In one of his more memorable lines, the great English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson raises a fist to the sky, demanding, like Job, an answer for suffering: “Are God and Nature then at strife, / That Nature lends such evil dreams? / So careful of the type she seems, / So careless of the single life” It is “Nature, red in tooth and claw” that cries out in protest to a good God, though it seems it is often left to His followers to conjure some semblance of an answer. As such, the topic of natural suffering never ceases to raise its head in apologetic conversations, often being cited as the most problematic aspect of the belief. Most recently, it has reappeared again in an exchange between Cosmic Skeptic and Capturing Christianity. As might be expected, the rebuttal by CC has generated its own fair share of responses, including this rather thorough one which has many echoes of the work of Paul Draper.
Having worked and published in this particular area, it seems apt to clear away some of the more common misconceptions with theodicies dealing with this topic and to note the more frequent problems often assumed by naturalistic exponents of the problem. This is, by no means, an attempt to give a thorough answer; rather, it merely strives to clear the ground of some of the more common, misplaced errors of those who, like Tennyson, raise their hands to heaven—not in praise but in bold acts of protest.
Naturalism Is Well-Defined
What is “naturalism”? Given that it is meant to represent a competing explanation to theism, demarcating the two is obviously an important task. Yet, as David Papineau notes in the introduction to its Stanford Encyclopedia entry, it currently “has no precise meaning in contemporary philosophy.” One solution might be to conflate it with physicalism, but what, then, does it mean to be physical? What we thought constituted “physical” reality has changed drastically over the last few centuries and will (more than likely) radically change in response to future discoveries. Is, then, a good definition of the physical always provisional—a promissory note of some final, as-yet-unknown discovery? This is, of course, problematic, for it implies that, as of now, we simply have no idea what the physical is and therefore cannot define physicalism as entailing the denial of theism.
But rather than run through a myriad of other possible definitions, let’s restrict ourselves to Draper’s own: “Naturalists claim that either the mental world does not exist or it does exist but is asymmetrically dependent on the existence of the physical world.” This definition thus defines a naturalist as one who thinks (1) if there is no physical world, there would be no mental world, and (2) if there is no mental world, the physical world might still exist. This definition fairs little better. First, something like the impersonal Force from Star Wars seems to qualify as a non-naturalistic (and, therefore, supernatural) aspect of reality, yet by Draper’s definition, the world of Star Wars is a naturalistic one. Second, many Neoplatonists imagine the world as a necessary emanation of God, entailing that both the mental and physical are necessary aspects of reality. Such persons would find the conditional antecedent of both propositions necessarily false. Supposing the truth of vacuism (that all counterpossible conditionals are trivially true), these Neoplatonists would be naturalists despite also being theists. Thus, the very juxtaposition of naturalism to theism appears troublingly difficult to justify, since it seems startlingly tricky to even define what naturalism is. The troubles, however, don’t end there.
Naturalism Predicts Animal Suffering While Theism Does Not
This is perhaps the most common assumption of the argument’s proponents. In fact, it seems to be the key premise holding up the whole edifice of the objection. The unspoken logic seems to be some variation of the following: If God exists, we would expect a world lacking high amounts of innocent suffering. By contrast, if naturalism is true, we would expect a world with high degrees of innocent suffering (or, at least, not find such a world surprising). Said differently, the probability of a world with high degrees of innocent suffering is higher on naturalism than on theism. Thus, the very reality of innocent, animal suffering throughout the long history of biological evolution seems to fit our expectations of naturalism better than theism.
But is this a justified inference? What are the reasons for assuming theism predicts a world without suffering? The best response I have seen has been that on theism, fundamental reality is caring and loving—something that would seem to rule out high levels of suffering among the innocent. But is this necessarily true? The assumption here is that care and love imply a lack of harm. Cameron, in his response, offered two reasons for supposing this remark to be unwarranted—“soul making” (what I will call virtue cultivation) and eschatological consummation. Suffering seems to be a prerequisite for the very formation of the virtues we often find so praiseworthy. For instance, only in a world suffused with suffering will something like bravery or courage even be possible. Likewise, mercy and forgiveness only exist in a world where people need mercy for some wrongful act they’ve committed. When this view is coupled to a universal animal resurrection where these virtues can be extended and perfected, one has a thoroughly plausible account of how high levels of innocent suffering are compatible with a “caring” universe.
