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A New Question for Edward Feser

Over the past several months, Dr. Edward Feser has been engaged in debate with various ID proponents, most recently Jay Richards and Vincent Torley, over the relationship between two types of argument for God’s existence:  on the one hand, arguments from design such as are found in Paley and in the writings of some ID proponents, and on the other hand, philosophical arguments of the sort proposed by Thomas Aquinas.  Whereas ID proponents tend to see Paley-type arguments and Thomistic arguments as different but compatible, Feser sees them as incompatible.  He thinks that the Paley/ID type of argument implies a wrong picture (i.e., a heretical picture) of God, and a wrong understanding (i.e., a heretical understanding) of the relationship between creator and creation.  He thinks that Paley/ID sorts of argument lead to belief in a mere mechanic-God, a God unlike the God of what he calls “classical theism,” and hence a god unworthy of worship by Christians.

I am unconvinced that Paley/ID lines of argument produce a mere “mechanic” God, since I’m unconvinced that arguments that choose to focus on what we might call the mechanics of creation necessarily exclude other (i.e., metaphysical) aspects of creation.  However, in this post I am not going to try to defend Paleyan or ID arguments, or to criticize Feser’s interpretation of Aquinas on creation, or to raise objections to what Feser calls “Thomistic-Aristotelian” thought or “classic theism.”  I leave such detailed arguments to people such as Vincent Torley who have made a special study of Aquinas and of the Aristotelian tradition.  Rather, I want to make sure that I fully understand Feser’s general position regarding design, creation, and the Christian God.  To this end, I am going to ask Professor Feser for clarification by conceding, for the sake of argument, much of what he has said, and then posing a question for him.

Dr. Feser, let us say, for the sake of argument, that you are correct on most of the essential points.  Let us say that Thomas’s arguments are philosophical arguments rather than science-based arguments, and let us say that Thomas’s “fifth way” is nothing like Paley’s approach or the approach of ID writers.  Let us say further that Paley’s line of thinking, historically speaking, does owe something to the mechanistic thinking typical of much early modern philosophy.  Let us say that Aquinas’s arguments (or kindred metaphysical arguments) are, on the whole, safer and better ones for Christians to use, in that they are inferences from firm first principles, rather than arguments from potentially debatable assertions about the limitations of unguided natural processes, and therefore will never need to be revised in the way that empirical arguments of Paleyan kind might have to be.  Still, I am puzzled by one aspect of your argument, and I wonder if you could clarify by answering a question that I will ask momentarily.

If you will, put yourself in God’s position, at a moment before Creation.  (I am as aware as you are that such temporal language is problematic, but as one Ph.D. to another, I ask you to read this flexibly rather than pedantically.)  As the Deity, you are thinking about the universe that you will create; you have mentally run through all the possible universes (presumably instantaneously, although that is neither here nor there for my point), and you have made a decision about which universe you are going to actualize out of all those possibles.  Now, is the following a possible thought (so to speak) in your Divine Mind?:

“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.”

Note, Professor Feser, that in this scenario, nothing in the natural world is meant to allow human beings to deduce the Triune Nature of God, the election of Israel, the coming of a Messiah, the Atonement, or any truth peculiar to Christianity.  In this scenario, the natural world would permit the inference only of God as Creator, not of God as Christ, Redeemer, Holy Spirit, or anything else.

Professor Feser, could your God, your Catholic God, your Aristotelian-Thomist God, your God of “classic theism,” have thought or willed such a thing?  Or do you rule out a priori the possibility that God could ever have thought or willed in this way?

If you answer, “Yes, God could have contemplated and willed thus, and I can’t be sure that he didn’t contemplate and will thus,” then why are you so strongly opposed to Paley-like arguments (suitably updated for modern times)?  Don’t they need to be at least considered, if the proposed scenario is possible?  And if you answer, “No, I know that God would never have hatched such a plan, would never have wanted human beings to have the ability to infer his existence in this way, and would never have created a universe in which such inferences from nature are possible,” can you explain how you know this?

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23 Responses to A New Question for Edward Feser

  1. … can you explain how you know this?

    And especially in light of the Biblical affirmation of the opposite.

  2. semi OT:

    John Lennox quotes remixed – inspirational video
    http://www.godtube.com/watch/?v=KLK7GLNX

  3. I am unconvinced that Paley/ID lines of argument produce a mere “mechanic” God…

    Point of clarification. It’s not that God is a mere mechanic, but I’m willing to accept that you would agree.

    It’s that according to many popular ID arguments it’s mechanics plus something else (typically information).

