Over the past several months, Dr. Edward Feser has been engaged in debate with various ID proponents, most recently Jay Richards and Vincent Torley, over the relationship between two types of argument for God’s existence: on the one hand, arguments from design such as are found in Paley and in the writings of some ID proponents, and on the other hand, philosophical arguments of the sort proposed by Thomas Aquinas. Whereas ID proponents tend to see Paley-type arguments and Thomistic arguments as different but compatible, Feser sees them as incompatible. He thinks that the Paley/ID type of argument implies a wrong picture (i.e., a heretical picture) of God, and a wrong understanding (i.e., a heretical understanding) of the relationship between creator and creation. He thinks that Paley/ID sorts of argument lead to belief in a mere mechanic-God, a God unlike the God of what he calls “classical theism,” and hence a god unworthy of worship by Christians.
I am unconvinced that Paley/ID lines of argument produce a mere “mechanic” God, since I’m unconvinced that arguments that choose to focus on what we might call the mechanics of creation necessarily exclude other (i.e., metaphysical) aspects of creation. However, in this post I am not going to try to defend Paleyan or ID arguments, or to criticize Feser’s interpretation of Aquinas on creation, or to raise objections to what Feser calls “Thomistic-Aristotelian” thought or “classic theism.” I leave such detailed arguments to people such as Vincent Torley who have made a special study of Aquinas and of the Aristotelian tradition. Rather, I want to make sure that I fully understand Feser’s general position regarding design, creation, and the Christian God. To this end, I am going to ask Professor Feser for clarification by conceding, for the sake of argument, much of what he has said, and then posing a question for him.
Dr. Feser, let us say, for the sake of argument, that you are correct on most of the essential points. Let us say that Thomas’s arguments are philosophical arguments rather than science-based arguments, and let us say that Thomas’s “fifth way” is nothing like Paley’s approach or the approach of ID writers. Let us say further that Paley’s line of thinking, historically speaking, does owe something to the mechanistic thinking typical of much early modern philosophy. Let us say that Aquinas’s arguments (or kindred metaphysical arguments) are, on the whole, safer and better ones for Christians to use, in that they are inferences from firm first principles, rather than arguments from potentially debatable assertions about the limitations of unguided natural processes, and therefore will never need to be revised in the way that empirical arguments of Paleyan kind might have to be. Still, I am puzzled by one aspect of your argument, and I wonder if you could clarify by answering a question that I will ask momentarily.
If you will, put yourself in God’s position, at a moment before Creation. (I am as aware as you are that such temporal language is problematic, but as one Ph.D. to another, I ask you to read this flexibly rather than pedantically.) As the Deity, you are thinking about the universe that you will create; you have mentally run through all the possible universes (presumably instantaneously, although that is neither here nor there for my point), and you have made a decision about which universe you are going to actualize out of all those possibles. Now, is the following a possible thought (so to speak) in your Divine Mind?:
“I wish to create a universe in which, over time, primal matter will form into galaxies, galaxies will produce stars and planets, planets will produce life, and life will evolve, through gradual steps, to produce intelligent beings worthy of receiving my Image and Likeness; and I further wish that these intelligent beings will, as a proper reflection of the rationality that they share with me, take up the study of nature, and come to understand their own origins through the evolutionary process which I have devised. And I further wish that they will come to understand, from the clues I will leave in nature — cosmic fine-tuning, irreducible complexity, and other such things — that this evolutionary process could not have been guided primarily by chance, but must have been in large measure planned to produce them as its result. Thus, I wish them to be able to infer my existence as Creator from what they observe in nature.”
Note, Professor Feser, that in this scenario, nothing in the natural world is meant to allow human beings to deduce the Triune Nature of God, the election of Israel, the coming of a Messiah, the Atonement, or any truth peculiar to Christianity. In this scenario, the natural world would permit the inference only of God as Creator, not of God as Christ, Redeemer, Holy Spirit, or anything else.
Professor Feser, could your God, your Catholic God, your Aristotelian-Thomist God, your God of “classic theism,” have thought or willed such a thing? Or do you rule out a priori the possibility that God could ever have thought or willed in this way?
If you answer, “Yes, God could have contemplated and willed thus, and I can’t be sure that he didn’t contemplate and will thus,” then why are you so strongly opposed to Paley-like arguments (suitably updated for modern times)? Don’t they need to be at least considered, if the proposed scenario is possible? And if you answer, “No, I know that God would never have hatched such a plan, would never have wanted human beings to have the ability to infer his existence in this way, and would never have created a universe in which such inferences from nature are possible,” can you explain how you know this?