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Why Thomists Should Support Intelligent Design, Part 1


Whenever the whole “Thomists versus ID” topic has flared up in the past, I’ve found myself not only watching with interest but feeling sympathy for both sides. On the one hand I feel strongly inclined to accept Thomistic metaphysics – in particular, I feel Thomists have an appreciation for design in nature that is powerful, even if the view is philosophical rather than “scientific”. I can even see some practical reasons why Thomists would want to keep ID at arm’s length in some respects.

On the other hand, I’ve never been entirely convinced by the Thomist response to ID proponents, at least insofar as the subject of inferring design in nature goes. In fact, I think one prominent response from a Thomist philosopher if anything builds the ID case in ways most people have failed to appreciate. I can’t help but think that the conversation between both sides has been dominated by people talking past each other, or failing to keep their eye on the topic of ID itself. I want to try my hand at highlighting some key points I think ID proponents have, in the hopes that some Thomists may find something in ID they can feel comfortable supporting – however qualified that support may be.

But before I discuss that, I want to focus on locating what I think are some of the central problems many Thomists have with Intelligent Design.

First, I think many ID proponents, particularly Christian ID proponents, tend to think of ID and Thomism roughly like this: “Aquinas thought nature was designed and the fifth way is an argument about teleology. ID proponents think science shows there’s design in nature and also teleology. So they’re just reaching the same conclusions in different ways, and should support each other!” That’s simplified, sure, but I think that does a decent job of capturing many views.

But here’s one obvious problem: For Thomists, the ‘design in nature’ they see, the teleology they see, is the work of God. Not ‘a god’, not ‘some mind which may be god’, but the God of classical theism, this-is-the-ultimate-being, full stop. Nor is this design and teleology discovered by science. Science is, in a way, moot for Thomists on this point – rather like how for Descartes, “I think therefore I am” doesn’t get appended with “At least I think so, I have to hear back from a neurologist first.”

ID, meanwhile, never identifies God as the designer. God is, at best, included as one possibility among many, with possibilities ranging among “an intelligent alien, a computional simulator (a la THE MATRIX), a Platonic demiurge, a Stoic seminal reason, an impersonal telic process, …, or the infinite personal transcendent creator God of Christianity?” to quote Dembski’s straightforward framing of the ID view. What’s more, the ID view is offered up as scientific – therefore it is, even at its best, provisional in a way that the Thomists don’t think their own views are.

Before continuing, I want ID Proponents to put themselves in the shoes of Thomists when it comes to this question, to appreciate some practical reasons they may want to keep ID at arm’s length. Thomists have to struggle just to get people to clearly appreciate their views and arguments about design and teleology. While ID proponents at this point probably sigh when they have to explain for the 100th time “No, ID does not say the world is 6000 years old. No, ID does not say that the bacterial flagellum poofed into existence by a miracle”, Thomists probably feel similarly when they have to explain, “No, the Fifth Way is not an argument from complexity. No, the First Way has nothing to do with the Big Bang” and so on.

So Thomists have a very different project from ID proponents. Their arguments differ (Metaphysical versus scientific) , what they seek to prove differs (God versus ‘some intelligence’), and both groups already find themselves having to clarify some major misunderstandings people have about them.

I think one of the most clear Thomist responses to ID is Ed Feser’s The Trouble With William Paley”, along with Greek Atomists and the God of Paley. What stands out, and what I think goes unappreciated, is that Feser (whose book The Last Superstition I highly recommend, by the way – along with his other books) is not, at least in those posts, claiming that ID is wrong about being able to scientifically infer design. In fact, if I read him right, he’s granting (if only for the sake of argument, perhaps) that ID *can* do this in principle. The problem is that ID won’t get one to God. ID, at its most successful, gets one to ‘a designer’ and the suite of possibilities that could conceivably be ‘a designer’.

I don’t think this is a complete list of Thomist criticisms of ID, of course. Ed himself suggests that ID’s very project presupposes a mechanistic view of nature, and that’s a consideration I’m putting aside from now because it’s beside the point for my purposes here. But before I start talking about how and why Thomists should support ID, I want to put the differences in their goals, commitments, and projects in greater contrast. At the very least, hopefully some ID proponents should be able to see why Thomists may not want to get themselves entangled with ID, or may not want people equating the two. (As an aside, ID proponents shouldn’t want ID to get too entangled with Thomism either – after all, if ID is supposed to conclude design, not God, then getting ID associated with a metaphysical/philosophical view that *does* aim to conclude God’s existence, among other things, would be a step backwards.)

In my next post I want to provide reasons why Thomists should support Intelligent Design, even given some of the problems I’ve highlighted here. In fact, I’m going to argue that even if all the Thomist criticisms of ID were assumed valid for the sake of argument, Thomists nevertheless should throw support behind ID anyway.

