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In Praise of Subtlety


You might not know the guy in the picture above. John Duns Scotus, O.F.M, was one of the greatest theologians of the Middle Ages. A penetrating thinker of unsurpassed ingenuity, he was nicknamed the Subtle Doctor. Later on in this post, I’ll argue that in one particular respect, his philosophy is particularly ID-friendly – even more so than that of St. Thomas Aquinas. (By the way, my post on Aquinas, ID and evolution will be coming out next week.)

Duns Scotus, as he is generally known, appreciated arguments with many twists and turns, and I think he would have enjoyed reading Professor William Dembski’s recent post, Does ID presuppose a mechanistic view of nature? . But after reading his response to Dembski’s post, I get the strong impression that Professor Edward Feser does not appreciate subtle arguments. Fair enough. We all have our own personal strengths. Professor Feser is a formidable fighter, a brilliant metaphysician and a very profound thinker. If subtlety is not his cup of tea, then I shall undertake to rephrase Professor Dembski’s argument in a way that makes it crystal clear that ID’s argument for a Designer poses no threat whatever to Aristotelian and Thomistic arguments for the existence of God. By the way, this will be my last UD post in response to Professor Feser, as I think that prolonging the argument further would not be helpful. I shall do my best to make him reconsider his opposition to ID, in this post. Wish me luck!

All right. Now let’s get down to tin tacks.

What exactly does Professor Dembski mean by a “mechanistic” view of nature?

What irked Professor Feser most about Professor Dembski’s latest post, Does ID presuppose a mechanistic view of nature? was its apparent ambiguity. Dembski uses the term “mechanism” to describe a point of view regarding Nature, but which point of view is he discussing, exactly?

Well, there does seem to be some potential ambiguity in the way Dembski uses the term “mechanism.” At one point in his post he appears to contrast mechanism, as I would, with the A-T [Aristotelian-Thomistic] view that final causes exist everywhere in nature. But later, in a quote from his book The Design Revolution, he alludes to some related but distinct definitions of “mechanism” given by Michael Polanyi. He doesn’t clarify the relationship between these senses of the term.

In his article, Professor Dembski actually employs four different definitions of the point of view which he calls “mechanism.” These need to be distinguished very carefully.

Definition (1): Naturalistic mechanism. This is the position that there are no genuine final causes in nature. (This is mechanism as Professor Feser usually defines it.) On this view, changes that take place in the world can be explained by what Aristotle referred to as efficient causes, i.e. causes which bring about effects in a regular manner. However, these causes are blind; they act for no purpose whatsoever. Everything in nature works like a machine. In the natural realm, things do not strive towards any goal or end-state; indeed, that whole way of talking is rejected as anthropomorphic. The only teleology that really exists in the world is artificial: it is imposed on things from outside, by intelligent agents.

Naturalistic mechanism comes in two distinct versions
(1a) The atheistic version: the view that nature is self-sufficient, without the need for any Deity. (ID categorically rejects this view, for several reasons. One reason why is that every living thing carries meaningful messages in its DNA, and machines cannot create meaningful messages unless they are operated by an intelligent agent.)

(1b) The theistic version: the view that nature was originally created (and, in some versions of this position, is continually maintained in existence) by a Deity. (Historically, some ID proponents have maintained this view, regarding Nature as a gigantic machine created by God. ID proponents of this view need not be classical theists – indeed, Professor Feser argues that classical theism is flat out inconsistent with this view. Many people who adopt this view are Deists, for instance.)

Definition (2): Methodological mechanism. This is not a point of view as such; it’s just a method of doing science. It simply means the avoidance of all reference to natural teleology (intrinsic final causes), in a scientific context. Scientists agree to explain changes in the world with reference to efficient causes that bring about effects in a regular manner, without invoking final causes in nature, in addition to efficient causes. As part of this scientific methodology, they simply assume that efficient causes exist and work regularly, without asking why they work that way. Thus at the outset, they avoid making assumptions about the existence of intrinsic finality (or immanent teleology) in natural objects. (The argument for ID proceeds by employing this modest methodology. It does not assume that there are no final causes in nature, or even that there might be no final causes in nature; rather, it simply refrains from invoking final causes in the natural realm while arguing for the existence of a Designer, as many Darwinists say they find the idea of final causes unintelligible: it doesn’t make sense to them.)

Definition (3): Reductionism. This is the view that life and mind can be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry. This kind of mechanism also entails naturalistic mechanism according to definition (1). (Strictly speaking, though, reductionism does not necessarily follow from definition (1), as there might conceivably be “top-down” efficient causes.) (Reductionism is incompatible with ID, as it implies life can be totally explained from the bottom up, without the need for any intelligence. ID contends that specified complexity cannot be explained in this way.)

Definition (4): Nano-biomechanism (as I call it). This is the view that the organisms have tiny components that work like machines. This view does not entail that organisms are machines. (ID strongly endorses nano-biomechanism; thus it accepts mechanism, as defined according to definition (4).)

Now let’s have a look at Professor Dembski’s article, Does ID presuppose a mechanistic view of nature? . When he writes in his second paragraph, “One critic, going after me directly, asserts that I’m committed to a mechanical view of nature… ID… is supposed to demand an artifactual understanding of life,” Dembski is employing definition (1) of mechanism. Dembski then goes on to argue that on the contrary, ID is quite compatible with an Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of nature. It is also compatible with many other views of nature.

In his fourth paragraph, when he writes: “The Darwinian naturalists have misunderstood nature, along mechanistic lines, but then use this misunderstanding to push for an atheistic worldview,” Professor Dembski means that ID totally rejects mechanism as defined according to definition (1a) (the view that nature is a self-sufficient machine, without the need for any Deity). Although he does not specify the nature of the Darwinists’ “misunderstanding,” I’d say he’s talking about mechanism according to definition (3), or reductionism, which is also opposed to ID, as specified complexity cannot be explained in terms of chemistry. Matter doesn’t generate meaning. Darwinists, on the other hand, are reductionists; that’s why they don’t see any need for God.

In his fifth paragraph, when Professor Dembski writes: “ID is willing, arguendo, to consider nature as mechanical and then show that the mechanical principles by which nature is said to operate are incomplete and point to external sources of information… This is not to presuppose mechanism in the strong sense of regarding it as true. It is simply to grant it for the sake of argument,” he is talking about mechanism according to definition (2), or methodological mechanism (which means agreeing for argument’s sake not to invoke final causes in nature). ID proponents are happy to adopt this method of talking about nature when engaging in dialogue with Darwinists.

In his eighth paragraph, when Professor Dembski writes: “ID is happy to let a thousand flowers bloom with regard to the nature of nature provided it is not a mechanistic, self-sufficing view of nature,” he is rejecting mechanism as defined according to definition (1a) (the view that nature is a self-sufficient machine, without the need for any Deity).

In the first paragraph of Professor Dembski’s lengthy quote from his book The Design Revolution, immediately after the ninth paragraph of his post, Dembski writes: “It’s not that design theorists and Darwinian naturalists share the same conception of nature but then simply disagree whether a supernatural agent sporadically intervenes in nature. In fact, intelligent design does not prejudge the nature of nature.” Here, Dembski is rejecting the commonly held view that ID proponents all embrace mechanism according to definition (1b) (the view that nature is a machine, created by a Deity). Instead, he is declaring that ID is officially neutral on the question of what nature is.

In the second paragraph of his lengthy quote from The Design Revolution, Dembski goes on to distinguish Polyani’s two definitions of mechanism: reductionism (the idea that life can be completely explained in terms of physics and chemistry – i.e. mechanism according to definition (3)) and what I call nano-biomechanism (the view that organisms have tiny components that work like machines – i.e. mechanism according to definition (4)). ID endorses the latter but rejects the former, because specified information, which characterizes life, cannot be reduced to matter and energy.

Dembski continues: “Hence in focusing on the machinelike features of organisms, intelligent design is not advocating a mechanistic conception of life. To attribute such a conception of life to intelligent design is to commit a fallacy of composition. Just because a house is made of bricks doesn’t mean that the house itself is a brick. Likewise just because certain biological structures can properly be described as machines doesn’t mean that an organism that includes those structures is a machine.” Here, he is saying that accepting mechanism according to definition (4) (as ID does) does not entail accepting mechanism according to definition (1) (which ID does not endorse, even though some proponents of ID have upheld this view).

Professor Dembski concludes: “Intelligent design proponents, building on the work of Polanyi, argue that physical mechanisms (like the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection and random variation) have no inherent capacity to bring about the machinelike aspects of life.” What he is saying here is that unintelligent physical mechanisms per se are not capable of generating significant quantities of meaningful, specified information in the time since the observable universe began, 13.73 billion years ago, and that the machinelike aspects of life require precisely this kind of information. (More precisely, they could, but it would be an astronomically unlikely occurrence. One the other hand, intelligent agents are quite capable of generating this kind of information. Hence the most reasonable explanation of the machinelike aspects of life is that life was created by an Intelligent Being.)

