Manzi on the Wright-Coyne dispute

I argued in The Last Superstition that whatever one thinks of Darwinism, its truth or falsity is (contrary to what New Atheists like Richard Dawkins suppose) irrelevant to the cogency of the Thomistic proofs of God’s existence, including Aquinas’s Fifth Way (which Dawkins incompetently assimilates to Paley’s Design argument). Indeed, if Darwinism has any relevance to the latter argument at all, it is in fact by slightly reinforcing rather than undermining it. The reason is that Darwinism, like any scientific theory, posits various causal mechanisms, all causal mechanisms presuppose (for reasons set out in TLS) final causality, and thus (since the take-off point of the Fifth Way is the existence of final causality) Darwinism, qua scientific theory, only lends further support to the Fifth Way.

I also argued in TLS that the application by biologists, physicists, and other scientists of concepts like “algorithm,” “information,” “software,” “program,” etc. to the natural world evinces a tacit recognition of the reality of teleology or final causation. The reason (set out, again, in detail in TLS) is that the sort of directedness-towards-an-end that these concepts entail just is the core of the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of final causality.

A third point emphasized throughout TLS is that the Thomistic proofs, like most of the classical arguments for God’s existence, do not stand or fall with the question of whether the universe had a beginning in time. Even if (as the pagan Aristotle held and as the Christian Thomas Aquinas was happy to concede for the sake of argument) the universe had no beginning, the need for a first Uncaused Cause would remain. For “first” in the thinking of Aristotle and Aquinas does not mean “first in time” but rather “ontologically most fundamental,” and what they are interested in explaining is not how the universe came about at some point in the past but rather what keeps in going at any given moment. (Creation for Aquinas fundamentally just is the divine conservation of the world in being.)

In an interesting commentary over at The Daily Dish on the dispute between biologist Jerry Coyne and Robert Wright (author of The Evolution of God), Jim Manzi makes some observations which dovetail with these points.

This is admittedly least obvious with respect to the last point. Manzi notes that, contrary to what Coyne seems to suppose:

evolution does not eliminate the problem of ultimate origins. Physical genomes are composed of parts, which in turn are assembled from other subsidiary components according to physical laws. We could, in theory, push this construction process back through components and sub-components all the way to the smallest sub-atomic particles currently known, but we would still have to address the problem of original creation. Even if we argue that … prior physical processes created matter, we are still left with the more profound question of the origin of the rules of the physical process themselves.

And Manzi concludes that:

If you push the chain of causality back far enough, you either find yourself more or less right back where Aristotle was more than 2,000 years ago in stating his view that any conception of any chain of cause-and-effect must ultimately begin with an Uncaused Cause, or just accept the problem of infinite regress.

Now, Manzi’s point is susceptible of two alternative interpretations. He might mean that if you trace the origins of complex material structures back in time to ever earlier stages in the history of the universe (or of some hypothetical series of branching universes, perhaps) then you will eventually either have to reach some temporal beginning point and un Uncaused Cause of that beginning point, or accept a mysterious infinite regress.

If that is what Manzi means, then he is not giving an Aristotelian defense of theism. Again, Aristotle and his followers do not argue for a temporal beginning of the universe (even though some of them do happen to believe, on independent grounds, that it had such a beginning). Nor do they think that an infinite regress is a “problem.” For by “infinite regress,” one either means an infinite regress of accidentally ordered causes extending backward in time – in which case such a regress is perfectly possible (and, indeed, actual, in Aristotle’s own view) – or one means an infinite regress of essentially ordered causes of the sort that trace ultimately to simultaneously operating instrumental causes here and now – in which case such a regress is, not merely “problematic” or mysterious (as if such a regress could exist in some as-yet unknown fashion), but flatly impossible in principle. (Again, all of this is explained at length in TLS.)

