I. Context is everything
Saturday, July 26, 2014
Signature in the cell?
In the combox of my recent post comparing the New Atheism and ID theory to different players in a game of Where’s Waldo?, a reader wrote:
One can run a reductio against the claim that we cannot detect design or infer transcendent intelligence through natural processes. Were we to find, imprinted in every human cell, the phrase "Made by Yahweh" there is only one thing we can reasonably conclude.
I like this example, because it is simple, clear, and illustrative of confusions of the sort that are rife in discussions of ID. Presumably we are all supposed to regard it as obvious that if this weird event were to occur, the “one thing we can reasonably conclude” is that a “transcendent intelligence,” indeed Yahweh himself, had put his “signature in the cell” (with apologies to Stephen Meyer -- whose own views I am not addressing here, by the way).
I. Context is everything
Well, it just isn’t the case that that is the “one thing we can reasonably conclude.” In fact, by itself such a weird event wouldn’t give us reason at all to affirm the existence of any “transcendent intelligence,” much less Yahweh. To see why not, compare the following parallel examples. Suppose we found, imprinted in every human cell, a phrase like “Made by Quetzalcoatl,” or “Simulated by the Matrix,” or “Made by Steve Jobs," or “Round squares exist,” or “Kilroy was here.” Would there be “only one thing we could reasonably conclude”? Well, sure there would, and it would be this: Something really weird is going on, but who the hell knows what.
Here's what a scenario of this sort would not be, though: a good reason to believe that Quetzalcoatl exists, or that we are part of the Matrix, or that Steve Jobs is our creator, or that round squares are possible after all, or that Kilroy had somehow found his way into each cell. (And who would “Kilroy” be anyway? Some WWII-era graffiti artist? The robot guy from the Styx album?)
Our background knowledge just doesn’t make any of these conclusions plausible. For example, we just know, with greater certainty than we could know any of these conclusions, that round squares are impossible. We know that “Kilroy is here” is a stereotypical graffito, that the Matrix is a stereotypical mind-blowing science fiction scenario, and that Steve Jobs is a stereotypical tech biz whiz. If we found in every human cell a phrase referring to Kilroy, round squares, the Matrix, or Steve Jobs, we would judge it far more likely that someone, somehow, is playing a massive joke on us than that the Matrix or round squares exist, or that Kilroy or Steve Jobs is responsible. Nor would we judge that a “transcendent intelligence” -- if by that we mean a strictly divine one (i.e. an intellect that was infinite, purely actual, perfectly good, etc.) -- was responsible. (Indeed, I would say that when we understand what it would be to be the divine intellect, we can see that such a frivolous action would be ruled out.) And we might not even attribute the scenario to intelligence at all; on the contrary, you might judge that everyone’s cognitive faculties -- or maybe just your own (including your perceptions of what other people were reporting about what they’d seen in the cell) -- were massively malfunctioning and producing pop-culture-influenced hallucinations.
Now, it doesn’t take much thought to see that we’d think the same thing about finding “Made by Quetzalcoatl” imprinted in every cell. I doubt that any Christian ID theorist would propose that “there is only one thing we could reasonably conclude” from this, viz. that we should renounce Christianity and take up Aztec religion. More likely such an ID theorist would conclude that someone, somehow -- a New Atheist biotech cabal, maybe, or the devil -- was trying to shake everyone’s faith in Christianity. Or he might just conclude that no intelligence at all was responsible for it, and that his cognitive faculties were massively malfunctioning. Whatever he would conclude, though, the occurrence in human cells of the phrase “Made by Quetzalcoatl” would not by itself be doing the main work.
But the same thing is true in the “Made by Yahweh” scenario. The reason the reader I was quoting thinks (like many other people no doubt think) that the “one thing we can reasonably conclude” in such a case is that Yahweh put the message there, is that he already believes on independent grounds that God exists, that he is the cause of living things, that he revealed himself to the ancient Israelites as Yahweh, etc. And those independent reasons are what's really doing the heavy lifting in the thought experiment, not the “Made by Yahweh” stuff. Some secularist who thought he had good independent reasons to think that Yahweh does not exist might conclude instead that the whole thing was a gag foisted upon us by Erich von Däniken’s extraterrestrials, or by a cabal of Christian biotech whizzes -- or maybe that it is just a massive cognitive malfunction on his part, caused by his excessive fear of the Religious Right.
