ID theory, Aquinas, and the origin of life: A reply to Torley

I want to thank VJ Torley again for his polite reply to my recent post on Intelligent Design theory and mechanism, and in particular for his kind words about my own work. This is going to be a lengthy response, and I apologize for that. But the length is unavoidable because, with all due respect to Torley, he gets so many things wrong that I simply cannot untangle all the errors with a few brief remarks. (Readers who have not read my original post or Torley’s reply to it are urged to do so before proceeding, because this post presupposes a knowledge of what was said there, and I do not want to add to the length of this post by repeating myself.)

Torley says that I have misunderstood Dembski, and that all that Dembski is saying is that the first organism could not have arisen via natural processes, but must have been created by a Designer. Torley notes that Aristotle never addressed the question of how life originated, because he thought that the world, and life as part of it, never had a beginning in the first place. And though Aquinas did believe that the world and life had a beginning, he did not think this was something that could be known apart from divine revelation, and thus did not appeal to the origin of life as a basis for an argument for the existence of a Designer. But, Torley continues, if Aquinas had known what we know today – that the earth had a beginning, and that the universe as a whole did as well at the Big Bang – then he would have emphasized the question of the origin of life as a basis for an argument for a Designer. Indeed, he says that “there is very good evidence, from Aquinas’ own writings, that he would have warmly supported Professor Dembski’s contention that the first life could not have originated by natural processes, had he known what we know today about biology”; and he is “surprised that Professor Feser is unaware of this evidence.”

Well, yes, it would be surprising indeed if the author of a book on Aquinas had overlooked such evidence. But I did not overlook it. Neither did I address it, because it is simply not relevant to the specific question at hand. Torley thinks otherwise only because he has, I am afraid, badly misunderstood what the dispute between A-T and ID theory is all about. It is not a dispute about whether life was miraculously created by God at some specific point in the past. Some A-T thinkers think it was and some think it was not, but again, qua A-T theorists that is not what their beef with ID is about. It is rather a dispute about how God creates life, whether we think of such creation as occurring at a specific point in time or as part of his ongoing conservation of the natural world (including the world of living things) in existence from moment to moment. To repeat yet again what I have said now so many times, the A-T position is that living things are “natural” rather than “artificial” in the technical Aristotelian senses of those terms discussed in my previous post; therefore when God creates a living thing, He does not do so in the manner in which an artificer constructs an artifact. And any method for studying living things which (like ID) proceeds on the assumption that He does is simply making a fundamental metaphysical and conceptual error that cannot fail to lead to serious misunderstandings of God’s relationship to the world, and thus to serious misunderstandings of how to reason from features of the world to the existence and nature of God. Again, this does not mean God did not specially create this or that living thing at some point in the past, and it doesn’t mean that He did. That is simply a separate question from the one I have been addressing.

The origin of life

All the same, the view that life cannot arise from non-life is in fact itself a commonplace of the A-T tradition, even if it is not the subject I was addressing. Not only do I not object to that view, I warmly endorse it. Still, the A-T view on this matter must be properly understood, for it does not necessarily have the implications either naturalists or ID theorists might suppose it does. The basic, traditional A-T position can be summed up in three steps:

1. There is a difference in kind and not merely degree between living substances and non-living ones.


2. A cause cannot give what it does not have to give, so that whatever is in an effect must in some way be in the cause.


3. Non-living substances cannot of themselves cause living ones.

Each of these steps requires comment, though, because those unfamiliar with A-T metaphysics invariably misunderstand them. Let’s briefly consider each of them in order. First, what is the difference between living substances and non-living ones? The traditional Aristotelian answer is that living things typically take in nutrients, go through stages of growth, and (unless impeded) have a capacity to reproduce themselves; some living things (animals and human beings) have other properties as well, but all living things have at least that much. And what sets these processes apart from apparently similar phenomena in non-living things is that they involve irreducibly “immanent” causation as well as “transeunt” causation. In the non-living realm, the end result of a causal process can be seen on analysis always to lie in something external to the cause – that is transeunt causation. Living things manifest transeunt causation, but unlike non-living things they also manifest immanent causation, insofar as some of the causal processes occurring in them cannot be understood except as terminating within and benefiting the organism considered as a whole.

