My post on Plantinga raised an old question again: is Intelligent Design poor theology, poor metaphysics, as certain Thomist theologians/philosophers think it is? Specifically, does it “give the game away” to naturalists/materialists by conceiving of the world in a mechanistic sense, making God a tinkerer in his creation? Does it misconceive who God is in relation to himself and to his creation? I don’t think it does, or at least, I don’t think it has to. It still puzzles me that some theists think it does.
Holopupenko has raised this question frequently in comments on this blog. The debate surfaced in multiple blogs a year or more ago, especially Ed Feser’s (here for starters, and more here) and the Discovery Institute’s (see here; more here); but its roots go back at least as far as Thomas Aquinas, even to Aristotle. G. Rodrigues clarified and summarized the issue nicely today. His comments beginning at that link would be a good starting place for you if this question is new to you. I won’t try to re-state it; I could do no better than he did, especially in the space available.
Intelligent Design as Reductio ad Absurdum
Here’s what puzzles me about these Thomistic complaints; or maybe better said, here’s a way of viewing Intelligent Design that I think ought to meet their approval.
I’m speaking of viewing ID as a reductio ad absurdum argument. The reductio is an argument that accepts the opponent’s beliefs or premises on a provisional basis, and then goes on to show that those beliefs or premises produce impossible conclusions. (From the Latin, it reduces the starting position to its own absurdness.) Wikipedia, being good for something at least, has some good examples of reductio arguments.
I do not think every major ID proponent views ID that way. This isn’t anything like a canonical statement of what ID is, or of how the Discovery Institute views ID. Rather it is a way of viewing ID; one that I think ought to be widely acceptable.
Let’s suppose the Thomists’ are correct to say (as many of them do) that ID gives in to materialists’ view of the way nature works. Suppose also (for the sake of argument) that ID incorrectly treats nature as somehow mechanical in its operation, with God as the cosmic tinkerer who makes it all work with “interventions” and such. What’s the harm in that? Well, to suppose that might be (and from the Thomists’ perspective, it certainly is) to give up essential truths about God and reality. It is to do so needlessly, too; for there are better ways to show God’s reality.
My response to this is that those other ways are fine for those who are convinced by them. I find them pretty persuasive myself. Meanwhile, though, we have a large contingent of scientists, philosophers, and semi-unaware followers of their creeds who think that God is a hoax, materialism is for real, and Thomas Aquinas lived a long time before the Scientific Revolution so what does he know? They’re impressed with science, and they think science has all the answers.
Thank God for the answers that science does have! But it doesn’t have them all. The Thomists know that. Most readers of this blog know that. ID proponents all know it. But a whole raft of scientists, philosophers, and their semi-unaware followers don’t know that. Some of them are so ensconced in their scientistic ways that they won’t listen to anything but “science” (in quotes because whether they know it or not, the “science” they tend to listen to is deeply imbued with metaphysics). For some of these people there is no hope but prayer; they see themselves as the beacon-bearers of logic and reason, and thus if any logic comes their way that isn’t their logic, they deem it illogic. That means their commitment is actually to themselves rather than to reason, but what we can do to help them with that, other than to pray for them, I don’t know. (Prayer is always a good answer in any case.)
A Strategic/Evangelistic Approach, And More
Some of them might listen, though. They’ll listen if we catch their attention, that is. Anyone trained in communication knows this is the vital first step. We won’t catch their ear by quoting medieval Scholastics, though; they’ve been trained (I know I was!) to think of the Scholastics as having nothing better to argue over than how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. That won’t attract a moment of their attention.
Reverting to communications theory again, the place to start is with some bit of common ground. Obviously I’m viewing this strategically, not just philosophically. It goes like this:
a. Mechanistic materialism is a false and detrimental belief (that’s a shared belief among Thomists and ID proponents generally)
b. To persuade proponents of mechanistic materialism that their metaphysics is wrong is a good to be pursued.
c. That persuasion process requires getting their attention, to begin.
d. They are not likely to pay attention to what they perceive as medieval philosophy, theology, or anything else of the sort.
e. They may pay attention to approaches that begin on what they take to be their own turf, which is science.