“But those wouldn’t be reasonable interpretations of such an event!” you say. Well, maybe, and maybe not. The point, though, is that you’re not going to know from the event itself, considered in isolation. If we’re to judge that Yahweh, rather than extraterrestrial pranksters, hallucination, or some other cause, was behind such an event, it is considerations other than the event itself that will justify us in doing so. In short, we could take “Made by Yahweh” to be a sign from Yahweh only if we already have, on other grounds, good reason to think Yahweh exists and is likely to send us messages by leaving them in cells. And in that case the occurrence of the phrase in the cell would not be giving us independent reason to think Yahweh exists.
Of course, the “Made by Yahweh” scenario is pure fiction. The “messages” or “information” that ID theorists actually identify in the cell is, needless to say, far less dramatic than that. It has nothing specifically to do with Yahweh at all, or with anyone else for that matter. Indeed, whether regarding it as “information” in any literal sense is even appropriate in the first place is a matter of controversy in the philosophy of biology. How much more, then, is the real work in ID arguments being done by considerations apart from what we actually find in the cell? If even “Made by Yahweh” wouldn’t by itself do much to get you to Yahweh, how much less does the presence of genetic information per se do so?
II. You keep using that word “natural”; I don’t think it means what you think it means
That brings us to a second confusion in the reader’s remark quoted above. He speaks of “detect[ing] design or infer[ring] transcendent intelligence through natural processes.” But the example he gives is of finding the phrase “Made by Yahweh” in every human cell. And the problem is that the occurrence of the phrase “Made by Yahweh” simply wouldn’t be a “natural” process, certainly not from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view (so that the example simply begs the question against A-T objections to ID). Even if this occurrence happened repeatedly in every cell over the course of millennia, it wouldn’t be “natural” in the relevant sense.
The reason is the obvious one that it is purely a matter of convention that the string of shapes “Made by Yahweh” counts as a sentence in the English language, and purely a matter of convention that the sentence has the specific meaning that it has. For an arrangement of physical marks to count as the English sentence “Made by Yahweh” is thus for it to have what Aristotelians call an “accidental form.” But a “natural” object is one that has a “substantial form” rather than an accidental form. And objects with accidental forms are metaphysically less fundamental than those with substantial forms. Accidental forms presuppose substantial forms, insofar as it is only an object or collection of objects that have substantial forms that can come to have an accidental form. The stock examples of objects with accidental forms are artifacts (watches, beds, coats, computers, etc.), and the stock examples of objects with substantial forms are those that occur in the wild (animals, plants, stones, water, etc.), though the “accidental form/substantial form” distinction doesn’t match up precisely to the “human artifact/thing-that-occurs-in-the-wild” distinction. There are man-made things that have substantial forms (human babies, new breeds of dog, water synthesized in a lab) and things that occur in the wild that have only accidental forms (a pile of stones that randomly forms at the bottom of a hill).
This distinction is closely related to another one, viz. the distinction between immanent teleology and extrinsic teleology. An acorn’s “pointing to” or being “directed at” the end or outcome of becoming an oak would be an example of immanent teleology, since this “pointing” or “directedness” is grounded in the very nature of an acorn insofar as it follows from an acorn’s having the substantial form it does. A watch’s “pointing to” of being “directed toward” time-telling is an example of extrinsic teleology, because its having that function follows from the watch’s parts having a certain accidental form imposed on them from outside.
These are distinctions I have discussed and defended in many places -- and by far at greatest length, and in the most systematic detail, in Scholastic Metaphysics. (If you want to criticize what I have to say on the grounds that you reject these distinctions, fine, but you really have no business doing so unless you read and can answer the arguments I develop in that book.) Suffice it to say here that from an A-T point of view, what is “natural” is what has a substantial form and immanent teleology, and it simply makes no sense to describe what has an accidental form and extrinsic teleology as “natural.”