T, Well, I just wrote up part 2 while you were writing this. As I say in this post, I don't think it's going to make anyone perfectly happy, but I wanted to offer up the idea - even while granting much of what the Thomists think about ID, at least for the sake of argument. Re: Beckwith, I think he made a terrible move going on Biologos. As you say, whatever problems ID may have, Biologos usually has some equivalent of to the Nth degree. I will say that I think there is some problem with expecting much Thomist criticism of Biologos, precisely because the site is so far a kind of mish-mash of various perspectives. Usually the substantial stuff shows up in guest posts, and most of the other topics are either attacks on ID/YEC, or amazing demonstrations of people saying not-very-much at length. I do think Feser, even Beckwith and others do take much bolder positions than Biologos does. They are hylemorphic dualists and are sharply critical of materialist (non-)explanations of mind. They sharply criticize mechanistic understandings of nature, and there's no way to do that without subverting modern evolutionary thought in substantial ways. And they absolutely do not, I find, define themselves by beating up on YECs or ID proponents the way Biologos does. Most of the time they're content to target materialist philosophers or scientists, and don't bring up ID unless prodded and poked at and more or less demanded to, often by ID proponents themselves. That's a key difference between the Thomists and the Biologos crowd. The former are usually too busy dismantling materialist arguments or putting forth the case for their metaphysics, their arguments for God, their arguments for teleology, etc to focus much on ID. With the latter, criticizing ID and YEC are more or less all they really have going on, and trying to get them to say something positive about how God directs or guides nature (or even THAT God directs or guides nature) is hard to come by. And whenever they make the tiniest step in the direction of asserting that yes, they believe God directs nature, they usually take two giant steps back by proceeding to beg for forgiveness from Shemp or the other New Atheists. nullasalus
Good to hear from you again, nullasalus. Your series starts out reasonably, and I won't make any specific comments on the column above. I'll withhold any detailed response until I see your next column. For today I'll just make some general comments of a partisan nature. I don't expect raving endorsements for ID from the neo-Thomists. I'd be happy if they just refrained from so frequently *attacking* ID, especially if they coupled that restraint with a philosophical critique of Darwinian evolution, or at least, of some aspects of it. Are there any of them who do that? You know, Beckwith went on Biologos in a series of posts, explaining why he broke with ID. Beckwith used to be friendly to the ID movement. But in his comments on Biologos, he indicated that he thought that ID was bad theology, and he implied that no Christian with scientific integrity could support ID. That was a pretty low blow to his former allies, for two reasons. First, his announcement was made from the stronghold of the Christian enemies of ID, who have grossly misrepresented it in several ways, as Beckwith must know. Second, he didn't say one word against the theology pushed daily on Biologos, which is, from a Thomist point of view, heretical in the extreme, often very liberal Protestantism, even further from Thomism than the old hard-line Calvinism was. To be sure, I wouldn't expect him to run down Biologos theology while writing as a guest columnist on Biologos. But nothing was stopping him from criticizing it later on, on his own web-site. The fact that Beckwith (and as far as I can tell, Feser) are silent in the face of the unholy alliance between Protestantism and Darwinism, while bashing ID with great gusto, renders their position intellectually suspect. I'd expect that their supposedly conservative understanding of "classic theism" would make them every bit as hostile to most forms of Protestant TE as to ID, but it doesn't. They accuse ID proponents of unwittingly adopting Enlightenment categories of thinking, but they say nothing against the numerous TEs who are completely beholden to Enlightenment thought. The typical TE column on Genesis on Biologos expresses views on Biblical criticism only a hairsbreadth less radical than those of Spinoza, and many of the leading Protestant TEs share a good deal of Enlightenment skepticism about divine intervention, even regarding a number of Biblical miracles. Sometimes when I read TE writing, I think I'm reading something from 19th-century Germany or 18th-century France. Meanwhile, Thomas Aquinas asserted bluntly that God created man and the higher animals directly, but you never hear much about that from Beckwith, Feser, or any current neo-Thomist. It has to be pointed out here on UD, by Vincent Torley. In other words, my beef is not against Catholicism, or Thomas Aquinas himself, or even neo-Thomism. My beef is that certain self-appointed representatives of "Thomism-Aristotelianism" are making very selective use of Thomas and the Thomist tradition, and very selective attacks on ID people, while leaving Protestant TEs unscathed. This to me indicates that these newfangled Thomists have a partisan agenda. Their attack on "modernity" is too narrowly targeted to represent a truly principled position. What would it take for me to trust these Thomists? Well, for example, they could write something showing that not just Paley, but Darwin, too, was prone to the metaphysical errors of modern thought. Or they could produce articles or blog posts ripping into the shallow theology found in Ayala, Collins and Ken Miller, and the philosophically primitive positivist account of science offered by Biologos. When I see things of that nature coming from their pens, then and only then will I believe that these neo-Thomists are impartial and even-handed in their so-called "Thomist-Aristotelian" critique of modernity. T. Timaeus
