Saturday, May 03, 2014

Things God can do to reveal Himself

As my vast readership already knows, I've been researching the issue of God and time lately, coming down squarely on the Boethian side according to which God is strictly timeless.

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.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Thanks, Lydia!

Gina M. Danaher said...

I absolutely agree with you. Especially here -
"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"

God's ways are not our ways and sometimes the wisdom of the wise can cause one to stumble over God's ways.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't dare intervene in this debate between two great defenders of the Christian Faith. I have the highest respect for both of you and appreciate that it is in such debate that one advances a little closer to the Truth.

My own way of looking at things is that, with one exception, God has no necessity to intervene in His Creation since the first moment of it, as His Omniscience ensures that it will all play out perfectly just as intended. To use computer parlance, He does not have to intervene in His betaUniverse in order to correct errors, or improve on some of the programme or install omitted parts.

The exception I refer to relates to Man and his free will. God has had to intervene since Man entered the scene because He couldn't simply create the order He wished because He chose to allow Man choose the order of things.

Lydia McGrew said...

I think that the idea that God's intervention indicates some sort of limitation in God is an error. In fact (and I don't mean to be at all harsh here) that is exactly the argument brought by the deists such as Spinoza and used by them to attack all miracles--that divine intervention would indicate that God "needed" to "tinker" to "correct mistakes."

Now, Scripture makes it clear that this argument _must_ be wrong in general. Scripture records divine interventions repeatedly, including in the examples I give in the main post. I could of course give many more. One very striking instance of God's "acting like a person" occurs in the story of Gideon. Gideon _negotiates_ with God, and God repeatedly alters the events that would otherwise have taken place in the natural world in order to give Gideon a sign.

But there are many, many more examples, including miracles of healing and all of Jesus' miracles on earth.

Now, I'm not quite sure what you mean by man's free will being an exception. Perhaps you mean that God engages in miracles after the existence of mankind but that God "wouldn't" engage in miracles prior to the existence of mankind?

If that is a correct understanding of what you are saying, I think that this is far too a priori an approach to the entire issue. There is no good argument that, if mankind weren't around, God would never do miracles. To say that, if God did miracles prior to the existence of mankind, this would indicate some imperfection in God's creation seems to me to argue from a presumed knowledge of God's reasons that, in fact, we don't possess. For one thing, it is entirely possible that God would engage in miraculous creation before man came on the scene with the intention that his "signature in the cell" would provide a sign to man after man came on the scene! God is a master of such a "big view." And the Bible does tell us that the created order declares God's handiwork, so such an idea seems Biblical. But that is just one glimpse of an explanation. We don't have to know all of God's reasons for what he does in order to have evidence _that_ God has acted.

As far as I know, while many people _do_ use such a "God would have to be correcting errors" argument against intelligent design theory, an argument I consider tacitly deistic, Ed does not make that particular argument. Ed does refer to "tinkering" in negative terms. There, too, I think he is mistaken, for we see repeated instances in Scripture of God's using pre-existing materials, including the instance of Gideon and the fleece and several others. So not every miracle is such that it _must_ not involve "tinkering" with pre-existing matter. But in general I have not seen Ed make the argument that "ID must be wrong because that would mean that God must not have created things right to begin with." If I'm remembering correctly, it is to his credit that he has not made that argument.

Lydia McGrew said...

To clarify my last comment: I didn't mean to imply that any ID arguments depend crucially on God's working with pre-existing materials. (That I know of.) Presumably a creature with, say, a blood-clotting cascade that was created ex nihilo would, as far as its own internal structure, present the same appearance of and evidence for design as a creature with a blood-clotting cascade who was created by using pre-existing matter.

Fake Herozg said...


What a timely and intellectually stimulating post. Timely because I think Ed needs to write about this subject in more depth (although it is presumptuous of me to tell Ed what he needs to write about I can't resist -- I just love Ed's writing and I love reading your thoughts about Ed's writing, so all of this is me responding in a intellectually selfish manner!)

Recently, I know you saw the speech he gave to Thomas Aquinas College about "What We Owe The New Atheists". In the comments to the post he put up about that speech on his blog, there was a very, very long debate about the evidence for the death and resurrection of Christ. Part of the reason that debate started was because one atheist in particular made this challenge to Ed:

While the New Atheists may sometimes address the God of pure metaphysics, even IF one grants they show weakness at that level, that is clearly NOT the main focus of their critique!
Their critique has continually been the elephant in the room - religion, the dogmas and specific beliefs people derive from revelation, their holy scriptures and the types of subjective experience purported to ratify such beliefs. They DO NOT focus on God-of-the-philosophers, or "ground of being" arguments because those are not the motivating elements of most religious people. It's clearly Revelation itself (and the evidence from "religious experience" which the religious think ratifies claims of their holy text) that plays the central organizing and motivating role in religions like Christianity or Islam.

So, let's assume for a moment that one has accepted the classical philosophical conception of God -- we are then still left with the question of what did God reveal about himself (if anything) here on Earth to man? And suddenly, your concerns about evidence and what the Bible and what nature (via the cell or DNA or even the fossil record) says about God is very relevant to the debate. In other words, for classical theism to work it almost has to work (it seems to me) in conjunction with some sort of strong epistemology related to how we evaluate things like miracle claims, the natural world, etc.


Fake Herozg said...

[cont. from previous]

As you say concerning God's voice:

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...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.

So I do think one needs a good evidential heuristic to figure out when that voice from the sky is indeed God issuing a command or (as the skeptic might say) someone just hearing voices inside his head, or some sort of trick, etc. In other words, we have to evaluate the evidence, whatever that evidence might be!

Which brings us back to classical theism -- does classical theism have anything important or interesting to tell us about this evidence, other than providing a stable philosophy for why we should believe in anything our senses tell us in the first place?

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, evaluating the origin of the voice from the sky is going to get much more nitty-gritty and empirical. I have often said that in our own time, with improvements in technology, and with freedom that means that no one suffers death for whacky religious claims, it would be much more difficult to confirm many miracles than in biblical times. At the most basic level, we have plenty of technology that could make a voice sound like it was coming out of the sky by a trick. Historian Paul Maier has (spoiler alert) a novel in which a fake Messiah uses various technologies to make people think he's working miracles. These include among others using a powerful magnet to cause a pen to seem to fly across the room.

So inevitably the evaluation of miracle claims is going to get very, very empirical and is going to depend hugely on context. If nothing else, context is necessary to evaluate the probability that the event occurred by some sort of human means.

I'm afraid that the more philosophically inclined are extremely uncomfortable with this. I don't want to put words into anyone's mouth, but one sometimes almost gets the impression that they want us already to know that a miracle is going to take place so that we don't have to evaluate the evidence after the fact! I realize that is a slight exaggeration, but for some theorists, not by much. In Tim's and my Blackwell article we talk about some theorists who believe that one *must* already know that God exists before one can *ever* be justified in believing that God has performed a miracle. One problem with this is that it's simply false, in terms of probability theory. If a miracle can probabilify the claim that the _specific_ Deity of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has done some act, then ipso facto that miracle probabilifies the claim that God as more minimally described (e.g., as the First Cause) exists, since the one claim entails the other. That is, if the God of Abraham exists, the First Cause exists.

That was the point of my parenthetical comment in the post about no hermetic seal between evidence for the existence of God and evidence for God's actions.

As far as what classical theism can tell us about miracles, I suppose it can tell us that they are not impossible, unless one's idea of "classical theism" excludes them! (It had better not.) A justification of classical theism is also supposed to tell us that God is good, which would put some parameters around the kinds of miracles God would be expected to do.

But the empirical side will be inevitable, I'm afraid. It's therefore _so_ important that classical theists not make dogmatic pronouncements that would block those empirical arguments.

Tony said...

My indistinct sense is that while it is not necessary to a theory of intelligent design that it be attached to theistic personalism, it just so happens that the leading presenters of the modern ID theory have been presenting it as attached to theistic personalism. As a result, they may have been molding the ID arguments in a particular way that you wouldn't otherwise mold them, which could affect the soundness of their particular design arguments.

But it should be clear to Feser, if he stops to unhinge the historically developed ID theory from the generic idea of design effects showing their intelligent source, that the latter can be (must be) compatible with classical theism as well. I am not quite sure why Ed Feser thinks it so overwhelmingly important to cut the legs off of the "nature as complex machine" picture with the more sophisticated "nature has built in teleology" picture of A-T, (other than the latter being a truer picture, of course), within the context of arguing about nature proving there is a God. There is nothing offensive to classical theism nor inherent teleology that precludes irreducible complexity being a sign of the creative source of plants and animals. Inherent teleology can get along with irreducible complexity just fine.

My sense of the testimony of miracles being a sign not merely of "a somebody powerful" like a Zeus, but of the one God of all, requires more to the miracle than an externally amazing event. In particular, a miracle that is in response to a person's prayer shows that the power that produces the miracle is (a) intelligent, and (b) interested in our events. More, the restriction of miracles somewhat to those who have exhibited holy lives indicates (c) that this great power is "moved by" purity of motive and intention. And with some miracles (not all, by any means) the source is (d) capable of unraveling the limits of nature herself. It is one thing for a Zeus to throw a lightening bolt just where you want it, just when you ask for it: lightening bolts are natural, and the miracle presented in the timing and satisfaction of your request are all indicators of a power above ours. But when you turn water into wine, or feed 5000 men, plus women and children, on a few loaves and fish, you are doing something to nature herself. So the power that does it must be a power over nature herself. Which implies something more than a Zeus, who is not presumed to have created nature as such.

Tony said...

All of which gets me to a more general point: one single miracle is not (usually) the basis for switching from a belief "there is no God" to suddenly believing "wow, there is the Christian God after all". Especially when the miracle is of the "nature doesn't accommodate herself to my stated preferences" variety and not of the "this turns nature inside out" type. It is the latter feature, more than any other one thing, that convinces us to take seriously the possibility that the God presented as personal in Scripture is ALSO the God of the philosophers. (Aside from the explicit parts of the Scriptures that point in that direction as well, of course.) It is a God that can create ex nihilo a whole orderly universe and the tie-in with a God who does miracles upon request that overcome nature herself, that leads us to connect up the two notions in one affirmative identification.

But acceptance of any miracle as being significant requires at the least an openness to the possibility that "what I am seeing (or hearing) is not caused wholly by natural causes." Those naturalists who have convinced themselves that the universe is of such a nature that it is impossible for any event to happen accept by natural causes are unmoved by accounts of miracles, because their pre-conceived prejudice requires them to receive the account as being either a mistaken account or just an account of something of which the natural causes are unknown but adequate explanation. In such a biased view, it matters little that their adherence to the "natural causes yet unknown" is less rational than "non-natural causes that are known indirectly" - that's what an unreasonable bias does. So, to that extent, belief that a miracle HAS happened here and now in the concrete requires at least a lack of that bias, even if nothing more.

Lydia McGrew said...

You raise a lot of interesting issues, Tony. The first is what it means for an argument to be attached to theistic personalism. For example, suppose that one makes an argument by saying, "It looks like a person has done this. The actions of an intelligent being are the best explanation of this phenomenon." Is that argument as presented attached to theistic personalism in any invidious way simply because terms like "a person" or "a being" have been used?

I don't think so. In fact, I'm inclined to say that any rigorous attempt to avoid calling God "a person" or "a being" are going to start looking a bit like feminism. What I mean by that is this: Feminists don't want us to call God "he." Sometimes they will use arguments that sound exactly like classical theism--God is beyond personality, God is beyond male and female, it is misleading to call God "he" because it's anthropomorphic. This leads to absurdities like the invention of the reflexive pronoun "Godself" so as to avoid saying "himself." (I swear I'm not making that up.) Repeating "God" over and over again in prose so as to avoid using a personal pronoun. I've even seen one philosopher call God "it," allegedly to avoid the "misleading" reference to God as masculine.

