apologetics, Sunday Quote, Theodicy

Sunday Quote! – Do Trilobites Yield a Greater Good?

nrtc-murrayEvery Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

Trilobites Yield a Greater Good

Recently, I finished reading Nature Red in Tooth and Claw by Michael Murray. It is, essentially, a look into animal suffering and how it plays into the problem of evil. It was a phenomenal read and I have to say I learned quite a bit from it. One quote I particularly enjoyed was actually from a quote Murray provided from George Frederick Wright, a 19th century theologian and geologist.

The purpose of that low organism [the trilobite] is by no means exhaustively explained when we have taken a measure of the sensational happiness he derived from his monotonous existence…  But a far higher purpose is served in the adaptation of his complicated organism and of the position of his tomb in a sedimentary deposit to arrest the attention and direct the reasoning of a scientific observer. The pleasure of one lofty thought is worth more… than a whole heard of sensational pleasures. (142, cited below)

There is much to unpack in this quote, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll just examine one facet. Wright asserted that the final cause–the ultimate purpose–of a trilobite is not merely found in its own existence, but also in its existing to “arrest the attention and direct the reasoning” of a more highly developed organism. Indeed, Wright argued that the learning the life (and death) of the trilobite brought to the scientific observer was a far greater good than the life the trilobite lived of sensational pleasures.

A number of issues would need to be addressed before a fuller theodicy could be developed from this point. First, not every trilobite was able to convey its life to the good of a scientific observer. Second, is the good of scientific observation really better than sensational life of the trilobite?

Of course, I personally think the point by Wright is interesting and compelling to a point–but to develop that argument would take as much space as Murray dedicates to it. My final observation would be that Wright’s argument was not intended as the final word on the subject. It is but one among many facets of a greater good theodicy or a conjoined theodicy with other varieties of approaches to the problem of evil. Nature Red in Tooth and Claw develops a number of these in very interesting and compelling ways. I recommend it.


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Animal Pain Re-Visited– Over at Reasonable Faith, Michael Murray defends some theses of his book that I discussed above.


Michael J. Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (New York: Oxford, 2008).


About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.


15 thoughts on “Sunday Quote! – Do Trilobites Yield a Greater Good?

  1. The problem that the prey/predator biosphere presents to the claim for a benevolent designer is not eased by playing word games about how pain and suffering may or may not be related. This is an excuse to avoid the obvious: that such a system stands contrary to the claim for a benevolent designer who supposedly could have created a system without ANY pain or suffering. Try convincing the families of the those dying in pain (or owners of critters dying in neurological distress) that it is good to allow some measure of pain and suffering for the loved one, that this allowance indicates evidence for some deeper benevolence, and see just how convincing your argument is. I hypothesize not one iota. That’s why I claim this argument by Murray (an apologetic gem) is a diversionary excuse to shift the burden of proof away from the claim for a benevolent designer and unto others to establish that neurological pain always produces real suffering… as well as demanding definitive proof that the value of the suffering can be philosophically shown to be greater than any value anyone claims to derive from it.

    It reminds me of the claim I once read (I forget who made the claim) that the suffering of Jews was not equivalent to the suffering of real people, a similar claim made by some Hutus (I heard on the radio urging mass slaughter in Rwanda) that the suffering of Tutsis was of less concern than the reducing the suffering of Hutus at their hands because they were supposedly less human and so the measure of pain was of lesser concern than the eventual improved welfare of the Hutus once these less-than-human people were eliminated. And so on. The line of reasoning shifts away from recognizing pain and suffering as something deserving of reduction (because we can reduce it) and becomes a de facto excuse for not doing so.

    Posted by tildeb | March 23, 2014, 8:42 AM
    • I just want to clarify here: are you saying there is no good in scientific discovery?

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 23, 2014, 10:27 AM
      • I’m saying Murray’s argument, “that (tildeb: perhaps) animal pain and suffering are not real, or that we are (tildeb: perhaps) in a good position to know whether or not they are real“, is a diversion – an apologetic ploy – from having to justify the claim that the prey/predator system fits within a benevolent designer model.

