Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Reply to Torley and Cudworth

This is the second installment of a two-part post on the dispute between Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysics and “Intelligent Design” (ID) theory (a post which I hope will put the subject to rest for a while).  Having in my previous installment set out the Aristotelian distinction between “nature” and “art” (or natural objects and artifacts), I now turn to consider the recent remarks of ID defenders Vincent Torley and Thomas Cudworth over at the blog Uncommon Descent.  (Those who haven’t read the previous installment are urged to do so before reading this one.  It also wouldn’t hurt if you had some familiarity with the other things I’ve said on this topic in many previous posts.)

I’ll begin with Torley’s post of April 18.  Torley’s arguments are not easy to discern.  He writes at great length and the discussion seems to me to meander a fair bit.  Moreover, his arguments are severely compromised by the fact that Torley consistently presents the debate as if it were over the question of whether natural objects are “designed.”  As I have made clear in previous posts and made clear once again in the previous installment of this one, that is not what is at issue.  Both sides agree that God is in some sense the designer of the world.  What is at issue is whether natural objects are “artifacts” in the relevant, Aristotelian sense spelled out in the previous installment.  I will respond to Torley’s points with this fact in mind, and I hope that I have not misunderstood his position.  It seems to me that he makes three key claims, which I will address in turn.

1. Torley seems to think (if I understand him correctly) that an artifact could exhibit a kind of immanent or built-in teleology, so that natural objects can intelligibly be regarded as artifacts of a sort.  He gives corn as an example, since it does not exist in the wild but was domesticated by human beings out of teosinte.  Now if it seems odd to call corn an “artifact,” that is because (I would say) it is odd.  Certainly I don’t think any A-T philosopher would regard corn as an artifact.  The reason Torley thinks it is, apparently, is that corn is in a sense “man-made.”  But being man-made is not sufficient to make something an “artifact” in the Aristotelian sense I spelled out in my previous post – otherwise dog breeds, water synthesized in a lab, and indeed human infants would count as “artifacts” since they are also in some sense man-made.   But they are not artifacts.

For something to be an “artifact” in the Aristotelian sense, it is also necessary that its parts have no immanent tendency to function together as a whole, and this is not true of corn any more than it is true of the various dog breeds or of human infants, while it is true of a hammock or of the other examples of artifacts I gave in my previous post.  When human beings domesticated corn from teosinte and when they domesticated dogs from wolves, what they did was merely draw out tendencies that were already there in the teosinte and in the wolves, rather than imposing some accidental form of their own invention on them (as they do when they construct hammocks and the like).  This kind of thing in fact happens with some frequency, and writers on A-T are willing to count all sorts of “man-made” things as natural objects rather than as artifacts given the evidently immanent tendencies they manifest.  For example, Eleonore Stump suggests in her book Aquinas that even Styrofoam is, in the relevant sense, “natural” rather than “artificial,” even if it is a kind of “natural” substance (meaning one that has a substantial form and immanent teleology rather than an accidental form and extrinsic teleology) which has come about only because of human action. 

In short, when Aristotelians distinguish “art” from “nature,” what they mean by “natural” is not “occurring in the wild” or “coming into being with no human assistance.”  What they do mean, as I explained in the previous post, is “having a substantial form” or “having parts which have an immanent tendency to function together as a whole.”  Purely accidental arrangements (such as random piles of dust or of stones) are not “natural” in the relevant sense even though they don’t necessarily come about through human action, and while all artifacts do come about through human action, not everything that comes about through human action is an artifact.  Hence corn and similar examples do not show that Torley seems to think they show.

2. Torley also seems to think that God’s making a natural object like an oak tree out of pre-existing matter would involve “design” in the ID theory sense and would thus (again, if I understand him correctly) in effect be the making of an artifact.  But that is not so.  When God makes a natural object out of pre-existing matter, this is not a case of taking parts which already have their own substantial forms and immanent teleology and imposing some accidental form and extrinsic teleology on them (like Tarzan’s twisting of liana vines into a hammock would be).  It can’t be that sort of thing, since if it were it wouldn’t be a natural object that we’re talking about in the first place.  Rather, what it involves is causing the prime matter that underlay the original material object He starts with to lose the substantial form it had before and to take on a new substantial form instead.  For example, if we imagine God making an oak tree out of a stone, what that would involve is His causing the prime matter that had once been informed by the substantial form of a stone to be informed instead by the substantial form of an oak tree.  What it does not involve is a kind of super-engineering – as if God took parts of the stone, each of which had their own immanent teleology and substantial forms, and cleverly found a way to impose upon them the accidental form and extrinsic teleology of a tree (whatever that could mean).  Creation is nothing as mundane as that.

