Evolution Fails to Support the Argument from Evil

Many years ago, Jason Rosenhouse argued with Michael Ruse, trying to show that evolution somehow amplifies the argument from evil.  Yet he failed.

Rosenhouse introduced Ruse’s argument as follows:

After quoting Darwin, who plainly did think that the general awfulness of nature militated against a belief in God, and after writing a bit about free will Ruse continues:

“In the case of physical evil, the dreadful earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, the traditional Christian answer, for all that Voltaire parodied it, is that of Leibniz — working by law results in good things and bad things, but overall the good outweighs the bad. God is constrained in what He does and in total He does the very best possible. Now of course there are questions about whether God had to create through law, although if He had not done so, it would be a very different world (and not arguably better) than the one we have now. For a start, He would have had to eliminate the thousands of pieces of evidence of evolution, or He would be a deceiver along the lines that Philip Gosse rather foolishly welcomed in the nineteenth century (on the grounds that God was testing our faith).”

The key point is this: “Now of course there are questions about whether God had to create through law, although if He had not done so, it would be a very different world (and not arguably better) than the one we have now.” This point is key because those who push the argument from evil almost always assume God could create our world in a way such that it retains all that we cherish (including ourselves), yet have all the evil cleanly stripped out of it.  Yet this cannot be done.  Rosenhouse’s reply fails because he has not come to this realization yet.  Watch.

Rosenhouse responded to Ruse:

I’m afraid I don’t see how this makes any sense at all. Imagine the state of the universe at some moment shortly after evolution has produced modern human beings. God, presumably, could have created the world supernaturally in a state that was identical in every morally relevant way. That world would contain free human beings embedded within a natural world adequate for their needs. Had He done so we would have been spared the millions of years of evolutionary bloodsport that has horrified everyone who has ever considered it. That universe would differ from ours only in that it would lack that awful history, which seems to me a clear improvement over the world we have. There would be no evidence of evolution to erase because evolution would never have occurred.

Let’s emphasize:

  • Imagine the state of the universe at some moment shortly after evolution has produced modern human beings. God, presumably, could have created the world supernaturally in a state that was identical in every morally relevant way.
  • That universe would differ from ours only in that it would lack that awful history, which seems to me a clear improvement over the world we have.

This is simply false.  If God created our world “shortly after evolution has produced modern human beings,” then for it to “differ from ours only in that it would lack that awful history,” it would have to be endowed with multiple features that made it look like the product of evolution when it was not.  This is because our world has all the features of its evolutionary past.  Even to the point where this history is recorded in our very genomes.  And our genomes are a necessary ingredient to our identities.

Think of it this way.  Imagine we could get our hands on the genomes of the modern humans that Rosenhouse envisions being created without an evolutionary past.  Would the genomes show an evolutionary relationship with primates, then mammals, then vertebrates, then chordates, etc.?  Would the genomes contain mutations, some being responsible for diseases?  Would the genomes contain pseudogenes, retrotransposons, and gobs of non-coding DNA?  If they answer if yes, then God would be the deceiver that Ruse mentions.  He would have created beings with an apparent history of an evolutionary past when none existed.  On the other hand, if God created without deception, and created human beings specially with no history of evolutionary descent, then those human beings could not be OUR ancestors.  In fact, if those humans were the founders of the human population, none of us would exist.  Because our genomes show an evolutionary relationship with primates, then mammals, then vertebrates, then chordates, etc.

So Rosenhouse is simply wrong when he insisted “that universe would differ from ours only in that it would lack that awful history.”  If we rule out the notion of God as Deceiver, it would differ from ours to the great extent that none of us would exist in it.

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16 Responses to Evolution Fails to Support the Argument from Evil

  1. I’m not familiar with the exchange between Ruse and Rosenhouse, but philosopher of religion Paul Draper has argued precisely that evolution combined with the argument from evil can be used to start to build a cumulative case for naturalism and against theism. I’ve summarized Draper’s argument here: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2014/12/07/index-abe/

  2. Bilbo says:

    Right, if God wanted us specifically, as opposed to another set of human beings, then that would require our evolutionary history as well. But I think I can make a case for the possibility of divine intervention in that evolutionary history:

    Suppose that in order to get the desired history, a specific mutation must take place in a specific organism. Further suppose that the desired quantum event needed to bring about that mutation won’t occur on its own, without divine intervention. In such a situation, it seems that God would either need to intervene, or need to change his mind about what he wants. Now what if it turned out that there were many such events that required divine intervention in order to bring about the desired evolutionary history? It seems to me that if quantum events are not determined, then there might be a lot of divine intervention taking place. Or God could just not be fussy about the outcome. Or physical events could be determined. Or the universe is infinite, so that eventually God gets what he wants. I think those are the alternatives.

