Jan Brueghel the Elder, “Paradise,” 1620. Gemaldgalerie, Berlin.
It’s a common enough complaint. Why don’t we live in a perfect world? After all, wouldn’t we expect God to make one, supposing He existed?
Intelligent Design is, in the words of Professor William Dembski, “the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the result of intelligence.” As a scientific discipline, it makes no claim to identify the Designer of Nature. There are, however, weighty philosophical reasons for concluding that the Ultimate Designer of Nature could only be an Infinite, Uncaused, Intelligent Being who cannot fail to exist. For the purposes of this post, then, I’m going to assume that the Ultimate Designer is God, and that He not only designed the cosmos but maintains it in existence. So the question we need to answer is: why didn’t God make a perfect world?
Does the demand for perfection limit God’s creative freedom?
One response to this question is that God is not obliged to make a perfect world, simply because He is perfect. After all, God is a free agent, and if He wants to make a world that is less than perfect, who are we to argue? After all, it’s still (for the most part) a good world, and whatever existence we have we owe entirely to Him, so we should be grateful for what we’ve been given.
That’s a good answer, so far as it goes, but it still fails to address the question: if God is capable of making a perfect world, then why didn’t He? Surely that would be the default expectation we’d have for an Infinite Being. In the ordinary course of events, the more perfect an agent is, the better his/her products are. Certainly a master potter can make pots of average quality, but we’d normally expect him/her to make pots of the finest quality. So why shouldn’t we expect the Creator of the universe to make a perfect universe?
One response to this question is that the demand for perfection would be an unreasonable constraint on God’s creative freedom: it only gives God one option, which is very limiting for a free agent. But that’s an unsatisfactory reply. There are many possible ways – perhaps countless ways – of making a perfect world. Even if God could only make a perfect world, God would still have lots of options.
Is it logically impossible for God to make a perfect world?
Another response is that it’s logically impossible for God to make a perfect world, so we shouldn’t blame Him for not making one. Only God is an Infinite Being. Every finite being is necessarily imperfect, as it necessarily lacks some perfection that an Infinite Being possesses. Thus no creature can be altogether free from defects. What’s more, for any world God makes, we can always imagine a better one, that contains something extra. So there can be no such thing as a perfect world.
This is a very tempting response to make, but I believe it’s wrong, as it overlooks the distinction between “finite” and “defective.” A limitation is not a flaw, and “perfect” does not mean “unsurpassable.”
A finite thing may not possess a certain perfection, but that does not mean that it lacks it. We say that a thing lacks something if it does not possess something which it should possess. Since a thing is only defective (or imperfect) if it lacks something, then the fact that a thing is finite does not imply that it is imperfect or defective. We do not call a pig defective because it has no wings. A bird without wings, on the other hand, would be defective.
What is perfection?
The perfection of a thing can be defined in terms of what God, its Maker, intends it to do. I would, however, add that if the thing in question is a living thing, our finite human minds can generally discern what it is meant to do, simply by investigating the conditions under which it thrives. Living things, unlike pots, have built-in ends, which require no intimate knowledge of their Maker’s plans in order for us to identify them.
If a thing does exactly what it’s meant to do, given the kind of thing it is, then it’s a perfect individual of that kind, even if it’s finite. For instance, a pig may be a perfect specimen of its kind if it can do whatever a pig is meant to do – i.e. if it fulfils its telos or built-in end. And if one individual of a certain kind can be perfect, then there is no reason in principle why all individuals of that kind cannot be. And if all individuals belonging to each and every natural kind are perfect, then we have a perfect world. A perfect world is not an unsurpassable one; it’s just a world free from flaws, that’s all.
The argument in the foregoing paragraph assumes that natural kinds are real categories – and in a perfect world, they would have to be. This requirement would not preclude these categories from changing very slowly over millions of years, however, in response to environmental changes. A perfect world need not be a static one.
