Nature versus art

I’ve been meaning to put the debate between Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysics and “Intelligent Design” (ID) theory aside for a time, but Vincent Torley and Thomas Cudworth have recently raised objections and questions (here, here, and here) to which I would like to respond.  I will have to do so at some length, I’m afraid, because Torley’s first post is itself very long, and because there are many background issues that need to be clarified before Torley’s and Cudworth’s remarks can be addressed.  In this post I will set out the relevant background ideas, and in a second post I will consider Torley’s and Cudworth’s points.  After that I intend to give the subject a rest for a long while – to the chagrin of some readers perhaps, but (I suspect) to the relief of many.

The issues that divide A-T and ID essentially boil down to the question of whether organisms and other natural objects are usefully thought of as “artifacts” of a sort.  So it will be crucial to remind ourselves of what A-T philosophers mean when they distinguish artifacts from natural objects, or “art” from “nature.” 

Let’s illustrate the distinction in terms of a simple example.  A liana vine – the kind of vine Tarzan likes to swing on – is a natural object.  A hammock that Tarzan might construct from living liana vines is an artifact.  The parts of the liana vine have an inherent tendency to function together to allow the liana to exhibit the growth patterns it does, to take in water and nutrients, and so forth.  By contrast, the parts of the hammock – the liana vines themselves – have no inherent tendency to function together as a hammock.  Rather, they must be arranged by Tarzan to do so, and left to their own devices – that is to say, without pruning, occasional rearrangement, and the like – they will tend to grow the way they otherwise would have had Tarzan not interfered with them, including in ways that will impede their performance as a hammock.  Their natural tendency is to be liana-like and not hammock-like; the hammock-like function they perform after Tarzan ties them together is extrinsic or imposed from outside, while the liana-like functions are intrinsic or immanent to them.

To put the point in terms of Aristotelian metaphysical categories, a liana vine is a compound of substantial form and prime matter (i.e. matter devoid of any form at all – something which for A-T is only an abstraction, since matter in the actual world always has some substantial form or other).  The hammock qua hammock is not such a compound.  Its existence involves instead the imposition of an accidental form on components each of which already has a substantial form, namely the substantial form of a liana vine.  The liana-like tendencies of the vines are instances of immanent or “built in” final causality or teleology.  The hammock-like tendencies of the vines are instances of extrinsic final causality or teleology imposed “from outside.”  A liana vine is a true substance.  The hammock is not a true substance, precisely because it does not qua hammock have a substantial form but only an accidental form.  It is a “substance” only in a loose sense.

A group of liana vines which has through chance taken on a hammock-like arrangement also does not count as a true substance either, any more than a pattern made by a trail of ants that looks vaguely like the word “No” is really the word “No.”  For while this arrangement is not an artifact (not having been deliberately constructed, as Tarzan’s hammock was), the resulting object still does not have the substantial form of a hammock (if there were such a thing as the “substantial form of a hammock”), but is a mere accidental arrangement of parts, like a heap of stones that has formed at the bottom of a hill over time.  So though in one sense it obviously occurred “naturally,” it is not a “natural” object in the sense in which nature is contrasted with art, since a tendency to work together in a “hammock-like” way is not inherent to the parts.

Now what’s true of a hammock (or a hammock-like chance object) made of living liana vines is no less true of a hammock made of dead liana vines, even though the difference between art and nature in this case is less dramatic.  For while the dead vines will not exhibit the growth patterns the living vines will (thus constantly threatening to upset the hammock-like function Tarzan has imposed on them) they still have no inherent or built in tendency to function as a hammock.  Being dead, they have lost the substantial form of liana vines, but they have not taken on the substantial form of a hammock (if, again, there were such a thing).  Rather, they have the very same substantial form that other bits of dead liana lying randomly around the forest have – the substantial form of a kind of wood, say.  Perhaps this substantial form gives them enough durability to make them useful to put together into the form of a hammock, but that does not mean that they now have a natural “hammock-like” tendency per se, only that they have a natural tendency toward a certain degree of durability (which might also make them useful for making lots of things other than hammocks). 

