I'm not sure precisely where that places me vis a vis the category of "theistic personalism," against which philosopher Edward Feser has written so much, but it is certainly a move in the "perfect being" direction and away from the idea that God must be fully comprehensible or that God's mode of existence is like that of a super-being or demigod.
If you also have read What's Wrong With the World for a few years, you know that Ed was my blog colleague there for a time and that he and I had many bouts there over the theory of intelligent design (here is just one) and whether it is contrary to right philosophy and theology and to be rejected out of hand, aside from a consideration of the empirical facts discussed by ID theorists. (Digression: Let it be said right here that I have great respect for Ed and for that reason even hesitated to write this post or to bring up the issue yet again myself. I've done so for three reasons. 1) My work on God and time over the last few months has made me appreciate more some of Ed's own concerns about theistic personalism. 2) I've noticed that Ed is making quite a few comments against ID recently. 3) I just now thought of the argument contained in this post.) As I understand Ed's position, he does reject intelligent design arguments in just exactly that way, because he holds that Thomism and classical theism are demonstrably true and are in irreconcilable conflict with the nature and premises of the arguments brought by intelligent design theorists.
Now, without rehashing all of that, I want to address here just one part of that controversy--namely, the concept of God. Ed has written:
[W]e are necessarily left with a designer conceived of in anthropomorphic terms – essentially a human being, or at least a Cartesian immaterial substance, with the limitations abstracted away. The result is the “theistic personalism” (as Brian Davies has labeled it) which has displaced classical theism in the thinking of many contemporary philosophers of religion. [Snip]
Suppose you are a Christian, and suppose I gave you a powerful argument for the existence of Zeus, or of Quetzalcoatl. Would you run out and wave it defiantly in the faces of your New Atheist friends? Presumably not; it would be less a vindication than an embarrassment. To be sure, such an argument wouldn’t necessarily be incompatible with Christianity. You could always interpret Zeus or Quetzalcoatl as merely an unusually impressive created being – a demon, say, or an extraterrestrial. Indeed, that’s how you should interpret them if they are real, because whatever Zeus or Quetzalcoatl would be if they existed, they would not be divine in the classical theistic sense of “divine.” On classical theism, there doesn’t simply happen to be one God, as if only one applicant bothered responding to the "Creator needed; long hours but good benefits" job ad; there couldn’t possibly be more than one God, given what God is. Anything less than Being Itself or Pure Act, anything less than That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived, anything less than that which is absolute divine simplicity, absolutely incomparable, would simply not be God. There is no such thing as “almost” being God; it’s all or nothing. But precisely for that reason, while to prove the existence of Zeus or Quetzalcoatl would not be to disprove God’s existence, neither would it advance you one inch to proving it. It would be completely irrelevant.
In some recent posts he again takes swipes at intelligent design on similar grounds. For example, here he facetiously envisages a semi-blasphemous movie about God that includes treating God as the designer:
Fade in: We meet God, a divine person who’s at the top of the game. Think Olivier in Clash of the Titans, but invisible and with something even cooler than the Kraken: we call it ‘maximal greatness.’ I think we can get Anthony Hopkins, though maybe he’ll worry about typecasting after the Thor movies. Anyway, God’s an Intelligent Designer too, like Downey, Jr. in Iron Man but with angels. We’ll show him making bacterial flagella and stuff -- CGI’s pretty good now, so it’ll look realistic.
I want to argue that an argument parallel in form to Ed's argument against ID from classical theism could be made against using several of the actions attributed to God in Scripture to conclude that in fact God was speaking and that the events did not arise from natural (secondary) causes. I consider this to be a real problem for the accusation that ID must be based on a faulty concept of God, since Christians are bound to accept that God did in fact engage in these revelatory actions in Scripture and that people were supposed to take those events for signs. Note that the value of these events as signs would have been completely lost if one concluded that they were like the weather and that God's only relationship to them was the same as God's relationship to everything in nature--e.g., that of First Cause and sustainer. The whole point was supposed to be that these events stood out from the background, that they were not like the weather, not like the existence of a rock, not like "nature in general."