Now we can address Professor Feser’s principal objection to mechanism. He writes:

For as I have said many times in previous posts, ID’s mechanistic approach puts it at odds with A-T even if that approach is taken in a merely “for the sake of argument” way. The reason is that a mechanistic conception of the world is simply incompatible with the classical theism upheld by A-T. It isn’t just that a mechanistic starting point won’t get you all the way to the God of classical theism. It’s that a mechanistic starting point gets you positively away from the God of classical theism. Why? Because a mechanistic world is one which could at least in principle exist apart from God. And classical theism holds that the world could not, even in principle, exist apart from God. So, the views are flatly inconsistent. And so, if you start with a mechanistic conception even just “for the sake of argument,” you will never get one inch, one millimeter closer to the God of classical theism. Instead, you will have ruled that God out from the get-go.

In other words, Feser doesn’t like mechanism because it messes up his favorite Thomistic arguments for God. The reader might be wondering why mechanism entails that the universe could exist without God. Feser spells it out with admirable clarity in an earlier post, The trouble with Paley (November 4, 2009):

[O]ne of the objections the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition has to the mechanistic denial of final causality is that it makes efficient causality unintelligible. Causes and effects become “loose and separate”; any effect or none might in principle follow upon any cause. This not only paves the way for the paradoxes of Hume, but (more to the present point) undermines the possibility of showing how the very fact of causation as such presupposes a sustaining First Uncaused Cause. The metaphysically necessary connection between the world and God is broken; in principle the world could exist and operate just as it does apart from God.

In other words, even conceding that there might be no final causality in nature means conceding that any effect might follow from any cause, which makes it impossible to argue for the Uncaused Cause of classical theism. That’s why Professor Feser doesn’t like ID: he thinks it’s ruining his Aristotelian-Thomistic quest of converting people to belief in the God of classical theism.

Not so. This is where subtlety is called for. ID adopts mechanism according to definition (2) as an argumentative strategy, when arguing with Darwinians: “You don’t like imputing final causes to natural objects? OK, we’ll refrain from making that assumption.” But refraining from making the assumption that there are no final causes does not commit you to saying that there might be no final causes, let alone that there are no final causes.

For ID proponents to say that there might be no final causes would indeed be a dangerous move: it would be tantamount to saying that mechanism according to definition (1) might be true, which would make it impossible to argue for classical theism. But even saying that definition (1) might be true would be a metaphysical assumption. ID doesn’t make metaphysical assumptions, because of the modesty of its case. Its objective is significant but limited: it’s simply arguing for some sort of Designer of life and the cosmos, rather than for the God of classical theism. However, if you want to go beyond ID and argue for the God of classical theism, as Professor Feser does in his books, then obviously you do need final causes.

What about Professor Feser’s claim that ID will not get you even “one inch, one millimeter closer to the God of classical theism”? Well, ID won’t get you to an Infinite Being, that’s for sure. But it will get you to an Intelligent Designer of life and the cosmos (if we combine the cosmological fine-tuning argument with Professor Dembski’s argument from specified complexity). A Being who designed the cosmos might well be transcendent and infinite, although further metaphysical argumentation would be required to establish that. ID doesn’t take us that far, but it takes us some of the way.

So you can relax, Professor Feser. We wouldn’t dream of encroaching upon your metaphysical turf. Nor do we have any wish to mess with your favorite arguments for God.

Why do ID theorists argue for a Designer first, instead of reasoning directly from nature to the God of classical theism? As I’ve explained before, many atheists can’t take on the Aristotelian-Thomistic mindset – or any other metaphysical mindset – all at once. It’s too foreign to their background assumptions. ID proponents prefer to take it one step at a time when arguing with atheists. Someone who has been convinced on scientific grounds that life and the cosmos have a Designer might then be open to the possibility of changing their world view. That’s the ideal time to start talking to them about final causes in nature, and how they presuppose God (Aquinas’ fifth way). By that time, too, skeptics who have been converted to belief in a Designer might be ready to entertain the notion that the Designer might not only be outside space and time, and but also totally transcendent.

Now, what about Professor Feser’s other accusation, that Professor Dembski contradicts himself in his post?

Dembski says that ID assumes mechanism only for the sake of argument, and that mechanism isn’t really true. In other words, he admits that the very premises on which ID rests are false… But …ID, Dembski and others never tire of telling us, is a “new science” that will “revolutionize” the way we do biology. Moreover, ID is claimed to provide “scientific evidence” for the existence of a designer. But how can it do either if the mechanism that it presupposes is mistaken? Dembski is saying, in effect: “We can show that the existence of a designer follows from these premises! This will revolutionize biology! Oh, and by the way, the premises are false.”

This accusation trades upon a basic confusion. When Professor Dembski rejects “mechanism”, he is talking about mechanism either according to definition (1a) (atheistic naturalistic mechanism, which says that nature is self-sufficient) or definition (3) (reductionism). But when ID proponents like Professor Dembski make their case for ID, the “mechanism” they employ is of a different kind: mechanism according to definition (2) (agreeing to limit one’s argument to mechanical efficient causes, and avoiding reference to final causes in nature, when trying to convince Darwinists of the existence of a Designer) and definition (4) (the existence of molecular machines inside living things).

What Professor Feser missed

In my post, A Response to Professor Feser (11 April 2010), I wrote:

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… 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.

In his post, ID theory, Aquinas, and the Origin of Life: A Reply to Torley (16 April 2010), Professor Feser responded:

Well, yes, it would be surprising indeed if the author of a book on Aquinas had overlooked such evidence. But I did not overlook it.

Oh yes you did, Professor. Professor Feser didn’t find the evidence, even though I gave some pretty broad hints. He thought I was talking about Aquinas’ writings on abiogenesis. Wrong! Here’s another hint: the relevant citations from Aquinas have to do with what heavenly bodies are capable and incapable of generating. I will say more in a forthcoming post, next week, in which I will also demonstrate that Aquinas would have rejected evolution by natural selection, for theological reasons.

Professor Feser on abiogenesis (the spontaneous generation of life from non-living matter)

In his post, ID theory, Aquinas, and the Origin of Life: A Reply to Torley, Professor Feser makes some remarks about abiogenesis with which I would warmly agree, but then spoils his case by making some concessions to scientific naturalism which reveal that he fails to grasp the vital difference between things possessing specified complexity (including living things) and things that lack it.

He starts off well. He writes that “the view that life cannot arise from non-life is in fact itself a commonplace of the A-T tradition.” Wonderful! He even gives a three-step argument:

1. There is a difference in kind and not merely degree between living substances and non-living ones.

and

2. A cause cannot give what it does not have to give, so that whatever is in an effect must in some way be in the cause.

So

3. Non-living substances cannot of themselves cause living ones.

Here is how he un-packages steps 1 and 2:

[Explanation of step 1]
In the non-living realm, the end result of a causal process can be seen on analysis always to lie in something external to the cause – that is transeunt causation. Living things manifest transeunt causation, but unlike non-living things they also manifest immanent causation, insofar as some of the causal processes occurring in them cannot be understood except as terminating within and benefiting the organism considered as a whole… [F]or A-T the irreducibility of life to non-life derives fundamentally from the irreducibility of immanent causation to transeunt causation. (Italics mine – VJT.)

I have no quarrel with Professor Feser regarding this step of his argument.

[Explanation of step 2]
[F]or A-T [Aristotelian-Thomism], a cause does not have to have whatever is in the effect in the same way that the effect has it…To use the Scholastic jargon, if what is in the effect is not in the cause “formally,” it must still be in the cause “virtually” or “eminently.”… Thus, when we come to the conclusion that non-life cannot of itself generate life, what this means is that substances or processes entirely devoid of immanent causation – not only formally, but also virtually or eminently – cannot possibly of themselves bring about substances characterized by immanent causation…. Hence, from an A-T [Aristotelian-Thomistic] point of view it is impossible absolutely and in principle that a purely mechanistic universe (i.e. one devoid of immanent final causality of any sort) could ever generate life. And thus it is impossible in principle that a naturalistic explanation could ever be given of the origin of life. (Italics mine – VJT.)

This is a bit disappointing. All he is saying is that life could not arise in a world where there are no final causes in the natural realm. What would such a world be like? As we saw above, Professor Feser argues that it would be a world in which efficient causality becomes unintelligible, too. Causes and effects become “loose and separate”; any effect might follow upon any cause. In short, it would be a “Hume world”. But that’s not the world we live in, anyway. The world we live in is rife with final causes, according to Professor Feser. Anything that behaves in accordance with a law of nature has a final cause. So the question remains: could life have arisen from non-living matter in our world?

Professor Feser has anticipated this question. Here is how he answers it:

Might at least some inorganic natural processes nevertheless have the power to generate life? As Torley notes, Aquinas thought so, believing as he did that spontaneous generation often occurs in nature. But Aquinas believed this because he thought there was empirical evidence for it, and we now know that that evidence (e.g. maggots arising from decaying flesh) was misinterpreted…

No contemporary A-T [Aristotelian-Thomistic] theorist accepts the mistaken scientific assumptions that informed Aquinas’s views about spontaneous generation. But might a contemporary A-T theorist hold that there could be some other natural processes (understood non-mechanistically, of course) that have within them the power to generate life, at least as part of an overall natural order that we must in any event regard as divinely conserved in existence? He might, and some do. But the actual empirical evidence for the existence of such processes seems (to say the least) far weaker now than it did in Aquinas’s own day …

[S]ome A-T thinkers conclude that the first living things could not have arisen out of inorganic processes in any way and must have been specially created by God in an extraordinary intervention in the natural order. Other A-T theorists nevertheless prefer instead, on general philosophical grounds rather than empirical ones, to conclude that there are inorganic natural processes having life “virtually” or “eminently” even if not “formally,” and hold that the first living things arose out of these processes, albeit only within a natural order that is itself necessarily sustained in operation by God.

