In Praise of Subtlety
|April 22, 2010||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
You might not know the guy in the picture above. John Duns Scotus, O.F.M, was one of the greatest theologians of the Middle Ages. A penetrating thinker of unsurpassed ingenuity, he was nicknamed the Subtle Doctor. Later on in this post, I’ll argue that in one particular respect, his philosophy is particularly ID-friendly – even more so than that of St. Thomas Aquinas. (By the way, my post on Aquinas, ID and evolution will be coming out next week.)
Duns Scotus, as he is generally known, appreciated arguments with many twists and turns, and I think he would have enjoyed reading Professor William Dembski’s recent post, Does ID presuppose a mechanistic view of nature? . But after reading his response to Dembski’s post, I get the strong impression that Professor Edward Feser does not appreciate subtle arguments. Fair enough. We all have our own personal strengths. Professor Feser is a formidable fighter, a brilliant metaphysician and a very profound thinker. If subtlety is not his cup of tea, then I shall undertake to rephrase Professor Dembski’s argument in a way that makes it crystal clear that ID’s argument for a Designer poses no threat whatever to Aristotelian and Thomistic arguments for the existence of God. By the way, this will be my last UD post in response to Professor Feser, as I think that prolonging the argument further would not be helpful. I shall do my best to make him reconsider his opposition to ID, in this post. Wish me luck!
All right. Now let’s get down to tin tacks.
What exactly does Professor Dembski mean by a “mechanistic” view of nature?
What irked Professor Feser most about Professor Dembski’s latest post, Does ID presuppose a mechanistic view of nature? was its apparent ambiguity. Dembski uses the term “mechanism” to describe a point of view regarding Nature, but which point of view is he discussing, exactly?
Well, there does seem to be some potential ambiguity in the way Dembski uses the term “mechanism.” At one point in his post he appears to contrast mechanism, as I would, with the A-T [Aristotelian-Thomistic] view that final causes exist everywhere in nature. But later, in a quote from his book The Design Revolution, he alludes to some related but distinct definitions of “mechanism” given by Michael Polanyi. He doesn’t clarify the relationship between these senses of the term.
In his article, Professor Dembski actually employs four different definitions of the point of view which he calls “mechanism.” These need to be distinguished very carefully.
Definition (1): Naturalistic mechanism. This is the position that there are no genuine final causes in nature. (This is mechanism as Professor Feser usually defines it.) On this view, changes that take place in the world can be explained by what Aristotle referred to as efficient causes, i.e. causes which bring about effects in a regular manner. However, these causes are blind; they act for no purpose whatsoever. Everything in nature works like a machine. In the natural realm, things do not strive towards any goal or end-state; indeed, that whole way of talking is rejected as anthropomorphic. The only teleology that really exists in the world is artificial: it is imposed on things from outside, by intelligent agents.
Naturalistic mechanism comes in two distinct versions
(1a) The atheistic version: the view that nature is self-sufficient, without the need for any Deity. (ID categorically rejects this view, for several reasons. One reason why is that every living thing carries meaningful messages in its DNA, and machines cannot create meaningful messages unless they are operated by an intelligent agent.)
(1b) The theistic version: the view that nature was originally created (and, in some versions of this position, is continually maintained in existence) by a Deity. (Historically, some ID proponents have maintained this view, regarding Nature as a gigantic machine created by God. ID proponents of this view need not be classical theists – indeed, Professor Feser argues that classical theism is flat out inconsistent with this view. Many people who adopt this view are Deists, for instance.)
Definition (2): Methodological mechanism. This is not a point of view as such; it’s just a method of doing science. It simply means the avoidance of all reference to natural teleology (intrinsic final causes), in a scientific context. Scientists agree to explain changes in the world with reference to efficient causes that bring about effects in a regular manner, without invoking final causes in nature, in addition to efficient causes. As part of this scientific methodology, they simply assume that efficient causes exist and work regularly, without asking why they work that way. Thus at the outset, they avoid making assumptions about the existence of intrinsic finality (or immanent teleology) in natural objects. (The argument for ID proceeds by employing this modest methodology. It does not assume that there are no final causes in nature, or even that there might be no final causes in nature; rather, it simply refrains from invoking final causes in the natural realm while arguing for the existence of a Designer, as many Darwinists say they find the idea of final causes unintelligible: it doesn’t make sense to them.)
Definition (3): Reductionism. This is the view that life and mind can be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry. This kind of mechanism also entails naturalistic mechanism according to definition (1). (Strictly speaking, though, reductionism does not necessarily follow from definition (1), as there might conceivably be “top-down” efficient causes.) (Reductionism is incompatible with ID, as it implies life can be totally explained from the bottom up, without the need for any intelligence. ID contends that specified complexity cannot be explained in this way.)
Definition (4): Nano-biomechanism (as I call it). This is the view that the organisms have tiny components that work like machines. This view does not entail that organisms are machines. (ID strongly endorses nano-biomechanism; thus it accepts mechanism, as defined according to definition (4).)
Now let’s have a look at Professor Dembski’s article, Does ID presuppose a mechanistic view of nature? . When he writes in his second paragraph, “One critic, going after me directly, asserts that I’m committed to a mechanical view of nature… ID… is supposed to demand an artifactual understanding of life,” Dembski is employing definition (1) of mechanism. Dembski then goes on to argue that on the contrary, ID is quite compatible with an Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of nature. It is also compatible with many other views of nature.