I'm strongly inclined to think that it would require similarly depersonalizing, round-the-barn, and unnatural locutions to avoid sometimes and for some purposes calling God "a person" or "a being."

Now, I think that ID arguments even as generally made can be seen to be no more attached to theistic personalism than that sort of language, which would cause more problems to eliminate than to use. There are certainly many claims that these things appear to have been designed by a person who _needn't_ in strictest principle be God, but frankly, that just appears to be true. Just as the voice from heaven appeared to be the voice of a person who didn't have to be, in strict principle, God. The alternative would be something like, "Such-and-such appears to have been made by someone (we can't say "a being," even) who is at least *a lot like* a person, and who might be a person, or who might also, if God, be Someone who is Being Itself." And then even so I suppose one could quibble about the use of "someone."

So I think that, once one recognizes the inevitability of _some_ "theistic personalist" language in talking about God and, really, the harmfulness of trying to eliminate it all in some purist fashion, one ought to feel quite comfortable with that sort of language in reference to the designer.

Lydia McGrew said...

Interesting question as to whether there is a difference of kind among miracles as between those that "turn nature inside out" and those that merely alter the course of nature in some other way. The bottom line is that I don't know. If one had full information about where the lightning was going to strike otherwise (or whether it was going to strike otherwise), I think one would be able to see that to cause it to strike where it otherwise would not was *in one sense* just as much an alteration of the order of nature as multiplying bread and fish.

Nonetheless, I'm open to the distinction between alteration of nature that finite super-beings could do and alterations that they can't do. For example, as you say, creation ex nihilo seems one of the latter. Raising a man from the dead, I'm inclined to say, also. When I'm discussing the absurd question, "Could aliens have raised Jesus from the dead?" (yes, atheists do bring this question up sometimes, and sometimes so do inquiring Christians), I always raise that question: Is it even the kind of thing that anyone but God could do?

Epistemologically, even if we don't make such an absolute distinction, I think we can definitely say that lightning usually "looks less" like a miracle than other events we can imagine (such as the multiplying of bread and fish). This is especially true if the lightning comes during a storm! On the other hand, if the lightning comes down into an indoor venue out of a blue sky and strikes the atheist just as he is blaspheming, I'd say that's about as good as it gets. :-)

Lydia McGrew said...

I certainly agree with you that a preconceived naturalistic prejudice can cause one to dismiss evidence for a miracle. I would, however, say that *if the evidence is objectively strong enough*, then one is being irrational in so doing. It's important not to mix sociology and epistemology. Sociologically and rhetorically, it may well be useful to convince someone first that God (in some definition of "God" that at least _could be_ the God of Scripture) exists and then to present him with evidence for miracles. Epistemologically, evidence is all of a piece. This was why in our Blackwell article we estimated _how low_ a prior probability for the resurrection we think could be overcome by the evidence for it. Our idea was that this prior was so incredibly low that it presented a significant burden of proof to the non-Christian to say why the prior should be lower than that.

I suppose that, feeling a bit frustrated at the moment with rigid classical theists, I would also add that there is a significant danger, for a certain type of philosophical cast of mind, that a man will be convinced not to be an atheist anymore but to "convert" to the existence of the God of the philosophers who, he thinks, _would not_ do the things attributed to God in Scripture. I can well imagine someone who might feel comfortable with that. I know of one atheist who has _explicitly_ said that he would consider "the God Ed Feser describes" or words to that effect, and this particular person obviously means to _contrast_ that with the God of Christianity. Now, I know that that is not at all Ed's intention, but what he has said against ID and against theistic personalism is sufficiently strongly worded that I worry that he has left a certain amount of room for someone to take it in that direction. This, again, is because, if God is going to reveal Himself to us at all in special revelation, He is going to _have_ to do it insofar as He is sufficiently like ourselves to be comprehended and known.

Lydia McGrew said...

As to whether a Thomistic view is or is not compatible with an argument to design from irreducible complexity, that gets into the whole "nature of nature" issue on which Ed and I have exchanged so many pixels already. I thought it would make a nice change to discuss his _other_ objection to ID for a while--namely, its allegedly intrinsically wrong concept of God.

I would certainly like to think that Thomism is compatible with the ID argument from complexity, and I know that Jay Richards, Logan Gage, and several others have put a lot of work into arguing for that compatibility. During my and Ed's discussion, he was insistent that the two are incompatible.

I'm inclined to think that the question of compatibility will be decided by some questions like "What, precisely, is meant by immanent teleology?" "What level of physical stuff does immanent teleology apply to?" and "What, if anything, does immanent teleology by itself tell us about the origins of living things?" One can of course define such concepts as "immanent teleology" and "natural object" in such a way that one's version of Thomism is incompatible with any argument to design from irreducible complexity. Since I think that, as a matter of sheer evidential and epistemology _fact_, the argument from irreducible complexity _does have special force_, I think that adopting such a position must be a mistake, no matter who holds or held the position and no matter what the name of the position is. But to get someone to see that, it would be necessary for the person to be willing to examine in as candid and unbiased a fashion as possible the empirical details of the ID case.

Again, having already spent a great deal of time with Ed wrestling over this concept of nature issue, I was hoping if possible to disentangle it from the concept of God issue and tackle the latter.

Tony said...

Lydia, I think you are spot-on right to protest strongly against "de-personalizing" God, whether as the Buddhists and some New-Agers do, or as some version of the "God of the philosophers.' No matter how true it is that there is a God that is shown to be from the five proofs for the existence of God in Aquinas, those arguments are not intended (and do not show) any reason to step away from the picture of God in the Bible. And the picture of God in the Bible is personal, acting, interested, loving, angry, etc. It is fine to argue, from God as being itself to the view that the terms "angry", "sorry" etc apply to God by metaphor, and the terms "being", and "intelligent" apply by way of analogy, those are distinctions about the personal, interested, loving God of the Bible, as we know him. It's been a while since I read Behe's book, or an article of an ID'er, so I don't remember the details on how their arguments constrain what kind of God they are talking about.

I suspect that until Behe and crowd come up with a demonstrative (in the classical sense) prescription that determines the framework of complexity into the categories "could be produced by nature without help" and "could not be produced by nature without help", Feser will continue to reject the ID argument as a "proof for the existence of God" because until then it is a probable argument not a rigorous proof. Whereas, the 5 proofs in Aquinas are not probable arguments, they are right or wrong in their entirety, and more data won't make the more probable or more certain.

But for the life of me I cannot see why probable arguments for the existence of God should be dismissed out of hand as being useless, or as undermining the right understanding of God. I say the more the merrier: if you cannot do the (very hard) work of understanding the metaphysics behind the 2nd way in Aquinas, but you can grasp the probable argument, and that's why you become open to the gift of faith, that's fine. God also uses miracles, interior movements, and the love between Christians too, as evidence of His existence, and those are not scientific demonstrations either.

Lydia McGrew said...

Here's a question to be pondered: When it comes to truths of special revelation, such as that God is Trinity, that the Son will come to judge both the quick and the dead, that Jesus is God, etc., etc., does it not seem that there *cannot* be any absolute demonstrative proof? For what we need is an argument that a particular person, group, or Church is a _messenger_ from God, and then accept the message from that source. Now, it seems that an argument that such-and-such or so-and-so is God's messenger and brings God's special revelation can never be shown by absolute demonstration. God seems often in Scripture to have used miracles for that very purpose: Moses (God gives Moses certain miraculous signs to convince the people), the prophets, and Our Lord Himself.

So it seems that insofar as we are seeking to evaluate a revealed religion, we will have to "descend," if that is the proper word, to probabilities. I myself really _like_ probabilities, especially the super-high ones. For that matter, I think it is "merely" probable, in the sense of .9999999999 or thereabouts, that the external world exists! (Hence that my husband and all the people I most love on this green earth, and the green earth itself, exist.) So I'm not going to be too bothered by "mere" probabilities when it comes to the truths of special revelation, because I don't think the probabilities are all that "mere."

But in any event, I think probabilities are unavoidable.

Fake Herzog said...


I like this but I wonder if philosophy and classical theism in particular does have something to say about this evidence:

"So it seems that insofar as we are seeking to evaluate a revealed religion, we will have to "descend," if that is the proper word, to probabilities. I myself really _like_ probabilities, especially the super-high ones. For that matter, I think it is "merely" probable, in the sense of .9999999999 or thereabouts, that the external world exists! (Hence that my husband and all the people I most love on this green earth, and the green earth itself, exist.) So I'm not going to be too bothered by "mere" probabilities when it comes to the truths of special revelation, because I don't think the probabilities are all that "mere."

But in any event, I think probabilities are unavoidable."

As Ed never tires of explaining to the atheists and materialists who show up at his blog, for a scientist to begin to do his work in the first place there must be a metaphysics in place such that the natural order makes sense. The scientist has to be able to trust his senses, believe the world is real, etc. I think Ed would push back against you that his arguments for this metaphysics is NOT a matter of probabilities but a matter of argument -- he can demonstrate, working from first principles (like the principle of non-contradiction), that your husband is real:

Lydia McGrew said...

This gets us into some fairly heavy epistemological territory. My recollection (but I haven't verified this recently) is that Thomists are direct realists. That is, I believe their theory is that we are in some sense directly in contact with the external world. There are many direct realists who aren't Thomists, of course, as well.

I hold rather the indirect realist position. That is, I believe that the real world exists, that we can trust our senses, etc., but I hold these to be enormously well-justified but tacitly inferred conclusions--hence, known with very high probability but not with certainty. I do not take them to be, per se, conclusions of a priori metaphysics.

I would love to be able to prove the existence of the external world from the law of non-contradiction and other simple logical truths, but as far as I know, it can't be done.

This doesn't bother me, however, because I do think the external-world skeptic can be well-answered in terms of simplicity considerations. In brief, hypotheses such as that we are the victims of a deceiver who makes it look "just like" there is an independent external world suffer from massive problems of ad hocness.

Those are some of the most fascinating issues in all of phllosophy, of course.

However, I think it is possible to move on from those issues when we talk about revealed religion. *Even if* external world realism were correct, it hardly follows that we can know that *revealed Christianity* is true with certainty rather than high probability. I brought up the issue of the external world more or less as an illustration of how far I would go with probabilities. It is not a necessary premise of the argument I was making regarding the specifics of Christianity. I doubt that even such an a priorist as Ed thinks that we can know with metaphysical certainty that Jesus of Nazareth is God and rose from the dead, as opposed to by a probabilistic argument.

Lydia McGrew said...

Wording correction: The last paragraph should have said

*Even if* direct realism were correct...

Anonymous said...

Are there any recent, verified examples of miracles, or a published account of a reliable witness who had heard the direct voice of God - "from the sky" as it were? It would be be very helpful if you could post some links, Lydia.

On of the frustrations of being an evangelist is the "it all happened a long time ago when people were superstitious" attitude of disbelievers (as though people aren't superstitious now).

Dan Zachariah

Lydia McGrew said...

Dan, that's a tough question for which you will get widely different answers from different people. The continuationists will answer with a resounding "yes,"and I believe that Craig Keener has a book coming out or already out that has some rather striking instances. However, I'm afraid the continuationists (such as J.P. Moreland and perhaps Keener in some cases as well) do sometimes give the appearance of being too quick to believe and not having high enough standards of evidence.

The Catholics have their own set of alleged recent miracles, usually healing miracles, for the causes of saints. To their credit, the Catholics do have a system with a "devil's advocate" and so forth which is meant to do a certain amount of epistemic filtering.

