Catholicism, conservatism, and capital punishment

Catholic teaching on the death penalty – or rather, yet another simplistic and misleading presentation of the Church’s teaching – is in the news again.  I plan to write up a blog post on this latest controversy, but in the meantime I thought it would be worthwhile reprinting the lengthy treatment of the subject I wrote for the old Right Reason group blog back in 2005.  (The original post and the combox discussion it generated can still be found here via the Wayback Machine.  But Wayback Machine links are temperamental, so it will be useful to give the post a new home.)

Chris Tollefsen has given a very clear presentation and defense of the anti-capital punishment position, from a point of view that is avowedly Catholic and natural law-oriented. My point of view on these matters is also avowedly Catholic and natural law-oriented. And yet, on this issue, I think that he is very gravely mistaken. Chris says that capital punishment "is always and everywhere wrong." I maintain that such a claim is utterly impossible to reconcile either with natural law or with Catholicism. How can people who seem to have the same premises reach such diametrically opposed conclusions? To answer this question, I want first to make a few remarks about natural law and Catholicism before turning to capital punishment itself. The upshot of my discussion will be that the natural law and the Catholic tradition both entail a view of capital punishment that is unmistakably conservative (rather than "liberal and progressive," as Chris says his own view is).

This will be a somewhat long post, and for that I apologize. But the topic is extremely important, the background issues are complex, and the confusions on the part of many readers – especially regarding natural law theory and Catholic teaching on this subject – might, I fear, be many, so I think a somewhat detailed treatment is called for.

The first thing to be said is that while both Chris and I would use the expression "natural law" to describe our respective approaches to moral questions, it is evident that we do not use it in the same way. Those who are unfamiliar with recent developments in Catholic moral thought might not realize that there are (at least) two general theories going under the name "natural law" these days, and they are very different. On the one hand, there is what we might call the "traditional" or "classical" natural law theory, one of the key assumptions of which is that ethics crucially depends on certain traditional metaphysical theses, such as realism about universals (of the sort historically associated with Plato and Aristotle), a belief that there are final causes in nature, and so forth. On the other hand, we have what has come to be known as the "new natural law theory," which tries to reconstruct a broadly natural law approach to ethics without appealing to any of these metaphysical assumptions. For the older, classical natural law theory, the "natural" in natural law alludes both to human nature, in terms of which the content of morality gets defined, and to the fact that knowledge of at least the basic moral truths is accessible to us naturally (as opposed to supernaturally), through pure reason (as opposed to divine revelation). For the "new natural law theory," by contrast, "natural" has only the second connotation, and advocates of the theory tend to eschew making metaphysical claims about human nature of the sort associated with the classical approach.

The classical or traditional approach to natural law is probably more in line with what the average non-expert thinks of when he hears the expression "natural law" (though I should add that the average non-expert’s idea of the theory is also usually riddled with several very serious misunderstandings of it, as I have tried to show in some previous posts). This is only to be expected given that this is the approach to natural law that prevailed in the Catholic Church for a very long time prior to Vatican II, and was reflected in the standard manuals of moral theology that were once in common use. The "new natural law theory," by contrast, is a very recent invention, and was developed by thinkers (most notably Germain Grisez and John Finnis) who seem impressed by various standard objections made by modern philosophers against classical natural law (such as the appeal to the so-called "fact/value" distinction) and/or are unwilling to rest their moral arguments on metaphysical premises that are far more controversial today than they were in previous centuries. These thinkers also seem inclined to take on board certain moral concepts that derive more from modern (and especially Kantian) thinking than they do from the historical natural law tradition.

Now while the classical approach takes the basic truths of morality to be accessible to pure reason, this by no means entails that it excludes theological considerations from playing a role in ethics. Indeed, the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are, from the classical natural law point of view, metaphysical truths no less capable of demonstration than is the existence of formal and final causes and the like. So for the classical view, there is no reason to ignore these truths when reflecting on morality. Indeed, it would be irrational to do so, for if there really is an Author of nature, then His intentions can hardly fail to be relevant to a proper understanding of our moral obligations, and if human beings have immortal souls, then this is hardly something that can reasonably be ignored when determining for moral purposes what the final end or good for man is.

The “new natural law theory,” however, prefers to emphasize purely secular (in the sense of “worldly”) considerations. To be sure, its proponents typically list “religion” as among the several “basic goods” from which all our moral obligations derive, but this seems to be intended in a kind of anthropological or psychological sense rather than a metaphysical one. For the “new natural law” approach, it isn’t that determining the content of morality crucially depends on knowing whether there really is a God or whether we really have immortal souls (though of course the theory’s advocates don’t deny either the existence or the knowability of God or the soul); rather, what is crucial is that we have a need for religious fulfillment of some broadly defined sort, a need which might in principle be recognized even by someone who doesn’t believe that there is any objective metaphysical reality corresponding to the object of religious belief. The other “basic goods” listed by new natural law theorists – life, knowledge, “play,” and the like – similarly tend to get defined in decidedly “this worldly” terms rather than in metaphysical ones. It is, you might say, from the subjective perspective of the person rather than from the objective ontological perspective that the content of the basic goods gets determined. There is nothing in them that requires appeal to formal and final causes, or anything else of that sort.

Now Chris, I gather, is more or less of the Grisez-Finnis school of thought. I, on the other hand, am quite firmly of the old school. And this, I believe, is surely a large part of the reason for the difference between us regarding capital punishment (and, as some earlier exchanges on the Right Reason blog indicate, regarding other issues too). That does not mean that I think that the case for capital punishment necessarily has to rest on any of the specific metaphysical premises I mentioned, including the theological ones. In fact I think that as good a case can be made for it on purely secular grounds as can be made for any other moral claim. Nor do I believe that the “new natural law” approach itself actually entails an anti-capital punishment position. I do think, however, that an adherent of that view is at least more likely to fall into that particular error (as I see it) than a classical natural law theorist would, for reasons I will explain in a moment.

More puzzling to me is why Chris thinks, as he seems to (from his most recent post and earlier ones), that Catholic teaching favors his view of capital punishment. Presumably the reason has something to do with Pope John Paul II’s statements on the matter, and of course, I do not deny that the pope was opposed to capital punishment. But as is well known, John Paul II’s views on this subject were a departure from traditional Catholic attitudes, which have always upheld not only the in-principle legitimacy of the death penalty, but also its appropriateness in many practical circumstances. (See this important article from First Things by Avery Cardinal Dulles – who is himself in agreement with John Paul II’s views – for a survey of the history of these attitudes which shows just how unanimously they were held in the Church until very recently.) And in Catholic theology, traditional teaching, especially where it is long-standing (as the traditional view of capital punishment is, going all the way back to the Bible) is normative. A pope’s primary obligation is to preserve the traditional teaching of the Church in matters of faith and morals, and anything he says that concerns faith and morals must be interpreted in the light of tradition. This is enough all by itself to rule out any absolute condemnation of capital punishment of the sort Chris seems committed to (though there is, as we shall see, much more to be said).

None of this conflicts with the Catholic view of papal infallibility or with the pope’s authority to issue binding moral instruction to the Church and its members. Infallibility pertains to the normal day-to-day reiteration of the Church’s traditional teaching in matters of faith and morals (the “ordinary magisterium”) and to acts in which the pope explicitly declares and defines ex cathedra some teaching as binding on Catholics (the “extraordinary magisterium”). It also applies only to matters of general principle, not to concrete applications of principle to contingent circumstances (known among Catholics as “prudential judgments”). So, for example, if a pope were solemnly to declare and define that “just war” doctrine is authoritative and binding on all Catholics, his teaching would, from the Catholic point of view, have to be regarded as infallible. But if he were to issue a statement to the effect that some particular war (such as the Iraq war) either did or did not meet just war criteria, his judgment would not be infallible. Now the pope certainly never made any ex cathedra statement about capital punishment; and the ordinary magisterium of the Church, understood (as it must always be) in the light of the teaching of two millennia, if anything supports the defenders of capital punishment rather than its critics. The only possible way to interpret John Paul II’s statements on this matter, then, would seem to be as prudential applications of moral principle. Even though the death penalty is, from the Catholic point of view, not intrinsically evil – something that John Paul II not only did not deny but explicitly re-affirmed – it was, in his prudential judgment, better to refrain from using it if we can effectively “protect people’s safety from the aggressor” by locking him up instead.

And yet, Chris says that capital punishment “is always and everywhere wrong, not just prudentially wrong here and now.” How he would square such a claim with the Church’s consistent teaching of 2,000 years, or indeed with John Paul II’s own expressly stated teaching, I have no idea. But perhaps he was speaking incautiously. Perhaps what he really meant to say was merely that any use of capital punishment for some purpose other than that of “protecting people’s safety from the aggressor” would be wrong. In particular, maybe he means to deny that it can ever be legitimate to apply capital punishment as a means of securing retributive justice. This does, in fact, seem to be the view of some Catholics opposed to capital punishment, who would defend their view on the grounds that John Paul II emphasizes the protection of the innocent, rather than retribution, as a justification for capital punishment under some circumstances.

