Saturday, January 29, 2011

Thomism and ID Again

Logan Gage has an article at Touchstone trying to revive the claim that Thomism and ID are compatible. As most of the Thomists, whether broader or narrower, pointed out last time, Thomism's inferences to intelligence are of a different kind than that given in ID, what ID attributes to intelligence alone is often entirely possible for nature on a Thomistic conception of nature, and the characterizations of phenomena given by ID theorists do not fit very well with Thomistic characterizations of them. Since ID is nothing other than an inference to intelligence on the grounds that certain phenomena characterized a certain way can only have an intelligent cause, that means that the only thing ID and Thomism are really capable of having in common is the claim that there are intelligent causes. But they still keep trying. Some points:

(1) Gage points to Haught's characterization of the Fifth Way as an argument "from the design and complexity and order and pattern in the universe to the existence of an ultimate intelligent designer"; and while he does qualify it enough to recognize that "complexity per se" is not found in the Fifth Way, Gage goes on to claim, "Thomas certainly made a design argument by appealing to features of the natural world." While this is a common error, I am very sure this is false; the Fifth Way is not a design argument but a cosmological argument, and indeed, it is not about design at all but about why efficient causes of any sort have the effects they do rather than any other effects (which in Aristotelian terms is explained by the final cause, which, no, is not a design).

It's true that one can expand the label 'design argument' until it is so broad that any argument that concludes that an intelligent cause exists counts as a 'design argument', but this requires massive equivocation on the term 'design'. In order to have a genuine design argument, the argument must make use, somewhere, of the idea that the initial phenomena themselves exhibit a design, which is at minimum an integration of disparate functions into a functional system. The Fifth Way makes no such appeal; ID arguments do. It's a pretty significant difference.

(2) Gage goes on to argue that there are three "sources of tension between Darwinism and Thomistic thought." This is problematic in itself. (A) Rejecting ID and accepting 'Darwinism' are not the same thing, so the one can't be assumed to have anything to do with the other. (B) Thomists don't need to accept 'Darwinism', whatever, precisely, that might be; they are perfectly capable of accepting particular scientific concepts and ideas. (C) Talking about Darwinism leads, throughout, to talking about what Darwin says. But what Darwin says is really not relevant to the question. For instance, who cares if Darwin was a nominalist in some way? This is only relevant if somehow it guaranteed that the lines of inquiry he touched off were nominalistic in the sense that it is literally impossible to reinterpret them in a non-nominalistic way.

(3) The first source of tension Gage identifies is "the problem of essences." In characterizing this he conflates 'species' in the Aristotelian form sense with 'species' in the biological population sense. But, again, any contradiction here is a contradiction between nominalism and Thomism. We've known about that for a few hundred years. Gage hasn't actually shown that it is relevant.

He also says some other things about Darwinism's view of function, for which see (2:B).

(4) The second source of tension Gage identifies is "the problem of transformism." He confuses Aristotelian species with biological species again, and then asks, "But if living things have unchangeable essences, how can these living things change (or “transform”) into other living things through mere material causes?" I am assuming he doesn't mean "material causes" in a Thomistic sense, but for the rest Thomism doesn't have a problem with things of one form coming from things of another form. St. Thomas, after all, like any medieval Aristotelian, held that spontaneous generation was possible. Actually things change into things with different forms all the time in a Thomistic world: that's what generation and corruption are.

Then Gage goes ahead and gives away the store, saying, "those defending the tradition of natural philosophy found in Aristotle and St. Thomas simply cannot accept transformism—at least not without introducing teleological conceptions that transform Darwinian theory itself." Well, maybe. But that's just to say that Thomists can accept transformism if it's interpreted Thomistically. That does indeed make sense, but it's pretty hard to see how that leaves any source of tension here.

(5) The third source of tension Gage identifies is "the problem of formal causation." By this he means exemplar causality in particular. I confess I can't make heads or tails of his characterization of this source of tension. Gage is right that frogs have the power to generate but not the power to create; and that every intelligible character in creation derives by God's creative act from God as exemplar cause. What this has to do with anything is left entirely vague; I suppose it's yet another philosophical position operating under cover of that vague label 'Darwinism', for which see (2:B) again. By this point I'm really surprised he didn't go for broke and, because Thomists hold that divine ideas are in the Word, claim that Darwinism is anti-Trinitarian. After all, that would be a non-negotiable difference, far more serious than any differences proposed here, and Darwinists as characterized here don't sound like they'd be very Trinitarian!

