Intelligent design, AT philosophy, and growing rice on the moon

February 12, 2015 § 16 Comments

I’ve always been – and still remain – puzzled by the hostility that contemporary Aristotlean-Thomist philosophers exhibit toward so-called ‘intelligent design’ theory. In the comments to an old post by my former blog colleague Ed Feser at What’s Wrong with the World, the possibility of cultivating living things from nonliving – not actually living – materials in the laboratory was addressed by the commenter Brandon:

Both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas lived in times when spontaneous generation was considered not only possible but common; they thought nature itself created organisms “from non-living raw materials using electrical, mechanical, and chemical processes” — well, electrical would not have been on their list — every single day. That human beings can do the same thing would no more surprise them than that farmers can grow seeds into plants; and thus, naturally, there’s nothing in either of their approaches to nature that rules it out. What it would show is that there is some underlying intrinsic and natural facility for certain things to come together under certain conditions so as to be alive; and art can, of course, take advantage of such natural powers — there’s probably no natural capabilities human art can’t take advantage of, in fact. But, of course, precisely what is required by the hypothetical scenario is that exactly the same natural capabilities be involved in the laboratory case as in nature: what is done in the laboratory is, ex hypothesi, not the building of an artificial simulacrum but the cultivation of a natural organism by selectively accelerating/decelerating/encouraging/discouraging, etc., various processes by which natural organisms already can come about (whether they would actually do so rarely or for the most part makes no difference to the principle).

Basically, as long as the potentialities are there in the actually non-living matter, it isn’t a priori impossible to synthesize life from non-life in the lab. Stated that way it is pretty difficult to disagree: if the potentialities for X aren’t in the raw materials, we can’t build X from those raw materials.  My read on it at the time was as follows:

If I understand Brandon’s comment … properly, an A-T philosopher who does not think it impossible to assemble life in a lab [Me today: if this is understood to be a priori impossible, it follows that the philosophy which asserts this a priori impossibility is in principle empirically falsifiable] can distinguish between Creator and Cultivator, if you will; and what ID is attempting to show is that a Cultivator was required to kick-start life. Life as we know it is empirically incapable of kick-starting without, not only a Creator, but a Cultivator. Nothing wrong with that, especially if it is true, and it does create stumbling blocks for the modern materialist.

This subject came up again in the comments to my recent post the other day.

It seems to me that the probabilistic arguments made by ID theorists like Michael Behe, which address the ‘whether they would actually do so rarely’ pivot in Brandon’s parenthetical – whatever one may think of those probabilistic arguments as an empirical matter – should be no more controversial to the AT philosopher than the observation that in order to grow rice on the moon, intelligent agency is required.

So why they be hatin?

§ 16 Responses to Intelligent design, AT philosophy, and growing rice on the moon

  • […] always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an [cultivator or cultivators], who formed [the rice] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its […]

  • Lydia says:

    You may find interesting this blog post of mine and the subsequent comments in which Ed and I try to hash out some of these issues as to why ID arguments allegedly, on his view, require, imply, encourage, or entail a “wrong concept of God.”

  • Lydia says:

    I have two posts about some objections to arguments from miracles. Interestingly, they are not a type of objection unique to Aristotelians but also found in what are known as “classical apologists” who hold that one _must_ do natural theology _first_ before arguing for any intervention of God.

    I think these posts are also relevant to your question about AT objections, etc., though I attempted quite deliberately to remove the argument in these posts from any claim that I was _representing_ Ed’s position, because that tends to be a dicey business and to cause tension and problems. In fact, one reader got annoyed with me on this very ground, so I had to include further quotations to show that the position to which I was responding has much wider currency and isn’t unique to Ed and that some formulation thereof needn’t be attributed to him.

  • wdydfae says:

    The Thomist arguments I have come across say ID seriously mixes up the levels of causation, specifically natural causes (efficient causes?) vs. final cause. This seems to make sense, though I’m not well versed in St. Thomas.

    This might be a decent middle brow summary:

    At one point I spent a lot of time on ID material and discussion venues and, though initially sympathetic, I ended up objecting to it on other grounds (than Thomistic ones). I finally thought it was an ill-conceived venture and nothing good would come of it. ID and its proponents mix up three things, I think. 1) ID as an actual scientific hypothesis (might work; they should quietly work on it if they think it’s viable, and see what they can find out; but since they don’t know yet, they should cut the hype). 2) Science\Philosophy based apologetics (can done very effectively without ID, which muddies the waters). 3) cultural and intellectual renewal (may or may not be possible, but if it is, ID doesn’t help–again, just muddies the waters). The more time I spent on ID venues the more hopelessly tangled these three impulses seemed to me. But this is not a Thomist objection.

  • Zippy says:

    This is from the article you linked:

    ID theorists hold that empirical evidence shows that there are biological forms in nature that cannot be explained in terms of any evolutionary process. Rather, they argue that such forms can only be explained by positing a divine designer who directly causes the form to exist.