Even this weaker claim is flatly incompatible with traditional Catholic teaching, though. The constant teaching of the Church has always been, not only that capital punishment is in principle legitimate, but also that it is in principle legitimate precisely as a means of securing retributive justice. There is nothing in anything that John Paul II ever said that contradicts this, and again, anything he did say necessarily has to be interpreted in the light of this traditional teaching. This is not the opinion merely of those Catholics who support capital punishment, but also of some who oppose it. For example, Avery Cardinal Dulles – surely a theological authority of considerable stature – has concluded on the basis of his study of the Catholic tradition that:

“If the Pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be overthrowing the tradition of two millennia of Catholic thought, denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture (notably in Genesis 9:5-6 and Romans 13:1-4). I doubt whether the tradition is reversible at all, but even if it were, the reversal could hardly be accomplished by an incidental section in a long encyclical [i.e. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae] focused primarily on the defense of innocent human life. If the Pope were contradicting the tradition, one could legitimately question whether his statement outweighed the established teaching of so many past centuries.” (National Catholic Register March 24-31, 2002)

Accordingly, Dulles concludes that John Paul II’s view must be interpreted as a prudential judgment (with which, again, Dulles happens to agree) – a fallible application of traditional principles to contingent circumstances, not a denial of traditional principles. Further support for this judgment is provided by an even more authoritative source – the current pope, Benedict XVI, who while still a cardinal wrote, in a now famous letter from just last year regarding the duties of Catholics in public life, that:

“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” (emphasis mine)

Now, not to put too fine a point on it, but if the pope himself would be “overthrowing the tradition of two millennia of Catholic thought, denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture” if he were to deny the legitimacy of retribution as a ground for applying capital punishment, how can Chris’s view possibly be characterized as a “Catholic” view of capital punishment? How, if Chris is right, could a Catholic who supports capital punishment possibly present himself in good conscience for Holy Communion, given that he would in that case be guilty of advocating something intrinsically evil? How could Catholics legitimately disagree about the death penalty, but not abortion and euthanasia, if, as Chris seems to think, these are all equally violations of human dignity? Either the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church is wrong, or Chris is.

I realize, of course, that many readers would just shrug and say that it is the Church that is wrong. But the point is that I don’t see how Chris can do this, given that he has described himself on this blog [i.e. Right Reason] as a “traditional Catholic,” one who acknowledges the authority of the traditional teaching of the Church in matters of faith and morals. The very core of the Catholic view of this authority is the idea that God would not allow the Church to teach a fundamental error regarding faith or morals for 2,000 years – that’s the very point of an institutional Church, as an infallible guarantor of doctrine. To suggest that the Church has been wrong about capital punishment implies that Catholicism – which claims infallibility for the Church on basic principles of faith and morals – is false. Obviously Chris wouldn’t want to say this, but then it seems to me he cannot consistently take the view he does regarding capital punishment.

Let me turn now to the philosophical grounds for supporting the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment as a matter of retributive justice. The basic argument is actually quite simple. If we accept that people can deserve to be punished for their offenses and that a punishment ought to be proportional to the offense, then it follows that the worse the offense is, the worse is the punishment deserved, and that the worst offenders deserve to get the worst punishments. That “the punishment ought to fit the crime” doesn’t just entail that jaywalkers shouldn’t be given a penalty of a month in jail; it also entails that bank robbers shouldn’t be given (merely) a month in jail either. The former offense deserves a lesser punishment, the latter a greater punishment. But a murderer deserves a worse punishment than a bank robber does; and a mass murderer, or a murderer who also rapes and tortures his victims, deserves a greater punishment still. If serial bank robbers, kidnappers, and (according to even most death penalty abolitionists) one-time murderers deserve life in prison, then, worse criminals deserve an even worse punishment. And it would be absurd to deny that at some point that punishment is going to be death. Where exactly an offender crosses the line from deserving less-than-death to deserving death (one murder? two? twenty? murder plus rape? murder plus torture? murder while using a racist, sexist, or homophobic epithet?) is a question we need not settle here. What matters is that at some point that line is going to be crossed. This suffices to show that capital punishment is sometimes justifiable in principle as a matter of retributive justice.

It also suffices to show the worthlessness of most of the stock objections to capital punishment. For example, the bumper sticker question “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” assumes falsely that what death penalty advocates (or most people for that matter) think is wrong is “killing people,” full stop, so that they are caught in a contradiction. In fact, what they think is wrong is killing innocent people, people who do not deserve to be killed. And when we phrase the question with this is mind – as “Why do we kill guilty people who kill innocent people to show that killing innocent people is wrong?” – then it is obvious that there is no contradiction at all. Of course, this question has its defects as a bumper sticker slogan, and since simple-minded bumper sticker sloganeering is par for the course with opponents of capital punishment – and also since the answer to this new question is blindingly obvious (i.e. “Because justice requires us to kill them”) – it is no surprise that they prefer not to ask it.

Similarly, to claim that capital punishment is “state-sanctioned murder” or “cruel and unusual” is simply to beg the question, since if the argument just rehearsed works, then the punishment is sometimes deserved, and thus cannot be inherently unjust (which murder is, by definition) or excessive in the way cruel and unusual punishments are. (See David Oderberg’s very fine chapter on capital punishment in Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach for a more detailed treatment of these and other objections to the death penalty.)

Now to reject the basic argument for capital punishment outlined above would, it seems to me, entail denying either that anyone ever deserves to be punished, or that a punishment ought to be proportional to the offense. But to deny these claims would be to deny the very possibility of genuine moral evaluation. It would also, incidentally, constitute another conflict with the Catholic tradition, the very foundation of which is the idea that human beings deserve to be punished for their sins and need salvation from this punishment. Indeed, what they need salvation from, according to the Catholic tradition, is a punishment which is both richly deserved and far, far worse than the death penalty, namely eternal damnation. (Which gives us yet another reason to dismiss any suggestion to the effect that Catholic teaching implies rejecting the legitimacy of capital punishment as retribution: if a person can deserve Hell, he can surely deserve a few seconds in the electric chair.)

All of this brings us back to the “new natural law” reasoning that Chris appeals to in defense of his opposition to capital punishment. Chris claims that since life is one of the basic goods that determine “the parameters of the morally permissible,” it can never be legitimate intentionally to deprive someone of his life. Now in my view the argument concerning desert and punishment outlined above suffices to show that Chris’s argument is just a non sequitur. Punishment consists of depriving someone of a good, and when punishment is deserved it follows that the person has lost any moral claim to that good. And it therefore follows in turn that when what the person deserves is, due to the gravity of his offense, the penalty of death, he has lost any moral claim to his life. So even a “basic good” like life is something a person can in principle legitimately be deprived of. This in no way entails a denial of the “dignity” of the person executed, contrary to what Chris seems to think. On the contrary, it affirms his dignity by treating him as a free and responsible individual who must be held accountable for what he does, rather than (as is common among death penalty opponents) regarding him as a mere cog in a social machine, less responsible for his own actions than is the “society” that molded him into what he is. (Hegel, following a hint of Kant’s, went so far as to say that given his dignity as a person, an offender has a right to be punished. Alas, they don’t make Kantians or Hegelians like they used to.)

(I should also note that in connection with his claims about the dignity of the offender, Chris deprecates the organic view of society that Aquinas and other traditional defenders of capital punishment were committed to, and insinuates that it lay behind “the historical record of the twentieth century” – a not-too-subtle allusion to the horrors of Nazism and Communism. Let us leave aside the fact that it is only with the greatest inattention to conceptual precision that one could hope to assimilate totalitarian collectivism to Thomistic organicism. The salient point is that what led to these horrors was surely at least in part the view that the individual human being is merely the plaything of impersonal Darwinian biological and/or socioeconomic forces, rather than a freely choosing agent responsible for his own actions – precisely the view of so many of the death penalty opponents Chris wants to associate himself with. So before Chris throws the “Holocaust” stone at defenders of capital punishment, he ought to keep in mind that the house he shares with the Sr. Helen Prejeans of the world is a glass one.)

Now if the “new natural law theory” is poorly interpreted as strictly entailing hostility to capital punishment, it is, as I suggested earlier, not too hard to see why its advocates might nevertheless be tempted to such hostility. If you limit yourself in your moral reasoning to this-worldly considerations, it is not surprising if you might inadvertently come to overestimate the value of life in this world. A classical natural law theorist, who quite consciously factors into his moral theorizing that human beings have immortal souls and an eternal destiny, is far less likely to do this. That is not to say that theorists of the latter sort underestimate the value of life in this world; after all, they are, no less than “new natural law” theorists, absolutists when it comes to the intrinsic evil of intentionally depriving innocent human beings of their lives. But when it comes to evaluating the appropriateness of various punishments for the guilty, they are not likely to think of death as a loss of such incalculably horrific magnitude that it starts to seem intuitively plausible that to deprive someone of it must always be an affront to human dignity. Life in this world cannot be a basic good, at least not in the sense required for Chris’s argument, if its point is preparation for life in the next world. It is therefore plausible to regard it as something that can be taken away for the sake of a higher good, viz. restoring a moral order that comprehends both this life and the next.

