Intelligent Design

Professor Feser, We Request Clarification

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I thank Professor Feser for his reply to my latest question.

Feser’s reply appears to bring us much closer together, though I am not sure, so I must probe a bit more.

First of all, let me clear some things out of the way:

1.  No, I do not expect Feser to agree to bad arguments for a conclusion merely because he accepts the conclusion on other grounds.

2.  Yes, I understand that Feser has allowed that God designed the world and that we can know that He has.

3.  I have never argued or implied that living things are exactly like artifacts; I have argued only that the two have something in common, i.e., an orderly arrangement and co-operation of parts which effects a given function.  And careful forms of design argument, whether the Paley-watchmaker argument or the Behe-irreducible complexity argument or the Dembski-probablistic argument, require no more similarity between artifacts and organisms than this.  All of them maintain that the orderly arrangement and co-operation of parts would not have come about without a planning and/or supervising intelligence, and therefore that Dawkins, Dennett, etc., who believe that such things could have come about without such intelligence, are wrong.

As for the application of the argument to the existence of God — an application which, by the way, is not made by all ID proponents (Behe has expressly denied that such an application is central to his thought in a recent debate with Stephen Barr) — it extends only to God insofar as he is conceived of as intelligent, not to the whole range of characteristics imputed to God by “classic theism.”  This of course does not rule out the conclusion that the God who is a designer is much more than a designer, but is also the God of classic theism, any more than finding a manuscript with notes on it and discerning that an intelligent musician wrote the manuscript rules out the possibility that the intelligent musician was in fact Mozart.  ID arguments can be correct in identifying what they have the capability of identifying, without being capable of identifying everything that one might desire.

If on this last point, Feser should object that by limiting the argument to organisms, rather than to all natural objects, ID explains only part of creation, and hence has shortchanged God in a way that “Thomism-Aristotelianism” does not, it is easy to point out that the design argument has been extended by many thinkers “all the way down” to the fundamental units of matter and the fundamental laws and constants of the universe.  Design arguments need not be limited to organic forms.  They are potentially comprehensive of all of nature. 

But now, let me come to the main question.  I asked Feser whether his God, the Thomist-Aristotelian God, could have decided to make nature in such a way that human beings could infer his existence from the design features of nature.  He has answered “Yes.”  This is good; we have agreement (I think) in part.  But Feser seems puzzled by my follow-up, question, i.e., what then is wrong with design arguments?  He thinks that his previous answers about the difference between Thomist-Aristotelian thinking and mechanistic thinking should cover my question.  But they don’t.  Here is why:

If God really could have chosen to create a universe in which he would in time be known by the human intellect to exist (not as Christ, but as the designer of the laws and structures of the universe), then in such a case it follows that God intended for human beings to reason from a particular kind of order to the existence of a designer.  God would hardly be offended at men for reasoning in exactly the way that he (in accord with my scenario) designed them to reason, and it would be incoherent to suppose that he would expressly design the universe and human reasoning so that they would reason to a wrong conception of Him (that would be like putting fake fossils into the ground to mislead scientists).  Yet Feser still seems to insist that if men did reason in that way, they would infer an idea of God which is not merely incomplete but actually false in a very serious way.  So what does Feser’s concession amount to?  That his God could actually have willed into existence the kind of universe that would cause human beings to infer the wrong idea of Himself?

Something does not fit.  If Feser is really granting that his God could have willed what I proposed, then he cannot think that the kind of design reasoning I am talking about would lead automatically to a false (as opposed to incomplete) picture of God.  And if he still maintains that the picture of God arrived at by design theorists, Paley etc., would be inherently false, then he was wrong to answer “Yes” to my scenario.

So I give Feser the chance now either to retract his “Yes” to my scenario, in which case I suggest that we have such different conceptions of God that we cannot get any further, and should drop the subject, or to acknowledge that Paleyan and ID forms of argument can be carefully formulated in such a way as to lead to incomplete-but-partly-true rather than utterly false notions of God, in which case we will have reached all the agreement that I expect we will ever reach.

5 Replies to “Professor Feser, We Request Clarification

  1. 1
    allanius says:

    I could be wrong, but I think the question is not so much what Ed believes as what you believe.

