Machinists and Farmers

April 23, 2010 § 15 Comments

In some circles, the distinction between building a clock and breeding a new kind of creature seems to do some crucial metaphysical work, even though both are the actions of intelligent agents. We all know that a Bernese Mountain Dog is different from a Timex in fundamental ways. Yet it is still a fact that neither this oil-spill-eating bacteria nor that josephson junction would exist, as particular things, without the intervention, in time, of an intelligent agent.

The metaphysical issue becomes especially acute when we get into areas far away from common experience: geologic time and astronomic space, and into the submicroscopic realm, where common sense goes all the way out the window. Are the viruses we synthesize in the lab from non-living materials “alive”? Are they “artifacts”, or are they “natural”? If we manufactured simple cells in the lab from non-living materials, would they “live”? Would we classify them as “artifacts” or as “natural”?

The thing that strikes me about these questions is that they are not fundamentally questions about what nature can or would do on its own, or how God does things. Nor are they questions about what we ought to do. They are questions about what we can do. Not what God can do or “would” do, nor what nature can do, but what the Imago Dei can do: about what powers we have as acting, intelligent creatures made in the image of God.

And I’m not sure that that is a question which can be answered by a philosophy of nature.


§ 15 Responses to Machinists and Farmers

  • Step2 says:

    I was going to ask this question over at W4 but that thread is winding down. Are there any biblical accounts of God creating macroscopic machines here on Earth? Even the Ark of the Covenant was built by humans, so it seems purely speculative to infer that God has made microscopic machines.

    Personally, I don't accept that there are absolute distinctions at the edges of the various categories, but I can see how for someone who does, (like an A-T philosopher), there could be some resistance.

  • zippy says:

    I guess the stone tablets themselves are what the A-T types would call an “artifact”.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Well, if you think that bread baked by humans is an artifact, which it would seem to be, then the loaves in the feeding of the five thousand would seem to count. Also, presumably the fish Jesus made there were cooked, and even if one definitely regards fish as non-artifactual, creating _cooked_ fish seems to be a real act of making something that looks like it's been made by “messing” with nature.

    We don't know if Jesus made the coin for the tribute money in the fish's mouth or merely knew that the fish had swallowed a coin, but that's another possible example.

    In any event, as I understand Ed, he doesn't deny that God _could_ make an artifact by a miracle, just that that is a correct description of living things.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Here's another, which seems a fair conjecture: The clothes Jesus wore after his resurrection. (The grave clothes were left in the empty tomb.) I don't think he stole them off someone's washing line. 🙂

  • Crude says:

    In the interest of fun, I'd like to throw a curveball into this conversation. Zippy says…

    They are questions about what we can do.

    And he also asks…

    If we manufactured simple cells in the lab from non-living materials, would they “live”? Would we classify them as “artifacts” or as “natural”?

    This is where I suspect the ID question threatens to cause a whole lot of trouble – precisely because (oddly enough) the traditional naturalist is the one who really has difficulty answering questions like these.

    What happens if humanity is capable of creating life 'from scratch'? Or if humanity is capable of creating simulated worlds*? I suggest the problem goes beyond merely deciding whether to call these creations 'natural' or 'artifacts': Every advance in this area makes 'nature' look like an artifact itself, and provides evidence of at least some artificers, at some point in time, intentionally 'creating' what previously was chalked up – for the naturalist – to an entirely blind, mindless force or set of forces. But this force/forces is assumed, not argued for. Meanwhile, every technological advance on the part of humans provides more evidence for a guided, mindful force being responsible for events or results in nature.

    And I'd point out here that this evidence is not at all 'gap'-based – even if “nature” is capable of doing something without a visible, direct guiding hand, these advances will just show why such an obvious hand would not be needed by a designer.

    This is where Ed Feser would say something like “These sorts of arguments can only get you to the Beyonder, or a demiurge. But it can't get you to the God of classical theism.” And I'd agree with him on that, and I also agree the distinction is tremendously important. But, I still believe that even with that distinction (and, as I more and more suspect, the ultimate correctness of A-T), these arguments are important. They help to illustrate some of the problems and limitations of the naturalist view.

    To paraphrase Bacon, “A little technology inclines a man to atheism, but a lot of technology inclines a man to religion.” And I really suspect, A-T sympathetic as I am, that that's one of the reasons ID drives some people bonkers. Because the ID tendency to regard nature as an artifact, and to thereby infer a designer, comes too close to making a point many don't even want to begin thinking about. It also comes perilously close to asking questions about nature (should we regard it as nature or an artifact? Is there a difference? And if they're too close to tell the difference, why not just regard the whole thing as an artifact complete with an inference to a designer?) that are just as unsettling.

    (* Re: Simulated worlds, I suppose we're already capable of such, and have been for a long time. Bostrom and company tend to envision much more complicated worlds, but if they regard a simulated universe as a 'real' universe, then it seems to me they'd have to regard even meager simulations/worlds as different in degree, not kind.)