    It’s still a mechanical creation, but God has to add to it every so often because it is a mechanical creation.

    It’s this view of creation as mechanism that I believe Dr. Feser so strenuously objects to, and which he thinks the ID argument entails.

    I hope that clarifies things a bit.

  4. “Thus, I wish them to be able to infer my existence as Creator from what they observe in nature.”

    Essential to, and distinctive of, the creative act of the Thomistic God is the creation of beings with immanent formal and final causation. It is impossible to reason to the Thomistic God as Creator from ID-type arguments because such arguments do not recognize immanent formal and final causes. So the Thomistic God, while He wishes us to infer His Existence from nature, knows we can’t do it through the arguments of ID.

  5. Dr. Cudworth,
    I do not mean to be rude but I shall be blunt. If you can’t be bothered to read what Feser has already written on this matter, why should he take the time to respond to you?

    Just so you know, Paley was comparing the type of design we see in artifacts to the action of the creator who creates things with a intrinsic potential to fulfill specific ends.

    At best Paley’s argument is a bad analogy that that compares efficient causality to final causality. At worst it is a denial of final causality altogether.

    In which case the god that Paley points to imposes an order on chunks of matter rather giving a purpose to each and everything that both fulfills it and contributes to the greater good of all of creation.

  6. Dr. Cudworth,

    Congratulations on a very thoughtful and civil post. Here’s a follow-up link:

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....nable-man/

  7. 7

    Dr. Torley:

    Thanks for your comment. I’ll respond to you on your new thread.

    Lamont:

    I have read thousands of words of what Dr. Feser has written on the matter — all his blog posts over the past several months, and most of his replies to his commenters. The question I have asked him is one that he has never dealt with. If that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t have asked it.

    By the way, I reject your characterization of Paley and Paley-like arguments. I am not even sure that your statements entirely agree with Feser’s account, but be that as it may, you are criticizing a straw man of your own making.

    Mung:

    I don’t know what you mean by “God has to add to it every so often because it is a mechanical creation.” It is no part of ID theory that God has to add to creation every so often. Are you referring to miracles, interventions? They are not required by ID theory. (Nor, as far as I know, were they required by Paley.) If Feser is laboring under the notion that ID requires special interventions, then he has not understood the view that he is criticizing.

  8. Let me attempt to rephrase.

    ID stands against chance and necessity as sufficient causal explanations for some things in nature.

    But to accept chance and necessity is to agree with the mechanistic philosophy.

    To deny them is to strip ID of it’s force, since ID requires chance and necessity.

    As I see it ID can only be one of two things:

    Chance/Necessity AND something else (usually information).

    Chance/Necessity OR something else.

    Do you see ID as a replacement for Chance and Necessity? If so, why does it define itself in those terms?

    You must reject the idea that you can define ID in terms of what chance and necessity alone cannot do.

    You must affirm that chance and necessity alone can do nothing. But then, whence ID?

  9. Sorry Dr. Torley, don’t mean to pick on you :)

    One example if what I am talking about.

    What Feser is saying here is that living things, like other contingent beings, do not exist in their own right; their existence is something which is gratuitously given to them by God, who is Pure Existence. This is all very well and good, but it fails to address the question: supposing that God made the first oak-tree using pre-existing material (be it the dust of the ground, or the seed from an ancestral plant that was not yet an oak), did He input any kind of information that brought about the transformation of this material into an oak-tree? If He did, then that was an act of design, according to Professor Dembski’s definition. And as Dembski has repeatedly insisted in his writings, it does not matter if this information was input immediately prior to the appearance of the first oak tree, or at the dawn of life, or even at the Big Bang. All that matters, from an ID perspective, is that the information was added to the natural world by an Intelligent Being who intended that this information should result in the (immediate or subsequent) appearance of an oak tree.

  10. Sorry, meant to include a link to the post An argument about…

    Quoting Dembski:

    Design, art and techne are synonyms. 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.

    VJ Torley:

    Thus whereas nature produces information in an object internally, design adds that information from an external source. An object formed by art (or design) does not have the power to assume the form it does; hence its form must be conferred on it from outside.

  11. 11

    Mung (7):

    I’m assuming that this reply is directed to me and not to Vincent Torley.

