How about a Congregation for the Cause of Rationality?

April 14, 2010 § 39 Comments

I happen to be “intelligent design friendly,” in the sense that I don’t think Michael Behe and William Dembski are villians whose ideas are not just wrong but utterly without merit, ideas which ought to be purged from polite company. I am open to the possibility that intelligent agency, not merely randomness and fixed laws, might in fact have been causally involved with some of the actual stuff we find in the real world. I also happen to be rather “neo-Darwinism hostile,” in the sense that I am fully convinced that many of the mainstream claims about evolution which I was taught in my primary education are outright falsehoods resting more on hubris than on fact.

Keep in mind that, with what follows, I am mostly talking out of my hat when it comes to characterizing philosophical positions. I’m not a philosopher, and I don’t play one on TV. I’m just doing the best I can here to describe where various folks have drawn lines in the sand in actual conversations I’ve had recently.

Because of my own admitted biases I’ve long been puzzled by the hostility on the part of some Aristotlean-Thomist philosophers to ID. On the one hand, I agree that one cannot “prove the existence of God” from empirical data (because we can’t “prove” anything, in a univocal sense of the term “prove” meant by the criticism, from empirical data); and there will always be folks who overreach, grind their various axes, etc. On the other hand, why all the hostility, the per se opposition, to empirical investigation of origins which is open to the possibility of intelligent agency as a cause? In particular, why all the hostility toward ID without at the same time at least a corresponding hostility to neo-Darwinian empirical investigation which a priori rules out agency as a cause? Why what looks to me like implacable hostility to the notion that some of the claims of some of the ID guys might sometimes be, you know, true and stuff: significant and interesting, even?

I think I understand it at least superficially now, after some recent discussion. To a certain kind of Aristotlean (CKA), certain things simply must be the case if the world view is to hang together. For the present discussion two things are critical. First, a very specific understanding of the categorical difference between human made artifacts and natural objects does most of the heavy lifting. Second, when we correctly predicate attributes to God we are making analogies to things we know rather than setting up an equivalence: in particular, for our purposes here, God’s agency and human agency are very different sorts of things, though they are analogous.

I agree that there is a categorical difference between natural objects and artifacts, and I agree that Divine predicates are analogies. But I don’t agree with what some folks mean by that.

What it all boils down to, best as I can tell, is that for our CKA the emergence of life from non-living matter through intelligent agency – when we are unequivocal about “intelligent agency”, that is, we are not making an analogy – is impossible. Some might even go so far as to rule out the possibility of building a living organism from non-living materials in a laboratory setting. (Ahem). It seems to me that that particular understanding is actually subject to falsification should such a thing be accomplished; though it ought to be emphasized that not everyone agrees that A-T metaphysics makes the empirical prediction that life cannot even in principle be synthesized from non-life.

So for our CKA, a proposal to scientifically investigate the possibility that life on Earth as we actually find it emerged in part through the action of intelligent agency is literally a proposal to scientifically investigate a miracle. Certainly God is capable of miracles, because he is God; but to our CKA a ludicrously improbable event is not literally a miracle, whereas an act of agency prior to the existence of human agents is a miracle.

Keep in mind that a Christian CKA supposedly believes in miracles. However, scientifically investigating the forensic possibility that a miracle occurred is, it is supposed, an irrational and wrongheaded thing to do.

My take on that conclusion is that we’d better call these guys and let them know.


§ 39 Responses to How about a Congregation for the Cause of Rationality?

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I can think of one other piece of the puzzle: As I understand Ed Feser's position, if God were to newly create an organism, he would be doing something so radically different from what any human/finite artificer would be doing in synthesizing an organism that, specifically, considerations of probability and improbability (e.g., the improbability of the organism's arising without God's action) _cannot_ be relevant to the conclusion of God's action in that case.

    It's interesting, given your reference to the investigation of purported miracles of the saints, that investigators in those cases _do_ deal in probabilities–for example, the probability that the person would have recovered spontaneously or was cured by medicine. In particular, they are concerned with P (E|~M)–the probability of the evidence in question given that there was no miracle.

    I gather that Ed's objection to probabilistic investigation in these cases has something to do with his insistence that all investigation concerning whether an organism could have arisen without Divine agency must be purely _metaphysical_ and hence can never be probabilistic. I have asked him repeatedly how he would apply this position to the purported evolution of one type of organism into another–that is, how would/could he argue that _that_ investigation cannot and must not be probabilistic. But he apparently does not see the need to answer that question separately from the origin-of-life question, so I don't know what his answer is as to why probabilistic considerations must also be irrelevant there.

