Imagine that scientists discovered the best documentary evidence for God’s existence that anyone could possibly hope for: messages in the DNA of each and every human cell, saying “Made by Yahweh.” Imagine that a notorious New Atheist and a well-known Catholic philosopher are both asked by journalists what they make of this evidence. The New Atheist shocks everyone by announcing that he now (provisionally) accepts that there is a God. “Sure, aliens might have made those messages,” he concedes. “But it’s not likely, is it? For the time being, I’m going with the hypothesis that God did it. This looks like pretty good evidence to me.” The Catholic philosopher is asked what he makes of the new discovery. To everyone’s surprise, he announces that he’s totally unmoved by it. “First of all, it’s not evidence for God,” he says. “After all, how would you have reacted if the messages had said, ‘Made by Quetzalcoatl,’ or ‘Made by Steve Jobs’? Would you consider that to be evidence for Quetzalcoatl’s existence, or for Steve Jobs’ having created the first human cells? I don’t think so. But that’s not all I want to say. Maybe those messages that scientists are seeing in each and every human cell aren’t really there at all. I think it’s quite possible that we’re all hallucinating.”
“WHAT!” says his audience. “How can you say that?”
“Think about it,” says the Catholic philosopher. “Does this discovery make any sense at all? No, it doesn’t. Of course, God, being infinitely powerful, could have caused ‘Made by Yahweh’ to appear in every human cell – at least in principle. And you might argue that that’s what He would do, if He wanted to prove His existence to those who doubt Him. But He is also infinitely wise, and He wouldn’t work a miracle that was meant to confirm His existence unless it were a supernatural feat that only God could have accomplished – and not some alien. Indeed, I would say that once we understand what it would mean to be the divine intellect, we can see that such a frivolous action as inserting a message in everyone’s DNA would be ruled out. Another possibility is that the whole thing is a gag foisted upon us by Erich von Däniken’s extraterrestrials, or by a cabal of biotech whizzes. But we have no independent grounds for thinking that extraterrestrials exist, or that they speak English, let alone that they would take an interest in pulling religious pranks. That leaves human agency. Although one might imagine a conspiracy by a cabal of biotech whizzes, a skeptic could reasonably ask how they would manage to insert a message into everyone’s DNA. So I think we have to consider the possibility that our cognitive faculties are all massively malfunctioning and producing pop-culture-influenced hallucinations. Maybe we’re all seeing things. If I were an atheist, this discovery certainly wouldn’t convince me of God’s existence.”
Well, scientists haven’t found a “Made by Yahweh” message in our DNA, yet, although it may interest readers to know that Kazakh scientists identified what they claim is an artificial signal in our DNA last year. But the rest of the story is all true. The New Atheist is Jerry Coyne, who has publicly declared that such a discovery would make him believe in God. And the Catholic philosopher who says that he thinks a secularist would have every right to disregard the discovery, and treat it as a pop-culture-influenced hallucination is Professor Edward Feser, an outspoken Thomist and a former atheist. The words I’ve put into his mouth in the imaginary scenario above are an accurate paraphrase of the views he expresses in his latest post, which is cheekily titled, Signature in the cell? Feser declares up-front that his post is in no way intended as a criticism of Dr. Stephen Meyer’s views, but I have to say that it’s one of the most astonishing posts I’ve read in a long while. And that’s saying something.
UPDATE: Professor Feser has responded here, accusing me of (unintentionally) distorting his words. In one of the comments attached to his post, I asked him to respond to two short, simple questions, and I’m currently waiting on his reply. VJT.
UPDATE 2: Professor Feser has now responded, adding some follow-up remarks here. Feser wishes to make it clear that he was not pushing hyper-skepticism, but simply saying that our judgments about bizarre cases such as scientists finding what appeared to be a message in every human cell would depend on independent, contextual factors. He adds: “Now, I can easily imagine contexts in which it would be extremely unreasonable to say ‘Oh, this is a hallucination’ and I can easily imagine contexts in which it would not be.”
As one commenter perceptively pointed out, Feser is still allowing for the theoretical possibility of a mass hallucination, which would entail radical perceptual skepticism. That in itself is highly disturbing, and my remarks on the absurd consequences of hyper-skepticism are still germane.
The two questions I put to Professor Feser were as follows:
1. Do you agree that if a message saying “Made by _____” were discovered in every human’s cells, it would be irrational to explain away the discovery as a mass hallucination, regardless of whether the message referred to God, Quetzalcoatl, or Steve Jobs as its author?
2. Do you agree that if the message were suitably long and specific (say, 100 characters of perfectly grammatical English with no repetition), it would be irrational not to ascribe the message to an intelligent agent, regardless of the message’s context?
I asked Feser for a simple Yes or No answer to these questions.
In reply, Feser cited the work of Hubert Dreyfus, arguing that intelligence cannot be reduced to a set of explicitly formulated rules and representations, because there are always various context-dependent ways to interpret the rules and representations. He then went on to argue that in the cases I discussed in my two questions, there is always a larger context in which the interpretation of the rules occurs. He concluded: “There’s nothing skeptical about it. We can know what the context is and thus we can know what the right interpretation is; we just can’t know the right interpretation apart from all context.”
For the record, in my original post below I did refer (briefly) to Feser’s discussion of the importance of context when I wrote: “In his post, Feser goes on to say that the way in which we would interpret the discovery of the message in our DNA is determined largely by external considerations – in particular, whether we have good independent reasons that the being named in the message – be it Yahweh, Quetzalcoatl or Steve Jobs – actually exists, and whether it is likely that such a being would send a message to us.”
Regarding Hubert Dreyfus’ point that the interpretation of a rule is always context-dependent, I think Dreyfus is probably correct. I would deny, however, that the translation of what appears to be a digitally coded message is context-dependent: purely probabilistic considerations can establish beyond reasonable doubt that a particular translation of the code is correct. The only “context” required here is a knowledge of the language into which the coded message is being translated.
While I would like to retract my accusation of hyper-skepticism against Feser, I note that he apparently views radical perceptual skepticism as a theoretical possibility. Additionally, I am disappointed that he does not agree that the discovery of a monolith on the Moon, the lengths of whose sides were in the ratio 1:4:9, or the discovery of a coded message in every human cell giving detailed information about current events, does not warrant the ascription of intelligence, independently of contextual considerations. Nor do I think we’d bother to inquire about context if we saw a message written in the sky: if the message were sufficiently specific, we’d know at once that an intelligent agent produced it.
END OF UPDATE
A Critical Examination of Feser’s Views
Feser’s extraordinary claims
Feser’s latest post was written in response to a hypothetical scenario put to him by one of his readers, who argued as follows:
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.
My scream of disbelief (which explains the image of Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream at the top of today’s post) was prompted by reading Professor Edward Feser’s response, in which he argues that if scientists had found a message in the cells of every human being’s DNA, referring not to God, but to Quetzalcoatl or Steve Jobs, it would be perfectly rational for us to dismiss the discovery as a collective, pop culture-induced hallucination:
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…
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.
In his post, Feser goes on to say that the way in which we would interpret the discovery of the message in our DNA is determined largely by external considerations – in particular, whether we have good independent reasons that the being named in the message – be it Yahweh, Quetzalcoatl or Steve Jobs – actually exists, and whether it is likely that such a being would send a message to us. Feser suggests that while many people who already had independent reasons for believing in Yahweh might feel inclined to take the discovery of a message “Made by Yahweh” in every person’s DNA as powerful evidence for His existence, a secularist who had what he believed to be good independent reasons for thinking 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.” Yes, those are Feser’s exact words. Feser evidently thinks that this would be a rational way for an atheist to respond to the discovery of a message referring to God in everyone’s DNA: to not only deny that God was responsible, but to deny that an intelligent being was responsible. Reading that left me speechless.
There’s more. According to Feser, the only good reasons we can have for inferring God’s existence from the natural world are arguments based on – wait for it – Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics! Feser thinks that these philosophical arguments are not only much simpler than Intelligent Design arguments, but also conclusively demonstrative, knockdown demonstrations: they establish God’s existence as the only possible explanation, even in principle, of the regular behavior exhibited by natural causes.
I’ll have more to say about these claims, later in this post. But before I respond to what Feser has to say about the “Made by Yahweh” scenario, I’d like to contrast Feser’s response with what New Atheist Jerry Coyne and Intelligent Design advocate Professor Willam Dembski have written about the same scenario.
Is New Atheist Jerry Coyne more open to a sign from God than Ed Feser? You decide
Jerry Coyne, American professor of biology at the University of Chicago, August 2006, with the laboratory cat, Dusty. Image courtesy of Emma Rodewald and Wikipedia.
Amazingly, Feser is more skeptical than New Atheist professor Jerry Coyne in his response to the “Made by Yahweh” scenario. For Coyne has conceded that if he found the phrase “Made by Yahweh” in every human cell, he would tentatively conclude that God was responsible. In a post titled, What evidence would convince you that a god exists? (July 7, 2010), Coyne explicitly declared that if scientists found messages in our DNA, it would be reasonable to infer that God or other supernatural agents were responsible:
Over at AlterNet, Greta Christina describes six things that, if they happened or were observed, would convince her that God exists. These including magic writing in the sky, correct prophecies in sacred texts, accurate information gained during near-death experiences, followers of one religion being much more successful (in ways that couldn’t be explained by economic and social factors) than followers of other faiths. Go read it: she qualifies and explains all of these things in detail…
Making the same point, I provided my own list in a critique of the claim that science and faith are compatible:
There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky. The fact that no such things have ever been scientifically documented gives us added confidence that we are right to stick with natural explanations for nature. And it explains why so many scientists, who have learned to disregard God as an explanation, have also discarded him as a possibility.
In a subsequent post titled, Shermer and I disagree on the “supernatural” (November 8, 2012), Professor Coyne was even more explicit, writing that he would “provisionally accept” the existence of “a divine being” if scientists discovered confirming messages written in our DNA:
I’ve previously described the kind of evidence that I’d provisionally accept for a divine being, including messages written in our DNA or in a pattern of stars, the reappearance of Jesus on earth in a way that is well documented and convincing to scientists, along with the ability of this returned Jesus to do things like heal amputees. Alternatively, maybe only the prayers of Catholics get answered, and the prayers of Muslims, Jews, and other Christians, don’t.
Yes, maybe aliens could do that, and maybe it would be an alien trick to imitate Jesus (combined with an advanced technology that could regrow limbs), but so what? I see no problem with provisionally calling such a being “God” — particularly if it comports with traditional religious belief — until proven otherwise. What I can say is “this looks like God, but we should try to find out more. In the meantime, I’ll provisionally accept it.” That, of course, depends on there being a plethora of evidence. As we all know, there isn’t.
In an earlier post, titled, Can there be evidence for God? (11 October 2010), Coyne challenges New Atheist P.Z. Myers (who said that no amount of evidence for the supernatural would budge him) on this very point, appealing to the virtue of explanatory simplicity when pressed as to why he would take certain public signs (such as the healing of amputees by a man descending from the clouds who identified himself as Jesus) as evidence for God. In this post, Coyne specifically mentions healed amputees, but his point about there being an abundance of documentation would apply equally well to the discovery of a “Made by Yahweh” message in every human cell, which he mentioned in the passages cited above:
Now you can say that this is just a big magic stunt, but there’s a lot of documentation – all those healed amputees, for instance. Even using Hume’s criterion, isn’t it more parsimonious to say that there’s a God (and a Christian one, given the presence of Jesus!) rather than to assert that it was all an elaborate, hard-to-fathom magic trick or the concatenation of many enigmatic natural forces?