Speaking for myself, I don't claim to have researched any of these enough to have a _strong_ opinion in favor of any of them. I've heard some of Keener's stories second-hand and regard some of them as eyebrow-raising coincidences, at least, but I'm not going to go out on a limb and endorse them without more work.

Regarding the voice from the sky, let me also say that I'm not so much asking people now to place their faith in Christ (for example) on the grounds that the gospels record a voice from the sky. That's the type of thing that, to get a really high Bayes factor (evidential punch) for, it's best to have been there in person.

However, I don't think that we should allow ourselves to be intimidated by the complaint that something happened long ago, especially when it comes to a miracle like the resurrection for which the witnesses were willing to die. The Bayes factor for testimony is going to depend on a host of surrounding circumstances, and the great thing about the resurrection is the sheer quantity of high-quality evidence we have for it, as well as the overwhelming improbability of its happening by natural means (to put it mildly). In this latter point it differs from alleged healing miracles, where a "god of the gaps" accusation sometimes makes a bit more sense.

The idea that people "were more superstitious back then" is, as you say, not actually true. People are plenty superstitious now. Just look at the tabloids in the supermarket. But also in general, the accusation that some alleged miracle was only a case of natural causes cum superstition just works so much better for some situations than for others. Take, for example, the case in the Book of Acts where Paul is bitten by a snake and doesn't get sick and die. Luke calls it a "viper," probably because that's what the inhabitants of Malta called it, and he scrupulously says that *they* concluded that this was a miracle. There is some evidence (not conclusive) that there may have been no poisonous snakes in Malta at that time. Hence this may not have been a miracle at all. The inhabitants may have been mistaken about the snake's being poisonous and may have been too superstitiously ready to attribute Paul's immunity to supernatural causes. But the very fact that we can recognize that possibility and that our faith should remain unshaken thereby shows that these things come in degrees. The resurrection is not such an event. For that matter, Paul's conversion itself is better evidence of the truth of Christianity.

So I think we should just hold onto our hats and not be too worried by the "long ago" issue. Also, we really need to spread the word about the nature and power of historical investigation, not let a kind of vague historical skepticism take over.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Lydia,

I'm afraid you've badly misunderstood my position. I have never denied that God is personal, and I do not object to ID merely because it offers reasons that are less than conclusive. So the premise of what you say here is just wrong. I say more in a response at my own blog:

BenYachov said...

Feser has now answered the noble Mrs. McGrew.

All hail Philosophy!!!!!!

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, I have asked Ed whether he would rather I reply here or there.

Lydia McGrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lydia McGrew said...

Ah, heck, I have a minute, so I'll reply here:

First, I intend quite deliberately and openly to steer clear of everything in Ed's post related to concepts of nature and mechanism. This is in no small part because Ed and I have gone at it hammer and tongs on those issues in the past, and I'd prefer not to do so again at this time.

Second, I am making a rather stronger claim in my main post than I think Ed is addressing. It's true that I moved rather fast from the weaker claim (that the voice and fire from the sky could have been done by a lesser being) to the stronger claim, so let me spell out the stronger claim here a little more: It is my contention that it would not be possible, without sounding like some kind of extremely annoying advocate of theologically correct language policing, even to _discuss_ one's reasons for not thinking a voice from the sky (or from a burning bush) were the result of natural causes without using phrases such as "a person" and "a being." These are _precisely_ the phrases Ed objects to in ID. Note that I did not say it would not be possible without using the adjective "personal." One needs a _noun_ to fill in the blank when one says, "Nonsense, that wasn't just thunder. That was put together very deliberately and according to a pattern. That sounded like language. That was the doing of ___________."

And that noun needs to be something general enough to fit in the blank in the context--hence, to be applicable both to finite persons and to God. Really, nothing but "a person" or "a personal being" or "an intelligent being" or something of that kind will do. You can't do without the "a" and you can't do without the word "being." To try to avoid this is to sound plain silly, as I discussed in my comment above (5/6/14, 9:15 a.m.) to Tony about feminism.

Now, like it or not, that's how it would go down if someone were stupid enough to try to argue that the voice from the sky was the result of natural processes, just as Darwinists are dense enough to try to argue that the DNA code and a zillion other things are the result entirely of what theologians call "secondary causes." And if one is insistent that such language is *always inappropriate* when talking about something that was the result of Divine action, then one ought to have a problem with the argument from the voice in the sky.

My point here is that, when God talks from the sky, God doesn't look like Being Itself. God looks, and sounds, like a person. And it's appropriate to speak of Him as such in the context. Not merely using the adjectival form "personal."

But if we are not such purists in our use of "a person" or "a being" hen talking about the voice from the sky (as we shouldn't be, for good and sound epistemic reasons), then we also shouldn't be when talking about the design of the cell or of the blood-clotting cascade.

Lydia McGrew said...

On the issue of the univocal vs. analogical use of language, I will just continue to press the tacit dilemma: Continue to imagine a debate between someone trying to say that the voice from the sky is the result of natural causes and someone more sane and sensible. Presumably the latter would say that the person (I've already talked about the phrase "a person" in the previous comment) behind the voice has intelligence and is showing that intelligence and will in uttering the voice. Ed has insisted that God does have intelligence and will. Yet he also admits that the person behind the voice could in strict logic be a being less than God. So when our sane and sensible person in this debate says "the person behind the voice has intelligence," he must be using the word "intelligence" in some in-between sense that could, in principle, be predicated either of God or of a lesser being.

For the life of me, I can't say what turns on whether this would be a "univocal" or an "analogical" use of language for God and for intelligent finite beings! But it's obviously the only _reasonable_ thing to say in the evidential context.

So, let's say that someone of Ed's persuasion holds that it would be possible to have this argument without committing the theological sin of using terms univocally for God and for lesser beings. Great. That's wonderful. Then just translate all the ID arguments that way when you hear them. It shouldn't be too hard, because this imaginary argument with the "voice in the sky naturalist" sure sounds an awful lot like an ID argument!

If, on the other hand, one says that such a person would have to be using terms like "intelligent" univocally, then that is the other horn of the dilemma: It rejects the epistemically reasonable way to argue from the voice in the sky against the person attributing it to natural causes.

And the farmer and the cowman (ID-er and Thomist) should be friends.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Lydia,

If all you're saying is that a sentence like "That was the doing of a person" is a more natural and ordinary way to talk when describing the burning bush than "That was the doing of something possessing attributes analogous to what we call intellect and will in us," well, fine. So what? It's also a more natural way to talk than "That was the doing of something which is three Persons in one substance." Does that mean that the Trinitarian language is less accurate than the reference to "a person"? Of course not. It is more accurate. The classical theist language is also more accurate. Precise technical language is like that -- less natural-sounding but more accurate.

The stuff about "theologically correct language policing" is a red herring. If we were talking about what the simple believer does in his private prayer and worship, and I were following such people around saying "Hey, don't use sentences like 'God is a person'!" then the "language policing" charge would be called for. If I were saying that the Holy Spirit should have used precise philosophical and theological language rather than more ordinary language when He inspired documents to be read by ancient Israelites, then too the "language police" charge would be called for.

But that is not what is at issue here. What is at issue is how to interpret theological language when doing philosophy and theology (and science, if that is what ID is). And in those contexts we must use language precisely.

Compare: If you read in Genesis of God walking in the garden of Eden in the cool of the day, it is obviously a very natural reading to take it as implying that God has legs and likes to cool off. Such a reading is also completely ridiculous, and it would be no less ridiculous to accuse someone of "theologically correct language policing" if he pointed out that when doing theology we cannot take such language at face value.

Lydia McGrew said...

Ed, two points: First, notice what I said in the follow-up comment about using a term like "intelligence" in an "in-between" sense. Suppose that one is merely arguing, for the moment, with the person who says that the voice from the sky was _not_ the result of Someone personal at all but was merely the result of natural causes. I assert that even the astute philosopher *at that stage of the argument* is going to find it _extremely difficult_ to avoid saying, "That was done by a person." The astute philosopher, remember, is at this stage of the game answering the claim that it was the result of natural causes. He also plans to argue that it was God, but he wants to make a different point right here and now. So he needs to be able to use terminology that can be applied both to God and to other personal agents. Saying "That was the doing of something possessing attributes analogous to what we call intellect and will in us" is already stating that it was definitely the doing of God. How, then, without promoting a wrong picture of God (on the classical theist view) can one make that preliminary point? Normally, one would say, "That wasn't thunder. That was a person using language!" It's difficult to see what else one could say at this intermediate stage of the argument. The only thing I can think of is something like, "That wasn't thunder. That was either a person or else something possessing attributes analogous to what we call intellect and will in us."

Then again, I would be inclined to say that the use of "something" there (and I got it from you, that isn't my representation) is not _more_ precise but rather _less_ precise, because it is depersonalizing! But I suppose you would not want to use "someone" rather than "something" because that might sound too "theistic personalist."

You see the difficulties we get into here. And I would say that those difficulties are endemic to any such endeavour precisely _because_ God is beyond our understanding but must reveal Himself insofar as He _is_ like ourselves.

It therefore behooves us not to be overly dogmatic in ruling that this or that argument must be wrong and must convey a wrong view of God.

For example, suppose that one imagines, again, our sane and sensible interlocutor with the naturalist about the voice in the sky. And suppose he says, "That was not thunder. That was a person!" And suppose that the classical theist, in his own mind, restates that as, "That wasn't thunder. That was either a person or else Someone possessing attributes analogous to what we call intellect and will in us." (I have replaced "something" with what I consider to be the more accurate "Someone.")

Fine. Well and good. We then have a classical theist version of the statement. I contend that it would be possible to take the ID arguments and to do the same with them, and that the classical theist should be willing and ready to do so. Because, I contend, the argument forms are _very_ similar between ID and my hypothetical argument with the "voice in the sky naturalist." In fact, I would go so far as to say that one would be engaging, and would have to engage, in an ID argument with such a person.

Edward Feser said...

Hello again Lydia,

You say:

Then just translate all the ID arguments that way when you hear them. It shouldn't be too hard


We then have a classical theist version of the statement. I contend that it would be possible to take the ID arguments and to do the same with them, and that the classical theist should be willing and ready to do so

With all due respect, what you're saying here makes no sense. Consider Dembski's version of ID. He says that ID assumes a "mechanistic" conception of nature for the sake of argument. Or consider Torley's version of ID. He says that ID is committed to a univocal use of theological terms. Or consider Richards' version, which eschews an Aristotelian view of nature. (Go back and read the posts I wrote in response to these guys, where you'll find the relevant quotes.) Now I have explained at length why a Thomist rejects the mechanistic approach even in a "for the sake of argument" way, and of course the doctrine of analogy and the Aristotelian conception of nature are absolutely central to the fabric of Thomism.

Hence the methods and arguments of Dembski, Torley, and Richards are just fundamentally at odds with those of A-T. It simply makes no sense whatsoever to say "Just translate their arguments into the language you prefer!" That's like saying "Broncos and Seahawks fans needn't disagree! Bronco fans should just translate 'Seahawks' to mean 'Broncos,' and Seahawks fans should just translate 'Broncos' as 'Seahawks.' Then they'll all be rooting for the same team!" Well, no they won't be.

But I have a horrible feeling you're now perhaps slipping into the move of defining "ID" so broadly that anything that involves inferring from the world to a divine intellect is a kind of "Intelligent Design" theory. In which case, sure, you, me, Elijah the prophet, and for all I know my dentist are all "ID theorists." And in which case the term becomes completely vacuous.

But then, the bottomless murk of the "What counts as ID theory?" question is one of the reasons I have zero desire, and certainly no time, to get into another lengthy exchange on the subject. Interested readers are urged to read the many posts I've already written on this subject -- linked to in my reply to Lydia over at my blog -- for answers to whatever questions they might want to ask me about it.

BenYachov said...


