Miracle on Page 11

April 28, 2010 § 11 Comments

So, I don’t intend to live blog my reading of David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism. But it does seem that right out of the gate, on page 11, where Oderberg is arguing against modal “possible worlds” versions of essentialism, there is some confirmation of a view I already expressed: that an ID account of historical biological origins is, from an A-T perspective, an argument for miraculous special creation – an argument that nature on its own could not make the first prokaryote out of nothing (ID contra abiogenesis), nor could it “breed” a gorilla from a paramecium (ID contra evolution by purely natural causes). Oderberg distinguishes between two types of “metaphysical impossibility”: the sort which means “X can occur, but requires a miracle” and the sort which means “X cannot occur in principle”:

Does this mean an animal couldn’t just spring into existence without natural parents (maybe from a rock?) or be zapped into existence, Adam-and-Eve-like, without parents? Or that it couldn’t, say, be synthesized in a lab? I will discuss such scenarios in Chapters 7 and 8 [Looking forward to it -Z], but the first two cases do not invalidate the point: for them to obtain would require some sort of miracle. To say that Socrates’s nature requires that he have parents must be taken to mean that in the natural order of things he must have parents. (For more about the laws of nature and the natural order of things, see Chapter 6 [Ditto]). This should be distinguished from a metaphysical impossibility in the absolute sense: for instance, that nothing can come into existence wholly uncaused is metaphysically impossible in the absolute sense – not even by a ‘miracle’ could it happen. Socrates nature is of a kind of thing that comes into existence via a biological generative process, whether or not the process involves some degree of human artifice beyond or instead of normal sexual procreation. Moreover, since Socrates might spring into existence without parents – or so I claim – it is not the case that he has parents in every world in which he exists.

So far, it seems to me that by jimmying a little terminology we can make A-T as compatible with a ‘compatibilized’ ID as it presumably is with the investigation of miracles for causes of sainthood (ignoring the “make life in a lab” thing, for now). The ID conclusion (whether warranted or not is a different subject) that nature on its own is incapable of producing a gorilla starting from a world where nothing lives but prokaryotes is a probabilistic inference to either the intervention of some intelligent cultivation (like a dog breeder breeding a new kind of dog) or a miracle.

If it isn’t in the nature of bacteria to selectively breed “in the wild” until their progeny are giving birth to gorillas, then the historically verified geological transition from a world of bacteria-only to bacteria-and-gorillas can only be explained by some additional outside factor: intervention by super space aliens or miracle of God, say. If the facts on the ground lead to that conclusion, why would the A-T philosopher have any objection? So far I haven’t seen any reason why; but hey, there are 249 pages to go, and it looks like chapters 7 and 8 will be the fun stuff.


§ 11 Responses to Miracle on Page 11

  • Edward Feser says:

    So far, it seems to me that by jimmying a little terminology we can make A-T as compatible with a 'compatibilized' ID as it presumably is with the investigation of miracles for causes of sainthood

    But miracles are suspensions of the natural order whereas living things are part of the natural order. So there is no relevant parallel. Anyway, as you'll see, Oderberg has a discussion of the nature of miracles. And (briefly) of ID as well — see p. 287, note 18, and the discussion in the main text to which that note is appended — in which he is critical of it, for the same reasons I have been. Just so you're not kept in suspense.

  • zippy says:

    To me it is more than a parallel: we investigate suspensions of the natural order, using probabilistic methods, in the causes of saints. That means that investigating suspensions of the natural order using probabilistic methods is, in general, legitimate. The key point of contention seems to be in the semantics of calling a positive result “design”.

    But I'm reading.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Hold on, hold on, but Ed: You argued _yourself_ that the origin of life is evidence for a miracle. I'm sure of it! I saw it myself. So even though the first cell was “part of the natural order,” that doesn't mean that it had to get here by natural means.

    I've been dying to publish the following dreadful quotation somewhere, and now seems a good time. Michael Tkacz:

    “God does not intervene into nature nor does he adjust or “fix up” natural things….Our current science may or may not be able to explain any given feature of living organisms, yet there must exist some explanatory cause in nature. The most complex of organisms have a natural explanation, even if it is one that we do not now, or perhaps never will, know.”


    Got that: Everything that is _in_ nature must have a _natural_ cause. This is apparently supposed to follow from Thomism, according to Tkacz. I think we should introduce Tkacz to your post on the origin of life, Ed. And I think you should argue with Tkacz about whether or not everyone knows that A-T is incompatible with naturalism, because I'm afraid it looks like he didn't get the memo.

  • Edward Feser says:

    Well, when I say “no relevant parallel,” what I mean is “no parallel that entails that living things should be modeled on artifacts.” But the origin of life still might or might not have been miraculous — that depends on the facts about what potencies do in fact exist in the relevant non-living material processes, and all the consideratons I spelled out in my origins of life post. And even if it has a “natural” explanation it will definitely not have a “naturalistic” one, since the processes will necessarily include immanent final causality. (“Natural” does not mean exactly the same thing for A-T as for naturalism.) So yes, I agree that Tkacz is being too glib in the passage you quote, if it is intended as an expression of the A-T view as such and not just of his own personal views.

  • Edward Feser says:

    BTW, Zippy, since I know you don't have enough reading to do (joke), you might find of interest the series of posts Michael Sullivan has been writing over at The Smithy in response to Torley. Sullivan is writing from a Scotist POV, and thus while he agrees with A-T that organisms are not artifacts, as a Scotist he rejects the Thomist doctrine of the unicity of substantial form, according to which a natural thing has exacly one substantial form united to its prime matter rather than a hierarchy of such forms. (You'll come across this in Oderberg before long.) Hence he rejects the idea that an atom (say) must be said to exist vitually rather than actually in the substance of which it is a part.

