Theodicy in an Evolutionary Perspective

Issue Four of DIALOGOS:
An Interactive Journal of the Sciences, Philosophy, and Theology

First posted Nov. 21, 1996. Most recent update Aug. 1, 2000


The following essay is a summary of the principal argument presented in the book Evil & Evolution: A Theodicy, originally published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press in 1984, and now available on the author's website. In this book, the author (who also edits this journal) alleges that it is only within the context of an evolutionary understanding of creation that the classic problem of "theodicy" -- reconciling the existence of evil with a supposedly all-good creator -- can be solved.

Theodicy Within an Evolutionary Perspective

By Richard W. Kropf

While seldom accused of minimizing the problem of moral evil or "sin", religion has often been justly accused of trivializing natural disasters and other causes of human suffering in this world. It is not as if theologians haven't tried to do better. As far back as the fifth century, St. Augustine rightly summed up the situation. It seems that "either God cannot abolish evil or He will not. If He cannot, He is not all-powerful; if He will not, then He is not all-good." But from there Augustine went on to blame all evils, whether real or perceived (including death itself) on our first parents in their exercise of free-will or what came to be known as the doctrine of "original sin."

If Augustine's analysis of the dilemma was correct, his answer to the dilemma -- if the history of Christian theology is any indication -- remains problematic. Today, at the end of the twentieth century, it is even less adequate. The sheer immensity of horrors like the Holocaust, the suffering of untold millions of civilians caught in the great wars of this past century and the on-going campaigns of genocide (all of them traceable to human malice) test nearly everyone's ability to blame it all on Adam and Eve, or even less their excuse that Satan made them do it! But even more than that, the continued capacity of nature itself to destroy human life without discrimination between the good and the bad confirms the suspicion that we live in a totally indifferent and uncaring universe that cannot possibly be the work of an benevolent and omnipotent God.

But just suppose that evolution, as it is commonly understood, both on the inorganic but even more on the organic level, might be the only way that God "creates" or indeed even can create. Thus, as the evidence indicates, the Creator seems to have had to begin with the disordered state of energy in which the universe appears at its very beginning. And then suppose, in addition, that the aim or goal for creation is the eventual appearance of intelligent, free creatures, beings who, to some extent, are able to share God's own attributes. If so, then several basic conclusions may very well follow.

First, it must be that the randomness which has been discovered at the most basic level of matter (quantum uncertainty) and the subsequent play of chance that we see at work not only on the inorganic level but perhaps even more strikingly apparent in organic evolution, is also in some fundamental way connected to the appearance of the human species -- as well as any other intelligent creatures that have appeared or still might appear elsewhere in the universe.

Second, if the above is true, then just as what we call "human intelligence" must be a product of evolution (most likely the result of the development of the neo-cortex in the human brain), so too that dimension of intelligence which is the human capacity to exercise what we call "free will." Thus the key to our capacity as humans to exercise our freedom -- or at least like to think of as self-determination -- is not some mysterious power that has come to us "from out of the blue" but instead is a ramification of our ability to recognize and set limits to the forces that otherwise would blindly influence our actions. We have here not simply a case of awareness, but on the human level, self-reflective awareness and with it, as a result, a capacity for true self-determination. Thus the basic randomness of nature must be seen as a basic precondition of human freedom. In this universe, without chance there can be no real "choice" -- much less "free will"!

Third, nevertheless, all determinisms, whether statistical or even volitional, have to operate within and largely depend upon the fundamental randomness of the evolutionary process. Given these preconditions, much of what we humans consider to be "evils" (like death) must remain a real factor in evolution, and because of this, they will always be operative in this world. So while it very well may be seen as part of a divine plan that our human struggle to overcome as many of them as possible (like famine, disease, floods, etc.) may be essential to our own evolution, still, we must recognize the continued existence of some of them (earthquakes, threats from asteroids, meteors, or various cosmic catastrophes) and the human tragedies connected with them are inevitable and a necessary part of an on-going creative process. (So too, perhaps, but in a way obscure to all but faith, the eventual collapse or expiration of the universe itself.)

Fourth: the same holds, but with one big difference, when it comes to moral evil. It may be, like other evils, at least statistically speaking, inevitable. But this does not mean it is to be altogether condoned or excused. Quite the contrary, from the perspective of human accountability, moral evils are really the greatest tragedies, because, in any given instance, at least theoretically, things could have been different. Genocide, war, injustice, and betrayals of all sorts need not be. And for this same reason, a truly human evolution depends, more than anything else, in our own ethical or moral progress.

In sum, it is my thesis that only when we begin with an evolutionary view of the universe with an equally an evolutionary view of the origins of human intelligence and the power to choose, that we can arrive at a theodicy that is capable of explaining the co-existence of evil in the world with a God who is essentially good. Otherwise, as in the case of "creationism" as it is commonly understood, we are forced to ascribe the elementary disorder and chaos of the universe either more or less directly on God or else blame the whole mess on the misbehavior of creatures who were to appear on one small planet only sometime around ten billion years after the process began. Neither of these other explanations reflect very favorably on a supposedly intelligent and loving God.

(First posted, Nov. 21, 1996)

Comments and Responses

Comment 1: Has not the author side-stepped the most significant conclusion which might be drawn from his postulation? He states that "evolution might be the only way...that God can create...Science has demonstrated that chance is a dominant factor in the evolutionary process." Combining these two thoughts, a person is led to the conclusion that God does not have absolute control of the details of evolution. God has had to "sit and twiddle his thumbs" until mankind accidentally developed. The implications of the concept are endless. For example, since God cannot control detailed functioning of the universe, He cannot answer the requests of prayer. Did God have a choice between homo sapiens and Neanderthal Man about thirty thousand years ago or did God accept the choice of nature? Do we have to revise our concepts of a loving God? (from Lowell Hasel -- retired NASA research engineer)

Response: Some really good questions with a lot of real "down-to-earth" implications!