  3. Bilbo says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I was responding to Mike Gene. Here is a link to Mike’s argument why God would use evolution to create us:

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/?s=Because+of+us

  4. Hi Bilbo,

    Dumb question: I thought this blog was run by Michael. Is this a team blog, with both you and Michael as contributors?

    Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out.

  5. TFBW says:

    I reject the suggestion that creating a facsimile of an evolved universe at a given point is an act of deception.

    Suppose two identical universes: one is the product of natural processes over the course of some billions of years; the other was produced a mere million years ago by an act of divine will, like a computer operator restoring a backup. Within both universes there are entities known as “scientists” who use principles such as uniformitarianism and methodological naturalism to interpret physical evidence. In both cases, these scientists have determined that the universe is billions of years old, and have mapped out history accordingly. In the former universe, they are correct; in the latter universe, they are not. This is not because God has acted honestly in the former universe and deceptively in the latter: rather, it is because the scientists have made assumptions which hold for billions of years in the former universe, but break down a million years ago in the latter.

    Unless you can demonstrate that God is under some sort of moral obligation to anticipate and accommodate our assumptions (and how would that even be possible given the existence of conflicting assumptions?), I don’t see why faulty assumptions on our part would make a deceiver out of God.

  6. FZM says:

    I’m afraid I don’t see how this makes any sense at all. Imagine the state of the universe at some moment shortly after evolution has produced modern human beings. God, presumably, could have created the world supernaturally in a state that was identical in every morally relevant way. That world would contain free human beings embedded within a natural world adequate for their needs. Had He done so we would have been spared the millions of years of evolutionary bloodsport that has horrified everyone who has ever considered it. That universe would differ from ours only in that it would lack that awful history, which seems to me a clear improvement over the world we have.

    Rosenhouse seems to write off the whole history of the earth and all the creatures that lived on it as without value; nothing would be lost in terms of goodness if this was just eliminated and those creatures never existed?

    Non-human plants and animals seem to have had value to God in themselves, not purely as instruments to create humans with.

  7. Bilbo says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Not a dumb question. I used to tag along at Mike’s heels regularly. Then Mike decided to devote himself to battling New Atheism (anti-theism). Got kinda boring to me. And then I got sucked into the vortex of Facebook. This is actually the first time I’ve commented on Shadow to Light in quite a while. But Mike was always the smart one. I’m just the straight man.

  8. Bilbo says:

    Also, politically, Mike and I are pretty much at different ends of the poles.

  9. Bilbo says:

    Hi TFBW,

    I’m curious where you would draw the line. For example, if God created the universe 10,000 years ago, would that be deceptive?

  10. TFBW says:

    Bilbo,

    If God created the universe one second ago, that’s not deceptive unless it is with intent to deceive. Clearly there’s a large difference in terms of the number of seemingly-reasonable assumptions which would in fact be wrong in the one second case compared to the one million years case, and moral culpability can’t mean anything like what we generally accept it to mean if all bar the last second of your life is prefabricated back-story. The extreme case has many similar implications, but none of them has much bearing on “deceptiveness” as such. Are the characters in a novel deceived because they believe they have a history outside the pages of the novel? No, and it’s a silly question: the more pressing question would be, “are we merely characters in a novel to God?”

    Looking at it another way, God would most certainly be deceptive if he created the world one second ago and He gave us scriptures which talk about the life of Christ as though it happened for real. If there is a meaningful distinction to be made between history that actually happened, and history which is merely virtual, and no such distinction is made in the presentation of history, then that’s deceptive — not that we’d have any way of calling God out on it, being fundamentally incapable of detecting the difference ourselves! The very fact that we have no such means to detect the difference is exactly what nullifies having a “scientific” basis for belief in the reality of history. It’s exactly why you can’t accuse God of being deceptive on the basis of physical evidence alone. Even if your knowledge of the here-and-now borders on omniscience and your assumptions about uniformity across time are correct, you still have no way to tell where your historical projections cross the boundary from real to virtual, although you may reach a boundary condition beyond which the projections cannot be real.