        The very high degree of similarity in the comparative model between the physiological and chemical neurology of a critter and people along with the very high degree of similar behavioural responses to the same neuropathic stimulation that activates the same regions of the brain in both and reported by people to be identified as pain that causes suffering, offers compelling evidence that the there is a high degree of likelihood that critters are also experiencing some comparative measure of suffering.

        Whether this equivalency is one-to-one or some other ratio is not an adequate defense to justify the claim that a world of suffering (based on the suggestion that perhaps the pain of critters produces a qualitatively different kind of suffering than experienced by humans) is therefore compatible with a benevolent designer. It’s a diversion.

        Posted by tildeb | March 23, 2014, 11:13 AM
      • Again: are you saying that discovery is not a good?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 23, 2014, 11:29 AM
      • Did you infer that I think discovery is not (a) good (because I never implied any such thing with my comment because it has no bearing on my criticism)?

        Posted by tildeb | March 23, 2014, 4:21 PM
      • Your criticism seems to be against an argument not being made here. Of course, Murphy does think that at least at some level animals do suffer; his point is that there is a distinction between suffering and awareness of suffering. But frankly, that is entirely beside the point of this specific post. It seems you’ve decided to use this post to pontificate on other areas of disagreement with Murphy. But the point in this post is simply a quote from Wright which argues that (among other goods), one good for creatures is that they provide discovery for later rational creatures.

        So again, do you actually dispute this point (that discovery is a good) or are you simply using this opportunity to pursue your agenda?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 23, 2014, 4:33 PM
      • Your post is about considering that suffering can yield a greater good (hence the trilobite example), and on this basis using the consideration to offer some measure of justification for maintaining a benevolent designer in spite of a biosystem operating on the prey/predator model suffused with suffering.

        Your post is not about researching pain and suffering. Your post is about considering the possibility of a greater good from it to address those who point out its incompatibility with a benevolent designer.

        My criticism of your post is that playing a word game about the quality and quantity of pain and suffering – as if this mitigates its ubiquitous presence when you have no evidence that neurological systems very similar to our own might experience what amounts to little if any pain and therefore little if any suffering (except by neurologically damaged brains) – does not address why such a brutal system can be comported with a benevolent designer when the entire system is predicated on neurological pain and suffering. Of this fact there is no question.

        That you do not wish to address this incompatibility straight on (could a better system be designed that had much less – if any – unnecessary pain and suffering? Obviously, this must be a strong possibility when we include omnipotence to the designer. Why there is so much suffering is because that’s the way biology works best to create reproductive success in an evolutionary system. But it seems to me that supporters of a benevolent designer with omnipotence wish to transfer the burden of proof for this claim and in the face of compelling contrary evidence (the pain and suffering of a prey/predator biosystem) to those who point to the obvious incompatibility and demand from them to quantify pain and suffering first (because maybe it’s not real pain, real suffering when every indication (from how nerves work to the system as a whole) shows us that it is!

        This shift is a diversionary tactic to addressing the fatal problem a belief in a benevolent and omnipotent designer faces having supposedly implement such a horrendous system of suffering.

        Posted by tildeb | March 23, 2014, 6:50 PM
      • You still have failed to answer my question. Are you suggesting there is no good in discovery?

        Now, I’m not sure that you are capable of telling me what the point of my post is (or should be), so it’s hard for me to see how relevant much of your comment is. But one serious problem with your proposal is that you’re apparently claiming that you are capable of knowing how to build a better system than that which is in place. Suppose, for the moment, there really is some sort of deity out there. Further suppose that this deity did create the world and originate life (in some fashion). Now, granting those suppositions, we humans are by extension the products of that deity. Now, you–a product of that deity with the power capable of creating life and the universe–think you are capable (in the epistemic sense: you believe you are epistemically suited for) of telling that deity what the deity could have done better. I admit I find this amusing.