    I don’t really read ID stuff anymore myself, but this strikes me as a typical AT straw man. The first sentence is more or less OK; the second sentence strikes me as projection, and certainly steals a whole bunch of bases. Lots of people seem incapable of avoiding ‘reading in’ all of their own biases into other peoples’ claims, and this characterization certainly does not truthfully represent (e.g.) Darwin’s Black Box.

  • Lydia says:

    The best formulation of an ID argument (which I do not claim is what all ID theorists use) is a *comparative* explanatory argument. That is, that the deliberate action of Intelligent agency is the best explanation of this or that feature of the biological world and is, in particular, a better explanation than the most widespread contemporary non-intelligent explanations (e.g., neo-Darwinian explanations). It has always been an astonishment to me that anyone should find such an argument form intrinsically objectionable.

    I really believe that in many people (not, I want to emphasize, Ed Feser, but some people who _use_ his arguments) this is really a matter of Post-Galileo Traumatic Stress Disorder. That is, there is a feeling that if we buck the trend in science we appear to be anti-science, giving aid and comfort to all those pictures of Christians as anti-science, and that therefore (here’s the rub) we must find an a priori *theological* objection to the ID position because it is unpopular in mainstream science. In this way we make our scientific credentials impeccable: Not only are we not *against* evolution, we’ve developed a theology that says it *has* to be right, because “that’s the way God would work.”

    This is all nonsense. We should find out how God works in nature and creation by looking at the way God works. It cannot be decided from an armchair. If God has really put a signature in the cell, it is the height of folly to develop an a priori philosophy that says it had to have come about by secondary causes, or it has to look at though it came about by secondary causes, or God “wouldn’t” intervene to make cells, or that we must not argue from the features of the cell to the probable action of an intelligent being, etc.

  • jf12 says:

    re: “we’ve developed a theology that says it *has* to be right, because “that’s the way God would work.””

    Exactly. In so many other applications too.

  • Zippy says:


    Post-Galileo Traumatic Stress Disorder

    Great neologism. A further irony is that the ‘science’ in evolutionary theory is just atrociously bad, and ‘supporting’ evolutionary theory (as if it were a political party or something) has probably done more to destroy scientific realism in our society than any other factor. My own objections to evolutionary theory were never theological.

  • wdydfae says:

    I think you are right that the passage is worded unfortunately, but with very mild editing (below in bold) it would be a fair summary of Darwin’s Black Box:

    ID theorists hold that empirical evidence shows that there are biological forms in nature that cannot be explained in terms of any evolutionary process. Rather, they argue that such forms can only be explained by positing a [designer (divine or otherwise) that] directly causes the form to exist.

    That is, what he gets wrong here is failing to acknowledge that Behe does not insist on the divinity of the designer.

    And that is fine on Behe’s part, but in practice it leads to a kind of “weaponized theism” in ID discourse. Theism disappears when its convenient (the scientific hypothesis), then reappears when the ID movement emphasizes the apologetics aspect or the cultural/intellectual renewal aspect. ID’s critical interlocutors do not fail to notice this and have much sport watching IDers trip over the identity of the designer.

    I enjoyed DBB very much, at first. I had less appreciation after following the ID movement for a while and seeing where it all led, but it is still a fascinating, informative book.

    ID seems to me to be an expression of “post-Dawkins Traumatic Stress Disorder”, almost literally so, since it was a response to Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker, and specifically spurred by an anti-Dawkinsian epiphany of Phillip Johnson. PDTSD I guess is a dime store version of the post-Galileo Traumatic Stress Disorder.

  • Zippy says:

    “… directly causes the form to exist” also steals all sorts of bases.

  • wdydfae says:

    Touche. So, I think you are saying the Catholic Answers writer unjustifiably imputes “direct interventionalism” to Behe vis-a-vis design. That is a good point. Yes, Behe would just (I think) point to the evidence for design itself and probably insist on not going further than that.

    For what it is worth, I was personally leaning very much toward the teleological models implied by some IDers. Michael Denton’s Nature’s Destiny ended up being my favorite book in the ID canon. Denton originally inspired Phillip Johnson’s anti-Dawkinsian epiphany (with an earlier, weaker book) but later fell out of favor with a lot of the ID crowd from Nature’s Destiny because he conceded too much to the other side about biological evolution.

  • vetdoctor says:

    Just putting a thumbprint here.

  • Fake Herzog says:

    Hi Zippy,

    As Lydia can tell you, I’ve followed from the sidelines the debate between the ID and A-T camps for some time. Here is the best summary of Ed’s objection to ID (from his response to Lydia’s post linked above):

    “I’ve explained this many times (again, see my ID related posts, and, for my fullest and most systematic statement, my recent Nova et Vetera article “Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’s Fifth Way”). Briefly, the main points are:

    1. Paley and ID theory predicate attributes of God and of creatures univocally, whereas for Thomists these predications are to be understood analogously. The problem here is that in the view of Thomists, predicating intellect, power, etc. of God and creatures univocally — in exactly the same sense rather than analogously — implicitly makes of God a mere instance of a kind, and is thus incompatible with divine simplicity. (Scotists dispute the incompatibility of univocal predication with divine simplicity, but Thomists regard their position as unstable. See Scholastic Metaphysics, pp. 256-63, for discussion of some of these issues.)

