Reformed Articles

The wasteful work of nature

This post was originally published on this site
This post is primarily about theodical challenges posed by theistic evolution, but I’ll use Darwin’s statement as a convenient frame of reference:

What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of nature! 

A. Some apologists respond this type of objection by saying the atheist is illicitly assuming a God’s-eye viewpoint. “If I was God, I’d do it this way instead!” 

They counter that you’re not God, you’re not omniscient, so you’re not entitled to assume a God’s-eye perspective. For all you know, God may have lots of reasons that don’t occur to you. 

This response is usually deployed in response to the argument from evil. And it has a grain of truth, but it’s too lax and facile to be a general principle. The danger lies in defending truth by a principle that shields falsehood from scrutiny. A Christian apologist should avoid recourse to arguments to protect Christianity that have the side-effect of protecting cults and false religions. 

For instance, suppose a Christian apologist says Joseph Smith has all the earmarks of a charlatan. Suppose a Mormon counters that for all we know, God might choose someone like Joseph Smith. 

Catholics say the church of Rome is the One True Church founded by Jesus Christ. Evangelicals looks at Rome and exclaim, “Is that the best God could do?” If that’s a church which enjoys special protection from error, what does a church look like that doesn’t enjoy special protection from error? 

But the Catholic counters, you’re illicitly assuming a God’s eye perspective! 

Suppose a Christian apologist says it would be deceptive for God to save people through divergent religions that make contradictory claims. Suppose a universalist or religious pluralist counters: How presumptuous for you to divine God’s mind and speak on his behalf!  

I’ll have more to say about the principle further down.

B. However, a qualified version of the principle is legitimate. Take the appeal to skeptical theism when addressing the problem of evil. But that’s more discriminating than just “You can’t assume a God’s-eye viewpoint!”

It’s a question of where the skepticism is located. It’s not located in claiming that we don’t have the faintest idea why God allows a particular evil or certain kind of evil. To the contrary, the situation is nearly the opposite: based on human analogies, it’s easy to imagine multiple reasons an agent might have to allow the evil in question. The difficulty is that we have no way to narrow down the field of options to one correct explanation. That’s where the skepticism is located. So we’re not at a complete loss by any means. Rather, there are too many possible reasons to choose from.

C. Moving on to the specifics, what about the “cruelty” of nature. Certainly the animal kingdom often looks cruel to a human observer, but that involves the danger of projecting a human viewpoint onto creatures that do not and cannot share our viewpoint. Likewise, it’s necessary to distinguish between the pain threshold and pain tolerance.

In addition, many organisms lack the reflective self-awareness to register pain in the sense: “Ouch! That hurts! I’m in pain!”

Take Darwin’s classic, clueless illustration: 

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.

Except that caterpillars lack the first-person viewpoint to think: “I feel pain!” And the absence of that indexical awareness presumably holds true for lower animals generally. To be conscious of pain in the human sense, where we can objectify the experience, may only be something a few higher animals are privy to. 

D. What about “wasteful” nature? Is he using “wasteful” as a synonym for “inefficient”? Poetry is a less efficient means of communication than prose, but that’s not an artistic defect. Efficiency isn’t a musical value. 

The way God fulfills Joseph’s dream is inefficient, but intentionally inefficient. If God streamlined the process, there’d be less opportunity for divine intervention, to manifest the God’s overruling providence. 

E. Then there’s “clumsy” and “blundering”. Here he may have the evolutionary process in mind. 

1. If so, that’s a challenge for a theistic evolutionist. It’s not a challenge for a young-earth creationist or old-earth creationist inasmuch as they reject the presupposition. They don’t think God uses evolution (in the sense of macroevolution and universal common descent). Of course, they exchange one challenge for another. And the naturalistic evolutionist has his own challenges.

2. The issue isn’t mass extinction, per se. I’ve discussed this before:

Nearly every position (young-earth creationism, old-earth creationism, deistic evolution, theistic evolution, naturalistic evolution) must accommodate mass extinction. A partial exception is Omphalism, but even that must accommodate modern mass extinction. To avoid that we must resort to Last Thursdayism.

The issue is whether God uses evolution to create human beings. If that’s the goal, it seems to be a monumentally clumsy, blundering method. 

3. A theistic evolutionist might counter that prior stages in natural history are necessary to develop an ecosystem in which humans can exist. And that might be an adequate justification at a very broad level. But are all, or even most, of the evolutionary dead-ends really necessary to achieve that goal?

4. Another issue is that it’s important that we be able to differentiate outcomes by design from outcomes due to dumb luck. That’s a way we determine the presence or absence of intelligent agency. If you shuffle a deck of cards enough times, you will get a royal flush. If you spin the dial on a locker long enough, you will accidentally hit on the right combination. If you throw a dart enough times, you will hit the bullseye. 

It’s theologically important to be able to distinguish random outcomes from intentional outcomes. That’s a way we detect special providence. 

Or take the case of prayer. Out of the totality of prayers, (i) a subset go unanswered. In (ii) another subset, the outcome is consistent with the prayer, but not unmistakably an answer to prayer. Some apparent answers to prayer might be things that would naturally happen anyway, given the odds. There there’s (iii) a subset where the outcome is clearly miraculous or supernatural. Finally, there’s (iv) a subset where the outcome is so auspicious and antecedently improbable that while it might be sheer luck, that’s not the most plausible explanation.

But if we were unable to differentiate outcomes by design from outcomes due to dumb like, then that would make one skeptical about the efficacy of prayer. Given the number of “misses”, did we just get lucky? 

5. Apropos (4), a challenge for the theistic evolutionist is whether evolutionary outcomes can be distinguished from chance. What makes it theistic is that it’s a guided process–perhaps front-loaded to unfold to a programmed conclusion. If, however,  the end-products appear to be the luck of the draw, then where’s the evidence that theistic evolution is true while atheistic evolution is false? Perhaps a theistic evolutionist would say there is no direct evidence from evolution itself. Rather, that comes from other theistic arguments. 

6. There is, though, a further twist. There’s such a thing as programmed dumb luck. Take how dandelions disseminate. Each puff has a flotilla of hang-gliding seeds carried by the breeze in all directions. Multiply that by countless puffs releasing their seeds to the winds, and a fraction are bound to create new dandelions through dumb luck.

However, a human observer can discern a strategy behind that process. So there needs to be evidence to distinguish between sheer dumb luck and programed dumb luck. Can the theistic evolutionist furnish that differential evidence?