The craziest Templeton grant yet: Evolution and “self-giving love”

January 6, 2020 • 10:00 am

Templeton continues to waste perfectly good money on theology, which is the study of the invisible and its self-justification by simply making up stuff that can’t be tested. A paradigmatic example of the genre is this award of $133,130 for studies of theodicy by Mats Wahlberg, a professor of “systematic theology” at Umea University in Sweden.

What really burns my onions about this is the palpable stupidity of the project and the obvious objections to its thesis—and, most important, its lame attempt to justify why evolution by natural selection involves suffering. But Wahlberg’s “justification”, a particularly odious and tortuous species of theodicy, appears to involve only human beings. Click on the screenshot to read about this travesty:

Evolution has long stymied theologians, as it aims directly at their Achilles heel: why would an omnipotent and all-loving God “create” in a way that involves tremendous amounts of suffering? After all, a good God could have created a world of herbivores and no parasites, and could have given each individual a fixed longevity and a painless death. Then the only thing that would suffer would be vegetation. And there wouldn’t need to be be earthquakes, either, nor asteroids. After all, why did God create the dinosaurs and then let them all die off, presumably with substantial suffering, after the big asteroid struck the Earth?

It was this suffering that famously drove Darwin to the idea that if there was indeed a God (and I think Darwin was at best a deist), it wasn’t a good God. Here’s a well known passage from a letter that Darwin wrote to Asa Gray on May 22, 1860, six months after The Origin had been published:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Here Darwin punts to the view that perhaps God designed the laws that govern the world, though he can’t understand why those laws result in so much suffering. (Remember that in the last paragraph of The Origin Darwin argues that natural selection is a kind of law similar to the law of gravity.) But it’s clear that Darwin doesn’t accept a beneficent god.

And Professor Wahlberg, with his two-year $133,130 Templeton grant, isn’t content with the “I have a dog’s mind” view of theodicy, and so is taking Templeton’s dosh to work on solutions to the problem. Or rather, it seems, he’s already solved the problem, and simply wants to work out the details (indented quotes are from the Templeton blurb).

His question:

 “If you look at it superficially, the laws of evolution might appear to be antithetical to the Christian worldview — they involve a lot of competition, survival of the fittest, suffering and extinction,” Wahlberg says. “So the question arises, why would a perfectly good God choose to create by such a process?”

The answer: 

In theological terms, a theodicy is any attempt to understand how a good God could justifiably allow evil or suffering to exist. For Wahlberg, evolution requires its own version of theodicy — one with potential insights into the origin and purpose of divine and human love.

“In order to have great love, you have to be prepared to suffer for the sake of the one you love, just as Christ suffered for humanity on the cross,” Wahlberg says. “Perhaps we cannot separate love and suffering — they go together.”

Wahlberg’s proposed evolutionary theodicy runs as follows: If God wants love to be realized in the world, he would have to create the world so that it provides the necessary conditions for love. If this entails the possibility of suffering, then we have a glimpse of why God would make such a world. Wahlberg describes this as love’s “shadow side,” a necessary condition for the greater good. “If this hypothesis is borne out,” he says, “then you have to ask whether this entails that the world itself must have such a shadow side.”

Wait a tick! First of all, this “suffering” appears to be limited to humans, and is the reverse side of being in love. But evolution, of course, is the source of all creatures. So if a deer loves its fawn, does that necessarily involve suffering? Well, maybe, if the fawn dies and its mother feels grief. But what about all the evil inflicted on animals that can’t suffer for love, like fruit flies, rotifers, earthworms, sea turtles, most fish, and, in fact, all creatures without parental care, the capacity to “love”, or both. Or did God create evolution so that only humans could suffer, and doesn’t care about the suffering of every other species?

And even if you accept that the gratuitous suffering is simply a byproduct of the real creature that needs to suffer—Homo sapiens—why did God create love that allows the “possibility” of suffering? After all, if he controls all, he could make all romantic breakups mutual, and all deaths less grief-promoting by proving to all (which he could do, but doesn’t) that the dead find eternal life with their friends and relatives?