    In light of those remarks, I can give a conditional answer to the question as actually asked. The question of whether God was deceptive in the creation of the universe comes down to the difference between what actually happened, and what he told us happened. Profound, no? If you think that the account of creation in the opening verses of the Bible are (a) God’s testimony and (b) as literal as such a terse account allows, and you also think that what actually happened was that God created the world 10,000 years ago with a multi-billion-year virtual history in which the sun and its light exists long before the Earth and so on, then you’d have to conclude that God is deceiving us, because the scriptural testimony looks absolutely nothing like that.

  11. Bilbo / Michael,

    I have some technical feedback on this site. it appears the site is not displaying the identity of a post’s author, which is what led to my confusion. At first, I thought this was somehow caused by viewing the site on my phone, but I am also not seeing the post’s author when I view the site on a PC. You may want to look into your configuration settings so that you can figure the site to display the post’s author’s name.

  12. Michael says:

    Jeff,

    All the posts have been written by me.

  13. Bilbo says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Wow, weird. When I look at it, I can see who has posted which comment. Not sure what’s up. For the record, this is Mike’s blog, not mine (Bilbo). As far as I know, I have no control over what you are seeing on your screen.

  14. Bilbo says:

    Oh, I thought you meant the comments. Yes, all the posts are written by Mike. None by me.

  15. Dhay says:

    > The key point is this: “Now of course there are questions about whether God had to create through law, although if He had not done so, it would be a very different world (and not arguably better) than the one we have now.” This point is key because those who push the argument from evil almost always assume God could create our world in a way such that it retains all that we cherish (including ourselves), yet have all the evil cleanly stripped out of it. Yet this cannot be done. … So Rosenhouse is simply wrong when he insisted “that universe would differ from ours only in that it would lack that awful history.” If we rule out the notion of God as Deceiver, it would differ from ours to the great extent that none of us would exist in it.

    This issue has been looked at on S2L before:

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/?s=teletubb

    My take: if God works entirely, or almost invariably, through natural law — the Standard Model — the universe is a place where science and reason are possible; I would hate to live in a universe without discoverable and predictable regularities, where — one example among many — gravity might fluctuate or reverse. Fortunately, this appears convincingly to be such a universe.

    Those who would have had God create a universe free of evil — usually natural disasters or pain and suffering — generally seem not to have thought the matter through: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, volcanoes and [add other examples of your own here] are caused by gravity and nuclear fission (the Sun’s heat) and nuclear fission (the Earth’s internal heat); but gravity and nuclear processes as they are, are necessary for our universe to exist as it is; to wish for no gravity and nuclear processes (hence no natural disasters) is to wish, not for a slightly different and better universe, but for a universe dramatically different from our actual universe — no stars, no planets, no Earth, no rocks even, and no people.

    How about God creating humans free of disease, old age, and death. We evolved to be as we are, complete with sex, gender, children, loved ones; these and proneness to disease, predation, pain and injury are an essential part of evolution; it’s easy to get rid of these, just get rid of evolution; but then we never evolved, no people.

    It seems to me (and if I understand right, to Michael, this blog owner, also) that those who argue that God (if existing and kind) should have created a world slightly different from the existing world (and universe), differing only in that “evil” (by whatever definition) is absent from an otherwise very familiar world … that they haven’t thought through what they want, and that if they had thought it through they would realise they could not possibly get it. As far as I can work out, a universe without “evil” is a universe without people.

    What it seems to me they want, and are complaining they do not have, or are claiming that God cannot exist because they do not already have it: — what they want is radically different from this familiar ordinary world of gravity, nuclear processes, evolution and their “evil” consequences; — what they want is a nice, safe world free of tectonic activity, weather, predators, dangerous roads and other hazards; — what they want amounts to something that is Teletubbie-land sized, free of harm or threat; — and to be a nice, safe, Teletubby.