(6) He then gives what he says are three misperceptions of ID by Thomists. In the first one, the perception of ID as mechanistic, he seems to equivocate twice. The first time -- which would be really well-calculated to annoy people of Thomistic sympathies if that were what he was trying to do -- he says, "They seem to forget that Thomas repeatedly used analogies between living objects and man-made artifacts." Analogies to art in this context come up in two ways for Thomists: there is a very restricted similarity between human art and divine art, in the sense that they both are productive and not merely practical or speculative; and there is the standard Aristotelian analogy between art and nature. But in both these cases the differences are crucial and very precisely laid out, and neither one requires thinking of natural things as machines requiring assembly, and, indeed, both make it impossible to regard such a thought as more than a metaphor. Arguing from a metaphor is possible, but a great deal of precision -- and a serious effort to avoid equivocation, including an attempt to analyze the underlying analogy -- is required.

The second equivocation comes when he says, "ID arguments propose the very opposite of mechanism -- agency." I don't see how this is a response to the mechanism claim. The mechanism claim isn't a claim that ID thinks of intelligent causes as mechanistic; it's a claim that it thinks of non-intelligent natural things as mechanistic, and just adds agency on top to try to compensate for the problems of thinking certain kinds of non-intelligent natural things are mechanistic. Simply noting that ID theorists appeal to agency isn't relevant.

He then for some reason assumes that "that science cannot take immaterial concepts like mental causation seriously" is an Enlightenment notion. This is false, but I don't know from the informatin provided whether it's a falsehood original with him or one that derives from the people he is criticizing.

(7) The second misperception is that ID reasoning is 'God of the gaps' reasoning. If there's any point at which I would be sympathetic with Gage's reasoning, it is this one, because I've criticized 'God of the gaps' criticisms of ID myself. But I don't think Gage's defense is very strong. The first part of his argument assume that the problem has to do with the appeal to God. But it's not; criticizing it for 'God of the gaps' reasoning is a structural criticism, and it doesn't matter what you put in instead of God -- 'God of the gaps' is just the common label for this sort of criticism. And especially in dealing with Thomists, appeal to God is not going to be the problem when they criticize an argument for being a 'God of the gaps' argument. Then he shows that we can infer an intelligence cause without the sort of eliminative argument required for a charge of arguing from ignorance to stick, but this is not to the point: ID theorists regularly do use eliminative arguments, so it's those arguments that needed to be defended on this point.

(8) The third alleged misperception is that ID is interventionist. His defense against this misperception is another point at which I find I don't understand his argument at all. Thomists think that God is always primary cause for everything. It may be true that there are people who think that "God limited himself to secondary causes in natural history" but Thomists are not among them, because they regard the claim as incoherent. There are no secondary causes if there is no primary cause. There may be people who think that "God acted as a primary cause at different periods in life’s history" but if they think that means that he acted, e.g., at the breaks in the fossil record and not as primary cause anywhere else, they are putting forward a position that is also inconsistent with the Thomistic position. He then seems to go on to argue that ID need not be interventionist because it can be mechanistic ("Intelligent design by natural laws and initial specifications is still intelligent design") but that can't be right. So I don't know what the defense is supposed to be.

He then makes another move that usually annoys Thomists, and says that St. Thomas allows for "interventions". Of course he does; they are called "miracles". Do ID theorists really want to start arguing that what they really mean is just that flagella were caused miraculously? I don't think so. But in any case, the arguments for these "interventions" in Thomism are nothing like the arguments for ID.

So Gage's essay seems to me simply to underscore how far apart Thomism and ID really are, rather than show any compatibility. If Mr. Gage really wishes to make his argument, there are certain things that need to be done that aren't done here:

(I) Darwinism needs to be defined, and precisely defined at that; too much of the argument turns on details of Darwinism that are never made clear.

(II) Most of the actual analogies proposed between Thomism and ID are extraordinarily vague, and boil down to the fact that ID involves appeal to an intelligent cause of some sort operating in some way for certain phenomena and Thomism involves appeal to an intelligent cause of a very specific sort operating in a very specific way for every kind of phenomenon. That's too vague. It is way too vague a level of description to determine whether the positions are mutually exclusive. The analogies need to be made precise.

(III) There are good reasons not to conflate species in the Aristotelian sense with species in the biological sense. (I recommend reading John Wilkins's book on the history of the species concept.) This distinction needs to be maintained.

(IV) On the transformism issue, this has been addressed by Thomists before, and these arguments need to be considered. For an example (slightly dated, but still good as an introduction to the very basic issues), see the summary of Steven Snyder's argument on the subject that's online.

Incidentally, any comments denigrating Mr. Gage himself will be deleted; published and posted arguments are fair game, but Mr. Gage is a graduate student and attacks on graduate students, simply for presenting arguments, are utterly unacceptable. Also, according to the biographical note, there's another version of the essay elsewhere, so it's possible that some of the problems above may be due to format restrictions and are dealt with properly by Mr. Gage elsewhere.

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