December 29, 2010


Darwin, Design & Thomas Aquinas: The Mythical Conflict Between Thomism & Intelligent Design (Logan Paul Gage, Touchstone)

Given the active role of God in nature in Thomas’s system, one might think today’s Thomists would encourage the pursuit of signs of intelligent design in nature. Yet in recent years, some Thomists have shied away from ID. They do so not only because of lax scrutiny of the tensions just discussed but also because of three major misperceptions of intelligent design: first, that ID is “mechanistic”; second, that ID is a “God of the Gaps” theory; and third, that ID is inherently “interventionist.” While many Thomists harbor doubts about the more extravagant claims of Darwinian science, taken together these three factors make it almost impossible for some Thomists to embrace intelligent design. That is as unnecessary as it is unfortunate.

One of the defining hallmarks of modern Thomism is its strong rejection of early modern philosophy as seen in René Descartes and Francis Bacon. In general, modernists reduce Aristotle’s four causes down to only two causes and, as a result, reduce all knowledge to empirical knowledge. Both moves strike directly at Thomistic philosophy, so it is no surprise that they have aroused Thomists’ ire.

“Causes” in Aristotle’s sense explain why something is the way it is, and as Thomas explains, “there are four kinds of cause, namely, the material, efficient, formal and final.” Aristotle and Thomas would explain a marble statue by reference to its material cause (the marble), its efficient cause (the sculptor), its formal cause (the shape of the statue), and its final cause (the purpose of honoring Athena). A modernist, in contrast, sees only material man and marble at work. Ultimately, all is explained by atoms in motion—not by immaterial ideas, forms, or purposes. Thus for the modernist, knowledge is necessarily and exclusively knowledge of the empirical.

Some Thomists insist that ID is methodologically flawed because, they claim, ID, like modernism, rejects formal and final causation. This is incorrect. Far from rejecting final causation, ID theorists see ID as finding empirical evidence of purpose or teleology, for they see some features of nature as inexplicable apart from intelligent activity such as foresight and planning.

By reintroducing intelligent causes as a legitimate scientific pursuit, and by rejecting the Darwinian notion that material and efficient causes suffice to explain nature, ID theorists may well open the door for renewed attention to formal causes. Thomists should welcome ID as a partner.

Agency, Not Mechanism

Still, some Thomists insist that ID inherently views nature mechanistically. Those who say this consistently have in mind Michael Behe’s argument for the “irreducible complexity” of what are referred to in the scientific literature as “molecular machines.” They seem to forget that Thomas repeatedly used analogies between living objects and man-made artifacts. So they should hardly be offended that Behe would compare some aspects of microbiological structures to machines.

Besides, ID arguments propose the very opposite of mechanism—agency. Consider Stephen Meyer’s argument concerning the informational content of DNA. In Signature in the Cell, Meyer argues that blind material causes are insufficient to produce the immaterial information content of DNA. An immaterial mind, Meyer claims, is a better explanation than any mindless, material cause.

Some Thomist critics go one step further and claim that ID concedes a modernist, Enlightenment view of science. Perhaps this is because ID proponents insist that ID arguments fall within the domain of natural science. But this criticism has things precisely backward: ID theorists challenge the Enlightenment notion that only matter matters, that science cannot take immaterial concepts like mental causation seriously. ID challenges this directly, noting that while materialist science may have seemed plausible in the age of steam, it is hardly plausible in today’s world of the information super-highway—run on the power of the invisible and the immaterial. According to ID theorists, accounting for nature in all its richness requires that we appeal not just to material but to personal causes as well.

Moreover, the claim that design is empirically detectable concedes nothing to the modernist idea that reason is limited to the empirical realm. Nor does anything in ID imply that only science can provide real knowledge. One can argue for empirical evidence of design and also defend, say, knowledge of divine revelation, moral knowledge, knowledge of abstract essences, and knowledge derived from philosophical arguments for the existence of God.

Not a “Gaps” Argument

The second confusion regards the claim that intelligent design is a “God of the Gaps” argument. As Thomist Edward Feser writes, “Aquinas does not argue in this lame ‘God of the gaps’ manner. . . . Paley did, and ‘Intelligent Design’ theorists influenced by him do as well.” Expressed more formally, a “gaps” argument is known as an argument from ignorance. These arguments base claims upon what one does not know rather than upon what one does know. Critics misconstrue contemporary ID arguments (and perhaps Paley’s as well) as, “I do not know how this feature of the natural world arose via material causes; therefore, God did it!”

Yet this, too, is simply a misunderstanding. ID is not an argument for God’s existence. Rather, it is an inference to an intelligent cause. Some people think ID theorists are being coy, but they just want to avoid overstating their argument. Thomas drew the same distinction in Summa Contra Gentiles:

For seeing that natural things run their course according to a fixed order, and since there cannot be order without a cause of order, 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.

So there’s certainly nothing anti-Thomistic in distinguishing between a generic argument for design and an argument for God’s existence—even if the former might provide evidence for the latter.

...we ought to acknowledge for the IDers that they are indeed just being coy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 29, 2010 10:03 AM
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