On not doing one’s homework: A reply to Professor Edward Feser
|May 14, 2014||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
Professor Edward Feser and Intelligent Design defender Dr. Lydia McGrew have been having a lively exchange of views on classical theism, miracles and Intelligent Design. Dr. McGrew, who is also a Christian apologist, concluded her blog post, Things God can do to reveal Himself, with these words:
God has revealed Himself personally, by audible language, in incidents in Scripture. We know that. There is therefore no reason in principle why God could not reveal Himself personally, by the language of programmed code and intricate nanotechnology, in biology.
Theory must accommodate fact, or it is bad theory. It is my hope that classical theism can rise to the occasion.
Professor Feser’s reply to Dr. McGrew can be found here.
Dr. Lydia McGrew’s claim: all arguments for a Designer of Nature support at least a modest version of theistic personalism, which is fundamentally at odds with Feser’s version of classical theism
Evidence for design in Nature. Top: A plant cell. Bottom: DNA transcription (simple transcription elongation). Images courtesy of Wikipedia.
What, you may ask, is the problem with classical theism and Intelligent Design? The crux of the matter, as Dr. Lydia McGrew helpfully explains, is that according to the strong version of classical theism defended by Professor Feser, it is simply wrong to refer to God as “a being,” “an agent” or “a person,” since in Feser’s view, this amounts to bringing God down to our level and treating Him as a mere instance of a kind, making God just another member (albeit the greatest) of some category, such as “beings,” “agents” or “persons.” It is this view which Feser disparagingly refers to in his writings as “theistic personalism” (see here and especially here and here for an explanation of why Feser views classical theism as incompatible with theistic personalism). However, Dr. Lydia McGrew contends that in design arguments for the existence of God, such a way of speaking about the Creator is simply unavoidable. Additionally, Biblical miracles seem to necessitate such a way of talking about God:
…[A]t any point where we start referring to an “intelligent agent,” a “mind,” and the like, we will end up using terms like “a being” and “a person.” It is nearly unavoidable. Now, these are exactly the terms and concepts that Ed Feser objects to in the ID arguments. He considers that they smack of, or even entail, the theistic personalism that he considers wrong-headed. If ID involves arguing that God is an “intelligent agent,” a “designer” who makes things by deliberate acts that involve “tinkering” within nature, why then, according to Ed, ID entails a concept of God that is just wrong, wrong, wrong.
The problem is that we have several biblical examples that, if analyzed, would incline us to use very much the same types of “theistic personalist” terms Ed objects to. Note that by this I am not saying that theistic personalism is just plain right, that God really is a person just like ourselves with the exception of being bigger, better, and stronger. What I am pointing out, rather, is that if we are Christians and believe that God has revealed Himself in the ways recorded in Scripture, we have to be willing to accept this fact: God sometimes reveals Himself in ways such that, when the argument is spelled out, it is very difficult to eliminate inferring that the event was done by “a person,” because it is by thinking of the act as being performed by a person, or at a minimum, by someone relevantly like the persons we are acquainted with, that we infer that it was not the result of natural causes but rather a deliberate act. It appears that God reveals Himself in these ways because we are persons, because God is personal, and because this is a way, perhaps the only way, in which our minds are able to understand that we are receiving a message, a revelation, a Word, a sign.
I should point out in passing that the Intelligent Design movement has no official position on the identity of the Designer of Nature (see here). Nevertheless, many Intelligent Design proponents (myself included) would identify this Designer with God the Creator, and for the rest of this post, I shall be assuming that this identification is correct. I shall also be assuming that this God is the God of the Abrahamic tradition.
The Baptism of Christ. Guido Reni (1575–1642). Circa 1623. Oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts), Vienna. Image courtesy of Web Gallery of Art and Wikipedia.
The kind of messages from God that Dr. McGrew is thinking of in the passage quoted above are aptly illustrated by Biblical miracles, such as God sending down fire from heaven in response to the prophet Elijah’s prayer, or the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism (and later, at His transfiguration): “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Spectators could have legitimately inferred that God had revealed Himself as a personal Being Who spoke to us from on high, even though nothing in strict logic necessitated this conclusion. Likewise, Dr. McGrew argues, the design of the cell can legitimately be interpreted by human beings as a message from God, Who reveals His Intelligent Agency in the biological designs we observe around us, which are beyond the power of unguided Nature to produce:
In these incidents, God revealed Himself as one who speaks from the heavens. In the intricate design of the cell (for example) or the DNA code (for example), or a million other incredible examples, God reveals Himself as a designer. It is true that He is more than one who speaks from the heavens and more than a designer, but just as God did not disdain to reveal Himself as one who speaks in language from the heavens, so we are not bound to think that it would be impossible for God to reveal Himself as a designer.
Of course, one might object that a lesser being than God could have designed the cell – an alien or an angel could have done the job – or that for all we know, some unguided process that we know nothing about could have generated the first cell. And on a purely logical level, the objection is entirely correct. But as Dr. McGrew points out, the same objection would apply equally well to fire from heaven, or even voices from the sky: a skeptic might conjecture that the message they heard was just a freakish roll of thunder that sounded like a human voice, or that a finite intelligent being could have been speaking, instead of God. The intellectual perversity of the skeptic’s position should be readily apparent here: even the atheist biologist, Professor Jerry Coyne, concedes that there can, in principle, be evidence for God’s existence, that a voice from the sky accompanied by miraculous signs would impress him, and that he could be convinced of God’s existence by the discovery of “meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent.” At some point, the inference to God’s existence becomes a rational inference, even though it falls short of being logically compelling. We might describe such an inference as “abductive”: inference to the best explanation.
Professor Feser replies to Lydia McGrew
In his reply to Dr. Lydia McGrew, titled, Miracles, ID, and classical theism, Professor Edward Feser indignantly accused Dr. McGrew of not having done her homework, in her blog post critiquing the Thomist rejection of theistic personalism. Thomists, he averred, have never denied the personhood of God; rather, what they deny are the claims that God is “a person” or even “a Being,” since for them, such claims are tantamount to pigeonholing God:
Lydia’s first objection, I’m sorry to say, rests on a pretty basic (albeit annoyingly common) misunderstanding. Contrary to the impression she gives in her post, I have never denied that God is personal, nor do classical theists in general deny it. On the contrary, like classical theists in general, I have argued that there is in God intellect and will, and these are the defining attributes of personhood; and as a Catholic I also affirm that there are in God three divine Persons. So, I hardly regard God as impersonal.
Because this misunderstanding arises so often, it is important to emphasize that this is not some hidden theme or new development in my position. This is something I have made explicit many, many times over the years…
I have also said that from the point of view of classical theism it is a mistake to characterize God as “a person.” But as I’ve put it before, the trouble is not with the word “person” so much as with the word “a.” (I’ve also said that it is not correct to characterize God as “a being” …)
The point is that God is not (contrary to what theistic personalism entails) a mere instance of a kind, not even a uniquely impressive instance, whether the kind in question is person or any other kind. Just as he is Being Itself rather than something that merely has or participates in being, so too is he Intellect Itself rather than something that merely has or participates in intellect and other personal attributes. That no more makes him impersonal than characterizing him as Being Itself entails that he is unreal….
Professor Feser then summarizes his core reasons for believing that Intelligent Design theory are incompatible:
ID and related arguments like Paley’s design argument not only do not entail or even make probable classical theism, but are positively at odds with classical theism. How so?
