Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Tsunami and a solution to the problem of evil

According to geologists, it's possible that life would not exist on earth without the plate tectonics that also happen to cause earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and general death and destruction. On the most basic level: Volcanism on the early earth is probably what spewed forth the atmosphere and oceans (in the form of water vapor). No oceans and no atmosphere = no life (at least as we know it). Also, without plate tectonics, over millions of years, carbon dioxide would get locked up in rocks as carbonate, and without that greenhouse gas, the earth would freeze over. Luckily, with plate tectonics, volcanoes spew out carbon dioxide, thus completing the carbon cycle. On a secondary level: volcanoes make soil fertile by spreading ash with helpful minerals for miles around. Tectonic action concentrates mineral deposits like gold. And so on.

This could provide some support for an interesting solution to the problem of evil (i.e., how can there be a God who's both all-loving and all-powerful when there is so much suffering and evil in the world?): the "modal realism" solution. (Hat tip: Crooked Timber.)
Let’s assume the following metaphysical claims are all true.
  • There is a class of abstract possible worlds W. (I’m not going to say what abstract and concrete amount to in any of this - on this distinction see Gideon Rosen’s SEP entry.) In other words, weak modal realism is true.
  • God cannot change any of those worlds without destroying it - what happens in a world is essential to its nature.
  • What God can do is make any of them that He chooses concrete. Abstract possible worlds have no moral value, but concrete worlds do have value, or disvalue if they are bad, so this choice is morally loaded.
  • God’s creation is timeless, so He can’t create one and then tinker with it. For each world He faces a take-it-or-leave-it choice. [...]
If all this is true [a big if!], what should God do? Well, I think He should create all and only the worlds such that it is better that they exist than that they not exist. And that will include worlds, like this one, that are not perfect but that contain more goodness than suffering. So the existence of this world as concrete entity is compatible with God’s existence, and indeed His omnipotence and benevolence.
With respect to the tsunami, one could postulate that when God was deciding whether or not to create this particular universe, he knew that the laws of nature in this universe dictated that life could only evolve if Earth had active plate tectonics, but that these plate tectonics would also create lots of pain and suffering. And perhaps that pain and suffering didn't outweight the goodness of life and humanity evolving. Given all the discussion of the problem of evil in the wake of the tsunami (and in light of the historical precedent for such discussion), this point is well worth pondering.

It's a sort of Deist conception of God (especially the idea that universes are timeless and take-it-or-leave-it so God logically can't tinker with them). I'm not sure that it address the problem of evil posed by the traditional Christian God, who sometimes intercedes with miracles in the Bible, etc. And it's hard to see how AIDS, the Holocaust, etc. could possibly be beneficial in the same way as plate tectonics.

In any case, the problem of evil doesn't especially distress me since I don't believe in God. Still, this possible solution is intriguing (and at least forces one to focus on the real reason for not believing in God, namely the lack of evidence thereof.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, nice post. I've found all of these reactions to the "problem of evil" in the face of the tsunami interesting. This one I find interesting enough that I may have to post about it. Thanks for describing it. 

Posted by Chris

1/12/2005 10:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is great. I have thought about these before, you put the topic out there in a very straightforward way with a cool analogy!! 

Posted by Michael

1/12/2005 11:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Chris and Michael - thanks for your kind words; I'm glad you enjoyed the post! 

Posted by Andrew

1/13/2005 12:37:00 AM  
Blogger Lizzie said...

mmmm, I think it's interesting that this explanation of "evil" depends on there being ultimatley much more good than suffering and evil in the world. Yet I think we have several reasons to believe that suffering far, far outweighs "good". The argument is flawed by being so human-centric. (Although I would argue goodness in humans is actually extremely limited, as well). However, I'm assuming that humans are (with some arguable exceptions) the only species who can do good in any significant way. But if one refers back to time scales of life on earth, we see that the human's time on earth constitute barely a sliver of that time. Meanwhile, other species, who cause- and can feel- real pain, have been around for hundreds of millions of years. For example, the hagfish has been eating other deep sea creatures slowly from the inside out, for that long. This would be one of the most horrific experiences I can imagine- slowly getting eaten alive from within- and it's been happening to millions of creatures for millions of years. If we're to look at good outweighing evil and suffering, how many Mother Theresa's would it take to overcome the pain and suffering created by even a single hagfish?

8/27/2005 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Hi Lizzie,

Yes, for sure I think there is a ton of suffering in nature (I just finished reading Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer... a more disturbing catalogue of horrific devourings and manipulations is hard to imagine).

But let me play Devil's Advocate - why do you assume that humans are the only species who can do good? If we're looking at suffering on the purely visceral level (i.e., "pain"), surely animals do "good" by providing each other with pleasure. One could also argue that the sheer existence of organized, complex life is such a great good that it outweighs all this pain and suffering.

So we could extend the explanation for the tsunami to the explanation for the evolution of all of life, i.e. natural selection. Natural selection involves pain and suffering several orders of magnitude greater than that of tsunamis, but (paralleling the argument in my post) one could postulate that when God was deciding whether of not to create this particular universe, he knew that the laws of nature in this universe dictated that life could only evolved through natural selection, but that this natural selection would involve a lot of pain and suffering. And perhaps that pain and suffering didn't outweigh the goodness of life and humanity evolving.

Well, it's a stretch, I don't really believe it myself. But hey, it's interesting...

8/27/2005 02:56:00 PM  
Blogger Lizzie said...

Hi Andrew, I see what you're saying and I appreciate that you're actually including other animals in the equation. I personally feel that pain, suffering, far, far, outweighs pleasure and happiness. (And I'm one of less miserable people I know!) I guess this is a question for the ages, though to me the answer is quite clear. Interestingly, I don't think my outlook is particularly "adaptive". And, I'm not planning on having children, in part (I think) due to my very bleak outlook, so, maybe we see why my dark point of view seems to be relatively rare!

8/29/2005 05:10:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

maybe we see why my dark point of view seems to be relatively rare!

Yes, interesting point - I believe there are actually studies showing that "normal" people have unrealistically optimistic estimates of their capabilities and future prospects, whereas clinically depressed people have more realistic estimates... suggesting that the "Lake Wobegon" effect and other positive delusions are necessary for human survival in a harsh world.

8/30/2005 11:17:00 AM  
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