Creation and Evolution (Part 21)

September 09, 2013     Time: 00:39:19

Putting It All Together

In this lesson we bring to a close our excursus on creation and evolution that we have been in for many lessons now. Last time I suggested a possible model of integration of the biblical teaching about the origin of life and biological complexity and what the scientific evidence today tells us. I referred to this as a progressive creationist view – that God, over time, intervenes miraculously in ways to push forward the evolutionary process that would not have happened in the absence of such divine interventions. I argued that this seems to fit with the scientific evidence that we have today.

Finally, I turned to theological objections to such a progressive creationist outlook. You will remember we considered two objections to this model. First was the objection based upon so-called design flaws in nature. I suggested that these are really not all that problematic. The Christian theologian could respond first by arguing that some of these alleged flaws are not really flaws at all – the placement of the optic nerve in the human eye for example is not really a flaw but necessary for the supply of oxygen that warm-blooded animals need. Or we could argue alternatively that these imperfect designs as one might put it are not things directly designed by God but that these are the spinoffs of the evolutionary process. Even the special creationist doesn’t think that God has created every organism ex nihilo but that, for example, God created a primordial bear, say, and then that bear type has evolved into several different species one of which is a panda and that has evolved a thumb for stripping the leaves of bamboo – the so-called panda’s thumb. So I don’t think these design flaws are really a very significant theological objection to a progressive creationist view.

But then we turned to the problem of the cruelties of nature. Nature is, as they say, red in tooth and claw. The whole evolutionary process is built upon animal predation – animals eat each other, they kill each other in order to survive. Indeed, we are predators – we human beings are carnivores! The whole evolutionary process is built upon this history of predation and death and suffering and many have argued that this is incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God. So this is a version of the problem of evil. This is a version of the problem of evil that appeals to natural, rather than moral, evil. Those who believe in evolution would see this as an argument against the existence of God. On the other hand, certain special creationists would see this argument as a good argument not to believe in evolution because it is incompatible with an all-powerful and all-loving God. But both of them share that assumption that there is some sort of incompatibility here. Again, I argued that much of the animal behavior that strikes us as cruel could be the result of natural selection operating on random mutation. I gave the example of pathogenic, or disease producing, bacteria which become parasites. These were actually, originally apparently, independent organisms which, through mutation and the loss of genetic information, became these terrible parasitic creatures. So one could appeal to natural selection operating on random mutation to explain some of the cruel behaviors that are exhibited by various animals.

But this won’t alleviate the general problem of animal suffering, of course. As I say, the whole evolutionary process is built upon the reality of animal predation – that some animals are predators and survive by killing and eating others. So we still need to then talk about why God might have permitted a world that is filled with animal suffering.[1] This requires us to say something about the nature of animal suffering. Last time I began by appealing to Michael Murray’s excellent book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw published by Oxford University Press[2] in which Michael Murray distinguishes a pain hierarchy of three different levels.

On the lowest level would be simply information bearing neural states within neural systems or nervous systems. These are produced by noxious stimuli and result in aversive behavior. The example I gave was poking an amoeba with a needle would cause it to recoil; or, with certain other primitive organisms, they will exhibit aversive behavior when receiving noxious stimuli of their neural systems. But there isn’t any sentience here. There is no experience of pain. There is no consciousness in such animals. These would be things like spiders and insects. Many of the cruel behaviors that anti-theists often appeal to in pressing the natural problem of evil will be the behavior of insects and other low level creatures. But really, in effect, these are just like little machines. They are like little robots – they have no sort of sentience or experience of pain. They don’t suffer when they experience these neural states.

The second level of pain awareness would be a first order subjective experience of pain. When you get to the level of the vertebrates then you do have sentience, you have consciousness. So you have a subjective experience of pain. So when a zebra is attacked by a lion and torn to pieces, it experiences this second level of pain because it has sentient behavior. But even though certain animals experience pain (they have this first order subjective awareness of pain) there is no evidence that animals – other than human beings – have level one, which is a second order awareness that one is oneself experiencing level two. That is subtle and requires you to think about it. You can have a level two experience but animals don’t have, for all we know, this top level second order awareness that they are themselves in a state of experiencing level two. This is a point that philosophers have long recognized. As I said, Immanuel Kant made the point that animals other than human beings cannot prefix their conscious states with the words “I think that” because they have no first person awareness or perspective.