While “new natural law” theorists are certainly not atheists, and while a commitment to theism is not strictly necessary to the moral defense of capital punishment, there does seem to be at least a psychological and sociological connection between hostility to capital punishment and a kind of “practical atheism,” i.e. thinking and acting as if God did not exist. An obsessive focus on perfecting life in this world and downplaying the idea that it is properly understood only as a prelude to the next world – an attitude that is certainly understandable in atheists, but which has become very common even among Catholics since Vatican II – naturally tends to lead to a desire to extend the natural lifespan, even of murderers, as far as possible and at all costs. It is no surprise that, as Cardinal Dulles (among many others) has noted, “the mounting opposition to the death penalty in Europe since the Enlightenment has gone hand in hand with a decline of faith in eternal life.” And as he further notes, it is also “probably due, in part, to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to biblical religion and Catholic faith. The abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the gospel.”

Since I think that Dulles’s observations here are pretty obviously correct, I am mystified by Chris’s attachment to the idea, expressed not only in his most recent post but in several other posts he’s made since joining the blog, that the modern world has a deeper understanding of human dignity than previous ages did. I think the truth is precisely the opposite. The medievals regarded human beings as made in God’s image and as possessing immortal souls capable of grasping objective truth, and thus as having as much dignity as it is possible for a bodily creature to have, certainly a dignity far surpassing that of the rest of the natural world. The modern world, by contrast, sees human beings as just one animal among others, differing from the beasts only in degree, their reason being merely a more efficient instrument for finding opportunities to feed and copulate. The medievals emphasized individual guilt, and therefore individual responsibility. Moderns minimize or even deny individual responsibility or guilt, dissolving human agency into the nexus of physical causation, obsessing over our “collective responsibility” for this or that, and emphasizing “structural” rather than personal elements of justice and social life. The medievals regarded the human person as a psychosomatic whole, while moderns tend to see the locus of personhood exclusively in conscious and explicit desiring and planning, effectively obliterating the personhood and rights of the unborn, the comatose, and the mentally retarded. The medievals saw our lives as having epic significance, an arena in which a cosmic battle between good and evil is taking place, climaxing in either eternity in God’s presence or eternity in Hell. The moderns see our lives as a trivial accident which culminates in extinction. What matters, for them, is to get whatever paltry enjoyments out of it one can while it lasts, “morality” consisting of whatever rules rationally self-interested individuals might agree to for the sake of their “mutual advantage” (or something equally anticlimactic and amoral).

True, the rhetoric of “human dignity” has increased in modern times; indeed, modern people simply won’t shut up about it, even as they kill their own unborn children by the millions and live lives of depravity unimaginable to previous generations. If medieval people talked less about their own dignity, it is because they were more concerned about God’s dignity; if modern people talk more about it, it is because they are more concerned with themselves. For most modern people, talk about their “dignity” is, it seems, in reality little more than shorthand for “I can do what I want, and there is no objective or natural moral law that can tell me otherwise.”

Needless to say, the various modern attitudes I have described are far more common among self-described “liberals and progressives” than among self-described conservatives, with many (and indeed perhaps most) of the latter still beholden to something like the medieval view of human dignity and destiny. So if it is “liberals and progressives” who tend to oppose capital punishment and conservatives who tend to support it, surely that tells us something about the moral and philosophical assumptions inherent in most opposition to the death penalty. And what it tells us is the opposite of what Chris seems to think it is. That those assumptions are “liberal and progressive” I do not deny, but for that very reason it seems impossible for them to be much in harmony with either Catholicism or natural law.


Heads ID wins, tails you lose

Having returned to the debate over Aristotelian-Thomism (A-T), “Intelligent Design” (ID) theory, and William Paley so as to answer some recent criticisms of my views on the subject (here and here), I want to devote one more post to the theme before mothballing it again for a while.  ID defender Jay Richards recently edited a volume on God and Evolution.  One of the essays he contributed to it (“Separating the Chaff from the Wheat”) is in part devoted to responding to me.  Like Vincent Torley, Richards is a good guy who makes a serious attempt to respond to my arguments and to show that A-T and ID really are compatible after all.  And like Torley, he fails miserably.

I have always been very specific about the respects in which ID conflicts with A-T philosophy and theology.  It has nothing to do with Darwinism, nothing to do with whether God in some sense “designed” the universe (of course He did), and nothing to do with a rejection of probabilistic arguments per se.  Rather, it has to do with (a) ID’s eschewal of immanent formal and final causes, even if only “for the sake of argument”; and (b) ID’s univocal predication of attributes both to human designers and to God.  The problem with (a) is that it conflicts with the most fundamental metaphysical commitments of A-T – those which underlie the Thomistic arguments for God’s existence, the Thomistic understanding of the relationship between soul and body, and the Thomistic understanding of natural law ethics.  The trouble with (b) is that it conflicts with the Thomistic doctrine of analogy and the conception of God’s nature associated with it.  These are, for the Thomist, non-negotiable; and thus ID is unacceptable.  It’s as simple as that. 

I have found that serious defenders of ID – as opposed to uninformed “culture warrior” types who mouth off in comboxes – either explicitly or implicitly concede this incompatibility.  Steve Fuller is one ID defender who does so explicitly, and advises his fellow ID defenders frankly to acknowledge that their position is theologically incompatible with Thomism.  Another is my sometime co-blogger Lydia McGrew, who in the course of our many past combox exchanges over ID has allowed that ID is committed to a conception of nature incompatible with the A-T conception, and concluded “So much the worse for A-T.”

Dembski, Torley, and Richards also all acknowledge the incompatibility, even if only implicitly.  We have seen before (here and here) that Dembski acknowledges that ID rejects Aristotelian formal and final causes (at least “for the sake of argument”), and that his attempts to dodge the inevitable conclusion that this puts him at odds with A-T only lead him into incoherence.  We have also seen that Torley concedes that ID defenders tend to apply language to God and to human designers univocally.  Dembski, in effect, says “Feser, you are wrong to say that ID is committed to (a) and (b).  Except that yes, it is committed to (a).”  Torley, in effect, says, “Feser, you are wrong to say that ID is committed to (a) and (b).  Except that yes, it is committed to (b).”

Richards is in one respect like Dembski – he concedes that ID theory is incompatible with an Aristotelian conception of the natural world.  But his way of dodging the conclusion that ID is incompatible with A-T is less incoherent than Dembski’s, though only because it is more shameless: He boldly resorts to the “No true Scotsman” fallacy.  Or in Richards’ case, we might call it the “No true Thomist” fallacy.  For in Richards’ view, real Thomism is not Aristotelian in the first place – he assures us that “Thomas… was not strictly an Aristotelian” and that ID’s Thomist critics are merely trying to “force Aristotelianism on him” – so that ID’s incompatibility with Aristotelianism does not put it at odds with Thomism.  You heard it here first, folks.

If this strategy seems absurd, that is because it is.  To be sure, there were in the twentieth century various interpreters of Aquinas who emphasized the non-Aristotelian aspects of his thought.  For instance, Cornelio Fabro focused attention on the Neo-Platonic influences on Aquinas, and Etienne Gilson emphasized Aquinas’s originality.  Richards has evidently been influenced by these interpreters, or at least by the literature their work spawned.  But that work in no way justifies the frankly preposterous claims Richards makes about Thomism. 

For one thing, that Aquinas was influenced by thinkers other than Aristotle (which of course he was) and made innovations of his own (which of course he did) simply does not entail that he was not an Aristotelian, fond though Richards is of this brazen non sequitur.  For another, whether even the non-Aristotelian elements emphasized by writers like Fabro or Gilson are as significant as they claimed them to be is a matter of controversy.  Yet Richards (who is not an Aquinas scholar) does not merely present his idiosyncratic position as one, highly contentious interpretation of Thomism among others; he writes matter-of-factly as if what he has to say about Aquinas were the settled wisdom.  ID’s Thomist critics, it seems, simply hadn’t gotten the memo.  Nor, apparently, did eminent twentieth-century Thomists like Garrigou-Lagrange, De Koninck, Wallace, Weisheipl, Ashley, and McInerny – not to mention countless Thomists of previous centuries, and those of Aquinas’s day who were suspicious of his thought precisely because of its novel Aristotelianism – all of whom labored under the delusion (as Richards sees it) that Aquinas was an Aristotelian.  Ite ad Richards, gentlemen!

This would all be outrageous enough for most writers, but not enough for Richards.  For not only is “Aristotelian-Thomism” bad Aquinas exegesis, in his view; it is theologically suspect, a “key danger” and “error” that Bonaventure had warned us about in Aquinas’s day and which is now rearing its ugly head again in the guise of ID’s Thomist critics.  (“Heresy hunting,” anyone?)

