Thursday

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 ├╝ber 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.
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