Reply to Torley and Cudworth

This is the second installment of a two-part post on the dispute between Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysics and “Intelligent Design” (ID) theory (a post which I hope will put the subject to rest for a while).  Having in my previous installment set out the Aristotelian distinction between “nature” and “art” (or natural objects and artifacts), I now turn to consider the recent remarks of ID defenders Vincent Torley and Thomas Cudworth over at the blog Uncommon Descent.  (Those who haven’t read the previous installment are urged to do so before reading this one.  It also wouldn’t hurt if you had some familiarity with the other things I’ve said on this topic in many previous posts.)

I’ll begin with Torley’s post of April 18.  Torley’s arguments are not easy to discern.  He writes at great length and the discussion seems to me to meander a fair bit.  Moreover, his arguments are severely compromised by the fact that Torley consistently presents the debate as if it were over the question of whether natural objects are “designed.”  As I have made clear in previous posts and made clear once again in the previous installment of this one, that is not what is at issue.  Both sides agree that God is in some sense the designer of the world.  What is at issue is whether natural objects are “artifacts” in the relevant, Aristotelian sense spelled out in the previous installment.  I will respond to Torley’s points with this fact in mind, and I hope that I have not misunderstood his position.  It seems to me that he makes three key claims, which I will address in turn.

1. Torley seems to think (if I understand him correctly) that an artifact could exhibit a kind of immanent or built-in teleology, so that natural objects can intelligibly be regarded as artifacts of a sort.  He gives corn as an example, since it does not exist in the wild but was domesticated by human beings out of teosinte.  Now if it seems odd to call corn an “artifact,” that is because (I would say) it is odd.  Certainly I don’t think any A-T philosopher would regard corn as an artifact.  The reason Torley thinks it is, apparently, is that corn is in a sense “man-made.”  But being man-made is not sufficient to make something an “artifact” in the Aristotelian sense I spelled out in my previous post – otherwise dog breeds, water synthesized in a lab, and indeed human infants would count as “artifacts” since they are also in some sense man-made.   But they are not artifacts.

For something to be an “artifact” in the Aristotelian sense, it is also necessary that its parts have no immanent tendency to function together as a whole, and this is not true of corn any more than it is true of the various dog breeds or of human infants, while it is true of a hammock or of the other examples of artifacts I gave in my previous post.  When human beings domesticated corn from teosinte and when they domesticated dogs from wolves, what they did was merely draw out tendencies that were already there in the teosinte and in the wolves, rather than imposing some accidental form of their own invention on them (as they do when they construct hammocks and the like).  This kind of thing in fact happens with some frequency, and writers on A-T are willing to count all sorts of “man-made” things as natural objects rather than as artifacts given the evidently immanent tendencies they manifest.  For example, Eleonore Stump suggests in her book Aquinas that even Styrofoam is, in the relevant sense, “natural” rather than “artificial,” even if it is a kind of “natural” substance (meaning one that has a substantial form and immanent teleology rather than an accidental form and extrinsic teleology) which has come about only because of human action. 

In short, when Aristotelians distinguish “art” from “nature,” what they mean by “natural” is not “occurring in the wild” or “coming into being with no human assistance.”  What they do mean, as I explained in the previous post, is “having a substantial form” or “having parts which have an immanent tendency to function together as a whole.”  Purely accidental arrangements (such as random piles of dust or of stones) are not “natural” in the relevant sense even though they don’t necessarily come about through human action, and while all artifacts do come about through human action, not everything that comes about through human action is an artifact.  Hence corn and similar examples do not show that Torley seems to think they show.