And your evidence-based conversion to God need not be permanent, either. Since scientific truth is provisional, why not this “scientific” truth about God as well? Why not say that, until we find evidence that what just happened was a natural phenomenon, or a gigantic ruse, we provisionally accept the presence of a God?
Coyne’s attitude here strikes me as eminently rational, and what I would expect from a man of science. I find it astonishing that a New Atheist like Coyne has more faith in a possible future revelation by God than a Catholic philosopher like Feser, who declares that an atheist who had what he thought were good independent reasons for not believing in God would be rationally justified in shrugging off the alleged revelation as a collective hallucination.
“Made by Yahweh” – A scenario addressed by William Dembski in 1998
Human blood cells, seen through a scanning electron microscope. Professor William Dembski has argued that if microscopic examination were to reveal a “Made by Yahweh” message inscribed on every cell, the discovery would vindicate Intelligent Design and force scientists to at least consider the possibility that the cells were in fact made by God. Image courtesy of Bruce Wetzel (photographer) Harry Schaefer (photographer) of the National Cancer Institute, and Wikipedia.
It may interest Professor Feser to know that the “Made by Yahweh” scenario was first addressed by leading Intelligent Design advocate William Dembski as far back as 1998, in an article in First Things, titled, Science and Design (October 1998). Dembski wrote:
… [C]onsider what would happen if microscopic examination revealed that every cell was inscribed with the phrase “Made by Yahweh.” Of course cells don’t have “Made by Yahweh” inscribed on them, but that’s not the point. The point is that we wouldn’t know this unless we actually looked at cells under the microscope. And if they were so inscribed, one would have to entertain the thought, as a scientist, that they actually were made by Ya[h]weh. So even those who do not believe in it tacitly admit that design always remains a live option in biology. A priori prohibitions against design are philosophically unsophisticated and easily countered.
Dembski was more explicit in an article titled, “What Every Theologian Should Know about Creation, Evolution and Design” (Chapter 13) in Unapologetic Apologetics: Meeting the Challenges of Theological Studies (edited by William A. Dembski and Jay W. Richards; Downer’s Grove, IL, Intervarsity Press: 2001):
… Intelligent design and naturalistic evolution both inquire into definite matters of fact. If every cell were to have emblazoned on it the phrase “made by Yahweh,” there would be no question about intelligent design being correct and naturalistic evolution being incorrect. Granted, cells don’t have emblazoned on them the phrase “made by Yahweh.” But that’s not the point. The point is that we wouldn’t know this unless we actually looked at cells under the microscope. It is for precisely this reason that both intelligent design and naturalistic evolution must remain live scientific options, unfettered by artificial, a priori requirements about what can count as legitimate explanations in biology. (2001, p. 236)
Dembski does not say that the discovery of a “made by Yahweh” message in every cell would prove God’s existence, but he does say that it would prove Intelligent Design and that scientists would then have to consider the possibility that cells were in fact designed by Yahweh. Dembski’s attitude strikes me as a very reasonable one. While the message might not constitute positive proof of the existence of God, it would certainly establish that an intelligent agent generated the message.
ID advocate Thomas Woodward on the “Made by Yahweh” scenario
A Gram-negative bacterial flagellum. Intelligent Design advocate Thomas Woodward argued back in 2006 that because there is no “Made by Yahweh” message engraved on the side of the bacterial rotary motor, we cannot identify its Designer as God. We can, however, infer on scientific grounds that it was designed. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The “Made by Yahweh” scenario was also briefly discussed by Intelligent Design advocate Casey Luskin seven years ago, in a post on Evolution News and Views titled, Principled (not Rhetorical) Reasons Why ID Doesn’t Identify the Designer (Part 1) (October 31, 2007). Luskin begins by quoting a passage from Professor Thomas Woodward, a prominent defender of Intelligent Design, who argues that in the absence of any messages in the bacterial flagellum identifying its maker, ID theorists had no scientific way of identifying the Designer:
There is no ‘Made by Yahweh’ engraved on the side of the bacterial rotary motor–the flagellum. In order to find out what or who its designer is, one must go outside the narrow discipline of biology. Cross-disciplinary dialogue must begin with the fields of philosophy, sociology, history, anthropology, and theology. Design itself, however, is a direct scientific inference; it does not depend on a single religious premise for its conclusions.
(Thomas Woodward, Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design, pg. 15 (Baker Books, 2006).)
Commenting on the passage, Casey Luskin declares that the designed structures we find in Nature tell us nothing about the identity of their Designer: as far as science is concerned, the Designer might be “Yahweh, Buddha, Yoda, or some other type of intelligent agency.” All we can infer is that they were produced by an intelligent agent:
In other words, the flagellar machine itself indicates that it did not arise by a random and unguided process like Darwinian evolution, but rather arose by a non-random and intelligently directed process such as intelligent design. However, while biological structures may be scientifically explained via intelligent design, the structures themselves have no way of directly telling us whether the designer is Yahweh, Buddha, Yoda, or some other type of intelligent agency. Thus, in contrast to the professor’s incorrect accusation that this is part of a “strategy … to wedge ID into science classrooms,” ID’s non-identification of the designer stems from a scientific desire to take a scientific approach and respect the limits of science and not inject religious discussions about theological questions into scientific inquiry. In other words, using present knowledge, identifying the designer can’t be done by science. It is a strictly theological question, and thus for the theory of ID to try to identify the designer would be to inappropriately conflate science with religion.
I’d now like to address the arguments made by Professor Feser in his post, Signature in the Cell?
A critical examination of Feser’s views
1. “Made by Yahweh” – Why Feser’s hyper-skepticism is self-refuting
Edward Feser, associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College. Feser is author of such works as The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism; Aquinas; Locke; The Cambridge Companion to Hayek; and On Nozick.
Feser’s argument: a sign of God’s existence has to be one that only God could have produced
Professor Feser, in his response to a reader’s question about the “Made by Yahweh” scenario, begins by pointing out, correctly, that we could not legitimately infer, on the basis of such a discovery, that the message in every human cell was, in fact, made by Yahweh: someone else might have made it. Feser is quite right here, and Intelligent Design advocate Professor William Dembski is in perfect agreement with Feser on this point.
Since even a “Made by Yahweh” message in every human cell does not unambiguously identify God as the Designer, Feser concludes that such a sign could only be attributed to God if there were strong independent grounds for 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.….
What Feser seems to be arguing here is that while miracles can be used to support the claim that God is revealing Himself, they cannot be used to support the claim that God exists. However, on this point, I think that St. Thomas Aquinas (whose teachings Feser claims to follow) would disagree with him. In his Summa Contra Gentiles Book III, chapter 99, paragraph 9 (That God Can Work Apart From The Order Implanted In Things, By Producing Effects Without Proximate Causes). Here’s the key excerpt:
[D]ivine power can sometimes produce an effect, without prejudice to its providence, apart from the order implanted in natural things by God. In fact, He does this at times to manifest His power. For it can be manifested in no better way, that the whole of nature is subject to the divine will, than by the fact that sometimes He does something outside the order of nature. Indeed, this makes it evident that the order of things has proceeded from Him, not by natural necessity, but by free will.
Here, St. Thomas Aquinas says that God’s power and voluntary agency “can be manifested in no better way … than by the fact that He sometimes does something outside the order of nature.” I conclude that Aquinas would have had no qualms whatsoever about appealing to supernatural effects, in order to convince skeptics of God’s existence.
While Feser concedes that a transcendent God could, in principle, leave a message in our DNA, he also maintains that in practice, God would never do that. Referring to the hypothetical possibility of God’s leaving a message in the cell which did not refer to Him but to some other being, Feser writes: “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.” Fair enough.
But later on in his post, Feser puts forward a positive argument against the likelihood of God leaving a “Made by Yahweh” message in the cell which explicitly refers to Him by name:
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…
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.
And it is precisely here that Feser thinks that the “Made by Yahweh” message in every human cell falls down: in principle, aliens could have produced the message, so its apologetic value is zero.
A message in the cell that only God could have written
Skeleton and restoration model of Neanderthal man (La Ferrassie 1 specimen). I argue below that if a “Made by Yahweh” message were discovered in the DNA of Neanderthal man, in laboratories around the world, then that would point unambiguously to the message’s having been produced by God. Image courtesy of Photaro and Wikipedia.
But here I think Feser goes wrong. First of all, I would dispute his claim that extraterrestrials could, even in principle, have caused the message “Made by Yahweh” to appear in every human cell. To see why, ask yourself this: what if the same message were found in the DNA of Neanderthal man, in laboratories around the world? (Neanderthal DNA has been recovered and extensively sequenced, and the simultaneous discovery of the same message in laboratories around the world would rule out contamination.) My point is that Neanderthal man lived over 30,000 years before the Hebrew language was spoken, or before English was spoken, for that matter. Consequently, if we found a message in Neanderthal DNA saying “Made by Yahweh,” the only reasonable inference we could draw is that the Being who produced it must have had foreknowledge of future human actions. Such a Being could only be God. And if the message were even more explicit, and said something like, “Made by Yahweh and discovered by Sarah Smith on Wednesday, July 28, 2014 at 11:45:32 GMT, 100 years to the day after the outbreak of World War I”, and if the same message were found in ancient human DNA, then there could be absolutely no doubt that God was responsible.
Second, Feser assumes that the only reason God would have for leaving a “Made by Yahweh” message in every human being’s DNA is to demonstrate His existence to an unbelieving world. But what if God intended to leave a message in every human being’s DNA, not as a way of conclusively demonstrating His existence, but as a way of disproving materialistic accounts of the origin of our DNA? And if, in addition, the same message were found in the cells of other living creatures, the inference would be obvious: life (at least, life on Earth) is a put-up job. That would not destroy atheism, but it would destroy one of its main props: Darwinism. (I’m not arguing here, by the way, that Darwinism must be false simply because atheists draw aid and comfort from it.)
What kind of miracle could send a clear message of God’s existence, according to Feser?
“The Resurrection” (Der Aufenstandene) by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1558. According to Professor Edward Feser, if God wanted to send an unambiguous sign of His existence, the best way would be to perform a miracle that no natural agent could perform, such as the resurrection of a dead body. Image courtesy of Torsten Schleese and Wikipedia.
The reader may be wondering, “If Feser doesn’t think that a ‘Made by Yahweh’ message in every human being’s DNA would send a clear sign of God’s existence, then what would?” Feser thinks that the resurrection of a dead body would be a clear-cut example of a supernatural event or miracle that in principle, only God could 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.)