  • zippy says:

    As a matter of vocabulary and social acceptability, “scientifically investigating a miracle” is supposed to undermine the credibility of the ID project. The irony is that the tar and feathers are being applied by folks who are supposed to be firm believers not only in miracles, but that the scientific investigation of probabilistic evidence of them is a reasonable and necessary project.

  • August says:

    Viruses don't quite meet the definition of alive.

    Quickly point out that your argument stands up pretty well regardless, because it does.

  • zippy says:

    Viruses don't quite meet the definition of alive.

    I actually agree, though it depends on what the A-T philosopher means by “alive”: the way it was initially described to me in that discussion was “living matter”, not “living organism”, yet my interlocutors seemed grouchy about whether prions or viruses or whatever count as “living matter”.

    In any case I link to what has already been accomplished not to declare victory on the empirical test, if you will, but just to point out where a reasonable person can see that things are headed.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    To be absolutely scrupulous, Ed Feser has never (that I know of) used negatively the phrase “scientifically investigating a miracle.” His entire argument seems to rest on the notion of what sorts of things in biology _must_ be done metaphysically rather than empirically. Where, I would add, he seems to me totally and utterly wrong.

    But I believe he's on-board with historically investigating the resurrection of Jesus, for example.

    But I'm not surprised in the least that other similar critics of ID _do_ use that phrase negatively. There is a strong strain of what I can only call crypto-deism, or even more than crypto-, in certain ID critics. Fr. Oakes (if I have the name correct) at First Things has been particularly egregious in this regard. He literally said that ID theory makes the problem of evil acute, because if God makes this or that living thing, then we are going to be unable to answer the question of why God doesn't save a pilot from a burning cockpit. (Seriously. That was the example.) In other words, we have to have a principled objection to God's intervening in nature or we will be overwhelmed by the problem of evil. Very deistical.

    But I do give Ed credit that he's not taken that particular line, though some of his followers have.

  • Zippy says:

    I'm actually not trying to bust on anyone in particular here, which is why I didn't name names in the post. I just literally didn't understand the palpable hostility of many A-T's to ID before, at all, as a tribal phenomenon if you will.

    Now I get it, I think, at least enough to be worth blogging my take in case it is helpful to anyone else.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    The “can't investigate a miracle scientifically” or “historically” meme is incredibly big. It's regnant in New Testament studies, for example.

  • The Phantom says:

    I'm not sure if you've read this article before, its not completely on topic, but its about the compatibility of Evolution and Christianity.

    All this talk made be think about Auster and his view that the random mutations view of Evolution and God are totally incompatible. He has been critical of the Catholic acceptance of Evolution without thinking it through (in his opinion.)

    Read the Comment section on this piece:

    Also on this view:

  • zippy says:

    Heh, thanks. I'm intimately familiar with that first VFR thread.

  • Tony says:

    It seems to me that we might be bandying about “probabilistic” a little freely here, and doing so might detract from clear thinking.

    When we study the probabilities involved in an event that has zillions of complex parts, and where one particular outcome (that we are interested in) is clearly possible if enough parts go particular ways, that probabilistic study involves probabilities without having to allow for causes whose nature are unknown and unimagined. The SORTS of causes are all accepted and allowed for, we just can't put together all of the pieces in a deterministic chain because there are too many of them. So we resort to another form of reasoning, relying on probability estimations, to ascertain the outcome not of this one event, but of the trend for many, many similar such events.

    But evaluating a miracle isn't like that at all. We don't say of the miracle: well, the (strictly natural) probability of this part is 1/10, and of that part is 1/20, and of the third part is 1/5, so the probability of the whole happening naturally is 1/1000, which is so low as to be unbelievable. No: we say that insofar as we understand the types of causes that affect the natural progress of the happening, there is NO way for that outcome to happen with only natural causes. Not just _very unlikely_.