While Cameron ties this into Dougherty’s view that animals receive rational faculties at the eschaton (a view I sympathize with but do not hold), one does not technically need to posit this for the above account to work. A subject does not need to be cognitively aware of the contributions their suffering is making towards some good for that end to be good, nor does the agent responsible for the suffering need to make such an end known in order to be justified in causing this suffering. A child does not need to know why her parent refuses to let her touch a hot stove for the parent to be justified in refusing the child’s request. Similarly, creatures need not be made aware of how their sufferings ultimately work towards some greater good for that greater good to ultimately be justified. In short, the theist is under no obligation to share the naturalist’s intuition that a world without suffering is preferable to one completely devoid of it, and the very extended history of soul-making theodicies testifies against this heedless assumption. I might like it more if God created me in a world free from evils, but would it actually be better for me? Given the facts surrounding virtue cultivation, it remains a premise in need of justification before it can be added to the background knowledge.
But there is an even bigger problem with the naturalist’s argument. Not only is it wrong to assume suffering is alien to theism, but it also seems incorrect to assume naturalism better predicts a world of suffering. This is a fact often overlooked by theists, as well. Cameron, in his response, notes that Alex assumes the auxiliary hypothesis of evolution—a phenomenon unlikely on naturalism given the constraints posed by fine tuning. Admittedly, evolution is simply part of the background knowledge for both sides of the argument. However, each side’s interpretation of evolution has an important, overlooked difference. Naturalists posit that evolution is a stochastic process with no inherent teleology. The arrival of beings with the necessary neural capacities to undergo suffering requires the confluence of many events (the right selection pressures, the oxidation event, a lack of apocalyptic natural disasters, etc.). In other words, even if evolution is granted as background knowledge, naturalism would seem to entail that the evolution of conscious beings capable of experiencing pain is an unlikely event.
Theists, by contrast, regard the process as teleological, being directed towards the actualization of higher conscious beings. Thus, theism contains a qualification in its understanding of evolution not shared by the naturalist opponent, one that makes the production of embodied, conscious beings (again, the very beings that are capable of suffering) highly likely. Thus, theism contains a premise that raises the probability of animal suffering—a premise not shared by naturalism.
An Easy Rebuttal?
An easy rebuttal to this point is that I have incorrectly understood the background knowledge. Shouldn’t the very reality of conscious agents capable of suffering be considered part of the background knowledge? In other words, evolution as a process or mechanism isn’t the only aspect of the background knowledge shared by naturalists and theists. Obviously, both also accept the outcomes of evolution, as well—namely, that evolution has resulted in the current array of animal lifeforms. Thus, the naturalist need not explain the unexpected arrival of animal life any more than she needs to explain the fine tuning of the universe (as I acknowledged above).
The issue with this response is that it is not apparent the theist needs to explain anything more than the existence of creatures capable of suffering in order to account for suffering itself. Given that most theists accept some form of indeterminism regarding free will, all the theist must do is extend this freedom to nonhuman creatures in order to provide a sufficient account for suffering’s origin in such organisms. This is not an ad hoc move by theist given that freedom must have evolved sometime during our evolutionary history. Perhaps, given Plantinga’s transworld depravity and the truth of some version of the best-of-all-possible-worlds (one entailing the reality of embodied, conscious creatures), suffering is, in fact, a certainty. Perhaps not. Perhaps there are, instead, good reasons for God preferring our world over one without suffering or with a lesser degree of it (as outlined above). Given the above points, judging the likelihood of animal suffering on theism or naturalism proves to be a remarkably difficult task. However, one could argue the conjunction of these myriad points (transworld depravity, virtue cultivation, etc.) renders suffering not only plausible on theism but, perhaps, even likely. In any event, the naturalist assumption of better predicting suffering is, at best, unwarranted.
Evolution Is a Natural Process
For anyone having read my prior articles, this one should come as no surprise. The presumption that evolution is a “natural” process (however we mean that) is a highly questionable premise. The logic of the naturalist here seems to be that Darwinian evolution (or the extended synthesis for those who keep up with such things) is a sufficient causal mechanism for accounting for biodiversity, both synchronically and diachronically. Even if one adds God into the equation of how the mechanism works, He is extraneous to the basic account—an ad hoc supplement to an already perfectly intelligible process.
Suppose the theist grants that evolution need not appeal to non-“natural” efficient causes in order to explain biological diversity and change. This admission, however, does not conceal the fact that Darwinian explanations are rife with appeals to final causes, as well. In fact, the very mechanisms of evolutionary theory, adaptations, are defined teleologically. As physiologist J. Scott Turner notes, “If adaptation does not work, natural selection does not work, period.” Yet, he continues, “Our current conception of this core evolutionary idea is essentially meaningless. What is adaptation? The product of natural selection! What is natural selection? The outcome of adaptation!” The explanatory vacuity of this statement is evident, since each term (adaptation and natural selection) is defined in reference to the other.
Philosopher Jerry Fodor and cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Pamarini, both staunch atheists, have concurred, stating they know of no “un-question-begging account of ‘being-an-adaptation.’” In response, some biologists have opted to bite the bullet, such as Cambridge’s David Hanke. He writes, “There is no selection, only differential survival, and since ‘fitness’ is defined as anything that promotes the chances of survival, both ‘natural selection’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ amount to no more than survival of the survivors.” If, however, natural selection simply means, “the survivors survived,” it exposes itself as an explanatorily vacuous tautology. Hanke does not shy away from this conclusion, declaring every instance of natural selection “untestable and unprovable.”