Now, the interesting thing is that these events reveal the actions of God in ways that it is logically possible were the result of the action of some being who was not God and therefore, by definition, less than God. I want to stress that by "it is logically possible" I do not mean "would have been reasonable to conclude." It would have been unreasonable to conclude that these events were caused by a demigod or an angel or alien. The point merely is that that possibility is not excluded, by the nature of the event itself, as an absolute logical impossibility.
Moreover, part of the argument that these events were caused specially by God passes through premises such as that they were not the result of secondary causes, that they were done intentionally and for a purpose against the background of a regular order of nature, that they were the acts of an Intelligence. An intelligent agent. And it just is the case that at any point where we start referring to an "intelligent agent," a "mind," and the like, we will end up using terms like "a being" and "a person." It is nearly unavoidable. Now, these are exactly the terms and concepts that Ed Feser objects to in the ID arguments. He considers that they smack of, or even entail, the theistic personalism that he considers wrong-headed. If ID involves arguing that God is an "intelligent agent," a "designer" who makes things by deliberate acts that involve "tinkering" within nature, why then, according to Ed, ID entails a concept of God that is just wrong, wrong, wrong.
The problem is that we have several biblical examples that, if analyzed, would incline us to use very much the same types of "theistic personalist" terms Ed objects to. Note that by this I am not saying that theistic personalism is just plain right, that God really is a person just like ourselves with the exception of being bigger, better, and stronger. What I am pointing out, rather, is that if we are Christians and believe that God has revealed Himself in the ways recorded in Scripture, we have to be willing to accept this fact: God sometimes reveals Himself in ways such that, when the argument is spelled out, it is very difficult to eliminate inferring that the event was done by "a person," because it is by thinking of the act as being performed by a person, or at a minimum, by someone relevantly like the persons we are acquainted with, that we infer that it was not the result of natural causes but rather a deliberate act. It appears that God reveals Himself in these ways because we are persons, because God is personal, and because this is a way, perhaps the only way, in which our minds are able to understand that we are receiving a message, a revelation, a Word, a sign. For the Infinite to give us a sign, He must reveal Himself insofar as He is sufficiently like ourselves for us to hear Him. It is therefore not wrong to make arguments for special divine action that pass through premises about God's doing things such as using language, purposely making things happen that would not otherwise have happened by natural causes, deliberately arranging things in a pattern, acting like a person rather than only acting as the Sustainer of All Things, Being Itself, etc. And the ID arguments fit this description.
Let's look at some of the examples from Scripture. When Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest, each side has a sacrifice and prays for the sacrifice to be consumed by fire from heaven. Every Sunday School child knows what happened: The prophets of Baal ran around their altar for hours freaking out and slashing themselves with knives and other interesting behaviors while Elijah sat back and made fun of them and nothing happened. Then Elijah prayed, and God sent down fire from heaven that consumed Elijah's sacrifice and all the water that Elijah (just to make it more fun) had poured on and all around the altar. Then Elijah killed the prophets. There was also a major rainstorm, but that came a little later.
Think about this for a minute: Sending fire from heaven is the kind of thing that one can easily conceive it to be possible for a mere demigod to do. There is nothing per se about sending down fire from heaven that reveals that God is Being Itself or is "not a person" but rather "beyond personality," etc. In fact, the prophets of Baal had some reason to hope, since they believed that Baal was real, that Baal would send down fire and consume their sacrifice. It didn't happen because there is no real god Baal, not because sending fire out of the sky is the kind of thing that is logically impossible for a mere god (small g), a mere super-being, to do.
