Evolutionary Theodicies

We have dealt in a number of posts about the problem of evil as it related to evolution. We mentioned how a literal reading of garden of eden story is principally motivated by an attempt at theodicy. Thankfully, Mormonism is not commited to such a reading (in fact I would argue that such a reading goes against Mormon doctrine) so the abolishment of such a reading by evolution presented little problem.

There is another problem which arises concerning the problem of evil as it relates to evolution. Namely, why in the world would an all-powerful God use such a drawn out, wasteful and inaccurate process as evolution to create life for us? This seems to fly in the face of everything we believe about God. It is basically to take the differences which Joseph Smith established between the Mormon God and the traditional Christian view of God and amplify them to the point of caricature. Not only did God create the world out of preexisting materials in accordance with natural law, but He took 4.55 billion years to do it, allowed 99.9% of all species to have gone exict and even so ended up with a product which has numerous and obvious short comings. If this doesn't put the problem of natural evil in prespective, I don't know what does.

Miller attempts to address this and similar issues toward the end of his book. It would do us well to carefully consider his way out of such a conundrum and how these argument might work in a Mormon context.

We should here mention that this is a place where the distinction between creating us through evolution and creating us in accordance with evolution. Creating us through evolution seems to suggest that evolution is in some respect God and a manifestation of His power. This puts all the bad side-effects associated with evolution squarely on His shoulders; not only does He not prevent the evils of evolution but He causes them under this reading. Luckily, God does create us through evolution. Carl Sagan put it nicely when he said that such a God would be "emotionally unsatisfying... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity."

Miller discusses how God sometimes takes a hand's off approach to us here on earth. We can't and don't blame Him for most if not all human evil's. Adam's fall, the holocaust and so on are not God's fault, but are Adam's and Hitler's fault respectively. This is called the free will theodicy, which basically says that God doesn't interfere in our actions out of a respect for our free-will. He could intervene, but not without accomplishing the greater good.

Fair enough. But can we extend this theodicy of human evil to cover natural evil as well? Most would seriously doubt it, but this is exactly what Miller tries to do.
Obviously, few religious people find it problematic that their own personal existence might not have been preordained of God, that they might not be here but for the decisions of their parents or the chance events that brought them together. But strangely, some of the very same people find it inconceivable that the biological existence of our species could have been subject to exactly the same forces. If we can see God's will in the flow of history and the circumstances of our daily lives, we can certainly see it in the currents of natural history. (239)

Miller starts to get into some deep water here. First of all, many people DO think that their personal existence is preordained. Second, those who do realize that contradiction between the contingency of free will and absolute foreknowledge only limit God's foreknowledge only in as much as it contradicts free will. Remember, one desirable trait is being sacrificed for an apparently more valuable trait. Finally, there is no apparantly more valuable trait to be gained in limiting God's foreknowledge before any beings with free will existed on this earth. He has really gotten himself into trouble here for he is sacrificing God's foreknowledge and absolute power without anything in return.

He then goes on to bring this calling into question of God's power really into focus by quoting Gould thusly:
The real enigma... surrounds the origin and early history of animals. If life had always been hankering to reach a pinnacle of expression as the animal kingdom, then organic history seemed to be in no hurry to initiate this ultimate phase. About five sixth's of life's history had passed before animals made their first appearance in the fossil record some 600 million years ago. (243)

Given these views, it becomes difficult to believe Miller when he says, "By any reasonable analysis, evolution does nothing to distance or to weaken the power of God." Nice try. The power of the God of ethical monotheism seems seriously weakened by this analysis. God could have created us all in a puff of smoke without all that wasted time, energy and species just like most Christians still believe He did. But He didn't and Miller hasn't given such Christians a very good reason why.