And what exactly is this theological dynamite allegedly lurking within Aristotelianism?  Why it has to do with nothing less than the “immanent teleology” insisted upon by ID’s Thomist critics, Richards tells us.  For Aristotle believed that the world has always existed, and this (Richards says) is why he “didn’t feel the need to resolve the problem of where that teleology came from.”  Plus he didn’t have anything like the Augustinian notion that the essences of things pre-exist in the divine intellect as the archetypes according to which God creates.  By contrast, Aquinas was influenced by Neo-Platonism, and quotes Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius a lot, and accepted the doctrine of divine ideas, and was a Christian who believed the world had a beginning.  Also, the demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus sounds in some respects more like the God of Genesis than Aristotle’s God does.  And so on, for several pages.

And therefore… what exactly?  Are we supposed to conclude from all this that Aquinas did not believe in immanent teleology?  That certainly doesn’t follow, and it isn’t true either.  Nor does Richards ever really say that it is, or indeed even give any actual argument at all.  He just kicks up a lot of dust, insinuating that somehow or other these diverse bits of theological and philosophical trivia show that Aquinas differed from Aristotle in a way that lets ID off the hook. 

Here’s the thing, though.  Either Aquinas believed in immanent teleology – final causes “built into” the natural world – or he did not.  And if he did, then it doesn’t really matter for the present discussion whether he also believed all sorts of other things that Aristotle didn’t, such as that even immanent final causality must ultimately be explained in terms of God’s directing activity.  For if he did believe in immanent teleology, then even though he was more than an Aristotelian, he was at least an Aristotelian, and that is enough (by Richards’ own tacit admission) to put him at odds with ID.

That he did believe in it, and that he was an Aristotelian, there can be no serious doubt whatsoever.  There is, after all, a reason why Aquinas called Aristotle – not Plato, not Plotinus, not Boethius – “The Philosopher.”  There is a reason why he wrote many lengthy commentaries on the works of Aristotle, specifically, and never devoted as much attention to the works of Plato or any Neo-Platonic thinker.  There is a reason why the notions of act and potency, form and matter, final cause, and the rest of the Aristotelian apparatus absolutely permeate Aquinas’s writings.  Just try to defend Aquinas’s Five Ways, or his conception of the relationship between soul and body, or his account of natural law, without appealing to them.  It can’t be done.  Certainly, these notions are – as I have shown at length elsewhere – absolutely central to the way Aquinas himself defends the positions in question.  The reason Aquinas seems to be such an Aristotelian, and the reason he has always been regarded as an Aristotelian, is that he was an Aristotelian.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and not a seven-centuries-old “misinterpretation” waiting to be cleared up by a guy at the Discovery Institute.

Nor can the particular Aristotelian bits that ID theorists especially dislike be plucked out while leaving the rest intact.  Remove immanent final causality from the Thomistic picture of nature and the act/potency distinction goes with it, since a potency is always a potency for some actuality, “directed to” it as toward a final cause.  And with the act/potency distinction goes everything else (again, consult Aquinas to see just how thoroughly this distinction underlies the entire Thomistic system).  That is the reason why twentieth-century Thomists made the affirmation of the doctrine of act and potency the first of the famous “Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses,” and why Pope Pius XI wrote:

The metaphysical philosophy of St. Thomas, although exposed to this day to the bitter onslaughts of prejudiced critics, yet still retains, like gold which no acid can dissolve, its full force and splendor unimpaired.  Our Predecessor [St. Pius X] therefore rightly observed: "To deviate from Aquinas, in metaphysics especially, is to run grave risk.” (emphasis added)

You can insist that Aquinas’s metaphysics sometimes goes beyond anything Aristotle himself says.  (And it does, though it always builds on an Aristotelian foundation, and even the Neo-Platonic bits are secondary and Aristotelianized – see e.g. my discussion of the Fourth Way in Aquinas.)  You can reject that metaphysics altogether.  But to pretend that Thomism can survive such a rejection, that a nod to some vague “spirit of Thomas Aquinas” (Richards’ expression) suffices to make one a Thomist, doesn’t pass the laugh test.

The woolliness of Richards’ general “Aquinas as non-Aristotelian” theme is evident too in his various subsidiary insinuations – and insinuations is all they ever are, for he never gets up to pulling an actual argument out of all the name-dropping and miniature lessons in the history of ideas.  For instance, Richards seems to think it a terribly telling point that Aquinas disagreed with Aristotle about the eternity of the world.  Aristotle thought the world has always existed, and that God has merely kept it moving eternally rather than created it out of nothing; Aquinas, as a Christian, believes that it had a beginning, and that God caused this beginning.  Somehow or other this shows, in Richards’ view, that Aquinas couldn’t have shared Aristotle’s view of immanent teleology, but instead went in for something closer to the extrinsically imposed teleology of the artisan god of Plato’s Timaeus.  Except that Richards is also careful to say that Aquinas doesn’t really adopt Plato’s view either.  His is rather a middle ground position that affirms teleology or final causality that is “both intrinsic, in one sense, but ultimately extrinsic, in another sense.”  And this is all supposed to be absolutely devastating for us Thomist critics of ID.

How?  That, we are never told, nor is it by any means easy to reconstruct an argument on Richards’ behalf.  Certainly it is not news to any A-T philosopher that Aquinas’s position on teleology is a middle ground between Aristotle’s and Plato’s; that is something I have emphasized myself many times – for instance, in my treatment of the Fifth Way in Aquinas (which Richards has told me he’s read!), and in my Philosophia Christi article “Teleology: A Shopper’s Guide.”  And if Richards actually agrees with me that Aquinas does believe in immanent teleology (even if Aquinas also, unlike Aristotle, thinks that immanent teleology must itself be explained in terms of God’s ordering action), then he has effectively conceded the main point between us.

For another thing, though Aquinas does indeed believe the world had a beginning, he rather famously denies both that this can be proved philosophically and that it has anything to do with proving God’s existence.  Rather, he concedes for the sake of argument that the world had no beginning and proceeds to offer his five proofs of God’s existence on that basis (precisely, some commentators have suggested, out of an excessive respect for Aristotle).  These proofs include the Fifth Way – the proof from final causes or teleology.  And that means that the way the existence of teleology in nature leads us to the existence of God has, in Aquinas’s view, nothing to do with whether the world had a beginning.  So why, given all that, does Richards think that Aquinas believed these issues were linked?  Here Richards does not even insinuate an answer, much less argue for one.

Though it is a lesser offense, it is worth noting that Richards misrepresents my own views no less than he does Aquinas’s.  For instance, in response to my charge that ID theory is mechanistic, Richards waxes logorrhetic on the great many senses attached historically to the term “mechanism.”  But he could have spared his readers the history lesson – and the false insinuation that I have failed to use language precisely – because I have always been very clear that what I mean by a “mechanistic” view of nature is, specifically, any view which rejects immanent formal and final causes, even if only in a “for the sake of argument” manner. 

Richards also insists, as if he were contradicting some view I hold, that it is “simply not true” that Newton, Boyle, and other early modern philosophers eschewed final causes.  But what I have actually said is that these thinkers eschewed immanent final causes, while acknowledging that they affirm extrinsic final causes (i.e. final causes or teleology imposed on the world from outside). 

Richards also badly misrepresents my view of the nature of artifacts, absurdly attributing to me a kind of “reductionism.”  For I hold, he claims – ripping some words of mine out of context – that an artifact like a mousetrap (for example) “is ‘nothing but’ a collection of wood and metal parts.”  And he has no trouble showing that this view is absurd, since in addition to the wood and metal there is also of course “a function imposed on them by an agent.”  But what I actually said is that “apart from human interests, the object is ‘nothing but’ a collection of wood and metal parts.”  The words Richards has deleted obviously change the meaning entirely.  And anyone who bothers to read the post of mine that Richards is replying to – as, needless to say, most readers of God and Evolution will not – will see that what I actually claim is that an artifact like a mousetrap is made up of its material parts plus a function imposed on them from outside by a human designer.  In other words, my actual view of artifacts is the very one Richards himself takes, and the contrary of the view he attributes to me.  (Where Richards and I differ is in taking artifacts to differ essentially from natural objects, which have their functions intrinsically.  And here it is Richards, not me, who is closer to reductionism, since in treating natural objects as if they were artifacts he implicitly denies their immanent teleology and organic unity.)

Finally, and again by taking my words out of context, Richards gives the impression that I am a kind of Aristotle worshipper who subordinates Christianity to pagan philosophy:

Feser… has written [in The Last Superstition]: “Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought… this abandonment has contributed to the civilizational crisis through which the West has been living for several centuries…”  Notice he does not say the abandonment of God or the doctrine of creation or the truths of the Nicene Creed, but the abandonment of Aristotelianism…

So, Aristotle über alles, right?  Well, no, actually.  For what does the original passage look like without Richards’ ellipses?  Like this:

Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought.  More than any other intellectual factor there are other, non-intellectual factors too, of course, and some are more important this abandonment has contributed to the civilizational crisis through which the West has been living for several centuries, and which has accelerated massively in the last century or so.  It is implicated in the disintegration of confidence in the rational justifiability of morality and religious belief… (emphasis altered from the original)

Richards’ selective quotation gives the impression that I regard Aristotelianism and Aristotelianism alone as the sine qua non of the health of Western civilization.  But as the full passage makes clear, I was talking specifically about the condition of “Western thought,” of the specifically “intellectual” factors behind the decline of Western civilization, while explicitly acknowledging that there were “other… more important” factors too, and that even the intellectual ones are significant in part precisely because of their effects on the status of “morality and religious belief,” including the theological doctrines cited by Richards.  Far from treating Aristotelianism as an end in itself, I was rather emphasizing its importance as an intellectual bulwark against the erosion of sound morality and sound theology – just as Pius X and Pius XI emphasized the role of Thomistic metaphysics (which incorporates and expands upon Aristotelian metaphysics) in serving as such a bulwark.

