Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A catalogue of evils

In his written debate with Alvin Plantinga, secular philosopher Michael Tooley has "A brief catalogue of some notable evils", Knowledge of God (Blackwell 2008), 109-15. Since Tooley is a high-level atheist, and this is an impressive list, I'd like to interact with his examples.  

First, there are extreme moral evils [Hitler, Stalin, genocide].

Secondly, there is the suffering endured by innocent children, including the suffering caused by lack of food in many parts of the world, by diseases such as muscular dystrophy, leukemia, cerebral palsy, and so on, and by abuse inflicted upon children by adults…

Thirdly, there is the suffering that adults endure as a result of terrible diseases–such as cancer, mental illness, Alzheimer's disease and so on. 

Fourthly, there is the suffering of animals. 

All of the types of evils just mentioned could be prevented by a very powerful and knowledgeable person. But the God of theism, if he exists, is not just a being who now has the power to intervene: he is also a being who created everything else that exists. Consequently, one can also raise the question of how satisfactory the world is. When one does this, it appears, for example, that there are a number of "design faults" in human beings that contribute greatly to human suffering and unhappiness, and where either no benefits at all are apparent, or else no benefits sufficient to counterbalance the negative effects.

(1) The sinuses are misdesigned: the lower sinuses open upward, and thus they do not drain properly, with the result that they may become infected and cause, in some cases, severe headaches. 

Evolution, of course, provides and explanation of both good "design" and bad "design". Thus, for example, our sinuses would be fine if we were four-legged animals,, rather than two-legged ones. But this explanation is not available to the creationist, and if the theist who is not a creationist attempts to appeal to this idea, he or she needs to say why an omnipotent, omniscience, and morally perfect being would employ evolution as a way of designing different species. Why leave things at the mercy of a morally unguided process that has had, as one would have expected, a number of bad results?

(2) As in the case of sinuses, so with the human spine: while its design is not too bad in the case of four-legged animals, it is a very unsatisfactory piece of engineering in the case of two-edged animals. This bad design, in turn, means that many humans suffer from back problems…

(3) Another example of what would seem to be an easily correctable "design fault" is the presence of wisdom teeth…impacted wisdom teeth, by becoming infected, could then lead not only to considerable pain, but to septicemia, and to death. 

(4) A fourth illustration is provided by childbirth. The size of the human head relative to the size of the birth canal has three unfortunate consequences. First, humans are born in a much more underdeveloped, and therefore more vulnerable state than newborns of other species. Secondly, childbirth is often a very painful experience. Thirdly, childbirth is potentially a very dangerous event for the woman…In the past, many women died in childbirth and many continue to do so in less affluent countries.

(5) Men and women differ in various ways…women [are] more likely to develop lung cancer than men, without smoking more…So greater susceptibility to lung cancer is programmed into women.

(6). Another striking source of considerable suffering is declining hormone levels as one grows older [osteoporosis, Alzheimer's disease].

(7-8) The body is equipped with sensors that detect injury, and announce the presence of bodily damage via painful sensations. these injury-detectors are badly designed, in at least four ways. First, they are not sensitive to the presence of many life-threatening bodily changes [e.g. cancer]. 

Secondly, these injury-detectors often produce high levels of pain when there is no condition that poses a serious health risk [e.g. migraines]. 

Thirdly, there is no way of shutting down these injury-detectors in situations where, rather than providing the individual with a useful warning of bodily damage, they only contribute to the person's misery by producing ongoing pain sensations. 

Fourthly, the injury-detection system produces levels of pain that are often unbearably intense and that are in no way needed to serve the purpose of alerting one to bodily damage. 

When some part of the body is being damaged, the injury-detectors, rather than giving rise to pain associated with that part of the body, could, where possible, immediately generate an automatic withdrawal response…

(9) When people become overweight, there is no reduction in appetite, nor is the mechanism that enables one to make use of stored fat an effective and well-designed one. Nor does the body cease extracting and storing calorie-rich compounds, such as fat, from the foot that it is processing.

(10) The body contains a variety of defense mechanisms to deal with the threats posed by bacteria, viruses, toxins, and so on. But viruses are often capable of countermeasures–sometimes of quite a sophisticated sort–that enable them to foil the body's defense mechanisms. A better designed defense system would not be thwarted by such countermeasures. 