First, to answer what seems to be implied about the emphasis on the claim that "evolution might be the ONLY way that God can create", I'm now tempted to change that "might be" to is --at least in respect to the universe in which we find ourselves. Otherwise, if we are not careful, we could find ourselves led to realms of interminable speculation about "multiple universes" not unlike the late medieval debates about the "best possible world". Yet aside from some mathematical theorizing, what real evidence do we have of any universe other than the one we experience? By now, I think that science has shown we can only make sense of that universe in evolutionary terms. Perhaps C.S.Lewis summed up the situation best when he wrote something to the effect that not only do we have the best possible universe, but that in view of what God seems to have had in mind, we also have the only possible one!

Second: there seems to be no doubt in the view proposed here, that God, contrary to what Einstein thought, does indeed "play dice" with the universe. But does not "creationism" also have God doing much the same when it comes to human freedom? Yet, this does not necessary imply that the appearance of humankind (or any other form of intelligent life elsewhere) is altogether "accidental". There could be (according to the concept of the "Anthropic Principle" discussed in issue three of DIALOGOS) some kind of guiding influence or "aim" to the evolutionary process that incorporates quantum uncertainty and numerous other forms of chance occurrence. From this point of view, the "image" or "likeness" to God is to be found more in the eventual product rather than in the means employed. That such a process would necessarily take a huge amount of time to occur is without question. But what is time to an eternal (non-temporal) Being?

Third, as to prayer: who is to say that God cannot intervene in the course of nature from time-to-time? Or who is to say that human desire (as often expressed in heart-felt prayer) cannot itself have a even a natural effect on the outcome of events as even some recent medical research seems to claim? Still, it must be cautioned that in the opinion of even some of the most traditional theologians (like Thomas Aquinas) prayer is probably best seen as disposing us to accept what is most likely to be rather than to change the outcome of events in themselves -- although it could be that certain outcomes do in fact depend on our prayer.

Finally, I would not necessarily see any of this as threatening the idea of a "loving God". Do parents give up loving their children when they give them their freedom to determine their own future?

Comment 2: (From Bill Bartlett) The approach that the author takes may protect God's presumed goodness, but it certainly seems to present God as something less that all-powerful. Can't an omnipotent creator make whatever kind of universe he/she/it wants?

Response: Theoretically, yes -- that is true, but the result might be something like the effort to create a square circle. IF God wants a universe containing free creatures, then it would appear, at least from the scientific evidence we have, that we have to suppose that God is constrained to begin with a matter/energy that apart from sharing the attribute of existence (reflecting God's immanence in the universe), displays a certain fundamental randomness or indeterminacy that makes it as unlike God as anything could be (reflecting God's transcendence above or beyond nature). From that initial state matter/energy evolves slowly and painfully through a process of convergence and emerging consciousness towards a God-like freedom.

Comment 3: Augustine and Aquinas, following Aristotle, both took the position that evil in fact does not exist, because what we consider to be evil is in fact the absence or lack of due order or something that should be present. But what is absent or lacking really can't be said to "exist". Therefore can it not be said that evil really doesn't exist -- much as was realized by mystics like those cited by Bill McKee in his book Is Objectivity Faith?.

Reply: Metaphysically or more exactly "ontologically" speaking, there is a lot of truth in that observation. The essence of evil is in the deprivation of being where being should exist. This is one reason why we, as humans, think of death as evil. But it is evil simply just that? (Again, just try giving that explanation to any survivor of the Holocaust!) Do not some things, in a certain sense, seem to "embody" or "incarnate" evil as it were? Certainly, some of the evils that are endemic in this world are very concrete in their manifestation. No doubt this at least partly explains belief in a "devil" -- especially when humans refuse to take responsibility for these evils upon themselves.

Comment 4:: (Speaking of the devil) could not a large part of the inherent disorder in creation more easily be blamed on diabolic influence, a kind of "angelic fall or "angelic original sin" that long predated the sin of the first humans?

Reply: While such a suggestion, which has a long pedigree in Christian thought and has been recently revived by Joseph Provenzano's proposal of "Angelic Fragmentation Scenario" seems feasible, and even seems to harmonize with a subsequent, "second creation" by way of evolution, I believe that it also harbors some serious difficulties. For one, it seems to suggest that God really did have a choice on how creation came about -- either instant creation or "emanation" of a purely spiritual world, or else a long laborious evolutionary process from which "spirit" or intelligence and free will could only emerge after billions upon billions of years. Why would God choose the latter way over the former the second time around? As a kind of punishment? -- but punishment for whom?

Or if, on the other hand, God is somehow "constrained" to re- create things from the degraded or materialized "fragments" of what was a purely spiritual creation, then it raises the question as to the basic "goodness" of material creation, raising the specter of other ancient mythologies which held the material world to be the work of the devil or even the "body" of an evil god.

So while no one doubts that theoretically speaking God's "omnipotence" would seem to leave God free to choose between various means of creation, THE problem of theodicy is how justify all the concomitant suffering that seems to be inherent in creation, even apart from human misbehavior, if God can just as easily produce intelligent free creatures simply by willing them to be? Thus, while the AFS and other related theories (such as that proposed by the Indian evolutionary philosopher, Sri Aurobindo) seem to harmonize such ancient beliefs with the latest in evolutionary theory, in terms of theodicy they only seem -- at least to my mind -- to complicate the problem rather than solve it.

(Note: For Provenzano's answer to at least some of these objections, see his own replies.)

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