As a brief introduction to how these ideas work in a Mormon context, let me quote a couple of lines from Miller.
God's miracles are not routine subversions of the laws of nature. If they were, then the issue of why so many extinct forms of life preceeded us would be a conundrum, since each one would have to be the intentional creation of the mind of God. If each were just another chapter in an unfolding plan driven by the laws and principles of nature, the issue is not important. If God were just a magician, He could have made the present world appear in a puff of smoke. But He isn't... Evolution is a natural process, and natural processes are undirected. Even if God can intervene in nature, why should He when nature can do a perfectly fine job of achieving His aims all by itself? It was God, after all, who chose the universal constants that made life possible. (240-241,244)

While the idea that God chose the physical laws probably isn't very consistent with Mormon doctrine, Miller's notion of God as being bound by natural law is very Mormon.

The reason why God used such a slow process is because He doesn't, maybe even can't, create living organisms out of the dust of the ground. Each creature has to be born in some sense of the word. This is what has motivated the transplantation doctrine, which was seen as a forced doctrinal move in it's pre-evolution days. (As a side note, we must confess that Elder Talmage himself noted that transplantaton is no answer to the origin of species anymore than saying that your roses came from the store answers where roses came from. Are we really prepared to admit that all 'kinds' of animals have always existed and were never created? Isn't evolution the only possible answer?)

The reason why God didn't prevent the all the death and suffering inherent in evolution is because only through the death and suffering does selection occur. God must work within the laws of nature, and given the immense amount of complexity and contingency involved in evolution, it took a really long time. We should also mention that every animal will die eventually, so this is really not that big of a deal.

But did it have to take this long just to reach us humans so very late in the game? Probably, but if not, I have suggested that we can view the history of life on earth as not being so anthropocentric. If these animals had any kind of intellgence, why not suggest that they too were profiting from their existence here on earth, similar to how we are?

And as a final side note, I cannot help but call attention to Miller's use of the free will theodicy. Miller suggests that God doesn't interfere with out lives too much out of a respect for our free will. But what kind of free will? If we maintain that this free will is basically, as Dennett calls it, moral levitation then applying this to the pre-human earth is entirely inappropriate. But if this free will is that of the compatibilist as endorsed by Ruse, Dennett and myself then there are enough similarities which can be drawn between our free will and the pre-human earth to justify his use of the free will theodicy.

Summary: Miller's evolutionary theodicy compromises the absolute omnipotence of the God of ethical monotheism. His God sounds very similar to the God of Mormonism in His being bound by natural law. An attack is also brought against the idea of separate-species transplantation.


"Gas-o-leana," I've deleted your comment because I can't tell that your blog project has anything to do with this blog. For off-topic questions, please email us. 

Posted by Jared

6/09/2005 10:13:00 AM  

Are we really prepared to admit that all 'kinds' of animals have always existed and were never created? 

I personally am not, but I think many Mormons are---including B. H. Roberts, though he didn't define exactly how broadly he interpreted "kinds."

But if this free will is that of the compatibilist as endorsed by Ruse, Dennett and myself then there are enough similarities which can be drawn between our free will and the pre-human earth to justify his use of the free will theodicy.

I don't have enough background in discussions of free will to understand this. Could you recapitulate in a sentence or two what the "compatibilist" view is, and how it can account for "evils" in nature? 

Posted by Anonymous

6/09/2005 12:16:00 PM  

Sorry, that last comment was mine; I forgot to fill in my name. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

6/09/2005 12:17:00 PM  

The compatibilist view is that all future and present events, especially decisions, are determined by past events. In other words, there is only one future which is open in any morally significant way. All other futures only seem open due to our not being Laplacian demons.

Libertarian Free Will in a form of indeterminism, where there are numerous possible futures from which we choose. Indeterminism enters the picture through any of three options 1) uncaused events, 2) self caused events or 3) some sort of miracle. It is due to the apparent absurdity of any of these options (they all seem like miracles of one form or another) that most naturalists adopt some form of compatibilism (the view that moral responsibility and determinism are compatible).

Now my version of compatibilism is based on a number of premises. 1) a strict materialism extended to include spirit matter. 2) the non-existence of ontological miracles. 3) there is no such thing as a Laplacian demon that can totally predict the entire future since a) all beings are within the system iteself including God and b) the system is infinite and completely open in both time and space.

