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.