So there we have it. Professor Feser is personally sympathetic to the view that life was specially created by God, but he thinks that God could have made a cosmos in which natural processes that are continually sustained by God’s power are capable of generating life. In the end, the only reason why God is absolutely required to generate life is that (i) God maintains all things in being, and (ii) God is the author of the laws of nature, which Professor Feser regards as finalistic, because they always tend to produce determinate results.

I have to say that this response misses the point. For that matter, not all ID proponents believe that God specially created life by an act of intervention. Some (e.g. Professor Michael Behe) think He may have set things up at the Big Bang so that life would emerge. ID is agnostic on God’s modus operandi. The point is that whatever method God used to make the first life, He must have added the complex specified information to the cosmos that was required to generate life. And as Dr. Stephen Meyer shows in his recent book, Signature in the Cell,/i>, it would have been quite a lot of information.

Even in a world rife with final causes, the laws of nature can’t generate the kind of complex specified information that characterizes life, because they are pretty non-specific, compared to the specificity we find in life. They are very short (you can write them on a single line) and very general – at least, all of the laws scientists have discovered to date. Not much information there. Life isn’t like that.

I conclude that while Professor Feser has a keen awareness of the unique kind of immanent final causation that characterizes life – as he notes, only living things have a “good of their own” – he does not have the same grasp of the unique formal characteristics of life. He seems to think that the form of a living thing could (for all we know) be explained in terms of a few simple scientific laws. I’m afraid life is just not that simple.

Can scientists synthesize life? And if they did, would it be an artifact?

In a very interesting aside in his post, ID theory, Aquinas, and the Origin of Life: A Reply to Torley (16 April 2010), Professor Feser asks whether scientists could synthesize life, and if so, what it would prove. Here again, my hopes were raised and then disappointed when I read his response:

[A side note: Could scientists, then, generate life in a laboratory using purely inorganic materials? If a mechanistic account of the natural world were true, the answer would be: Absolutely not. But what if instead there is some final causality already built into nature, and the scientists use non-living materials that nevertheless have immanent causation definitive of life within them, “virtually” or “eminently” though not “formally”?... Imparting such an end would necessarily require intelligence, which is why Aquinas thought “spontaneous generation” to be possible only under the influence of the spiritual substances he assumed were guiding the heavenly bodies. But what if the scientists did something to the raw materials that could not have happened in the absence of an intelligence like their own? Could they generate life in that case? In theory it seems they could, though obviously this scenario is of no help to the naturalist, who holds that life can originate in the absence of any intelligence.

If it did happen, though, would the result be an “artifact” rather than a “natural” object, in Aristotle’s sense? No, no more than water synthesized in a lab is an “artifact,” and no more than a child generated by his parents is an “artifact.”… It isn’t like the making of a mousetrap or a watch, which – unlike water and living things – have no natural tendency to come into existence in the first place. (Italics mine – VJT.)]

Three things struck me when I read this passage.

First, the fact that Professor Feser would even think of likening the artificial synthesis of life to the synthesis of water in the laboratory absolutely flabbergasted me. Water doesn’t contain complex specified information. Life does. To make clear exactly what I’m saying, I’d like to discuss the following cases.

(1) A water molecule.
(a) This is a natural object, or substance. It is more than the sum of its parts. A water molecule has certain properties which cannot be reduced to those of its constituents.
(b) There are laws of nature that tend to produce water molecules, under certain circumstances.
(c) Scientists can take advantage of these laws to produce water molecules. For example, hydrogen and oxygen do not ordinarily combine at room temperature to produce water, but if scientists pass a spark through them, they will combine.
(d) A water molecule has no “good of its own”; it is not alive. Thus it has no immanent final causality.
(e) Is a water molecule made in a laboratory an artifact? That depends on how it’s made. If scientists just ran a spark through a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen to make water, then it’s not an artifact; they’re just taking advantage of the laws of nature. But if they could bring two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen together by manipulating the individual atoms, then they’re not just riding on the coat-tails of nature. Rather, they’re inputting some specified information into the system to create the molecule. In that case, I’d call it an artifact.

(2) A bacterial cell.
(a) This is a natural object, or substance. It is more than the sum of its parts. A water molecule has certain properties which cannot be reduced to those of its constituents.
(b) However, as far as we know, there are no laws of nature that tend to produce a bacterial cell, under any circumstances.
(c) Hence, scientists cannot take advantage of any laws of nature to produce a bacterial cell. If they were to make one, they’d have to put it together, piece by piece, like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle where every part has to be in the right place.
(d) A bacterial cell does have a “good of its own”; it is alive. Thus it has immanent final causality.
(e) Is a bacterial cell made in a laboratory an artifact? Yes. It has to be assembled one part at a time, without nature’s help.

(3) A mousetrap.
(a) This is not a natural object. It is an assemblage of parts, and there are no “higher-level” holistic properties of a mousetrap which cannot be reduced to those of its constituents.
(b) There are no laws of nature that tend to produce a mousetrap, under any circumstances.
(c) Hence, scientists cannot take advantage of any laws to produce a mousetrap. If they wanted to make one, they’d have to assemble the parts together, one at a time.
(d) A mousetrap does not have a “good of its own”; it is not alive. Thus it has no immanent final causality.
(e) Is a mousetrap made in a laboratory an artifact? Yes. It has to be assembled one part at a time, without nature’s help.

What’s the upshot of all this? A thing can be alive (with a good of its own) and yet still be a true artifact, because its parts have no natural tendency to come together. A bacterial cell is unquestionably alive, but if it has been produced by scientists in a laboratory, then it is an artifact.

The second thing that struck me was that Professor Feser wrote of water and living things as having a “natural tendency to come into existence.” I have to say that this is a very odd way of talking. After all, if a thing doesn’t exist yet, then it can hardly have a tendency to come into existence – because there is no “it” in existence as yet! But perhaps Professor Feser simply means that things already in existence have a natural tendency to produce that thing.

Third, Professor Feser talks about “non-living materials that nevertheless have immanent causation definitive of life,” virtually but not formally. I take it he’s envisaging something like a bunch of non-living parts that wouldn’t normally combine into a living thing, but that would instantly “snap into place” in a law-governed fashion, if scientists somewhat brought them in the vicinity of one another, thereby creating a living cell. Abracadabra! Would the cell be an artifact then? If the parts had to be brought together in a certain sequence, I’d say yes. If no sequencing was required (“Just put them together in a solution”), I’d say no. Could life be like that?

Remember that life is formally characterized by the functional complex specified information in its components. (Life is also finally characterized by having a good of its own. Thus life has a dual formal-final characterization: the two go hand in hand.) It is possible that God has somehow built a “magic pathway” into the laws of nature, so that when certain molecules are combined in the right sequence, we get a living cell. But the sequence of events would have to be extremely specific, and the order of assembly would be all-important. Because the process would still require things being put together in a certain order, I’d call that an artifact. Wouldn’t you?

Should living things be modeled on ships and statues, the products of techne or “art,”?

That depends. If you’re trying to explain what it means to be alive, then ships won’t help you; they have no intrinsic finality. But if you’re trying to explain how living things are made, then I’d say ships are a very useful analogy: like living things, they would need to be put together piece by piece, in order to endow them with the functional complex specified information that living things need. That’s a lot more functional complex specified information than a ship needs, by the way. ID theorists tell us that a living cell is comparable to a city in its complexity.

Here, I have to say that Professor Feser conflates two points:

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…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…

Here I distinguish. The parts of living things have intrinsic biological functions. A living thing would not be what it is without these functions. The parts of ships do not have intrinsic functions. A ship’s finality is extrinsic; it is an assemblage of parts. We are agreed so far.

However, it doesn’t follow from this that the parts of a living thing have a natural tendency to come together in the first place. On the available evidence, I would say that the parts that went into the making of the first living cell on Earth were indeed arranged to serve an end they have no tendency otherwise to serve. In that respect, the analogy with a ship is perfect. A ship has to be assembled, and so did the first living thing.

The difference is that having been put together, the parts of a living thing tend to hang together in such a way that we can indeed speak of them as serving the good of the whole. For instance, the parts of a living thing exhibit “dedicated functionality,” right down to the tiniest molecule: every part of a living thing subserves the good of the whole. Also, living things have a master program that controls not only their operations, but their reproduction as well. And in their design, living things exhibit a nested hierarchy all the way down to the smallest piece. Ships are not built like that.