But Wahlberg may well be speaking not of our love for other humans, but of our love for God. In that case, no suffering need exist at all, save for those, like penetentes, who make themselves suffer needlessly so they can mimic the fictional sufferings of Jesus. After all, if you love God then all should be well—and you even get an afterlife in Heaven. Why do you have to suffer? Jesus did that suffering for you!

This is delusion, pure and simple, and yet Templeton wants to pour enough money into this crazy project that could otherwise buy hungry and impoverished kids Plumpy’nut, an effective and cheap nutritional supplement. In fact, the size of this grant would provide 2219 hungry Third World children with a two months’ supply of Plumpy’nut ($60 for each kid’s supply). I like to think of these ridiculous grants in terms of Plumpy’nut Equivalents.

Finally, Walhlberg has the temerity to suggest that his hypothesis is testable, even though I’ve shown above that it’s already dead upon arrival because of what we know of biology.

In its present form, Wahlberg casts his version of evolutionary theodicy as a philosophical theory, defensible not through scientific experimentation (although it draws on recent biological insights) but through careful thought. “You have to formulate it in a very precise way, and then you have to test it by confronting it with the strongest possible objections and see if there are adequate responses,” he says.

But it’s absolutely clear that Wahlberg’s “testing” of his theodicy is not a real test, as he would never reject his idea (for one thing, the Templeton money would dry up). Instead, he simply tweaks his unfalsifiable views so they remain viable. Theological “tests” like this one are shameful:

One such objection concerns the nature of heaven: if suffering is necessary for some of love’s highest expressions, can there be a heaven suffused with love but free of suffering?

“You can see heaven as the goal of the process where you go from being a created being and learning how to love God and your neighbor,” Wahlberg says. “It might be that the process requires at least the possibility of suffering, even though the end state might be free from suffering.”

It might be. . . it might be. . . It might be. Such is the cry of the Red-Breasted Theologian. Or it might not be. Here Wahlberg is simply spinning his wheels. There’s no way his idea can be refuted. But that’s theology, Jake! At least it keeps the trough filled with dosh.

Meanwhile, children in Africa and India are starving, and they won’t get their Plumpy’nut because Wahlberg needs that money to perfect his apologetics.


h/t: Michael

63 thoughts on “The craziest Templeton grant yet: Evolution and “self-giving love”

  1. re God didn’t cause the misery, he just created the laws that caused the misery, reminds me of this scene from Collateral. See Tom Cruise’s answer when Jamie Foxx says “You killed him?”.

    Warning: language and violence

  2. Mats Wahlberg — Which brother is he again? The one that was in New Kids on the Block or the one who fronted the Funky Bunch?

  3. Does self-giving love require an evolutionary world?

    Absolutely. There is no way a complex being capable of love and empathy could exist except by the process of evolution.

    Please direct my check for $133, 130 to the enclosed address.

    (I love the way these grants are always for some non-round number. Why not just $133,000?}

  4. The idea that the highest good in life should be comfort, while perhaps expressing the view of the Anglo-American bourgeois, is clearly not compatible with life as it actually exists.

    Thus, we must conclude if God exists, he is not bourgeois, even if many of his followers are.

  5. At the risk of defending Wahlberg, isn’t he just saying that we need to understand, and perhaps experience, pain and suffering in order to understand love and pleasure? If so, this is certainly nothing new. Templeton should ask for their money back.

    There is a sense in which this is true. We would certainly need to experience lack of pain in order to properly understand pain. When we say we’re in pain, we usually think that we know what it’s like to be without pain and much prefer it.

    These religion theorists seem to put all the thoughts that have occured to them over centuries in a bag, shake well, pick out a few, and then use them to construct a theory. Nothing new can really come out of such a process.

    1. In science, an often overlooked procedure is end of grant review: i.e., what was the outcome of the research. In the case of Templeton they get only two review statuses:

      1. Research showed a result that was previously known
      2. Research attempted to solve intractable metaphysical problems

      Templeton is, in principle, justified in asking 100% of all of their money back.

