In an earlier column (27 March 2010), I offered constructive criticism of the position of Francis Beckwith, who had implied an incompatibility between the ID and Thomist approaches to design, and had condemned ID for advancing or at least implying a bad form of Christian theology:
Prof. Beckwith responded once to my article, but only touched on a couple of points, and in the course of his discussion misrepresented both my motivation and some of my arguments. When I clarified my position (in Comment #8 below the article), Beckwith did not respond to the clarification. Thus, he left the impression that he had demolished my argument, when in fact he had rebutted only a misrepresentation of just part of my argument.
I here undertake a constructively critical response to some arguments of Professor Edward Feser, who like Prof. Beckwith has contrasted ID unfavorably with Thomist design arguments and has accused ID of faulty theology. I am hoping that Professor Feser will reply, here or on his own site, and will engage more fully with my comments than did Prof. Beckwith.
On his own blogspot, Professor Feser has lately published a lengthy reply to vjtorley, alleging that vjtorley has misunderstood both Feser’s own argument, and the position of Thomas Aquinas:
I will not enter into the particulars of the Feser-Torley debate, as I am sure Mr. Torley will wish to defend himself. Rather, I would like to focus on a couple of statements made in the cited article by Mr. Feser, statements which seem to me to point to characteristic blind spots in the Feser-Beckwith critique of ID.
First, when describing the Aristotelian-Thomistic critique of atheistic, materialistic metaphysics, Feser writes:
“What all A-T theorists agree on … is that life could not possibly have arisen in a purely mechanistic universe of the sort presupposed by naturalism, so that no naturalistic explanation of life is possible even in principle.”
In other words, naturalism fails in its own terms. This is an argument straight out of the ID playbook. If ID does not differ from Thomism over the assertion that naturalism fails in its own terms, what is Feser’s objection to ID’s attempt to confront naturalism on its own terms?
Second, Feser writes:
“… when God creates a living thing, He does not do so in the manner in which an artificer constructs an artifact. And any method for studying living things which (like ID) proceeds on the assumption that He does is simply making a fundamental metaphysical and conceptual error that cannot fail to lead to serious misunderstandings of God’s relationship to the world, and thus to serious misunderstandings of how to reason from features of the world to the existence and nature of God.”
I have more than a passing acquaintance with ID literature. I have read most of the major theoretical works of the ID proponents, and a good number of their rejoinders to their critics. I have not seen any ID proponent say that God creates living things “in the manner in which an artificer constructs an artifact”. In fact, I have not seen any ID proponent describe how God creates living things at all. On the contrary, ID has been repeatedly criticized by the Darwinians precisely for not describing, in terms of past events and their efficient causes, how intelligence was involved in the origin and/or evolution of species. I don’t see how ID can be criticized for describing God’s creative activity in the “wrong” way, when it has never described that activity at all.
ID makes use of the artificer analogy not to establish a historical claim about some past act of physical construction (e.g., “When God created the flagellum, he took an existing bacterium and sewed the base of a wavy new organelle into the cell wall”), but to establish the fact that, like a machine, a living system or organism involves the adjustment of means to ends, and, like a very complex machine with integrated systems interrelated in mutual feedback loops, it does not come into existence without a design, and therefore without a designing intelligence. In other words, ID focuses only on establishing the existence of design; how the design is realized by God is not ID’s concern.
Being silent on the question of “how”, ID cannot be guilty of contradicting the Thomistic understanding of “how”. ID has said nothing, for example, against the “four cause” analysis of Thomism. Nor, contrary to what Feser seems to imply elsewhere in his article, does it insist that such teleology as exists in living things has been imposed purely externally, and has no immanent aspect. ID simply does not deal with such questions. Feser, like Beckwith, seems to believe that ID is posing as a rival theology or rival metaphysics to Thomism, but ID does not claim to offer a theology or a metaphysics at all.
Feser and Beckwith are misled by ID’s use of the analogy of the designer or craftsman. And what is odd about this is that both Aristotle and Aquinas make extensive use of this analogy, and neither Beckwith nor Feser complains about it. Why don’t they? Surely because they understand that in the case of Aristotle and Aquinas, the analogy was meant to be pressed only so far, and not intended as a photographic representation of how God (or in Aristotle’s case, nature) operates. The question is: Why they don’t extend to ID theorists the same intellectual courtesy, i.e., the assumption that ID theorists are bright enough to recognize the limited character of all analogies, and sensible enough not to take them as literal descriptions of divine action?
Many ID people are friendly to Thomism for its unwavering affirmation of a close connection between rationality, nature and God. ID people wish to remain on good terms with Thomists, and to ally with Thomists against atheistic Darwinists, and against those among the theistic evolutionists who divorce God from reason and nature and whose understanding of origins is distinguishable from that of atheistic Darwinism only by a private “leap of faith”. We do not understand why Beckwith and Feser are launching this attack against us. Are there not enough “erroneous” non-Thomist theologies of nature out there (e.g., affirmations of wholly naturalistic evolution supplemented by Barthian and other fideisms), to keep Thomist metaphysicians busy, that they have the time and energy to attack ID for theological positions that it does not in fact hold?