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.


  1. C'mon, Dr. Feser, if you want to be taken seriously as a critic of ID, you've got to get your facts straight. I know all the major players of ID, and many of the minor ones, and I never even heard of Lydia McGrew. And Steve Fuller is out in left field, not by any means in the inner circle of ID. When he posts on UD, his views are criticized by many of the regulars there. You're using him as a standard for ID today because it provides you with a convenient stick to beat Dembski with. I might as well measure Aquinas's status as a Thomist by whether or not he agrees with Augustine. If you are going to show the inconsistency of Dembski's views with the ID position, set forth the position of his long-time colleagues -- Behe, Meyer, Wells, Sternberg, etc. -- not fringe players like the ones you've picked.

    There is not a single living ID Christian would would affirm that the universe (any universe, mechanical or otherwise) could exist without God. Not Dembski. Not Behe. Not Meyer. Nobody. Why do you keep setting up these straw men?

    You complain about Dembski's vagueness regarding mechanism in nature. I haven't yet seen a precise definition of a "mechanical" nature in your columns. For example, is any model of nature in which nature operates under a closed system of regular laws mechanical? Or is there some other criterion needed before one can call nature "mechanical"? And whatever you mean by "mechanical", do you deny that an omnipotent God could create a world which operated entirely mechanistically?

    Also, please define "classical theism". If it means nothing different from "Thomism", then just say "Thomism"; otherwise, tell us what it includes, and what it excludes. What are the criteria for membership in the club of classical theists? Who doesn't "make the cut"? Origen? Maimonides? Ghazzali? Tertullian? Scotus? Calvin? William Blake? You'll have to forgive me for not knowing this; when I did my doctorate in Western religious thought, we didn't use big generic terms like "classical theism"; we talked about the view of Kant, the view of Plato, the view of Augustine, the view of Aquinas, the view of Averroes, etc.

    Regarding the inconsistency which you think you detect in Dembski's argument, I'll let him speak for himself. In the meantime, what bothers me is that so much of what you write against ID is based on misrepresentation of the ID position, and on crucial ambiguities in the major terms from which you take your starting point.

  2. He sure gave the show away, Ed. Excellent post. (I assume, based on past events, that we can expect Dembski to post an animation of you, complete with scatological sound effects produced by himself, showing his utter contempt for your response.)


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  4. C'mon, Anonymous, if you want to be taken seriously as a critic of the A-T position, you've got to get your facts straight. If you'd actually read anything I've written on this subject with the slightest care, you'd know that I've very frequently defined mechanism as the position that there are no final causes immanent to nature, so that final causes are either non-existent (as naturalists hold) or imposed from outside (as mechanists like Boyle, Newton, Paley, et al. hold).

    And you have heard of Boyle, Newton, Paley, et al. I assume? Those are rather big names for Dembski to be excluding from the ID universe, no? At least, if their mechanism is what Dembski means to exclude. But who knows for sure, since (as with his use of "information") it is not clear that Dembski means the same thing any two times he uses the word "mechanism."

    Re: the universe existing without God, of course I am aware that Dembski at all do not think it actually exists without God. The point is that a mechanistic position entails that it could at least in principle exist apart from God and the mechanistic theist just claims that this is nevertheless "improbable" or some such. But that's not good enough from the POV of classical theism. If your conception of the material world has that consequence, then it cannot be right.

    Classical theism, BTW, is something I've also said a lot about in earlier posts, including those dealing with the subject at hand (like the ones I linked to in the current post), as you'd know if you'd actually read them carefully. It is the conception of God common to thinkers like Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, and many others -- it is in fact the mainstream conception of God within Christianity historically -- and central to it is the doctrine of divine simplicity and everything that flows from it. I've explained in the earlier posts linked to why it is incompatible with the approach taken by Paley, Dembski, et al.

  5. Yikes. "at all" at one obvious point in the above should be "et al." That's what I get for typing fast.

  6. Heya Ed,

    Amateur though I am, I certainly agree with you that thomism is A) Incompatible with a 'mechanistic' view of the world, B) Sees design everywhere, even in the most basic motions and operations of nature, and C) Gets one, if the arguments work/are accepted, to the God of classical theism.

    But more and more, I honestly think there's more value in ID than you're suggesting. And more common ground between thomists (certainly yourself) and ID/ID proponents.

    So here's my attempt to spell this all out.

    1) When Dembski says that ID opposes a "mechanistic, self-sufficing view of nature", I strongly suspect he's putting a good deal of emphasis on "self-sufficing" - which I take to mean 'mechanistic and devoid of any intelligence or intervention'. In other words, ID would be compatible with a mechanistic, Paleyan view of nature - as he later says, "ID's critique [...] should not be viewed as offering a metaphysics of nature".