Is God like an artificer? The story of a storm in a teacup

I have a confession to make. When I wrote my original post on 11 April 2010, I was under the mistaken impression that Professor Feser thought that God was not like an architect. Now why would I think that? Well, in an earlier post entitled The trouble with William Paley (November 4, 2009), Professor Feser quoted approvingly from the writings of a philosopher who seemed to ridicule the whole idea of God being like an architect:

Or as the analytical Thomist philosopher Christopher F. J. Martin amusingly puts it in his very fine book Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations:

The Being whose existence is revealed to us by the argument from design is not God but the Great Architect of the Deists and Freemasons, an impostor disguised as God, a stern, kindly, and immensely clever old English gentleman, equipped with apron, trowel, square and compasses…

The Great Architect is not God because he is just someone like us but a lot older, cleverer and more skilful. He decides what he wants to do and therefore sets about doing the things he needs to do to achieve it. God is not like that….

God is mysterious: the whole objection to the great architect is that we know him all too well, since he is one of us.

I was shocked, as I knew of passages in Aquinas where he used the “architect” to describe God. I then quoted several passages:

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…

[I then gave three quotes from St. Thomas. One of them said that “God, Who is the first principle of all things, may be compared to things created as the architect is to things designed.” I then added:]

Now ID says nothing about the modus operandi of the Creator.

…[St. Thomas] 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.

That sure sounds like an artificer to me.

Howls of outrage followed from Professors Feser and Beckwith: I had taken the passages out of context, they said. Well, no I hadn’t; all I’d been trying to show was that for Aquinas, God may be legitimately compared with an architect.

It turns out that I badly mis-read Professor Feser, and for that I am sorry. He wasn’t trying to say that God was not like an architect; what he meant was that God does not make things like an architect:

First of all, neither Aquinas nor any other A-T philosopher has ever held that we may never, under any circumstances, compare God to a builder, an artist, or the like. The claim is rather that when we are trying to understand the metaphysics of divine creation, specifically, we should not think of it on the model of human artifice. So, the fact that Aquinas uses a building or artifact metaphor here or there in his writings by itself proves nothing; and in none of the passages Torley cites does Aquinas say that God’s act of creating a natural substance is like an artificer’s act of making an artifact out of raw materials…

Then Professor Feser accused me of holding that God makes things in the same way as an artificer makes an artifact:

[Torley] cites various passages from Aquinas which he thinks show that even the Angelic Doctor thought of God as creating in the way an artificer makes an artifact. But they show no such thing.

Now, where did I say that St. Thomas Aquinas thought of God as creating in the same way as an artificer makes an artifact? Chapter and verse, please.

I take full responsibility for my misunderstanding of Professor Feser; I hope he will acknowledge that he misunderstood me.

Does God make things like an artificer does?

There are important differences between the way God makes things and the way an artificer does: in particular, an artificer cannot endow an essence with existence, as God can. Only God can create ex nihilo. Moreover, God continually maintains things in existence. An artificer does not; having made a statue, a ship or a bridge, he/she can walk away and it will still be there.

But God can indeed take raw materials with no inherent tendency to form a living thing, and assemble them together, as an artificer might. He could have made Adam from the dust of the ground, even if He did not in fact. And doesn’t the Bible say that He could make children of Abraham from stones, if He wished?

Did God make the first living thing like that? I don’t know. ID says nothing about the modus operandi of the creator. But He might have done it that way.

Do ID proponents worship a different God from the God of classical theism?

Professor Feser faults ID on theological grounds as well. He seems to be convinced that ID proponents are theological disciples of William Paley. He also claims that ID proponents are tied to an anthropomorphic conception of God, regarding Him as nothing more than a Great Architect, rather like the Masons did in the 18th century. In particular, he faults ID proponents for applying terms like “intelligent” to God in the same way (i.e. in a univocal sense) as they are applied to human beings. In his post, The trouble with William Paley (November 4, 2009), he explains why he objects to this way of talking about God:

Paley and Co. conceptualize this designer on the model of human tinkerers, attributing our characteristics (intelligence, power, etc.) to him in a univocal rather than an analogous way (to allude to a crucial Thomistic distinction explained in a previous post). To be sure, “design arguments” also emphasize that the differences between human artifacts and the universe indicate that the designer’s power and intelligence must be far vaster than ours. But we are necessarily left with a designer conceived of in anthropomorphic terms – essentially a human being, or at least a Cartesian immaterial substance, with the limitations abstracted away.

Thus for Feser, ID’s theological flaw is that its conception of the Designer is an anthropomorphic one, because it applies the concept of ‘design’ in a univocal sense to both human designers and the Designer of the cosmos and life.
Four brief comments in reply:

(1) ID proponents do tend to apply terms “intelligence” and “design” to the Designer and to human beings alike, in a univocal sense, as I’ll show below by quoting from the writings of Professors William Dembski and Jonathan Wells, and from K. D. Kalinsky.

(2) Thomists might object to this, but they can’t speak for everyone. For instance, the Catholic theologian Duns Scotus (whose portrait is at the top of this post) taught that the term “intelligent” had the same meaning when applied to God and human beings. I should add that St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus were not so far apart on this issue, anyway.

(3) Professor Feser has got ID proponents pegged wrong. We’re not Paleyites. He’d be more charitable if he called us Scotists.

(4) ID proponents do not maintain, and have never maintained, that God creates things in the same way as an artificer makes an artifact. ID says nothing about how the Designer makes things, period.

Let me explain. One of the philosophical differences between St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus was that for Aquinas, all affirmative talk about God is analogical at best, whereas for Scotus, some of the positive terms we apply to God (e.g. “intelligent”) are true in the same sense that they are true for us.

Thus for Aquinas, the statement, “God is intelligent” simply means “There is something in God which is to God like intelligence is to humans.” Putting it mathematically,
X: God = Intelligence: Human beings.

Likewise, the statement, “God is loving” means “There is something in God which is to God like love is to loving parents.” This is what Aquinas calls real analogy of proportionality.

Additionally, God is the cause of knowledge and love in humans, where the causal relationship is an intrinsic one, which brings about a similarity in the effect (intrinsic analogy of attribution). A good explanation of Aquinas’ views on analogy can be found at http://members.optusnet.com.au/~gjmoses/relang2a.htm .

For Scotus, this isn’t good enough. Saying that X is to God what intelligence is to a human being tells me nothing about X, if I don’t already know what God is. Also, there’s no point in saying that my intelligence is like God’s if I don’t know what “like” means. Scotus held that since intelligence and goodness were pure perfections, not limited by their very nature to a finite mode of realization, they could be predicated univocally of God and human beings. To be sure, God’s way of knowing and loving is altogether different from ours: it belongs to God’s very essence to know and love perfectly, whereas we can only know and love by participating in God’s knowledge and love. Also, God’s knowledge and goodness are essentially infinite, while our knowledge and goodness are finite. However, what it means for God to know and love is exactly the same as what it means for human beings to know and love. As Dr. Thomas Williams puts it in his article on Duns Scotus in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy :

The doctrine of univocity rests in part on the claim that “[t]he difference between God and creatures, at least with regard to God’s possession of the pure perfections, is ultimately one of degree” (Cross [1999], 39)… If we are to follow Anselm in ascribing to God every pure perfection, we have to affirm that we are ascribing to God the very same thing that we ascribe to creatures: God has it infinitely, creatures in a limited way. One could hardly ask for a more harmonious cooperation between ontology (what God is) and semantics (how we can think and talk about him).

I should add that the Catholic Church has never condemned Duns Scotus’ views. As The Catholic Encyclopedia notes in its article on Scotism, there have even been bishops, cardinals, popes, and saints who were followers of Duns Scotus’ philosophy.

Leading ID thinkers do tend to treat intelligence as a pure perfection, which may be predicated univocally of God and humans (as Duns Scotus taught). On the charge of univocal predication, we gladly plead guilty. On the charge of anthropomorphism, however, we plead not guilty. Here, for instance, is how Professors William Dembski and Jonathan Wells define “intelligent design,” “intelligence” and “design” in their book, “The Design of Life,” 2008, Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dallas (page 3):

Intelligent Design. The study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the product of intelligence.
Intelligence. Any cause, agent, or process that achieves and end or goal by employing suitable means or instruments.
Design. An event, object, or structure that an intelligence brought about by matching means to ends.

On page 315, Dembski and Wells define intelligence in more detail, as “A type of cause, process or principle that is able to find, select, adapt, and implement the means needed to effectively bring about ends (or achieve goals or realize purposes). Because intelligence is about matching means to ends, it is inherently teleological.”

In other words, intelligence is manifested by agents that are capable of adapting means to ends. I have to ask: where’s the anthropomorphism here? I can’t see any. I believe St. Thomas himself would have approved of this definition, as he writes in his Fifth Way: “Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer.”

Duns Scotus distinguished God’s intelligence from ours on the grounds that God’s is essentially infinite, while ours is finite. In a similar vein, ID proponent K. D. Kalinsky writes in his online article, “Intelligent Design Required by Biological Life”:

Our observations indicate that there does not seem to be any known limit to the amount of functional information that intelligence can produce. It seems to be capable of producing anywhere from 0 bits and up.

The underlying idea here is that an intelligent enough Designer can create any effect, no matter how complex. That does not mean that the difference between God and humans is merely one of degree; it simply means that the term “intelligent” has the same meaning when predicated of God and ourselves, notwithstanding the infinite disparity between God’s intellectual capacities and ours, and the utter dissimilarity between the way God thinks and the way we do.