But Manzi’s remarks can be interpreted in another, more Aristotelian way. He might mean that even if the universe had no beginning in time, the basic laws that govern it, and the fact of their continual operation at any given moment, would still require an explanation. Talk of “laws of nature” is more a modern than an Aristotelian way of speaking, but the basic point remains that there is nothing inherent in material reality that can account for the “actualizing” of its “potential” for existing and operating in just the way it does at any particular instant. Unless we trace it down to that which is “pure actuality,” an Unmoved Mover or Uncaused Cause sustaining it in being and operation here and now and at any moment we are even considering the question, we would have no way in principle to account for why the universe exists at all and operates in precisely the way it does. The “problem of infinite regress” on this interpretation is not a matter of accepting a mystery which might have a solution – just one we do not and perhaps cannot discover – but rather the fatal (to naturalism) problem that without acknowledging that the regress of essentially ordered causes operating here and now terminates in an Unmoved Mover, the material world becomes unintelligible even in principle. (You know the drill: See TLS for the details.)

Manzi is clearer on the issue of final causality. Coyne seems to think that to attribute purposiveness to evolution entails seeing the human species, specifically, as having somehow been the end result toward which natural selection was working; and he trots out the usual ad hominem response to critics of Darwinism to the effect that they just can’t handle evolution’s humbling implications, blah blah blah. But as Manzi notes, this completely misses the point. Let the human race be as cosmically insignificant as you like; neither our existence nor that of any other particular species is at all relevant to the question of evolution’s “purposiveness.” The point is rather that Darwinism claims to identify an “algorithm” by means of which natural processes generate new species. And if this “algorithm” talk is taken seriously, then (to put things more strongly than Manzi does) it necessarily entails, given the nature of algorithms, that there is an end-state towards which the processes in question point – not, to be sure, the generation of some particular species (human or otherwise) at some temporal culmination point, but rather the (in principle non-stop) generation of species after species meeting certain abstract criteria of fitness. (It is an error to think that the existence of final causes in biology would entail some sort of “omega point” a la Teilhard de Chardin. Aristotle, after all, believed that the motion of the heavenly spheres was both teleological – since the spheres were in his view moved by their “desire” to emulate the Unmoved Mover – and also endless. His physics and astronomy were mistaken, but that does not affect the philosophical point about the nature of teleology. Even if evolution proceeds forever, that would not make it non-teleological.)

As I argue in TLS, all the computer science talk physicists, biologists, and other contemporary scientists have taken on board with such gusto really isn’t compatible with the “mechanistic” or anti-teleological conception of the material world to which they are still officially committed. Hence one either has to agree with the judgment of thinkers like John Searle that talk of “information,” “algorithms,” etc. is at best a misleading set of metaphors and at worst a complete muddle; or, if one thinks such talk is indispensible (and there is good reason to think it is) one must acknowledge that something like the Aristotelian conception of nature is correct after all.

James Ross has made similar arguments in a series of writings, such as his essay “The Fate of the Analysts: Aristotle’s Revenge: Software Everywhere,” and, most recently, in his book Thought and World: The Hidden Necessities. And, of course, I have noted the many neo-Aristotelian themes to be found in the work of many contemporary philosophers and scientists – including many who have no theological ax to grind – both in TLS and in earlier posts like this one and this one. Far from completing the anti-teleological mechanistic revolution – which was, strictly speaking, a philosophical revolution rather than a scientific one (albeit a philosophical revolution modern scientists have tended to swallow hook, line, and sinker) – the advent of the algorithm actually completely undermines it.

One reason so many commentators on the so-called “religion vs. science” debate don’t see the Aristotelian implications of the modern scientific ideas to which they appeal is that they simply don’t understand what Aristotelians mean by “final causality” in the first place, and in general -- as I never tire of complaining -- are beholden to a fossilized set of “Enlightenment”-era clichés and caricatures of what Aristotelians and Scholastics really thought. Not understanding classical philosophy (whether Aristotelian, Platonist, Thomist, or whatever) they naturally also do not understand the theology it inspired. Hence they take William Paley and his successors – rather than an Augustine, an Aquinas, or even a Leibniz – as their guides to what the divine nature must be like, if there is a God. Hence, rather than directing their arguments against the (classical philosophy-informed) classical theism that has historically defined Christian orthodoxy, they target a (currently popular but historically aberrant) anthropomorphic conception of God. Perhaps Coyne, Dawkins, et al. draw some blood when this conception is their target; and then again, perhaps not. Either way, their arguments are utterly irrelevant to the question of the existence of the God of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas – and thus of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But that theme calls for a separate post…
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