    If I'm correct, your 1 is incorrect. ID does not reject a mechanistic conception of nature. It rejects a mechanistic conception devoid of these information-granting 'inputs'. (I know from TLS you have a lot to say about what being serious about 'information' really existing in nature entails metaphysically, but I'll put that aside for now.) ID can't reject a mechanistic conception, precisely because ID is not meant to offer a metaphysic of nature.

    2) Dembski does say that a mechanistic, naturalist view of nature is taken on for the sake of argument, in essence, in order to show that the one thing the naturalist wants to be rid of - a designing intelligence, a mind playing a fundamental and important role in nature and natural history - is not gotten rid of by their methods. Indeed, their approach allows inferences, even strong inferences, of intelligence and mind in nature.

    Now, I'm familiar with your response to this: Time Bandits. And even ID proponents admit their views only get one as far as 'intelligence'. It could be aliens. It could be Quetzlcoatl. You would add, and it cannot be the God of classical theism, because that God cannot be arrived at this way - not even made a smidge more likely.

    But this is where I have to ask: If a mechanistic conception of nature is A) Taken on for what is practically the express purpose of getting designing minds out of the picture, and B) The mechanistic conception of nature fails to do this... Isn't this extremely important to point out? Isn't it very similar from responding to a person who has taken on a computational view of mind and nature (in the express hope of thereby avoiding a non-naturalist metaphysic) by pointing out, if they are serious about 'algorithims' and 'information', they are committed to a broadly Aristotilean metaphysic anyway?

  7. 3) You seem to agree that ID can be employed as a reductio ad absurdum of naturalism. But I don't think that's quite right. Instead, the ID project as described by Dembski and others seems to be taking this route:

    "A mechanistic view of the natural and biological world does not get rid of design, designers, and minds as important explanations for what we see. In fact, that very view leads us to strong inferences about the very things many were hoping to eradicate from the picture! Therefore if we're serious about this mechanistic picture, we have to follow the inferences where they lead - and strong inferences point us at design."

    Again, I have to ask: Can't a thomist at the very least employ this argument? If a naturalist told you "Naturalism means that no gods, no designers, no minds are responsible for the creation of us, our world, our universe" - given your own Time Bandits post on this topic - wouldn't your response have to be, "Well, your naturalism may entail that the God of classical theism does not exist - but gods, designers, and minds as responsible for all that are still in play, and in fact are strongly implied by your own ground rules."?

    4) If I take Dembski right, he is saying that if you agree ID works as an arguendo against an atheistic naturalism, you are (or at least can be, if you want) on board with the ID project. Again, in your Time Bandits post, it really seems that you're either on board or can be on board with that arguendo if the evidence considered in that given light points that way.

    It seems to me the real question is this: If you accept the arguendo, but reject that the arguendo gets one to the God of classical theism, and you reject the mechanistic metaphysic taken on for the sake of the arguendo, you're still (by Dembski's rights) onboard with the ID project.

    If that's the case, couldn't you be onboard with it? Doesn't that preserve A) Your commitment to thomism and rejection of mechanism, B) Your insistence that ID cannot get one to classical theism, or even make it more likely, C) Your own views on what naturalism truly allows for anyway?

  8. Ed

    I think the term 'mechanistic' is just not as simple as "lack of purpose,' as you insist.

    It is an expansive word, like 'love'. Two people will discuss it with fluid meanings.

  9. What a pathetic response from Dembski. It amounts to nothing more than a verbal shrug and an implicit "I can't be bothered with your silly philosophy games."

  10. 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

    Wow. I thought I was merely joking when I said ID is fundamentalist revenge for the Scopes Monkey Trial.

    Scott W.

  11. Sorry, Professor Feser. I didn’t realize the ground rules here. I assumed that your lengthy blog criticism of Dembski and your other articles here were meant as stand-alone pieces, which summarized all necessary vocabulary from any other writing you had done. If it’s a requirement to have read your book before we can comment on anything that’s covered in your book, then I’ll simply defer all comments of that kind until such time as I have read your book.

