Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The metaphysics of the Martini revisited

The esteemed Brandon Watson calls our attention to this list of classic cocktails, which makes reference to a variation on the Martini I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of before: the Burnt Martini, wherein scotch takes the place of vermouth. Naturally, I mixed one right away upon learning of it. But I think I was too timid: Nervous about overdoing the scotch, I erred in the wrong direction and could taste it not at all. I’ll try again someday, but deviations from the Martinian norm should be indulged only rarely.

But is there a norm here? I addressed the question once before in a gag post, but since we’ve been discussing the metaphysics of artifacts, let’s address it semi-seriously. To certain super-sophisticates, vermouth, never mind scotch, shouldn’t appear in a Martini at all. (There’s the famous crack about Churchill to the effect that when mixing his Martinis he’d look in the direction of France, which would suffice for the vermouth. Perhaps Churchill’s Burnt Martini recipe would have called for a mere glance northward toward Scotland or a toot on the bagpipes.) This seems to me more than a little precious. And just false. Here’s the basic reasoning: A Martini is a kind of cocktail; cocktails are mixed drinks; gin by itself is not a mixed drink; ergo, gin by itself is not a cocktail, and thus not a Martini.

Would a mere hint of vermouth suffice? In his fine little book How’s Your Drink? Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well, Eric Felten tells us that M. F. K. Fisher would use an eyedropper to dispense her vermouth. Others spray a fine mist of vermouth over the top, or merely swish the vermouth around in the glass before tossing it out and pouring the gin. Felten thinks this sort of thing is silly, and so do I. If pure gin is not a Martini, neither is that which is indistinguishable to the taste from pure gin. Yes, one can definitely overdo the vermouth, but so too can one underdo it.

But scotch? Wouldn’t this give us another drink altogether? I think not. But then, does anything go? Must we tolerate Cosmopolitans and “Appletinis” as legitimate riffs on the genuine article? Again, I think not. Why not? Martinis are not natural substances, after all, but artifacts; thus, one might think, there is simply no “fact of the matter” about what counts as a Martini. But that is too glib. Cornbread and corncob pipes are artifacts too, but there is certainly a fact of the matter about which of them it was that General MacArthur liked to smoke. It is because artifacts are defined by the contingent human interests they serve that they exhibit an ontological fuzziness that natural substances do not, but those interests are stable enough that we can at least in most cases get a reasonable enough fix on what counts as an instance of a certain type of artifact and what does not.

What is the relevant defining “interest” in the case of the Martini? The origins of the cocktail are not entirely clear, but it seems to go back 140 years or so to a concoction called a “Martinez,” which was significantly different from what we think of as the “standard” Martini today, particularly in being sweet-tasting. (Felten has a sketch of the history, as do other books.) It was when, in the common mixing of the drink, the now obscure sweet gin then in use gave way to the more familiar dry variety, and sweet vermouth to its dry variant, that the Martini as we know it emerged. It seems also to have been around this time that it became The Martini – something that stood out from other cocktails and would eventually come to be regarded as the King. The “dryness” was key, in that it required of the drinker more discipline and refinement – like the opera enthusiast who knows he’s arrived when he’s made it through to hour four of a Wagner epic and likes it. (As a guy I used to know liked to put it, “If it feels good, do it. If it doesn’t, do it ‘til it does” – though it isn’t clear that Martinis and the Ring cycle are what he had in mind. I don’t know whatever happened to him and I’m not sure I want to know.)

It’s an excessive if forgivable devotion to this dryness that leads some to affect an aversion to vermouth. But if they go too far, they at least grasp the essence of the thing. Hence, it seems to me, scotch is plausibly in as a vermouth replacement, and even vodka as a gin replacement, though why anyone would want it I have no idea. Any garnish consistent with the theme is also in – even the lemon peel, since it gives something less than a hint of sweetness, though why anyone would prefer it to the olive is also beyond me. Indeed, I take just a bit of the briny to be an invaluable addition to the overall taste of a Martini, though the Dirty Martini goes too far. In any event, Cosmopolitans, Appletinis, and the like are definitely out.

Mind you, I’m not saying they shouldn’t ever be drunk – even by men. Just don’t pretend such a thing is a species of Martini. And don’t tell anyone about drinking one either – on a blog, say. Take the time a friend and I watched The Usual Suspects – he for the first time, me for the twenty-third – while the wives talked about whatever in the other room. It would have been preposterous to drink a Martini in such a context, or scotch, or wine (while munching on potato chips or popcorn, no less!) Something lighter, and sweeter, was called for. But it goes without saying that you couldn’t expect us to drink soda pop or lemonade either. And the ladies had already left the ingredients out anyway, so…

Ah, but this is a blog!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Scotism and ID (UPDATED)

Having invited our friends at The Smithy to comment on Torley’s attempt to enlist Duns Scotus in the ID cause, I immediately regretted it somewhat, as I did not want to call down upon them the furies that might greet them whichever side they ended up taking. But now I’m again glad that I did so, since Michael Sullivan has written a very interesting series of posts on the subject. Naturally I’m gratified that we agree on much, but we do not agree on everything, and readers might find of interest the ways in which the differences between Thomism and Scotism are reflected in this debate. You can find the relevant posts here, here, here, and here. Unlike me, Messrs. Faber and Sullivan are unfailingly polite, so please be polite too if you find yourself disagreeing.

