Friday, August 24, 2012

Evolving Out of Evil

I was asked to respond to this question on a friend-of-a-friend's Facebook page, but couldn't reply directly due to various Facebook privacy settings - so I thought I'd bring my thoughts here for everyone.  Steve asked:

"...the problem of pain and suffering is often pointed out by atheism as being inconsistent w/ a loving, merciful god so therefore God must not exist. Evolution is often touted as a process by which things change "from a lower, simpler or worst to a higher, more complex, or better state" (via Webster's dictionary).

"So ...If evolution is the process by which things (and we would include humans in things) get better, how do the continued evil actions of mankind get explained in evolutionary thinking? How long before humans get it 'right' in evolutionary terms?"

 David already hit one right answer square on the head: 

"I would take the position that things are better, that society, and civilization has gotten better. We have not attained perfection, by any means but things are better. the simple fact we can have an intellectual discussion on this very subject with fear of the inquisition or being charged with treason evidences that."

But my own thought was that this question conflates concepts that are commonly mixed up.

1. The dictionary of "evolution" is not the same as the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection.  Too few people understand what that is, and tend to argue against it in ignorance.

2. We, as individuals and members of our culture, have a completely different concept of "better" than nature does. Survival of the "fittest" doesn't correlate to "nicest", and "good enough" usually trumps "perfect" in the real world.

The first point drives most of the discussion between any creationist(s) and "adherents of evolution" and it betrays a fatal flaw in our education system. Few of the people who believe in a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story have any idea what the Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection actually is, what it says, or how it has changed since Charles Darwin first suggested it.  That becomes apparent when a creationist asks a question about evolution, and frames it the way Steve has here.

This isn't an attack on Steve.  It's just important that everyone understand why the question isn't very useful.  There are simply too many logical fallacies embedded in a question like that. Brian Dunning did a much better job of explaining them, and how they work, in his recent podcast on "That Darned Science".  The main one that applies here is Dunning's reply to "Dezi" on scepticism being a "negative" of everything. 

The truth is, there is no "atheism" which "says" anything.  There is no atheist dogma.  An atheist simply believes that there is no god, and may or may not accept any number of other ideas depending on their other beliefs.  But there are millions of atheists who get tired of being told that without a god there can be no joy or morality - because we tend to see ourselves as still being good and moral, strangely enough - and they frequently use arguments like the one Steve cites to show the faithful that they don't have a lock on the definition of "evil" - which is the focus of the second point. 

The argument itself is not an "atheist" argument; Christian philosophers have been grappling with it for as long as there have been Christian philosophers.  From Wikipedia: "An argument from evil attempts to show that the co-existence of evil and such a deity is unlikely or impossible, and attempts to show the contrary have been traditionally known as theodicies." Some Christians even have a pretty good handle on Evolution, and write about how they can be a good Christian and still accept what the scientific method and more than a century of evidence are telling us.

So, with all of that set-up, I hope it is understood that:

a) I'm not going to lecture Steve (or anyone else) on the Theory of Evolution.  There are so many good, reliable, existing resources for learning about it already - go find them.  (You can start by Googling "Jerry Coyne" and look for his YouTube video.)

b) David's answer is one "correct" answer, in that he took the question at face value and applied a different yardstick to how Steve measures "better".  I put "correct" in scare quotes because that answer is really a subjective opinion, and there's no way to "prove" that it's any more valid that the perspective of those in the thread who see evil in those around them.

c) If you're really interested in understanding evil and God, then you should probably read up on "theodicies," linked above.

As for MY answer - which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with what other atheists may say or believe - I see evolution happening everywhere, and our species has reached a point where we have developed a certain set of skills and traits that we call "intelligence."  We are social primates who have developed self-awareness and independence.  We have a lot of conflicting impulses, and we have lots of tools for dealing with them.

The concept of "evil" doesn't really factor into my understanding of evolution, except to say that sometimes I see examples where being "evil" is an advantage, and other times where it isn't.  Since my own definition of evil has more to do with an individual's intentions, most definitions of evil are based on an individual's point of view, and since individuals are unpredictable and ever-changing (or evolving) creatures, I don't think it's ever likely to "evolve" away.

That's not to say that I won't continue to try to be good, with or without a god in the equation.  It's just that the existence of "evil" doesn't prove anything one way or the other.


Steve said...

Hey Tad - I very much enjoyed your response and am sorry Facebook was being weird :)

It was not my intention to purport the question of evil as merely an atheistic argument. I have had many conversations with many Christians over the same issue. However, in nearly 14 years of ministry the question of evil and suffering is one of the "main" discussing points I have encountered when engaging with atheists or agnostics, which is why I posed the question as such.

It may surprise you that I do entertain various aspects of evolutionary theory. It is not beyond my comprehension to understand that within a species exists the ability to change beak size, variations of colored wings, or any of a million other common evidences that species do indeed adapt. As I mentioned in my comments on the FB thread, even on a human level I see it and understand it as we have experienced in moving from Ky to Az. 60 degrees here feels much different than 60 degrees in Ky, and I recognize it is our bodies adjusting and adapting to the crazy 110+ heat in the summer.

All that said, I appreciate your response. I do believe that an acknowledgement and belief in God can be reconciled with certain aspects of science and scientific discovery. In my worldview, the conflicting impulses you describe as humans having are obviously sin (again in my worldview) and those impulses do not seem to have changed over history - we have merely managed to find bigger and better ways to engage in them as we see the atrocities that occur in the world in recent history and today. I still stand by my question of whether or not the human race will ever evolve past evil actions, and if not, what hope would we have? Not that I expect an answer to that question, but more of a wondering sort of deal.

Billy speaks very highly of you, and maybe someday we'll meet.


Tad said...

Sorry to take so long to respond, Steve, but a friend posted this letter yesterday, and it made me think of this conversation.

The important takeaway from it is that faith is personal; how you choose to relate to others may be related to the faith you do or don't feel.

Science is not personal. It is repeatable, though. If someone tells you how something works, you can test it and expect the same results. The right materials will interact with each other the same way under the right conditions every time. Even complex systems like the body or global weather are testable.

But faith is not repeatable. No one can say "God is like this" and expect someone else to be able to test that, or even experience it the same way. It is testable - and you're the only one who can determine whether the outcome is acceptable to you or not.

From my point of view, the Faithful proceed from a flawed basis: they state "I believe THIS" and set out to find proof. But when it comes to convincing others that the proof you find means what you say it does, you have to remember that you are the one making the claim - "I believe THIS, so it must be true" - and the burden of proof is on the one making the claim.

There's nothing wrong with wondering, and nothing wrong with choosing to believe in the unlikely. But you can't expect others to be swayed without reason.