Physics as Theodicy

Don Howard

A few years ago I had the good fortune to participate in a great conference at the Vatican Observatory on “Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Natural Evil.” The conference was organized by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, at Berkeley, and co-convened by CTNS and the Vatican Observatory. The Observatory shares Castel Gandolfo with the Papal summer residence, and Pope Benedict was in residence during the entirety of the conference. Many fond memories, among them a state visit by Queen Noor of Jordan, and our being serenaded by Benedict one afternoon as he practiced a Beethoven sonata on the piano. But the really cool thing was being saluted by members of the Swiss Guard every morning as we entered and every evening as we left, snapping to attention with the greeting, “Buongiorno” or “Buonasera.”

Nancey Murphy, Robert John Russell, and William Stoeger, S.J., eds. Physics and Cosmology: Scientific Perspectives on Natural Evil. Vatican City: Vatican Observatory, 2007.

There were many fine presentations by a first-rate group of scholars. I measure the quality of a conference by how much I learn that is new and interesting to me. By those metrics, this meeting is among the very best I’ve ever attended. Take a look at the contents of the published volume, which came to fruition largely through the efforts of Nancey Murphy and her colleagues at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, and was co-published by CTNS and the Vatican Observatory:

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

My own presentation was entitled “Physics as Theodicy.” A “theodicy” is a solution to the problem of natural evil. Traditionally we distinguish “natural evil” from “moral evil.” Natural evil is suffering that is a consequence of the operation of natural law. Death and destruction wrought by earthquakes, hurricanes, and disease are classic examples. Moral evil concerns suffering in consequence of the moral failings of human beings. Murder, slavery, and too many other sins afford examples. The classic problem of natural evil, famously discussed by Leibniz in his Théodicée (1710) and Voltaire in Candide (1759), is how there can be natural evil in a world governed by an omnisicient, omnipotent, and benevolent God. Leibniz argued that ours is the best of all possible worlds, a view echoed by Alexander Pope in his “Essay on Man” (1734) and viciously mocked by Voltaire.

The traditional problem of evil interests me less than the question of where and how we draw the line between natural and moral evil. The main point of my talk was a simple one: With the progress of science, physics leading the way, we learn more about the laws of nature and so acquire an ever greater capacity to prevent or ameliorate the suffering caused by disease or natural catastrophes. We still cannot prevent an earthquake or a tsunami, but we can predict them, and we can build office towers and bridges that can survive an earthquake, sea walls that can control storm surges, and warning systems that can give people time to take refuge. But do we choose to exercise this power? If we could have prevented a catastrophe or lessened the suffering, but chose not to do so, then the evil is moral, not natural. Thus, with the progress of science, the boundary between natural and moral evil shifts. As science teaches us more about our world, we must accept the moral responsibility for making the world a better place. Even without global climate change, Hurricane Katrina would have been a terrible storm. But at the very least, we could have built stronger dikes. We could not have prevented the earthquake that caused the horrific Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, but we could have put in place a tsunami warning system that would have saved many tens of thousands of lives. Those deaths are our fault, not nature’s or God’s.

Want to know more? You can download the full paper here:

“Physics as Theodicy”
(Made available here with the permission of the Vatican Observatory.)

And you can buy the book through the University of Notre Dame Press:

Author: Don Howard

Don Howard is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and the former director and a Fellow of Notre Dame's Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values. A physicist and philosopher of science by training, he works now on a wide array of topics in the history and philosophy of modern physics, the history of the philosophy of science, and science and technology ethics. Foremost among his more specific interests of late are Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, the history of the philosophy of science, the ethics of emerging weapons technologies, robot ethics, AI ethics, and the ethics of responsible technology innovation and entrepreneurship.

2 thoughts on “Physics as Theodicy”

  1. Don, you take for granted that natural evil is categorical. Take, e.g., the Yucatan “catastrophe” that caused the decline of dinosaurs and led to the diffusion and evolution of mammals. Earthquakes, storms, wildfires can also have “constructive” aspects. Can you define natural evil in a way that is not homocentric? What does the captain of the ship care for the rats on board?

  2. Brevity is a vice as well as a virtue. I never meant to suggest that natural catastrophes bring only evil. Obviously that’s not true. “Natural evil” (which is not my concept but the traditional one), is taken to designate the suffering that follows from natural events as opposed to human action. It was never meant to imply that good cannot also be a consequence of such events. Roger Babson thought that gravity was the single biggest cause of natural evil and sought tools to counteract it (see the paper). Clearly gravity also does a lot of good.

    Blame brevity, likewise, for the misimpression of homocentrism. Those who know me well know that I care very much about the suffering of all sentient beings; that’s one reason why I’m a vegetarian.

    As it happens, at the conference we also discussed “evil” in the form of harm to non-sentient entities, like ecosystems. I recall that we even discussed science fiction examples like the intentional or natural destruction of a planet, or a black hole’s swallowing a star.

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