    First, let me state that my view of ID — which has been set forth in many columns here over the past two years — is what I would call a generic and minimalist view of ID. That is, it tries to eliminate all aspects of ID that are peculiar to particular ID proponents, and work only from that which all ID proponents have in common. Thus, I’m not here defending every single thing Dembski has ever written, or that Nelson has ever written, etc. I’m defending a skeletal, minimalist ID. So I won’t be responsible for trying to explain away every single statement Dembski has ever made, (a) because he doesn’t necessarily agree on all things with other ID people; and (b) because he has changed his mind on many points over the years. So here is what I mean by ID:

    1. Cells and organisms display a staggering degree of integrated complexity, beyond anything humans have achieved in their most complex machines and systems.

    2. There is very little reason to believe that this integrated complexity could have emerged with absolutely no planning or foresight. All Darwinian and kindred explanations are sketchy, vague, qualitative rather than quantitative, and successful in an exact way only for comparatively trivial changes; they are promissory notes, not rigorous scientific explanations.

    3. On the other hand, we know that planning and foresight, which are aspects of intelligence, can produce complex systems, capable of feedback, self-repair, interacting with other complex systems, etc.

    4. Thus, the “best hypothesis” is that somewhere, somehow, intelligence was involved in the origin of complex life-forms.

    5. There is no requirement that the intelligence was input miraculously, via intervention. It could all be latent in the original set-up of living systems (“signature in the cell”) or even further back, in the properties of matter itself. ID per se is neutral on the question *how* the intelligence found its way into nature, and ID proponents disagree with each other over this.

    Now, if Feser’s beef is that he is not satisfied with “the best hypothesis” — if he demands rigorous *proofs* of an intelligent designer, of a mathematical, Euclidean sort, then he is not going to get such proofs out of design inferences. He is only going to get them out of logical/metaphysical arguments — if he can get them even there.

    I do not demand rigorous, purely logical proofs of the existence of an intelligent designer. I am happy with inferences to the best explanation.

    However, I want to stress that in no way do I think that the revealed aspects of Christian faith can be in any way proved by arguments of a Paleyan sort. They cannot even be proved by arguments of Aquinas’s sort, as Aquinas himself recognized. Reason and revelation are two very different things. If you want to get to Jesus Christ, you simply cannot get there without revelation. Aquinas, Torley, myself, all other ID proponents, and I presume Feser, would agree on that.

    Now, the intelligent designer of the universe, even supposing that he can be arrived at via Paleyan arguments, is a mere fraction of the Christian God. The Christian God is much more than a mere designer.

    But — and here is where I don’t understand Feser — the Christian God is also not *less* than a designer. He is *at least* a designer. “Designer” does not come near to exhausting his nature, but it does properly capture something of his nature. And *insofar as he is a designer*, I see no reason at all why his existence (*as designer*, not as the the God of Abraham, or as the Messiah, or as the Lamb, etc.) could not be inferable from the facts of nature — *if* he chose to make it so inferable.

    What I am asking Feser is: “Are you claiming to *know* that God would never have made nature in such a way that it could justify a design inference (inference to the best explanation) by human minds? And if so, how can you *know* this?”

    If you follow my explanation so far, you will see that your question is really not pertinent to the approach that I am taking, but comes at things from a different angle. However, I will try to answer your question:

    No, I don’t see design as *replacing* chance and necessity. I think that the origin of various things (living and non-living) is most often best explained by a combination of intelligence, chance and necessity, with intelligence playing the central role, necessity (natural laws) playing an important subsidiary role, and chance playing a lesser subsidiary role. Dawkins, Dennett, etc., on the other hand, all insist that intelligence plays *no* role, which means that chance and necessity between them can account for everything about cells and organisms. Indeed, implied in their logic is that the universe *just happens* to have fundamental laws and substances of such a sort that undirected processes can produce living things of exquisite complexity, including man. For an ID person, as for Thomas Aquinas, this position is irrational.

    Of course Feser does not believe that the universe “just happens” to have the properties it does; like ID proponents, he thinks there is an intelligence behind it. But then, when ID people suggest that some aspects of this intelligence may be detectable, via inference to the best explanation, Feser turns fiercely against his Christian compadres. And his argument, as far as we can tell, is that inferences to the best explanation produce an unworthy kind of God. But they don’t. And we don’t understand why he can’t see this. They produce only a partial picture of God — God as designer. We all grant that. But for Christians it is *true* that God is a designer. That is the plain language not only of the Christian tradition but of the Bible — a book which many of us ID proponents wish that Thomists would discuss as often as they discuss Aristotelian metaphysics.

  12. My biggest beef (to date) with the IDists is all that silly talk about “chance and necessity” … as though chance has either causal or explanatory power. In fact, chance is the antithesis of cause and explanation.