So even though animals may experience pain they are not apparently (or at least we have no evidence) that they are themselves aware that they are in a state of pain. To give an analogy of this, Michael Murray appeals to an incredible phenomenon called “blindsight.” There are certain people who are, for all practical purposes, blind. They have no visual experience of anything. And yet, they can actually see. A blindsighted person would catch a ball if you threw it to him because he sees it and he would catch it. If you were to invite him to come across the room, he wouldn’t run into the chairs and tables, he would walk around them because he actually does see them. But he has no visual experience of seeing them. Even though he is in a kind of first order visual experience – in this first order sense, he sees things – he doesn’t have this second order awareness that he can see them. He’s blind for all practical purposes! So as Michael Murray points out, it would be a pointless endeavor to spend an afternoon at the art gallery with a blindsighted person, taking him through the museum to see the paintings.[3] Yes, he could see the paintings but he would have no visual experience of the paintings. That is very similar to what we are talking about here. An animal can have a first order subjective experience of pain without having this second order awareness that he is, himself, experiencing this first order pain.

As I said last time, this is a great comfort to those of us who are pet owners. I remember so well when a few years ago our beloved cats Puff and Muff, whom we have had for some 14 years, died. It was so awful to see Muff vomiting blood and obviously in a horrible state of discomfort. We shed a lot of tears in putting Muff and Puff to sleep at the vet. Yet, it is a comfort to know that even though Muff was suffering, she wasn’t aware that she was suffering. She didn’t have this first order awareness “I am in this state of pain; I am suffering.” So what this means is that animals, for all we know, don’t have the same kind of experience of suffering that we human beings do. God has created us in such a way that we experience this terrible suffering because we are aware that we are going through it but this would mean that animals don’t experience suffering in the same way that we do.

That, I think, has tremendous implications for this argument against progressive creationism based upon nature’s so-called cruelties and animal suffering. Those that propound this argument seem to be guilty of the fallacy of anthropopathism from the Greek word “anthropos” meaning man or human and “pathos” meaning suffering. When we ascribe to animals the kind of pain experience and awareness that we have, we are guilty of anthropopathism – we are ascribing to them human emotions and feelings. This is, I think, almost second nature to us. Part of this is the result of our long cultural experience with Disney films like Bambi, for example, where we think of the little animals and creatures in the forest as being like Bambi – they are really human agents with animal bodies but they are self-conscious people. I remember seeing one sign protesting over animal rights and it said “Animals are people, too!” That is guilty of this fallacy of anthropopathism. Moreover, we human beings seem to have an inveterate tendency to ascribe agency and self-consciousness to even inanimate objects. We talk to our computers, we yell at our car when it doesn’t work right, we talk to our houseplants on occasion. I remember even Richard Dawkins reflecting once on how he found himself cursing at his bicycle when it wouldn’t function. You say “That stupid thing – what is the matter with this idiotic mechanism!” as though it had some sort of agency that could be blamed for the way it is operating. When we do this we are guilty of anthropopathism and I think this is just, as I say, almost second nature to us as human beings. I saw a video clip responding to Michael Murray’s book on YouTube in which this was exemplified. In order to refute Murray, part of what they did was show films of a whale which had helped to rescue a fellow from the water. Because the whale exhibited this sort of kind behavior and helped this human being out they were willing to attribute first person consciousness and agency to the whale. That is, again, simply fallacious. Exhibiting that kind of behavior is not evidence of a first person perspective “I think that.”

That diminishes or mitigates the problem of animal suffering, I think, but having said all that, the question still remains: why did God choose to create a world featuring an evolutionary prelude to the appearance of human beings on the scene?[4] Why would he choose to create a world in which there is this evolutionary process of death and predation and so forth leading up to the appearance of man on the scene? Well, maybe a world with evolution is a richer and more wonderful world of creatures than a different kind of world. I mean, seriously, aren’t you glad that God created the dinosaurs? I am! Ever since I was a boy, I have been delighted and enthralled with these bizarre, wonderful, colorful, fascinating creatures of the age of the dinosaurs and of the Ice Age. I am glad that God has created a world with these sorts of animals in it. Why shouldn’t God similarly delight in all creatures great and small that he has made? Maybe such a world is more wonderful and rich than a world in which they didn’t exist.

Ultimately, however, I suspect that the answer to this question is going to have to do more fundamentally with God’s wider plan for humanity. With regard to his desire to create an ecosystem where autonomous human agents can flourish and make an uncoerced decision to embrace or reject God’s offer of saving grace. Let me repeat that – it has to do more fundamentally with God’s wider plan for humanity with his desire to create an ecosystem where autonomous human agents can flourish and make uncoerced decisions to embrace or reject God’s offer of saving grace. God has not created a world in which his existence is so evident and obvious that we are not at liberty to reject him and ignore him. He has created us at a sort of arms distance, as it were, that affords scope for human autonomy and development and growth and ultimately receiving or rejecting his saving grace.