In his fourth paragraph, when he writes: “The Darwinian naturalists have misunderstood nature, along mechanistic lines, but then use this misunderstanding to push for an atheistic worldview,” Professor Dembski means that ID totally rejects mechanism as defined according to definition (1a) (the view that nature is a self-sufficient machine, without the need for any Deity). Although he does not specify the nature of the Darwinists’ “misunderstanding,” I’d say he’s talking about mechanism according to definition (3), or reductionism, which is also opposed to ID, as specified complexity cannot be explained in terms of chemistry. Matter doesn’t generate meaning. Darwinists, on the other hand, are reductionists; that’s why they don’t see any need for God.
In his fifth paragraph, when Professor Dembski writes: “ID is willing, arguendo, to consider nature as mechanical and then show that the mechanical principles by which nature is said to operate are incomplete and point to external sources of information… This is not to presuppose mechanism in the strong sense of regarding it as true. It is simply to grant it for the sake of argument,” he is talking about mechanism according to definition (2), or methodological mechanism (which means agreeing for argument’s sake not to invoke final causes in nature). ID proponents are happy to adopt this method of talking about nature when engaging in dialogue with Darwinists.
In his eighth paragraph, when Professor Dembski writes: “ID is happy to let a thousand flowers bloom with regard to the nature of nature provided it is not a mechanistic, self-sufficing view of nature,” he is rejecting mechanism as defined according to definition (1a) (the view that nature is a self-sufficient machine, without the need for any Deity).
In the first paragraph of Professor Dembski’s lengthy quote from his book The Design Revolution, immediately after the ninth paragraph of his post, Dembski writes: “It’s not that design theorists and Darwinian naturalists share the same conception of nature but then simply disagree whether a supernatural agent sporadically intervenes in nature. In fact, intelligent design does not prejudge the nature of nature.” Here, Dembski is rejecting the commonly held view that ID proponents all embrace mechanism according to definition (1b) (the view that nature is a machine, created by a Deity). Instead, he is declaring that ID is officially neutral on the question of what nature is.
In the second paragraph of his lengthy quote from The Design Revolution, Dembski goes on to distinguish Polyani’s two definitions of mechanism: reductionism (the idea that life can be completely explained in terms of physics and chemistry – i.e. mechanism according to definition (3)) and what I call nano-biomechanism (the view that organisms have tiny components that work like machines – i.e. mechanism according to definition (4)). ID endorses the latter but rejects the former, because specified information, which characterizes life, cannot be reduced to matter and energy.
Dembski continues: “Hence in focusing on the machinelike features of organisms, intelligent design is not advocating a mechanistic conception of life. To attribute such a conception of life to intelligent design is to commit a fallacy of composition. Just because a house is made of bricks doesn’t mean that the house itself is a brick. Likewise just because certain biological structures can properly be described as machines doesn’t mean that an organism that includes those structures is a machine.” Here, he is saying that accepting mechanism according to definition (4) (as ID does) does not entail accepting mechanism according to definition (1) (which ID does not endorse, even though some proponents of ID have upheld this view).
Professor Dembski concludes: “Intelligent design proponents, building on the work of Polanyi, argue that physical mechanisms (like the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection and random variation) have no inherent capacity to bring about the machinelike aspects of life.” What he is saying here is that unintelligent physical mechanisms per se are not capable of generating significant quantities of meaningful, specified information in the time since the observable universe began, 13.73 billion years ago, and that the machinelike aspects of life require precisely this kind of information. (More precisely, they could, but it would be an astronomically unlikely occurrence. One the other hand, intelligent agents are quite capable of generating this kind of information. Hence the most reasonable explanation of the machinelike aspects of life is that life was created by an Intelligent Being.)
Now we can address Professor Feser’s principal objection to mechanism. He writes:
For as I have said many times in previous posts, ID’s mechanistic approach puts it at odds with A-T even if that approach is taken in a merely “for the sake of argument” way. The reason is that a mechanistic conception of the world is simply incompatible with the classical theism upheld by A-T. It isn’t just that a mechanistic starting point won’t get you all the way to the God of classical theism. It’s that a mechanistic starting point gets you positively away from the God of classical theism. Why? Because a mechanistic world is one which could at least in principle exist apart from God. And classical theism holds that the world could not, even in principle, exist apart from God. So, the views are flatly inconsistent. And so, if you start with a mechanistic conception even just “for the sake of argument,” you will never get one inch, one millimeter closer to the God of classical theism. Instead, you will have ruled that God out from the get-go.
In other words, Feser doesn’t like mechanism because it messes up his favorite Thomistic arguments for God. The reader might be wondering why mechanism entails that the universe could exist without God. Feser spells it out with admirable clarity in an earlier post, The trouble with Paley (November 4, 2009):
[O]ne of the objections the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition has to the mechanistic denial of final causality is that it makes efficient causality unintelligible. Causes and effects become “loose and separate”; any effect or none might in principle follow upon any cause. This not only paves the way for the paradoxes of Hume, but (more to the present point) undermines the possibility of showing how the very fact of causation as such presupposes a sustaining First Uncaused Cause. The metaphysically necessary connection between the world and God is broken; in principle the world could exist and operate just as it does apart from God.
In other words, even conceding that there might be no final causality in nature means conceding that any effect might follow from any cause, which makes it impossible to argue for the Uncaused Cause of classical theism. That’s why Professor Feser doesn’t like ID: he thinks it’s ruining his Aristotelian-Thomistic quest of converting people to belief in the God of classical theism.
Not so. This is where subtlety is called for. ID adopts mechanism according to definition (2) as an argumentative strategy, when arguing with Darwinians: “You don’t like imputing final causes to natural objects? OK, we’ll refrain from making that assumption.” But refraining from making the assumption that there are no final causes does not commit you to saying that there might be no final causes, let alone that there are no final causes.
