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Thomism and Intelligent Design

Given the frequent criticisms against ID by some neo-Thomists it may be useful to consider here briefly the problem of compatibility between Thomism and ID (or at least what ID is in my view). To analyze some of the neo-Thomists’ critiques I will examine for example the recent article “Intelligent Design and Me”, part I/II, by Francis Beckwith at the Darwinist Biologos site (here and here).

As known, Thomism (or Scholasticism) is a medieval theological doctrine that incorporates many elements from Aristotle’s and Plato’s metaphysics in a Christian framework. As such it is of course rigorously creationist. In fact in Thomas Aquinas it is well clear that the formation of human being is a rigorous top-down process of manifestation that starts from a designing principle (spirit), pass through an intermediate modality (soul) and finally arrives to organize a corporeal entity (body). The ternary “spiritus, anima, corpus” is a conception of macro-cosmos and micro-cosmos that all orthodox traditions share, then Thomism, when stating this basic principle, is perfectly orthodox from the perspective of the traditional doctrine. To counter who instead believes in an impossible bottom-up process (as modern evolutionists who believe that mind and intelligence are “emergent properties” of body − see my previous post Potentiality and Emergence) Aquinas says:

“Human soul is the “form” of the body, gives man his absolute being and cannot be inserted into the body by accidental causes”. [...] “Some people wrongly believe that the human body was formed before and that God animated it after. That God made human body without soul is opposite to the perfection of primitive production of living beings. [...] Even more wrong it would be to think that body was formed before soul, because body depends from soul and not viceversa” (Summa Theologica, 91, IV).

Just quotes like this show clearly as Thomism has nothing to do with Darwinism and any materialistic theory. Moreover the intelligent design conception in Aquinas is fundamental, as expressed for example in the following statements:

“Ideas/Forms are the designs in the divine intellect” (Summa Theologica, I, 15, 3). “In no causal ordering an intelligent cause is tool of an unintelligent cause. Therefore all the causes in the cosmos are, respect the first motor that is God, tools of the first agent. Since in the cosmos there are many intelligent causes, the first motor cannot cause unintelligently.” (Summa contra Gentiles, I, 44).

Despite this strong Aquinas’ ante-litteram ID mindset, which considers the first motor or divine intellect as an intelligent designer, Beckwith writes that “St. Thomas, though a believer in design, was no ID advocate.” Let’s examine in detail the Beckwith’s critiques and misrepresentations of ID.

Beckwith: “ID advocates and atheists both share a view inconsistent with classical theism: that an intelligent agent is only required in cases where natural laws and chance cannot account for a phenomenon. ID proponents think such phenomena exist, while atheists do not. [...] In the Thomist view, then, law and chance, which work in concert with material causes, do not compete with or eliminate God’s design, thus showing a major philosophical weakness of the ID movement’s approach.”

ID is perfectly consistent with theism. ID doesn’t claim that “an intelligent agent is only required in the cases where natural laws and chance cannot account for a phenomenon.” ID agrees without difficulty that also laws are designed. What does the ID fine tuning argument say but that laws are tuned, then designed? To say that laws and chance cannot generate organization is not the same thing that to say that laws and chance are not designed. If I say that an hammer cannot generate literature I am not saying that the hammer is not designed, which would be a non sequitur.

Beckwith: “According to Dembski, we discover design in nature after we have eliminated chance and law. And we do so by a conceptual device he calls the explanatory filter. If something in nature exhibits a high level of specified complexity for which chance and law cannot account, Dembski concludes that it is highly probable that the gap is the result of an intelligent agent. Design, therefore, is not immanent in nature. It is something that is imposed on nature by someone or something outside it.”

The Dembski’s explanatory filter serves to detect what chance and laws cannot generate, i.e. complex specified information (CSI). This doesn’t mean that for ID “design is not immanent in nature”. Simply ID distinguishes from designed laws (and their products and processes) and designs containing CSI. In terms of software engineering we could say that ID thinks there are at least two integrated “software layers” immanent in nature: at the bottom there are the physical laws with all their phenomena; upon it there is the layer of designs, which needs additional intelligence respect the former. While ID theorists make this distinction it seems neo-Thomists critical of ID are unable to grasp it. Doing so they reason as evolutionists, who deny the higher “software layer” and trust only in matter and its laws.

Neither ID says that “design is imposed on nature by someone or something outside it”. ID considers both possibilities: designs internal and external to their designers. ID has nothing to object about the cosmos as internal to its Designer, as a book is in principle inside its writer.

Beckwith: “For them [Christian philosophers], design is immanent in the universe, and thus even an evolutionary account of the development of life requires a universe teeming with final causes. What is a final cause? It is a thing’s purpose or end. So, for example, even if one can provide an evolutionary account of the development of the human lungs without any recourse to an intervening intelligence, there remains the fact that the lungs develop for a particular purpose, the exchange of oxygen for the sake of the organism’s survival.”

ID has no problem eventually to agree that “design is immanent in the universe” in the sense that all the necessary CSI is front-loaded or embedded just from the beginning in the universe, as, for analogy, a computer can be pre-installed with all the software the user will need. But this CSI is far more than that contained in the physical/chemical laws and randomness. Also ID agrees about a universe teeming with final causes, that is a teleological universe. But the problem is that the evolutionary accounts of the development of life are absolutely anti-teleological and therefore are incompatible with neo-Thomism, also if Beckwith seems to make us to believe that.