There is much more that could be said – this is, contrary to what many readers seem to think, not a topic one should expect to master after reading a couple of blog posts or a combox discussion – but the point for now is just that for A-T the irreducibility of life to non-life derives fundamentally from the irreducibility of immanent causation to transeunt causation. (I say more about this at pp. 132-8 of Aquinas. And for a recent more detailed defense of the A-T understanding of life, see chapter 8 of David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism – a book which is, by the way, absolutely essential reading for anyone who is serious about wanting to understand what A-T metaphysics really says and how it might be defended in the context of contemporary analytic philosophy.)

Regarding the second step in the argument sketched above, it must be emphasized that for A-T, a cause does not have to have whatever is in the effect in the same way that the effect has it. When a torch is used to light another torch, what is in the effect – fire – is in the cause in the same way in which it is in the effect. But when fire is caused instead by striking a match, the fire was in the cause only in the sense that that specific cause has an inherent power to generate fire that other things do not have; when a builder builds a house, the features of the house are not in him in the way they are in the house, but rather in the form of his idea of the house he is to build; and so forth. To use the Scholastic jargon, if what is in the effect is not in the cause “formally,” it must still be in the cause “virtually” or “eminently.”

Furthermore, in the natural world the cause of some effect is often not some single thing but rather a set of factors working in tandem, as when a leaky faucet together with a “fizzy” tablet someone has dropped on the ground together produce a puddle of sticky, sweet, red liquid. And while what is in an effect might not be in some individual aspect of the cause – as liquidity is not in the fizzy tablet and redness is not in the water leaking from the faucet – it will be in the set of factors taken as a whole (again, at least “virtually” or “eminently” if not “formally”).

Thus, when we come to the conclusion that non-life cannot of itself generate life, what this means is that substances or processes entirely devoid of immanent causation – not only formally, but also virtually or eminently – cannot possibly of themselves bring about substances characterized by immanent causation. Now, does the implied qualification that life might be contained in the cause of living things “virtually” or “eminently” even if not “formally” render vacuous this A-T claim about the impossibility of life arising from non-life? Does it open the door to the possibility that the A-T theorist might come to accept just any account of life’s origin, even a naturalistic one, and justify it by saying that the naturalistic cause must have had life within in “virtually” and “eminently” even if not “formally”?

Not at all, for two reasons. First, immanent causation is a kind of final causation (though not the only kind); it is, for A-T, one instance of the teleology that exists immanently within the natural world as a whole, inherent to natural substances by their very nature. But (as I have discussed in many places) what is definitive of the “mechanistic” conception of nature that underlies both modern naturalism and ID theory is that there is no teleology or final causality whatsoever immanent to the natural world as such – it either has to be imposed from outside (as ID claims) or it does not exist at all (as naturalism claims). Hence, from an A-T point of view it is impossible absolutely and in principle that a purely mechanistic universe (i.e. one devoid of immanent final causality of any sort) could ever generate life. And thus it is impossible in principle that a naturalistic explanation could ever be given of the origin of life.

Now, what if we expanded our conception of naturalism to allow a little immanent final causality into the natural world? I think that no naturalist who was aware of the metaphysical, moral, and theological implications of doing this would consider it, but suppose he did. Would the A-T claim be vacuous in that case? No, because for A-T we cannot just go around attributing “virtual” or “eminent” features to a thing willy-nilly. In particular, the A-T understanding of causality would in no way license the conclusion that just any old natural process could in theory have immanent causality or life within it “virtually” or “eminently” and thus cause life to exist “formally” in some first organism. The nature of causality as such is a metaphysical question, but what specific causal powers things actually have is an empirical question. And we know, of course, that most natural substances never in fact generate life on their own, which shows (given the A-T understanding of how causal powers manifest themselves) that they do not have the power to do so – that is, that life does not exist in them “virtually” or “eminently,” much less “formally.”

Might at least some inorganic natural processes nevertheless have the power to generate life? As Torley notes, Aquinas thought so, believing as he did that spontaneous generation often occurs in nature. But Aquinas believed this because he thought there was empirical evidence for it, and we now know that that evidence (e.g. maggots arising from decaying flesh) was misinterpreted. Moreover, he also thought that the causal powers existing in the relevant forms of inorganic matter were only a necessary condition for spontaneous generation, not a sufficient one; the spiritual substances the ancients took to be guiding the heavenly bodies were also involved in the process, he thought, so that even where spontaneous generation was concerned, the total cause of life was not merely material.

