Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence

In the Existence of God (2nd edition, hereafter: EOG) Richard Swinburne lays out a carefully constructed, systematically presented case for the the claim that it is more likely than not that God exists.  I have previously argued that there is a big problem with this case that arises with the third argument.  In order to know that the premise of the third argument is true, one must know a lot of information about science and about the evolution of life and the evolution of human beings.

Here is the premise of TASO (Teleological Argument from Spatial Order), the third argument in Swinburne’s case for God:

 (e3) There is a complex physical universe that is governed by simple natural laws, and the values of the constants of the laws and of the variables of the universe’s initial conditions make it probable that human bodies will evolve in that universe.

One would need to have some knowledge of chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, and biology in order to know that (e3) was true.  With all this knowledge one would inevitably have some knowledge concerning the problem of evil, and thus Swinburne must deal with the problem of evil at this point in order to show his third argument to be a correct inductive argument, because whatever positive weight (e3) has in support of the existence of God might well be overwhelmed by the negative weight of the problem of evil that is contained in the information required to know that (e3) is true.  However, Swinburne does not deal with the problem of evil until much later, so he has failed to establish that TASO has a correct inductive inference. [NOTE: I’m not convinced that (e3) is in fact true, but that is a different line of objection to this third argument.]

As Swinburne presents his case, he is attempting to add facts one at a time, to slowly build up an inductive case for God.  With inductive reasoning using Bayes’ theorem, it is essential to understand what information or assumptions are contained in the background evidence as well as what information or assumptions are presented as the primary evidence (i.e. the premise of the argument). The premise of the first argument becomes part of the background evidence for the second argument, and the premises of the first two arguments become the background evidence for the third argument, and so on.

Here is the order of the first six arguments in Swinburne’s case:

  1. TCA – The Cosmological Argument (EOG, p.133-152)
  2. TATO – Teleological Argument from Temporal Order (EOG, p.153-166)
  3. TASO – Teleological Argument from Spatial Order (EOG, p.167-190)
  4. AFC – Argument from Consciousness (EOG, p.192-212)
  5. AMA – Argument from Moral Awareness (EOG, p.215-218)
  6. AFP – Argument from Providence (EOG, p.219-235)

So, by the time he gets to the Argument from Providence (AFP), the background evidence for this argument includes the premises of the previous five arguments (plus whatever other information was required in order to know the truth of those premises).  This means that (e3) and all of the information required to know the truth of (e3) is part of the background evidence of AFP.

An important part of Swinburne’s defense of AFP is his argument for the idea that birth and death are a good thing.  More specifically, he is arguing that an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God would be likely to not only bring about the existence of humanly free agents (creatures with the human characteristics required to make moral choices to help or harm themselves, others, other creatures, and the physical world), but humanly free agents (HFAs) who have the power to bring other HFAs into existence (e.g. by birth), and to end the existence of other HFAs (e.g. by killing them), and also that HFAs would, after a period of time, naturally die, if they were not killed by predators or by another HFA.

Swinburne in effect argues that the fact of human birth and human death is evidence that God exists, because if God exists, we would expect (it would be probable) for God to bring about HFAs that gave birth and died and who were able to kill each other.  There is more to AFP than just the fact of human birth and human death, but these are clearly key elements of this argument.  The problem is that back in TASO, Swinburne’s third argument, we accept the theory of evolution.  The theory of evolution requires that we believe that animals biologically reproduce, and that animals are involved in a struggle for survival.

In other words, natural selection requires reproduction and death.  We accept the claim that the laws and initial conditions of this universe made the evolution of human bodies probable in large part because we believe that human bodies are in fact the product of the natural process of evolution, which means human bodies are the product of more than a billion years of cycles of reproduction and death lasting between a few hours and few decades for each cycle.  Thus, in accepting the theory of evolution back in the third argument, we have previously accepted birth and death as a basic and constant aspect of animal life.

Because the premise of TASO becomes part of the background evidence for AFP, the theory of evolution and the information required to know that this theory is true are included in the background evidence for AFP.  That means that the logical possibility of humans being immortal or being creatures that do not reproduce or give birth has already been ruled out.

Now,  the possibility of human immortality and non-reproduction has not been absolutely and completely ruled out.  It is possible that a wizard or a fairy could sprinkle magical dust onto food crops and humans could be transformed into immortal and non-reproductive creatures.  But in terms of evidence and probability, the fact that reproduction and death has been a universal feature of animal life for a billion years is pretty strong evidence for the view that human beings (with bodies that are the product of this animal evolution) would also be creatures that reproduce and die.

Given that the premise of TASO is part of the background evidence for AFP, then even if there were no God, we would still expect birth and death to be a part of human nature and experience based simply on our knowledge of the theory of evolution, and of the evolution of human bodies.  Thus, even if Swinburne is correct that the existence of God makes it probable that humans would give birth and die, AFP fails, because the background evidence of this argument already makes these aspects of human life probable.  In fact, the background evidence of AFP makes it a practical certainty that human beings would give birth and die natural deaths and be subject to being killed.

Part of Swinburne’s defense of AFP is to describe some different possible worlds.  He first describes World-I, then World-II, then World-III, then he describes a possible world that matches general features of the actual world, World-IV:

…agents are born and die and during their life give birth to other agents. …there is endless scope for improvement… …each generation can only forward or retard its well-being a little. (EOG, p.230).

