Zac: Who are you and what do you do?
Scott: I am a Christian, husband and father, son and brother, friend, and philosopher. I make money by teaching for the Ohio State University at Marion and the University of Colorado Boulder.
Zac: What is your version of the non-identity theodicy? How does origin essentialism play into it?
Scott: My version of the non-identity theodicy is that it is permissible for God to allow a creature to suffer horrendously if:
i: God gives the creature an infinitely good post-Resurrection existence
ii: God makes a lot of creatures with infinitely good lives that could not have been made if that creature had not been allowed to suffer horrendously
iii: God allows horrendous suffering at least in part so that such creatures may exist
iv: If God had not allowed any horrendous suffering, then that creature could not have existed
v: God has no special obligation (such as one due to promising) to prevent the relevant instance of horrendous suffering
I think that all of these claims are true in almost all cases of horrendous evil. And so I think theism is able to plausibly explain almost all instances of horrendous suffering.
Origin essentialism is needed to defend ii and iv. Origin essentialism is the idea that if something’s origin were too different, it would not have existed. In the paper I defend an especially hardcore version of origin essentialism according to which if the process by which something began to exist were different at all, then it wouldn’t have existed. This allows me to defend ii and iv. Given the relevant form of origin essentialism, if you change my origins in such a way that I didn’t evolve from a bunch of creatures that suffered horrendously, then you make the process by which I originated too different. And you don’t get me from that process. You just get a duplicate of me. So my horrendous suffering will yield creatures God could not otherwise have made. And I couldn’t have existed if other creatures in my causal history hadn’t suffered horrendously.
Zac: In the paper, you talk about the idea that God could not have made us without allowing a lot of evil leading up to our existence. Why do you think this is the case?
Scott: A process that includes suffering is different than a process that doesn’t include suffering. Different origins yield different creatures. So if God hadn’t allowed the relevant suffering in the causal history leading up to the sperm and egg combo that resulted in me, he wouldn’t have gotten me but a duplicate of me. And the same idea applies, not just to me, but to you and to all other humans and almost all creatures throughout history.
Zac: It seems possible to me that God could have created you through an evolutionary process, special creation, or perhaps some other mode. In this case, a process like evolution wouldn’t be necessary to bring about your existence. So I’m just wondering how you would answer that kind of objection.
Scott: I would first say some things to try to make origin essentialism more palatable to you. Then I’d say a bit more on top of that to make my strengthening of origin essentialism palatable as well.
First, I’d say that origin essentialism can accommodate the possibility you are envisioning even if it can’t accommodate your exact description and interpretation of that possibility. Given origin essentialism, I can’t give you that God would have created *me* through the process you describe. But I can give you that God would create an exact duplicate of me through that process. Then I’ll say that we are imagining the same scenario but describing it in different ways. We’re imagining God creating someone exactly like me ex nihilo. But when you think you are imagining God creating *me* ex nihilo rather than through evolution, you are *really* imagining God creating a duplicate of me. So I’d say you’re onto a real possibility. But I’d disagree with your description and interpretation of that possibility. What we’re really imagining is a possibility in which God creates a duplicate of me and not a possibility in which God creates me through a radically different process. And so I think I can accommodate the possibility you are envisioning even if you and I disagree about how to describe that possibility.
Second, I’d try to show that rejecting my description of the relevant possibility has a counterintuitive implication. Suppose we grant that in the possibility we are imagining God creates *me* ex nihilo and not my duplicate. Well, it still seems like God *could* create a duplicate of me. But if its *me* God creates when he uses all of these radically different processes, then it is hard to see how God could create an exact duplicate of me. Any time God gets a duplicate level match with me God just gets me. To see why, note that one way to distinguish me from my exact duplicate is to say that we are different because we have different origins. The guy created ex nihilo has one origin. My origin is different and tied to my particular evolutionary history. That is why I’m me and that guy is just my duplicate. But how can God get a duplicate of me if we deny origin essentialism and maintain that it is me created across all these different processes? In that case it seems like God can’t create a duplicate of me. No matter what process God uses, God ends up with me and not a duplicate. And so I’d say that rejecting my description of your possibility implies that God is unable to create a duplicate of me. But, I claim, God can create a duplicate of me. So, that is one respect in which I think we disagree.
