Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Scotism and ID (UPDATED)

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

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

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


  1. I'm sorry to post an unrelated comment, but I have been reading The Last Superstition and wonder if any of the Thomists could help me with something.

    It pertains to Aquinas's First Way. Dr. Feser criticises David Hume's critique of causality by pointing out that it's not the "event" of a brick being thrown at a window that leads to the event of the window breaking. The window breaking and the stone going through it are simultaneous-- the same event, he says, considered under different descriptions.

    He also points out the difference between an accidentally ordered series and an essentially ordered series, and explains that the second sort of series is the basis for the argument from first motion.

    But my problem is this. If the events in an essentially ordered sequence are perfectly simultaneous, doesn't that undermine the very basis of the argument-- that something cannot be potential and actual at the same time, in the same respect? Where is potentiality being reduced to actuality here, since we just have two examples of simultaneous actuality? How can a simultaneous chain of events "catch" potentiality being reduced to actuality?

    And if they are not perfectly simultaneous, does that make it an accidentally ordered sequence?

    This is probably a breath-takingly stupid question, and I'm sorry, but it's perplexing me.

  2. Remember that actuality and potentiality pertain to beings, not events. Before the brick hits the window, the brick and the window are both actually whole and potentially fragmented. As the brick goes through the window, the window goes from potentially fragmented to actually fragmented, while the brick undergoes no change at all (other than local motion, i.e. spatial movement.)

    Potentiality gets reduced to actuality in the window, insofar as it went from being potentially fragmented to actually fragmented.

  3. Thanks, David. I will mull that over.

  4. Rd, V J Torles, Michael Sullivan, and Lydia McGrew,

    Some predictable backslapping in the combox between Feser and Sullivan over at the Smithy.

    Before this ongoing blogfest over the approach and authority of medieval metaphysics vs modern science dissolves into retrenchment of allies congratulating themselves for successfully talking past everyone, how about a short summary essay on what (if anything) has been accomplished.

    Perhaps an essay from a representative from 4W, Feser, Smithy, and UD. Since Ed started this, his blog would be the beat place to post these summations.

    It would be rewarding to see some benefit from philosophic arguments for once.

  5. Typo - Rd is Ed


    P S If you all see merit in this, I would urge that short and to the point should be paramount. One 8.5x11 page single spaced.

  6. Just Thinking,

    Do you have the authority to assign homework?

  7. Michael

    Not an assignment, but a request to take action that might help all who've followed these blog posts about ID.

    I gave up being a professor partly because I would similarly urge students to do some exercises rather than force them. Result - less benefit all around.

  8. Just Thinking,

    All the major participants in the discussion have been using their own names, while you are anonymous. You begin your request by describing very brief but friendly exchanges as "predictable backslapping", describe the discussion with the vaguely derogatory sounding "ongoing blogfest", and then go on to "request" that the discussion proceed on your own terms, dividing up essays and laying down your preferred length, objective, and venue. Then you suggest that following your program is the only way "to see some benefit from philosophic arguments for once".

    Do you see how this could come off as pretty obnoxious?

  9. I learned everything I know about how to address and intone communicate on blogs from Ed, especially the need for remaining anonymous.

    But look, we're at it now...going ad hominem and blowing off a reasonable request.

  10. whoops

    conati was typed in the wrong place

    Just Thinking

  11. Michael

    You began your posts concerning ID, Thomism, and Scotism with I hadn't meant to weigh in, but now I (or at least someone here at The Smithy) have been invited twice, including by Dr Feser himself, to comment on a recent post by V. J. Torley suggesting that, rather than naturalistic mechanists, Intelligent Design advocates are Scotists, or at least closer in inspiration to Scotism than to Thomism, and that this is a legitimate and laudable stance.

    It is fair to say that VJT's post to which you are referring was written to make the singly important point that Scotus' view on intelligence is that of continuum, so for ID, we can identify the intelligence of God because ours is just like His (not perfect, of course).

