About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Science, religion and the problem of evil

My colleague at the University of California-Irvine, Francisco Ayala, has been interviewed recently by the New York Times about his views on science and religion. Ayala is particularly suitable for the task, being a former Dominican priest and one of the world’s best known evolutionary biologists. I happen to agree with much of what Ayala said in the interview, but of course I will be focusing here on where I depart from his positions.

In the interview and in his latest book, Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, Ayala correctly points out that one of the many problems with the idea of Intelligent Design is that there is plenty of evidence that the universe isn’t well designed at all (this, of course, is not a new observation: both David Hume and Charles Darwin based their critique of the design argument on it). To quote Ayala: “Consider that at least 20 percent of pregnancies are known to end in spontaneous abortion. If that results from divinely inspired anatomy God is the greatest abortionist of them all.” Ouch.

But then Ayala turns around and provides an apparently elegant, but in fact deeply flawed, solution to the infamous “problem of evil”: “As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life, they were not a result of a deficient or malevolent design.” Bingo, Darwin gets God off the hook!

But, wait, what exactly is the logic of this argument? Why are floods, droughts, predators and diseases a necessary component of the world? And even so, this seems to imply that God isn’t directly responsible for natural evil (human-caused evil falls into a different category altogether), because he didn’t design living beings one by one, he just set in motion the laws of the universe. OK, but doesn’t a God who picks the laws of physics and biology bear some responsibility for their outcome, however indirectly? Is He not all-powerful, all-good and all-knowing? I mean, when a human-made bridge collapses we still investigate whether the engineers who designed it have some reasonable degree of culpability (or whether, ironically, it was an “act of God”). Perhaps God cannot be accused of genocide, but how about at least manslaughter? (Over and over and over again, of course...)

I would have expected a better effort from a scientist who has the additional insight of being a former priest, hence familiar with so-called theological arguments. But the fact is that it is next to impossible to come up with any better excuse for God, and when one wishes at all costs to reconcile its existence with what we know of the universe, one is bound to run afoul of elementary logic. Of course, Ayala may actually be an atheist and simply not want to get embroiled in a Dawkins-like media frenzy. When asked by the NYT reporter what his belief is, Ayala coyly replied: “I don’t want to be tagged, by one side or the other.” Yes, Francisco, but what about intellectual honesty?


  1. It is my understanding that engineers often build in safety factors on the order of 30-to-one or higher for structures like bridges. So the question could arise why the Designer who stood at arm's length from his creation couldn't do the same.

  2. Perhaps we are an unintentional creation? Born out of some super collider experiment in another universe.

  3. laneman wrote

    Perhaps we are an unintentional creation? Born out of some super collider experiment in another universe.

    Judging from the relative proportion of biomass occupied by the various sorts of critters on earth, bacteria are the intended goal of creation and we're merely unintended by-products that have the incidental (but desirable from the bacterial POV) property of serving as a host to 10 times as many bacteria as human cells in our bodies.

  4. OK, but doesn’t a God who picks the laws of physics and biology bear some responsibility for their outcome, however indirectly?

    Good point. I think Ayala would suggest, and this is probably the hardest part of Christian theology to understand, is that suffering is built into the program.

    On the other hand, I also know Catholic philosophers who wonder why the problem of evil is a problem at all?

    Let me give you two links.

    Mike Liccione.


    Scott Carson.

    Bear in mind, they are philosophers, not theologians, although they are Catholics.

  5. This David Mabus character has been going around threatening scientists and philosophers and posting that same trashy post. You should probably just delete it.

  6. I agree completely (and second the motion!)

  7. Done. Wish I could filter out comments from certain users automatically, you guys know whether there is a way to do that?

    Notice that I am now requiring at least "open registration," no more "anonymous" posting...

  8. I have a dream. I have a dream that someday all men and women will be judged by the true content of their character and not by how passionately they worship great bearded boogie-ghosts in the sky. I have a dream that someday all children will be taught the truth about their universe - physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, sociology and responsible resource management to ensure not just the survival, but the success of mankind, and NOT that some wish-thinking spirit chatter to some fictitious, testicled manifestation of delusional ancients high on acacia bark will solve all their problems.