For ID proponents to say that there might be no final causes would indeed be a dangerous move: it would be tantamount to saying that mechanism according to definition (1) might be true, which would make it impossible to argue for classical theism. But even saying that definition (1) might be true would be a metaphysical assumption. ID doesn’t make metaphysical assumptions, because of the modesty of its case. Its objective is significant but limited: it’s simply arguing for some sort of Designer of life and the cosmos, rather than for the God of classical theism. However, if you want to go beyond ID and argue for the God of classical theism, as Professor Feser does in his books, then obviously you do need final causes.
What about Professor Feser’s claim that ID will not get you even “one inch, one millimeter closer to the God of classical theism”? Well, ID won’t get you to an Infinite Being, that’s for sure. But it will get you to an Intelligent Designer of life and the cosmos (if we combine the cosmological fine-tuning argument with Professor Dembski’s argument from specified complexity). A Being who designed the cosmos might well be transcendent and infinite, although further metaphysical argumentation would be required to establish that. ID doesn’t take us that far, but it takes us some of the way.
So you can relax, Professor Feser. We wouldn’t dream of encroaching upon your metaphysical turf. Nor do we have any wish to mess with your favorite arguments for God.
Why do ID theorists argue for a Designer first, instead of reasoning directly from nature to the God of classical theism? As I’ve explained before, many atheists can’t take on the Aristotelian-Thomistic mindset – or any other metaphysical mindset – all at once. It’s too foreign to their background assumptions. ID proponents prefer to take it one step at a time when arguing with atheists. Someone who has been convinced on scientific grounds that life and the cosmos have a Designer might then be open to the possibility of changing their world view. That’s the ideal time to start talking to them about final causes in nature, and how they presuppose God (Aquinas’ fifth way). By that time, too, skeptics who have been converted to belief in a Designer might be ready to entertain the notion that the Designer might not only be outside space and time, and but also totally transcendent.
Now, what about Professor Feser’s other accusation, that Professor Dembski contradicts himself in his post?
Dembski says that ID assumes mechanism only for the sake of argument, and that mechanism isn’t really true. In other words, he admits that the very premises on which ID rests are false… But …ID, Dembski and others never tire of telling us, is a “new science” that will “revolutionize” the way we do biology. Moreover, ID is claimed to provide “scientific evidence” for the existence of a designer. But how can it do either if the mechanism that it presupposes is mistaken? Dembski is saying, in effect: “We can show that the existence of a designer follows from these premises! This will revolutionize biology! Oh, and by the way, the premises are false.”
This accusation trades upon a basic confusion. When Professor Dembski rejects “mechanism”, he is talking about mechanism either according to definition (1a) (atheistic naturalistic mechanism, which says that nature is self-sufficient) or definition (3) (reductionism). But when ID proponents like Professor Dembski make their case for ID, the “mechanism” they employ is of a different kind: mechanism according to definition (2) (agreeing to limit one’s argument to mechanical efficient causes, and avoiding reference to final causes in nature, when trying to convince Darwinists of the existence of a Designer) and definition (4) (the existence of molecular machines inside living things).
What Professor Feser missed
In my post, A Response to Professor Feser (11 April 2010), I wrote:
However, what Professor Feser appears not to realize is that there is very good evidence, from Aquinas’ own writings, that he would have warmly supported Professor Dembski’s contention that the first life could not have originated by natural processes, had he known what we know today about biology. This is a bold claim to make, and I am of course perfectly aware that for Aquinas and his contemporaries, spontaneous generation was an unquestioned fact of life, owing to the defective biology of that time. What Professor Feser overlooks, though, is that Aquinas also expressly taught that at least some kinds of creatures could not be generated from non-living matter by natural processes, as too many conditions would need to be satisfied in order to produce creatures of such perfection… For now, all I will say is that evidence for these assertions may be found in both the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles. I am surprised that Professor Feser is unaware of this evidence.
In his post, ID theory, Aquinas, and the Origin of Life: A Reply to Torley (16 April 2010), Professor Feser responded:
Well, yes, it would be surprising indeed if the author of a book on Aquinas had overlooked such evidence. But I did not overlook it.
Oh yes you did, Professor. Professor Feser didn’t find the evidence, even though I gave some pretty broad hints. He thought I was talking about Aquinas’ writings on abiogenesis. Wrong! Here’s another hint: the relevant citations from Aquinas have to do with what heavenly bodies are capable and incapable of generating. I will say more in a forthcoming post, next week, in which I will also demonstrate that Aquinas would have rejected evolution by natural selection, for theological reasons.
Professor Feser on abiogenesis (the spontaneous generation of life from non-living matter)
In his post, ID theory, Aquinas, and the Origin of Life: A Reply to Torley, Professor Feser makes some remarks about abiogenesis with which I would warmly agree, but then spoils his case by making some concessions to scientific naturalism which reveal that he fails to grasp the vital difference between things possessing specified complexity (including living things) and things that lack it.
He starts off well. He writes that “the view that life cannot arise from non-life is in fact itself a commonplace of the A-T tradition.” Wonderful! He even gives a three-step argument:
1. There is a difference in kind and not merely degree between living substances and non-living ones.
2. A cause cannot give what it does not have to give, so that whatever is in an effect must in some way be in the cause.
3. Non-living substances cannot of themselves cause living ones.
Here is how he un-packages steps 1 and 2:
[Explanation of step 1]
In the non-living realm, the end result of a causal process can be seen on analysis always to lie in something external to the cause – that is transeunt causation. Living things manifest transeunt causation, but unlike non-living things they also manifest immanent causation, insofar as some of the causal processes occurring in them cannot be understood except as terminating within and benefiting the organism considered as a whole… [F]or A-T the irreducibility of life to non-life derives fundamentally from the irreducibility of immanent causation to transeunt causation. (Italics mine – VJT.)
I have no quarrel with Professor Feser regarding this step of his argument.