Now a problem A-T writers have with Paley’s “design argument” and with ID theory is that they relentlessly blur these distinctions. In particular, in comparing organisms and other natural phenomena to human artifacts they treat them as if they had accidental forms and extrinsic teleology, and from the A-T point of view this is just a complete muddle. It simply makes no sense. It gets the metaphysics of natural objects just fundamentally wrong, and it also has a tendency to lead us into getting the “designer” and his relationship to the world fundamentally wrong. In particular, it tends to lead us into an anthropomorphic conception of the designer that is incompatible with classical theism, and a conception of his relationship to the world that is implicitly either deist or occasionalist. (I’ve developed and defended these claims too in many places -- and by far at greatest length, and in the most systematic detail, in my Nova et Vetera article “Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’s Fifth Way.” See also my many posts on Paley and ID theory. Again, there really is no point to criticizing what I say about the implications of Paley’s argument and ID theory unless you’ve read and have an answer to these arguments, though I know from long experience that that won’t stop many readers from doing it anyway.)
Now suppose someone said: “Fine, suppose we go along with all these A-T scruples. Suppose we characterize natural phenomena in terms of substantial forms and immanent teleology, and suppose we put aside any examples the evaluation of which would be highly sensitive to context, e.g. cases like ‘Made by Yahweh’ being written in the cell. Would you still deny that we can infer transcendent intelligence from natural processes?”
The answer is No, I would absolutely not deny it. Those who suppose, like the reader quoted above and like so many other ID sympathizers, that we A-T philosophers “claim that we cannot detect design or infer transcendent intelligence through natural processes” simply haven’t been reading very carefully. Neither I nor any other A-T writer I know of would make such a claim. On the contrary, Aquinas’s Fifth Way is devoted precisely to a demonstration of the existence of the divine intellect on the basis of the existence of immanent teleology in nature. But this argument has nothing to do with modeling natural objects on watches, outboard motors, or other artifacts; nothing to do with explaining rare or strange phenomena; nothing to do with “gaps” in current scientific explanations; nothing to do with “specified complexity” or any other kind of complexity; nothing to do with weighing probabilities; nothing to do with biological phenomena per se; and nothing to do even with “information” as such either.
It has instead to do with there being irreducible immanent teleology of at least some sort in nature, at the very least at the level of the most primitive patterns of efficient causality. Even if you could reduce or eliminate every other apparent instance of teleology in nature -- everything at the “macro” level from human beings down to complex inorganic chemical phenomena -- the barest efficient-causal relations at the “micro” level would still be intelligible only in teleological terms. For as the A-T philosopher argues, there is no way for an efficient cause A regularly to generate a particular characteristic effect or range of effects B unless generating B is the “end” or outcome toward which A “points” or is “directed,” as to a final cause. (Again, see Scholastic Metaphysics for detailed defense of this line of argument.) For the Fifth Way, it’s not that there is in nature “directedness” of a complex sort (as in bodily organs), or of a semantic sort (as in “information” in the ordinary sense), that requires a transcendent divine intellect; it’s the fact that there’s any “directedness” at all that requires it, and it requires it as a matter of metaphysical necessity, not mere probability. (Compare: A painting requires a painter not by virtue of having this or that unusual or complex element in it, but just by virtue of being a painting at all.)
But couldn’t there also be irreducible immanent teleology at the biological level, or at some other “macro” level -- even irreducible teleology whose direct cause could only have been God himself? Of course there could be; indeed, there is at least one example -- the human intellect, which (the Thomist argues) cannot in principle have arisen from material processes and has to be specially created every time a new human being comes into existence. But if and wherever else there are such irreducible levels of immanent teleology, that will be by virtue of things at the “macro” level having substantial forms rather than being mere aggregates of lower level phenomena (and thus having merely accidental forms). And if a divine cause alone could account for them, that will be by virtue of there being nothing in any natural efficient-causal precursors that contains what is in the effect either “formally,” “virtually,” or “eminently” (as the Scholastic “principle of proportionate causality” requires). (I discussed the relevance of the latter point to disputes over the origin of life in a post from a few years ago.)
