The philosopher Edward Feser surely needs no introduction here. In today’s short post, I’d like to address, in a non-polemical fashion, one of Professor Feser’s longstanding objections to Intelligent Design: that it is tied to an anthropomorphic conception of the Designer’s Mind, because the intelligence it attributes to this Being is fundamentally no different to our own. Such a Being, argues Feser, could not possibly be the absolutely simple God of classical theism: it is, at best, a mere Demiurge.
Feser stated his argument succinctly in a 2014 post titled, Miracles, ID, and classical theism:
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.
Feser subsequently elaborated his point in an exchange with philosopher Lydia McGrew last year, where he wrote:
If we make God an instance of a kind then he cannot be simple — he will fall under a genus and have a specific difference setting him apart from other things in the genus (to use the Scholastic jargon) — and in that case, being composite he also cannot be self-existent but will require an explanation in terms of something outside him. In which case he’s not really God at all, but just some big impressive invisible guy.
As I’ve said so often, what the classical theist is concerned about is that God not be regarded as an instance of a kind.
Feser’s argument can be more formally expressed in the following syllogism:
1. The term “intelligence,” when applied by ID proponents to the Intelligent Designer, has the same meaning as it does when applied to humans. (In Scholastic jargon, “intelligence” is applied univocally to the Designer and human beings.)
2. If “intelligence” has the same meaning when applied to the Designer as it does when applied to human beings, then two things follow:
(a) the Designer and human beings belong in a common category, or genus;
(b) the Designer must possess additional features which serve to differentiate HIM/Her/It from other intelligent beings – in other words, the Designer must be a particular species within the general category of “intelligent beings.”
3. Since the Designer’s nature is composed (as we have seen) of genus and species – i.e. of the general property of intelligence plus some specific property which differentiates its intelligence from ours, then its essence (or nature) cannot be absolutely simple (i.e. devoid of parts).
4. But the God of classical theism is absolutely simple.
5. Therefore the Being described by Intelligent Design theory cannot be the God of classical theism.
The flaw in the preceding argument, as I’ll argue below, is not premise 1, but premise 2(b).
Does “intelligence” have the same meaning when predicated of humans and the Designer?
Many readers might be inclined to dispute premise 1. After all, in The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dallas, 2008), authors William A. Dembski and Jonathan Wells define intelligence broadly 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)” (p. 315). According to this definition, “intelligence is about matching means to ends.” There is nothing in this definition which a Thomist could object to. In his famous Fifth Way, St. Thomas Aquinas describes God’s intelligence in terms of His ability to direct means towards their ends, when he concludes: “Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.”
To make matters even clearer, the definition of “Designer” in Dembski and Wells’ text, The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems (2008), utterly refutes Feser’s charge of anthropomorphism:
“Any intelligent agent that arranges material structures to accomplish a purpose. Whether this agent is personal or impersonal, conscious or unconscious, part of nature or beyond nature, active through miraculous interventions or through ordinary physical causes are all possibilities within the theory of INTELLIGENT DESIGN.” (p. 312)
Finally, in his recent work, Being As Communion: A Metaphysics of Information (Ashgate Publishing Co., 2014), Dr. William Dembski explicitly disavows Professor Feser’s claim that Intelligent Design is wedded to theistic personalism. “Intelligence,” he writes, “… need not merely refer to conscious personal agents like us, but can also refer to teleology quite generally” (p. 59). In a footnote (n. 29), Dembski adds that “intelligence” can refer to artificial intelligence (which lacks consciousness or personhood) and even localized sources of activity (which lack agency).
Thus in applying the term “intelligence” to the Designer of Nature, ID proponents can hardly be accused of predicating the term in a univocal fashion (i.e. in the same way) of the Designer and of human beings.
So far, so good; but the problem arises when we examine the criterion by which Intelligent Design theory scientifically identifies patterns in Nature which are the work of intelligence: namely, the presence of a specification, which is defined in The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems (2008) as a pattern which “exhibits low DESCRIPTIVE COMPLEXITY” – meaning that “the pattern itself is easily described” (p. 320). Descriptive complexity measures “the size of the minimum description needed to characterize a pattern” (p. 311).