[Explanation of step 2]
[F]or A-T [Aristotelian-Thomism], a cause does not have to have whatever is in the effect in the same way that the effect has it…To use the Scholastic jargon, if what is in the effect is not in the cause “formally,” it must still be in the cause “virtually” or “eminently.”… Thus, when we come to the conclusion that non-life cannot of itself generate life, what this means is that substances or processes entirely devoid of immanent causation – not only formally, but also virtually or eminently – cannot possibly of themselves bring about substances characterized by immanent causation…. Hence, from an A-T [Aristotelian-Thomistic] point of view it is impossible absolutely and in principle that a purely mechanistic universe (i.e. one devoid of immanent final causality of any sort) could ever generate life. And thus it is impossible in principle that a naturalistic explanation could ever be given of the origin of life. (Italics mine – VJT.)
This is a bit disappointing. All he is saying is that life could not arise in a world where there are no final causes in the natural realm. What would such a world be like? As we saw above, Professor Feser argues that it would be a world in which efficient causality becomes unintelligible, too. Causes and effects become “loose and separate”; any effect might follow upon any cause. In short, it would be a “Hume world”. But that’s not the world we live in, anyway. The world we live in is rife with final causes, according to Professor Feser. Anything that behaves in accordance with a law of nature has a final cause. So the question remains: could life have arisen from non-living matter in our world?
Professor Feser has anticipated this question. Here is how he answers it:
Might at least some inorganic natural processes nevertheless have the power to generate life? As Torley notes, Aquinas thought so, believing as he did that spontaneous generation often occurs in nature. But Aquinas believed this because he thought there was empirical evidence for it, and we now know that that evidence (e.g. maggots arising from decaying flesh) was misinterpreted…
No contemporary A-T [Aristotelian-Thomistic] theorist accepts the mistaken scientific assumptions that informed Aquinas’s views about spontaneous generation. But might a contemporary A-T theorist hold that there could be some other natural processes (understood non-mechanistically, of course) that have within them the power to generate life, at least as part of an overall natural order that we must in any event regard as divinely conserved in existence? He might, and some do. But the actual empirical evidence for the existence of such processes seems (to say the least) far weaker now than it did in Aquinas’s own day …
[S]ome A-T thinkers conclude that the first living things could not have arisen out of inorganic processes in any way and must have been specially created by God in an extraordinary intervention in the natural order. Other A-T theorists nevertheless prefer instead, on general philosophical grounds rather than empirical ones, to conclude that there are inorganic natural processes having life “virtually” or “eminently” even if not “formally,” and hold that the first living things arose out of these processes, albeit only within a natural order that is itself necessarily sustained in operation by God.
So there we have it. Professor Feser is personally sympathetic to the view that life was specially created by God, but he thinks that God could have made a cosmos in which natural processes that are continually sustained by God’s power are capable of generating life. In the end, the only reason why God is absolutely required to generate life is that (i) God maintains all things in being, and (ii) God is the author of the laws of nature, which Professor Feser regards as finalistic, because they always tend to produce determinate results.
I have to say that this response misses the point. For that matter, not all ID proponents believe that God specially created life by an act of intervention. Some (e.g. Professor Michael Behe) think He may have set things up at the Big Bang so that life would emerge. ID is agnostic on God’s modus operandi. The point is that whatever method God used to make the first life, He must have added the complex specified information to the cosmos that was required to generate life. And as Dr. Stephen Meyer shows in his recent book, Signature in the Cell,/i>, it would have been quite a lot of information.
Even in a world rife with final causes, the laws of nature can’t generate the kind of complex specified information that characterizes life, because they are pretty non-specific, compared to the specificity we find in life. They are very short (you can write them on a single line) and very general – at least, all of the laws scientists have discovered to date. Not much information there. Life isn’t like that.
I conclude that while Professor Feser has a keen awareness of the unique kind of immanent final causation that characterizes life – as he notes, only living things have a “good of their own” – he does not have the same grasp of the unique formal characteristics of life. He seems to think that the form of a living thing could (for all we know) be explained in terms of a few simple scientific laws. I’m afraid life is just not that simple.
Can scientists synthesize life? And if they did, would it be an artifact?
In a very interesting aside in his post, ID theory, Aquinas, and the Origin of Life: A Reply to Torley (16 April 2010), Professor Feser asks whether scientists could synthesize life, and if so, what it would prove. Here again, my hopes were raised and then disappointed when I read his response:
[A side note: Could scientists, then, generate life in a laboratory using purely inorganic materials? If a mechanistic account of the natural world were true, the answer would be: Absolutely not. But what if instead there is some final causality already built into nature, and the scientists use non-living materials that nevertheless have immanent causation definitive of life within them, “virtually” or “eminently” though not “formally”?… Imparting such an end would necessarily require intelligence, which is why Aquinas thought “spontaneous generation” to be possible only under the influence of the spiritual substances he assumed were guiding the heavenly bodies. But what if the scientists did something to the raw materials that could not have happened in the absence of an intelligence like their own? Could they generate life in that case? In theory it seems they could, though obviously this scenario is of no help to the naturalist, who holds that life can originate in the absence of any intelligence.
If it did happen, though, would the result be an “artifact” rather than a “natural” object, in Aristotle’s sense? No, no more than water synthesized in a lab is an “artifact,” and no more than a child generated by his parents is an “artifact.”… It isn’t like the making of a mousetrap or a watch, which – unlike water and living things – have no natural tendency to come into existence in the first place. (Italics mine – VJT.)]
Three things struck me when I read this passage.
First, the fact that Professor Feser would even think of likening the artificial synthesis of life to the synthesis of water in the laboratory absolutely flabbergasted me. Water doesn’t contain complex specified information. Life does. To make clear exactly what I’m saying, I’d like to discuss the following cases.
