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?