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Why Southgate’s “co-suffering” Argument Suffers: The Intrusion of the Emotional Problem of Evil in Evolutionary Theodicy

In my recent series I particularly focused on addressing the Problem of Evil (POE) on the presumption of an evolutionary history of pain, predation, suffering and extinction, etc., (P) and the implied age-old earth. I concluded in The Problem of Evil: Part Two that Christopher Southgate’s “compound evolutionary theodicy” was strictly unnecessary because with the resources of Christian theism there was no POE, apart from the emotional force of P. The following post considers the emotional POE of P in Southgate’s theodicy and possible strategies for an appropriate defense.

The Emotional Force of the Problem of Evil

It is clear that Southgate is not strictly responding to an intellectual problem, but rather an emotional problem. He states, “the crux of the problem is . . . the Christian’s struggle with the challenge to the goodness of God posed by specific cases of innocent suffering.”[1] This is exemplified by Fyodor Dostoevesky’s Ivan Karamazov. In response to an innocent child’s suffering, Ivan says, “It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha; I’m just, with the upmost respect, handing him back his ticket.” The intuition being that if God allowed evil in the world, his goodness is impugned and he is therefore no longer “a God worthy of worship”[2]

In a very real way, as long as there is pain and suffering and death, the emotional POE will remain with us. Christianity is furnished with rich resources to address this problem, theologically pastorally, and practically.

One such solution offered by Southgate in his compound evolutionary theodicy is his second plank: the “co-suffering” argument. The argument is that God is not one who remains distant, aloft and uncaring, but identifies with the pain of every sentient creature. This argument has two fatal flaws. First, to the emotional problem caused by human pain and suffering this is an appropriate response, for Christ enters into our suffering by becoming incarnate and being crucified. However, this is over-reaching as a solution to animal suffering. Christ’s life was an experience as a man identifying with humans (cf. Heb 4:15), and not as non-human animal.

Second, Christ’s co-suffering with us does not explain how God can be good and yet there be evil and suffering in the world. Instead it provides a balm, removing the sting of being alone facing such a harsh reality. This fact is well and should not be diminished. However, as a defence for only the emotional POE and not a theodicy, it has limited utility for any wider concerns.

An alternative for addressing the emotional POE for P would be an understanding of Michael Murray’s levels of pain experienced by different animals. It is also permissible to speculate that just as the Spirit of God is the helper of humanity and comforter of the redeemed, providing purpose and resolution in the face of adversity, strength and endurance through suffering, so the Spirit of God may similarly help his creatures in the whole of the animal kingdom.

These strategies are ultimately unnecessary, for the emotional state of someone does not determine truth. Appealing to emotions is an important part of the task of persuasion – not for determining what is and is not true. Although such strategies are unnecessary, they are available for those seeking to develop a defence for the emotional POE.


Footnotes

[1] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation; God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KE.; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 13.

[2] Ibid., 10

Southgate’s “only way” the Wrong Way: God’s Omnipotence and Benevolence in the Problem of Natural Evil

The Problem of Evil

Christopher Southgate, author of The Groaning of Creation, denies a cosmic fall on the grounds that suffering, pain, predation, extinction, etc., (P) is instrumental in the Darwinian process for producing values, such as consciousness, rationality and the “range, beauty, complexity, and diversity of creatures the Earth has produced.”[1] Here is where the major plank in his compound evolutionary theodicy enters the picture: his “only way” argument–really just an assertion.[2] It is that for God, the P intrinsic to the Darwinian process was the only way in which God could bring about the many good values that have arisen in nature. In the Problem of Evil: Part Two, I offered three reasons why this major plank in Southgate’s argument is rotten. First, it presupposes natural evil is morally evil.[3] Second, a world without P may indeed be unimaginable, but that does not make P untenable. Third, his solution is successful in protecting God’s benevolence, but unfortunately at the expense of divine omnipotence.

On this third criticism Southgate does note Michael Lloyd’s unwillingness to accept such a solution specifically because it limits the power of God. All he offers is an assertion that fails to address the point. He states,

“I fully accept that we can never be sure that this was God’s only way to give rise to creatures such as stem from the 3.8-billion-year-long evolution of the Earth’s biosphere. We can only say that given what we know about creatures, especially what we know about the role of evolution in refining their characteristics, and the sheer length of time the process has required to give rise to sophisticated sentience, it is eminently plausible and coherent to suppose that this was the only way open to God.”[4]

But if God is omnipotent (can do anything that is logically possible), it is incoherent to suggest he could not have achieved the same values that have arisen by acting in such a way as to avoid the disvalues of P.  Hence Southgate’s solution to the problem of evil then is to favour a benevolent God to an omnipotent one.