    I note, however, that if I understand your definition of classical theism here correctly, it is a bit of a misnomer. What it seems to mean, based on your examples and your mention of Christianity (without at least some aside about Judaism or Islam, or for that matter Plato, Plotinus, etc.), is “classical CHRISTIAN theism”. So why not add the word “Christian” to make the term completely accurate? I also noticed that you listed no Late Scholastic or Protestant examples of classical theists. That doesn’t mean you meant to exclude them, but I wondered if it was significant. If, for example, Luther, Calvin and many other major Protestant theologians don’t subscribe to something you would consider classical theism, the preponderance of Protestants within ID might be significant. The “heretical” character that you detect in ID might be connected with its largely Protestant ethos. (In that light I would also note the preponderance of Protestants – probably even a greater preponderance of Protestants – within TE. Have you detected parallel theological defects in TE?)

    I have a further clarificatory question. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that Boyle envisioned a mechanistic universe. (Yes, I know of Boyle and Newton, and have read much of the standard literature on 17th-C. science in relation to 17th-C. philosophy of nature.) Does it follow that, in your view, Boyle’s understanding of nature was incompatible with classical theism? And if the answer is yes, and if is true that Boyle was personally a sincere Christian and also that he affirmed the orthodox Creeds, does this mean that it is possible to be a sincere Christian, even a creedally correct Christian, and still hold views about nature that are incompatible with classical theism? I’m not arguing, just trying to get your position down. It seems to me that you are saying that Dembski is a sincere Christian but does not realize that he tacitly accepts a non-Christian conception of God, because he accepts mechanism (even if only for the sake of argument). Wouldn’t the same judgment have to be applied to Boyle, the man who (far more than Newton) promoted the “clockwork” image of the universe? This ties in, of course, with the question in my previous comment: Could God have chosen to create a mechanistic universe? If his will is absolutely free, then presumably he could have; but I’m wondering if your position on classical theism implies that no, he couldn’t have made that choice, because his very nature would prevent it.

    Thanks for your response, and thanks in advance for any follow-up (for which I’d be grateful).

  12. Just Thinking,

    I think Dr. Feser has explained mechanism quite thoroughly in numerous posts in this back and forth with ID proponents. Also - it's even the definition Dr. Dembski was using in Design Revolution (quoted by Feser) where Dembski agrees that the mechanistic approach is to view purpose as being observer relevant and not an inherent property of the item in question.
    That's really not too squishy or too broad of an understanding.

    When speaking of mechanism in this context that is exactly what is meant and it's very specific.

  13. All you creationists seriously freak me out. It's as if you all are incapable of realizing this one simple point: that we are ALL atheists with respect to the mythic narratives we don't believe in. Wotan. Zeus. Thor. Poseidon. Apollo. The only difference is, some of us just go one god further.

    How can anyone believe that, once upon a time, human beings sinned and the world was henceforth subjected to bondage to death and decay? Hello? Death and decay were already part of nature before human beings were ever on the scene! How could they have spoiled creation? I have never heard a satisfactory answer to this crucial theological question.

    For the sake of humanity, grow up, escape from your suffocating, self-referential system of thought, and join the rest of your free-thinking brethren out here in the real world.

    1. "Death and decay were already part of nature before human beings were ever on the scene!"
      True, that is what Thomas Aquinas asserted.

  14. Dear religious people I disagree with,

    Empty untrue catchphrase I read off a t-shirt! Plaintive whining! Assertion of imaginary superiority!

    Sincerely, huge fan of Garth Ennis.

  15. The above post from my fellow anon (@9:24) has got to be a gag. "Free-thinker", "creationist", "we are ALL atheists with respect to (small "g") gods"...all the boilerplate internet infidel tropes are there. A gag--surely, surely it must be a gag: no intellectually superior "free-thinker" could possibly write something that is at once so vacuous and hopelessly smug.

  16. Anon @ 9:24....
    you should really be freaked out by yourself.

    What with the stunning inability to actually read the relevant material and then to comment in a completely unrelated manner. You gotta admit, a contradictory brain-dead atheist like yourself should at least find that alittle unsettling.

  17. I'd say that Anon at 9:24 is just "Hype Man", but that's impossible. Because I'm Hype Man!!

    Usually stupid in the form of his post is manufactured - but I'm concerned it might be sincere.

  18. >Wotan. Zeus. Thor. Poseidon. Apollo.

    I reply: All of whom are mythical anthropomorphic super beings. God however in the Classic Sense is the Uncaused Cause, Pure Actuality, etc...whose existence can be known by reason alone. Sorry but it is impossible for any Classic Theistic philosophical argument for the existence of the Classic Theistic God to be used to argue for the existence of any of the above mythical beings.

  19. "How can anyone believe that, once upon a time, human beings sinned and the world was henceforth subjected to bondage to death and decay? Hello? Death and decay were already part of nature before human beings were ever on the scene! How could they have spoiled creation? I have never heard a satisfactory answer to this crucial theological question."

