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.

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