Monday, November 20, 2006

Is Death Evil or Necessary, or a Necessary Evil?

In my opinion, the challenge posed by evolutionary biology to the Christian faith is not that it refutes the so-called “argument from design”, but that it offers a narrative of nature that is at odds with the Christian understanding of Creation. Whereas Christians view the cosmos as essentially “good” and attribute the presence of death and suffering to the fallen state of humanity, Darwinists understand death and violence as intrinsic properties of the biological realm that predate the advent of the human species. From an evolutionary standpoint, there is nothing good or decent about creation; the story of life is one of brute force, of Nietzschean will to power, where all the spoils go to the strong and progress occurs by benefit of (and not in spite of) death. Nature exists only by virtue of its willingness to dominate; it has no purpose, no morals, no beauty (given this, it is somewhat surprising that so many evolutionary biologists are ardent environmentalists. E.O. Wilson, for one, has a strong sense of purpose to preserve this purposeless world).*

Christian thinkers have responded to this incongruity between the biological and Christian narratives in two fashions (here, I am greatly indebted to a series of excellent posts by Lee at verbum ipsum – please read them here, here, and here). The first approach, advocated by Keith Ward, holds that “destruction and death are built into the universe as necessary conditions of its progress to new forms of life.” That is, death and suffering serve to promote the greater good, namely, the evolution of intelligent life. The drawback of this argument is that is makes God the author of death and evil, and, for this reason, it has been strongly opposed by David Bentley Hart, especially in his book The Doors of the Sea. For Hart, death and destruction are alien forces in God’s creation to which He is implacably opposed. The advantage of this position, of course, is that God is no longer complicit in the existence of evil, and it more closely adheres to the traditional view that death is the result of man’s original sin. But, as Lee points out, Hart’s rhetoric can easily lapse into a kind of gnostic dualism wherein God is only the redeemer of the world, not its sole creator.

While I tend to think that Ward is more right than Hart on this point, I take issue with the assumption, implicit in both arguments, that death is evil. Isn’t it death that makes us creatures and not gods, serving as the most dramatic expression of our finitude? In particular, I find the notion that death only arose as a judgment for sin simply preposterous.** Perishability, after all, is what gives the world the possibility of true becoming and creativity, as well as its historical character (see Jüngel's excellent discussion of the positive aspects of perishability in God as the Mystery of the World). Moreover, the death and resurrection of Christ demonstrate once and for all that death is God’s servant, not his enemy.

It is man’s sinfulness, his lack of faith, that transforms death from something natural into something terrible, something evil. Humanity, apart from God, begins to have delusions of immortality, and then death becomes only an absurd negation. But the Christian understands that his life is never his possession, that he is always dependent on the higher power. His faith in Christ also teaches him that death has no real finality; it is God’s love that is absolute. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t mourn the passing of those we love, or try to heal the sick. We must always cherish and protect life. But we should never begrudge God death when it is He who so graciously grants us life.

So, in my estimation, the evolutionary biologists are right when they say that death is a necessary part of nature. But are they also correct in concluding that the world is not good, as the book of Genesis would have us believe? I think the answer depends on how one interprets the biblical statements concering the goodness of creation. Are these meant to imply that the world is intrinsically good, that is, good in-and-of-itself? Or do they mean that creation is only good when it’s in communion with its Creator? I think the latter answer is correct, which means that only a redeemed creation is truly “good”. We should never draw too sharp a distinction between God’s roles as Creator and Redeemer, as if He first made a supposedly good creation and then had to save it when all hell broke loose. Creation always involves redemption, and redemption always involves a new creation. Thus, it’s not surprising that a purely atheistic worldview like neo-Darwinism is incapable of seeing the inherent goodness of creation, since it cuts itself off from the salvation that redeems and restores this fractured world.

* The purpose of this post is not to challenge the scientific merit of the theory of evolution, which is quite simply beyond question. My target is Darwinism as a metanarrative, a sort of theory of everything, which is advanced by the likes of Dawkins and Dennett.

** Of course, there is a form “unnatural” death that did arise because of man’s sinfulness: murder. But murder is not the same as death in general, and it provides no evolutionary advantage that I can think of.


Jeremy Abel said...

The purpose of this post is not to challenge the scientific merit of the theory of evolution, which is quite simply beyond question. My target is Darwinism as a metanarrative, a sort of theory of everything, which is advanced by the likes of Dawkins and Dennett.

How do you suggest separating evolutionary theory and Darwinism as metanarrative? I've been thinking about this issue quite a bit recently and I would appreciate your thoughts.

Thomas Adams said...

Jeremy -- That's a subject for another post perhaps. Like you, I've given the question a fair amount of thought, but I’ve found it difficult to arrive at any firm conclusions. Here’s how I see the issue at the moment. Evolutionary theorists make three principal claims:

1) The brute fact of evolution: Species have changed over time. They have arisen and disappeared.