UPDATE: Torley replies to Sullivan and Sullivan offers a further reply to Torley. As Sullivan points out, Torley’s talk of a living thing’s “program” or “code” is problematic. There seem to me to be three possible interpretations of such language. First, it could be meant as merely a metaphorical way of talking about what are nothing more than certain complex patterns of efficient causation. But in that case it is not clear that it can do the job Torley wants it to do, viz. to differentiate living things from non-living ones, since he evidently (and rightly) takes “finality” or teleology to be essential to understanding life. Second, it could instead be intended to describe irreducibly teleological features of living things that derive from an external source, i.e. a designer. But in that case any ID argument that proceeds from such a description of living things would be circular. (Sullivan makes a similar point.) Third, it could be taken as a way of describing certain immanently teleological features of organisms. But in that case Torely would be committed to an essentially Aristotelian non-mechanistic conception of life, and he has said that ID makes, for methodological purposes, no such commitment. (As I have argued elsewhere – e.g. here – “program” talk when used by scientists is best interpreted in this third, Aristotelian way.)

UPDATE 2: Yet another reply to Sullivan from Torley. Note that in his section “Immanent final causality,” Torley thinks he sees a disagreement between me and Sullivan. But as far as I can see, Sullivan and I do not disagree. Torley is here confusing (a) the distinction between immanent versus transeunt causation with (b) the distinction between immanent versus externally imposed final causes. These are different distinctions and “immanent” does not mean the same thing in both cases. (Torley loves subtle distinctions, but here’s one he missed.) Distinction (b) is a distinction between final causality understood the Aristotelian way (as inherent to natural substances) and final causality understood the way Newton or Paley understood it (as not inherent to natural substances, but imposed from outside). Distinction (a) is a distinction between causal processes that terminate in and benefit the cause itself (“immanent” causation) and causal processes that terminate outside the cause (“transeunt” causation). (I discussed this distinction in my post on the origin of life.) It seems to me that what Sullivan was saying in the passage quoted by Torley is that he (Sullivan) and I agree that not all natural phenomena which manifest immanent final causality in the sense of distinction (b) are living, and he is right: We do indeed agree on that. What I was saying in the passage of mine that Torley quotes is that living things manifest immanent causality in the sense of distinction (a). I suspect Sullivan would agree with me about that too, but even if he doesn’t, I don’t think that that is what he was talking about.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

ID, A-T, and Duns Scotus: A further reply to Torley

To use a key term in two or more senses in the course of an argument, without making it clear that one is doing so, is to commit the “fallacy of equivocation.” Or so logicians have always said. When William Dembski does it, however, it’s called “subtlety.” Or so VJ Torley says, in a response to my most recent post on Dembski. I had criticized Dembski for the imprecision and ambiguity with which he uses certain key terms. My problem, Torley says, is that I simply “[do] not appreciate subtle arguments.” Dembski must be a subtle thinker indeed, because it takes Torley several pages worth of complicated exegesis to come up with a plausible reading of a single brief Dembski blog post – a blog post that was intended by Dembski to clarify once and for all the relationship between Aristotelico-Thomism (A-T) and “Intelligent Design” theory (ID)! Even then Torley hedges things at least once, conceding that a particular suggestion is his own take rather than Dembski’s explicitly stated view. Perhaps next we’ll see a clarification from Dembski of Torley’s clarification, the subtleties of which Torley can clarify for us further.

The meaning of “mechanism”

I think Torley would have served Dembski’s cause better by just owning up to the obvious – that Dembski was being sloppy. But Torley himself tries to be careful and clear where Dembski was not, so let’s consider his own position on the merits. After drawing some useful distinctions between various senses of “mechanism,” Torley holds that ID is committed to “methodological mechanism,” an approach to explaining natural phenomena that makes no reference one way or the other to immanent final causes or natural teleology. In particular, says Torley, “it does not assume that there are no final causes in nature, or even that there might be no final causes in nature; rather, it simply refrains from invoking final causes in the natural realm while arguing for the existence of a Designer” (emphasis added). Torley’s reason for including the words I’ve italicized is to make it clear that ID theory does not assume or imply even that it is possible (either metaphysically or epistemically, I think he would say) that immanent final causes do not exist. Rather, it simply doesn’t address the question at all. Therefore, Torley concludes, ID avoids the difficulties I raised against it in my post on Dembski – difficulties he seems to acknowledge would be real ones if ID did allow that it is even possible that there is no immanent teleology.

But Torley is mistaken. The ID approach is, for methodological purposes, to treat organisms at least as if they were artifacts; and that just is to treat them as if they were devoid of immanent final causality, because an artifact just is, by definition as it were, something whose parts are not essentially ordered to the whole they compose.

That is why ID theorists make such a fuss about probabilities: If the natural world is not, as A-T says it is, objectively divided into natural kinds defined by their distinctive ends, then the only difference there can be between things is a quantitative one, and whether you can get one kind of thing from another becomes in every case a probabilistic rather than all-or-nothing affair. If the world is divided into such kinds, though, to speak of whether it is “probable” that one could get one irreducible kind of thing from another is just muddled – for it is in that case not a matter of probability at all, and to speak as if it were is just to insinuate that the alleged difference in kind is not real and (therefore) that the immanent final causes that would differentiate the kinds are not real either.

Now, what all-or-nothing differences in kind do in fact exist in the world? That question has to be answered on a case-by-case basis, but I’ve already discussed one case central to the debate over ID, viz. the difference between living and non-living phenomena. Here the standard A-T view is that the difference is an absolute difference in kind deriving from the irreducibility of immanent causation to transeunt causation. But to discuss the “probability” of purely transeunt causal processes giving rise to immanent ones (as ID does) just is precisely to assume, even if only for the sake of argument, that the difference is not really a difference in kind but only in degree, and thus that the sort of irreducible immanent final causality in question is not real. Contrary to what Torley supposes, then, ID methodology does not merely avoid appealing to immanent final causes; it positively implies that they are not real.