    I think this is actually an important criticism, albeit one that can quickly be shown to have no bite.

    On the one hand, if you're a Biblical literalist, you will indeed have to think that death and decay, in a very literal sense, were introduced by original sin. But of course, it won't matter that that contradicts what science says because you already believe that the earth is only 7,000 (or so) years old.

    If you're not a Biblical literalist, it seems that you can simply say, "yes, death and decay in a very literal sense existed in the world before the Fall; e.g., among plants and animals. But there's a sense in which it didn't exist in humans before the Fall--this sense is spiritual death and decay. It is that which the Fall introduced."

    Are there some Christians who think that the world is 4.5 billion years old but who also read the line in Genesis about death and decay literally, so that they think there was literally no death and no decay in the billions of years before the Fall? If so, I've never heard of them.

    Anyway, I hope that answers your question, Anonymous. In my experience, though, posters who show up anonymously to level quick criticisms in a condescending, diagnostic way usually don't in fact care what anyone else thinks, and are writing to show off what they take to be their great intelligence in the hopes of annoying people. So I'm guessing you're one of those posters.

    Why did I write it, then? Because I'm actually more interested in what the non-anonymous people think of my response.

  20. What is decay without a prior idea of perfection?

    Whitehead was right. It's all just a footnote to Plato!

  21. Hi Dr. Beckwith,

    Why do you need a notion of perfection, as opposed to a notion of normalcy, to have a notion of decay? Or, if you need a notion of perfection, would it have to be divine perfection, or perfect for a member of that species? My feeling is that all you need is the latter.

  22. Dr Feser, do you think that maybe the reason Dembski and the IDers are churning out responses such as this is just a little bit of indignation? For example, I read William Lane Craig's massive "Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview," in which he strongly critiques the notion of divine simplicity that you also present in TLS, and which was formulated by Aquinas. Now, while Craig is great, and mutual criticism and striving for clarity are good amongst Christians and non-Christians alike, I confess that I did feel a spot of indignation reading his criticism. Not to sound like a wingnut, but in these dark days of Dick Dawkins and thorough "freethinkers" such as Anon 9:24, it just seems like all of us Theists have to stick together in opposing secularism in academia. Perhaps the IDers feel that way as well, which is why we've seen such a firestorm on this topic as of late.

  23. Hi Bobcat,

    I'm not the smug, idiotic Anon from 9:24, but I do think it's a big problem to say that God willed the death of 99% of all species that have ever existed before human beings came on the scene.

    Modern science implies that predation, violence, parasitism, suffering, and mass extinction, and hence what we typically label as "natural evil", were intrinsic to the natural world from the get-go, long before human beings ever arrived on the scene to spoil creation. Moreover, and particularly in regards to predation, evolution wouldn’t make any sense without these violent processes. Especially if one is a naturalistic Darwinist, he or she must wave goodbye to the current form of the “Paradise, Paradise Lost” “Paradise Restored” narrative that is, or seems, so essential to Christianity. At the very least, the narrative will have to undergo substantial revision.

    It is my opinion, though, that any future attempts at constructing a theodicy must avoid certain strategies. It cannot claim that suffering is a necessary “precondition of the emergence of complex beings” or that “If God was to create human beings, then it had to be in this bloody, violent way" or that “this earth of ours is the vale of ‘soul making’, as we are burnished and tempered by strife and suffering” or any other variant of “death and suffering are instrumentally necessary to produce the greatest possible good for human creatures.” These strategies look good on the surface, but strike me as extremely problematic. Serious difficulties arise if a wholly benevolent God must will suffering, pain, or evil even in an instrumental sense. First, we are in effect saying that the infinite goodness of God is insufficient in creating human agents. Second, and more importantly, if God is the source of all being, and if He, right at the outset, wills suffering, pain, and evil into creation for whatever reason, then we must conclude that evil possesses an essence or a substance. But this is something a God whose nature or essence is goodness can never do, because for God to will anything besides goodness is for him to violate his own essence, and to violate his own essence is, by definition, just for “God not to be God”, which is a contradiction. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). The strength of “fall” narratives is that they allowed us to truly describe evil as a genuine privation, a metaphysical “wasting away” of reality, a turning away on the part of a totally free creature away from the light of God (the transcendent “Good beyond being”).