Briefly the main points are:
1. Paley and ID theory predicate attributes of God and of creatures univocally, whereas for Thomists these predications are to be understood analogously. The problem here is that in the view of Thomists, predicating intellect, power, etc. of God and creatures univocally — in exactly the same sense rather than analogously — implicitly makes of God a mere instance of a kind, and is thus incompatible with divine simplicity. (Scotists dispute the incompatibility of univocal predication with divine simplicity, but Thomists regard their position as unstable. See Scholastic Metaphysics, pp. 256-63, for discussion of some of these issues.)
2. ID theory presupposes — whether in an unqualified way or at least for the sake of argument — a conception of the natural world that is “mechanistic” in the sense of denying that there is any teleology or final causality immanent to or inherent in natural substances qua natural (as we Aristotelians claim there is). Any teleology or finality would for ID have to be in nature only extrinsically or in a way that is entirely imposed from outside, after the fashion of artifacts like watches and other machines….
Finally, Edward Feser utterly rejects the parallel that Lydia McGrew attempts to draw between inferring God’s existence from well-attested Biblical miracles and inferring His existence from the design in our DNA. Additionally, Feser argues that at least some miracles are beyond the power of any finite creature to produce:
Needless to say, there is nothing in the biblical passages Lydia cites that has anything whatsoever to do with a univocal theory of predication, a mechanistic conception of nature, or anything else that we Thomist critics of ID object to. Thus, Lydia’s alleged parallel between ID claims and the passages in question is completely spurious…
A miracle that could reasonably be expected to be compelling evidence of a divine revelation across different cultures and historical periods would have to be … something that could not in principle have any cause other than God (which means, of course, the God of classical theism). Fire coming down from the sky doesn’t fit the bill. But I would submit that a man known for certain to be dead coming back to life does fit the bill.
Professor Feser and Dr. McGrew continue their debate here.
Some prefatory remarks
Before I continue, I’d like to clear up one point raised by Professor Feser. As I remarked earlier, the Intelligent Design movement has no official position regarding the identity or nature of the Designer of life or the cosmos (see here). Consequently it is incorrect of Feser to assert that “ID theory predicate attributes of God and of creatures univocally.” I certainly do, and I have previously argued that “leading ID thinkers do tend to treat intelligence as a pure perfection, which may be predicated univocally of God and humans,” while at the same time denying that this entails an anthropomorphic concept of God. But there is a difference between what “leading ID thinkers” have stated in their writings, and the principles that define the Intelligent Design movement as a whole (see here and here). And I should point out that several Intelligent Design advocates are loyal Thomists, and that a great many ID proponents would regard themselves as classical theists.
Feser’s best argument for not referring to God as “a being”: what it establishes and what it doesn’t
The author J. K. Rowling, reading from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at the White House in 2010. Professor Feser contends that God’s causality is rather like that of the author of a story: “Just as the author of a story is not one character among others but transcends the story altogether as its source, so too the God of classical theism is not “a being” among others but Being Itself.” Image courtesy of Daniel Ogren and Wikipedia.
In a 2011 post titled, Are you for real?, Professor Feser puts forward what I regard as his clearest statement of what he thinks is wrong with theistic personalism:
… God’s causality is not like that of one character, object, or event in a story among others; it is more like that of the author of the story.…
[This analogy] is also useful as a way of illustrating the difference between the classical theist’s conception of God and other conceptions. Just as the author of a story is not one character among others but transcends the story altogether as its source, so too the God of classical theism is not “a being” among others but Being Itself.…
All the same, the world is not literally a mere story and we are not literally fictional characters… [T]here is an obvious difference between us and fictional characters: we exist and they don’t.
In a nutshell, what Feser is arguing here is that God is not just much, much greater than we are. He is not even infinitely greater than we are. Rather, since God is our Creator, He exists on an altogether plane than the plane on which creatures exist. Hence any attempt to enumerate God along with His creatures is fundamentally misconceived.
A humorous illustration may help here. Let’s suppose that someone asked the question: “How many beings are there, altogether?” And let’s imagine that we were able to count all of the natural objects that exist in the cosmos, from high-level entities like spirits, intelligent life-forms, animals and other organisms down to fundamental particles and quantum fields, and that we finally came up with a grand total – let’s call it N. Let’s suppose that someone then said: “Wait! We’ve left God off the list! We’d better make that N+1 beings in existence, altogether.”
What the above example really shows, though, is that when we are counting or enumerating beings, we need to be clear about what domain of beings we are considering. There is something odd about the question: “How many beings are there, altogether?” No domain is specified. On the other hand, the question, “How many organisms are there on Earth, altogether?” is a perfectly meaningful one, because the scope of our inquiry is clearly specified.
Feser is right in pointing out that since God is the Source of all that exists, He is not just one being among many. Does that mean that we can never enumerate God alongside creatures? I think not. Consider the following question posed by a very lonely person named Sam: “Out of all the beings in existence who are capable of loving someone, how many of these beings actually love me?” Presumably the tally of beings who love Sam would include Sam (one hopes), his immediate family, a couple of his very close friends, his guardian angel (see Job 33:23-26, Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:12-15), … and above all, God Himself. In this case, it seems to me that one can meaningfully include God in a list along with creatures who share with Him the ability to love – even though those creatures’ ability to love is wholly derived from their Creator.
It should also be pointed out that there is an important disanalogy between Feser’s example of the author and the story, and God’s relationship to the world – and I don’t just mean the obvious fact that we exist and storybook characters do not. The disanalogy I am referring to consists in the fact that the author of a story does not interact with his/her characters. For instance, the author J. K. Rowling does not communicate with her character, Harry Potter; nor does he ever talk to her. But as Dr. Lydia McGrew pointed out above, God, on the other hand, does attempt to reveal Himself to His creatures, which means that He personally communicates with us. And for our part, we may attempt to talk to Him, through prayer. This fact entails the possibility of our including God in a list, along with other beings. For example, at the end of each day, I might ask myself: “Who did I talk to today?” I might then list the people in my immediate family, friends, workmates and other acquaintances that I bumped into – and if I’ve said my prayers, I’ll have to include God as well, on my list.
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.
In the next paragraph of his essay, Feser contrasts Paley’s thinking with that of Aquinas, noting that “whereas for Aquinas final causes exist in the natural world of metaphysical necessity, for Paley the existence of design (and thus of purpose in nature) is a mere probabilistic hypothesis (even if the probability is in his view so great that the conclusion cannot reasonably be doubted).”
The human eye. According to William Paley, “Were there no example in the world, of contrivance, except that of the eye, it would be alone sufficient to support the conclusion which we draw from it, as to the necessity of an intelligent Creator.“
Parts of the eye: 1. vitreous body 2. ora serrata 3. ciliary muscle 4. ciliary zonules 5. canal of Schlemm 6. pupil 7. anterior chamber 8. cornea 9. iris 10. lens cortex 11. lens nucleus 12. ciliary process 13. conjunctiva 14. inferior oblique muscle 15. inferior rectus muscle 16. medial rectus muscle 17. retinal arteries and veins 18. optic disc 19. dura mater 20. central retinal artery 21. central retinal vein 22. optic nerve 23. vorticose vein 24. bulbar sheath 25. macula 26. fovea 27. sclera 28. choroid 29. superior rectus muscle 30. retina. Image courtesy of Chabacano and Wikipedia.