    I have a dream. I have a dream.

  9. I'm not really sure Ayala's view is clearly enough laid out to say much about it. Ayala's view, I take it, is that design, understood literally as 'design by a designer', is simply not the right way to look at the things usually identified as natural evils: it does no serious work in either science or theology, and is misleading in either realm. Given that, one approach, which won't do, is to argue as Dembski (e.g.) does in his review of the book, that God "is as responsible in one case as the other" because he is setting up the conditions that allow bad designs. Ayala's argument seems to be that it is wrong to think of these things as designs in the above sense at all (they are just the sort of things you get when evolution happens, and we know that because they are, in fact, the sort of thing that we find given that evolution happens); and such an argument just re-introduces the literalistic design thinking that Ayala dismisses as confused in the first place. It leaves obscure, of course, 'why did God create a world with evolution like ours rather than something else'; this, it has to be pointed out, is simply a different question from 'why did the designer design a bad design rather than good design' (answer: the only meaningful sense in which, say, a flagellum can be said to be 'designed' is not a sense that involves a designer designing it). But since Ayala seems to leave it more or less at that (simply throwing in a version of Gould's NOMA), we are simply left with a great big question mark if we ask what he thinks the alternatives are.

    It's not clear to me whether in criticizing Ayala's position you intended to make Dembski's argument or this latter one.

  10. Brandon,

    for once I think Dembski is right: God is responsible (perhaps to different degrees) whether he designed things directly or indirectly. I suspect the vagueness you detect in Ayala is a reflection of poor thinking on his part when it comes to facing a logical reality he doesn't like.

  11. Well, the question is whether there is anything that can legitimately be called 'indirect design' in such a case at all; Ayala, I think, would deny it. (And it's true that even in the human case we don't regard every consequence of an action as being either directly or indirectly designed, even when foreseen.) But that does make the need for an alternative way of looking at it more pressing; and it's possible, of course, that Ayala's vagueness here comes from not working through the logic of his position, as you say.

  12. @Congressive:
    I have a dream. I have a dream that someday all men and women will be judged by the true content of their character and not by how passionately they worship great bearded boogie-ghosts in the sky.
    The problem with this is that the fundie brigade will immediately retort that worshipping the One True God (TM) IS the greatest example of good character there is. If a Xian does good, it is because they are living their lives in Christ, whereas if an atheist does good (a notion that may be rejected a priori by some fundagelicals), it is merely an accident with a happy outcome. As Bertrand Russell said, the problem with Xians is that they don't believe morality has anything to do with increasing the sum total of human happiness.

  13. These arguments remind me of the old computer aphorism: GIGO - Garbage In, Garbage Out. We have no clue about the attributes of a supposed designer. Some religions call It omniscient and omnipotent. Others don't. Some ascribe various human attributes to It such as wrathful, vengeful, loving, etc. Without knowing if the designer is omniscient and omnipotent we can't possibly know if It did the best job, a mediocre job, a botched experiment, or what. Maybe the designer is omniscient but not omnipotent, e.g. It knows the best design but doesn't have the power to implement it. Maybe the designer is omni-everything and just gets a kick out of disease and disaster: "Whoa, look at those little toads squirm. Ha, ha, ha."
    The world appears to operate as if there is no God, no guiding hand, but without a verifiable definition of God or any other designer, it's garbage in, garbage out.

  14. “As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world,..."

    I am perplexed as to why Ayala would even try to assert this. If there were an omnipotent designer God, I see no reason why he or she could not design climatic systems that are more or less in stable equilibrium, so that humans could avoid floods and draughts.

    Seems like he could design continents so that they are not floating around on plates, crashing and colliding and causing massive tsunamis that indiscriminately kill people who are the most vulnerable, the poor and their children (think Indonesia and Sri Lanka).

    Seems like he is just trying to avoid the best and most likely inference, that no designer God exists.

    p.s. Hooray on the no more anonymous posters!


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