A Response to Professor Feser
|April 11, 2010||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
Professor Edward Feser is an intrepid philosopher, who is not afraid to confront error head-on and expose it for what it is. That is an admirable trait. He is also a former atheist, who now defends religion from a traditional Roman Catholic perspective. In his book The Last Superstition (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008; available here ), Professor Feser takes on all four of the “New Atheists” – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. David Oderberg, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading, England, and a former atheist himself, was highly impressed by Professor Feser’s robust defense of the rationality of belief in God:
Anyone who comes away from The Last Superstition thinking that potboiler atheism has anything to recommend it, or that belief in God is irrational, will not be convinced by anything. For the rest of us, the book is, to use an apposite term, a godsend. And the caustic humour peppering the book adds just the sort of spice this fraught subject needs. If the Faithless Foursome were at all interested in a serious rebuttal, they now have it.
Professor Feser is a very insightful metaphysician, and I have been struck by his perspicacity more than a few times, while reading his blogs. His ability to articulate and defend Aquinas’ Five Ways to a 21st century audience is matchless. It is therefore a great pity, in my opinion, that he perceives ID as antithetical to Aquinas’ philosophy, and as an obstacle to his intellectual endeavor of convincing skeptics that the existence of God can be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt.
What is Professor Feser’s beef with ID, you may ask? Actually, he has a few objections to ID, but his principal complaint is that it is tied to a mechanistic conception of life. Here is his argument, taken from his recent post, “Intelligent Design” theory and mechanism (10 April 2010):
Take Dembski’s discussion of Aristotle at pp. 132-3 of The Design Revolution (which, if you don’t have a copy of the book, you can read for yourself here via Google Books). Dembski here identifies “design” with what Aristotle called techne or “art.” 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.
Now, 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). And there you have it: Living things are for ID theory 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 [Aristotelian-Thomistic – VJT] philosophers mean by a “mechanistic” conception of life.
Remember, this does not mean that A-T [Aristotelian Thomism] denies that living things are created by God; far from it. The point is rather that for A-T, the way God creates a natural substance is not to be understood on the model of a shipbuilder or sculptor who takes pre-existing bits of matter and rearranges them to serve an end they have no tendency otherwise to serve. For A-T, a natural substance is a composite of “prime matter” (matter having no form at all) and substantial form, rather than a piece of “second matter” (matter already having some substantial form or other) which has acquired some accidental form from outside it. And a natural substance’s causal tendencies, including biological functions in the case of living things, are inherent to it, a reflection of its essence or nature; it simply could not possibly exist as the kind of thing it is in the first place if it did not have those tendencies… The way God creates living things, then, is the same way He creates everything else, viz. by conjoining an essence to an act of existence…
With the greatest respect, I think that Professor Feser is misconstruing Professor Dembski’s argument. I consider myself an ID proponent, and I would be the first to affirm that living organisms have built-in ends, and that their biological functions are inherent to them. Nowhere in Professor Dembski’s book, The Design Revolution, does he deny these obvious facts. Let’s go back to Dembski’s exposition of Aristotle on acorns: “the acorn assumes the shape it does through powers internal to it: the acorn is a seed programmed to produce an oak tree.” Far from denying this observation, ID theory endorses and welcomes it. An acorn can produce an oak tree, precisely because its DNA is packed with functional complex specified information.
But where did the first acorn come from? More generally, where did the first life come from? It is all well and good to say that living things have inherent tendencies; but where did these tendencies first originate? Professor Feser’s response is that God breathed existence into an essence, as it were. Fine; but what about the essence of the first life form? Did it spring fully-fledged from the brow of the Almighty, as a Divine idea that God suddenly endowed with concrete existence, or was it “educed” from pre-existing powers lying latent in non-living matter?
The point that Professor Dembski was making in The Design Revolution was simply this: that the inherent tendencies which define living organisms and make them what they are, do not in any way explain how the first living organism came to be. To explain this occurrence, an act of external agency is required: in other words, a Designer who created the first life. Neither chance nor the laws of nature can explain the emergence of life, because they are unable to generate the functional complex specified information which characterizes life.
Now, Aristotle never addressed the question of how life on Earth originated, because he believed the world was eternal, and that the various species of living things had always existed. Aquinas, writing as a Christian theologian in the 13th century, rejected the view that the world was eternal, but he had the honesty to admit that Aristotle’s view was rationally consistent. We now know, however, that the Earth has not always existed. Additionally, there is very strong observational evidence that our Universe began in a Big Bang, approximately 13.7 billion years ago. We therefore have to confront the question: where did life come from?