Do I misunderstand Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics?

In his post, ID theory, Aquinas, and the Origin of Life: A Reply to Torley, Professor Feser wrote:

It seems to me that many of those who object to what I have said about the incompatibility between A-T and ID fail to see this because they are simply unfamiliar with A-T metaphysics and do not understand what is meant by terms like “substantial form,” “prime matter,” etc. And this includes Torley himself.

Later on, he writes that “Torley’s grasp of A-T metaphysics is worse than tenuous.”

Just a moment, Professor. I’m 49 years old. I’ve been studying and pondering St. Thomas’ metaphysics for 33 years on and off, since the time when I bought a second-hand copy of “Philosophy for the Layman” by Fr. Aegidus Doolan (Dublin: Irish Rosary, 1944) at the age of 16, at a school library sale. At five cents, it was a bargain. I had a lot of free time during my twenties, while I was studying, and I’ve read scores of books on Thomistic philosophy. Whatever my faults (and I know I have many), accusing me of being unfamiliar with “unfamiliar with A-T metaphysics” is risibly absurd.

Let me add that although I hold a Ph.D. in philosophy, my first degree was in science, and I have always been acutely aware of the need to reconcile Thomistic metaphysics with the findings of modern science. Some people may not like my “revamped” definitions of Aquinas’ metaphysical terms, but they are not distortions of his philosophy. Indeed, there are Thomistic philosophers who would agree or at least sympathize with some of the definitions I use. I am simply trying to make Aquinas intelligible to modern-day people, because I find the metaphysical definitions given by Thomists who don’t have a science background almost impossible to understand. Here’s an eye-glazing example from Professor Feser:

In short, prime matter is not a kind of “raw material” but the metaphysical precondition of there being raw materials in the first place; and substantial form is not some particular configuration of matter but the precondition of there being configuration, or any other attribute, in the first place.

I think I like my definitions better. Anyway, let’s continue with the passage in Professor Feser’s post:

He says, for example, that “in modern parlance, prime matter is roughly the same as the modern physicist’s concept of ‘mass-energy.’” No, that is not what prime matter is. Prime matter, as I said in a passage Torley himself quotes, is matter without any form at all; and to have the properties of “mass-energy” entails having a certain kind of form, in the Aristotelian sense of “form.”

No, it doesn’t. “Mass-energy” is about as non-descript a term as you can get in physics. There are many different forms of mass-energy – light, heat, sound, mass, kinetic and potential energy, and so on – but “mass-energy” is simply what gets transformed. It is utterly devoid of any qualities whatsoever. I don’t know how much more formless you can get than that.

It is true that mass-energy is conserved over time (leaving aside momentary quantum fluctuations). But that does not entail that it has a form. It simply means that mass-energy is quantifiable. Physicists define the “quantity” of mass-energy by how much work it can do. (“Work” is done whenever a body is accelerated over some distance.) I should add that there were some Scholastic philosophers (e.g. Suarez) who held that quantity could inhere in primary matter.

I might also add that Professor David Oderberg, whose book, Real Essentialism, is highly recommended by Professor Feser, is quite open to the idea that prime matter is the same thing as mass-energy. Oderberg uses the term “energy” in the quote below; I prefer to use the more generic term “mass-energy,” because “mass” is simply a form of energy.

Thirdly, might prime matter be energy? It is an intriguing question which I cannot pursue here. One problem is that the hylemorphist has a better grasp of what prime matter is than the physicist has of what energy is, and since metaphysics has to be informed by science there will be severe limits to what the former can say about the possible identification of prime matter with energy. If there are substantial energy transformations (e.g. heat to sound, chemical to light) by which a wholly new thing comes into existence, there will have to be prime matter distinct from energy as a support (as noted in Johansson 1989: 38-39). But if transformations are but phases of an underlying pure energy that has no determinate form in itself, then perhaps one might venture the thought that they are one and the same.” (Real Essentialism, Routledge, 2007, p. 76.)

The latter option considered by Professor Oderberg is precisely what I would maintain. I would also claim that even in those cases when a substantial change occurs (e.g. an electron and a positron “annihilate” each other and create a photon of energy), mass-energy is still conserved, as an underlying quantity. It is easy to describe this change in Aristotelian terms.

Professor Feser goes on to write:

Torley’s definition of substantial form is at least slightly less bad; he tells us that it is “the fundamental or defining attribute of a physical entity, which makes it the kind of entity it is.” No, it is not an “attribute” at all. It is substances that have attributes, and a substantial form is one of two components of a complete substance (the other being the otherwise formless prime matter a substantial form is united to). Since having attributes presupposes having a substantial form, a substantial form can hardly be itself a kind of attribute. It is rather the essence which grounds a substance’s proper attributes or properties, that from which these properties flow.

Professor Feser, seems to be interpreting my term “attribute” as if it meant “accident.” It doesn’t. “Realization” or “modification” might be a better way of putting it. Primary matter is always realized in some way: the substantial form of a substance is simply the way it is currently realized. In common parlance: “stuff” always has to be stuff of some sort. Thus relative to primary matter, the substantial form of a substance is what I call an attribute. Secondary matter (the individual substance), is also realized in a particular way. The properties of a material thing are always specific properties. Thus relative to secondary matter (the individual substance), an accidental form is what I call an attribute. Thus having attributes does not presuppose having a substantial form. What it does presuppose is having primary or secondary matter.

Professor Feser defines substantial form as “the essence which grounds a substance’s proper attributes or properties, that from which these properties flow.” The reason why I don’t like this textbook definition is that for at least some substances, there do seem to be certain properties which seem to constitute the very essence of that thing. In other words, not all properties are accidents (whether essential or inessential).

Consider the following example from Professor David Oderberg’s book. The interpretation which follows is mine, not Professor Oderberg’s:

Whatever the empirical technicalities, then, for present purposes we can rest content with the following:

(G4) Gold is a metal with atomic number 79

as giving the correct definition of gold. (More precisely, we should say that gold is a metal whose atomic constituents have an atomic number of 79; but the shorter version (G4) will suffice.) For as well as assuming that metal is the proximate genus, we can be fairly sure that having atomic number 79 gives the specific difference, marking gold out from everything else in the universe, no matter how similar.” (Real Essentialism, Routledge, 2007, p. 91.)

Now, I would be happy to describe the melting point and specific gravity of gold as proper accidents (or essential properties) of gold. They don’t capture the essence, or “whatness,” of gold, but they flow from its essence. However, the property of being a metal with atomic number 79 really does seem to capture the essence of gold: it gives us the specific difference that marks gold out from everything else. Thus the property (or attribute) of being a metal with an atomic number of 79 is what I call the defining attribute of gold. I would call that the substantial form of gold. It is an attribute of primary matter (mass-energy). Any “piece” of mass-energy that is realized (or instantiated) as (a) a metal (proximate genus), with (b) an atomic number of 79 (specific difference), is a piece of gold.

Does my 21st century rendition of hylemorphism still sound like a travesty of Thomism to Professor Feser? I hope not.

Conclusion

Thus concludes my lengthy reply to Professor Feser. I wish him well in all his endeavors. I hope he now has a better understanding of the ID position. For my part, I have learned a lot from debating him, and I would like to thank him for that.

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22 Responses to In Praise of Subtlety

  1. 1

    Much applause to VJT

  2. I would just say that perhaps the reason you can’t agree on the issue of prime matter is that you have too much of a materialistic conception of it. That is, it would be more the potential for mass-energy rather than mass-energy itself.

  3. 3

    Interesting you mentioned Duns Scotus. I’ve come across him before when arguing about ID with TEs. At first blush I would have little hesitation to call myself a Scotist.

    Of course, if we identified with him we would be not only IDiots but also dunces.

    The word “dunce” originated with Scotus’ critics apparently. :D

  4. Well done, Dr. Torley.

    I’m very appreciative of the careful distinctions you make between various senses of “mechanical” and “mechanistic”. I have found that Professor Feser’s objections to ID’s “mechanism” (at least, in his blog posts) are based on an unclear notion of mechanism in nature. For example, is he talking about mechanism *as the reality of nature*, or mechanical analogies *in the explanation of nature*, or both? And when he says that by “mechanism” he means a view opposed to that of “final causes”, does he mean that if mechanical causes really exist in nature, there cannot be final causes? (So that we can infer that mechanical causes do not really exist in nature, since Thomas assures us there are final causes?) Or only that mechanical causes, if they in fact exist, need to be supplemented by final causes, for a full explanation of anything? And how is a “mechanical cause” related to A-T’s “efficient cause”? Is it *the same as* an efficient cause, a *particular type of* efficient cause, or *incompatible with* efficient cause? And, since modern science does not employ final causes (as Feser’s hero Gilson admits, and apparently finds entirely reasonable), does modern science not operate as if final causes *might* not exist? Then why is modern science itself not guilty of what Feser says ID is guilty of?

    By setting forth various possible senses of the word, and showing which senses ID does and does not employ, you not only rebut Professor Feser’s charges against ID, but provide him with a model of how philosophical concepts should be taught. Indeed, your calm, orderly approach reminds me of Aquinas himself, and of course of Aristotle. It seems less frantic and theology-driven than the mode of exposition employed by Professor Feser (at least on his blog posts) and Professor Beckwith.

