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Unmerited Suffering & Hominid Evolution - Response
(Text as at 29/04/2010 09:51:50)
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Firstly, the letter1 on unmerited suffering. Obviously the arguments in the letter are not news, and I doubt we can make much further progress on this topic. My objections to the arguments are firstly that the Biblical quotations seem to read into the text a positive slant that's not there, and secondly that the Isaiah quotation really ought only to be invoked as a last resort.
With respect to the matter of David and Bathsheba, David’s comment that – as far as his dead son is concerned – “I will go to him but he will not come back to me”, makes reference not to the happy hereafter, but to the grave. Is there any suggestion in the context that things will be “all right” for David’s son? The focus is entirely on David and his wicked ways.
In the passage from Luke, the focus is on perishing, not on future happiness or final restitution. I raised this passage myself, as it doesn’t say who’s responsible for the disasters, other than that it wasn’t the victims’ fault; and presumably Pilate was (immediately) responsible for the slaughter his soldiers wrought. Anyway, the victims hadn’t brought the Tower of Siloam down on their own heads. It’s interesting to consider just when the “perishing” would be. I’d have thought a good dispensationalist would think that it would be in the cataclysm that would engulf Judea at the end times if there was no national repentance, much as happened at AD 66-70.
Isaiah 55:8-9: obviously a being with the attributes traditionally predicated of the Christian God can do lots of things – anything that’s not logically impossible or contradictory to his declared character. But that’s the whole issue concerning the problem of what appears to be excessive “collateral damage” unmerited by the recipients. The thought that God, with his infinite bag of goodies, can “make it up” to anyone caught in the cross-fire seems too facile. It reeks of using people as means rather than ends, to the dismay of the Kantians. Now, personally, I’m a consequentialist (ie. a sophisticated utilitarian). So, there are some dreadful acts that have to be done in order to avoid even worse consequences. If the Kraken comes and demands one of your daughters, and won’t take you instead, but would otherwise take everyone, what are you to do? Of course, in the myth some super-hero comes along and slays the Kraken, but we’ll assume that way out isn’t open (incidentally, this story from “Clash of the Titans” seems to be a mix-up of Greek and Norse mythology – it seems that it’s Ceto (and not the Kraken) that Perseus turns to stone using the Gorgon’s head; but we’ll let that pass). But, to continue, God is that super-hero, and (it might be said) has failed to turn up when he could have. If I allowed my daughter to be eaten alive by ants, say, when I could have done something about it, but would not “for the good of the cause”, I’d not be considered virtuous even if I could conjure her up again and give her an eternity of bliss. And what would she think of me? Even the Catholic clergy don’t abuse children that badly. These are the ideas that have to be wrestled with.
I’ve discussed this issue a couple of times with Pete – he quoted “God is no man’s debtor”. Where’s this thought from? Is it scripture or a proverb? I’ve done Bible and internet searches and can’t find it. I even asked Julie, the walking concordance. It appears in the Summa Theologica, in an objection. See this site (Link) (which looks like a useful site – even if a Catholic one – follow the scripture links to a triglot Bible). But there are two ways of taking this – that God owes us nothing, or that God does owe us something, and will pay up. The Calvinists take the first approach – we all deserve the everlasting bonfire because of what we are, irrespective of what we’ve done. See this blog (Link (Defunct)). The atheist lobby would say this makes God out to be a monster. Are there really any promises that everything will be all right for everyone other than “the wicked”? Other than in Julian of Norwich, that is.
To take this further, I’m teetering on the edge of joining (or succeeding) Pete at Heythrop. They do an MA in “Philosophy and Religion”. Apart from evaluating the arguments of natural theology (which I’ve never been impressed by) you have to endure a course on “20th century religious thought”, which I imagine involves evaluating utter drivel. Then there are a couple of courses on ethics – probably the ones Pete took.
Secondly, the article ("McKie (Robin) - Out of Africa: The Sequel") enclosed with the letter (follow the Abstract / Comment Link for a transcript). Naturally, I don't agree with the comments, which were "Please find enclosed an article from the weekly Guardian. Sylvia has done all the markings and we were discussing this. It shows the absolute uncertainty of the absoluteness of evolutionary science. No other scientific theory would be allowed to get away with so many caveats and still hold it head up high."
The reason I don't agree with the comments is that this is all “work in progress”. The presumption that humans and the great apes are related, and have a common ancestor, is based on genetic and morphological studies. Evolution (taken as descent with modification, whatever its mechanisms) is taken as the unifying principle that brings together all the seemingly arbitrary facts of biology. Why do we have all this diversity and similarity, other than because God decided to do it that way? And if evolution is right as a general paradigm, then we’d expect human beings to fit into it somehow. Articles like the one you enclosed are attempts to fill in the gaps. Now it seems that this is a difficult task. Until relatively recently, on geological timescales, hominids haven't been very numerous, and by all accounts, they don't fossilise well - fossilisation being rather an extraordinary process in any case. So, it's difficult to find much evidence, and piecing together what has been found is a difficult task. All this is just an artefact of where the science is at right now. Presumably (Sylvia will like that), as time goes by, more bits of the jigsaw will be discovered and it'll be possible to tell a more robust tale, and one in which the paradigm isn't as likely to be upset by the next discovery. But even now there's a story that can be told that some would say has more flesh on its bones, and more credibility, than that the first man was made out of the dust in some middle-eastern garden. The reason that "cat's are amongst the pigeons" is that there's a bunch of data that's been pieced together, and new data indicates that some of the pieces might be in the wrong place. But there are more bits to this jigsaw than are available in the Biblical account - which is so brief that it can't be regarded as a scientific account at all. Nor should it be.
There have been a couple of similar articles recently on the same topic – you may have seen them. One was "Krause (Johannes) - Our Ancestral Cave Gets More Crowded". The other was "Burkeman (Oliver) - Revolution in Evolution". Like you, no doubt, I’m not too impressed by extrapolation from fingers, but the “Revolution” article is interesting, if a little muddled. The suggestion that Lamarkianism – the inheritance of acquired characteristics – might have something going for it isn’t to be viewed as the overthrow of evolution, but as a major adjustment to the Darwinian synthesis (natural selection plus genetics). Everyone (if they are honest) is worried by the improbabilities of genetic variation, inheritance and natural selection being the whole story if the only generator of variation is random mutation. But if somatic changes induced by behaviour could somehow get into the genome, then the improbabilities would reduce enormously. Then, we’d only need to fall back on anthropic principles and multiverses to get the initial replicator off the ground. Maybe, but because something would be “nice to have” (for those of us inclined in that direction) doesn’t mean it should be accepted as true.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on "Walton (John H.) - The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate". I'd not had time to read the last couple of chapters, but I think he was summing up by then. I liked the general approach, and in particular the author’s distinction between the thought that the Biblical account is "indebted" to other ancient creation accounts (which he rejects) and the thought that such accounts formed the backdrop of common pre-scientific assumptions into which the Genesis account was directed, and against which it needs to be understood.
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