Building bridges from Aquinas to ID

I mentioned in my recent post, linking to Ed Feser’s piece on “finality”, that he “only makes” one brief attack on ID, linking it to William Paley’s natural theology. Given the nature of the essay as an overview, it seems a good source from which to examine how fundamental the differences between A-T thinking and modern Intelligent Design theory really are, and whether an accommodation could be possible or helpful. I’ve attempted this in a small way before but I’ll try to develop it a bit, and repetition isn’t necessarily harmful anyway.
Feser examines various possible approaches to “finality” in nature. The first is that the universe is a machine made and operated by God from outside, so that it has no more intrinisic teleology than a clock – this he attributes to Paley.

The second is that the universe just happens to have inherent direction, requiring no other explanation.

I’ll come back to his third, but the fourth is that intrinsic teleology is reducible to non-teleological phenomena – broadly the popular materialist view of Darwinism, and the fifth is that the whole idea of finality – remember, that means “aboutness”, rather than only conscious purpose – is an illusion. This is the eliminative materialist position and the most problematic of all, but read Feser himself on that.

As to his own view, the third, Feser explains it thus:

One could hold that teleology of one or more of the kinds described above really does exist and has its proximal ground in the natures of things but its distal ground in divine directing activity.  On this view (to stick with the acorn example — an example nothing rides on, by the way, but is just an illustration) the acorn “points to” becoming an oak by its very nature, and this nature is something that can be known whether or not one affirms the existence of God.  To that extent this view agrees with View B.  But a complete explanation of things and their natures would, on this View C, require recourse to a divine sustaining cause.  This is the view represented by Aquinas’s Fifth Way, which (as I have noted many times) has nothing whatsoever to do either with Paley’s feeble “design argument” or with the arguments of recent “Intelligent Design” theorists.

So the dichotomy between Aquinas and Paley (and therefore current ID in his view) hinges on the matter of intrinsic, as opposed to extrinsic, teleology. As far as Paley’s famous watch goes, this conflict is understandable: the idea of God as a (non-blind) watchmaker, cobbling together elements to make collections of molecular machinery, does tend to blind one to deeper concepts of what organisms are intrinsically. But if you actually read Paley, you realise that he’s at most making a limited analogy – he’s by no means an occasionalist, muttering “God did it” in reply to every scientific question.

The truth is that he lived in an age when Aristotelian causation had been deliberately rejected and reduced to material efficient causation in science (with even final causation being levered out of, at least, the conscious purview of science (but see The OFloynn’s piece recently referenced). Paley was indeed a product of that age, but more importantly was writing an apologetic for the divine origin of final causation to those who only considered material efficient causes. The same is true of modern Intelligent Design, until such time as the philosophical and metaphysical suppositions of our whole culture have broadened out again. So Paley’s, or ID’s, non-Aristotelian presuppositions should not be criticised for being held in common with those of most scientists and laymen.

In any case, it’s often forgotten that Paley’s Natural Theology didn’t just deal with biology, but has interesting chapters on the elements – in which the peculiar properties of the “very nature” of water feature prominently, anticipating Philip Ball’s Biography of Water by over two centuries – and astronomy, about which so little was then known of the details that, inevitably, Paley concentrated most on the “nature of things” in Newtonian astronomical movements.

If Paley or the Discovery Institute are, indeed, taking too mechanical a view of Creation, what does Feser’s alternative have to teach them?

…the acorn “points to” becoming an oak by its very nature, and this nature is something that can be known whether or not one affirms the existence of God.

So the oak has a genuine capacity within its own nature (which within in the confines of The Hump we can take to be ultimately the work of God without requiring proof) to do its tree-acorn thing, just as at a lower level the snow has a tendency to form hexagonal flakes and at a higher level the dog has the capacity to covet your beef-joint, and maybe to evolve, though as I said in a recent post, evolution does not follow directly from Aquinas – one has to demonstrate that “this [evolutionary] nature is something that can be known”, which is the evidential issue in dispute anyway.

