Friday, April 16, 2010

ID theory, Aquinas, and the origin of life: A reply to Torley

I want to thank VJ Torley again for his polite reply to my recent post on Intelligent Design theory and mechanism, and in particular for his kind words about my own work. This is going to be a lengthy response, and I apologize for that. But the length is unavoidable because, with all due respect to Torley, he gets so many things wrong that I simply cannot untangle all the errors with a few brief remarks. (Readers who have not read my original post or Torley’s reply to it are urged to do so before proceeding, because this post presupposes a knowledge of what was said there, and I do not want to add to the length of this post by repeating myself.)

Torley says that I have misunderstood Dembski, and that all that Dembski is saying is that the first organism could not have arisen via natural processes, but must have been created by a Designer. Torley notes that Aristotle never addressed the question of how life originated, because he thought that the world, and life as part of it, never had a beginning in the first place. And though Aquinas did believe that the world and life had a beginning, he did not think this was something that could be known apart from divine revelation, and thus did not appeal to the origin of life as a basis for an argument for the existence of a Designer. But, Torley continues, if Aquinas had known what we know today – that the earth had a beginning, and that the universe as a whole did as well at the Big Bang – then he would have emphasized the question of the origin of life as a basis for an argument for a Designer. Indeed, he says that “there is very good evidence, from Aquinas’ own writings, that he would have warmly supported Professor Dembski’s contention that the first life could not have originated by natural processes, had he known what we know today about biology”; and he is “surprised that Professor Feser is unaware of this evidence.”

Well, yes, it would be surprising indeed if the author of a book on Aquinas had overlooked such evidence. But I did not overlook it. Neither did I address it, because it is simply not relevant to the specific question at hand. Torley thinks otherwise only because he has, I am afraid, badly misunderstood what the dispute between A-T and ID theory is all about. It is not a dispute about whether life was miraculously created by God at some specific point in the past. Some A-T thinkers think it was and some think it was not, but again, qua A-T theorists that is not what their beef with ID is about. It is rather a dispute about how God creates life, whether we think of such creation as occurring at a specific point in time or as part of his ongoing conservation of the natural world (including the world of living things) in existence from moment to moment. To repeat yet again what I have said now so many times, the A-T position is that living things are “natural” rather than “artificial” in the technical Aristotelian senses of those terms discussed in my previous post; therefore when God creates a living thing, He does not do so in the manner in which an artificer constructs an artifact. And any method for studying living things which (like ID) proceeds on the assumption that He does is simply making a fundamental metaphysical and conceptual error that cannot fail to lead to serious misunderstandings of God’s relationship to the world, and thus to serious misunderstandings of how to reason from features of the world to the existence and nature of God. Again, this does not mean God did not specially create this or that living thing at some point in the past, and it doesn’t mean that He did. That is simply a separate question from the one I have been addressing.


The origin of life

All the same, the view that life cannot arise from non-life is in fact itself a commonplace of the A-T tradition, even if it is not the subject I was addressing. Not only do I not object to that view, I warmly endorse it. Still, the A-T view on this matter must be properly understood, for it does not necessarily have the implications either naturalists or ID theorists might suppose it does. The basic, traditional A-T position can be summed up in three steps:

1. There is a difference in kind and not merely degree between living substances and non-living ones.

and

2. A cause cannot give what it does not have to give, so that whatever is in an effect must in some way be in the cause.

So

3. Non-living substances cannot of themselves cause living ones.

Each of these steps requires comment, though, because those unfamiliar with A-T metaphysics invariably misunderstand them. Let’s briefly consider each of them in order. First, what is the difference between living substances and non-living ones? The traditional Aristotelian answer is that living things typically take in nutrients, go through stages of growth, and (unless impeded) have a capacity to reproduce themselves; some living things (animals and human beings) have other properties as well, but all living things have at least that much. And what sets these processes apart from apparently similar phenomena in non-living things is that they involve irreducibly “immanent” causation as well as “transeunt” causation. In the non-living realm, the end result of a causal process can be seen on analysis always to lie in something external to the cause – that is transeunt causation. Living things manifest transeunt causation, but unlike non-living things they also manifest immanent causation, insofar as some of the causal processes occurring in them cannot be understood except as terminating within and benefiting the organism considered as a whole.

There is much more that could be said – this is, contrary to what many readers seem to think, not a topic one should expect to master after reading a couple of blog posts or a combox discussion – but the point for now is just that for A-T the irreducibility of life to non-life derives fundamentally from the irreducibility of immanent causation to transeunt causation. (I say more about this at pp. 132-8 of Aquinas. And for a recent more detailed defense of the A-T understanding of life, see chapter 8 of David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism – a book which is, by the way, absolutely essential reading for anyone who is serious about wanting to understand what A-T metaphysics really says and how it might be defended in the context of contemporary analytic philosophy.)

Regarding the second step in the argument sketched above, it must be emphasized that for A-T, a cause does not have to have whatever is in the effect in the same way that the effect has it. When a torch is used to light another torch, what is in the effect – fire – is in the cause in the same way in which it is in the effect. But when fire is caused instead by striking a match, the fire was in the cause only in the sense that that specific cause has an inherent power to generate fire that other things do not have; when a builder builds a house, the features of the house are not in him in the way they are in the house, but rather in the form of his idea of the house he is to build; and so forth. To use the Scholastic jargon, if what is in the effect is not in the cause “formally,” it must still be in the cause “virtually” or “eminently.”

Furthermore, in the natural world the cause of some effect is often not some single thing but rather a set of factors working in tandem, as when a leaky faucet together with a “fizzy” tablet someone has dropped on the ground together produce a puddle of sticky, sweet, red liquid. And while what is in an effect might not be in some individual aspect of the cause – as liquidity is not in the fizzy tablet and redness is not in the water leaking from the faucet – it will be in the set of factors taken as a whole (again, at least “virtually” or “eminently” if not “formally”).

Thus, when we come to the conclusion that non-life cannot of itself generate life, what this means is that substances or processes entirely devoid of immanent causation – not only formally, but also virtually or eminently – cannot possibly of themselves bring about substances characterized by immanent causation. Now, does the implied qualification that life might be contained in the cause of living things “virtually” or “eminently” even if not “formally” render vacuous this A-T claim about the impossibility of life arising from non-life? Does it open the door to the possibility that the A-T theorist might come to accept just any account of life’s origin, even a naturalistic one, and justify it by saying that the naturalistic cause must have had life within in “virtually” and “eminently” even if not “formally”?

Not at all, for two reasons. First, immanent causation is a kind of final causation (though not the only kind); it is, for A-T, one instance of the teleology that exists immanently within the natural world as a whole, inherent to natural substances by their very nature. But (as I have discussed in many places) what is definitive of the “mechanistic” conception of nature that underlies both modern naturalism and ID theory is that there is no teleology or final causality whatsoever immanent to the natural world as such – it either has to be imposed from outside (as ID claims) or it does not exist at all (as naturalism claims). Hence, from an A-T point of view it is impossible absolutely and in principle that a purely mechanistic universe (i.e. one devoid of immanent final causality of any sort) could ever generate life. And thus it is impossible in principle that a naturalistic explanation could ever be given of the origin of life.

Now, what if we expanded our conception of naturalism to allow a little immanent final causality into the natural world? I think that no naturalist who was aware of the metaphysical, moral, and theological implications of doing this would consider it, but suppose he did. Would the A-T claim be vacuous in that case? No, because for A-T we cannot just go around attributing “virtual” or “eminent” features to a thing willy-nilly. In particular, the A-T understanding of causality would in no way license the conclusion that just any old natural process could in theory have immanent causality or life within it “virtually” or “eminently” and thus cause life to exist “formally” in some first organism. The nature of causality as such is a metaphysical question, but what specific causal powers things actually have is an empirical question. And we know, of course, that most natural substances never in fact generate life on their own, which shows (given the A-T understanding of how causal powers manifest themselves) that they do not have the power to do so – that is, that life does not exist in them “virtually” or “eminently,” much less “formally.”

Might at least some inorganic natural processes nevertheless have the power to generate life? As Torley notes, Aquinas thought so, believing as he did that spontaneous generation often occurs in nature. But Aquinas believed this because he thought there was empirical evidence for it, and we now know that that evidence (e.g. maggots arising from decaying flesh) was misinterpreted. Moreover, he also thought that the causal powers existing in the relevant forms of inorganic matter were only a necessary condition for spontaneous generation, not a sufficient one; the spiritual substances the ancients took to be guiding the heavenly bodies were also involved in the process, he thought, so that even where spontaneous generation was concerned, the total cause of life was not merely material.

No contemporary A-T theorist accepts the mistaken scientific assumptions that informed Aquinas’s views about spontaneous generation. But might a contemporary A-T theorist hold that there could be some other natural processes (understood non-mechanistically, of course) that have within them the power to generate life, at least as part of an overall natural order that we must in any event regard as divinely conserved in existence? He might, and some do. But the actual empirical evidence for the existence of such processes seems (to say the least) far weaker now than it did in Aquinas’s own day, precisely because no one any longer believes that spontaneous generation is an ongoing natural process; and the confidence that naturalists have that purely natural processes can generate life rests, I would submit, on their commitment to metaphysical naturalism rather than on actual empirical evidence.

Hence, some A-T thinkers conclude that the first living things could not have arisen out of inorganic processes in any way and must have been specially created by God in an extraordinary intervention in the natural order. Other A-T theorists nevertheless prefer instead, on general philosophical grounds rather than empirical ones, to conclude that there are inorganic natural processes having life “virtually” or “eminently” even if not “formally,” and hold that the first living things arose out of these processes, albeit only within a natural order that is itself necessarily sustained in operation by God. Their philosophical preference for this latter approach rests on the idea that where ordinary, ongoing natural processes are concerned (as opposed to specific, unusual miraculous events) appeals to extraordinary divine interventions (as opposed to the ordinary divine conservation of the world) are to be avoided. What all A-T theorists agree on, though, is that life could not possibly have arisen in a purely mechanistic universe of the sort presupposed by naturalism, so that no naturalistic explanation of life is possible even in principle. (For a useful overview of the different A-T positions on this issue, and of the A-T approach to biological questions generally, see Henry Koren, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Animate Nature, unfortunately long out of print but available through online used book dealers.)