  • zippy says:

    Interesting comments, Crude. I guess what I've learned from recent discussions[*] is that the kind of neo-Aristotleanism which is setting itself against ID in principle seems to be very incomplete in terms of its ability to deal with temporal origins of kinds of things which arise from other kinds of things, as opposed to the ex nihilo creation and sustainence of things by God – breathing fire into the Universe and making it actual. The two are entirely different; ID (and neo-Darwinism for that matter) are approaches to the former, Aristotlean-Thomism an approach to the latter. And yet people who know A-T a lot better than I do, like Ed Feser, don't see them as orthogonal: he sees certain theories about the former as flat irreconcilable with the latter, so it seems like I just must have it wrong. I'm looking forward to reading the Oderberg book Ed recommended, since it seems like it may actually attempt to grapple with the facts of science from an A-T perspective.

    One thing I definitely don't buy is this notion that either some heavy-handed version of Aristotleanism is true or teleology is just all the way out the window. I mean, what are these guys going to do when a simple living cell gets synthesized in the lab? It is only a matter of time.

    [*] Despite the insinuations which have been made, it isn't “glib” to suspect that a particular man may have made a mistake somewhere, after reading several of his books and being involved in numerous online conversations with him. Nor is suspecting that one guy has likely made an error somewhere the same as dismissing the great accumulated wisdom of the ages.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I was thinking about the whole “granting for arguendo” issue today that Crude brings up in a comment at Ed's blog. I was trying to think of a parallel between the origin-of-life issue from Ed's particular A-T perspective and my own Cartesian-esque dualism. So, trying to see it from the other side, I asked myself, “What would I say if some group came along to argue probabilistically against the Churchlands–the physicalists–that it is _improbable_ that consciousness could arise from matter?”

    Now, I realized that I would say that this is an incorrect way to look at it, because it is _impossible_, not _merely_ improbable, that consciousness should arise from matter. Very much like Ed says about life arising from non-life. So I would have to say that there was something to that extent misguided about what this group was doing, as though they were saying that the consciousness-matter distinction is not absolute but only a matter of degree.

    Well, okay, but then I thought of this: It appears that as things in fact work in our world, while God _could_ make a conscious rock, actually we find consciousness only in creatures with highly complex central nervous systems. So I could restate the argument by saying that, while consciousness doesn't just “arise” from matter, we can still look at how probable or improbable it is that the brain–the complex central nervous system that appears always to be associated with consciousness–would arise in a non-directed way. And that would be a matter of probabilities.

    This would be sort of similar to saying, “Suppose that we were to grant arguendo that consciousness could possibly arise from matter. It still appears that it never would do so spontaneously, because the matter would not become organized in that necessarily complex way without direction.”

    As a dualist, I'd feel like I had to be constantly issuing clarifications and explanations: “Now, note, folks, we're really talking about the _brain_ here. I don't _actually_ admit that consciousness automatically supervenes on a complicated enough computer.” But it would still be worth talking about–whether that complicated brain itself is likely to arise undirected.

    In the same way, it seems that even a _very_ strong A-T philosopher could talk about the probability that DNA or the complex structure of the first cell would arise spontaneously from non-life, because those things are not all that the A-T philosopher means by “living”–that is, for something to be living in the strong A-T sense, as I understand it, it has to have a “formal substance” of a living thing, which is invisible and metaphysical and doesn't automatically supervene on a complex enough structure.

  • zippy says:

    Consciousness is a pretty interesting parallel, Lydia.

    I just got Real Essentialism from Amazon. Should be interesting based on the preface.

  • Step2 says:

    Thanks everyone, those were good examples of artifacts, which is perfectly appropriate to the theme of the post, but I was thinking more along the lines of a Timex or 747, something that is clearly a machine beyond the technology of the time period. It was a mistake on my part to bring up the Ark, it was the closest thing I could compare to a powered construct.

    As a bonus, here are some interesting discussions on brains and the mind, if you have lots of free time:

  • Anonymous says:


    Ya'll may be interested in this post by F. Beckwith.


  • zippy says:

    I'm beginning to think that there may be an anti-essentialist problem with the A-T approach to artifacts: thus the current post. That is, the problem isn't that ID types are anti-essentialist with respect to living things, but that A-T philosophers are anti-essentialist with respect to artifacts: to the A-T philosopher, the Mona Lisa is “nothing but” a bunch of oily residue on a canvas.

    Frank quotes Ed as saying that “[A moustrap's] “mousetrappish” character is observer-relative; it is in the minds of the designer and users of the object, and not strictly in the object itself.”

    I mean, tell that to the mouse.

  • Crude says:


    While I don't know nearly enough about A-T to comment, I did have a question along similar lines recently. I asked Ed over at his blog whether anyone ever went further than the A-T thinkers and argued that not only cats and such have intrinsic purposes, but so too do watches and other artifacts.

    He mentioned hylozoism and panpsychism, and I admit I find that question pretty fascinating. Quite a lot of virtual ink has been spilled over the idea that ID proponents embrace a mechanistic philosophy (particularly about life.) I wonder what the reaction would be to going in this other direction and suggesting that even artifacts have intrinsic purposes.

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