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St. Thomas Aquinas Returns To Ask About The Thomists

I have read about these kinds of events in Scripture, but I never thought it could happen to me. St. Thomas Aquinas appeared to me in a dream last night. It was a brief visit, but he stayed with me long enough to discuss the neo-Thomists.

SB: Glory be to God. St. Thomas, you are one of my heroes.

ST: Thank you, my son, but I have a question for you. Are the neo-Thomists trying to make me look bad? The last thing in the world I would ever do is ignore the scientific evidence for biological design? More to the point, I would have no reason to doubt it. My philosophy of nature could admit that information with no problem at all. Why do they find conflict where none exists?

SB: Our Thomist critics claim that ID arguments blur the distinction between a “function” and a “nature.” I think that is because we sometimes use words like “factory” when we describe the phenomenon by which proteins are built inside a human cell. They say that by using this kind of language, we are describing ultimate reality in mechanistic terms.

ST: But it is not an either/or kind of thing. A human being, for example, has a nature, but his liver has a function. To study or draw inferences about the function of a man’s liver, which is merely a part of his body, is not to deny or argue against the existence of his end-directed nature, which is a holistic description of what he is.

SB: I agree, but the neo-Thomists also have very strong ideas about God’s process of creation, and they associate them with you. According to them, you say that God creates only through secondary causality. In other words, God doesn’t tweak his material creation—ever. God, they say, always fashions his handiwork through intrinsic finality and never resorts to external finality.

ST: How did they arrive at that novel interpretation?

SB: I asked them to provide the relevant quotes, but they didn’t get back to me.

ST: Clearly, they are misreading me. Among other things, I said that God created man’s body by forming him out of dust, directly and immediately. So, obviously, my philosophy of nature, though acknowledging the fact of secondary causality in the physical realm, does not rule out primary causality, external finality, or tweaking. Yes, I taught that God can create through secondary causality, but nowhere did I ever say that God creates exclusively through secondary causality. The neo-Thomists are just making that up. Did you explain that to them?

SB: Yes, but they didn’t get back to me.

ST: What is their biggest problem with you folks?

SB: They think we reject, in principle, the very thing that they insist on–the proposition that God creates through secondary causality or the gradual unfolding of an evolutionary process.

ST: Do you?

SB: No, not at all. Some of our researchers, like Michael Behe, believe that God created almost everything that way.” Others, like William Dembski, are not so sure. However, we accept the possibility of common descent as part of our theory.

ST: Did you explain that to them?

SB: Yes, but they didn’t get back to me.

ST: But even if I had ruled out primary causality as one of God’s tools for creation, which I didn’t, that fact alone would still not create a conflict between Intelligent Design and my philosophy of nature. And even if ID ruled out secondary causality as one of God’s tools for creation, which it doesn’t, that fact alone would still not create a conflict between Intelligent Design and my philosophy of nature. The only way ID could conflict with Thomism would be if it rejected secondary causality AND if Thomism required secondary causality exclusively.

SB: Yes, that’s right.

ST: I think I understand. The neo-Thomists who attack Intelligent Design misunderstand both Thomism and Intelligent design. Because of their double confusion, they insist that ID is incompatible with Thomism?

SB: Yes, but there is more. I recall that you once demonstrated that we can prove the existence of God through the use of unaided reason. ID, which is scientific, can only demonstrate the existence of a designer who, in principle, could be someone other than God. The neo-Thomists say that empirical science should not undertake such a study because you have already made a better case for God through philosophical reasoning. They demand to know why should we put up with a probability argument when we have something far more certain. Also, non-believers, we are told, may come to the mistaken conclusion that the ID argument for biological design is the only “apologetic” available. If it fails, those who depended on it will fall into despair and lose their faith.

ST: Do they use that same kind of reasoning when they evaluate scientific arguments coming from cosmology and astrophysics? Are they equally fearful that theories about the “big bang” or the finely-tuned constants of the universe, because of their provisional nature, may fail and lead to a loss of faith?

SB: No.

ST: Why are they so selective about which design arguments they attack? Why do they praise arguments for cosmological fine-tuning and condemn arguments for biological fine tuning?

SB: I asked them that question, but they didn’t get back to me. Indeed, they seldom interact with any of us or respond to our scientific arguments.

ST: Are they reluctant to consider scientific evidence or follow where it may lead?

SB: Perhaps. Most of them seem to have already made up their minds.
They think that Charles Darwin was right about nature. Incredibly, they hold that your philosophy of nature is compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution.