2. Torley also seems to think that God’s making a natural object like an oak tree out of pre-existing matter would involve “design” in the ID theory sense and would thus (again, if I understand him correctly) in effect be the making of an artifact.  But that is not so.  When God makes a natural object out of pre-existing matter, this is not a case of taking parts which already have their own substantial forms and immanent teleology and imposing some accidental form and extrinsic teleology on them (like Tarzan’s twisting of liana vines into a hammock would be).  It can’t be that sort of thing, since if it were it wouldn’t be a natural object that we’re talking about in the first place.  Rather, what it involves is causing the prime matter that underlay the original material object He starts with to lose the substantial form it had before and to take on a new substantial form instead.  For example, if we imagine God making an oak tree out of a stone, what that would involve is His causing the prime matter that had once been informed by the substantial form of a stone to be informed instead by the substantial form of an oak tree.  What it does not involve is a kind of super-engineering – as if God took parts of the stone, each of which had their own immanent teleology and substantial forms, and cleverly found a way to impose upon them the accidental form and extrinsic teleology of a tree (whatever that could mean).  Creation is nothing as mundane as that.

Now Torley may respond that he is aware that an A-T philosopher would reject the idea that God creates by virtue of a kind of “super-engineering” or imposition of an accidental form.  He might say that his only point is that an oak tree created by God would still receive its form – a substantial form rather than an accidental form – from God and would in that sense be “designed” by God.  Now of course, I would not deny for a moment that a tree can be designed by God in that sense.  As I have said many times, my beef with an ID theorist like William Dembski is that he rejects the A-T conception of natural objects as composites of substantial form and prime matter and operates instead with a conception of natural objects as artifacts, in the sense of “artifact” spelled out in my previous post.  But this brings us to Torley’s next point.

3. Torley claims that I misunderstand Dembski’s views vis-à-vis the Aristotelian distinction between art and nature.  What is Dembski’s view?  Here is how I summarize it in my Philosophia Christi article “Teleology: A Shopper’s Guide”:

[I]n discussing Aristotle in The Design Revolution, Dembski identifies “design” with what Aristotle called techne or “art” (pp. 132-3).  As Dembski correctly says, “the essential idea behind these terms is that information is conferred on an object from outside the object and that the material constituting the object, apart from that outside information, does not have the power to assume the form it does.  For instance, raw pieces of wood do not by themselves have the power to form a ship.”  This contrasts with what Aristotle called “nature,” which (to quote Dembski quoting Aristotle) “is a principle in the thing itself.”  For example (again to quote Dembski’s own exposition of Aristotle), “the acorn assumes the shape it does through powers internal to it: the acorn is a seed programmed to produce an oak tree” – in contrast to the way the “ship assumes the shape it does through powers external to it,” via a “designing intelligence” which “imposes” this form on it from outside.

Having made this distinction, Dembski goes on explicitly to acknowledge that just as “the art of shipbuilding is not in the wood that constitutes the ship” and “the art of making statues is not in the stone out of which statues are made,” “so too, the theory of intelligent design contends that the art of building life is not in the physical stuff that constitutes life but requires a designer” (emphasis added).  In other words, living things are for ID theory (at least as Dembski understands it) to be modeled on ships and statues, the products of techne or “art,” whose characteristic “information” is not “internal” to them but must be “imposed” from “outside.”  And that just is what A-T philosophers mean by a “mechanistic” conception of life.  As Dembski says elsewhere, in putting forward ID theory, “I don’t want to give the impression that I’m advocating a return to Aristotle’s theory of causation.  There are problems with Aristotle’s theory, and it needed to be replaced.” (Dembski, Intelligent Design, p. 124, emphasis added.  Cf. Dembski’s No Free Lunch, p. 5. The context of the discussion in both cases is the early modern philosophers’ rejection of Aristotelian formal and final causes, and Dembski makes it clear that his problem is not with the rejection of Aristotle’s position, but only with how “what replaced it” ended up “excluding design” of any sort.)

