Another very Sophisticated Theologian explains why animals have to suffer

Perhaps some of you are groaning under the weight of Sophisticated Theology™ that I’ve pile upon you. But I do it for a good reason: we unbelievers are constantly accused of ignorance about the “best thought of modern theology”, and on those grounds the religious dismiss our arguments.  This was, for example, the gambit used by Terry Eagleton to dismiss Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and by my ex-student Allen Orr to dismiss the same book. This tactic of dismissing atheists because they haven’t read the likes of Duns Scotus has been debunked by P. Z. Myers in a famous post called “The Courtier’s Reply.

To counter this accusation, I’ve been making a thorough study of Sophisticated Theology™ and conveying the results to you. Think of it as a Reader’s Digest of theology.

So far, all of it has been pretty dire and unconvincing. One could say, I suppose, that I am biased, and am looking to dismiss what are actually quite subtle and “nuanced” (run when you hear that word!) theological arguments. To counter that, I’ve tried to present the Sophisticated Theologians™ fairly, using their own videos (e.g., John Haught, Alvin Plantinga) and quoting their own words.  See Plantinga’s video from yesterday if you want to see this genre at its “best.”

My conclusion to date has been that Sophisticated Theology™ is merely a thin veneer of fancy academic words brushed onto the usual cheap plywood of fairy tales. In the end, it still comes down to theologians making stuff up to buttress a shaky faith against the onslaught of science and rationality:  the post facto rationalization of religion euphemistically called “apologetics.”

A few days ago I wrote a post about Alvin Plantinga’s explanation of why animals suffer.  This kind of “natural evil”, which also includes the death of innocent people from natural disasters like earthquakes or from diseases like childhood leukemia, has always been the Achilles Heel of theology.  I have seen no explanation that isn’t either hilarious, mush-brained, or downright idiotic.

So let another Sophisticated Theologian™ have a try at the problem. I was directed to Peter van Inwagen by a footnote in Plantinga’s latest book, and so spent several tedious hours plowing through van Inwagen’s own justification for evil, presented as the Gifford Lectures in 2003 and published as The Problem of Evil (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2006; it’s online for free here). van Inwagen is a highly respected philosopher of religion and metaphysics who works, like Plantinga, at Notre Dame.  And, like Plantinga, he’s festooned with honors. His theology is clearly Sophisticated.

In The Problem of Evil he makes no bones: evil is permitted by God for the Greater Good.  However, human-caused evil and “natural evils”, especially the suffering of animals, have two different causes.  I’ll try to be as brief as possible, concentrating on animal suffering.

  • van Inwagen explains human-caused evil by what he calls “the expanded free-will defense”, which runs as follows (p. 71 of The Problem of Evil):

“God made the world and it was very good. An indispensable part of the goodness he chose was the existence of rational beings: self-aware beings capable of abstract thought and love and having the power of free choice between contemplated alternative courses of action. This last feature of rational beings, free choice or free will, is a good. But even an omnipotent being is unable to control the exercise of the power of free choice, for a choice that was controlled would ipso facto not be free. In other words, if I have a free choice between x and y, even God cannot ensure that I choose x. To ask God to give me a free choice between x and y and to see to it that I choose x instead of y is to ask God to bring about the intrinsically impossible; it is like asking him to create a round square, a material body that has no shape, or an invisible object that casts a shadow. Having this power of free choice, some or all human beings misused it and produced a certain amount of evil. But free will is a sufficiently great good that its existence outweighs the evils that have resulted and will result from its abuse; and God foresaw this.”

That’s a pretty standard defense. I’ve put at bottom van Inwagen’s unintentionally humorous scenario of how humans were raised to rationality instantly, given that (as van Inwagen believes) we evolved from earlier, nonrational apes. Do read it if you think that theistic evolution is okay because its proponents are really on the side of science in the evolution/creation debates.

Now to the animals, whose pains van Inwagen explains in Lecture 7: “The sufferings of beasts.”