2) The physical mechanism for the evolution of life is natural selection. Individuals that adapt to their environments live, and those that don’t die. Random genetic mutation drives this process at the molecular level.

3) Evolutionary theory proves that there is no inherent purpose in the universe.

In my estimation, the first two statements are purely scientific and should not be challenged theologically. However, there is no scientific justification for the extrapolation of the second statement to the third. In other words, #3 does not logically follow from #2, although Dawkins and others clearly think it does. The reason is that “random” is not the same as “purposeless”; the former is simply a mathematical assessment, whereas the latter is a philosophical conjecture. Events that appear random to me may, in fact, be part of a larger scheme that is guiding the system towards a particular goal. This is the interplay of chance and necessity. Darwinists are right to point to the important role that chance plays in biological systems, but they forget about the elements of necessity (most clearly represented by the law of nature) that constrain chance. Thus, it may be that intelligent life is “hard-wired” into the fabric of the creation.

Like I said, this is very sketchy at the moment. I need to read more about the issue. Any good book suggestions?

CPA said...

The idea that murder provides no evolutionary benefits is simply absurd. Chimps, hyenas, lions, langurs, etc. have been observed doing it quite frequently, and no biologist has suggested that this is somehow non-adaptive behavior. (Read, e.g. Sarah Hrdy on how langur males as soon as they come into possession of a troop kill off all the infants to get the females in heat.)

CPA said...

My problem is not with 1) 2) or 3): my problem is with

4)That human behavior is actually pretty great, considering where we come from -- way better than chimps or langurs at any rate --, that external conformity to the law is all God can reasonably ask of a creation designed to seek its own good, not that of creaturs unrelated by genetics.

I don't know why this is not the central issue every one discusses. To me it is the Gibraltar compared to which the issues of design are pebbles.

As I see it, if natural selection is the means used to create us, it is UNJUST for God to demand that we not covet, not hate, not lust; all he can ask of us is that we keep these completely natural, normal, and adaptive things within reasonable limits -- and monogamy BTW is probably NOT a reasonable limit for a species exhibiting considerable sexual dimorphism.

God would also be UNJUST in asking a Darwinian creature to love Him for His own sake, since a creature made by natural selection at the deepest level relates altruistically to other social beings solely by means of inclusive fitness or reciprocity. Since God doesn't share our genes, worshiping and loving Him doesn't spread our genes, so we have to be relating to Him on the basis of reciprocity -- if He scratch ours and our family's back, we'll scratch His. Of course God can ask that we not be aware of the truth of our own species-nature and be deluded that we love Him for His own sake (just as we hide from ourselves the real reasons we love what we love), but the thing itself -- that's absurd.

Thomas Adams said...

Dear CPA – Thanks for making me aware of the existence of murder in certain non-human species. However, the purpose of my original post was not to discuss the merits of Darwinism, but to argue for a positive theological evaluation of death. My main thesis was that biological death is not the result of sin, yet I also wanted to make it clear that murder (a particular type of death) is always sinful.

If indeed murder is evolutionarily advantageous in certain biological systems, then that fact should greatly concern those of us who believe in a loving Creator. So I think we’re in agreement that the main challenge posed by Darwinism is not the design argument but the story it tells about the “ethics” of the universe (in this sense, sociobiology is much more hostile to the Christian faith than old-fashioned Darwinism). You make a valid point: why would God employ violence and lust to create life-forms only to then forbid such behavior among humans? Yet I’m not sure how we resolve this dispute to the satisfaction of both sides. While you say that claims #1-3 don’t bother you, isn’t #4 really the logical outcome of #2? I don’t see how one refutes sociobiology without refuting (or at least limiting the scope of) the principle of natural selection.

Perhaps we humans, as the consummation of God’s Creation, are called upon to transcend the biological impulses that gave rise to us in the first place. Is it really UNJUST of God to expect more of us than animals? Aren’t such expectations part of the covenant He has made with our species? And hasn’t the Church always taught that the Christian is different than the “natural” man? Whereas the natural man wallows in immediacy, the Christian has experienced the redemption that makes him into a new creation, greater than any Darwinian creature. This is the point I was trying to make in the post: Darwinism only looks at immediate world, but faith perceives the unity of creation and redemption. Darwinism isn't necessarily wrong, but it's blind to reality of redemption.

CPA said...

I was unclear. What I meant was, because 2) entails 4), and I find 4) utterly unacceptable, I am thus forced to be hostile to 2). ("Hostile" meaning I'd love to find a way to disprove if I could.)

And sure, God can ask much more of Darwinian humans than He does of animals -- but not perfection. Again the sociobiological insight is that all living beings considered statistically (it's not a theory of individual motivation) act the way they do in order to spread their genes. I see no reason to think extremely advanced conceptual intelligence should make a change in that basic population-level motivation.

Maintaining Battery said...

I little bit confuse about the point of this post..
I mean, really confuse :/

Jual said...

Siwili tida begicu