    This crucial description of evil seems unavailable to us if God wills evil provisionally or transitorily. To believe in God and to describe evil, even instrumental evil, as somehow necessary in bringing about certain good ends, is to believe in a dualistic demiurge or a God who is literally beyond good and evil. Sure, some people may claim that bloody predation, violence, parasitism, suffering, and wasteful mass extinction are “somehow” good from God’s viewpoint and have nothing necessarily to do with evil, but it is very difficult, frankly, to see how such a God isn’t in a very real sense “beyond good and evil,” and thus, if this concept is not already somehow incoherent, he at least runs the risk of being totally unworthy of worship. (I'm reminded of the dramatic scene in The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan declares to Alyosha, "It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha. I'm just, with the utmost respect, handing him back my ticket." He cannot give his moral consent to a universe set up in that way.)

  24. (cont.)

    If the all loving Christian God is to exist, the origin of all evil (both natural and moral/spiritual) must be on the part of free creatures. The reality we inhabit must be “fallen.” But if evolution is true, these creatures cannot be human beings. What else is available for the theologian? One possible route is to ascribe evil to some sort of angelic fall (i.e. the Fall of Satan) or perhaps some other type of mysterious, cosmic, creaturely fall. Reality could be so much more multidimensional than we ever imagined. To the modern day 21st century naturalist, tempered by scientism and skepticism, this proposal will probably seem wholly ad hoc and absurd. A desperate attempt to keep the theory alive by shrouding it in mystery. But as long as we admit of the bare possibility, it does initially seem as though this entire problem disappears. Either way, the theologian has his work cut out for him.

    These are my thoughts after just finishing David Bentley Hart's The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?. It is an absolute must for anyone interested in evil and the Christian God (Hart is brilliant. However, the only flaw is that he doesn't discuss this problem of animal suffering and its relationship to a Fall).

    At the moment, I cannot believe in anything else but a fallen reality. How we situate that fall within cosmology seems entirely mysterious, though.

    I really wish more brilliant Christian philosophers or theologians would address this problem more directly. I'd be lying if I said it doesn't deeply disturb me.

  25. >I read William Lane Craig's massive "Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview," in which he strongly critiques the notion of divine simplicity that you also present in TLS, and which was formulated by Aquinas.

    I reply: I think Dr. Feser did respond


    Cheers fellow Feser Fan.

  26. anonymous

    read hartshorne

  27. "It's as if you all are incapable of realizing this one simple point: that we are ALL atheists with respect to the mythic narratives we don't believe in. Wotan. Zeus. Thor. Poseidon. Apollo. The only difference is, some of us just go one god further."

    This reminds me of one of my own theories. I mean, we all laugh at those who think that Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth, the Earl of Oxford and other historical personages wrote Shakespeare. But I follow the logic to its conclusion and boldly complain that NOBODY wrote the works of Shakespeare. Why do we need to posit a writer, anyway? Why can't they have just written themselves?

    It's true that officialdom and teachers have fed us the William of Stratford myth. But the appeal to authority or tradition means nothing to me. I just believe in one fewer writer of Shakespeare than the rest of you.

  28. All you creationists seriously freak me out. It's as if you all are incapable of realizing this one simple point: that we are ALL atheists with respect to the mythic narratives we don't believe in. Wotan. Zeus. Thor. Poseidon. Apollo.

    Actually, I'm a Christian with respect to all those guys.

  29. Hi Anonymous (the sensible one),

    A couple of things:

    (1) What you're bringing up is the problem of natural evil; one can take a metaphorical view of the Fall while still worrying about natural evil. So, it's not the Fall that has to be given up, it's natural evil that has to be responded to.
    (2) As for animal suffering, theists have started to really work on this. I'm thinking in particular of Michael Murray's Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, a book-length treatment of the problem, and Peter van Inwagen's chapter, "The Suffering of Beasts" in his The Problem of Evil. I can't say much about Murray's approach, though I can recommend to you this review of his work:
    That said, I know PvI's view a bit, and can say that it's not the instrumentalist view; it's the view that there is a necessary trade-off between having an orderly world with animal suffering or having a massively disorderly world without it. In his view, it's not obvious that an all-loving God would have to pick the massively disorderly world over the orderly world. (As for the view that God could create an orderly world without animal suffering, PvI will here invoke his modal skepticism and say that we have no reason to believe that even God could bring about such a world.)

    I am interested in your critique of instrumental approaches, however. What's the problem? The main problem I see with them is that instrumentalists sometimes forget that an instrumentalist defense will work only if using x to bring about y is the only possible way of bringing about y. But if animal suffering is the only possible way to bring about some great good, then would it barking up a wrong tree to point this out?

  30. Anon (3:53pm)

    First let me say that your line of thinking is crucial and that I very much identify with your confession that:

    “I really wish more brilliant Christian philosophers or theologians would address this problem more directly. I'd be lying if I said it doesn't deeply disturb me.”

