Four unlikely horsemen – Feser, Nagel, Aquinas, Meyer

Ed Feser finishes his review of reviews of Thomas Nagel’s important book Mind and Cosmos  here. I did my own non-review here. Feser deals there with reviews by two analytic philosphers and two Aristotelian-Thomists like himself. In assessing the former, by J P Moreland and Alvin Plantinga, although they are Christians, he brackets them with atheist Nagel in sharing a personalist view of divinity formed by Enlightenment philosophy.

He also brackets them, and for the same reasons, with the project of Intelligent Design and the whole of natural theology following the tradition of William Paley. Catholic Feser’s opposition to ID is well-known but often not understood, based as it is on unfamiliar classical philosophy and theology. As it happens I largely agree with it, having concluded from Reformed theology (philosophically based, though I didn’t know it at the time, on the mediaeval scholastics) that a fully explicable scientific process of evolution would not, in any sense, clash with the truth of God’s active role in every aspect of Creation.

But trying to get a handle on what Feser, and Aquinas, are getting at is, I think, helpful in a deeper understanding of the whole Creation issue. So I’ll do my best to move things along.

Nagel’s book is notable in insisting that teleology really must exist in nature, but apparently for largely psychological reasons he refuses to see God behind it, and tries to construct a purely “natural” teleology, with rather limited success, it seems to me. To Feser, for him to succeed would really not be a problem, because one would expect to be able to explain the efficient causes of a natural process naturally. God’s role is not to be deduced from the mechanisms, but is evident from the very existence of a teleological process:

To affirm God as “first” cause in the sense of being the source of all causal power is not to say that only God ever really causes anything (as the occasionalist holds), and to say that second causes are true causes is not to say that they could operate even for an instant in the absence of God’s concurrence (as the deist holds). There is, for Aquinas and other Scholastic philosophers, a middle-ground position: Because second causes are true causes, they have causal power that can be studied and partially understood all on their own, even if a complete understanding of their causality as such (as opposed to merely their causality qua specifically chemical phenomena, their causality qua specifically biological phenomena, etc.) requires reference to the first cause.

Hence Feser’s rejection both of ID’s and Nagel’s positions:

Many suppose that you either have to see teleology as entirely extrinsic to the natural world — the way the time-telling function of a watch is entirely extrinsic to it, existing only in the intentions of the watchmaker and the watch’s users — or you have to see it as immanent to the natural world in a way that completely divorces it from any divine directing intelligence. The former option is that of “Intelligent Design” theorists, who would effectively transform certain parts of natural science into the enterprise of trying to discern the intentions of a cosmic engineer. The latter option is that of Nagel, who, understandably wary of the first alternative, maintains that theism need play no role whatsoever in accounting for the existence of teleology.

So, applying that to science:

To study the natural tendencies of tree roots is the study of a feature of trees themselves, not an indirect way of trying to read God’s mind. Natural teleology really does depend upon the divine intellect directing things to their ends (as the Fifth Way shows, and contrary to Nagel’ position) but this does not mean that such teleology is not really built into natural things and knowable just by knowing the things themselves, whether or not one also affirms a designer (contrary to what ID supposes).

So far, so good. But in his argument Feser makes a hidden assumption: that science demonstrates just such a sufficient natural process with regard to evolution. Aquinas, of course, living in a pre-evolutionary age, made no such assumption, though his thought does cover it.

Aquinas distinguishes creation, which to him is always ex nihilo, from generation, such as a man begetting a child. God’s creation was of the original matter and form of man’s nature, which includes the natural ability to procreate – and thus we can study embryology scientifically. The distinction is true and important, although funnily enough he establishes it on an error, for in Summa 1.45 he (as usual) states a possible objection to ex nihilo creation:

Objection 1. It would seem that to create is not to make anything from nothing. For Augustine says (Contra Adv. Leg. et Proph. i): “To make concerns what did not exist at all; but to create is to make something by bringing forth something from what was already.”

Reply to Objection 1. Augustine uses the word creation in an equivocal sense, according as to be created signifies improvement in things; as when we say that a bishop is created. We do not, however, speak of creation in that way here, but as it is described above [ie ex nihilo creation].

I haven’t chased Augustine’s context here, but in point of fact he is right, regarding the Hebrew word for “create”, bara, which is fundamentally to do with God’s bringing order rather than bringing existence. Neverthless, ex nihilo is taught throughout Scripture, and the distinction between creation from nothing and natural generation is obviously a useful one. Aquinas later goes on to argue from Genesis for “creation” being at the beginning of time.

So, as Feser implies, if God at the beginning created life with an inbuilt purpose directed to adaptive or evolutionary change, progress towards some new form of life and so on, which could be thoroughly explained scientifically, it would be directly comparable to the natural generation of a new human life, which is nevertheless still the direct work of God compatible, say, with the call of a prophet from the womb. But God’s direct work would not be logically deducible from the science, any more than it would from the birth of Jeremiah.

Aquinas also, incidentally, denies the possibility that any other than God can create, ie that something created by God can be empowered by him to create. “Such a thing cannot be,” he says, any more than a saw can be said to participate in the creation of a bench by a craftsman. TE’s “creation allowed to create itself” is as incoherent to Aquinas as it is to anybody who thinks about it seriously.

But before we accept Feser’s conclusion that finding God’s hand in nature, as in ID, is inherently ludicrous we must look closer at Aquinas’s assumptions. (Actually Aquinas believes even the Trinity is detectable in all created things, but that is by a different theological argument). To Thomas, although he interacted with ideas that the Universe was eternal, or that raw matter might spontaneously lead to organised things, his theological worldview was based on pre-evolutionary assumptions. So Genesis 1 specifically uses the word “create” for the creatures of sea and air, and for mankind (clearly “make” or “brought forth” have the same force in the other verses, but I’m sticking to Aquinas’s ex nihilo definition).