    Again, well done. I was going to reply to Feser along your lines, but I can see that my reply would not ony have been superfluous, but also not as precise and thorough as your own.

    May I ask you a question here? Feser keeps talking about “classical theism”. He doesn’t define it in his recent blog posts, though probably he defines it in his books somewhere. But can you tell me: for Feser, would Duns Scotus count as a teacher of “classical theism”? And do you yourself count Duns Scotus as a teacher of “classical theism”? And for that matter, who gets to decide who counts as a “classical theist”? Are all Christians who accept Nicene orthodoxy classical theists? Or do you have to subscribe to some other beliefs before you’re allowed to use the label? And is there an official list somewhere, that one can look up, and find: Augustine, Aquinas, Abelard — IN; Calvin, Scotus, Boyle — OUT? Or is the definition elastic enough that the term can be used polemically, to slam anyone who disagrees with one’s own metaphysics or theology?

    T.

  5. 5

    Bravo, VJT.

  6. VJT,

    Congratulations.

    That Argument Regarding Design is so big, that there are little arguments orbiting around it.

    HT: To fnxtr, Mojo Nixon, and Skid Roper.

    -DU-

  7. 7

    Dr. Torley,

    I have learned a lot from your post, and your ongoing discussion with Dr. Feser. I appreciate the fact that Catholic theology is heavily grounded in great thinkers like Augustine and Scotus. Not being a Catholic, we Protestants have a tendency to overlook their very important contributions to philosophy from a theistic POV.

    That said, I understand Dr. Feser’s objections, while not fully agreeing with the substance by which he supports them. I take heart the same careful skepticism of what might appear to diminish our conception of God’s divine nature, so I do appreciate his devotion in that area. Such considerations are not limited to those who indulge themselves in the study of Aquinas; such cautions are also found in the very scriptures, which Aquinas himself held very dear. Hence, Aquinas to most Christians may be highly important, but he doesn’t trump the divine word.

    I think that in your careful replies, Dr. Feser should have no worries that ID in any way causes a theist to diminish such a conception of God’s divine nature. The very fact that we can all appreciate his zeal for preserving in himself and in us the same reverence for God, is an indication that perhaps he has not fully understood our position.

    ID as science should leave these theological considerations alone and have no opinions either way concerning them. That is really the proper way to do science, and it’s really the proper way to separate theological considerations, which from my theological perspective, have their only truly foundational basis in divine scripture alone, and not in the potentially flawed thinking of men. If ID ultimately fails, or TE ultimately fails, we don’t throw our theology out the window with them unless of course our theology is founded on them. God is the way he is, and neither ID, Darwinism or Theistic Evolution, Thomism, Reductionism or any other ism have the power or insight to affect the way He is in any way.

    Theists, on the other hand, who support ID should always have these considerations in mind when they do theology, not because Aquinas said so (although his elucidation of them is highly beneficial), but because scripture says so:

    For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman. But all things come from God. 1 Cor. 11:12

    …as a cautionary mandate to avoid being blinded by any potential tendency to view God as merely a tinkerer with pre-existing matter or otherwise. But that same consideration also applies to those who support some sort of Theistic Evolution.

    In the 1st Corinthians passage, the important distinction is that humans are contingent, even if they are merely contingent through natural processes. This is a very interesting passage, because one can interpret it as showing contingency through both a divine process as woman from the rib of a man, and through a natural process as a man born of a woman. So God demonstrates that he is sovereign in all spheres: through natural processes, as a divine artificer by His own choice and by divine fiat as the source of all that exists. He’s not simply the artificer, although He can choose to use his divine powers in such a way and still not be the same as when humans design things, but He is ultimately the divine source of all that exists. ID cannot tell us how this is so, nor for that matter, can Theistic Evolution. So His mystery in creation still stands.

  8. This is a great post, vjtorley! (It’s too bad it’s being made in the context of defending one’s honour, because while you may have closed the debate with Feser, you’ve now really opened a can of worms!)

    The Scotus precedent is exactly the right one — and it’s what I meant by ‘Franciscan theology’ in response to my earlier Cudworth. (I discuss Scotus — including his opposition to Aquinas — in Dissent over Descent as the theological precedent for ID.)

    However, for the record, this view is more radical than you make it out to be — and certainly the Church has thought this. In fact, the elevation of Aquinas was partly due to fears about the Scotist view of divine predication (i.e. God and human qualities in degree but not kind) catching on. The story of secular modernity is largely about the popularisation of Scotism.

    In this context, ‘classical theism’ is simply a placeholder for one’s intuitive understanding of an appropriate Christian view of God. And for the Thomist, God has got to have clear but independent place in the understanding of Nature. From that standpoint, the Scotist view looks deficient — if not dangerous — because God and humans appear to be conceptually interdependent: i.e. ‘intelligence’ means the same whether applied to God or humans, only that the former is infinitely greater.

    Many snide remarks have been made about ID people saying through one side of their mouths that God need not be the ‘I’ behind ‘ID’ and then saying through the other side that God could well be the ‘I’. ID people wouldn’t be able to engage in this sort of double-talk, if they did not imagine that, if God exists, then the deity’s intelligence and creativity are comparable to that of humans, whose intelligence we do understand (at least somewhat).

    Now add to that Scotus’ Platonic way of talking about our ‘participation’ in the the divine virtues (to our limited abilities), and it does start to sound like we are micro-deities in the making. And certainly, this is how the Scientific Revolutionaries of the 17th century understood their Christianity.

    All of this is fine with me and it makes a lot of sense out of the history of science — but it’s a ‘dog whistle’ moment for more orthodox defenders of the faith. It will always prove a stumbling block in trying to get any theoretical reconciliation with Thomists.

  9. A couple of typo corrections:

    …my earlier response to Cudworth

    …differ in degree but not kind

  10. Timaeus

    Thank you for your post. In answer to your question, here is how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines classical theism in its article Concepts of God :

    Most theists agree that God is (in Ramanuja’s words) the “supreme self” or person — omniscient, omnipotent, and all good. But classical Christian theists have also ascribed four “metaphysical attributes” to God – simplicity, timelessness, immutability, and impassibility.

    On the basis of that definition, classical theism would include many Jewish and Christian thinkers, and some Muslims as well. Philo, Augustine, Averroes, Avicenna, Anselm, Maimonides, Aquinas, Scotus, Luther and Calvin would all qualify as classical theists, for instance.

    Here’s another online definition:

    “Classical theism is an approach to the doctrine of God that emphasizes unchanging being, divine transcendence and sovereignty as captured in a set of divine attributes that typically includes atemporal eternity, immutability, impassibility, and divide simplicity. Classical theism was developed over centuries by theologians critically interacting with important pagan philosophical theology including that of Plato (as Form of the Good), Aristotle (God as Pure Act and Unmoved Mover) and Plotinus (God as transcendent One). Exponents of classical theism come from all the major monotheistic traditions, including Judaism (Philo, Maimonides), Christianity (Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas), and Islam (Averroes, Avicenna)). Within Christian classical theism, Anselm’s conception of God as the greatest conceivable or most perfect being, and Aquinas’ identification of God’s existence and essence have also been influential concepts. Many Christians today reject classical theism, claiming that concepts of Greek origination like impassibility produce a ‘god of the philosophers’ that has little relation to the God of biblical revelation. While admitting that there may appear to be a tension between scriptural revelation and classical theism, advocates of the latter argue that there is a deeper concord, and indeed that this is the best way to ensure a theology that is both biblical sound and philosophically coherent. (Hill and Rauser, Christian Philosophy A-Z, 182.) See http://www.biblicalphilosophy......herent.asp .

    I hope that helps.

  11. Your analysis is excellent vjtorley.

    So, according to few neo-Thomists, IDers commit the sin of mechanism. We commit this sin of “methodological mechanism” (as you rightly call it) only to deny evolutionism, may be the biggest falsity in the history of modern science.

    If these neo-Thomists attack ID and in the same time don’t attack evolutionism (or put they on the same plane) they support falsity, which Thomas Aquinas considered the unforgivable sin against Truth, the Holy Spirit. Their sin is worst than ours.

  12. Steve Fuller

    Thank you very much for your comments. I think you’re right: I have opened a theological can of worms. But it had to be opened. I guess ID represents an attempt to get inside the mind of God, to “think God’s thoughts after Him,” to second-guess His reasons for doing what He does, and to anticipate what He might have done, in order to solve current problems.

    Case in point: anthropogenic global warming. An ID theorist would tend to think along these lines:

    (1) Assuming it’s real, God must have anticipated that we’d encounter this problem. Presumably he doesn’t want the human race to die out, so where would God have hidden the technical solution to this problem? Logical place to look: DNA. Look for a creature that can gobble up CO2, fast (algae, perhaps).

    (2) Assuming it’s not real, how would God have set up the world’s climate systems, so that they’d self-stabilize even when CO2 is pumped into the air? That’s why I like reading Dr. Roy Spencer’s blog – you can see he’s thinking about stuff like this.

    Most Thomists would be leery of this line of thinking, seeing it as theologically presumptuous.

    Well, the can is open. It remains to be seen what will happen next.