If one consults Paley’s Natural Theology, however, one finds that the phrase “argument cumulative” is used only once in Paley’s entire book, and then only as a chapter heading (for chapter VI). The very first sentence in that chapter blasts Feser’s misinterpretation of Paley out of the water:
Were there no example in the world, of contrivance, except that of the eye, it would be alone sufficient to support the conclusion which we draw from it, as to the necessity of an intelligent Creator. It could never be got rid of; because it could not be accounted for by any other supposition, which did not contradict all the principles we possess of knowledge; the principles, according to which, things do, as often as they can be brought to the test of experience, turn out to be true or false… And what I wish, under the title of the present chapter, to observe is, that if other parts of nature were inaccessible to our inquiries, or even if other parts of nature presented nothing to our examination but disorder and confusion, the validity of this example would remain the same. If there were but one watch in the world, it would not be less certain that it had a maker… The argument is cumulative, in the fullest sense of that term. The eye proves it without the ear; the ear without the eye. The proof in each example is complete; for when the design of the part, and the conduciveness of its structure to that design is shown, the mind may set itself at rest; no future consideration can detract any thing from the force of the example.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809. Chapter VI, pp. 75-77.)
Here, Paley declares that the design of even a single eye is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of a Creator, independently of the rest of Nature. Denying the cogency of this demonstration would “contradict all the principles we possess of knowledge” – in other words, Paley is saying that if we cannot legitimately infer from the design of the eye that a Creator exists, then we cannot claim to know anything about the world. The examples in Paley’s “argument cumulative” are not intended to strengthen a merely probabilistic argument; rather, each example of design proves the existence of a Creator independently of the other examples: “The eye proves it without the ear; the ear without the eye,” so that “The proof in each example is complete” and “no future consideration can detract any thing from the force of the example.” Could anything, I ask, be plainer than that?
I should add that nowhere in his entire book does Paley characterize his argument for God’s existence as an inductive argument, based on a cumulation of examples; rather, he declares it to be a deductive one, writing: “Now we deduce design from relation, aptitude, and correspondence of parts.” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXII, p. 379), and he elsewhere refers to “the marks of contrivance discoverable in animal bodies, and to the argument deduced from them, in proof of design, and of a designing Creator” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter IV, p. 67).
What of Feser’s observation that Paley appeals to what is ‘probable’ or to ‘probability’ or ‘improbability’ in the course of his argument? It is true that in Paley’s Natural Theology, the term “probable” is used when Paley is speculating as to the possible purposes of the various contrivances that we find in Nature – especially, the organs of the human body. Thus he considers it probable (but not certain) that the purpose of the blood circulation is to “distribute nourishment to the different parts of the body”. (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter X, p. 164.)
At the same time, however, Paley is quite emphatic that our lack of certainty regarding the precise purpose for which the various contrivances occurring in organisms were designed does not weaken the certainty of the inference that they were designed. Thus Paley is absolutely certain that the valves which regulate the flow of blood were designed by an intelligent agent. “Can any one doubt of contrivance here?” he asks rhetorically. He even wonders how it is possible “to shut our eyes against the proof of it.” Thus in the same passage, Paley expresses his absolute certainty on the question of whether the valves of the blood vessels were designed, while acknowledging that he is uncertain as to what the blood circulation is designed for. The term “probably” is only used in connection with the latter question, not the former.
Finally, Paley regarded the existence of beauty in the plant and animal kingdoms as a most remarkable fact, and he considered it probable, but not certain, that the beauty we observe in living creatures was the product of design. Here, Paley’s cautious assertion that the beauty observed in animals and plants gives “a strong indication of design” with “a considerable degree of probability” reflects his lack of certainty as to whether beauty actually serves a legitimate biological purpose in the organisms in which it is found. The point that Paley is making is that we need to be absolutely certain that there is a purpose served by a complex arrangement of parts, before we can impute design to it. Once we have ascertained that the parts do indeed serve a common purpose, the inference to an Intelligent Designer is absolutely certain.
In his article, “Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’s Fifth Way” in Nova et Vetera, vol. 11, no. 3 (Summer 2013), Professor Feser also claims (p. 723) that “whereas for Aquinas the existence of even the simplest efficient causal regularity establishes the reality of final causality, for Paley only complex phenomena can give us reason to believe in purpose and ‘design.'” Now, Paley does indeed declare that astronomy “is not the best medium through which to prove the agency of an intelligent Creator,” since “we deduce design from relation, aptitude, and correspondence of parts.” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXII, pp. 378-379.) But here again, the contrast with Aquinas is overdrawn. As I point out in my online article, Was Paley a mechanist?, Aquinas himself puts forward not one, but two distinct teleological arguments in his writings. The argument which appears in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is based on the simple fact that “things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end,” in accordance with their built-in dispositions. But in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, chapter 13, paragraph 35, Aquinas puts forward a second argument, which is based on the harmony of the different things making up our world:
Contrary and discordant things cannot, always or for the most part, be parts of one order except under someone’s government, which enables all and each to tend to a definite end. But in the world we find that things of diverse natures come together under one order, and this not rarely or by chance, but always or for the most part. There must therefore be some being by whose providence the world is governed. This we call God.
Rev. William Paley’s argument from design is a variant on Aquinas’ second teleological argument. There is an important difference between them: whereas Aquinas refers to “contrary and discordant things” (italics mine) working together as “parts of one order,” Paley is impressed with contrivances, or systems of precisely co-ordinated parts working together for a common end. Nevertheless, what the two arguments have in common is that they are based on the working of different parts of a system towards a common goal.
For Rev. William Paley (1743-1805), Newton’s law of gravitation, which applies throughout the cosmos, offers a striking proof of the unity of God. In the illustration above, a point mass m1 attracts another point mass m2 by a force F2 pointed along the line connecting the two points. The force is proportional to the product of the two masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance (r) between the point masses. The magnitudes of the two forces, |F1| and |F2| (absolute values), will always be equal, regardless of the masses or the distance between them. G is the gravitational constant; G ≈ 6.67428(67)×10−11 m3/(kg·s2). Image courtesy of Dennis Nilsson and Wikipedia.
In any case, it is simply not true to say that for Paley, the only good arguments for God’s existence were biological arguments, based on the complexity of living things. In his Natural Theology, Paley argued that the uniformity of the laws of Nature constituted the best evidence of the Creator’s unity. The laws of physics are uniform throughout the entire cosmos, while the laws of biology are the same everywhere, within the Earth’s biosphere:
Of the “Unity of the Deity,” the proof is, the uniformity of plan observable in the universe. The universe itself is a system; each part either depending upon other parts, or being connected with other parts by some common law of motion, or by the presence of some common substance. One principle of gravitation causes a stone to drop towards the earth, and the moon to wheel round it. One law of attraction carries all the different planets about the sun. This philosophers demonstrate. There are also other points of agreement amongst them, which may be considered as marks of the identity of their origin, and of their intelligent author. In all are found the conveniency and stability derived from gravitation…
In our own globe, the case is clearer. New countries are continually discovered, but the old laws of nature are always found in them: new plants perhaps, or animals, but always in company with plants and animals which we already know; and always possessing many of the same general properties. We never get amongst such original, or totally different, modes of existence, as to indicate, that we are come into the province of a different Creator, or under the direction of a different will. In truth, the same order of things attend us, wherever we go.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXV, pp. 449-450)
The works of nature want only to be contemplated… We have proof, not only of both these works proceeding from an intelligent agent, but of their proceeding from the same agent; for, in the first place, we can trace an identity of plan, a connexion of system, from Saturn to our own globe: and when arrived upon our globe, we can, in the second place, pursue the connexion through all the organized, especially the animated, bodies which it supports. We can observe marks of a common relation, as well to one another, as to the elements of which their habitation is composed. Therefore one mind hath planned, or at least hath prescribed, a general plan for all these productions. One Being has been concerned in all.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXVII, pp. 540-541)
In the above passages, Paley explicitly refers to gravitation as an argument for the unity of the Creator. That’s about the simplest case of efficient-causal regularity that one could possibly find in Nature. Paley, then, did not reject arguments based on simple regularities in Nature. Where he differed from Aquinas was in the way he used them: after using complex contrivances in Nature to establish (in the clearest possible manner, as he believed) the existence of God the Creator, he goes on to appeal to the uniformity of the laws of Nature as an argument for the Creator’s unity.
