March 28, 2023

Natural Evil, is it really so bad?

One of the big questions people ask about a belief in God is ‘how can so many bad things still happen?’ If God exists, is so powerful and good as many theists claim, how can so much suffering exist in the world? An answer that may explain some of it is freewill. It is said that the reason that the various ‘evils’ produced by human beings happens, is that we have freedom. We can choose to do the right things for the right reasons, or we can choose to do the wrong things.

However this doesn’t help to explain what is often called Natural Evil. This is those aspects of the natural world, not really within the control of human beings, which cause great suffering. This would include events such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and also other natural processes such as disease, aging perhaps and even, for prey species mainly, the natural war of the ‘survival of the fittest’.

A couple of examples would be, from a human perspective, malaria and the 2004 Asian Tsunami. Here we have two ‘Natural Evils’ which have caused enormous suffering and death for human beings. These people appear to no more deserve this fate than anyone else, and for all practical purposes their deaths appear to be random and frankly arbitrary. Two children sleeping in the same room: one may get malaria and die the other go on to live a full life. It is understandable that a parent may see this as Natural Evil that could even be attributed to God, and certainly not to human freedom. With the Tsunami thousands of people from all round the world were affected by what started as an underground earthquake. This sent massive waves often devastating already poor areas, again, for no good, apparent reason, and not due to direct human causes.

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Various ‘explanations’ have been considered over the years. In ancient times, and even sometimes today, some kind of spiritual reason might be considered. Perhaps people in the malaria infected village might say a woman lost a child because she in unmarried, ignoring all the married parent’s losses presumably. Or after the Tsunami some people thought it could perhaps be a judgement on the lack of religiosity in the areas affected. Today these kinds of explanations are rarely taken seriously. When we look at the big picture, and analyse who suffers from a more objective standard, there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to it.

Some theologians have argued that Natural Evil is a result of human disobedience on a wider scale. In that humanity’s ‘fall from grace’ has exposed us to these dangers, apparently as some kind of punishment or perhaps as a simple consequence. However if we all have earned this ‘punishment’ why again does it seem so random? Some people, often in the richer more advanced countries, will suffer much less from Natural Evil than those living in poor countries.

An explanation from a Buddhist point of view might say people are born into these more dangerous circumstances because they have somehow earned it in a previous life. So even though what befalls them may seem random it is not, and is completely justified and perhaps even for their own benefit, if seen from a wider cosmic perspective. However, when I personally, hear about some natural disaster that is not the impression I get. It much more seems that people of various fairly random sorts become caught up in them.

Disease is probably a more regular form of Natural Evil in a developed country, and it seems to strike pretty much at random, just as our science would predict. This seems to hold true for genetic illnesses and mutations, distribution of intelligence, psychological disorders and many other aspects of the natural goods and evils which people seem to acquire through no human agency.

So what if we take the modern scientific view that Natural Evil is random and  arbitrary. That it is the result of essentially fixed physical laws that have been probably running ever since the Big Bang and well before any humans could have affected their nature. From this point of view surely it is the universe itself, or any being who may have played a part in its design, that is responsible for this apparent evil.

In that case what possible justifications could any God have for such a design? The obvious explanation would be that it just had to be that way. We do not know what design constraints any ‘universe designer’ may be under. And in a way this would be the explanation route I would like to take, however without the need to refer to any kind of Designer.

With Natural Evil are we not taking a little bit of a narrow view of the so called evils with which it is associated? Let us take first the Tsunami. This was caused by the movement of a tectonic plate. Without tectonics, and volcanism more generally, the Earth would not be the amazing living planet that it is. If you want to see what a planet without much volcanism looks like try living on Mars! Time and again the dynamic surface of Earth has contributed to the development and even survival of life. Just one example is what is called ‘Snowball Earth’ theory.

This is a time roughly 650 million years ago when it is thought that the Earth became almost completely covered by massive ice sheets, set in motion by an extreme Ice Age. This created a run away cooling as the ice reflected so much solar energy directly back into space that the Earth stayed frozen, with apparently no route back to more life-friendly conditions. It is thought that volcanoes may have been responsible for eventually freeing the Earth, and its few remaining living creatures, from this almost total freeze. As the volcanoes carried on pumping massive amounts of co2 into the atmosphere, maybe hundreds of times what we see today was collected over millions of years, this eventually led to enough of a slight warming to reverse the vicious cycle of cooling. Then more and more water vapour, by far the most important greenhouse gas even today, was presumably able to get into the atmosphere and thaw the planet.