    2. An interesting question is how much suffering we “need” to experience before we can appreciate pleasure.
      Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

      To make us aware of blackness, all we need is to see a speck of white. To make us aware of goodness, all we need is to see a speck of evil. One stubbed toe is enough, or maybe one stubbed toe per person. There is far too much evil in this world for it all to be necessary to enable us to conceive of goodness.

  6. They need to work on what they call things! “Self-giving love”?? Right off the bat I was thinking of something very different. If you know what I mean (nudge nudge, wink wink).

    1. That was my first thought too. The version of “self-giving love” we have in mind is without doubt a more useful and beneficial activity than academic theology.

  7. Indeed, it is astonishing how weakest ideas can get any traction at all, yet more astounding, win six figure grants.

    I can imagine a universe where a god made one less biting mosquitos than in our universe, creating conditions that produce a tiny bit less suffering. It follows that this world is a tiny bit better than ours, and this imaginary god is therefore a tiny bit better than the Christian god, thereby pushing the latter from the throne of being the most perfectly benign god.

    Of course the real problem is that anyone can come up with any rationalisation why a loving God, who regards pancakes as the highest state of matter, would create a whole universe instantaneously, but then go through the trouble of billions of years of suffering just so that eventually beings evolve who can invent and operate kitchen utensils to produce pancakes. It’s ridiculous!

    Another problem is that evolution not only produces competition and suffering, but also random mutations and inherent unfairness.

    It’s omnidirectionally unfair. Removing a single dimension of unfairness would already be a slightly better world. For example, why isn’t “being eaten by parasites” an equal opportunity hazard. Mysteriously, some people (or indeed creatures) are relatively protected from parasites or predators, while others have their intestines eaten away from non-vital to vital to allow the feeding to go on longer. It’s hardly fair to caterpillars or spiders. And hardly fair that humans in some regions deal with eye-boring parasite worms, and others don’t have to put up with that. And then this goes all the way to each individual, where random mutation might cause birth defects, or just less ability to survive, or find happiness and indeed, even the right God (e.g. born in a jungle, tough luck finding Jesus, whereas the Italian kid is literally carried into the correct Church).

  8. I sure couldn’t figure out what kind of love he was talking about, now I agree with PCCE that he must be talking about humans’ love for god since non-human animals aren’t included in his thesis, though they suffer (conscious dust bunnies suffer, too, which brings me to the question: is suffering dependent on consciousness?). And it can’t be some touchy-feely,woo kind of love for the ‘god-created’ cosmos and everything in it; it must be love for the suffering Jesus.

    BTW Not long ago, after a ‘radiothon’ on a reputable local station, I sent a pledge to the charity World Concern for funds to be taken out of my bank account on a monthly basis for distribution of Plumpy Nut. There was no mention of any religious affiliation (christian) during the fund-raising. And no obvious note that the charity was religious until I began getting prayer requests. I was stunned and indignant and immediately canceled my pledge. Everything I read subsequently about the organization on charity evaluation websites gives it the highest rating. But I did not like 1) the deception in not being forthright that it was a religious group, and 2) that I was sent prayer requests. I was told that I could opt out but people should be able to opt in. I know that most all charities hustle you once you’ve donated but this group presumes a heck of a lot about their donors, and I’d imagine that people of other religions might resent prayer requests, too.

    I notified the station and they apologized but said that it was a conscious decision not to identify the charity as religious lest it dissuade its extremely eclectic audience from giving. Bad calculation. I’ve given to religious charities in the past but they are charities that are identifiably religious and do not proselytize either those they help or those who give to them.

    I’m thinking about applying to Templeton for a grant to understand theodicy with respect to cestodes and dust bunnies.

      1. They sent an email asking me to pray for somebody who was ill or facing some calamity, something like that.

        You know, the supposed efficacy of prayer, so they crowdsource.

