UPDATE: Since posting this article online, I have received an email from Professor Feser, in which he writes:
I have never accused any ID defender of heresy, and would never do so. To say to a theological opponent “Your views have implications you may not like, including ones that I believe are hard to reconcile with what we both agree to be definitive of orthodoxy” is simply not the same thing as saying “You are a heretic!” Rather, it’s what theologians do all the time in debate with their fellow orthodox believers.
I appreciate this clarification from Professor Feser, and I have therefore changed the title of this post, to make it less inflammatory. (I’ve removed one of the pictures, too.) I apologize for any pain I have caused Professor Feser; however, I should point out that in his latest article, Thomism versus the design argument, Professor Feser wrote: “ID is, from a Thomistic point of view, bad philosophy and bad theology.” Moreover, he approvingly cites Christopher Martin as writing that “The Being whose existence is revealed to us by the argument from design is not God but the Great Architect of the Deists and Freemasons, an impostor disguised as God,” and he later writes that “Paley’s ‘designer’ is really just the god of Deists and Freemasons and not the true God.” I hope the reader will pardon me for drawing the inference that Feser regards Intelligent Design as heretical. If that was not his intention, he really should have said so, very clearly, in his post. I have posted Professor Feser’s clarifying remarks in the interests of journalistic accuracy, and I welcome his statement that he regards the Intelligent Design movement as theologically orthodox.
It’s been a long time since my last post at Uncommon Descent. The reason, for readers who may have been wondering, is that I’ve been working on a very long but interesting post aimed at showing, on scientific grounds alone, that a human embryo is just as important, morally speaking, as you or I. Uncommon Descent readers will find it especially interesting, because it employs a line of argument which will be familiar to people who accept Intelligent Design. I’ve nearly finished that post and it will be coming out soon. Several other posts are in the pipeline, so you’ll be hearing a lot from me in the next couple of weeks.
The topic of today’s post is Professor Edward Feser’s latest article, Thomism versus the design argument, over on his Website. The article makes a number of claims about Intelligent Design argument which are either irrelevant or demonstrably false.
Let’s start with Feser’s main beef with design arguments of any kind whatsoever: “The problem with these arguments is rather that they don’t get you even one millimeter toward the God of classical theism, and indeed they get you positively away from the God of classical theism.”
Here’s a simple question for Professor Feser. Which of the following is closest to the God of classical theism?
(a) An intelligent agent – for example, a human being.
(b) A sentient non-rational animal.
(c) A non-sentient organism.
(d) A lump of inanimate matter – for example, a crystal, an atom or a subatomic particle.
(e) A vacuum obeying the laws of quantum physics.
I hope Professor Feser answered (a). Since he is a devout Catholic, he accepts that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.
Intelligent Design theory claims that life, and indeed the cosmos, can only be explained as the work of an intelligent agent – i.e. something in category (a). Materialistic atheism holds that the cosmos is ultimately explicable in terms of (d), or more recently (e). Since (a) is closer to the God of classical theism than (b), (c), (d) or (e), then Professor Feser’s claim that design arguments “don’t get you even one millimeter toward the God of classical theism” is demonstrably false.
In his online reply to this post, Professor Feser says that I present “an argument which is not entirely clear” on this point, so I’d like to clarify it. I’m not assuming here that God and human beings belong in a common genus, although the word “category” above may have given that impression. Let’s take Feser’s example of an angel. God is Pure Intelligence. An angel has intelligence, even if (as Thomists would claim) there is only an analogical similarity between God’s intelligence and the angel’s. A lump of inanimate matter lacks intelligence altogether. Since the angel possesses (in some fashion) a perfection which belongs to God and a lump of inanimate matter does not, the angel is more like God than the lump of matter.
Here are a couple of pertinent quotes from Aquinas:
[T]he highest perfection of things required the existence of some creatures that act in the same way as God. But it has already been shown that God acts by intellect and will. It was therefore necessary for some creatures to have intellect and will…
…[A]s we have shown above, God is an intellectual agent.
(Summa Contra Gentiles Book II, chapter 46, paragraphs 4 & 5. Emphases mine – VJT.)
Since an angel is more like God than a lump of matter, someone who comes to believe that the universe was created by an angel is therefore closer to classical theism than a materialist.
I should add that the fine-tuning argument points to an Intelligent Designer who is not only incorporeal, but also outside space and time.
Do Intelligent Design proponents worship a different God?
What about the second part of Feser’s charge, that design arguments “get you positively away from the God of classical theism”? Since Feser is talking about all design arguments here, then his remarks would certainly apply to the fine-tuning argument, which claims that the universe was designed to support life. Since the universe includes both space and time, the Designer of the universe must be a Intelligent Being outside space and time – hence incorporeal. (Readers who may be asking, “What about the multiverse?” will be interested to know that the fine-tuning argument can also be used to show that the multiverse, if it exists, must have been designed too.) In other words, we aren’t just talking about an Intelligence in a higher dimension or “mother universe.” We’re talking about an Intelligent Agent who is genuinely incorporeal. Here’s my question for Professor Feser: in what respect is this a step “away from the God of classical theism”?