I will leave it to my readers to judge whether Professor Feser has construed the views of Rev. William Paley fairly, or whether he has instead viewed them through the lens of his own faulty preconceptions.
Intelligent Design and Mechanism
I was dismayed to read Professor Feser’s claim, in his recent article, Miracles, ID, and classical theism, that Intelligent Design theory is tied to a mechanistic conception of nature. 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:
The second post, Building a bridge between Scholastic philosophy and Intelligent Design, is perhaps the most important one, so I’ll very briefly summarize its argument here.
For Professor Feser, the chief philosophical and theological objection to the notion of Intelligent Design is that ID is incapable of accounting for the built-in tendencies of natural objects. These tendencies endow things with their very “thinginess.” Without these built-in tendencies, the world would be something like The Matrix; it wouldn’t be a real world. Professor Feser charges that Intelligent Design proponents’ willingness to adopt artifactual metaphors to describe objects in Nature which they consider to have been designed, leaves them unable to account for the “thinginess” of natural objects. Since Intelligent Design fails to account for the “thinginess” of things, Feser concludes that it is therefore of no help whatsoever when attempting to argue for the existence of a Creator Who made (and Who maintains in existence) each and every thing. What’s more, says Feser, if things themselves are construed as artifacts, then it becomes impossible in principle to philosophically demonstrate that they need someone to maintain them in existence; all one could ever hope to show is that their parts need to be held together by an Intelligent Agent. The God of classical theism, however, is more than a mere Demiurge who holds things together; rather, He endows things with their very being.
Professor Feser also contends Intelligent Design proponents have an emaciated view of living things. Because Feser holds that each thing has one and only one “substantial form” that makes it the kind of thing it is, he argues that any other form which is imposed on top of this substantial form can only be an accidental property of that thing. Thus if the specified information in a living thing is imposed on some pre-existing material, then it can no longer be said to give that thing its essential identity. Living things would then become nothing more than artifacts – a view Feser abhors.
However, in my post, Building a bridge between Scholastic philosophy and Intelligent Design, I argue that medieval Scholasticism accords well with the way in which modern-day Intelligent Design proponents talk about living things. Unlike Aquinas, most medieval philosophers believed that the form of a living thing could be externally imposed on pre-existing matter already possessing a form of its own. That’s because they believed that a thing could have two or more substantial forms. On this view, the specified information characterizing a living thing could belong to its substantial form; it would no longer be accidental. I conclude that Feser has presented a false dichotomy between Aristotelian Thomists (who believe in causal powers and in the holistic unity of living things) and mechanists (who reject talk of causal powers and view living things in reductionistic terms, as assemblages of parts). Clearly there are other, intermediate views. I also point out that even a Thomist could speak of the substantial form of a living thing as having been externally imposed on prime matter, which is devoid of any form whatsoever. Thus when ID proponents speak of the Designer of Nature as imposing forms on matter, this in no way implies that they hold a mechanistic philosophy of life, which views living things as mere assemblages of parts.
As I have no wish to repeat myself here, I would strongly urge Professor Feser to read the above four articles of mine before writing anything more on the subject of Intelligent Design and mechanism.
Good and bad ways of arguing for the existence of God
In an essay posted on Uncommon Descent last August, I explained what I believe is wrong with Feser’s version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way, and how to fix it:
My post was written in response to Feser’s defense of Aquinas’ Fifth Way his article, “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” (Australian Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2, 2011), and in his book, Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009). I emailed Professor Feser last August, enclosing a link to my essay. I assume it is still on his “to-read” list.
In my essay, I argue that while Feser’s reconstructed version of the Fifth Way is an exegetically plausible account of Aquinas’ argument, it fails to establish the existence of God, for two reasons. First, it is too metaphysically top-heavy, relying on no less than twenty metaphysical assumptions, some of which are either wrong or highly contentious. Second, Feser’s reconstructed version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way still contains major logical and metaphysical gaps that need to be plugged. I conclude that while the basic thrust of Aquinas’ Fifth Way is correct, the argument requires substantial revision: key premises need to be amended, and several steps in the argument’s logic need to be filled in. I also put forward an argument for the existence of God based on the existence of laws of Nature, which I believe circumvents the difficulties attending Professor Feser’s argument.
While the critique of Feser’s argument in my essay is specific and highly detailed, the alternative argument which I put forward for an Intelligent Creator of the cosmos in my essay is fairly brief. In some more recent posts of mine (written in November 2013), I have elaborated on this argument, attempting to describe in detail how rationally certain arguments for the existence of God can be successfully mounted against modern-day skeptics:
Professor Feser has not yet seen these more recent articles of mine, so I would invite him to peruse them at his leisure.
Even classical theists have stated that God is a being, a spirit, a cause and an agent
St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was a classical theist who referred to God as “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Anonymous, c. 1520. Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery (U.K.) and Wikipedia.
And indeed, we believe that you are a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. (Chapter II)
In a similar vein, Blessed John Duns Scotus, in his work, A Treatise on God as First Principle, writes:
Nothing however is more perfect than a being having necessary existence of itself. (3.25)
Later in the same work, Scotus approvingly quotes St. Anselm’s description of God, which he endeavors to make more precise: “God is a being conceived without contradiction who is so great that it would be a contradiction if a greater being could be conceived” (4.65).
There’s more. St. Thomas Aquinas himself, in his Summa Theologica, I, q. 3, states that “God is a spirit” (article 1, quoting John 4:24) and that “God is a form” (article 8). And in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, Chapter 43, paragraph 8, he states that “God is a necessary being through Himself.” In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, Chapter 52, paragraph 9, he adds that “God is a cause.” In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, Chapter 6, paragraph 4, he declares that “God is a being in act, as was shown in Book I,” and in Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, Chapter 16, paragraph 6, he adds that “God is a being in act, not through anything inherent in Him, but through His whole substance, as was proved above.” In Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, Chapter 24, paragraph 2, Aquinas writes that “God is a voluntary agent.” In Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, Chapter 25, paragraph 20, he goes on to say that “since God is a voluntary agent, that which He cannot will He cannot do.”
So when Professor Feser writes, “I’ve also said that it is not correct to characterize God as ‘a being’,” he is going against his own philosophical hero, St. Thomas Aquinas.