  9. “Perhaps we cannot separate love and suffering — they go together.”

    Now the sweating professor is just sampling the Everly Brothers and those Scottish lads Nazareth.

    The Templeton Foundation should just cut out the middleman and go dump bags of cash off a bridge over the Shuylkill River.

    1. “. . .go dump bags of cash off a bridge. . .”

      Hey, you don’t want to encourage us trolls 😊.

      Incidentally, this troll is going to be in Ocala, Florida for a week at the end of February. You any where near there? If so, email me and maybe we can meet up.

      1. I’d love to get together, Gary. But I’m all the way down in Key West these days. If you get anywhere close, let me know, and I’ll come meet you.

  10. It isn’t even a very good argument within the idiocy of theodicy since it does not even come close to matching How Things Are. So it is simple to refute.

    Even Darwin learned that much of nature is not about competition and exploitation, leading to suffering and premature death. A large % of species co-exist to mutual benefit – what Wahlberg would call ‘caring’ or ‘loving’.
    Were I shoveling offal for Templeton money, I would bring that up, and then claim that the above also summarizes what different human societies have, and perhaps always had since Creation. There are associations between peoples that are hostile, leading to death and suffering. And other associations, borne by shared culture and by treaty, which are to mutual benefit. So the mini-Templetonian in me would argue that the natural world of living things parallels the world of humanity, and that it has always been thus.

    I would then make various convoluted and hand-wavey pronouncements about how this means that our societies, for good or for ill, are part of God’s greater plan. Yadda yadda yadda.

  11. The only answer to the theodicy question is pretty simple. There is no g*d. Please forward the money to the following address.

  12. In order to have great love, you have to be prepared to suffer for the sake of the one you love….

    I think that that is a bit of equivocation with the word prepared. Wahlberg is implying that each of us enters into “love” with foreknowledge of suffering to come. The teen who is about to have his heart broken for the first time, certainly is not “prepared” for that, and evolution seems to make us forget heartbreak rather easily (as women are said to forget the pain of childbirth). I think this suffering is more on God’s head than evolutions.

  13. If these theodiots wanted to do something useful, they could have donated that 130k for burn medications for Australian animals who are suffering so hideously at the moment thanks to God’s grace.

    1. It also strikes me that Wahlberg is simply re-covering territory that Aristotle explored, with the great chain of being. But Aristotle avoided the problem of theodicy by asserting that God doesn’t love us or even know about us, doesn’t answer prayers and doesn’t do anything else either.

      Wahlberg is more than 2500 years out of date.

  14. Perhaps the more interesting question is why do humans make sacrifices?

    He/She doesn’t have to, yet sacrifice is ubiquitous across societies. . . and its hard to imagine the concept of sacrifice without its necessary connection to suffering.

    1. I’m not sure this is that much of a puzzle. Humans make deals with other humans all the time, seeking to advance themselves in one way or another. Assuming the existence of spirits who can interact with the world, which most humans have done over time, it is a simple matter to make deals with them, too. A sacrifice is just an exchange of something valuable in anticipation of something even more valuable.

      1. I was going to add, before an errant click, that the real mystery is why people fail to realize that the spirits aren’t very good at keeping their ends of the deals.

        1. But why does everyone believe in spirits or whatever, and believe that spirits engage in bargaining? What is the evidence for spirits? Can’t be great or we wouldn’t need evolutionary theory.

          It seems more like natural human behavior, and then people making up a post hoc justification for human behavior.

          1. Well, that’s a different question. You can read Pascal Boyer and such and get some ideas about why it is evolutionarily advantageous to assume agency in the natural world. In any case, sacrifice itself doesn’t seem to me to be that much of a mystery.

    2. I think sacrifice is simply submissive behaviour towards a perceived authority. Just like a cat brings a dead bird to its owner — goods being presented in exchanged for perceived favours. The suffering bit is just our way of ‘adding value’ to the exchanged goods.

      1. IMO, the “suffering” bit is just one measure of costliness. “See how much I worship you…. I’m throwing this gold statue into the lake! Now, please deliver the crops!”