ID simply says that in nature the higher forms of design are beyond what chance and necessity can produce. We can consider unguided evolution (random mutations + natural selection) as a semi-stochastic natural law. ID says that this law alone is unable to explain the arise of living creatures. If a neo-Thomist claims that it is possible “an evolutionary account of the development of the human lungs without any recourse to an intervening intelligence” he is simply wrong. They say that lungs “develop for a particular purpose, the exchange of oxygen”. ID says that the designer of lungs had in mind such particular functionality. To create such biological function the designer had to inject functional information (CSI) in the system. What is this CSI but the tool to get the final cause and allow the particular purpose or end of exchanging oxygen? The terminology is different but the concept is quite the same. Both Thomism and ID are teleological while evolutionism is not.

Beckwith: “Rather, all three [chance, necessity and design] work in concert with each other because nature as a whole requires a Necessary Being (i.e., God)”

Also ID states that both the above “software layers” (chance-necessity layer and design layer) are necessary and must work in concert. ID implicitly argues that nature as a whole requires a Designer of nature (as any design implies a designer). Not for chance the symbolism of the Great Designer is common to all orthodox traditional teachings.

Despite Beckwith embraces some arguments made by ID theorists against philosophical naturalism in the same time strangely rejects the ID arguments of irreducible complexity (IC) and CSI. But the ID arguments of IC and CSI cannot be rejected for they are based on logic and mathematics. Whether a mousetrap needs five components to work there is no philosophical argument able to make a mousetrap work if lacks one or more components. If the organization of a system involves a minimal amount of functional information this information cannot be zeroed without losing the functionality. IC and CSI are not philosophical questions rather technical concepts. Engineers of all fields daily experiment and apply in practice the ID paradigm not the Darwinian one.

Beckwith: “But even ID advocates who criticize neo-Darwinism are technically not offering an alternative to evolution.”

This accusation to ID of “not offering an alternative to [unguided] evolution” is paradoxical coming from a self-declared neo-Thomist. Because the ID alternative is exactly the Thomism’s one, that is the alternative of design and creation. So Beckwith, being a neo-Thomist, while accusing ID is attacking his own views.

Beckwith quotes also another neo-Thomist who says: “In some respects, standard reductionistic neo-Darwinism and IDT are mirror images of each other, and suffer from some of the same defects.”

The accusation of reductionism to ID is not justified. ID knows well that nothing in the universe is reducible to substance/quantity only because also a minimal part of the universe is a mix of substance/quantity and essence/quality (to express the concept in the classic Aristotelian/Thomist terms). ID argues something like this: whether before a natural object we analyze one of its simplified models trying to obtain a quantitative measure of its CSI and this measure exceeds a certain threshold (beyond which an object is designed), then to greater reason the real object − which is more qualitative − will be designed. So the “reductionism” of ID is instrumental, not conceptual like is the case of the evolutionary mechanistic attempts of explanation of complexity in nature. ID does not undervalue the richness of nature and the power of its Designer.

Neo-Darwinism and IDT don’t suffer from the same defects. Neo-Darwinism, which, meant as naturalistic unguided origin and transformation of all species, is pure falsity (the major defect possible), cannot be a mirror image of IDT, which, with all its minor defects, is far near the truth. Error cannot be mirror image of truth. Whether a neo-Thomist really believes that neo-Darwinism and ID are on the same plane and contain the same amount of truth, then his views are entirely heterodox respect St. Thomas’ teachings, which are light-years distant from the just-so-stories of evolutionism.

To sum up, when the misunderstandings are clarified, one sees no serious problem of incompatibility between Thomism and ID. The former is a theological-philosophical worldview while the latter is a set of scientific methods to detect design. In a sense they cannot be properly pairwise compared as they were things of the same genre. What one can do is to accurately specify which viewpoint one compares them from. For example let’s consider their anti-Darwinian power. No doubt that Thomism is weaker than ID to fight Darwinism and in fact we must admit that unfortunately Thomism (and by the way any other traditional authority) was incapable to avoid the rise of the Darwinian error and its survival during 150 years. Quite differently ID is very powerful to debunk Darwinism and evolutionists are afraid of it. If neo-Thomists accuse ID to combat materialism on its ground and with its methods an ID supporter can answer that sometimes the best tactic is to apply the Tantric suggestion “use poison as anti-poison”. At the time of Aquinas Darwin wasn’t yet born. I bet that nowadays Aquinas would use ID theory to better refute Darwin. Why should one discard ID theory? If there is dirt on the floor one uses a besom also if it is not made of gold.

It is true that ID is a minimal assumption because it remains on the scientific ground and doesn’t investigate in depth the designer and his properties and purposes (for this reason neo-Thomists see “ID as far too modest” and “not religious enough”). If this can seem a defect from a certain point of view, from another viewpoint is a feature. In fact indeed because it is only a neutral scientific theory of design inference and “uses secular terms” ID can be incorporated (or appended as an addendum) without contradiction into any larger orthodox theistic framework and represents a big tent where any person (of any orthodox religious belief or even agnostic), who at least technically understands that more doesn’t come from less and mind overarches matter, is welcome.

Besides, although ID is only an humble scientific theory nevertheless there is the possibility that it might constitute, why not, a non negligible opportunity for an atheist to abandon atheism and near a theistic position (there were already notable events of this genre, I am thinking about the conversion to theism thank to ID of philosopher Antony Flew for example) that the neo-Thomists opposing ID should appreciate after all. Neo-Thomists know well that “the tree is judged on its fruits”. Since usually the fruit of ID is theism and the fruit of evolutionism is atheism neo-Thomists should be able to choice between the two. They cannot have both ways.

