ID, A-T, and Duns Scotus: A further reply to Torley

To use a key term in two or more senses in the course of an argument, without making it clear that one is doing so, is to commit the “fallacy of equivocation.” Or so logicians have always said. When William Dembski does it, however, it’s called “subtlety.” Or so VJ Torley says, in a response to my most recent post on Dembski. I had criticized Dembski for the imprecision and ambiguity with which he uses certain key terms. My problem, Torley says, is that I simply “[do] not appreciate subtle arguments.” Dembski must be a subtle thinker indeed, because it takes Torley several pages worth of complicated exegesis to come up with a plausible reading of a single brief Dembski blog post – a blog post that was intended by Dembski to clarify once and for all the relationship between Aristotelico-Thomism (A-T) and “Intelligent Design” theory (ID)! Even then Torley hedges things at least once, conceding that a particular suggestion is his own take rather than Dembski’s explicitly stated view. Perhaps next we’ll see a clarification from Dembski of Torley’s clarification, the subtleties of which Torley can clarify for us further.

The meaning of “mechanism”

I think Torley would have served Dembski’s cause better by just owning up to the obvious – that Dembski was being sloppy. But Torley himself tries to be careful and clear where Dembski was not, so let’s consider his own position on the merits. After drawing some useful distinctions between various senses of “mechanism,” Torley holds that ID is committed to “methodological mechanism,” an approach to explaining natural phenomena that makes no reference one way or the other to immanent final causes or natural teleology. In particular, says Torley, “it does not assume that there are no final causes in nature, or even that there might be no final causes in nature; rather, it simply refrains from invoking final causes in the natural realm while arguing for the existence of a Designer” (emphasis added). Torley’s reason for including the words I’ve italicized is to make it clear that ID theory does not assume or imply even that it is possible (either metaphysically or epistemically, I think he would say) that immanent final causes do not exist. Rather, it simply doesn’t address the question at all. Therefore, Torley concludes, ID avoids the difficulties I raised against it in my post on Dembski – difficulties he seems to acknowledge would be real ones if ID did allow that it is even possible that there is no immanent teleology.

But Torley is mistaken. The ID approach is, for methodological purposes, to treat organisms at least as if they were artifacts; and that just is to treat them as if they were devoid of immanent final causality, because an artifact just is, by definition as it were, something whose parts are not essentially ordered to the whole they compose.

That is why ID theorists make such a fuss about probabilities: If the natural world is not, as A-T says it is, objectively divided into natural kinds defined by their distinctive ends, then the only difference there can be between things is a quantitative one, and whether you can get one kind of thing from another becomes in every case a probabilistic rather than all-or-nothing affair. If the world is divided into such kinds, though, to speak of whether it is “probable” that one could get one irreducible kind of thing from another is just muddled – for it is in that case not a matter of probability at all, and to speak as if it were is just to insinuate that the alleged difference in kind is not real and (therefore) that the immanent final causes that would differentiate the kinds are not real either.

Now, what all-or-nothing differences in kind do in fact exist in the world? That question has to be answered on a case-by-case basis, but I’ve already discussed one case central to the debate over ID, viz. the difference between living and non-living phenomena. Here the standard A-T view is that the difference is an absolute difference in kind deriving from the irreducibility of immanent causation to transeunt causation. But to discuss the “probability” of purely transeunt causal processes giving rise to immanent ones (as ID does) just is precisely to assume, even if only for the sake of argument, that the difference is not really a difference in kind but only in degree, and thus that the sort of irreducible immanent final causality in question is not real. Contrary to what Torley supposes, then, ID methodology does not merely avoid appealing to immanent final causes; it positively implies that they are not real.