Thanks for the replies everyone. A few comments. One thing I'd further say in defense of Thomists is this: They often get called out as denying design/teleology entirely by their denial of ID. I think this is dead wrong. They may point out that the Fifth Way (for example) is not an ID argument, but none of them would deny that it's an argument that concludes (non-mechanistic) design and teleology. In fact the sort of teleology Thomists are arguing for is downright aggressive, since for them the question isn't a matter of complexity (and thus limited to IC systems, etc) - even, perhaps especially, the 'simple' operations of nature constitute evidence. I bring this up because I sometimes see Thomists being lumped in with Darwinists and treated as design deniers. And really, I can at least understand why some people would make that move, since Aquinas sometimes gets used as a kind of TE shield. You get told "See, Aquinas said God can work through secondary causes!" and then secondary causes get treated as operations in nature that are utterly undirected with unforeseen (even by God) results that lack teleology, etc. But those are usually not Thomists, but people making brief use of Aquinas who then proceed to toss him aside. And Thomists take positions - about nature, about God, about the mind - that most 'Darwinists' would find anything but supportive. There's a reason you don't see (say) the NCSE trumpeting the fifth way as a way to reconcile religious belief with evolution: Because even if the fifth way isn't an ID argument, it's still poison to the typical Darwinist view. nullasalus
Nice post Null. Upright BiPed
To me, this so-called conflict between ID and Thomism is misguided. Indeed, I don’t think it is a conflict between ID and Thomism at all. I think it is a conflict between agenda driven neo-Thomists and ID. The Philosopher [Thomism, if you like] often, though not exclusively, looks at God’s creation by examining the nature of things. The Scientist [ID, if you like] often, though not exclusively, looks at God’s creation by examining, so to speak, the mechanics of things. A physician, for example, can recognize the mechanical design in human blood cells and diagnose disease in the process. Without such design, he could not diagnose. By his methodology, [without the aid of philosophy] he cannot discern, with any scientific certainly, whether that the blood cell was designed by God or a flying spaghetti monster. So what? His observations are consistent with St. Thomas's five proofs for the existence of God and that is all that is necessary. At the very moment the scientist analyzes that blood cell with the mind of a philosopher, it becomes clear that it was, indeed, God who designed it. Also, if the physician believes in holistic medicine, he can transcend the mechanical model and consider mind/body medicine. It's all in the paradigm that one chooses. It is the philosopher's job to fill in the missing pieces that the scientist leaves out, and it is the scientists job to fill in the missing pieces that the philosopher leaves out. Both are looking at the same truth from a different perspective, and neither should shrink away from what the other has discovered. Neo-Thomists, not Thomists, are shrinking away from what ID scientists have discovered about Darwinism. By doing so, they compromise the reputation of their hero, who was the first and most authoritative voice instructing us that no aspect of God's one truth can contradict any other aspect of God's one truth. Nothing in the physician’s [scientist's] analysis suggests that the person, whose blood cells are being examined, is not also a composite of body, soul, and spirit. The physician can take off his hat as body mechanic and put on his hat as holistic practitioner any time he chooses. Meanwhile, nothing in his analysis of the mechanics of the cell, challenges the philosopher/theologian’s observations about the person’s “nature.” We need the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas AND we need ID. Both are essential. StephenB
Mrs O'Leary: As I note here (with Alcibiades and co, Democritus, Lucretius et al as case study no 1), it was not just worshipping idols in those days. Evolutionary materialism was alive and kicking 2,300 years ago. That is why, 2,300 years ago, Plato took such a roaring torch to it in Bk X of his The Laws. (And BTW, gave a very interesting discussion on the self-initiating, living cause.) GEM of TKI kairosfocus
Null: Great first post for what looks like an interesting series. GEM of TKI kairosfocus
ID is a potent wedge for overturning materialism when it contents itself with stating the obvious--nature is designed. As soon as it goes beyond that, in any way, it starts making enemies in the wrong places and dividing its base, partly because it has been taken up by people who are not coming from the same place as Philip Johnson. We sympathize with the "thomists" (they aren't really) when they recoil at unedifying comments by IDers about the identity of the designer, but we have no sympathy for them when they use the cloak of "thomism" to further the Darwinist agenda. Remember, Darwin was out to get God out of nature. Thomas did exactly the opposite. allanius
As a lay Catholic, I would distinguish between evidence for God and evidence against "no God". To me, design in nature is evidence against "no God". It must have functioned that way for the apostle Paul, who wrote, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. " Without excuse for the worship of animal-like pagan deities, that is, and Paul offers a list of the distressing lifestyle outcomes that follow. But "what has been made" only establishes that God exists. It doesn't tell us much more than that, and it would be dangerous to infer a whole bunch of things simply from his handiwork. ID cannot make arguments for God because the scientist does not work directly with materials that can do so. But a scientist should be free to say that the design is real without losing his job. I accuse the "Thomists" of hiding out from the reality represented by the Martin Gaskell and Dave Coppedge cases. If it isn't legitimate to see design in nature as real, who cares about Thomist reasoning? O'Leary
Hi nullasalus, I enjoyed reading your very balanced article, and I'm looking forward to part 2. Great stuff! vjtorley
I've been having a frustrating conversation with a Thomist who says that ID is wrong because it's nominalist, and nominalism is incompatible with Christianity because it denies the existence of universals such as "morality." I barely understand why nominalism applies to ID at all. I don't even understand why, she says, nominalism leads to reductionism. Maybe you could help me understand. tragic mishap

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