Is rice allowed on the Paleyo diet?

February 12, 2015 § 24 Comments

The big beef with William Paley’s watchmaker argument seems to be that it involves an inference to a watchmaker as opposed to a farmer or cultivator.  Watches are artifacts while living things are not, and this (supposedly) invalidates Paley’s argument.  I propose the following update to his argument to eliminate this objection:

In [exploring the moon], suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a [crop of rice which, when its DNA was analyzed, revealed the (statistically impossible as random chance) message “Genetically modified by Monsanto for lunar cultivation” in the DNA code], and it should be inquired how the [rice] happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the [rice] might have 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 construction, and designed its use. … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the [genetically modified rice], exists in the works of nature; …

—William Paley, Natural Theology (1802) [my updates]
The AT observation that a watchmaker analogy is not an argument for the God of natural philosophy is true enough: the watchmaker is an argument for some sort, any sort, of intelligent agency manifested in living things, and no more.  What isn’t clear though is why, once that is acknowledged, that doesn’t resolve all of the AT objections.

§ 24 Responses to Is rice allowed on the Paleyo diet?

  • jf12 says:

    “True enough”. Rocks can haz coded mineralogical messages too, if we could but read them properly.

  • I’m not nearly smart enough to try and answer this question, but have you read the many things Dr. Feser wrote in response to Dr. Torley?

    It’s actually a pretty fascinating progression. They started off as polite but on opposite sides of the issue, but eventually Dr. Feser snapped a bit. I think he was justified, but hey.

    The comments sections are worth reading.

  • Zippy says:

    I read a lot of the material at the time, but I haven’t re-read it recently. I remember coming away with the same sense I still have now though: a watchmaker or carpenter is (1) an intelligent agent, and (2) not (necessarily) God.

    I don’t understand why the argument doesn’t end in a friendly handshake once that is acknowledged by both sides.

    If a table is a problem because it is an artifact not a living thing, a GMO shouldn’t have the same problem — because a GMO is a living thing. If we can tell that a particular GMO was the product of design (because of probabilistic reasoning about it arising on its own, given what we know about it empirically), and the same methods show that all life is the product of design, that doesn’t get us to God — because carpenters are not (necessarily) God. Fair enough.

    But it does get us to intelligent agency.

  • I’ll freely admit to being a great admirer of Dr. Feser. His writing, along with the work of an excellent theology teacher, steered me away from atheism. Were it not for him I’d probably be one of those annoying rah-rah Dawkins pro-scientism obnoxious millennial atheist bloggers

    Now I’m one of those annoying rah-rah Aquinas pro-Thomism obnoxious millennial Catholic bloggers instead.

  • wdydfae says:

    I’m just guessing, but maybe the calculation on the AT side is something like this:
    i) If ID is just arguing “artifact (designer and process unknown),” AT has nothing much to add to the discussion. There would be empirical and probabilistic work to be done in order to establish the claim of artifact-ness, but for philosophical justification the venture would be either too vague or too trivial for AT to want to get involved.
    ii) If ID is implying/inferring/suggesting either direct or indirect divine agency from the complexity of the mechanism, it would be going too far if direct agency is suggested, or again it would be too vague if indirect agency is suggested, and in the latter case might there not also be that potential confusion of efficient vs. final cause?
    iii) If ID appears to be fluctuating indeterminately between i) and ii) it might seem like ID does not have all its cards on the table. It would look like (to mix metaphors) a kind of shell game and AT would be reluctant to get involved, for fear of getting burned. AT, after all, has a reputation to uphold. The burden is on ID to justify itself, not on AP to back it up, either through endorsement or “nihil obstat.”

  • vetdoctor says:

    Watching from afar.

  • Zippy says:

    A studied agnosticism on the part of AT I would understand. I don’t carry a Discovery Institute card myself.

    Studied agnosticism isn’t a good description of what has actually occurred though. What happens in my experience is that someone stipulates that the intelligent agent of ID is not (necessarily) God, and that doesn’t stop the attacks.

  • wdydfae says:

    OK, Zippy
    I haven’t been keeping up with these developments, so I should draw back from the discussion. But I’m grateful for discovering Edward Feser’s site by following Lydia’s links and some of the other comments here. Quite a guy.

    I’ve been trying to read his posts for clues that would address your OP. This one seems to approach somewhat:

    Could it be that there is a credibility issue? That is, when IDers argue, “Hey, look, the designer doesn’t have to be God . . . necessarily” they just come off as disingenuous, and one could reasonably suspect they want to re-introduce God further down the road. But by then parameters will have already been set which define God in a way that that is anathema to Feser and the AT tradition? This seems to be where Feser is going here:

    . . . and immediately after [Dembski floats] the “extraterrestrial” hypothesis he immediately tells us that it would merely generate a regress, since any “embodied intelligence” would itself require explanation. So, according to Dembski, ID theory leads to a non-embodied designer outside the natural order. Moreover, Dembski tells us in his book Intelligent Design that ID theory is, among other things, “a way of understanding divine action” (p. 13) which shows that “God’s design is… accessible to scientific inquiry” (p. 17) and that “science and theology… provid[e] epistemic support for each other’s claims” (p. 18).