The crux of Professor Feser’s argument against “theistic personalism”
Reading through Professor Feser’s posts on classical theism, it appears to me that his argument boils down to the following four claims:
1. Saying that “God is an X” (e.g. “God is a being,” or “God is a cause,” or “God is an agent,” or “God is a spirit”) is equivalent to putting God into a category (namely, the category of X’s – be it beings, causes, agents or spirits).
2. Putting God in a category is tantamount to treating Him as a mere instance of a kind.
3. Putting God in a category entails that that category is larger than God. But there can be nothing greater than God.
4. If God belongs in a category, then God is composite, since there must be something He shares with other entities belonging to the category, and something else which differentiates Him from those entities. However, classical theists (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) have always held that God is simple, and not composed of parts.
Here’s an example of Professor Feser’s reasoning, from a recent blog post of his:
So, whatever the ultimate source, cause, or explanation of things is — again, refrain from calling it “God” if you want — it cannot be made up of material components, or actuality and potentiality, or existence and essence. Nor can it be composed of any other metaphysical parts — genus and difference, substance and properties, or what have you. It cannot be an instance of a genus, for then it will require some aspect or other that differentiates it from other instances of that genus, and that entails having metaphysical parts. It cannot instantiate properties since that would, again, require some differentiating feature that sets it apart from other instances of those properties, which again entails having metaphysical parts.
Duns Scotus’ response to the claim that calling God “a being” is tantamount to pigeonholing Him
The medieval theologian and philosopher, Blessed John Duns Scotus (1265-1308). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Now, I can certainly appreciate Professor Feser’s concern about pigeonholing God. But it is his first assumption – that in saying God is a being, a cause, an agent or a spirit, we are placing Him in a category – that needs to be questioned. The Catholic philosopher and classical theist, Blessed John Duns Scotus, expressly denied this claim. The term “being,” he wrote, when applied to God, does not designate a category, but a transcendental, a term which is not confined to any particular category. Scotus taught that the term “being” is univocal: it has the same meaning, regardless of whether you apply it to the Creator or to creatures. For instance, someone may believe that God exists, but at the same time be uncertain as to whether God is finite or infinite, or even whether God is created or uncreated. (People have entertained all sorts of weird ideas about God, down through the ages.) For this person, the term “being” is therefore an all-inclusive concept, which transcends our categories of finite and infinite, created and uncreated. As Associate Professor Jeffrey Hause of Creighton University aptly puts it in his article on Scotus in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Our concepts of radically diverse beings, such as God and creatures, substances and accidents, still must contain as a component a univocal concept of being. However, this does not imply that these beings are simply species of a single common genus. Instead, finite and infinite are intrinsic modes of being …, not differences dividing it, and so it does not follow that there is any nature common to God and creature. Nor is finite being in turn a genus and the categories its species. Each category is fundamentally diverse, with substance prior to all non-substance categories (Ord 1 d.3 p.1 q.3 n.164). Despite this diversity, our concept of each category includes a univocal concept of being as a component.
If Scotus is right on this point, then Professor Feser’s concern about pigeonholing God is allayed, and we can legitimately refer to God as “a being.”
We can go further. According to Scotus, it isn’t just the term “being” that applies in the same way to both the Creator and to creatures. The same goes for what he calls pure perfections, or terms which in themselves do not imply any limitation. Goodness, knowledge, and being an efficient cause (i.e. a productive cause, which is capable of bringing about effects), are all examples of pure perfections: to call something good, or to say that it knows, or that it causes things, is not to limit it in any way. Professor Thomas Williams handily summarizes Scotus’ reasoning in his illuminating article on Scotus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Scotus claims that pure perfections … have to be predicated univocally of God; otherwise the whole business of pure perfections won’t make any sense. Here’s the argument. If we are going to use Anselm’s test [for ascertaining whether a concept can be suitably applied to God – VJT], we must first come up with our concept — say, of good. Then we check out the concept to see whether it is in every respect better to be good than not-good. We realize that it is, and so we predicate ‘good’ of God. That test obviously won’t work unless it’s the same concept that we’re applying in both cases.
We saw earlier that some classical theists did in fact refer to God as a being, a spirit, a cause and an agent. Were they pigeonholing God by doing so? Not at all, as Professor Williams explains:
If we take any of the pure perfections to the highest degree, they will be predicable of God alone. Better yet, we can describe God more completely by taking all the pure perfections in the highest degree and attributing them all to him.
If Scotus is correct here, then Professor Feser’s contention that we are putting God in a box by referring to Him as a spirit, a cause or an agent is groundless, and his theological argument against Intelligent Design is undercut.
I should say in all fairness that Duns Scotus’ own preferred description of God, as an “Infinite Being,” is not without its problems, as it assumes, controversially, that we can have a positive conception of infinity. Not all scholars find Scotus’ argument on this point persuasive. For my part, I agree with John Wesley that love is God’s highest attribute (although I would add that there can be no love without intelligence), so I would prefer to characterize God as an infinite act of intelligence-and-love.
But there are two sides to any story, and I haven’t yet discussed the Thomistic doctrine of analogy. So I’m going to give a brief exposition of the doctrine, before discussing whether it can truly account for the way in which religious people talk about God. After that, I’ll discuss what it means for God to be intelligent, and how I believe Intelligent Design arguments “flesh out” the meaning of the term “intelligent” when applied to God.
The Thomistic doctrine of analogy
An excellent exposition of St. Thomas Aquinas’ teachings on analogy can be found here at the Website of Rev. Dr. Greg Moses, an Australian Catholic priest who taught at the Brisbane College of Theology. I would strongly recommend that readers familiarize themselves with Fr. Moses’ article, Aquinas’ Doctrine of Analogy, as well as his article on the three ways of talking about God.
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, at least some of the positive terms we apply to God (e.g. “intelligent”) are true in the same sense that they are true for us: they are univocal.
How would Aquinas understand the statement that “God is intelligent,” or that “God knows”? First, he would say that God is the cause of knowledge in human beings. That’s what the Scholastics called analogy of attribution. Additionally, he would point out that in this case, the causal relationship is an intrinsic one, where there’s a similarity between the cause and the effect, as occurs when a hot fire makes a room warm, or when parents procreate children who are like them. This is referred to as intrinsic analogy of attribution. In other cases, there may be no such similarity between cause and effect – e.g. when we say that fresh air causes health, even though air is nothing like a healthy body.
Second, the statement, “God is intelligent” can be understood to mean: “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 analogy of proportionality. Moreover, this analogy is not merely metaphorical, as when we say that God is the Rock of our salvation, but real.
Professor Feser elucidates what it means to say that God is intelligent, in a highly informative post titled, The divine intellect (September 12, 2012):
…[F]or Thomists, when attributing intellect, knowledge, etc. both to God and to us, we have to understand the relevant terms analogously rather than univocally. It’s not that God has knowledge in just the sense we do, only more of it. It’s rather that there is in God something analogous to what we call knowledge in us, even if (since He is absolutely simple, eternal, etc.) it cannot be the same thing we have.
What are the problems with this account? First, let’s consider intrinsic analogy of attribution. Alert readers will have noticed that analogy of attribution simply assumes we can apply the term “cause” to God, without explaining what it means. What’s more, when we refer to this analogy as intrinsic, we are presupposing the notion of similarity, or likeness. But a skeptic might ask: “What does ‘like’ mean?”
The notion of real analogy of proportionality fares no better. Consider the claim that God possesses intelligence. This is supposed to mean that God has something (call it X), where X is to God what intelligence is to human beings. The problem is that the two terms on the left-hand side are both unknowns, so as I see it, that doesn’t really help us.
