International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Physics and Cosmology: Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Natural Evil

edited by Nancey Murphy , Robert John Russell , William R. Stoeger

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

This is a weighty volume on a topic of cosmic significance and human relevance that has been intriguing humanity since ancient times, the problem of natural evil. The book presents the proceedings of a conference held in 2005 at the papal villa in Castel Gandolfo in Italy.

It begins with a historical survey in which more than passing references are also made to Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, and Greek views on the matter. There is an inevitable reference to Leibnitz’s tenet that ours is the best of all possible world. It is recognized that “The problem of evil has challenged faith in a good, just, and powerful deity” [32], which evokes a need for this book. The next essay clarifies the difference between theodicies and defenses for God. It is shown how it is possible to “rationally believe in God and that Evil exists” [48]. In an insightful analysis of suffering, it is pointed out that “We should limit ‘evil’ to the realm of cognition, where suffering can be controlled or avoided and yet is caused cruelly or ignored selfishly…” [66]. In a discussion on the varieties of theodicy we read about three categories of good-harm analysis and nine types of defenses, three under each of the categories. The analysis could be useful in “the developing area of evolutionary theodicy” [90].

The next few chapters offer scientific and philosophical responses to the ideas in the first part. In a discussion of entropy and emergence, the roots of evil are sought in nature and her laws. It is argued that “a finite self-evolving universe in which more and more complex levels of organization gradually emerge avoiding significant transience, fragility and dissolution is not a coherent idea” [93]. We see a variation of this in another essay where it is shown that “natural evils are an unintended consequence of God’s choice to create life through natural means, namely, through the biological process of evolution” [109]. In an essay on suffering as a by-product of a finely tuned cosmos, diagrams are given to show how suffering can be traced back to the creation of a law-like fine-tuned universe, and salvation through Christ is God’s remedy for evil. We are reminded that “the intellectual problem of evil can easily grow beyond the boundaries of sense, and it is important to attempt to locate that boundary so that empty words do not create an unnecessary stumbling block to faith in a loving God” [151].

Other important topics discussed in the book range from evil in the context of the lawfulness of nature and the argument from neglect in the context of divine action to congruous goodness, perilous beauty, and disconcerting truth in ultimate reality, as well as suffering in nature. The concluding reflection is that “knowledge brings with it responsibility, and that we should not shirk from that responsibility but embrace it, along with the obligation to learn even more” [331].

The problem of natural evil continues to be a vexing question in the theistic framework. The most we can do, as in this book, is to offer perspectives, not decisive solutions. John Milton speculated in his Paradise Lost that the theoretical discussion of the problem of evil is one of the pastimes of the damned in hell. On Earth, it is not just a pastime, but a theme for serious reflections among thoughtful scholars.