Monday, February 12, 2007

An Unnatural Evil

"Natural evil" as a part of the broader problem of evil has posed a problem for theists for almost as long as there have been theists. It can be seen as suffering that is embedded in nature, not the product of any volitional action. That suffering seems to be built into the fabric of our universe poses a real problem for those who claim that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent - perhaps a greater problem than any other aspect of the broader problem of evil.

Theodicy - as we've seen before - is the attempt to logically reconcile the apparent contradiction between an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving good and perfect God, and the fact of suffering, the fact of evil. The most persuasive theodicies, in my opinion, all involve some appeal to human freedom. They argue that suffering is a necessary product of human freedom, and that such freedom is a greater good than the experience of suffering and evil is a bad. As such, the freedom that produces suffering, the freedom that produces evil, offsets the evil, the suffering, that it produces.

While I am not persuaded by such an account, I can see how many people would believe it. Those of us who believe that the freedom of action and the freedom of will that we experience is more than illusory cling to that freedom as one of our most cherished possessions. We resent any intrusion on our freedom, any manipulation, any coercion. We fight off and rebel against those who would subvert our wills. This shows that at least some of us - those of us who do not so readily exchange our freedom for the illusion of security - do in fact see freedom as a kind of supreme good.

This implicit understanding of the value of freedom is at the heart of the most persuasive theodicies. These theodicies tell us that, if, in fact, we must have either freedom or a life without suffering and evil, we would choose to live freely. My only problem with them is that they, in supposing that we must have either one or the other but not both, in fact place limitations of a supposedly unlimited God. In doing so they implicitly contradict what they overtly propose - that suffering is not incompatible with an unlimited and perfectly good God.

"Natural evil," though, is not so easily attributable to human freedom. After all, what role does our activity have in producing hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, cancer and the like? These forms of suffering, these natural instances of apparent evil, have throughout human history seemed to exist outside the realm of volitional action. This fact, however, has not stopped some from attempting to connect natural evil to human activity.

Augustine of Hippo gave the first theodicy against natural evil that I am aware of. In it he connects natural evil both to the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the justice of God. He argues that no form of natural evil - no naturally occurring instances of suffering - existed in the Garden of Eden. In Eden there could have been no hurricanes, no tornadoes, no earthquakes, no disease, no death. However, the Fall of humanity through the actions of Adam and Eve in the Garden, somehow disrupted the very fabric of the universe. When humanity fell, the whole Earth fell with us.

As such, at least indirectly, natural evil is no natural phenomenon. It is the product of the subversion of the human will, the end result of the corruption of our nature, a corruption which in turn corrupted the whole world.

I suspect that he arrives at this position through a reading of the creation myths of Ancient Israel found in Genesis - and yes, there are two distinct myths. The first myth is found in Genesis 1:1 - 2:4a, and the second myth comes immediately after. While the first myth is primarily about

a.) an ongoing creation process that constantly moves from chaos to order, and

b.) the establishment of Shabbot, the Sabbath, a sacred day of rest,

it also asserts a natural connection between humanity and the natural environment. The activity of creation ends on the sixth day, when God transfers dominion of all the Earth and everything in it to humanity. While that transfer has often been seen as almost a transfer of power - we now have dominion over nature and are justified in dominating it and using it for our purposes - it can also be seen as a transfer of responsibility. However it is seen, it connects the well-being of the world with human activity.

The second creation myth is the story of Adam and Eve, a story that also speaks to the relationship between humans and the natural environment. Genesis 2:5 reads

...when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil...

This verse - and its surrounding context - connects all vegetative life to the existence of humans, who are charged with stewarding natural resources and tending to the well being of the ecosystem. This charge - found in both creation myths - is at the heart of Stewardship Theology, a kind of ecologically conscious approach to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This connection may also be the sort of thing that Augustine had in mind when he attempted to connect natural evil to the Fall of Adam and Eve. When the caretakers of the Earth were corrupted, the Earth they were charged to care for was also corrupted.

Augustine also had in mind the justice of God - a reflection of his androcentrism. Natural evil is, for him, only a problem because it causes humans to suffer. Yet such suffering, seen after the Fall, is for Augustine the prerogative of God. We - cosmically speaking - earned it. Perhaps it is used to drive us toward repentance, or perhaps it is used merely to balance the scales of justice. In any event, when a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, or cancer or some other horrible disease strikes, we cannot ask God why. We know why. Like all other forms of suffer, the why is answered with the Fall.

I have never had much use for this kind of thinking. By now my philosophic and religious objections to theodicy should be clear. In my view, they don't work, and they don't help. They are neither philosophically or emotionally satisfying. Additionally, in this particular case it has always seemed to me to be the height of arrogance to somehow connect human activity to natural disasters. How, after all, could Adam and Eve - who I don't believe were ever intended to be understood as historical figures - eating an apple cause tornadoes and the like? On a literal level it didn't make sense to me, and on a metaphorical level it didn't speak to me.