Could we not then say that the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal "portrays" God as a mere super-being? Should we get facetious and scoff at the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal by envisaging a movie portraying God as a Zeus-like being who hurls fire from heaven? Well, no. If we believe that in fact God is not a mere super-being, and if the story was in fact true and was a true revelation of God, then presumably it doesn't teach that God is a mere super-being. Nor are we to conclude from the story that an angel or other finite being, rather than the true God, sent the fire. Of course we are supposed to conclude that God Himself sent the fire! Presumably someone who holds to the kind of extremely transcendent concept of God that Ed Feser holds can readily reconcile this story with his theology by saying that here God was revealing merely part of the truth about Himself, revealing His power, revealing that He is the only true God, that Baal is not a true God, and so forth. All of which is completely correct. But the exact same thing could be said about ID: If we believe that God is indeed the designer, we are not therefore concluding that God is merely a being like ourselves, only stronger and greater. We are using an argument in which, we think, it looks like God did something that could in strict logical principle have been done by a lesser being or finite designer, just as fire from heaven could in strict logic possibility be sent down by some lesser being. But that doesn't make it reasonable to conclude that the one who sent down fire or made the intricate workings of the cell is a mere demigod. God sometimes reveals Himself by doing things that a lesser being could in strict logic do. He does them in such a way and in such an historical context that it would not be reasonable to conclude that they were in fact done by anyone other than God.
In the evidence pointed to by ID theorists, it seems that the One True God reveals characteristics such as His wisdom, His glory, and the awesomeness of His thoughts. At that point, if our philosophy or theology, or other parts of Scripture, tell us all these other transcendent things about the nature of the One True God, we will conclude that it was that transcendent God who designed the living organism.
O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom thou hast made them all. The earth is full of thy riches! (Psalm 104:24)
I will praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvellous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well. (Psalm 139:14)
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. (Psalm 19:1-2)
Another type of example, perhaps even better: In the New Testament, God the Father several times uses human language to speak from above, from the sky, to convey a message. God the Father does this to endorse Jesus Christ, the Son. At Jesus' baptism, the Father spoke and said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." At Jesus' Transfiguration, the Father said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him." Shortly before Jesus' death (John 12:28ff) Jesus said, "Father, glorify thy name." In response a voice came from above saying, "I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again." Jesus explicitly tells the people (vs. 30) that the voice came for their sake.
Let's be clear: It would be caviling (and false) to say that such events of God's speaking from the heavens provided evidence for God's existence and activity only in the same sense that and to the same extent that the existence of the wind, weather, and rocks provide evidence. Clearly, God intended to show that He was acting right there in a special way that goes beyond His activity in sustaining all of creation. God wanted to communicate a message, and to do that, God used human language in the form of an audible voice. Among other things, the people who heard the voice inferred, probably without thinking twice about it, that this was not a merely natural event and that an Intelligent Being was communicating meaningful content by arranging linguistic units (morphemes, words, etc.) deliberately according to patterns known to human beings. This provided a special type of evidence for a special type of activity by God--communicating to mankind.
But now see what language I ended up using, just there, or that we would normally use to discuss what people could know when they heard the voice from heaven: An intelligent being. A mind. Even a person, a personal being, an agent. The type of being who is capable of using language! What, then? Should we say that it is wrong or was wrong for those present to infer that God spoke from the heavens and endorsed Jesus as His beloved Son? (Note that if God spoke from the heavens, then God must exist. There is no hermetic seal that separates evidence for God's existence from evidence for God's actions. Evidence for God's actions is ipso facto evidence for God's existence.) Such an inference was precisely what God intended people to make! And God justified that inference by acting like a person, by acting in ways that only a personal being acts, and by doing things that nature does not do on its own. He did it, moreover, despite the "danger" (if we must call it that) that people would, in describing what they thought, say things like, "A person spoke from the sky." Oh, no! They might call God a person in thinking about what happened that day! They might think of Him as a person! But God is not (so we are told) a person. To think of Him as such is to succumb to theistic personalism, to have a wrong concept of God! Etc., etc. It seems undeniable that the argument to God's actions from a voice in the sky "encourages" such a picture of God. Hence, isn't there a problem? To argue from God's use of language to the existence of God could be thought, just as much as the ID argument, to be teaching us or encouraging or implying a wrong concept of God. If one took the Feser approach to this event, it seems that one ought to say that the argument from the voice would lead to the conclusion that some mere demigod or angel, someone other than the true God, spoke from heaven. Why? Because that argument must pass through a fairly strong analogy to the actions of a person, of a being in some fairly important ways like ourselves. But evidently God Himself didn't think that this was a problem. To put it bluntly, Christians are committed to believing that God really did speak aloud, just like A Person In the Sky, in order to reveal Himself and give man a specific message.