So, there is simply no way to avoid the conclusion that ID methodology and A-T methodology are fundamentally incompatible. One cannot accept both, but must choose between them. It seems to me that there are two reasons ID sympathizers are reluctant to draw this conclusion. The first reason is that some of them have, if I might say so, simply not thought through with sufficient care the philosophical implications of the respective A-T and ID approaches. As I have been trying to show, if they do they will see that they are essentially at odds, and in particular that ID presupposes a conception of nature that A-T has always been opposed to (which is no surprise, given that modern mechanistic philosophies of nature in all their forms defined themselves in opposition to Aristotelian Scholasticism).

The second reason for the reluctance in question is that ID is as much a political movement as a school of thought, and has an interest in avoiding offending potential allies. ID theorists, like A-T thinkers, are opposed to naturalism and want to present a “united front” against it. If it were generally thought that the two views are incompatible, then such a united front would be impossible. But it is simply wrong – methodologically and morally – to let a political program of any sort, even a good one, determine what positions one takes on philosophical, theological, and scientific questions. Furthermore, from an A-T point of view the mechanistic conception of the natural world is itself part of the problem, and must be exposed for the error that it is if the naturalism that rests on it is effectively to be refuted.

Form and matter

Torley also takes exception to the low estimation of his understanding of A-T that I expressed in an earlier post. Based on what he says in this new post, I am happy to acknowledge that he does indeed have greater knowledge of A-T than I gave him credit for based on his earlier remarks. But I do still have doubts about his understanding of A-T. In particular, he is still mistaken to define prime matter and substantial form the way he does (and, I might add, was still way too glib in his earlier dismissal of the potential objections he realized A-T philosophers might raise against his definitions).

Torley quotes David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism in support of his definition of prime matter as “mass-energy.” But the passage he cites does not say what Torley seems to think it does. First of all, Oderberg does not define prime matter as “energy,” and no A-T philosopher would do so. Rather, he is in the passage in question – which comes at the tail end of a six page discussion of prime matter – merely addressing the issue of whether prime matter could be identical with energy. Consider a parallel example famously discussed by Frege: The expressions “the morning star” and “the evening star” refer to the same thing – the planet Venus – but they still differ in sense. Hence, though it would be correct to identify the morning star and the evening star, it would be an error to define “the morning star” as “the evening star.” Similarly, even if it turned out that prime matter is identical to energy (in some sense of the term “energy”), it would still be an error to define “prime matter” as energy.

Second, Oderberg is in any event extremely tentative about such an identification. Even in the passage Torley quotes, Oderberg says that “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” (emphasis added). It is only “if transformations are but phases of an underlying pure energy that has no determinate form in itself” that “perhaps one might venture the thought that [prime matter and energy] are one and the same.” The “perhaps” is italicized in the original – Torley left the italics out of his quote – and Oderberg’s tentativeness is further underlined by the very next sentence (which Torley does not quote at all) in which Oderberg describes the question of the identification of prime matter and energy as “obstacle-laden.”

Third, Oderberg speaks only of “energy” in the first place and not, as Torley does, of “mass-energy.” This is no small point, because “mass” adds further positive content which is only more difficult to square with the notion of prime matter. The difficulty is enhanced further when we acknowledge “quantity” as part of our conception of “mass-energy,” as Torley does. As Oderberg says (again in a sentence on p. 76 that Torley doesn’t quote, which comes just before the passage he does quote), “dimensionality... is manifested wholly through the forms that prime matter takes on” rather than existing in prime matter itself; furthermore, “we cannot say ‘Here is some prime matter, there is some more’” as if it could be broken up into discrete enumerable parcels (p. 109). These points don’t by themselves prove that quantity might not apply to prime matter in some other way, but they do show that the suggestion is at least highly problematic.

In short, there is simply nothing in Oderberg’s discussion, or in the A-T tradition more generally, that supports Torley’s attempt to define “prime matter” as “mass-energy,” especially when that definition is intended (as Torley’s was) to explain to non-experts what A-T thinkers themselves mean when they use the term. (By the way, since we are quoting Oderberg, perhaps it is also worth pointing out that he is another A-T philosopher who is critical of ID. See p. 287, note 18 of Real Essentialism, and the discussion in the main text to which that note is appended.)

Regarding Torley’s definition of substantial form as a kind of “attribute,” I took him to be using the term in his original remarks in the way it is typically used in contemporary philosophy, viz. as more or less synonymous with “characteristic” or “feature.” The reason I interpreted him this way is that he emphasized that he was trying to define substantial form and prime matter in a manner that avoided the standard Scholastic technical language and instead used terms most contemporary readers would be familiar with (hence his earlier appeal to the notion of “mass-energy”). Torley says I have misunderstood him, but his explanation of what he does mean is so complicated that I doubt any non-expert reader would find it more lucid than the A-T definitions he eschews. So why not just stick with the A-T definitions? Worse, his explanation only casts further doubt on his understanding of what A-T writers mean by “substantial form.” He says that “the property (or attribute) of being a metal with an atomic number of 79 is what I call the defining attribute of gold. I would call that the substantial form of gold” (emphasis in the original). But for A-T a property or proper attribute is what something has by virtue of its substantial form; it is not identical with its substantial form. Given other things Torley says, he seems to realize this, but that entails that he is either simply confused in what he says in the sentence quoted, or means to use the A-T terminology in his own novel, idiosyncratic way. But if the latter is the case, non-expert readers are hardly likely to find his usage clearer than the A-T usage, and A-T writers will object to it. So what is the point of such usage, given that his aim is to explain A-T for the non-expert?

A-T writers use the language they do, and in the way they do, precisely because it reflects many subtle distinctions that have been hammered out over the course of centuries of careful philosophical reflection. But though Torley insists on “subtlety” and attention to fine distinctions when defending Dembski or explaining his own meaning, when characterizing the A-T position, the subtle distinctions A-T philosophers insist upon are to be thrown out the window and Torley’s own tendentious novel constructions are to be preferred. And if A-T philosophers don’t like it, Torley says, “that’s just too bad.” You can’t have it both ways, Dr. Torley.