I am gonna have to go with Ed on this. This reminds me of some Atheists who generically tag all Theistic Evolutionists as "creationists" because of the trivial fact a Theistic Evolutionist believes in a creator God.

When technically a "creationist" as it manifests itself in either the Young or Old Earth varieties is a person who believes God supernaturally causes life to change at various points in it's development vs leaving it up to some purely natural process like evolution(which God still controls via Providence).

Thomists and Catholics have a specific technical meanings to our theological terms and equivocating just adds to confusion.

God is not unequivocally a person like we are persons.

Or let's take the term "Justification" strictly Reformed types do not understand this term the same way those of us who accept the Council of Trent understand it. Or the term "Bible". For me it's the 73 Books God divinely inspired you may want to subject the number 7 from that number of mine.

That we have similarities is not at issue. It's the precise differences that matter.

Cheers to you Ma'am.

Lydia McGrew said...

I mean something rather different from simply that ID is a big tent. Actually, it _is_ a big tent, and they would have been happy to welcome Ed long since. It also contains people who disagree among themselves.

But I'm saying something somewhat more specific than that. I'm first of all asking Ed, for the moment, to set aside the debate over the mechanistic concept of nature and to stick to the issue of the concept of God as "theistic personalism." Now, suppose that you were to look at an argument from irreducible complexity to the deliberate design, even the _interventionistic_ design, of that entity. (I'm already going beyond the ID big tent in saying that, because they try to accommodate both interventionists and front-loaders. I'm a pretty staunch interventionist.)

Now, my point is intentionally rather limited. I'm trying to say that that argument in itself does not *have to* attribute, say, intelligence and will to God univocally. That argument, yea, even from the details of the bacterial flagellum, does not have to represent any kind of caricature of who God is. The terms I'm asking you to translate are terms like "designer," "a person," and "a being." The portion of your argument, Ed, that I'm asking you to reconsider, is the specific portion where you say that ID arguments cannot *in the nature of the case* get one even an inch closer to the true God because they *must* assume a wrong concept of God.

I understand that you also have other objections. This is the objection I'm addressing here, and I think that my point concerning the voice from the sky and the hypothetical argument with a "voice from the sky naturalist" is very much on-point there. Calling God "a designer" is no more in itself a univocal use of language or a wrong concept of God than calling God "a person who speaks from the sky." And I've already shown how even a philosopher is going to find it difficult if not impossible to do without that locution at *one stage of the argument* with the voice from the sky naturalist.

Lydia McGrew said...

I want to say a little more about my comments on theological correctness and language. I apologize if those sounded like cheap swipes, because, though I got a little rambunctious with the comments, they were intended to get across something rather serious:

*Specifically for philosophers*, not just for laymen at their prayers, I think there is a very serious danger in attempting to expunge the phrase "a person" from our language in speaking of God. Yes, even with the word "a" in there. This is a much bigger deal than just pointing out that God didn't really have a body and didn't walk in the cool of the evening.

I'm sorry if this seems to be beating a dead horse, but notice how even you, Ed, slipped into using the term "something" when trying to write what you stated was a more precise and accurate locution in the place of "a person." This is a problem. And I really think there is more than an analogy here to the attempts to do without pronouns in referring to God. I think that both ideas that we are "getting more precise" may very well lead us astray and into a depersonalized concept of God. I think this is *at least* as much a danger, I would go so far as to say *more* of a danger, than any danger posed by the ID use of concepts like "an intelligent designer" in making God too much like ourselves.

We're into deep waters at this point, but we always have to be walking a fine line. When we are constantly insisting that so natural a phrase as "a person" for God is *so badly incorrect* that arguments based on it are *horribly wrong*, then I think that sort of insistent scruple has the very real potential to encourage the opposite confusion in our hearers, if not in ourselves, just as insisting for theological reasons on doing without pronouns for God would do.

Eschewing calling God "a person" is not unequivocally a matter of getting things more precise. Not by a long shot! I do not say that because I identify as a theistic personalist. I actually don't. I say it because this kind of thing is a very, very delicate balancing act and because we're more or less bound to be always getting something at least a little bit wrong when we speak of God. Those who warn against calling God "he" would tell us the grave danger is of thinking of God as a biological male. I say the graver danger is of thinking of God impersonally.

So, since there are dangers on both sides, I say we should not scruple to speak and think of God as the Designer--yes, even of the tiny details of the living cell and the DNA code.

Lydia McGrew said...

I would also emphasize how _incredibly strong_ a claim it is that the ID argument cannot get you one inch closer to the true God. That is so strong that I will consider my time well-spent here if Ed reconsiders even the strength of that claim.

Notice the effect in that context (I thought of saying this in the main post but didn't) of saying something, which I could swear I've seen Ed say, of some statement like, "I'm not going to address whether the ID arguments work on their own terms" or "Even supposing the ID arguments worked on their own terms."

Now, suppose that they did! Well, the claim then is that we would have *good evidence* for believing that these entities in question were designed by a personal being. But according to Ed's position, this being *literally cannot be* the true God, must be *someone else*, must be a *finite being*, because ID *must assume* something that would be a wrong concept of God.

But that means...that if the ID arguments work on their own terms, er, we have good reason to believe that some finite being really made life on earth. And I'm sure Ed doesn't want to admit that that is even *possible*. I'm sure the idea here isn't supposed to be to get people who think there is force in the ID arguments to conclude, "Oh, gee, I guess life on earth _must_ have been made by an alien or an angel, because Ed Feser says this argument cannot lead me one stop closer to the true God and must lead me to a being who is not God, yet this argument does seem to have real explanatory force." Yet that follows from any attempt to set aside the question of "whether ID succeeds on its own terms" while _simultaneously_ making these very strong statements on how ID "cannot get us one inch closer to the true God."

Yet, on the other hand, evaluating _whether_ ID succeeds on its own empirical terms is something Ed resolutely refuses to get into, insists on setting aside.

So that presents a trilemma: Either evaluate, in empirical detail, whether the argument works on its own terms, or else admit that, for all you know, perhaps ID-ers really have come up with evidence that life on earth _was_ designed by finite beings, or abandon the extremely strong claim that ID cannot get you one inch closer to believing in the true God because it is _inherently_ based on a wrong concept of God.

Edward Feser said...


First, you're reading way too much into my use of the word "something." I meant nothing special by that at all. It's the other words ("intellect," "will," "tripersonal") that I was concerned to emphasize. It didn't even occur to me that "something" would be taken to have the significance you're attaching to it.

Now, are "someone" and "a person" OK instead if understood as shorthand for a more cumbersome technical formulation? They would be if I were a unitarian, but I'm a Trinitarian, so the answer is No, at least not when we are attributing actions to the Trinity rather than to one of the Persons.

If you want to say that the Father is "someone" and "a person," or that the Son is, or that the Holy Spirit, then I have no objection. But "God is a person," I don't like. I don't like it philosophically for the reasons already stated, and I don't like it theologically because in light of Trinitarianism it is at best very badly misleading. It makes it sound either like God is three Persons in one Person, which is nonsense, or that only the Father is really fully God and the other Persons are somehow secondary deities, which is heretical. (As Brian Davies has pointed out, the claim that "God is a person" first appears in an English heresy trial and was understood as a denial of the Trinity.)

Edward Feser said...


I can certainly understand why you don't to get into the whole discussion of mechanism again -- I very definitely don't want to either -- but it's kind of silly to ask me not to get into it and at the same time to ask me why I think ID can't get you even an inch closer to the God of classical theism. What I say about mechanism is, as my reply to you at my blog makes clear, central to my reasons for saying that ID leads one away from classical theism.

Lydia McGrew said...

As far as "God is a person" vs. "the Father is a person," consider the burning bush vs. the voice at Jesus' baptism. In the latter case, we know it was the Father who spoke. In the former, we don't. Not specifically. There is nothing in Scripture that clearly indicates that the Father as opposed to the Son spoke at the burning bush. But it is *just as true* in the case of the burning bush as in the case of the voice at the baptism that it would be nigh impossible, even for a careful philosopher, to speak clearly in an argument with some naturalistic fool about that event without saying that "a person spoke from the burning bush." And the same for instance after instance after instance in the Old Testament. Abraham debated with God over the destruction of Sodom. Gideon stood before God and demanded the sign of the fleece. These men _talked_ with God as with a friend. To say that we must not say that it was "a person" with whom they spoke because we do not have specific reason to attribute their conversations to just one member of the Trinity seems to me _highly_ problematic.

Lydia McGrew said...

On mechanism: You have always as I understood you insisted that the theistic personalism issue and the univocal language issue were _additional_ problems with the ID arguments, not that they could be reduced to the issue of mechanism. Either these are additional issues or they aren't. If not, I'm at a loss to understand much that you have written. And I would go farther: Some of your strongest statements, such as that ID is just like "being presented with an argument for the existence of Zeus" seem to depend _specifically_ on this personalism and univocal language accusation. Therefore, either they should be dropped as supposedly additional problems, and everything reduced to the alleged issue of mechanism and the view of nature, or they should be able to be addressed as issues in their own right and defended as such. And they do indeed seem to be, as issues in their own right, at the heart of your very strong insistence that ID cannot get you "one inch closer" to the true God.

Lydia McGrew said...

Now, let me try to bring this a little bit down to earth. I'm going to sketch, admittedly very crudely, the structure of an empirical ID argument. Something like this: "Here is such-and-such feature of the biological world--the visual biochemical cascade, for example. This is enormously improbable to have come into existence by secondary causes. [Insert empirical information here.] On the other hand, this type of organization is a general type of thing that we know that intelligent beings do bring into being. It is much less improbable that we would have the evidence we do of the visual biochemical cascade if it were originally, at some point in the past, designed by an intelligent agent than if it came into existence originally in the distant past as the result of secondary causes. Therefore, intelligent design is a better explanation of this evidence than natural processes. Therefore, this evidence supports the conclusion that an intelligent agent had to do something special to bring the visual cascade into existence."

Now, stop: Don't start talking about the wrong view of nature that must imply. I disagree with you there profoundly, but I'm asking something else here: Besides the use of articles like "an" to refer to the agent or the being and besides the probabilistic language, what could there possibly be in that argument as sketched which allegedly *necessitates* a univocal use of language and theistic personalism? Yet it cannot be the probabilities, for I remember that you have repeatedly stated that it is not per se wrong to argue probabilistically regarding divine action. And we have already agreed that if it is merely a matter of personal language or the use of terms such as "an agent" or "a person," these admit of translations compatible with classical theism.

Never mind what Vincent Torley says. I'm mildly curious as to why he said what he did about univocal language and have written to ask him why he said it. But set it aside. What is it about *that argument* as sketched that *necessitates* theistic personalism and univocal language use?

Again, if you just go back to the alleged mechanism, this is going to raise the suspicion that theistic personalism was never an independent problem with ID but was reducible to the alleged issue concerning the view of nature.

Nor can you say that that argument as sketched is part of some vague, murky, so-big-as-to-be-meaningless notion of ID. It is fairly specific, it even implied inference to the best explanation with a little Bayesianism to boot. It uses empirical detail. And, yes, it analogizes the designer to ourselves. But allegedly, that isn't per se a problem with classical theism. Or so you have said. So...where's the _intrinsic_ theistic personalism in that robust and quite typical ID argument?

Anonymous said...

Enjoied this very much. I have a lot of respect for Ed Feser and owe him a lot. But I've never quite understood his objections to I.D.


Edward Feser said...


Re: “a person,” if we’re now prescinding from the ID issue and just discussing how a classical theist would read those passages, then I’m simply not clear what you’re so concerned about. Is It that “a person” is a more natural way to talk? Fine, I’ve already agreed. Is it that “a person” is OK if we’re attributing an action to one of the divine Persons but don’t know which Person it is? Fine. Is it that you’re really attached to this locution even apart from reference to a specific divine Person and want me to allow you to use it as long as it can be translated into some classical theist formulation? Well, fine again if you really insist.