Nothing in Aquinas says that there must be an evolutionary process in the world operating under secondary causes, nor that the one described in Neodarwinism is adequate to explain what we see. At most he doesn’t exclude such a mechanism, provided it is understood to be under divine providence, though as I’ve noted before, he might have some interesting replies to the suggestion that it could be a mechanism of creation.

Let’s focus, though, on this “very nature” with its inherent finality, which as thus stated is a rather vague idea. However, A-T thought is more precise than this – the “nature” of the oak is its “substantial form” as a natural object. And what that consists of is God’s combination of an oak “form” with “matter”. Hence the idea of “hylemorphism”, hyle meaning matter or literally the carpenter’s wood, and morphe meaning form.

The nature of a tree isn’t, then, just a nebulous metaphysical concept, but something that can be investigated and, according to Feser, known. How? By discovering what matter it consists of, and how that matter is arranged and interacts, that being its form. In other words, by what we call science. In the case of any organism, the gross form of anatomy and physiology proves, in turn, to depend on systems of in-form-ation such as DNA and the many other symbolic systems discovered, and yet to be discovered, in and between cells. To the degree that this information is inherent, and directs the specific activity of the organism, it is the internal agent of the organisms finality or teleology. Because the oak’s genome, epigenome, proteome and so on are as they are, the acorn tends towards being a tree.

Now all those separate information systems are physical manifestions of a unity which, in A-T thinking, is the substantial form. Having investigated that, one then has the option, with Aquinas’ fifth way, of  deciding whether this substantial form arose fortuitously or designedly (consilio) by the wisdom and counsel of God. Here is Aquinas’ own summary:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

To Aquinas as a theologian, the final causality inherent in an object or an organism is also the means by which God brings about his own purposes, understanding that the initial efficient cause of every act of the “substantial form” is God, but also that its very form originated in God’s wisdom.

OK, stones tend to fall to earth. Fortuitously, or designedly? Aquinas would say the latter – that’s the universal character of the fifth way. But surely there’s a valid reason for preferring, as an example, the acorn that tends to become an oak, or the hawk that seeks its quarry with supreme skill? It takes some sublety to envisage that a stone’s fall is not fortuitous. It takes sheer mental gymnastics to deny intentionality to the peregrine falcon’s stoop.

The evolutionary question, though, takes a somewhat different form. Given what Darwin claimed to have discovered about natural selection, it asks whether the oak or the falcon themselves could be fortuitous, and the very existence of them as “ends” of nature illusory? The fifth way would then not apply. But note that the fifth way says nothing about efficient causes at all – the existence of teleology alone* renders the sufficiency of mutation or natural selection as efficient causes irrelevant to that argument. Just as you would expect a stone or a falcon to have sufficient efficient causes in its nature to achieve its ends, so you would expect evolution, considered as a created process in itself, to contain sufficient efficient causation to achieve its outcomes.

Two things arise from this. In the first place I would suggest that, just as the complex teleology of animals is more telling than the fall of a stone in distinguishing the “fortuitous” from the “designed”, so the more sophisticated the processes seen in evolution too, the more fortuitousness is unlikely. Information theory would, in principle, have something to say about that in terms of probability: surely a teleological mechanism of astronomically low probability is especially unlikely to be fortuitous?

Conversely, given the recognition of finality in a process in Aquinas’ terms, the absence of sufficient causal explanation either indicates that ones understanding of the process is faulty or, of course, that God is not in this case, working through secondary natures but supernaturally.

The bottom line, though, is that whether one possesses a fully sufficient set of efficient causes within nature, or whether one lacks such a sufficient explanation, or whether one postulates miraculous intervention at any stage, the presence of finality – an observable phenomenon – is by Aquinas’ fifth way, an argument for God as Creator nevertheless. The further question is whether any of those three alternatives is excluded by modern Intelligent Design Theory, though it argues primarily from the demonstration of form (information) and only secondarily from the demonstration of AT finality? If ID (as opposed to creationism within the ID canp) does exclude any of them, I haven’t seen the evidence for it.

Only the denial of teleology negates the fifth way, and as Feser points out, only the eliminative materialists are willing to argue coherently against its existence – but at the cost of existence as we know it. The same cost is in the end incurred, as far as I can see, by those who deny the reality of information/formal causation.

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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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