    Anti-miracle arguments like to cast this in a different form by insisting that we focus on the qualifying “insofar as we understand” part of it, point out that we often don't understand all of the causes, and therefore insist on a sort of sleight-of-hand imposition of “probability” that the causes that we do understand are in fact the entirety of controlling natural causes. Implying a complementary probability that there is some other cause, not yet recognized, that is a significant controller of the outcome. As a result, all determinations that a miracle happened would, ipso facto, be colored by saying at the same time “but there is a non-zero probability that there is some natural cause we don't understand that allowed that outcome without supernatural intervention.” Leaving the poor, unsuspecting miraclist doing a back-and-fill argument that such a probability is less than the probability that praying to God for a miracle and then getting it indicates God acting directly. Still, a probable argument.

    But there is pedagogically a serious difference between saying that there could be causes involved whose nature we know nothing about at this time, affecting the outcome, and saying that this represents a bona fide analytical probability that only natural causes affected the outcome. In order for the conclusion to be a bona fide analytical probability that only natural causes produced the result, the “unknown” cause would have to be at least theorized with specificity as to form and content, not a totally nebulous, completely amorphous, utterly unknown “some other cause.”

  • Zippy says:

    How does the actual practice of the Congregation reflect those pedagogical concerns? I am under the impression that many canonization miracles are spontaneous healings. Surely spontaneous healings are no more pedagogically miraculous, in probabilistic terms or otherwise, than a bacteria turning into a man?

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Tony, I would think that since we're doing estimations in either case, the only real difference would be that in the case where one would have to be dealing with a hitherto totally unknown physical force, the probability on ~M would perhaps be lower than in cases where all the relevant facts were known and it just seemed to be way improbable.

    But remember, too, that someone who denies that the miracle will often also deny the force of the testimony, and hence, he'll put the probability of the evidence given ~M a good deal higher without the need to invoke unknown physical forces. That is, he'll say that someone was (probably or plausibly) just lying or mistaken, which doesn't require anything akin to quantum tunneling.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Just had an opportunity to look at that thread. Cool thread. I especially liked the discussion of tiny biological machines. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Tony says:

    But remember, too, that someone who denies that the miracle will often also deny the force of the testimony,

    Well, sure. And a good, thorough-going skeptic will do the same about the “reports” of scientific experiments, as well. He can say that they are implausible on their face. Or, more to the point, we can doubt that our own senses are reporting accurately, or even reporting anything worth taking note of at all. And then, having thus been a philosophical purist, the same skeptic will then take a pill for his arthritis, and ignore the fact that he acted as though his experience of joint pain had anything to do with any facet of reality that could be affected by taking a pill. I don't find such philosophical purity persuasive.

    in the case where one would have to be dealing with a hitherto totally unknown physical force, the probability on ~M would perhaps be lower than in cases where all the relevant facts were known and it just seemed to be way improbable.

    Not really. The probability of there being a hitherto unknown force is, literally, indeterminate. We would LIKE to believe that we have a decent grasp of natural laws, and therefore any new forces would have to be small and of limited scope. But (giving adequate measure to the skeptic's argument) that's just a prejudice, since by definition we don't really know if that is so, since we don't know the unknown law.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    If the skeptic is that skeptical, Tony, he makes being anti-miraculous a science-stopper. ๐Ÿ™‚ Which is to say that the more we know about physical law the more we realize that nobody is going to come up with a naturalistic explanation for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. To deny that is in the long run to be skeptical about scientific knowledge itself.

    Which I suppose was your point, right?

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I should add that it seems to me the possibilities for unknown causes of spontaneous recovery from illness are a lot more wide open than, say, regeneration of a missing limb or resurrection from the dead. There's an awful lot medicine doesn't know about why people do and don't get better from illnesses.

  • Zippy says:

    I think it is safe to say that in 2002 I would have said precisely the same thing as that commenter Matt.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Have some of his most important opinions expressed there been probably falsified since then?

  • Zippy says:

    Not that I am aware of. The biggest change is that neo-Darwinism is now being openly abandoned, with the spin machine contending that more recent wild speculation about transposons represent a “minor tweak” to the theory. There are similarities to the sea change from “global warming” to “climate change”.

    Captcha: thelaw

  • Zippy says:

    (I'd intended to put a smiley on my 3:16 comment, since I _am_ that commenter in that old VFR thread.)

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I picked up on that…

    Can somebody explain what “captcha” labels on comments mean? Your last one, Zippy, said “Thelaw.” This is Greek to me.

  • Zippy says:

    Oh that is just what the comment system presented for word verification.

