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.


  1. Yeh that Steve guy DOES GET IT. He doesn't believe in A-T he believes in Mechanism. Which is fine. We can agree to disagree. But too the rest of that lot over at Uncommon descent I say here's a quarter buy a clue.

    Of course I'm going to predict the Atheists, Non-Thomist TE & that lot aren't going to understand any better.

  2. Professor Feser:

    It is unreasonable of you to reply to Thomas Cudworth, or to any ID proponent, indirectly, by way of comments posted by Steve Fuller.

    First of all, Steve Fuller does not, as you suggest, represent the ID position. His version of ID has been presented on UD, and was rejected by the majority of ID-sympathetic posters there. His position, which is somewhat murky, is in fact much closer to that of theistic evolution than to that of ID, because it is steeped in liberal Protestantism of a progressive variety.

    Second, Steve Fuller introduces considerations that Thomas Cudworth did not take up. For example, Cudworth made no statement one way or the other on the question whether life is explicable completely in mechanical terms, or whether the bacterial flagellum is "nothing but" a machine. Cudworth specifically addressed two passages from your post and offered an analysis and argument concerning those passages, and addressed specific questions which Fuller did not take up.

    Dr. Feser, you are a scholar. You know full well that if Aquinas disagreed with, say, Abelard, he would reply to specific texts of Abelard, quoting, analyzing and refuting them. He would not comment quickly on a few tangential remarks which Albert the Great had made about Abelard, and then claim he had refuted Abelard.

    From the looks of it, Cudworth took the time to compose a coherent post, and write it up clearly, fairly, and without polemics. Steve Fuller's comments look as if they were dashed off in 10 minutes. If you are going to claim to have seriously engaged in refuting Cudworth, you should respond to him in his own terms, rather than disrespecting his honest effort to engage by sweeping him away with your passing comments on Fuller.

    It is easy for anyone to sign up to become a commenter on UD, and you can post your reply to Cudworth right under his article. Alternately, you can post your reply here on your own site. Either way, Cudworth, who is an ID insider and knows the ID position better than Fuller does, deserves be addressed face-to-face, not as if he is a third party who is not even in the room.

  3. Actually, it seems like Prof. Feser has someone else to contend with: Dembski himself just weighed in on the matter.

  4. I think we have a few choices in understanding living things:

    1) Living things are nothing but machines.

    2) Living things are not machines.

    3) Living things are machines plus something more, involving qualities such as agency.

    I prefer (3). It seems to satisfy the observations of biology and also our common sense, And it seems that if (3) is correct, then ID is compatible with A-T. Yes?

  5. Bilbo said that if living things are machines plus something more, then ID is compatible with A-T.

    Heh, except that then A-T wouldn't be compatible with A-T! That is, if life = machine + whatever, then A-T, strictly speaking, is not true. But that doesn't mean we couldn't take most of and maybe make a new system (neo-A-T?) that is very similar in other respects, but allows for life to "include" being a machine.

    I'm not sure how much of this really comes down to semantics: there's no problem with a Thomist breaking a wallaby and a watch down into atoms and seeing that the atoms are the same in either case. But of course in doing so, you've destroyed the wallaby and there no longer is a living thing. The catch is that we can do a lot of experimenting on organisms without destroying them and still conclude that their parts work the way a mechanist would expect. The Thomist would say that most (all?) of the same forms apply in both cases, except that they are only accidental forms in the organism. E.g. it is essential to the nature of an electron to absorb a photon, but only accidental or secondary that [part of] a wallaby can absorb a photon the same way. In which case, we could redefine "mechanism" and "reductionism" to refer to parts without requiring the whole to merely "be" its parts. But it would be less confusing to find a neutral third term that made sense to both sides.

  6. If we break a wallaby and a watch down into their atoms, we've destroyed both the wallaby and the watch.

    It's only accidental that the watch absorb an electron.

    The entire function of a watch can be explained in solely terms of the interaction of its physical parts.

    Under my view, would say that the function of a wallaby can not be explained solely in terms of the interaction of its physical parts.

    It still looks like can say that living things are machines plus something more, including qualities such as agency.

  7. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the key to understanding what living things are is in realizing that the cell has been created in the image of God. It might be a machine, but it is a very special machine, a "living" machine. Are things alive because they are in the image (form?) of Life Himself?

  8. Perhaps we all owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Feser for being so contentious and refusing to gloss over the differences between A/T metaphysics and the ID theorists. Living things are not machines, and the tendency to go beyond the analogy and think of living things as biological machines is a mistake.