    Giving VERY serious attention to the issue of “natural/physical” evil in relation to theism, evolution, etc. strikes me as a core issue; not just for the theism/atheism debate, but for any understanding of human meaning/purpose (or lack thereof) in general. Without doubt, how this foundational question is answered by the individual and by our wider culture bears upon everything in our practical existence – at least it will when the implications of said answer have had time to germinate. Thus, I think we are in agreement that Christian theists MUST face this problem head-on IF they want to meet people (especially thoughtful people) where they are. It seems to me that many (not all) modern arguments directed to the problem of evil by Christian philosophers and apologists, focus on “moral” evil, more so than physical evil – this is a mistake in my view. I, with you, fail to see how any coherent explanation for natural/physical evil (the kind of natural/physical evil entailed in pre-human evolutionary history) can be eeked out of arguments related to “moral” evil on either philosophical or theological grounds. Moreover, I agree that the problem of natural/physical evil is not satisfactorily addressed by simply asserting “that bloody predation, violence, parasitism, suffering, and wasteful mass extinction are “somehow” good from God’s viewpoint”. It is the “somehow” that strikes many (most?) people as an intellectual cop-out.

    What I would like to point out to you, however, is that none of the above represent the most direct and classical theistic responses to the problem of natural/physical evil – those made my Augustan/Aquinas etc. I rarely find modern Christian thinkers (including Hart whom I also enjoy) putting forward the very direct response to this problem that can be found among earlier Catholic theologians and Thomistic philosophers. I say “theologians” and “philosophers”, because as your comments indicate, any “Christian” (as opposed to strictly theistic) response to the problem must involve a sort of nexus between divine revelation and philosophical categories (hence, your attention to the theology of “the Fall” as well as philosophical categories of “being”).

    Now I have no desire to engage in Protestant / Catholic polemics; however, it just happens to be the case that the Catholic hermeneutic approach to the Hebrew accounts of the creation and fall differ substantially from that often employed within many (not all) Protestant circles. The difference turns out to be crucial with regard to the problem of evil (I can expand on that point some other time if need be). Secondly, Thomistic metaphysics, especially as related to the problem of natural evil; without blinking or side-stepping, directly confronts the problem in a way which harmonizes with the Catholic hermeneutical approach to Genesis. The best synthesis of this harmony IMO is embodied in the theologico-philosophico approach of St. Thomas. This is a huge topic and I will not pretend to offer a comprehensive overview of the Thomistic synthesis in a combox; but let me comment on a few of your statements in a way which shows the direction I have in mind.


  31. You said:

    “If the all loving Christian God is to exist, the origin of all evil (both natural and moral/spiritual) must be on the part of free creatures. The reality we inhabit must be “fallen.” But if evolution is true, these creatures cannot be human beings. What else is available for the theologian?”

    And again:

    “Second, and more importantly, if God is the source of all being, and if He, right at the outset, wills suffering, pain, and evil into creation for whatever reason, then we must conclude that evil possesses an essence or a substance.”

    There is ambiguity in the use of the word “evil” in relation to “natural evil”. The word is charged with all the free will/free choice connotations bound up in considerations of “moral/spiritual” evil. This is unfortunate because, with regard to non-human / non-angelic created nature, what is termed “evil” is nothing other than a metaphorical (and confusing) way of stating that the created order is FINITE. By definition, what is finite involves potentiality, and by extension, lacks some perfection (otherwise it would be God). Finite things act as efficient causes of other finite things – actualizing potentialities. An example might be a forest ecosystem where the dying and decay of leaves gives rise to plant life on the forest floor. The general idea of an ecosystem I think helps concretize the abstract finite act/potency concept. The Thomistic position is that the “origin” of “natural evil” is not “free creatures”; rather it is the fact of finitude intrinsic to any created universe (even the best-of-all-possible-worlds which would still be a finite one, otherwise it would be identical to God). Thus, what God has made is “good” so far as it participates in “being” (albeit in a finite way) – i.e. God has not “created evil” as a thing per se. Nevertheless, the decision to create finite things necessitates “imperfection” in the sense that things lack pure actuality (this is different, but not entirely unlike how the decision to create “free” agents, necessitates that they be able to choose or embrace a privation of good – which is evil). The creation of finite, imperfect things – good so far as they go - does not implicate God, or any other free creature, as the originator of “evil” in any ontological sense. Such creation involves a “lack of perfection” or “lack of being”, not the real presence of a thing called “evil”. The lack of some perfection in a thing does not negate the goodness of whatever perfection it does possess.