Third, one of the reasons I don’t do pure hardcore metaphsyics is that I don’t have strong intuitions about things like this. So instead I just look at the different options and see how they’ll bear on issues that I do have views about. Since I don’t have strong intuitions one way or another about the metaphysics of origins, I look at what the different accounts of the metaphysics of origins can do and what they can explain. I don’t care too much about whether they require a particular stand on contested intuitions about particular cases. If a metaphysical view can help us explain why God allows evil, then I think that is a good reason to adopt it and a huge point in its favor. In general, I think that if taking a particular stand on a contested metaphysical issue helps explain something, then that is a reason to believe it. I like exploring different combos of metaphysical and moral views and seeing which combos might be helpful in explaining things I think are fun to think about like why God allows evil.
For an introduction to origin essentialism along with references for further reading, I’d recommend Chad Vance’s essay at 1000 Word Philosophy.
Zac: I suppose I can agree with you that the creation of you ex nihilo would be a duplicate of you, but not actually you. However, I worry that this may not be able to justify a means such as the brutality of evolution. Perhaps God could have created a young Earth with 50 people to start things off. Ignoring the consequences of genetics, isn’t it possible that this same process could bring about your existence but without the millions of years of animal suffering?
Scott: Let me make sure I’m understanding your objection correctly. If I’m hearing you right, your worry is this: I’m claiming that my origin is essential to getting me rather than a duplicate. But my origin just has to do with the particular sperm and egg combo that joined to make me. As things actually happened, God used a billions of years long evolutionary process to get me and to join that particular sperm and egg combo. But couldn’t have God led that sperm and egg combo to join in a different way. Couldn’t God have created a young Earth with 50 people. Then that would lead up to the relevant sperm and egg combo. And that would then lead to me rather than a duplicate.
If I am understanding you correctly, then my reply is this: I deny that the sperm and egg combo in the young Earth example is the same as the sperm and egg combo that led to my existence. It might be a molecule for molecule duplicate of the sperm and egg combo that I came from. But it isn’t the same. Given origin essentialism, that sperm and egg combo will be the same as the one from my actual origin only if the relevant sperm and the relevant egg haven’t had their own origins changed too much. And so you’ll have to go back and make sure that their origins match. The origin includes the entire causal history leading up to that sperm and that egg. And if it is a young Earth, that causal history will stretch back only, say, 7000 years. But if it is an old Earth, that causal history will stretch back billions of years through evolutionary history and even further back all the way to God causing the Big Bang and even further back if God made our world before that. So the two causal histories will be very different even if right at the end, the last 7000 years or so, they look similar. Even if God made the young Earth at exactly the point the actual Earth was at 7000 years ago, the causal history is very different because the way the young Earth came to be the way it was 7000 years ago is so radically different than the way Earth actually came to be 7000 years ago. And so the causal history of the sperm and egg combo that led to me in the possibility we are imagining isn’t the same as the causal history of the actual sperm and egg combo that actually gave rise to me. And so in the imagined possibility you get only mere duplicates of everything on Earth for the past 7000 years, only mere duplicates of the relevant sperm and egg combo, and therefore only a mere duplicate of me.
Now, we could continue this process and keep trying to get the relevant causal history of my origins closer and closer to the actual causal history of the sperm and egg combo that led to me. And we could try to get it as close to my actual causal history as we can without any horrendous evil at all. And if we go that way I think it would lead us to the Painless Evolution example that I talk about in the paper. The possibility I discuss there is one in which the evolutionary history is the same as my actual evolutionary history with the exception that God intervenes each time an animal would have suffered and just makes the animal behave as if it suffered. Or maybe God sets up a law of nature so that whenever an animal is about to suffer pain it goes unconscious but acts the way it would if it were in pain. So the suffering animals go through all the same motions from the outside. But they don’t really suffer. And their seeming pain avoidance behavior is caused by God’s direct interference or the law God set up and not by any pain the animal feels. And you might reasonably wonder why God didn’t go that route. Couldn’t God have gotten me using that process?
In the paper I say that the causal history is too different in that case. God could have gone that route. But going that route He wouldn’t have ended up with me or you or the non-human animals in our evolutionary history. He would have just got duplicates. In my actual causal history all of that suffering is part of the causal chain leading up to me. In the possibility we are imagining that suffering is traded out for God or the law God sets up intervening in at least billions of cases. I think those are two quite different causal histories. And so I think God would end up with a mere duplicate of me but not me if He were to create through that process rather than the one He actually used. In the paper I give two extra arguments for that. One is that it eliminates vagueness. The other is that it gives us extra explanatory power. It helps us to explain why God allows evil.
