An Ontology of Evil

Evolutionary biology, data science, and why evil is a bigger problem than many like to admit

Gem Jackson
Jan 15 · 10 min read
‘Dante and Virgil in Hell’ By William-Adolphe Bouguereau — Unknown source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=118662

In January 2019, a family in southern Spain was subject to a nightmare scenario. During a family walk near Malaga, two-year-old Julen Rosseló fell 71 meters down a 25cm-wide borehole. He didn’t survive, and it took thirteen days for rescuers to recover his body. Later it was revealed the borehole had been dug illegally.

At the time, my own daughter was the same age, which led me to follow the story with a growing sense of horror and disbelief that such things could be allowed to happen. It seems absurd that something so truly awful could happen to anyone, let alone a child. Yet real life horror stories such as this happen all too frequently.

For atheists like myself, they represent the precarious fragility of life in a universe governed by uncaring physical laws. Simple, brutal death by physics.

Yet for Christians around the world, suffering and harm present a more nuanced problem — a challenge to faith.

The problem of evil is perhaps the greatest challenge to Christian religious belief. It is an unavoidable part of life that we all encounter evil and suffering in one sense or another. As a consequence, it is a natural human response to ask why we suffer and why evil exists in the world.

The problem for Christianity can be stated as follows: Christianity is rooted in the existence of evil and suffering, from Job to the sacrificial nature of Jesus. Yet, Christianity holds that God is infinitely loving, powerful and knowing. This is the so-called ‘inconsistent triad’. It is incumbent on Christians to reconcile not just why evil should exist — this isn’t too difficult — but why so much evil exists.

A failure to resolve the problem of evil leads to one of two undesirable outcomes for believers. Firstly, it may be that either God doesn’t exist or exists but without the recognizable characteristics of the Christian God — indifferent or with limited power, for instance. Secondly, it may that Christian belief is irrational in the light of evil. Whilst some might be happy to acknowledge this (Kierkegaard springs to mind), I suspect the majority of Christians alive today would not.

In this article, I will focus on an aspect rarely scrutinized in detail — the nature of evil itself. For a general overview and introduction to the debate as a whole, there are other excellent articles covering this angle in more detail.

The nature of evil is a complex and nuanced area too often glossed over in a rush to present or evaluate the defenses and theodicies. I believe that without a full and developed appreciation of the problem itself, we cannot fully judge the success (or failure) of the responses.

Furthermore, I will argue that the lessons of legal theory, evolutionary biology, and data science show that most religious responses fail to address the most difficult issues.

First, the essentials. In contemporary Western philosophy, a broad distinction is made between natural and moral evil. The distinction is necessary as each presents a slightly different problem to faith.

Natural evil is the pain and suffering that arises due to the functioning or malfunctioning of the natural world. Falling within this is are naturally occurring decay, deaths and destruction, illness, disease.

Examples typically used include natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, disease and illness such as COVID-19 and suffering related to the ordinary functioning of the natural world, such as with the Ichneumonidae wasp that lays its eggs inside a paralyzed, living caterpillar.

Moral evil, by contrast, is the pain and suffering that results from conscious human action or inaction. It is evil where a person or people are to blame for the suffering that occurs. Examples typically include wars, genocides, murders and assaults along with lies, deceptions and frauds.

Natural evil includes our built-in capacity to suffer

We accept that it is bad to be caught in a tornado or catch malaria. But why are these things bad? The answer seems to be because those events result in pain, distress and suffering. We fear natural evils only because, as human beings, we have a great capacity to suffer. Our nervous systems are excellent at telling the brain that the body is in danger and suffering damage. These messages are experienced as intense feelings of pain. If the human body had no capacity to feel pain or be damaged, then events like tornados would be at worst an inconvenience.

Theologian David Ray Griffin identifies this as a duality lying at the heart of human existence:

“The connection between the capacity to enjoy and the capacity to suffer is a necessary connection inherent in the nature of things.”

Complex nervous systems, sensory awareness, consciousness — these aspects of life are double-edged swords. On the one hand, they are what define sophisticated forms of life. Yet, all that is tied to nuance and sophistication is also inextricably linked to an increasing capacity to suffer.

Similarly, as living creatures, we have a limited lifespan and our lives can be ended if our bodies suffer too much damage. We resent natural evils because they can end our lives. Again, we might point out that the evil here is not the tornado or disease itself, but the consequence of falling victim to such an event. If, as human beings, we were immortal, surely such events would not be considered evil.

So on the surface natural evil seems to be death, disease and disasters. However, on a deeper level, natural evil has a more fundamental correspondence to to our built-in capacity to suffer and our contingent, limited nature as mortal creatures.

Natural evil is a necessary part of the evolutionary process

When Tennyson wrote that nature is “red in tooth and claw” he was referring to the huge amount of death and suffering that takes place in nature. Darwin himself was horrified by the Ichneumonidae wasp which lays it’s eggs in the paralyzed, still-living body of caterpillars so that its young have a fresh meal when they hatch.

Examples like the one above highlight an underlying point — the evolutionary process is based on the death of billions upon billions of lives. A key mechanism of evolution is natural selection through genetic mutation. Natural selection allows species to evolve only because members who are less well adapted to their environment die before they reproduce, allowing the better adapted members to pass on their DNA.