(1) A water molecule.
(a) This is a natural object, or substance. It is more than the sum of its parts. A water molecule has certain properties which cannot be reduced to those of its constituents.
(b) There are laws of nature that tend to produce water molecules, under certain circumstances.
(c) Scientists can take advantage of these laws to produce water molecules. For example, hydrogen and oxygen do not ordinarily combine at room temperature to produce water, but if scientists pass a spark through them, they will combine.
(d) A water molecule has no “good of its own”; it is not alive. Thus it has no immanent final causality.
(e) Is a water molecule made in a laboratory an artifact? That depends on how it’s made. If scientists just ran a spark through a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen to make water, then it’s not an artifact; they’re just taking advantage of the laws of nature. But if they could bring two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen together by manipulating the individual atoms, then they’re not just riding on the coat-tails of nature. Rather, they’re inputting some specified information into the system to create the molecule. In that case, I’d call it an artifact.
(2) A bacterial cell.
(a) This is a natural object, or substance. It is more than the sum of its parts. A water molecule has certain properties which cannot be reduced to those of its constituents.
(b) However, as far as we know, there are no laws of nature that tend to produce a bacterial cell, under any circumstances.
(c) Hence, scientists cannot take advantage of any laws of nature to produce a bacterial cell. If they were to make one, they’d have to put it together, piece by piece, like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle where every part has to be in the right place.
(d) A bacterial cell does have a “good of its own”; it is alive. Thus it has immanent final causality.
(e) Is a bacterial cell made in a laboratory an artifact? Yes. It has to be assembled one part at a time, without nature’s help.
(3) A mousetrap.
(a) This is not a natural object. It is an assemblage of parts, and there are no “higher-level” holistic properties of a mousetrap which cannot be reduced to those of its constituents.
(b) There are no laws of nature that tend to produce a mousetrap, under any circumstances.
(c) Hence, scientists cannot take advantage of any laws to produce a mousetrap. If they wanted to make one, they’d have to assemble the parts together, one at a time.
(d) A mousetrap does not have a “good of its own”; it is not alive. Thus it has no immanent final causality.
(e) Is a mousetrap made in a laboratory an artifact? Yes. It has to be assembled one part at a time, without nature’s help.
What’s the upshot of all this? A thing can be alive (with a good of its own) and yet still be a true artifact, because its parts have no natural tendency to come together. A bacterial cell is unquestionably alive, but if it has been produced by scientists in a laboratory, then it is an artifact.
The second thing that struck me was that Professor Feser wrote of water and living things as having a “natural tendency to come into existence.” I have to say that this is a very odd way of talking. After all, if a thing doesn’t exist yet, then it can hardly have a tendency to come into existence – because there is no “it” in existence as yet! But perhaps Professor Feser simply means that things already in existence have a natural tendency to produce that thing.
Third, Professor Feser talks about “non-living materials that nevertheless have immanent causation definitive of life,” virtually but not formally. I take it he’s envisaging something like a bunch of non-living parts that wouldn’t normally combine into a living thing, but that would instantly “snap into place” in a law-governed fashion, if scientists somewhat brought them in the vicinity of one another, thereby creating a living cell. Abracadabra! Would the cell be an artifact then? If the parts had to be brought together in a certain sequence, I’d say yes. If no sequencing was required (“Just put them together in a solution”), I’d say no. Could life be like that?
Remember that life is formally characterized by the functional complex specified information in its components. (Life is also finally characterized by having a good of its own. Thus life has a dual formal-final characterization: the two go hand in hand.) It is possible that God has somehow built a “magic pathway” into the laws of nature, so that when certain molecules are combined in the right sequence, we get a living cell. But the sequence of events would have to be extremely specific, and the order of assembly would be all-important. Because the process would still require things being put together in a certain order, I’d call that an artifact. Wouldn’t you?
Should living things be modeled on ships and statues, the products of techne or “art,”?
That depends. If you’re trying to explain what it means to be alive, then ships won’t help you; they have no intrinsic finality. But if you’re trying to explain how living things are made, then I’d say ships are a very useful analogy: like living things, they would need to be put together piece by piece, in order to endow them with the functional complex specified information that living things need. That’s a lot more functional complex specified information than a ship needs, by the way. ID theorists tell us that a living cell is comparable to a city in its complexity.
Here, I have to say that Professor Feser conflates two points:
The point is rather that for A-T, the way God creates a natural substance is not to be understood on the model of a shipbuilder or sculptor who takes pre-existing bits of matter and rearranges them to serve an end they have no tendency otherwise to serve…And a natural substance’s causal tendencies, including biological functions in the case of living things, are inherent to it, a reflection of its essence or nature; it simply could not possibly exist as the kind of thing it is in the first place if it did not have those tendencies…
Here I distinguish. The parts of living things have intrinsic biological functions. A living thing would not be what it is without these functions. The parts of ships do not have intrinsic functions. A ship’s finality is extrinsic; it is an assemblage of parts. We are agreed so far.
However, it doesn’t follow from this that the parts of a living thing have a natural tendency to come together in the first place. On the available evidence, I would say that the parts that went into the making of the first living cell on Earth were indeed arranged to serve an end they have no tendency otherwise to serve. In that respect, the analogy with a ship is perfect. A ship has to be assembled, and so did the first living thing.
The difference is that having been put together, the parts of a living thing tend to hang together in such a way that we can indeed speak of them as serving the good of the whole. For instance, the parts of a living thing exhibit “dedicated functionality,” right down to the tiniest molecule: every part of a living thing subserves the good of the whole. Also, living things have a master program that controls not only their operations, but their reproduction as well. And in their design, living things exhibit a nested hierarchy all the way down to the smallest piece. Ships are not built like that.