Any viable ecosystem is going to involve animal predation and death for the health of the ecosystem as a whole. I saw this beautifully illustrated a few years in a PBS special that described how the Canadian government was reintroducing wolves into the Canadian wilderness for the sake of the caribou on which they preyed. Now if that sounds paradoxical, the situation that the Canadian government found itself confronted with was that in the absence of these predators there was nothing to pick off the diseased and the aged caribou so that the population was exploding and as a result the herds were overgrazing and so they were dying of starvation. So for the good of the caribou themselves they had to reintroduce these natural predators into that ecosystem and that would result in healthier caribou and the herds would flourish as a result paradoxically.

As proponents of the so-called Gaia Hypothesis have taught us, it is not sufficient to consider just the individual isolated organism unconnected with its environment. Rather, you have to consider the whole. According to the Gaia Hypothesis, the whole earth – the entire ecosystem of the earth – is a sort of living organism which is balanced internally with predators and herbivores, elimination systems, other systems that then put the CO2 back into the atmosphere. The whole thing is a kind of balanced ecosystem as a whole that functions well like a living organism. The earth itself is like a living thing. Without wanting to invest this with religious significance in any way, I think it illustrates the point I’m trying to make; namely, you can’t consider a single organism in isolation from the ecosystem in which it lives.[5] It may well be that for the good of the entire ecosystem there has to be animal predation and death.

Of course, God’s ultimate purpose on this planet is bringing men and women freely into his Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is the key to human history. The evolutionary history of the earth is ecological scene setting for the advent of human beings and the working out of God’s purposes among them. Through this evolutionary prelude to the appearance of man, God sets the stage as it were for the human drama that will then unfold. The primeval forests of these prehistoric ecosystems laid down the deposits for the fossil fuels that have made modern civilization and human advancement possible. We would not have civilization in the absence of these deposits of coal and oil and natural gas. So, should God have just created the earth with the illusion of age? Coal fields that never had forests which laid them down? Illusory ages of things? Well, why think that that would have better achieved God’s purposes for humanity? How do you know that God’s purposes for the human race are not better fulfilled or achieved by having a genuine ecological history of the earth rather than an illusory history or by creating a world with no apparent history at all? How do we know how many people or what percentage of the human race would have come to know God and his salvation in a world with such an illusory past or with no appearance of age at all? What would best serve to advance the Kingdom of God on this planet is the overriding consideration with respect to what God permits or disallows on this planet. But, we are largely ignorant of what that entails. We are in no position at all to speculate about such matters. We have no way of speculating about how successful the Kingdom of God would have been established in a world involving an illusory past versus the world in which we live. We are just not in a position to speculate about this but then that means we are in no position to speculate as to whether evolution was not a viable way for God to create life on this planet.

So I think that the problem of natural evil in the end fails. It would involve a burden of proof which is simply too heavy for the non-theist or the anti-progressive creationist to shoulder.


Question: So what you are saying is that if evolution were true it would actually enhance God’s position?

Answer: Now, by God’s position you mean achieving his goals?

Followup: Yeah, it would enhance the probability of the existence of God. But it is only the inherent problem with the mechanism due to irreducible complexity. Therefore, if they could resolve that it would better reconcile a long creative past with a true history and probably provide insight into God’s plan.

Answer: I am not sure I understood the question but what I would say is that I think that it is not at all improbable – not in the least improbable – that only in a world that is suffused with natural evil, including animal suffering, would the optimum ratio of people come to know God and find eternal life. I think it is not at all implausible that in a world in which there was no natural suffering, no natural evil, that people would be forgetful of God and say “Who needs him?” It might actually result in more people being lost and not coming to salvation. So I don’t find it at all implausible that natural evil, as you say, might not actually be part of the means by which God achieves his purposes.

Followup: And God would have given us true libertarian freedom?

Answer: Yeah, I am talking about a world in which we have libertarian freedom. That is why I mentioned autonomous human agents.[6]

Question: Just on the comment of anthropopathism, it is not just Disney. Tolkien made trees live and C. S. Lewis does it throughout The Chronicles of Narnia. So we can’t just pick on Disney. I have another question about the pain hierarchy. This is the impression I had from last week – and this is a little bit of a detour but I want to get your feedback on what I was thinking. This type of pain hierarchy – I’ve heard this type of argument made but more from people who are pro-abortion where they are trying to put human beings into these categories. So the question would be – how should we approach that topic of pain with regard to the value of human life? Even later in life in cases like Alzheimer’s, do those people have that first level or do they degenerate? Do they start losing that?