So, there is simply no way to avoid the conclusion that ID methodology and A-T methodology are fundamentally incompatible. One cannot accept both, but must choose between them. It seems to me that there are two reasons ID sympathizers are reluctant to draw this conclusion. The first reason is that some of them have, if I might say so, simply not thought through with sufficient care the philosophical implications of the respective A-T and ID approaches. As I have been trying to show, if they do they will see that they are essentially at odds, and in particular that ID presupposes a conception of nature that A-T has always been opposed to (which is no surprise, given that modern mechanistic philosophies of nature in all their forms defined themselves in opposition to Aristotelian Scholasticism).

The second reason for the reluctance in question is that ID is as much a political movement as a school of thought, and has an interest in avoiding offending potential allies. ID theorists, like A-T thinkers, are opposed to naturalism and want to present a “united front” against it. If it were generally thought that the two views are incompatible, then such a united front would be impossible. But it is simply wrong – methodologically and morally – to let a political program of any sort, even a good one, determine what positions one takes on philosophical, theological, and scientific questions. Furthermore, from an A-T point of view the mechanistic conception of the natural world is itself part of the problem, and must be exposed for the error that it is if the naturalism that rests on it is effectively to be refuted.

Form and matter

Torley also takes exception to the low estimation of his understanding of A-T that I expressed in an earlier post. Based on what he says in this new post, I am happy to acknowledge that he does indeed have greater knowledge of A-T than I gave him credit for based on his earlier remarks. But I do still have doubts about his understanding of A-T. In particular, he is still mistaken to define prime matter and substantial form the way he does (and, I might add, was still way too glib in his earlier dismissal of the potential objections he realized A-T philosophers might raise against his definitions).

Torley quotes David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism in support of his definition of prime matter as “mass-energy.” But the passage he cites does not say what Torley seems to think it does. First of all, Oderberg does not define prime matter as “energy,” and no A-T philosopher would do so. Rather, he is in the passage in question – which comes at the tail end of a six page discussion of prime matter – merely addressing the issue of whether prime matter could be identical with energy. Consider a parallel example famously discussed by Frege: The expressions “the morning star” and “the evening star” refer to the same thing – the planet Venus – but they still differ in sense. Hence, though it would be correct to identify the morning star and the evening star, it would be an error to define “the morning star” as “the evening star.” Similarly, even if it turned out that prime matter is identical to energy (in some sense of the term “energy”), it would still be an error to define “prime matter” as energy.

Second, Oderberg is in any event extremely tentative about such an identification. Even in the passage Torley quotes, Oderberg says that “if there are substantial energy transformations (e.g. heat to sound, chemical to light) by which a wholly new thing comes into existence, there will have to be prime matter distinct from energy as a support” (emphasis added). It is only “if transformations are but phases of an underlying pure energy that has no determinate form in itself” that “perhaps one might venture the thought that [prime matter and energy] are one and the same.” The “perhaps” is italicized in the original – Torley left the italics out of his quote – and Oderberg’s tentativeness is further underlined by the very next sentence (which Torley does not quote at all) in which Oderberg describes the question of the identification of prime matter and energy as “obstacle-laden.”

Third, Oderberg speaks only of “energy” in the first place and not, as Torley does, of “mass-energy.” This is no small point, because “mass” adds further positive content which is only more difficult to square with the notion of prime matter. The difficulty is enhanced further when we acknowledge “quantity” as part of our conception of “mass-energy,” as Torley does. As Oderberg says (again in a sentence on p. 76 that Torley doesn’t quote, which comes just before the passage he does quote), “dimensionality... is manifested wholly through the forms that prime matter takes on” rather than existing in prime matter itself; furthermore, “we cannot say ‘Here is some prime matter, there is some more’” as if it could be broken up into discrete enumerable parcels (p. 109). These points don’t by themselves prove that quantity might not apply to prime matter in some other way, but they do show that the suggestion is at least highly problematic.