Is God like an artificer? The story of a storm in a teacup
I have a confession to make. When I wrote my original post on 11 April 2010, I was under the mistaken impression that Professor Feser thought that God was not like an architect. Now why would I think that? Well, in an earlier post entitled The trouble with William Paley (November 4, 2009), Professor Feser quoted approvingly from the writings of a philosopher who seemed to ridicule the whole idea of God being like an architect:
Or as the analytical Thomist philosopher Christopher F. J. Martin amusingly puts it in his very fine book Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations:
The Being whose existence is revealed to us by the argument from design is not God but the Great Architect of the Deists and Freemasons, an impostor disguised as God, a stern, kindly, and immensely clever old English gentleman, equipped with apron, trowel, square and compasses…
The Great Architect is not God because he is just someone like us but a lot older, cleverer and more skilful. He decides what he wants to do and therefore sets about doing the things he needs to do to achieve it. God is not like that….
God is mysterious: the whole objection to the great architect is that we know him all too well, since he is one of us.
I was shocked, as I knew of passages in Aquinas where he used the “architect” to describe God. I then quoted several passages:
As for Professor Feser’s claim that Aquinas did not liken God the Creator to a shipbuilder, sculptor or artificer, allow me to quote from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas himself…
[I then gave three quotes from St. Thomas. One of them said that “God, Who is the first principle of all things, may be compared to things created as the architect is to things designed.” I then added:]
Now ID says nothing about the modus operandi of the Creator.
…[St. Thomas] considered it perfectly appropriate for God, as a Divine artist, to intervene in nature whenever He pleased, even if He acts in a manner contrary to the normal course of natural occurrences.
That sure sounds like an artificer to me.
Howls of outrage followed from Professors Feser and Beckwith: I had taken the passages out of context, they said. Well, no I hadn’t; all I’d been trying to show was that for Aquinas, God may be legitimately compared with an architect.
It turns out that I badly mis-read Professor Feser, and for that I am sorry. He wasn’t trying to say that God was not like an architect; what he meant was that God does not make things like an architect:
First of all, neither Aquinas nor any other A-T philosopher has ever held that we may never, under any circumstances, compare God to a builder, an artist, or the like. The claim is rather that when we are trying to understand the metaphysics of divine creation, specifically, we should not think of it on the model of human artifice. So, the fact that Aquinas uses a building or artifact metaphor here or there in his writings by itself proves nothing; and in none of the passages Torley cites does Aquinas say that God’s act of creating a natural substance is like an artificer’s act of making an artifact out of raw materials…
Then Professor Feser accused me of holding that God makes things in the same way as an artificer makes an artifact:
[Torley] cites various passages from Aquinas which he thinks show that even the Angelic Doctor thought of God as creating in the way an artificer makes an artifact. But they show no such thing.
Now, where did I say that St. Thomas Aquinas thought of God as creating in the same way as an artificer makes an artifact? Chapter and verse, please.
I take full responsibility for my misunderstanding of Professor Feser; I hope he will acknowledge that he misunderstood me.
Does God make things like an artificer does?
There are important differences between the way God makes things and the way an artificer does: in particular, an artificer cannot endow an essence with existence, as God can. Only God can create ex nihilo. Moreover, God continually maintains things in existence. An artificer does not; having made a statue, a ship or a bridge, he/she can walk away and it will still be there.
But God can indeed take raw materials with no inherent tendency to form a living thing, and assemble them together, as an artificer might. He could have made Adam from the dust of the ground, even if He did not in fact. And doesn’t the Bible say that He could make children of Abraham from stones, if He wished?
Did God make the first living thing like that? I don’t know. ID says nothing about the modus operandi of the creator. But He might have done it that way.
Do ID proponents worship a different God from the God of classical theism?
Professor Feser faults ID on theological grounds as well. He seems to be convinced that ID proponents are theological disciples of William Paley. He also claims that ID proponents are tied to an anthropomorphic conception of God, regarding Him as nothing more than a Great Architect, rather like the Masons did in the 18th century. In particular, he faults ID proponents for applying terms like “intelligent” to God in the same way (i.e. in a univocal sense) as they are applied to human beings. In his post, The trouble with William Paley (November 4, 2009), he explains why he objects to this way of talking about God:
Paley and Co. conceptualize this designer on the model of human tinkerers, attributing our characteristics (intelligence, power, etc.) to him in a univocal rather than an analogous way (to allude to a crucial Thomistic distinction explained in a previous post). To be sure, “design arguments” also emphasize that the differences between human artifacts and the universe indicate that the designer’s power and intelligence must be far vaster than ours. But we are necessarily left with a designer conceived of in anthropomorphic terms – essentially a human being, or at least a Cartesian immaterial substance, with the limitations abstracted away.
Thus for Feser, ID’s theological flaw is that its conception of the Designer is an anthropomorphic one, because it applies the concept of ‘design’ in a univocal sense to both human designers and the Designer of the cosmos and life.
Four brief comments in reply:
(1) ID proponents do tend to apply terms “intelligence” and “design” to the Designer and to human beings alike, in a univocal sense, as I’ll show below by quoting from the writings of Professors William Dembski and Jonathan Wells, and from K. D. Kalinsky.
(2) Thomists might object to this, but they can’t speak for everyone. For instance, the Catholic theologian Duns Scotus (whose portrait is at the top of this post) taught that the term “intelligent” had the same meaning when applied to God and human beings. I should add that St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus were not so far apart on this issue, anyway.
(3) Professor Feser has got ID proponents pegged wrong. We’re not Paleyites. He’d be more charitable if he called us Scotists.
(4) ID proponents do not maintain, and have never maintained, that God creates things in the same way as an artificer makes an artifact. ID says nothing about how the Designer makes things, period.
