Peter van Inwagen’s Miracle Monkeys

Let me preface this by saying that in most other aspects of philosophy, I have an enormous respect for Peter van Inwagen. His work is extraordinarily insightful and often brings a great deal of relevant discussion to the topic at hand. This is precisely why I find his attempt to rectify our understanding of the evolution of human beings with Christian theology so puzzling. Here’s van Inwagen in the Gifford Lectures series:


“The following story is consistent with what we know of human pre-history.  Our current knowledge of human evolution, in fact, presents with no particular reason to believe that this story is false:  

For millions of years, perhaps for thousands of millions of years, God guided the course of evolution so as eventually to produce certain very clever primates, the immediate predecessors of Homo sapiens.  At some time in the last few thousand years, the whole population of our pre-human ancestors formed as a small breeding community—a few thousand or a few hundred or even a few score.  . . . In the fullness of time, God took the members of this breeding group and miraculously raised them to rationality.  That is, he gave them the gifts of language, abstract thought, and disinterested love—and, of course, the gift of free will. . . God not only raised these primates to rationality—not only made them what we call human beings—but also took them into a kind of mystical union with himself, the sort of union that Christians hope for in Heaven and call the Beautific vision.  Being in union with God, these new human beings, these primates who had become human beings at a certain piont in their lives, lived together in the harmony of perfect love and also possessed what theologians used to call preternatural powers—something like what people who believe in them today call “paranormal abilities.”  Because they lived in the harmony of perfect love, none of them did any harm to the others.  Because of their preternatural powers, they were able to somehow protect themselves from wild beasts (which they were able to tame with a look), from disease (which they were able to cure with a touch), and from random, destructive natural events (like earthquakes), which they knew about in advance and were able to escape.  There was thus no evil in their world.  And it was God’s intention that they should never become decrepit with age or die, as their primate forebears had.  But, somehow, in some way that must be mysterious to us, they were not content with this paradisal state.  They abused the gift of free will and separated themselves from their union with God.” 


-Peter Van Inwagen, Gifford Lectures – Global Argument (emphasis mine)


There’s a lot to say about this story, and former professor of mine Matt McCormick explores this bit related to the psychology behind motivated reasoning here, which is certainly worth a look. There is the obvious question “Why should we believe any of this?”, and then there are the  theoretical difficulties that would come in adopting this story as a proper narrative. 

It seems odd that God would arbitrarily decide to pick a “breeding community” of pre-human ancestors and miraculously “raise them to rationality”. The arbitrary decision isn’t merely bizarre, but it brings to light a host of interesting theological and biological questions. I’ve sketched out a few of them, and would welcome more in the comments.
  1. If God “miraculously” raised us to rationality, what was the point in using biological evolution as a means for creation at all? Why let millions upon millions of generations of species die (and become extinct) in brutal, agonizing deaths only one day to hand-pick a certain breeding group to suddenly raise to a brief life of perfection?
  2. If this raise to rationality truly was miraculous, why don’t we see an even larger gap between our capability for reasoning and our primitive pre-human ancestors? Why do other animals share many of the rational faculties we have?
  3. Van Inwagen says that he bestowed upon this group “the sort of union Christians hope for in Heaven”. Did all other animals cease to die during this time period as well? It seems to me that sort of union couldn’t actualize if the world was still full of non-human suffering. Perhaps God miraculously saved the humans from Earthquakes, fires, and other natural disasters, but were animals also protected? 

About Matt DeStefano

Matt is pursuing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Arizona.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    'For millions of years, perhaps for thousands of millions of years, God guided the course of evolution so as eventually to produce certain very clever primates, the immediate predecessors of Homo sapiens.'

    What has Inwagen's god got against dinosaurs? Didn't his god want intelligent dinosaurs?

    Why were these primates singled out?

    Were they especially ready to be able to be (insert whatever qualities Inwagen's god gave them)?

    If evolution had made them especially developed to be suitable candidates to be images of Inwagen's god, why couldn't evolution finish the job?

    And why did Inwagen's god allow whole branches of humanity to become extinct?

    Were Neanderthals literally Untermenschen who were taking up the Lebensraum that Inwagen's god wanted for the superior races he was creating?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Very good points and questions, Matt.

    One question: you say “This is precisely why I find his attempt to rectify our understanding of the evolution of human beings with Christian theology.”
    You meant that you find it puzzling, odd, etc.?

    Anyhow, here's another one of the numerous problems of his account:

    He says: “The following story is consistent with what we know of human pre-history. Our current knowledge of human evolution, in fact, presents with no particular reason to believe that this story is false:”

    It seems that his hypothesis is entirely ad-hoc, and essentially destroys the explanatory power of modern biology.
    Indeed, under the assumption that there is no immensely powerful agent messing with the evolutionary process, biologists can make predictions as to what to expect (i.e., what organisms we would expect to find, and which ones we wouldn't expect), but when Yahweh is inserted into the equation, how do we know what to expect?

