In this short essay, I’d like to address a profound philosophical question: what is the most appropriate metaphor for expressing the relationship between the cosmos and its Designer (whom I shall assume, for the purposes of this essay, to be God the Creator)? From an Intelligent Design standpoint, a suitable metaphor would have to encompass the following facts, at the very least:
(a) the objects within our cosmos are not parts of God, but are really distinct from their Creator;
(b) the objects within our cosmos are not abstract forms but concrete entities, with their own characteristic causal powers;
(c) any object existing within Nature – especially a living thing – possesses immanent finality: that is, its parts have an inherent tendency to function together;
(d) the cosmos could not exist, even for an instant, without its Creator;
(e) the cosmos, and the various kinds of things with it, are the result of an intelligent plan by its Creator; and finally,
(f) it can be demonstrated scientifically that the cosmos and the specified complex structures that it contains are the product of Intelligent Design.
In a recent essay, titled, Causality, pantheism, and deism, philosopher Ed Feser makes some telling criticisms of the machine metaphor. As this is a non-polemical essay, I don’t intend to rebut Feser’s criticisms: indeed, I will happily grant that many of them are well-founded. Feser is right, for instance, when he observes that the machine metaphor, taken by itself, fails to explain why the cosmos could not exist, even for an instant, without its Creator. After all, machines can continue to function automatically, even if their maker dies. Additionally, the machine metaphor fails to explain why the occurrence of specified complex patterns in Nature, in the absence of a Creator, is not only astronomically improbable, but also impossible, even in principle.
But as I’ve pointed out previously, Intelligent Design proponents themselves readily grant that the machine metaphor is not a good one. In a January 2013 post titled, Four Metaphors for the Cosmos: A Story about a Watch, a Lute, a Recipe and a Symphony, I quoted Dr. William Dembski’s criticisms of the machine metaphor, and I examined three alternatives: Dembski’s preferred metaphor of the lute, as well as the formal metaphors of the recipe and the symphony.
As Dr. Dembski points out, one major advantage of the lute metaphor over the watch metaphor is that whereas a watch can still work in the absence of its maker, a lute needs the continuous action of a lute player, in order to generate a melody. But there is a problem with the lute metaphor: it is still an artifact. Its tendencies to generate music are not intrinsic to it, but are the result of its man-made form, which is externally imposed on the matter composing the lute. Thus even the metaphor of a lute fails to capture the manner in which the parts of a living thing work towards the good of the whole, by virtue of their built-in (or immanent) finality. And in his recent essay, Professor Feser argues that any metaphor which appeals to an artifact in order to describe the relation between God and the cosmos is fundamentally flawed, because it denies intrinsic, goal-directed causal powers to material objects, and thus leads us towards occasionalism: the bizarre view that things, properly speaking, don’t really cause their characteristic effects – instead, it is God (and God alone) Who brings about these effects, on those occasions when these things are brought into contact with one another. Such a view would imply (absurdly) that fire doesn’t really burn you: rather, it is God burns you, whenever you happen to be close to a flame.
However, an Intelligent Design proponent could make a simple response to this criticism, by advancing an a fortiori argument. If it takes an intelligent designer to construct a complex artifact (such as a watch or a lute) whose parts are carefully coordinated in order to carry out some function, how much more intelligence is required to generate a complex entity whose parts are literally tailor-made for one another, in such a way that the built-in functionality of each part is entirely subordinated to the goal of the proper functioning of the whole? It should be obvious to my readers that an entity of the latter kind would require much more intelligence to make than an entity of the former kind.
I discuss the immanent finality of natural objects at further length in my post, Building a bridge between Scholastic philosophy and Intelligent Design.
Nevertheless, Feser has a valid point. In my essay, Four Metaphors for the Cosmos: A Story about a Watch, a Lute, a Recipe and a Symphony, I acknowledged that artifacts can never be an adequate metaphor for living things, and I declared myself in agreement with Feser’s assertion that it is impossible to construct an adequate metaphor for a natural object, for the simple reason that the only kinds of objects remaining are either artifacts (which can never explain the immanent finality of natural objects) or abstract objects (which can never explain the concreteness of material things).