A perfect world need not be an ageless one, either. A thing’s perfection does not entail that it has to last forever. If an organism such as a tree is designed by God to only last for a finite time, and if does what it’s meant to do during that time, then its programmed death is not an imperfection but a design feature.
Finally, even the extinction of a species could conceivably be a design feature. For each and every creature can be said to manifest its perfection in three different ways: first, in its achievement of its own proper end; second, in the assistance which it provides to other creatures; and third, in the way in which it contributes to the perfection of the universe as a whole. Even if a species of creature flourishes for a relatively short period, it is still capable of attaining its own biological ends during that time; hence it is perfect in the first sense. As regards the second and third senses, even if some kinds of creatures created by God die out, they can still serve a useful ecological role in their environment, by assisting species which go on to survive. If these surviving species later develop into new species, then we can say that the extinct species were at least indirectly useful to these new species, by assisting their ancestors to survive. Hence, even extinct creatures can indirectly contribute to the perfection of the universe as a whole and to the development of new life forms.
A Platonist objection relating to archetypes
A Platonist would probably object to the telos-centered definition of perfection proposed above, and argue that a thing is not perfect unless it is identical to its archetype. I would disagree, for three reasons. First, an archetype is always incompletely specified. For instance, how tall is a perfect horse? I don’t know, although I’d be willing to say 50 centimeters is too short and 2.5 meters is too tall. Second, even if the archetype were completely specified in all its traits, there would still remain one thing about it that was not specified: its location in space and time. Where does a perfect horse live? Is it any better if it lives in Paris rather than in New York? Finally, I would point out that an archetype is just a universal form, whereas individual horses are composed of matter as well as form. Hence there can be many of them, and all of them could (in principle) be perfect.
Members of a species are distributed across space and time, which raises another issue in relation to perfection. A system which might appear sub-optimal (and hence imperfect) now may have been ideal for past conditions or may turn out to be optimal in future circumstances, and therefore may represent an “overall best” design over time and space. On this view, living things can be regarded as closed loop control systems, which are designed in order to respond flexibly to changing environmental inputs.
Are poorly designed biological structures evidence against God’s perfection?
The medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas freely acknowledged that “an imperfect effect proves imperfection in the agent” (Summa Theologica I, q. 66, art. 1). Although this argument is put forward in an objection (“On the contrary…”) which Aquinas subsequently answers, he does not question the principle itself in his response. Therefore when anti-religious evolutionists like Dr. Richard Dawkins criticize the design of the vertebrate eye, they are at least making a relevant criticism – for if they were right, it would constitute powerful evidence against the belief that Nature was made by an perfect and infinite God, although it would in no way weaken the scientific conclusion (argued for by ID proponents) that Nature was designed by an Intelligence of some sort.
Skeptics have often faulted God for His poor design of various biological structures, including the vertebrate eye, the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe and the male prostrate gland, among others. There are detailed answers for these objections – see here, here and here for instance. I could say a lot more about the litany of “imperfect” designs and allegedly “vestigial” organs which Darwinian evolutionists constantly drag up, but the key point I wish to make is an epistemological one: without a complete understanding of how a creature’s genes code for its embryonic development and produce its bodily organs, we are in no position to criticize God’s designs. In particular, before we can confidently declare a bodily organ in a creature to be totally useless (as some vestigial organs are alleged to be), we first need to identify the gene that codes for it, and ascertain whether it also codes for any other useful organs or vital biological functions. If it does, then we will then have to find a way of mutating that gene to make the “vestigial” organ disappear, while keeping the creature’s other organs and biological functions intact. Only then can we truly declare an organ to be totally useless. The “vestigial” eyes of moles, which are hidden under their skin, serve no function; but if the genes that code for them cannot be modified to make the eyes disappear without rendering moles less biologically fit, then we cannot say that the eyes of moles are completely useless.