ST: Let me get this straight–My pro-design arguments clash with ID’s pro-design arguments and harmonize with Darwin’s anti-design arguments?—My proofs that God is necessary harmonize with Darwin’s proofs that God is unnecessary? The men who say these things call themselves Thomistic philosophers?

SB: Yes, I am afraid so. I use the word “afraid,” because I fear that these anti-ID fanatics are ruining your reputation.

ST: Be at peace, my son. If they make it to heaven, and I hope they do, I will be there waiting to extend my warmest greeting—-with a bucket of Gatorade.

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26 Responses to St. Thomas Aquinas Returns To Ask About The Thomists

  1. !

  2. Yes, but did he appear to you in corporeal form?! :)

  3. Well said Stephen!

    Another irony I noticed is they blame design arguments such as Paley and ID-type arguments for the rise of deism and atheism, yet they think somehow to argue that God only designs through secondary causes will convert atheists to theists -__-

  4. Polanyi,

    Another irony I noticed is they blame design arguments such as Paley and ID-type arguments for the rise of deism and atheism, yet they think somehow to argue that God only designs through secondary causes will convert atheists to theists

    Well, Thomists don’t make design arguments. The arguments for God are of a completely different type and approach than the ID arguments, complete with (they affirm) a different metaphysical grounding.

    StephenB,

    Here’s one response I’ve found to your post. I thought you may want to engage this. Or perhaps not. Either way, it’s relevant.

  5. So they believe nature has these properties inherent? Such as to give rise to biological designs? Without any involvement of external agent, whether direct or indirect? How is this going to help restore a theistic picture of the world? How is this any different from what metaphysical naturalists believe? (to add, without God nothing could continue to exist is not exactly going to convert any naturalists)

  6. This post represents exactly what new-thomists claim ID is getting wrong, as far as it pretends that evolutionary processes are based on God acting some way as primary cause on an interventionist scenario.
    But this is not what ID should claim because this suppose to accept that all evolutionary history might be described in terms of efficient causes and spatio-temporal processes.
    Please, as I recently said in other comment, read Dembski´s “The Design Revolution”” chapter 23 on “interventionism.”
    At the end, we must not incurr in the mistake of reducing life and evolution of biological form to a kind of mechanical process directed either by natural secondary causes or by primary supernatural causes. We are debating the wrong argument.
    What ID should be about is formal and final causes vesus only efficient causes, nominalism versus essentialism, design as biological form against reductionism, downward causation versus upward (only bottom-up) causation.
    The analogy between natural forms and human artefacts is wright, but not because natural forms can be presented as the result of a mechanical arrangement of parts by a God acting as primary cause in a process of creation. What Aquinas says in part I, q.14 a.8 :

    “The knowledge of God is the cause of things. For the knowledge of God is to all creatures what the knowledge of the artificer is to things made by his art. Now the knowledge of the artificer is the cause of the things made by his art from the fact that the artificer works by his intellect.”

    If the knowledge of God is the cause of things, then we are not arguing about how the process took place (primary vs secondary causes), we are just saying that natural forms present what Dembski calls a “discernible difference” no matter how the process took place. So, we are just saying that mecanicism can not provide a sufficient explication in terms of causation, that detectable design requires a formal cause and that a formal cause that precedes, prescribes, organizes and governs (see Abel´s principle F>P) physicality needs an intelligent explanation.

  7. Siris writes (having difficulty posting this on his blog):

    “Evolutionary theory doesn’t tell us anything about creation; it’s an account of how populations of organisms with certain characteristics are generated from populations of organisms with other characteristics. But creation is not generation. Individually, you and I are created by God but generated by our parents.”

    So the Thomist thinks the way we are “generated” is the same why in which biological systems are “generated”, this comparison is problematic, all the genetic information necessary for your body pre-exists in the genomes of your parents, and is merely shuffled, and expressed. We cannot extrapolate from here and say therefore new information can spontaneously evolve to give rise to motor-driven propellers , unless we had independent evidence for this to show this was plausible.

  8. Polanyi,

    So they believe nature has these properties inherent? Such as to give rise to biological designs? Without any involvement of external agent, whether direct or indirect? How is this going to help restore a theistic picture of the world?

    If someone rejects the Kalam argument and says that for all we know the universe is eternal, you could say in response, “How in the world is that going to establish that God exists and created the world?” But their reply can be: by these other arguments that have nothing to do with Kalam and don’t involve making claims about the eternality/!eternality of the world.

    Thomists rely on the Five Ways and other arguments to establish God’s existence and God’s relation to/activity in nature. Sure, some/most reject ID, but their reply is pretty easy: there were arguments for theism well before ID ever came on the scene. Really, well before Paley came on the scene.