    On the other hand, let us consider an alternative: what if geologists had looked at the evidence and concluded that the Earth was a few thousand years old, and that a global flood happened.
    What if, further, biologists had concluded that humans did not evolve from other species, and indeed that macroevolution did not happen?

    What if there were historical records in Egypt and geological records of the parting of the Red Sea?

    While not conclusive, the above surely would count as evidence of the existence of Yahweh. Christian philosophers probably wouldn't say that those biblical stories were not meant to be interpreted literally and that the fact that they correctly predicted our observations is no evidence for the existence of the entity described in the Bible as the creator.

    Most if not all sophisticated Christians would disagree, but the fact is that the evidence biologists, geologists, even historians, etc., did find is clearly against such existence.

    That aside, there are numerous other problems with Van Inwagen's account.

    But perhaps, the following analogies would illustrate a point:

    A1: “The following story is consistent with what we know of geology. Our current knowledge of plate tectonics, in fact, presents with no particular reason to believe that this story is false:

    For thousands of millions of years, Viracocha guided the movement of continents so as to produce certain continents at different times. Eventually, he brought about the present-day continents, according to his designs.”

    A2: “The following story is consistent with what we know of astronomy. Our current knowledge of planetary and star formation, in fact, presents with no particular reason to believe that this story is false:

    For thousands of millions of years, Viracocha guided the movements of different celestial objects so as to create a specific star, the Sun, and then continued on in order to form certain planets. In particular, he did that to bring about the Earth, a planet with the conditions just right to allow life, and life of a specific kind.”

    A3: “The following story is consistent with what we know of astronomy, geology, biology, and science in general. In fact, our current knowledge of science presents with no particular reason to believe that this story is false.

    Viracocha created the universe and some laws of nature.
    For thousands of millions of years, Viracocha intervened and made exceptions to the general rules of the universe by guiding the movements of some particular celestial objects so as to create a specific star, the Sun.
    Then, he continued intervening in order to form certain planets. In particular, he did that to bring about the Earth, a planet with the conditions just right to allow life, and life of a specific kind.
    After making the Earth is such a fashion, Viracocha created life, and then continued to intervene, guiding the evolution of life on Earth for billions of years, so as to produce certain clever primates, namely humans.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15738381414795204410 Ryan M

    I don't know how van Inwagen could reconcile this view with the typical view of original sin. As far as I can tell original sin requires that each of us inherit the moral debt of our ancestors, or are somehow intrinsically bad in some capacity as a result of being linked to the first sinners.

    But if it was not the case that the entire set of humans around from the beginning were sinners, then it's possible that many or none of us are linked to the original sinners at all. If we granted that there was 100, 000 people around when the first sinners sinned, then unless we grant that each of those people inherited the sinners moral debt, then we should grant that sans each of them also sinning it is possible that none of them did, so it's possible that none of us inherited a moral debt since it's possible none of us are linked to the original sinners.

    I just woke up so what I wrote might be a little off, but you can probably understand the general idea of what I'm going for. It would seem damaging to the generic monotheistic religions (In my opinion) if we granted that it is possible that none of us have anything like original sin in any capacity.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13590531184544289491 David Evans

    "But, somehow, in some way that must be mysterious to us, they were not content with this paradisal state."

    Why must it be mysterious to us? The story is spelled out explicitly in Genesis, and involves a talking snake.

    You don't believe the snake? Then why, pray, do you think there is any reality to be found behind the words of Genesis?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    How would God guide evolution? Darwin's correspondent Professor Asa Gray of Harvard, suggested that God directs the course of evolution by causing certain favorable variations to arise in populations, which then are selected in the usual way, resulting in an evolutionary trend in a divinely intended way. Thus, God could have brought about incremental and beneficial enlargements of the brains of human ancestors leading, eventually, to us. This scheme, which one wag called "creation on the installment plan," helped Gray, who was a devout Calvinist, to reconcile Darwinism with his religious convictions. Gray published a series of articles in Harper's magazine in 1860 that expounded and endorsed Darwin's arguments in The Origin, published the previous year.

    Darwin greatly appreciated Gray's work and paid to have it published in Britain. However, Darwin could not agree with Gray's scheme of incremental creation by the manipulation of variations. Darwin simply replied that in his extensive studies of organisms both wild and domestic he had seen no evidence whatsoever that variations took particular directions. On the contrary, they appeared totally random. Of course, such observations do not prove that God is not influencing variation. He could be doing it in a way that escapes our detection. In this sense, then, Van Inwagen is right that directed evolution is consistent with what we know.

    However, as Darwin observed, it is simply vacuous to say that God has a plan when the purported enactment of the plan in the physical world looks no different from no plan at all. That God has an undetectable plan is a classically unfalisfiable claim.

    As for Van Inwagen's scenario of telepathic (and presumably highly telegenic)early humans cavorting (nude?) in Eden until The Fall–I think we have the outline of James Cameron's next movie!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    One question: you say “This is precisely why I find his attempt to rectify our understanding of the evolution of human beings with Christian theology.”
    You meant that you find it puzzling, odd, etc.?

    Good catch. I'm a lousy copy editor.


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