Now these quotes seem to me to provide clear evidence that Dembski rejects the Aristotelian distinction between art and nature, and in particular that he would assimilate natural objects to artifacts.  (I discuss another relevant passage from Dembski here.)  And while it is true that Dembski has denied that A-T and ID are incompatible, I have argued elsewhere that his attempt to explain how this can be so only makes things murkier rather than clearer.  Torley nevertheless alleges that I have misinterpreted Dembski.  In a lengthy exegesis of the relevant passages, Torley claims that what Dembski really thinks is that design could involve either the imposition of a substantial form on prime matter or the imposition of an accidental form and extrinsic teleology on some pre-existing materials which already have substantial forms of their own, after the fashion of the construction of an artifact.  Torley also claims that what Dembski really means when he says that “the art of building life is not in the physical stuff that constitutes life” is only that matter devoid of the information content characteristic of life could not of itself give rise to matter which does have such information content, and that this much is something A-T would accept.

But there are several problems with Torley’s assertions.  For one thing, Dembski does not actually say the things Torley attributes to him in the passages in question.  For example, in telling us what Dembski “actually” means, Torley makes much use of various A-T concepts – substantial form, accidental form, prime matter and the like – that you will not find Dembski himself deploying as one possible means among others of spelling out ID theory.  It is misleading, then, for Torley to claim that I have “misconstrued,” “misread,” or “misunderstood” Dembski.  The most Torley can reasonably say is that there is arguably a way of interpreting, or even of modifying, developing, or reconstructing Dembski’s position so as to make it compatible with A-T. 

Not that I think that even that much is true.  For a second problem is that Torley’s proposed interpretation of Dembski does not in fact fit with what Dembski does actually say in the passages in question.  As I have already noted, Dembski seems explicitly to contrast the ID view of natural objects with the Aristotelian conception of “nature” and explicitly to identify the ID view of natural objects with the Aristotelian notion of “art.”  This is a very odd thing to do if what one “actually” intends is to leave an Aristotelian interpretation open as one possible way among others of construing ID.

A third problem is that Torley’s proposed interpretation of Dembski isn’t consistent with other aspects of Dembski’s exposition of ID.  Consider Dembski’s conception of how natural objects come to have the “information” they exhibit.  In chapter 20 of The Design Revolution, he speaks of the natural world as a “receptive medium” for information and of the designer as “imparting information” and “introducing design” into the world by virtue of “co-opt[ing] random processes and induc[ing] them to exhibit specified complexity.”  He offers as an illustration of the sort of thing he has in mind a scenario involving “a device that outputs zeroes and ones and for which our best science tells us that the bits are independent and identically distributed so that zeroes and ones each have probability 50 percent.”  Suppose, Dembski says, that “we control for all possible physical interference with this device, and nevertheless the bit string that this device outputs yields an English text-file in ASCII code that delineates the cure for cancer.”  Here we have a model, he says, of a designer imparting information to a system – and without imparting energy to it, which is something he is keen to avoid so as to sidestep the issue of whether postulating an immaterial designer would violate the conservation of energy.

Now, this way of framing the issue makes perfect sense if you think of living things and other natural objects as artifacts in the Aristotelian sense of “artifacts,” but it makes no sense if you think of them as natural in the Aristotelian sense of “natural.”  In particular, it makes sense if you think of a living thing or other natural object on the model of a clock or a paperweight, where you’ve got material elements – bits of metal arranged in such-and-such a way, or a single piece of stone – that can intelligibly be said to have initially a kind of functionless existence before having a time-telling or paperweight function “imparted” to them.  It makes sense if you think of the “informational” aspects of a natural object as a kind of “add-on” to an otherwise complete and free-standing material substance, like the meaning we give an otherwise meaningless set of pre-existing physical marks in order to make of it a symbol.  It makes sense, that is to say, if you think of natural substances as “in themselves” devoid of information, function, final causality, teleology, or the like.