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25 Responses to Thomism and Intelligent Design

  1. The way I’ve seen ID-critical thomists put the situation is this:

    1) ID concedes (even if only for the sake of argument) a mechanistic concept of nature and reality.

    2) Thomism (and, more broadly, classical metaphysical views) rejects/argues against that mechanistic concept of nature and reality.

    If 2′s arguments work (and naturally, thomists and the like-minded believe they do), then Darwinism quickly becomes a non-issue anyway. Therefore, 1′s arguments are (while possibly valid and important in their own right), for the thomist, a distraction from a more important discussion.

    Also, keep in mind that both ID and thomism have explicitly different goals and scopes. ID proponents admit that their arguments do not get one to God – they get to a designer, and their arguments are scientific. Thomists admit their arguments, if they work, get one to God – a God that ID itself could not prove the existence of, even with the wildest successes imaginable. They also admit their arguments are philosophical/metaphysical rather than scientific.

    I should also ask this: Just what do ID proponents want out of thomists? It can’t be to have thomistic arguments considered as ID – they’re explicitly related to metaphysics, and ID is concerned with science. It can’t be to have them onboard for rejecting materialism and naturalism – they already do that. It can’t be to admit that their arguments may work – Beckwith (along with other thomists I’m aware of) never argue against ID claims anyway.

  2. Where Thomism will not be of much use is in design detection. What do I mean. Take a man-made object, one that is presumably designed. It is not merely enough to say the object is designed (that is already presumed), but to identify all the designed structures in the design.

    For example, consider a designed communication like a letter from one person to another. It may have a superficial design, but one that goes deeper than surface appearance. See here for a comical example: AN Wilson Skewered (for the followup, see: AN Wilson Skewered but now re-Converted?). Thomism would be of little relevance in such cases of design detection, but ID would be useful to those wishing to do science.

    Where would the importance of using the explanatory filter and other ID concepts be important and of practical significance rather than a mere theological foray? They would be important in medical science. UD has postings on the issue of Steganography and Genetic Entropy. All of which may have practical significance.

    Before leaving the Catholic faith, I was acquainted with the writing of Thomas Acquinas in high school. He seemed very smart, so I was fascinated.

    As the years passed, I found the pure rationalist approach not as believable. In Acquinas writings were explorations of heaven and hell and all sorts of ideas and the underlying presumption of man’s ability to use his intellect to reason the existence of God and all things.

    Whitehead (of Whitehead and Russell fame) argued that modern science though a rational enterprise, was more interested in brute fact. Empricism took precedence over mental ruminations. Thus it rejected the approach of Aristotle and various theologians who felt the human intellect was supreme in the search for truth.

    Modern man has a deep sense of pragmatisim, skepticism, utility, and empiricism. Such is the real philosophy of modern science and technology. It is from this empiricist, evidential, pragmatic mindset which the modern form of ID proceeds. And thus the modern form of ID will ring closer to where modern man is today.

    The modern incarnation of the biological design arguments with respect to Specified Complexity relate very well to how engineers and computer scientists understanding of design and design detection (pattern recognition). Thus the modern ID argument proceeds very naturally from the practice of modern science.

    The other biological design argument of Irreducible Complexity relates very well to the notion of passwords and logins. Not too far from modern technological concepts.

    A less well-known biological design argument come from the creationists regarding population biology/population genetics and the insufficiency of population resources for evolution to occur via natural selection. These would be from John Sanford, Walter ReMine, Paul Gipson, Wes Brewere, John Baumgardner. Again, these arguments proceed from modern science and even first rate evolutionary literature.

    The beginnings of modern ID were Thaxton, Bradley and Olsen’s and Kenyon’s work on Origin of Life and Chemical evolution. Then Michael Denton, a professed agnostic and geneticist wrote the book that inspired Phil Johnson and Michael Behe.

    And it should be mentioned, some of the beginning for modern ID came from a atheist/agnostic physicist Fred Hoyle who was highly critical of Darwinian evolution. Hoyle also gave inspiration to those involved in Cosmological ID, Barrow and Tipler.

    So for biological ID, little of theology or philosophy is borrowed.

    For Cosmological ID, agnostics and atheists (or former agnostics and atheists) joined the fray. Some among them were Robert Jastrow and Fred Hoyle. Later followed by John Barrow and Frank Tipler (their books are still referenced in the secular world with respect to fine tuning). Gonzalez and Richards offered their take on the issues in the book Privileged Planet.

    So there was very little in the way of Thomism or even theology. The most “Thomist” like ideas that I can think of was William Lane Craig’s use of the Kalaam Cosmological Principle. And the Kalaam argument’s modern incarnation has been used by some Quantum physicists to argue for God’s existence.

    The notion of modern ID comes mostly from Scientists, Engineers, and Medical Doctors (with a few good lawyers in the fray), not so much from Theologians and Philosophers. Personally, I don’t see how this is a liability given the modern mindset.

  3. niwrad said: “ID has no problem eventually to agree that “design is immanent in the universe” in the sense that all the necessary CSI is front-loaded or embedded just from the beginning in the universe, as, for analogy, a computer can be pre-installed with all the software the user will need. But this CSI is far more that that contained in the physical/chemical laws and randomness.”