More Than Strategy
I must add that what I’m about to say has more than strategic implications. It’s also a version of pursuing truth for its own sake, or for the sake of the Truth-giver, the True One, God; but it’s a version that takes its approach from an alternate angle: exposing falsehood, for the sake of the True One. So in theological terms, I have both evangelism and worship in mind here: persuading unbelievers that they are on the wrong track, and exposing lies about what God has done as Creator.
If I’m going to be honest, I’ll have to own up to another motivation. If mechanistic materialism, and its acolytes’ insistence that they are the rational ones, can be pulled down from the inside, I would find considerable entertainment value there.
Limits of the Approach
So that explains why I think there might be something worthy about approaching a theological question from a scientific perspective, if it’s possible to do so. I have written what I think about that possibility more than once. Those two links connect to articles in which I state important limits on that possibility. I wish I could wrap all the disclaimers and limits-on-warranties that I wrote there (and elsewhere) into this article, but that would make this one even longer, which would be bad indeed.
“If it’s possible to do so.” That’s the key condition. Is there a way we can get to God from a scientific starting point? No, not if one thinks that “scientific” means “mechanistic-scientific,” which is the perspective in question in this debate. You can’t get to God from there. I think maybe we can find a way to point toward him him, though. At this point I am back where I started. I’m thinking again of the argumentum ad absurdum.
Possibilities in the Approach
I don’t know whether ID’s chief proponents would agree with me or not, but it seems to me that such an approach works from multiple perspectives. The idea would be to show that mechanistic materialism, when evidentially and rationally considered upon its own terms, is a failure. It collapses from within. So-called “scientific” conclusions that depend upon that assumption are also prone to failure. “Rationally” is of course an essential term in there. Mechanistic materialism could in some sense succeed “scientifically,” if one accepted an all-too-common, rationally delimited and false notion of what “scientifically” means. A consistent and thoroughgoing rational analysis shows that such “success” is not real, but only apparent.
This reductio approach is theologically valid even for Thomists: it’s not accepting mechanistic scientism, it’s only considering its predictions, its evidences, its findings, and of course its implications. I’m saying also that to the extent that it succeeds in demonstrating materialism’s inadequacies (an extent that we must admit here is still hotly debated) it has potential persuasive power, because it has purchase on those who come from a materialist perspective. It calls on premises that are cognitively available for consideration—something they might listen to. There are philosophical approaches to undermining materialism. Intelligent Design partners with those approaches by attempting to show that nature itself could not work the way materialists suppose it does.
That’s not giving the game away. That’s not buying in to materialism, mechanism, scientism, or any other denial of theism. It’s not buying into anything. It’s considering a set of beliefs, premises, etc. in light of evidence and logic, and showing that these beliefs, etc. don’t hang together. This ought to be acceptable to any theist.
Is This Really What ID Is About?
I think this is at least some of what’s going on in Behe’s and Dembski’s arguments. Now it’s true that they go beyond that. They don’t just say that mechanical materialism fails to explain cellular chemistry, they say this is evidence in favor of an intelligent designer. Based on my very limited understanding of Thomism, I can see how Aquinas’s adherents might think that’s a false conflation of human and divine instances of “design.” Maybe so. If that’s an issue for some, then what I’m offering here won’t resolve that.
Still, if there are evidences in nature that pull the floor out from underneath mechanistic materialism, doesn’t that have at least some interesting implications with respect to the design of the world? I’ve suggested reasons to think that it should. If so, then even if looking at it as a reductio won’t settle the whole dispute, it ought to at least open up Thomists’ (and all theists’) eyes to something in ID that they can agree with
Not Proof, But a Taste of New Mystery
Again (and finally): suppose ID’s proponents have succeeded in showing that mechanistic materialism is inadequate to explain the natural world, on materialism’s own terms. What does that prove? Not God, certainly. (Few if any ID proponents would suggest that ID was ever intended to prove God.) Still it shows something; something suggestive, a taste of new mystery, perhaps; something that ought to cause materialists to doubt their materialism at least, something them to point them toward a new way of considering the world.
I think that’s a good outcome. It seems to me that any theist would agree.