[A side note: Could scientists, then, generate life in a laboratory using purely inorganic materials? If a mechanistic account of the natural world were true, the answer would be: Absolutely not. But what if instead there is some final causality already built into nature, and the scientists use non-living materials that nevertheless have immanent causation definitive of life within them, “virtually” or “eminently” though not “formally”? Could they generate life in that case? That depends. If what they are doing is merely facilitating processes that could occur entirely in the absence of intelligence, the answer would again be: Absolutely not. For these materials would have to be brought together in such a way that they come to form an organic whole directed towards a new end or final cause – namely the end or final cause characteristic of the particular kind of living thing they are to generate – that none of them has individually. And since a cause cannot give what it does not have, they could not impart such an end to it. Imparting such an end would necessarily require intelligence, which is why Aquinas thought “spontaneous generation” to be possible only under the influence of the spiritual substances he assumed were guiding the heavenly bodies. But what if the scientists did something to the raw materials that could not have happened in the absence of an intelligence like their own? Could they generate life in that case? In theory it seems they could, though obviously this scenario is of no help to the naturalist, who holds that life can originate in the absence of any intelligence. I think even this scenario is highly unlikely, because the absence of any evidence for spontaneous generation seems to me to be strong evidence that there simply are no inorganic materials having life “virtually.”

If it did happen, though, would the result be an “artifact” rather than a “natural” object, in Aristotle’s sense? No, no more than water synthesized in a lab is an “artifact,” and no more than a child generated by his parents is an “artifact.” For if this “laboratory life” were generated, what it would show, given the whole metaphysical apparatus in terms of which the scenario has been framed, is that the scenario is an eccentric but still natural way of generating life, just as the synthesis of water is. It isn’t like the making of a mousetrap or a watch, which – unlike water and living things – have no natural tendency to come into existence in the first place.]

Thus, from an A-T point of view the generation of life out of purely mechanistic inorganic natural processes is not a matter of mere “improbability,” and to think that it is would evince a fundamental misunderstanding of the metaphysics of life. It would be like saying that it is “improbable” that a triangle could be constructed merely out of two straight sides. Somebody who said that would not merely be understating the case; he would not merely be taking a “different approach” to reach the same conclusion that those who reject the notion of two sided triangles as a metaphysical impossibility have also reached. Rather, he would be showing that he simply doesn’t understand the nature of the issue at hand. The same thing is true, if the A-T analysis of life is correct, of those who claim that it is “improbable” that life can be given a naturalistic explanation. Properly to understand the issue is to see that a naturalistic explanation is nothing less than impossible.

So, that is one problem that A-T has with ID theory. But the problem I have been focusing on in earlier posts was, as I have said, that whether or not we think of God as specially creating life in an extraordinary intervention in the natural order, the way He creates is not properly understood on the model of human artifice. He does not make a living thing the way a watchmaker makes a watch or the way a builder builds a house. He does not take pre-existing raw materials and put them into some new configuration; nor does He even create the raw materials while simultaneously putting the configuration into them. (As I’ve said before, temporal considerations are not to the point.) Rather (as I put it in my earlier post) he creates by conjoining an essence to an act of existence, where the essence in question is a composite of substantial form and prime matter. That is the only way something that is “natural” rather than “artificial” in Aristotle’s technical senses of those terms possibly could be created.

It seems to me that many of those who object to what I have said about the incompatibility between A-T and ID fail to see this because they are simply unfamiliar with A-T metaphysics and do not understand what is meant by terms like “substantial form,” “prime matter,” etc. And this includes Torley himself. He says, for example, that “in modern parlance, prime matter is roughly the same as the modern physicist’s concept of ‘mass-energy.’” No, that is not what prime matter is. Prime matter, as I said in a passage Torley himself quotes, is matter without any form at all; and to have the properties of “mass-energy” entails having a certain kind of form, in the Aristotelian sense of “form.” Torley’s definition of substantial form is at least slightly less bad; he tells us that it is “the fundamental or defining attribute of a physical entity, which makes it the kind of entity it is.” No, it is not an “attribute” at all. It is substances that have attributes, and a substantial form is one of two components of a complete substance (the other being the otherwise formless prime matter a substantial form is united to). Since having attributes presupposes having a substantial form, a substantial form can hardly be itself a kind of attribute. It is rather the essence which grounds a substance’s proper attributes or properties, that from which these properties flow. In short, prime matter is not a kind of “raw material” but the metaphysical precondition of there being raw materials in the first place; and substantial form is not some particular configuration of matter but the precondition of there being configuration, or any other attribute, in the first place.

Amazingly, Torley is aware that an A-T philosopher might object to his characterizations of these concepts, but he says he doesn’t care. In a breathtaking passage, he tells us: “If these ‘modernized’ definitions set some Aristotelians’ teeth on edge, I’m very sorry, but that’s just too bad. Most of us can’t think in fourth-century B.C. philosophical Greek; translation to 21st-century-speak is therefore necessary. Good philosophy should be expressible in any language.” Well, good philosophy should also be accurate. Good philosophy should not be directed at straw men. A good philosopher should strive to understand what an opponent has actually said before criticizing it. Yet though Torley complains that I don’t get Dembski right, he goes on intentionally to put forward, as an explanation for readers unfamiliar with A-T, an interpretation of the A-T position that he knows A-T theorists themselves would reject!

Equally bizarre, though Torley claims I have misunderstood Dembksi, he never explains exactly how I’ve misinterpreted the specific passages from Dembski that I quoted, passages which clearly show that Dembski is committed to mechanism in the sense of “mechanism” that A-T rejects. For example, Dembski plainly says that living things are products of “art” rather than “nature,” in Aristotle’s senses of those terms, and Torley never denies that he says this. So how exactly have I misunderstood Dembski? (I get this sort of thing all the time from people unhappy with what I have said about ID: “ID theory does not take a mechanistic approach! Also, ID is right to take a mechanistic approach!” Well, which is it?)


What Aquinas didn’t say

If Torley can’t be bothered to represent either my views or Aristotle’s accurately, it is no surprise that he misrepresents Aquinas’s views as well. He cites various passages from Aquinas which he thinks show that even the Angelic Doctor thought of God as creating in the way an artificer makes an artifact. But they show no such thing. First of all, neither Aquinas nor any other A-T philosopher has ever held that we may never, under any circumstances, compare God to a builder, an artist, or the like. The claim is rather that when we are trying to understand the metaphysics of divine creation, specifically, we should not think of it on the model of human artifice. So, the fact that Aquinas uses a building or artifact metaphor here or there in his writings by itself proves nothing; and in none of the passages Torley cites does Aquinas say that’s God’s act of creating a natural substance is like an artificer’s act of making an artifact out of raw materials. Second, since Aquinas was an Aristotelian, he naturally regarded living things as “natural” rather than “artificial” in the Aristotelian senses of those terms; and when he explicitly addresses the issue of the nature of divine creation, he speaks in terms of conjoining an essence to an act of existence, and not in terms of taking raw materials and working them over like an artificer. Any “building” imagery or the like that he uses in other contexts has to be interpreted in light of these facts.

With these general points in mind, let us turn to the specific examples Torley gives. Francis Beckwith has already pointed out what is wrong with Torley’s reading of the three passages he rips out of context from the Summa Theologiae. In the first (ST I, q. 27, article 1, reply to objection 3) the topic of the discussion in which it occurs is whether one Person of the Trinity can truly be said to proceed from another. Aquinas says that just as a builder’s idea of the house he builds proceeds from his intellect without thereby being external to him in the way the house itself is, so too might an idea proceed from the divine intellect without being external to God in the way the universe is. The background of this argument is Aquinas’s view that the Son is related to the Father as the idea the Father has of Himself. The nature of divine creation of natural substances is simply not what is at issue.

In the second passage (ST I, q. 44, article 3, reply to objection 1) what is at issue is whether God can be the exemplar cause of created things, since they are radically unlike Him. Aquinas’s answer is that He can be such a cause in the sense that the idea of a created thing is in His intellect before He creates, just as the idea of a house is in an architect’s mind. But there is simply nothing in this that entails that the way God creates is comparable to a builder’s working on raw materials in order to make a house. The nature of the divine creative act is, again, not what is at issue.

The context of the third passage (ST I, q. 65, article 2, reply to objection 3) is a discussion of whether there is any sort of injustice in God’s creation of material substances which are unequal in their natures. Aquinas’s answer is that there is no more injustice in this than there is in an architect’s placing of stones in unequal positions in the building he makes. There is nothing whatsoever in this that entails that God’s actual act of creating a natural substance is comparable to a builder’s taking stones and rearranging them into a new configuration, or some such thing. Once again, the nature of the creative act itself is simply not what is at issue.

Finally, the context of the passage from the Summa Contra Gentiles that Torley cites (Book III, chapter 100, paragraphs 6 and 7) is a discussion of whether, when God causes something to occur in the natural order that would otherwise not occur, what He does is somehow contrary to the natural order. And Aquinas says that it is no more contrary to the natural order than what an artist does when he adds something new to his artwork is contrary to the nature of the artwork. But there is nothing in this that entails that God’s creation of some natural substance is comparable to (say) an artist’s taking a canvas and putting some paint on it. The nature of divine creative acts as such is, yet again, not even at issue here. (Brandon Watson makes another important point about Torley’s reading of this passage.)