What is true of hammocks is from an A-T point of view true also of watches, cars, computers, houses, airplanes, telephones, cups, coats, beds, doorstops, and countless other things.  Like the hammock, they are artifacts rather than true substances because their specifically watch-like, car-like, computer-like, etc. tendencies are extrinsic rather than immanent, the result of externally imposed accidental forms rather than substantial forms. 

It should be obvious from this why the A-T philosopher has no sympathy for William Paley-style “design arguments” or for “Intelligent Design” theory.  For these approaches begin by comparing natural objects like organisms to such artifacts as watches or outboard motors, and for the A-T philosopher that is precisely not what they are.  To be sure, the A-T philosopher is happy to acknowledge that natural objects are in some respects comparable to artifacts – for example, both natural objects and artifacts exhibit teleology (even if intrinsic teleology in the one case, and mere extrinsic teleology in the other).  But that is by itself of no more interest than the fact that natural objects are also comparable to all sorts of other things – to fictional characters, say (insofar as both real horses and Mr. Ed like to eat apples, insofar as I and James Bond both like to drink martinis, and so forth), or to numbers (insofar as natural objects and numbers are in some sense both real, insofar as we can have knowledge of both of these kinds of thing, and so forth). 

Now it would be silly to say “Let’s suppose that natural objects are fictional objects and that the universe as a whole is a kind of fictional story, and on that basis argue for a divine Author who thought up these fictional objects” or “Let’s suppose that natural objects are numbers, and on that basis argue for a divine Mathematician.”  Natural objects are not fictional objects, and they are not numbers either, and it is a complete waste of time to pretend that they are for such purposes, even if just “for the sake of argument.”  This remains so even if it might for some other purposes be useful (as it is) to compare the world to a work of fiction and God to its Author.  The point is that this is not a good way to begin an argument for the existence of God, because the key premise of the argument is false and because the implications of the comparison it rests on are dangerously misleading if used as a way of developing a conception of God’s relationship to the world.  (For example, if we really thought of ourselves and other natural objects on the model of fictional characters, we might be tempted to an occasionalist view of God’s relationship to the world.)

Similarly, since natural objects are (for the A-T philosopher) simply not artifacts in the relevant sense, it is a waste of time to argue for a divine designer on the basis of the assumption that they are, even if this assumption is made only “for the sake of argument.”  For since the assumption is false, the argument will be completely useless for establishing the existence of anything, much less God.  And to the extent that we let ourselves be guided by this assumption in developing our understanding of God’s relationship to the world, we might be led into theological error.  (For example, we might think of God in crudely anthropomorphic terms as a mere extremely clever engineer, might think of the world as at least in principle capable of operating apart from God’s sustaining causality, as a machine operates in the absence of the machinist, and so forth.  I have discussed the theological problems with the “divine watchmaker” approach to conceiving of God in some of my earlier posts on Paley and ID theory, such as this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one.)

Notice that it would also be silly for someone to allege, in response to my claim that natural objects are not fictional objects: “You are denying that there is a divine Author of nature!  You are putting Thomism in bondage to atheism!”  No, I’m not denying that God is the Author of nature.  I’m denying that natural objects are fictional objects, and I’m denying that thinking of them as fictional objects is a good reason for thinking of God as the Author of nature.  It would also be silly to say, in response to my claim that natural objects are not numbers: “You are denying that God knows mathematics!”  No, I’m not denying that God knows mathematics.  I’m denying that natural objects are numbers, and I’m denying that thinking of natural objects as numbers is a good reason for saying that God knows mathematics. 

