The Goodness of Nature and the Shroud of Evil
Traditional notion of good
The pre-Darwin worldview allowed for a less problematic understanding of the relation between being and good. We can think of Plato’s notion that The Good is beyond being, but serves as the source of all other being. In Plato’s analogy the Good is to the world of ideal forms what the sun is to visible reality. Just as the sun serves as the cause of the material world and makes it visible, the Good causes the forms and makes them knowable.
The forms are more real and more perfect than the visible objects that constitute inferior copies or images of the forms. Compared to visible things the forms are more real and share more perfectly in the ultimate form, the Good. That which is bad is less real than that which is good.
In presenting a traditional understanding of the goodness of reality, I am not trying to make a case for it. Rather, I am trying to set it in front of us so that it can become a basis for comparison.
Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics defined the good as that at which all things aim, and all things aim at the fulfillment of their nature. Something is bad if it lacks a quality that belongs to the fulfillment of the things purpose. You cannot have a good race horse that lacks speed, or a good workhorse that lacks strength. To use human examples, a good quarterback cannot lack arm strength, and a good surgeon cannot lack manual dexterity. In all of these cases we are not talking about moral good and evil, of course, but about qualities that enable an animal or a human to achieve its intended purpose.
The relation between purpose and good, which is found in all of nature and in non-moral qualities in humans, is also found at the level of human morality. Aristotle defines a human as a rational animal, and a good man or woman is one who has actualized the human potential for rationality.
Good moral qualities constitutes virtues which consist of habits of living according to reason, and in most cases involve avoiding the extremes of excess and deficiency, For example the virtue of temperance in eating means that a person eats the right amount of food relative to the needs of the individual person rather than eating too much or too little. Courage consists of the quality that enables a person to face danger when reasonable and avoid both cowardliness and rashness.
A bad person fails to actualize the ability to live reasonably, which means virtuously. Living reasonably is the defining characteristic of a human being. Unlike the virtuous persons, morally under-developed persons would not control their own passion and desire or learn to live justly in society.
Goodness, for us, means actualizing our nature as human beings. Since being is good, we become better by actualizing our potential for the kind of being that we are. In this worldview, moral evil, like all evil, is a lack, a failure to become a fully actualized being.
The affirmation of the goodness of being finds one of its fullest expressions in the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 -1274). Being and good are coextensive; whatever is, is good.
The concepts of being and good are distinct in that the idea of good adds something to the idea of being, namely, the relationship to a will. St. Thomas called the relationship between reality and God’s will essential. Since he believed that God is the creative source of all that is, everything that is created is good because God loves it. For us humans, the relationship between being and our will is not essential. In our case, we can love all reality because it is good.
But as pointed out in an earlier post, and as our lived life screams at us, the world does not look like the product of a Creator who made all things good. The problem of evil asserts itself in every discussion of the good. For St. Thomas, if all being is good, evil must be non-being, a lack of something that ought to be.
We can think of physical evils such as blindness, although we ordinarily do to use the term evil, but rather misfortune. For us to lose our eyesight is a misfortune because sight is a normal part of a human being’s experience. We love our eyesight and see it as a good. A premature death is a misfortune because we view life as good. All the bad things that happen to us from the loss of property in a fire or flood, to the loss of a relationship, are bad precisely because that which is lost is good. The evil consists of the lack of something that we deeply wish to be there.
Moral evil, as stated above in the discussion of Aristotle and virtue, is the lack of a quality that ought to be part of a human beings character.
The Thomistic view, that being and good are coextensive, includes the affirmation that being and truth are also coextensive. Just as “good” adds relationship to a will to the concept of “being,” so “truth” adds relationship to a mind. The world is understood as rational and “legible” because it flows from the mind of God. This is not a “creationist” idea in the sense of biblical literalism.
Although St. Thomas lived six centuries too early to know about evolution, his understanding of creation is compatible with evolution. Of course it is not compatible with a materialistic interpretation of evolution. The principle idea of God’s creative mind and will does not refer only to the beginning, whether the beginning is a very busy week in 4004 BC, or the Big Bang of 13. 7 billion years ago.