An anecdote from my university days in the 1980s
The Chifley library, Australian National University, Canberra. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Some readers who lament the rise of the New Atheism may be surprised to learn that 50 years ago, religious belief was far less respectable in academic circles than it is today. As someone who studied philosophy at the Australian National University in Canberra in the early to mid-1980s, I can vividly remember how difficult it was to defend religious belief of any stripe, back then. At that time, verificationism (see here and here), which had its heyday in the 1950s, was still taken seriously by some of the philosophers who taught me, and the theological legitimacy of “God-talk” was regarded as highly questionable. (Verificationism is largely discredited now in philosophical circles, but readers who think it is patently self-refuting are misinformed: if the verificationist principle is construed as an injunction – “Don’t believe statements that cannot be verified!” – rather than an indicative statement, then the principle itself no longer requires verification. One-line refutations of any philosophical idea are usually wrong. The above-linked articles contain a more detailed discussion of the problems with verificationism.) I soon learned that many philosophers regarded the concept of God as not merely false, but meaningless. I had several exchanges with people who held these views, and I also debated the subject with myself, internally, as I had doubts of my own. The following exchanges will serve to convey the flavor of the arguments raging at the time:
A: What do you mean by “God”?
B: The Necessary Being.
A: What do you mean by “being”?
B: Are you serious?
A: Of course I’m serious. You say God exists, but you can’t show Him to me. So I’m asking you: where do you get this notion of “exists” from, and what do you mean by it?
B: I don’t have to give you a definition for everything: all definitions have to stop somewhere, you know. To demand a definition for “being” is to commit the Socratic fallacy. “Being” is impossible to define. It’s a basic concept.
A: Oh, so you’re saying it’s innate? You’re saying that it’s an a priori concept, which is independent of our experience.
B: Yeah, I guess so.
A: Then why don’t I have this a priori concept of yours? I have no idea what you’re talking about when you use the term “being.” It doesn’t tell me anything.
B: Oh, come on!
A: It doesn’t! Suppose I tell you, “There is a man in the park.” You now know something about the park. But now suppose I tell you, “There is a being in the park.” Have I told you anything informative? No! “Being” is just a filler word: as Quine would say, “To be is to be the value of a variable.” By itself, the term “being” doesn’t convey anything informative.
B: You’re being facetious, and you’re trivializing the word “being.” I say that God is simply Unlimited Being. He is Being Itself: He exists in His own right. We, on the other hand, merely participate in being: we owe our being entirely to Him.
A: Now you’re going Platonic on me. It’s all utter nonsense, I say. Consider these sentences: “Being created the world.” “Being loves you.” “Being is three persons.” None of them make any sense, does it? And yet, if you’re right in equating God with “Pure Being,” then those sentences should be perfectly meaningful. Face it: you can’t define God as “Pure Being” without rendering yourself unintelligible. I have no idea what you’re talking about when you refer to God in that way.
Defining God as the uncaused cause of the perfections found in creatures (or what Thomists call the analogy of attribution) also proved unfruitful, as the following exchange illustrates:
A: OK, so you say you believe in God. What do you mean by “God”?
B: The First Cause, or the Uncaused Cause.
A: What do you mean by “cause”?
B: Well, here I’m talking about an efficient cause: that which brings about an effect. God brings about whatever is good in Nature. He contains all perfections eminently, insofar as He is capable of generating them.
A: You’re arguing in circles. You’re defining “cause” in terms of “effect.” And what do you mean by “bring about” or “produce”? I know what it means for a factory to generate an item, or for parents to generate children, but what on earth do you mean when you say that God generates?
B: I mean “act, so as to produce something.”
A: More undefined terms. What does “act” mean? What does “produce” mean? You’re digging a hole for yourself.
Finally, the following exchange reveals the problems I encountered when expounding the Thomistic doctrine of the analogy of proportionality:
A: What do you mean by “God”?
B: By “God,” I mean an omnipotent, omniscient Creator. He made us, He knows everything about us, and He can do anything that’s logically consistent.
A: You say God knows everything. What do you mean by “knows”?
B: Well, obviously I don’t mean the same thing as I do when I say that human beings know. Our minds are like God’s, in some ways.
A: What do you mean by “like”?
B: I mean that there is something in God, which has the same relationship to God as intelligence has to human beings.
A: There’s a problem with your account. I don’t know what this “something” is, and I still don’t know what God is. So you’re talking about two unknowns, now.
The foregoing arguments serve to illustrate what I regard as the inadequacies of the Thomistic doctrine of analogy: it can only take us so far, and by itself, it appears to be incapable of legitimizing “God-talk” – especially if one’s interlocutor is a hard-nosed religious skeptic. Saying that X is to God what intelligence is to a human being tells me nothing about X, unless I already know what God is. And there’s no point in saying that my intelligence is like God’s, if I don’t know what “like” means. Similarly, saying that God is the cause of my intelligence is no help, if I don’t already know what “cause” means. Finally, saying that God is Being Itself, or even a Necessary Being, means nothing unless I already know what “being” is.
It was as a result of bruising encounters like the ones I’ve described above that I eventually became convinced that there had to be another way to legitimize “God-talk.” Let’s start with the notion of “being.” Why not simply say that it means the same thing for God as it means for us? That at once disposes of the question, “What do you mean by ‘being’?” By “being,” I mean the same thing as everyone does, when they use that term in everyday speech. But where, it will be asked, do we get this concept from? After all, we have no experience of being, as such. That’s true, but we constantly encounter beings of various kinds, in the real world. We call them “beings” and ascribe certain characteristics to them, because unless we did so, the world would be a “blooming, buzzing confusion” of disparate events: it would make no sense at all, and it would lack cohesion. When we call something “a being,” we give it a form or essence: we say that it has certain attributes that characterize it, and we form a concept of it, which includes those attributes. The concept of “being” is therefore linked with our intellectual demand that reality should be intelligible to us. Instead of saying, as Quine did, that “to be is to be the value of a variable,” we should say that to be is to be the (possible) object of an act of understanding. To be is to be intelligible, as the late Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) might have put it.
I might also add that the skeptical argument that “Being created the world” is a meaningless statement is defeated if we can say, “An infinite being created the world.” Now, that’s not a meaningless statement, although we still need to explicate the term “create” (see below). But to make that statement in the first place, we have to acknowledge the legitimacy of referring to God as “a being,” which Professor Feser does not.
The term “cause” is another term which we impose on reality, in our endeavor to explain states of affairs occurring in the real world. These states of affairs may be events – e.g. a forest fire, to cite one of Professor Feser’s examples. But as Feser rightly points out in another post, it isn’t just events that require an explanation, but the very existence of things themselves. During the 1980s, I came across an immensely helpful book by the Canadian philosopher Germain Grisez, titled, Beyond the New Theism: A Philosophy of Religion (University of Notre Dame Press, 1975). In his book, Grisez proposed what he referred to as a rationality norm: it is perfectly reasonable for me to ask a question, unless someone else can demonstrate that the question itself is unreasonable and makes no sense. The question, “Why does X obtain?” can be meaningfully asked, whether the X in question is an event or a being. Indeed, we can ask it about the entire cosmos: why does the cosmos obtain? The quest for causes is thus a quest for a satisfying explanation of states of affairs in the world around us: the term “cause” arises from our attempt to render the world intelligible. And insofar as God accounts for the very being of things, He can be said to create them. So we need not be shy about referring to God as a cause or as a Creator: in doing so, we are simply saying that He is the ultimate explanation of everything there is. Is this tantamount to “putting God in a box” – in this case, the “Explanations” box? Obviously not: there is nothing inherently limiting, per se, about being an explanation of something else.