  13. Thomas Cudworth @ #10… However, I want to stress that in no way do I think that the revealed aspects of Christian faith can be in any way proved by arguments of a Paleyan sort. They cannot even be proved by arguments of Aquinas’s sort, as Aquinas himself recognized. Reason and revelation are two very different things. If you want to get to Jesus Christ, you simply cannot get there without revelation. Aquinas, Torley, myself, all other ID proponents, and I presume Feser, would agree on that.
    .
    Now, the intelligent designer of the universe, even supposing that he can be arrived at via Paleyan arguments, is a mere fraction of the Christian God. The Christian God is much more than a mere designer …

    Exactly.

    Feser irrationally faults the IDists for failing to do what ID is not intended to do – and for what his own preferéd methodology cannot do.

    However, the IDists *can* discomfit the proponents of scientism and materialism in their own terms and on their own ground – something Feser never can do, nor even imagine. One can begin to understand why he’s so perennially pissy.

  14. Thomas Cudworth @ #10… But for Christians it is *true* that God is a designer. That is the plain language not only of the Christian tradition but of the Bible — a book which many of us ID proponents wish that Thomists would discuss as often as they discuss Aristotelian metaphysics.

    I have long-since tentatively concluded that the “classical theism” he’s always banging on about probably isn’t really Christianity … and, well, I have already made my commitment to Christianity. Further, and especially in light of his recent tack of castigating seeming everyone over the past four or five centuries (who isn’t Feser) as some notorious “personalist,” I cannot escape the conclusion that his “God of classical thesim” isn’t actually the Living God presented in the Bible, Who is indeed Personal, but is rather the impersonal “god of the philosophers.”

    What I mean is this: as best I can tell, Feser’s conception of God is as pointless, and as useless, as denying God outright. For, the reality of persons-in-the world, that is, ourselves, can be explained only with reference to a God who is Personal.

    Plato’s “Unthought Thoughts” and Aristotle’s “Unintended Intentions” explain nothing.

  15. (a note of further explanation) … an impersonal “god” is a mere mechanism or process, and an undesigned one at that (for, were it designed, then the designer is what-and-who one intends to denote by the term ‘god’).

    To assert something like: “Yes, there is a ‘God.’ But, contrary to the uninformed imaginings of most persons, ‘God’ is not personal; rather, ‘God’ is a Principle or Force” is precisely to assert: “No, there is no God.

    Yes, God is Being Itself. Feser seems to want to stop there – but how is stopping there really any different from Ayn Rand’s “Existence Exists,” by which she imagined she could dispense with God?

    Yes, God is Being Itself. But, God is also Personhood Itself.

  16. F/N: Chance: I think this should be seen as stochastically distributed, credibly or presumptively undirected contingency in initial conditions or disturbing factors or forces.

    For classic example the communicative capacity in bits/s of a Gaussian, white nose limited communication channel — per Shannon’s Analysis — depends on signal to noise power ratio:

    C = B(1 + S/N)

    Electronics, comms equipment has a noise factor or noise temperature that is related to its degree of corruption due to the stochastic processes involved with it e.g. Johnson noise of resistors, shot noise of junction diode devices, sky noise, etc.

    Sky noise and junction noise, suitably flattened out, have both been used for hardware random number generators.

    This is not to be confused with an imagined chaos where things happen anytime, anyplace for no particular reason.

    In experimental work, various small “chance” factors tend to yield a familiar scatter in results [that's where the Gaussian bell distribution came from], riding on top of biases due to process, instruments and the personal equation of the experimenter or observer.

    I believe it is reasonable to see that such can reasonably be categorised as a “chance” causal factor, without any major worldview commitments as to its ultimate nature.

    In the case of OOL, it is argued that in effect molecules that happened to be there and happened to react and interact, formed the first living system, without intelligent direction. It would be fair to characterise this as a claim that blind chance and mechanical necessity of natural forces gave rise to first cellular life.

    Onward, it is claimed that accidents of one sort or another triggered changes at chance in the genomes of the early organisms, and that the resulting changes in body plan and behaviour etc conferred advantages that were successful in some cases, leading to descent with modification on chance variation and natural selection. This is held to account for body plans across time including our own.

    The design challenge to this is that lucky noise is not going to have enough of a fraction of the possibilities to show up in complex function repeatedly arising by the chance contingency described. The only analytically and observationally credible source of regular FSCO/I is design.

    Though once something is put there, chance processes will affect it too.