Richards’ arbitrary redefinition of “Thomism” and his other exercises in sleight of hand are of a piece with the frequently slippery quality of ID argumentation.  To secularists, ID defenders insist that ID has nothing to do with natural theology in general or Paley’s design argument in particular, but is merely a new scientific procedure for detecting signs of intelligence.  To religious believers, they say that ID shows that any intelligent being existing within the material world would itself have to be explained by reference to an intelligence outside the natural order, so that “God’s design is… accessible to scientific inquiry” (as Dembski has put it).  To opponents of evolution, they say that ID provides a devastating scientific critique of Darwinism.  To evolutionists, they say that ID is compatible with evolution, since that might be the means by which the designer creates.  In one breath, Dembski acknowledges that ID rejects Aristotle’s distinction between natural substances and artifacts and his related conception of teleology as immanent to the natural world.  In another, he insists that ID is perfectly compatible with the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of nature.  One moment ID defenders are telling us that ID constitutes a “new science,” a “revolutionary” new program for biological research.  The next, they are telling us it has much more modest ambitions, amounting to little more than a reductio ad absurdum of certain naturalistic and Darwinian premises.  Sometimes ID is identified with some specific, novel methodology or conceptual framework, such as Dembski’s theory of “complex specified information.”  At other times, any old thing is said to count as ID as long as it affirms “design” of some sort or other. 

In short, ID is whatever the ID defender needs it to be at the moment, given his audience and the imperative to avoid offending potential allies or neutral third parties.  “Heads I win, tails you lose!” – and then off to confront the next opponent, hopefully before the last one (or at least the audience watching the debate) has seen through the flimflam.  As I have always acknowledged, this or that specific point made by this or that individual ID theorist may well have value.  But as a movement, as a would-be school of thought, ID is a complete mess, with no coherent intellectual core to unite its defenders’ various ad hoc pronouncements.  It is, too often, politics rather than science, and rhetoric rather than philosophy.  Plato, whom Richards prefers to Aristotle, had a name for that sort of thing.


Inevitable Scholasticism

In the latest issue of First Things, Fr. Thomas Joseph White reviews Ulrich Leinsle’s Introduction to Scholastic Theology.  You can find the CUA Press page for the book here, and the book’s table of contents here


Unhinged Dissent

Over at Uncommon Descent, Vincent Torley is not happy with my recent post on Aquinas and Paley.  He had originally given his critique the inflammatory title “Heresy hunter!” – complete with exclamation point, and my picture alongside that of an Inquisitor and his crew “getting medieval” on some guy (William Dembski, I suppose).  This rather left the impression that if you criticize ID on theological grounds, you are akin to Torquemada – which is, needless to say, a little over the top. 

To his credit, Torley has now modified the post somewhat to tone down the rhetoric.  I have, of course, never accused any ID defender of heresy, nor would I.  When a philosopher deploys the reductio ad absurdum, arguing that an opponent’s view leads to a contradiction, he is not thereby insinuating that his opponent is insane or otherwise irrational.  Similarly, when a theologian argues that an opponent’s view has implications that cannot be reconciled with theological premises both sides regard as essential to orthodoxy, he is not thereby insinuating that his opponent is a heretic or otherwise heterodox.  In both cases, what we have is just a standard mode of rational argumentation, viz. the appeal to consistency. 

The same is true of the other alleged examples of my “hyper-orthodoxy” cited by Torley.  Contrary to the impression he gives his readers, I have never claimed, and would not claim, that non-Thomists, or all those who disagree with my construal of divine simplicity or my position on lying, are heretics or otherwise heterodox.  In none of these cases have I condemned those who disagree with me as heretics.  I have merely argued for certain conclusions that I take to follow from premises we share.  (Presumably Torley would not want to accuse Gilson, Owens, Mercier, Knox and the other prominent authors I cited in my post of being “heresy hunters.”  Yet like me, they object to Paley-style arguments and would also object to the retreat from divine simplicity evident in the work of some recent theologians and philosophers of religion, because of the seriously deficient conception of God they take such views to entail.)

Torley also ridicules my view that it is wrong to lie to your children about Santa Claus.  This is, of course, completely irrelevant to the dispute between Thomism and ID theory – he brings it up merely to score a few cheap points with those among his readers whom he knows will respond viscerally to anyone who would take such a view, and who are unlikely know a horse laugh fallacy when they see it.  Certainly he says nothing in reply to the arguments I gave against this form (and all forms) of lying.  He does tell his readers that Fr. John Hardon disagrees with the position I take, but without telling them that there are other influential Catholic moralists who agree with it, one of whom I cited in my post on the subject.  (For what it is worth, Torley’s fellow ID defender Lydia McGrew also agrees with me on this issue.  This too is irrelevant to the issue at hand, of course, but it underlines how silly it is for Torley to insinuate that there is some connection between my views on Santa Claus (!) and my views on ID theory.)

Torley does also make several substantive remarks about my post.  In response to my claim that ID theory doesn’t get you even one millimeter closer to the God of classical theism, Torley presents an argument which is not entirely clear, but which on a natural reading would seem to go as follows:

(1) Human beings, who fall under the genus “intelligent agents,” are “closer to” the God of classical theism than sentient non-rational animals, non-sentient living things, inanimate lumps of matter, etc. are.


(2) The God of classical theism and human beings both belong to the genus “intelligent agents.”


(3) To prove that there is something in the genus “intelligent agents” other than human beings at least increases the probability that the God of classical theism exists.

There are several problems with this argument.   A Thomist could accept (1) if what is meant by it is that there is in human beings something analogous to the divine intellect and will, while there is nothing analogous to the divine intellect and will in sentient non-rational animals, non-sentient living things, inanimate lumps of matter, etc.  But at least from a Thomistic point of view, (2) does not follow from (1), and (2) is in any event false.  For one thing, the fact that we can predicate intellect and will analogously of both God and human beings does not entail that God and human beings are in the same genus, any more than the fact that we can say analogously of both a book and a cheeseburger that they are good entails that they are in the same genus.  For another thing, Thomism claims that God does not belong to any genus in the first place.  Hence the argument simply begs the question against the Thomist.

Torley also suggests that if a design argument could get us to an incorporeal designer, it would thereby get us closer to the God of classical theism.  But that is not the case.  For one thing, angels are incorporeal, but they are, like us, compounds of act and potency and of essence and existence, and thus not divine.  For another thing, Torley’s suggestion seems to commit the same fallacy as his previous argument.  That is, he seems to assume that if we can show that something or other that is in the genus “incorporeal things” exists, then that raises the probability that God exists, since (so the argument seems to go) God is one of the things that falls within that genus.  But again, for the Thomist God does not fall under any genus, not even the genus “intelligent beings.”  Hence this argument too simply begs the question.

(I am well aware, by the way, that some readers are bound to be unfamiliar with the Thomistic doctrines in question.  No sin in that, but until you familiarize yourself with them, don’t presume that you are qualified to judge whether Thomism and ID theory are compatible.)

Torley claims that since Aquinas took the view that living things could not have arisen from non-living matter alone, it follows that he can be said to have given a kind of “proto-Intelligent Design argument.”  Here I fear that we are, as happens so often in discussions with ID defenders, going around in circles.  Yes, if what Torley means is that there is a sense in which Aquinas thinks that life could only have arisen through a divine ordering intelligence, a sense in which God is a “designer,” then naturally I agree with him that there is.  But of course, that is not what has ever been in dispute in the first place.  What is in dispute is whether the metaphysical framework within which Paley and ID theory interpret the claim that life cannot have arisen from non-living matter alone, but only via a divine ordering intelligence, is compatible with the Thomistic metaphysical framework.  And Thomist critics of ID and of Paley hold that they are not compatible.  (I have in an earlier post discussed at some length the precise sense in which Thomists hold that life cannot arise from non-life, and the question of what it means from a Thomistic point of view to describe God as a “designer” has of course been addressed throughout my various posts on this dispute.)

It would seem, then, that I need to add a couple of further points to the four-point summary I placed at the end of my previous post, namely:

5. The dispute between Thomism on the one hand and Paley (and ID theory) on the other is not over whether God is in some sense the “designer” of the universe and of living things – both sides agree that He is – but rather over what exactly it means to say that He is, and in particular over the metaphysics of life and of creation.

6. The dispute is also not over whether Paley (or ID theory) is “heretical.”  Neither I nor any other Thomist that I know of has made such an accusation.

