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Jerry Coyne’s Insufferable Argument

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May 24, 2010 Tags: Problem of Evil
Jerry Coyne’s Insufferable Argument

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Editor's Note: This is a corrected version of a blog that was posted on May 24. Mr. Giberson apologizes for the problems in the previous blog and thanks those readers that brought them to his attention.

In a recent blog post Jerry Coyne critiqued what he called a “surprising” paper by biologist John Avise in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The paper was unusual for the PNAS—even surprising—because it dealt with theology. Avise made a familiar argument that Ayala and others have made on this site, namely that evolution should be preferred over ID and creationism for theological as well as scientific reasons.

The theological reason has to do with the way evolution mitigates the problem of bad design and natural evil in the world. If the world is designed by God, then God is “on the hook” for all the collateral grief caused by the ubiquitous bad design created by natural selection. For humans this would include our constant back and knee problems, our propensity to overeat, and a host of other maladies from autism to sickle-cell anemia and Huntington’s disease. But if evolution “freely” produced these various problems without God’s help or approval then God can be “off the hook,” so to speak.

This argument addresses the complex theological problem of evil known as theodicy, which can be stated simply like this:

God is good
God is all-powerful
Bad things happen (there is evil in the world)

The theodicy “problem” arises when we recognize that all three of these things cannot be true at the same time. A good God would not let bad things happen, just like a good parent would not let their toddlers play on the freeway. The “solution” to this problem is typically to deny the truth of one of the claims. Perhaps God is not good or, more commonly, perhaps God does not exist at all. Many people who have abandoned their faith in God, from Charles Darwin to Michael Shermer—did so because they could not square the loving Christian God of their childhood with the world as they encountered it. To reject God altogether is the atheists’ solution to the problem.

The process theologians use to “solve” the problem is to assert that God is not all-powerful. God is limited to “helping” the world move in the right direction. A more conventional Christian response is to suggest that God “self-limited” his power to give the world some autonomy. Either way stuff happens that God cannot prevent.

And then there are some who suggest that there really is no such thing as genuine evil in the world. This is a sort of “default” that many Christians fall into without thinking too much about it. They want to turn every bad thing into an “instrument to produce a good thing.” The car accident that killed Mom was tragic but it got the rest of the family thinking about their faith so it was really a good thing in disguise.

None of these solutions work well for obvious reasons so the theodicy problem persists. The question usually comes down to this: “Which worldview deals with theodicy the most effectively?” Theologies that emphasize the sovereignty and omniscience of God—the “Reformed” and “Calvinist” traditions—have a greater problem than the Wesleyan and Anglican traditions that place more emphasis on God’s love. But neither “solves” the problem. As you can imagine, there are endless debates and bright people who would aggressively challenge even the claims I have made in this paragraph.

The theodicy problem has been around forever and is rife with nuance and subtlety. Great philosophers and theologians have explored it at great length, as has every freshman philosophy major in their first course. Liebniz wrestled with it and argued that despite appearances, we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire thought this was ridiculous and skewered Leibniz in Candide by putting his arguments in the mouth of the uninspired Dr. Pangloss. There is not much new to say about the problem of evil other than that it is still around.

Coyne, however, rushes in where angels fear to tread and recites all the familiar arguments in his review of the Avise paper in PNAS. Here is Coyne’s succinct statement of the problem:

There are of course many ways to "reconcile" faith and science, although in my opinion none have been very successful. One of the more popular ways is to see evolution as a big improvement in theodicy—the perennial attempt of the faithful to reconcile the existence of evil with that of a loving and powerful God. How could such a god permit the existence of suffering, particularly the suffering of innocent people, and particularly when those evils are inflicted not by other humans but by diseases like cancer or natural disasters like tsunamis? Evolution, so the answer goes, answers this because much of our suffering is simply inherent in the process of evolution, a process supposedly chosen by God to work his will.

Coyne has a variety of responses to Avise. He starts by suggesting that the paper is “surprising” because “[he hasn’t] before seen a paper in a high-class science journal that tries to show how science can be used to upgrade theology.” (Note the implication that the paper is inappropriate because the journal is “high-class.” Presumably, such a paper would be fine in a “low-class” publication.)