To preserve God’s omnipotence a preferable argument would be that the actual world was the only feasible world for God to actualize given specific purposes, such as to bring a maximal amount of free creatures into relationship with him. Such a world may be filled with all types of natural and moral evil, even in the animal world. Since it is logically impossible to make someone freely do something, this does not subvert the traditional understanding of divine omnipotence. Southgate acknowledges creaturely freedom may be one of God’s purposes that could explain all the natural evil in the world, but shies away from saying this purpose is the reason why P characterizes the actual world.

Different divine purposes could apply in other specific situations. For instance, the spread of the gospel is in large part dependant on the fossil fuels that resulted from mass extinction events.


Footnotes

[1] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation; God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KE.; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 29.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] I have argued in The Problem of Evil: Part Two that this is dubious with three reasons that could assume animal suffering is similar in type and intensity to human suffering, and with one reason that argues animal suffering is not similar.

[4] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 30.

The Problem of Evil: Part Two

In Part One I explored different articulations of the Problem of Evil and sought to remedy the force of those arguments. In this, Part Two, I will look at the theodicies of Christopher Southgate and William Dembski that take into account animal suffering in an evolutionary history as a part of the problem of evil, and in doing so develop a framework for my own theodicy.

Southgate’s Not-so-easily Dismissed Dismissals

Christopher Southgate is an example of a Christian Theologian grappling specifically with the problem of animal suffering from a theistic evolutionary perspective. Before offering his own theodicy in The Groaning of Creeation, Southgate dismisses three strategies for an evolutionary theodicy. I will argue these strategies are not so easily dismissed and in fact, suitable for inclusion in an evolutionary theodicy.

Augustine provides the first stratagem.[1] Southgate’s reply is that we have a far greater understanding of the suffering in the nonhuman world than we did in the pre-scientific age. This dismissal is more of a confirmation of Augustine’s point; that due to our epistemic position we cannot see the divine purpose of the suffering we perceive in the natural realm. But if evil is magnified in our comprehension, then our view of the good that God has brought and will bring about is too small.

The second stratagem Southgate dismisses is that nonhuman creatures do not really feel pain.[2] His appeal to the science is misleading and misdirected. It is a question for the philosopher of science to answer if the appearance of pain in nonhuman creatures should be equated with the type and intensity of pain experienced by humans. Michael Murray, a philosopher at Franklin and Marshall College, distinguishes three levels of pain experienced by different organisms depending on the development of their brains.

Level 3: a second order awareness that one is oneself experiencing (2).
Level 2: a first order, subjective experience of pain.
Level 1: information-bearing neural states produced by noxious stimuli resulting in aversive behavior.[3]

Spiders, Bumble Bees, and possibly even the larger reptiles, plausibly only experience the first level of pain. At most the evidence suggests that vertebrates, such as dogs, cats and horses experience Level 2 but not Level 3. The part of the brain that is most closely associated with the consciousness of pain, is also the part that was last to arrive among mammals – the pre-frontal cortex.[4] Accordingly, all can experience pain, but only the higher primates are aware they are in pain. Alexander Pruss, philosopher at Baylor University, after giving examples of phenomena such as being able to be distracted from pain, suggests “… it really could turn out that it is our ability to conceptually focus in on mental phenomena in a second-order way that is crucial to pain’s being really bad.”[5]

The third stratagem Southgate dismisses says the suffering of animals is just a fact of nature. Kenneth Miller is a proponent of this stratagem, which argues that animals have no moral character, and we should not project onto them moral categories that properly belong to the sphere of human beings.[6] Southgate’s reply again fails to address the pertinent point. That creatures have value to God does not explain why we should consider their suffering to be wrong.

Indeed, it is not immediately apparent that animal suffering is wrong.[7] First, humans have value to God – yet suffer. We trust that there is a sufficient reason for human suffering, though we may never discover it in this life. Why should we believe then that God does not also have a sufficient reason for suffering in the animal kingdom, though we may no see it? Second, the argument that natural evil is morally evil is dubious. Showing animal suffering is wrong from mere natural facts, such as suffering, breaks the Humean principle and commits a deontic fallacy by deriving an “ought” from an “is.” Third, on the Divine Command Theory of ethics God does not have moral duties, and so is under no obligation to spare animals from suffering, let alone their lives in mass extinction events. Any perceived cruelty on his part is wrong thinking on ours. Fourth, we naturally fall victim to what is termed a Hyper-active Agency Detection Device (HADD): that is, the human tendency to ascribe to nonhumans personal agency.[8] Ascribing moral significance to actions of an animal is to run afoul of the fallacy of anthropopathism. Craig quips, we are “being had by HADD.”[9]

Southgate’s Compound Evolutionary Theodicy

Southgate’s proposed “compound evolutionary theodicy” suffers problems of its own, however my criticisms here will focus on the place from where his theodicy sprung. This is his denial of a cosmic fall as responsible for the pain, suffering, death, extinction and predation (P) in the natural world. I shall describe his second objection to such a doctrine, and then give reasons why that objection is erroneous, then do the same with his first objection.