Answer: This is an excellent point in illustration. It may well be the case that a fetus has this first order subjective experience of pain. If the abortionist goes in there and burns it alive with chemicals or cuts it to pieces or sucks it out that it could have a first order experience of pain. But it may not yet have developed to have this first order experience of pain that “I am” in this experience of pain. So, as you say, someone might try to exploit that by saying that therefore it is all right to abort these things. But the problem there, it seems to me, is that person is reasoning ethically on the basis that right or wrong is determined by pain. That is a naturalistic assumption which we as theists ought to reject. Otherwise, you could go into a hospital and kill somebody in a coma because they wouldn’t feel it – they wouldn’t have any pain. Or if someone were anesthetized, you could do things to him that wouldn’t be unethical because he doesn’t feel any pain. So I think this business to appealing to pain is the naturalist’s desperate attempt to find some objective foundation for ethics in the absence of God. But what we as theists have are divine commandments that “You shall not murder” and therefore you shall not take an innocent human life made in the image of God. Therefore if a developing fetus is a human being he or she has the right to life and we should not kill him or her. So I see a quite different basis for ethics than pain awareness. Now this also relates to the so-called issue of animal rights. This would also imply, I think, that we should not think of abuse of animals or exploitation of animals in animal agriculture or in these farms where people have these mass factories and mistreat these animals. We shouldn’t think of that as being ethical simply because these animals don’t have a first order awareness that they are in pain. Rather, I don’t see that ethical treatment of animals is rooted in the moral rights of animals at all. Animals are not agents and therefore they don’t have moral prohibitions or obligations to fulfill. They are not moral agents so they don’t have, I don’t think, moral rights. Rather, the ethical treatment of animals is based on our responsibility to them as mandated by God. God has given us a creation mandate to steward the earth and to care for it and therefore it is immoral when we violate that creation mandate by abusing his wonderful creatures in this world. That would include forests and trees. It is not that trees have moral rights. A tree isn’t a moral agent, it doesn’t have any rights. But we, as human beings, do have a God-given moral responsibility to care for the earth and that would mean don’t pollute the seas and don’t chop down the rain forests wantonly.[7] So I would see similarly ethical treatment of animals as something that isn’t rooted in pain awareness or even in the animals themselves; it is rooted in us, human beings who have been given by God a creation mandate to steward the earth. And I see that as a much more secure foundation for the ethical treatment of animals than these naturalistic attempts to try to interpret animals as somehow being first order pain agents. Good question!

Question: (inaudible)

Answer: I’ll repeat the question. He asks, “Could it be that the cruelties of nature and animal predation are related to the Fall and the consequences of the Fall for the creation from which some day the creation will be liberated and perhaps restored to an original pristine state?

Murray in his book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw also discusses that alternative.[8] He discusses a number of alternatives for how to deal with the problem of animal suffering. I think that that alternative is open to the Young Earth Creationist who thinks that God created a world in six literal consecutive days and then it fell and there were these disastrous consequences for nature. But that isn’t open to me because I am not a Young Earth Creationist. It seems to me that the universe is around 13.8 billion years old or so and that life has been on this planet for some three and a half billion years and human beings are a relatively recent creation on the planet. So it seems to me that there were certainly animal predation and death and suffering prior to the human fall. It is noteworthy I think that when you read Genesis 3 about the Fall, there is nothing in there to suggest that animal death and predation is the result of the Fall. The curses upon the man and the woman involve labor and wresting his living from the earth with difficulty and sweat, and pain in child bearing but there is nothing to suggest there that animal death is the result of the Fall. And in Romans 5 when Paul is talking about how death came into the world through Adam and so death spread to all men because all men sin[9], there again he is clearly talking about human beings. I don’t see any reason to think that Adam could not have swatted a mosquito on his arm prior to the Fall, say. So biblically speaking I don’t think that there is any reason to think that animal predation and suffering are the result of the Fall, but that is an alternative that is open, at least, to the young earther that wouldn’t be open to me.

