The conversation on the BioLogos thread I mentioned previously has continued, with Catholic Thomist biologist Mary B Moritz taking the part of Neil Ormerod, the original author. From her writing she takes a line that seems to be the commonest amongst Thomists interested in evolution (such as Ed Feser), pointing specifically to the allegedly simplistic shortcomings of Intelligent Design, but having no problems to speak of with the Neodarwinian scientific model. I’m commenting here, rather than on BioLogos, which would be appropriate, simply because of space.
What Moritz (or Ormerod) gets from Thomas, it seems, is a strong doctrine of secondary “natural” causes under divine providence (which is fine), including those causes we term contingent or chance (which is also especially fine by me). What is less obviously Thomistic is the suggestion that this categorically discounts the possibility that God might use any other means than secondary natural causes in the evolution of life – discounting it mainly on the grounds that it implies a crudely architectural view of God as a static, non-interactive “designer”. This is in itself inconsistent as she is firmly committed to the Catholic teaching on the separate creation of man (presumably not by secondary natural causes).
I’ve written before that it’s a risky thing to cite Aquinas as a supporter of evolutionary creation, since to him creation was, by definition, the direct production of things by God, ex nihilo (Summa, Part 1, Q45). Specifically, he followed Aristotle in hyelomorphic dualism, that is that all created things (“substances”) are the combination of form (the particular work of Christ the Logos) with prime matter. Naturally in the 13th century he assumed the creation of all substantial forms to be part of the 6-day Genesis creation, and secondary natural causes to be acting on those original creations, particularly in the process of generation.
I have no doubt that Thomistic ideas adapt well to modern science – and indeed can broaden its view – but there is more than one way to apply it, and Thomas would have thought long and hard about how the transition of forms in evolution related to creation. I believe that, if he’d concluded God was actually creating through evolution (ie, “Evolutionary Creation”), he’d have hesitated to ascribe it all to secondary causes. It would have meant backtracking on his entire doctrine of creation.
Mary Moritz did, in fact, accept my criticism of her narrow (polemical) description of design, not least because I showed where Aquinas uses the actual word in relation to creation, and in my view ID (as a discipline, regardless of individuals’ particular biases) uses it in the same broad sense as Aquinas does. In the discussion our friend Eddie goes on to demonstrate specifically how the ID authors with whom he is most conversant, Michael Behe and Michael Denton, take such a broad view of design and even accept evolution.
Unlike Eddie, I don’t see myself as “a supporter of ID”. Rather, I see many ID concepts as part of what has been sidelined in Christian scientific thought during the last century, and worthy of serious consideration. So I’d like in the rest of this post to add the approach of another ID writer, Stephen Meyer, to this discussion of Aquinas and chance. This is not because I am a Meyer scholar, but because I had dinner with him once (albeit at the other end of a long table).
Meyer’s two books, on the origin of life and on the Cambrian explosion, in essence take the form of arguing against the evidential adequacy of all so-far proposed secondary natural causes for those two events. His argument runs that, since these are found to be inadequate, the inference to an Intelligent Designer is the best cause, that being the only cause in our experience for complex specified information analogous to that found in living organisms.
Whether the case against the proposed scientific mechanisms is adequate is a matter of opinion: it is exactly comparable, in a historical science, with the subjective judgement of a court about a course of events based on imperfect evidence. But the form of argument is legitimate, and for the most part, critics have not dealt with his objections directly (most of them he gleaned from scientific literature anyway), preferring to make general criticisms of his competence or nit-pick minor issues.
What is relevant in this context is how this relates to Aquinas. Aquinas teaches about God’s providence in secondary natural causes – he says nothing about whether any particular cause is true or adequate. Indeed, a strong part of his argument is that any means God uses are the most suitable and effective for his ends: secondary causes must be adequate. Therefore it would be vain for a mediaeval Aristotelian to argue that God doesn’t move falling bodies miraculously, but that all things tend to fall to the lowest part of the universe, and that this is proven by Aquinas’ teaching on secondary causation. The preference for secondary causation is reasonable, but gravity still needs to be discovered.
So Meyer’s arguments against current evolutionary and OOL theory are orthogonal to Thomism: they are purely evidential. The inference to design is not actually an argument against secondary causation, but (rightly or wrongly) against specific secondary causes, notably those that, as they are often expressed by scientific sources, deny an intelligent final cause. Be it noted that intelligent final causation in creation was axiomatic to Aquinas.
In particular, Meyer’s books exclude the chance hypothesis, which is our main subject here. In Signature in the Cell for example, he mentions it only to show how the OOL research community has now more or less ruled it out. This means that the main contenders against his arguments are threefold:
(a) He is wrong about the inadequacy of Neodarwinian mechanisms – a matter of evidence.
(b) We don’t know the real secondary mechanisms involved, but they must exist – a matter of faith. In this case Meyer is absolutely right to point out that science cannot be done on hire-purchase. If you have no explanation, you can only come to the table once you’ve found one, not offer a promissory note.
(c) There are no discoverable mechanisms, but perhaps there was an extraordinary fluke – a matter of luck.
Now scientifically, the last answer is by far the least satisfactory, as it offers no scientific insights at all. There is no intrinsic reason why this chemistry should come together, but maybe if the universe is big and old enough, it did happen once. It happened, in other words, against the usual course of nature. Yet it is actually this last answer that Ormerod’s interpretation of Thomism offers to Meyer. Answers (a) and (b) above are purely about finding adequate efficient causes that God would employ, and Aquinas, as I’ve shown, has absolutely nothing to say on that – nor much interest, being a philosopher-theologian rather than a scientist.
In any other field than historical sciences answer (c) would not see the light of day – even amongst Thomist scientists. Imagine an oncology drug-trial, for example, in which obliteron suphate proved no more effective than placebo. But the researchers say, “God’s providence covers contingent events, so he can easily make obliteron curative for your patients!” No Nobel Prize there, you’ll agree. Note that this is a completely different scenario from the same oncologist saying, “The drug’s complete rubbish, but amazingly one of our 250 cases had complete remission – which suggests that miracles still happen occasionally, praise God.” The Thomist who attributed the feeding of the five thousand to contingent secondary causes would be pushing the envelope too far.
Yet such an argument was made by British Christian biochemist Keith Fox in a debate with Meyer back in 2011, having accepted the possibility that no adequate theory of the origin of life may exist:
We’re inferring events billions of years ago that may have been a fluke event. But there’s nothing irrational or unscientific about it.
Now what did he actually mean? It’s hard to be sure, in detail. That something found to be a fluke, against the normal course of nature, was caused by the normal course of nature? That’s strange logic.
That God had no influence on the origin of life? That’s clearly not what the president of Christians in Science meant, since he explicitly stated that every part of the world is under God’s detailed control… I guess he’s singing from a different hymn sheet from Francisco Ayala or Karl Giberson then.
That it may turn out to be just such an astronomically unlikely event, but that (in Thomist mode) God’s providence oversees chance? Well that at least concurs with Aquinas that God acts through providence designedly, not fortuitously:
Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.
But there does come a point when extreme contingency may as well be called “miracle,” for they are indistinguishable in any meaningful way. But in any case, this last view would still be absolutely firmly in the category of “design”.
And as Meyer pointed out in reply to Fox, such a conclusion would remove any very significant difference between them.