No contemporary A-T theorist accepts the mistaken scientific assumptions that informed Aquinas’s views about spontaneous generation. But might a contemporary A-T theorist hold that there could be some other natural processes (understood non-mechanistically, of course) that have within them the power to generate life, at least as part of an overall natural order that we must in any event regard as divinely conserved in existence? He might, and some do. But the actual empirical evidence for the existence of such processes seems (to say the least) far weaker now than it did in Aquinas’s own day, precisely because no one any longer believes that spontaneous generation is an ongoing natural process; and the confidence that naturalists have that purely natural processes can generate life rests, I would submit, on their commitment to metaphysical naturalism rather than on actual empirical evidence.

Hence, some A-T thinkers conclude that the first living things could not have arisen out of inorganic processes in any way and must have been specially created by God in an extraordinary intervention in the natural order. Other A-T theorists nevertheless prefer instead, on general philosophical grounds rather than empirical ones, to conclude that there are inorganic natural processes having life “virtually” or “eminently” even if not “formally,” and hold that the first living things arose out of these processes, albeit only within a natural order that is itself necessarily sustained in operation by God. Their philosophical preference for this latter approach rests on the idea that where ordinary, ongoing natural processes are concerned (as opposed to specific, unusual miraculous events) appeals to extraordinary divine interventions (as opposed to the ordinary divine conservation of the world) are to be avoided. What all A-T theorists agree on, though, is that life could not possibly have arisen in a purely mechanistic universe of the sort presupposed by naturalism, so that no naturalistic explanation of life is possible even in principle. (For a useful overview of the different A-T positions on this issue, and of the A-T approach to biological questions generally, see Henry Koren, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Animate Nature, unfortunately long out of print but available through online used book dealers.)

[A side note: Could scientists, then, generate life in a laboratory using purely inorganic materials? If a mechanistic account of the natural world were true, the answer would be: Absolutely not. But what if instead there is some final causality already built into nature, and the scientists use non-living materials that nevertheless have immanent causation definitive of life within them, “virtually” or “eminently” though not “formally”? Could they generate life in that case? That depends. If what they are doing is merely facilitating processes that could occur entirely in the absence of intelligence, the answer would again be: Absolutely not. For these materials would have to be brought together in such a way that they come to form an organic whole directed towards a new end or final cause – namely the end or final cause characteristic of the particular kind of living thing they are to generate – that none of them has individually. And since a cause cannot give what it does not have, they could not impart such an end to it. Imparting such an end would necessarily require intelligence, which is why Aquinas thought “spontaneous generation” to be possible only under the influence of the spiritual substances he assumed were guiding the heavenly bodies. But what if the scientists did something to the raw materials that could not have happened in the absence of an intelligence like their own? Could they generate life in that case? In theory it seems they could, though obviously this scenario is of no help to the naturalist, who holds that life can originate in the absence of any intelligence. I think even this scenario is highly unlikely, because the absence of any evidence for spontaneous generation seems to me to be strong evidence that there simply are no inorganic materials having life “virtually.”

If it did happen, though, would the result be an “artifact” rather than a “natural” object, in Aristotle’s sense? No, no more than water synthesized in a lab is an “artifact,” and no more than a child generated by his parents is an “artifact.” For if this “laboratory life” were generated, what it would show, given the whole metaphysical apparatus in terms of which the scenario has been framed, is that the scenario is an eccentric but still natural way of generating life, just as the synthesis of water is. It isn’t like the making of a mousetrap or a watch, which – unlike water and living things – have no natural tendency to come into existence in the first place.]

Thus, from an A-T point of view the generation of life out of purely mechanistic inorganic natural processes is not a matter of mere “improbability,” and to think that it is would evince a fundamental misunderstanding of the metaphysics of life. It would be like saying that it is “improbable” that a triangle could be constructed merely out of two straight sides. Somebody who said that would not merely be understating the case; he would not merely be taking a “different approach” to reach the same conclusion that those who reject the notion of two sided triangles as a metaphysical impossibility have also reached. Rather, he would be showing that he simply doesn’t understand the nature of the issue at hand. The same thing is true, if the A-T analysis of life is correct, of those who claim that it is “improbable” that life can be given a naturalistic explanation. Properly to understand the issue is to see that a naturalistic explanation is nothing less than impossible.

