Tinkering and formal causes

There’s a long, excellent and thought-provoking piece by V J Torley on Uncommon Descent today, replying to David Bentley-Hart’s critique of ID as theology. For me it’s very timely, since only yesterday I was wondering about how Thomas Aquinas would see God’s role in the imposition of form on matter, especially in relation to natural causation. VJT has delivered all the references, which is great.

A major plank of Hart’s critique is the oft-repeated idea that a God who needs to tinker with creation is a lesser God than he who gets it right first time. Such thinking is prominent in TE thinking, but is also applied to Thomistic thought, specifically in relation to ID, by folks like Ed Feser. Aquinas, it is said, majors on the extended capabilities of the natures placed in the world by God – ergo, “naturalistic evolution” is quite compatible with faith, and “supernatural interference” is unphilosophical – and according to Bentley-Hart and BioLogos, untheological too.

But as Torley shows, that’s not the whole story. It rarely is with Aquinas. I’ll refer you to his piece rather than expound, but it’s fairly self-evident that to understand how Aquinas is approaching things, you need to remember that he knew nothing of evolution and assumed a six-day creation: it’s important to ask how he considered God to have created the creatures, as well as how nature continues to reproduce them after their kinds. Torley approaches that question well, in my view.

But today, let’s focus purely on “tinkering” as an attribute of God. We should note immediately that the word “tinkering” is a value-loaded one. It is reminiscent of the “free-creation” crowd’s use of words like “tyrant”, “puppet-master” and so on to hide the incoherence of their arguments. “Tinkering” or “interference” evoke a negative response. But in factual terms they mean the same as “interaction” and “tending”. Context is all.

When I was at University back in 1972 my friend Jim McCaughan and I went to one of the very first Roxy Music concerts. Actually we went to see Al Stewart, but Roxy were playing support. They were at that stage, of course, a completely unknown quantity, having neither been recorded nor broadcast. But they were clearly not folkies, as before the concert began the Cambridge Poly stage was dominated by Brian Eno’s array of synthesizers, which were switched on and producing audible white noise through the PA, that modulated through the frequencies in outlandish ways.

Jim quipped that maybe the future of electronic music – and possibly even this concert – was that the band would switch on their Moogs and ARPs and go off to the pub for a couple of hours, returning for their applause (and cash) at the end as the hardware did the work. It turned out, of course, that Roxy Music were tinkerers after all.

Back in March I did a piece about the myth of Newton’s invocation of “the God of the Gaps”, which included these quotes from Leibniz:

“Sir Isaac Newton and his followers have also a very odd opinion concerning the work of God. According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion;”

and from Newton’s friend and mouthpiece, Samuel Clarke:

“And as those men, who pretend that in an earthly government things may go on perfectly well without the king himself ordering or disposing of any thing, may reasonably be suspected that they would like very well to set the king aside: so, whosoever contends, that the beings of the world can go on without the continual direction of God…his doctrine does in effect tend to exclude God out of the world.”

To Leibniz, an early Deist, natural determinism was an ideological necessity. Anything else would make God a tinkerer. But to Newton, the God who cares for, sustains and governs his Universe ought to be actively involved or cease to be God. He therefore saw natural law not as a chronometer God has made and wound up, but as the personal oversight of a legislator and governor. And he expected to find, at various places in nature, signs of God’s activity that were not law-like.

I don’t know whether Isaac Newton thought of this last in terms of miracle or some other branch of providence. It doesn’t really matter, any more than it does for ID or directed evolution. But it’s the crucial, and irreducible, division between Deistic accounts of nature and truly Theistic ones. It’s where the conflict really lies.

Now read VJT’s piece and get the lowdown on Aquinas.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to Tinkering and formal causes

  1. Bilbo says:

    VJ needs to write shorter essays.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Bilbo – prolixity is habit-forming when you’re dealing with Aquinas!

  3. Bilbo says:

    `Maybe I could be appointed VJ’s editor. If I could have edited Aquinas, I’m sure Thomism would still be all the rage these days.

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Would that be the “I don’t see what he’s getting at here – let’s leave it out” school of editing, Bilbo?

  5. Bilbo says:

    No, of course I would see what Aquinas was getting at. I just wouldn’t see the point in including it.

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