While I would agree with Feser that only a supernatural Being could raise a dead person back to life, as such an event would constitute a massive violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I have to disagree with his implicit claim that a well-documented case of a corpse coming back to life could only be ascribed to God. For the problem is that what looks like a resurrection might not actually be a resurrection. Consider the following scenario. Suppose there is an advanced race of aliens who are capable of very quickly moving bodies wherever they choose, using technologies beyond our ken. The aliens are also capable of transforming one person’s appearance (including the DNA of their cells) into that of another person, in the twinkling of an eye, although such feats of course require an enormous amount of energy. To simulate a resurrection, then, all the aliens would have to is quickly remove the corpse from the scene, transform another individual into a replica of what the deceased person looked like while he/she was still alive, and rapidly transport that person to the place where the corpse was before – all in the space of a fraction of a second. Ridiculously far-fetched? Yes, of course. But is it demonstrably impossible? No.
Nor is there any reason in principle why an alien could not tamper with our visual systems and/or our memories, making us think that we had seen a dead person come to life even though nothing extraordinary had taken place.
To make matters worse for Feser, there is another possibility that he has to consider: that demons may be able to bring about or at least mimic the resurrection of a dead body. Consider the following passage from Exodus 7:
10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. 11 Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: 12 Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. 13 Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said. (NIV)
Commenting on this passage in Exodus, St. Thomas Aquinas, writing in his Summa Theologica, vol. I, question 114, article 4, reply to objection 2, was willing to allow that demons can transform inanimate objects into frogs, using “certain seeds that exist in the elements of the world.” And although he went on to argue that demons could not raise a dead man back to life, he added that demons were perfectly capable of creating a “semblance of reality” so that “something of this sort seems to be effected by the operation of demons.” Demons are capable of producing collective hallucinations too: “the demon, who forms an image in a man’s imagination, can offer the same picture to another man’s senses.”
The point I’m making here is that even when evaluating miracles, we have to adopt a balance-of-probabilities approach. Yes, one might imagine an advanced race of aliens pulling off a stunt like that. But it’s not rational to suppose that aliens would do such a thing: first, we haven’t discovered any aliens; and second, even if they existed, it’s extremely unlikely that they would bother to pull religious pranks on us. And for all we know, demons may be capable of causing us all to suffer hallucinations. But we have no special reason to believe that they would – and if we believe that the world is governed by Divine Providence, such a scenario would seem especially unlikely. The most obvious interpretation of an event such as a dead person coming to life is that it’s a supernatural sign from Heaven. And that should be enough.
The best defense of the Resurrection of Jesus on Bayesian probabilistic grounds that I have seen is The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth by Professor Tim McGrew and his wife, Dr. Lydia McGrew. What the authors attempt to demonstrate is that there is “a small set of salient public facts” that strongly supports belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Taking into account only the eyewitness testimony of the women at the tomb of Jesus, his twelve apostles and St. Paul, they calculate that the facts in question are 1044 times more likely to have occurred, on the assumption that the Resurrection of Jesus actually happened, than that on the assumption that it did not. However, their argument makes no attempt to calculate the prior probability of a man rising from the dead. On this point, I would suggest that we should follow Laplace’s sunrise argument – a point on which I shall have more to say in a future post. If my proposal is correct, then if we look at human deaths occurring up until the early first century we get a naive prior probability estimate of about 1 in 2 billion, or 0.5 x 10-9 for a miracle such as a resurrection. Similar logic was used by the mathematician Charles Babbage in Chapter 10 and Chapter 13 of his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. Babbage makes the perspicuous observation that whereas the evidence against miracles increases an an arithmetic rate as non-miraculous occurrences cumulate over the course of time, the evidence for a miracle increases at a geometric rate as the number of eyewitnesses increases. It follows that even the prior improbability of a miracle can be overcome by the testimony of a sufficient number of eyewitnesses.
Skeptics commonly appeal to mass hallucinations in order to undermine belief in miracles. And as I pointed out at the beginning of this post, Professor Feser thinks it would be reasonable to explain the discovery of a “Made by Yahweh” message in every person’s DNA in terms of a mass hallucination, inspired by pop-culture. However, there is no good evidence for the occurrence of mass hallucinations, which (when judged on the basis of historical evidence) are just as unlikely as the events that they are invoked to explain away. The most commonly cited alleged instance – the miracle of the Sun at Fatima – cannot be explained in this fashion, as it was independently witnessed 30 miles away. A much more plausible naturalistic explanation of this event is given by Auguste Meesen, of the Catholic Institute of Louvain, in his essay, Apparitions and Miracles of the Sun. Meesen ascribes the miracle to optical effects caused by prolonged staring at the sun – an interesting hypothesis which does not however explain the fact that following the miracle, the spectators, whose clothes were soaking wet from standing in the rain for three hours, found that their clothes had dried and that surrounding puddles had dried up too. (For an interesting online exchange on the subject, see here, here and here.)
Quetzalcoatl and Feser’s absurd leap into hyper-skepticism
Quetzalcoatl in human form, using the symbols of Ehecatl the wind god, from the Codex Borgia. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
But then Feser, in a fit of hyper-skepticism, went on to argue that if scientists discovered a message in every human cell, we could not even infer that the message was generated by an intelligent agent at all. In a passage that I actually had to re-read in order to make sure that I wasn’t mistaken, Feser asserted that if we found the message “Made by Quetzalcoatl” or “Made by Steve Jobs” in every human cell, it would be quite reasonable to infer that we were all suffering from a collective hallucination (emphases below are mine):
…If we found in every human cell a phrase referring to Kilroy, round squares, the Matrix, or Steve Jobs, … 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.
I can assure Feser that no Intelligent Design advocate would conclude that he/she was suffering from a hallucination if the message “Made by Quetzalcoatl” were found to be imprinted in every cell. The inference that he/she would draw would be an Intelligent Design inference.
The argument put forward by Feser to undermine the inference that the discovery of a “Made by Yahweh” message in every human cell would point to God as its Author rested on a counter-scenario: what if we found the message “Made by Quetzalcoatl,” or “Made by Steve Jobs” instead? What would we infer then? But the point is that we haven’t found such messages. Feser might retort that we haven’t found any message saying “Made by Yahweh” either, but there is an asymmetry between the two cases. There is no reason in principle why a transcendent God could not leave such a message inside the cell. However, there are excellent reasons for doubting that Quetzalcoatl or Steve Jobs would be capable of accomplishing such feats: the former is a Meso-American god who is no longer worshiped by anyone, and the latter is deceased. Feser has not demonstrated that his alternative scenarios are even possible, in the ontological sense of the word: all we can say is that they are epistemically possible. So the correct response to Feser’s counter-scenario is: “We’ll cross that bridge when and if we come to it.”
An artist’s rendition of a grey alien. Image courtesy of Scythian 23 and Wikipedia.
A more interesting question that Feser might have considered is what inference we would draw if we discovered the message “Made by Alec the alien from Alpha Centauri” in every human cell, instead of “Made by Yahweh.” In this case, we have no positive grounds for doubting the veracity of the message: for all we know, there might be a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri which supports intelligent life. For my part, the first question I would ask, if such a discovery were made, is whether it could be a hoax perpetrated by scientists on Earth. But if the unanimous verdict of biologists around the world were that such a feat lay well beyond the capabilities of contemporary scientists, then I would tentatively conclude that an alien named Alec from Alpha Centauri was indeed responsible for putting the message there. Wouldn’t you?
Feser’s hyper-skepticism undercuts belief in revealed religion, as well as belief in an external world
The final point that I would like to make against Feser’s claim that it would be rational to ascribe the discovery of messages in every person’s DNA to a collective hallucination on our part is that it is epistemically self-defeating: in making it, Feser is sawing off the very branch he is sitting on. For such a claim, if true, would not only undercut belief in revealed religion (which Feser accepts), but also belief in the existence of an external world.
First, Feser’s hyper-skeptical claim that if we found the message “Made by Yahweh” in every human cell, we might rationally conclude that we were all suffering from a collective hallucination, could be used to undermine belief in every miracle – including a resurrection from the dead, which Feser has argued could only be the work of God.
Christians’ faith in the Resurrection of Jesus is based on the eyewitness testimony of 500 people, as described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (NIV)
If Feser thinks it is rational to suppose that the entire human race might be suffering from a collective hallucination when claiming to see messages inscribed in every human cell, then there is no reason why the 500 people who claimed to have witnessed Jesus’ resurrection could not have been hallucinating too. The same goes for the miracles witnessed by the Israelites in the Old Testament: on Feser’s logic, maybe they were all seeing things.
Consequently, if Feser’s hyper-skeptical argument is correct, it would follow that belief in the claims of a revealed religion would never be rationally warranted – a conclusion that Feser, who is a devout Catholic, would surely reject.
Second, Feser’s hyper-skepticism brings to mind Descartes’ doubts as to whether an evil demon might be deceiving him into believing that there is an external world. If Feser really thinks it’s possible – not just logically possible, or epistemically possible, but metaphysically possible in the real world – that a collective hallucination could make us all believe that there are messages in each and every cell in our bodies when in fact there are no such messages, then I find it hard to see how Feser could answer the skeptic’s question, “Why should I trust my senses as a generally reliable source of knowledge?” For if all of us are capable of collectively hallucinating on one occasion, then there may be many other occasions on which our senses have let us down. The logical consequence of this kind of skepticism is that scientists could no longer assume the accuracy of their measurements, and hence science itself would become unworkable.
It gets worse. If Feser is willing to allow that the entire human race is capable of having a simultaneous illusion regarding a message inscribed in the cells in our bodies, then other beliefs we have about our bodies might turn out to be illusions too – for instance, our belief that we have three-dimensional human bodies (which might in reality be two-dimensional squares), or even our belief that we have bodies at all (when in fact all of us are disembodied beings).
But if we cannot be sure that there is an external world, then the traditional arguments for God’s existence collapse, as they explicitly assume that we can know certain things about the world from experience.
I conclude that Feser’s hyper-skepticism regarding the “Made by Yahweh” and “Made by Quetzlcoatl” scenarios leads to absurd epistemic consequences: it implies that we can know nothing of the external world, and nothing about God or anything that He might want to reveal to us.
Feser’s swipes at Intelligent Design theory and ID advocates
Feser concludes his discussion of the “signature in the cell” scenario with a swipe at Intelligent Design theory:
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?
I’d like to make two points in response.
First, the word “information” has a variety of meanings, in different fields of science. If Professor Feser wants to know how the term is defined by Intelligent Design theorists, he can look it up in the Uncommon Descent Glossary, or consult The Design of Life (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dallas, 2008) for a more detailed treatment. Professor William Dembski, in his paper Life’s Conservation Law: Why Darwinian Evolution Cannot Create Biological Information, co-authored with Robert J. Marks II, provides a rigorous mathematical definition of information on page 13, where it is defined in terms of the difficulty of locating a target via a blind search.
An online 2008 article by K.D. Kalinsky titled, Intelligent Design: Required by Biological Life? (February 19, 2008), uses another standard measure of information, which is common in the biological literature:
A method to measure functional information has recently been published by Hazen et al. whereby functional information is defined as
I(Ex) = – log2[M(Ex)/N] (1)
where Ex is the degree of function x, M(Ex) is the number of different configurations that achieves or exceeds the specified degree of function x, ≥ Ex, and N is the total number of possible configurations.