Now Torley may respond that he is aware that an A-T philosopher would reject the idea that God creates by virtue of a kind of “super-engineering” or imposition of an accidental form.  He might say that his only point is that an oak tree created by God would still receive its form – a substantial form rather than an accidental form – from God and would in that sense be “designed” by God.  Now of course, I would not deny for a moment that a tree can be designed by God in that sense.  As I have said many times, my beef with an ID theorist like William Dembski is that he rejects the A-T conception of natural objects as composites of substantial form and prime matter and operates instead with a conception of natural objects as artifacts, in the sense of “artifact” spelled out in my previous post.  But this brings us to Torley’s next point.

3. Torley claims that I misunderstand Dembski’s views vis-à-vis the Aristotelian distinction between art and nature.  What is Dembski’s view?  Here is how I summarize it in my Philosophia Christi article “Teleology: A Shopper’s Guide”:

[I]n discussing Aristotle in The Design Revolution, Dembski identifies “design” with what Aristotle called techne or “art” (pp. 132-3).  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.

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).  In other words, living things are for ID theory (at least as Dembski understands it) 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.  As Dembski says elsewhere, in putting forward ID theory, “I don’t want to give the impression that I’m advocating a return to Aristotle’s theory of causation.  There are problems with Aristotle’s theory, and it needed to be replaced.” (Dembski, Intelligent Design, p. 124, emphasis added.  Cf. Dembski’s No Free Lunch, p. 5. The context of the discussion in both cases is the early modern philosophers’ rejection of Aristotelian formal and final causes, and Dembski makes it clear that his problem is not with the rejection of Aristotle’s position, but only with how “what replaced it” ended up “excluding design” of any sort.)

Now these quotes seem to me to provide clear evidence that Dembski rejects the Aristotelian distinction between art and nature, and in particular that he would assimilate natural objects to artifacts.  (I discuss another relevant passage from Dembski here.)  And while it is true that Dembski has denied that A-T and ID are incompatible, I have argued elsewhere that his attempt to explain how this can be so only makes things murkier rather than clearer.  Torley nevertheless alleges that I have misinterpreted Dembski.  In a lengthy exegesis of the relevant passages, Torley claims that what Dembski really thinks is that design could involve either the imposition of a substantial form on prime matter or the imposition of an accidental form and extrinsic teleology on some pre-existing materials which already have substantial forms of their own, after the fashion of the construction of an artifact.  Torley also claims that what Dembski really means when he says that “the art of building life is not in the physical stuff that constitutes life” is only that matter devoid of the information content characteristic of life could not of itself give rise to matter which does have such information content, and that this much is something A-T would accept.

But there are several problems with Torley’s assertions.  For one thing, Dembski does not actually say the things Torley attributes to him in the passages in question.  For example, in telling us what Dembski “actually” means, Torley makes much use of various A-T concepts – substantial form, accidental form, prime matter and the like – that you will not find Dembski himself deploying as one possible means among others of spelling out ID theory.  It is misleading, then, for Torley to claim that I have “misconstrued,” “misread,” or “misunderstood” Dembski.  The most Torley can reasonably say is that there is arguably a way of interpreting, or even of modifying, developing, or reconstructing Dembski’s position so as to make it compatible with A-T. 

Not that I think that even that much is true.  For a second problem is that Torley’s proposed interpretation of Dembski does not in fact fit with what Dembski does actually say in the passages in question.  As I have already noted, Dembski seems explicitly to contrast the ID view of natural objects with the Aristotelian conception of “nature” and explicitly to identify the ID view of natural objects with the Aristotelian notion of “art.”  This is a very odd thing to do if what one “actually” intends is to leave an Aristotelian interpretation open as one possible way among others of construing ID.

A third problem is that Torley’s proposed interpretation of Dembski isn’t consistent with other aspects of Dembski’s exposition of ID.  Consider Dembski’s conception of how natural objects come to have the “information” they exhibit.  In chapter 20 of The Design Revolution, he speaks of the natural world as a “receptive medium” for information and of the designer as “imparting information” and “introducing design” into the world by virtue of “co-opt[ing] random processes and induc[ing] them to exhibit specified complexity.”  He offers as an illustration of the sort of thing he has in mind a scenario involving “a device that outputs zeroes and ones and for which our best science tells us that the bits are independent and identically distributed so that zeroes and ones each have probability 50 percent.”  Suppose, Dembski says, that “we control for all possible physical interference with this device, and nevertheless the bit string that this device outputs yields an English text-file in ASCII code that delineates the cure for cancer.”  Here we have a model, he says, of a designer imparting information to a system – and without imparting energy to it, which is something he is keen to avoid so as to sidestep the issue of whether postulating an immaterial designer would violate the conservation of energy.