Now, if Professor Feser could demonstrate that design arguments require one to believe in anthropomorphic Deity, whose attributes are incompatible with the God of classical theism, then he would have proved his point. The main problem with this claim is that many Intelligent Design advocates are Jews, Muslims and Christians – some of them Catholics like himself – most of whom accept classical theism, which is commonly defined as belief in a God who is transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and absolutely benevolent. More significantly, classical theists hold that God is absolutely simple in His essence, as Professor Feser points out in a recent article, which entails that God is immutable, impassible, eternal (outside time and space) and identical with His own act of existence. Finally, classical theists maintain that God (who is outside time) continuously sustains the universe in being, so that it could not exist even for an instant without Him.
The charge that Intelligent Design theory is tied to an anthropomorphic conception of God has been made before, and repeatedly refuted. Recently, Professor Michael Tkacz made this claim in a paper entitled Thomas Aquinas vs. The Intelligent Designers: What is God’s Finger Doing in My Pre-Biotic Soup? and again in a revised version of his talk, entitled Aquinas vs. Intelligent Design. I wrote a devastating five-part rebuttal, to which he has not yet responded. In Part Four of my reply to Professor Tkacz, I demonstrate that Tkacz completely mis-represents the theological claims of the Intelligent Design movement, that his charge of anthropomorphism is completely false, and that he personifies Nature in a most un-Thomistic fashion, treating it as One Big Autonomous Agent. Here’s another question for Professor Feser: has he read Part Four of my reply to Tkacz?
Aquinas argued for Intelligent Design
Professor Feser goes to extraordinary lengths to show that Aquinas’ Fifth Way is not the same as the argument from design. He quotes from no less than a dozen authors (including Professor William Dembski) to show that the two arguments are quite distinct. Here’s some news for Professor Feser: I completely agree with him. Aquinas’ Fifth Way is not a design argument.
What I do maintain, however, is that Aquinas, elsewhere in his writings, put forward a proto-Intelligent Design Argument. If you’re a neo-Darwinian evolutionist, then you have to trace the origin of all animals back to single-celled creatures, which in turn are said to have arisen (somehow) from inanimate matter. Aquinas argued, however, that the extreme specificity of the conditions required to form “perfect animals,” due to their high level of complexity, precludes the possibility of their having originated from non-living matter. More precisely: God alone could have produced the forms of the various kinds of higher animals (or “perfect animals,” as Aquinas called them), when they first appeared, as they were too complex and required too many conditions to be satisfied for their formation to have occurred by natural processes acting on non-living matter. In Part One of my five-part reply to Professor Tkacz, which Feser appears not to have read, I even supplied chapter and verse from the writings of Aquinas to back up my claim. I was nothing if not meticulous in my documentation. (Readers who wish to acquire a thorough background knowledge of Aquinas’ argument might like to see here, here, and here as well.) Despite the fact that my refutation of Professor Tkacz has been available online for several months, Professor Feser has made no attempt to refute any of its arguments.
In his online reply to this post, Professor Feser again misconstrues my argument on this pointr when he writes:
Torley claims that since Aquinas took the view that living things could not have arisen from non-living matter alone, it follows that he can be said to have given a kind of “proto-Intelligent Design argument.”
Uh, no. My argument here was not about abiogenesis (for Aquinas, like his medieval contemporaries, believed in spontaneous generation), but about the higher animals: according to Aquinas, the first “perfect animals” (as he called them) could not have originated through natural causes, as they were too complex and required too many conditions to be satisfied for their formation to have occurred by natural processes acting on non-living matter. Aquinas’ argument was explicitly based on the complexity of the higher animals, as I showed in my reply to Professor Tkacz.
Why isn’t there a “Sixth Way” in the writings of Aquinas?
The reader may be wondering why Aquinas did not include his proto-Intelligent Design argument as a “sixth way” in his list of proofs for God’s existence. There’s a very simple reason why: he was contending against hard-nosed hyper-skeptics who maintained that the world – and the various species of animals inhabiting it – had always existed. Proving that some of these animals couldn’t have been generated from inanimate matter would cut no ice with people who believed that these species of animals had always existed – and Aquinas famously held that reason alone was incapable of demonstrating that the world, or indeed any kind of creature, had a beginning in time. Only through God’s revelation in Scripture could we know this fact. Thus Aquinas’ proto-Intelligent Design argument would have been derided as circular by medieval atheists, had he listed it as a proof of God’s existence. Today, however, we know that animals have not always existed: they had a beginning in time. In my online refutation of Professor Tkacz, I showed that Aquinas taught that some physical changes are beyond the power of nature to bring about. These changes cannot have a naturalistic explanation. They must therefore be produced by the power of God alone. Examples include the raising of a dead body, the production of the first human body from inanimate matter and the production of the first animals, according to their various kinds. I also showed that Aquinas held that events occurring outside the order of nature manifest God’s agency in the best possible way, for they manifest God’s power and voluntary agency in a way that is evident to everyone. Were Aquinas alive today, I concluded, he would probably say, “Why aren’t you shouting this Intelligent Design argument from the house-tops?” Well, the Intelligent Design movement is doing its best: the reader might like to check out our Darwin’s Dilemma Web page, which shows that the appearance of dozens of major complex animal types in the fossil record in the Cambrian period cannot be explained as a product of chance and/or necessity: only an Intelligent Agent could have produced them. It does not matter whether you believe that He did it through front-loading (early in the history of life) or by manipulating the genes of simple animals at a later point in geological time; the point is that one way or another, a massive amount of functional information was required to produce these creatures. Since intelligence is the only known source of functional information, Dr. Donald Johnson concludes in his books Probability’s Nature and Nature’s Probability: A Call to Scientific Integrity (see here for the less technical version) and Programming of Life that the probability of unintelligent natural processes producing life or complex animals is exactly zero. Has Professor Feser read these books, I wonder? They’re fairly brief (less than 140 pages) and quite affordable. I suggest that he acquaints himself with the Intelligent Design movement’s recent literature on the subject.
