Neither “a person” nor impersonal
Friday, May 9, 2014
Miracles, ID, and classical theism
The esteemed Lydia McGrew, a friend of this blog, wonders whether my defense of classical theism and criticisms of “Intelligent Design” theory can be reconciled with some of the miracle stories one finds in the Bible. Her concerns are twofold. First, such stories clearly attribute personal characteristics to God; yet classical theists reject what they call “theistic personalism.” Second, the miracle stories in question involve effects which could at least in principle (Lydia claims) have been caused by something other than the God of classical theism; yet I have criticized ID theory precisely on the grounds that it cannot get you to the God of classical theism.
Neither “a person” nor impersonal
Lydia’s first objection, I’m sorry to say, rests on a pretty basic (albeit annoyingly common) misunderstanding. Contrary to the impression she gives in her post, I have never denied that God is personal, nor do classical theists in general deny it. On the contrary, like classical theists in general, I have argued that there is in God intellect and will, and these are the defining attributes of personhood; and as a Catholic I also affirm that there are in God three divine Persons. So, I hardly regard God as impersonal.Because this misunderstanding arises so often, it is important to emphasize that this is not some hidden theme or new development in my position. This is something I have made explicit many, many times over the years. For example, in a post from May of 2010 I wrote:
[A]mong the things we know about God via natural theology, at least from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view… are that His attributes include intellect and will. But since possession of intellect and will is definitive of persons, it follows that God cannot correctly be referred to as an “it” or in any other impersonal terms.
In a post from October of 2010 I wrote:
[F]or the classical theist, theistic personalism is bad philosophy and bad theology… [T]hat does not mean that God is impersonal, since according to classical theism there is in God something analogous to what we call intellect and will in us, and other attributes too which presuppose intellect and will (such as justice, mercy, and love – where “love” is understood, not as a passion, but as the willing of another’s good).
In a post from September of 2012 I argued:
[W]hile one might be tempted to conclude… that God’s intellect and knowledge must be decidedly sub-personal compared to ours, that is precisely the reverse of the truth…
His intellect is not inferior to our conscious thought processes (as a stone, gravity, or even the unconscious informational states of a computer are to that extent inferior to our conscious states) but on the contrary beyond and higher than them, just as divine power is beyond and higher than the relatively trivial capacities in created things that we characterize as ‘powers.’ “My thoughts are not your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8).
In a post from October 2013 I wrote:
[C]lassical theists, in general, by no means regard God as impersonal. They typically argue that when the notion of the ultimate cause of all things is fully developed, it can be seen that there is a sense in which we must attribute to this cause intellect and will.
I could go on -- you’ll find similar quotes in various books, articles, and other blog posts I have written -- but that suffices to make the point. I not only have never said that God is impersonal but have repeatedly denied it, and repeatedly affirmed that God has personal attributes.
I have also said that from the point of view of classical theism it is a mistake to characterize God as “a person.” But as I’ve put it before, the trouble is not with the word “person” so much as with the word “a.” (I’ve also said that it is not correct to characterize God as “a being,” but no one accuses me for that reason of attributing non-being or non-existence to God. Yet when I say in the very same context that God is not “a person” and explicitly say that I do not mean by this to deny that he is personal, some readers nevertheless conclude that I regard God as impersonal. Very strange.)
The point is that God is not (contrary to what theistic personalism entails) a mere instance of a kind, not even a uniquely impressive instance, whether the kind in question is person or any other kind. Just as he is Being Itself rather than something that merely has or participates in being, so too is he Intellect Itself rather than something that merely has or participates in intellect and other personal attributes. That no more makes him impersonal than characterizing him as Being Itself entails that he is unreal. (The problem with treating God as an instance of a kind is that this is incompatible with the doctrine of divine simplicity, and divine simplicity is an absolutely non-negotiable part both of sound philosophical theology and of Catholic orthodoxy. You can find a sketch of the reasons why here.)
So, when Lydia notes that the miraculous events attributed to God in the Bible are characterized as “done intentionally and for a purpose,” as “the acts of an Intelligence,” etc., she is not calling attention to anything I have ever denied or would deny, nor to anything my position commits me to denying. Since the classical theist not only allows but insists that there is will and intellect in God, naturally we can characterize his effects as reflecting purpose and intelligence. This is simply a non-issue.
The trouble with ID
Lydia’s other objection, I’m afraid, also rests on a basic misunderstanding of my position, though the extent to which she misses the point in this case takes a little more spelling out. Lydia seems to think that my beef with ID is merely that ID arguments only get you to some designer or other, where this designer might be the God of classical theism but might instead be some lesser, purely creaturely artificer. She then suggests that to be consistent I would have to say the same thing about whatever generated effects like the fire that consumed the priests of Baal during Elijah’s famous encounter with them. She writes:
Think about this for a minute: Sending fire from heaven is the kind of thing that one can easily conceive it to be possible for a mere demigod to do. There is nothing per se about sending down fire from heaven that reveals that God is Being Itself… In fact, the prophets of Baal had some reason to hope, since they believed that Baal was real, that Baal would send down fire and consume their sacrifice. It didn't happen because there is no real god Baal, not because sending fire out of the sky is the kind of thing that is logically impossible for a mere god (small g), a mere super-being, to do.