The problem with the other two metaphors in my essay (the recipe and the symphony), as I freely acknowledged, is that they are essentially formal. Recipes and symphonies are abstract entities, like triangles. They aren’t physical things as such, although they may of course be written down on paper. The cosmos, however, contains matter as well as form, and without matter, you don’t have a concrete natural object. The same considerations apply to the program metaphor which many Intelligent Design advocates (including myself) have appealed to in the past: a program, properly speaking, is an abstract entity. Nevertheless, the program metaphor can be viewed as a way of describing certain immanently teleological features of organisms – a point made by Feser himself, in a 2010 post.
So where do we go from here? I’d like to put forward two points: first, that the arrow metaphor used in Aquinas’ Fifth Way is itself metaphysically flawed, in its depiction of how objects depend on their Intelligent Author to direct them towards their built-in goals; and second, that the metaphor of the cosmos as an interactive game may be a fruitful one for explaining the relationship of the cosmos to God.
In his Fifth Way, Aquinas writes:
The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
As I see it, the problem with the arrow metaphor is that if natural objects need to be intelligently guided towards their characteristic effects – “led along by the nose” towards their built-in goals, as it were – then this would seem to render them purely passive in their attainment of those goals. And yet it is an empirical fact that natural objects do possess active powers – think of a lodestone’s tendency to pick up magnetic objects, for instance. This defect in the argument could be remedied by redefining immanent finality as the inherent tendency of a natural object to conform to certain rules, in its behavior – rules which define the very nature of that object. On this account, the rules to which objects conform are not conceived as extrinsic to natural objects, but as intrinsic to their very being, which means that objects have a built-in active tendency to behave in accordance with these rules. This active tendency of natural objects to conform to built-in rules (or prescriptions) still leaves room for a Mind governing Nature, since only an intelligent being can define a rule, or prescribe anything in the first place. Additionally, since rules define the very “warp and woof” of natural objects, making them concrete instantiations of these rules, it follows that if objects continually conform to the rules that define their natures, then the Author of these objects must be continually sustaining them in being.
Until now, I have spoken of natural objects’ causal powers, in relation to other objects. However, I would go even further, and postulate that each natural object is endowed by its Creator with the built-in power to interact with its Creator, which would certainly make its causal powers active. I argued for this position at further length in an August 2013 post of mine, in which I explained how I would revamp Aquinas’ Fifth Way, and more recently, in a post titled, Do Christians worship many gods?, in which I defended the view that God has designed His creatures with the built-in capacity to (timelessly) inform Him of whatever they do.
I wrote above of the difficulty in finding a suitable metaphor for the relationship between God and the natural objects in the cosmos. Artifactual metaphors fail to do justice to the immanent finality of natural objects, while abstract metaphors ignore their causal powers, as concrete entities. However, there may be a way out. Fortunately, there is a class of metaphors which I would describe as metaphysically open: unlike artifactual metaphors or abstract metaphors, whose metaphysical structure is built into their descriptions, these metaphors contain no metaphysical structure and are therefore capable of being enriched as the need arises.
The concept of a game is one such metaphor. A game may be either abstract or concrete. It may also contain characters, with certain specific powers of their own. These characters may be wholly controlled by the player, or they may be capable of interacting with the game designer. Thus if we view the world as an interactive game, populated by various kinds of objects with their own causal powers, by living things which have a good of their own, and by personal agents whoa re capable of interacting with the Game-maker (God), then it seems to me that we have a metaphor that does justice to the rich metaphysical structure of the cosmos.
I’m sure that there are many readers out there who have ample experience of playing interactive games, who may wish to weigh in with thoughts of their own on the game metaphor, so I’d like to throw the floor open and invite reader to contribute their own comments.