Feser’s naively expressed doubts as to whether the term “information” is being employed literally by Intelligent Design theorists reveal his lack of familiarity with the literature on the subject. Feser would be well-advised to read Hubert P. Yockey’s classic text, Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life (2005, Cambridge University Press). (I should mention that Yockey is not an ID supporter; nevertheless, his insights are very fruitful in stimulating discussion.)
Perhaps by “literal” Feser means “semantic.” However, since each and every organism contains its own developmental program, it it hard to see how he can avoid saying that there is semantic information inside the cell. I realize that Feser may be inclined to doubt the legitimacy of the word “program” in a biological context. Perhaps, he may object, the term is merely a poetic metaphor. Not so. It’s a scientifically respectable term, and it has a well-defined meaning. If the reader goes to PubMed and types “genetic program” in the subject field in quotes, over 1,000 citations will appear. Typing “developmental program” will bring up over 1,400 citations.
Feser would have a point if he were to object that the language of the cell is what researchers in the field of computing science call artificial language, as opposed to the natural language of human speech, which (unlike artificial language) is inherently ambiguous. Granting this distinction, however, it remains true that cells contain information in a very robust sense of the term. After all, if a language is not “information,” then what is?
Second, it hardly bears repeating that Intelligent Design theory makes no attempt to argue for the transcendent, infinite God of classical theism: it merely endeavors to show that there are patterns in Nature – and especially in living things – for which intelligent agency is the only rational explanation. Intelligent Design theory argues for this conclusion on scientific grounds, without invoking any metaphysical concepts. ID says nothing about the nature or identity of the Designer. I addressed this issue in my recent post, The myth about the Dover trial that Miller continues to propagate (July 20, 2014), in which I quoted a passage from the Intelligent Design textbook, Of Pandas and People:
“If science is based upon experience, then science tells us the message encoded in DNA must have originated from an intelligent cause. But what kind of intelligent agent was it? On its own, science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy. But that should not prevent science from acknowledging evidences for an intelligent cause origin wherever they may exist. This is no different, really, than if we discovered life did result from natural causes. We still would not know, from science, if the natural cause was all that was involved, or if the ultimate explanation was beyond nature, and using the natural cause.”
(Of Pandas and People, 2nd ed., 1993, p. 7)
I should add that Dr. Charles Thaxton, the Academic Editor of Of Pandas and People, rejected scientific arguments for the supernatural, one year before the Supreme Court’s Edwards vs. Aguillard ruling of 1987, thus giving the lie to the oft-heard claim that the book was altered at the last minute, and that references to God in the book were deliberately replaced by references to the Designer, in order to accommodate the Supreme Court’s latest decision. In 1986, Thaxton developed a paper titled Origin Science: New Rules, New Tools for the Evolution Debate, for circulation during the Annual Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation at Houghton College in New York. In the paper, he declared:
With the new data from molecular biology we can now argue for an intelligent cause at the origin of life based on the analogy between the DNA code and a written language. Notice I did not say we can argue for the divine creation of life. … I cannot look at the DNA molecule and say, God made that. What I can say is that, given the structure of a DNA molecule, it is certainly plausible to conclude that it was made by an intelligent agent. We may be able to identify that agent in greater detail by other arguments — by philosophical or theological ones, for example — but from scientific data alone we can argue only to a primary cause.
(Thaxton, Charles B. Origin Science: New Rules, New Tools for the Origins Debate. A paper circulated at the Annual Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation. Houghton College, Houghton, NY, August 8-11, 1986.)
To cap it all, the marketing letter from the Foundation for Thought and Ethics to prospective publishers, which was written on May 15, 1987, over one month before the Supreme Court made its ruling in the Edwards v. Aguillard decision, includes the following paragraph:
Our manuscript is entitled Biology and Origins. From the project’s inception, our authors recognized such a book could not sidestep the valid criticisms of creation, but must take them seriously, treating the subject with a sensitive and critical approach. At the same time, the book will not be subject to the major criticism of creation, that the supernatural lies outside of science, because its central statement is that scientific evidence points to an intelligent cause, but that science is silent as to whether that intelligence is within or beyond the material universe. So the book is not appealing to the supernatural.
Readers who would like to learn more about the textbook Of Pandas and People and the background to the Edwards v. Aguillard decision would do well to read the monograph, The Untold Story of the Kitzmiller Trial by Jon Buell, of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dallas.
In more recent years, Intelligent Design advocate Professor Michael Behe has addressed the identity of the Designer, in his work The Edge of Evolution (New York: Free Press, 2007), which includes a section in chapter 10 titled, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” (pp. 237-239). Behe writes:
Here’s something to ponder long and hard: Malaria was intentionally designed. The molecular machinery with which the parasite invades red blood cells is an exquisitely purposeful arrangement of parts…
Did a hateful, malign being make intelligent life in order to torture it? One who relishes cries of pain?
Maybe. Maybe not. A torrent of pain indisputably swirls through the world – not only the world of humans but also the world of sentient animal life as well. Yet just as undeniably, much that is good graces nature. Many children die, yet many other thrive. Some people languish, but others savor full lives. Does one outweigh the other? If so, which outweighs which? Or are pleasure and pain, good and evil, incommensurable? Are viruses and parasites part of some brilliant, as-yet-unappreciated economy of nature, or do they reflect the bungling of an incompetent, fallible designer?
Whether on balance one thinks life was a worthwhile project or not – whether the designer of life was a dope, a demon, or a deity – that’s a topic on which opinions over the millennia have differed considerably. Each argument has some merit. Of the many possible opinions, only one is really indefensible, the one held by Darwin…. He decided – based on squeamishness – that no designer existed. Maybe the designer isn’t all that beneficent or omnipotent. Science can’t answer questions like that. But denying design merely because it can cause terrible pain is a failure of nerve, a failure to look the universe fully in the face.”
(2007, pp. 237-239. Emphases mine – VJT.)
The foregoing quote from Behe should lay to rest once and for all the notion that the Intelligent Design movement is attempting to argue for the existence of the God of classical theism. Intelligent Design theory is a scientific methodology, and science cannot take us that far.
Finally, I was rather surprised to discover this rather insulting remark of Feser’s, in response to a comment from one of his readers:
In my nearly ten years of blogging, I have found that only New Atheist types and 9/11 Truthers rival (certain members of) the ID crowd for sheer irrationality and inability to think outside the little box into which they’ve welded themselves.
Feser goes on to say that many of his ID critics wrongly accuse him of being a defender of Darwinism. Let me declare for the record that I make no such accusation against Feser. My criticisms of him in his post are directed entirely at his epistemology and his metaphysics.
2. Feser’s astonishing ultimatum: only Aristotle’s metaphysics can take you from Nature to God
Portrait of Aristotle. Copy of the Imperial era (1st or 2nd century) of a lost bronze sculpture made by Lysippos. According to Professor Feser, only arguments based on Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics can take us from Nature to God. Image courtesy of photographer Eric Gaba (User:Sting) and Wikipedia.
Feser’s second surprise
There’s more. According to Feser, the only good reasons we can have for inferring God’s existence from the natural world are arguments based on – wait for it – Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics! Nothing else counts as evidence, declares Feser: “In other words, it is in terms of the A-T [Aristotelian-Thomistic] metaphysical categories alone that various proposed naturalistic explanations of biological and other phenomena can adequately be evaluated” (italics mine).
Feser thinks that the argument he has developed for an Intelligent Cause of the cosmos is a knock-down one – and when I say knock-down, I don’t just mean overwhelmingly probable, or certain beyond reasonable doubt, or the only rational explanation. No, I mean knock-down as in “the only possible explanation.” As a Thomist, Feser takes his revamped version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way “conclusively to establish” the existence of a supreme intellect, as “the only possible explanation even in principle” (Aquinas, Oneworld, Oxford, 2009, pp. 111-112) for the regular behavior of things, as shown by their tendency to generate certain specific effects (e.g. the tendency of a match to generate fire and heat when struck, rather than frost and cold). Judging from the passages quoted above, I think it’s fair to say Feser claims we can have ironclad certainty of God’s existence.
Feser is a noted Catholic philosopher. However, I should point out here that the level of certainty which the Catholic Church claims we possess about God’s existence is not ironclad: the arguments for God’s existence are said to be convincing, but not compelling. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Part One, Section, Chapter One, paragraph 32) describes the arguments for God’s existence simply as “‘converging and convincing arguments’, which allow us to attain certainty about the truth,” and in paragraph 36 it adds that “God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.” Nothing more than that. I’d also like to quote a passage from Chapter 1 of The Existence of God (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1887) by Fr. Richard Clarke S.J. (formerly Fellow and Tutor of St. John’s College, Oxford):
First of all, I ask you to bear in mind the difference between a sufficient argument and a resistless argument, between one which is convincing and one which is compelling. In the one case you can manage to find some evasion, in the other you cannot; in the one case you deserve indeed to be called wrong-headed if you do not assent to the argument, but in the other to be called a simple fool… The arguments for the existence of God are convincing, not compelling arguments. You can always find what our professor in theology called an effugium, some way of backing out, which saves you from absolutely contradicting yourself or running counter to obvious common sense… When an argument is resistless all rational men accede to it, but when it is short of this, but yet in itself sufficient to convince, you will find a divergence of opinion among a certain number… It is just the same in the arguments respecting the existence of a God. Mankind at large regard them as sufficient and more than sufficient, but there are a certain number who fail to be convinced by them, and the reason is that they too come to the question not unbribed. For one reason or another the idea of an over-ruling Providence is distasteful to them.
Thus when Professor Feser claims we can have ironclad certainty of God’s existence, I think he is going beyond what the Church has decreed on the subject to date. And I might add that Feser’s friend and fellow Thomist, Professor Francis Beckwith, disagrees with his claim that Aquinas Five Ways are intended “conclusively to establish” the existence of a supreme intellect, as “the only possible explanation even in principle” (Aquinas, 2009, pp. 111-112). In a post titled, Barry Arrington on hubris, Enlightenment and otherwise (February 9, 2010) Beckwith writes: “If Kant had claimed that his own arguments had demolished St. Thomas’ ‘Five Ways (not proofs), it would, apparently, be an instance of ‘Enlightenment hubris.'” Astonishingly, Beckwith doesn’t think that Aquinas Five Ways were even intended as proofs, let alone knockdown ones. Let me make a personal disclosure here: I thrashed this issue out with Professor Beckwith in a lively exchange of views on an Uncommon Descent thread back in 2010, because I felt that Beckwith had gone too far in the opposite direction: to me, it seemed clear that the Five Ways were intended by Aquinas as proofs which established the existence of God as certain beyond all reasonable doubt, but not beyond all possible doubt. To my surprise, Beckwith referred me to an article titled, Five Ways of Five Proofs? by James Kidd, editor of The Rock magazine, who contended that Aquinas “did not write them as demonstrations of God’s existence but arguments for something we already accept.” I thought Kidd’s reasoning was rather muddled, and said as much in my exchange with Professor Beckwith. But the point I want to make here is that Professor Feser’s reading of Aquinas’ Five Ways as ironclad proofs is a very strong one, and a controversial one at that: even many of Feser’s fellow Thomists would disagree with him. To be fair, though, Feser does have some company. The late Professor Ralph McInerny (1929-2010), an eminent Thomist scholar, wrote: “There is no reason to deny that Aquinas thinks the Five Ways are proofs or demonstrations in the most robust sense, namely that which he appeals to as set out by Aristotle in the Posterior Analytics.” (See his article, Aquinas in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)
Feser’s knockdown proof – what other Thomists think of it
The argument which Feser most frequently touts as a knockdown demonstration of God’s existence is a re-vamped version of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Fifth Way. As Feser tells it, the argument is far superior to Intelligent Design arguments because its premises are as simple as you could possibly ask for, and intellectually unassailable. All that the Fifth Way assumes is the fact (which anyone can see for themselves) that things have a tendency to behave in set, regular ways: certain kinds of causes regularly produce certain kinds of effects.