I would also add that there are metaphysical concepts underlying what St. Thomas says in these passages – such as “exemplary causation,” “species,” and the like – that must be understood before one can properly understand the passages themselves. And as we have seen, Torley’s grasp of A-T metaphysics is worse than tenuous.

In general, I would urge defenders of ID theory who take umbrage at what I and other A-T philosophers have said in criticism of ID to try seriously to understand what A-T actually says before commenting on it. I would also urge them to stick to the point. The dispute between ID and A-T has – let me repeat yet one more time – nothing essentially to do with Darwinism, and nothing essentially to do with the origin of life or of this or that specific biological phenomenon. Those are separate issues. The dispute has to do instead with whether living things are to be thought of as “natural” objects or as “artifacts,” in Aristotle’s senses of those terms. It has to do with whether one can either properly understand the nature of living things, or get even one inch closer to the God of classical theism, by conceiving (even just for methodological purposes) of the natural world in mechanistic terms (i.e. in terms which exclude from the natural order immanent final causes or formal causes). And it has to do with the serious metaphysical and theological errors A-T philosophers regard as flowing from such a conception of nature, and which I have discussed elsewhere (e.g. here, here, and here).

58 comments:

Just Thinking said...

I am not a professional philosopher, but I think I can post meaningfully on this argument.

The biggest problem I see with A-T is that it is necessary to accept it as inerrant before arguing its inadequacies.

For most people today, essences and causalities are spoken of in the terms used in physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, and psychology. Modern terminology.

When one sees the philosophically popular term 'causation' repeatedly brought up in an argument – especially when there are this, that, and the other type of causation – I am reminded of a preschooler earnestly explaining how an internal combustion engine makes a car move.

Also, I thought philosophers were quite partial to argument by analogy. They are, you must admit, quite effective when a skilled arguer carefully selects his analogues. The issue at hand between A-T and ID is 'how God creates'; but when Mr. Torley chooses to understand Aquinas' conception of God's creative agency via Aquinas' very own clear analogies he is unjustly criticized.

Peter Youngblood said...

"Just Thinking",

Please re-read Dr. Feser's post carefully. It does not matter what "most people today" mean when they borrow Aristotelian terminology. In order to properly criticize A-T, one needs to properly understand the definition of terms used by A-T theorists. This is elementary dialectics, without which the whole discussion would be meaningless.

Again, Dr. Feser's explication of Aquinas' analogies clearly showed that, in context, none of them were employed to the effect that meant living substances were artificial rather than natural.

You have clearly not understood Dr. Feser's points. I say this not merely because you disagree, but because your particular reasons for disagreement bear out the fact that you have totally missed the point of Dr. Feser's post. So, I ask again, please re-read this and previous posts with thoughtful humility. If, in the end, you still disagree, you can do so in a well-informed way that you can feel good about.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

I do not being a Protestant feel strongly committed to an A-I or ID viewpoint but I would like to know how you would go about convincing a modern naturalist with mechanistic assumptions and who assumes Aristotle is simply some interesting historical figure who no one today could take seriously to accept your viewpoint?

Bilbo said...

Professor Feser,

Your argument seems to be the following:

1. There is a difference in kind and not merely degree between living substances and non-living ones.

and

2. A cause cannot give what it does not have to give, so that whatever is in an effect must in some way be in the cause.

So

3. Non-living substances cannot of themselves cause living ones.



Metaphysical naturalism would deny your first premise. Methodological naturalism (which is just the assumption that metaphysical naturalism is true) is what most scientists rely upon to do science. So they would find your argument unconvincing and thus irrelevant. "Merely one of those metaphysical word games that philosophers like to play," they would say.

ID says to the scientist, all right, even if we grant you methodological naturalism, the probability of life arising from random processes and physical laws is so astonishingly small, that it cannot be taken seriously. Further, life exhibits properties associated with intelligence: analogy to what we design (machines), rationality and foresight. Therefore it is much more reasonable to believe that life was designed.

A scientist might still reject this argument, but at least we are arguing on his turf. It is not as easy to dismiss us as irrelevant, and he must try to prove us wrong.

Should ID succeed in convincing scientists that we are right, then they might be more open to your argument. Until then, I think all your doing is succeeding is convincing some Christians that ID has nothing worth listening to and to ignore us. I consider that outcome to be tragic, and irresponsible on your part.

Anonymous said...

Should ID succeed in convincing scientists that we are right, then they might be more open to your argument. Until then, I think all your doing is succeeding is convincing some Christians that ID has nothing worth listening to and to ignore us. I consider that outcome to be tragic, and irresponsible on your part.

Agreed, but as for scientists coming around to read a theologian, I doubt they will be reading a young earth creationist such as Aquinas.

Bilbo said...

Anon: Agreed, but as for scientists coming around to read a theologian, I doubt they will be reading a young earth creationist such as Aquinas.

But they might read Edward Feser.

anonymous2 said...

'When one sees the philosophically popular term 'causation' repeatedly brought up in an argument – especially when there are this, that, and the other type of causation – I am reminded of a preschooler earnestly explaining how an internal combustion engine makes a car move.'

LOL. I have always preferred the words 'reason' or 'because'

Bilbo said...

I guess I should add that even if Dembski's ID implies a mechanistic view of causation (I wouldn't know if it does or not), ID can be formulated so that it need not imply a mechanistic view.

Anonymous said...

Bilbo

I am not even sure if everyone understands the same thing by the term 'mechanistic'

A good working definition of this term seems in order.

Crude said...

I think one problem here is that Ed keeps explaining why ID is (in his view) metaphysically incompatible with A-T, but most people are choosing to respond with "But ID can be effective at changing people's minds!"

Well, sure. But merely being effective doesn't seem to be Ed's goal. Lies and BS can be effective for some people too (See Dawkins, Hitchens, etc), but that isn't a reason to do such.

I see the point Bilbo is making, and I think Ed sees it as well. But there's a response I can see a thomist giving to ID proponents: The root problems affecting modern debates about God are metaphysical and philosophical ones. In particular, some people being utterly unaware of the metaphysical and philosophical commitments they and others hold - or being unable to tell where science ends and philosophy begins. THAT problem must be addressed, not ignored.

anon said...

Ed said "There is nothing whatsoever in this that entails that God’s actual act of creating a natural substance is comparable to a builder’s taking stones and rearranging them into a new configuration, or some such thing. Once again, the nature of the creative act itself is simply not what is at issue."

I think you want this to be the case, but if it is, it attacks argument by analogy. This cannot be acceptable.

Just Thinking said "Also, I thought philosophers were quite partial to argument by analogy. They are, you must admit, quite effective when a skilled arguer carefully selects his analogues. The issue at hand between A-T and ID is 'how God creates'; but when Mr. Torley chooses to understand Aquinas' conception of God's creative agency via Aquinas' very own clear analogies he is unjustly criticized."

Daniel Smith said...

My question Dr. Feser - though I understand how, from a Thomistic view, you arrived at life not being an "artifact" - is: How do you reconcile that view with the various scriptures that seem to indicate otherwise?

"God formed man out of the dust of the ground"

"You knit me together in my mother's womb"

...and etc.

Passages such as these give the impression that God does indeed take the basic components and fit them together like an artist to create life.

Thanks in advance for your comments on this.

anon said...

" Passages such as these give the impression that God does indeed take the basic components and fit them together like an artist to create life."

I am sure it is the impress of such metaphors on the hearts and minds of IDers that continually motivates them onwards in their work.

Edward Feser said...

Daniel,

When God knit you in your mother's womb, what kind of yarn did He use?

The question is silly, of course, because the biblical passages you cite make use of figures of speech that are not meant to be taken as precise metaphysical descriptions.

Bilbo and others,

Crude hits the nail on the head: Whether some people find ID convincing is simply irrelevant to the points I have been making. People find all sorts of things convincing. Doesn't mean they're correct.

By the same token, the fact that many people assume that Aristotle is old hat is totally irrelevant.

The bottom line in both cases is the same: What matters is what is true, not whether some people regard this view as convinving or that view as old fashioned.

Edward Feser said...

Daniel,

BTW, when I said "the question is silly," I did not mean your question, but my rhetorical question. Your question was perfectly reasonable.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

I agree that whether people think Aristotle is old hat is in principle irrelevant. But how to do you get people who believe that and are steeped in mechanism to consider your position. A-T may be better then ID in convincing people to believe true theism. But how do you get them to take the first step?

Bilbo said...

Professor Feser,

I agree that what matter is what is true. And I think your argument is sound. However, it is not obviously sound, in the same sense that two sides don't make a triangle is obviously sound. Hence it is unlikely to be convincing to someone who holds a mechanistic view.

Meanwhile, ID is also a sound argument. And since it holds true even under a mechanistic view, it may be more convincing.

Bilbo said...

Francis Crick once referred to the three principal components of the cell -- DNA, RNA, and Protein -- as a "trinity." And perhaps he unwittingly bore witness to a truth more profound and mysterious than he could imagine. Both DNA and RNA are made with right-handed nucleotides, while Proteins are made with left-handed amino acids. Messenger RNA expresses the information of DNA, not unlike the Word -- the Right Hand of God -- expressing the mind of the Father. And Protein takes its particular form from the sequential order of the mRNA, and does most of the work in the cell, not unlike the Spirit of God performing the will of the Father.

If the cell is a machine, it is God's machine. And the life that fills it is made in the image of Life Himself

I argued in an earlier thread that there is no empirical evidence that the end of the physical laws was to produce life. But there is plenty of evidence that the end of the laws was to provide the womb in which life might be incarnated.

A foreshadowing of a greater miracle?

Just Thinking said...

And I thought these recent ID threads were an earnest consideration of how God creates.

Whether some people find ID convincing is simply irrelevant to the points I have been making. People find all sorts of things convincing. Doesn't mean they're correct.