The argument Coyne is discussing is familiar and appeared not long after The Origins of Species was published. Here is Avise’s statement of it:

Evolution by natural causes in effect emancipates religion from the shackles of theodicy. No longer need we agonize about why a Creator God is the world’s leading abortionist and mass murderer… No longer need we be tempted to blaspheme an omnipotent Deity by charging Him directly responsible for human frailties and physical shortcomings … No longer need we blame a Creator God’s direct hand for any of these disturbing empirical facts. Instead, we can put the blame squarely on the agency of insentient natural evolutionary causation.

Coyne disagrees, however, that theology gets any sort of assist from evolution: “If evolution is to become a "welcome partner" to religion, the faithful will have to accept that evolution and natural selection were God's plan for creating life. And that just raises more theological difficulties: “Why would God choose such an inefficient and wasteful way to create life…If natural selection is anything, it's suffering, so the evolutionary process itself entails all the evils that theodicy must explain.”

This common assertion cannot be refuted, but it can be—and has been—dramatically mitigated. For starters, “inefficient” and “wasteful” are not terms that make sense in a vacuum. Does it make sense to call the sun “wasteful” because so little of its light actually gets used for anything? Is the hydrological cycle “inefficient” because rainfall could be distributed more sensibly? A larger theological context is required here to make sense of such claims.

The more serious problem is the claim that natural selection is “suffering.” This is surely exaggeration. No trees suffered in the long evolutionary process that produced the magnificent maples in my back yard. Neither did the barnacle or the cockroach. In fact, almost all the species had evolved and gone extinct before one emerged that could be said to experience suffering. And even for species that can “suffer,” selection does a lot of work without producing suffering. The poor peacock with the wimpy tail feathers might not be able to find a mate so his wimpy genes will not be selected but the only suffering he will experience will be humiliation.

The claim that natural selection is all about suffering comes from watching too many nature shows where the fast lion chases down the slow zebra and kills it. That is suffering to be sure, and no Christian should look at that and shrug: “Well, that is God’s creative process at work.” Such events—disturbingly common in nature—pose real theological challenges. But that same camera recording the bloody death of the zebra captures grasses and trees that evolve without suffering.

Coyne states that “God could have set up evolution so that it entailed less suffering.” This may very well be true—and I often find myself in agreement with Coyne on this point—but how can we know this? This might be true, but belief in God comes with a recognition that reality has layers we simply don’t understand. I have no idea, for example, how anything is created. God gave humans free will and Hitler abused the gift. On the other hand, Bill Gates is freely spending his considerable fortune to make the world a better place. Can we have free will that empowers Gates but not Hitler? Can God create free natural processes that can freely explore only good possibilities? Coyne is convinced that God “could have allowed only beneficial mutations to occur rather than ones that cause disease.” But this makes sense only if we have some model of how God interacts with nature. The world may be such that saying “God allows” is not an accurate description of the freedom that exists in nature. I allow my children to drive my car by themselves. If they run down a pedestrian, did I allow that? God allows gravity to function in a regular way. If a tree falls on my head, did God allow that?

Coyne concludes “evolution is not a "welcome partner" for theodicy, for it raises more problems than it solves.” “It's easier and more parsimonious,” he concludes, “to simply discard the notion of God...”

This bold conclusion has been considered and rejected by many thoughtful believers, for it is but one small part of the larger metaphysical affirmation that God exists and created the world. Coyne has not engaged the many arguments for the existence of God that have nothing to do with evolution (hardly possible in a blog, of course). Furthermore—and most importantly—Christianity has the suffering of Christ at its heart—not the creation of the world or life. Long before evolution was even in the air Christian theology wrestled with the problem of suffering and what it meant that God had become incarnate in Jesus to participate in that suffering.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #15412

May 28th 2010

>Feser came the closest to getting it but was forced to choke on the inevitable conclusion of his argument.  If that’s the best that Christian aplogetics can do we’re in bad shape.

I reply: I’m sorry but here you are just naysaying Prof Feser (who is a Philosopher BTW not an Apologist) here.  You have to tell us specifically how his argument failed.  Because from where I’m sitting it is as solid as a rock. 

>What was the point of the Telic Thoughts response?

I reply: At the end he listed all the logical fallacies the user of the Courtier’s Reply makes.  It’s obvious.  With all due respect did you read my links carefully or did you just skim them?

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #15414

May 28th 2010

>Let me ask a serious question to you or anybody who is interested.  What is the point of the Courtier’s reply?