    If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that the CSI required for myriad species could have been front-loaded via the positioning of particles at the beginning of the Big Bang? While I agree that the CSI cannot feasibly be contained in the laws, with or without randomness thrown in, I don’t see a feasible scenario of particle-state front-loading either.

    Firstly, any random factor in the laws of physics would utterly ruin front-loading, so we must require a purely deterministic physics (but I’m fine with that).

    But it still has bad problems. For the front-loading idea to have any scientific weight, we need someone to create a rudimentary computer simulation where freak, specified assemblies occur far into the progress of a dynamic system. So, perhaps you could create a computer program in which a million particles interact in a closed environment, in apparent chaos, but out of that chaos emerges a specified arrangement of particles (say, in the shape of the word “CAT” (which doesn’t necessarily stick around; it may dissolve as quickly as it assembled; that’s OK). Then, as the simulation continues to run, much later, and in approximately the same vicinity, another specified assembly occurs (say, the word “DOG”). Feel free to position the particles any way you want at the start — the only requirement is that they look chaotic (random-like), then after running for quite a while, the word “cat” appears, then after running for another quite-a-while, the word “dog” appears in the same vicinity.

    Let me propose here that the above scenario is simply impossible. And because it is impossible, the front-loaded-biology scenario is also impossible, which (assuming that Darwinian evolution doesn’t work either) leaves only periodic intervention. A lot of ID people are uncomfortable with that, because they are sensitive to the charge of “miracles” since it is conveniently equivocated with claimed apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast. So ID people are friendly to front-loading, or at least cite it as a possible way to avoid “miracles.”

    My negative hypothesis: that someone will create a “cat dog” computer simulation that functions as I described above. I’m predicting no one will, because it can’t be done.

  4. scordova writes:

    As the years passed, I found the pure rationalist approach not as believable. In Acquinas writings were explorations of heaven and hell and all sorts of ideas and the underlying presumption of man’s ability to use his intellect to reason the existence of God and all things.

    With all due respect, that’s not Aquinas’ position. I’m certain you didn’t learn that in high school, unless you had some relative of Cornelius Van Til as your Catholic catechism teacher. What probably happened is that after your conversion you read a bunch mistaken Reformed guys (e.g., C. Van Til, G. Clark) who relied on secondary and/or late Scholastic accounts of Thomism to present Aquinas rather than reading Aquinas himself. And by reading these guys they sort of triggered “your memory.” But, if in fact, you actually did get the reading of Aquinas you claim you received, you should sue your former high school in ecclesiastical court for catechetical malpractice.

    Don’t feel bad, you’re in good company: both Nancy Pearcy and Francis Schaeffer make the same mistake. The best correction of this position is made by Reformed philosopher Arvin Vos in his now out of print book: Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought: A Critique of Protestant Views on the Thought of Thomas Aquinas,

  5. Beckwith writes:

    Design, therefore, is not immanent in nature. It is something that is imposed on nature by someone or something outside it.

    The issue is more subtle than that. Certain designs are not immanent in nature. It is thus possible all things are created, but some designs are not immanent in nature and require design from an agency that transcends the laws of nature.

    For example, a computer purchased off the shelf is designed. Every part of it is designed.

    But such immanent design does not preculde the existence of further designs imposed upon it later(like typing of documents).

    This is not far from arguing God created the laws of physics, time and space, and then had further acts of design in the creation of humans.

    One does not have to say most of nature is undesigned in order to say life is designed. This is a very weak argument against the modern formulation of the ID argument.

    Consider the claim that Christ rose from the dead. It would be fair to say, if indeed this happened, this miracle was planned and designed from the beginning. It would appear the design of this miracle, the resurrection, was not immanent in nature. In fact, it is miraculous for the very reason the resurrection wasn’t immanent in nature. Can we then say that the fact of a resurrection (or special creation, or intellgent design of the flagellum), therefore implies that design is not immanent in nature? No. Thus I have to object to this:

    Design, therefore, is not immanent in nature. It is something that is imposed on nature by someone or something outside it.

    Design can be immanent in nature, but it does not preculde the possibility of special designs on top of the original design. A computer can be considered the original design, but it does not preculde the existence of further layers of design imposed on it over time.

    It would be incorrect to say, the existence of software somehow invalidates the design of the hardware. The argument Francis makes is somewhat like arguing the existence of special designs (like software) somehow invalidates the designs of hardware.

    These analogies are not far removed from the notion that the laws of physics (the hardware) can be designed, but life (the software on top of the hardware) can also be designed, but in a way that transcends the design of hardware. The EF detects this transcendent design. It doesn’t argue that law and chance must necessarily be undesigned. How can this be?

    Consider that computer hardware is intelligently designed to admit uncertainty in certain dimensions. We measure this uncertainty in bits, and thus we often say that a computer has 20 megs of RAM. When we say this, we are describing the degree of intelligently designed uncertainty in the system. Both chance and necessity are part of the hardware architecture.

    We can thus argue software on a computer is intelligently designed without having to say that the computer is undesigned because the computer admits chance and necessity. The uncertainty in the computer’s memory is part of the design in addition to the deterministic behaviors.

    Thus it is possible, that “chance and law” are designed (like they are in a computer), and it would still admit detection of further designs like software which are made possible by the “chance and necessity” in computer hardware.

    And if I may say, that’s the problem in trying to use Thomism in the modern day arguments. It has no conception of these mordern and operationally useful insights. It is philosophy that doesn’t quite fit modern understanding of reality. It is not a very potent reason for dismissing the modern formulation of ID.