By the same token, the fact that many people assume that Aristotle is old hat is totally irrelevant.

The bottom line in both cases is the same: What matters is what is true, not whether some people regard this view as convinving or that view as old fashioned.


Instead, we have been participating in what is merely another argument for the supremacy of Catholic theology. No wonder the WWWW thread on this subject is so spirited. We should have known.

John Farrell said...

When God knit you in your mother's womb, what kind of yarn did He use?

ROFL--that should be the title of your next book, Ed!

Anonymous said...

The original meaning behind 'knit' in this passages is 'to link together' - another reference to designing, wouldn't you say?

Francis J. Beckwith said...

"I am the door," means that Jesus will never be unhinged, apparently.

anonymous said...

Passages such as these [analogies] give the impression that God does indeed take the basic components and fit them together like an artist to create life.

Almost everyone's 1st lesson on God is that God is Creator, and many analogies have been used throughout the ages to describe how He does so.

Now it would appear that this practice must stop. Mr. Torley, shame on you for being taken in by such inappropriate forms of thinking as evidenced in Aquinas' metaphors.

BenYachov said...

At this point the ID movement has jumped the Shark for me. They are as bad a Dawkins at trying to go out of their way to miss the point & misunderstand.

I've read Thomas Cudworth's asinine response to Feser over at Uncommon Descent.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

BenYachov, as I wrote in an email to a friend this morning.....So, for Torley, the architect analogy in Thomas shows that he was an ID guy, but the architect analogy, according to Cudworth, implies no such thing, since the ID God isn’t necessarily an artificer, though he could be, since ID is metaphysically neutral, except that it is attempting to defeat naturalism, which is a metaphysical position. I need a stiff drink.

TheOFloinn said...

"You are the salt of the earth" obviously means the apostles were composed of sodium chloride.

Hey, this is fun.

(Would-be) Leonine Thomist said...

Three objections to Feser's reading of Aquinas
1. I'm not sure that Feser is correct in saying that Aquinas attributes a role to spiritual substsnces when spontaneous generation occurs. My recollection is that he says the the sun itself is the cause. Now, the sun is moved in place by a spiritual substance, or so Aquinas believes, but that would make spiritual substances at best remote causes of spontaneous generation, and if we don't need separate substances to account for the motion of the sun, then we don't need them to account for spontaneous generation either. Do you remember where Aquinas discusses this?
2. The fact that Aquinas was mistaken about the origin of maggots is non-conclusive in one way, and irrelevant in another. Non-conclusive, because one of the questions at issue is, does spontaneous generation in fact occur? If not in the case of maggots, it may yet occur in the case of microbes or viruses in some undersea volcano's fumarole. We don't know. Irrelevant, because another question at issue is did Aquinas believe spontaneous generation to be metaphysically possible, and he clearly did. Otherwise he could not have though it actually happened. That in itself is enough to show that Aquinas did not think a special act of creation was necessary to account for the origin of living organisms from inanimate bodies. So Aquinas would not have bought into at least one of the ID arguments.
3. I still don't see why ID arguments cannot be validly applied in the case of human beings. In an earlier post, I argued that since (by Thomas's metaphysics and by Catholic dogma) a special act of creation is needed to give life to a human being, a human being can truly be said to be an artefact of God, a product of divine workmanship that could never be produced by natural causes. Human beings are thus evidence of intelligent design of precisely the sort that the IDers seem to be arguing for, and I don't see how in this case their argument can be said to be invalid or unThomistic.

David said...

First of all, of course God is "like" a builder. He is more like an author, and most like... well, Himself, since nothing else is exactly like God, and nothing else can create in the same way God can. Prof. Feser isn't saying there is no way in which God can be compared to a builder, just that it is not a useful analogy in this situation. God is also "like" a mother hen, but that does mean that God created the world by laying an egg. It doesn't even mean creation was "like" laying an egg. The hen-metaphor has a very specific application, and does not mean that any old attribute of a chicken corresponds to some attribute of God.

So while yes, Scripture does in places compare God to an artificer, it does not do so in the context of providing a technical philosophical explanation of how God creates. Feser's analysis is precisely a detailed technical philosophical investigation, though, and that is why he concludes ID does not succeed on those grounds. Clearly ID is about more than making a casual, common-sense suggestion.

David said...

BenYachov: At this point the ID movement has jumped the Shark for me. They are as bad a Dawkins at trying to go out of their way to miss the point & misunderstand.

Now that's not fair. Any position has its share of stupid and malicious proponents, but no matter how poorly ID folks may understand Aristotle, that doesn't mean they're all dishonest. A better question to ask is, what possible insight might ID actually be grasping at? Can it be refined into a more rigourous position that does stand up to philosophical (and/or scientific) scrutiny? After all, mechanistic science has had centuries to develop, and Aristotelianism millennia. ID has had what, a few decades? Even if the answer ultimately turns out to be "you can't get there from here", that's worth knowing in its own right.

Mike Erich: A-T may be better then ID in convincing people to believe true theism. But how do you get them to take the first step?

Yes, there are many approaches, and different people respond to different arguments. Of course, a false argument is not worthy, even if it might lead someone to a correct conclusion, so we need to start from something sound. But if the argument is sound, then it is worth studying for its own sake. I am interested in what about ID is true, or can be understood and validly fleshed out. Of course, it also might be that ID is purely a reductio: that it can "work" only by assuming mechanistic foundation, and from that showing that mechanism is inconsistent. That's worth knowing too.

Francis Beckwith: ID is metaphysically neutral, except that it is attempting to defeat naturalism, which is a metaphysical position.

Surely the biggest problem with ID is that the name isn't trademarked, so everyone uses it to mean something different. I don't just mean Darwinists means one thing, Aristotelians another, and IDers a third. I mean that even any two IDers will have different ideas about what "ID" is. Some consider it science, some consider it philosophy, some consider it science with inevitable metaphysical ramifications, some consider it a reductio, etc., etc., etc. The endless squabbling could no doubt be greatly reduced if the abbreviation "ID" were banned and everybody had to spell out exactly what he was talking about every time. (Well, plus all that extra typing per se would discourage a lot of people from commenting!)

TheOFloinn said...

since a special act of creation is needed to give life to a human being, a human being can truly be said to be an artefact of God, a product of divine workmanship that could never be produced by natural causes. Human beings are thus evidence of intelligent design of precisely the sort that the IDers seem to be arguing for

It is not "precisely" the sort. The IDers argue that certain parts of creation are improbable when viewed by current understanding of natural causes. Thomists (IIUC) argue that creation itself is evidence, not just the parts we currently think are improbable. Natural processes are irrelevant, since they are themselves part of creation and are instrumental causes. Natural selection, to the extent that it is efficient cause, is the knife with which God whittles the world.

The operational difference is this: If tomorrow scientists were to discover a new, non-Darwinian process which accounts for the specified complexity, then IDers are left flabbergasted and speechless and perhaps shaken in their faith. Thomists would go, "Way kool!"

Finding the fingerprints of God in the world is like finding Shakespeare in the text of Hamlet.

Bilbo said...

The metaphysical problems with the naturalist/mechanist view:

1) It can't explain the fact of (continued) existence.

2) It can't explain why there are physical laws.

But it puts off these problems, to be solved at a later date. But then it says that it can explain everything else in terms of these physical laws.

That's where ID steps in and says, "No you can't."

Now I think A-T has a right to object and say, "Wait a minute. Shouldn't you explain (1) and (2) first?" And yes, Naturalism/Mechanism should. But it won't. It's too busy explaining everything else. So ID is like the last warning sign, trying to prevent people from wandering into a waterless desert: "WRONG WAY! GO BACK!"

Now can life be explained mechanistically? I once saw a video of a bacterium being chased by a white blood cell. To me both of them looked like conscious agents involved in a deadly serious chase. The person who had this video at their site said this could all be explained by something called chemotaxis. I'm very skeptical that it can do all that. But other than appealing to common sense or intuition, I have no other argument.

But what I can do is appeal to the improbability of all the mechanisms needed to make this chase scene happen coming into existence without intelligent design. And the Naturalist/Mechanist can't answer that.

So is ID the strongest argument? I don't think so. But it may be the only one that will get their attention.

Bilbo said...

Hi OFloin,

I have as much worry about a law being found to explain specified complexity as I do about a law being found to explain your comment: none.

David said...

Here's a question: can Aristotle tell the difference between a rock that looks kinda like a face and Mt. Rushmore? Can he do it scientifically (that is, via experimental observation according to the scientific method, as opposed a possible sheerly metaphysical approach)? Is there a reliable (empirical) process by which we can make such determinations?

Common sense says so: we do it all the time, to distinguish accidental death from homicide, symbols from doodles, kids' playing inside the house when they weren't supposed to from a gust of wind blowing over the vase and breaking it. Of course, common sense is sometimes wrong. Maybe it works only because we usually apply it to situations where we can apply human motives, which (being human) we are in a better position to recognise. Maybe the situations when we apply this sense are simply more everyday than a situation like the origin of life or discovering extraterrestrial intelligence.

Yet still we try. Is searching for aliens of its essence a fool's errand? Can we never say, this regular pulsing sequence is a natural phenomenon, but that sequence is a deliberate message? There are various things going on here: natural objects are different from machines, but that may be invisible to science. Reality might not be reductionistic, but science is, to the degree that it involves breaking stuff down into pieces in order to analyse it. So maybe the interesting differences here are simply ones that by their nature are not available to science.

On the other hand, we aren't looking for "machines" in the case of the origin of life. We (or aliens) can create "design" which is perhaps distinguishable from nature, i.e. from God's design. So it might be possible to distinguish an extraterrestrial message from a pulsar, but not to distinguish the design making up life as different (in the desired way) from the design in an atom. After all, to Aquinas the order — that is, the final causality — that is present in the structure and operation of an atom points to an ultimate mind just as much as does the finality in an organism.

