lot of theodicists are, in effect, saying.
I find it illogical that an immutable god keeps mutating. Perhaps that's one god's mysteries.

Russell Blackford said...

Not at all - derail away! Ayala is, after all, trying to use biological evolution to solve the Problem of Evil, so it's all relevant. I just couldn't believe that he'd leave such a point as the one Blake and I are raising unaddressed.

Of course, if we do count the things he's talking about as evils (and I'd count at least some of them), he does have a point to this extent: his Creationist and ID-iotic opponents do actually have to explain why a providential God specifically designed the world to have these evils in it. I can kind of see how that could be even more distasteful to an Abrahamic theologian than accepting that life as we know it evolved through a long messy process, and arguing that the situation that's come about is somehow not God's will (but how could a God that hand's-off be considered a providential one, even apart from the question of why a benevolent deity wouldn't have kept things more under control?).

Brian said...

Totally off-topic but anyway.
Russell, this article might interest you:

I wonder how the mad mullahs will take it?

Russell Blackford said...

Fascinating! I'll see if I can find out more.

Anonymous said...

Well said. I'd love to see the whole review.