Question: From the standpoint of prophecy, there are numerous Old Testament passages, most of them in Isaiah, talking about a future golden age in which the Jewish Messiah will rule over the earth on the throne of David. In Revelation, we are told that it will last a thousand years; in the Old Testament there is no mention of a thousand years. One of the characteristics of this is the apparent reversal of the so-called curse on nature – namely that the child can play next to the hole of the cobra and the lion can lie down with the lamb.[10] Now, you could take from that that animal predation will be removed in which case God sees that as a kindler, gentler earth and if that is the case, would that not lend a little bit of credence to the argument that perhaps predation was not present until the Fall? If he sees that as a kindler and gentler earth now, why did he not see it as a kindler and gentler earth before that?

Answer: Right. That could be an argument that could be used to support that view. Or, one could say that once people have made a decision for or against God that, in the new heavens and the new earth which operate according to different laws of nature and no longer are there decisions being made for and against God, that there is a new kind of system of nature that won’t involve this and maybe won’t involve that same scope for human autonomy that I mentioned. On the contrary, we are going to have the vision of God and see what he is like. So it may well be that animal predation and suffering will be removed in the new heavens and the new earth. I think that that is entirely possible.[11] I must say, however, I am cautious about that, as attractive as I find that prospect. Because, as you said, the Jews anticipated this sort of messianic reign and it is probable that they didn’t anticipate that this meant the end of animal suffering or predation. Probably, I think, when they talk about the lion will lie down with the lamb, that this is symbolic of the peace that the messianic reign will bring. Nations will be at peace with one another and this is a symbolic way of saying that the reign of Messiah will be a reign of peace among the nations and that this wasn’t intended to be more than a symbolic expression of that.

Followup: I suppose it gets back, as most prophetic discussions ultimately do, to your system of hermeneutics. In other words, is that allegory or was that intended to be taken literally. I tend to be a so-called grammatical-historian in my hermeneutics so I would tend to take that literally.

Answer: OK, I don’t think that the historical-grammatical method is inconsistent with saying that the Bible uses metaphor.

Followup: Oh, it most certainly does [the Bible uses metaphor]. It is just a question that some people will say this is a metaphor and others don’t. Where do you draw the line? The Bible is replete with symbols, types, and metaphors.

Answer: OK.

Question: This is not really a question but just a comment. This could be an opportunity in discussion with an atheist if they have fallen into the trap on the one hand attempting to say that there are no objective moral values and at the same time they want to bring up animal suffering. That would be an opportunity to point out a contradiction there.

Answer: Very good! That is right. The person who presses the problem of natural evil is assuming there is something objectively wrong about these behaviors or with nature. How can the naturalist say that? On naturalism, whatever is, is right in nature. You can’t say that the crocodile does something wrong when it grabs the wildebeest and pulls it into the river and eats it. That is just natural. So it is difficult, I think, for the naturalist to provide any kind of objective basis on the ground of which he could say that this is wrong. Perhaps the best he could do would be to say, “I don’t believe in objective moral values, but you do, Christian, and therefore you have got some kind of internal incoherence in your view. You affirm that God is all-good and all-loving and therefore there are objective right and wrong and yet you say he also does this. Therefore, you have got some inconsistency.” But then it becomes very difficult for the atheist to show that God can’t have a morally sufficient reason for allowing this to occur – to have this sort of evolutionary prelude to the advent of human beings.

Question: I just wanted to respond to the question regarding rabbinical interpretations of Isaiah – the wolf lying down with the lamb. It is mixed. Just as Christian interpretations have a wide range; rabbinical interpretations have itself a wide range. I know Maimonides, probably the most famous of commentators, said, yeah, it is metaphor. He does not believe that nature is going to change its course in the world to come.[12]

Answer: OK, thank you; interesting.

Well, that brings to a close our excursus on creation and evolution. It has been a long time but I think a study well worth having in view of the importance of these issues in contemporary culture.

Next time we will turn to a new locus and begin to look at that.[13]


[1] 5:06

[2] Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[3] 10:01

[4] 15:06

[5] 20:00

[6] 25:05

[7] 30:08

[8] See Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, Chapter 3 “Animal Suffering and the Fall”

[9] cf. Romans 5:12-14

[10] cf. Isaiah 11:6-8

[11] 35:06

[12] “Let no one think that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of nature will be set aside, or any innovation be introduced into creation. The world will follow its normal course. The words of Isaiah: ‘And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,’ (Is. 11:6) are to be understood figuratively, meaning that Israel will live securely among the wicked of the heathens . . .”, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book 14 “Sefer Shoftim”, Hilchot “Melachim uMilchamot”, Chapter 12.

[13] Total Running Time: 39:19 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)