Another example she gives is New Testament passages that describe God the Father speaking from the heavens. Of all such cases, she writes:
[T]hese events reveal the actions of God in ways that it is logically possible were the result of the action of some being who was not God and therefore, by definition, less than God. I want to stress that by "it is logically possible" I do not mean "would have been reasonable to conclude." It would have been unreasonable to conclude that these events were caused by a demigod or an angel or alien. The point merely is that that possibility is not excluded, by the nature of the event itself, as an absolute logical impossibility.
So, Lydia concludes, if my objection to ID is that the evidence it appeals to doesn’t point conclusively to or strictly entail the God of classical theism, specifically, then to be consistent I would have to raise the same objection against the biblical stories in question; but if I do not object to them, then neither should I object to ID.
The trouble is that that is simply not my objection to ID. My complaint is not that ID arguments are merely probabilistic and don’t get you conclusively to the God of classical theism. And as with my repeated, explicit affirmation that God is personal, this is something I have made clear many times. For example, in a post from April of 2010 I wrote:
The A-T critique of Paley and of ID theory… has nothing to do either with any objection to probabilistic arguments for God’s existence per se.
In a post from May of 2010 I wrote:
When A-T philosophers criticize the arguments of Paley or ID theorists for being probabilistic… it is not at bottom the appeal to probabilities per se that they object to...
In a post from March of 2011 I wrote (with emphasis in the original):
The Thomist’s problem with the arguments of Paley and ID theory is not – NOT (See that? It says “not”) – that they are merely probabilistic, or that they don’t get you all the way to the God of classical theism. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem with these arguments is rather that they don’t get you even one millimeter toward the God of classical theism, and indeed they get you positively away from the God of classical theism.
In another post from that same month I wrote:
I have always been very specific about the respects in which ID conflicts with A-T philosophy and theology. It has nothing to do with Darwinism, nothing to do with whether God in some sense “designed” the universe (of course He did), and nothing to do with a rejection of probabilistic arguments per se.
So, once again Lydia has simply misunderstood my position. What I do say -- as that second to last quote indicates -- is that ID and related arguments like Paley’s design argument not only do not entail or even make probable classical theism, but are positively at odds with classical theism. How so?
I’ve explained this many times (again, see my ID related posts, and, for my fullest and most systematic statement, my recent Nova et Vetera article “Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’s Fifth Way”). Briefly, the main points are:
1. Paley and ID theory predicate attributes of God and of creatures univocally, whereas for Thomists these predications are to be understood analogously. The problem here is that in the view of Thomists, predicating intellect, power, etc. of God and creatures univocally -- in exactly the same sense rather than analogously -- implicitly makes of God a mere instance of a kind, and is thus incompatible with divine simplicity. (Scotists dispute the incompatibility of univocal predication with divine simplicity, but Thomists regard their position as unstable. See Scholastic Metaphysics, pp. 256-63, for discussion of some of these issues.)
2. ID theory presupposes -- whether in an unqualified way or at least for the sake of argument -- a conception of the natural world that is “mechanistic” in the sense of denying that there is any teleology or final causality immanent to or inherent in natural substances qua natural (as we Aristotelians claim there is). Any teleology or finality would for ID have to be in nature only extrinsically or in a way that is entirely imposed from outside, after the fashion of artifacts like watches and other machines. Now there are a couple of grave theological problems with this view, one of which is this: If there is no teleology or “directedness” of any sort inherent in natural things, then there is no potency or potentiality (in the Aristotelian sense) inherent in them either; for a potency is always a potency for some outcome, toward which it is directed. And that means that natural things are not really composed of act and potency, but in some sense just are entirely actual and devoid of potency. In that case, though, they do not need actualization from anything outside them, in which case they do not need a sustaining cause. That in turn entails deism at best and atheism at worst.
(Aristotelian final causality is thus necessarily linked to the theory of act and potency, and thus in turn to the very possibility of natural theology. This is a theme of my 2011 Franciscan University of Steubenville talk "Natural Theology Must Be Grounded in the Philosophy of Nature, Not Natural Science," which you can find on YouTube. As I discuss in the course of that talk, there is a parallel here to Berkeley’s famous point that the early moderns’ conception of matter was implicitly atheistic.)