        Gold statues, blood flowing from a pierced foreskin, the first-born child on the alter… all are just measures of how valuable OUR side of the bargain is… and therefore, surely you spirits can do an easy think like making it rain!

        1. Don’t forget the orgies of mass human sacrifice that have taken place in various places throughout human history. Sometimes the festivities lasted for days. Now that’s high value. But as you say, “all are just measures of how valuable OUR side of the bargain is…” since it’s all on OUR side and the only thing we’re really bargaining with is our profound credulity.

  15. If I were a theologian, I’d just grab onto the notion that Original Sin infected the universe and gave rise to death and suffering and competition. Then you don’t have to deal with evil (voluntary or natural), it all stems from sin, and it makes sense of the lion laying down with the lamb and the rest of the poetry.

    Of course, then you have to explain why Adam fell, but know one really cares, and everyone can see that the world is pretty much f___d from top to bottom. This does leave the question of why God doesn’t just wave his magic wand and fix everything, but we are still awaiting an answer on that one. Its more glorious this way or something.

    1. In his Christian apologetics C.S. Lewis doesn’t advocate for a literal Genesis but he does still advocate for a theodicy based in original sin. He seemed to try to resolve the obvious timing problem that presents by postulating a sort of double-fall–that human evil derives from the fall of Adam (which he reckoned to have happened sometime late in human evolution), while the other bad stuff derives from the fall of Lucifer, whose malefaction dictates the shape of things in our locality of the Universe. (His space trilogy had Lucifer’s influence be limited to the immediate neighborhood of Earth, but Lewis seemed to imply a larger affected area in his non-fictional writings.)

      This seemingly puts Lewis barely a hair’s-breadth away from Gnosticism, with the only effective difference being the existence of a much vaster unfallen section of the material Universe beyond ours as yet unseen by us. He implies that even the laws of physics would be drastically different there.

      1. Well, Lewis is still being a literalist about Adam’s existence, and also about the existence of Lucifer. We now know that Adam couldn’t have existed, at least in the way Scripture describes him, and there’s not a shred of evidence for Lucifer. Lewis is someone to be mocked and reviled for this kind of crazy speculative storytelling.

        1. I mis-remembered, Lewis doesn’t specifically mention Adam.

          What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could “be like
          gods”—could set up on their own as if they had created themselves—be their own masters—invent
          some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt
          has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes,
          empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will
          make him happy.</blockquote

          1. And out of that hopeless attempt
            has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes,
            empires, slavery

            Wow, I never realized that Satan was the driving force behind civilization!

        2. But that is the thing, in this world, why would you ever need an exogenous Lucifer where the Hitlers and Stalins and Pol Pots grow spontaneously like an invasive plant species?

        3. I’m not so sure about your assertion that Adam, Eve, and Lucifer never existed — Hark! here is proof positive: a relic from the Garden of Eden, the skin of the Serpent that tempted Eve and was killed by Adam, with the marks of the deadly implement on the skin!

          This is housed at the Chicago History Museum, so you can just pop over and get some DNA samples! This video put out by the museum clearly shows the ‘relic’ close up

          It was all quite amusing until the narrator said “While this may be a fake relic…” “MAY BE A FAKE”?! To hear this equivocating tripe actually uttered in the Chicago History Museum with respect to one of their artifacts is obscene and just goes to show how unsure of real history people have become these days, even those trained in history.

  16. “I like to think of these ridiculous grants in terms of Plumpy’nut Equivalents.”

    Brilliant! This highlights that true good is being bypassed in favor of useless ruminations. Put your money where your credo is.

    I couldn’t find the quote, but it reminded me of what Lenny Bruce (?) said (paraphrased): “As long as a single preacher still has a warm coat, all religion is hypocritical.”

    Larry Smith

  17. I have to agree that Wahlberg’s “justification” is tortuous: we should accept suffering because it’s merely a bump on the evolutionary road to non-suffering. Ridiculous. For one thing, this precludes living with joy in the present.