Southgate’s denies a cosmic fall on the grounds that P is instrumental in the Darwinian process for producing values, such as consciousness, rationality and the “range, beauty, complexity, and diversity of creatures the Earth has produced.”[10] Here is where Southgate’s “only way” argument–really just an assertion[11]–enters the picture, the major plank in his evolutionary theodicy. It is that for God, the P intrinsic to the Darwinian process was the only way in which God could bring about the many good values that have arisen. This reason immediately suffers from the following criticisms. First, it presupposes natural evil is morally evil.[12] Second, a world without P may indeed be unimaginable, but that does not make P untenable. His solution is successful in protecting God’s benevolence, but unfortunately at the expense of divine omnipotence.[13]

The first reason for Southgate rejecting a cosmic fall is that there is no evidence that any state of perfection existed at any time in earth’s history. He sights the uniformity of the fossil record as evidence. The dismissal at once suffers from three flaws. First, the “very good” of Gen 1:31 does not mean the absence of P. Southgate himself notes that this should be interpreted as aesthetic and functional, but he implicitly interprets it as moral and pragmatic in his critique.[14] Second, Genesis reports that Adam and Eve inhabited “the Garden,” gives a description of where Eden was, and were told to subdue and bring dominion over all the earth. This strongly implies the planet at large contained “thorns and thistles” where man had to toil to feed himself, and that Eden was a small localized area (and perhaps time) of safety and provision. Third, the narrative does not commit one to the belief that the consequence of a cosmic fall will present itself in the geologic record or somehow falsify a uniformitarian perspective. [15]

Dembski’s Proposal

Southgate is aware of this, for he continually positions his criticisms against a chronological reading of the fall narrative with an initial state of perfection, and footnotes the theodicy of William Dembski,[16] who advocates a kairological reading Genesis 1-3.[17] Dembski’s theodicy suggests that the effects of the fall are retroactive in history just as the salvific effects of the cross of Christ are.[18] On this scheme, God foreknew the human response to temptation and created a world that would reveal to humanity the gravity of the consequences of their sin in the natural world after the expulsion from Eden.

Southgate objects to this on the grounds that it is “weird” and “theologically extremely problematic.”[19] Weird it may be, but weirdness is not an adequate test for truth.  It is theologically problematic for on Dembski’s scheme God is responsible for P, and thus the creator of natural evil.[20] We have already responded to the way Southgate conflates natural evil with moral evil. But this objection is further ill conceived, for God is the creator of the same amount of natural evil on Southgate’s theology. Unlike Southgate, Dembski is up-front about this weakness. He says the fact that God created this evil (whether actively or by permission) is “a bitter pill to swallow.” Yet it is a pill that brings us the promise of redemption.[21]

Wrapping Up

If a defence manages to show that there is no POE, this will greatly diminish the need for a theodicy. Our review concluded that there is an external POE in a probabilistic form, the potency of which is severely diminished by the resources of Christian theism. Thus, apart from the emotional force of P given evolutionary theory,[22] Southgate’s evolutionary theodicy is strictly unnecessary. We have considered Southgate’s dismissals and objections, and constructed a framework for a theodicy that preserves Christian orthodox teachings regarding God’s omnipotence, benevolence and a cosmic fall that traces back to human sin, in the current mental environment that accepts evolutionary theory and a long history of predation. This compound theodicy proceeds by arguing there is no reason to think that natural evil is actually morally evil or that animal suffering is wrong, and good reason to think that it is not wrong by distinguishing different levels of pain and affirming the possibility that God has sufficient reason for allowing P in the animal kingdom.

In Part Three I will include the Appendices and Bibliography.


Footnotes

[1] Southgate quotes; “. . . this is the appointed order of things transitory. Of this order the beauty does not strike us, because of our mortal frailty we are so involved in a part of it, that we cannot perceive the whole, in which these fragments that offend us are harmonized with the most accurate fitness and beauty.” The City of God, 12, 4, quoted in A. Richard Kingston, “Theodicy and Animal Welfare,” Theology 70 (November 1967): 485. Also in Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation; God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KE.; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 3.

[2] He states, “It is true we can never see into the mind of animals. But we do know some. We have scientific examples of animals under not merely physiological response but actual suffering . . . intense and protracted pain and/or fear among creatures, particularly when the creature senses there is no chance of relief, may justifiably be termed suffering, and there is ample evidence that exists, particularly in creatures that have complex brains processing information from pain-detection systems.” Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 4.