    Ed has been pretty straightforward. His animus to ID comes from his eagerness to preserve the immanent goodness of God in his creation. As you know, this has been a bone of contention for some time between philosophically-minded Christians who gravitate to Plato and his love of negation and those who gravitate to Aristotle and the notion of pure act. The watchmaker God of the Enlightenment, for example, cannot be appealing to those who find themselves entranced by Scholasticism and a universe infused with divine love.

    So, Thomas, I think the question is really for you. Does “your God” create and then separate himself from his creation, perhaps even allowing it to descend into a state of “total depravity”? Is your God “wholly other,” and do you believe that the “finite is incapable of the infinite”? If so, then there is indeed an impassable gap between you and Ed. Alas.

  2. 2
    Mung says:

    But now, let me come to the main question. I asked Feser whether his God, the Thomist-Aristotelian God, could have decided to make nature in such a way that human beings could infer his existence from the design features of nature.

    Somehow, call me silly, but I think we’re all talking about the same God, and there is no distinction other than as a rhetorical ploy.

    I thought ID was supposed to be “god agnostic.” So how it must look to people who are watching this debate that it all turns out to be about God after all.

    IMO, if someone wants to complain about what ID means for how we should view God, we should scratch our heads and say, so what. That’s not what ID is about.

    If ID fails to identify intelligent causes it’s all a moot point anyways, right?

  3. 3
    Mung says:

    An incomplete view of God is a false view of God.

  4. 4
    Thomas Cudworth says:

    Mung (3):

    No, it’s not. It is not false to say that God is a designer merely because God is more than a designer — not if the person who says that God is a designer makes it clear that he claims nothing more than a partial truth in saying so.

    Besides, all Christian theologians grant that God is beyond human understanding and that all our views of God are necessarily incomplete. It would follow then that the “Thomist-Aristotelian” view of God, being incomplete, is false.

  5. 5
    Thomas Cudworth says:

    allanius (1):

    Based on historical precedent, I see no point engaging in dialogue with you. On virtually every thread in which you “participate,” You waltz in, make your grand pronouncement, and then, when various people question or rebut you, you exit stage left, refusing to entertain any questions or defend your opinions. Thus, it would be pointless for me to try to show you that Plato, too, speaks of divine love, because you won’t be around to debate it. It would pointless, also, for me to complain that your juxtaposition, in two adjoining sentences, of the watchmaker God with Plato’s God, is grossly misleading; because, again, you won’t be answering any of my comments.

    Finally, it would be pointless for me to answer your rhetorical questions about “my” God, even if I needed to, because they weren’t asked to elicit further dialogue, and no answer on my part would generate any response from you. (But for those who are curious, I never said one word about “total depravity” or about “God separating himself from his creation,” though I note that *some* notion of the separateness of God from creation is absolutely necessary to theism, including “classical theism.”)

    But of course, “my God” is irrelevant to the debate. I’ve never made any claim at all about God, other than that he is at least a designer. And Feser has granted this to be the case. What therefore is the source of the difficulty? It is the additional views about God which Feser holds, views which, in his opinion, are incompatible with ID reasoning. I don’t agree with him that they are incompatible, and I’ve stated why. He can now try further to show why — hopefully without endlessly repeating the same distinction between natural objects and artifacts (which I’ve granted but which isn’t to the point) — or he can retire from the debate.

    And I’ll make it clear once again that I’m not seeking the stamp of approval of Thomists for the ID project. If they disagree with it, I’m quite happy to carry on without their blessing, and in fact ID will go on without their blessing (powered by a modern knowledge of nature that makes Paley’s basic line of argument, when properly purged of Paley’s subjective excesses, more rigorous and convincing than ever before). I’ve merely been arguing that the Thomists’ opposition is not required either by their theological position or by the position of ID. But if it should prove that I’m wrong, and that ID really does imply a metaphysics incompatible with Thomism, well, that would bother me no more than a proof that ID is incompatible with the metaphysics of Whitehead, or with the metaphysics of Kant, or with any number of other views of the whole which I deem inadequate.

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