  • First, the existence of higher-level sentient creatures related to humans is an intrinsic good in the world, because it was the ancestors of such creatures that evolved into humans, which are the only creatures made in the image of God (see the footnote for van Inwagen’s explanation for how humans became rational and hence partly reflective of God’s image).
  • Van Inwagen offers only two possibilities for how God would have constructed a world that contains such sentient creatures:
  1. He could have designed a world using evolution and natural law, which would perforce have contained patterns of suffering morally equivalent to that of the actual world.  Natural selection, an ineluctable part of evolution, necessarily entails suffering.
  2. Or, God could have constructed a world that he calls “massively irregular.” To alleviate animal suffering, God would have had to construct a “hedonic utopia” in which there was no natural selection. Animals could, for example, all be vegetarians, feel no pain, and die peacefully. To do that, God would have to have had to constantly sustain the world by suspending natural law, for otherwise natural law would produce evolution, natural selection, and animal suffering.
  • Which of these two kinds of world would God have made? The first, of course! Why? Because a world that is “massively irregular” is a world more defective than the first alternative above. God wants a world with as few defects as possible. And why is that? Well, van Inwagen waffles a bit, but offers a tentative solution. Here’s the good part (p. 123):

“Who can say what things of intrinsic value might be impossible in a massively irregular world? We cannot say.  Here is one example of a consideration that may, for all I know, be relevant to this question.” [JAC: notice how Sophisticated Theologians™ make stuff up and then pretend that they've arrived at a rational solution.] “Christians have generally held that at a certain point God plans to hand over the government of the world to humanity. Would a massively irregular world be the sort of world that could be ‘handed over’? Perhaps a massively irregular world would immediately dissolve into chaos if an infinite being were not constantly making adjustments to it. Again, we cannot say.  If anyone maintains that he has good reasons to believe that nothing of any great value depends on the world being regular, we must ask him why he thinks he is in a a position to know things of that sort.”

Of course, to accept this convoluted argument, you have to first believe in God—otherwise, you could accept alternative #1 but claim that there is no God and all suffering is an inevitable result of the physical nature of the world and its creatures. But you must also believe that God wants to hand the world over to humans at some point and become a Deus absconditus. Now I don’t know where van Inwagen gets that; it may be in Revelations or somewhere, but I haven’t gotten to that part of the Bible yet. It seems pretty made up to me, for it converts a theistic Christianity into a deistic Christianity, and I haven’t seen other evolution-friendly theologians make such a claim.

  • Okay, so animals have to suffer because otherwise God would have had to create a defective, massively irregular world. But why so much suffering? To answer this, van Inwagen discusses the famous case of “Rowe’s Fawn,” suggested by philosopher William Rowe as an example of pointless animal suffering that counts against the existence of a loving God (read more about this example at the link). From Rowe:

“Suppose in some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering.

“So far as we can see, the fawn’s intense suffering is pointless. For there does not appear to be any greater good such that the prevention of the fawn’s suffering would require either the loss of that good or the occurrence of an evil equally bad or worse,” (What If, 44)

van Inwagen’s response here is abysmal, even wicked (pp. 125-126):

God, everyone will agree, could have miraculously prevented the fire, or miraculously saved the fawn, or miraculously caused its agony to be cut short by death. And—I will concede this for the sake of argument—if he had done so, this would have thwarted no significant good and permitted no significant evil. But what of the hundreds of millions (at least) of similar incidents that have, no doubt, occurred during the long history of life? Well, I concede, he could have prevented any one of them, or any two of them, or any three of them… without thwarting any significant good or permitting any significant evil. But could he have prevented them all? No, or not necessarily. For if God has some good reason for allowing beasts to suffer, this good reason would not be served if he prevented all cases of such suffering. There may well be no minimum number of cases of intense suffering that God could allow without forfeiting whatever good depends on the suffering of beasts—just as there is no shortest sentence that a legislature can establish as the penalty for armed assault without forfeiting the good of effective deterrence. It may well be, therefore, that the fawn suffered simply because its sufferings fell on the “actuality” side of the particular line through the set of possible instances of suffering that God chose.