  6. I pointed out that the uncertainty in computers is by design, we measure this uncertainty in computer memory by bits (and even Giga-Bytes).

    Bill Dembski points out that the existence of “chance” mechanisms does not imply the mechanisms is not designed.

    See: Randomness by Design

    Despite the danger of being branded a heretic, I want to argue that randomness entails no moral deficiency. I will even advocate that random number generators be constructed with reckless abandonthough a reckless abandon that is well thought out. Randomness, properly to be randomness, must leave nothing to chance. It must look like chance, like a child of the primeval chaos. But underneath a keen intelligence must be manipulating and calculating, taking advantage of this and that expedient so as systematically to concoct confusion. I am reminded of the photo-journalists in Vietnam who rearranged scenes of carnage simply to enhance the sense of indiscriminate violence. Here, of course, there was a moral fault, but not with randomness per se. Suffice it to say, randomness, to be randomness, must be designed.

    and

    But when randomness is redefined as the breaking of patterns, the paradox disappears. Questions of determinism, chance, and probability no longer enter. At issue now is whether an object exists and can be found that breaks the patterns.

    So Bill was able to make the point moot whether there is ultimate design or not (like say in the universe) with respect to detecting proximal designs (like life).

    It is a reasonable enterprise to try to infer proximal design without presuming universal design. The discovery of proximal designs (like life) make it possible to investigate ultimate design.

    In light of the above, I think this challenge by Francis has been adequately met:

    According to Dembski, we discover design in nature after we have eliminated chance and law. And we do so by a conceptual device he calls the explanatory filter. If something in nature exhibits a high level of specified complexity for which chance and law cannot account, Dembski concludes that it is highly probable that the gap is the result of an intelligent agent. Design, therefore, is not immanent in nature. It is something that is imposed on nature by someone or something outside it.

    The ID conception of proximal design (life) does not mean the universe which evidences “chance and necessity” is undesigned. Bill shows that it is possible “randomness” is also by design.

    Again, the existence of designed software on a computer is not reducible to the design of the computer. The computer admits stochastic uncertainty in its memory, which we measure in bits, but this does not imply that detecting the design of software necessarily implies rejection of the design of the computer hardware.

    Yet this appears to be the complaint raised against ID by the Thomist argument: claims of proximal designs (in the software of life) somehow negate claims of design in (hardware of) nature. This appears to be a non-sequitur.

  7. And if I may say, that’s the problem in trying to use Thomism in the modern day arguments. It has no conception of these mordern and operationally useful insights. It is philosophy that doesn’t quite fit modern understanding of reality.

    Of course, if these “mordern and operationally useful insights” have no metaphysical foundation, what good are they?

    The “modern” understanding rejected Thomism and replaced it with…

    NOTHING!

    This hardly suffices to make Thomism irrelevant, at least not to any rational person.

  8. While I strongly favor an Aristotilean/Thomist view of nature, I can understand at least one criticism with it: It isn’t as easy to describe or comprehend as ID is. For ID, the analogies come swiftly – ‘Was Mount Rushmore designed by natural or intelligent forces.’ A-T, while I think it’s powerful, simply doesn’t come as easy. And even modern thomists admit that even discussing the topics is fraught with difficulty, since a lot of vocabulary (like ’cause’) has a different meaning to modern ears than in A-T.

    Then again, it’s not as if A-T and ID are in competition with each other. So I still don’t see what ID proponents ‘want’ out of thomists.

  9. So I still don’t see what ID proponents ‘want’ out of thomists

    We want Thomists to endorse ID (specified complexity, irreducible complexity, maybe even genetic entropy), as proceeding from God.

    :-)

  10. fbeckwith (#4):

    Agreed; it’s better to read Aquinas himself than to rely upon secondary sources. But now, instead of debating scordova, why not take a look at what niwrad wrote in the post above? niwrad offers an analysis of some passages of Aquinas, and weaves them into an interpretation which apparently differs from your own. Do you agree or disagree with niwrad? And why?

    T.

  11. —nullasalus: “So I still don’t see what ID proponents ‘want’ out of thomists.

    I can’t speak for the others, but as an ID Thomist myself, all I ask of other Thomists is the following: Recognize the fact that while Thomistic arguments have different aims than ID arguments, they are not incompatible with them.

    If someone wants to take your approach and reject ID on the grounds that design can’t be measured, fine. That’s an honest and legitimate point of view. At least you don’t drag the Angelic Doctor into the discussion in an attempt to add credibility to your arguments.

    Meanwhile, like the erudite Timaeus, I would also ask them to address the issues that niwrad has put on the table.

  12. 12

    niwrad, great post!

  13. I wrote:
    scordova writes:

    As the years passed, I found the pure rationalist approach not as believable. In Acquinas writings were explorations of heaven and hell and all sorts of ideas and the underlying presumption of man’s ability to use his intellect to reason the existence of God and all things

    Francis Beckwith wrote:

    With all due respect, that’s not Aquinas’ position. I’m certain you didn’t learn that in high school, unless you had some relative of Cornelius Van Til as your Catholic catechism teacher. who relied on secondary and/or late Scholastic accounts of Thomism to present Aquinas rather than reading Aquinas himself. And by reading these guys they sort of triggered “your memory.” But, if in fact, you actually did get the reading of Aquinas you claim you received, you should sue your former high school in ecclesiastical court for catechetical malpractice.