I reply: It’s Simple my brother.  Professor Dawkins (or you could substitute a YEC Preacher) comments on a subject he knows nothing about.  Makes a major mistake about the factual nature of the subject which renders his whole polemic useless (examples: Wrongly claiming the Cosmological Argument teaches “everything has a cause” or the “Chicken & the Egg” refutes Evolution etc).  When this mistake is pointed out rather than saying “Well I goofed! I guess I should learn more so I can make a more intelligent argument” they shout “Courtier’s reply” in reference to the Courtier who told the little boy the Emperor was naked “You haven’t read so&so;‘s dissertation on the patterns on the Emperor’s boots”(or some such nonsense).  The point being the subject matter is assumed to be so silly that it is not worth of attention so who cares if I get it wrong?

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #15419

May 28th 2010

Or to put it even more simply UC someone like Dawkins justifies his profound academic ignorance of basic philosophical arguments for the existence of God on the grounds “Do I have to get an accurate understanding of faerie lore in order to both disbelieve in faries & tell others not to believe in them”?  This begs the question because he is assuming belief in fairies = belief in God & of course they are not alike at all.  Indeed I would say even if God didn’t exist as philosophical categories they are not alike and religion should be treated more seriously.

Sadly (for Dawkins at least) he & his sycophants do rational Atheists a disservice.  His straw man arguments are easy to refute (one has to just point out they are caricatures not actual rebuttals)  and by association he drags down more competent critics of religion.  Atheist Philosopher Thomas Nagel didn’t call him an amateur critic of religion just to be snarky.

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #15420

May 28th 2010

Finally UC my computer is a little buggy.  I have to post 5 times before my comments appear here.  I will answer you more tonight when I have my Notebook Computer.  It has no problem.


BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #15421

May 28th 2010

If I may correct a mistake.  It was the Skeptical Christian who listed the argumentative fallacies of the Courtier’s reply (aka Myers Shuffle).  My bad.

The tecktonic’s point was that the Courtier’s reply tellsit is permissible to base your position around attacks on straw men.

RD - #15474

May 28th 2010

Hey Ben,

“Are you channeling the philosophy of Elliot Sober?”

Thanks for the question. I’ve actually never had the chance to read any of Dr. Sober. The distinction I was drawing between properties and predicates is instead something that goes back at least to Socrates, and I’d be surprised to hear that it couldn’t be found in the pre-Socratics. People who deny this distinction are known as nominalists, and nominalists are, on the whole, few and far between throughout the history of philosophy. Even among contemporary physicalists (philosophers who believe that only physical things exist), the dominant position is now that at least certain properties such as numbers and spin and charge should be counted as genuinely existing, independently of any facts about human language. I believe Aquinas also have accepted this (though not the bit about spin and charge). Of course, this is not to say that Aquinas thought properties existed per se, as their own independent subsistences; he may have thought that they only “exist in” the things that possess them.

BenYachov - #15484

May 28th 2010

Thanks RD,
  I thought of Sober because he does talk about properties and predicates.  Feser does a whole section in his book THE LAST SUPERSTITION on Realism, Conceptualism and nominalism.


BenYachov - #15487

May 28th 2010

BTW to those Flat Earthers among the New Atheists who still think the “Coultier Reply” is in anyway an intelligent response.  An interesting admission from it’s creator PZ Myers as quoted on Voxday’s blog with link.

QUOTE"A couple of years ago, I sat down one morning, bemused by yet another bit of empty apologetics from god’s sycophants, and banged out a short bit of amusement called The Courtier’s Reply. It got picked up everywhere, to my surprise. I mean, seriously, I have to confess that I whipped that out in 20 minutes, no edits or rewrites, just shazam, it’s done.“END QUOTE

Not only is Myers not a professional philosopher but by his own admission he made this “argument” up in less than 20 minutes!!!  That is just plain embarising.  Are either mk or Tulse or Dan L aware this great argument was churned out by a hack in less time then it take to watch cartoons?  Wow & their kind thinks Religious people are gullible. I’m just stunned!  This is what you get when you worship your own intellect instead of using it.

RD - #15494

May 29th 2010

Hey Ben,

You said above that that the fallacy of the Courtier’s Reply was that it equated belief in God with belief in fairies. I agree with this assessment, but I wonder what it means for people for whom belief in God /does/ seem as unfounded as belief in fairies. Personally, when I think about God while in a philosophical mood, roughly a dozen major families of arguments/evidences of his existence spring to mind. But that’s only because I’ve already encountered those arguments in my reading and thinking at some point in the past. I think that many people aren’t in anything like this position. To them, theism does seem to be just as poorly evidenced as belief in fairies, if only because no one has ever explained to them the major reasons to accept theism. So they are in a position in which it does look just as rational to apply the Courtier’s Reply to theism as to the existence of fairies. If they are in that position, then is it really rational to fault them for finding the Courtier’s Reply persuasive?