  32. To move out of the abstract; the existence of tectonic plates is good so far as the plates themselves exist, and thus share in “being”. That they are a finite participation in “being”, means that they admit of both potentiality and actuality. That the actualization of the potential of a tectonic plate to be moved from position A to position B by some other finite cause (say another plate); is simply the potential/actual interaction of two finite things (both of which are good in themselves and so far as they participate in being). In this scenario there is no “essence” or “substance” of evil. There is only a privation of some good; some lack of perfection; some participation in being which is less that total (which is what finite means).

    In addition, morally charged terms like “suffering” and “pain” may be misapplied or overly anthropomorphized when predicated of non-human, non-angelic created things and relationships. For example, bears maintaining their existence and form at the expense of a fish loosing the same. The death of one finite existence contributes to the life of another – such finite act/potency dependence is implicit in the idea of any “food chain” or ecosystem or biosphere or indeed universe. There is an act/potency relationship present among living things in both the plant and animal kingdom – but is there anything intrinsically immoral in such relationships? When we predicate “suffering” and “pain” of such a relationship (bear/fish); we need to think carefully and closely about the differences in the order of being between plant, animal and human life; and the degree to which such predicates imply any sort of moral culpability when applied to plants/animal versus humans/angels. After all, not all senses of “pain” and “suffering” imply “evil” – in fact, the contrary is sometimes the case. When human “pain” and “suffering” result from placing one’s hand on a hot iron, the pain and suffering serve to inform a person to let go AND not touch such a thing again – i.e. the pain serves both a protective and instructive purpose – one might say it serves a “good” purpose.

    This, admittedly, does not come close to addressing your concerns. Suffice it to say that from a Catholic / Thomistic perspective, natural “evil” is a term which would better be rendered natural “imperfection” or “finitude”. Given much more discussion, I believe it can be shown theologically, that there is no need to shy away from such an understanding of the universe either before or after “the fall”.

    Pax et Bonum

  33. "It's as if you all are incapable of realizing this one simple point: that we are ALL atheists with respect to the mythic narratives we don't believe in. Wotan. Zeus. Thor. Poseidon. Apollo. The only difference is, some of us just go one god further."

    An eminently sound piece of reasoning, if ever I've seen one. And it is universally applicable! Here's an example:

    "We are ALL skeptics with respect to the crappy scientific theories we don't agree with. Ptolemaic epicycles. Phlogiston. Phrenology. The luminiferous ether. The only real difference is, that in rejecting the asininity of unguided Darwinian evolution, some of us just go one crappy theory further."


    My goodness! Your reasoning works quite nicely, doesn't it? It is absolutely compelling! Thanks for providing such a powerful, well-thought-out intellectual tool of discernment!

  34. Hi Bobcat:

    I suppose one of my problems with both PvI’s account that “there is a necessary trade-off” and the instrumentalist view that “using x to bring about y is the only possible way of bringing about y” is that they amount to nothing more than appeals to mystery. Sure, logically speaking, you could make liberal use of the words “necessary” and “only”, sprinkle them throughout your claims, and conclude that there could very well be a necessary trade-off, or x could very well be the only possible way of bringing about y.

    But the negations of both these statements have not been ruled out, and they strike me as being at least as plausible. If I’m not already biased towards believing in a certain (and more restricted) conception of God, what in the world is preventing me from saying there is not a necessary trade-off or that it is not the case that x is the only possible way of bringing about y?

    I might as well account for all evil via the Fall of Satan or some other mysterious cosmic fall. (Actually, I would prefer this view over the other two, since it presupposes a conception of God that seems less “restricted.”)

    Hi Monk68:

    Thanks for the very lengthy and illuminating response. It’s nice to see someone present a Thomistic angle I’d never considered before. My initial worry though is that your claim that God’s “decision to create finite things necessitates ‘imperfection’ in the sense that things lack pure actuality” seems to have very unsettling implications for eschatology, insofar as finite things will presumably be around forever, which implies that “participation in being” will always be “less than total.” Therefore, will “heaven” or “the marriage of heaven and Earth” also be a place in which physical evil must invariably manifest itself? Even in the presence of God, will human beings wage war against each other by virtue of their finitude? Will the shifting of tectonic plates still be unleashing tsunamis that crush villages and sweep women and children out to sea? Will animals still be tearing each other’s insides out?

    If not (and I do hope not), then, assuming that something like your Thomistic account is true, why did the initial created reality have to be so different from the final moment of eternal harmony that we as Christians deeply long for?