    I read Thomas at age 15 on my own (oddly my Catholic Sunday School Teacher really liked Pat Robertson), then at age 17 or so, read Schaeffer’s characterization of Thomas literature as I was pastored by someone from Schaeffer’s L’Arbi in the Presbyterian church which came about because my neighbor was also a pastor schooled by Van Til.

    After a little more investigation after your comment, it appears your assessment is correct and I owe you and the Thomists here a sincere apology. Please accept my regrets.

    However, if what you say is true, then doesn’t this give Thomas’s blessings on non-Thomist approaches to doing forensice inquiry, such as that laid out by the ID movement? And beyond that, according to Thomas, shouldn’t even non-Christian viewpoints and deductive approaches be able to deduce intelligent design in the universe?

  14. StephenB,

    Beckwith does say on the Biologos site that ID arguments are based on certain assumptions (“Law & Chance = Not Designed”) that are incompatible with Thomism. But the response I’ve seen here is that ID does not commit one to those assumptions. I suppose the argument goes like this:

    For Thomism, teleology and design is demonstrated even through remarkably simple natural operations – the fact that, say, a window breaks when thrown by a rock. “Law and chance” are themselves subsumed under “design”, rather than contrasted with it.

    ID, meanwhile, tries to make a scientific argument for inferring design. “Law and chance” are, if only for the sake of the argument, considered to stand in contrast to design. Therefore it’s asked if nature, in its normal operations, can reasonably be expected to accomplish certain feats – while knowing that, certainly, a designer could accomplish those same feats.

    I see the claim from the Thomist side: To them, the very problem is accepting things like “utterly blind, intention-less nature”, particularly the unqualified acceptance of such things – as in, not realizing this is a metaphysical, not scientific, position. Therefore, by playing the game, ID tacitly endorses what for the Thomist is the root problem.

    I think I see the ID response, which I take to be this: ID doesn’t commit us to that view, and in fact some of us (VJTorley, StephenB, for example) are Thomists ourselves. We’re trying to show that even someone who takes on these assumptions can’t escape inferences of design. What we’re doing is entirely valid, because we’re using what are acceptable scientific assumptions, and attempting to reach people in a language they’re going to more easily understand – and make valid criticisms of some supposedly ‘scientific’ models (Neo-Darwinism) in the process.

    Here’s my take: There is no possible way that ID arguments are incompatible with Thomism, properly qualified. ‘Irreducible complexity’ (to use one example), if it’s real, is not somehow antithetical to Thomism in any way I can see. And I don’t think Beckwith would argue this either.

    What I see the problem being is one of emphasis. For Thomists, the problem is first and foremost the contemporary popular understanding of nature – bad metaphysics, and that so many people don’t understand they’re engaging in philosophy and metaphysics when they actually are. It’s not that an ID proponent must have bad metaphysics, but that they lend credence to these bad metaphysics by using them in argument, even instrumentally.

    So my take would be – and maybe Prof. Beckwith would agree – that it isn’t that ID is ‘incompatible’ with Thomism. It’s that it’s just a bad move. It assumes for the sake of argument the one thing that A) is the root of the problem anyway, and B) is tremendously difficult to justify.

    So I don’t think there’s any actual intellectual incompatibility here. You can be a Thomist and an ID proponent. Just many Thomists think it’s a bad move.

    All this said, I’ve got a question/comment for Prof. Beckwith himself. Coming up next…

  15. Prof Beckwith,

    I think I understand where you’re coming from as far as criticisms of ID go – and by all means, if I’m misunderstanding, do correct me. I’ve long taken a similar perspective here, though my sympathies with ID are greater and run deeper.

    But let me point this out: If ID is problematic from a Thomist point of view, then Biologos is (given the evidences so far) going to be a downright trainwreck.

    ID doesn’t make arguments like ‘Making God the designer of life is blasphemy, because it makes God responsible for our horrible, rotten world – but if you accept Darwinism and the idea that God had no idea what sort of world He was going to create, this is solved!’ But Francisco Ayala does, and Biologos gives him a soapbox to speak from. I don’t think this squares with Thomism.

    ID doesn’t try to defend stances, such that evolution is truly blind and outcomes are utterly unpredicted by God, or are not guided by God. But frankly, this seems to be precisely the tact that Biologos takes. I don’t think this squares with Thomism either.

    In other words, if you’re truly concerned about bad metaphysics, then it seems to me the bigger problem is Biologos, not ID.

    I wish this wasn’t the case. When I first heard of Biologos being launched, I was excited – principally because I think (as the Thomists I know agree) that evolution is entirely compatible with God, Catholicism and Thomism, and because I recognize that the chief problems of “Neo-Darwinism” don’t spring from science, but metaphysics which are all too often smuggled in.

    But now, it seems like Biologos is trying to baptize a form of Darwinism that is entirely wrapped up in the philosophy, metaphysics and theology any Thomist would find absurd, not to mention objectionable.

    So, I humbly suggest you consider what’s going on here. And I hope if you continue to cooperate with Biologos, you don’t allow yourself to simply be a convenient ID critic. If they don’t let you speak as a philosopher and a Thomist, why have anything to do with them?

  16. Beckwith does say on the Biologos site that ID arguments are based on certain assumptions (”Law & Chance = Not Designed”)

    But this is not an accurate characterization. It is more subtle than that.

    The Explanatory Filter may yield a false negative (that is to say it may label something as non-designed when in fact it is), that is acknowledged cost of using the EF.