  • Tony says:

    To deny that is in the long run to be skeptical about scientific knowledge itself.
    Which I suppose was your point, right?

    Pretty much, yes.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I think Steve Fuller's comments on Uncommon Descent, to which Ed Feser links, are also helpful as far as what CKA (your coinage) has against ID. Fuller says that a Thomist (though I think he's wrong to generalize this to _all_ Thomists) would have a problem with the picture of the bacterial flagellum at the top of the blog.

    Now, I don't know Fuller. He doesn't happen to be one of the ID people with whom I've had any other contact. Wikipedia says he's a social constructivist, and if that's accurate, then I'd better not attribute to him any position about what things are objectively like.

    But _I'm_ not a social constructivist, and neither, I think, is anyone in this conversation, and so of course the obvious question we should all ask is, “Is the picture correct?” Because if the picture represents the flagellum correctly, or (for another example) if the analogy of DNA to a computer code really is significantly helpful as far as telling us what DNA is _really like_, and if CKA doesn't like that, then CKA has a problem with reality, not with ID per se, and the only refuge from position revision is sheer obscurantism.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Oh, here's the link to the beginning of the discussion between Fuller and other commentators. Interesting discussion:

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Figured out who Steve Fuller is. I _do_ know something more about him, and he _is_ very po-mo/social constructivist. I had known about him years ago in a totally different context where that feature was to the fore, and I missed the memo (or forgot it) about his having teamed up with the ID people. Not, I'm afraid, one of their more useful alliances. The discussion at U.D. about (some) Thomists' problems with ID still looks interesting.

  • wj says:

    “I am open to the possibility that intelligent agency, not merely randomness and fixed laws, might in fact have been causally involved with some of the actual stuff we find in the real world.”

    It is a good think you are open to this, because the doctrine of creation ex nihilo commits you to it. The difference between ID Christians and Evolutionist Christians is the difference between people who think that God's causal agency is of the same sort that occurs within creation, and people who think that God's being radically transcends creation, and so can't be “fit” into it–in the way that ID arguments make it look like God fills in the gaps of an otherwise coherent naturalist process. I believe this all gets back to the question of whether Being may be univocally predicated of God and creatures. Thomas says no, some later Scholastics say yes. The problem is, once you have a conception of God according to which he is just one more entity in your ontology, then you start to have to explain how his agency works with the agency of other things in your ontology. And hence it starts to look as if God becomes more and more excluded, the more and more we can explain naturalistically. Classical theism, which holds that God's being is *not* univocal with creaturely being, does not have this problem.

  • wj says:

    I guess what I'm trying to point out in the above comment is that believing that “intelligence agency” lies behind the created world does *not* in any way commit one to ID's account of that agency.

  • zippy says:

    I've always presumed that reasonable “theistic Darwinisms” are possible, at least from the theological side. There are a few sticky points for Christians — the Fall, for instance — but they aren't insoluable. My skepticism about Darwinism is based on the evidence, on a hundred and fifty years of physicalist tergiversation masquerading as a search for the truth, not on a misguided theological concern.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    The “this is just god-of-the-gaps reasoning” argument is not only old and tired but also, more importantly, completely wrong.

    In brief: No, it's not. It's an inference to the best explanation.

    There is _nothing_ about Thomistic theism that is particularly “Darwin-friendly.” All this “filling in the gaps of an otherwise coherent process” talk is just a roundabout way of saying that somehow if you _really_ have the right concept of God, you'll be a theistic Darwinian evolutionist. Balderdash. And I'd love to see St. Thomas Aquinas brought back from the dead to tear that one into tiny little pieces.

    I give Ed Feser credit for not saying things like this. But it would be good, as well, for him to realize how many of his self-styled fellow Thomists _are_ saying things like this, as though all “classical theists” _must_ accept TE rather than anything else.

  • Tony says:

    There are a few theories, some old and some new, that posit that it is really angels acting that underlie some (most? all? ) events that appear in nature. Some of these theories posit angels in order to overcome, for example, all of the problems with “action at a distance” that seems to be ineradicable from physics. Some of them posit angels to deal with the aspects of non-human life activity that seems impossible to resolve with mechanistic biology. In any case, they posit intelligent agents who act with free will instead of mechanistic determinism (or quantum indeterminism).

    Would IDers' theories be compatible with angels being the intelligences behind their ID? Or does it have to be God? With Thomism, God is the only one who can create a new nature (e.g. a new kind of animal), and God's causality is the only level of causality that integrates natures and ends. I think.