Now, this way of framing the issue makes perfect sense if you think of living things and other natural objects as artifacts in the Aristotelian sense of “artifacts,” but it makes no sense if you think of them as natural in the Aristotelian sense of “natural.”  In particular, it makes sense if you think of a living thing or other natural object on the model of a clock or a paperweight, where you’ve got material elements – bits of metal arranged in such-and-such a way, or a single piece of stone – that can intelligibly be said to have initially a kind of functionless existence before having a time-telling or paperweight function “imparted” to them.  It makes sense if you think of the “informational” aspects of a natural object as a kind of “add-on” to an otherwise complete and free-standing material substance, like the meaning we give an otherwise meaningless set of pre-existing physical marks in order to make of it a symbol.  It makes sense, that is to say, if you think of natural substances as “in themselves” devoid of information, function, final causality, teleology, or the like.

But that is simply a completely wrongheaded way of conceiving of living things and natural objects in the first place, from an A-T point of view.  A natural object is not a collection of otherwise meaningless or information-free parts to which information, function, teleology or final cause has to be “imparted,” and making a natural object is not a kind of two-stage process which consists first of creating an otherwise meaningless but free-standing material structure and then “introducing” some information or functional properties into it.  In the case of a snake or a strand of DNA, for example, there is for A-T simply no such thing as a natural substance which somehow has all the material and behavioral properties of a snake or a strand of DNA and yet still lacks the “information content” or teleological features typical of snakes or DNA.  And so, when God makes a snake or a strand of DNA, He doesn’t first make an otherwise “information-free” or teleology-free material structure and then “impart” some information or final causality to it, as if carrying out the second stage in a two-stage process.  Such a way of thinking of “design” is possible only against the background of a modern conception of matter which has extruded from it the notions of substantial form and immanent teleology.  In short, it is possible only given a rejection of the Aristotelian conception of nature.  For on an Aristotelian conception, to be a natural substance at all in the first place is necessarily to have a substantial form and immanent teleology – and therefore, necessarily, already to embody “information.”

Again, that doesn’t mean that God isn’t ultimately the source of the “information”; He is, and necessarily so if Aquinas’s Fifth Way is correct (which I think it is).  Rather, the point (as I keep saying) is that thinking of natural objects as “artifacts” is simply a wrongheaded way of arguing for God as the source of the information natural objects exhibit – just as (to borrow an analogy from my previous post) thinking of living things as fictional characters would be a wrongheaded way of arguing for the existence of God as the “Author” of the natural world.

Let’s turn now to Cudworth’s post.  Cudworth proposes conceding for the sake of argument that the various philosophical and theological commitments (A-T metaphysics, classical theism, etc.) that I’ve deployed in criticizing ID are correct.  Still, Cudworth asks, why couldn’t God have intended something like the following in creating the world:

“I wish to create a universe in which, over time, primal matter will form into galaxies, galaxies will produce stars and planets, planets will produce life, and life will evolve, through gradual steps, to produce intelligent beings worthy of receiving my Image and Likeness; and I further wish that these intelligent beings will, as a proper reflection of the rationality that they share with me, take up the study of nature, and come to understand their own origins through the evolutionary process which I have devised.  And I further wish that they will come to understand, from the clues I will leave in nature — cosmic fine-tuning, irreducible complexity, and other such things — that this evolutionary process could not have been guided primarily by chance, but must have been in large measure planned to produce them as its result.  Thus, I wish them to be able to infer my existence as Creator from what they observe in nature.”

But if I allow that God could have willed this, then why, Cudworth asks, am I so hostile to Paley-style arguments?

What puzzles me about Cudworth’s questions is that he doesn’t already know the answers, given that he says that he’s “read thousands of words of what Dr. Feser has written on the matter.”  In response to his first question – could God have willed what Cudworth describes Him as willing – the answer is Yes, of course God could have willed this (though I might express things slightly differently here and there).  What is there in anything I’ve written that implies otherwise?  Perhaps Cudworth has been misled by Torley’s insinuation that I deny that God “designed” the world.  But as I have said, I have never denied and would never deny that God has designed the world or that we can know that He has.  On the contrary, I have at length and in two books defended several arguments for God’s existence – including Aquinas’s Fifth Way, which is an argument from the (immanent) final causality evident in the natural world to the existence of God.