Most of my readers will have heard of the phrase, “more Catholic than the Pope.” And if there is a besetting sin which permeates Professor Feser’s writings, it is this: that he characterizes theological orthodoxy in narrower terms than the Catholic Church to which he belongs. Considering that Professor Feser is an ex-atheist, I have to say that I find this rather amusing. Jokes aside, if Professor Feser wants to write about the teachings of his Church, then he is obliged to represent its teachings accurately – which means neither too narrowly nor too broadly. I have to say that at times Professor Feser reads Catholic teachings through the lens of his own version of Thomism, characterizing them more narrowly than the Catholic Church itself does. For instance, in a post entitled, William Lane Craig on divine simplicity, he begins by declaring: “The doctrine of divine simplicity holds that God is in no way composed of parts” (italics mine). Well, it doesn’t. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215 A.D.), which Feser adduces in support of his theological position, says that God has “one essence, substance, or nature absolutely simple.” God is simple in His essence, which means that the God’s indivisible nature is identical with God’s omniscience, God’s omnipotence, God’s goodness, and so on. That’s quite different from asserting, as Professor Feser does, that “God’s eternity is His power, which is His goodness, which is His intellect, which is His will, and so on.” (It would have been helpful if Professor Feser had referenced Professor Jeffrey Brower’s irenic and brilliantly written defense of the doctrine of Divine simplicity (in Faith and Philosophy 25 (1):3-30, 2008), which carefully distinguishes it from the view that eternity, omnipotence and goodness are properties of God, and that God is identical with each of these properties – which is what critics of the doctrine, including Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, often take it to mean. Unfortunately, in his article, Feser appears to espouse the naive “property” interpretation of Divine simplicity, despite the fact that it is demonstrably absurd, as Brower convincingly establishes in his article.) The Catholic Church’s dogmatic statements on Divine simplicity also leave open the question of whether God’s thoughts (e.g. His concept of a human being, a dog, a bacterium or a sodium atom) are the same as God’s essence. (Since finite beings are essentially complex whereas God is essentially simple, it would be extremely unwise to insist that God’s concept of a finite being is either identical with, or logically entailed by, His essence, as Feser appears to maintain, since he holds that God has no accidental properties – something which the Catholic Church has never dogmatically asserted.)
Another example: in his post on classical theism, Feser castigates “theistic personalists” (such as Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne) for their anthropomorphic language about God: “From a Thomistic point of view, it is precisely because theistic personalists apply language to God and creatures univocally that they are led to deny divine simplicity and in general to arrive at an objectionably anthropomorphic conception of God.” In the next sentence, he grudgingly acknowledges that followers of Duns Scotus (a Catholic philosopher and Doctor of the Church) apply terms to God univocally – for instance, they hold that the word “knowledge” has the same meaning when applied to us and to God, even though God’s knowledge, unlike ours, is infinite – but then goes on to blame the Scotist move away from the Thomist doctrine of analogy for “the moderns’ move away from classical theism.” This is a rather uncharitable claim to make about “a school [Scotism – VJT] of which not a single proposition has been censured, and to which so many highly venerated men (bishops, cardinals, popes, and saints) have belonged,” as The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it here.
[Correction: Although Duns Scotus was one of the most important theologians and philosophers of the High Middle Ages, who was nicknamed the “Subtle Doctor” for his penetrating and subtle manner of thought, he is not officially a Doctor of the Church. H/t to Leo Carton Mollica for pointing this out.]
At times, Feser’s hyper-orthodoxy borders on the comical: he publicly maintains (I kid you not) that it is a sin for parents to tell their children that Santa Claus is real. Hmmm. Here’s what the Catholic Theologian Fr. John Hardon, S. J., has to say about Santa Claus in his book, “The Catholic Catechism” (Doubleday, 1975, paperback edition, page 402): “Circumstances are an integral part of human speech; such circumstances are the time, place, tone of voice, and the persons addressed. Thus what may be verbally contrary to fact, like telling children about Santa Claus, is not lying.” Whom should we believe? I think I’d take the word of a highly respected theologian over that of a philosopher, on a point of Catholic doctrine. Wouldn’t you?
I’d like to close by citing what is by now a common saying in the English language (see here for its historical background): “In necessary things unity, in doubtful things liberty, in all things charity.” Amen to that, I say.