But I will in that case insist myself that you agree that such a translation really is necessary. See, I’ve given reasons why “a person” is really not a good way to talk about God. Go back and look at the relevant posts. If we make God an instance of a kind then he cannot be simple -- he will fall under a genus and have a specific difference setting him apart from other things in the genus (to use the Scholastic jargon) -- and in that case, being composite he also cannot be self-existent but will require an explanation in terms of something outside him. In which case he’s not really God at all, but just some big impressive invisible guy.

Now, it’s no good for you to ignore all that and pretend that we classical theists have merely got some weird aversion to the word “a.” It’s you who seem to have some weird obsession with it. Again, I’ve explained why if you make God an instance of a kind you underline the whole core of theism. I’ve explained why this does not make God impersonal. I’ve explained that this does not mean that loose ways of speaking aren’t OK for ordinary believers. I’ve explained that there are Trinitarian reasons for objecting to the formulation in question. I’ve noted that biblical descriptions often make use of locutions that are more natural-sounding but not meant at face value in the first place. But still that’s not enough for you and you insist that there’s something wrong with classical theists if we raise the slightest objection over the expression “a person” -- despite the fact that, again, you never address the reasons why classical theists object to it, but just keep harping on these biblical passages you seem to think prove something. Really, what’s the deal? It doesn’t seem to me that I’m the one with the burden of proof here!

Edward Feser said...

Re: univocality, yes, of course it’s a separate reason for objecting to ID, and of course I take it to be one reason why ID doesn’t get you to the God of classical theism. But you were talking about how “incredibly strong” my claims about ID were, and my point is that if you want to understand why my claims are as strong as they are you have to factor in what I say about mechanism, which I think you’d agree is something I’ve made a very big deal of over the years.

The univocality issue is complicated by the fact that there is a whole side dispute between Thomists and Scotists over that. Scotists are also classical theists, and think you can reconcile that with univocality. Thomists don’t think this can work, but the reason this is anything more than a non-starter from the Thomist POV is that Scotists share so many other background metaphysical and theological assumptions with Thomists -- assumptions that are not even on the radar screen of most ID theorists.

More tomorrow -- it’s well after midnight!

Lydia McGrew said...

I don't know about my having a weird obsession with the phrase "a person." I obviously haven't said as much at such length about why trying to expunge it, even in all contexts where we have no reason to attribute the event to one specific person of the Trinity, has a great danger of depersonalizing God as you have said about the theology behind wanting to expunge it. But I think I've at least said some things in this very thread at _sufficient_ length, in earlier comments, that should justify some pause.

My own suspicion is that it would be _incorrect_ to say it "really was God the Father" with whom, say, Gideon talked. Now, I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong and in some sense it really was God the Father as opposed to another member of the Trinity. But in that case, too, maybe it really was in some sense God the Son who created the bacterial flagellum, which should remove some of _your_ stringent objections to speaking of "the designer" as "a person" and "an intelligent agent." Shouldn't it? I mean, we don't know to the contrary!! In fact, there are some verses of Scripture that would seem to support that conclusion.

But more than that, I just think, yes, that it is highly problematic to try to expunge all references to God as "a person" in much the same way, and for exactly the same reasons, that I think it would be problematic and, while we're talking about "leading to" wrong views of God, that it _leads to_ a wrong view of God to try to expunge personal pronouns from our talk about God.

In fact, the personal pronoun issue is I think a legitimate one to press, here: Yes, you've written a lot about the theology behind its being allegedly wrong and misleading to call the Triune God a person. It seems to me that, in consistency, you _should_ try to expunge the use of personal pronouns from divine references, expect when clearly talking about one member of the Trinity, for *exactly* the same reasons!! If "a person" is misleading when we talk about creation or say that God commanded such-and-such, it seems like "he," "him," and "himself" should be misleading for exactly the same reasons! For one thing, they do go extremely naturally with "a person" and "a being." For another thing, they are _singular_, and one of the arguments against "a person" and "a being" is the alleged incompatibility with the doctrine of the Trinity! Yet, of course, to call God "they" in those contexts would be to encourage tritheism.

What you don't seem willing to accept is that this is the nature of the beast, as it were--the beast being the attempt for finite humans to talk about God. If it ain't one thing, it's another. And since that _is_ the nature of the beast, I think you should have _far_ less of a problem with everybody, including ID-ers, calling God "a person," "a designer," and "a being."

You know the old saying--lex orandi, lex credendi. That, presumably, is why you are so concerned about getting rid of locutions like "a person" and so hard on them in ID.

My contentions are a) that pushing _that_ hard on it has its own dangers. I think you ought to be able to see that we would _really_ risk depersonalizing God if we tried to stop calling Him "him." Yet your arguments would seem to justify exactly that. b) that there is no special reason to hit ID for that and that, if you back up and get the big picture, you will not think it some kind of huge problem with ID but rather a matter of terminology that is quite easy to get around.

For the latter, I defer to my sample ID argument and to my question: What is it about _that_ argument that _requires_ the univocal use of language and, if the person making it believes the designer to be God, _requires_ theistic personalism.

Lydia McGrew said...

Regarding univocality and the strength of your claims: So are you saying that the issue of theistic personalism and univocality, which you attribute to ID, is _not_ a sufficient reason for all of the statements you've made like calling it "an argument for Zeus" and saying that it "doesn't get you an inch closer to the true God" and so forth? Is this supposed to be some kind of cumulative case probabilistic argument? _Probably_ ID can't get you one inch closer to the true God, and the univocality issue and the theistic personalism issue just _contribute_ to that case? I thought you didn't make those kinds of arguments in these kinds of contexts.

But in any event, I will consider that I've made good progress if you admit that my above sample ID argument doesn't, in fact, require the univocal use of language nor a concept of the designer that _must_ be some finite being.

If you continue to insist that it does, I shall ask, then, since I believe it _is_ the sketch of an argument with force, why on your view I shouldn't believe that the visual cascade was definitely created by some finite being! See my "trilemma," above. I doubt that driving those of us who think ID arguments work in that direction is your intent, either.

Lydia McGrew said...

Oh, another point about pronouns that someone just pointed out to me this morning: In one of the most transcendent Divine self-revelations in history, the triune God calls Himself "I." He says, giving His name, "I am."

If it isn't misleadingly imprecise and anthropomorphic for God to call Himself "I," then, I would say, it isn't wrong and misleading for us to call the triune God "a person."

Michael Baruzzini said...

When Dembski et al. invoke mechanism, are they opposing it to AT concepts, or rather to something like vitalism? I wouldn't be surprised if they misunderstand AT claims as something like the latter. I'm not an ID defender, but the part of the objection to it that I have trouble following is seeing how ID necessarily entails a mechanistic view of nature. ID claims, it seems to me, that some particular arrangments of matter can only reasonably be expected come about by direct intelligent action rather than by natural forces (which is where I disagree with them), but I don't see where that claim requires that beings who _have_ such particular arrangments of matter must necessarily be reduced to _being nothing more than_ just such arrangements of matter.

In other words, if it were true that natural inanimate forces left to themselves could not make a dog, yet dogs existed in nature, the first particular individual dog ever made would have to be created either ex nihilo by God or assembled by a mad scientist scientist with amazing atomic tweezers. I don't see how that would imply in either case that the dog was just a mechanism. If scientists create artificial cells from scratch in a lab, aren't they still living organisms, not mechanisms?

Or to put it yet another way: Professor Feser, does your argument imply that natural forces left to themselves _must_ be capable of producing the complex structures found in organisms? I don't think you are claiming that, but some clarification on this point would help me.

But perhaps I misunderstand the ID arguments.

The Masked chicken said...

Nice discussion. Are there any resources for finding the detailed research papers on ID?

The Chicken

Edward Feser said...


Re: the expression "a person," two points:

1. By focusing so intently on the expression itself, as you're doing here, you're missing the forest for the trees. As I've said so often, what the classical theist is concerned about is that God not be regarded as an instance of a kind. That's what drives the concern over the expression "a person," not the other way around. And yet all you seem to want to talk about is the expression rather than the underlying issue.

Well, we can clarify things greatly if you'd just tell us whether you agree that God is not an instance of a kind. If you agree, then perhaps the issue between us is merely semantic. But if not, then I would say that I'm not the one who's taking a position with dangerous theological implications, and that we've got much bigger problems here than whether or not someone might naturally speak of "a person" when hearing a voice from the sky.

2. There is a crucial disanalogy between "he" and "person," which is that the latter is associated with much heavier theological baggage. Someone usually insists on "he" for one of two reasons: to make it clear that God is not impersonal (not an "it"), or to rebut some feminist view (i.e. to make it clear that God is not a "she"). Beyond those two points, there's no theological dispute that rides on "he." "Person," though, is a term that has deep historical and dogmatic significance because of its association with the Trinity.

Now if someone insists on the sentence "God is a person," that might be because he is just trying to emphasize that God is not impersonal. But it might also be because he's trying to say something with Trinitarian implications. Or, as I've indicated, a third option is that he's trying to say something that implies that God is an instance of the kind "person."

Now, I've already made it crystal clear that I agree with you that God is not impersonal, and that that issue has nothing to do with my objection to "a person." But that's not good enough for you. So it's hard to see why unless you're trying to say something that implies either that God is an instance of a kind, or some dubious account of the Trinity.

Mind you, I'm not accusing you of actually doing either thing. What I'm saying is that you might not see the implications of what you're saying. And that's why I keep insisting that it's no good just to focus on questions like "Would we naturally be inclined to say that 'a person' spoke from heaven?" as if by itself that proved anything. You've got to address these larger considerations from philosophical theology and Trinitarian theology, because they are what is motivating the classical theist.

Lydia McGrew said...

Ed, to be quite honest, I neither carry a "classical theist" card nor a "theistic personalist" card. I'm not committed either to saying that God _is_ an "instance of a kind" or to saying that God _isn't_ an instance of a kind, because I don't believe I have a clear and distinct enough grasp of what the assertion means to take a definite position on it one way or another. The same is true in spades for a statement like, "God is not a being, because God is being itself."

I'm coming at this as an epistemologist more than a metaphysician. What I do insist is that _if_ you are fine with translating the necessary _epistemic_ moves made in the voice from the sky argument (against the stupid "voice from the sky naturalist") into terms that you consider consistent with classical theism, then there is _equally_ such a translation for the sketched-out argument I have given above concerning the visual cascade and for other specific ID arguments. The arguments are what they are and the evidence is what it is.

What I insist is that is, in arguing for intelligent agency in these events, a sort of "fork point" where one needs a term that could refer _either_ to a merely finite being _or_ to God. "A person" serves very well in that role. But such a term, and such a concept, there needs to be. Perhaps on your view that concept is a disjunction: "This was either done by a finite person or by Someone who has intelligence and will in a sense analogous to ours." Some such disjunction. If so, that's fine, but we need that category for epistemic purposes when we are arguing with people who, irrationally, attribute special arrangements of matter or sound waves to purely secondary causes.

Therefore, I contend, you should not insist that ID arguments _must_ see God as "an instance of a kind" or what-not if you don't insist that the hypothetical argument with the "voice from the sky naturalist" must portray the Speaker in that way.

Lydia McGrew said...

Chicken, there are many interesting places to start with the ID research. It just simply is true--sorry if this sounds like "conspiracy mongering"--that ID papers have been "Borked" in professional journals for purely ideological reasons. In fact, when evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg published a paper by Steve Meyer on the Cambrian explosion, Sternberg suffered major professional repercussions. This definitely limits the number of such publications in non-ID-friendly journals.