Needless to say, without all this, humanity itself could never have evolved, indeed maybe multi-cellular life could have been wiped out. If the Earth was not a dynamic and active place, in terms of volcanism and tectonics, life probably would not exist at all, let alone have survived to the present day, and there are hundreds of reasons for this that a geologist would be able to name. Equally of course all those people and communities that suffered during the Tsunami would not have even existed without the very processes from which they were eventually made victim, and neither would anyone other human beings.

If we look at another specific Natural Evil, malaria, the case may seem less obvious but I believe an equally valid and parallel argument can be run, and I would like to call it the ‘Ancestor Explanation’. Malaria is caused by a parasite that lives inside mosquitoes, a horrid concept for sure, and any artificial bio-weapon that used such diabolical logic would be condemned. But these are natural organisms that have evolved just like human beings, as far as our best scientific explanations can tell us ever since Darwin.

So malaria is a product of the same process, evolution, which has led to the very same human beings who are victims of its predations. In a sense without malaria there would be no human beings to suffer from its effects. Indeed human beings have evolved from organisms very like the malaria parasite and the mosquito. They are in a real sense our ancestors in the evolutionary family tree that led to us. Even viruses, which cause so much Natural Evil, are part of that evolutionary story without which no more-complex organisms could have developed.

So it would seem foolish to wish that there was no disease in the world, because by doing so there would be no animal or plant life of any complex kind either. Without viruses, bacteria, plants, single-celled organisms, microscopic animals (like malaria), insects, even large predators, in fact the whole web of life, human beings could never have existed to complain about being attacked by so many living organisms, which are given half a chance.

If we look at the whole, incredible scientific story of how the almost impossible happened, an intelligent conscious animal evolved out of chemicals, then we see time and again that pretty much everything we regard as Natural Evil was probably necessary for this miracle to happen. Even bombardment by asteroids and comets has played it role, perhaps in bringing extra water to the Earth and probably creating the Moon (which has also played a massive role in life’s story). ‘Deadly’ radiation may have provided the energy needed for the first complex chemical reactions that led to life, and has certainly helped in producing genetic variation through mutation. Occasional psychological/brain disorders may well be part of the price humanity pays for having such a complex brain, and for its many social and cultural treasures.

At the end of the day we evolved in and have come from this universe the way it is. Perhaps it could have been different, we might never know, but then so would we be different. Natural ‘Evil’, seen in context, should just be called Nature. We are as much part and product of Nature as the so-called evils. Without all these processes, that are so often maligned, we would not even exist and nor would this beautiful world and the many species with which we share it.

And now we can take this argument one more small step perhaps. How could this relate to so called human evil? After all we have certain natural constraints and baggage acquired from our own evolution within the universe. Maybe much of what appears to be completely down to human choice, such as wars or various crimes, may at least in part be due to Nature, or Natural Evil as was. Without a certain aggressiveness, violence, acquisitiveness, possessiveness etc we would never have survived in the wild state we seem to have come from. We are all partly products of the natural ‘war’ of evolution. It would be surprising if all people were unswervingly gentle, caring, understanding, considerate etc as we would never have survived at all if that were the case.

So perhaps an awful lot of what we call ‘human evil’, even for those of us who believe in freewill, could be understood as an element of Natural Evil. In which case again it cannot really be seen as even a bad thing, when considered in the evolutionary context of our species. Of course we have strong instincts of aggression, greed, lust, deception etc.; without these we would not even exist at all. So if we believe it is a good thing that we do exist, and without this condition good and evil from a human perspective could also not even arise as questions, these drives cannot be called evil, at least in part.

It could be argued that all this necessary, ‘Natural Evil’ itself could have been otherwise. The universe, if it had an intelligent Designer, could have been designed differently, without such harsh conditions. Human beings would also be different, but perhaps different in a good way, or perhaps in all important ways the same. We cannot know this of course but the universe seems to be understandable to a large extent in scientific terms. It is not a fairy land, but a rational and predictable, even mechanical place, on the larger scale anyway. It may have had to be the way it is for various reasons, but it certainly would have to be the way it is for us to understand it in the way we do. It seems to hang together, make sense, follow regularities and laws, and be understandable mathematically and logically. In a word it is reasonable, difficult perhaps, but reasonable.

So in summary, taking a longer and wider view of so called Natural Evil, all other species are our ancestors and cousins even down to viruses, bacteria and malaria, as without them we could not have evolved at all. The powerful and often destructive dynamic processes of Earth, and the wider universe, have played their essential role in the story of life as well. Even some of our own destructive tendencies played an indispensable role in our evolution and survival and need to be seen in context. Perhaps the universe could have been different but then so would we, and it may not have been coherent, logical, or understandable in scientific terms at all. So let us not call these things ‘Natural Evils’ but just natural, and recognize their various roles in humanity’s journey to the point where we can even question their moral justifications.

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