RD - #15495

May 29th 2010

I feel like it might be more helpful to mention a few of the major motivations for God’s existence. Then possibly it would no longer seem to them that fairies and theism are on an equal footing.

If anyone who does like the Courtier’s Reply reads these thoughts of mine, I’d be interested to know if they seem on target.


DWDMD - #15511

May 29th 2010

Seems to be a little confusion here, centering around #15166. The “Courtier’s Reply” is not a positive arguement for anyone - it is a denigration of any argument that may be coherent in itself but does not reflect reality - that bends observations to fit preconceived assumptions. Thus the emperor’s courtiers went all out to support and embroider the notion the he had on a splendid new suit of clothes when he was, in fact, naked. BTW who cares whether it was a bona fide philosopher with a nice pedigree who came up with this notion, or how long it took him to spell it out?  Actually, the author of the idea was Hans Christian Anderson anyway. So when a person outside of any religious belief is arguing with a Christian, the latter cannot begin with quoting religious authorities or even the Bible, or by identifying his opponent with the “New Atheists.” He must meet the questioner first within the terms of his secular and modern worldview. This is what Tulse was saying to BenYachov - that he was talking all around the questions and appealing to authorities while failing to engage at the level that would be meaningful to Tulse. Good lesson here for Christians who want to effectively communicate to thinkers.

BenYachov - #15527

May 29th 2010

>This is what Tulse was saying to BenYachov - that he was talking all around the questions and appealing to authorities while failing to engage at the level that would be meaningful to Tulse.

I reply: No, Tulse ventured a very primitive philosophical argument against God being perfect.  I pointed out as a matter of objective fact that his argument would work only against a theist personalist concept of God & not a classical conception.  For my argument to be valid it is irrelevant whether God exists or not.  Tulse’s only response was to dogmatically & fundamentalistically assert his modern American definition of “love” as the only legitimate definition when historically that is absurd.

BenYachov - #15528

May 29th 2010

Tulse’s only legitimate, rational response would have been to say “Okay, so my argument would only work against one particular philosophical concept of God.  Which religions hold this concept and which do not?  What arguments can I bring that might potentially defeat the classical concept of God?”

The Courtier’s Reply is only brought up to rationalize his own ignorance of the two distinct philosophical concepts of God.  Aquinas is an authority insomuch that he’s a spokesman for what objectively is the philosophical position of classical theism & he is cited for that purpose.  Whether the classical theistic concept of God exists or not is irrelevant to the role Aquinas plays as an authority.

BenYachov - #15529

May 29th 2010

>If they are in that position, then is it really rational to fault them for finding the Courtier’s Reply persuasive?

I reply:  First RD, I think I likely agree with you on many of your points.  The thing is, the New Atheist crowd is constantly ragging on popular religious persons that maybe disbelieve in evolution for intellectually superficial reasons and/or just plain ignorance of fact.  Thus it seems to me fair is fair, if they’re going to polemic religion they should at least have a competent knowledge of it.  It doesn’t have to be a strong knowledge, it can even be the attitude, “What does this mean?  I need to know more so I can hold my position more strongly.”

The problem is they don’t even think the have to know anything about religion… it’s just obviously silly.  Unfortunately that’s the same mentality used by the creationist preacher cited in Feser’s essay above with his “chicken & the egg” reply which leads to his dismissal of evolution.  I don’t really think there is an excuse for ignorance & in the old school if you refuse to learn you’re going to get the ruler to the knuckles.

mk - #15542

May 29th 2010

Yep… PZ came up with that in 20 minutes. By contrast, Thomas took a lifetime to come up with his extremely thin gruel. Kinda sad when you think about it.

What’s worse is that some people in this the 21st century actually think Thomism is pretty clever stuff, deep even.


Ben Masters - #15969

June 2nd 2010

Why is the Fall not mentioned in this article? Is it not relevant?
Why blame God for evil when the real cause is man’s (and angels’) rebellion?
All suffering is just punishment for that rebellion. There are NO innocent people or children. We all participated in Adam’s rebellion.
You are trying to formulate “Biblical” doctrine based upon assumptions that are not wholly Biblical. It is a formula for failure.

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