  • Zippy says:


    “Hey, look, the designer doesn’t have to be God . . . necessarily” they just come off as disingenuous …

    That is a criticism of sorts, but if that is the criticism it should be made honestly instead of dressing it up as some sophisticated and intelligent philosophical argument about what is actually at issue substantively. “They just come off as disingenuous” sounds like the complaint of a teenage girl, though, so instead a whole metaphysical theory has to be projected onto the design inference and then attacked as a straw man. This is – more than a little ironically – done by folks who are themselves not exactly thick-skinned about having words put into their own mouths.

    Criticisms of Dembski are criticisms of Dembski. Lydia McGrew has criticized Dembski, and I have my own problems with his approach.

    Frankly, if the issue is social credibility (as opposed to the substance of what is at issue) I think the AT guys have done tremendous damage to their own credibility through these attack dog criticisms.

    Substantively, I don’t see what AT has to say about the subject once the observation is made that the ‘intelligent agency’ in question is the intelligent agency of a genetic engineer (whether embodied or otherwise), not (necessarily) God. Everything else is a tremendous overreach, and it makes the AT guys look stupid, at least to people like me.

  • jf12 says:

    re: rah-rah

    I’m a caveated YEC with the warm fuzzies for an omphalos hypothesis. For example the first three Days cannot have been the first three 24-hr solar days of the first solar year, since such days and years were not created until the fourth Day.

    And again, let me remind you that the argument from personal ignorance, and in this case the argument from personal confusion, is the opposite of evidence of your divine inspiration.

  • wdydfae says:

    It would be interesting if some ATers showed up to engage the issue. I’ve certainly run out of words to put in their mouths!

  • Lydia says:

    After many, many exchanges with Ed on this subject I am convinced that he *sincerely believes* that the view of God which is *inherent* in ID arguments is *necessarily* a theologically incorrect view of God. This is all bound up with the issue of “theistic personalism,” to which Ed is opposed.

    What I have attempted to do in more recent posts on the subject is to cast the matter as a dilemma argument for him. Rather like Patrick Henry saying, “If this be treason, make the most of it.” My idea is that *if* ID arguments presuppose “theistic personalism,” then theistic personalism is also presupposed by Biblical miracles (and by God’s intention that miracles such as the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism be understood as a sign). Hence “theistic personalism” in some version thereof must not be so bad after all. If, on the other hand, one insists that theistic personalism is really, really bad in any version, then ID arguments must not necessarily presuppose it and neither do Biblical miracles; there must be a way for the AT theorist to construe both that makes them not presuppose “theistic personalism.”

  • Lydia says:

    I think that Ed’s position here is actually connected to the issue of referential opacity in the philosophy of language. Suppose that I hold that “Such-and-such was done by Clark Kent.” Then I learn that Clark Kent is Superman. A question can arise as to whether I had a *necessarily* false concept of Clark Kent because I wasn’t thinking of him as Superman. Or was it just that I had a *contingently* false concept of Clark Kent because I didn’t happen to know that Clark Kent is also Superman?

    So, here: As best as I understand him, Ed’s idea is that if we think, “Such-and-such was done by a being who, for all this evidence shows, might be God or might be an intelligent alien,” then *necessarily* we have a false concept of God, because God is such that *necessarily* he cannot be like an intelligent alien. Hence, in thinking of the evidence as pointing to “a being who might be either,” I am allegedly downgrading the intrinsic nature of God and misconceiving God.

    I think that is completely wrong and misguided, but it is the best I can do at a philosophical explanation.

  • Zippy says:


    After many, many exchanges with Ed on this subject I am convinced that he *sincerely believes* that the view of God which is *inherent* in ID arguments is *necessarily* a theologically incorrect view of God.

    If I take Darwin’s Black Box as paradigmatic of ID – and it really is kind of a canonical, founding text – that is just utter nonsense. The idea that DBB presumes the kind of highly specific theology/metaphysics that Ed projects onto ID is ludicrous on its face.

    Maybe he ‘got there’ because of whom/what he read first; kind of like reading Cardinal Mercier or Monsignor Noel, concluding that Scholasticism is a total waste of time because it is “intrinsically indirect realist” (or whatever), and going on a years-long public crusade ranting about how stupid and wrongheaded are those Thomists.

    I suppose my impression of wooly headed AT attacks on ID may be similarly colored, since what I saw of it was mostly spearheaded by Ed.

  • Lydia says:

    And actually, I should not attribute the phrase “a Being” to any position attributed to Ed, however tentatively, because he is very careful not to refer to God as “a Being” but always as “Being itself.” So take that as a correction.

    [Corrected in the original – Z]

  • Zippy says:


    God is such that *necessarily* he cannot be like an intelligent alien. Hence, in thinking of the evidence as pointing to “a being who might be either,” I am allegedly downgrading the intrinsic nature of God and misconceiving God.