    So the Thomist thinks the way we are “generated” is the same why in which biological systems are “generated”,

    They don’t. Brandon was drawing a distinction between creation and generation. Nor is Brandon defending Darwinism in that post, or even saying ID is wrong, as near as I can tell. He’s explaining why the ID project, in his view, doesn’t fit with the Thomist project.

  9. I see Stephen, I watched Feser’s talk yesterday, I couldn’t help but get the impression that he was arguing that nature has these properties inherent in itself to generate biological complexity, much like a match has the properties to make fire.

    Obviously their problem is they think that the goal of ID is to prove God, which is like thinking the goal of SETI is the prove aliens, or that archaeology is in the business of proving the existence of ancient scribes.

    I saw Brandon was referring to how variation is generated according to evolution theory, and then talking about how we are generated, hence why I thought he was comparing the two.

    //He’s explaining why the ID project, in his view, doesn’t fit with the Thomist project.//

    If that is all he is saying, I’m not sure I can disagree with him, I just find it bizarre that Thomists would argue against design, for me, design is one of the most basic reasons why I believe in God, as Thomas Reid once said, we have the same evidence for human-intelligence, that we do for a transcending-intelligence, and that is in the marks, or the physical effects induced by intelligence, since we cannot perceive intelligence directly.

    Regards.

  10. (From another post) I thought you may want to engage this. Or perhaps not. Either way, it’s relevant.

    The point of this phase is to show that, contrary to what neo-Thomists say, St. Thomas does not rule out tweaking. I went out of my way to dramatize the point. Since this blogger doesn’t address the argument, or any of the other arguments, I think I will pass.

  11. #10 is a response to nullasalus.

  12. –felipe: “This post represents exactly what new-thomists claim ID is getting wrong, as far as it pretends that evolutionary processes are based on God acting some way as primary cause on an interventionist scenario.”

    You appear to have missed the point. St. Thomas does not insist on exclusive secondary causality, therefore Thomists have no warrant for doing so in his name.

  13. Polanyi #3, @9, Good points all.

  14. Polanyi, you seem to understand most profoundly the point that many others miss: Aquinas was an inclusive thinker. Knowing that truth is unified, he took the best ideas from various sources and formed them into a big picture, even as he made careful distinctions all along the way. The idea that he would exclude scientific evidence on the basis that it doesn’t fit his structure is, frankly, insane. He combined insights and held them together. His structure was built to include truth, not to block it out. Few of his modern disciples are worthy of him.

  15. Stephen

    I agree Aquinas doesn´t insist on exclusive secondary causality. But if I understand what you mean by that, you are saying that ID is about miracles (primary causation) taking place all the way down in order to explain evolution of living organisms. Thomist´s critique of ID does not claim that only secondary causes are valid and that only a naturalist process can account for evolution. What they say is that our scientific knowledge of life does not support the idea of a God creating living forms by direct primary causation. And I think they are wright, although I remain a proponent of ID, because I do not think that the message and inferences from design are what they consider them to be.
    Primary versus secondary causation seem to me a debate in terms of efficient causation, and what detection of design is all about is about essences, substantial form and biological form, formal and final causes.
    For instance, embryo development, ontogeny, is a process where every single event (cell differentiation) is directed towards a final outcome: the achievement of a specific biological form. The form, is the cause of the process, all the informational support in the cell is intentional, is “about” the specific biological form. But essences, and forms, need an explanation, an origin, that is an intelligent cause. And that is why I consider that ID and Thomism are finally bound to get along friendly.

  16. //Knowing that truth is unified, he took the best ideas from various sources and formed them into a big picture, even as he made careful distinctions all along the way.//

    Hi Stephen, this is exactly the idea I also got from Aquinas, as he wrote:

    “By his natural reason man is able to arrive at some knowledge of God. For seeing that natural things run their course according to a fixed order, and since there cannot be order [design] without a cause of order [designer], men, for the most part, perceive that there is one who orders the things that we see. But who or of what kind this cause of order may be, or whether there be but one, cannot be gathered from this general consideration.”

    But I think you nailed it, neo-Thomists it seems to me have made their peace with Darwin (for philosophical and theological reasons), and now they are trying to blame their rejection of ID on “theological or philosophical incompatibilities”.

  17. Nullasalus you wrote:

    “there were arguments for theism well before ID ever came on the scene. Really, well before Paley came on the scene”

    mmm design-theoretic reasoning is old, I seriously doubt that any of these more sophisticated formal philosophical-type arguments for God’s existence predate the simpler design arguments, as Plato writes in his Book x:

    “Socrates: Whether all this which they call the universe is left to the guidance of unreason and chance medley, or, on the contrary, as our fathers have declared, ordered and governed by a marvellous intelligence and wisdom.”