As to Cudworth’s second question, I have explained at length in many previous posts on these issues what I object to in Paley: I object to his misguided treatment of living things as if they were “artifacts” (in the Aristotelian sense discussed in this post and the previous one), for reasons I’ve explained in a great many posts on this subject and summarized in my previous post.  And I object to Paley’s univocal application of predicates both to human designers and to God (in the sense of “univocal” as opposed to “analogous” predication familiar from Aquinas’s doctrine of analogy), because I take it to lead to an unacceptably anthropomorphic conception of God at odds with classical theism (where I take classical theism to follow both from sound philosophical theology and from a sound understanding of biblical revelation).  Does Cudworth think that if I accept what I take to be good arguments for a certain conclusion then I must also accept what I take to be bad arguments for that conclusion?  Surely not.  But then, I do not understand why he seems to think that if I answer “Yes” to his first question then I should have no objection to Paleyan arguments.  But perhaps I have misunderstood him.

33 comments:

dmt117 said...

Dr. Feser,

I've read your work (TLS and Aquinas), and I thought your reply to Cudworth would be something like the following:

God would not have intended what Cudworth says, because the last sentence isn't true: Thus, I wish them to be able to infer my existence as Creator from what they observe in nature.

The inference from the premises Cudworth cites - irreducible complexity, cosmic fine-tuning, etc - can't be to the true nature of God as Creator (as understood by A-T), but only to God as Super-Engineer. God as Creator can be inferred from nature (according to A-T), just not the ID way. Rather, through the ways specified by St. Thomas in the Five Ways.

Mr. Green said...

Of course, to be pedantic, this shows not that ID is incompatible with Thomism, but only that Dembskiism is. Come to that, if we're pedantic enough, Aristotelianism is incompatible with Thomism (because Aristotle and Aquinas personally disagreed on many things). But it is quite right in some broader sense to say that Thomism belongs to an Aristotelian "family" of philosophy. Similarly, one could argue that there is a particular approach within the "ID family" that is perfectly Thomistic. The catch is that we usually discuss only accidents of ID (such as a particular individual's views) rather than defining the essence of ID.

Edward Feser said...

dmt117,

The way Cudworth set up the question was explicitly to allow for the sake of argument that A-T metaphysics and classical theism are correct, so that everything he put into his description was presumably to be given an A-T compatible reading (though as I said, I would tweak certain things -- e.g. if "irreducibly complex" means "being an especially complicated artifact-like object," then I would reject that as a way of conceiving of living things, but if it means instead "having something like an Arisotelian substantial form," then that's OK).

Mr. Green,

Here's the Catch-22: If I don't quote someone specific, the ID defender will say "You're attacking a straw man! Who, specifically, are these people who take this view you're attributing to ID theory?" But if I do quote someone specific like Dembski, the ID defender will then say "That's just Dembski. Since when does he speak for all ID theorists?" And then of course there's the fact some ID theorists will count any old thing as "ID" as long as it involves a "designer" of some sort. Hence Torley says in one place that I must really be an ID theorist myself since as a Thomist I regard God as the ultimate source of the teleology that exists in the natural world. But then "ID" becomes completely vacuous.

As I've complained before, ID is a moving target. It is, it seems, whatever its defender needs it to be at the moment in order to counter the objection of the moment. And while this approach to defending it might be good PR strategy, it's horrible philosophy.

Chris said...

"In the case of a snake or a strand of DNA, for example, there is for A-T simply no such thing as a natural substance which somehow has all the material and behavioral properties of a snake or a strand of DNA and yet still lacks the “information content” or teleological features typical of snakes or DNA. And so, when God makes a snake or a strand of DNA, He doesn’t first make an otherwise “information-free” or teleology-free material structure and then “impart” some information or final causality to it, as if carrying out the second stage in a two-stage process."

Apologies if this is too far off topic, but this passage brought to mind a show I saw recently (can't remember what it was/what channel) about current scientific work on 'designer organs,' which consisted of pig's hearts, for example, that had all the DNA stripped from the cells (the hearts were a sort of milky, translucent white after this process). Basically what was left were 'empty' cells, so presumably all the 'information' was stripped out of them. The goal was to then insert human cells (and their accompanying DNA), which would then grow/multiply using the heart as a kind of 'structure' or scaffold for development in an almost embryonic sense, resulting in a heart that could be transplanted without being rejected by the body, since it would have the patient's own DNA.

So, the point: I'm curious if such a heart would be considered natural or an artifact....

John Farrell said...

And while this approach to defending it might be good PR strategy, it's horrible philosophy.

Well said.

Mark Duch said...

Well said, indeed. I think Feser may have just won the Internets.

Crude said...

And then of course there's the fact some ID theorists will count any old thing as "ID" as long as it involves a "designer" of some sort. Hence Torley says in one place that I must really be an ID theorist myself since as a Thomist I regard God as the ultimate source of the teleology that exists in the natural world. But then "ID" becomes completely vacuous.

I think the ground-level claim of Intelligent Design would be that it is possible to scientifically infer the presence of design in nature. This is the basic definition I've seen Wells give.

