The Argument from the Flourishing and Languishing of Sentient Beings (AFL)

This post was inspired by the writings of Paul Draper. If you like the argument, the credit should go to Draper. Any problems with the formulation below, however, are probably due to an error on my part.

Informal Statement of the Argument

Only a fraction of living things, including the majority of sentient beings, thrive. In other words, very few living things have an adequate supply of food and water, are able to reproduce, avoid predators, and remain healthy. An even smaller fraction of organisms thrive for most of their lives, and almost no organisms thrive for all of their lives. If naturalistic evolution is true, this is what we would expect. If all living things are in competition for limited resources, then the majority of those organisms will not survive long enough to thrive. Moreover, even those organisms that do thrive for much of their lives will, if they live long enough, deteriorate. However, if theism is true, why would God create a world in which all sentient beings savagely compete with one another for survival? Does anyone really believe that this could be morally justified? The fact that so few sentient beings ever flourish is more likely on naturalism than on theism.

Formal Statement of the Argument

B: The Relevant Background Information

1. Living things, including sentient beings, exist.
2. In order to flourish, living things need an adequate supply of food and water, are able to reproduce, avoid predators, and remain healthy.
3. All living things are in competition for limited resources.

E: The Evidence to be Explained

Let E be observations of the flourishing and languishing of sentient beings. E can be broken down into three specific observations:

E1: Only a fraction of living things, including the majority of sentient beings, thrive. In other words, very few living things have an adequate supply of food and water, are able to reproduce, avoid predators, and remain healthy.
E2: An even smaller fraction of organisms thrive for most of their lives.
E3: Almost no organisms thrive for all of their lives.

Hypotheses (Core and Auxiliary Hypotheses)

Core, rival hypotheses:
T: classical theism
N: metaphysical naturalism

Auxiliary hypothesis:
D: Darwinism: the theory that natural selection operating (indirectly) on random genetic mutation is the principal mechanism driving the evolutionary change that results in increased complexity

The Argument Formulated

Let “>!” mean “is much greater than”

(1) Therefore, Pr(E | B & D & N) >! Pr(E | B & D & T).
(2) E is known to be true.
(3) T is not much more probably intrinsically than N.
————————————————————————-
(4) Therefore, other evidence held equal, T is probably false.

Defense of (1)

N entails that living things, if they exist, are not the result of actions performed by any supernatural person, including God. Thus, on N, the moral difference between flourishing and languishing of living things gives us no antecedent reason to expect the majority of living things will thrive. Thus, on B & D & N, E1 is just what we would expect.

In contrast, B & D & T entail both that God does not need to create a world in which only a fraction of living things, including sentient beings, thrive, and that, if such a world exists, then God had good moral reasons for allowing this state of affairs to obtain. If T is true, why would God create a world in which all sentient beings savagely compete with one another for survival? Thus, T mystifies E1.

Comments on (4)

Note that while the above argument implies that we have a good prima facie reason to believe that T is probably false (since T and N are incompatible), it does not imply that we have a good prima facie reason to believe that N is true (since T and N are not jointly exhaustive and so could both be improbable). So the argument from the flourishing and languishing of sentient beings could be more accurately described as an argument against T than as an argument for N, though of course in some sense it is both.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    I agree with the structure and conclusion of this argument.

    Following up on our earlier exchange, I am at a loss as to how anything in this post between the end of the informal presentation and the "Defense of (1)" portion adds to the cogency of the argument.

    What possible audience who accepts (or rejects) your informal presentation will be brought to some new epistemic state by the Bayes-squiggle material? ("Oh, I had no idea what he was trying to say before, but now I get it.") Who are these people? Philosophers? Mathematicians? Theologians? Soccer moms? Cui bono?

    If I diagrammed all your sentences like they used to make us do in English class, labelling each dependent clause, subject/verb relationship etc., I will surely have explicated the logical structure of your post. But would these technocratic squiggles represent anything resembling an improvement?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Could you remind me which earlier exchange you're referring to?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    That would be here. Note that this constructive criticism is aimed exclusively at rhetorical effectiveness, not the cogency of the underlying argument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Got it. The intended audience for the formal statement of the argument is philosophers. The benefit of the formal statement is that it is sometimes useful to preventing or addressing misunderstandings that are easier to make when relying solely on informal arguments, but more difficult to make (or maintain) when confronted with their formal versions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15738381414795204410 Ryan M

    I agree with Jeff on the point benefit of formalizations of arguments.

    I sympathize with the view that sometimes arguments are presented in certain formal looking ways to distort the strengths or weakness of an argument (To the layman), but more often than not it is done for the sake of clarity (At least I hope).


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