One can go farther: in the case in John some of the bystanders actually thought that an angel was talking with Jesus (vs. 29). Indeed, from Luke we know that on the night of Jesus' birth angels did speak from the sky. It is by no means logically impossible that a voice coming out of the sky giving audible words should come from a lesser being than God, from an angel or some other finite but super-powerful being. As a matter of fact, sometimes apparently angels do speak out of the sky! Hence, should we not be concerned that, by revealing Himself in this way, God was risking being thought of as a mere super-being? But that doesn't seem to have bothered God.
In these incidents, God revealed Himself as one who speaks from the heavens. In the intricate design of the cell (for example) or the DNA code (for example), or a million other incredible examples, God reveals Himself as a designer. It is true that He is more than one who speaks from the heavens and more than a designer, but just as God did not disdain to reveal Himself as one who speaks in language from the heavens, so we are not bound to think that it would be impossible for God to reveal Himself as a designer.
Let me emphasize that I do not consider these to be mere analogies. I would say that for us to find the kind of computer code and nano-technology that we do find in the cell and in organisms is as much a signature of the Divine Mind as it would be for us to find written language in the cell. Indeed, much that we do find in living organisms is far more astounding and epistemically powerful a revelation of the activity of a real Intelligence than a piece of natural language would be.
I therefore completely disagree with Ed Feser's claim that the design argument cannot get you one whit closer to the existence of the true God, that in the nature of the case it cannot be positively relevant, evidentially, to the existence of the true God. In the quotation above, he literally likens it to an argument for the existence of Zeus. This claim is apparently based on the premise that the design argument as made by ID must be arguing for someone who could not be the real God. But the above comparisons to God's speaking from the sky (or from a burning bush) or to God's sending fire from heaven show that this claim is incorrect. God can reveal Himself in actions that could be attributed to a "mere being," someone less than God, but it does not follow that arguments from those results must be arguments for a being who must be someone other than the real God. And this is true even though those arguments rely on a strong analogy between the one who carried out those actions and ourselves. This is true even though parts of those arguments, in the nature of the case, are most naturally going to be expressed by saying that the one who did the action is "a person." There is nothing about the ID argument that requires theistic personalism in any way that could not equally be said about the voice from heaven argument.
Consider how it would go if some foolish skeptic, hearing the voice from the sky, tried to claim in all seriousness that the event was merely the result of natural processes and did not convey any actual message, was not deliberate, was not a self-revelation of a personal being of any kind. It would be completely correct to point out that thunder doesn't sound like language, that natural explanations are woefully inadequate, and, furthermore, that the arrangement of sound waves in syllables, words, and sentences that sound exactly like meaningful portions of the Aramaic or Greek language (or whatever language the Voice used) is far better explained by the deliberate action of a personal being than by natural causes. Note, too (again), that this argument is different from saying that God sustains all things and underlies all causal processes, including the wind. That's all very well and good, but the point about the voice from the sky was that it was not the wind nor the thunder nor any other natural process, that the Speaker's relation to the sounds in the air was something more than or other than God's relation to everything else in the whole world, and that this special organization of (dare I say "tinkering with"?) the sound waves, going beyond the mere behavior of natural processes, was what made the sounds convey meaning.