(11) Malaria, sickle cell anemia. 

(12) Humans are sexually mature some time before they exhibit significant emotional maturity, with the upshot that quite young girls can bear children long before they have developed the emotional responsibility and commitment needed to care for children satisfactorily.

(13) The association of intense pleasure with sexual activity also appears to be a design fault. For while sexual pleasure can certainly contribute to human happiness, it appears that when everything is taken into account, the world might well be better off if people reproduced simply because they wanted to have children, and if people were not seduced by the very great pleasure associated with sexual activity into actions that have far-reaching and often quite disastrous consequences.

(14) Conscience seems to be quite a fragile thing, and many people seem to have a very weak sense of right and wrong…Would not such a stronger and clearer sense of right and wrong make the world a better place?

(15) Humans are subject to aging, a decline in physical functioning…arthritis…the deterioration of one's mental capacities, sometimes including the complete destruction of those capacities that make one human.

(16) The mind can be damaged not only by processes connected with aging, but by strokes and other injuries to the brain…If mental faculties, rather than being dependent upon the brain, were instead faculties of an immaterial soul, such unwelcome occurrences would be totally absent from the world.

(17) More radically, embodied persons could be constructed of tougher stuff, so that all bodily injury was ruled out: they could be supermen and superwomen, in a world without kryptonite. 

(18) Finally, there is the brief span of human life, and the inevitability of bodily death. This feature of human life seems very unsatisfactory from a moral point of view, as it both places a severe limit upon the possibilities for personal growth and intellectual development, and ends relationships between people that are often deep and enduring. In a well designed world, surely, the lives of people, and the relationships between them, would be completely open-ended, free to develop indefinitely, with no terminus imposed from without. 

"Design faults" are not limited, however, to human beings…thus, in the first place, the earth is misdesigned in many ways that give rise to natural disasters resulting in enormous suffering and loss of life, for both humans an animals. This includes earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, cyclones, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, tidal waves, and epidemics. 

Secondly, the world contains bacteria and viruses that cause very great suffering and death.

Thirdly, there is the enormous suffering that results from the existence of carnivorous animals. 

Fourthly, the world is one where the resources that exist are too limited to provide for populations of humans and other animals that are expanding at natural rates. The world could instead have been an infinite plane, or have had inhabitable planets that were easily accessible. 

That's quite a litany! I imagine something like that might be devastating to the proverbial young man raised in the proverbial fundamentalist, anti-intellectual church, who's never been exposed to the objections of a sophisticated atheist. 

I'll begin by making some general observations, followed by some specific observations. 

A. Tooley seems to be attacking generic theism. That's a typical target among philosophical atheists. However, hardly any theist is a generic theist. Theists are nearly always adherents of a specific historical religion. So the custom of attacking generic theism misses the target. 

I say that because Christian theism, for one, has explanatory resources lacking in generic theism. Even if generic theism falls prey to some of these objections, Christian theism may not. 

B. Apropos (A), Tooley fails to take a doctrine of providence into account. The fact that the human body is vulnerable in different ways isn't ipso facto a design flaw if God protected humans from harm. In other words, Tooley isolates the body from external factors, as if the only consideration is whether the body in itself has the internal capacity to repel pain and harm. But the body needn't be impregnable to avoid physical suffering if God providentially protected humans from physical harm. 

C. Apropos (B), Tooley fails to take the doctrine of the Fall into account. An unfallen worldl might contain many natural hazards, but God could intervene by warning humans of dangers or by directly stepping in to prevent or deflect a looming danger to humans. For instance, take the role of angels in Scripture. And that's in a fallen world. Suppose humans had guardian angels in an unfallen world. 

On that view, humans suffer from some physical maladies, not due to design flaws, but because God withdrew his providential protection after the fall. Humans were never designed to have autonomous bodies. In addition to the body's natural defense mechanisms, we'd always need God to look out for us. And such special providences would make us mindful of him. 

D. Perhaps Tooley would object that the Fall is in itself part of the problem of evil. The Fall requires special justification. Why would a benevolent God expose us to the perils of life in a fallen world?