In fact, to Aquinas, there is no such thing as a rock that "accidentally" came to look kinda like a face: nothing is accidental or random in that sense because God foresees every detail of every part of the universe and indeed deliberately had to create [conserve/sustain] it that way. So the face in the rock is yet another path to the creating Mind, as much as the very structure of the rock itself continuing to act like a rock is.

Of course, people do look for design not only in the complexity of life, but also in suspicious coincidences of our solar system, our galaxy. There is something different between just being "ordered" and being ordered a certain way, for a certain purpose. Clouds can look "like" something, but that really is different from clouds that are something (a smoke signal), isn't it? Perhaps it comes down to level of finality. Science ignores the "bottom" layer of final causality, and that is maybe all right insofar as physics is not supposed to be metaphysics (it's only wrong when you extrapolate that ignorance and try to make it into metaphysics as well!); so science qua science can simply take the function of electrons to move a certain way or gravity to act a certain way for granted (and then go about its business of describing that motion, etc.). But then there is another level of teleology on top of that in the moon's "just happening" to be the right size for eclipses, or DNA "just happening" to work like a computer program. And that then might be something that science can't ignore; it's something in addition to the starting premises, so it cannot simply be taken for granted.

[continued...]

David said...

[Continued:]

Maybe that is precisely because organisms aren't just machines; they are different in kind rather than degree from their raw ingredients. Therefore science cannot account for them simply in terms of the raw ingredients. This difference is somehow showing up in the equations. (I'm not sure how this applies to the size of the moon: perhaps because the moon in its role of making eclipses possible is also not just a machine! That is, it has a function that is not merely an accidental or extrinsic feature of its parts, but it is a real function (end, goal) of its nature.)

It's easy to see eclipse-making as (one of) the functions of the moon, but we wouldn't normally call it a "meaning". It physically causes eclipses by moving into position, not by representing something else. The genetic code, on the other hand, is a code, and thus gets more attention as something "designed". In both cases there is an intentionality (or is one analogous to the other??), but the code seems less able to be explained [away] as a coincidence, because it implicitly requires another separate order (a language, a context) in which it can be interpreted. But if there are no coincidences, is everything a coded message? If we rotated a plot of all the stars to just the right angle, will they spell out, in some long-lost dead language, "Enjoy the view — signed Yahweh"? The pattern of falling raindrops or a jagged coastline seem random to us; certainly from a scientific perspective. Is that nothing more than a statement of ignorance on our part — that we can't see any pattern?

When science says X is "random" with respect to Y, it means that there is no statistical correlation between X and Y. If genetic mutations are random with respect to what is expected from the laws of chemistry, then there must be a further cause contributing to an organism's makeup. If the disposition of our solar system shows correlations beyond what is expected from the laws of physics, then there must be a further cause. The alternative is that these observations in fact follow expectedly from the laws of nature, whether by newly discovered natural laws or "fine-tuned" initial conditions, etc. The best that naturalists can hope for is a grand unified theory of everything in which it all — laws, initial constants, everything — can be explained by one law. The universe reduced to a single number (figuratively speaking!). At that point the design-argument becomes, Why this number instead of any other? I think at that point we have reached a metaphysical argument: the question is effectively an argument from formal causes (this Law instead of that because it must be existing in some Mind, or because some Will chose that one).

Brandon said...

The (Would Be) Leonine Thomist said:

I still don't see why ID arguments cannot be validly applied in the case of human beings. In an earlier post, I argued that since (by Thomas's metaphysics and by Catholic dogma) a special act of creation is needed to give life to a human being, a human being can truly be said to be an artefact of God, a product of divine workmanship that could never be produced by natural causes. Human beings are thus evidence of intelligent design of precisely the sort that the IDers seem to be arguing for, and I don't see how in this case their argument can be said to be invalid or unThomistic.

I can see the appeal of such a view, but as David says above, part of the problem in this discussion is that people keep importing different meanings into the phrase 'intelligent design'. In order to be intelligent design of precisely the sort IDers argue for, it has to have the following features: it has to argue on the basis of the kind of complexity of the object under question, claim that this complexity exhibits a feature, e.g., a certain level or type of information, that evolutionary pathways cannot reach in the time they have had to reach it, and conclude that this feature must be originally generated by an intelligence rather than by the natural causes involved in those evolutionary pathways; once the system has the right information, however, it can generate that sort of object indefinitely. As Mike says, however, none of these features are found in Aquinas's discussion of the rational soul. The ground of the inference is not the complexity of the intellect and on Aquinas's view the intellect can never be generated by any intelligence, either -- the arguments are that the intellectual soul is ingenerable. No amount of information of any kind added to a system can on this view add up to an intellect. Thus insofar as we are embodied we are (like almost everything else) both created and generated, but insofar as we are capable of grasping universals as such we are only created. And this is something that is true in every single human case -- the precise point of the argument that human souls must be created is that it is the follow-up to the argument that having an intellectual soul can't be transmitted through generation. Thus the argument seems to be different in every single particular -- the only similarity is that in both cases God does something, if one interprets the intelligent designer in ID as being God.

Creation is a very different kind of causation than generation is. By its very nature, ID about biological organisms is confined to talking about generation. To this extent it is entirely possible for someone Thomistically inclined to make an argument that no mechanistic explanations can account for human intellect, because explanations that do not include God, however accurate they may be, only account for the bodily disposition to intellect and not the intellect to which it is disposed. But the grounds would have to be either very non-ID grounds -- because what ID looks at are only what the Thomist can consider relevant to the bodily dispositions -- or very non-Thomistic grounds -- understanding human intellect in a mechanistic way as a particular kind of interaction of a material system.

Brandon said...

(cont'd, in response to The (Would Be) Leonine Thomist)

I agree, though, with your point about spontaneous generation: it is relevant, albeit in a limited way, in that Thomistic philosophy of nature doesn't rule it out at all. Indeed, except for certain things dealing with ingenerables (intellects and the heavens), Aquinas tends to leave very open what nature can or can't do; this has to be discovered by study. And part of the reason is found in Aquinas's rejection of occasionalism: denying a priori that a natural object could have a certain power is denying that God could give it that power. But God can do anything except a contradiction, so the only way to rule something out as a potential natural power is to show it leads to contradiction: either absolutely (e.g., generating an ingenerable) or on supposition (e.g., given the nature God has in fact given it the natural object can't do what's claimed). The former can be handled with metaphysics alone, but they are very rare; the latter requires openminded investigation of what powers natures do, in fact, have. And no ID I've ever run across actually argues for a contradiction; they are, as Mike says, all probabilistic.

David,

I've enjoyed your comments on this subject, even ones with which I've disagreed. I wish I had more time to engage with them.

David said...

TheOFloinn: If tomorrow scientists were to discover a new, non-Darwinian process which accounts for the specified complexity, then IDers are left flabbergasted and speechless and perhaps shaken in their faith. Thomists would go, "Way kool!"

Yes, physics is not metaphysics, but so what? IDers "shaken in their faith" sounds like a caricature. (I'm sure there are such people to be found, especially if your sample population is the Internet. You can find silly flabbergastable Thomists as well.) A more sober suggestion is that ID proponents would say, "Way cool! See, we told you life wasn't Darwinian!" (Huh—are ID guys better spellers than Thomists? Let the flamewars begin!)

David said...

Some questions:

What's the difference between a message and a machine? They both encapsulate some "purpose" or "meaning" or "intentionality" into a physical object (a watch, or ink on a page). [A message needs to be decoded or interpreted back into an idea, but perhaps something like an onomatopoeia is simpler in that it is the thing it represents.] At any rate, I want to know whether a message is like a machine in terms of imposing an extrinsic form upon some matter, or is it a more "natural", intrinsic kind of thing?

Can God make a watch? Certainly He can manipulate matter and have the necessary pieces come together, or create the whole thing ex nihilo, but is it a machine, or a "natural watch"? The sun and the moon are "natural" timekeepers in that they are natural objects that serve to tell time, but is their time-telling intrinsic or extrinsic? Can they be considered machines insofar as we view them as timepieces?

Can the same thing be different objects at the same time, that is, part of more than one [natural] object? Or, how do we know whether something is a natural object, or one part of a bigger nature, or a collection of smaller natures? The earth is a natural object, but so is the solar system — it acts according to a nature given to it by God, or else isn't it a machine? Are the creatures on the earth separate natures, or are they all parts of a "biosphere" which is what really has the substantial form? There are natural, or rather useful and practical and intelligible ways in which we can identify things as separate entities, but how do we know God views them the same way? He does not share our limitations and can see the whole universe at once, functioning as a coherent whole.

David said...

Brandon: I've enjoyed your comments on this subject, even ones with which I've disagreed.

Thanks. And I disagree with many of my own comments! Some are devil's advocacy, and some are just thinking aloud as I try to figure it all out for myself.

Would-be said...

Feser says,
"The dispute has to do instead with whether living things are to be thought of as “natural” objects or as “artifacts,” in Aristotle’s senses of those terms."
For Feser, this is equivalent to saying that the dispute has to do with whether mechanistic theories can adequately explain the natural world, or whether we need immanent and final causes to do so.
My argument was intended to show that even on Thomistic grounds--that is, even given that there are immanent and final causes in the natural world--one can argue that some forms of life can only be accounted for by viewing them as the product of an intervention by an immaterial intelligence acting on pre-existent matter. THe human soul is created individually by God, not generated. At the moment of its creation, the human soul is joined to pre-existent matter taken from the father and the mother. Yes, there is a difference from human artefacts, in that most human artefacts only impose an accidental, not a substantial form on the pre-existent matter, and even when scientists make new elements (and so produce new substantial forms), they do so by working with the potentialities in pre-existent substantial forms, not by creating new ones ex nihilo. Nonetheless, human beings are not "natural objects" in the Aristotelian sense--they are not the products of physical processes issuing from forms immanent to physical things (and I believe that this is a point on which Aquinas' philosophy differs from Aristotle's). Nor is "human nature" itself a "natural object." Human nature is the product of the joining of an immaterial substantial form to pre-existent matter. That union requires a divine artificer. And in this respect, I argued that human beings are artefacts of precisely the sort that Feser himself says the dispute concerns. In creating a human being, God is imposing a form on pre-existent matter from without, a form to which the pre-existent matter itself has no tendency, since according to Aquinas, nature has no tendency to produce intellectual life.

