Vanishing twins syndrome is yet another scenario that believers need to explain in light of souls and a perfect designer god.
Many theists believe that ensoulment takes place at conception, as the soul is either attached to, or emerges from, the physical matter of the fertilized egg. This theological minefield begs for critical analysis, which I’ve discussed as it relates to identical twins, and frozen embryos.
In the final installment of my “Ensoulment Trilogy,” I was inspired by a cherished commenter to address ensoulment in the context of fetal twins.
Commenter “ericc” added a further issue for theists to contend with:
Oh you forgot the most juicy bit; AIUI there are a lot more twinning events than there are twins. Because in most cases, one blastocyst quickly *eats* the other one.
Which is not a problem for science or nonbelievers or even Christians who believe in souls but don’t take a hard “zygotes are persons” stance. But for the conservative pro-life “zygotes are persons” position, it means the surviving zygote is a person who is guilty of the manslaughter and cannibalism of another person.
This is, indeed, another problem. Let’s have a look at what goes on in these scenarios from a fetal point of view.
The phenomenon, known as “vanishing twin syndrome,” is far more widespread than initially thought, given our relatively recent ability to “see” inside pregnant mothers. It happens, generally early on, “in about 36 percent of twin pregnancies, about half of pregnancies with three or more embryos, and about 20 to 30 percent of pregnancies achieved with assisted reproductive technology.”
In common parlance, one hears this scenario interpreted as one blastocyst “eating” another, but this isn’t really what happens. In some senses, it is an internal miscarriage, but without some of the typical signs. One of the embryos “vanishes” and is reabsorbed into the mother’s body.
The fetal tissue from the vanishing twin is usually absorbed by the mother and the surviving baby. Rarely (if the loss happens after 12 weeks when bones are already formed), the fetus becomes flattened in the uterine membranes and is discovered during delivery. This is called a “fetus papyraceus.” In very rare cases, the surviving baby takes on some of the lost twin’s cells and becomes a chimera – one person with two sets of DNA.Karen Miles, “What is vanishing twin syndrome?“, babycenter
The reasons why this happens are not fully known, but it is suspected that causal variables include presented genetic abnormalities, chromosomal issues, advanced maternal age, assisted reproduction, and so on. In other words, we potentially have a case of poor design whereby the body is rejecting some faulty aspect of a growing embryo.
If a twin vanishes late on in the pregnancy, there are some increased risks to the surviving twin, but, generally, you wouldn’t really know the process had taken place unless receiving scans to evidence it.
So that’s the biology out of the way. Now it’s time for the philosophy and theology.
It is worth noting that not all believers agree on how and when ensoulment happens. This is a direct result of the complete lack of evidence, and what might be called the process of “making sh*t up.”
While I might be accused of being a little facetious here, this is essentially the case.
As I set out in my piece “What Is a Soul and What Does It Do?,” there is a complete lack of agreement as to what properties a soul has. Really, what does it do and what characteristics does it have that are not already explained by other naturalistic phenomena?
Essentially, the soul was invented to answer the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “Why do good things happen to bad people?” In order to justify, for the theologically inclined who believe in an all-loving god who is ultimately responsible for everything, the incoherence of evil and good in this world in terms of good and evil people, theists invented heaven and hell. But heaven and hell, as ideas, require the ability for humans to be in some sense transcendent. There must be some aspect of a human being that is somehow morally and causally connected to the agent, but that transcends life in order to be able to exist eternally in heaven or hell.
Enter stage right: the soul.
But there is no evidence for it. It is just a made-up idea to solve a made-up problem that only exists as a result of a made-up god.
Vanishing twins, as a real-life problem, require explaining on several fronts, if you believe in OmniGod. First, as with any data about the universe, why would an OmniGod design the universe in such a way that vanishing twins are a thing? Especially since they appear to have been a phenomenon long before we realized that they were. That is, unless you special plead that the very first vanishing twin was the first one we discovered, that God has only allowed the ones we have witnessed. This is a really problematic rabbit hole to go down, so I will leave that excuse there.
No, the theist needs to explain why God would design the universe such that millions upon millions of twins have vanished in utero, irrespective of the soul issue. Is this the hallmark of a perfect designer?
Second, the theist who believes in ensoulment at conception would need to explain what happens to the soul of the vanished embryo. Does God create a soul only to snuff it out before anyone even knows about it? What would the point of this be? If abortion is murder, then God is the greatest mass murderer of all time, given he designed this feature and is supposedly amply able to stop the deaths from happening. But doesn’t.
And this form of natural fetal death is not the only form of “spontaneous abortion” or “natural abortion” that we see. Somewhere around 60-75% of all fertilized eggs fail to implant or end up in miscarriage or even stillbirth. That’s a lot of fetal death, and a lot of extinguished souls, or souls that get no chance to live outside of the womb, which is why I wrote the piece “God Loves Abortion.” I’ve also set out many of these arguments in my newest book 30 Arguments Against the Existence of “God”, Divine Design, Heaven, Hell, and Satan.
Abductive arguments are inferences to the best explanation. When we look at any data in the real world, we need to ask ourselves “Does this data better support the hypothesis that God exists or the hypothesis that God does not exist?”
And this data better supports the hypothesis that God does not exist.