Finally, I thank Torley for his kind words about my book Aquinas.


Thomism versus the design argument

Defenders of “Intelligent Design” theory sometimes accuse their Thomist critics of overstating the differences between Aquinas and William Paley.  As we have seen before, their use of Aquinas’s texts is highly dubious.  Passages are ripped from context and the general metaphysical assumptions that inform Aquinas’s thinking, and which would rule out the readings the ID theorist would like to give the texts, are ignored.  This is not surprising given the ad hoc character of so much ID argumentation.  More surprising is Marie George’s strange article about me in the most recent issue of Philosophia Christi.  George, like me, is both an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) philosopher and a critic of ID.  Yet she too objects to my dissociating Aquinas’s Fifth Way from Paley’s design argument.  Why?

That is hard to say.  For George concedes that any A-T philosopher must insist on a distinction between natural substances and artifacts insofar as “the parts of natural things are inherently ordered to their ends, whereas the parts of artificial things are ordered by us (and by certain other animals) to ends that they have no tendency to realize.”  Indeed, she acknowledges that “it would be incoherent to model natural substances on artifacts in a way that would ignore this difference.”  She also allows that there is a crucial difference between a mere craftsman and God insofar as “the craftsman does not give an artifact its nature, but harnesses the natural tendencies of natural things to his end, whereas God… gives things their natures in virtue of which they tend to their ends.”  And she grants that “it may well be that Paley had mechanistic tendencies.”  In other words, George more or less concedes that Aquinas’s argument and Paley’s differ in just the ways I and other Thomists have always said they do.

So what exactly is her problem with what I have said?  The closest we get to an answer is George’s suggestion that on my view, the way God makes natural things “must be other than [by] employing intelligence.”  This is bizarre.  I have, of course, never said or implied any such thing.  Indeed, I devote many pages of both The Last Superstition and Aquinas to defending the Fifth Way as a demonstration of the existence of a divine ordering intelligence.  No one denies that both Aquinas and Paley argue for an intelligent cause of the order in the world.  What A-T philosophers (other than George) object to is the way Paley argues for this conclusion (a way which is incompatible with A-T metaphysics) and the anthropomorphic construal of “intelligence” implicit in his position (which is incompatible with classical theism).  I have addressed these issues at length in a series of posts, to which the interested reader is directed.

There are many other problems with George’s article, which I address in a forthcoming reply.  For now let us note just how eccentric her view is, as is the view of ID defenders who think they can assimilate Aquinas’s Fifth Way to the “design argument” put forward by the likes of Paley, Newton, Boyle, and other early modern writers who were keen on putting natural theology on a new, non-Aristotelian foundation.  Here, in no particular order, are some passages on the subject from various twentieth-century writers on Thomism:

Maurice Holloway, S. J., An Introduction to Natural Theology, pp. 146-47:

We should be careful not to confuse the fifth way of St. Thomas Aquinas, which argues from the existence of order in the universe to the existence of an infinite intelligence, with Paley’s argument from design.  In the latter’s argument the universe is seen as a complicated and intricate machine… [and he] reasons, by way of analogy, to the existence of a divine watchmaker, or supreme architect of the universe.  This argument from design, as given by Paley and unfortunately repeated in many books on Christian apologetics, does not prove the existence of God.  An architect of the universe would have to be a very clever being, but he would not have to be God…  Many of the objections directed against what some writers believe is the fifth way of St. Thomas are really directed against the watchmaker of Paley.  St. Thomas’s proof is entirely different.  It is grounded in the metaphysics of finality…

Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy, p. 142:

Simple-minded metaphysicians have unwillingly led agnostics to believe that the God of natural theology was the “watchmaker” of Voltaire, or the “carpenter” of cheap apologetics…. Being men, we can affirm God only on anthropomorphic grounds, but this does not oblige us to posit Him as an anthropomorphic God.

John Wippel, The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas, p. 480:

While the fifth way is sometimes confused with an argument based on order and design and the need for a supreme designer, Thomas’s text makes it clear that he really has in mind an argument based on final causality in nature.

Joseph Owens, An Elementary Christian Metaphysics, p. 349:

This argument [the Fifth Way] is clearly not the argument from design, made notorious by Paley… Paley’s argument is only an analogy, a probable argument.  It is not a metaphysical demonstration… Paley merely multiplies instances upon instances of design in nature in order to drive home the impression… that a designer is required.  The starting point of St. Thomas’s fifth way, on the other hand, is not that things show design, but rather that something is being done to them, namely, that they are being directed to an end by an efficient cause.

Joseph Owens, “Aquinas and the Five Ways,” in St. Thomas Aquinas on the Existence of God, pp. 136-37:

The “fifth way”… is hardly the one from design that has been made notorious by Kant and Paley.  The presence of design in the universe is not the operative feature.  It is rather the directing according to design, for this directing has to come ultimately from an immobile and self-necessary principle.  In reply to the objection that agents less than God could ultimately account for the directing, Aquinas answers: “But all things mobile and capable of failing have to be accounted for by a first principle that is immobile and that is necessary by reason of its own nature, as has been shown” (ST, I, 2, 3, ad 2m).

Fr. Ronald Knox, Broadcast Minds, pp. 52 and 222:

The whole traditional theology of Europe presupposes the Five Proofs [of Aquinas], or some modification of them, as the basis of belief in God, and does not appeal for a moment to any revelation, in Scripture or out of it, for the purpose.  Which makes it all the more extraordinary that Professor Huxley, in demolishing the whole edifice of theism, makes no reference to the Five Proofs, and shows no consciousness that they have ever been urged.  He has heard of Paley, apparently, and makes fun of his argument from design, with a confidence which would be better justified if the champions of natural selection had managed to get rid of adaptation altogether; and it is presumably from the same author that he gets the deistic notions stigmatized on the following page… But when he characterizes the God of Deism, the Winder-up of a mechanical universe, as “much more shadowy, far, and remote than the God of the Middle Ages”, I wonder whether he has the slightest idea what he is talking about?  Certainly his acquaintance with St. Thomas can hardly be intimate.

[Langdon-Davies’s] disproof of the existence of God labours, even more signally than Professor Huxley’s, from an ignorance of the proofs.  Not only is he unaware, like Professor Huxley, that there is a five-fold proof of the existence of God traditional in the Christian Church… He concentrates on the three feeble arguments that are known to him; that from experience, that from design (in the manner of Paley), and that from the inerrancy of Scripture!

Herman Reith, The Metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas, p. 198:

[The Fifth Way] is strictly metaphysical and is not limited to the examples given by St. Thomas.  It is based upon the principle of final causality that is as universal in its application as the principle of identity.  It is sometimes interpreted as the proof from order and design in the universe, taken in the physical sense in which the regularity of movement of the parts of the universe is emphasized.  In this conception God’s role is that of a giant watchmaker who has put things together in such a way that one must recognize it as the work of a superior intelligence.

The danger in such a simplification of the proof is that the examples used and the interpretation given them prevents the argument from rising to the metaphysical level where it belongs.  To insist on examples from astronomy, biology, or any other physical science is grist for the mill of the mechanist.  For him the natural causes hold enough of an explanation.  Until the argument rises above the order of the physical universe, it cannot conclude to anything more than the existence of some kind of intelligence and power with which we have not yet become acquainted.  Future investigation might conceivably reveal that there are powers of intelligence in the universe that we now have no evidence for.

R. P. Phillips, Modern Thomistic Philosophy, Volume II, p. 290:

[The Fifth Way] proceeds from the ordered multiplicity of the world to an ordering intelligence.  Whether we are to call it the argument from design depends on what is meant by that name, for it certainly is not the same as that which is often associated with the name of Paley.

John F. McCormick, S. J., Scholastic Metaphysics, Part II: Natural Theology, p. 75:

The teleological argument [is] not an argument from analogy… It is true that the argument has at times been presented in the form of a mere analogy, as in Paley’s example of the watch… But the proof is quite independent of this analogy.

Cardinal Mercier, “Natural Theology or Theodicy” in Cardinal Mercier, et al., A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, Volume II, pp. 53-54:

The proof we have just developed [i.e. the Thomistic argument from order] is not merely an argument from analogy.  If some are inclined to think so, the reason is to be found in the faulty exposition given of this proof by certain authors.  They argue that we judge the intellectual capacity of our fellow-men by the adaptation of the means they choose to their ends, that order or adaptation is an indication of intelligence; that the universe manifests supreme order; therefore, etc.  Argument of this kind need cause no misgiving… Our argument is based not on analogy but on the principle of sufficient reason…

[O]ther arguments which are not infrequently brought forward… [to the effect] that life has had a commencement on the earth; that a simple intrinsic evolution of matter is not capable of accounting for vegetable life in the first place, and then for sensitive life and still less for intellectual life… These and kindred considerations of a scientific nature… by themselves they have no cogency unless supported by the philosophical, metaphysical argument which demonstrates that this principle of explanation taken to its last analysis must be pure Actuality, necessary Being, first Cause, subsistent Perfection, and highest Intelligence.