In other words, as van Inwagen says, God had to draw an arbitrary line somewhere through the amount of natural evils in the world, allowing many of them. For simply eliminating all animal suffering would create a defective and massively irregular world. Therefore, the fawn happens to be on the wrong side of the line.

It seems strange to me that God, being omniscient, doesn’t know how much evil he can actually prevent without the world becoming massively irregular. If at some point God’s going to retire and hand over the world to humans, surely he’d know whether humans could still sustain a world with even more suffering than exists now: the suffering that God normally prevents—the suffering on the good side of the line.

But this is all nonsense. van Inwagen simply makes stuff up to justify animal suffering.  What is devilishly clever about theologians like him is how convoluted but seemingly rational these fairy tales really are. If you accept this, and if you accept that, then the fawn must fry. The problem is that van Inwagen gives us no reason to accept the ifs: the existence of God, the premise that God made a certain type of world because some day he will hand it over to humans, and the existence of an omniscient God making an arbitrary decision of how much suffering to allow. Nor do we see any evidence of God interceding on the far side of the line and actually eliminating some suffering of beasts.

The more parsimonious argument is, of course, that suffering is a purely natural phenomenon, the result of the physical structure of the world, evolved diseases and parasites, and a necessary sense of pain that’s evolved to warn us of dangers.  And one doesn’t have to keep writing books to justify the atheist alternative, for our Good Book was written in 1859 by Darwin.  There is no need for a science of Evolution Apologetics, because the structure of the world is perfectly in accord with science.  Scientists don’t have to make up fairy tales to buttress their falsified hypotheses.

I’m looking forward to van Inwagen’s last chapter: “The hiddeness of God,” where, I presume, he’ll show us why it is necessary for God to remain concealed from humans.


Footnote: Just for fun, here is van Inwagen’s scenario for how humans became rational (p. 85 of The Problem of Evil):

“The following story is consistent with what we know of human pre-history.  Our current knowledge of human evolution, in fact, presents with no particular reason to believe that this story is false:

For millions of years, perhaps for thousands of millions of years, God guided the course of evolution so as eventually to produce certain very clever primates, the immediate predecessors of Homo sapiens.  At some time in the last few thousand years, the whole population of our pre-human ancestors formed as a small breeding community—a few thousand or a few hundred or even a few score. That is to say, there was a time when every ancestor of modern human beings who was then alive was a member of this tiny, geographically tightly knit group of primates. In the fullness of time, God took the members of this breeding group and miraculously raised them to rationality.  That is, he gave them the gifts of language, abstract thought, and disinterested love—and, of course, the gift of free will. Perhaps we cannot understand all his reasons for giving humans beings free will, but here is one very important one we can understand: He gave them the gift of free will because free will is necessary for Love. Love, and not only erotic love, implies free will.”


  1. ojwatson
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Hey – I agree with Rich. Plywood is a noble material combining the best qualities of natural and manufactured qualities. How about fibreboard, particleboard, cardboard or papier-mâché? But even these are fine for what they set out to do. How about “vaneered fibreboard passing itself off as mahogany”?

  2. ojwatson
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    veneered, even. Sorry.

  3. ojwatson
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Or as I meant to spell: veneered, even. Sorry.

  4. MadScientist
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Ugh; Sophisticated Theology ™ is just too full of stupid for me to read. Now and then I might get to the fifth sentence before I head off to do useful things.

  5. Jim Jones
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Clearly cats are far more clever than Sophisticated Theologians™. By van Inwagen’s scenario does this mean that ‘god’ must be Ceiling Cat?

  6. PJLandis
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    In most of these other comment sections there is usually one or two people who pop up to defend the faith but it seems like they avoid these Theology posts.