  • zippy says:

    Would IDers' theories be compatible with angels being the intelligences behind their ID?

    The way I understand it they do not specify what sort of intelligence – which seems to be part of what is driving the objections of the Aristotleans – so I would conclude that yes, they would be compatible with angels being the intelligences.

    Part of what is going on is that physicalists don't just deny the existence of God; they also deny the existence of everything non-physical, including human agency or angel agency. A physicalist has to conclude that any kind of agency is an 'epiphenomenon', so if life on earth depends (probabilistically, but in a conclusive way) on the existence of some intelligence which pre-exists human beings, they are left in quite a bind. Sure, they can postulate a super race of aliens who created humans, but that becomes a rather large nut to swallow. I think that is part of why the ID folks try to keep their project more modest than getting everyone to swallow some particular metaphysics whole hog.

    This gets spun as if the IDers were using falsehoods to persuade, but that is not a fair characterization at all. There are bodies of truth which one can accept without first accepting any particular systematic metaphysics whole hog: propositions the truth of which do not depend on the truth of A-T metaphysics in its complete entiriety. That is part of the reason why I am trying to figure out how much if anything is truly contradictory and how much is just locking horns over the use of language which doesn't transparently presume the comprehensive truth of A-T metaphysics. I tend to think a whole lot of it is the latter.

    Of course being deliberately agnostic on X is bound to ruffle the feathers of folks who think believing X is really crucial, I suppose.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think the backlash against ID is predicated on the fact that Christians have in the past pointed to supernatural causes for natural processes. Once bitten, twice shy. When Christianity gets into science and is wrong, it reflects badly on Christianity, and that is worth getting upset over.

  • zippy says:

    I expect there is something to that as a sociological matter. Agency, in general, though, is not a supernatural cause. Which seems to be part of what has the Aristotleans in an uproar.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Sociologically, Anonymous is quite right. But is that a _good_ reason for ignoring or suppressing what appears to be good evidence? Obviously, I'm going to say no, it's not. In fact, I get really steamed when people _seriously_ say all this wugga wugga stuff like, “Oh, let's not hitch our wagon to that star, because it might turn out to be wrong.” I mean, heck! _Lots_ of stuff might in theory turn out to be wrong, but does that mean we crawl under the bed and put our fingers in our ears? It's just crazy. “Once bitten, twice shy” might well _explain_ an aversion to ID, but once a person recognizes that it's the cause of his aversion, he should at least set it aside long enough to do an honest evaluation of the evidence, not trumpet it as if it were a good reason for suppressing an entire area of inquiry. I've been surprised and disappointed to see the number of people who are not ashamed to be saying such things.

  • Tony says:

    Agency, in general, though, is not a supernatural cause.

    Maybe that is the crux of the matter. A-T types want agent cause to be understood in the full sense, whereas physicalists want that sort of agent cause that is purely mechanical to be the only sort of causality, which apparently is agent cause only analogically.(?)

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    But Zippy's not a physicalist. He's just pointing out that created agents can be thought of as in some sense “natural” even though not reducible to the physical.

    C.S. Lewis makes a comment to the effect that even angels could be thought of as natural rather than supernatural, given that they exist at all and operate by certain laws and limitations of their own as far as their interactions with the rest of the created order. Actually, that's fleshing out what he says, but it's implicit in the passage where “Lewis” (making a cameo appearance as a character in his own novel) meets an eldil at the beginning of _Perelandra_.

  • zippy says:

    In sum, physicalists reject ID because it allows that agency, including human agency, is a real cause of things in the world being this way rather than that; and as near as I can tell, certain kinds of A-T philosophers reject ID because they reject the notion that God could use, in some instances, an agency which is in fact like human agency in some respects not merely analogous to it.

    What they have in common is that neither rejects ID based on the actual evidence.

    (No doubt there are other categories of people with other views as well, some ID friendly and some not; right now I'm just looking at physicalism, on the one hand, and these “certain kinds of Aristotleans” on the other).

  • Tony says:

    But Zippy's not a physicalist.

    Right, I didn't intend to imply he was, sorry if I was unclear. There is lots of room in between stringent, aggressive A-T types and physicalism on this issue. Plenty of space for a view that neither rejects God nor accepts physicalism.

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