    I used Teletubbie-land as an example of what they might want, but there’s plenty of other childrens’ programs to choose a fantasy world from. Or they can fantasise their own.

    I do not rule out that a nearly ordinary “evil”-free universe and Earth conforming to the Standard Model might be possible. If anyone knows what that “evil”-free universe and Earth would look like, and that it would be a functioning universe and Earth rather than an absurd fantasy, do let me know.

  16. Dhay says:

    In his 06 January 2020 blog post entitled “The craziest Templeton grant yet: Evolution and “self-giving love”” Jerry Coyne attacks a John Templeton Foundation funded — red rag to bull alert! — article on theodicy by Mats Wahlberg, a professor of systematic theology at Umea University in Sweden.

    The article tells us that the (no doubt over-brief — Dhay) summary of Wahlberg’s proposed evolutionary theodicy runs as follows: If God wants love to be realized in the world, he would have to create the world so that it provides the necessary conditions for love. If this entails the possibility of suffering, then we have a glimpse of why God would make such a world.

    https://www.templeton.org/grant/does-self-giving-love-require-an-evolutionary-world-evolutionary-theodicy-in-light-of-the-mystical-tradition

    I’d have to read a lot more of Wahlberg’s ideas on what he calls evolutionary theodicy in order to make a reasoned and reasonable assessment; and so would Coyne: Coyne goes in with both feet with what he presumably supposes is a knock-it-clean-off-the-field-of-play attack:

    Evolution has long stymied theologians, as it aims directly at their Achilles heel: why would an omnipotent and all-loving God “create” in a way that involves tremendous amounts of suffering? After all, a good God could have created a world of herbivores and no parasites, and could have given each individual a fixed longevity and a painless death. Then the only thing that would suffer would be vegetation. And there wouldn’t need to be be earthquakes, either, nor asteroids. After all, why did God create the dinosaurs and then let them all die off, presumably with substantial suffering, after the big asteroid struck the Earth?

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2020/01/06/the-craziest-templeton-grant-yet-evolution-and-self-giving-love/

    But Coyne’s world of herbivores and no parasites, of fixed longevity and a painless death, of no eathquakes and no asteroids — none that hit the Earth, anyway — is a Teletubbies type world and Coyne’s version of the Argument From Evil is the ‘Why didn’t/couldn’t God create a Teletubbies type world?” variant.

    Short of a universe with quite different physical laws from those we have (or none, one that’s magic!) Coyne’s fantastic world cannot exist. Just to get rocks (ie anything much more complex than hydrogen) requires nuclear fusion and gravity; to get our Sun you need those same two; to get a temperate Earth that can support life, any life, you need those two; but with those two come weather and tectonics, so there will inevitably be earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, mudslides, droughts, Ice Ages, volcanoes, tsunamis, and natural disasters in general. A habitable Earth and natural disasters come together, so you only get the former if you also get the latter; a Teletubbies type world that’s idyllic and safe requires the abolition of natural law — physics as we know it, the universe as we know it, certainly the Earth as we know it — and its replacement by a world of contradiction and inconsistency in which only the benefits (habitability) of fusion and gravity are present and the drawbacks are absent.

    As regards Coyne’s “fixed longevity and a painless death”, I don’t suppose for a moment that some Teletubbie atheist would not then argue there cannot be a God because extinguishing their lives on the dot at three-score years and ten (or whatever) is arbitrary and cruel.

    Or maybe the Teletubbie atheist wouldn’t; the obvious solution for mental suffering that a Coyne-satisfying God could provide would be to make us unintelligent and inhuman — Teletubbies like Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa, and Po, perhaps, but not human, not Dhay, not Coyne.

    *

    I note that according to Coyne’s fellow anti-theist Sam Harris the answer to the problem of suffering and death is Buddhist philosophy and practice. If Samsara — this world of pain and suffering and death — and Nirvana are the same, where then is the Problem of Evil, where then the Argument From Evil? Discuss.

    *

    Getting back to Coyne, Coyne’s refutation of Wahlberg (which is only a refutation if it addresses Wahlberg’s actual thesis, which Coyne gives no sign he has studied or read) is itself refuted by pointing out it’s a demand for an absurd Teletubbies type world.

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