I suspect that the "scientifically" would be enough to sink the claim that a Thomist is automatically an ID proponent. That really seems to be the non-negotiable part of ID, and also the part Thomists would reject.

Is that fair?

Vincent Torley said...

i Ed,

Thanks for a very courteous reply. I think our views are closer than you believe they are. Concerning oaks, you write:

"For example, if we imagine God making an oak tree out of a stone, what that would involve is His causing the prime matter that had once been informed by the substantial form of a stone to be informed instead by the substantial form of an oak tree. What it does not involve is a kind of super-engineering – as if God took parts of the stone, each of which had their own immanent teleology and substantial forms, and cleverly found a way to impose upon them the accidental form and extrinsic teleology of a tree (whatever that could mean). Creation is nothing as mundane as that."

The foregoing account is completely compatible with Intelligent Design. My only point, as an ID proponent, is that it takes information to make an oak tree. This information is contained in the oak tree's substantial form, but it must ultimately come from an intelligent agent. It need not be added to a pre-existing object, however.

Later, you write that "and making a natural object is not a kind of two-stage process which consists first of creating an otherwise meaningless but free-standing material structure and then 'introducing' some information or functional properties into it." I completely agree. Anything with the requisite structure would also have the functional properties.

Hence I also agree with your statement that "In the case of a snake or a strand of DNA, for example, there is for A-T simply no such thing as a natural substance which somehow has all the material and behavioral properties of a snake or a strand of DNA and yet still lacks the 'information content' or teleological features typical of snakes or DNA." For me, the information content in DNA is to be found in the structure itself. It is certainly not added after the structure.

When God makes a strand of DNA (by whatever process), He gives it its information and hence its final causality in the very act of giving it its structure. Ditto for snakes.

Mr. Green said...

Prof. Feser: Certainly, and it is right to criticise specific claims or generalized hand-waving. At the same time, to be perfectly fair, no number of incorrect interpretations prove there cannot be a valid one; and from a psychological point of view, I can certainly appreciate why ID devotees are unwilling to let the matter go. (It's better than their saying, "Well, so much the worse for Thomism!")

That doesn't mean anyone should accept sloppy arguments, but anything that encourages better arguments would be a good thing. (ID is new, and it was born into a largely philosophically-illiterate world. I couldn't expect it to be as polished as A-T with a two millennia head-start.) As I said in some other comment, there is something going on that ID picks up on, and there must be some valid metaphysical foundation for it. It would be very worthwhile to be able to understand what it really means.

Mr. Green said...

Crude: I suspect that the "scientifically" would be enough to sink the claim that a Thomist is automatically an ID proponent.

How so? If it's scientific then the Thomist will accept it like any other science. Unless you mean it's "science" rather than "philosophy" and so outside the scope of Thomism (and vice versa). But that gets back to my point that every physical truth must be grounded in a metaphysical truth, so there's still something waiting to be explained.

Chris: I'm curious if such a heart would be considered natural or an artifact….

My guess is that it ends up as a natural substance, or maybe only when it is successfully transplanted into a person, but (as per the robocow example) it depends on what sort of natures and natural powers God has decreed for our world.

Since God can pick any rules He wants (that are logically consistent, at least), it is possible that injecting human cells is a natural way to grow a heart. But instead it could be that that process results in a "mechanical" heart. And since you can't count substantial forms under a microscope, I don't see how — apart from common-sense expectations — it's possible to prove one way or the other.

E.R. Bourne said...

If we say that we can detect “design” in nature, what does that mean? It seems that Intelligent Design wants to argue that things come to be either by chance or design. If chance, no designer and if design is somehow detected, then there must be a designer.

Inasmuch as this dilemma encompasses all of reality, both atheists and advocates of Intelligent Design are in agreement. Chance means no designer and design means no chance. But God is responsible for beings inasmuch as they are beings, not inasmuch as they are by chance or by design. This means that even if something comes to be by chance, which is only a cause per accidens, its existence as such depends upon God, the per se cause of existence. To say, then, that God exists because we can detect design in nature is to misconceive the nature of creation. God is the cause of all things in a way that is indifferent to whether or not chance plays a role. Also, keep in my mind that I am granting for the sake of argument that chance and design are our only two options. This, though, is false, and it leads to the next problem with saying that we can detect design in nature.

As Dr. Feser has explained at length, there is a distinction between nature and artifact. The reason why we cannot say that natural things are designed in the same sense that artifacts are designed is precisely because nature is a motive principle. If Intelligent Design wants to say that God is a designer in the way that humans design artifacts then it is simply eliminating nature from the metaphysical picture. This is the critical error that results from seeing God’s creative act through the filter of human production.