What about God’s intelligence and goodness? As we have seen, the medieval philosopher Duns 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 in our case, we have to learn how to do these things, and our knowledge and love are often deficient. Additionally, God’s knowledge and goodness are essentially infinite, while our knowledge and goodness are finite. However, the verbs “know” and “love” are not modal verbs: they describe actions, but say nothing about how these actions are performed. (In this respect, they are unlike the verbs “walk,” “talk,” and even “reason”: walking can only be done by a being with legs, talking can only be done by a being with a mouth, and reasoning can only be done by a being that can follow the steps of an argument in a pre-defined sequence.) Nor do the verbs “know” and “love” admit of any limitations of degree, or indeed of limitations of any sort. (Here again, the verbs “know” and “love” are unlike the verbs “walk,” “talk” and “reason”: a being who walks is not omnipresent; a being who talks has bodily parts; and a being who reasons is time-bound, insofar as he/she has to proceed from a set of premises to a conclusion.)
Since the verbs “know” and “love” prescind from all considerations relating to a being’s modus operandi (M.O.) and whatever limitations it might or might not have, there seems to be no obstacle to saying that what it means for God to know and love is exactly the same as what it means for human beings to know and love. Hence we can properly refer to God as intelligent and good. If that’s the case, then the theological legitimacy of “God-talk” becomes a lot less problematic.
Different definitions of “intelligence”
(a) Why it isn’t enough to characterize intelligence as the ability to pursue long-term goals
But we still need to say more. What does it mean for a being to be intelligent? At first, we might attempt to define “intelligence” in terms of one’s ability to pursue goals – especially long-term goals, which require foresight. But the mere ability to pursue goals does not make a being intelligent: even inanimate objects can be said to do that, insofar as they act in certain determinate ways, yet we say that they act blindly and not intelligently. Nor will it do to define “intelligence” as the ability to pursue long-term goals, as such a definition sheds no light on that whereby a being is capable of attaining these goals. One still wants to know: why are some beings capable of pursuing long-term goals, while others are not?
Could we perhaps define intelligence in terms of the ability to direct means towards certain ends? This sounds more promising. In their book, “The Design of Life” (2008, Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dallas), Professor William Dembski and Dr. Jonathan Wells define “intelligence” as “any cause, agent, or process that achieves and end or goal by employing suitable means or instruments” (page 3), and 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.” St. Thomas Aquinas seems to have used a similar definition. In his Summa Contra Gentiles Book I, chapter 44, paragraph 7, Aquinas puts forward an interesting argument. In this passage, Aquinas argues that each kind of natural entity has “ends” (i.e. built-in tendencies towards future states), but that things are incapable of setting ends for themselves, as they lack the concept of what an end is; hence, there must be a Being who assigns ends for these things – namely, “the author of nature, … who gives being to all things and is through Himself the necessary being.” Aquinas then argues that being able to assign “ends” for each kind of thing presupposes that one has a conception of that thing.
(b) The neglect of form: why I believe Aquinas’ account of intelligence as the ability to direct means to ends is incomplete
A Bowie knife made by Tim Lively. According to Professor Feser, a knife’s function of cutting dictates its form. However, the cutting function of a knife does not tell us whether a knife has: (a) one handle or two; (b) one blade or more than one blade; (c) a straight blade, an L-shaped blade or a D-shaped blade. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
While the attempt to define “intelligence” in terms of means and ends is genuinely illuminating, it still suffers from one defect: it overlooks form. Aquinas’ definition of intelligence in terms of ends (or final causes) makes sense only if one believes (as he did) that ends explain everything else in the world around us. For Aquinas, the final cause, or built-in end, of a natural object is not just a cause of that object being the way it is – the others being the material cause (or what the object is made of), the form (which makes it the kind of thing it is) and the efficient cause (which produced the object). Rather, the final cause has a certain pre-eminence over the other causes: it is the “cause of causes.” As Professor Edward Feser explains in chapter two of his book, Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009):
Indeed, for Aquinas the final cause is “the cause of causes” (In Phys II.5.186), that which determines all of the other causes. For something to be directed at a certain end entails that it has a form appropriate to the realization of that end, and thus a material composition suitable for instantiating that form; a knife, for example, if it is to fulfill its function of cutting, must have a certain degree of sharpness and solidity, and thus be made of some material capable of maintaining that degree of sharpness and solidity. Thus the existence of final causes entails the existence of formal and material causes too. More generally, for something to have some feature potentially entails a kind of directedness to the actualization of that potential… Hence the existence of final causes also entails the act/potency distinction. (2009, pp. 18-19)
The idea is that if you had a perfect grasp of an object’s built-in ends (or dispositions), you should be able to automatically grasp everything there is to know about the essence of that object – hence you would then know the kind of form (and matter) that it must have. Even Feser’s knife example refutes his case: he writes that “a knife, for example, if it is to fulfill its function of cutting, must have a certain degree of sharpness and solidity, and thus be made of some material capable of maintaining that degree of sharpness and solidity. Thus the existence of final causes entails the existence of formal and material causes too” (pp. 18-19). A knife is for cutting, but this definition does not tell us whether a knife has only a single handle, or a blade connected to a handle at both ends. Nor does it tell us whether a knife has only a single blade or multiple blades, as a Swiss army knife does. Finally, the cutting function of a knife cannot tell us whether the blade is straight, L-shaped or even D-shaped, as blades with any of these shapes could still cut well enough. The end alone, then, does not determine the form.
Since a thing’s ends do not determine its form, which makes it the kind of thing it is, we must conclude that the ability to grasp a thing’s ends, and even to direct it through various means towards those ends, does not constitute the nature of intelligence as such. For whatever else “intelligence” means, it surely refers to the ability to grasp a thing’s form or its essential “whatness.”
(c) The neglect of normativity: why I believe Aquinas’ and Feser’s account of intelligence as the ability to receive the universal forms of objects is incomplete
Professor Feser is cognizant of this problem, for he goes on to propose a better definition of “intelligence,” in terms of the mind’s ability to receive the forms of various kinds of objects. This ability to receive things’ forms is what we properly mean by “intelligence.” In his post, The divine intellect, Professor Feser uses this notion of “intelligence” to shed light on what it means for God to understand:
For Aquinas, then, what makes you intelligent and a stone non-intelligent is that you can have both your own form and the stone’s form — as you do when you grasp what a stone is — whereas the stone can have only its own form. You possess the form of a stone “intentionally” — in the intellect — rather than “entitatively” — that is to say, without being a stone… But the intellect can possess multiple substantial forms — “intentionally” — at the same time, and without ceasing to be an intellect.
