In part 1 of this series, I laid out what I see as some key differences between Thomism and ID. In this post I want to focus on why Thomists should nevertheless support ID – even while granting some or all of the most common criticisms Thomists have of ID.
In order to do that, though, I’m going to have to be a little hair-splitting – particularly, I want to explain just what I mean by “support ID”. I think there’s a few ways this “support” can manifest – some easier to achieve than others, and some harder.
1. Supporting criticisms of Darwinism as a scientific theory
In this, I think ID proponents and (some, perhaps most) Thomists can more easily find common ground, and I don’t think this is appreciated enough. When I say “Darwinism”, I mean the claims that evolution..
* Proceeds exclusively or near-exclusively according to the process of natural selection.
* Is shown by science to be an utterly unguided process, devoid of intrinsic or even extrinsic goals.
* Provides adequate and detailed explanation for all or even most of what we see in biology at this time.
You don’t need to be an ID proponent to contest any or all of these things, as examples such as The Altenberg 16 or What Darwin Got Wrong shows. However, I think it’s fair to say that the inadequacies or inaccuracies of Darwinism-so-defined are of paramount concern to ID proponents, and that one can hold these criticisms and still not be criticizing anything central to Aristotilean or Thomistic metaphysics.
Now, this doesn’t mean that any given Thomist will automatically be onboard with these criticisms (save for the second bullet point, obviously, though the ‘how’ will likely differ from ID conceptions of goals and guidance.) But it does mean that a Thomist would not see questions or objections on these points as impossible given their metaphysics. In other words, even a Thomist who thought natural selection really was, all on its own, capable of producing so much of what we see in biology would have to admit that what was keeping them from other points of view was something other than Thomism itself.
I actually doubt, however, that most Thomists would have such a strong view of natural selection, or the adequacy of the detail or explanations Darwinism currently offers for what we see in biology. But I’m trying to be thorough here – and in the interest of that thoroughness, I move on to the second point I think Thomists should be supportive of.
2. Opposing religious discrimination based wholly on dissent from Darwinism
In a way, I doubt I even have to bring this up – because I think most Thomists would be opposed to the sort of antics seen in the recent Martin Gaskell case. But like I said, I’m being thorough – and this is an issue of major importance. We’ve hit a point now where mere suspicion that a scientist is anything other than what amounts to an NCSE hack can lead to discrimination in the workplace and academia. Even if that scientist is in an unrelated field and has stellar qualifications.
I think this is particularly worth noting for philosophers like Ed Feser, who in one of his books argued persuasively that some philosophical views have risen to prominence not due to superior argument but a combination of historical accident and the social/political utility of the views in question. Again, I doubt Ed is anything but appalled by Gaskell’s treatment, and no doubt others, but I want to sharpen this point: This is how such “historical accident”s gain steam.
Now, as I said, even though ID proponents concern themselves strongly with criticisms along these lines, having such criticisms doesn’t suffice to make one an ID proponent. These are things ID proponents and Thomists can agree on, find common ground on – very important, I think.
But there’s still one way I think Thomists should more directly support ID.
Time for more hairsplitting. I said in my previous post that there are reasons for Thomists to support ID, even while granting those deep differences between ID and Thomism. Even while accepting, for the sake of argument, that ID does as a matter of fact presuppose a mechanistic view of nature. Now, I’m not convinced that ID does require presupposing such a view – but I’m going to grant it here all the same, if only to make this argument easier.
3. Conditionally supporting the arguments and inferences of Intelligent Design to illustrate the possibilities those with a mechanistic, even naturalistic, view of nature nevertheless avail themselves to.
This will take some explaining.
Previously I made reference to Feser’s (I’m making heavy reference to him, because I think he’s been the most outspoken of the Thomists on this subject) posts The Trouble with William Paley and Greek Atomists and the God of Paley. What I find interesting, but most overlooked, about those entries is that Feser grants that if you have a mechanistic view of nature, then ID arguments are possible. They won’t get one even an inch closer to the God of classical theism (presumably they can get one a little bit closer to the God of the theistic personalists), but they could easily get one closer to some powerful, even supreme mind, that which would be called a god in just about any other context, etc.
Now, you’ll notice right away that Ed’s take on ID is actually ID’s take on ID for the most part. ID at most identifies a design and therefore a designer – and this can be anything from aliens to a powerful civilization to demiurges to gods to a computer simulation to, etc. The key point where ID and Thomism differs by his reasoning is that the God of classical theism isn’t included among the spread of possibilities, given how ID goes about making inferences of design. Again, I wonder about this – in fact, I suspect it’s entirely possible for one to make an inference about a mind or intervention in a way which is for all purposes identical to the ID method, yet while accepting a non-mechanistic metaphysics.
But the key here is this: The Thomist criticism I’m outlining here also comes with a built in acknowledgment that these sorts of inferences, within a mechanistic framework, can be valid. Obviously it also depends on the evidence and arguments in question, but the point is that – granting such a view of nature from the outset – there’s nothing in principle stopping a person from making valid inferences of this sort.
The Thomist, therefore, should stand against the naturalists who oppose ID and say, “No. If ID proponents were attempting to infer the design of the God of classical theism through ID, we’d agree that ID is a non-starter. But insofar as they embrace the same mechanistic view of nature you yourselves embrace, and given the sorts of minds they could conceivably be inferring the design of in their arguments, their arguments are valid and must be answered rather than dismissed. Cries of methodological naturalism* are empty normally, but they’re particularly empty when the inferences, arguments, and possibilities being raised are themselves naturalistic.”
In other words, if Ed and other Thomists are serious in their claims that ID is, at the end of the day, mechanistic – and therefore naturalistic – metaphysics, inference and investigation, then they should demand that ID be treated as any other mechanistic, naturalistic claim about the world. The ID proponents are right after all, and inferring design in the cell or the body is really no different from inferring design in Mount Rushmore. It may not be mainstream science, it may not be consensus science, but it’s science all the same – and thus, if someone defines science so as only to include mechanistic or ‘naturalistic’ inferences, they’ve defined science in a way the includes ID.
I want to note, by the way, that I’m under no illusions anyone is going to be perfectly happy with the argument I’m presenting here. I can certainly see ID proponents as objecting to the idea that ID is necessarily naturalistic, or only points in the direction of naturalistic entities. And I can imagine some Thomists complaining that they have enough work to do communicating their ideas to an already-confused public (and even academic world) without leading people to think about ‘designers’ like this.
But I think, at the end of the day – and even while acknowledging that some of what I accepted for the sake of argument here can be disputed by both sides – what I outline here is a good way for Thomists to support ID, and that it is support that ID proponents (were it to manifest) should consider accepting, however conditionally.
(* I’ve written before about the emptiness of the word ‘naturalism’, even ‘materialism’. I stand by that. But I use the word here since Ed himself regarded the list of possible designers in ID as a spread of naturalistic possibilities – which sharpens my point here.)