In short, there is simply nothing in Oderberg’s discussion, or in the A-T tradition more generally, that supports Torley’s attempt to define “prime matter” as “mass-energy,” especially when that definition is intended (as Torley’s was) to explain to non-experts what A-T thinkers themselves mean when they use the term. (By the way, since we are quoting Oderberg, perhaps it is also worth pointing out that he is another A-T philosopher who is critical of ID. See p. 287, note 18 of Real Essentialism, and the discussion in the main text to which that note is appended.)

Regarding Torley’s definition of substantial form as a kind of “attribute,” I took him to be using the term in his original remarks in the way it is typically used in contemporary philosophy, viz. as more or less synonymous with “characteristic” or “feature.” The reason I interpreted him this way is that he emphasized that he was trying to define substantial form and prime matter in a manner that avoided the standard Scholastic technical language and instead used terms most contemporary readers would be familiar with (hence his earlier appeal to the notion of “mass-energy”). Torley says I have misunderstood him, but his explanation of what he does mean is so complicated that I doubt any non-expert reader would find it more lucid than the A-T definitions he eschews. So why not just stick with the A-T definitions? Worse, his explanation only casts further doubt on his understanding of what A-T writers mean by “substantial form.” He says that “the property (or attribute) of being a metal with an atomic number of 79 is what I call the defining attribute of gold. I would call that the substantial form of gold” (emphasis in the original). But for A-T a property or proper attribute is what something has by virtue of its substantial form; it is not identical with its substantial form. Given other things Torley says, he seems to realize this, but that entails that he is either simply confused in what he says in the sentence quoted, or means to use the A-T terminology in his own novel, idiosyncratic way. But if the latter is the case, non-expert readers are hardly likely to find his usage clearer than the A-T usage, and A-T writers will object to it. So what is the point of such usage, given that his aim is to explain A-T for the non-expert?

A-T writers use the language they do, and in the way they do, precisely because it reflects many subtle distinctions that have been hammered out over the course of centuries of careful philosophical reflection. But though Torley insists on “subtlety” and attention to fine distinctions when defending Dembski or explaining his own meaning, when characterizing the A-T position, the subtle distinctions A-T philosophers insist upon are to be thrown out the window and Torley’s own tendentious novel constructions are to be preferred. And if A-T philosophers don’t like it, Torley says, “that’s just too bad.” You can’t have it both ways, Dr. Torley.

Thomism, Scotism, and ID

Torley says a great many other things – his latest is a very long post – and I simply don’t have time to address them all here. Some of the issues he raises will be discussed in one final (for now) post on the ID versus A-T dispute that I’ll be putting up soon. He also tries to enlist Duns Scotus in defense of ID. “Professor Feser has got ID proponents pegged wrong,” Torley says; “We’re not Paleyites. He’d be more charitable if he called us Scotists.”

How that is supposed to help make ID compatible with Thomism I have no idea. Torley admits, for example, that ID theorists do tend to apply terms both to God and to human beings in univocal rather than analogous senses, and he provides quotes from Dembski and others to illustrate the point. This is a major concession; ID’s univocal usage of theological language is (along with its mechanistic conception of nature) one of the two features that I have consistently emphasized as putting ID fundamentally at odds with A-T. Torley makes the concession in order to enlist Scotus in the ID cause – Scotists famously reject the Thomist doctrine of analogy – but in doing so he only confirms the charge that ID is incompatible with Thomism. (How the concession is supposed to clear ID theorists from the charge of being Paleyites I also do not know, but let that pass.) Moreover, since most ID theorists take umbrage at the suggestion that they are beholden to particular metaphysical claims, it is hard to see how Torley’s fellow ID sympathizers could appreciate being labeled “Scotists” any more than “Paleyites.”

In any event, perhaps our good friends at The Smithy would like to speak to this alleged ID-Scotus connection. I’ll conclude my own remarks by thanking Torley for a vigorous and polite exchange, and for providing a further instance of a phenomenon I have found over and over again in my debates with ID defenders: The more they tie themselves in knots in order to try to reconcile ID and A-T, the more they show that no such reconciliation is possible.
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