    Further, as pointed out above, it is possible even stochastic “chance” mechanism are designed. The EF is constructed to identify certain designs, not ALL designs.

    The labelling of somethings as “not designed” is not a formal inference, it really means “not recognized by the EF as designed”.

    Case in point, a well-crafted, well-designed random number generator could thwart the EF.

    Regarding false negatives where the EF says something is not-designed when in fact it is, Bill comments:

    False negatives are a problem for the explantory filter. This problem of false negatives is endemic to detecting intelligent causes.

    Masters of stealth intent on concealing their actions may successfully evade the explanatory filter. But masters of self-promotion intent on making sure their intellectual property gets properly attributed find in the explanatory filter a ready friend.

    Bill Dembski
    Mere Creation

    One could argue even God sometimes conceals his designs.

    It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, it is the glory of kings to search out a matter.

    Proverbs

    Thus the EF is not against the notion that God may be the designer of even law and chance-like mechanisms in the universe. A deeper reading of ID literature will demonstrate this, and I’ve provided citations from the source literature.

  17. “Just quotes like this show clearly as Thomism has nothing to do with Darwinism and any materialistic theory.”

    “Despite Beckwith embraces some arguments made by ID theorists against philosophical naturalism in the same time strangely rejects the ID arguments of irreducible complexity (IC) and CSI.”

    niwrad,

    You’ve got to write more clearly if you want people of average intelligence, like me, to understand these sentences. I had to reach each one 3 times before I understood them.

  18. nullasalus, your attempt to bear the weight of both sides of this argument is truly admirable.

    On a point of agreement with F. Beckwith, I, too, would emphasize that Francis Schaeffer, for all his many virtues, failed miserably in his attempt to understand Aquinas. I remember the first time I read Schaeffer’s account of Aquinas’s views. Even at such an early time in my travels, it astounded me that such a disciplined mind as his could suddenly turn to mush on this one subject, especially his notion that Aquinas’ “distinction” between nature and grace constituted a “separation” which led to secularism. Unbelievable! The great non-Catholic philosopher Norman Geisler and even the heavy-handed predestinationist R.C. Sproul acknowledged that Schaeffer blew it on this one.

  19. I’d like to make a few suggestions.

    1. I think Professor Beckwith is right in objecting to the use of the term “unguided” to describe processes involving chance and/or necessity. For theists, any process in the natural world that takes place out of necessity (in this case, the nomic necessity of the laws of nature) is a guided one, as God is the author of the laws of nature. In all law-governed processes, objects of a certain kind have a built-in tendency to produce specific effects, which lie in the near or distant future, and they do so reliably. How do they “know” how to do that? In his Fifth Way, Aquinas argued that an Intelligence is required to make them behave in this way.

    Instead of “unguided,” I’d like to suggest “low-specificity.” If we use this term, ID arguments can still be formulated with the same cogency with regard to the origin of life, for instance. Laws of nature and chance events are both unable to create large amounts of specified complexity. To use a popular illustration from Dr. Stephen Meyer, laws of nature can create order (ABCABCABC), while chance can create mere complexity (i.e. an incompressible string, such as ALXNTZXCBT) but only intelligence can create a large quantity of specified complexity (TIME AND TIDE WAIT FOR NO MAN) in a limited time.

    This kind of specified complexity is found in the DNA of every living creature, in quantities far greater than “low-specificity” processes such as chance and laws of nature could reasonably be expected to generate, over the lifetime of the universe. From a purely tactical point of view, it would be extremely foolish NOT to use this information in our DNA as an argument for the existence of God, on the grounds that one can reason to God purely on the basis of the teleology found in all law-governed processes. Of course, you can indeed do that, but many people find ID-style design arguments easier to grasp. Anyone can see that neither repetition nor randomness can create a meaningful message. Only minds create messages.

    When endeavoring to persuade people of the existence of God, we have to “be all things to all men,” to borrow a phrase from St. Paul (1 Corinthians 9:22). ID-style arguments appeal to a large segment of the population, for whom Aristotle’s philosophy might prove to be a stumbling block.

    2. Niwrad, thank you for a thought-provoking post and for your vigorous defence of ID. I understand that English is not your first language, so if you ever need a proof-reader in future, I’d be happy to oblige.

    3. DarrelRex, when I read your post I was reminded of Dr. Rob Sheldon’s well-argued article, entitled The Front-Loading Fiction . What do you think of it?

  20. —-nullasalus: “So my take would be – and maybe Prof. Beckwith would agree – that it isn’t that ID is ‘incompatible’ with Thomism. It’s that it’s just a bad move. It assumes for the sake of argument the one thing that A) is the root of the problem anyway, and B) is tremendously difficult to justify.”

    Yes, there is a certain risk either way one goes with this. Fifty years ago, before our culture had become so immersed in subjectivism, the notion of meeting people “where they are” often entailed an undefined and sometimes unnecessary gamble. One could easily have argued that we should simply provide the public with a model of truth as we see it and let them work their way up to it.

    In keeping with that point, I was, for a long time, very uncomfortable with the idea of using phenomenology, science, and the appeal to human experience as a means of addressing the malady of subjectivism and skepticism or the idea of using lower level truths for the ultimate aim of selling higher level truths. It seemed to me that each time this experiment was tried, the destination was never reached and the public audience was left in the same narcissistic state they began with only with a new contempt for the hierarchical truths that didn’t even get discussed. When I first heard that JPII was a phenomenologist, my first reaction was, “Oh no. Just what we need, more talk of experience and little talk of truth.” It seems, though, that much good came out of his approach and he did write many encyclicals expressing what I would characterized as uncompromised truth, especially in the field of ethics.