Thus God foreknowledge is not limited by our free will, as He is under most versions of theistic LFW. His limited foreknowledge is a direct result of His existing within an open system.

In other words, there is no such thing as some sort of special "free will" (aside from our ability to make choices according to our Nature and Nurture as well as the context) which God is protecting now but not in the pre-human earth. Under LFW, however, there is such a thing as "free will" which only humans have and therefore did not exist in the pre-human world to keep God's hands off so to speak.

Thus, under my view, God's hands off policy (whatever it may be) is not changed by the existence or non-existence of humans in the world. Such as policy is changed, however, under LFW (the version which most Christians adopt, as well, I assume, as Miller). Thus his extending God's hands off policy to the pre-human earth is inappropriate. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

6/09/2005 01:21:00 PM  

Thanks, Jeffrey. A couple of questions.

Quick detour: I don't see how "self-caused events" constitutes indeterminism.

Back to the main issue: If I understand you correctly, you're saying that under a compatibilist view one can apply a free will theodicy to the pre-human earth. But I remain a little confused as to whether by this you mean God could not  intervene because he doesn't have sufficient knowledge, or that he would not intervene out of some sort of respect for the independence of the system and its individual constituents. (Nibley seems to express some things sympathetic to the latter view.) Based on what you've said in the past, I would guess you think God could not because of limited knowledge. But your phrase "hands-off policy" makes it sound like a choice on God's part not to intervene (he has the power to do so if he wished). So I remain confused as to your position. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

6/10/2005 04:57:00 AM  

Most people would agree that effects come after the causes in time. In order for an effect to be the cause of itself, it would seem to involve some form of backwards causation. I guess this isn't indeterminism, just extremely counter intuitive. (Maybe you are on to something here. Perhaps a self caused event IS deterministic after all.) What does constitute indeterminism is an uncaused event. If there is no cause how can anybody control when or what the event it? Remember, nothing causes it.

Now I knew that I had left that issue unsettled and I think that I might have ended up confusing two issues.

First, there is the issue of foreknowledge. Under LFW, God's foreknowledge is limited by our free will in that He simply can't know exactly which path we will take in our lives. In other words, we limit His foreknowledge. Under compatibilism, God's foreknowledge is limited by physical law (though I personally think that this should be the case with LFW as well, but nobody seems to ever mention it). His foreknowledge is inherently limited. This is similar to, but not equivalent to the theodicy issue.

Free will theodicies basically say that God doesn't intervene to stop people from doing bad things in order to accomplish the greater good of allowing us free will. Thus, He is all powerful and all good, and out of His all-goodness, He chooses not to exercise His all-powerfulness. So it's true, niether form really works all that well for pre-human earth life.

How compatibilism works a little better, but not much, is that it is based on God's limitations placed on Him by physical law, which is exactly what we need to explain why He would use evolution. It also allow for many degrees of "free agency" (I don't like to use the word 'free will' to describe what compatibilism allows for, since it rejects the miraculous kind of free will which people usually mean by it).

In Dennett's Freedom Evolves (one of my favorite books) he describes the evolution of what I call free agency. He goes of to show that even the most simple of agents (take viruses for example) show some degree of agency. They react to certain conditions in their environment. Now this isn't a morally responsible agency by a long shot, but it was a step in the evolution of the agency we now enjoy. Thus as animals got more and more intelligent, they became more and more free, until we have beings capable of culture and social contracts, us. Therefore, for compatibilists, free agency has been around on this earth for a long time in one form or another. Not to mention that such proto-agency had to be respected (this is the hands-off policy again) in order to allow for the evolution of the agency we now possess. Using the LFW in such an account doesn't work as well, though I suppose somebody could make it work. LFWists don't think that anybody has free will to any extent other than humans, it's more of an all or nothing quality. It is hard to imagine the evolution of what is usually considered a miraculous gift from God.


Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

6/10/2005 11:03:00 AM  



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