But, last night I finally watched (I can't believe I get to use this phrase) Al Gore's Academy Award nominated film An Inconvenient Truth. As I watched it, I remembered Augustine's theodicy concerning natural evil. And while I don't think Augustine was right - he was, after all, writing long before human activity could dramatically impact the natural environment - I do think that he was inadvertently on to something. That is, his notion that human activity plays a role in what we call natural evil turns out to be correct, even if not in the way that he understood it.

Natural evil is - in the way that we experience it today - not exactly natural at all, if by natural we mean something like "the opposite of contrived"; or something like "beyond the influence of volitional action." This is because human activity is drastically altering the natural environment in ways that reap a great deal of suffering.

This was not news to me when I watched the movie - in college I did an independent study comparing and contrasting Buddhist and Christian approaches to environmental ethics because I was already convinced that the ecological crisis was the most pressing moral issue facing us today. However, watching the movie brought the point home to me in a concrete way. This is not a matter of abstract thought, of moral theory. This is a concrete issue, a pressing issue, a live issue, a pertinent issue, an urgent issue. An issue that demands immediate action.

The good news is that we already have concrete proof that humans cannot only negatively impact the natural environment, but can also undo our own damage. Of all the various ecological crises noted by the environmental movement that began in the 1960s, global warming is the only one that is still trending negative. So many "unsolvable" problems have already either been solved, or are at least trending toward a solution.

We now have to - simply have to - use our collective political wills to enact changes that will bring the production and release of greenhouse gasses under control. For more information, visit and


crystal said...

So many "unsolvable" problems have already either been solved, or are at least trending toward a solution.

I remember the book Silent Spring, and the worry about pesticides. I hope we can respomd as well to the global warming problem.

Tyler Simons said...

I have never had much use for this kind of thinking. By now my philosophic and religious objections to theodicy should be clear. In my view, they don't work, and they don't help.

Your philosophic and religious objections don't work and don't help? Those are the only plural nouns in the sentence; hence, they're the only possible grammatically correct antecedents for the plural pronoun "they."

Tyler Simons said...

I remember the book Silent Spring, and the worry about pesticides. I hope we can respomd as well to the global warming problem.

A lot of good things came about because of Silent Spring. It's important to remember, though, that DDT, one of the main bad guys of the book, is seriously dangerous in large amounts, but relatively safe in small amounts and very, very good at controlling malaria-carrying mosquitoes. When thinking about global warming, which we should take very seriously, we need to keep in mind that the heavy-handed outright ban on DDT that was enacted virtually worldwide in the wake of Carson's book had disastrous results for millions of already-unlucky Africans. This mistake took decades to correct.

I'm inclined to believe that the more the global warming debate turns into an us-against-them, science-vs.-deniers thing, the more likely real human suffering would result from overreaction and misguided, low-percentage (in the basketball sense) attempts at correction. Liberals, too, bear some responsibility for the slippage of human sin into the "natural" world. It undermines our credibility to neglect this fact.

Brian said...

Tyler, you pesky grammarian! I took Sandman to be referring to theodicies, which he (unfortunately) put in the singular in the paragraph in question.

On your more substantive point, you are right on, if what you mean to say is that ecosystems are too complex for simple-sounding solutions (the complexity tends to produce unintended consequences). However, I think it's too soon to call off the "science-vs.-deniers" debate when those who currently have the most influence over U.S. energy policy-- the oil, gas, and coal companies, big corporations like GE, Vice-President Cheney-- are either still denying the science or are only grudgingly conceding its truth after years of denial.

Plus, I wonder exactly who you have in mind in your concluding sentence:

"It undermines our credibility to neglect this fact [i.e., that liberals also bear responsibility for the slippage of sin into the natural world]."

Undermines "our" credibility with whom, exactly? Who exactly are the "liberals" you have in mind-- theological liberals? Political liberals? Both? Neither? And exactly who are "we" losing credibility with-- theological conservatives? Political conservatives? Neocon security-state freaks like Dick Cheney? If it's at all the latter, who cares whether "they" find "us" credible? They themselves utterly fail to be credible, whether on energy policy or the war or anything else. In fact, many of "them" have made it perfectly clear that they are unwilling to be persuaded of anything other than what they already believe, regardless of the evidence to the contrary-- unless, of course, it serves their short-term political interests to change their beliefs in public.

Sorry about the rant. But I am deeply troubled by any implication that the credibility of my beliefs about global warming somehow depends upon the extent to which people like that would be prepared to confer "credibility" and "seriousness" on it. They are the ones with the immense credibility problems on issues like this, not me.

Sandalstraps said...


I would right the grammatical error, but I don't want to for two reasons:

1. It would make your comment much less funny, and

2. It is always nice for me to see my own errors. The realization that I am often wrong, and profoundly wrong, is a humbling one, and everyone should have the opportunity to experience it.

I share your concern about a blanket ban on, say, greenhouse gas emmissions, and I think that your point on DDT is a good one. That said, I haven't seen any sign that anyone is asking for such a ban. That was certainly not the point, as I understood it, of An Inconvenient Truth. The point is that we can and must reduce greehouse gas emmission, and that we can and must reduce the level of atmospheric CO2.