Thus I would say that it is certainly possible for God to make a perfect world, and the allegedly poor designs we see in Nature only serve to demonstrate our ignorance rather than God’s ineptitude. God cannot however make a world which is infinite in all respects, like He is.
Why didn’t God create intelligent beings in a perfect world – i.e. Heaven?
Interestingly, most religious believers would accept that God has already made a perfect world. It’s called Heaven. So the atheist’s complaint boils down to this: why didn’t God put us all in Heaven from the get-go? Why are we stuck in this world?
Of course, young-earth creationists maintain that this world was originally created perfect. Since I believe in an old earth, I cannot adopt this solution. More importantly, I would like to point out that absence of flaws does not suffice to make a world perfect. A truly perfect world is one that is guaranteed to remain free from flaws. On this definition, the Paradise of Genesis 2 was not perfect; at best, it was a way-station to a perfect world. Only Heaven can truly be called a perfect world.
Another (seldom invoked) response to the question of why we were placed in an imperfect world is that our very identity as individuals is necessarily tied to the world in which we were originally created. If we’d been created in some other world, we wouldn’t be who we are. To wish that you’d been created in Heaven is to wish yourself out of existence. But an atheist might attempt to rephrase his/her argument as follows: “If God were to create a race of intelligent beings, then He should put them in a perfect world. And if this requirement entails my non-existence, then so be it.” So the question now becomes: why didn’t God create intelligent beings in a perfect world?
However, the most satisfactory answer I can give to the atheist’s question (drawing from the Judeo-Christian tradition) is that a perfect world is only suitable for perfect moral agents. When I say “perfect moral agents”, I don’t just mean agents who haven’t done anything wrong. I mean agents who can be guaranteed not to do anything wrong in the future. The first human beings were not perfect in this sense, as they had libertarian freedom and were capable of sinning. (The Biblical account of Adam and Eve before the Fall highlights this very point.) Hence it was not fitting that the first human beings should be placed in a world that was guaranteed to remain free from all imperfections (i.e. Heaven). Instead, it was more appropriate that they should be placed in a world in which decay and death were real possibilities. And being placed in such a flawed world is even more appropriate for us today: not only are we capable of sinning, but we often do sin. So the answer I’d give the atheist is: prove to me that you can do no wrong, and I’ll acknowledge the merit of your complaint against God. Prove to me that God could have created a race of intelligent beings lacking libertarian freedom, and I’ll acknowledge that the imperfection of our world constitutes a real theological problem.
A theological problem: bugs that were intentionally designed to cause human and animal suffering
But we are not done yet. So far we have assumed that the only morally significant individuals are intelligent beings. But surely sentient animals are morally significant beings too: they can experience some level of joy and distress, even if (lacking intelligence) they fail to qualify as moral agents, who are capable of doing good or evil. In a perfect world, we would surely expect that distress would be absent. Animal death, if it occurred, would be unaccompanied by distress. The theological problem confronting believers is that the world was imperfect long before people entered it. What’s more, it seems to have been intentionally designed to cause distress to animals and human beings. As Intelligent Design proponent Professor Michael Behe puts it in The Edge of Evolution (2008, Free Press):
Here’s something to ponder long and hard: Malaria was intentionally designed. The molecular machinery with which the parasite invades red blood cells is an exquisitely purposeful arrangement of parts…
What sort of designer is that? What sort of “fine-tuning” leads to untold human misery? To countless mothers mourning countless children? Did a hateful, malign being make intelligent life in order to torture it? Or who relishes cries of pain? (p. 237)
Behe goes on to argue that regardless of whether one believes the designer of life was “a dope, a demon, or a deity”, there can be no getting around the fact that life was designed. And that includes the malaria parasite and other nasty bugs.
What we continually need to remind ourselves is that we don’t know all the facts about the original condition of these seemingly malevolent organisms, as well as their subsequent development. Until we do, we are in no position to sit in judgment on God.