    GEM of TKI

  17. KF, there is no such thing as a “chance process.” Rather, there are processes not fully understood. There may even be processes theoretically impossible to be fully understood (by finite beings). But, there are no “chance processes” … “chance” does not, and cannot, cause anything at all.

  18. KF, you’re an intelligent man, and more educated than I. Why is it that you cannot grasp that to speak of a “chance (or random) cause” is exactly to speak of “no cause”? What understanding are you lacking which impedes your grasping of this very simple point of logic?

    Now, indeed, I do see the amusement of asking a man, “What is it you don’t understand that is causing you to not understand what you’re not understanding.” But, I’m at my wit’s end in trying to help you grasp the simple point that “chance” cannot cause anything, for “chance” is, at most, a placeholder for “We do not see/understand the correlations, if any, between ‘A’ and ‘B’”

  19. … and, when “chance” is not that placeholder, it is “There is *no* correlation between ‘A’ and ‘B’” .. and, if/when there is no correlation between ‘A’ and ‘B,’ then, obviously, there can be no causality between them.

  20. In fact, chance is the antithesis of cause and explanation.

    Something I’ve tried to never forget ever since reading:

    Not a Chance: The Myth of Chance in Modern Science and Cosmology

  21. Thomas,

    Thank you for your post. I’m not against ID, I do consider myself a supporter. Goodness knows I’ve purchased enough ID books! If you want to make some money off me just write a (hopefully good) book on ID, lol.

    Of late I’ve been wondering if we can’t have a synthesis.

    Perhaps information is just formal causation finding its’ way back into science after lo these many years.

  22. kf,

    What do you think? Is it possible to even have information in the absense of an alternative (typically randomness)?

    I’m thinking that there is a very good reason for randomness and that reason is directly tied to information. (And no, I haven’t been smoking any island plants.)

  23. Ilion:

    We do not need to debate ultimate root causes form the outset of investigations, to see that there are empirically observable stochastic inputs and constraints on systems.

    For instance, see my discussion here of a balls and pistons model of a gas, noting the attractor that soon leads to Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics, and quasi infinite depth of information constraint to specify the positions and speeds of the balls at any given moment after sufficient time. Asw a matter of fact, we cannot — save in special circumstances, fully solve as “simple” a problem as a three body gravitational interaction.

    Even in a deterministic system, the result is practically the same as a random statistical distribution.

    Laplace’s demon able to calculate the future from initial conditions is out of a job.

    If we go to the quantum state models, we then begin to deal with similar distributions from the outset.

    So, we can accept that chance circumstances and disturbances and outcomes in the empirical sense are real enough to use as proximate causal factors without committing to a chaos not a cosmos.

    Such fit random statistical models and for our purposes of empirically assigning efficient cause [cf. e.g. Johnson noise due to the statistical behaviour of the microscopic current-carrying particles in an electrical resistance], that is good enough.

    Then, on examining the proximate behaviour, we can observe natural forces giving rise to lawlike regularities, scatter due to the sort of chance we just described and similar circumstances that for all we know would have been just as likely to have been in any other particular configuration, and to intelligence.

    Simply as empirical factors, with associated observable signs.

    We may then proceed from the directly observable present to the traces from the deep past of origins, beyond the reach of indisputable record. Origin of geomorphology, of stellar and planetary processes, of living body plans in the current age and the fossil beds, and so on, including origin of life and the observed cosmos.

    This then allows us to build upwards and backwards, inferring on empirical evidence, reliable signs and well-warranted — but ever provisional induction — to the global picture As we do so, it is apparent that the cosmos’ evident beginning and fine-tuning point to intentional plan and power to effect such, plan and power rooted in ultimately a necessary being. This on the logic that the contingent is in the end explained on the necessary.

    Once we then look at how say a body of gas behaves, or a chemical reaction, or what temperature is, we see that he statistical distributions and interactions based on it are foundational to the physical dynamics of the world. (That is a deep and often underscored finding of physics over the past 150 or so years.)

    There is no reason why that should be seen as causeless or out of control i.e. chaotic.

    Beyond that the island of function based configurations involved in life and body plans point to designs, not statistical miracles to order.

    Design implies purpose, and functionality implies organisation that is often complex and information-rich.

    Okay, I am very tired after the past few weeks of intense exchanges, so I hope an outline explanation like the above will be enough. Perhaps there is another physical scientist out there who would wish to elaborate further.

    Let me just say that even temperature is a metric of average random energy per degree of microscopic freedom. That’s why n*kT related terms are so common in the study of microscopic events, a metric of the amount of energy associated per degree of freedom at a given absolute temperature, T.

    GEM of TKI

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