The essence of the notion of God as a Creator means that in spite of all of the disorder, there is an underlying order that makes the scientific study of evolution, as well as evolution itself possible. The problems for anyone who sees creation as the work of rationality and love is challenged today more that they would have been in the Thirteenth century. The universe as we know it is almost infinitely vaster than anything that could have been imagined in the days before Galileo. The enormity of chaos, violence and irrationality is also almost infinitely greater.
The world revealed to us by contemporary science does not resemble the ordered world of Aristotle in the golden age of Greek culture and learning, nor of St. Thomas in the flowering of medieval learning in the 13th century. It doesn’t even resemble the Newtonian view that inspired the Enlightenment when Alexander Pope wrote, “And God said ‘let Newton be’ and all was light.”
The happy age of light was thrown back into darkness by the grim details of Darwinian evolution and into confusion by the discovery of quantum physics and relativity. The violent and unhappy state of affairs that we humans subjectively judge as evil seems to be simply the way things are. Affirming the reality of “good,” much less an all-good Creator, become more and more problematic. Quoting Alexander Pope again, the more apt metaphor for realty might be:
Thy hand, Great Chaos, lets the curtain fall
And universal darkness covers all.
The key question consists of whether or not the pervasiveness of darkness, both physical and metaphorical, precludes the possibility of a powerful and good Creator. Two easy, but perhaps feasible, solutions would be to deny the darkness or to deny the Creator. The first solution deals with the problem of evil by making evil an illusion or a subjective human attitude. The second solution does the same with the problem of good.
Here I will follow the lead of those who acknowledge the reality of brute fact in the formation of the universe, and especially of the brutality of the evolution of life on earth, and yet maintain a rational belief in a Creator God and the reality of the good.
Theologian John Haught, who was cited in several posts, leads the way on this line of thinking. Haught supports the notion of God who is not a designer. If we think of God by analogy to a human designer, say of landscapes, cars, or clothing, we think of one who makes a careful plan before working it out in the material world.
But as Haught points out, the history of the universe, especially the evolution of life reveals novelty and surprises. As a theologian, he advises us to look for God, not in some primal past as a designer, but rather, in his phrase, “up ahead” in the novelty and surprises that evolution has to offer. He contends that to be a Creator, God must not only create order, but must also create chaos. A design would be a fixed plan, but from chaos new realties can be born.
In my next post I will try to build on Haught’s insights, except that I will argue that God does not need to create chaos.
Science and the possibility of belief in God and in free will
For centuries, before the ascendancy of physical science, theologians struggled with the question of predestination and free will. If God knows everything that will ever happen, in fact if God causes everything that will ever happen, how can humans be free? If God knows that you are or are not saved, there is nothing you can do about it.
With the development of modern physics from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, physical determinism replaced divine predestination as the cause of all things. Many of those who believed in God saw Him as a cosmic mechanic who set up the laws of the universe, started it running, and then had nothing else to do. In this view, we humans never had anything to do either, since every event, including those in our brain, has a physical cause, and free will is an illusion.
In the twentieth century the development of quantum physics and the uncertainty principle changed the way that many scientists look at the physical universe. Chance events take place at the sub-atomic level so that the physical world is not absolutely determined. These events can affect DNA causing the chance variations that are essential to the notion of biological evolution.
As stated in the previous post, some scientist believe that statistical probability makes determinism at the macro level as firm as the old mechanistic determinism, and so they reject random events and free will. On August 1 and August 8 I posted my take on the ideas two such scientists, Sean Carroll and Kristof Koch. Here, I will look more generally at the implications of indeterminism.
The idea of indeterminacy turns the world of physics as well as the world of theology upside-down, since neither the laws of strict determinism nor the mind of God controls all that has happened or will happen. Indeterminacy neither proves nor disproves the reality of God, but it allows that, if God is real, He can intervene in the events of evolution. Similarly, indeterminacy does not prove or disprove human free will, but it allows that there could be a conscious agency that intervenes in the events of our own brains.