Related to the considerations about vagueness that I discuss in the paper: notice that opting for the hardcore version of origin essentialism that I advocate also yields solutions to the Recycling and Tolerance Problems discussed in Chad Vance’s 1000 Word Philosophy article. Those problems depend on the idea that a tiny change in the process by which I originated would still yield me. But if you go super hardcore, like I advocate in the paper, and deny that a tiny change would still yield me, the problems are solved.
In the end, going super hardcore eliminates vagueness, yeilds solutions to the Recycling and Tolerance Problems, and allows us to explain why God allows undeserved horrendous evil. I think that is sufficeint reason to adopt the super hardcore version of origin essentialism that I advocate in the paper.
Zac: Could the means of millions of years of suffering and death justify the ends of the existence of humans? Or is there more to the story?
Scott: Not by itself. There is more to the story. Part of the story is that almost all of the creatures in our evolutionary history that suffer horrendously wouldn’t have existed if other creatures in their evolutionary history hadn’t suffered horrendously. So they benefit from God’s policy of allowing horrendous suffering in that they couldn’t have existed if God hadn’t adopted that policy. Another part of the story is that God compensates undeserved horrendous suffering with an infinitely good post Resurrection life. When Christ returns and the dead are raised, those who undeservedly suffer horrendously will receive an infinitely good life. So among other things, the story is this: almost all of the suffering creatures themselves wouldn’t have existed if God didn’t have a policy of allowing horrendous suffering. And they get compensated for their suffering at the Resurrection. So it isn’t just that we wouldn’t exist without their suffering. It is all these things working together that justifies their suffering and our suffering. And there are other elements that come into play that you can find by reading the paper.
Zac: I wonder about the value of God creating this world rather than say young Earth world. Given God could create a young Earth or a different world where he could have created creatures like us without millions of years of animal suffering, why create this one? Maybe this defaults into a more general problem of evil, or maybe your approach has something to say about it.
Scott: The core idea is that God wants to take creatures that are broken, ugly, and evil and turn them into creatures that are whole, beautiful, and good. And I think as Christians we should be especially attracted to that idea. I think I can see how someone might think it would be shady for God to do that with creatures that could have existed without any horrendous evil. But, given hardcore origin essentilaism, we couldn’t have existed in that way. The only way to get us and to get the non-human animals in our evolutionary history is to allow horrendous evil. So God takes creatures that can only have origins alongside horrendous suffering, makes them in the only way that it is possible to make them, and then heals them and gives them a wonderful existence.
I think of it in terms of two questions. First, how are individuals affected by God adopting this policy rather than another policy that does not include horrendous suffering? Second, how is the world as a whole affected by containing horrendous suffering?
Regarding the first question: The individuals are better off. You and I are better off because we wouldn’t exist without a policy of horrendous suffering. The animals in our evolutionary history are better off because they wouldn’t exist without such a policy. We all get an infinitely good post-Resurrection life. We all wouldn’t have existed if God hadn’t allowed horrendous evil. So I think we come out far ahead in this. The people who would have existed if God had made a different world can’t complain because they don’t exist. And whatever world God makes there will always be countless merely possible people that He doesn’t end up making. That isn’t a result of the suffering. It’s just a result of making one thing rather than another. And if God made, in addition to creatures like us that exist alongside suffering, a bunch of creatures that never suffer, just making us too can’t be a basis for such creatures to complain.
Regarding the second question: God didn’t sacrifice any amount of value in making our world rather than one in which no one suffers. For any value of a world that doesn’t include suffering, God can get a world with suffering that has the same value. Or maybe there are incommensurable values and a world with no suffering at all might be beautiful and good in a way that our world isn’t. In that case, our world is uniquely beautiful too. In making our world, God makes a world that is beautiful and good in a way that a world without horrendous suffering could not be. I think there is something beautiful about taking something that has to start out bad, taking it from those bad origins, and turning it into something exceedingly good. God misses out on that if He creates a world without any horrendous suffering.