Henri Renard, S.J., The Philosophy of God, p. 48:

With St. Thomas, even if there were only one finite nature, we could argue to and prove with metaphysical certitude the existence of a being that is its own end… With these authors, on the contrary, such is not the case.  They argue, not from the appetite of a nature, but from the admirable complexity of the created world… Just as, they reason, the complexity of a watch demands a watchmaker gifted with some intelligence, just as the order of the city demands some capable policemen, just as the skyscraper supposes some architect or other, so a fortiori does this marvelous order of the world postulate a God.

This is an impressive argument and quite satisfying to a certain type of mind.  We should like to state, however, (1) that it is by no means the Fifth Way of St. Thomas; (2) that, while we are willing to grant that this argument establishes a God who is a super-watchmaker, a super-policeman, a super-architect, we cannot help but wonder whether such a super-being is its own end, because it is its own “To Be” or, in other words, whether such a being is God.

Christopher F. J. Martin, Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations, pp. 180-82:

One of the things that has happened between Aquinas and ourselves has been the growth of a general disbelief in explanation in terms of what things are for [i.e. final causes].  This is partly the result of a failure to understand what it is to explain something in terms of what it’s for, and partly the result of the rather curious psychological phenomenon of the near-universal acceptance of what is really a rather poor argument for the existence of God, the argument from design.

The argument from design had its heyday between the time of Newton and the time of Darwin, say, a time in which most people apparently came to see the world as a minutely designed piece of craftsmanship, like a clock.  It is no coincidence that the most famous presentation of the argument from design actually compares the world to a clock: it is known by the name of Paley’s watch…

The Being whose existence is revealed to us by the argument from design is not God but the Great Architect of the Deists and Freemasons, an impostor disguised as God, a stern, kindly, and immensely clever old English gentleman, equipped with apron, trowel, square and compasses. Blake has a famous picture of this figure to be seen on the walls of a thousand student bedrooms during the nineteen-seventies: the strong wind which is apparently blowing in the picture has blown away the apron, trowel and set-square but left him his beard and compasses. Ironies of history have meant that this picture of Blake’s is often taken to be a picture of God the Creator, while in fact Blake drew it as a picture of Urizen, a being who shares some of the attributes of the Great Architect and some of those of Satan.

The Great Architect is not God because he is just someone like us but a lot older, cleverer and more skilful. He decides what he wants to do and therefore sets about doing the things he needs to do to achieve it. God is not like that. As Hobbes memorably said, "God hath no ends": there is nothing that God is up to, nothing he needs to get done, nothing he needs to do to get things done. In no less lapidary Latin, Aquinas said "Vult ergo Deus hoc esse propter hoc; sed non propter hoc vult hoc". In definitely unlapidary English we could say: The set-up, A-for-the-sake-of-B is something that God wants; but it is not that God wants B and for that reason wants A. We know that the set-up A-for-the-sake-of-B is something that God wants, because it is something that exists, and everything that exists, exists because of God’s will. But it is simply profane to think that you can infer from that the unfathomable secrets of the inside of God’s mind and will. Acorns for the sake of oak trees, to repeat an example of Geach’s, are definitely something that God wants, since that is the way things are. But it is not that God has any special desire for oak trees (as the Great Architect might), and for that reason finds himself obliged to fiddle about with acorns. If God wants oak-trees, he can have them, zap! You want oak trees, you got ’em. "Let there be oak trees", by inference, is one of the things said on the third day of creation, and oak trees are made. There is no suggestion that acorns have to come first: indeed, the suggestion is quite the other way around. To "which came first, the acorn or the oak?" it looks as if the answer is quite definitely "the oak". In any case, what’s so special about oak trees that God should have to fiddle around with acorns to make them? God is mysterious: the whole objection to the great architect is that we know him all too well, since he is one of us. Whatever God is, God is not one of us: a sobering thought for those who use "one of us" as their highest term of approbation.

The argument from design fails, then, because [as Martin argues earlier in the book] it is an argument from ignorance, because it confuses the final and efficient modes of explanation, and because even if it succeeded it would not prove the existence of God but of some Masonic impostor. But like other bad arguments, its defeat and death has left it to wander the world like a ghost, oppressing the spirits of those who are looking for other and better arguments.

And for good measure, here’s one more passage, this time from a non-Thomist.  See if you can guess who it is:

Throughout the Christian era, theologians have argued that nature exhibits features which nature itself cannot explain but which instead require an intelligence beyond nature… Aquinas’s fifth proof for the existence of God is perhaps the best known of these.

With the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century, design arguments took a mechanical turn.  The mechanical philosophy that was prevalent at the birth of modern science viewed the world as an assemblage of material particles interacting by mechanical forces.  Within this view, design was construed as externally imposed form on preexisting inert matter.  Paradoxically, the very clockwork universe that early mechanical philosophers like Robert Boyle (1627-1691) used to buttress design in nature was in the end probably more responsible than anything for undermining design in nature.  Boyle (in 1686) advocated the mechanical philosophy because he saw it as refuting the immanent teleology of Aristotle and the Stoics, for whom design arose as a natural outworking of natural processes…

Over the subsequent centuries, however, what remained was the mechanical philosophy and what fell away was the need to invoke miracles or God as designer.  Henceforth, purely mechanical processes could do all the design work for which Aristotle and the Stoics had required an immanent natural teleology and for which Boyle and the British natural theologians required God…

The British natural theologians of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, starting with Robert Boyle and John Ray (1627-1705) and culminating in the natural theology of William Paley (1743-1805), looked to biological systems for convincing evidence that a designer had acted in the physical world… For many [this] was the traditional Christian God, but for others it was a deistic God, who had created the world but played no ongoing role in governing it.

Note that this author, in a matter-of-fact way, makes a number of points that Thomists have emphasized when criticizing Paley and other defenders of the “design argument” – that the argument differs from arguments like Aquinas’s in assuming a “mechanical” conception of nature, that what is essential to this mechanical conception is an anti-Aristotelian view of formal causes and teleology as “externally imposed” rather than “immanent,” that this approach gives us at best a “deistic god” who need not play any “ongoing role” in governing the world, and that at worst it leads inadvertently to atheism.  So, who is the author?  Why, none other than ID theorist William A. Dembski, in his book The Design Revolution, at pp. 66-67.  ID theorists who want to assimilate Paley and Aquinas might want to have a word with their friend Bill first, before complaining to us Thomists.

We’ll come back to Dembski.  It is worth noting first, though – while we’re on the subject of ID – that in none of the passages from the Thomists cited above is Paley criticized on Darwinian grounds.  None of these authors say “We’ve now got a perfectly good evolutionary explanation of biological phenomena of the kind Paley appeals to, so his defenders need to get with the times.”  Indeed, as the alert reader will have noticed, Fr. Knox even avers that “the champions of natural selection [have not] managed to get rid of adaptation altogether.”  Yet he still dismisses Paley’s argument as “feeble,” “deistic,” and not worthy to be counted even as a “modification” of any of the arguments he regards as the presupposition of “the whole traditional theology of Europe”!  And at least the Neo-Scholastics among the authors cited above would by no means issue a blank check to Darwinian naturalists.  While they are willing to allow evolutionary explanations a fairly wide scope, they insist that such explanations have limits, and that these limits are metaphysical and absolute, not empirical and evidential.  They would agree, for instance, that there can in principle be no explanation of the origin of the human intellect in naturalistic terms, and thus no explanation in Darwinian terms, for reasons of the sort I’ve discussed many times.  And as I’ve discussed in an earlier post, there are also metaphysical constraints that A-T insists would have to be met by any possible account of the origin of life, and they are not constraints any naturalist could accept. 

The issues are complicated and A-T philosophers disagree over the details.  The point is that the A-T critique of Paley and of ID theory simply has nothing essentially to do with Darwinism one way or the other.  Some A-T critics of ID and of Paley have emphasized the compatibility of A-T and evolution and some have not, but that just isn’t what the debate is fundamentally about.  Even if it turned out that there was no truth whatsoever to Darwinian or other evolutionary accounts of biological phenomena, this would not affect the A-T critique of Paley and ID theory in the least

This point cannot be emphasized too greatly.  ID defenders sometimes claim that Thomist criticism of ID and of Paley rests on too uncritical an acceptance of the empirical and conceptual claims of Darwinians.  For instance, Logan Paul Gage makes this charge in a recent piece in Touchstone.  I am one of the Thomists Gage criticizes, but it is hard to believe Gage has carefully read anything I’ve written on this topic.  For one thing, my own criticisms of ID and of Paley have made little reference to Darwinism; that the A-T critique of ID has nothing essentially to do with either accepting or rejecting Darwinism is something I’ve emphasized consistently and repeatedly.  For another thing, Gage’s specific comments on my own work show that he has entirely missed the point I have been making.  For he tells us, as if it conflicted with my position, that “there’s certainly nothing anti-Thomistic in distinguishing between a generic argument for design and an argument for God’s existence—even if the former might provide evidence for the latter.”