Thomism, Scotism, and ID

Torley says a great many other things – his latest is a very long post – and I simply don’t have time to address them all here. Some of the issues he raises will be discussed in one final (for now) post on the ID versus A-T dispute that I’ll be putting up soon. He also tries to enlist Duns Scotus in defense of ID. “Professor Feser has got ID proponents pegged wrong,” Torley says; “We’re not Paleyites. He’d be more charitable if he called us Scotists.”

How that is supposed to help make ID compatible with Thomism I have no idea. Torley admits, for example, that ID theorists do tend to apply terms both to God and to human beings in univocal rather than analogous senses, and he provides quotes from Dembski and others to illustrate the point. This is a major concession; ID’s univocal usage of theological language is (along with its mechanistic conception of nature) one of the two features that I have consistently emphasized as putting ID fundamentally at odds with A-T. Torley makes the concession in order to enlist Scotus in the ID cause – Scotists famously reject the Thomist doctrine of analogy – but in doing so he only confirms the charge that ID is incompatible with Thomism. (How the concession is supposed to clear ID theorists from the charge of being Paleyites I also do not know, but let that pass.) Moreover, since most ID theorists take umbrage at the suggestion that they are beholden to particular metaphysical claims, it is hard to see how Torley’s fellow ID sympathizers could appreciate being labeled “Scotists” any more than “Paleyites.”

In any event, perhaps our good friends at The Smithy would like to speak to this alleged ID-Scotus connection. I’ll conclude my own remarks by thanking Torley for a vigorous and polite exchange, and for providing a further instance of a phenomenon I have found over and over again in my debates with ID defenders: The more they tie themselves in knots in order to try to reconcile ID and A-T, the more they show that no such reconciliation is possible.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Burtt online

I have often recommended E. A. Burtt’s classic The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science for those who want to understand the significance of the mechanistic revolution of the early modern period. Reader James Drake kindly informs me that the book is available online here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Scruton’s Gifford lectures

Prof. John Haldane writes to inform us that Roger Scruton’s series of Gifford lectures on “The Face of God” are available for listening online. Two of the six lectures have been presented so far. Listeners may leave comments and a recording session is planned in which Scruton can respond to some of them.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Jordan Howard Sobel (1929-2010)

Prosblogion reports the death of Jordan Howard Sobel, author of Logic and Theism, which Robert Koons has described as the best book on philosophy or religion written from an atheistic point of view since J. L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism. A commenter at Prosblogion who had met Sobel remarks that among his noteworthy qualities “was his love for philosophy of religion as a discipline and method of inquiry. We talked about how it seems to be the case that many non-theistic philosophers reject philosophy of religion as essentially a waste of time... Prof. Sobel seemed utterly unable to understand how anyone could just dismiss [it], even if at the end of the day he found philosophical reflection unable to justify belief in God.”

They don’t make atheist philosophers like they used to. With Mackie, Flew, and Sobel now all gone, serious philosophical atheists seem very thin on the ground indeed. Smart and Smith are two good counterexamples; but one fears that the likes of Dennett and Rey might be a better indicator of the wave of the future.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dembski rolls snake eyes

William Dembski himself now responds to the debate between “Intelligent Design” theory (ID) and Aristotelico-Thomism (A-T) that has been raging recently at this blog and others. But I’m afraid he seems only to have made his position even less coherent than I gave it credit for in my original post.

Dembski insists that “nothing about ID need be construed as inconsistent with Aristotle and Thomas.” Indeed, “ID is happy to let a thousand flowers bloom with regard to the nature of nature provided it is not a mechanistic, self-sufficing view of nature.” Hear that? Not only is ID not incompatible with A-T, it even rejects a mechanistic conception of nature no less than A-T does! Time for a big ID/A-T group hug, right? Not so fast. Because here is what Dembski says ID is really all about:

ID’s critique of naturalism and Darwinism should not be viewed as offering a metaphysics of nature but rather as a subversive strategy for unseating naturalism/Darwinism on their own terms. The Darwinian naturalists have misunderstood nature, along mechanistic lines, but then use this misunderstanding to push for an atheistic worldview.

ID is willing, arguendo, to consider nature as mechanical and then show that the mechanical principles by which nature is said to operate are incomplete and point to external sources of information… This is not to presuppose mechanism in the strong sense of regarding it as true. It is simply to grant it for the sake of argument — an argument that is culturally significant and that needs to be prosecuted.

This is not to minimize the design community’s work on the design inference/explanatory filter/irreducible-specified-functional complexity. ID has uncovered scientific markers that show where design is. But pointing up where design is, is not to point up where design isn’t.

For the Thomist/Aristotelian, final causation and thus design is everywhere. Fair enough. ID has no beef with this. As I’ve said (till the cows come home, though Thomist critics never seem to get it), the explanatory filter has no way or ruling out false negatives (attributions of non-design that in fact are designed). I’ll say it again, ID provides scientific evidence for where design is, not for where it isn’t.

And regarding ID’s theological implications, Dembski says:

ID’s metaphysical openness about the nature of nature entails a parallel openness about the nature of the designer. Is the designer an intelligent alien, a computional [sic] simulator (a la THE MATRIX), a Platonic demiurge, a Stoic seminal reason, an impersonal telic process, …, or the infinite personal transcendent creator God of Christianity? The empirical data of nature simply can’t decide. But that’s not to say the designer is anonymous. I’m a Christian, so the designer’s identity is clear, at least to me. But even to identify the designer with the Christian God is not to say that any particular instance of design in nature is directly the work of his hands.