So, is Aquinas’ Fifth Way really a knockdown demonstration of God’s existence? It turns out that not even all Thomist philosophers think that Aquinas’ Fifth Way even works as a proof (although of course, most of them do), let alone a knockdown demonstration. One Thomist philosopher who doesn’t think the Fifth Way succeeds as a proof is Professor Christopher F. J. Martin, author of Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations (Edinburgh University Press, 1998), whom Professor Feser cited favorably in his online post, The trouble with William Paley (November 4, 2009) and in his recent article, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” (Australian Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2, 2011, pp. 237-267). Here is what Christopher Martin has to say about Aquinas’ Fifth Way in his chapter, The Fifth Way:
Let me just say that as far as I can make out by far the hardest move in the Fifth Way is the move from unconscious to conscious teleology, and, for my part, I am not sure that St Thomas gives us conclusive reasons for making that move. I regard them as strong, but not conclusive, and the impression I have is that others regard them as not very strong at all…
To be fair, I should say that Martin wrote his book, Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations, back in 1998, and that Professor Feser, in his more recent book, Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009), does an admirable job of addressing Martin’s concerns. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Feser’s reconstructed version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way is neither valid nor sound. Several of the key premises are open to doubt; and even when supplemented by Feser’s helpful elucidations, they still fail to establish the existence of an Infinite Creator. To my mind, the Fifth Way remains a “work in progress.”
I’ll say more about the Fifth Way below, but in the meantime, I’d say that Professor Feser definitely has some explaining to do.
Intelligent Design: the metaphysical equivalent of phrenology?
In his latest post, titled, Signature in the cell?, Feser likens Intelligent Design to the science of phrenology. Image courtesy of Wikipedia and the People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883) .
Another thing that I found off-putting about Professor Feser’s post was its shrill “My way or the highway” insistence that the only way of reasoning from Nature to God was via Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, as evidenced by the following passage (emphases mine):
…[I]t is in terms of the A-T [Aristotelian-Thomistic] 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.
I consider Professor Feser’s comparison of Intelligent Design theory with phrenology and phlogiston theory to be not only historically inaccurate, but gratuitously rude. For the record, Intelligent Design has been embraced by some first-class scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley (1943-2005), who became an Old Earth creationist, after reading the books “Origins of Life” and “Who Was Adam?”, written by Dr. Hugh Ross (an astrophysicist) and Dr. Fazale Rana (a biochemist), and who also endorsed Intelligent Design. Dr. Smalley explained his change of heart as follows:
Evolution has just been dealt its death blow. After reading “Origins of Life”, with my background in chemistry and physics, it is clear evolution could not have occurred. The new book, “Who Was Adam?”, is the silver bullet that puts the evolutionary model to death.
More details about Professor Smalley’s change of heart are available here.
Do ID advocates address Feser’s substantive criticisms of Intelligent Design?
I’d also like to reply to a complaint made by Professor Feser in a comment he made in response to a reader of his post:
Take just one of the points I’ve alluded to here and developed at length in other places (e.g. my Nova et Vetera article on the Fifth Way), to the effect that collapsing immanent teleology into extrinsic teleology threatens to lead us either to deism or occasionalism (where, as Thomists argue, deism in turn tends toward atheism and occasionalism toward pantheism). Any sane critic would think: “OK, I don’t know if I agree with all that, but I can see why a classical theist and Thomist would find that seriously theologically dangerous and want to oppose it strongly.” And so on for the other metaphysical and theological issues I’ve emphasized.
Yet as far as I know, none of my critics on the ID side has even addressed that particular point. What we get instead is stuff like: “Duh, er, but what about that flagellum?” The most fundamental theological and metaphysical issues are at stake, and they can’t get their eyeballs unglued from some tail at the end of a bacterium. Utterly, utterly pathetic.
Hello, Professor? Hello? One year ago, I emailed you to inform you about my Uncommon Descent post, Building a bridge between Scholastic philosophy and Intelligent Design (January 5, 2013), in which I addressed the very point you raised. I realize that you’re a very busy man, but one year is a rather long time. In any case, I address the charge that Intelligent Design is tied to occasionalism, later in this post.
Another road to God, without metaphysics
As we have seen, Feser contends that you cannot construct a sound argument that the world was designed by God unless you already accept the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical distinctions between substance and accident, and between immanent teleology and extrinsic teleology. I have to say that this claim strikes me as impertinent. What it says is that the only legitimate way of reasoning from the world to God is by doing metaphysics – and Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics at that.
I’m therefore very curious to know what Professor Feser thinks of this recently released 39-minute video by Douglas Ell, an attorney in Washington, D.C., with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics from MIT, and a master’s degree from the University of Maryland in theoretical mathematics. In the video, Ell gives a summary of the argument contained in his new book, Counting to God, which is highly recommended by Professor Peter Fisher, Head of the Department of Physics at MIT, who wrote the Introduction. The book was reviewed recently by Casey Luskin. (Douglas Ell’s Website can be found here.)
The title of the book, Counting to God, reflects Douglas Ell’s conviction – based on mathematical and scientific arguments – that there are no less than seven lines of converging evidence which, when taken together, point to the existence of God. In the video, Ell explains his hostility to philosophical arguments for God’s existence, as a skeptical young man [1:05]:
I was an atheist – I considered myself an atheist – when I was here [at MIT]. And after my son was born, my wife said, “Well, we need to get the kid baptized,” and I figured I didn’t need that fight. You pick your battles carefully, right? So… but then I started to get a sense that there’s something to this church business. And I had to start to figure it out. You know, I went to MIT. I didn’t want to hear about those philosophic arguments, you know? Forget C. S. Lewis. And I didn’t want to hear about the historical accuracy of the Gospels or anything, and I didn’t want to hear about other people’s personal experiences of God. I wanted to hear about the science and math, and I wanted to figure it out. So I’ve been thinking about this for about 30 years, and then I think we [physicist Peter Fisher and Douglas Ell] were having dinner maybe four or five years ago, and I said to Peter, “You know, I think science really supports belief in God. Somebody ought to write a book.” To which Peter responded, “Well, maybe that somebody could be you.” And I thought, “Darn! Why me? You know, don’t lay it on me, God. I got a lot going on.” But then I thought, well maybe my technical background, the fact that I’m not at a university, my freedom to express my own views – you know, I’ve had a lot of experience translating really technical concepts into plain English. And that’s what I try and do in my book. And my book explains the – basically, the mathematical road that I found to the existence of God.
What Douglas Ell’s video shows is that if you are looking for arguments for God’s existence, then metaphysics is not the only possible road to God, and that an exclusive focus on metaphysical arguments may actually turn many spiritual seekers away from God.
Now at this point, Professor Feser might object that showing that the cosmos had a supernatural, intelligent First Cause (as Ell claims to do) is not the same as arguing for the God of classical theism, Who is absolutely simple and Who is Being Itself. That’s a valid objection, but I think it’s fair to say that many people would regard a demonstration of the existence of a supernatural, intelligent First Cause as a major step forward in our ongoing quest to explain why we are here and to discover the meaning of life – particularly if this conclusion can be established using the tools of mathematics and science. And I don’t think they would be particularly bothered if it were pointed out to them that Douglas Ell’s arguments are cumulative and converging, rather than ironclad proofs. For practical purposes, we often base our important decisions on cumulative and converging evidence.
But Feser might still want to argue that for all we know, such a supernatural Creator might be a finite, composite Being rather than Being Itself. In particular, Feser contends that the First Cause has to be metaphysically simple, since beings composed of parts would require an external cause to keep them together.
Since I (like Feser) accept the teachings of the Catholic Church, I believe that God’s essence is absolutely simple. But whether this can be demonstrated philosophically is another question. First, it is not clear to me that an entity composed of parts necessarily requires an external cause of its existence, rather than an internal one. Second, one might imagine a Being composed of multiple parts, which were integrated in such a way that none of them could, even conceivably, exist separately from the others. Would such a Being require an external cause to hold it together? Third, one might reasonably ask whether we even know what the term “part” would mean, when applied to an incorporeal Being, as the Cause of the cosmos would have to be. (By definition, the laws of Nature are all subsumed within the cosmos, and a Being not subject to any laws of Nature would be incorporeal.)
Finally, I would invite readers to consider the following passage about quarks in Wikipedia:
A quark (/ˈkwɔrk/ or /ˈkwɑrk/) is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter. Quarks combine to form composite particles called hadrons, the most stable of which are protons and neutrons, the components of atomic nuclei. Due to a phenomenon known as color confinement, quarks are never directly observed or found in isolation; they can be found only within hadrons, such as baryons (of which protons and neutrons are examples), and mesons. For this reason, much of what is known about quarks has been drawn from observations of the hadrons themselves.
If even in the material world we find parts that can never be isolated from one another, who is to say that an incorporeal Being composed of parts would be liable to decomposition and destruction? And if it wouldn’t, then many people might ask: who cares if the intelligent Cause of the cosmos is composite or simple? All that matters for practical purposes is that such a Being is indestructible.
A final objection that Feser might want to make is that an argument for a supernatural First Cause does not take us to a Being whose essence is identical with its own act of existence. But this objection assumes that there is a real distinction between the two in the first place – an assumption that Thomists accept but that many other Scholastic philosophers do not. I shall argue below that the arguments used to support this assumption are faulty, and that if there were a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its act of existence, this would actually undercut Feser’s revamped version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way.
I conclude that mathematics and science, taken together in the way that Douglas Ell proposes, bring us close enough to what anyone would call God, for practical intents and purposes. Feser’s insistence that metaphysics provides the only avenue to reason our way from Nature to God therefore appears doubtful.
A plea for metaphysical pluralism
In his post, Professor Feser contends that if we wish to reason our way from Nature to God, metaphysics alone is not enough: we need to get our metaphysics of Nature right, which for Feser means that it has to be Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. In particular, says Feser, we need to distinguish between the substantial forms of things in themselves and the accidental forms of their properties, and we also need to distinguish between the way in which the parts of a natural substance have an inherent tendency to function together, as a whole (immanent finality) due to their substantial form, and the functionality of an artifact, which is due to its accidental form – that is, the highly artificial arrangement of its parts, which is imposed from outside (extrinsic finality). We also need to grasp the distinction between the immanent causation which characterizes living things – i.e. causal processes that begin and remain within the agent itself, and which typically benefit the agent – and the transeunt causation exhibited by non-living things, which is always directed outward, at an external effect. The process of digestion, which occurs within an animal’s body, and which benefits the animal by helping it to stay alive and grow, is an example of immanent causation, while a magnet picking up a nail (an external object) is an example of transeunt causation. According to Feser, we need to acknowledge all these metaphysical distinctions. Then, and only then, can we evaluate “proposed naturalistic explanations of biological and other phenomena,” and reason our way to God.