This World-IV differs from the previous three worlds primarily in that it contains mortal people, while the other three worlds are populated with immortal people.  Clearly, Swinburne places a great deal of emphasis here on the fact of human death and human birth, and this is reflected in the conclusion he draws about the various possible worlds:

…it is moderately probable that God will make a World-IV, including natural death for all and free agents having the power to cause death. (EOG, p.231)

However, since we have previously accepted the theory of evolution as the true explanation of the origin of human bodies, way back in the third argument (TASO) presented in Swinburne’s case,  World-I, World-II, and World-III have already been eliminated from consideration.  The only sorts of worlds that have any significant chance of being the actual world are worlds in which humans are subject to both birth and death.

Furthermore, there are other aspects of the argument from Providence which are also undermined by the previous acceptance of the theory of evolution, back with the third argument (TASO).  For example, Swinburne mentions the variety of choices that humans have because they have bodies:

Merely to have a body…involves having a machine room for the maintenance of which we are responsible.  We have the choice of continuing to exist (by giving ourselves food and drink), giving ourselves pleasures and pains by what we do with our bodies,  damaging or increasing our bodily powers (by rest, exercise, and sleep).(EOG, p.220)

But the fact that humans have bodies was established back in argument three, where the premise asserts that the laws of nature and the initial conditions of the universe were such as to make probable the evolution of human bodies.  This premise is known to be true only if we know that human bodies are the product of the natural process of evolution.  But knowing that human bodies are the product of evolution assumes that there are human bodies, that we humans have bodies.  Thus, the background knowledge for the Argument from Providence already implies that we humans have bodies, and thus that we have the various choices that Swinburne outlines,  even if God does not exist.

Another point that Swinburne makes is undermined by the previous acceptance of the theory of evolution as the explanation for the origin of human bodies.  Swinburne talks about the dangers of geography as part of his defense of AFP:

Geography is dangerous–there are rivers and seas where we may drown, cliffs over which we may fall, forests in which we may get lost, weather in which we may freeze.  Food is limited–edible plants grow in some places and not others; edible animals need to be caught.  There are predators–the first humans had to avoid tigers and snakes.  And other humans had desires also for food,  drink, shelter,  and mates; they were in competition with each other. (EOG, p.220)

The existence of these natural threats and dangers provide lots of opportunities for humans to make choices that matter to themselves and to others. If nature was much more friendly towards humans, life would be much easier, and we would not have serious choices to make about whether to learn about nature and work at eliminating or overcoming or avoiding these threats and dangers, or to be lazy and not make such efforts, or to learn about nature in order to use these threats and dangers (or knowledge gained about nature from investigation of these threats and dangers) to harm or kill other humans. So, the threats and dangers to humans found in nature expand the scope of human choices that make a significant difference to ourselves, to each other, and to the natural world.

Swinburne imagines worlds in which things might have been very different:

But the mere operation of some laws of biochemistry that produced human bodies could have placed them in a lazier environment. Rivers might have been shallow, cliffs non-existent, food plentiful, no predators preying on humans, plenty of shelter for all humans, all of whom had relatively few children so that there was little competition for shelter and other good things. (EOG, p.220-221)

Such a “lazier environment” is obviously a logical possibility, and appears to be a physical possibility too.  But in order to know that the theory of evolution is true, and that human bodies are in fact the product of evolution, one must have a good deal of knowledge about chemistry, biology, paleontology, geology, astronomy, and the natural history of the earth and of the human species.

I don’t see how one could have enough knowledge of the sort required to know that human bodies evolved without also knowing that there are many natural dangers on this planet (rivers, oceans, cliffs, cold weather, limited food, predators, competition with other species and with other humans, etc.).  So, it seems to me that all or most of these dangerous aspects of nature are already part of the background knowledge by the time we get to Swinburne’s Argument from Providence.  Therefore, all of these wonderful choices that human beings have in virtue of the dangers found in nature, are already implied by our background evidence, and thus the existence of these dangers and of the related choices and options that they provide to humans are certain or virtually certain even if there is no God.  The hypothesis of theism is completely unnecessary to explain these aspects of human life.

Furthermore, even if we could somehow manage to come to a knowledge of the truth of the theory of evolution without knowing that the natural world was full of these various kinds of threats and dangers, the theory of evolution strongly suggests that it would be unlikely for highly intelligent creatures to evolve in a “lazier environment” of the sort Swinburne describes.  It is because of the struggle for survival and the principle of natural selection that made the evolution of human beings possible.  If it was easy for unintelligent animals to survive and to thrive, then intelligence would not give much, if any,  survival advantage.  So, even if we could somehow come to know that the theory of evolution was true without necessarily learning of the various dangers and threats that exist in nature, we could infer that such threats and dangers were probably in existence for millions of years in order to drive the evolution of intelligent animals.

The acceptance of the theory of evolution and of the claim that human bodies are the product of the natural process of evolution undermines most of Swinburne’s points in the Argument from Providence.  Evolution implies that humans are born and die and are subject to killing and being killed.  The evolution of human bodies implies that humans have bodies.  The theory of evolution and the knowledge required to know that this theory is true and that human bodies are the result of evolution, imply that there are many and various threats and dangers in nature, and the theory of evolution by itself, without specific knowledge of natural history provides good reason to believe that human beings evolved in an environment that presented various significant threats and dangers.

Therefore, I conclude that the background evidence that comes from the third argument (TASO) in Swinburne’s case for God completely undermines the sixth argument (AFP) in Swinburne’s case for God.