    In truth, theology is the noblest of disciplines, followed by philosophy, followed by science. There is more truth to be found in the former than in the latter. Ideally, we present the higher level truths [the skeleton] and then present the lower level truths [the flesh, blood, and bones]. I think that all Thomists, Francis Beckwith included, would agree that this is the ideal. Explain the idea of a unified house first and then describe all the rooms in the context of the house. However, we now live in a culture that believes only in rooms [facts] and not in houses [universal truths]—a culture that worships science, ridicules philosophy, and rebels against reason’s first principles. They do it every day on this site. Each time I present the house, then insist that evidence exists only for the rooms–that the house is only MY house, and doesn’t really apply to the real world.

    So, we do, in my judgment, need a two pronged approach. Hit them with the phenomenology [ID] from the bottom up, and hit them with ontology from the top down and the bottom up [Thomism]; present the inductive arguments and present them with deductive arguments; let them see the unity of truth and the way it manifests itself in the unchanging truths of philosophy [Thomism] and the high probability arguments of science [Intelligent Design]. Its all the same truth and, in my judgment, the best way to explain the unity of truth is to show that varied and diverse manifestations of truth can be integrated without contradiction.

  21. 21

    Thomists and ID theorists are interested in answering different questions. What ID theorists want from Thomists is for them to realize we are all on the same side. It’s the same thing ID theorists want from creationists.

    Both creationists and Thomists react against ID for the exact same reason: They were here first and they perceive ID as stealing their thunder.

    All one needs in order to understand human beings is a clear understanding of the politics of a kindergarten classroom.

  22. Three and half years ago, we had a discussion that involved Thomism. There I quoted Thomas regarding the creation of humans. I’d like to quote Thomas, and then get fbeckwith’s take on it.

    Here goes:

    I answer that, The first formation of the human body could not be by the instrumentality of any created power, but was immediately from God. . . . Now God, though He is absolutely immaterial, can alone by His own power produce matter by creation: wherefore He alone can produce a form in matter, without the aid of any preceding material form. For this reason the angels cannot transform a body except by making use of something in the nature of a seed, as Augustine says (De Trin. iii, 19). Therefore as no pre-existing body has been formed whereby another body of the same species could be generated, the first human body was of necessity made immediately by God.
    Reply to Objection 1: Although the angels are the ministers of God, as regards what He does in bodies, yet God does something in bodies beyond the angels’ power, as, for instance, raising the dead, or giving sight to the blind: and by this power He formed the body of the first man from the slime of the earth.”

    For the life of me, I cannot see how in the world the emphasized text is in any way consistent with the notion of design being inherent in nature itself. Thomas seems to clearly be talking about: (1) a creative event, (2) a creative event that did NOT involve secondary causes, and (3) happened within the context of what we know as ‘time.’

    I certainly would appreciate Francis Beckwith’s take on this. (To which I would happily respond.)

  23. There are many excellent responses above. Much of what I would have added has already been said very well by StephenB and nullasalus.

    I hope Prof. Beckwith will pay particular attention to the last two paragraphs of nullasalus’s post 15 above. To notice the purported theological flaws in ID while failing to notice those held by some supporters of the Biologos project would not do justice to the independent stance that Prof. Beckwith has said that he wishes to maintain.

    It’s disappointing that Prof. Beckwith has apparently discontinued responding on the other Beckwith thread here at UD, and perhaps this one as well. I think that substantial constructive criticism of his position has been offered, and I think he could advance the discussion by staying with it, rather than simply dropping some bombs in a quick flyover, then leaving.

    In particular, it would be worth chewing on Aquinas’s natural theology, with Prof. Beckwith in on the conversation.

    T.

  24. DarelRex #3

    “If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that the CSI required for myriad species could have been front-loaded via the positioning of particles at the beginning of the Big Bang?”

    No. I meant only that in principle and in general front-loading scenarios are compatible with ID. I agree with you that if the potentiality of life was front-loaded in the cosmos it was based on something much more complex than the mere “positioning of particles at the beginning of the Big Bang”. Life entails information processing and “positioning of particles” defines a mechanics only, not an information processing.

    Technology and engineering (ID at work) show many examples of human front-loading. Differently, to ask if the cosmos was front-loaded or not in a sense is a “non question”, so to speak. In fact God continually creates the world. The cosmos is not a watch and God is not a watchmaker, who, after having constructed the watch, abandons it and goes home. Only the mechanistic and reductionists conceptions see the world like an abandoned watch. God’s creation is causation and causation is time-independent. About a thing that has no relation with time has no meaning to say that it happened in the past or happens now or will happen in the future. What is sure is that such time-invariant causation is an injection or installation of potentiality, an insertion or deployment of CSI, to use ID terms. It remains unpredicted when this potentiality/CSI develops in time, when this cause manifests all the effects it involves.

  25. You write:

    ID has no problem eventually to agree that “design is immanent in the universe” in the sense that all the necessary CSI is front-loaded or embedded just from the beginning in the universe, as, for analogy, a computer can be pre-installed with all the software the user will need.

    For the Thomist, final causes are not “ad ons” to material stuff, as your front-loading “embedded” metaphor seems to imply. Final causes are part of the nature of things. That is, without final causality there would be no stuff, period.

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