In other words, it is in terms of the A-T metaphysical categories alone that various proposed naturalistic explanations of biological and other phenomena can adequately be evaluated. “Complex specified information” and other such theoretical tools get the conceptual territory wrong and otherwise lack the conceptual nuance of the Scholastic metaphysical apparatus. From an A-T point of view, investigating the metaphysics of the natural world using these tools rather than the A-T ones is like investigating combustion and the like using phlogiston theory rather than modern chemistry, or studying human behavior using phrenology. You might accidentally hit upon some insights, but it will be mixed in with a ton of serious errors, and even what you do get right you’ll describe in seriously misleading ways. The enterprise will be a waste of time and energy at best and at worst seriously distort our understanding of the phenomena studied.
This is why the stock responses of ID sympathizers to A-T criticisms miss the point. “We’re not claiming in the first place that our arguments get you all the way to God; other work would be needed to do that.” That’s like saying: “Sure, phrenology doesn’t give us a complete psychology; other work would be needed to do that” or “We never claimed phlogiston theory tells us everything about the phenomena it studies; other approaches are needed too.” In both cases, the “other work” is (from an A-T point of view) doing all the real work.
Here’s another stock response: “How can you object to seeing the world as a product of divine design, or as God’s artifact?” The answer is that I don’t object to that. What I object to is blurring the distinctions between substantial form and accidental form, immanent teleology and extrinsic teleology.
Then there’s my favorite stock response: “Why are you giving a blank check to evolutionary naturalism? How much are your Darwinist buddies paying you?” To which I answer: Search the text above. I didn’t say anything about evolution. Get off this Darwin fixation, wouldja Captain Ahab?
III. If the facts are not on your side, pound the table; if the table’s not on your side, thump the Bible.
OK, that’s not really my favorite response. My favorite response is this: “You demmed Thomists, letting your Aristotelianism trump scripture! Where do you get off telling God what sorts of things he can do to reveal himself? The Bible describes God causing all sorts of things you would characterize as having ‘accidental forms’ rather than ‘substantial forms.’ For example, it describes him miraculously speaking to us through sentences in man-made languages. You’re letting your metaphysics determine how you read scripture rather than the other way around!”
‘Cause, you know, the really biblical thing to do would be to let Bill Dembski’s doctoral dissertation determine how we read scripture.
But seriously. I have never said that God cannot reveal himself through sentences, artifacts, and other things having accidental rather than substantial forms, nor does anything I have said imply that. Of course God can cause artifacts to exist miraculously, he can cause a voice to be heard from the sky or from a burning bush, and for that matter he could also cause “Made by Yahweh” to appear in every human cell. And of course he can, and has, revealed himself via miraculous actions like some of these. I don’t think it has ever occurred to any Thomist to dispute any of that. It simply isn’t what is at issue.
What is at issue is the context in which such events could be known to be divine revelations -- and, in particular, whether such events could by themselves constitute evidence for the existence of God for someone who didn’t already know that God exists. For there are different sorts of miracles, and different sorts of context in which they might be interpreted. Suppose God miraculously caused the English words “I, God, exist” to be written in the dust on a certain car’s windshield -- but that the car was parked on a small side street in a neighborhood where most people spoke Mandarin, nobody was particularly religious, and the words appeared in the middle of the night when no one was around to see them. This would, needless to say, be a pretty ineffective way of revealing himself. There would be nothing about the evidence that those who come across it would be at all likely to see as miraculous. It would just seem to be a silly prank, unworthy of a moment’s attention. And pointing this out has nothing to do with arrogantly imposing idiosyncratic Aristotelian metaphysical limits on what God might do to reveal himself.
Consider something more dramatic, such as God miraculously causing a voice from the sky shouting “God loves you!” above a crowd all of whom spoke English -- but where this happened at Universal Studios or Disneyland in the course of a typically busy day there. Almost certainly, no one would think that God was acting in a special way to reassure these people of his love. Even if they were churchgoers, they’d think it was just some goofy prank by an employee with access to the requisite equipment. Even if the context was a more unlikely one for such an event-- a quiet neighborhood, or the desert -- these days they might just as well wonder if the CIA or extraterrestrials were responsible.