    2. ID theory presupposes — whether in an unqualified way or at least for the sake of argument — a conception of the natural world that is “mechanistic” in the sense of denying that there is any teleology or final causality immanent to or inherent in natural substances qua natural (as we Aristotelians claim there is). Any teleology or finality would for ID have to be in nature only extrinsically or in a way that is entirely imposed from outside, after the fashion of artifacts like watches and other machines. Now there are a couple of grave theological problems with this view, one of which is this: If there is no teleology or “directedness” of any sort inherent in natural things, then there is no potency or potentiality (in the Aristotelian sense) inherent in them either; for a potency is always a potency for some outcome, toward which it is directed. And that means that natural things are not really composed of act and potency, but in some sense just are entirely actual and devoid of potency. In that case, though, they do not need actualization from anything outside them, in which case they do not need a sustaining cause. That in turn entails deism at best and atheism at worst.

    (Aristotelian final causality is thus necessarily linked to the theory of act and potency, and thus in turn to the very possibility of natural theology. This is a theme of my 2011 Franciscan University of Steubenville talk “Natural Theology Must Be Grounded in the Philosophy of Nature, Not Natural Science,” which you can find on YouTube. As I discuss in the course of that talk, there is a parallel here to Berkeley’s famous point that the early moderns’ conception of matter was implicitly atheistic.)

    3. A second problem following from this denial of intrinsic or immanent final causality is this: Since (as the Thomist argues) efficient causal power presupposes that causes are “directed toward” their effects as toward a final cause, if we deny intrinsic finality or “directedness” to things we are also implicitly denying intrinsic efficient causal power to them. That would mean either that nothing has genuine causal power at all (a Humean position which is incompatible with arguing causally from the world to God), or that only God has any real causal power (which is occasionalism). In addition to being bad philosophy, these positions are theologically unacceptable.

    Hence any theology committed to a “mechanistic” or non-Aristotelian conception of nature is an unstable one, tending to collapse into either deism or occasionalism. But deism in turn tends to collapse into atheism, and occasionalism into pantheism. Unsurprisingly, this is pretty much what happened historically, as the watchmaker god of the “design argument” came to seem first a remote “god of the gaps” needed only to wind up the universe, and then an unnecessary fifth wheel; while Malebranche’s occasionalism gave way to Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura.

    Obviously these are large and controversial claims; again, I’ve developed these arguments in detail elsewhere. (And please don’t bother commenting on all this until you’ve read what I’ve said about it elsewhere. I’m really, really tired of having to repeat myself over and over and over again on the ID issue to correct the errors of people who can’t be bothered to read what I’ve actually said before commenting on it, and who pass their misrepresentations of my views on to others.) The point for present purposes is just that the Thomist has deep philosophical and theological reasons for rejecting any view which, like ID theory, presupposes a “mechanistic” conception of nature (again, in the specific sense of “mechanistic” given above). And these reasons have nothing to do with ID arguments being merely less than conclusive.”

    While Ed has turned me into a hard-core fan of A-T, I find ID arguments persuasive and recently bought Darwin’s Doubt because I hang out over at “Evolution News and Views” all the time. It seems to me the ID crowd does a very good job of showing why the Darwin crowd is mostly wrong about macro evolution, even if their theology is dodgy…

  • Zippy says:

    Fake Herzog cites Ed Feser:

    Paley and ID theory predicate attributes of God and of creatures univocally, …

    … and that is where he loses me, right at square one. Darwin’s Black Box, one of the original canonical works in ID, predicates nothing at all to God. The notion that ID theory requires and presupposes what he says it requires and presupposes is just wrong.

    As I point out in my more recent post, he does the equivalent of conflating the Copenhagen interpretation of QM with QM itself.

    It seems to me the ID crowd does a very good job of showing why the Darwin crowd is mostly wrong about macro evolution, even if their theology is dodgy…

    The thing is though that there is no univocal “their theology” with the specificity that Ed claims. It would be just as equivocal to say “the ontology of quantum physics is dodgy”. There is no univocal “theology of ID,” any more than there is a univocal “ontology of quantum physics”.

  • TomD says:

    I personally found Darwin’s Black Box to be not as convincing as his second book – The Edge of Evolution – which spends much more time on the science of trying to figure out how Evolution would work and what DNA can tell us.

    But just like the falsity of positivism doesn’t prove that postmodernism is true, evolution being false doesn’t prove ID – in fact, I think a much more interesting area of investigation is simply to assume that final causality exists, and work on science from that angle. (Part of the ID response comes from the modern “well if X isn’t true you must produce an alternate theory of reality Y that explains EVERYTHING including this puppy.”)

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