  7. PJLandis
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    …and I’d like to see guest posting on this topic by philosophers. Theologians claim to be working in a serious academic field, I would be interested to see what a serious philosopher would make of this stuff.

  8. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    This tactic of dismissing atheists because they haven’t read the likes of Duns Scotus has been debunked by P. Z. Myers in a famous post called “The Courtier’s Reply.“

    To counter this accusation, I’ve been making a thorough study of Sophisticated Theology™ and conveying the results to you. Think of it as a Reader’s Digest of theology.

    So far, all of it has been pretty dire and unconvincing. One could say, I suppose, that I am biased, and am looking to dismiss what are actually quite subtle and “nuanced” (run when you hear that word!) theological arguments. To counter that, I’ve tried to present the Sophisticated Theologians™ fairly,

    Of course I am grateful, because it teaches a lot. But will it suffice for the purpose?

    Reading Orr or really any religious fundamentalist, it is clear that no degree of pushing back the border to Bizzaro World by surveying and dismissing will suffice. Dawkins tried that by surveying the area and tackling the claims head on. But Orr isn’t satisfied with dismissal, he wants people to visit Bizzaro World and wrestle with Bizzaro Number 1 and his superpowers of stupidity:

    “Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

    The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

    Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow. Dawkins’s intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science popularizer,3 both of whom he cites repeatedly. This is a different group from thinkers like William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein—both of whom lived after Darwin, both of whom struggled with the question of belief, and both of whom had more to say about religion than Adams and Sagan.”

    So Dawkins, Adams and Sagan is “middlebrow” and, the Zombie help us, Wittgenstein is a “thinker”. Wittgenstein, of course, never contributed to science or litterature (except for, apparently, “one book review, one article,” and “a children’s dictionary” [Wp]). And he was an agnostic – so much for able thinking.

    More to the point, between the all the dismissals, I don’t see how these people will be satisfied without anyone writing tomes on “biblical history” and “christian theology” and pretend that it isn’t factually and intellectually vacuous. It would take a lunatic like Wittgenstein to do that.

    • Posted August 15, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      These statements about Augustine burn my onions! In many ways he took the bible literally, including the existence of the Garden of Eden. And see here for Augustine’s literal interpretation of Psalm 47, in which forty-odd children were, by God’s order, ripped to pieces by she-bears because they made fun of the prophet Elisha’s bald head.

      And what about the other Church fathers, and millions of readers through history, persisting until today, who do take the Bible literally?

      Frankly, I’m tired of accommodationists holding up Augustine as THE correct interpreter of the Bible when a) he was often a literalist and b) he’s not in accord with the many, many people to took, and take, the Bible literally.

  9. Posted August 15, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    “Would a massively irregular world be the sort of world that could be ‘handed over’? Perhaps a massively irregular world would immediately dissolve into chaos if an infinite being were not constantly making adjustments to it.”

    Why should it? Can’t an omnipotent god make a massively irregular (a dysphemism for “good”) world that would not dissolve into chaos if S/He were not constantly tweaking it? If not, S/He’s not omnipotent. Just make it self-tweaking, for heaven’s sake!

  10. ah58
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    My question is, why should we care about what god thinks is a good world if it sucks for us?

  11. Schenck
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    I have to wonder what happens to this sort of thinking when/if we end up realizing that there’s lots of sentient beings on other planets throughout the universe. Do we say all of them were created by god, none other than us were, only some were, etc. Surely something very human like could evolve naturally, even if you reject that human beings did, how do will we distinguish between the natural-sentients and the god-directed sentients? How will sophicateded theology demonstrate that we aren’t, after all that, a naturally sentient species?
    Obviously a bit of a far fetched problem, but surely this problem will arise some day. These types of arguments are going to look even more stupid than they do now if/when that day comes.

  12. Warlock
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Since when do we have free will? I missed that memo.

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