Brandon said...

one can argue that some forms of life can only be accounted for by viewing them as the product of an intervention by an immaterial intelligence acting on pre-existent matter. THe human soul is created individually by God, not generated. At the moment of its creation, the human soul is joined to pre-existent matter taken from the father and the mother....At the moment of its creation, the human soul is joined to pre-existent matter taken from the father and the mother.

I'm not sure I follow your argument. In a strict sense, there is no "at the moment of its creation" when it comes to the soul; every moment is in a sense the moment of its creation, because it's never not actually a creature. This is one of the things that makes creation different from generation. But since the rational soul is ingenerable and begins to exist, the beginning of existence is one of the things explained directly by creation. The beginning of human existence, however, is explicitly regarded by Thomas as a cooperative active issuing in one unified effect: God in creating causes the whole person to begin to exist, with partial instrumental use of generating causes for part of what is created. We are products of physical processes issuing from forms immanent to physical things; otherwise we would be wholly ingenerable, or purely identifiable with our intellect, which we are not. We are one existing thing that is simultaneously generable and ingenerable, in different respects. What is true to say on Thomas's view is that we are not wholly generated by such processes. God is not imposing a form from without, however; Thomas doesn't have the Platonic view that we have the matter and then God just adds the rational soul on top. Rather, the rational soul is the form of the very body which is to be explained by generation through physical processes. The creation, in other words, is not a conjoining of two things; it is a producing of two things as already integrally united from their first moment, one of which is generated directly by natural processes. God's 'intervention' here is just creation, which is already the act that everything actual presupposes, regardless of what it is, and therefore is not really 'intervention' at all. One can call it art or artifice, if one wishes; all one is saying is that creation is the act of an intelligent cause and, perhaps, that that act has an effect distinct from that cause. Aquinas himself will occasionally use this terminology. But this is obviously not the sense in which Ed is taking it, nor indeed the sense that is usually meant when one makes the distinction between artifact and natural object. In fact, I would say that the qualification you make, about substantial versus accidental form, is one of the chief points at issue here.

It's also ambiguous to say that nature has no tendency to produce intellectual life. Nature cannot itself produce intellectual life on a Thomistic view, but it can and does tend toward that production as a subordinate and contributing cause; this is, in fact, what human reproduction is, the generation of a human being, which is an animal with intellect. And this is a purely natural tendency to intellectual life -- one that, however, cannot be wholly completed by the natural causes insofar as they are natural causes. It's analogous in this sense to the natural human tendency to beatitude.

Would-be said...

In reply to Brandon, by way of clarification:
By "moment of creation" of the human soul, I mean the moment it begins to exist. This is of course the same moment that a human body begins to exist, of which the soul is the substantial form.
The existence of the human soul is entirely ungenerated by any natural process. Consequently, the human body, as such, is also entirely ungenerated, since the human body has its existence only through its substantial form, which is the soul. The human body is NOT generated by natural processes. Only the matter from which the human body is made is generated, but this matter does not become a human body until it is informed by the special act of creation by which a human soul informs and animates this matter. Thus the moment a human soul begins to exist, not by generation, but by a special act of creation, a human body begins to exist, not by generation, but by the creation of its soul. The moment a human soul begins to exist, it begins to inform and animate pre-existent matter produced by the father and the mother. Thus a human being begins to exist only through God's imposing, or joining, a subsistent form from without to pre-existent matter, by his creative act.
God's involvement as a creator in the coming to be of a new human being is entirely different from his involvement as a creator in the generation of any other living thing. Other animals are able to reproduce themselves without God's help. We are not. In fact, there is no such thing as human reproduction, if the term is used, as you use it, to mean the generation of a human being.
I hope this clarifies the nature of our disagreement.

Vincent Torley said...

Professor Feser:

Thank you for your post. I'd like to focus on hylemorphism. You wrote:

"It seems to me that many of those who object to what I have said about the incompatibility between A-T and ID fail to see this because they are simply unfamiliar with A-T metaphysics and do not understand what is meant by terms like “substantial form,” “prime matter,” etc. And this includes Torley himself."

I'm now 49 years old. I've been studying and pondering St. Thomas' metaphysics for 33 years on and off, since the time when I bought a second-hand copy of "Philosophy for the Layman" by Fr. Aegidus Doolan (Dublin: Irish Rosary, 1944) at the age of 16, at a school library sale. At five cents, it was a bargain. I had a lot of free time during my twenties, while I was studying, and I've read scores of books on Thomistic philosophy. Whatever my faults (and I know I have many), accusing me of being unfamiliar with "unfamiliar with A-T metaphysics" is risibly absurd. But let's continue with the passage in your post:

"He says, for example, that “in modern parlance, prime matter is roughly the same as the modern physicist’s concept of ‘mass-energy.’” No, that is not what prime matter is. Prime matter, as I said in a passage Torley himself quotes, is matter without any form at all; and to have the properties of “mass-energy” entails having a certain kind of form, in the Aristotelian sense of “form.”"

No, it doesn't. "Mass-energy" is about as non-descript a term as you can get in physics. There are many different forms of mass-energy - light, heat, sound, mass, kinetic and potential energy, and so on - but "mass-energy" is simply what gets transformed. It is utterly devoid of any qualities whatsoever. I don't know how much more formless you can get than that.

It is true that mass-energy is conserved over time (leaving aside momentary quantum fluctuations). But that does not entail that it has a form. It simply means that mass-energy is quantifiable, where the "quantity" of mass-energy is defined by how much work it can do. ("Work" is done whenever a body is accelerated over some distance.) I should add that there were some Scholastic philosophers (e.g. Suarez) who held that quantity could inhere in primary matter.

I might also add that Professor David Oderberg, unlike Professor Feser, is quite open to the idea that prime matter is the same thing as mass-energy. He uses the term "energy" in the quote below; I prefer to use the more generic term "mass-energy," because "mass" is simply a form of energy.

"Thirdly, might prime matter be energy? It is an intriguing question which I cannot pursue here. One problem is that the hylemorphist has a better grasp of what prime matter is than the physicist has of what energy is, and since metaphysics has to be informed by science there will be severe limits to what the former can say about the possible identification of prime matter with energy. If there are substantial energy transformations (e.g. heat to sound, chemical to light) by which a wholly new thing comes into existence, there will have to be prime matter distinct from energy as a support (as noted in Johansson 1989: 38-39). But if transformations are but phases of an underlying pure energy that has no determinate form in itself, then perhaps one might venture the thought that they are one and the same." (Real Essentialism, Routledge, 2007, p. 76.)

The latter option considered by Professor Oderberg is precisely what I would maintain. I would also claim that even in those cases when a substantial change occurs (e.g. an electron and a positron "annihilate" each other and create a photon of energy), mass-energy is still conserved, as an underlying quantity. It is easy to describe this change in Aristotelian terms.

Part 2 to follow.

Vincent Torley said...

Let's continue with your blog post, Professor. You write:

"Torley’s definition of substantial form is at least slightly less bad; he tells us that it is “the fundamental or defining attribute of a physical entity, which makes it the kind of entity it is.” No, it is not an “attribute” at all. It is substances that have attributes, and a substantial form is one of two components of a complete substance (the other being the otherwise formless prime matter a substantial form is united to). Since having attributes presupposes having a substantial form, a substantial form can hardly be itself a kind of attribute. It is rather the essence which grounds a substance’s proper attributes or properties, that from which these properties flow."

Professor Feser, you seem to be interpreting my term "attribute" as if it meant "accident." It doesn't. "Realization" or "modification" would be a better way of putting it. Primary matter is always realized in some way: the substantial form of a substance is simply the way it is currently realized. Thus relative to primary matter, the substantial form of a substance is what I call an attribute. Secondary matter is also realized in a particular way. Relative to secondary matter (the individual substance), an accidental form is what I call an attribute. Thus having attributes does not presuppose having a substantial form. What it does presuppose is having primary or secondary matter.

You define substantial form as "the essence which grounds a substance’s proper attributes or properties, that from which these properties flow." The reason why I don't like this textbook definition is that for at least some substances, there do seem to be certain properties which are not just proper accidents of a thing, but rather constitute the very essence of that thing. In other words, not all properties are accidents (whether essential or inessential).

Consider the following example from Professor David Oderberg's book. The interpretation which follows is mine:

“Whatever the empirical technicalities, then, for present purposes we can rest content with the following:

(G4) Gold is a metal with atomic number 79

as giving the correct definition of gold. (More precisely, we should say that gold is a metal whose atomic constituents have an atomic number of 79; but the shorter version (G4) will suffice.) For as well as assuming that metal is the proximate genus, we can be fairly sure that having atomic number 79 gives the specific difference, marking gold out from everything else in the universe, no matter how similar.” (Real Essentialism, Routledge, 2007, p. 91.)

Now, I should be happy to describe properties such as the melting point and specific gravity of gold as proper accidents. They don't capture the essence, or "whatness," of of gold, but they flow from its essence. However, the property of being a metal with atomic number 79 really does seem to capture the essence of gold: it gives us the specific difference that marks gold out from everything else. Now, some Thomists might say that the real essence of gold is not this property, but something deeper, one metaphysical layer down, so to speak. I have to say that to my mind, this seems downright obscurantist. I know what gold is. If I don't know that, I don't know anything. Gold is a metal with atomic number 79. That's the essential definition of gold. Thus the property (or attribute) of being a metal with an atomic number of 79 is the defining attribute of gold. I'd call that the substantial form of gold. It is an attribute of primary matter (mass-energy). Any "piece" of mass-energy that is realized (or instantiated) as (a) a metal (proximate genus), with (b) an atomic number of 79 (specific difference), is a piece of gold.