For instance, according to a recent press release by the National Science Foundation, modern malaria parasites began to spread to various mammals, birds and reptiles about 16 million years ago. Malaria parasites may jump to new, unrelated hosts at any time, decoupling their evolution from that of their hosts. The ancestors of humans acquired the parasite 2.5 million years ago. However, according to Dr. Robert Ricklefs, one of the biologists who conducted the recent research into the origin of the malaria parasite, “Malaria parasites undoubtedly were relatively benign for most of that history, becoming a major disease only after the origins of agriculture and dense human populations.”
Another theological conundrum: aberrant behavior patterns in animals
In addition to the intentionally designed suffering we find in the human and animal world, we also find abundant evidence of animals with built-in (i.e. designed) tendencies to engage in disorderly behaviors such as cannibalism, infanticide, rape, unnatural sex and killing for sport. To rationalize these behaviors as serving some useful biological purpose is morally obscene; it should be self-evident that an omni-benevolent Being would not design a world like that.
Aquinas: death, injury and birth defects are part and parcel of an animal’s contingent perfection
Not all theologians regard the occurrence of animal suffering as a difficulty for theism. In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas ascribed natural evils to God’s free decision to create a universe containing multiple grades of perfection. Certain grades of perfection are 100% reliable, while other grades of perfection are contingent, and liable to fail from time to time. According to Aquinas, that doesn’t make the contingent grades imperfect; rather, part of their perfection is to occasionally fail.
Animals belong in the category of contingent grades of perfection. According to Aquinas, animals are inherently prone to death, injury and birth defects, for three reasons. First, animals naturally generate themselves, and the flip-side of generation is corruption. The only way for God to make a world without death would be to make a world without plants and animals. Secondly, the very perfections which characterize animals are produced by causes whose modus operandi is probabilistic and thus inherently prone to failure. This means that the perfections we observe in living creatures are liable to be not realized on some occasions, leading to birth defects in some individuals. Finally, the diversity and complexity of the parts which make up animals’ bodies guarantees that sooner or later, they will interfere with each other’s operation, leading to bodily degeneration. Hence all animals are doomed to die.
Aquinas even taught that there was just the right amount of natural evil in the biological world. As Richard Regan and Brian Davies put it in their introduction to The De Malo of St. Thomas Aquinas:
Critics of belief in God have sometimes argued that there is too much evil suffered in God’s world (the implication being that God is either bad or nonexistent). According to Aquinas, however, in the case of evil suffered, there can never be more evil than there need be. He thinks that any evil suffered that is more than there need be would be lacking a natural cause. It would be scientifically inexplicable. He therefore suggests that the evil suffered is neither more nor less than what we can expect in a material world in which scientific explanations can be given for what happens. (2001, Oxford University Press, p. 22.)
One major difference between Aquinas and modern writers is that Aquinas’ questions about natural evil are framed from a third-person perspective. They do not address the experience of suffering as such. Because St. Thomas considered natural evil in the animal kingdom from a third-person perspective, he is not troubled by the modern question, “How could a just God permit animals to suffer as much as they do? Indeed, why are they allowed to suffer at all?”
Another major difference between Aquinas and many modern theologians concerns the issue of whether the Creator has any duties towards His sentient creatures, simply by virtue of having created them. There seems to be a great divide between the medieval and the modern mind-set on this issue, which is why some modern Christian apologists such as C. S. Lewis have even proposed that animals may be granted some kind of immortality, though not, of course, the Beatific Vision. Aquinas would have dismissed such speculation as nonsense. He argued that although animals can have sensory knowledge particular objects, they are unable to form universal concepts, because they cannot grasp the underlying rule that defines them as belonging to the same natural kind. As a result, abstract thinking is beyond them. Hence they are incapable of enjoying immortality, as they have no natural desire for it. Their desires are limited to the here and now, which is all that their bodily senses enable them to apprehend (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, chapter 82, paragraphs 2, 4 and 12).
