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“I think we're on the verge of a major philosophical shift in biology”

I have long complained that too many partisans in the debate between Darwinism and Intelligent Design theory do not realize that the recognition of teleological processes in nature does not necessarily hinge on whether one is willing to accept the existence of a “designer.” That may appear to be the case if one assumes William Paley’s conception of teleology, but not if one takes instead an Aristotelian approach to teleology. And attacks on the former conception do not necessarily have force against the latter conception.

To be sure, we Thomists do hold that teleology provides the basis for an argument for God’s existence, viz. Aquinas’s Fifth Way. But that argument is very different from Paley’s, and acknowledges – with Aristotle and against Paley and his successors – that the existence of teleology in nature does not directly entail an ordering intelligence. That requires further argumentation. (As the analytical Thomist Christopher Martin has noted, modern philosophers tend to assume that getting from natural teleology to God is easy, but establishing that there really is such a thing as teleology in nature in the first place is hard – whereas Aquinas’s view was that the existence of natural teleology was obvious, and the real philosophical work comes in showing that such teleology really requires an explanation in terms of God, as Aristotle thought it did not. See my book Aquinas for my most extended treatment of this issue.)

The philosopher of biology Andre Ariew is one contemporary thinker outside the Aristotelian-Thomistic orbit who has noted the difference between Paley’s understanding of teleology and Aristotle’s, and acknowledged that Darwinian criticisms of Paley do not necessarily show that there is no such thing as teleology in the Aristotelian sense. Another is physiologist J. Scott Turner, whose recent book The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges From Life Itself argues for the indispensability of the notion of unconscious “intentionality” in understanding certain biological phenomena.

Our friend John Farrell has just posted an interesting Q and A between himself and Turner over at his blog, wherein Turner expresses the view that “we’re on the verge of a major philosophical shift in biology.” Check it out, then go buy the book.

Comments (21)

"the existence of natural teleology was obvious"

I've thought it was ever since I was in college. Twenty-five years in healthcare and the consequences for one's health of denying teleology have done nothing to make me question that conviction.


P.S. I've ordered your book on Aquinas.

"The existence of natural teleology was obvious"

It's even more of a lock now.

Sorry, but maybe I'm missing something here. Is the goal simply to have biologists recognize teleological processes in nature, regardless of whether or not they make the additional jump from design to a designer? Paley and Aquinas both agree that there is telos in nature, and also agree that that fact points towards God. I'm not sure why it matters so much which of those inferences is the most difficult to make from their respective positions.

I'm also not sure it's fair to Paley's argument to say that telos sort of automatically entails God. Finding a watch doesn't necessarily automatically entail a watchmaker, but it does naturally lead a person to make that inference. It seems to me that Paley's argument is often incorrectly portrayed as a deductive one, when it was actually inductive. It's not that telos logically entails a designer, but it gives very strong inductive evidence that there is one, and the strength increases with the interrelated complexity of the apparent design.

In the Q&A article, it mentions that Turner's book talks about the eye, saying that the evolution of the optical eye seems to be pretty easy (though I think that's worth an eyebrow raise or two), but that the "real miracle" is in the process of producing vision in the brain. But this is an ID argument! Philip Johnson made the same point in Darwin on Trial. So how does an Aristotelian approach explain this - by some unconscious teleological process? That seems to me akin to explaining it by appeal to magic. I guess I'm not sure it's worth celebrating if biologists move away from materialism and towards magic. It seems to me the modern academy is willing to embrace any explanation except God.

Great post and great link, much to absorb, a print out is in order, for perusal.
Re intentionality, it presumes at some level a form of consciousness, allowing for biological type or evolutionary stage. A Swedish neuroscientist, Bjorn Merker, has done work with children suffering from hydranencephaly, born with only a brain stem.
Merker points out that the human brain stem is quite similar to those of different vertebrates, and in humans so afflicted as above, capable of what he calls "primary consciousness", and so by not tortured extension, to other animals.

My point, which I will mercifully shorten, is that the concept mentioned in the interview with Turner, embodied physiology, has or can have roots in basic, or more advanced, awareness, planning if you will.

If so, and why not, then another factor ought to be thrown into the evolutionary mix, namely Agency.
Mr Dawkins would never approve, nor that pack of determinists from various dying bastions of the willfully despairing.

To John Fraser: I suspect that the relative difficulty in inferring divine (or even intelligent) agency in teleology (according to A-T as presented here) is relevant to evolutionists because they would _prefer_ that it be difficult to say that God has anything to do with biology. Hence, they prefer a version of teleology or a claim of teleology that can be said to be "intrinsic" to the thing (perhaps, vaguely, said to be inherent in "the whole evolutionary process," as I have heard some TE's say) so that they can then deny that it requires any further explanation. And, of course, specifically deny any need for intervention, the I-word being the bugbear of evolutionists.

Please note clearly that I am not attributing any of those desires or motives to Ed at all. In fact, I don't think he _has_ those desires or motives. Ed has even said in a previous thread (something I think should be widely advertised) that the A-T vs. Paley conflict he sees *is independent of the debate over special creation*. What I'm suggesting, rather, is that if some evolutionists come to seem friendly to his concept of an A-T view of teleology, I think _their_ motives may be explicable in the way I described in the previous paragraph.