    Thus, just FYI, you could hold on to that specific caveat (which I believe you share from our earlier exchange) without going the whole hog for mechanism. That is, you could go for Scotism rather than A-T. Not that you should, mind you, but Scotism is much better than mechanism. (Sorry Lydia — divide and conquer I always say! 😉 )

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I've just skimmed both of the Sullivan posts I could find so far. As far as I can tell

    1) He has no strong position on ID or its evidence, because he admits with full frankness that he's scarcely looked into it at all (and I credit him for this).

    2) He has no absolute position against the possibility that living cells could be synthesized in the lab. He even seems open in principle to the possibility that humans could make _self-replicating_ entities of this kind, which would then, of course be engaging in generation. He simply says that we're “nowhere near that point yet,” which is of course true as an empirical matter.

    3) He seems to believe that if God made a 747, it would still be an artifact, and he doesn't even mention the idea that God could somehow make an apparently exactly similar 747 that would somehow be a “natural object.” He just seems to think it would always be an artifact.

    4) He explains what he means by the difference between artifacts and living things in terms of the whole's somehow governing the parts and being “prior to” the parts.


    5) Ed says that Scotism does not require that the smallest parts (e.g., the atoms) must be different between living things and artifacts, therefore, Sullivan's talk of the artifact/living thing difference cannot mean this. Therefore, it seems that Sullivan would have to be open to having it shown, empirically, that the sense in which the living thing as a “whole” governs its “parts” is a sense that is explicable in terms of the _arrangement_ of the smallest parts (e.g., into the DNA, the mitochondria, tissues, sub-cellular structures, etc.) not in terms of a wholly immaterial “substantial form” that exists in all the parts down to the atomic level. Note, again, that Sullivan appears open in principle even to the idea that humans could make _self-replicating_ machines.

    So the main thing I'm seeing is that the representative Scotist seems open in principle to what would be called “mechanism” if uttered by someone who wasn't a self-identified Scotist.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Addendum: Sullivan's main argument that the 747 does not have a “whole-is-prior-to-the-parts” characteristic as does a living thing appears to be that if you don't do anything to the 747, it just sits there. In other words (I take him to mean), it doesn't nourish itself, grow, and produce other little 747's. But he seems to recognize that this isn't much on which to base a really strong metaphysical distinction, as he admits elsewhere that we can at least imagine that human beings could make things that _did_ do those sorts of things “on their own” once the first one or ones were produced. So…

    Again, Sullivan just appears much more empirical here than metaphysical.

    I would think that the veriest mechanist should have no problem agreeing that there is an interesting distinction between those things that do, on their own, take in nutrition, grow, and reproduce and those that don't, and that it makes good sense to call the former “living” and the latter “non-living.” Unfortunately, er, that would put rocks in the latter category, so it wouldn't divide reality between “living” and “artifactual” anyway. Moreover, the distinction, from the “mechanist” point of view, would not actually tell us anything about the origins of the first of the types of things involved nor about whether the things on the “living” side could, in some non-trivial sense, be empirically discovered to be “machines.”

  • This is from the Wikipedia page on Aquinas (I know its not the most scholarly place to quote from):


    Aquinas believed life could form from non living material or plant life, a theory of ongoing abiogenesis known as spontaneous generation:

    Quote from Aquinas

    Since the generation of one thing is the corruption of another, it was not incompatible with the first formation of things, that from the corruption of the less perfect the more perfect should be generated. Hence animals generated from the corruption of inanimate things, or of plants, may have been generated then.

    In Ed's post on the origin of life he said Aquinas belived (or at least A-Ters did) that life couldn't come from non-life, so I'm wondering, is the wiki page wrong or is Ed.

    Accoding to the Oxford Dictionary of Science “Spontaneous Generation” is the:

    The discredited belief that living organisms can somehow be produced by nonliving matter. For example, it was once thought that microorganisms arose by the process of decay and even that vermin spontaneously developed
    from household rubbish. Controlled
    experiments using sterilized media
    by Pasteur and others Ünally disproved these notions.

  • Gerry says:

    You may be interested in my new post “Intelligent Design Problems“.

    It was longer than a comment should be. In addition, I have Fr. Barron videos on the post.


    (I also publish the “Cathorick” blog.)

  • zippy says:

    Hi Gerry,

    I'll pop over and have a look at some point. Super busy this week.

  • zippy says:


    “There are no miracles; everything is a miracle” is a position with which I have some sympathy. Certainly God is God of both the gaps and the non-gaps. That doesn't mean though that we are incapable of distinguishing between different kinds of efficient causes, and determining empirically that certain kinds of efficient causes are ruled out by the empirical evidence.

    “Someone did this on purpose” is something which follows from any and all formal causes. Certain kinds of A-T philosophers though seem to want to rule out an inference to “somebody did this on purpose” from some kinds of efficient cause. It is that ruling out which continues to not make any sense to me, especially if it happens to be, you know, true.

    I'm still slowly working my way through David Oderberg's book. It is very interesting and educational to me, but at the same time there are great swaths of foundational claims – particularly claims about things like definitions, but plenty of other things besides – that I just disagree with, or at the very least that I do not at all agree to be the only possibility. There are also any number of places where he jumps all over the place from what seem to me to be claims about language and definition to claims about ontology and epistemology.

    I don't know if I'll have the ambition to write up all of my impressions. If so it will not be until much later. But I do find the whole “this is how it is; nothing else is possible, therefore you simply must adopt my particular hylemorphic theory” approach of some of these A-T types to be very … positivistic.

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