Secret agency, man
February 15, 2015 § 66 Comments
I haven’t written much on the “Intelligent Design versus Aristotlean-Thomism” debate since I became bored out of my mind by it several years ago. But recently I’ve taken it up again, if only out of a sense of masochism. (In reality it was probably because David Oderberg’s book Real Essentialism ended up synced to my newish Kindle Voyage, one thing leading to another — such is the whimsy of life).
The criticism of evolutionary “theory” which goes by the name “intelligent design”, the tip of the spear of which was Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box, has been subject to consistent and vocal attack by Aristotlean-Thomist critics over the past half decade or so. (It should be said that I have no idea how representative this cadre of vocal critics is of AT in general). This criticism depends crucially on the AT distinction between artifacts and natural objects, the latter which (on the AT metaphysical account) have substantial forms and the former which have merely accidental forms.
All of that can be stipulated without in any way giving rise to a legitimate criticism of Michael Behe’s inference to intelligent agency from the data of microbiology. (There may be plenty of legitimate criticisms; but the AT criticism based on the natural-artifactual distinction isn’t one of them).
Here philosopher and author Edward Feser clarifies his contentions about art versus cultivation in a fairly recent post:
… the distinction Aristotle is getting at here is really the distinction between substantial form and accidental form, and whether something came about through human interference or not is at the end of the day a secondary issue. For there are man-made things that have substantial forms and are thus “natural” in the relevant sense (e.g. new breeds of dog, water synthesized in a lab) and there are things that are not man-made but rather the result of natural processes that are nevertheless not “natural” in the relevant sense but have only an accidental rather than substantial form (e.g. a random pile of stones or dirt, qua pile, that has formed at the bottom of a hill). The usual cases of things with merely accidental forms are man-made, though, so that we tend (wrongly) to regard the man-made as per se “unnatural,” and the usual cases of objects that occur apart from human action are “natural” in the sense of having a substantial form, so that we tend (wrongly) to assimilate what is “natural” in the sense of occurring apart from human action to what is “natural” in the sense of having a substantial form or intrinsic principle of operation.
Whatever 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 objection collapses on itself and goes away.
Suppose a living thing is found and examined, and it is determined that it is statistically ludicrous to suggest that this living thing occurred in unaided nature: the evidence clearly shows it to be the result of genetic engineering or tinkering by intelligent agents. Think of an apple tree which produces apples with “GMO Red Delicious, by the Secret Agent” embedded in the DNA of the apple. Or a tree that produces chairs. Or a bacteria that eats oil spills.
We may not know who the intelligent agents happen to be: that might remain hidden, a secret. But nevertheless we can tell, as a forensic matter, that they exist(ed) and must have tinkered.
The ID guys observe this ‘signature in the cell’ and infer that the (efficient) causes of the apple tree must include the actions of an intelligent agent. Just as the regular rows of corn in a farm imply a farmer, the signature in the cell implies a signer.
Now we can grant that the ID guys didn’t go out of their way to learn everything about AT metaphysics before studying microbiology, and pre-frame their writing on the design inference – its facticity as deduced from empirical evidence – in such a way as to avoid getting AT knickers in a twist.
But whose job is it to interpret factual claims through the lens of AT metaphysics? Is that the job of empirical fact finders, or is that really the job of AT metaphysicians?
ID (whatever one thinks of its veracity or plausibility as an empirical matter) is first and foremost a factual claim: a claim that the observed properties of life cannot be explained by (the efficient causes of) chance and the laws of physics, and that therefore, as a forensic inference, life could not be here absent the intervention of intelligent agency — not (necessarily), it is true, the creation ex nihilo of God, but the ordinary agency that slams us in the face with a hammer every time we observe human beings make choices.
When confronted with this factual claim, AT metaphysicians have two intellectually honest choices qua AT metaphysicians: they can dispute the factual claim, or they can go to work explaining how the factual claim is explicable through the lens of AT metaphysics.
The vocal AT critics of ID have done neither of these two things.
There were times when I thought they were disputing the factual claim. That can’t be the case though, because if it were the case they would be admitting the empirical falsifiability of their metaphysics.
And they certainly have not attempted to explain the empirical factual claim through the lens of AT metaphysics. Instead they have spent enormous energy arguing that ID is incompatible with AT.
So my conclusion is that they’ve spent years of attack dog articles avoiding the central issue and changing the subject.