So, that is one problem that A-T has with ID theory. But the problem I have been focusing on in earlier posts was, as I have said, that whether or not we think of God as specially creating life in an extraordinary intervention in the natural order, the way He creates is not properly understood on the model of human artifice. He does not make a living thing the way a watchmaker makes a watch or the way a builder builds a house. He does not take pre-existing raw materials and put them into some new configuration; nor does He even create the raw materials while simultaneously putting the configuration into them. (As I’ve said before, temporal considerations are not to the point.) Rather (as I put it in my earlier post) he creates by conjoining an essence to an act of existence, where the essence in question is a composite of substantial form and prime matter. That is the only way something that is “natural” rather than “artificial” in Aristotle’s technical senses of those terms possibly could be created.

It seems to me that many of those who object to what I have said about the incompatibility between A-T and ID fail to see this because they are simply unfamiliar with A-T metaphysics and do not understand what is meant by terms like “substantial form,” “prime matter,” etc. And this includes Torley himself. He says, for example, that “in modern parlance, prime matter is roughly the same as the modern physicist’s concept of ‘mass-energy.’” No, that is not what prime matter is. Prime matter, as I said in a passage Torley himself quotes, is matter without any form at all; and to have the properties of “mass-energy” entails having a certain kind of form, in the Aristotelian sense of “form.” Torley’s definition of substantial form is at least slightly less bad; he tells us that it is “the fundamental or defining attribute of a physical entity, which makes it the kind of entity it is.” No, it is not an “attribute” at all. It is substances that have attributes, and a substantial form is one of two components of a complete substance (the other being the otherwise formless prime matter a substantial form is united to). Since having attributes presupposes having a substantial form, a substantial form can hardly be itself a kind of attribute. It is rather the essence which grounds a substance’s proper attributes or properties, that from which these properties flow. In short, prime matter is not a kind of “raw material” but the metaphysical precondition of there being raw materials in the first place; and substantial form is not some particular configuration of matter but the precondition of there being configuration, or any other attribute, in the first place.

Amazingly, Torley is aware that an A-T philosopher might object to his characterizations of these concepts, but he says he doesn’t care. In a breathtaking passage, he tells us: “If these ‘modernized’ definitions set some Aristotelians’ teeth on edge, I’m very sorry, but that’s just too bad. Most of us can’t think in fourth-century B.C. philosophical Greek; translation to 21st-century-speak is therefore necessary. Good philosophy should be expressible in any language.” Well, good philosophy should also be accurate. Good philosophy should not be directed at straw men. A good philosopher should strive to understand what an opponent has actually said before criticizing it. Yet though Torley complains that I don’t get Dembski right, he goes on intentionally to put forward, as an explanation for readers unfamiliar with A-T, an interpretation of the A-T position that he knows A-T theorists themselves would reject!

Equally bizarre, though Torley claims I have misunderstood Dembksi, he never explains exactly how I’ve misinterpreted the specific passages from Dembski that I quoted, passages which clearly show that Dembski is committed to mechanism in the sense of “mechanism” that A-T rejects. For example, Dembski plainly says that living things are products of “art” rather than “nature,” in Aristotle’s senses of those terms, and Torley never denies that he says this. So how exactly have I misunderstood Dembski? (I get this sort of thing all the time from people unhappy with what I have said about ID: “ID theory does not take a mechanistic approach! Also, ID is right to take a mechanistic approach!” Well, which is it?)