  13. Cannuckian Yankee

    I very much appreciated reading your post. I esopecially liked this part:

    God is the way he is, and neither ID, Darwinism or Theistic Evolution, Thomism, Reductionism or any other ism have the power or insight to affect the way He is in any way.

  14. vjtorley

    This is an extremely long post. At close to 10,000 words it is about 5 times the length of the usual undergraduate essay of 2000 words. I can imagine that an ID enthusiast will be sufficiently motivated to read it in detail (clearly some have). It is often pleasant to read stuff that confirms your opinions. However, only the most dedicated opponent is going to give it that kind of time and energy. I usually like to read what you write, but I quickly realised I just don’t have the time to do it justice. I don’t think you can expect much in the way of critical comment.

    Might you do better to write an essay and then make a shorter post with key comments that links to the essay?

  15. On the question of mechanism, ID and the possibility that the designer is embodied in nature. I don’t think the possibility of an embodied designer is a ‘runner’ because the cellular mechanics is dependent upon amino acid chemistry, which is dependent upon the properties of water, carbon, phosphorous etc. This was L.J.Henderson’s point in, The Fitness of the Environment 1913 although unlike Henderson I believe that the machine-like order in the cell is established upon and above those properties not by and within, but those properties are necessary first to get biological life.

    So surely the designer must lie outside of nature because ID is dependent upon the most basic laws of nature. Especially if we view ID within Polanyi’s irreducible structure. The designer must lie outside of nature.

    Perhaps if ID proponents made this case a little stronger the Thomists might object a little less because it then doesn’t seem to divide creation into the natural and designed.

  16. Dr. Torley has presented an excellent analysis, particularly with respect to the different meanings of ‘mechanism’. No discussion can move forward when equivocation and misunderstanding pop up at every turn.

    There are a few points, however, that are likely to agitate Dr. Feser now more than ever.

    1) The defense of mass-energy as a scientific equivalent to prime matter misses the point. As abstract as ‘mass-energy’ is, it still has content that ‘prime matter’ does not. The suggestion was made above that perhaps prime matter is more like the potential to support mass-energy. That is an interesting idea that is well worth considering. My suggestion is that space-time is the potential to support the existence of mass-energy. Hence, it is the better candidate to be brought forward as the scientific equivalent to prime matter.

    2) The claim that water or a bacteria if put together through a series of carefully arranged steps would be an artifact raises the possibility that something could be both natural and an artifact. It would be natural because it would have an intrinsic principle of stability and change i.e. a nature. It would be an artifact because of the way in which it was put together, and because it had an extrinsic end or purpose. Very confusing! Feser’s solution is to say that God does not build things in this way. A simple solution, indeed. The ID response is that our understanding of the role that information plays in living things indicates that God may act as a builder. This possibility should not be rejected on metaphysical grounds alone. I agree and would add that more work is needed here before this disagreement can be resolved.

    3) What about the theological disagreement? Does the claim of classical theism that God is the creator of all things exclude the possibility that God also designs and build things? I would suggest that Divine simplicity is such as to encompass infinite multiplicity. Only a deist would insist that our knowledge of God is sufficient to exclude the possibility of God acting in ways that do not fit our ways of thinking. (Isaia 55: 8-9). If God chooses to act as both a creator and a builder as Genesis implies, then “classical theology” needs to be big enough to include that possibility.

  17. 17

    “Simplicity, timelessness, immutability, and impassibility.”

    Timelessness and immutability are the same thing. If God is outside of time then by the definition of “change” it’s impossible for him to change. I’m sure there is some big long medieval thought process arguing that they are different qualities though. :eyeroll:

  18. 18

    To see the explosive nature of what Torley has revealed, consider Lamont’s comment:

    The claim that water or a bacteria if put together through a series of carefully arranged steps would be an artifact raises the possibility that something could be both natural and an artifact. It would be natural because it would have an intrinsic principle of stability and change i.e. a nature. It would be an artifact because of the way in which it was put together, and because it had an extrinsic end or purpose. Very confusing! Feser’s solution is to say that God does not build things in this way.

    No surprise that Feser would demur. Bluntly put, the spirit of the Scotist proposal is in fact to render all of nature artificial. What looks to us like an ‘intrinsic principle of stability and change’ is an artifact – either of divine or human origin: i.e the product of external constraints that limit the possibilities for variation in some chunk of matter-energy. This general way of seeing things is familiar from ‘fine-tuning’ arguments but in principle it could be applied across the board.

    Indeed, the history of science can be seen as one long reverse-engineering project, whereby things that originally appeared possessed by ‘intrinsic principles’ and ‘natures’ turn out to be configurations of the same ultimate stuff, the stability of which is the product of (externally imposed) intelligent design. That certainly explains human laboratory practice, and now we simply need to think of the universe as a big laboratory run by the ultimate scientist.

  19. 19

    That certainly explains human laboratory practice, and now we simply need to think of the universe as a big laboratory run by the ultimate scientist.

    Why do we need to think that way?

  20. Phaedros and Lamont make some very interesting points regarding primary matter. Here are a few reasons why I prefer my definition.

    (1) It’s simple and intuitive, and accords with common sense. Take the Aristotelian statement that substance equals matter plus form. I can say: what we call a substance (or thing, or natural object) is really some underlying non-descript stuff that scientists call “mass-energy,” that is realized in a particular way, which we call its (substantial) form. I think Joe and Jane Citizen could get their heads around that, and it makes good sense.

    Now if we try Professor Feser’s definition, we have to say: what we call a substance is really an amalgam of the pre-condition of there being any kind of stuff, combined with pre-condition of there being any kind of configuration. Can you understand that? I can’t.

    (2) Phaedros suggests that prime matter might be the potential to support mass-energy, rather than mass-energy itself. Fair enough, but why do you think mass-energy needs anything “underneath” it to support it, especially when it survives all changes that we can subject it to? That’s the appealing thing about “mass-energy” to me. Aristotle had argued that something has to underlie a substantial change from one kind of thing to another; otherwise it would be really an annihilation followed by a creation. He posited prime matter as a formless subject of all change. But as Anthony Kenny pointed out somewhere, how do you know that when A changes into B, which changes into C, it’s always the same thing that underlies all these changes?

    Enter science to the rescue. It turns out that mass-energy DOES survive all these changes: its quantity is conserved. What’s more, it has no definite character or form. It’s a good candidate for primary matter: the ultimate stuff. Turning down a confirmation from science like that would be looking a gift horse in the mouth, in my book.

    (3) Of course, you could suppose that there exists some level of reality that’s even deeper than mass-energy, but then I’d ask: how do you know it exists? Digging that deep invites skepticism about the reality of substance itself. That’s a bad move, in my humble opinion. Part of the appeal of Aristotle for me was that his metaphysics seemed to make good sense. Of course there are things, and not just bundles of properties. But if you make things too inaccessible, as some Thomists like Professor Feser want to do, you make them unknowable.

    Lastly, I don’t think we can define primary matter as space-time, because then there would only be one substance. Common sense tells us that there are many kinds of things in the world, and that there are genuine natural kinds.

    Well, it’s been an interesting discussion, hasn’t it? I’m sure the last word hasn’t been said.

    Talk to you all later.

  21. This is from “The Confession of Nature Against Atheists” by G.W. Leibniz:

    “Part 1. That corporeal phenomena cannot be explained without an Incorporeal Principle, that is God

    (He talks about how the advancement of chemistry and anatomy was allowing scientists to better explain the workings of the body, through mechanical explanations, without reference to God.)

    “For through the admirable improvement of mathematics and the approaches which chemistry and anatomy have opened into the nature of things, it has become apparent that mechanical explanations-reasons from the figure and motion of bodies, as it were-can be given for most of the things which the Ancients referred only to the Creator or to some kind (I know not what) of incorporeal forms. The result was that truly capable men for the first time began to try to save or to explain natural phenomena, or those which appear in bodies, without assuming God or taking him into their reasoning.”

    “Setting aside all prejudices, therefore, and suspending the credit of scripture and history, I set my mind to the anatomy of bodies, to see whether the sensory appearance of bodies can be explained without assuming an incorporeal cause. At the beginning I readily admitted that we must agree with those contemporary philosophers who have revived Democritus and Epicurus and whom Robert Boyle aptly calls corpuscular philosophers, such as Galileo, Bacon, Gassendi, Descartes, Hobbes, and Digby, that in explaining corporeal phenomena, we must not unnecessarily resort to God or to any other incorporeal thing, form, or quality-Nec Deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus inciderit (And let no god intervene, unless a knot come worthy of such a deliverer)- but that so far as can be done, everything should be derived from the nature of body and its primary qualities-magnitude, figure, and motion.”

    (I take this to be the basic position of modern science.)