No doubt a Christian philosopher or apologist needs to respond to that. One issue is whether an unfallen world is better than a redeemed world. An unfallen world is better in some respects than a fallen world, but a redeemed world is arguably better in other respects than an unfallen world. I've discussed that on multiple occasions.

E. Tooley fails to take eschatological compensations into consideration, like the Christian doctrine of heaven and the resurrection of the just. But that blunts the force of some of his objections. 

F. There are standard theodical strategies to address some of Tooley's examples.

G. Assuming that some of his examples are genuine cases of physical defects, why presume that these are design flaws rather than subsequent maladaptations? In other words, he takes for granted that a physical defect must be part of the original design. But does he have any way to distinguish design flaws from maladaptations? For instance, even in an unfallen world, genetic copying errors might still arise. Random mistakes in a natural process. The human organism is fiendishly complex, and so there are many opportunities for genetic defects to creep in. 

In an unfallen world, God might prevent these or fix these, but in a fallen world they begin to pile up. Cumulative maladaptations transmitted to humans generally.

Or, to take a different example, suppose, in mate selection, men prefer women who look like Catherine Deneuve. But perhaps that petite face, with a short jawline, is prone to impacted wisdom teeth. Natural selection magnifies mate selection. More offspring by such mothers will inherit a jawline prone to impacted wisdom teeth. That wouldn't be a design flaw, as if Eve was the prototype. 

H. There's a certain irony when atheists discuss perceived design flaws. Dysteleology presumes a teleological standard of comparison. But where did atheists derive their concept of proper function in the first place?

I. Another irony is that when atheists attribute purported design flaws to the blind watchmaker, that's a "science-stopper". They give up on looking for a deeper explanation. 

Moving from general to specific:

(1) Here's an explanation for sinuses:

(2) To my knowledge, backaches are generally due to sport injuries, a sedentary lifestyle, and the aging process. 

It's not a design flaw that a body part isn't indestructible. The fact that many humans have an unhealthy lifestyle is not a design flaw. The human spine works just fine in one's physical prime. 

Indeed, it's quite impressive what athletes can do. If anything, the spine exceeds design specifications. Athletes often do things that exceed what's required for survival in the wild. 

(3) Here's an explanation of wisdom teeth:

(4) The size of the human head involves tradeoffs:

i) If humans had smaller heads, we'd be dumber.

ii) Childhood is often a source of joy for kids and parents alike. If humans could fast-forward from birth to adulthood–like the the Jem'Hadar, or In Vitros in Space: Above and Beyond–we'd miss out on so many life-enriching experiences and memories. 

(5) Yes, men and women are different:

i) If female smokers are at higher risk of lung cancer than male smokers, then that's an another reason for women not to smoke. Smoking is an elective behavior.

ii) You can't just assess a particular risk factor in isolation. For instance, women generally live longer than men. So a liability in one respect may be offset in another respect.

(6) Liabilities due to the aging process are not design flaws. Senescence is a consequence of the Fall. 

(7-8) Regarding pain receptors:

i) Although life in an unfallen world might not be pain-free, it's quite likely that liability to excruciating pain is a consequence of the Fall. For one thing, we'd be providentially protected from many causes of excruciating pain in an unfallen world.

ii) Prior to advances in medical science, it wouldn't matter if the body could detect cancer at early stages. It would still be untreatable.

(9) Regarding obesity:

i) I believe that's generally associated with a sedentary lifestyle as well as the aging process. That's not a design flaw.

ii) Mild obesity might confer a survival advantage when you can't count on eating every day. Consider hunter-gatherers.

(10) Regarding the immune system:

i) Once again, that's a consequence of a fallen world rather than design flaws.

ii) It may be that in an unfallen world, the body would have greater resistance.

iii) That said, is it even naturally possible for the body to be immune to every possible toxin and pathogen? Seems unrealistic to me. In a cause-effect world, bodies have limitations, no matter how-well engineered.

(11) Once more, that's not a design flaw but a consequence of the Fall.

(12) Regarding adolescent moms:

i) That assumes a nuclear family in which mothers raise their young singlehandedly. But traditionally, humans belong to extended families where young mothers had mature female relatives to help out. 

ii) To my knowledge, the age at which females reach the childbearing years is variable. 