Vincent Torley said...

Does my 21st century rendition of hylemorphism still sound like a travesty of Thomism to you? I hope I have persuaded you to reconsider, Professor Feser.

In closing, I'd like to say something briefly, on the subject of reductionism.

In an earlier blog post ("Nothing but," April 8, 2010), you insisted that Aristotelian Thomism is "holistic rather than reductionist; a whole can be analyzed into its parts, but the parts in turn cannot properly be understood apart from the whole." Fair enough, but you then continue:

"“H20” abbreviates a description of the chemical micro-structure of water, but for A-T essentialism, macro-level substances are not reducible to their micro-structure."

As I read him, Professor Oderberg would disagree with you, at least as regards water. (I have to confess that I'm reading his book online - $123 is a little outside my budget - so there are many pages I can't access.) Although Professor Oderberg rejects (rightly, in my opinion) the proposition that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen - a statement which I would replace with, "Water is composed of one-proton atoms and eight-proton atoms," - he nevertheless goes on to acknowledge:

"As far as we know, having the properties of water is wholly explained by the molecular structure of water. By 'wholly explained' here, I mean that the entire collection of properties possessed by water is understood by science as caused by the constitution of water and realized (to echo John Searle's (1991) way of speaking). I would go further and venture that every specific property of water is realized only in water's specific constitution." (Real Essentialism, Routledge, 2007, p. 90.)

So "the entire collection of properties possessed by water" is "wholly explained by the molecular structure of water"? Hmm. I'd call that a reductionism of sorts. I think most philosophers would.

Finally, I would like to close with a general request. When interpreting the writings of those who might disagree with me, I generally assume they're trying to say something intelligent that makes sense, so I tend to construe their meaning as positively as possible. I would very much appreciate it if you did the same when engaging with ID philosophers. Thank you, Professor Feser.

Brandon said...

Would-Be had said,

The existence of the human soul is entirely ungenerated by any natural process. Consequently, the human body, as such, is also entirely ungenerated, since the human body has its existence only through its substantial form, which is the soul. The human body is NOT generated by natural processes.

I thought you might be heading in this direction. But at this point we're well beyond St. Thomas himself, who does insist that the human body is generated by natural processes -- in SCG II.89, for instance.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

"Can Aristotle tell the difference between a rock that looks kinda like a face and Mt. Rushmore?"

Not just by looking at them. But rather, by "seeing" what they really are.

Suppose, however, we discovered a natural means by which things may sport faces. Would that mean that such things are entirely products of "non-rational" mechanisms and laws? If yes, then ID is mechanistic. If not, then ID is superfluous and may have the unintended consequence of supporting the mechanistic narrative.

And, by the way, we do know of a natural means by which things may sport faces. It's called sexual intercourse. Works like a charm.

David said...

Francis J. Beckwith: "Can Aristotle tell the difference between a rock that looks kinda like a face and Mt. Rushmore?"
Not just by looking at them. But rather, by "seeing" what they really are.


I don't know what you mean. Are you distinguishing physical sight from intellectual sight?

If yes, then ID is mechanistic. If not, then ID is superfluous

Superfluous to what?

Just Thinking said...

Thank you so much, Mr. Torley, for your respectable and respectful reply. It is a welcome and much needed bit of wisdom, maturity, and a breath of healthy air.

As I first noted, the main crux of this foray at hand is largely (though not entirely) that "For most people today, essences and causalities are spoken of in the terms used in physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, and psychology. Modern terminology."

Be well.

Would-be said...

In reply to Brandon:

On SCG II.89 and the generation of the human body:
In this article, Aquinas' primary concern is to maintain that the human soul is not generated like thosee of other animals. He is not trying to formally determine whether or not the human body, as such--that is, as human--is generated, so he is not being particulary careful in his language as regards the human body. He is also saddled with an Aristotelian embryology that is in tension--I myself would say in contradiction--with his metaphysical views on the substantial unity of the human being. All that being said, however, even if we accept the false embryology as true, a strict reading of this text would have Aquinas saying that the human body is NOT generated. To see why, let's start with the embryology. Aquinas believes that the union of the semen with menstrual blood begins a whole series of generations and corruptions. The first substance generated is an embryo living the life of a plant, with only a vegetative soul. Then that embryo is corrupted by the generation of a new embryo having both vegetative and sensitive powers, and living the life of a [brute] animal. Finally, this last embryo is corrupted when the rational soul "is introduced from without" (SCG II 89.11), by God'a creative act. Only at this point does a human being begin to exist, and so only at this point does a human body, strictly speaking, begin to exist. Prior to the introduction of the rational soul, there were a whole series of bodies, NONE of which was the body of a human being. When Aquinas talks about the generation of the human body in this text, he is talking about the generation of these prior bodies. But notice that every one one of these "human" bodies has ceased to exist. The body of the human being, at the end of the process, is not the same as the body of any of these generated embryos. Thus even in this text, even accepting the false embryology, Aquinas is NOT saying that my body, or your body, was generated. He is, on the contrary, saying that our bodies came into being solely through the introduction of a form--in his own words--"from without."

Francis J. Beckwith said...

"He is, on the contrary, saying that our bodies came into being solely through the introduction of a form--in his own words--"from without.""

If I am not mistaken, isn't the case for Thomas that is just true of human bodies, not bodies per se. That is, it is only human souls that are directly created by God.

I'm away from my Summa, so I'm not sure where Thomas says that.

Brandon said...

Thus even in this text, even accepting the false embryology, Aquinas is NOT saying that my body, or your body, was generated. He is, on the contrary, saying that our bodies came into being solely through the introduction of a form--in his own words--"from without."

This is not accurate, and to see why, it is helpful to look more closely at the third objection and Aquinas's response to it. The third objection is that the human soul must be generated by physical processes because the body is clearly generated due to the formative power in the semen. The soul is the form of the body, and therefore shares one being with the body; so, the objector argues, that being must be the one object of one agent because the actions of diverse agents do not terminate in one being. Therefore the soul is generated from the formative power of the semen.

Aquinas replies to this that the actions of diverse agents do terminate in one being when one agent is ordered to the other. In such cases, one agent is the instrument of the other, and thus the action is primarily attributed to the primary agent. But in some of these cases the primary agent's action goes beyond the action of its instrument. But every natural agent is an instrument of divine power. Therefore, says Aquinas, nothing prevents the natural act of generation from terminating in part of the very same man that is produced as a whole by divine creation. Therefore one and the same human being is formed by natural generation (through the formative power of the semen) and by divine creation at the same time, with the generating cause acting as an instrument that partially produces a human being, but is incapable of producing a human being insofar as it has a rational soul. Rather, the formative power of the semen produces the human being insofar as that human being is materially disposed to having that soul. There is no problem with this because natural generating causes (like any other kind of cause) can be an instrument in divine creation.

In every particular St. Thomas's response to the objection is contrary to what he should say on your interpretation. (1) St. Thomas very clearly does say that the human being is generated in part by the formative power of the semen. Nor can this be ascribed to loose language; he is making a very precise distinction in the causal actions producing a human being. (2) He very clearly says that the formative power of the semen is an instrument of divine productive power in the very act of creating a human being. An instrumental cause, as Aquinas uses the term, participates in the action of its primary agent; thus the divine creation of the human being includes, but is not exhausted by, the generation of the human body. (3) He very clearly says, when one considers the response in the context of the objection, that one and the same human being is the term of both the generative and the creative act; the generative act merely has part of that human being as its term, while the creative act has the whole human being.

This is confirmed by some of St. Thomas's responses to other objections; for instance, his response to the seventh objection clearly states that "he formation of the body derives from Him by means of the natural power residing in the semen, whereas He produces the soul immediately". Likewise, in response to the tenth objection he says that the primary and principal parts of a person's body are formed not by the person's own soul but by the power of the begetter's soul. Moreover, several of the arguments given in Chapter 86 for why the soul cannot be transmitted through the semen explicitly treat the semen as generating cause of the human body. Moreover, prior to answering the objections Aquinas argues at the beginning of 89, at some length, that the formation of the human body must be due to some kind of formative power in the begetter.

Brandon said...

(cont'd)

Moreover, the claim that the rational soul is 'introduced from without' clearly means simply that the rational soul does not exist in virtue of the formative power of the semen.

Thus Aquinas's actual, and very explicitly stated, view is that the divine creation of the human being includes, as an instrumental action terminating in only part of the term of the primary act, the natural generation of the human body. And this is not surprising; human beings are clearly generated in some sense -- that's what reproduction is -- and generation and creation are not contraries, and the former always presupposes the latter, anyway. The only quirk in the human case is that, whereas in non-rational animals the instrument of divine creation insofar as the animal comes to be, that is, the generative act, terminates in exactly the same term as the act of divine creation. But in the case of a rational animal Aquinas has arguments that the generative act, while still instrumental, only terminates in part of the term of the act of creation.

Would-be said...

In reply to Brandon:
part 1
Aquinas IS using some terms loosely in this text, especially the term "human body." To see this, take a look at the one passage where he is being precise, namely, in his response to the sixth objection, where he says, "the human body, so far as it is in potentiality to the soul, as not yet having one, precedes the soul in time; it is then, not actually human, but only potentially human. However, when the body is actually human, as being perfected by the human soul, it neither precedes nor follows the soul, but is simultaneous with it". Accordingly, every time you see Aquinas using the term "human body" in this article, you have to ask, is he talking about a body that is actually human, namely, one animated by a human soul, or is he talking about a body that is NOT actually human, but only potentially so.