    “But there remains a doubt as to why [a body] fills this much space and this particular space rather than another; for example, why it should be three feet long rather than two, or why square rather than round. This cannot be explained by the nature of bodies themselves, since the same matter is indeterminate as to any definite figure, whether square or round. Therefore only two replies are possible. Either the body in question must be assumed to have been square from all eternity, or it has been made square by the impact of another body-if, that is, you refuse to resort to an incorporeal cause. If you say it has been square from all eternity, you give no reason for it, for why should it not have been spherical from all eternity? Eternity cannot be considered the cause of anything. But, if you say that it was made square by the motion of another body, there remains the question of why it should have had any determinate figure before such motion acted upon it. And if you refer the reason for this, in turn, to the motion of another body as cause, and so to infinity, each of your replies will again be followed by a question through all infinity, and it will become apparent that this basis for asking about the reason for each reason will never be removed, so that no full reason for the figure will ever be given. Therefore it appears that the reason for a certain figure and magnitude in bodies can never be found in the nature of these bodies themselves.”

    (What he’s saying, at least how I interpret it, is that you can’t use the fact of the shape or size of a body to explain why or how it is one shape and not another. This seems something akin to the fine-tuning of the universe and how it came to be that way. The universe can’t decide to be one way or another, in other words, and it appears that the universe does have to be a certain way in order for things to have mass and to support life, etc.)

    “By the firmness of bodies we mean (1) that a large body does not give way to a small one which pushes it; (2) that bodies or their parts cohere with each other, this being the basis for those tactile qualities commonly called secondary, namely solidity and fluidity, hardness and softness, smoothness and roughness…; and (3) that a hard body is reflected when it strikes another which does not give way. In brief, three properties constitute firmness: resistance, cohesion, and reflection. I shall be glad to call anyone a great philosopher who can explain these by means of the figure, magnitude, and motion of bodies. There appears to be only one way-to assume that a body resists another which strikes it, and rebounds from the blow, because its surface parts are insensibly moved in the collision. But let us assume that the striking body approaches the other, not along the line in which the parts of the body are to meet the blow, but in another, perhaps oblique to it; then according to this view all reaction, resistance, and reflection will cease at once, which is contrary to experience. But cohesion clearly cannot be explained through reaction and motion. If I push part of a paper, the part which is pushed gives way; therefore no reaction or motion of resistance can be assumed. But not only does it give way; it also carries with it the remaining parts which adhere to it. It is indeed truly and with good reason that Democritus, [etc]…asserted that the whole cause of cohesion in bodies may be explained naturally through the interweaving of certain shapes such as hooks, crooks, rings…all the curves and twists of hard bodies inserted into each other. But these interlocking instruments must be hard and tenacious in order to do their work of holding together the parts of bodies. Whence this tenacity? Must we assume hooks on hooks to infinity? Yet whatever reason there is for questioning this in the first case will exist also in the second and third, and so without end. There remains only one answer which these most subtle philosophers can make to such objections;they may assume certain indivisible corpuscles, which they call atoms, as the elements of bodies, which, by their varied shapes, variously combined, bring about the various qualities of sensible bodies. But no reason for cohesion and indivisibility appears within these ultimate corpuscles.”

    (The argument here is that cohesion between the parts of one body cannot be explained simply by the action of motion, magnitude, or figure. The motion of electrons around the nucleus cannot explain why it is that they stick to certain distances away from that nucleus and not another distance, or why it is that they even orbit the nucleus at all and don’t instead just fly off randomly in any direction. So it goes for mass-energy in my opinion. There is something prior to it that also determines why it works the way it does, its properties, and so forth. That could be the unmoved mover, or the uncaused cause or whatever. However, these things have to work in a very particular work in order to create the order that is visible in the world. That order, the properties, cannot be explained by the mass, motion, or figure of the particles only.)

    –Jesus said, “If the flesh came into being because of spirit, it is a wonder. But if spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty.” — Gospel of Thomas

  22. Professor Feser has written a well-considered response to my latest post, “In praise of subtlety.” I promised that this would be my last UD post in response to Professor Feser, and I will honor that promise. I will therefore confine myself to some quick clarifications on two remarks of his.

    1. Professor Feser argues that ID methodology implies that immanent final causes are not real:

    Here the standard A-T view is that the difference is an absolute difference in kind deriving from the irreducibility of immanent causation to transeunt causation. But to discuss the “probability” of purely transeunt causal processes giving rise to immanent ones (as ID does) just is precisely to assume, even if only for the sake of argument, that the difference is not really a difference in kind but only in degree, and thus that the sort of irreducible immanent final causality in question is not real. Contrary to what Torley supposes, then, ID methodology does not merely avoid appealing to immanent final causes; it positively implies that they are not real.

    My comments:

    (a) ID arguments are concerned with form rather than finality. ID theorists make no attempt to calculate the probability that transeunt causality could generate immanent causality; rather, they attempt to calculate the probability that laws and/or chance events (both of which lack specificity) could generate a structure with a high degree of specificity, such as the first living cell.

    (b) My own position is that the formal and (immanent) final characteristics of life go hand-in-hand: they are inseparable. Hence any process that could (in principle) generate the structure of a living cell, would also be capable of generating something with immanent finality. If Professor Feser disputes this conclusion, he must either believe that something could have exactly the same structure and composition as a living cell (atom for atom), yet not be alive, or that the probability of a natural process generating the structure of a living cell is precisely ZERO (and not 1 in 10^41,000, say). Neither belief appears reasonable to me.

    Well, which is it?

    (c) Professor Feser’s Aristotelian-Thomistic claim that transeunt causality cannot possibly give rise to immanent causality is not as absolute as he alleges in the passage cited above. In my lengthy post above, I cited a passage in an earlier post of his, where he wrote:

    Thus, when we come to the conclusion that non-life cannot of itself generate life, what this means is that substances or processes entirely devoid of immanent causation – not only formally, but also virtually or eminently – cannot possibly of themselves bring about substances characterized by immanent causation… (Italics mine – VJT.)

    The qualifying word “virtually” gives the game away here. Effectively, it’s a way of hedging your bets. Also, as no criteria are adduced to indicate what characteristics qualify something as “virtually” possessing immanent causation, I see little value in using the term.

    2. Professor Feser exaggerates the difference between Thomism and Scotism, in my humble opinion. He writes:

    Torley admits, for example, that ID theorists do tend to apply terms both to God and to human beings in univocal rather than analogous senses, and he provides quotes from Dembski and others to illustrate the point. This is a major concession; ID’s univocal usage of theological language is (along with its mechanistic conception of nature) one of the two features that I have consistently emphasized as putting ID fundamentally at odds with A-T. Torley makes the concession in order to enlist Scotus in the ID cause – Scotists famously reject the Thomist doctrine of analogy – but in doing so he only confirms the charge that ID is incompatible with Thomism.

    A few points in reply.

    (a) As you and I are both aware, Duns Scotus, in formulating his account of how we can apply human language to God, intended it to be a refutation of the views put forward by Henry of Ghent, rather than St. Thomas Aquinas.

    (b) Aquinas says some things about God’s intelligence which sound very close to Scotus’ own position, in his Summa Contra Gentiles Book 2, chapter 46, paragraphs 3 and 4, available online at http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles2.htm#46 :

    That the Perfection of the Universe Requires the Existence of Some Intellectual Creatures

    [3] …Now, just as the act of being and the nature of a thing are considered as belonging to its first perfection, so operation is referred to its second perfection. Hence, the complete perfection of the universe required the existence of some creatures which return to God not only as regards likeness of nature, but also by their action. And such a return to God cannot be made except by the act of the intellect and will, because God Himself has no other operation in His own regard than these. The greatest perfection of the universe therefore demanded the existence of some intellectual creatures.

    [4] Moreover, in order that creatures might perfectly represent the divine goodness, it was necessary, as we have shown, not only that good things should be made, but also that they should by their actions contribute to the goodness of other things. But a thing is perfectly likened to another in its operation when not only the action is of the same specific nature, but also the mode of acting is the same. Consequently, the highest perfection of things required the existence of some creatures that act in the same way as God. But it has already been shown that God acts by intellect and will. It was therefore necessary for some creatures to have intellect and will.

    “Same specific nature,” “same mode of acting,” “act in the same way as God”? Hmmm. Sounds like Scotus and Aquinas weren’t so far apart after all.

    (c) Scotus’ views on the univocity of being have also been exaggerated in popular accounts of his philosophy, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Bl. John Duns Scotus at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05194a.htm :

    It has been asserted, too, that according to Scotus, being can be attributed univocally to God and creatures; but this again is false. Scotus maintains that God is the ens per essentiam, creatures are entia per participationem – they have being only in an analogical sense. But from the being of God and the being of creatures, a universal idea of being can be abstracted and predicated univocally of both the finite and the infinite; otherwise we could not infer from the existence of finite things the existence of God, we should have no proof of God’s existence, as every syllogism would contain a quaternio terminorum.

    Scotus acknowledges, with Aquinas, that God exists by virtue of His essence, while creatures merely participate in His Being.

    My impression is that Thomists and Scotists do not differ significantly in their views on God’s Being. What I find it more philosophically interesting that Scotus explicitly considered intelligence to be a pure perfection, which we could attribute univocally to God and human beings. That was a vital breakthrough; without it, the ID project could never get off the ground, philosophically. But even here, as I’ve shown, Aquinas and Scotus were not so far apart.

    Finally, whatever the merits of my own views, I intend to demonstrate in the next few days that Darwinian evolution, even in a world rife with immanent and transeunt final causes, is utterly incompatible with St. Thomas Aquinas’ fundamental theological principles. Stay tuned.

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