As Feser himself put it in his online post, Nature versus Art (30 April 2011):
[S]ince natural objects are (for the A-T philosopher) simply not artifacts in the relevant sense, it is a waste of time to argue for a divine designer on the basis of the assumption that they are, even if this assumption is made only “for the sake of argument.”… The point is that this is not a good way to begin an argument for the existence of God, because the key premise of the argument is false and because the implications of the comparison it rests on are dangerously misleading if used as a way of developing a conception of God’s relationship to the world.
(Bold emphases mine, italics Feser’s – VJT.)
Feser would do well to read my Uncommon Descent post, Building a bridge between Scholastic philosophy and Intelligent Design (January 5, 2013), in which I specifically addressed these concerns of his. Some of the remarks which follow are taken from that post.
Substance vs. accidents, and how they figure in Intelligent Design theory
An oak tree in Schönderling, Bavaria. According to the philosophy of Aristotle and the Scholastics, an oak tree is a thing, or substance. Its properties, such as its size, shape, color, texture and the taste of its fruit, are accidents. Professor Feser contends that without recognizing the distinction between substance and accidents, we cannot reason our way from Nature to God. Image courtesy of Rainer Lippert and Wikipedia.
Feser is very attached to the philosophical distinction between substance and accident, which he accuses Intelligent Design proponents of overlooking. I’d like to begin my reply by quoting from a passage from an essay by Tom Gilson, titled, “ID Creationism:” The Communication Question (October 16, 2009). In the essay, Gilson examines a variety of positions that might loosely be called “creationist,” and identified two which were compatible with Intelligent Design:
3.1 That God created the universe billions of years ago and “front-loaded” the initial conditions so that unfolding natural processes would inevitably lead to life as it now exists (“front-loading”) … And signs or hints of his work in doing so are detectable scientifically now, looking backward (FL with God’s fingerprints)
5. That God created the universe billions of years ago starting with a Big Bang and intervened on earth to produce the first life and subsequent life in ways that leave recognizable signs or hints of his intervention at various points along the way (Fingerprints on Creation)
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to accept the “front-loading” scenario, which has its defenders in the ID community, even though it has been criticized elsewhere by physicist Rob Sheldon.
The best exposition of the front-loading scenario might work comes from the writings of Professor Michael Behe, in his book, The Edge of Evolution (The Free Press, New York, 2007):
How was the design of life accomplished? That’s a peculiarly contentious question. Some people (officially including the National Academy of Sciences) are willing to allow that the laws of nature may have been purposely fine-tuned for life by an intelligent agent, but they balk at considering further fine-tuning after the Big Bang because they would fret it would require ‘interference’ in the operation of nature. So they permit a designer just one shot, at the beginning – after that, hands off. For example, in The Plausibility of Life Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart hopefully quote a passage from an old article on evolution in the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia: ‘God is the Creator of heaven and earth. If God produced the universe by a single creative act of His will, then its natural development by laws implanted in it by the Creator is to the greater glory of His Divine power and wisdom.’
This line of thinking is known as ‘Theistic Evolution’. But its followers are just kidding themselves if they think it is compatible with Darwinism. First, to the extent that anyone – either God, … or ‘any being… external to our universe responsible for selecting its properties’ – set nature up in any way to ensure a particular outcome, then to that extent, although there may be evolution, there is no Darwinism. Darwin’s main contribution to science was to posit a mechanism for the unfolding of life that required no input from any intelligence – random variation and natural selection. If laws were ‘implanted’ into nature with the express knowledge that they would lead to intelligent life, then even if the results follow by ‘natural development,’ nonetheless, intelligent life is not a random result (although randomness may be responsible for other, unintended features of nature). Even if all the pool balls on the table followed natural laws after the cue struck the first ball, the final result of all the balls in the side pocket was not random. It was intended [via the specific arrangement of the balls on the pool table before the shot was made].
Second, ‘laws’, understood as simple rules that describe how matter interacts (such as Newton’s law of gravity), cannot do anything by themselves. For anything to be done, specific substances must act. If our universe contained no matter, even the most finely tuned laws would be unable to produce life, because there would be nothing to follow the laws. Matter has unique characteristics, such as how much, where it is, and how it’s moving. In the absence of specific arrangements of matter, general laws account for little.
Finally, a particular, complex outcome cannot be ensured without a high degree of specification. At the risk of overusing the analogy, one can’t ensure that all the pool balls will end up in the side pocket just by specifying simple laws of physics, or even simple laws plus, say, the size of the pool table. Using the same simple laws, almost all arrangements of balls and almost all cue shots would not lead to the intended result. Much more has to be set. And to ensure a livable planet that actually harbors life, much more has to be specified than just the bare laws of physics. (2007, pp. 229-230)
In the passage above, Behe argues that both fine-tuned laws and a very specific set of initial conditions would be required for front-loading to work.
We are now in a position to answer Professor Feser’s charge that Intelligent Design ignores the distinction between substantial forms and accidental forms. The laws of Nature, as Feser is fond of pointing out, describe the causal powers of various kinds of natural agents, which arise from their substantial forms, in Aristotelian-Thomistic jargon. Technically speaking, an object’s powers are essential accidents, from which the object’s substantial form can never be separated.
The initial conditions of the universe, on the other hand, correspond to contingent choices made by God and imposed on the cosmos at the beginning of time. Alternatively, if one wishes to picture God as intervening later in time, e.g. just prior to the dawn of life, the initial conditions would correspond to contingent arrangements of molecules in the primordial soup, which enabled the first life to form on Earth, without the need for any further Divine intervention. In either case, the initial conditions are non-essential properties of the substances that were involved, and thus correspond to (non-essential) accidental forms, in Aristotelian-Thomistic jargon.
Thus in answer to Feser’s criticism that Intelligent Design neglects the distinction between substantial and accidental forms in its discussions of the origins of life, I would answer that it requires both, for life to have gotten started. I hope this answers Feser’s question.
It should be noted that nowhere in the foregoing account was it assumed that living things are mere artifacts – an assumption which Feser often (incorrectly) imputes to Intelligent Design proponents. All that was assumed was that living things are composed of parts, and that when these parts are brought together in the right way, a living thing will be produced. I cannot see how anyone could dispute that fact.
Regarding the substantial forms of living things: I shall argue below that Intelligent Design theory is highly compatible with the views of certain medieval Scholastic philosophers who ascribed multiple substantial forms to each and every living thing, since they envisaged organisms as many-layered, ontologically speaking. Thus when Intelligent Design speaks of the Designer as imposing arrangements on pre-existing matter, they are not wedded to a mechanistic picture of matter; rather, they are simply talking about how the soul (or principle of organization) of a living thing was imposed on the underlying form of corporeity, which (on their view) a living thing retains even after it dies and turns into dead matter – which is why a corpse retains many of the physical properties of the person it belonged to.
Substance vs. accident – how important is the distinction, anyway?
Finally I’d like to quote from a popular Catholic book of apologetics written by Father Robert Manning (1655-1731), an English Roman Catholic priest and controversialist, titled, The celebrated answer to the Rev. C. Lesley’s “Case stated, between the Church of Rome and the Church of England”: printed word for word, and refuted sentence after sentence, composed in 1721, and dedicated to the bishops of Ireland by the publisher, Richard Coyne, (4 Capel St., Dublin, 1839). The book can be read online here. The PDF version of the book is available here (warning: it’s 32 megabytes!)
In the text below, G. refers to the Protestant Gentleman and L. to the Catholic Lord who is responding to his arguments. In the following passage, which is taken from pages 435-436, the Catholic Lord and the Protestant Gentleman are discussing the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that after the consecration in the Mass, the bread and wine become Jesus’ body and blood. In response to a query by the Protestant Gentleman, the Catholic Lord explains that the Scholastic distinction between substance and accident is not something Catholics are required to believe, and he dismisses theological controversies about how the appearances of bread and wine can still remain even though the bread and wine are no longer present, as “mere school questions,” adding that he would not hazard the value of a farthing [one-quarter of a penny – VJT] upon the logical question of substance and accidents:
G. — If your lordship be in earnest about this logic of substance and accidents, will you lay a good wager upon it?
L. — Hudibras says, fools for arguments lay wagers.
G. — Yet you have laid all your honour and estate upon it. But are you so sure of it, that you would take your oath upon it.
L. — Whatever you may fancy, Sir, I do not know that I hazard the value of a farthing upon the logical question of substance and accidents. …
G. — But, my lord, did you not just now defend transubstantiation by the philosophical distinction between substance and accidents?
L. — But, Sir, do you make no difference between building faith upon philosophy, and shewing that the one is not repugnant to the other? I believe all mysteries of faith purely upon divine revelation, and not upon their non-repugnance to human reason, which only shews them to be possible. But if a man be such a trifler as to muster up boyish arguments from philosophy against them, am I not a debtor to the wise, and to the unwise, and bound to shew that Christianity and philosophy are not irreconcilable? And for this reason I have insisted upon the Aristotelian distinction of accidents and substance: not that the mystery of transubstantiation is built upon that philosophical distinction, or depends upon it, but only to convince you, that it is not repugnant to the current principles of philosophy.
I find it strikingly odd, then, that Professor Feser would have us believe that we cannot even reason our way from Nature to God without acknowledging the reality of the Scholastic distinction between substance and accidents.
Feser’s false dichotomy: Thomism or mechanism
A candle burning. Occasionalist philosophers in the Middle Ages denied that created things were capable of causing anything: in their view, the only cause was God. Hence (to use a popular example) when a candle flame burns a piece of cotton, it is really God Who is burning the cotton, not the flame. The flame doesn’t do anything; it is merely the occasion of God’s action of burning combustible objects. Professor Edward Feser contends that because Intelligent Design philosophers overlook the immanent finality belonging to substances (or things), they end up treating them as artificial entities, upon which forms of all kinds can be superimposed at will. But if things possess no immanent finality of their own, it follows that they possess no causal agency of their own – which is the occasionalist view. For this reason, Feser maintains that Intelligent Design theory has a dangerous tendency towards occasionalism. Image courtesy of Jon Sullivan, Fae and Wikipedia.
In a comment attached to his latest post, Professor Feser repeats his claim that Intelligent Design theory is tied to a mechanistic conception of nature, when he criticizes “Dembski’s methodological commitment to mechanism.” I have amply refuted these charges in several recent posts of mine, which I referred to (with hyperlinks included), in an email I sent to Professor Feser in August last year:
Accordingly, the comments I make here will be brief.
Professor Feser has repeatedly maintained in his writings that Intelligent Design proponents have a defective view of living things, which renders their argument for an Intelligent Designer who might be God, utterly useless. For Thomists like Feser, a living thing is one thing in a very radical sense. All of its properties – not only at the biological level, but also at the physicochemical level – are grounded in its unique form, and it is this form (which we call the soul) that explains everything about that living thing. To maintain otherwise, claims Feser, is to fall into the dangerous trap of regarding living things as nothing more than highly elaborate artifacts. Once you view things as artifacts, it becomes impossible in principle to demonstrate that the Intelligent Agent who gave living things their form, also gives them their being – or in other words, maintains them in existence. Since Feser wishes to demonstrate that the Intelligent Agent which guides living things to their ends is also responsible for maintaining them in being – for if the Agent didn’t do that, it couldn’t be God – he therefore feels that it is his duty, as a Catholic philosopher, to oppose Intelligent Design.