Dembski gives an example in his 2005 essay, Specification: The Pattern That Signifies Intelligence. On page 18, he notes that the bacterial flagellum (a structure which Intelligent Design theorists commonly point to as having been designed) can be defined as a “bidirectional rotary motor-driven propeller,” and on page 16, he states that the descriptive complexity of a pattern T measures “the simplest way S [a semiotic agent, defined as an agent who is capable of using “a system of signs,” such as a human being – VJT] has of describing T.”
What this means is that on a practical level, the definition of “intelligence” is tied to that of language: the only patterns that a semiotic agent (such as a human being) is capable of scientifically identifying as being the product of intelligence are those which can be easily described in some language used by that agent. Thus the Designer is implicitly assumed to be capable of using some language which is either identical with, or which maps onto, the languages used by semiotic agents – for if it lacked this ability, then it would also lack the ability to reliably generate patterns containing specifications. Thus even though Dembski, in his essay, Specification: The Pattern That Signifies Intelligence, explicitly allows that a Designer may bring about these patterns “by means unfathomable to us” (p. 29), it seems that he cannot dispense with what I’ll call the language requirement: namely, that any scientifically detectable Designer must be linguistically competent, which in turn seems to suggest that He/She/It must be able to “think our thoughts.” And that sounds a lot like saying that the Designer must have a mind which is fundamentally like ours, only inconceivably grander – in other words, its intelligence is the same sort of thing as our own, only far, far greater.
This impression is reinforced when one examines the definition of design as a process, given in Dembski and Wells’ text, The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems (2008):
A four-part process by which a DESIGNER forms a designed object: (1) A designer conceives a purpose. (2) To accomplish that purpose, the designer forms a plan. (3) To execute that plan, the designer specifies building materials and assembly instructions. (4) The Designer or some surrogate applies the assembly instructions to the building materials. What emerges is a designed object. The designer is successful to the degree that the object fulfills the designer’s purpose. (p. 312) (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Feser would object to this characterization of God’s activity. In a 2009 post, he approvingly quotes the philosopher Christopher Martin, who contrasts the Great Architect of Paley’s design argument with the God of classical theism:
The Great Architect is not God because he is just someone like us but a lot older, cleverer and more skilful. He decides what he wants to do and therefore sets about doing the things he needs to do to achieve it. God is not like that. As Hobbes memorably said, “God hath no ends”: there is nothing that God is up to, nothing he needs to get done, nothing he needs to do to get things done. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
For my part, I think Martin is being somewhat melodramatic in the point he is making here: after all, Genesis 2 depicts God as forming Adam from the dust of the earth, and as forming Eve from Adam’s side. (And I might add that St. Thomas Aquinas took these accounts quite literally – see here and here.) The question of whether God could have made Adam without using any dust is utterly beside the point; what matters is not what God could do, but what He chooses to do.
Perhaps Martin would reply that the real problem with likening God to an Architect is that the latter engages in discursive reasoning from premises (about the means he has available) to a conclusion (about the best way to achieve his ends). God, it might be said, is above such things – a view shared by many classical theists. But here, again, I think that the objector is making a mountain out of a molehill. It is indeed absurd to imagine that God has to engage in deliberation before He can know what the conclusion of an argument is, because He is of course outside time. However, I see no problem with saying that God (timelessly) knows some propositional truths [conclusions] on the basis of His knowing other truths [which serve as premises]. Would anyone, even Feser, want to assert that God “just knows” Pythagoras’ Theorem? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that He timelessly deduces it from His understanding of what a triangle is? And if that be the case, then where is the problem in saying that God (timelessly) reasons that the best way to make Adam’s body from the dust of the earth is to arrange the particles of dust thus-and-so, and not in some other, less efficient way?