… [F]or Aquinas the further from matter a thing is the more intelligent it is, so that God — as pure actuality and thus maximally devoid of the potentiality that is characteristic of matter — is supreme in intellect. Consider also the Scholastic principle of proportionate causality (which I have discussed and defended in Aquinas), according to which whatever is in an effect must in some way be in its total cause (whether “formally,” “virtually,” or “eminently”). Now God is the sustaining cause of the world, that which keeps all things in existence from moment to moment. The forms of all things — that which makes them what they are — must therefore exist in Him, not in an “entitative” way (since He is not a material thing nor in any other way limited) but rather in something analogous to the way in which forms exist “intentionally” in our intellects. (Cf. ST I.15.1)
To be sure, given divine simplicity, they cannot exist in Him in exactly the way forms exist in our intellects. But how, then, are we to understand the ideas in the divine intellect? For A-T [Aristotelian-Thomists], anything other than God that exists or might exist is an imitation of God. In creation, that which is unlimited and perfect in God comes to exist in a limited and imperfect way in the natural order. (Recall the doctrine of divine simplicity, as Thomists understand it: Attributes that are distinct in us are analogous to what in God is one.) The divine ideas according to which God creates are therefore to be understood as the divine intellect’s grasp of the diverse ways in which the divine essence — which is one, unlimited, and perfect — might be imitated in a limited and imperfect fashion by created things.
Feser’s argument here is based heavily on the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, who, in his Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1 chapter 44, paragraph 5, argues that since God the Prime Mover is Pure Act, without any admixture of matter, the only forms He can receive are forms which are universal (i.e. abstracted from matter) – which makes them concepts, which means that God must be intelligent. I have to say that I don’t think this argument works, if it is meant to be a demonstrative argument. For the act of understanding a concept cannot simply be defined as the “receiving” of a form – even a universal one. A key feature of concepts is that they are inherently normative. To entertain a concept of a certain kind of thing is to follow a rule which defines how we should think about that kind of thing. For instance, when I refer to a particle as having a positive electric charge, I thereby acknowledge that it has a disposition to attract negatively charged objects and to repel positively charged ones. Those are the rules that define the way we think about positive electric charges, and we agree to follow those rules whenever we talk about electricity. None of the commonly used spatial metaphors for intelligence can capture the act of following a rule.
Thus we cannot define intelligence in terms of an ability to “receive” abstract, universal forms, or to “contain” these forms, or to be in “immediate contact” with these forms, or to “extract” these forms, or to “grasp” these forms. Receiving, containing, touching, extracting and grasping are not rule-following activities as such. They are spatial metaphors for intelligence, but they do not capture its very essence.
(d) Intelligence cannot be adequately characterized without language
The clever feats of crows have been know since antiquity. Here, we see crows putting pebbles into a jug, to raise the water level. The illustration above is taken from The Aesop for Children, Rand McNally & Co., Chicago, 1919, illustrated by Milo Winter, page 34. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Thirteen years ago, while I was training to be a mathematics teacher, I overheard a teacher explaining to a colleague of hers why she insisted that her students should show their workings when solving a mathematical problem. She remarked: “If they really understand how to solve the problem, then they should be able to explain why they solved the problem in that particular way. If they can’t, then they don’t really understand.” The teacher’s remark struck me as an insightful one. It encapsulates my reasons for being skeptical regarding claims that the much-vaunted tool-making abilities of crows, whose jaw-dropping feats have been in the news lately, demonstrate a capacity for reasoning on their part. It also illustrates that the definition of intelligence is necessarily bound up with the ability to express one’s thoughts in language.
The crucial point here is that the crows are unable to explain the basis of their judgments, as a rational agent should be able to do. The tool-making feats of Betty the crow look impressive, but we cannot ask her: “Why did you make it that way?” as she is incapable of justifying her actions. The same goes for the extremely clever New Caledonian crows who are able to use three tools in succession to get some food (BBC news report, 20 April 2010, by science reporter Rebecca Morelle). Let us imagine an older crow teaching a younger crow how to use a tool. And now try to imagine the following dialogue:
Older crow: Don’t bend it that way. Bend it this way.
Younger crow: Why?
Older crow: Because if you bend it this way, it can pick up a piece of meat, but if you bend it that way, it can’t.
The dialogue contains only simple little words, but the problem should be immediately apparent. The meaning of words like “if,” “why,” “but,” “can” and “can’t,” cannot be conveyed to someone who does not understand them, through bodily gestures alone. Until we have grounds for saying that crows possess a language containing words at this level of abstraction, we should react skeptically to claims that they can reason.
What I am proposing in this post is that the act of understanding a natural object can only be characterized by the ability to specify the concept of that object, and the rules that define its form or essence, in language. This specification has to include a complete description of its “whatness” (or substantial form), as well as its built-in “ends” (finality). Not for nothing do we say: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1).
Aquinas’ arguments for God’s intelligence in his Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1 chapter 44, paragraph 5 do not establish that God is capable of specifying the concepts of natural entities in language; hence they fail to conclusively demonstrate that God is intelligent. As such, they are incomplete.
Interestingly, though, there is another passage in Aquinas where he seems to suggest that language is an effect peculiar to intelligent beings, as I showed when I cited his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, chapter 104, paragraph 3 (That the Works of Magicians Are Not Solely Due To The Influence Of Celestial Bodies). In this passage, St. Thomas writes that “speech is itself an act peculiar to a rational nature,” and his subsequent remarks on the ability to “reason discursively about various matters” show that by speech, he means language (and not the mere production of speech sounds).
(e) How Intelligent Design complements Aquinas’ arguments
The beauty of Intelligent Design, in my opinion, is that it complements Aquinas’ arguments, by appealing to empirical phenomena which can only be produced by being specified in some sort of language. If each cell in an organism can be accurately described as running a set of programs, written in various programming languages, then since language is a “signature trait” of intelligent beings, it follows that these phenomena obviously require an Intelligent Being to produce them.
Dr. Stephen Meyer has written extensively about the digital code that we find in living things, in his highly acclaimed book, Signature in the Cell. The existence of digital code in living things points to their having had a Designer Who is capable of using language to describe their essential characteristics. But there’s more.
On April 8, 2010, Dr. Don Johnson, who has both a Ph.D. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in computer and information sciences, gave a presentation entitled Bioinformatics: The Information in Life for the University of North Carolina Wilmington chapter of the Association for Computer Machinery. Dr. Johnson’s presentation is now on-line here. Both the talk and accompanying handout notes can be accessed from Dr. Johnson’s Web page. Dr. Johnson spent 20 years teaching in universities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Europe. Here’s an excerpt from his presentation blurb:
Each cell of an organism has millions of interacting computers reading and processing digital information using algorithmic digital programs and digital codes to communicate and translate information.
On a slide entitled “Information Systems In Life,” Dr. Johnson points out that:
- the genetic system is a pre-existing operating system;
- the specific genetic program (genome) is an application;
- the native language has a codon-based encryption system;
- the codes are read by enzyme computers with their own operating system;
- each enzyme’s output is to another operating system in a ribosome;
- codes are decrypted and output to tRNA computers;
- each codon-specified amino acid is transported to a protein construction site; and
- in each cell, there are multiple operating systems, multiple programming languages, encoding/decoding hardware and software, specialized communications systems, error detection/correction systems, specialized input/output for organelle control and feedback, and a variety of specialized “devices” to accomplish the tasks of life.
To sum up: the use of the word “program” to describe the workings of the cell is scientifically respectable. It is not just a figure of speech. It is literal.
Intelligent Design theory, then, demonstrates in a striking way how it is possible to speak of the Designer of life and the cosmos as being truly intelligent, in a meaningful sense of the word. Such a Designer can legitimately be described as an Intelligent Being.