Beyond that, I share Brian's concern about your characterization of the debate over global warming and the environmental impact of human behaviors. Given that there is a broad consensus in the scientific community (there are no recently published articles in peer-review scientific journals that question the nature of the problem - that debate is over) about global warming, I can't imagine a reasonable way to persuade those who still disbelieve.

Those who question the nature of the problem are either uninformed (which can be fixed, and rather easily), misinformed (which cannot be so easily fixed, as there is a great deal of propoganda circulating aiming to cast doubt on the overwhelming and possibly unanimous consensus of the scientific community), or simply dishonest with themselves, with others, or both.

It is this dishonesty that I simply cannot bend my head around, though it persists at the highest levels. And speaking the truth to dishonest people simply does no good. How, then, are we to make ourselves credible in their eyes?

Tyler Simons said...

I was thinking more of people like Greg Easterbrook and his readers than Dick Cheney et al.

Easterbrook points out that Gore uses ridiculous estimates of the potential rise in ocean level over the next hundred years and trumpets a shakey-at-best theory about the power of a particular oil-lobbyist. Having not seen the film, I don't know how important the conspiracy theory is to Gore's or the film's argument, but there seems to me to be a big difference between Easterbrook and State, his employer and Dick Cheney and ExxonMobil.

To the extent that Easterbrook's account of inaccurate scaremongering and paranoid conspiracy theory in Gore's work is on the mark, the former VP, it seems to me, is using fear in an attempt to gain political power for his friends and allies. If Easterbrook's right, the truth is shunted to the side. To me, this sounds too much like what Cheney and his ilk do for comfort.

I tend to think that people like Gore would do better things than the Bush administration and that the former wouldn't do as many bad things as the latter. Maybe it's effective to misrepresent the truth in order to win people over to the good side, but I'm worried about consequences.

Sandalstraps said...


Ahhh... Now I see your point. Thanks.

I'm a big fan of Easterbrook, but I think that he misjudged the movie. One of Easterbrook's flaws (and they are very, very few, as best as I can tell) is his overinflated need to debunk anything popular. I think he applied this hyer-active debunking inappropriately in this case, but I don't have time to get into the datails at the moment, save to say that the "conspiracy theory" he alludes to plays no significant role in the movie whatsoever. That, and the movie does not seem to me to have any partisan political message. It is political, in that it aims to impact socio-economic-political behavior, but it is not partisan, in that it does not advance a message that includes that one ought to vote for or against any person or party.

Brian said...

Understood, Tyler. It seems, though, that now that even Easterbrook has concluded that humans have induced climate change, his objections to people like Gore are fundamentally moral objections, not scientific ones. (His essay at Slate to which you link does bring up some scientific caveats, but his overriding point seems to be that Gore and his producers are morally myopic more than anything else.) So we're not really talking about much of a scientific debate between Easterbrook and his readers vs. Gore and his viewers. It's largely a moral debate, in which case I don't see why either Easterbrook or Gore should automatically be deemed more morally credible.

As for Easterbrook's substantive moral criticism of Gore, I kind of see it, although his point about Laurie David flying a private jet is far more telling than his criticism of Gore for flying commercial. I find his accusation that Gore is guilty of "carelessness" about moral argument, as well as the general petulance simply as Easterbrook's pissy way of saying that Gore fails to find the same considerations compelling that he does. Neither one of them is being particularly careful about moral argument; they're simply launching claims and counter-claims into the world with little expectation that anyone would really try to confront them with one another.

Here's what I mean: Easterbrook claims, rightly I guess, that intensive use of fossil fuels has created benefits for those generations who have been able to take advantage of them. One of the ultimate consequences to which he points is the dramatic increase in human population that has resulted from higher living standards borne up by use of fossil fuels. The problem with this argument, though, is that that sort of energy use isn't sustainable, and at some point (who knows where it is) the world's carrying capacity will be reached. I know, I know, Paul Ehrlich's "population bomb" never went off, but that doesn't mean that people like Julian Simon are correct in thinking that the carrying capacity of the earth is somehow limitless. At some point, technological innovation and the laws of economics will get trumped by the laws of thermodynamics, which are no respecters of persons. So whatever goods the current human population at its size is able to enjoy through the use of non-renewable energy are goods that at some point future generations are going to lack.

The moral problem that neither Easterbrook nor Gore is probably willing to discuss in its own right (but that philosophers talk about) is this: Do we have direct moral obligations to future generations that can be said to be as strong (or almost as strong) as we have to current ones? Do we utterly lack such obligations? Easterbrook's position seems to be that we should be thankful for all of the goods that intensive energy use has provided for past and current generations, even though in the long run that energy use may conceivably make the lives of even more people in the future worse (including those who would have been spared such a fate had they not been born or had they not survived due to the increased standard of living vouchsafed by fossil fuels). Past and present generations, it seems, are obviously more important than future ones; We don't want to increase their problems needlessly, he seems to be saying, but we have no obligation to solve them, either, if solving them means that we might have to accept any reduction in our standard of living.

To me, this sort of moral argument is just as careless as anything Gore is saying. It's not that I disagree with Easterbrook, exactly; it's that I'm not sure that I accept what I sense are his underlying beliefs about our relationship to future generations, and he hasn't given me any reasons why I should change my mind.