So I think that God had some creative choice here. He could make a world that has no suffering that starts good and keeps going that way. He could make a world that starts bad, or bad in many respects, and moves to good. He could make a world containing parts that are one way and other parts that are another way. Or, God could have made nothing at all. Either option would be a wonderful one.
Finally, I’d like to say a bit about a thread in your questions concerning potential advantages of theodicy if we had a young Earth over the theodicies available to us given that we have an old Earth. If I’m hearing you right, I get the vibe that you think the old Earth/billions of years of evolution view fares a lot worse when it comes to theodicy than the young Earth view. And I think this might be another spot where we’re coming at things from different perspectives. Part of our disagreement, I think, concerns the non-identity stuff that we’ve already talked about. The animals in our evolutionary history that suffer over billions of years couldn’t have existed if God hadn’t adopted a policy allowing for horrendous suffering. And they get awesome post-Resurrection lives. But, setting that aside for the moment, I think we might have other points of disagreement on this topic as well.
For one thing, I think we might have a different perspective on how bad animals in the wild have it. It’s not like animals in the wild do nothing but suffer. They play, they explore, they eat, they rest, if they live to be old enough they have sex. One of the things that happens is that they experience suffering. And sometimes that suffering is horrendous. But it isn’t like that is the only thing that ever happens to wild animals. It isn’t like it is just a constant stream of nothing but horrendous suffering for billions of years. People in these discussions sort of assume it’s that way. But I’ve never seen much support for that assumption. In fact, I’m told by people who know a lot more than me about this topic that we really don’t know enough to say whether the lives of animals in the wild are overall good or bad. For a take on the topic of wild animal suffering that I really like, I’d recommend this paper by Heather Browning and Walter Veit. And anything else by Heather Browning is going to be awesome. And if you are interested in animal ethics and God stuff, I think Dustin Crummett is the best. And for general animal ethics you can’t do better than Cheryl Abbate, Bob Fischer, Michael Huemer, Nathan Nobis, Alastair Norcross, and Dan Shahar. And for a contrarian take on this topic take a look at Timothy Hsiao.
For another thing, I think the worst evils in history are not in our distant evolutionary history. I think the worst evils are things that happen to humans like the Holocaust. Animals are valuable. Their interests deserve consideration. But I think they just don’t compare to us and views on which they do are totally ridiculous. (Sorry Peter Singer!) And so the evils of things like the Holocaust, in my opinion, are so much worse than the long collection of evils that happened to non-human animals in our evolutionary history even accumulating over billions of years. Once we arrive on the scene, there are creatures that are far more valuable than the ones that preceded them. And with that comes the possibility of far greater evils, like the horrors of the Holocaust, than the evils that preceeded us. So if you’re a young Earth creationist, you’ve still got to have something to say about the Holocaust. And so you’d still be on the hook for the biggest horrors.
Finally, I think the worst evils that have happened to non-human animals are not in our distant evolutionary history either. I think, whatever the lives of animals in the wild turn out to be like, whether overall positive or negative, and it may well end up being different for different types of animals, the horrors of some factory farmed animals are far worse than much of the suffering of many animals in the wild. And so if you think the Earth is young, you’ve still got to address the horrors of factory farming. And you’ve still got to address whatever horrors non-human animals in the wild have experienced in the last 7000 years. It isn’t like as soon as humans and animals exist together the animals just stop suffering in the wild and it was especially bad before we arrived on the scene but now it’s OK. Wild animal suffering still exists. And now, in the most recent bit of history, we add to that the evils of factory farming.
So, even setting aside non-identity stuff and compensation at the Resurrection, I just don’t think the young Earth creationsit has any advantages here. Or, at the very least, if they do have an advantage it’s going to take a lot more argument on their part to bring that advantage out.
Zac: I think I’m hung up on how this theodicy can help with the question of why God would use evolution rather than some other means for creation. I think I agree with you that we would only exist if through the means He used in this world, but I’m still thinking God could create other kinds of morally relevant humans through a less painful means. But I think then we can look at reasons God would use the process He did and see other points (such as not all of it is suffering).
Scott: OK. Let me try a different strategy. Let’s imagine that God has already created an infinite number of duplicates of humans and animals with origins that don’t include suffering. So there is a duplicate Zac and a duplicate Scott and a duplicate Rowe’s fawn. And there are an infinite number of them. And now imagine God says “Well, already got an infinite number of Zacs and Scotts and Rowe’s fawns that can start out without suffering. Maybe I should add some of the Zacs and Scotts and fawns that can only exist alongside suffering too. Those creatures are beautiful and worthy of creation. Why don’t I make them and take them from suffering to paradise?