To hear Professor Feser tell it, you would think that there were only two metaphysical options for thinking about living organisms: either you accept the Thomistic thesis that a living thing is a single entity with a unique substantial form grounding all of its properties, or you become a mechanist, jettison all talk of “forms”, and regard a living organism as a mere assemblage of atoms.
While I personally believe that Intelligent Design is perfectly compatible with the Thomistic view that a living thing has only one substantial form, I would also argue that Professor Feser is guilty of presenting a false dichotomy in contrasting the radically holistic views of St. Thomas Aquinas with the mechanism of modern scientists.
What Feser omits to point out is that there is an intermediate view, which was widely held by theologians in the Middle Ages, which acknowledges both the unity of a living thing, but at the same time treats it as a multi-layered entity, with two or more forms grounding its properties. Some medieval Catholic theologians, who were contemporaries of St. Thomas Aquinas, held that living things are entities with two or more layers of substance, and that a substantial form of corporeity (or “bodiliness”) underlies the biological form, or soul, of a living thing. On such a view, we can legitimately speak of a substantial form being “imposed” on a pre-existing body, without in any way prejudicing the biological unity of the living organism created as a result of such an “imposition”.
Many medieval philosophers thought that Aquinas’ view that a living thing had one and only one substantial form, grounding all of its properties – biological and physicochemical – was a rather odd one, and preferred instead to postulate the existence of two or more forms in a living thing. Thus a form of corporeity (or “bodiliness”) was assumed to underlie the biological form of a living thing. On this latter view, a corpse still has the form (and hence the properties) of a body, but it lacks the form of a living body.
The point I want to make here is that even among Catholic philosophers of the Middle Ages, there was a wide diversity of views regarding the nature of living things. Some philosophers agreed with Aquinas that a living thing must have one, and only one, form. A larger number maintained, however, that a living thing possesses two or more forms, and that the soul of a living thing, or the form which makes it alive, sits on top of an underlying form, which grounds its physicochemical properties. If we adopt that way of talking, then it becomes easy to see how the form of a living thing can be imposed on pre-existing material. We don’t have to regard living things as artifacts in order to make sense of this picture. All we need to suppose is that the emergent holistic properties of living things, which give them a genuine unity at the biological level, supervene upon the underlying physicochemical properties of the material (i.e. DNA, proteins and other organic molecules) out of which a living thing is composed. This material has no inherent tendency to come together in the first place, but having been assembled together, it does have an inherent tendency to stay together and to function harmoniously as a single, organic entity.
Getting Paley wrong
Rev. William Paley (1743-1805). Image courtesy of Pablo Stafforini and Wikipedia.
For the past several years, Professor Feser has been misrepresenting the views of Reverend William Paley (1743-1805), portraying him as someone who:
(i) embraced theistic personalism and rejected classical theism;
(ii) argued that the existence of God could only be shown to be probable on inductive grounds, rather than demonstrably certain;
(iii) argued for a watchmaker Deity, Who (for all we know) might or might not be still alive, rather than an active Sustainer of the cosmos; and
(iv) upheld a mechanistic view of life and rejected final causes.
However, all of these assertions which Feser makes about Paley can be shown to be false, as I argued in the following posts of mine on Uncommon Descent, in December 2012 and January 2013:
I emailed Professor Feser in late August last year, suggesting that he might like to have a look at these posts. I realize that he is a busy man, but for the sake of fairness, I would strongly urge him to have a look at the evidence I have marshaled, which I hope will make him rethink his depiction of Paley. Paley is long dead; but even the dead have the right not to have their views misrepresented.
Unfortunately, Feser continues to propagate his misconstrual of Paley’s views in his recent article, “Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’s Fifth Way” in Nova et Vetera, vol. 11, no. 3 (Summer 2013), pp. 707-749. Although the article itself is quite long (43 pages) and contains extensive, paragraph-length quotations from the writings of such thinkers as Aristotle, Aquinas and Ockham, the section devoted to Paley’s views (pp. 722-723) is very short, and the handful of quotes from Paley are fragmentary, each consisting of no more than a few words. Thus we are told (p. 722) that Paley’s aim is to overwhelm the atheist with an “argument cumulative.” Feser’s “spin” on the argument is as follows: “The argument concerns probabilities, but Paley thinks the probability of design so high that he speaks of ‘the necessity of an intelligent Creator.'” However, Feser provides no evidence from Paley’s own writings that Paley considers the existence of God to be merely a probable conclusion, except for a brief footnote , remarking that “Paley appeals to what is ‘probable’ or to ‘probability’ or ‘improbability’ several times in the course of his argument, e.g. at 108, 135, 162, 167, 179, and 201″ [the references are to page numbers in Paley’s Natural Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)]. And that’s it, folks.
I’d now like to turn to the concluding section of my essay, in which I assess the merits of Feser’s purported proof of God’s existence.
3. Does Feser’s proof of God’s existence work?
St. Thomas Aquinas. From an altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno, Italy,
by Carlo Crivelli (c. 1435- c. 1495). Image courtesy of Wikipedia and the Yorck Project: 10,000 Meisterwerke der Malerei.
A thumbnail sketch of Ed Feser’s Very Simple Argument for God’s Existence
In his latest post, Professor Feser outlines the way in which he believes an argument for God’s existence should proceed. Feser maintains that the empirical assumptions required for an argument for God’s existence are absolutely minimal:
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.)
What Feser is trying to prove
In my post, Feser’s Fifth: Why his up-to-date version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way fails as a proof, and how to make it work, I described what Feser is trying to establish, in his re-vamped version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way:
On Feser’s account, the argument proceeds from a set of very simple facts about the natural world, and then demonstrates that the only way to explain these facts is by positing an intelligent being (or beings) guiding the behavior of natural objects towards their characteristic effects. But Feser doesn’t stop there: he maintains that the conclusion of the Fifth Way is not merely that there is an intelligent being guiding Nature, but rather, an Intelligence Who sustains Nature in being. Moreover, this guiding Intelligence can only be a Being Whose essence is identical with its very act of existence – in other words, an Intelligence Who is Being itself, and Who can therefore be identified with the God of classical theism. And there can only be one such God: an Intelligence Who is Being itself is necessarily unique. Feser contends that Aquinas’ argument (when properly understood) is a valid proof, which can provide us with absolute certitude that God exists, making Intelligent Design theory redundant. On Feser’s view, the existence of an Intelligent Creator of Nature can be rationally demonstrated without arguing that the cosmos had a beginning, or that its laws are fine-tuned, or that neo-Darwinism is false.
Feser’s argument for the God of classical theism, in eight easy steps
I then quoted Feser’s eight-step summary of his argument in his article, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” (Australian Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2, 2011):
1. That unintelligent natural causes regularly generate certain specific effects or ranges of effects is evident from sensory experience.
2. Such regularities are intelligible only on the assumption that these efficient causes inherently “point to” or are “directed at” their effects as to an end or final cause.
3. So there are final causes or ends immanent to the natural order.
4. But unintelligent natural causes can “point to” or be “directed at” such ends only if guided by an intelligence.
5. So there is such an intelligence.
6. But since the ends or final causes in question are inherent in things by virtue of their natures or essence, the intelligence in question must be the cause also of natural things having the natures or essences they do.
7. This entails its being that which conjoins their essences to an act of existence, and only that in which essence and existence are identical can ultimately accomplish this.
8. So the intelligence in question is something in which essence and existence are identical. (2011, p. 254.)
I then pointed out that the foregoing syllogism was meant to be a summary only; steps 2, 4, 6 and 7 require further elaboration, which Feser provides in his article.
One problem with Feser’s argument: a massive number of background metaphysical assumptions
In my critique of Feser’s argument, in my post, I expressed my astonishment at the fact that nowhere in his article does Feser explicitly enumerate the background metaphysical assumptions required for his version of the Fifth Way to work. When I attempted to do so, I was shocked to find that Feser’s argument relies on no less than 21 underlying metaphysical assumptions, most of which Feser explicitly invokes at various points in the article cited above and also in his book Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009), which contains a very useful exposition of Aquinas’ Fifth Way. I have listed these assumptions in Part Two of my post. Unfortunately, not all of these assumptions are adequately defended by Feser.
What I see as the logical flaws in Feser’s argument
I then went on to highlight what I saw as the logical flaws in Feser’s argument.
1. The argument, if successful, proves too much. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would appear to preclude natural objects from having active powers. For if natural objects need to be guided by an Intelligence to their respective ends, then it is hard to see how they can be said to possess an active tendency to reach those ends.
2. The key premise upon which the argument bases its claim that there is an Intelligent Being guiding Nature is that the behavior of natural objects is not only oriented towards the production of certain effects, but also that it is oriented towards future effects, at a fundamental level. This premise is questionable on both scientific and philosophical grounds. To establish his case, Feser needs to rebut the claim that the apparently future-oriented behavior of objects can be explained more simply, in terms of their present-oriented tendencies.
3. Contrary to what Feser claims, his argument does not succeed in establishing that the intelligent being (or beings) guiding natural objects towards their built-in goals (or “ends”) also endows them with their very natures. In his article, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways,” Feser argues that “since the ends or final causes in question are inherent in things by virtue of their natures or essence, the intelligence in question must be the cause also of natural things having the natures or essences they do” (2011, p. 254), which implies that an object’s built-in ends are a consequence of its nature. However, it does not follow from this fact that anything which causes a natural object to have those ends must therefore cause it to have the nature it has. To establish this conclusion, one would need to argue for the reverse: that an object’s ends determine its nature. Feser attempts to do this in his book Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009), where he asserts (p. 18) that an object’s final causes (ends) determine its form and matter, but all his argument shows is that the form of an object must be compatible with its ends, which is quite different from saying that it’s uniquely determined by those ends.
4. Feser’s argument also fails in its attempt to prove that the intelligent being who endows the various kinds of natural objects with their finality and form, which distinguish them from other kinds of objects, also endows these objects with their prime matter (the formless, featureless substrate underlying a substantial change, where an object of one kind changes into an object of another kind). Thus Feser is unable to establish that the intelligent being is anything more than a mere Demiurge, who generates forms but is not responsible for the existence of matter.
5. Feser’s argument fails to demonstrate that the intelligent being who endows natural objects with their matter, form and finality (i.e. the being who is the author of these objects’ essences), also sustains those objects in existence. For if (as Feser maintains) there is a real distinction between an object’s essence (or nature) and its existence, then the activity of defining an object’s formal, material, final and efficient causality – and thereby giving it an essence – is quite distinct from the activity of endowing that essence with existence – or as Feser puts it, conjoining that essence with its own act of existence. Hence, if we grant Feser’s essence-existence distinction, it no longer follows that the Intelligence which guides things towards their built-in ends and endows them with their natures (or essences) must also be responsible for keeping them in existence.