I have previously written about Aquinas’ theodicy here and offered my own critique of Aquinas’ treatment of animal suffering here, before putting forward a very tentative proposal as to how some sort of animal immortality might be possible.
A very different approach to the problem of animal suffering: C. S. Lewis
The Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, who was a former atheist himself, was acutely aware of the theological challenge posed by the occurrence of animal suffering. His approach was strikingly different in content and in tone from that of Aquinas. The solution he proposed in chapter 9 of his book, The Problem of Pain, was that some malevolent intelligence had interfered with God’s original plan for Nature:
It seems to me, therefore, a reasonable supposition, that some mighty created power had already been at work for ill on the material universe, or the solar system, or, at least, the planet Earth, before ever man came on the scene: and that when man fell, someone had, indeed, tempted him. This hypothesis is not introduced as a general ‘explanation of evil’: it only gives a wider application to the principle that evil comes from the abuse of free will. If there is such a power, as I myself believe, it may well have corrupted the animal creation before man appeared.
Thus the extensive evidence of mal-design in the natural world (e.g. parasitism), combined with the high incidence of pain, distress, and disorderly behaviors (cannibalism, infanticide, rape, unnatural sex and killing for sport) in the animal kingdom should lead us to conclude that God’s original handiwork has been tampered with by malevolent agents.
Professor William Dembski: Animal suffering is due to the retroactive Fall of man
Lewis was well aware that earlier generations of Christians had linked animal suffering to the Fall of man. Lewis set aside this view, on the grounds that animals existed long before the first people appeared. However, in his recent book, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (B & H Academic, Nashville, Tennessee, 2009), Professor William Dembski makes a powerful attempt to justify the traditional Christian view.
Dembski makes the bold proposal that the animals who suffered millions of years before the Fall of the first human beings, suffered because of a sin that God knew they were going to commit. Because God is outside time, He was able to ensure that the full consequences of the first human beings’ sin would be visited upon His creation, both before and after the Fall of man. While the suffering of animals before the Fall of man was actually inflicted by malevolent intelligences (demonic agents), God permitted these malevolent agents to wreak havoc on Nature only because He foreknew that the first human beings (who were entrusted with the stewardship of God’s earthly creation) would reject His offer of eternal life. If these human beings had not fallen, malevolent intelligences would never have been permitted by God to inflict suffering on creatures in the natural world, before humans appeared on Earth. Thus in a very real way, the sin of the first human beings is the (retroactive) cause of all the suffering found in Nature – past, present and future.
I find Professor Dembski’s proposal an intriguing one, which has considerable merit. I have previously written about his theodicy here and offered my own comments on his proposal here (for what they’re worth). One thing that needs to be kept in mind throughout this discussion is that Dembski’s theodicy is independent of his views on Intelligent Design. Professor Dembski makes this abundantly clear in the Introduction to his book, where he writes:
Much of my past work has been on intelligent design and the controversy over evolution. Nothing in his book, however, takes sides in that debate. In arguing that the Fall marks the entry of all evil into the world (both personal and natural evil), I make no assumptions about the age of the Earth, the extent of evolution, or the prevalence of design (Dembski, 2009, pages 9-10).
Thus one can consistently accept Dembski’s theodicy while rejecting his views on Intelligent Design – and vice versa.
So in response to the question, “Why didn’t God make a perfect world?” I would answer that a perfect world is for perfect moral agents, and God knew we would instead turn out to be a race of fallen beings. God gave us libertarian freedom. Human and animal deaths from parasites are not an original design feature, but a symptom of creation run amok, due to the fact that we live in a fallen world. Finally, we should remember that there are other intelligent beings that live in this world, and it would be naïve to regard them all as benevolent. We should therefore be prepared to entertain the very real possibility that God’s original design has been tampered with, in both humans and other animals. The fact that some creatures show evidence of malevolent interference should not weaken our philosophical conclusion that their Ultimate and Original Designer is an infinitely wise and benevolent Being.