Here, then, are Dembski’s key claims:

(1) ID ultimately rejects a mechanistic conception of nature.

(2) ID does nevertheless operate with a mechanistic conception of nature, in a “for the sake of argument way” intended as a means of subverting Darwinian naturalism on its own terms.

(3) ID provides scientific evidence for the existence of a designer.

(4) ID takes no stand on the identity of this designer.

So, what’s wrong with all that?

Where do I start?

How about here. Consider first the radical implications of Dembski’s claim (1). ID defenders like Lydia McGrew and Steve Fuller have acknowledged that ID is mechanistic and thus incompatible with A-T. Their approach, accordingly, is to argue that mechanism is true and that A-T is therefore simply wrong. Given what Dembski now says, however, their position is actually at odds with ID, at least as Dembski defines it. Moreover, the great figures of the past who argued for a designer on the basis of a mechanistic conception of nature (a conception they also regarded as true, not as something to apply in a merely “for the sake of argument” fashion) – thinkers like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and William Paley – must all be regarded as at odds with ID. Got that? Now it’s not only Dawkins and Feser who are (albeit from very different directions) kicking poor Paley; it’s William Dembski too! In order to salvage his big tent, Dembski has to burn most of it down.

Second, for all that, Dembski’s point (2) makes ID and A-T incompatible anyway (thus leaving Dembski all alone in what’s left of his big tent). For as I have said many times in previous posts, ID’s mechanistic approach puts it at odds with A-T even if that approach is taken in a merely “for the sake of argument” way. The reason is that a mechanistic conception of the world is simply incompatible with the classical theism upheld by A-T. It isn’t just that a mechanistic starting point won’t get you all the way to the God of classical theism. It’s that a mechanistic starting point gets you positively away from the God of classical theism. Why? Because a mechanistic world is one which could at least in principle exist apart from God. And classical theism holds that the world could not, even in principle, exist apart from God. So, the views are flatly inconsistent. And so, if you start with a mechanistic conception even just “for the sake of argument,” you will never get one inch, one millimeter closer to the God of classical theism. Instead, you will have ruled that God out from the get-go. (It’s like saying “Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that the killer could not have been a man. Now, was it O. J. Simpson? Let’s weigh the evidence.”) Indeed, you will not get even one millimeter beyond the natural world if you assume a mechanistic starting point (again, even just for the sake of argument). For that reason, the methods of ID cannot possibly pose a challenge to naturalism per se; the most they can ever do is pose a difficulty for one version of naturalism (viz. Darwinian reductionism). I have explained all of this at length in previous posts (e.g. here and here).

Third, and for the same reasons, Dembski’s claim (4) is false as well: The methods of ID may not tell you exactly who the designer is, but they do entail that it is not the God of classical theism, because ID’s methods are mechanistic, and mechanistic methods can never get you even an inch toward classical theism, but only away from it.

“But Dembski just got done saying that mechanism is false anyway!” True enough. But that brings us to the fourth and perhaps most serious problem for Dembski’s position. Dembski says that ID assumes mechanism only for the sake of argument, and that mechanism isn’t really true. In other words, he admits that the very premises on which ID rests are false. Now, this would not necessarily be a problem if all ID were trying to do is to undermine Darwinian naturalism via a reductio ad absurdum strategy (though as I have said, even if successful this would not falsify naturalism per se). But ID is claimed by Dembski to do more than that. ID, Dembski and others never tire of telling us, is a “new science” that will “revolutionize” the way we do biology. Moreover, ID is claimed to provide “scientific evidence” for the existence of a designer. But how can it do either if the mechanism that it presupposes is mistaken? Dembski is saying, in effect: “We can show that the existence of a designer follows from these premises! This will revolutionize biology! Oh, and by the way, the premises are false.”

How to untangle all of this? Well, there does seem to be some potential ambiguity in the way Dembski uses the term “mechanism.” At one point in his post he appears to contrast mechanism, as I would, with the A-T view that final causes exist everywhere in nature. But later, in a quote from his book The Design Revolution, he alludes to some related but distinct definitions of “mechanism” given by Michael Polanyi. He doesn’t clarify the relationship between these senses of the term. But perhaps Dembski would say that the “mechanism” he rejects is not the same kind of mechanism that McGrew, Fuller, Boyle, Newton, Paley, et al. are committed to. Yet the latter kind of mechanism is included in what A-T opposes – in which case Dembski will still not have explained how exactly his position is compatible with A-T.

As I noted in my earlier post on Dembski, one of the problems with his work is a frustrating imprecision and even incoherence, which results from the ad hoc way in which he responds to various challenges to ID. His latest statement seems to re-apply this strategy, with predictable results. Dembski is like the gambler who, convinced that his luck now simply has to change, rolls and comes up snake eyes.

Monday, April 19, 2010

First Things on AQUINAS

Ryan Anderson kindly reviews Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide in the May 2010 issue of First Things. From the review: “Do not let the subtitle deter you. While Aquinas is ‘a beginner’s guide,’ it is rigorous and accessible philosophy at its best. Even seasoned Thomists will benefit from Edward Feser’s analytic precision in interpreting and presenting Thomas’ philosophy. Placing Thomas in conversation with modern thinkers, Feser explains how so many worthies have gotten Thomas wrong and thus done battle with a straw man. More than this, Feser shows how, even on a host of contemporary debates, Thomas provides the most intellectually satisfying ways forward… Long have I searched for a book to recommend to colleagues, friends, and students to introduce them to the basics of Aquinas’s philosophy; I search no longer.”

More information on the book is available here. Reserve your copy today!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Cudworth and Fuller respond

Over at Uncommon Descent, Thomas Cudworth responds to my latest post on the A-T versus ID controversy. Like VJ Torley, Cudworth insists that I have misunderstood the ID position. But, also like Torley, he never explains how exactly I have misinterpreted the passages from Dembski I quoted. And like Torley, he then goes on to defend the ID characterization of living things as artifacts! So which is it?