    I want to illustrate my intuitions. Imagine a scenario in which a young child has just witnessed his entire family get pulled out to sea in a tsunami. Needless to say, this is physical evil, and he is devastated beyond measure. In the aftermath, a old priest comes to comfort him, and has the option of saying one of two things:

    “Listen, my child. You are suffering, that is evident, but given His specific nature, God had to create a world which permitted such evil to occur. Our world doesn't fully participate in God's being, and so there is death and suffering. It’s okay to cry. Your village, your family, your friends –they all suffered and died for their and your ultimate good. Never forget it.”

    “Listen, my child. The world, as we now know it, is only a brief veil of tears. It is only a shadow of what it should have been- a place wherein sin and death never have any existence. It’s okay to cry. This horrible dualistic economy in which life is always accompanied by death, in which joy is constantly tempered by sorrow - all of it will one day vanish like a pitiful mirage. Therefore, you are permitted to hate death with a perfect hatred. For death is the enemy of Christ, and He has conquered death, totally freeing us from the powers that dominate this age. Never forget it.”

    Perhaps in an academic setting, both may seem acceptable. But, in the face of overwhelming misery, I submit that making the first statement to the child would be positively immoral, and, at least in my opinion, it would constitute a genuine moral case against the Christian God if it were true. The second statement is the only one I could ever say at a time like that.

  35. April 23 Anonymous,

    I'm not sure that PvI is exactly appealing to mystery. It seems pretty hard for me to imagine a state of affairs in which (1) evolution is true; (2) animals don't suffer; and (3) there aren't massive irregularities in the laws of nature. Could you sketch a picture of how we could simultaneously have (1)-(3)?

    Regardless, even if you can sketch such a picture, it still doesn't follow--at least not to me--that it's conceivable. (I.e., it's imaginable but not necessarily conceivable.) PvI is a modal skeptic, remember. In case you don't know what that is, it's like this: think of perceptual judgments. You can estimate with a fairly high degree of accuracy, and just by looking, how far your front door is from your kitchen, or how far your eyes are from your computer screen as you read this. However, before natural science, you could not estimate with much accuracy at all how far your nose is from the sun. (Even if you had magically picked 93,000,000 miles, it would have been a lucky guess, not something that in fact resulted from a judgment based on perception).

    PvI thinks modal judgments are like that. So: "is it possible that your table might never have existed?" Sure, we know that's possible. "Is it possible that there could have been a world where there's no evil and free, finite, rational beings?" That's much harder to know, and even if you got the right answer, it would only be a matter of luck.

    PvI moors his modal skepticism in Stephen Yablo's account of conceivability. According to Yablo, to determine whether a state of affairs is in fact conceivable, you have to figure out where that state of affairs fits in to the whole world, you can't just imagine that state of affairs by itself. That is, you have to give an account of what laws of nature are compatible with that state of affairs emerging. And the farther we get from states of affairs that in fact obtain in our world, the harder it is think the world you've imagined in fact has a coherent set of laws.

    Given this, I'm not sure it's an appeal to mystery to say that we can't really know if God could have created a world without animal suffering but with animals.

  36. While acknowledging that some of the proponents of ID have used language which presumes a mechanistic view of nature, there is nothing essential to ID which necessitates such a view. Indeed, Michael Denton (whose book on evolution is often said to have kickstarted the ID movement) is a Platonist whose book "Nature's Destiny" explicitly articulates intelligent design in terms of final causation. This was published in 1999. Last year Dembski published his "Being as Communion" which, in his own words, is intended to provide a metaphysical basis for intelligent design and which explicitly critiques a mechanistic view of nature. All ID purports to show is that biological organisms are a particularly obvious instance of teleology in nature.

    In classical terms, it holds that the organization of an organism is an instance of a form on account of which the organism has the properties it does. The form preexists in the mind of God and is realized in nature- whether it is realized through an evolutionary process operating on final causality (as Denton holds) or whether it is realized through creation from dust on the sixth day. Even if one holds that the creation days of Genesis 1 need not be taken historically, it must be at least admitted that such a reading is compatible with classical theism, since classical theists like St. Basil and St. Thomas took it historically. And if that is the case, what's the problem with ID as such? I would simply insist that the parts bear an intrinsic relation to the whole, which are given unity by a form existing in the divine mind.

    Now, acknowledging from the outset that the regularities of the world themselves cannot be explained in terms of mechanistic naturalism, I also hold that even if we took such regularities for granted, they would not be sufficient to explain the form of biological organisms. That these regularities are so sufficient is precisely the argument of Darwin and his successors.