    In a comment in your latest blog to VJT you said ...Dr Torley never brought the Scotus connection back up after his initial post.. My answer to his claim was, essentially, that while it is correct that Scotus holds that intelligence is a pure perfection which in a certainly way can be univocally predicated of both finite and infinite intelligences, still this is not relevant to ID's claims. Dr Feser's critiques of ID were on the grounds of the distinction between natural and artificial substances, not the difference between analogous and univocal predication, and I think that Scotus would hold a similar distinction and apply it similarly.

    You are thus saying you did not discuss the importance of Scotus' view of intelligence for ID, and it is irrelevant anyway. It is absolutely relevant, as VJT could see. It is this Scotus idea of intelligence that gets ID out of the problems of analogy posed by Thomism.

    Ed makes it clear that Thomism sees the two intelligences as completely different in kind, alike only by analogy. But when VJT early on pointed out analogies Aquinas himself said of God's intelligence as designer being analogous to man's, Ed refused to accept this.

    VJT faced a wall with this contradiction, offered a different Catholic medieval theologian that might be acceptable. Ed called you in to comment, but by your own admission, the issue of intelligence was forgotten and you found complete agreement with Ed on – substantial essences.

    This is what I mean by talking past one another. We went nowhere in all of this. How about some closure remarks – that is what I meant by my 'assignment.'

  12. Just Thinking,

    It is fair to say that VJT's post to which you are referring was written to make the singly important point that Scotus' view on intelligence is that of continuum, so for ID, we can identify the intelligence of God because ours is just like His (not perfect, of course).

    First, I don't think "continuum" is the right way to think of it, but that's neither here nor there. The fact is I don't think it's fair to say what you say, because if you look at Torley's original post there's actually very little Scotus in there. It's a very long post but he only discusses Scotus' views in a couple of paragraphs. And, as I said, he never came back to it.

    The fact is that I don't think it's a crucial point in this debate. Dr Feser's objections to ID because of analogy are not mine, but I don't think that's very relevant. Dr Feser objects that ID can't help you get to a metaphysical conception of God, but on the ID people's own account that's not what they're going for. They say they don't care if you think the designer was an alien or a demiurge or whatever, just that there has to be one. A univocal account of intelligence as a pure perfection is adequate for this sort of argument, which I admitted.

    In the post prior to this one Dr Feser wrote ID’s univocal usage of theological language is (along with its mechanistic conception of nature) one of the two features that I have consistently emphasized as putting ID fundamentally at odds with A-T. Then he suggested I weigh in. When I did my point was that, even if one were not bothered by the lack of analogical language, which I am not in this case, still a Scotist or other scholastic may well take issue with Dr Torley's arguments on Dr Feser's other main ground, namely the conception of nature involved. The whole question of analogy vs. univocity is, to my mind, something of a red herring stemming from particularly Thomistic metaphysical preoccupations, but on considering the matter I found that I could sympathize with a great deal of Dr Feser's critique even apart from that issue.

    Does this mean the entire discussion was fruitless? You seem to think so: We went nowhere in all of this. If by "we" you mean "the participants in the discussion and I, an anonymous commenter who hasn't contributed to the discussion except to complain," then perhaps you're right. But the participants themselves seem to think that the effort was worthwhile.

  13. These are very helpful comments, Michael. Thank you. And I do regret the tone of my 'backslapping allies' comment earlier. I reacted to assertions of agreement as being more complete than actually were.

    I have participated with pro, con, and neutral comments/questions throughout these talks and on all the blogs, as have many dozens of others. But you are right in that it was only a statement of my opinion that we got nowhere, and I apologize if I mis-spoke for anyone else.

    As I mentioned in a comment to Dr. Torley, I have become favorably impressed with ID concepts that I was not aware of prior to this discussion. I also learned a good bit about the Subtle Doctor that I had not been aware of. So I apparently also had mis-spoken even for myself in saying nothing came of all this.

    Thank you for your reply.