Unlike Torley or Cudworth, prominent ID defender Steve Fuller gets it, and in Cudworth’s combox Fuller acknowledges that ID and A-T really are at odds:

At the risk of opening up this theological rift even more, I must say that I actually hold the view of ID that these Thomists are attacking – and I don’t think I’m alone either, though perhaps I’m more explicit than most. Thus, I can see exactly where Feser and Beckwith are coming from, though calling the ID position ‘bad theology’ is just self-serving rhetoric on their part. But certainly there is a real theological disagreement here.

What Fuller sees and Cudworth does not is that if ID theorists are serious when they describe biological phenomena as “machines,” “artifacts,” and the like, then they are committed, whether they realize it or not, to a metaphysics of life that is incompatible with A-T. Cudworth says that I am wrong because ID isn’t committed to any particular view about how God creates. But Fuller understands that if you say that a living thing is a kind of “machine” or “artifact” (in the sense that A-T finds objectionable) then you are committed to a view about how God creates, because you are committed thereby to a certain metaphysical view about what it is that He creates.

Fuller says “frankly, I think ID should simply openly embrace the position that the Thomists are trying to stigmatise as ‘bad theology.’” We disagree about that – and I certainly do not endorse everthing Fuller says about Thomism – but at least he understands that there is a real difference here.

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.


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.


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).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Antony Flew (1923-2010)

Philosopher. Hume scholar. Conservative. Atheist-turned-deist. RIP. Obituaries in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times. Some recollections from David Gordon and Sean Gabb.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I’m hip!

I’m in Exam Grading Hell just now and don’t yet have time to write up a proper post, though I’ve taken a break now and again to contribute to the fireworks over my latest ID post over at W4. A reader in the combox below remarks: “Prof. Feser, I used to think that you were anti-ID because of wanting to be in with the sophisticated Darwinians.” Well, you know me, always the trend follower; The Last Superstition is a veritable Hipster’s Bible. In fact, my personal anthem is the Dave Frishberg/Bob Dorough classic “I’m Hip,” as sung by Blossom Dearie (pictured at left, looking perhaps obliquely hip), which you can hear for yourself courtesy of YouTube. So groove along with your swingin’ pal Ed, as I begin reading the next (74th) exam on the pile.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Never again!

Every time I get into the ID controversy I soon regret it. It gets too nasty and personal. And of course, it’s everyone else’s fault, since I’m too shy and mild ever to say anything mean. Never again!

Well, until next time, anyway. Which will probably be within a few days, when I get a chance to write up that reply to Torley. Plus the other post in the series I was going to write up anyway. In the meantime, enjoy this appropriate classic from Benny Goodman and the greatest of his vocalists, Helen Ward, on whom I had something of a crush when I was a teenager. Which is saying something, given that she was in her seventies by that time. (Actually, it was her younger self I was sweet on – that’s her at left.)

VJ at UD on ID

Over at Uncommon Descent, VJ Torley offers a polite reply to my post below on ID theory and mechanism. I’ll respond as soon as I get a chance, but in the meantime you can read what Frank Beckwith and Brandon Watson have to say in reply to Torley.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

“Intelligent Design” theory and mechanism

From an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view, one of the main problems with “Intelligent Design” theory is that it presupposes the same mechanistic conception of nature that underlies naturalism. (See here, here, and here for some of my earlier remarks on this and other problems with ID.) ID theorists sometimes object to this characterization of their position, as William Dembski does several times in his book The Design Revolution (e.g. at pages 25 and 151).

Well, I guess Dembski would know what ID theory is really committed to, if anyone does. The trouble is that even he doesn’t seem to know, because despite these disavowals of mechanism, the rest of the book is peppered with assertions that presuppose the truth of a mechanistic conception of nature. Or perhaps Dembski simply doesn’t understand what A-T theorists mean by “mechanism.” Either way, there can be no doubt that ID theory, as Dembski conceives of it, is mechanistic through and through in the sense of “mechanism” that A-T rejects.

Take Dembski’s discussion of Aristotle at pp. 132-3 of The Design Revolution (which, if you don’t have a copy of the book, you can read for yourself here via Google Books). Dembski here identifies “design” with what Aristotle called techne or “art.” As Dembski correctly says, “the essential idea behind these terms is that information is conferred on an object from outside the object and that the material constituting the object, apart from that outside information, does not have the power to assume the form it does. For instance, raw pieces of wood do not by themselves have the power to form a ship.” This contrasts with what Aristotle called “nature,” which (to quote Dembski quoting Aristotle) “is a principle in the thing itself.” For example (again to quote Dembski’s own exposition of Aristotle), “the acorn assumes the shape it does through powers internal to it: the acorn is a seed programmed to produce an oak tree” – in contrast to the way the “ship assumes the shape it does through powers external to it,” via a “designing intelligence” which “imposes” this form on it from outside.

Now, having made this distinction, Dembski goes on explicitly to acknowledge that just as “the art of shipbuilding is not in the wood that constitutes the ship” and “the art of making statues is not in the stone out of which statues are made,” “so too, the theory of intelligent design contends that the art of building life is not in the physical stuff that constitutes life but requires a designer” (emphasis added). And there you have it: Living things are for ID theory to be modeled on ships and statues, the products of techne or “art,” whose characteristic “information” is not “internal” to them but must be “imposed” from “outside.” And that just is what A-T philosophers mean by a “mechanistic” conception of life.