6. Feser’s argument leaves open the theoretical possibility that the intelligent being who maintains objects in existence might itself be maintained in existence by another Being Whose essence and existence are identical (the God of classical theism). In that case, it would need to be established that this latter Being is also intelligent. Unfortunately, Feser makes no attempt to do this. Thus Feser’s argument fails to show that God is intelligent.
The KEY premise of Feser’s argument
Left: An igniting match. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Right: Ice melting in water. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Professor Feser uses the examples of a match and melting ice to illustrate the notion of finality in Nature.
Feser’s revamped version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way starts from the everyday fact that the things we see in the natural world all exhibit tendencies, or dispositions, towards which they are oriented, or directed. For example, salt (sodium chloride) has a dispositional tendency to dissolve when it is placed in water, rather than sink to the bottom, or suddenly explode. Thus we can say that sodium chloride crystals in water are oriented towards, or directed at, dissolving. Likewise, a struck match (to borrow an example of Feser’s) has a tendency to generate fire and heat, rather than frost and cold; it is directed at the former effect rather than the latter. Finally, ice (to borrow another example of Feser’s) has a tendency, all things being equal, to cause the water surrounding it to grow colder.
Now, the central premise of Feser’s argument is his assertion that unintelligent natural causes can “point to” or be “directed at” their effects (or ends) only if guided by an intelligence. The reason, according to Feser, is that these effects still lie in the future, and unintelligent natural objects are incapable, by themselves, of reliably attaining future ends. Hence an intelligent being is required to guide them toward those ends. As he puts it in a post entitled, Teleology Revisited (September 24, 2009):
For example, insofar as a chunk of ice floating in the North Atlantic tends, all things being equal, to cause the water surrounding it to grow colder, it is an “agent” in the relevant sense… That the ice is an efficient cause of coldness entails that generating coldness is the final cause of ice. And in general, if there is a regular efficient causal connection between a cause A and an effect B, then generating B is the final cause of A…
For a cause to be efficacious – including a final cause – it has actually to exist in some way. It’s not just that for A to be the efficient cause of B, A must exist – as it obviously must – but also that for B to be the final cause of A, B must also exist, in some sense, otherwise, being nonexistent, it could not be efficacious.…
Now there are only three options here: B must exist either in the natural world; or in some Platonic heaven, as a Form; or in an intellect which “directs” A towards B as A’s natural end or goal (as a carpenter has the table in his intellect as the end or goal of his hammering and sawing). Now by hypothesis, B does not exist in the natural world: the whole point is that the coldness that the ice will produce, … [has] not yet come about but [is] initially merely “pointed” to by the ice…. Nor does B exist as a Platonic Form – at least not if, like Aquinas, one endorses moderate (or Aristotelian) realism about universals, instead of Platonic realism. The only place left for B to exist, then, is in an intellect…
While Feser’s reconstruction version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way is a philosophically interesting argument, it hangs by a rather fine thread. What it assumes is that the effects produced by natural causes typically lie in the future. Now, if we consider an oak tree for instance, it is easy to see that this is indeed the case: the genetic instructions in the acorn do indeed point towards the future oak tree that it develops into. The same holds for other biological organisms as well. But if we examine natural causes operating in the inorganic world, it is doubtful whether there is a single case of genuine future-directedess. An alternative, “spoilsport” interpretation of their causal agency, in terms of present-directedness rather than future-directedess, is always possible.
Melting ice, to use one of Feser’s examples, cools water because heat has a (presently existing) tendency to flow from warmer body to a cooler one, and also because heat supplied from the water is what causes the bonds holding the molecules in an ice cube together to break. There is no need to say that the ice is “pointed at” future coldness of the water; rather, we should say that the heat of the water is “pointed at” the cooler ice and also at the bonds in the ice crystal. Currently existing tendencies are enough to explain the process.
The real problem with Feser’s KEY premise
The key premise of Feser’s argument – that natural causes are directed at the production of future effects – is thus highly contentious, as far as inanimate natural causes are concerned. Now, it is obvious enough that natural causes are directed at the production of the effects that they regularly produce; but the claim that these effects are future effects is by no means evident. Indeed, it is doubtful whether there exists a single clearcut case of future-directedness, among in the inorganic world. Instead, we see causes which are oriented towards their present effects – like a ball breaking a window.
Certainly, in living things, we do see natural causes which are oriented towards future effects. But for Feser’s argument to work, the future-directedness of natural causes must apply everywhere in Nature, and not just among living organisms. The reason is that although the teleology we find in living organisms is fundamental and irreducible, it nevertheless supervenes upon the underlying physicochemical properties of those organisms. (Put simply: any entity with the same atomic composition and structure as an E. coli bacterium, is an E. coli bacterium.) Hence if we can fully account for the movement of the atoms and molecules out of which living things are composed without invoking future effects, then the future-directedness of organisms at a holistic level can be viewed as simply being a consequence of the present-directed behavior of their constituent atoms and molecules. Thus once we grant that supervenience is true for living things, then the future-directedness of organisms becomes a derivative fact, rather than a fundamental fact.
I should add that in his latest post, Feser himself writes: “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.” Here Feser is openly declaring that examples of finality drawn from the world of living things are not required for his argument to work. Consequently, I will take it that his argument stands or falls on whether intelligence is required to explain the finality we find in the inorganic world.
Feser needs to establish the future-directedness of (at least some) natural causes as a fundamental fact, in order to demonstrate the existence of an Intelligence guiding inorganic causes towards the production of their characteristic effects. Granting that premise, Feser’s demonstration could then proceed as follows: the only way in which a future goal can be present now (as it would need to be, in order to exercise causal efficacy in the present) is if it already exists in the Mind of an Intelligence which guides natural causes towards their characteristic effects.
I conclude that unless Feser can show that future-directedness holds throughout the cosmos at the physicochemical level, and not just in the organic world, his entire argument collapses.
Addendum: Feser’s argument relies on the questionable assumption that there’s a real distinction between a creature’s essence and its existence
The Thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, is actually a marsupial that bears an uncanny physical resemblance to a wolf. The last known specimen died in a zoo in 1936, but there have been claimed sightings since then. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Another problem with Feser’s version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way relates to the implicit assumption that there is a real distinction between a thing’s essence (or nature) and its act of existence. To most of my readers, the notion that a thing’s nature might be in some way distinct from its act of existence will sound very odd, so I shall illustrate the point with the aid of a concrete example: the Thylacine (pictured above), or marsupial wolf, commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger, because of the striped markings on its back.
I can understand what a thylacine is (i.e. its essence), without knowing whether any Tasmanian tigers still exist, or not. (The last one is believed to have died in captivity in 1936, but there have been claimed unofficial sightings since then.) But all this argument shows us is that “What is an X?” and “Are there any Xs?” are two quite different questions. What the argument establishes is not that there is a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence, but rather, that there is a linguistic distinction between “what” and “whether.” If we wish to postulate any kind of distinction between a thing’s essence and its act of existence, the most economical supposition is that the distinction is merely a logical one – just as we say that there is a logical distinction between the morning star and the evening star, even though they are both one and the same thing (Venus). (In philosophical jargon, the two names for Venus have the same sense, but a different reference.) Indeed, many Scholastic philosophers in the Middle Ages took the view that there was merely a logical distinction between essence and existence, rather than a real one.
I should add that even if we needed to invoke a real distinction in order to explain the fact that I can know what a Thylacine is, without knowing whether it still exists, the distinction in question would not be an essence-existence distinction, but a form-matter distinction. According to Scholastic philosophy, whenever I grasp the concept of a Thylacine, my intellect receives its substantial form, abstracted from the matter of any particular entity that happens to instantiate the form in question. Because my intellect receives a form abstracted from matter, it cannot know, simply by understanding what this form is, whether or not anything exists in Nature which possesses this form. That alone is enough to explain how I can know what a thing is, without knowing whether it exists. There is no need to postulate an additional distinction between a thing’s essence and its act of existence.
Finally, I would like to point out that if there were indeed a real distinction between essence and existence, it would be absolutely fatal to Feser’s reconstructed version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way. For Feser’s argument, as we have seen, was that since the final cause is the “cause of causes,” which ultimately explains everything about a thing’s nature, it follows that whatever gives things their built-in ends (final causes) must also be responsible for giving them their natures or essences. But if there is a real distinction between a thing’s nature and its existence, then it no longer follows that the Intelligence which guides things towards their built-in ends and endows them with their natures (or essences) must also be responsible for keeping them in existence.
My verdict on Feser’s argument
Summing up my verdict on the argument in my post, Feser’s Fifth: Why his up-to-date version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way fails as a proof, and how to make it work, I wrote:
I would like to say at the outset that Professor Feser’s reconstructed version of the Fifth Way is by far the most detailed formulation of Aquinas’ argument that has been put forward by any Thomist scholar. Feser has done an excellent job of attempting to elucidate the underlying logic of the Fifth Way – and in this regard, he has (I believe) gone further than any other Thomist scholar. I think Feser deserves to be commended for this noble effort, even though I happen to think that the argument he puts forward doesn’t work.
Whereas Professor Feser sees the Fifth Way as the jewel in the crown when it comes to proofs of God’s existence, I regard it as more of a rough diamond, which needs a lot of cutting and polishing in order to bring out its hidden beauty. What I intend to argue in this post is that the basic thrust of Aquinas’ Fifth Way is correct, but that the argument requires substantial revision: key premises of the argument need to be amended, and several steps in the argument’s logic need to be filled in. I shall also contend that while Feser’s reconstructed version of the Fifth Way is an exegetically plausible account of Aquinas’ argument, it fails if it is taken as an argument that is meant to convince 21st century atheists of the existence of God. In a nutshell, the reason why I think Feser’s argument cannot succeed against 21st century atheism is that it is too metaphysically top-heavy, relying as it does on no less than twenty-one metaphysical assumptions, some of which (I shall argue) are either wrong or highly contentious…
Professor Feser has made a laudable attempt to “flesh out” the unstated premises in Aquinas’ (very brief) Fifth Way. Nevertheless, I would maintain that even Feser’s reconstructed version of the argument still contains major logical and metaphysical gaps that need to be plugged.
Readers who would like to learn more about Feser’s 21st-century version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way, my comments on it, and how I propose emending it, are invited to read my post, Feser’s Fifth: Why his up-to-date version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way fails as a proof, and how to make it work.
It has long been Professor Feser’s contention that Intelligent Design is a hindrance in the battle against atheistic materialism, as the design argument it puts forward not only doesn’t take us to God, but presents us with a false God in His place. Feser has also steadfastly maintained that there is a much simpler, surer route to God through metaphysics, and he attempts to flesh out that argument in the re-vamped version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way. But as we saw, Feser’s version, as it stands, doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean it can never work; but what it does mean is that the easy road from Nature to God which Feser offers us is still under construction.
In this post, I have also critiqued Professor Feser’s epistemological assertions, including his bizarre statement that it would be quite rational to infer that we were all hallucinating, if scientists discovered a message in every human cell. I would invite Professor Feser to reconsider his views, and I hope that dialogue between Intelligent Design proponents and Thomist critics of ID (such as Feser) will remain forthright but friendly in the years to come.