3. A second problem following from this denial of intrinsic or immanent final causality is this: Since (as the Thomist argues) efficient causal power presupposes that causes are “directed toward” their effects as toward a final cause, if we deny intrinsic finality or “directedness” to things we are also implicitly denying intrinsic efficient causal power to them. That would mean either that nothing has genuine causal power at all (a Humean position which is incompatible with arguing causally from the world to God), or that only God has any real causal power (which is occasionalism). In addition to being bad philosophy, these positions are theologically unacceptable.
Hence any theology committed to a “mechanistic” or non-Aristotelian conception of nature is an unstable one, tending to collapse into either deism or occasionalism. But deism in turn tends to collapse into atheism, and occasionalism into pantheism. Unsurprisingly, this is pretty much what happened historically, as the watchmaker god of the “design argument” came to seem first a remote “god of the gaps” needed only to wind up the universe, and then an unnecessary fifth wheel; while Malebranche’s occasionalism gave way to Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura.
Obviously these are large and controversial claims; again, I’ve developed these arguments in detail elsewhere. (And please don’t bother commenting on all this until you’ve read what I’ve said about it elsewhere. I’m really, really tired of having to repeat myself over and over and over again on the ID issue to correct the errors of people who can’t be bothered to read what I’ve actually said before commenting on it, and who pass their misrepresentations of my views on to others.) The point for present purposes is just that the Thomist has deep philosophical and theological reasons for rejecting any view which, like ID theory, presupposes a “mechanistic” conception of nature (again, in the specific sense of “mechanistic” given above). And these reasons have nothing to do with ID arguments being merely less than conclusive.
Needless to say, there is nothing in the biblical passages Lydia cites that has anything whatsoever to do with a univocal theory of predication, a mechanistic conception of nature, or anything else that we Thomist critics of ID object to. Thus, Lydia’s alleged parallel between ID claims and the passages in question is completely spurious.
Arguments from miracles
So, I’m afraid that Lydia’s critique is in those two respects aimed at a straw man. Her remarks are also problematic in another respect. Lydia says of the biblical passages she cites that “these events reveal the actions of God in ways that it is logically possible were the result of the action of some being who was not God and therefore, by definition, less than God.” Now there is a sense in which this is true. If we describe what happened with the priests of Baal as fire coming down from the sky, then there is certainly nothing in that which strictly requires a divine cause. Other things certainly could cause fire to come down from the sky, and could even do so in such a way that the source of the fire wasn’t obvious. For example, an angel might cause this to happen, or an extraterrestrial might, or perhaps a stealth aircraft could make it happen.
Now a miracle in the strict sense, at least as Scholastic writers use the term, is something which of its nature could not in principle be caused by anything other than God. This doesn’t mean that the fire from heaven in the Elijah story was not miraculous, because such a fire would have to have had a divine cause if all natural and preternatural causes were excluded. An event characterized as fire coming down from the sky could have a non-divine cause; but an event characterized as fire coming down from the sky which was not caused by any natural or preternatural cause could only have had a divine cause. Naturally, given the context, I think a divine cause was the source of the fire in the case of the priests of Baal.
Obviously, though, the inherent ambiguity of the event of fire descending from the sky makes it problematic as a kind of “all purpose” miracle. In the specific religious and cultural context in question, it was adequate to the divine purpose. But in different contexts it would not be. For example, suppose there were a culture in which the people believed in a pantheon of trickster gods who frequently answered prayers addressed to other gods, often gave misleading signs, etc. Obviously in that case it would be useless to appeal to fire from the sky as evidence that one of these gods in particular was real and the others all frauds. A skeptic could say: “Oh come on, that could have been any of the gods. It doesn’t prove anything.” Or imagine that we develop stealth technology that is so good that the U.S. military regularly incinerates terrorists with fire that descends from invisible, silent drones. It would be useless in that sort of context to appeal to fire from the sky as evidence of divine intervention. For we couldn’t have any confidence that the obvious alternative explanation could be safely ruled out.
A miracle that could reasonably be expected to be compelling evidence of a divine revelation across different cultures and historical periods would have to be something much more dramatic and unambiguous than that, something that could not in principle have any cause other than God (which means, of course, the God of classical theism). Fire coming down from the sky doesn’t fit the bill. But I would submit that a man known for certain to be dead coming back to life does fit the bill. (Obviously I mean literally and unambiguously dead, not merely “brain dead,” or “having flatlined,” or the like.)
Thoroughly explaining why a resurrection is not even in principle possible via natural causes requires some background in philosophical anthropology. I’ll say more about that, and about miracles more generally, in a forthcoming post. Suffice it for present purposes to note that if Lydia is saying that there are some miraculous interventions which involve events which under some descriptions might have a non-divine cause, then I think she is correct. But if she is saying that all miracles involve events which under any description could in principle have had a cause other than God, then I think that is seriously wrong. That would undermine the very possibility of knowing that a divine revelation has ever actually occurred.