Unlike the closed view of strict mechanistic determinism that prevailed up to the end of the nineteenth century, a contemporary view of uncertainty allows for the possibility of spiritual agency in the physical universe. The thoughts summarized in the preceding two paragraphs are argued cogently by biologist Kenneth R. Miller in Finding Darwin’s God, Chapter Seven,
“ Beyond Materialism.”
Miller states, as did theologian John Haught, that science cannot reveal whether God is real and whether there is purpose in the universe. But Miller contends that much of the atheism and materialism associated with science results from some scientists projecting their personal view on their science and hence on the universe.
Miller sees the universe, as revealed by science, to be perfectly compatible with belief in God, and that there is no need for gaps to be filled by magic and miracles. The world is incomplete in the sense that it is still developing, but it is logically complete in structure, especially as revealed by Darwinian evolution.
Miller interprets the statement in Genesis, that God created humans according to God’s own image and likeness, to mean that our mind is fit to study science and to progress in comprehending the structure of the universe.
While Miller and Haught see contemporary science as liberating us from a mechanistic view of nature, American philosopher William James (1842 – 1910) had struggled with the notion of free will when mechanistic determinism enjoyed supremacy among scientists - before the advent of quantum physics.
The problem took on a further complication in James’s time because most of the thinkers who rejected materialism posited a notion of God as the “Absolute.” This notion included the idea that God is all-knowing and all powerful and therefore controlled everything in the universe, past, present, and future.
James recognized that this notion of reality left no more room for human agency than did the materialistic notion. In an argument that bears on the notion of the Absolute, as well as whole religious argument against evolution, James observed that God, as experienced in religion bears little resemblance to the notion of a designer who controls every aspect of creation and guarantees a neat outcome.
James describes reality as a battle ground on which our salvation is possible but not guaranteed. Facing the evil of the world, we may succumb to the nightmarish view, or even the suicidal view, that our world is evil beyond hope.
But if we take up the challenge and believe in a hopeful outcome, we make the hopeful possibility become a reality. James proposed belief in a God who could take strength from our little efforts. Although the influence of anyone of us is small, together we are integral to any outcome of the world. A world that involves danger and struggle fits our nature better than a world with no hope and even better than a world with no risk. As James sums up his view in his essay “Is Life worth Living?”
If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,---as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulness, are needed to redeem; but first to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.
For James, the notion of God and humans struggling together to create and redeem a world is more compatible with religion and with human nature than either a hopeless materialism or a smug God who creates effortlessly while we look on as spectators.
Although James’s account of God would not be satisfactory to most classical theologians, it would fit the view of some process theologians. More importantly, whatever value James’s idea has for theology, he does show that a chaotic world, in which suffering, risk, and loss are real, is compatible with historical religion.
The above arguments intend to show that, contrary to naïve theists and atheists, belief in God is compatible with a Darwinian world-view with it slowness and with the intermingling of good and evil. Biblical religion does not portray God as a designer who makes the world easily out of his own substance. Rather, God can be hoped for as a Creator drawing the world out of nothingness, through all-in-division, toward a harmony whose fulfillment is up ahead. Scientists can continue to explore the world and bring it into ever more general laws, whether the scientists believe that all reality is a random arrangement of things in the vastness of time and space, or whether they believe that there is a rational purpose leading the way.
While the former view would seem to call for a philosophy of the absurd, the latter view is more hospitable to the project of science. James contended that theism is a more rational view than any of its opponents. Of course, we cannot assume, without circular argument, that the more rational view is true.
My very first post outlined the opposition between a spiritual worldview in which consciousness precedes nature, and the materialist view in which consciousness is a small and relatively insignificant product of matter.
For the spiritual view, evil presents a major problem. For the materialist view, evil does not constitute a metaphysical problem, but merely consists in our subjective discontent with the way things are. The spiritual view assumes the primacy of what we call ‘the good.” The materialist view sees the good as our subjective approval of some situations. The next post will explore the idea of good in a world shot through with evil.