This would be a good argument, a rational argument, and the only possible response to make to someone who was such a fool as to try to attribute the language from the sky to secondary causes. And it would not be an "argument for the existence of Zeus" merely because one did not take care at every moment and every point to say "personal being (who really is Being itself, so let's be super-duper careful here)" instead of "a person." Nor would it be tantamount to an argument for the existence of Zeus if one admitted that Zeus, if he existed, or an angel, or an alien, could in principle cause a voice from the sky. The nature of the argument itself requires one to make a strong analogy between the One who caused the voice and persons that we know around us and their arrangement of parts (in this case, the sounds and syllables) for certain ends (in this case, the conveyance of meaning). It would not follow that one was arguing for the existence of a being that could not be the true God, Being itself, etc. The fact of the matter is that God deliberately chose to reveal Himself in exactly that way--by using language, by going against what would otherwise have happened by natural law, and even by in some sense looking like a Big Man in the Sky speaking loudly so that people could hear His message! Christians have to deal with this fact, whether or not they are Thomists or classical theists. Apparently it is possible for an argument for a Person Who Talks From the Sky to be an argument for the action (and therefore ipso facto the existence) of the true God. And if the true God is indeed Being Itself and all those other things the Thomist says He is, then that's just the way it is--an argument for the can indeed be an argument for the other. Therefore, an argument for God's action that depends on a strong analogy with finite persons need not thereby be an argument that limits the One whose existence the argument supports to being a mere finite person.
If one is a Christian, one doesn't have the option of sticking to a God who doesn't do things like that, because the Christian God does do things like that.
I contend that any analysis of the evidential force of the evidence of divine self-revelation using natural language uttered by apparently supernatural means (e.g., a voice from the sky or from a burning bush) will in the nature of the case be similar to an analysis of the evidential force of the argument from design. Since the classical theist who is also a Christian must accept that God does reveal Himself in these ways that might seem crude, that can be said to make Him look like "a person," and that depend for their force upon a comparison between the actions of the Being involved and finite persons, the Christian classical theist should not claim that the argument from design supports the existence of a being who cannot be the true God.
I say all of this as someone at least somewhat sympathetic to aspects of classical theism. While doing research lately on God and time, I have frequently reflected that it is a mistake to insist that we must know what it is like to be God. Heck, many philosophers seriously doubt that we even know what it is like to be a bat, so why should we assume that we must know what it is like to be God! I think Christians should take seriously the Scriptural statement that God's ways are not our ways. I think that God's causality is not related to time in the same way that our causality is related to time. I think that God's mode of being is probably to a large extent not imaginable or visualizable by us. I think that a lot of harm has been done by a theological approach that insists that we must be able to tell the history of God, as it were, and get a clear and distinct idea of what that means at every step. It is no wonder that so many of that bent have ended up as open theists. (Though I give credit to William Lane Craig for not being an open theist.) We should be willing to admit that in many cases we are using analogical language when we compare God's consciousness, knowledge, love, will, planning, etc., to the parallel properties of finite creatures. I can't, for that matter, think of any reason to resist the proposition that we are using analogical language when we speak of God as being like ourselves.
All of this doesn't necessarily make me a card-carrying classical theist, but it does clear me of any suspicion of being a card-carrying theistic personalist. But classical theism should not become a straitjacket that blocks us from admitting the force of evidence. Evidence is evidence. If I can put it this way, evidence doesn't care about labels. And the evidence from design, particularly in biology, is what it is, just as the evidence of the voices and fire from heaven were what they were. If our theory keeps us from looking through the telescope, our theory is too rigid and is at fault. Our concept of God must be able to handle God's own choices as to how to reveal Himself. If those appear crude or likely to lead to faulty concepts of God according to your theory, take it up with God. Meanwhile, I say: Take or leave the personal self-revelations of God, but you can't pick and choose. God has revealed Himself personally, by audible language, in incidents in Scripture. We know that. There is therefore no reason in principle why God could not reveal Himself personally, by the language of programmed code and intricate nanotechnology, in biology.
Theory must accommodate fact, or it is bad theory. It is my hope that classical theism can rise to the occasion.