Let me explain. One of the philosophical differences between St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus was that for Aquinas, all affirmative talk about God is analogical at best, whereas for Scotus, some of the positive terms we apply to God (e.g. “intelligent”) are true in the same sense that they are true for us.
Thus for Aquinas, the statement, “God is intelligent” simply means “There is something in God which is to God like intelligence is to humans.” Putting it mathematically,
X: God = Intelligence: Human beings.
Likewise, the statement, “God is loving” means “There is something in God which is to God like love is to loving parents.” This is what Aquinas calls real analogy of proportionality.
Additionally, God is the cause of knowledge and love in humans, where the causal relationship is an intrinsic one, which brings about a similarity in the effect (intrinsic analogy of attribution). A good explanation of Aquinas’ views on analogy can be found at http://members.optusnet.com.au/~gjmoses/relang2a.htm .
For Scotus, this isn’t good enough. Saying that X is to God what intelligence is to a human being tells me nothing about X, if I don’t already know what God is. Also, there’s no point in saying that my intelligence is like God’s if I don’t know what “like” means. Scotus held that since intelligence and goodness were pure perfections, not limited by their very nature to a finite mode of realization, they could be predicated univocally of God and human beings. To be sure, God’s way of knowing and loving is altogether different from ours: it belongs to God’s very essence to know and love perfectly, whereas we can only know and love by participating in God’s knowledge and love. Also, God’s knowledge and goodness are essentially infinite, while our knowledge and goodness are finite. However, what it means for God to know and love is exactly the same as what it means for human beings to know and love. As Dr. Thomas Williams puts it in his article on Duns Scotus in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy :
The doctrine of univocity rests in part on the claim that “[t]he difference between God and creatures, at least with regard to God’s possession of the pure perfections, is ultimately one of degree” (Cross , 39)… If we are to follow Anselm in ascribing to God every pure perfection, we have to affirm that we are ascribing to God the very same thing that we ascribe to creatures: God has it infinitely, creatures in a limited way. One could hardly ask for a more harmonious cooperation between ontology (what God is) and semantics (how we can think and talk about him).
I should add that the Catholic Church has never condemned Duns Scotus’ views. As The Catholic Encyclopedia notes in its article on Scotism, there have even been bishops, cardinals, popes, and saints who were followers of Duns Scotus’ philosophy.
Leading ID thinkers do tend to treat intelligence as a pure perfection, which may be predicated univocally of God and humans (as Duns Scotus taught). On the charge of univocal predication, we gladly plead guilty. On the charge of anthropomorphism, however, we plead not guilty. Here, for instance, is how Professors William Dembski and Jonathan Wells define “intelligent design,” “intelligence” and “design” in their book, “The Design of Life,” 2008, Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dallas (page 3):
Intelligent Design. The study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the product of intelligence.
Intelligence. Any cause, agent, or process that achieves and end or goal by employing suitable means or instruments.
Design. An event, object, or structure that an intelligence brought about by matching means to ends.
On page 315, Dembski and Wells define intelligence in more detail, as “A type of cause, process or principle that is able to find, select, adapt, and implement the means needed to effectively bring about ends (or achieve goals or realize purposes). Because intelligence is about matching means to ends, it is inherently teleological.”
In other words, intelligence is manifested by agents that are capable of adapting means to ends. I have to ask: where’s the anthropomorphism here? I can’t see any. I believe St. Thomas himself would have approved of this definition, as he writes in his Fifth Way: “Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer.”
Duns Scotus distinguished God’s intelligence from ours on the grounds that God’s is essentially infinite, while ours is finite. In a similar vein, ID proponent K. D. Kalinsky writes in his online article, “Intelligent Design Required by Biological Life”:
Our observations indicate that there does not seem to be any known limit to the amount of functional information that intelligence can produce. It seems to be capable of producing anywhere from 0 bits and up.
The underlying idea here is that an intelligent enough Designer can create any effect, no matter how complex. That does not mean that the difference between God and humans is merely one of degree; it simply means that the term “intelligent” has the same meaning when predicated of God and ourselves, notwithstanding the infinite disparity between God’s intellectual capacities and ours, and the utter dissimilarity between the way God thinks and the way we do.
Do I misunderstand Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics?
In his post, ID theory, Aquinas, and the Origin of Life: A Reply to Torley, Professor Feser wrote:
It seems to me that many of those who object to what I have said about the incompatibility between A-T and ID fail to see this because they are simply unfamiliar with A-T metaphysics and do not understand what is meant by terms like “substantial form,” “prime matter,” etc. And this includes Torley himself.
Later on, he writes that “Torley’s grasp of A-T metaphysics is worse than tenuous.”
Just a moment, Professor. I’m 49 years old. I’ve been studying and pondering St. Thomas’ metaphysics for 33 years on and off, since the time when I bought a second-hand copy of “Philosophy for the Layman” by Fr. Aegidus Doolan (Dublin: Irish Rosary, 1944) at the age of 16, at a school library sale. At five cents, it was a bargain. I had a lot of free time during my twenties, while I was studying, and I’ve read scores of books on Thomistic philosophy. Whatever my faults (and I know I have many), accusing me of being unfamiliar with “unfamiliar with A-T metaphysics” is risibly absurd.
Let me add that although I hold a Ph.D. in philosophy, my first degree was in science, and I have always been acutely aware of the need to reconcile Thomistic metaphysics with the findings of modern science. Some people may not like my “revamped” definitions of Aquinas’ metaphysical terms, but they are not distortions of his philosophy. Indeed, there are Thomistic philosophers who would agree or at least sympathize with some of the definitions I use. I am simply trying to make Aquinas intelligible to modern-day people, because I find the metaphysical definitions given by Thomists who don’t have a science background almost impossible to understand. Here’s an eye-glazing example from Professor Feser:
In short, prime matter is not a kind of “raw material” but the metaphysical precondition of there being raw materials in the first place; and substantial form is not some particular configuration of matter but the precondition of there being configuration, or any other attribute, in the first place.