In any case, it seems to me that on at least two counts, the kind of intelligence that ID theorists attribute to the Designer of nature would strike Feser as anthropomorphic: first, it is language-bound, and second, it needs to resort to planning in order to achieve its ends. To sum up: I’m inclined to think that premise 1 of Feser’s argument (as I have reconstructed it) is correct. Where I think Feser goes wrong is in premise 2(b).
Genus and species: A thought experiment relating to prehistoric man
To see why premise 2(b) does not follow from premise 1, let’s imagine the following scenario. You’re a physical anthropologist living in the 22nd century, and by some extraordinary marvel of technology, scientists have succeeded in not only reconstructing the DNA of various species of prehistoric humans (who belong in the genus Homo), but in bringing them back to life. Imagine there’s an outdoor museum where live specimens of each human species stand on display, in a parade – including a willing volunteer from your own species, Homo sapiens. As you walk by and inspect each member of the parade, you notice that each individual is wearing a placard around his neck, identifying his species. Slowly, you walk past Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, Homo georgicus, Homo erectus, Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis (who seems to be trying to say something to you), Homo neanderthalensis (ditto) and Homo sapiens (who gives you a friendly wink). But then you come to an individual who’s wearing a placard around his neck, titled Homo , and nothing more. The guy has a glint of intelligence in his eye, and on a sudden, wild impulse, you stop and ask him, “And what species, pray tell, do you belong to?” To your great astonishment he answers, “None. I’m just Homo – and that’s all I am.”
Clearly, the man’s reply in the foregoing scenario makes no sense. No individual can be just a member of the genus Homo; he must also belomng to some species within that genus. The reason is that the characteristics which define the genus Homo are essentially incomplete: they need to be fleshed out in more detail by the properties which define some species of that genus.
But now, instead of a parade of human beings, let’s imagine a parade of intelligent beings, starting with human beings (who are the lowest intelligent life-forms) and moving on up through advanced aliens (whose understanding is superior to our own), followed by incorporeal spirits such as angels, archangels, and so on. Each of these beings has an intellect of a different kind, which is constrained according to the specific nature it has. For instance, the human manner of understanding is constrained by the human brain (which doesn’t actually think, but which processes the information we receive from the outside world). And each angel’s mode of understanding is constrained by that angel’s form.
Now for the big question: could there be an intelligent agent who is simply intelligent, and nothing else? Such a Being would not have any specific form which constrains its manner of understanding. Its act of understanding would be wholly unconstrained, and its Nature would consist entirely of understanding (and its concomitant act of willing). Such a Being would thus belong to the genus of “intelligent agents,” without belonging to any species. Consequently, there would be no division within its Nature between genus and species, and therefore there would be nothing to prevent the Nature of such a Being from being altogether simple. In short: there would nothing to prevent us from identifying such a Being with the God of classical theism.
What I have been arguing here is that one of Feser’s longstanding objections to Intelligent Design – that it is tied to an anthropomorphic conception of the Designer’s Mind which is incompatible with the doctrine of Divine Simplicity – rests on a mistaken assumption: that anything which belongs to a genus must also belong to a species. For some generic attributes, such as intelligence, this assumption is not correct. Even if God possesses an intelligence which is fundamentally no different from ours that does not prevent Him from being altogether simple in His essence.
What do readers think?
One of my readers (Mung) has pointed out that the Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy defines a genus not simply as a general category (as I have done in this post), but more precisely as “the sum of the constituent notes that are common to two or more species, abstracting from the specific differences,” which implies that no entity can be said to belong to a common genus unless it already belongs to some species.
If we adopt this definition of “genus,” then it is premise 2(a) of Feser’s argument which is mistaken, rather than 2(b). If “intelligence” means the same thing when predicated of both humans and the Intelligent Designer, then it follows that they belong to some common category. However, it does not follow that what they share in common has to be abstracted from specific differences, for all members of that category. In the case of human beings, their intelligence has to be abstracted from them; but in the case of the Designer, His intelligence does not need to be abstracted from Him, because that’s all there is to Him. Human beings have intelligence; but the Designer of Nature is intelligence.
I would like to thank Mung for the definition he provided from the Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy.