Thomism and Intelligent Design
|March 28, 2010||Posted by niwrad under Philosophy, Intelligent Design, Religion|
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.