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The Problem of Waste

David Cowles

Mar 14, 2024

“(Theology) will have to account, not just for the evil in the world, but for something much worse in modern eyes…the inefficiency of the world.”

The world is a terrible place! War, famine, pestilence, child abuse, human trafficking…I could go on…and on. We have no idea how much suffering may be in store for each of us, individually, between birth and death, or for all sentient beings, collectively, between Big Bang and Big Chill (or Big Crunch).

It is widely believed that suffering on this scale is incompatible with ‘Triple-O-Theology’, i.e., with belief in the existence of a God who is Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnibenevolent. Even staunch religionists like Rabbi Harold Kushner (Why Bad Things Happen to Good People) consider that the three O’s might need some modification. 

The Problem of Evil (‘POE’) is the #1 reason folks give to explain their disbelief. Even the great Bertrand Russel based his most widely read book, Why I am Not a Christian, on this argument. And, of course, the argument is irrefutable…as far as it goes.

Embedded in POE, however, are a number of under-analyzed assumptions: 

  1. That the world could be better than it is. (Leibniz argued that this world, horrible as it may be, is as good as any real world ever could be; in other words, we already live in the best of all possible worlds.)

  2. That we sentient beings, collectively, are not somehow ourselves responsible for the deplorable condition of things. (The doctrine of Original Sin says otherwise.)

  3. That we sentient beings, collectively, are not somehow able to correct the condition of things. (Many post-Enlightenment political ideologies say otherwise.)

  4. That we can all agree on the criteria to be used to measure the goodness of things; or if not, that we can at least agree that such criteria exist.

  5. That we can all agree on a methodology for measuring the incremental goodness of one state of affairs vs. another. 

  6. That we have a broad enough view of space and time to enable us to measure the ultimate ‘value’ of any event.

Against all this sophistry, the heart piercing cry of a hungry child! James Joyce famously said, “That is god – a shout in the street!” Then is ‘a crying child’ the absence of God? It is a classic Gestalt Is ‘evil’ the donut? Or is it the hole? In spite of the intense feeling on both sides of this issue, it is not objectively resolvable. 

But if you’re still in the mood to go God-hunting, there is an even better weapon than POE – I call it POW! (the Problem of Waste):

Say what you will about the Universe, it is incredibly wasteful. For example, the Cosmos is 14 billion years old. Planet Earth has existed for just four billion of those years. Apparently, it took the Cosmos 10 billion years just to ‘cool off’ after its Big Blowout. 

Once Earth formed, life appeared almost immediately, give or take a few hundred million years. That said, we are now only 10,000 years into the Anthropocene, a newly proposed ‘geological’ era during which living organisms (us) began purposefully transforming their environment. 

Let’s put this in perspective: since homo sapiens evolved, only 100 billion people have ever lived (eight billion are alive today). Sound like a lot? Consider this: over the course of an average lifetime, each person is made up of 100 trillion cells, independent living organisms that somehow cooperate to generate the coordinated patterns of behavior ‘formerly known as’ You. Each of you then is three orders of magnitude more complex than human civilization

Bach and Beethoven notwithstanding, we have precious little to show for 14 billion years. I mean, let’s summarize: Big Bang…10 billion years…Earth/Life…four billion years…You! Of course, it may turn out that the universe is teeming with many civilizations, some vastly more complex than ours…but that is appearing less likely every day. So, moving on…

Let’s talk DNA, the building block of all life as we know it. You and I each have DNA made up of 46 chromosomes. Many species of fern have over 1,000 chromosomes. Now, I know you and I have had our differences over the years but still, I’d put you up against a fern any day of the week! (No need to thank me.)

What we have here is massive inefficiency, aka waste! By this standard, government is a well-oiled machine. If I can be made with just 46 chromosomes, why would someone need 1,000 to make a lovely, fragrant, oxygen regenerating, but presumably simple minded, fern? Shout out to my green friends everywhere…no offense intended.

Then again, maybe you’re not so great either. Even at 46 chromosomes, you’re a bit of a bloat. I can make you cry with just six chromosomes; meet Mr. Mosquito. I can drive you crazy with 12 (Housefly). But the Jack Jumper ant beats all: God named that tune in just two notes (two chromosomes)! 

Now none of this has anything to do with Good, Bad, Better, Best. Whether you think the World is a Garden of Eden or a wallpapered over Inferno, it’s inefficient. Mind-bogglingly inefficient! Which is problematic at a time when ‘efficiency’ is the new Summum Bonum of the age (Jacques Ellul, La Technique). 

I am not an atheist. I am not completely convinced by POE or POW. It is the latter, however, that keeps me up at night. Like it or not, we are all engaged in a collective search for new ways to understand God and God’s relationship with World. The bearded old man on a cloud, an image inherited from Canaanite religion 3,000 years ago, isn’t getting it done. 

I don’t know how Theology will evolve over the rest of this century, but I can make one prediction: it will have to account, not just for the evil in the world, but for something much worse to modern eyes…the inefficiency of the world


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