(13) It's funny to see an atheist complain that sex is a design flaw because it's too much fun.

i) The fact that sex is so compelling is what contributed to the historic replacement rate. In the age of abortion and contraception, many countries have fallen below replacement rates. 

ii) Physical attraction isn't just what brings couples together but what keeps couples together. If men and women weren't attracted to each other, they'd live apart. Human social life would be radically different. More like bears that impregnate she-bears or leopards that impregnate a leopardess, then the female raises the cubs single-handedly. 

Physical attraction provides an incentive to stick around as well as the opportunity to form emotional bonds that outlast sexual passion. Has Tooley thought through the implications of his alternative? 

(14) Many moral dilemmas are artificial, so that even if we our moral intuitions were more reliable or discriminating, we'd still be stumped by hypothetical scenarios. 

(15) Yet again, senescence is a consequence of the Fall. This is a systematic failure in Tooley's analysis. It vitiates so many of his examples at one stroke.

That said, it's impressive that humans can still function and live so long after their physical prime. The body has built-in redundancy. That's a tribute to fine engineering. They have so much in reserve. 

(16) Regarding traumatic brain injury:

i) Tooley keeps making the same mistake. Liability to traumatic brain injury is a result of the Fall. 

ii) Mental faculties are, indeed, faculties of an immaterial soul. However, living humans are embodied souls, so that damage to the brain impairs cognition, just as damage to a receiver impairs communication. 

(17) Regarding superheroes:

i) That's science fiction. Superheroes are imaginary characters. All surface. There are no technical schematics for superheroes. There's no reason to think that postulate is naturally feasible. In a cause/effect world, there are physical constraints on what's possible.

ii) Suppose (arguendo) humans were made of "tougher stuff". Is that better or worse? Consider how important the sense of touch is in human bonding. Or walking barefoot on a sandy beach. Or taking a hot bath or shower. Or feeling a warm breeze on your bare back. For that matter, our skin is basically one big erogenous zone. 

Would we really be happier or better adjusted if we were made of "tougher stuff"? We'd suffer from tactile deprivation.  

(18) Regarding mortality:

i) This goes back to Tooley's central oversight. He fails to take the Fall into account.

ii) Why isn't mortality a problem for atheism rather than (Christian) theism? His objection is a backdoor admission that naturalism reduces to existential nihilism. Ironically, that's a reason he should ditch atheism.

(19) Moral and natural evils are addressed in standard Christian theodicies. In fairness, he wrote the entry on the problem of evil for SEP, so he does attempt to evaluate those responses. And I agree with him that some theodicies are unsatisfactory. However, not all theodicies are susceptible to his formulations, and he neglects some promising theodicies.

(20) Frankly, I can't get worked up over the alleged problem of animal pain. To my knowledge, that's not a traditional element of the argument from evil. Rather, that's something effete pet owners fret over. 

I've discussed the issue on multiple occasions. Don't care to repeat myself here.

(21) Regarding natural disasters:

i) Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, &c., aren't design flaws but ways to restore the balance of nature–like safety valves that release pressure. 

Does Tooley have any detailed idea whether a world without those mechanisms is naturally feasible? He's mentally removing natural disasters, as if you can leave all the good things in place.

ii) Natural disasters are only disastrous if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once again, that's a consequence of life in a fallen world. 

(22) Bacteria and viruses play a necessary ecological role. They're not gratuitous evils. Insofar as they are harmful to humans, that's due to the Fall. 

(23) To postulate that the world could be an infinite plane is science fiction rather than a physically realistic proposal. And even if that's psychically realistic, what makes an infinite plane hospitable to life? Is an infinite plane consistent with all the other requirements for organic life? 

(24) In what sense would inhabitable planets be easily accessible? Not naturally. Does he mean supernaturally? 


  1. For what it's worth, I responded to one of Tooley's examples: "No lungs, no lung cancer!"

  2. Two other things that need to be factored in which Steve and other apologists have pointed out in times past. Soul Making/Building/Developing theodicies where character and virtues are developed and produced, as well as soul testing theodicies were God places us in situations in order to be able to one day reward us with praise/vindication and blame/condemnation. For His greater glory and the greater good of the redeemed.

    In Augustinian theology God grants us the grace by which we "graciously merit" (a seemingly oxymoronic term) our rewards in such a way that God gets the ultimate glory, but we get proximate praise.