Remember, this does not mean that A-T denies that living things are created by God; far from it. The point is rather that for A-T, the way God creates a natural substance is not to be understood on the model of a shipbuilder or sculptor who takes pre-existing bits of matter and rearranges them to serve an end they have no tendency otherwise to serve. Nor is the point affected in the least if we imagine that when the pre-existing bits of matter are created this external order is imposed immediately; temporal considerations are irrelevant. For A-T, a natural substance is a composite of “prime matter” (matter having no form at all) and substantial form, rather than a piece of “second matter” (matter already having some substantial form or other) which has acquired some accidental form from outside it. And a natural substance’s causal tendencies, including biological functions in the case of living things, are inherent to it, a reflection of its essence or nature; it simply could not possibly exist as the kind of thing it is in the first place if it did not have those tendencies, and thus it would have them even if (per impossibile) it had not been created by God. The way God creates living things, then, is the same way He creates everything else, viz. by conjoining an essence to an act of existence, which in the case of material things (including plants and animals) entails conjoining a certain kind of prime matter/substantial form composite to an act of existence.

Remember too that none of this has anything to do with Darwinism, the debate over which is a separate matter. Perhaps the biological world God creates works according to Darwinian principles; and perhaps not. Either way, the question will not be resolved by weighing against Darwinian naturalism a “design inference” to some artificer who adds some extra “information” to the natural world in the way a shipbuilder gives structure to wood in order to make a ship.

As I have explained many times and in many places where this subject has come up, the core to the mechanistic revolution of the early modern philosophers was the rejection of Aristotelian formal and final causes. Other elements of mechanism (such as the notion that all efficient causes work according to a crude push-pull model) fell away over the centuries, but this essentially negative vision – that however the natural world works, it does not involve either anything like substantial forms (which are irreducible to the sum of a natural substance’s parts, or even to the sum of its parts together with an externally imposed or observer-relative function) or anything like final causality (the “directedness toward an end” that the Scholastics claimed was manifest even in basic causal regularities). In other ways too Dembski makes it clear that he accepts this mechanistic approach to the world.

For example, at p. 140 of The Design Revolution, Dembski flatly asserts that “lawlike [regularities] of nature” such as “water’s propensity to freeze below a certain temperature” are “as readily deemed brute facts of nature as artifacts of design” and thus “can never decisively implicate design”; only “specified complexity” can do that. But for A-T, such regularities are paradigm examples of final causality ; that some A is an efficient cause of some effect or range of effects B is for A-T unintelligible unless we suppose that generating B is the final cause or end at which A is naturally directed. Even the simplest causal regularities thus suffice “decisively” to show that there must be a supreme ordering intelligence keeping efficient causes directed toward their ends from instant to instant, at least if Aquinas’s Fifth Way is successful. Complexity (“specified” or otherwise) has nothing whatsoever to do with it. (I’ve addressed this issue many times in various blog posts, and see Aquinas and The Last Superstition for the full story.) That Dembski considers it at least in principle possible that such causal regularities are “brute facts” which can never decisively implicate design suffices to show that his conception of causality is mechanistic in the relevant sense, viz. one which eschews inherent final causality.

More could be said, but that suffices to make the point. It is worth adding, though, that the ambiguity in question here – denying mechanism in some places while affirming it in others – has parallels elsewhere in Dembski’s work. For example, he uses the term “information” (in The Design Revolution and elsewhere) in several different senses and freely slides from one to another without always making it clear which one is supposed to be doing the work in a given argument. In some places he insists that the “designer” that ID posits could in theory itself be something in the natural order, such as an extraterrestrial, so that there is no truth to the charge that ID has an essentially theological agenda. But elsewhere he insists that “specified complexity” cannot be given a naturalistic explanation, and even allows that positing a designer who is part of the natural order would only initiate an explanatory regress – which would imply that a genuine explanation would require an appeal to the supernatural. His main arguments all evince an unmistakable realist thrust, and yet in response to a particular objection he suggests that ID theory is perfectly compatible with a non-realist philosophy of science (though it does not seem to occur to him that his Darwinian opponents could make exactly the same move in response to some of his criticisms of them). And so forth.

In short, Dembski seems intent on sidestepping potential objections by making ID as flexible as possible, so long as the word “design” is preserved. This explains why some readers assume that there is nothing in ID that is incompatible with A-T metaphysics. But imprecision and incoherence are not the same as compatibility. And amidst all the ambiguity, Dembski’s commitment to an essentially mechanistic conception of nature (as A-T understands “mechanistic”) stands out as one of the more consistent themes of his work.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

“Nothing but”

Take a few bits of metal, work them into various shapes, and attach them to a piece of wood. Voila! A mousetrap. Or so we call it. But objectively, apart from human interests, the object is “nothing but” a collection of wood and metal parts. Its “mousetrappish” character is observer-relative; it is in the minds of the designer and users of the object, and not strictly in the object itself. “Reductionism” with respect to such human artifacts is just common sense. We know that cars, computers, and cakes are objectively “nothing but” the parts that make them up – that their “carlike,” “computerlike,” or “cakelike” qualities are not really there inherently in the parts, but are observer-relative – precisely because we took the parts and rearranged them to perform a function we want them to perform but which they have no tendency to perform on their own.

But now consider claims like “Consciousness is ‘nothing but’ a complex set of electrochemical processes in the brain,”“Living things are ‘nothing but’ aggregates of physico-chemical processes,” “Water is ‘nothing but’ H2O,” and so forth. Claims like these – indeed, reductionism about natural kinds in general – are, I think it will generally be acknowledged, not in line with common sense. For the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysician, they are not true either – not even the claim about water. “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. (See the relevant sections of Oderberg’s Real Essentialism for a useful discussion.) A-T analysis 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. And the end-directedness characteristic of natural substances – conscious purposes in the case of human beings, biological functions in the case of living things in general, causal tendencies in the case of inorganic phenomena no less than organic ones – is inherent to them rather than observer-relative or imposed from outside, and irreducible to patterns of efficient causation.