        But really, I want to focus on the actual thrust of my post as opposed to your perception of it. My claim was simply that there is some sort of good found in discovery. Do you actually deny this claim, or are you just insistent upon turning this into an argument about other things? I just really want to focus on what I think the point of my post is rather than whatever anyone else wants to turn this discussion into. So one last time: do you deny that discovery is a good?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 23, 2014, 9:53 PM
      • are you saying there is no good in scientific discovery?

        ‘Good’ is not a property of scientific discovery. It is a value we place on it.

        Posted by tildeb | March 24, 2014, 6:59 AM
      • Right, and you think it is “good” to pursue these discoveries?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 24, 2014, 6:05 PM
  2. You and – Wright – have no means to determine any ‘final’ cause or ‘ultimate purpose’ other than by empty assertion. And it’s empty because of this lack of means independent of the assertion itself.

    Posted by tildeb | March 24, 2014, 8:37 AM
    • Wrong. The problem of evil is a charge of internal inconsistency on theism. If theism were true, however, then God has reasons for creations like trilobites. Now one doesn’t even have to assert this is actually the case on theism; it may simply be possible that God has such things in mind as final ends for trilobites. After all, the charge is that there is internal consistency. But if a consistent proposition is possible which dissolves this inconsistency (or if several interlinking propositions which are consistent show this is false), then the problem of evil loses its force. If you want to charge theism is internally inconsistent, then you have to grant the premises of theism to show how that is the case.

      You say the notion of “final cause” is an “empty assertion.” But of course that’s just begging the question. The problem of evil is the charge that theism is itself incoherent; but on theism, things do have final causes. To have you come along and say those concepts are empty is a matter of you having your cake and eating it.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 24, 2014, 6:09 PM
      • “If theism were true…” and therein lies the conjecture presented as if a legitimate contender of describing the reality we share, the central premise on which all else you present follows. The problem that I described is found here, where you have no means to verify this premise as true or not true, accurate or not accurate, descriptive of reality or simply wishful thinking. You focus instead on consistency within the logic and presume that correct form means a correct conclusion… which it does only within the form. What it doesn’t do is provide us any means to test it against the reality it supposedly describes, the claims made about reality. This is the methodological flaw that is fatal to this form of reasoning used to justify confidence in claims about reality regarding supposed final causes and asserted ultimate purposes, which – as you will recall – was my original criticism. This is not begging the question; this is revealing why the assertion is empty of any knowledge value about reality… because ti offers us no means to verify or test it. And this method is guaranteed way to fool one’s self into justifying claims about reality by exempting reality any role to arbitrate it. That the world is full of pain and suffering is not the issue (by suggesting that the pain and suffering is perhaps, conceivably, hypothetically, maybe, might not really be real pain and suffering; claiming a benevolent and omnipotent designer in spite of all the pain and suffering (regardless of their questionable quality to those motivated to pretend otherwise) remains no matter how much word play and logical circles of correct form you care to present. Reality fatally questions the assertion of consistency to deduce a benevolent and omnipotent designer.

        Posted by tildeb | March 24, 2014, 9:59 PM
      • Okay, again: if we’re actually going to stick to the point of this post, we’re discussing the problem of evil. This problem contends there is internal consistency. Thus, if one shows that it is actually consistent, the “problem of evil” fails. Given that so far you haven’t actually provided any reason to show how this fails, but have instead chosen to continually try to change the subject, I’m going to once more repeat my refrain: if you actually think that scientific discovery is a good (not as you misread it: that an empirical truth is “good” but rather that an agent discovering it is a good), then you really aren’t disagreeing with me.

        Instead, it seems you’re determined to attempt to derail the discussion. I am thus going to stop responding at this point because I believe the point has been established: discovery is indeed a good; the charge of internal inconsistency is false.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 24, 2014, 10:14 PM


  1. Pingback: Book Review: “Death Before the Fall” by Ronald Osborn | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" - July 16, 2014

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