I recommend starting with the popular-level book _Darwin's Black Box_. Here are quite a few of Mike Behe's other papers:

The journal Biocomplexity is also publishing papers that take design hypotheses seriously:

I also recommend the blogs


where substantive new content is being posted all the time.

Edward Feser said...


Re: what I’ll call your “visual biochemical cascade” argument, here’s one way to look at it if you insist that I leave out of my critique any reference to mechanism:

First, as you know, the Thomist certainly has no beef with the idea of reasoning from order in nature to a divine intellect. That’s what the Fifth Way is all about. But the reasoning has nothing whatsoever to do with complexity. It applies as much to the simplest material processes as to the most complicated. You can start with absolutely any old thing in the world. Even if the world consisted of nothing more than (say) one particle orbiting another, that would entail the existence of an infinite intellect. See my Nova et Vetera paper on the Fifth Way, and/or the treatment of the argument in my Aquinas book, for the reasons why.

Now the reason for emphasizing all this in the present context is this: The ID theorist insists on focusing on really complex natural objects and processes like the bacterial flagellum, the visual biochemical cascade, etc., as if these can get you at least closer to a divine intelligence in a way simpler things cannot. And of course the reason has to do with a comparison to the way things like watches, cars, etc. come into existence in our experience, as opposed to how simple things like pebbles, piles of dirt, etc. come into existence in our ordinary experience. So the comparison to human designers is doing a lot of work.

The trouble is that the more closely one considers the way that human designers actually accomplish what they do -- trial and error, team effort, thinking through possible design options, doing calculations, manipulating and assembling complicated parts into a whole using precision instruments, etc. -- the more obvious it is that much of what characterizes their efforts cannot have anything to do with the way God acts. God does not have to think things through, make calculations, try different options and see what works, work with others, use tools, etc. For that reason, though, the way he creates has nothing to do with being a quick study, being good at math, having sound engineering intuitions, working well with others, having good tools and good manual dexterity, etc.

So, we need to abstract all that out if we’re to conceive of a “designer” in truly divine terms. We’re also going to have to abstract out from our conception of his effects in the world anything that has to do with what in a human designer would require skill in calculation, good design instincts, manual dexterity, ability to work with others and assemble a team, etc.

(continued below)

Edward Feser said...

(continued from above)

Now, when we do this, I submit that what we’ll end up focusing on in each case are considerations that don’t have much to do with the specifics either of human artifacts or of human artificers. We’ll focus on things like the way that a thing can be directed toward an as-yet non-existent end (whether simple or complex) only insofar as there is a guiding intellect that so directs it by virtue of having that end in mind conceptually. That is to say, we’ll focus on just what the Fifth Way focuses on. (For how this argument works and why it requires an infinite intellect, see, again, what I’ve written on that subject.) The complexity of bacterial flagella, etc. drops out as irrelevant.

So, to insist on the bacterial flagellum, the visual cascade, etc. as if they were particularly important implies that there is something about the analogy to the specific ways human designers accomplish things that is particularly important. And that in turn implies a conception of the “designer” that makes his intelligence an instance of what we’ve got, even if more impressive. It implies, in short, predicating intelligence of him and of us in a univocal sense. And it implies a theistic personalist rather than classical theist conception of God. To abandon the claim that examples like the bacterial flagellum, the visual cascade, etc are especially important, though, is just to abandon everything that makes ID arguments distinctive.

Hence ID arguments are, from a classical theistic POV, completely pointless or worse. In particular, if they admit that the specific of the examples they hammer on are not important, then they are pointless; and if they insist that the specifics are important, then they are worse than pointless, because they lead to a deeply mistaken conception of God.

Lydia McGrew said...

Ed, thanks for your answer. I do disagree with it pretty fundamentally. First of all, there is *nothing at all* about the ID use of complexity or the concept of the designer that requires that God is a quick study, works with dexterity, using tools, and so forth. Of all the things you listed, the only thing that _might_ have an analogous (!) counterpart in God is your phrase "sound engineering intuitions," but I want to stress _very_ strongly there that I really do mean "analogous." My point there would simply be that the designer or Designer obviously has vast _knowledge_ of the physical properties of matter at all levels and is able to make use of those physical properties in a way that creates, for example, highly specific biochemical reactions that perform highly specific functions. In a human being, we might refer to something analogous as "being an excellent engineer." As far as "skill in calculation," I would substitute something like "knowledge" or "wisdom," because, again, something analogous to knowledge and wisdom in us is required for knowing what will happen if *this* is arranged like *this* with *that*. But all the rest, no.

Now, the reason that these complex entities are special examples and have a force of their own is a pretty straightforward probabilistic reason: Their complexity is relevant to the probability of their existence by means of natural, or what the theist calls secondary, processes. Like it or not, the probability of a hunk of rock coming into existence on planet earth given secondary causes operating uninterrupted from the Big Bang onwards is *much higher* than the probability of a creature's coming into existence on planet earth having a visual cascade. Moreover, even _given_ the existence of some kind of ur-animal, the probability of its developing a visual cascade, when it didn't have one before, by purely secondary causes, is much lower than the probability of one rock's breaking off from another rock. Or of there being a rock in this field at all.

From a Bayesian point of view, one compares the probability of the evidence given the hypotheses in question--preferably using a partition of the probability space. Complexity is relevant to the probability given the negation of design.

Moreover, again, like it or not, complexity is relevant to the probability given design, for many reasons having to do with wisdom, understanding, and intention, as I have sketched above. Epistemologically, this is just _true_, but I do not see any reason why we cannot also say, once we conclude that the designer is God, that "wisdom," "understanding," and "intention" are understood to apply analogously rather than univocally to the One we actually believe to be the designer. At an earlier stage of the argument (see my "fork" statement, in a previous comment), the question is disjunctively open and can go either way.

None of this, as far as I can see, requires univocal predication. What I do see is that this is how the epistemology works, and that the argument does work, and that it is necessary for one's metaphysics to be able to accommodate that fact.

Lydia McGrew said...

And actually, I also strongly disagree that the relevant "considerations...don’t have much to do with the specifics either of human artifacts or of human artificers." In fact, the considerations about means-end adequation are connected *extremely strongly* to those specifics, because one can see the working of the guiding intellect *in the details* as well as in the whole, taken as a whole.

Lydia McGrew said...

Another *very important* point:

If we look at the voice from the sky case, we also see that the details matter, and in exactly the same way. (This is why I said in the main post that the voice from the sky really is an intelligent design argument, not just analogous to one.)

If arguing with the idiot who says it was just thunder, we _would_ have to point to the _details_ and talk about (what should be obvious, but apparently isn't to him) how improbable it would be that some natural process would arrange the sound waves in that complex fashion. The complexity of the language involved is very much the same kind of thing that ID theorists are pointing to. I mentioned this in the main post.

If you reject the possibility of arguments that focus on the details, on complexity, and that imply that some things are _special instances_ of Someone's revelation of Himself, because of this complexity, then, once again, you have no way to analogize and admit the epistemology of the voice from the sky. Why was it obvious that that was not caused by natural causes? Because of complexity, arrangement, adequation of means (the arrangement of the sounds) to ends (the communication of a specific meaning) *in the details*.

I say again: If the argument that the voice from the sky was the result of a personal agent does not require the univocal use of language and a wrong concept of God, neither does the ID argument. If it does, then your metaphysics needs to change to accommodate Scripture. Either way...

Lydia McGrew said...

Scripture simply contradicts any kind of egalitarianism about divine signs. There is nothing whatsoever in Scripture that supports the idea that more complex things cannot be special signs of divine design more than things that more readily arise by natural causes. *Very much to the contrary*. Scripture is full of the language of signs and wonders. Scripture constantly tells us that God reveals Himself by doing special things, by _arranging_ things to happen in a special way.

Rejecting the ID argument because it somehow makes us think of God as a guy with manual dexterity and the ability to work with tools is like rejecting the sign of the voice from the sky because it allegedly makes us think of God as a guy who has the skill of using his vocal chords to produce sound waves. After all, that's how we do it.

Edward Feser said...


First, if you’re not prepared to take a position on whether God is an instance of a kind, that’s fine. But in that case it is not reasonable for you to insist on going on about how we classical theists, despite agreeing with you wholeheartedly that God is personal, still aren’t sufficiently enthusiastic in your eyes about referring to God as “a person.” Until you address our reasons for having reservations about that phrase, you’ve really got no business complaining.

Second, re: the “visual biochemical cascade” argument, you seem to me to be missing the point. Yes, I am of course well aware that iD theorists don’t think of God as being a quick study, using tools, etc. I realize that they would abstract from those aspects of human designers. The point is that if they also abstract away everything else they would need to abstract away in order to arrive at a classical theist conception of God and his relationship to his creation, they’ll find that the complexity of this or that natural object really isn’t what is doing any work in getting from the order of the world to a divine intellect.

Third, re: the probability of the visual cascade, or of anything else, arising in the natural order of things, there is no way I can address that sort of question without getting into the differences between an Aristotelian conception of nature and a mechanistic one -- which you have asked me not to do.

With all due respect, Lydia, the way you insist on proceeding here is really quite silly. “Ed, justify to me the classical theist’s reservations about the formulation ‘God is a person,’ but without asking me to take a stand on whether God is an instance of a kind. Ed, justify to me your claim that ID arguments from natural objects to God tend toward an overly anthropomorphic conception of God, but without getting into the Aristotelian conception of natural objects.” Unless you’re prepared to get into all that, then we simply can’t fruitfully address the questions at issue.

Fourth, re: your statement that “there is nothing whatsoever in Scripture that supports the idea that more complex things cannot be special signs of divine design,” I never claimed or implied otherwise. I never said that complex phenomena can never in any way or under any circumstances be especially useful as a divine sign. I wasn’t even addressing that. I was addressing the nature of ID-style inferences from biological complexity, specifically, versus Fifth Way-style arguments. Not everything God does is the same. The phenomena teleological arguments appeal to is one kind of effect, requiring one type of explanation in terms of divine intelligence. Unusual phenomena like voices from the sky in such-and-such a specific cultural context are a very different kind of effect, and require a different analysis.

With respect, it seems to me that we are jumping around here from point to point to point, and I don’t see much of a clear theme other than that it ticks you off that we A-T types don’t like ID theory and that you’d like to show us we’re wrong without having to try very hard to understand or address the details of our position. Sorry, that’s not the way it works.

Anyway, it seems clear enough that we’ve established that your original post was based on a couple of misunderstandings of my views, and that’s all I wanted to point out in my original response. I have neither time nor inclination for a long combox exchange on all the intricacies of the general dispute between ID and A-T or between classical theism and theistic personalism.

Lydia McGrew said...

(Not necessarily in order.)

"Ed, justify to me your claim that ID arguments from natural objects to God tend toward an overly anthropomorphic conception of God, but without getting into the Aristotelian conception of natural objects."

No, I already addressed that. Quite specifically. What I said, and will say again, is this: Allegedly (and you have confirmed this) the allegation that ID arguments intrinsically must involve a wrong concept of God is supposed to have _independent_ force, in addition to the claim that ID arguments represent an incorrect view of nature. If you literally cannot explain that independent force without going back into the "ID presupposes mechanism" accusation, then this leads to the suspicion that there is no such additional force, no "and also they have a wrong conception of God" argument, but _merely_ your view about the nature of nature.

Now, you have indeed attempted to articulate that independent force, and I appreciate that. But I have answered it, I think, more than adequately, and at this point you cannot cry unfairness yet again because you have been asked to justify giving special and additional force to this accusation about the wrong concept of God.