    Or as Kant wrote:

    “This proof [argument from design] always deserves to be mentioned with respect. It is the oldest, the clearest, and the most accordant with the common reason of mankind. It enlivens the study of nature, just as it itself derives its existence and gains ever new vigour from that source. It suggests ends and purposes, where our observation would not have detected them by itself, and extends our knowledge of nature by means of the guiding-concept of a special unity, the principle of which is outside nature.”

  18. Polanyi,

    mmm design-theoretic reasoning is old, I seriously doubt that any of these more sophisticated formal philosophical-type arguments for God’s existence predate the simpler design arguments, as Plato writes in his Book x:

    “Socrates: Whether all this which they call the universe is left to the guidance of unreason and chance medley, or, on the contrary, as our fathers have declared, ordered and governed by a marvellous intelligence and wisdom.”

    That’s not an argument in and of itself – it’s a statement about what has to be explained. And Aquinas’ arguments are based of Aristotle’s, who was a contemporary with Plato.

    If you’re under the impression thomists only came up with their arguments recently, you’re mistaken. In fact, a fair chunk of their thinking didn’t even originate with Aquinas – there’s a reason the guys can’t shut up about Aristotle.

    Or as Kant wrote:

    You’re going to have to find the specific argument Kant is referring to, since not all arguments that infer God’s existence from creation are ID style design arguments. (See the Fifth Way.) Again, the Thomists advance their own arguments for God’s existence.

    The ID view is largely billed as Paleyan thought. And there’s a reason Paley, rather than some ancient greek, gets named as the intellectual inspiration there.

    But I think you nailed it, neo-Thomists it seems to me have made their peace with Darwin (for philosophical and theological reasons), and now they are trying to blame their rejection of ID on “theological or philosophical incompatibilities”.

    There are many legitimate criticisms ID proponents can make of Thomists, particularly on the subject of rejecting ID.

    This is not one.

    Thomists, including Feser, reject reductionism and mechanistic metaphysical views of the world. They’re usually, and in the case of Feser actually, committed to a view of humanity (the immateriality of the intellect for one) that is incompatible with evolution + materialism – and they state this freely. When they’re not arguing with ID proponents (which they usually only do when ID proponents demand they explain why they aren’t supporting ID), they’re arguing against materialists and evolutionists about the very idea of the intellect being material, much less being capable of evolving in the relevant sense.

    Really, there’s this attitude that if someone isn’t on board with the ID program, they’re crypto-Darwinists. Sometimes this is the case, but not always. It’s as off-base as someone saying that, since ID is compatible with an old earth and even evolutionary theory, it’s proponents are largely in Darwin’s column anyway. (Really, this is a charge the Thomists tend to make – it’s not merely that ID may be incorrect, but, they insist, ID makes intellectual concessions to get off the ground (the universe being mechanistic, for one thing) that are direct concessions to materialists anyway.)

  19. felipe, I like the way you write, making your points clearly and concisely. Let me respond this way:

    An evolutionary process can exhibit the effects of intelligent activity as much as any act of special creation. Information could be programmed in once early in the process. From an ID perspective, continuous tinkering is not required. If you have an interest, there is a video by Michael Behe on youtube entitled, “From the Big Bang to irreducible complexity.”

    On the question of ontogeny, I think we are talking about the release of information which guides the development of the embryo. It is unfolding according to a plan just as you indicate.

    The larger question, though, is the origin of the life force itself, not each individual instance in which it is experienced for the first time. Technically, life is present even before conception. It flows. It is passed on from one generation to the next. There are no discrete intervals at which life starts, stops, and starts all over again. It just happens to end for each individual.

    To me, the broad issue is this: Did God design life and can the evidence for some elements in that design be detected? St. Thomas would not run away from that question, he would embrace it. Many of his self-proclaimed disciples seem to have no interest in the subject. This is a problem.

  20. Of course, when I say that “life ends,” I refer to biological life. Obviously, the spiritual soul, which has no parts, cannot disintegrate or die.

  21. Nullasalus,

    You were making a claim about Thomistic reasoning predating design-theoretic reasoning, I was merely responding to that, as Socrates there says about their fathers, the design arguments it seems is as old as man himself, and most certainly did not start with Paley, nor with Plato.

    I have no problem if Thomists like Kant want to argue that design cannot get you to God (I think any IDist would agree), my beef with Thomists is if they want to argue that design is theologically incompatible with classical theism, this blows my mind. As I said earlier, it is one of the most basic reasons why I believe in God independently of scripture or religion.

