(This is the third of three posts on Kenneth Miller and the problem of evil.)
I think the reason for Miller’s deep disdain of a relatively minor difference in our positions on evolution is not scientific. Rather, it’s theological. It’s called the problem of evil. Briefly stated, if God is responsible for designing not only the lovely parts of biology, but also the dangerous and nasty parts as well, then we have a theological problem on our hands. What kind of a God designs not only pretty flowers, but deadly malaria, too? Is God actually malicious? On the other hand, if God simply designed a process like Darwinism that He knew would lead to life, then, the thinking goes, He didn’t directly design those nasty parts of biology — the process did. So God escapes any blame for bad stuff.
The eminent geneticist and former priest Francisco Ayala says exactly that in so many words in his recent book, Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion: Darwin’s “theory of evolution provided the solution to the remaining component of the problem of evil [that is, natural evil such as diseases and earthquakes].” (pp. 4-5) Ayala cannot stomach the alternative: “The natural world abounds in catastrophes, disasters, imperfections, dysfunctions, suffering, and cruelty.” (p. x)
I shudder in terror at the thought that some people of faith would implicitly attribute the calamity to the Creator’s faulty design.” (p. xi)
Attributing these to specific agency by the Creator amounts to blasphemy. Proponents and followers of ID are surely well-meaning people who do not intend such blasphemy, but this is how the matter appears to a biologist concerned that God not be slandered with the imputation of incompetent design. (p. 160)
Those are Ayala’s words, but as far as I can tell they reflect Miller’s sentiments too, who worries in his review that:
To Behe, these are not byproducts of a fruitful and creative natural world that also gave us the beauty of a sunset, the grace of an eagle, and the talent of a Beethoven. No, each vicious parasite and fatal disease is the direct and intentional work of the designer. This isn’t my conclusion; it’s Behe’s.
So there you have it. Miller (and Ayala) won’t tolerate life on earth being designed because that would impugn God’s reputation. Too many bad things inhabit the earth. They embrace Darwinism, at least in large part, for theological reasons.
Wow, and they say ID proponents get their conclusions from religious motives!
So, how to respond to such a position? The first thing to say is that it’s very hard to see how the Miller/Ayala position gets God off the hook. The “byproducts of a fruitful and creative [Darwinian] natural world” that Miller alludes to are not simply byproducts — they are deadly, dangerous, vicious byproducts. No matter if malaria were designed directly by God or indirectly by a sloppy process He put in motion, many children of mothers in malarious regions of Africa are going to be just as dead. There is going to be as much suffering in the world one way as the other.
Why couldn’t a grieving mother justifiably demand of an infinitely powerful God that He explain why He chose such a sloppy process to make life, instead of a more efficient process that would not produce natural evils such as parasites and tsunamis? One that wouldn’t cause such enormous pain? It seems to me that designing a poor Darwinian process that inevitably spins off natural evils leaves One as vulnerable to being sued for incompetence as directly designing them as finished products.
My own view (which Miller spectacularly fails to grasp) is that, as a scientist, one is obliged to look at the evidence of nature dispassionately and nonjudgmentally. If the coherence and complexity of the malaria parasite point to its purposeful design by an intelligent agent, then that’s where the data point. As a scientist, one is not allowed to pass judgment on the morality of nature. To reject the weight of evidence because it shows the universe to be something unpalatable is to betray science.
On the other hand, as a theist one can make an argument that what strikes us as evil in nature is part of a larger whole which is good. In his recent book Francisco Ayala wrote that one could regard tsunamis as the unintended side effect of a good process (plate tectonics) which is necessary to build a habitable world. Well, heck, one can make the same argument for parasites and viruses. It may well be that such seemingly vile creatures actually play positive roles in the economy of biology, of which we are in large part unaware. If that’s the case, then directly designing parasites and viruses is as defensible in terms of the overall goodness of nature as is designing the processes of plate tectonics. The fact that they are dangerous to humans is an unintended side effect of something that is good in itself.
What’s more, there can be just about as much real contingency and freedom in nature in the extended fine tuning view as in the view of theistic evolutionists of the Ayala/Miller stripe. Even if God purposely designed the malarial parasite, He may not have decreed that a particular infected mosquito would bite a particular person on a particular day, or that a particular tiger would eat some one in particular. In the case of the tiger (designed or not), for example, a human’s fate might depend on when he decides to go for a walk, which route he takes, etc., etc. Nature and human life would still be chockful of contingency and freedom.
As I wrote in The Edge of Evolution, it seems to me that our world was designed to be a a dangerous living stage, one that’s set up for improvisational theater. It allows for real suffering, real pleasure, real pain, real joy. It allows for real freedom and real consequences. But if the world were not designed in sufficient detail, then no intelligent life would be around to act on the stage.