    Where this debate got off track to the point that it can only be described now, (by analogy) as a train wreck, is when no one pointed out that there is more than one way to create a new natural substance. God could combine prime matter with an essence and an act of existence to produce each every kind of natural thing. More likely, however, God would use natural processes to create the multitude of ever changing things out of the basic elements brought into existence through a single act of creation out of nothing.

    If, for example, God wanted to create water, would he do it by creating it out of nothing, or by creating a natural order in which hydrogen and oxygen could be joined together by free energy to produce water? I would suggest that the evidence indicates that God created the natural order and has allowed it produce everything else.

    The evidence, however, may be misleading. Perhaps life is so complex that it requires additional input as the ID theorists maintain; and, God had to get personally involved in the creation of life.

    There once was a time when it was rational to believe based on the evidence that the universe was eternal and not created in time. That is no longer the case. If the book of Genesis was right about that, then maybe it is also right about the origin of life. I believe that it is. But even if God designed living things, they are still natural because each one has its own intrinsic nature, which is something that no machine has.

  9. Hi Lamont,

    I'm all for avoiding train wrecks between Christians, whenever possible. And I agree that living things are more than just machines.

    As to each living thing having its own intrinsic nature: I don't believe in the special creation of each kind of animal, but let's assume for the moment that it happened that way. So God says, "Let there be a beaver." Would it be legitimate to visualize God's words as incarnating into DNA that was specifically for beavers only? And would that satisfy the requirement that the beaver had its own intrinsic nature?

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  11. Bilbo,
    DNA is an indispensable part of the beaver, but the nature is not located in any one part. A nature is an aspect of a fully integrated whole that is recognized through observation not dissection. In your example, the nature of the beaver might be said to be a potency that is formally present in the DNA. But the nature of the beaver only exists in its full actuality in a complete beaver.

    All natural substances are fully integrated wholes that act according to a nature that is more than just the sum total of the actions of all of its parts. Water, for example, has a nature and specific properties that are not found in its parts - hydrogen and oxygen. A machine, in contrast is just the sum of its parts.

  12. Hi Lamont,

    Thanks, this is helping. I'm approaching this discussion as an IDist who knows next to nothing about Thomism, though I am impressed by the cosmological and teleological arguments. My hope is to understand enough about Thomism to help avoid a train wreck.

    Okay, I think I follow you on natural objects being integrated wholes. And thus beaver DNA only has the potential to make a beaver, and only in a ferilized beaver ovum.

    Back to machines. It seems to me that a watch is more than just the sum of its parts. Those parts need to be in a very specific relationship to each other in order for the watch to function. We can take a watch apart, put all the parts in a heap, and in some significant sense we no longer have a watch.

    Are we sure that the watch isn't an integrated whole?

    Don't worry. I still want to say that a watch is metaphysically different than a living thing.

  13. By the way, I think all this UD - Thomist interaction is absolutely fantastic.

    On the one hand, thomism in general is getting considerable exposure (And TLS/Aquinas in particular) and in venues where it typically isn't spoken of nearly as much. More people are at the very least hopefully getting a greater understanding of the metaphysical issues involved in these questions (or even realizing that metaphysics still plays an important role, period.)

    On the other hand, the question of what compatibilities and incompatibilities there are between ID and thomism are being hashed out - and I think the tone so far has been spirited but for the most part respectful. Even if thomists can't get onboard with the ID project, maybe some agreement can be uncovered regardless. Or maybe ID covers a wider range of views and possibilities than has been realized. I'm an amateur and can't be sure either way.

    I admit, I'm hoping at least some common ground can be staked out between ID and thomists. At the very least both sides seem to take each other seriously - I'm surprised at how much attention is being devoted to the subject at UD or by the DI, and how Brandon, Ed, Francis, etc are offering thorough responses.

  14. Hi Crude,

    I share your hopes. Now Jay Richards is joining in at Evolution News and Views.

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  16. Above, Bilbo asked a question (of Lamont) that hasn't yet been answered. I'd like to hear from anyone on who could respond.

    It seems that a watch is more than the sum of its parts. The same would be true for something as simple as a mousetrap vs. its parts.

    Though I agree that humans are not merely machines, it's not evident to me how the interaction of the physical parts of a cell is qualitatively different from the interaction of the parts of a watch. Both serve purpose and function that is beyond their parts.