    I much prefer the late Jack Gilbert’s stance in his poem “A Brief for the Defense”: “We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world.” Gilbert’s point is that when you weigh all the suffering against the multiple moments of beauty and grace, on balance it’s still worth it to be a human being. Stubborn gladness: a much healthier take, seems to me.

    1. I have never felt comfortable around people who talk about their feeling for Jesus, or any other deity for that matter, because they are usually none too bright……. Or maybe “stupid” is a better way of saying it; but I have never seen much point in getting heavy with either stupid people or Jesus freaks, just as long as they don’t bother me. In a world as weird and cruel as this one we have made for ourselves, I figure anybody who can find peace and personal happiness without ripping off somebody else deserves to be left alone. They will not inherit the earth, but then neither will I……. And I have learned to live, as it were, with the idea that I will never find peace and happiness, either. But as long as I know there’s a pretty good chance I can get my hands on either one of them every once in a while, I do the best I can between high spots.

      — Hunter S. Thompson

  18. Very simple. In Heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here. Please forward all moneys thank you!

  19. It always seemed to me that theodicy was religion’s biggest problem. We want to know why bad things happen to good people but if you cannot convincingly explain why god permits them to happen then you can’t pray, intercede, bribe, sacrifice your way into his/her/its/their good books.

    1. Yes, but think about the starving children.

      If you send them Plumpy’nut, you simply post-pone the inevitable Malthusian trap that all life contends with. They survive a little longer, miserable and impoverished, maybe they can get a job at a sweat shop. They ultimately die.

      If you sell them an empty promise of eternal life, then they have hope (even if false), and they can indulge in the ressentiment fantasies of the Abrahamic faiths, and be good slaves awaiting God’s punishment of the wicked masters. This may provide solace in death, and consolation if they are lucky enough to score a 16-hour shift at the sweat shop, where they can fantasize about their bosses burning in a cauldron of oil in hell for eternity.

      Nihilism is a luxury good.

  20. It’s the first I’ve heard about Plumpy’nut. I don’t know what’s worse, Wahlberg/Templeton wasting money or Plumpy’nut for vigorously protecting their patents. Almost any sane person would release the patent so as many starving children as possible can benefit. I’d have to chose Plumpy’nut as the worse of the two.

  21. Goff yesterday and Wahlberg today… Jerry is on a roll debunking the wing-nuts. At least Goff doesn’t take Templeton money (that I know of).

  22. What about the suffering of all the humans in history that died before reaching adulthood? Apparently around a quarter died in the first year of life. That’s a lot of suffering without love.

  23. If God wants love to be realized in the world, he would have to create the world so that it provides the necessary conditions for love. If this entails the possibility of suffering…

    That’s a pretty big if. I’m guessing you could raise a child in the height of opulence, perfect health, nary an iota of suffering for them more than losing their baby teeth, and they could still fall in love.

    In fact, there’s pretty much no reason for the two concepts to be connected at all…outside of Christian theology. Love is an emotion/instinct that’s pretty obviously an adaptation evolved to increase propagation and successful child-rearing. And pain is the nervous system’s way of telling you to stop doing/avoid something you’re doing now.

    “If you look at it superficially, the laws of evolution might appear to be antithetical to the Christian worldview — they involve a lot of competition, survival of the fittest, suffering and extinction,”

    Forget evolution, why create carnivores and predation at all? We know it’s possible for life forms to live on sunlight, water, and nutrients they gather from dead things. So why create life that must murder to survive? IOW, I think he’s got a much bigger problem (to explain) here than just evolution.

  24. I think Darwin got it right, too profound for us sapiens. Jews who. wrote Job and Ecclesiastes agreed that there was no answer.
    But judging by the number of comments to this post there is plenty of interest in the subject. The money is not wasted. It is being circulated around around which is good for the economy, and some of it may find its way to by food for those who need it badly rather than sitting in an account in a Trust fund or foundation.

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