[3] Cited in William Lane Craig, “Nature’s Flaws and Cruelties” n.p. Reasonable Faith, Question 134. Cited 8 November 2010. Online: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7645 See Also Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, (Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4] William Lane Craig, “Animal Suffering” n.p. Reasonable Faith, Question 113. Cited 8 November 2010. Online: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7215

[5] “Or take that weird experiment that showed that looking at a paining body part through the reverse side of the binoculars, and hence making the part appear smaller, made the pain feel smaller.  . . . One might, for instance, come to one of two conclusions: (a) human conceptual abilities make pains less bad than they would be in a critter without these abilities; or (b) human conceptual abilities make pains worse than they would be in a critter without these abilities (or one might think that sometimes (a) is true and sometimes (b) is true).” Trent Dougherty, “Animal Pain and Animal Resurrection and Humanization: Somewhere between theodicy and defense” n.p. Alexander Pruss, comment 30 September 2010, Cited 8 November 2010. Online: http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2010/09/animal-pain-and.html

[6] In response he affirms the nonhuman world is of value, because God (A) created it, (B) pronounced it good, (C) sustains it in existence, (D) nurtures it with love. He concludes that the sufferings of the nonhuman world must be involved in theodicy. Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 4.

[7] The following reasons would all apply if P were comparable in type and intensity to human suffering. However, as I have argued, by distinguishing Levels of pain, there is no reason for us to think that it is so, thereby eliminating the need for the following considerations.

[8] Richard Dawkins provides an amusing example. His bicycle had broken down and with it his temper. Yelling at the bike he realized that it really couldn’t understand him. Some psychologists believe HADD is a tendency that is hard wired into our brains.

[9] William Lane Craig, “Nature’s Flaws and Cruelties” n.p. Reasonable Faith, Question 134. Cited 8 November 2010. Online: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7645

[10] Christoper Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 29.

[11] Ibid., 16.

[12] I have already argued that this is dubious with three reasons that could assume animal suffering is similar in type and intensity to human suffering, and with one reason that argues animal suffering is not similar.

[13] For an explanation see Stuart McEwing, “Southgate’s “only way” the Wrong Way: God’s Omnipotence and Benevolence in the Problem of Natural Evil,” n.p. Thinking Matters. Citied 18 December 2010. Online http://thinkingmatters.org.nz/2010/12/southgates-only-way-the-wrong-way/.

[14] His critique is of Michael Lloyd’s two papers. Michael Lloyd, “Are Animals Fallen?” in Animals on the Agenda: Questions about Animals for Theology and Ethics, ed. Andrew Linzey and Bdorothy Yamamoto (London: SMC Prress, 1998), 147-60; “The Humanity and Fallenness” in Grace and Truth in a Secular Age, ed. Timothy Bradshaw, 66-82 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). A breakdown of these categories is given by Daniel J. Dyke, “Was Evil Present in God’s Very Good world?” n.p. Reasons to Believe. Cited 2 November 2010. Online: http://www.reasons.org/interpreting-genesis/animal-death-before-adam/WasEvilPresentinGodsVeryGoodWorld

[15] Some theologians (C. S. Lewis for example, as well as Michael Lloyd) hypothesize Satan’s fall as responsible for natural evil. If this is the case, Satan’s fall could have been before the foundation of the planet and thus show no different modus operandi of the biosphere in the geological record. This would also preserve the idea that natural evil is the result of a personal agents moral evil. Dembski finds this solution difficult exegetically and problematic theologically, for on this scheme God nevertheless is still responsible for allowing Satan to ravage an innocent creation. God’s inaction is a necessary condition for any evil occurrence.

[16] Southgate refers to Demski’s online paper “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science.” This work is no longer available, however his thoughts have been expanded and developed in a full length book, The End of Christianity; Finding a Good God in an Evil World, (Nashville, TE.; B&E Publishing, 2009).

[17] This is based on the insight that there are two Greek words that translate for time. Chronos, which means approximately a duration, i.e. “he took his time,” or “at the time of the changing of the guards,” and Karios, which signifies intentionality, i.e. “in the fullness of time,” or “at the appointed time.”

[18] As Newcomb’s paradox demonstrates, the usual metaphysical rule of backwards causation does not apply when dealing with an omniscient God.

[19] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 146.

[20] Southgate’s nomenclature is “ontological evil,” which is at once philosophically problematic; evil has no ontos, just as ice has no warmth. Evil is privation.

[21] William Dembski, The End of Christianity, 150. Dembski leaves this thought largely undeveloped. He does minimally state that God brings about natural evil to free us from the more insidious evil in our hearts.

[22] For further development of this see Stuart McEwing, “Why Southgate’s “co-suffering” Argument Suffers: The Intrusion of the Emotional Problem of Evil in Evolutionary Theodicy,” n.p. Thinking Matters. Citied 19 December 2010. Online http://thinkingmatters.org.nz/2010/12/why-southgates-co-suffering-argument-suffers/