I think I like my definitions better. Anyway, let’s continue with the passage in Professor Feser’s post:
He says, for example, that “in modern parlance, prime matter is roughly the same as the modern physicist’s concept of ‘mass-energy.'” No, that is not what prime matter is. Prime matter, as I said in a passage Torley himself quotes, is matter without any form at all; and to have the properties of “mass-energy” entails having a certain kind of form, in the Aristotelian sense of “form.”
No, it doesn’t. “Mass-energy” is about as non-descript a term as you can get in physics. There are many different forms of mass-energy – light, heat, sound, mass, kinetic and potential energy, and so on – but “mass-energy” is simply what gets transformed. It is utterly devoid of any qualities whatsoever. I don’t know how much more formless you can get than that.
It is true that mass-energy is conserved over time (leaving aside momentary quantum fluctuations). But that does not entail that it has a form. It simply means that mass-energy is quantifiable. Physicists define the “quantity” of mass-energy by how much work it can do. (“Work” is done whenever a body is accelerated over some distance.) I should add that there were some Scholastic philosophers (e.g. Suarez) who held that quantity could inhere in primary matter.
I might also add that Professor David Oderberg, whose book, Real Essentialism, is highly recommended by Professor Feser, is quite open to the idea that prime matter is the same thing as mass-energy. Oderberg uses the term “energy” in the quote below; I prefer to use the more generic term “mass-energy,” because “mass” is simply a form of energy.
Thirdly, might prime matter be energy? It is an intriguing question which I cannot pursue here. One problem is that the hylemorphist has a better grasp of what prime matter is than the physicist has of what energy is, and since metaphysics has to be informed by science there will be severe limits to what the former can say about the possible identification of prime matter with energy. If there are substantial energy transformations (e.g. heat to sound, chemical to light) by which a wholly new thing comes into existence, there will have to be prime matter distinct from energy as a support (as noted in Johansson 1989: 38-39). But if transformations are but phases of an underlying pure energy that has no determinate form in itself, then perhaps one might venture the thought that they are one and the same.” (Real Essentialism, Routledge, 2007, p. 76.)
The latter option considered by Professor Oderberg is precisely what I would maintain. I would also claim that even in those cases when a substantial change occurs (e.g. an electron and a positron “annihilate” each other and create a photon of energy), mass-energy is still conserved, as an underlying quantity. It is easy to describe this change in Aristotelian terms.
Professor Feser goes on to write:
Torley’s definition of substantial form is at least slightly less bad; he tells us that it is “the fundamental or defining attribute of a physical entity, which makes it the kind of entity it is.” No, it is not an “attribute” at all. It is substances that have attributes, and a substantial form is one of two components of a complete substance (the other being the otherwise formless prime matter a substantial form is united to). Since having attributes presupposes having a substantial form, a substantial form can hardly be itself a kind of attribute. It is rather the essence which grounds a substance’s proper attributes or properties, that from which these properties flow.
Professor Feser, seems to be interpreting my term “attribute” as if it meant “accident.” It doesn’t. “Realization” or “modification” might be a better way of putting it. Primary matter is always realized in some way: the substantial form of a substance is simply the way it is currently realized. In common parlance: “stuff” always has to be stuff of some sort. Thus relative to primary matter, the substantial form of a substance is what I call an attribute. Secondary matter (the individual substance), is also realized in a particular way. The properties of a material thing are always specific properties. Thus relative to secondary matter (the individual substance), an accidental form is what I call an attribute. Thus having attributes does not presuppose having a substantial form. What it does presuppose is having primary or secondary matter.
Professor Feser defines substantial form as “the essence which grounds a substance’s proper attributes or properties, that from which these properties flow.” The reason why I don’t like this textbook definition is that for at least some substances, there do seem to be certain properties which seem to constitute the very essence of that thing. In other words, not all properties are accidents (whether essential or inessential).
Consider the following example from Professor David Oderberg’s book. The interpretation which follows is mine, not Professor Oderberg’s:
Whatever the empirical technicalities, then, for present purposes we can rest content with the following:
(G4) Gold is a metal with atomic number 79
as giving the correct definition of gold. (More precisely, we should say that gold is a metal whose atomic constituents have an atomic number of 79; but the shorter version (G4) will suffice.) For as well as assuming that metal is the proximate genus, we can be fairly sure that having atomic number 79 gives the specific difference, marking gold out from everything else in the universe, no matter how similar.” (Real Essentialism, Routledge, 2007, p. 91.)
Now, I would be happy to describe the melting point and specific gravity of gold as proper accidents (or essential properties) of gold. They don’t capture the essence, or “whatness,” of gold, but they flow from its essence. However, the property of being a metal with atomic number 79 really does seem to capture the essence of gold: it gives us the specific difference that marks gold out from everything else. Thus the property (or attribute) of being a metal with an atomic number of 79 is what I call the defining attribute of gold. I would call that the substantial form of gold. It is an attribute of primary matter (mass-energy). Any “piece” of mass-energy that is realized (or instantiated) as (a) a metal (proximate genus), with (b) an atomic number of 79 (specific difference), is a piece of gold.
Does my 21st century rendition of hylemorphism still sound like a travesty of Thomism to Professor Feser? I hope not.
Thus concludes my lengthy reply to Professor Feser. I wish him well in all his endeavors. I hope he now has a better understanding of the ID position. For my part, I have learned a lot from debating him, and I would like to thank him for that.