Similarly, when I say that natural objects are not artifacts, this does not in any way entail (contrary to what Vincent Torley had implied in the original version of a recent post) that I think that natural objects are not designed by God – on the contrary, I hold that they are designed by God.  Nor does it entail (contrary to what Jay Richards seems (perhaps unintentionally) to imply) that I would deny that when God creates them He does so in light of archetypes which pre-exist in the divine intellect – on the contrary, I would say He does create them in this fashion.  If to say that natural objects are artifacts designed by God were merely to say that God creates them and does so in light of archetypes pre-existing in His intellect, then yes, of course natural objects are in that sense artifacts designed by God.  But that is not all that the Paleyan or the ID theorist means when he says that natural objects are artifacts.  He means also that they are not natural objects in the A-T sense of “natural,” or at least that they should not be treated as such for purposes of arguing for a designer.  Rather, the Paleyan or ID theorist thinks that natural objects should be understood on the model of what the A-T philosopher means by an “artifact.”  (Certainly William Dembski has explicitly said that ID does so, and said also that ID operates with a “mechanical” – and thus non-Aristotelian – conception of natural objects at least for the sake of argument.  More on this in the next post in this series.)

From an A-T point of view, this is simply a muddle.  To say that this liana vine is a fictional object would be nonsensical.  To say that this liana vine is a number would also be nonsensical.  And to say that this liana vine is an artifact is nonsensical too.  Hammocks made out of liana vines are artifacts, but liana vines themselves are not and could not be.  The notion of an artifact presupposes the natural substances out of which it is made, so that (from an A-T point of view, anyway) it can hardly make sense to think of natural substances themselves as “artifacts.”  When God creates natural objects, then, He does not do so by virtue of making artifacts – not because there is any limitation on His power, but for the same reason that He does not create circles by drawing crooked lines and does not create a horse by making an animal with gills.  Circles do not have crooked lines, horses do not have gills, and natural objects are not artifacts, and that’s why God doesn’t make crooked circles, horses with gills, or natural objects that are artifacts. 

Nor does any of this entail either that animal species arose through evolutionary processes or that they did not so arise – that is a separate issue.  It might turn out that such-and-such an organism could not have arisen through natural selection.  But if so, this would not be because it is a kind of artifact whose parts are very unlikely to have been arranged except by a divine artificer, because organisms, being natural objects, are not artifacts in the first place, and (therefore) they don’t have parts with substantial forms of their own which may or may not have been brought together – either by a divine artificer or by impersonal evolutionary processes – so as to take on the accidental form of a certain kind of organism (in the way the parts of a watch come together to take on the accidental form of a watch).  That’s just a category mistake, a completely wrongheaded way of thinking of organisms in the first place, and no more promising as a way of understanding them than thinking of them as fictional characters or as numbers would be. 

As I have said, such thinking also has, from an A-T point of view, disastrous theological implications, and disastrous metaphysical and moral implications too.  If natural objects are “artifacts,” then they have no immanent final causality or teleology.  And if they have no immanent final causality or teleology, then they are not compounds of act and potency (since potency presupposes immanent final causality), and there is no basis for arguing from their existence to God as their Purely Actual cause.  If they have no substantial forms, then the soul is not the substantial form of the body, and the interaction problem looms (along with its materialist sequel).  If natural objects have no substantial forms or immanent teleology, then human beings (who are natural objects) have no substantial forms or immanent teleology, and the metaphysical foundations of classical natural law theory are undermined.  (These are large issues, but readers of The Last Superstition and of Aquinas will understand why the A-T philosopher regards the pulling of the thread of Aristotelian formal and final causes to unravel the whole sweater of traditional moral philosophy and theology.)

Given all of this, the mystery is not why so many Thomists are so critical of ID theory.  The mystery is why anyone thinks it mysterious that they are critical of it.  A-T and ID are simply incompatible at the level of fundamental metaphysics.  But Vincent Torley nevertheless demurs, and Thomas Cudworth raises a question of his own about my objections to ID theory.  We’ll turn to them in the next post.
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