Therefore he undoubtedly assumed that God created, say, the first man fully formed (albeit with a nature capable of procreation of further humans naturally). “Creation is the creation of the whole being,” he writes. So clearly, Aquinas would not expect the existence of a directly created Adam to be explicable by secondary, natural, causes – though the existence of Jon, as Geoff’s son and Adam’s descendant, would be expected to have some potentially demonstrable science behind it. Adam was created, but Jon was generated (with a created human nature “after Adam” and, of course, according to Thomas, with a separately created immortal soul – that last fact wouldn’t be true for a sea creature or bird).

Feser’s objection to Paleyan natural theology of life, then, only works on the assumptions that the species we see were not created ex nihilo, and that scientific explanations are sufficiently comprehensive to demonstrate that point. So if, for example, an ID proponent believed that evolution explains all except irreducibly complex systems, which God creates to order ex nihilo, then there would be no natural process present in that event capable of scientific explanation. Many of us would say that’s a theologically clumsy account of nature, but I don’t see that it runs counter to Thomas’s thought – unless in his mind secondary causes were investigable in the case of Adam or the first whale, which I’d want to see documented.

I think that leads to an interesting situation. Part of ID’s programme – the part that inspired Thomas Nagel’s book – is the attempt to demonstrate, in effect, that there are insufficient secondary causes known to account for what we see in life. That, for example, is the main line of argument for Stephen Meyer, who’s more likely than most to be in the news shortly with his new book about the Cambrian explosion. Leaving aside the other side of his methodology – the inference to design as the best explanation – a successful attempt to show the insufficiency of proposed natural mechanisms could mean:

(a) We’ve not yet found the sufficient natural mechanisms God first created ex nihilo, or
(b) Each species was specially created ex nihilo either in a young earth scenario or an old earth progressive creation.
(c) Ex nihilo creation was employed on a micro (eg tweaking the genome to produce a flagellum de novo) or nano (eg guiding point mutations by quantum effects) scale.

All three of these, to they extent that they involve Aquinas’s ex nihilo concept of direct creation, would not be susceptible to scientific explanation. As I’ve written before, the end of investigating that is to conclude either God or chance, the two being empirically indistinguishable, though far from equal in plausibility.

The possibilities in (a) might well encompass the kind of theories of natural teleology that are popping out of the woodwork everywhere, from Nagel himself, to physiological theories like Denis Noble’s, engineering analogies like that of James Shapiro, potential breakthroughs in epigenetics and so on. Conceivably (though increasingly implausibly) classic Neodarwinism might suddenly have its gaps plugged and persuade the doubters that random mutation and natural selection can be shown to deliver all things. In such a case Feser’s Thomism would really come into its own as a theological tool in a way that modern philosophies just can’t deliver.

In that case I suppose Intelligent Design would need to engage with Thomism or face withdrawing from every bit of teleology that proved to be “natural”. My impression, though I don’t know that community well enough to account for it, is that to many “natural teleology” is not an unwelcome guest at their table. I suspect that there’s a gut feeling that a system which is that purpose-orientated and watertight would be, in itself, an indication of the Creator’s hand, though not proof. I’m not at all sure Thomas would differ with them on that.

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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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4 Responses to Four unlikely horsemen – Feser, Nagel, Aquinas, Meyer

  1. ‘ex nihilo is taught throughout Scripture’

    Jon, please will you supply a couple of references for this. Thanks.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hebrews 11.3. comes to mind. Also John 1.1-3, Colossians 1.16. Also, it didn’t take a mediaeval scholastic to realise that strict monotheism implies God as the only eternal: The First and the Last, and similar titles, go beyond the strict meaning of “bara” to what it implies ontologically.

  2. Yes, they are good reminders that God through Christ made everything.
    The structure of Hebrews 11.3 interests me. Rather than saying everything was created out of nothing it appears to say that what we can see was created from what we cannot see. There must be a reason for this phraseology.
    In the specific case of our universe, therefore, I feel it is a step too far to say that God made it ex nihilo. He may have used *something* unseen in making it. However I would not argue that such a ‘something’ would be eternal as God is.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Peter

      Had to work harder at this one. I vaguely remembered some Philosophical significance to the word “visible” but couldn’t think what. But see:

      The link’s to “Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews” By Ronald Williamson. He argues:

      (1) that Heb 11.3 is often thought to be Platonic, via Jewish Philo, ie that God makes the visible out of an invisible (ie non-material) world of forms. But actually there the idea is copying, not making out of something else. Also the chaotic matter on which form was imposed in Plato/Philo is visible, not invisible.
      (2) The actual meaning of the verse is EITHER that what appears is made out of (Gk “ex”) what does not appear OR is not made out of what appears (= “phainomenon” – with a meaning wider than mere visibility, as with our own “phenomenon”).
      (3) So, he argues, Hebrews is absolutely NOT Platonic, and is saying either that the creation was made from something non-phenomenal (ie nothing) or that it wasn’t made out of anything phenomenal at all. Therefore, he says, he’s affirming the Jewish concept of ex nihilo creation, and possibly even wrote with a philosophical turn of phrase to counter Philo).

      FWIW It seems there was much discussion in early Judaism – Alexandrian Jews tended to have Platonic ideas (hence Philo) – but in Palestine not: a useful text is 2 Maccabees 7.28: “I beg you, child, look at the sky and the earth; see all that is in them and realize that God made them out of nothing, and that man comes into being in the same way.” So ex nihilo certainly existed in Jewish thought well before the NT.

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