What Aquinas didn’t say

If Torley can’t be bothered to represent either my views or Aristotle’s accurately, it is no surprise that he misrepresents Aquinas’s views as well. He cites various passages from Aquinas which he thinks show that even the Angelic Doctor thought of God as creating in the way an artificer makes an artifact. But they show no such thing. First of all, neither Aquinas nor any other A-T philosopher has ever held that we may never, under any circumstances, compare God to a builder, an artist, or the like. The claim is rather that when we are trying to understand the metaphysics of divine creation, specifically, we should not think of it on the model of human artifice. So, the fact that Aquinas uses a building or artifact metaphor here or there in his writings by itself proves nothing; and in none of the passages Torley cites does Aquinas say that’s God’s act of creating a natural substance is like an artificer’s act of making an artifact out of raw materials. Second, since Aquinas was an Aristotelian, he naturally regarded living things as “natural” rather than “artificial” in the Aristotelian senses of those terms; and when he explicitly addresses the issue of the nature of divine creation, he speaks in terms of conjoining an essence to an act of existence, and not in terms of taking raw materials and working them over like an artificer. Any “building” imagery or the like that he uses in other contexts has to be interpreted in light of these facts.

With these general points in mind, let us turn to the specific examples Torley gives. Francis Beckwith has already pointed out what is wrong with Torley’s reading of the three passages he rips out of context from the Summa Theologiae. In the first (ST I, q. 27, article 1, reply to objection 3) the topic of the discussion in which it occurs is whether one Person of the Trinity can truly be said to proceed from another. Aquinas says that just as a builder’s idea of the house he builds proceeds from his intellect without thereby being external to him in the way the house itself is, so too might an idea proceed from the divine intellect without being external to God in the way the universe is. The background of this argument is Aquinas’s view that the Son is related to the Father as the idea the Father has of Himself. The nature of divine creation of natural substances is simply not what is at issue.

In the second passage (ST I, q. 44, article 3, reply to objection 1) what is at issue is whether God can be the exemplar cause of created things, since they are radically unlike Him. Aquinas’s answer is that He can be such a cause in the sense that the idea of a created thing is in His intellect before He creates, just as the idea of a house is in an architect’s mind. But there is simply nothing in this that entails that the way God creates is comparable to a builder’s working on raw materials in order to make a house. The nature of the divine creative act is, again, not what is at issue.

The context of the third passage (ST I, q. 65, article 2, reply to objection 3) is a discussion of whether there is any sort of injustice in God’s creation of material substances which are unequal in their natures. Aquinas’s answer is that there is no more injustice in this than there is in an architect’s placing of stones in unequal positions in the building he makes. There is nothing whatsoever in this that entails that God’s actual act of creating a natural substance is comparable to a builder’s taking stones and rearranging them into a new configuration, or some such thing. Once again, the nature of the creative act itself is simply not what is at issue.

Finally, the context of the passage from the Summa Contra Gentiles that Torley cites (Book III, chapter 100, paragraphs 6 and 7) is a discussion of whether, when God causes something to occur in the natural order that would otherwise not occur, what He does is somehow contrary to the natural order. And Aquinas says that it is no more contrary to the natural order than what an artist does when he adds something new to his artwork is contrary to the nature of the artwork. But there is nothing in this that entails that God’s creation of some natural substance is comparable to (say) an artist’s taking a canvas and putting some paint on it. The nature of divine creative acts as such is, yet again, not even at issue here. (Brandon Watson makes another important point about Torley’s reading of this passage.)

I would also add that there are metaphysical concepts underlying what St. Thomas says in these passages – such as “exemplary causation,” “species,” and the like – that must be understood before one can properly understand the passages themselves. And as we have seen, Torley’s grasp of A-T metaphysics is worse than tenuous.

In general, I would urge defenders of ID theory who take umbrage at what I and other A-T philosophers have said in criticism of ID to try seriously to understand what A-T actually says before commenting on it. I would also urge them to stick to the point. The dispute between ID and A-T has – let me repeat yet one more time – nothing essentially to do with Darwinism, and nothing essentially to do with the origin of life or of this or that specific biological phenomenon. Those are separate issues. The dispute has to do instead with whether living things are to be thought of as “natural” objects or as “artifacts,” in Aristotle’s senses of those terms. It has to do with whether one can either properly understand the nature of living things, or get even one inch closer to the God of classical theism, by conceiving (even just for methodological purposes) of the natural world in mechanistic terms (i.e. in terms which exclude from the natural order immanent final causes or formal causes). And it has to do with the serious metaphysical and theological errors A-T philosophers regard as flowing from such a conception of nature, and which I have discussed elsewhere (e.g. here, here, and here).
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