Suboptimal Design, Evolution, and Anger at God

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C. S. Lewis once said that modern man places “God in the dock.” That is, moderns, instead of humbly submitting to God as the “clay to the potter,” they put God on trial and call Him to account for the evil and suffering in the world. Although Job, the Church Fathers, Augustine, and the other Medievals dealt with the problem of evil and suffering, it was modernity that developed full-fledged theodicies, broad-based explanations of why God created a world in which He permits evil and suffering.

A woman was driving down I-95 near where I live and was in an accident. She was rescued from her burning car. Only a few weeks later she choked to death on a piece of bologna in her home while her small children were asleep. This is one of those stories almost too painful to hear (like the scene in Saving Private Ryan when the soldier holds up his helmet that had been shot through and said something to the effect, “Hey look here! How lucky can that be” before a bullet hits him square between the eyes and kills him).

I have struggled with religious doubt all my life. I have also struggled with anger at God for the suffering of the world, especially (though not exclusively) the suffering of children. When I thought about the woman choking to death I thought of the suboptimal engineering of evolution. We walk upright and have developed the ability to talk, but that makes it anatomically more likely that we will choke to death. A human engineer would be fired for putting the food pipe and the windpipe where food can easily go down the wrong way. The epiglottis does not have a fail safe. I confess that my feelings were fury at God that He would use such as sorry a..ed process such as evolution to produce a suboptimal product that even a human engineer could design more efficiently. Other instances of suboptimal design can be mentioned: our mouth being too small for all our teeth, or our backs suffering pain because originally backs were meant for walking on all fours. There are young people who die suddenly and unexpectedly of a “primary electrical event” in the heart, some defect so small that our autopsy techniques and microscopic studies cannot yet identify it.

I do not know that there is an answer to the mystery of inefficient design this side of heaven. Some people might explain it in terms of a primeval Fall, but it is difficult to place that story in an evolutionary framework (although C. S. Lewis has tried). Given the sometimes violent behavior of our close relatives, the chimpanzees, toward one another, it seems that humans were always “fallen.” If that is the case, isn’t human suffering, pain, and death a part of the suffering, pain, and death that occurs in “nature, red in tooth and claw,” to use Lord Tennyson‘s words?

The Eastern Orthodox Church has the approach that makes the most sense to me–that the ultimate answer to evil and suffering is eschatological, beyond this life. Ivan Karamazov could not live with that answer in the novel The Brothers Karamazov, but like Ivan’s brother Alyosha,  I do not see that there is a choice if one wants to hold onto sanity. If God is evil or does not exist, then the world is absurd. I, at least, cannot live my life believing that. So my anger fades and I trust that God understands and will forgive this “miserable sinner.”

Euthanasia: Love or Selfishness?

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I often listen to books on CD as I drive. Lately I have been listening to classics, the latest of which is D. H. Lawrence’s book, Sons and Lovers. It is a well-written book about two generations of the Morrell family, a mining family living near Nottingham. Near the end of the book, Paul Morrell is deeply disturbed by his mother’s suffering from cancer. He devoutly wishes that she would die. The agony becomes so great for him that he grinds up morphine-based pills and puts it in his mother’s evening milk. She drinks it, her breathing slows, and eventually she dies. Paul is relieved that his mother’s suffering is finally over.

Many readers will be sympathetic to Paul. After all, no one wants a beloved family member to suffer. Didn’t he do the most merciful thing? After all, we put animals down when they are suffering; why not allow human beings to have a similar merciful death?

I would argue that in many cases, including this fictional case, it is more likely that the giver of euthanasia was more concerned with his own pain watching a loved one suffer rather than concern for the loved one’s suffering. In the novel, Paul has put his life on hold during his mother’s illness. I would not deny that the story is meant to be read to show his love for his mother, but it also makes clear that the illness of Paul’s mother inconveniences Paul. There is an element of selfishness in his giving a deadly dose of morphine to his mother. If he had given it to her for the purpose of relieving her pain, knowing that death was a possibility, his actions could be defended under the principle of double effect. But his motive was to kill his mother, and this means that his actions were morally wrong–Paul is a murderer.

Family members who engage in euthanasia need to rationalize their actions, so they say that their action was wholly done out of love for the suffering family member. Perhaps that is true, but knowing human nature, it is easy for a person to rationalize selfish motivations as love to justify an intrinsically evil act. Sick people do inconvenience healthy family members. In American individualistic culture the prevailing ethic tells people to abandon the ill (or kill the ill person) so the survivors can fulfill their own life plans. This is pure selfishness and a grossly wicked attitude to have. We are not isolated individuals but are interconnected from our immediate family to our friends and then to others. Sickness is part of the human condition, and it is part of our duty as moral human beings to support our sick loved ones and not try to get them out of the way in the name of “mercy.” Too often the only “mercy” an euthanizer has is for himself–he gets rid of the source of his pain.

Hospice did not exist in Lawrence’s day; it does today and offers excellent care for the dying. Pain control methods are better, and doctors are now receiving training in pain control. Will this quiet the drive toward euthanasia? I fear that American society is too selfish to avoid the mistakes of the Netherlands in legalizing physician assisted suicide, which in turn has led to both voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. And in Lawrence’s book, Paul’s mother did not want to die; she desired to live as long as she could. Paul killed her against her will. Hopefully people who still believe in human community, the dignity of human beings, and mutual care for the most vulnerable among us will be able to stop any future moves to legalize euthanasia in the United States.