" I was addressing the nature of ID-style inferences from biological complexity, specifically, versus Fifth Way-style arguments. Not everything God does is the same. The phenomena teleological arguments appeal to is one kind of effect, requiring one type of explanation in terms of divine intelligence. Unusual phenomena like voices from the sky in such-and-such a specific cultural context are a very different kind of effect, and require a different analysis."

Even granting your interpretation of Aquinas's fifth way, I *strongly disagree* that the ID argument must either be a competitor for your interpretation of the Fifth Way or nothing at all. I have argued, at length, in detail, that the argument from a voice in the sky *against a naturalistic explanation* *just is* and ID argument. It is an argument from complexity, it is an argument from the deliberate arrangement of parts, and so forth. I have gone into all of this again and again. It is mere foot-stomping, I'm sorry to say, to insist that we cannot and must not analyze ID arguments the same way, apparently on the purely arbitrary grounds that they concern things like the origin of animals rather than voices in the sky. I _do_ consider that ground arbitrary and do not grant that the two "require a different analysis." Nor is the fact that the voice from the sky occurred in a "cultural context" relevant to the point that I have been making concerning the reasons people had, immediately, for realizing that it was *not the result of natural causes.* Let me also add that Moses' discussion with God in the burning bush had, actually, very little cultural context. God hadn't been in touch with His people in more than four hundred years. It's not even all that clear what they knew or believed about Him. The burning bush was, in an important sense, a beginning of an era. It was an important part of _creating_ the cultural context of the New Testament. It came to Moses "out of the blue," as it were, while he was just tending sheep in the desert. And how did he know that it wasn't a natural phenomenon? Yeah, we can say, "Well, duh!" but the fact is--it had something to do with the improbability given natural causes.

Lydia McGrew said...

"Anyway, it seems clear enough that we’ve established that your original post was based on a couple of misunderstandings of my views, and that’s all I wanted to point out in my original response."

Actually, again, no, I don't think you've shown anything of the kind. I might with more justice complain that, by interpreting me as making a *weaker* claim that I was making in my original post, you have misunderstood me! As I pointed out in my very first comment on this thread, I was not _just_ saying that you object to arguments from things that could in theory be done by someone other than God. Rather, I was saying that the _structure_ of such arguments as that from the voice in the sky and the burning bush is such, across the board, that such arguments should earn your disapproval just as much as ID arguments and for the same reasons. Since my claim was stronger than you took it to be, it was not in fact based on a misunderstanding of your position. In fact, I've put a great deal of time and energy into understanding your position, over a period of years.

" I realize that they would abstract from those aspects of human designers. The point is that if they also abstract away everything else they would need to abstract away in order to arrive at a classical theist conception of God and his relationship to his creation, they’ll find that the complexity of this or that natural object really isn’t what is doing any work in getting from the order of the world to a divine intellect."

Completely wrong. That does not follow. Compare: If we "abstract away" the idea that Someone was speaking from the sky using vocal chords and a brain, do we also abstract away the epistemic relevance of the *complexity* of the linguistic utterances to the inference that the voice out of the sky was not the result of natural causes but rather of a personal cause? Nope. Not even close. The fact that _we_ create complex effects using our hands or technology or other physical means (such as our voices) does not mean that complexity becomes irrelevant when the complex effects are not created by those physical means. The complexity is still epistemically highly relevant even if we do not guess or assume that it was achieved by finite means such as we ourselves use.

In fact, that claim is such a serious epistemic blunder that I was astonished when I reread your earlier comment and saw that that was what you were saying. Yet you repeat it here. I'm sorry, but it's just flatly wrong.

Perhaps this blunder is what lies at the heart of your repeated claims that ID arguments picture God in anthropomorphic terms as "tinkering with his creation" and such, "making things from pre-existing materials" and so forth. I don't agree with everything Vince Torley has said on these subjects, but I noticed in one post that he pointed out *expressly* that ID arguments do not require such a position regarding some specific means by which the designer did what he did. You should take that point seriously, because it is absolutely true. But perhaps you have difficulty doing so because you literally believe that, if we don't take the Designer to have used finite _means_ such as we use to achieve complexity, we cannot take complexity to be epistemically important! That is a real error.

Otto said...

I'd Like to have two brief clarifications from Ed:

1) Do you think that when hearing "a voice from the sky" one can make a probability inference that it was caused by a personal cause such as God, not an impersonal cause such as thunder, based on the likelihood of the complicated functional pattern of the sentence being caused by thunder?

2) What is the essential difference between this form of argument and the ID-arguments?

Edward Feser said...


Let me address the first claim you make in these latest comments of yours. When I have said that my objections to ID boil down to two main issues, viz. (i) a mistaken conception of God and (ii) a mistaken philosophy of nature, I have never said (A) that the two issues were absolutely 100% hermetically sealed off from one another and that one could address the one without in any way addressing the other. But neither have I said (B) that they are so deeply intertwined that one simply cannot say anything at all about the one without saying everything about the other. Neither of these extremes is a correct description of my position. In fact there are a number of sub-issues involved in each topic, and some of them overlap. So, to some extent the two themes can be addressed separately, but to some extent they cannot be.

Anyway, in the many years I’ve been discussing this topic, this was never an issue until you tried, bizarrely, to manufacture such an issue here in your combox by pretending that I’d somehow represented myself as taking the first extreme view (A) and then later, apparently under the heat of your withering analysis, switched to the second extreme view (B). Thus you seem to think you’ve caught me pulling a fast one. But this is sheer fantasy on your part and the issue completely phony. Once again you are attributing to me absurd claims I have never made, and before you know it we’re wasting enormous amounts of time going down a rabbit hole.

So, that’s the problem with just the first claim you make in this latest round of comments. And I have not bothered to read through the rest of your comments and will not bother responding to them. As I demonstrated in my reply to your original post over at my own blog, not only had you had badly misrepresented my views in that original post, but you had attributed to me views I have many times explicitly rejected over the years. Anyone who’s actually read my stuff could see that you were way off base. And yet here again you persist in attributing to me things I have never said, and insist on vehemently and at ponderous length attacking these figments of your imagination rather than my actual views. You seem constitutionally incapable either of trying to understand what I’ve actually written, or, when your mistakes are pointed out, of just admitting “OK Ed, maybe I misread you, sorry.” On this subject of ID you seem stuck permanently in “bee in the bonnet” mode, too blinded by emotion to do justice to your opponent’s views, and it is a waste of time discussing it with you.

It would be a waste of time even if I had the time, which, as I have said, I don’t. I’ve got final exam grading to do, a writing deadline I’m trying desperately to meet, and a blog of my own to attend to. Plus it’s Mother’s Day. I’ve thrown away the better part of two days on this already and I’m done. Goodbye and God bless.

Lydia McGrew said...

As I said, Ed, I think you misunderstood the strength of my claim in the main post, thinking it weaker than it was, and this was why you took me to be misunderstanding you. I've tried to explain how this arose and won't try again, but I definitely don't think I actually misrepresented you. In my opinion, the _structure_ of the argument to an entity who _might or might not_ be the true God is going to be such that very often complexity _does_ matter, that very often it _is_ an ID-type argument, and therefore your animadversions against the latter are going to be pretty closely intertwined with this whole issue of "this could just be Zeus" and so forth. You really have not provided, in my opinion, a good enough argument for your insistence that the designer of ID _must_ be someone other than the true God. I know you've asserted that, but I don't think you've shown it.

As far as my representing your two objections as either hermetically sealed or so intertwined as not to be able to be discussed separately, I have never insisted on the former, but I have asked that you _do_ try to discuss the "wrong concept of God" separately in such a way as to show that it has _some_ independent force against ID. Since you have represented it as having some independent force, I actually think it has been an excellent exercise to ask you to spell that out in response to my sketched ID argument. It ought to be possible to show that--what is it about that argument that requires a wrong concept of God apart from the alleged wrong concept of nature? I understand that you think the wrong concept of nature leads to _additional_ issues with a wrong concept of God. But it ought to be possible to spell out the problems that do not depend on that. This you have, in fact, attempted to do! So I don't think you have any complaint there of misrepresentation.

Since your attempt has, in my view, been a rather clear failure, that does rather make one think that perhaps there _is_ no independent "problem of ID's univocal use of language" and that everything _does_ reduce to your strong commitment to _something_ about immanent teleology and what-not which you believe, somehow, shows that ID must be wrong. If you are so crippled by not running into that complicated metaphysical web concerning your views on the nature of living things that you can't make any good argument at all for an intrinsic ID wrong concept of God, yes, I do think that is revealing.

And, I repeat, you did try. It just didn't work. So I don't admit any misrepresentation at all.

Emotion? On the contrary. I don't think there's been emotion here. Not on my part, anyway. Just hard-hitting analytical philosophy of a kind that both you and I generally enjoy.

Lydia McGrew said...

Let me add, too, that "I never said that complex phenomena can never in any way or under any circumstances be especially useful as a divine sign. I wasn’t even addressing that" hardly amounts to a credible accusation of misrepresentation against me. I was pointing out that your _principles_ are such that there is no good reason to disallow the type of argument in the one context but allow it in the other. It is arbitrary to block the use of complexity in talking about God's means of making an animal with a visual biochemical cascade but to allow the use of complexity as a consideration when talking about voices from the sky! So I've pointed out an arbitrary line-drawing in your position. The fact that you didn't _mean_ to block the use of complexity in talking about voices from the sky doesn't mean that I've misrepresented you. It means that I've shown that your position involves drawing arbitrary lines to block consequences you do not wish to accept concerning the detection of miracles as they are recounted in the Bible.

Tony said...

After going through Ed's 4-year old reply to Vincent Torley's distinguishing of 4 different senses of mechanism and stating that ID doesn't rely on mechanism for its argument, I begin to see the form of the mistake. At least, this is my guess.

When ID responds to atheistic Darwinists, who believe in no sort of final causality, they proceed by way of an arguendo argument that is, also, the beginning of a reductio. "You reject final causality, so for this discussion we'll let that be. I will not assume there is final causality. Let's examine complexity in living things...we eventually see that there must indeed be an intelligent source of living things." Now, if the IDer were to press forward, he would be able to further say that if there is an intelligent agent, then there is final causality, thus displacing the initial absurd starting point. But as a body ID isn't committed a conclusion about causality in general, only about the causes of complex living structures, so he doesn't bother going further. Note, however, that the ID RESULT does, of necessity (once one takes into account what intelligence is actually like) imply final causality. Which completes the reduction.

Note, also, that for any reductio, you start with something that you are going to show is impossible. But with that erroneous starting point, it is often possible to show a MULTIPLICITY of outrageous implications, not just the one you are focussed on. If you start an algebraic analysis with the statement that X=4 when (by other premises) X=5, then you can derive all sorts of weird impossible algebraic nonsense, you might get X = 0/X, and X=2X. So also, here, if you start with a universe independent of final causality, you can get lots and lots of absurdities, not just one. But that doesn't mean that the IDer arguing by way of arguendo (or a reductio) is committing himself to all the other absurdities than the one he is going to prove is implied and completes the reductio. Yes, all the other absurdities are indeed linked to the absurdity he starts out with. He doesn't require them or intend them.

In principle, ID proceeds by showing that even if you don't presume an final causes to begin with, you have to use intelligence to explain complex structures in living things. Or rather, more precisely, those complex structures cannot be explained adequately without intelligence - a negative formulation. It is NEITHER a claim that about the form of that intelligence, nor about the intermediate causes (if any) that lie between the intelligence and the living thing., nor about the manner in which the structures exhibit immanent or transuent teleology. The fact that the intelligence may have been the cause by reason of direct creation, or by reason of artifice, or by indirect operation of primary substances, or any other intermediate notions is irrelevant to the conclusion, as is whether the structures discussed operate immanently or transuently.

T said...