I’m curious, what is your intuition about that case? If that is how God created, with an infinite number of earths with human like creatures and earthly animal like creatures that don’t suffer and then also us that can only be created with suffering as well, does that do anything to bring out why our Earth with its evolutionary history and horrors is one among many that are beautiful and worthy of creation? Or do we still disagree? And it still seems shady on God’s part?
Zac: That helps a lot! I think I agree with you that it’s better for us to go from suffering to without suffering because of the greater goods that come from it. I think I see things a lot more clearly now!
Scott: OK. Cool. Can I clarify a few things about my view in light of this? First, I don’t mean to say that our world is necessarily better than worlds without suffering. I think there are countless creation worthy worlds, both with and without horrendous suffering, that are better than ours and countless of each that are worse than ours. It’s just that I think our world is one that is creation worthy and very beautiful.
Second, I don’t think God *had* to create all those other worlds for it to be wonderful for Him to create our world too. Though maybe He did create all those other worlds. I just think the thought experiment helps bring out why our world is one that is worthy of creation and that it has something to offer that those other worlds don’t.
Third, I think talking about worlds can be helpful. And it is one fruitful way to think about God’s act of creation. But, following Marilyn Adams, I think world talk can lose sight of the individuals that God creates. It matters not just what world God ends up with in the abstract. It also matters what God has done for each of us that inhabit that world. And so that’s why earlier I was pressing the thought that those of us, human and non-human animals alike, that suffer horrendously couldn’t have existed without a policy of allowing horrendous suffering. And we get an awesome compensation for our suffering at the Resurrection of the Dead. So it’s not just about the kind of world God ends up with and that it has awesome features that the other worlds lack. It is also that God has done something wonderful for us by making us in the only way we can be made and by giving us everlasting life through His Son.
Zac: What is new about your approach when looking at this theodicy?
Scott: The earliest hint of this sort of view that I am aware of goes back to Leibniz. Robert Adams has the first contemporary defense of this sort of view, although he doesn’t develop it into a full blown theodicy. Tim Mawson discussed the idea but made use of the notion of determinism rather than origin essentialism. Vincent Vitale has been the biggest proponent of this sort of theodicy and has done more than anyone else to get people to pay attention to it. So I’m building on a tradition of thought going back to at least Leibniz and culminating with Vitale’s work. That being said, I think that there are several things that are new about my approach.
First, I think I show that there is a broader range of moral theories that are compatible with the theodicy than is traditionally maintained. Most people writing about this topic think that you need a very specific non-consequentialist moral theory to get the theodicy to work. I don’t think that is right. I argue that the theodicy works with any plausible moral theory. I do think the theodicy requires taking a controversial stand on some metaphysical positions. But I don’t think it requires any controversial moral stands.
Second, I think I have something new to say about the connections between the theodicy and Parfit’s Depletion and Conservation example and similar examples from the non-identity literature. I think other approaches to this theodicy have trouble explaining why it is wrong to pick Depletion in Parfit’s example. And, in my opinion, they have trouble explaining why the acts in the standard non-identity cases are wrong. But I think my approach does not have such problems.
Third, some of my other research concerns the distinction between doing and allowing. I think my work on those other topics gives me something new to say about the ethics of doing and allowing in the context of theodicy and horrendous evils. People in the non-identity theodicy literature tend to think that accepting the distinction between doing and allowing would make things easier for the theodicy. But they reject the distinction altogether or they think it doesn’t apply to God or they don’t think it applies to horrendous evils. I have a different perspective. I accept the distinction between doing and allowing and think it applies to God and horrendous evils. So I spend a fair bit of time in the paper responding to people in this literature who think the distinction isn’t relevant. I also argue that giving up the distinction would actually make things easier for the purposes of theodicy.
Fourth, I think I say some new things about the metaphysics of origins that you need to make the theodicy work. And I say some new things about why someone might adopt the relevant metaphysics. But I actually think your questions and objections have brought out much more on this and other topics than what I said in the original paper. So thank you, Zac, for helping me explore these ideas.