But leave all that aside; obviously, the A-T view is controversial. The point for now is that, to make reductionism about natural kinds plausible, one must substitute for common sense some alternative picture of the natural world – in particular, a picture on which every feature of a natural substance is either entirely definable in terms of the features of its parts or can be interpreted as observer-relative. That is to say, one must substitute for common sense the idea that a natural substance is a kind of artifact. One must think of plants and animals, solar systems and galaxies, as comparable to (say) mousetraps, watches, or outboard motors.

And that is, of course, exactly what the “mechanical” conception of the world that the early modern philosophers put in place of the Scholastics’ Aristotelian philosophy of nature made possible. The world was reconceived as a machine or collection of machines. Break a natural object down into its parts and identify the efficient-causal relations holding between them, and you know (so the moderns claim) everything there is to know about its intrinsic nature. Anything irreducible to this – such as final causality or end-directedness, or a “formal cause” over and above the sum of the parts – is extrinsic to it, observer-relative, whether the observer is a human being or a divine artificer. For Aristotle, “art imitates nature” – that is to say, artifacts copy nature’s way of doing things, but only (of course) artificially since their parts have no inherent tendency to do what we make them do. The moderns reverse this – nature is for them a kind of “art,” in the sense that natural objects are to be modeled on artifacts rather than the other way around.

Early modern thinkers like Descartes, Newton, Boyle, and Locke were quite happy to associate a “machinist” with the “machines” they saw in the natural world. Hence they did not deny that things had final causes of some sort, since God had made them for a purpose. But the purposes were now as extrinsic to natural objects as the mousetrap’s purpose is extrinsic to the wood and metal that make it up, residing entirely in the mind of the divine artificer and in no sense in the things themselves; and for Descartes, these purposes are therefore as inscrutable as the divine will is. (For a useful brief account of the transition from the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of purpose in nature to the modern “mechanistic” conception, see Margaret Osler’s paper “From Immanent Natures to Nature as Artifice: The Reinterpretation of Final Causes in Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy,” The Monist vol. 79, no. 3.)

It was bound to occur to someone that if the world is a kind of machine or artifact, it might carry on in existence in the absence of the machinist or artificer, just as human artifacts do. Now, given A-T metaphysics, such a “world without God” is impossible in principle. To be sure, a natural substance’s final cause is inherent to it, something it cannot fail to have given its nature or essence; and that entails (contra Descartes) that we can know a thing’s nature and final cause without adverting directly to God’s intentions. But this does not entail that a thing could exist, even for an instant, apart from God. That the prime matter (or “pure potency”) that underlies the natural world is actualized in just the way it is at any given moment requires a “purely actual” Unmoved Mover; that a thing’s nature or essence is conjoined at any instant with an “act of existing” requires an Uncaused Cause that is ipsum esse subsistens. (See Aquinas for the full story.) But when these Scholastic metaphysical underpinnings of natural theology were pushed aside in favor of the “mechanical” conception of the world, the stage was set for deism.

The sequel, naturally, was atheism. For if the “machine” can exist now without a “machinist,” maybe it has always existed without him. Maybe the machine is all that ever existed in the first place. The only question remaining is whether this is “probable,” whether it is the “best explanation” of the “empirical evidence”; and the metaphysically unavoidable God of classical theism is transformed thereby into the “scientific hypothesis” of William Paley and “Intelligent Design” theory.

More to the present point, the way was also opened to the ever more radical forms of reductionism and eliminativism that have characterized modern philosophy. If formal and final causes – Aristotelian essences or natures, and natural ends or purposes – do not exist either inherent in nature itself or in the mind of a divine artificer, the only thing left for them to be are projections of the human mind. There is at least constant pressure, given the mechanistic model of the natural world shared by modern dualists and materialists, modern theists and atheists alike, to regard natural substances as “nothing but” material parts related by patterns of efficient causality.

The results are often absurd and even morally obscene, though modern philosophers have found themselves increasingly happy to live with that. But the mechanistic conception of nature that leads to reductionism and eliminativism is in any event incoherent. For the mind that does the “projecting” in question cannot itself coherently be either reduced or eliminated (as Cartesian mechanists realize, which makes their position at least more sane than that of the materialist); and (as Cartesian mechanists do not realize any more than materialists do) the efficient causality the whole mechanistic model presupposes ultimately cannot be made sense of apart from something like the substantial forms and final causality the mechanist eschews. (See The Last Superstition for the full story.)

Into the bargain, the whole picture gives rise, when not taken in an atheistic direction, to a theology that is difficult or impossible to reconcile with the classical theism at the core of historical Christianity. And that is why A-T philosophers are often so critical of Paley-style “design arguments” and of ID theory – a subject I have addressed in several places, including here and here. (Since certain readers seem hell bent on missing the point, let me repeat a couple of things I’ve said many times already. The A-T critique of Paley and of ID theory has nothing whatsoever to do with Darwinism – Aristotle and Aquinas were not Darwinians, after all – and it has nothing to do either with any objection to probabilistic arguments for God’s existence per se. It has to do instead with the metaphysical and theological errors A-T sees as implicit in the methodological assumptions underlying Paley’s “design argument” and contemporary ID theory.)

In short, while the “world as artifact” model the early modern philosophers put at the center of Western thought was regarded by many of them as a means of defending the religious and moral heritage of the West, it was in fact quite the opposite. In reality it was, and is – if I may wax Marxian – the “objective ally” of deism, atheism, and reductionism. Hence it is simply not to the point to debate with Darwinians whether or not the cosmic watchmaker is “blind” (as Richard Dawkins would put it). The fundamental error – made by Darwinian naturalists and ID theorists alike – is to think of the world as a “watch” in the first place.