All of his answers to the objections are founded on his earlier discussion: "With these considerations in mind, it easy to answer the objections" (par. 12 in the Notre Dame edition). And if we read "these considerations", we find Aquinas discussing the "formative power" of the semen, namely, the power "responsible for the formation of the body". This power "remains the same...from the beginning of the body's formation until the end," and acts "by virtue of the generative soul of the father." The question is, to what body is Aquinas referring? An actual human body? No. The "generative processes" discussed by Aquinas end with the formation of an animal body having only nutritive and sensitive powers; this animal passes away, body and soul, when "the rational soul is introduced from without". Aquinas makes it explicit that the formative or generative power of the semen extends only to the PRECEDING souls. Thus the "human body" formed by the semen--more precisely, the series of "human bodies" formed by the semen in a whole sequence of generations and corruptions--is never an actual human body, never a body animated by a rational soul. The last body formed by the semen ceases to exist when the rational soul is "introduced from without." The animal body living before the introduction of the rational soul is not the same as the animal body living after the introduction of the rational soul. Thus our actual human bodies, of which the rational soul is the form, are NOT generated by the formative power of the semen.

As for Aquinas' replies to the third, seventh, and tenth objections, I could reply as follows.

Would-be said...

to Brandon, part 2

The reply to the seventh states that "both the body and the soul are made by the power of God; although the formation of the body derives from Him by means of the natural power of the semen...". But I have argued that Aquinas himself has explained that the natural power of the semen extends only to the formation of a body that is potentially human, so the seventh objection doesn't affect my reading of Aquinas' position.

Likewise, the tenth objection says that the primary and principal parts of the body are formed by the power of the soul of the begetter. But we have already seen that on Aquinas' account, the power of the soul of the begetter acts through the formative power of the semen. So the body in question must be only a potentially human body.

As for the reply to the third objection, once again I say that the human body which Aquinas says is formed at the same time by the power of GOd, as principal and first agent, and by the power of the semen, as the secondary agent, is precisely a body that is only potentially human. If the semen could produce an actual human body, i.e. one animated by a rational soul, then the semen would have produced the whole man, body and soul, which Aquinas denies. Because the semen produces only a potentially human body, Aquinas says that it only "disposes" toward the production of the human soul [and by extension, toward the production of the body animated thereby]. And when Aquinas says in the same reply that a part of man is generated by the power of the semen, I take him to be referring to the embryonic body that has the potential to become a part of man. Once again, Aquinas is being elliptical. We see yet another instance of this in the same reply when, in one and the same sentence, he states without qualification that man is a generated subject, and then makes it plain that only a PART of man is generated; which means, strictly speaking, that man is not a generated subject at all, since man is neither body alone nor soul alone but the composite of the two.

I realize that my reading must seem perverse to you, especially since it would be much easier for Aquinas to refute many of these objections simply by first saying that they presuppose that semen has the power to generate an actual human body, and then making the argument that in fact it doesn't.

To such an objection to my reading, I can only reply what I said before, that I believe Aquinas' account of human generation to be inconsistent, and that he has been saddled with a false embryology that needlessly complicates the issue.

Brandon said...

Would-Be,

I see no reason to think that Aquinas is using the term 'human body' loosely here; as Gyula Klima has noted in other contexts we have to be wary of applying matter/form analysis too simplistically to discussions of the body.

Yes, the generative process only terminates in the potentially human body; Aquinas is quite clear that it terminates in the human body as materially disposed to the actual intellectual soul informing it. It must be the actual human body, because Aquinas makes clear that the generation is an instrumental part of the act of creation to which the human being's beginning to exist is inferred, and this is impossible if the act of generation does not actually have the same term as the act of creation (as Aquinas says it partly does). The generative processes clearly terminate in the human being; he says this more than once. (That there are other souls intermediate to it is nothing surprising: all generation is like this, because you can't partially have a substantial form.)

Likewise, Aquinas's discussion here is consistent with what he claims elsewhere, e.g., in the commentary on the Metaphysics(5.2, section 767): "An efficient cause is said to be dispositive if it does not induce the final form that perfects a thing but only prepares the matter for that form, as one who hews timbers and stones is said to build a house. This cause is not properly said to be the efficient cause of a house, because what he produces is only potentially a house. But he will be more properly an efficient cause if he induces the ultimate disposition on which the form necessarily follows; for example, man generates man without causing his intellect, which comes from an extrinsic cause." The ultimate disposition on which the form necessarily follows is the disposition that actually has the form; every disposition prior to that is neither ultimate nor a disposition on which the form necessarily follows.

Moreover, your interpretation would be incoherent on Aquinas's view of generation. Aquinas accepts Aristotle's arguments that anything that is generable is corruptible and anything that is ingenerable is incorruptible; it is, in fact, these arguments that lie behind the notions of necessity and possibility used in the Third Way. But then, if the human body is ingenerable it must be incorruptible. However, the human body is clearly corruptible, both on Aquinas's view and in fact. Therefore it clearly must be generable on Aquinas's account of generation. The line of thought you are suggesting is not just inconsistent with Thomas's embryology; it is inconsistent with his accounts of creation and generation, as well; it is not even a slightly modified Thomism, but a massively modified one. Which is fine in general, but as the point of this discussion is Thomism and ID, it's clear that no one who actually accepts the basic Thomistic accounts of creation and generation could accept the argument you suggested above as being at a possible juncture of Thomism and ID.

would-be said...

Hi Brandon,

I don't think my reading of Aquinas contradicts his views on the relation between generation and corruption. We have to remember WHY the incorruptible is always ingenerable, the generable always corruptible. Corruption is related to generation as decomposition to composition. What is simple by definition can cannot be decomposed, because decomposition presupposes composition. Likewise, what is simple cannot come to be by way of composition, because if it did, it would be a composite, not simple.
By the parallel argument, what is composite can only come to be by uniting its constituent parts, and likewise can only be made to cease to be by way of decomposition.
It follows that God, who is absolutely simple, can in no way cease to be. The angels or separate substances cannot be corrupted, since their essences are simple, nor, for the same reason, can they be generated. There is, however, a composition of essence and act of being in them, and so it is possible for them to cease to exist, should God cease his creative act. Material things, however, have a composition in their essence, so they can cease to be in two different ways: like the angels, they can cease to be because of God's withdrawing his creative act, and also, unlike the angels, they can cease to be by the decomposition of their essences, which occurs when one substantial form is replaced by another, in the same matter. This process is called corruption, when one is looking at the ceasing to be of the original substance. The same process is called generation, when one is looking at the coming to be of the new substance. Now Aquinas and Aristotle also believe that there are bodies whose matter is in potency to only one form. And because their matter is in potency to no other form, they can neither be generated nor corrupted.

Accordingly, human beings or human bodies are corruptible precisely because, first, we are composed of matter and form, and second, because the matter that enters into our composition is in potency to other forms besides the soul. Consequently, my claim that a living rational animal cannot be generated by the power of the semen in no way necessitates or implies the incorruptibility of the human body or the human being.

Far from my claim being incompatible with Aquinas' metaphysics, it is the only interpretation that is consistent with his claim that the soul of man is not generated, but created immediately by God. Don't forget that the qualification "immediately" is not idle here: it means without any instrumental or intermediate cause. If the semen had the power to generate a human body actually informed by a rational soul, then it would be the cause of this form, the rational soul, being in this body. But this is precisely the position Aquinas is arguing against.

I don't understand the second paragraph of your post. You begin by saying that the semen only generates a potentially human body, i.e. one sufficiently disposed so as to be capable of receiving the rational soul without any further development. This sounds as though you are agreeing with my reading. But then you add, that it [i.e. the semen's generative act] terminates in an actual human body, which contradicts my reading. These are two different positions--which one are you asserting? Or have I misunderstood?

You refer again to Aquinas' claim that the generative act has the same term, in part, as the act of creation. But I have already given you my reading of that claim. The generative act terminates in what is potentially a part of man.

continued

Would-be said...

To Brandon,continued

I find your quotation from the commentary on the Metaphysics confirms rather than refutes my reading. Aquinas is saying that a cause is dispositive if and only if it does NOT induce the final form but merely prepares the matter for that form. That is precisely what I am saying the semen does. He says that a dispositive cause, which is an efficient cause, is not said to be efficient cause of the final product, but only the efficient cause of what is potentially the final product. Again, this is precisely my reading of his account of human generation. You are misreading Aquinas' entire comment because you are misreading the last remark you quote, the sentence beginning "He is more properly an efficient cause..." Aquinas is here talking about differences within the genus of dispositive causes. Two things make this clear. First, Aquinas says, not that he (the man who hews the wood and cuts the stones) IS the efficient cause [scil. of the house], but that he is "MORE properly" an efficient cause--that is, he comes closer to being or having the nature of an efficient cause, but is not yet a full and proper efficient cause, pure and simple. Second, Aquinas does not say that this "he" is more properly an efficient cause by virtue of the fact that he induces the final form--which is your reading--but rather in virtue of the fact that he induces the final or ultimate DISPOSITION to that form. And this is precisely how I read Aquinas' account of human "generation." The semen generates the last living body which is corrupted when God's creative act introduces the rational soul into the same matter previously informed by a purely animal soul. Thus the semen is merely a dispositive cause of the human being that is the term of God's creative act.

Your reading of the commentary text on the metaphysics is self-contradictory. You say that the ultimate disposition to the final form is the disposition that has the final form itself. But this contradicts the very meaning of the term disposition. A disposition that actually possesses the form to which it is disposed is no longer a disposition TO a form, but the subject OF that form.
To be disposed to a form means to not yet have that form; a disposition is a kind of potency, and nothing can be the potential possessor and actual possessor of the same form at the same time.