But that is simply a completely wrongheaded way of conceiving of living things and natural objects in the first place, from an A-T point of view.  A natural object is not a collection of otherwise meaningless or information-free parts to which information, function, teleology or final cause has to be “imparted,” and making a natural object is not a kind of two-stage process which consists first of creating an otherwise meaningless but free-standing material structure and then “introducing” some information or functional properties into it.  In the case of a snake or a strand of DNA, for example, there is for A-T simply no such thing as a natural substance which somehow has all the material and behavioral properties of a snake or a strand of DNA and yet still lacks the “information content” or teleological features typical of snakes or DNA.  And so, when God makes a snake or a strand of DNA, He doesn’t first make an otherwise “information-free” or teleology-free material structure and then “impart” some information or final causality to it, as if carrying out the second stage in a two-stage process.  Such a way of thinking of “design” is possible only against the background of a modern conception of matter which has extruded from it the notions of substantial form and immanent teleology.  In short, it is possible only given a rejection of the Aristotelian conception of nature.  For on an Aristotelian conception, to be a natural substance at all in the first place is necessarily to have a substantial form and immanent teleology – and therefore, necessarily, already to embody “information.”

Again, that doesn’t mean that God isn’t ultimately the source of the “information”; He is, and necessarily so if Aquinas’s Fifth Way is correct (which I think it is).  Rather, the point (as I keep saying) is that thinking of natural objects as “artifacts” is simply a wrongheaded way of arguing for God as the source of the information natural objects exhibit – just as (to borrow an analogy from my previous post) thinking of living things as fictional characters would be a wrongheaded way of arguing for the existence of God as the “Author” of the natural world.

Let’s turn now to Cudworth’s post.  Cudworth proposes conceding for the sake of argument that the various philosophical and theological commitments (A-T metaphysics, classical theism, etc.) that I’ve deployed in criticizing ID are correct.  Still, Cudworth asks, why couldn’t God have intended something like the following in creating the world:

“I wish to create a universe in which, over time, primal matter will form into galaxies, galaxies will produce stars and planets, planets will produce life, and life will evolve, through gradual steps, to produce intelligent beings worthy of receiving my Image and Likeness; and I further wish that these intelligent beings will, as a proper reflection of the rationality that they share with me, take up the study of nature, and come to understand their own origins through the evolutionary process which I have devised.  And I further wish that they will come to understand, from the clues I will leave in nature — cosmic fine-tuning, irreducible complexity, and other such things — that this evolutionary process could not have been guided primarily by chance, but must have been in large measure planned to produce them as its result.  Thus, I wish them to be able to infer my existence as Creator from what they observe in nature.”

But if I allow that God could have willed this, then why, Cudworth asks, am I so hostile to Paley-style arguments?

What puzzles me about Cudworth’s questions is that he doesn’t already know the answers, given that he says that he’s “read thousands of words of what Dr. Feser has written on the matter.”  In response to his first question – could God have willed what Cudworth describes Him as willing – the answer is Yes, of course God could have willed this (though I might express things slightly differently here and there).  What is there in anything I’ve written that implies otherwise?  Perhaps Cudworth has been misled by Torley’s insinuation that I deny that God “designed” the world.  But as I have said, I have never denied and would never deny that God has designed the world or that we can know that He has.  On the contrary, I have at length and in two books defended several arguments for God’s existence – including Aquinas’s Fifth Way, which is an argument from the (immanent) final causality evident in the natural world to the existence of God.

As to Cudworth’s second question, I have explained at length in many previous posts on these issues what I object to in Paley: I object to his misguided treatment of living things as if they were “artifacts” (in the Aristotelian sense discussed in this post and the previous one), for reasons I’ve explained in a great many posts on this subject and summarized in my previous post.  And I object to Paley’s univocal application of predicates both to human designers and to God (in the sense of “univocal” as opposed to “analogous” predication familiar from Aquinas’s doctrine of analogy), because I take it to lead to an unacceptably anthropomorphic conception of God at odds with classical theism (where I take classical theism to follow both from sound philosophical theology and from a sound understanding of biblical revelation).  Does Cudworth think that if I accept what I take to be good arguments for a certain conclusion then I must also accept what I take to be bad arguments for that conclusion?  Surely not.  But then, I do not understand why he seems to think that if I answer “Yes” to his first question then I should have no objection to Paleyan arguments.  But perhaps I have misunderstood him.
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