    ID must be seen for what it is, and criticized on those grounds, modern ID the way I see it is merely a response to the Darwinian assertion which asserts that the design which all sane people can see in the biological world is illusory.

    Are the biological designs the result of unguided material processes or not? this is an empirical question, and the only question ID concerns itself with.

    Regards

  22. Upright Biped, your response @1 set a new world record for laconicism. Thanks.

  23. Polanyi,

    You were making a claim about Thomistic reasoning predating design-theoretic reasoning, I was merely responding to that, as Socrates there says about their fathers, the design arguments it seems is as old as man himself, and most certainly did not start with Paley, nor with Plato.

    As I said, there are a variety of “design-theoretic” arguments – and if that category is broad enough to cover inferences to God based on the creation we observe, they’re going to include Thomistic (and Aristotilean) arguments anyway.

    ‘Design arguments’ is very, very broad. It’s like Cosmological arguments. There’s a variety of them, and they’re pretty old as well.

    my beef with Thomists is if they want to argue that design is theologically incompatible with classical theism, this blows my mind.

    The Thomist problem is not with ‘design’, broadly. But a given metaphysical commitment or presumption in a design argument could be incompatible with Thomist arguments.

    ID must be seen for what it is, and criticized on those grounds, modern ID the way I see it is merely a response to the Darwinian assertion which asserts that the design which all sane people can see in the biological world is illusory.

    The Thomist reply, and Feser’s reply in particular, is similar. The difference is that Thomists frame this in terms of final causes and the Fifth way, rather than artificing.

  24. nullasalus, two things.

    I have read a few Thomists who think that ID is a philosophical (not scientific) inference, and as I recall, you are in that camp as well. Peter Kreeft, who is typically an excellent philosopher, holds that position on the grounds that science, as opposed to philosophy, measures things. Yet in one of his examples, he seems to contradict himself. Specifically, he says that if we notice the letters SOS written on a desert island, we would likely suspect that they were designed and were not the result of wind, air, and erosion. On the other hand, if we noticed that the letters formed something the equivalent of the works of Shakespeare, we would be almost certain.

    This example is classic ID because it measures the varying degrees of specified complexity. Yet Kreeft appears not to realize that he has just made a reference to measurement, which is his criterion for defining science. Similarly, when the scientist calculates the varying degrees of complexity in a DNA molecule, he is measuring in that same sense and is not doing philosophy. Since I have not read Feser, I don’t know if he faces this issue. Does he?

    Also, both men appear not to know that the ID method is based on abductive reasoning, which is a relatively new phenomenon. Since they appear not to have covered that ground, I have to assume that they have not done the requisite reading. (Accordingly, I also have to wonder if they understand that “information” is in the DNA molecule as an arrangement of parts but is not composed of physical elements. It seems to me that this kind of phenomenon is more reasonably classified as scientific).

  25. Although my above question was directed at Nullasalus, any Thomist is invited to address the arguments, provided they refrain from introducing irrelevant side issues. I find no reason to get into a discussion about the obvious difference between creating and generating or about the distinction between ontogeny and phylogeny. The issue is this: Did God necessarily use the process of secondary causality to bring homo sapiens into existence. St. Thomas clearly did not think so. Thomists should stop making the opposite claim in his name.

    Since I, too, am a Thomist, I think I have the right to press these questions. Thomists refer to the “nature” of things or their “final causality” as if those references alone could justify the claim that ID conflicts with Thomism. In my post, I refute this position with an example. If I am wrong, a Thomist should be able to make his case with a similar example of his own. True understanding lends itself to concrete expression.

    Also, the notion that “design” should be characterized solely and exclusively as an object of philosophy has not been defended. To say “I am a Thomist and I think St. Thomas would say what I say” is not really an argument. As far as know, no Thomist has ever dared to insist that forensic scientists, archeologists, or SETI researchers are doing philosophy when they make inferences to design.

    This takes us back to another claim– that “design cannot be measured.” No one has ever said that the design itself can be measured. That is just a silly strawman. ID argues that, in some cases, the probability that design exists can be measured, as in the case of a sand castle (the number of formed grains) or a written paragraph (the number of formed characters) or a monkey typing the works of Shakespeare, or with the arrangement of nucleotides in a DNA molecule. Do these self-described Thomists know what they mean when they say design CANNOT be measured? It appears that they do not. Do they even know what ID is measuring or how they do it? It appears that they do not.

  26. That should read, “Do they even know what ID proponents are measuring or how they do it?”

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