Does Darwinian evolution thus become unscientific by definition? The answer to this conundrum is hidden within the very term “adaptation” itself: adaptations are traits adapted for certain functions. There are, then, real purposes in biology—ones that function within the very mechanism of evolution itself. This was the conclusion Hanke attempts to avoid in his “scorched earth” campaign against teleology, opting to leave even the charred remnants of natural selection itself in the wake of his unholy crusade. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, too, recognize that teleology would solve the dilemma, though they, being good naturalists, deny this as a possibility out of hand. But if there are objective goals and purposes within our account of evolution (which it seems there must be for the account to survive), how ought the naturalist explain this? She cannot deem these the products of anthropomorphic projection, for that would evaporate the causal power of adaptation and, thus, Darwinian evolution. We would arrive back at tautology. The theist can easily account for these biological features, given that God can ingraft form to matter (as in Thomas Aquinas).
What parallel does the naturalist have available? It is an issue puzzling enough to bring even the famed atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel into the camp of teleological realism—though, admittedly, in a nontheistic fashion. Needless to say, the argument thus far is, at best, inchoate, and those interested in its more developed form are recommended to visit my prior post. Yet however meek this summary, it is enough to at least question the assumptive premise that modern evolutionary theory is one that pairs well with a fine glass of naturalism.
The problematic nature of the argument from animal suffering does not end here, but seeing the length of this post has likely already stretched the patience of most, I restrict myself to only three considerations. Needless to say, much more could be offered in response to this argument, and the wealth of literature devoted to the topic of evolutionary theodicy speaks to this fact. To repeat, this post does not attempt to craft a systematic articulation of a theistic (let alone Christian) response to animal suffering. Obviously, there have been a multitude of naturalists who have treated the topic, and, invariably, someone will complain that I haven’t treated their favorite version of it. But again, the goal of this post is merely to show the problematic nature of the above three assumptions—ones that continue to make their appearance far beyond their welcome. In short, the ball remains in the court of the naturalist (however defined) to show just how these problems can be rectified.
 Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Poetical Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson (London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1899), 261.  David Papineau, “Naturalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2009/entries/naturalism/.  Paul Draper and Trent Dougherty, “Explanation and the Problem of Evil,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil, eds. Justin McBrayer and Daniel Howard-Snyder (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 70.  Daniel Howard-Snyder, “The Evolutionary Argument for Atheism,” in Being, Freedom, and Method: Themes from van Inwagen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 245. I am thankful to Zachary Ardern for making me aware of this valuable chapter, to which much of this section and the next are indebted.  Assuming, of course, that minds and spirits of the characters are derivative from some nonmental substratum. May those more engrossed in the extended universe inform differently if I have defamed the sacred texts in these statements.  Ibid. See the work of Timothy Williamson for more on vacuism.  This is, of course, assuming the success of the free will defense. Unfortunately, space restricts treating the idea of “moral worlds” for animals. For those interested, see Mark Bekoff, “Animal Passions and Beastly Virtues: Cognitive Ethology as the Unifying Science for Understanding the Subjective, Emotional, Empathetic and Moral Lives of Animal,” Zygon 4:1 (March 2006), 93; Celia Deane-Drummond, Christ and Evolution (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 162-8.  Given these various uncertainties, how is one to weigh the prior probability of theism given animal suffering? We are, at this stage, in serious danger of allowing our probability judgments of becoming a remarkable work of subjectivity—a classic example of why many philosophers have soured on the overly abundant usage of Bayes’ Theorem. See, for example, Clark Glymour, “Why I Am Not a Bayesian, in Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues, eds. Martin Curd and J. A. Cover (W. W. Norton & Company, 1998) 584-606. In cases like this, the probabilities one assigns often conform to one’s personal and subjective degree of epistemic certainty, and, unsurprisingly, this seems to be exactly how Draper understands his probability calculus. For example, see Paul Draper “Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996), 27n2. But if probabilities are treated as degrees of epistemic certainty, they can often become a quagmire of subjective intuitions rather than objective guideposts towards truth. This is, of course, not to say that Bayesian calculus is unhelpful; it is only to warn against the possibility of abuse.  J. Scott Turner, Purpose and Desire (New York City: HarperOne, 2017), ch. 1.  Ibid.  Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong  David Hanke, “Teleology, the Explanation that Bedevils Biology.” In Explanations: Styles of Explanation in Science. Ed. John Cornwell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 147. One might be shocked to discover Hanke does this maneuver in defense of Darwinism.  Ibid, 149.  Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, xv.  Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).