I hear this sort of thing constantly, and it is – like the Darwinism red herring – getting very, very tiresome.  “Gee whiz, Ed, what’s wrong with an argument for a designer, even if it is only a probabilistic argument and doesn’t tell us everything about the designer’s nature?”  I don’t know why so many ID enthusiasts seem to have such difficulty understanding what they read.  Sometimes I wonder whether dyslexia might be contagious, and that it is transmitted via Discovery Institute fund-raising letters.  Really, how many times do I have to say it?  At least one more time, it seems, so here goes: The Thomist’s problem with the arguments of Paley and ID theory is not – NOT (See that?  It says “not”) – that they are merely probabilistic, or that they don’t get you all the way to the God of classical theism.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  The problem with these arguments is rather that they don’t get you even one millimeter toward the God of classical theism, and indeed they get you positively away from the God of classical theism. 

This is the point Martin is making in the passage cited above when he says that Paley’s “designer” is really just the god of Deists and Freemasons and not the true God; the point Renard is making when he says that a mere “super-architect” is not its own “To Be” (i.e. its essence and existence are not identical) and thus is not God; the point Reith is making when he says that merely asking for an explanation of certain specific regularities will never get you outside the physical order of things to the metaphysical order, but merely to some as yet unknown super-intelligence within the physical order (and hence of necessity non-divine); the point Mercier is making when he says that merely “scientific” considerations have “no cogency” in an argument for theism apart from “metaphysical” considerations which alone can take us outside the realm of act and potency to that which is “pure Actuality”; the point Gilson is making when he says that the “watchmaker” or “craftsman” of “cheap apologetics” commits us to an objectionable “anthropomorphism”; and the point Owens is making when he says that only what is “self-necessary” and “immobile” could possibly be that which directs all things to their ends.  (The reason is that anything less than what is Pure Actuality would have some potential or potency, and since potential is always potential for some end, we would need to appeal to yet some other intelligent cause which directs this potential to its end, and thus wouldn’t truly have arrived at a supreme intelligence.  See Aquinas for the full story.)

It is a point I have made over and over and over again, though many of my critics refuse to address it.  My objection to Paley and to ID theory has consistently been that, given:

(a) their eschewal, even if only “for the sake of argument,” of immanent formal and final causes and thus of the classical metaphysical apparatus associated with them (such as the act/potency distinction), and

(b) their univocal application of predicates both to God and to human designers (as opposed to “analogous” predication, in the Thomistic sense of the term),

these approaches lock us within the natural order and cannot in principle get us beyond it.  In particular, they cannot in principle get us to a “designer” that is anything but one creature among others, even if a grand and remote one.  In short, they get us to paganism, and thus away from classical theism.  (Again, see the posts linked to above, especially this one, this one, and this one.)  If you disagree with this claim, fine, but please, please stop pretending that the issue has anything to do with Darwinism, or anything to do with an unreasonable refusal to consider merely probabilistic arguments for God’s existence.

This brings us back to Dembski.  For like other ID defenders, he sometimes insists – for example, at pp. 64-65 of The Design Revolution – that whereas “Paley’s business was natural theology” ID theory has “much more modest” ambitions in that it merely “seeks to identify signs of intelligence to generate scientific insights” and “attaches no significance to questions such as… whether the designer actually exists or what the attributes of that designer are.”  Indeed, he even allows (at p. 188) that any “designer” ID theory points to could in principle be an extraterrestrial rather than God.  So, it might seem that A-T objections to Paley are irrelevant to ID theory.  In particular, it might seem that the ID theorist could say “Fine, so our methods don’t lead us to the God of classical theism any more than Paley’s do, but we weren’t trying to do that in the first place.”

Except that by pages 148-49 of the same book Dembski is telling us that:

The idea that nature is a closed system of natural causes and that natural causes provide a complete account of everything that occurs in nature is deeply entrenched in the West… The theory of intelligent design challenges… that misconception by pointing to phenomena in nature that nature is in principle incapable of accounting for strictly in terms of natural causes, namely, phenomena that exhibit specified complexity.

and immediately after floating 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).  But how exactly is all that supposed to differ from a design argument? 

The answer is that it doesn’t.  True, Dembski claims to have a method for detecting “design” that is better than Paley’s – that’s where all the stuff about “specified complexity” comes in – but that is irrelevant to the specific point at issue here, which is that however else it differs from Paley, ID theory shares with his design argument features (a) and (b) above, and is therefore, at least with respect to its theological significance, simply incompatible with Thomism. 

As I have said many times, it is its eschewal of immanent final causality that makes ID theory “mechanistic” in the specific sense of “mechanism” that A-T philosophers object to; and as we saw here and here, Dembski himself essentially acknowledges that ID is “mechanistic” in that sense.  (Those who want to reconcile ID and A-T should at least try to understand what A-T philosophers mean when they attribute an objectionably “mechanistic” view of nature to ID theory – as Anne Barbeau Gardiner, who criticized my position in a recent piece, shows no evidence whatsoever of doing.)

At this point, of course, ID defenders will remind us that “mechanism” is adopted by ID only in a “for the sake of argument” way.  And I will remind them that this is irrelevant to the point at issue.  Suppose that, investigating a crime, you say: “Let’s suppose just for purposes of our investigation that the murderer was someone who would have been captured on this surveillance camera.”  Then you have by virtue of this constraint necessarily limited yourself to potential suspects in the vicinity of the camera, and will be unable to identify the murderer if so happens that he was not in the vicinity.  Similarly, if you start with a conception of natural substances as “artifacts” of a certain kind – as you are bound to do if you reject immanent formal and final causes, for reasons I’ve discussed here and here – then you are going to conceive of the “designer’s” activity on the model of a human tinkerer, a cosmic Thomas Edison who does something comparable to taking pre-existing bits of matter and rearranging them to make a kind of machine.  And that just isn’t the way God creates, either for A-T or for classical theism more generally.  It is the way a pagan demiurge “creates” things; that is to say, it isn’t true creation at all (in the classical theist sense) but merely one super-intelligent and super-powerful but ultimately merely natural entity generating another, less intelligent and powerful one.  

Saying “But I’m only supposing this for the sake of argument” doesn’t help in the least.  That’s like saying “But I’m only supposing for the sake of argument that the murderer must have shown up on this surveillance camera.”  So long as you make that supposition – whether for the sake of argument or otherwise is irrelevant – you will never consider suspects who were not in the vicinity of the camera, and so your investigation will never get you even one inch closer to the actual murderer if indeed he was someone who was out of camera range.  Similarly, so long as you insist (for whatever reason) on treating natural substances as if they were a kind of artifact, and on predicating attributes of both the world’s “designer” and of human designers in a univocal way, you will never (from an A-T point of view, anyway) get even one inch closer to the God of classical theism, because you will necessarily be describing the “designer” in a way that not merely falls short of, but is positively inconsistent with, classical theism.  (Again, interested readers are referred to my earlier posts on this subject for a fuller discussion.)

In summary, then:

1. That Aquinas’s position is incompatible with Paley-style design arguments (and thus, by implication, with ID theory) is a long-standing and widely shared judgment within the Thomistic tradition, and follows from Thomism’s basic metaphysical and theological commitments.

2. The dispute between Thomism on the one hand and Paley (and ID theory) on the other has nothing essentially to do one way or the other with Darwinism.  That is a separate issue.  Whether you accept Darwinism or reject it, the Thomistic objection to Paley and to ID theory stands.

3. The dispute also has nothing essentially to do with whether one prefers demonstrative arguments to probabilistic ones, or with the question of whether this or that argument tells you everything about God’s nature.  It is true that the Fifth Way is intended to be a metaphysical demonstration and (at least when the basic thrust of the argument is followed out consistently) leads us to a conception of God as Pure Actuality (from which the other divine attributes can be deduced); while design arguments are typically merely probabilistic, and do not tell us much about God’s nature.  But that by itself is not a problem, and it is not the reason why Thomists object to Paley and to ID theory.

4. The dispute also has nothing to do with whether or not ID theorists might have important things to say about how to detect design within the natural order, or whether they’ve made significant criticisms of this or that Darwinian account of this or that biological phenomenon.  That is also a separate issue.  A Thomist may or may not regard ID as bad science.  The point I am making here is that ID is, from a Thomistic point of view, bad philosophy and bad theology

It seems to me that many of those who take umbrage at Thomist criticism of Paley and of ID unthinkingly treat all such criticism as if it were a sell-out to secularists and loudmouth Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne.  But the enemy of your enemy is not always your friend.  And ID theory is not the friend of Thomism.  It is the friend of the 17th century modernist philosophy and theology that unseated Thomism and Scholastic philosophy in general, just one more riff on the long parade of philosophical error that began with Descartes, Locke, and Co. and continues to this day.  Those who want to marry A-T and ID should worry less about the “culture wars” and more about philosophical and theological rigor and coherence – the only sure way to win the “culture wars” in the long run in any case.  They should also heed St. Thomas’s warning not to “bring forward reasons [for their convictions] that are not cogent” which merely “give occasion to unbelievers to laugh” (ST I.46.2).
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