    If God necessarily can’t be like a man then there goes Christianity. If thinking of God building a table is misconceiving God, then a Jewish Carpenter can’t be God.

    (Not to imply that any specific positions on theology at all are intrinsic to the content of Darwin’s Black Box.)

  • Zippy says:

    I’ve been noodling around in Ed’s stuff on theistic personalism for the last half hour or so, though I’m out of time now, and am left wondering whether there is a ‘hammer in search of a nail’ or a ‘theistic personalist under every bush’ problem here.

    A thought experiment might be to take a sample of Christians at large, compare it to a sample of expressly ID-friendly Christians in particular, and see how many in each group hold theistic personalist beliefs (deny Divine Simplicity, etc).

    I’d be surprised if there were a measurable difference between the two groups. I could similarly (and no more fallaciously) claim that quantum mechanics is ‘implicitly’ committed to, say, metaphysical anti-realism; and therefore (!) it is a waste of time to do physics research.

  • Lydia says:

    And actually, since a lot of QM physicists actually are Copenhagen theorists and anti-realists, that’s an even more justified claim–that QM is implicitly committed to anti-realism. But, yeah, it cannot be used to condemn physics generally, and realists have their own interpretations of the QM results and equations. Interesting analogy.

  • Lydia says:

    To be perfectly just, Ed is very careful to bracket the Incarnation. And I think it’s also fair to say that Christians often *do* have to bracket the Incarnation. E.g. God is omnipresent, except that God Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth, was physically localized in first-century Palestine. God is timeless, but Jesus was in time. Etc. Such is the mystery of the Incarnation.

    But I have to admit to having, quite often when thinking about these issues, a perverse urge to say, “Oh, heck, I bet Moses. Paul, and all the Apostles were theistic personalists. Just deal with it!” And other similarly defiant things.

    I’m also rather concerned that a strong block against any whiff of theistic personalism just does, logically, make it impossible to make probabilistic arguments, such as arguments from miracles, for the action of God. I do not see how you can block non-deductive arguments from design without blocking non-deductive arguments from miracles. I know that this is not Ed’s intent. He claims not to be hostile per se to non-deductive arguments. But his theoretical commitments worry me in this regard. If we cannot make a sufficiently strong comparison between God and ourselves in the relevant respects, how can we be justified in believing that God has acted when we notice “personal” or “intelligent” signs in the universe–such as even an audible voice from a burning bush?

  • Zippy says:

    Upon reflection the QM comparison actually makes me a little bit more sympathetic to Ed’s point of view, despite his overreach on this subject. In a way, perhaps he is just insisting that “God does not play dice!”

    But it isn’t as if Einstein would have characterized quantum mechanics as intrinsically misguided, to wit:

    “[X] is implicitly committed to metaphysical anti-realism, and is therefore a misguided attempt to make sense of reality.”

    Replace X with “quantum mechanics” and it is a ludicrous statement. Replace X with “the Copenhagen interpretation” and it is at least arguable. The latter implicitly and explicitly makes much more concrete and specific metaphysical commitments than the former.

    “[X] is implicitly committed to theistic personalism, and is therefore a misguided attempt to make sense of reality.”

    Replace X with “the design inference in _Darwin’s Black Box_” and it is a ludicrous statement (whatever one thinks of the design inference as an empirical matter or theistic personalism as a theological matter). Replace X with “Dembski’s interpretation” or “Torley’s interpretation” and perhaps it isn’t (emphasis on ‘perhaps’ — I haven’t read all of the back and forth because it frankly is not relevant to anything I care about).

  • Lydia says:

    Torley insists at length that he is a classical theist. I cannot now remember what Ed says about Torley on that point.

    My own opinion is that *something that looks broadly like* theistic personalism is a very natural interpretation and understanding of *any* probabilistic argument for intelligent action that is ultimately understood to be divine action–whether an argument from the appearance of design or from miracles. I think Thomists and other classical theists have to make their peace with this fact somehow on pain of abandoning much of biblical Christianity.

    However, I’m pretty sure they could choose to do so by carving out space within their concept of classical theism for these arguments under the rubric of analogy–that we can attribute various of our own properties to God analogically though not univocally. God has *something like* human wisdom, intellect, will, etc.

    Alternatively, they could just say that some varieties of theistic personalism aren’t wrong after all.

    I am rather indifferent to which choice they make between those, being not particularly committed to the classical theist brand name, though I am committed to particular aspects of classical theism. E.g. I wrote a long paper for the Christendom Review arguing that God is strictly timeless. But I hope they make one of those choices rather than continuing to reject probabilistic design arguments for theological reasons, because I think that path leads to some theologically undesirable places.

  • […] the comments of the post below I compared the putative theistic personalism of “intelligent design” to the putative […]

  • […] one thinks of the distinction between art and cultivation, it is simple enough to reframe Michael Behe’s design inference in a way such that the AT […]

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