We do not have to say that an acorn becomes a tree by design in order to say that it is caused by God. We also do not have to deny that God is the cause of acorns becoming trees if they happen to do so by chance. Acorns, though, do not become trees randomly or designedly but naturally. To say this does not eliminate God as a cause, rather, it maintains the integrity of both God’s creative act and the causative power of nature in the world.

“...Nature is a certain principle and cause of moving and of resting in that in which it is, primarily, in virtue of itself, and not accidentally.” Physics 2.1, 192b20-23

Crude said...

Mr. Green,

How so? If it's scientific then the Thomist will accept it like any other science. Unless you mean it's "science" rather than "philosophy" and so outside the scope of Thomism (and vice versa). But that gets back to my point that every physical truth must be grounded in a metaphysical truth, so there's still something waiting to be explained.

I only mean that Thomists would not regard Thomism as 'a form of ID' if ID is defined as science rather than philosophy. I imagine this gets into the murkier subject of what is and is not science versus what's metaphysical speculation based on science.

Whether Thomists can accept ID confuses me. Certainly if an ID argument requires a mechanistic metaphysics, then Thomism is out - that much I gather. But I also have sympathy with the view that ID in the broad sense is touching on something important - and whether all forms of ID are necessarily at odds with Thomism, I'm not prepared to answer. Again, too murky.

Crude said...

I will add, though - after seeing ER Bourne's comment - that one problem I have with ID proponents is that some of them do seem to make concessions I find insane. Reasoning that if macroevolution is true than God does not exist or that, at least, the evolved creatures are not ultimately designed by any agent. That's not necessarily a fundamental view of ID, but it's a very common sentiment and one I reject.

Bilbo said...

Prof. Feser,

I think this post brings a great deal of clarity to the debate, and I think it shows that there does not need to be a fundamental disagreement between A-T philosophy and ID theory. My guess is that if Dembski read this post, he will agree with what you have said, and correct or clarify his own statements regarding the incompatibility between Aristotelianism and ID. But if I'm mistaken about Dembski, then I would agree with you that Dembski's form of ID is philosophically and theologically problematic. But let's get down to details. You write:

"For something to be an “artifact” in the Aristotelian sense, it is also necessary that its parts have no immanent tendency to function together as a whole, and this is not true of corn any more than it is true of the various dog breeds or of human infants, while it is true of a hammock or of the other examples of artifacts."

Agreed!!! It is patently obvious that the parts of living organisms have an immanent tendency to function together as a whole. I think Dembski would agree with this. If he doesn't then he's mistaken. However, I don't think this is what he meant by referring to living things as artifacts. What I think he meant is that it was exceedingly unlikely that the parts could be brought together and in the right order so that they could then function together as a whole. So unlikely, that a reasonable person would infer that an agent must have brought the parts together and in the right order.

"In the case of a snake or a strand of DNA, for example, there is for A-T simply no such thing as a natural substance which somehow has all the material and behavioral properties of a snake or a strand of DNA and yet still lacks the “information content” or teleological features typical of snakes or DNA. And so, when God makes a snake or a strand of DNA, He doesn’t first make an otherwise “information-free” or teleology-free material structure and then “impart” some information or final causality to it, as if carrying out the second stage in a two-stage process."

Agreed!!! And this provides the answer to Mr. Green's question about the robocow. If a robocow has all the identical parts, arranged in the right way, of a living cow, then it is not a robocow. It is a living cow.

Now whether the living cow evolved from a different kind of animal, without the need of an agent imparting additional information, or whether it evolved with an agent imparting additional information, or whether it had to be specially created is a separate question.

So I see no fundamental disagreement between A-T philosophy and ID. Only, perhaps, between Dembski's version of ID. Let's hope he replies. I'm betting he will correct or clarify his position.

Daniel Smith said...

Ed: "For something to be an “artifact” in the Aristotelian sense, it is also necessary that its parts have no immanent tendency to function together as a whole,"

Point 1: Isn't it true that all form is imposed on prime matter from outside? So the immanent tendencies of molecules that make up dirt are different than the immanent tendencies of the molecules that make up life - even though they are exactly the same type of meolcules?

So all of nature is artifactual when viewed in that sense - since prime matter has no immanent tendencies.

Point 2: There seems to be a distinct difference between the creation of living and non-living things in the biblical account:

Non-living things are spoken into existence from nothing; "Let there be light". Living things, however, are "brought forth" from the earth; "Let the land produce vegetation" and "Let the land produce living creatures"

Finally, when it comes to man: "the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being."

I think then that there is a definite distinction in the way God created living things and it seems that he chose, for reasons unknown to us, to create life from pre-existing matter rather than ex-nihilo.

Marisa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dmt117 said...