Professor Feser would have us believe that this question is secondary. Even if there are some unknown laws of nature which explain the emergence of life, it does not matter; the really surprising thing is that there are laws of nature at all. To account for this striking fact, one must suppose that the various kinds of things we observe in the natural world (even things as simple as hydrogen atoms) have built-in tendencies to produce certain kinds of effects, under the right circumstances. But to say that a thing has a tendency towards a certain effect is tantamount to saying that producing that effect is not merely what is does, but what it ought to do. Laws of nature, then, are prescriptive as well as descriptive. Things have an “aboutness” built into them: what they are about is the effect they tend towards. But things lacking intelligence (such as hydrogen atoms) are not capable of being about anything unless an Intelligent Creator makes them to be that way. Likewise, things can only behave as they ought to behave if they were designed to behave in a certain way. That, in a nutshell, is Aquinas’ Fifth Way, the best exposition of which is actually to be found not in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Part I, question 2, article 3, but in his Questiones Disputatae De Veritate, Question 5, Article 2.
However, what Professor Feser appears not to realize is that there is very good evidence, from Aquinas’ own writings, that he would have warmly supported Professor Dembski’s contention that the first life could not have originated by natural processes, had he known what we know today about biology. This is a bold claim to make, and I am of course perfectly aware that for Aquinas and his contemporaries, spontaneous generation was an unquestioned fact of life, owing to the defective biology of that time. What Professor Feser overlooks, though, is that Aquinas also expressly taught that at least some kinds of creatures could not be generated from non-living matter by natural processes, as too many conditions would need to be satisfied in order to produce creatures of such perfection. In ID parlance, these creatures contain too much functional complex specified information (FCSI). I will produce “chapter and verse” to support this assertion in a forthcoming post, and I will also explain why I believe that had Aquinas known what we now know about DNA, he would have held that even a bacterium could not have originated from non-living matter by natural processes. For now, all I will say is that evidence for these assertions may be found in both the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles. I am surprised that Professor Feser is unaware of this evidence.
Now, I happen to know that Professor Feser is a big fan of Aquinas’ First Way – the argument from motion. Why does he especially like this argument in particular, rather than, say, the argument that things require a first cause of their being (the Second Way)? I shall answer by quoting from an article he recommends in his post, Go to Thomas! (28 January 2010): Michael Augros’s article responding to “Ten Objections to the Prima Via”. On pages 85-86 of his article, Augros writes:
The Second, Third, and Fourth ways do not begin from motion, which most manifestly needs a cause. Aquinas says that “Everything which was not always manifestly has a cause; whereas this is not so manifest of what always was.” But in all motion there is something which was not always. Motion itself, because of the novelty in it, gets our attention – we wave our hands to be seen, and sit still to avoid being noticed. And once we notice something new, something changed, we spontaneously seek a cause, much more convinced that there must be one than when there is no change. It is a rare soul who wonders why a house that has long been in existence now continues to exist in its same accustomed condition – unless it was on fire the last time he saw it. But no one fails to see that a new house going up in the neighborhood is due to a productive cause, even if neither he nor anyone else among his neighbors has seen the work being done.
Life on Earth had a beginning, and it also exhibits motion. It therefore had a cause. The movements that we can observe, under the microscope, in even the simplest living cells make a deep impression on most people. Intuitively, they immediately grasp that these movements exhibit a kind of complexity that is the hallmark of intelligence. Since cells themselves are not intelligent, they must have been designed. Thus ID’s argument for a Designer is thus a modern-day via manifestor for John and Jane Citizen. Even without the benefit of Aristotle’s philosophy, they can readily grasp that the first living things must have been designed, if life on Earth had a beginning.
As for Professor Feser’s claim that Aquinas did not liken God the Creator to a shipbuilder, sculptor or artificer, allow me to quote from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas himself:
For when we call the builder the principle of the house, in the idea of such a principle is included that of his art; and it would be included in the idea of the first principle were the builder the first principle of the house. God, Who is the first principle of all things, may be compared to things created as the architect is to things designed.
– Summa Theologica, Vol. I, q. 27, article 1, reply to objection 3.
Although creatures do not attain to a natural likeness to God according to similitude of species, as a man begotten is like to the man begetting, still they do attain to likeness to Him, forasmuch as they represent the divine idea, as a material house is like to the house in the architect’s mind.
– Summa Theologica, Vol. I, q. 44, article 3, reply to objection 1.
For just as an architect, without injustice, places stones of the same kind in different parts of a building, not on account of any antecedent difference in the stones, but with a view to securing that perfection of the entire building, which could not be obtained except by the different positions of the stones; even so, God from the beginning, to secure perfection in the universe, has set therein creatures of various and unequal natures, according to His wisdom, and without injustice, since no diversity of merit is presupposed.
– Summa Theologica, Vol. I, q. 65, article 2, reply to objection 3.
But should we speak here of life imitating art, or of art imitating life? Professor Feser contends that because the finality found in works of art is extrinsic, being imposed on a lump of lifeless matter by an external agent (e.g. a sculptor), we should think of art as a pale imitation of the intrinsic finality (or built-in teleology) found in all living things.
