Is Nature Ever Evil? Religion, Science, and Value

Is Nature Ever Evil? Religion, Science, and Value

Is Nature Ever Evil? Religion, Science, and Value

Is Nature Ever Evil? Religion, Science, and Value


Can nature be evil, or ugly, or wrong? Can we apply moral value to nature?From a compellingly original premise, under the auspices of major thinkers including Mary Midgley, Philip Hefner, Arnold Benz and Keith Ward, Is Nature Ever Evil? examines the value-structure of our cosmos and of the science that seeks to describe it. Science, says editor Willem B. Drees , claims to leave moral questions to aesthetic and religious theory. But the supposed neutrality of the scientific view masks a host of moral assumptions. How does an ethically transparent science arrive at concepts of a 'hostile' universe or a 'selfish' gene? How do botanists, zoologists, cosmologists and geologists respond to the beauty of the universe they study, reliant as it is upon catastrophe, savagery, power and extinction? Then there are various ways in which science seeks to alter and improve nature. What do prosthetics and gene technology, cyborgs and dairy cows say about our appreciation of nature itself? Surely science, in common with philosophy, magic and religion, can aid our understanding of evil in nature - whether as natural catasrophe, disease, predatory cruelty or mere cosmic indifference?Focusing on the ethical evaluation of nature itself, Is Nature Ever Evil? re-ignites crucial questions of hope, responsibility, and possibility in nature.


Willem B. Drees

Fifty slices of buttered toast were placed on the table. I pushed them over the edge one by one. Forty-nine dropped on the floor with the buttered side down. The fiftieth I saved, by eating it. This experiment raises a deep existential question:

Why does buttered toast always fall on the floor with the buttered side down?

Well, why does it? It has to do with the flip the toast makes when it is shovelled over the edge. And the flip has to do with the strength of gravity and the height of the table. To make a full turn, the table would have to be over three metres high. We would have to be about five metres tall for such a table to be useful. However, unstable bipeds as we are, we are better off not getting so tall since we would damage our heads severely when falling over. The mix of gravity (fall) and chemical bonds (risk of breaking bones) results in a maximal length for healthy bipeds of about three metres. Given the strength of gravity and electromagnetic forces (chemical bonds), a biped on any planet would face a similar fate: his (her) buttered toast will fall upside down. Thus, the answer to our question is:

Buttered toast falls upside down because the universe has the properties it has. The universe is to blame for our bad luck.

This could be taken as an example of Murphy's law, the idea that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. And it will do so at the place which is most difficult to access, with the parts for which you do not have spares, at a time that does not suit you at all (and so on). A couple of years ago Robert Matthews went through the details of the buttered toast problem (Matthews 1997). He concluded that there is an anthropomurphic principle at work; our universe is such that it is bound to generate bad luck.

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