We need to keep in mind that prime matter, in itself, only exists potentially. When it exists actually, it is always under a form, and therefore has immanent tendencies, in the sense that the being of which it is a component has immanent tendencies.

I think it helps (at least me) to remember that what exists are beings ; form and matter do not exist on their own (except in the case of substantial forms, but that isn't pertinent). Form and matter are just components into which we analyze being, but have no separate existence apart from being (contra Plato on the one hand and modern materialists on the other).

Will said...

It sounds like we're getting at this: ID proponents are mostly if not all non-Thomist, but if ID means "we can deduce God's role as creator by observing life, by the principles of irreducible complexity and specified complexity," then ID is not inherently inconsistent with A-T.

Or maybe that's not true, and something about irreducible complexity or specified complexity is inherently non-Thomist. (That is, you can't say those principles without making a mechanist assumption.) ?

Bilbo said...

Will: "... but if ID means "we can deduce God's role as creator by observing life, by the principles of irreducible complexity and specified complexity," then ID is not inherently inconsistent with A-T."

I think it's better to say that we can deduce how God created.

"Or maybe that's not true, and something about irreducible complexity or specified complexity is inherently non-Thomist."

I don't think there is, though I wouldn't claim to know enough of Thomism to make that determination.

Daniel Smith said...

dmt117: "I think it helps (at least me) to remember that what exists are beings ; form and matter do not exist on their own"

Why does that seem so counter-intuitive to me?

We know that basic elements exist. We have classified the compounds that make up virtually everything in the universe in the (very finite) periodic table.

Now, it's also true that every physical thing that exists is made up of elements that seem to be intent on making and maintaining that very thing.

This "intent" cannot be intrinsic to the elements themselves - if it were, every element would always make up the same thing. The elements that make a frog would always make a frog. Yet we know that the elements that make a frog can also make a tree. So this "intent" - which directs one molecule to be part of a tree and directs another identical molecule to be part of a frog - must be imposed upon these elements from outside.

Isn't this the crux of the Fifth Way?

dmt117 said...

Daniel,

"Basic elements" are not basic in the sense that they are formless matter. Matter and form exist in a hierarchy; The frog is composed of molecules (matter) and the form frog; the molecules are composed of atoms (matter) and the form molecule; the atoms are composed of neutrons, protons electrons (matter) under forms... etc., etc. As you go further down, you don't really get any closer to prime matter. Molecules are just as much a composition of form and matter as are frogs. This is why prime matter exists only potentially; it exists actually only under a form.

I think the "intent" you speak of is more appropriately located in the formal aspect of being rather than the material aspect.

Bilbo said...

Daniel: "So this "intent" - which directs one molecule to be part of a tree and directs another identical molecule to be part of a frog - must be imposed upon these elements from outside."

But it's the order of the molecules that determines whether they will be part of a frog or part of a tree. At a slightly more basic level, it is the order of the amino acids that determines whether they will be one protein or another, or no protein at all.

"Isn't this the crux of the Fifth Way?"

If I understand it (I may not), Aquinas saw the world as exhibiting an internal order that resulted in specific ends. I think this would be different from God imposing an external order upon the world.

Daniel, I think you're afraid that someday scientists may "create" life, and that this would somehow diminish its specialness or God's sovereignty. But the only way scientists could accomplish such at end, is if the pre-existing material already had the intrinsic property of becoming a living organism. And a living organism is not just a machine. There are no robo-bacteria.

Your fear is based on the modern view that the world is merely mechanistic. The A-T view, if I understand it, is that the world is vitalistic.

Daniel Smith said...

dmt117: "Matter and form exist in a hierarchy; The frog is composed of molecules (matter) and the form frog; the molecules are composed of atoms (matter) and the form molecule; the atoms are composed of neutrons, protons electrons (matter) under forms... etc., etc. As you go further down, you don't really get any closer to prime matter."

Thank you. I think though that molecules lose their independent form and take on a different form when they are part of a larger whole. For example: a carbon molecule inside a frog, though still just a carbon molecule, now has the added "duty" of maintaining the form of the frog. So it has a different "intent" than a carbon molecule that is just floating around in space. Physically, the carbon molecule does not change - only its "intentions" (its job or duty) change.

"I think the "intent" you speak of is more appropriately located in the formal aspect of being rather than the material aspect."

Yes, that's what I'm saying. The intent is not IN the matter. The intent is imposed from the outside, by God, via form.

So, even pre-existing matter (from which God is said to have created life) has to have a new form imposed on it from outside. This is a potential avenue for "Thomistic ID" because it suggests that material forces cannot impose a living form on non-living matter. Only God can.

This also agrees with Aquinas' distinction regarding active/passive potential in pre-existing matter.

Crude said...

By the way.