Again, this is perfectly correct if we are comparing the being of a living thing to that of a work of art. However, the intrinsic finality we find in all living things cannot account for the coming-to-be of the first living things. To explain this, we do need an artificer.
Now ID says nothing about the modus operandi of the Creator. An ID theorist is perfectly free to posit an act of Divine intervention at the dawn of life, or alternatively, a universe exquisitely fine-tuned by the Designer in its initial conditions as well as its laws, so that the subsequent emergence of life was inevitable. ID is a “big tent.” Theistic evolution, on the other hand, is not. Almost invariably, theistic evolutionists find the notion of God intervening in nature uncongenial. To them, it smacks of Divine tinkering, or of a “God-of-the gaps”; hence their visceral dislike of ID. It is particularly interesting, then, to discover that St. Thomas Aquinas did not share this dislike at all. On the contrary, he considered it perfectly appropriate for God, as a Divine artist, to intervene in nature whenever He pleased, even if He acts in a manner contrary to the normal course of natural occurrences:
[A]ll creatures are related to God as art products are to an artist, as is clear from the foregoing. Consequently, the whole of nature is like an artifact of the divine artistic mind. But it is not contrary to the essential character of an artist if he should work in a different way on his product, even after he has given it its first form. Neither, then, is it against nature if God does something to natural things in a different way from that to which the course of nature is accustomed.
Hence, Augustine says: “God, the creator and founder of all natures, does nothing contrary to nature; for what the source of all measure, number and order in nature does, is natural to each thing” [Contra Faustum, XXVI, 3].
– Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, chapter 100, paragraphs 6 and 7, available online at http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles3b.htm#100
That sure sounds like an artificer to me.
Before concluding this post, I will briefly respond to Professor Feser’s second substantive charge against Professor Dembski, which is that he prevaricates on the nature of the Designer:
In some places he insists that the “designer” that ID posits could in theory itself be something in the natural order, such as an extraterrestrial, so that there is no truth to the charge that ID has an essentially theological agenda. But elsewhere he insists that “specified complexity” cannot be given a naturalistic explanation, and even allows that positing a designer who is part of the natural order would only initiate an explanatory regress – which would imply that a genuine explanation would require an appeal to the supernatural.
Is there an inconsistency here? Not at all. We need to distinguish between what can be established by a scientific argument, from what can only be established by a metaphysical argument. The scientific case for biological ID is built on the fact that the emergence of even the simplest living cell through low-specificity processes, such as the laws of nature, would be an astronomically improbable event, over the time period available (say, the first billion years after the Earth formed). The laws of nature, by themselves, are too blunt an instrument to generate the amount of functional complex specified information (FCSI) found in even the simplest living cell over that time period, and chance won’t do the job either. Intelligent beings, on the other hand, create FCSI all the time. Ergo, the most rational inference is that life on Earth was intelligently designed. This is a scientific argument which makes use of abductive reasoning but makes no controversial metaphysical assumptions.
By contrast, the argument that the Designer transcends the cosmos is far trickier to formulate, and does require certain metaphysical premises to yield its conclusion. One needs to show either that the cosmos had a beginning (as the kalam cosmological argument attempts to prove), which means that the first life-forms in the cosmos must have been created by a supernatural Being, if one rejects abiogenesis on probabilistic grounds, as ID proponents do; or that the laws of the cosmos must be designed by an Intelligent Being, who therefore transcends the cosmos (the fine-tuning argument and Aquinas’ Fifth Way can both be used to demonstrate this). Some metaphysical premises – very rational ones, I might add – are required to make these arguments work. Hence on purely scientific grounds we cannot show that the Designer of life on Earth is not an extraterrestrial, but on metaphysical grounds we can.
The value of ID for most people is that it “breaks the spell” of the scientific materialist mindset, which says that mind emerged naturally from matter, through an argument which is evident to most people and that practically anyone can grasp, even if their philosophical background is very limited. The specified complexity of life speaks for itself. Have a look here if you don’t believe me. And then read this and this. Whoever designed life is smarter than we are.
That doesn’t take us to an Infinite Being, but it’s a big step in the right direction. Someone who comes to recognize that life on Earth was designed by a superior Intelligence will then be much more receptive to the idea that the Designer is transcendent and not limited by anything else.
Professor Feser is an astute metaphysician, and I suspect he will ask: why take this roundabout route to God, when a good metaphysical argument will get you there? The short answer is: most people don’t trust metaphysical arguments which purport to prove conclusions which they find repugnant to their way of thinking. They tend to reject such arguments as “armchair metaphysics” – which is an unfair prejudice, but a sad fact of life. The value of ID is that it helps to break down this repugnance. Once people are persuaded that life on Earth had a Designer, the idea of God no longer seems so intellectually uncongenial.