Professor Phillip Kitcher, who specializes in the philosophy of science and biology, commented how the process of evolutionary biology must appear to an observer:

“There is nothing kindly or providential in any of this, and it seems breathtakingly wasteful and inefficient. Indeed, if we imagine a human observer presiding over a miniaturized version of the whole show, peering down on his “creation,” it is extremely hard to equip the face with a kindly expression.”

David Ray Griffin describes the evolutionary process as “long, slow and pain filled”. He seems to have a point that while the natural world contains lots of examples of natural evil, the evolutionary process itself, which takes place over geological tracts of time, could arguably be called a natural evil.

Given all the above, the challenge presented to faith of disease and natural disaster may seem too simplistic. A better presentation of the challenge may be to question firstly, why a divine being would ground the process of universal organic progression in death and suffering and secondly, why increases in biological complexity appear tied to an increasing capacity to suffer?

When we talk about moral evil, there is usually a focus on evil actions which result in pain, suffering and death. For instance, typical examples of moral evil include the holocaust and murder. We say that these are evil because they result in death and suffering. So if we were asked to locate where the evil lies in such examples, we might reply ‘the evil is in the suffering of the victims’. That is, the consequences make an action evil. Murder is bad because the victim dies.

However, this misses a crucial point about moral evil — the blameworthiness of the person at fault. Moral evil, at its heart, results from the free choice of a moral agent. If we just look at the consequences, it is not always possible to tell whether moral evil has taken place or not.

This point can be illustrated with the crime of murder. If moral evil were simply a person’s action (or inaction) with negative consequences, we could define murder as ‘one person killing another’. But this isn’t a good definition. If I were to push my friend out of the path of a speeding car, but in doing so, cause him to hit the ground and suffer a fatal head injury, then while I have clearly caused his death, it is not clear that I am a murderer.

Rather, the law demands that something about my intention be known. Murder is about a person wanting to kill or seriously injure another person and then carrying out this intention. So perhaps we can say that moral evil is about a person’s action (or inaction) with intended negative consequences. As well as the consequences, the intention is also relevant.

In this way we begin to build a more complete picture of moral evil. The holocaust was not only bad because millions of people suffered and died but also because of the deliberate way in which the Nazis systematically planned and went about exterminating an entire race of people. This is why murder is considered more serious than manslaughter (accidental or thoughtless killing) and why genocide is considered the worst of all war crimes.

So the badness of moral evil can be found in the degree of intention and consequence. It is certainly true that the consequences affect how serious moral evil is. But it is also true that the more malign the intention and motive, the more serious the moral evil.

Image courtesy David McCandless (made available by the artist at https://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/20th-century-death/)

David McCandless is a data-journalist and graphic designer. He put together a visual depiction of the different causes of death in the 20th century for an art installation in the UK (see image above)

Below you will find some of the data about different causes of death. If you want to dig into the raw data behind the stats, you can do so here. While it is not always clear cut whether deaths were as a result of natural or moral evil (eg famine — failed harvests or political corruption & war?) the data has borne scrutiny relatively well.

Image author’s own

Every year I ask my students what they predict would be the biggest causes of death in the 20th century. Bouyed by their understanding of the 20th century as a particularly bloody century for war, murder and conflict, they normally argued that deaths caused by humanity through war and murder are roughly equal to deaths from ‘natural causes’.

This is not the case.

In the C20th, roughly 88 million people were murdered or killed in genocides like the holocaust. This is certainly a high number, but compared to the 226 million people killed from diseases, which cause diarrhea (cholera, typhoid), the 400 million people killed from smallpox and the 97 million people killed by measles, it becomes clear that natural evil is by far and away the biggest killer of the C20th.

At this point, I should add that I am not attempting to compare ‘lesser and greater’ evils. Rather, instead I mean to build an accurate picture of scale. Too often, it seems to me, theologians have focused on moral evil as the primary form of suffering in the world. It’s the psychological bias of ‘man bites dog’ — we tend to focus on the unusual and shocking, rather than the ordinary and mundane. I suggest that this form of thinking underplays the prevalence and scale of suffering in the natural world.

Even within the category of ‘natural evil’, people tend to think of natural disasters as being the biggest killers. Again, this is simply not the case. In total, only 24 million people were killed as a result of disasters like earthquakes, volcanoes and lighting with 20 million of those dying from general ‘extreme weather’ like heat and flooding. Compared to the 2,500 million (or 2.5bn) killed by non-infectious diseases (cancer, heart disease etc) it seems our view of natural evil may be unfairly distorted.

A consequence of viewing the nature of evil through a contemporary lense is that the problem of evil shifts. When the earliest Christian theologians addressed the issue — Irenaeus, Augustine & Aquinas, etc — they were largely concerned with explaining imperfect human behavior.

As our understanding of evolutionary biology has developed over the last 150 or so years, I would argue that the problem of evil has been turned on its head. The traditional appeals to scripture and free will to explain evil hold less weight in the face of the complexity and scale of natural evil.

This is not to dismiss moral evil. It simply means that addressing the question in the 21st century means taking on a more complex and subtle problem than philosophy has traditionally dealt with.

Philosophy and theology are living, breathing subjects. We must be careful not to remain static and rooted in the past. I hope the ideas presented in this article may be valuable when considering the various responses to this ever-present challenge to religious belief.

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Gem Jackson

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Writer and educator in law and philosophy. Also wrote a book.

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

Gem Jackson

Written by

Writer and educator in law and philosophy. Also wrote a book.

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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