Every 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.
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).
“In order rationally to believe that there is a God, despite [evil], we need either strong positive evidence for the existence of God, or a record of discovering with respect to many apparent bad states that a theodicy works with respect to them, or a theodicy for each kind of bad state which seems to count against the existence of God.”
Swinburne first develops an account of goods within creation. His account includes beauty, actions, thoughts and feelings as various goods. Given the existence of God, he also argues that worship is a great good. Human freedom is necessary for many goods. With freedom, humans can bring about all types of great goods. The freedom of persons also allows for great evils. These goods are not just goods for people, but they are states which God would be expected to desire to bring about. By developing this account, he is able to turn towards various types of evils.
First, there are moral evils. Moral evils are essentially those bad states of affairs which persons bring about. Swinburne argues that some moral evil is going to be necessary, because it is simply a fact that there are good states of affairs which are logically incompatible. Second, there is natural evil—evils which occur without direct causation by persons.
These sections of the book are largely made up of background, yet Swinburne interweaves his theodicy into the chapters on evil. Central to Swinburne’s account is the idea that for every evil, there is some reason that it occurred. There is, in other words, no evil which is superfluous, no evil which is gratuitous. For every evil mentioned, Swinburne provides a possible reason for God’s allowing it to occur. What reasons could God have for allowing evils like the holocaust, or animal pain? Swinburne sums up his view concisely as follows:
“Every moral evil in the world is such that God allowing it to occur makes possible… the great good of a particular choice between good and bad… Every pain makes possible a courageous response… and normally the goods of compassion and sympathetic action… And all animal pain gives knowledge and opportunity for compassion to animals and humans if they know of it.”
Swinburne’s view is that for every evil, there is a reason. The reason can be knowledge: when people (or animals) observe animals dying in forest fires, they learn to flee from the fires, and thus save themselves and others. Choice is a great good, but in having choices, people can choose to bring about great evils. Horrendous evils like the Holocaust are not just the result of choices in the present, but are the consequences of a long series of evil choices.
Importantly, Swinburne also argues that God is under no obligation to make everyone’s life equally good. “[I]f [God] gives to some ten good things, and to others twenty good things, no one is wronged; nor has he failed to be perfectly good. He has been generous, and, more so, he has made it possible for us to be generous.” God’s providence is good to everyone. There is a level of inequality in the gifts received—but to any and all, gifts are given. The way people choose to use their gifts is what leads to extreme inequities.
Finally, Swinburne argues that God has the right to allow evil, largely due to the extreme dependence people have upon him. Not only that, but God has brought about a world in which every person has the possibility of the nearly infinite good of being with God forever. Thus, Swinburne concludes that God has provided people with a choice between the good and rejection of the good. The responsibility for that action is upon the person, not God.
Throughout Swinburne’s account are several theses many readers may find implausible. He rejects original guilt [he does not deny that there was an original sin and instead holds to an Eastern Orthodox view–thanks to a reader of the original review (linked below) for this point] and denies that God knows the future free actions of creatures. These theological points do not undermine his main theses, however. It is undeniable that Swinburne has provided a lucid account of a “greater good theodicy.” He does provide possible reasons for allowing any type of evil to occur.
The key point of divergence with readers will be whether they are willing to accept these reasons in conjunction with his later conclusions. God has reasons for allowing every evil, and he provides for people to have extraordinarily good lives with the afterlife, but there remain those who will reject these goods. Swinburne’s account is cumulative: the reasons provided for allowing evils do not stand on their own. Rather, they stand together and in unison with God’s providence and direct goodness to all persons through maintaining the world, creating them, and providing them with choices.
Those interested in the problem of evil would do well to read Providence and the Problem of Evil. Usage of the “greater good theodicy” is on the wane. Many theists today only provide versions of the “free will defense” in relation to the problem of evil. In doing so, they cast aside a powerful philosophical tool for theism. While the “greater good theodicy” will not convince everyone, it can at least provide a strong cumulative case when joined with other defenses against the problem of evil.
 Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (New York, NY: Oxford, 1998), 29.
 See Swinburne’s thoughts on this on pages 4ff.
 He also believes that we have strong positive evidence for the existence of God, but he focuses upon theodicy in this work. See his The Existence of God for a case for the existence of God based on positive evidence.
This review was originally posted at Apologetics315 here: http://www.apologetics315.com/2011/11/book-review-providence-and-problem-of.html
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.