In this whole ID versus Thomism debate, I now and then mention how whatever problems Thomists may have with ID, plenty of ID critics (who often see Thomists as 'on their side' due to the ID criticisms) are worse.

UD had this quote featured: If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation, and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables. If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or simply of overpopulation and overgrazing.

I'd love to see what Ed has to say about Michael Dowd's theology sometime, if he's so inclined.

Will said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will said...

I don't know about Dr. Feser, but I'll point out that Bateson's construction doesn't match what people actually do. When Christianity comes into an area that had nature worship, it brings with it a belief in universal benevolence (that is, that we should do good to everyone, not just family) that challenges the previous practice of tribalism. Our "survival unit" ceases to be family only and becomes the whole world. (Not to say that human cussedness won't slow it down. OTOH human cussedness can make a big "survival unit" into an awful thing too; consider Communism.) At least, that's what happened so far. Bateson forgets where the values he espouses (such as equality, general benevolence, and stewardship) come from.

romishgraffiti said...

I'd love to see what Ed has to say about Michael Dowd's theology sometime, if he's so inclined.

I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that he would say if he had to interact with pure ideological bluster, he'd never have time for anything else.

Crude said...

I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that he would say if he had to interact with pure ideological bluster, he'd never have time for anything else.

Sure, but this is at least semi-prominent bluster. And worse, it's bluster that many ID critics show considerable tolerance, even enthusiasm, for.

Daniel Smith said...

"This is a potential avenue for "Thomistic ID" because it suggests that material forces cannot impose a living form on non-living matter. Only God can."

To expand on this a bit...

I've been interested in the non-Darwinian saltational theories of evolution of such scientists as Pierre Grasse, Leo Berg, Richard Goldschmidt, Otto Schindewolf, John Davison and even Steven J. Gould (though he attempted to posit a Darwinian mechanism for PE.)

What I find interesting is that all of these scientists sought to reconcile evolutionary theory to the real world and to the fossil record - which does not show gradual transformation of one form into another but rather shows the sudden appearance and rapid diversification of forms.

An especially good read on this subject is Schindewolf's Basic Questions in Paleontology. (He uses the term "type" but it realistically coincides with the Aristotelian "form", I think.)

What these scientists attempted to do was find some mechanism to explain this sudden appearance. Davison's Semi-Meiotic Hypothesis offers a radical solution - what essentially amounts to a "virgin birth" of new forms.

Anyway, I think these theories are in agreement with the view that new forms must be a product of God's intervention rather than gradual transformation by material forces. We don't actually have any evidence (that I know of) of a new form occurring gradually.

Bilbo said...

Daniel: "This is a potential avenue for "Thomistic ID" because it suggests that material forces cannot impose a living form on non-living matter. Only God can."

I could be wrong, but I think Thomists would say that the living form is already potentially in the non-living form, and divine intervention isn't needed.

"This also agrees with Aquinas' distinction regarding active/passive potential in pre-existing matter."

Yeah, that distinction isn't clear to me.

One Brow said...

Chris @ May 5, 2011 10:54 AM had a good question, that was ignored. I'm curious about the answer my self.

Another case: how about a bacterium that has been genetically altered to produce insulin? Natural or artifact?

Daniel Smith said...

Bilbo: "I could be wrong, but I think Thomists would say that the living form is already potentially in the non-living form, and divine intervention isn't needed."

Actually a Thomist would probably say that all of nature shows intelligent design via Aquinas' Fifth Way. And they'd actually be right (IMO).

I've always felt that a weakness of ID was in arguing for design via complexity. Aquinas makes (what I consider) the ultimate design argument in his Fifth Way: Every physical thing is observed to act as if it is trying to achieve some goal. All observable matter does this. Since we know that matter does not have a mind and cannot set goals for itself, there must be a mind behind nature. That (IMO) should be the heart of ID.

"Yeah, that distinction isn't clear to me."

It's not that clear to me either. I've searched through other writings by Aquinas trying to find out more about what he considers the difference between active and passive potency but to no avail. All I know is that he claims passive potency can only be activated by God. I'd really like to know why he says that.

Daniel Smith said...

Bilbo: "I could be wrong, but I think Thomists would say that the living form is already potentially in the non-living form, and divine intervention isn't needed."

To get back to your point. This is a scientific question - not a philosophical one. The question of whether non-living matter has the active potential for life can only be established by experimentation. Likewise the question of whether one substantial form can evolve into another substantial form is also one for science - not one for philosophy.

If you read what I wrote yesterday Bilbo, you'll see that a true Thomist has no dog in this fight - he already knows that everything is designed by God. For the Thomist, it's only a question of whether this or that has active potential or passive potential - both being equally acceptable.