Contrast the sorts of contexts we find with biblical miracles like the burning bush or the voice from the sky at Christ’s baptism. The audiences in these cases were people who had no doubt that God exists -- indeed, that the God of Israel, specifically, exists -- and that he reveals himself via unusual events of this sort. Nor, given their cultural context, would it have occurred to them to wonder whether extraterrestrials or a CIA-type organization might be responsible instead. It is, as it were, as if they were already “waiting by the phone” for God to “call” in one of these ways, and all he needed to do was to make it happen. Even in the case of Elijah and the priests of Baal, where some of the people involved worshipped Baal rather than the God of Israel, they were already convinced that one or the other existed. What the miracle was intended to accomplish in this case was merely to make it clear, to people who were already willing to concede that much, which of the two was in fact the true God. If it had been instead (say) a contemporary audience of X-Files-watching atheists who’d read Chariots of the Gods and were familiar with Hollywood special effects and CIA-controlled drones raining death from above, an Elijah-and-the-priests-of-Baal type miracle might not be so effective in sending a divine message. Again, the question isn’t whether God can cause these sorts of things. The question is what sort of context they must occur in for them to be effective. And that depends in part on what the specific point of the miracle is.
This is a question I addressed in my recent post “Pre-Christian apologetics.” As I there argued, if the specific purpose of a miracle is the “general apologetics” one of establishing, for those not already inclined to believe that divine revelations occur, that such a revelation really has in fact occurred, then this cannot be accomplished via an event that is merely unusual and could in principle occur via a non-divine cause. It has to be an event that no one other than God -- that is to say, God as classical theism conceives of him -- could in principle have caused. Christ’s resurrection from the dead would be a paradigm case of such a miracle. But establishing such a miracle in turn requires a lot of philosophical stage-setting. It requires establishing God’s existence and nature, divine providence, the possibility in principle of miracles, the possibility in principle of a resurrection, and so forth. All this groundwork has to be established before the occurrence of a miracle like the resurrection can be defended. (Again, see the post just linked to for discussion of this subject.)
Someone might object: “But in the biblical stories, no one first sets out a fancy philosophical argument for classical theism before God causes a miracle!” Well no, of course, not, but our context is simply not at all like the one in which the people of biblical times found themselves. The existence of the God of Israel and the possibility of divine revelations backed by miraculous interventions was in general simply not an issue. The people involved generally took all that for granted, so that there was no need for philosophical argument. Also, unlike the resurrection -- part of the point of which was to provide unmistakable divine confirmation of Christ’s authority and teaching, which was necessary for the foundation of the Church -- many other biblical miracles did not have such an absolutely fundamental and “general purpose” character, and thus did not need to be so dramatic. Given a context in which it was already widely accepted that God had established a covenant with Moses, and that he sometimes spoke through prophets via special events, an unusual event which could in principle have been brought about by some agency other than God (an angel, say, or an extraterrestrial) -- but where no one in that context would have entertained such alternative explanations -- could suffice.
With this subject as with so many others, Aquinas and other Scholastic writers draw a number of careful distinctions which contemporary writers ignore at their peril. “Miracles” in the strictest sense (a) have a publicly observable character, (b) are beyond the power of any created thing to produce, and (c) are outside the ordinary course of the created order. These three conditions are best understood by way of contrast. The operation of grace in the soul is not miraculous, because while only God can produce it, it is not publicly observable. Alleged poltergeist phenomena and other purported weird occurrences often mislabeled “supernatural” would not count as miracles, because finite spirits could produce them and thus they are not beyond the power of created things. The creation and conservation of the world is beyond the power of anything other than God to produce, but since it just is the causing of the created order it is not outside the ordinary course of the created order. (This is one reason it would, from an A-T point of view, just be a muddle to assimilate the divine causation of some ordinary biological phenomenon to the “miraculous.” That just doesn’t reflect a precise enough understanding of the various ways God acts vis-à-vis the world. Bacterial flagella, for example, are -- unlike resurrections from the dead -- just ordinary everyday parts of the created order rather than something outside the usual course of the created order, and are thus not “miraculous,” whatever else one wants to say about how they came into being.)
“Miracles” in the strict sense are thus to be distinguished from mere “wonders.” The strictly “supernatural” must be distinguished from the merely “preternatural.” And so forth. But we needn’t pursue the issue further here. Suffice it to note that although some have tried to make pro-ID hay out of a comparison of ID’s favorite examples on the one hand and biblical miracles on the other, the two topics have nothing to do with one another. (Unless you count the nearly miraculous multiplication of red herrings which ID sympathizers have produced, including this one!)