Saying, in the ID argument, that even if you view the substructures in the cell as if they were machines, you need intelligence to account for them, is not to say living things have only transuent causation. Even A-T philosophy, in identifying the "forms" of a living thing's substructures, allows that we have to think of the parts as retaining their own (elemental) "forms" at least virtually. Which is not to say that they REALLY retain real substantial forms different from the living substance as a whole. It is certainly the case that a biochemist can successfully study and model chemical processes in a living animal, without adverting to the kind of animal it actually is.

Nothing about the ID argument requires rejecting immanent teleology, except when it proceeds by way of arguendo, and even there it merely rejects the notion in order to proceed within a more constricted field of discussion than would (eventually) prove that final causality (and immanent teleology) must exist.

I am a Thomist and I give no quarter to the neo-theism that is typical of IDers. But their argument from complexity simply doesn't require or use theistic personalism, not in principle. (Of course, they will present a version of the argument that is compatible with their view of God, but that's all accidental trimmings. Ed says that my version of such a design argument is "trivial." So be it - it still takes down atheism by the complex substructures of living things, a non-trivial result in today's world. And it is, essentially, the very same core argument as the ID argument is.

Lydia McGrew said...

I was re-reading parts of this long thread last night:

I thought several parts of it were very interesting. I particularly think, upon reflection, that Tim's (my husband's) discussion with Ed about the concept of referential opacity and whether ID is arguing to a "merely probable" God, thereby ruling out the true God, dovetails well with my main post. See the "Fred" example in their debate.

I also though that this comment of Ed's in a different old thread was quite interesting in its own way.

It moves from sketching an example of a distinctively Aristotelian-Thomistic argument for special creation to implying that a real Thomist ought to countenance nothing _other than_ that type of distinctively Aristotelian argument with regard to creation. At least when it comes to creation and arguments about where things in creation came from and whether they required special creation. Complexity *must not* be taken into account. I would like to think that Thomists are _not_ committed to such a restriction upon the use of, in my view, highly relevant evidence, but...there's the statement.

Edward Feser said...


Perhaps I should bite my tongue, but your remarks are too outrageous to let pass without comment.

You asked me to address the question of whether ID leads away from a classical theist conception of God, but to do so without getting into questions in philosophy of nature. So I did. Then you raised an objection to what I said that presupposed certain answers to questions in philosophy of nature (since whether such-and-such is probable in the natural order of things depends on how we conceive of the natural order of things). Naturally there is no way I could address such an objection without getting into philosophy of nature. But you were the one who brought philosophy of nature back in, not me. Now you’ve got the nerve to say that my attempt to address the issue without bringing in philosophy of nature was “a rather clear failure.” It’s positively Orwellian.

Furthermore, that you misrepresented me in your original post is demonstrable, and I provided the demonstration. In my original blog post responding to you, I provided numerous quotes from past writings of mine wherein I explicitly said precisely the opposite of the views you had attributed to me. The point was to provide actual documentary evidence that might get even the stubborn Lydia McGrew to admit she’d made a mistake.

I now see that there is no such evidence. You will simply ignore it and persist in seeing only what you want to see.

OK, that’s it. I’m gone. Happy Mother’s Day.

Lydia McGrew said...

Ed, I'm very sorry, but I stick to my "rather clear failure" point. You said the following:

"So, we need to abstract all that out if we’re to conceive of a “designer” in truly divine terms. We’re also going to have to abstract out from our conception of his effects in the world anything that has to do with what in a human designer would require skill in calculation, good design instincts, manual dexterity, ability to work with others and assemble a team, etc. Now, when we do this, I submit that what we’ll end up focusing on in each case are considerations that don’t have much to do with the specifics either of human artifacts or of human artificers. We’ll focus on things like the way that a thing can be directed toward an as-yet non-existent end (whether simple or complex) only insofar as there is a guiding intellect that so directs it by virtue of having that end in mind conceptually. That is to say, we’ll focus on just what the Fifth Way focuses on. (For how this argument works and why it requires an infinite intellect, see, again, what I’ve written on that subject.) The complexity of bacterial flagella, etc. drops out as irrelevant."

You also said this: " I realize that they would abstract from those aspects of human designers. The point is that if they also abstract away everything else they would need to abstract away in order to arrive at a classical theist conception of God and his relationship to his creation, they’ll find that the complexity of this or that natural object really isn’t what is doing any work in getting from the order of the world to a divine intellect."

Those are both instances of non sequiturs. _Huge_ non sequiturs. I'm just going to quote again the clearest statement of what does not follow: "We’re also going to have to abstract out from our conception of his effects in the world anything that has to do with what in a human designer would require skill in calculation, good design instincts, manual dexterity, ability to work with others and assemble a team, etc."

Why in the world one would think that is just...beyond me. *Of course* we don't have to "abstract out from our conception of God's effects" anything that _would_ require humans to use manual dexterity, etc., to achieve. Just because we don't, in fact, assume that the designer requires manual dexterity, etc., to achieve those complex effects, we do not have to say that the complexity itself is *epistemically irrelevant*.

That is what I am calling a rather clear failure in the attempt to explain the independent force of the "wrong concept of God" objection. Because it just is.

Lydia McGrew said...

I could have said more to defend myself from the charge of misrepresentation. In fact, I usually think such meta-level spinoffs get very boring very fast, so I've kept my self-defense on that point, concerning the main post, brief and sketchy. I realize that's left me open to continual and, it seems, increasingly annoyed complaints to that effect, but I think this thread was more interesting without more self-defense to that charge on my part, so I'm going to keep it that way.

Edward Feser said...

I could have said more to defend myself from the charge of misrepresentation. In fact, I usually think such meta-level spinoffs get very boring very fast

So, determining whether you really have accurately represented the views you're attacking is "very boring." Even when the person in question is a friend of many years, who politely gives you clear evidence that you have misrepresented him.


After all the nasty misrepresentations you and your W4 co-bloggers have been subject to over the years, that's what you've got to say?

You should be ashamed of yourself.

Lydia McGrew said...

No, no, I did not mean that. What I meant would be boring would be a metalevel argument about _whether_ I have misrepresented you. As for _determining_ that, for my own part, I have thought about it, read your post carefully, re-read mine, and even gone back and spent quite a bit of time re-reading some of our old discussions, and am quite convinced that I have not done so. It is, rather, making further self-defensive arguments that I am avoiding getting into, for several reasons, including, beyond boring the readership, making you even _more_ angry, as I am sure such self-defense would do. I certainly don't think such a wrangle as that would devolve into is necessary to my _knowing_ whether I've been guilty of misrepresentation.

Lydia McGrew said...

I think commentator Otto has shown that he's kept his eye on the ball. Those are, indeed, important questions that arise from the actual substance of my main post, from the philosophical points I was making there regarding the structures of the arguments from the voice in the sky and from biological complexity.

Christopher McCartney said...

I agree that you have not misrepresented Dr. Feser here. And I say that as someone who accepts classical theism as articulated by Aquinas and Scotus, and I think Dr. Feser is worthy high praise for how clearly and powerfully he presents the Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy of nature, which I likewise endorse. (_Scholastic Metaphysics_ is on my bedside table right now.) But on this issue it seems to me that your arguments much stronger than his.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Christopher McCartney, I appreciate that much.

If anyone is wondering (it just occurred to me out of the blue that a reader might wonder), I have approved all comments for this thread. I am not filtering for only positive comments or anything of that kind.

Edward Feser said...

Christopher McCartney,

If you read both Lydia’s original post and my blog post replying to her, then it is utterly mystifying how you could say flatly that Lydia hasn’t misrepresented my views. Perhaps you could explain how she hasn’t, since she persistently refuses to do so.

I appreciate your kind words about my work. If you’re wondering how I am able to write so much in the way of books, articles, blog posts and the like, here is one reason: I do my best to avoid spending hours and hours, days and days in combox discussions like this one. Hence, as I have said, I simply have no time to devote to rebutting everything Lydia has said here. Lydia posts an enormous number of comments. They are typically very long and convoluted, and in each one she routinely makes a number of sweeping and tendentious assertions. The arguments she has presented here that I have bothered to read have no force. The problem, though, is that if I tried to untangle and respond to everything she has said I would be doing nothing else this week but hanging out in Lydia’s combox.

There is only one reason I responded to Lydia’s original post at all, and that was to set the record straight about some annoyingly common misrepresentations of my criticisms of ID and of theistic personalism which she had perpetuated in her post. As a courtesy because of my friendship with and respect for Lydia, I have taken time to reply to some of what she’s said here in the combox. But I’ve had other personal and professional matters to attend to, we have gotten farther and farther from the issue that brought me here in the first place, Lydia keeps bringing up more and more side issues and saying ever more tendentious things at ponderous length, and she keeps imputing to me things that I never said. That, and the fact that I have now wasted hours that should have been spent grading exams, meeting a pressing deadline on a writing project, etc. has taken a toll on my patience.

Lydia could very easily have said something like: “Sorry if I originally gave the impression that Ed maintains that God is impersonal; of course he does not, and of course he has said many times that he does not. What I should have said is that I think some of his other views have a tendency to lead to an impersonal view of God.” She could have said similar things in response to my complaints about her other misrepresentations of my views. It’s just common decency in a debate context like this to try to make sure you’ve gotten someone’s views right, and to acknowledge his complaints when he says you have not. “OK, so you didn’t mean that; fair enough” or “Well, I think I didn’t actually misrepresent you, and here’s why…”

Lydia not only has not done that, she explicitly refuses to do it. It’s not just rude -- though it is that -- it is intellectually dishonest. Yet she seems to think that the real reason I’m annoyed with her is that she’s somehow presented devastating objections that I cannot answer.

I’m happy to leave her to that fantasy. I’ve got too much other stuff to do, and I’ve already said a lot about these subjects before. Interested readers are referred to the “ID versus A-T roundup” and “Classical theism roundup” posts, which they can find by doing a search at my blog.

Lydia McGrew said...

My original post, of course, does _not_ say that Ed thinks God is impersonal. Rather, it very clearly indicates _precisely_ that I think his animadversions against ID arguments do indeed have the danger of conducing to a picture of God insufficiently personal, and insufficiently willing to appear as a person, as the God of the Bible does.

Similarly, I think the o.p. is quite clear that the problem regarding "arguments that don't get you all the way to the true God" is simply that, in my view, Ed's objections to ID do not leave him the space to countenance the biblical arguments I discuss. I'm well aware that he has said that "the problem isn't that the ID argument doesn't get you all the way to the true God but that it takes you away from the true God." The problem with that is simply that the kinds of biblical evidence I discuss has structural similarities to ID such that I believe in consistency (and eschewing arbitrariness), Ed's objections to ID should apply to them as well. And this is indeed related to the fact that the things done in those cases could in principle have been done by someone other than the true God of classical theism, for that is closely related to their "seeming like a person," which Ed holds is an incorrect view of the true God. Moreover, the kinds of scorn that Ed heaps upon ID because a movie-like caricature of God could be "pictured" as doing the things it describes, which certainly seems to have been part of the _argument_ (usually not a very conspicuous or very clear argument) for ID's alleged "wrong conception of God," could also be heaped upon the argument from these biblical miracles. They, too, could give rise to a movie-like, overly anthropomorphic picture of God, and so forth.

There is much more that I could say. Again, I encourage deeply interested readers to see Ed's comments about Fred and the murder in the old thread linked above. But that is all I will say now, and more than I wished to.

In fact, it's rather otiose. I think the main post and the comments thread before now speak for themselves.

Lydia McGrew said...

Of course, Ed's further insistence within the comments thread on the *necessary irrelevance* of complexity to any right-thinking argument from apparent design in nature only strengthens my case. His objections to ID should apply to some biblical evidences as well, some of which depend upon complexity. Saying, "That's just another matter" is not terribly convincing.