Dr Feser -
I've read you say that the Aristotlian approach to design is different than the Paley's approach (as well as other ID theorists).... but what exactly is the Aristotelian approach?
I'm not saying there isn't one, and maybe I haven't read enough of your posts - but it seems like you comment that they are different (so that a critique of ID doesn't amount to a critique of A-T).

We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence... [emphasis added]

(Thomas Aquinas, Summma Theologica)

We see here that Thomas considered it self-evident that where there is teleology, there is intelligence. In other words, intelligence does not have to be demonstrated, but is immediately implicit in teleology.

I particularly appreciate the phrase "a being endowed with knowledge and intelligence." That is to say, not just some sort of diffuse "intelligence in the system," as we may say, metaphorically, that a computer system has intelligence. But an actual intelligent being.

George R.,
What natural body is Aquinas referring to? Clouds? Volcanoes? Rivers?


He's referring to any natural body you can think of?

George R.,
The consequence of your position to natural catastrophes should be apparent. You end up supporting Pat Robertson's claim that the catastrophe was deserved punishment, even though some Christian missionaries were also killed.

Step2, I fail to see how what George R. has said "ends up" saying anything close to Pat Robertson's claim. I can certainly see it being said that God ultimately knew of that catastrophe and permitted it. But nowhere do I see any claim that "it was deserved punishment", or really, any explanation of specific personal intention at all.

It seems similar to the gulf between claiming that everything happens for a reason, and giving a specific reason why something happened. The former can be true, while particular claims of the latter can be false, incomplete, etc.

Joseph A.,
I can certainly see it being said that God ultimately knew of that catastrophe and permitted it.

The quote from Aquinas says that natural bodies only move towards an end by design and this design is directed by an intelligent being, not by fortune or misfortune. So it isn't a matter of God acting as bystander, it is a matter of God directing the natural forces to those ends.

I thought you were a smart fella. Didn't you notice what Aquinas said?

...natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way...

Now what does "nearly always" imply, but that on rare occasions these things don't act in the same way? In other words, they sometimes act by chance or misfortune. For example, since the ground is "nearly always" stable, we know that it was intended to be stable. But every once in a while...

George R.,
If you are willing to say that natural bodies sometimes act by chance and differently than their "intended" design, that is all I need to make evolution workable. I put intended in scare quotes to clarify its degree of contingency. With your helpful reminder which I did overlook, that isn't a major problem for Aquinas, but I recall you've taken a more derisive view of evolution.

I predict you will try to say that only the "best result" is the intended design and anything else will be defective, but I don't accept the premise that chance only flows in a negative direction.


That God knows and directs everything does not put one in the same position as Pat Robertson. Not by a longshot. Robertson is not simply saying that God, being omniscient and omnipotent (I doubt Pat would be subscribing to Aquinas' particular views), is ultimately behind all events in the world. He's giving the reasons, motivations, etc of particular acts in the world. That is what is particularly objectionable about Robertson's claims, and I think that's obvious.

So no, that comparison to Robertson is still flat out incorrect.

Joseph A.,
That God knows and directs everything does not put one in the same position as Pat Robertson.

It puts you in the vicinity, let's compromise and say it is within short range. The additional thing you need is the widely accepted view that God is normally a merciful deity, except when He is punishing humans for unholy pacts and eating forbidden fruit.


No, let's not. If you want to compromise on this point, say that the one thing both views have in common is that idea that an omniscient, omnipotent deity foresees, can control, and thus for whatever reason allows certain things to take place. The gulf between that and knowing what those reasons are, even for specific incidents, is damn large.

As for Adam and biblical subjects, that's a whole other matter. You were dead wrong on George's statement putting him in the same camp as Pat Robertson in any appropriate sense. You seem to admit that now, while wanting to save some face. Do what you will.

Joseph A.,
I was happy George R. pointed out my mistake. It provides a clear way to say that God wasn't directly responsible for the catastrophe, it also allows room for evolution to be plausible. Win-win situation.

You seem to be going back and forth on the point of whether God was directly or indirectly responsible. When you've made up your mind on that, the possible reasons this specific incident took place will become more distinct.

I also find it ironic that you feel free to infer my reasons based upon the evidence, but a natural catastrophe can't possibly be a reflection on the reasons of God.

Step2, let's not get carried away, please, with the "vicinity" of Robertson.

Jesus condemns outright the attitude that we can see a misfortune happen to a group and ascribe sin to those particular people as the cause of Divine retribution. Remember His reference to the people killed when a tower fell over? Pat Robertson was wrong, wrong, wrong, because he chose to ignore what Jesus Christ says, as well as simple logic.

On the other hand, it is impossible to maintain that God is omniscient and omnipotent and providentially orders creation for the good, and then to say that the earthquake happened contrary to His will. Everything that is, is because the First Cause of all makes it to be so...and that applies to everything that is except sin, since sin is itself a defect of being rather than being. If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without God being in control of that, then how much more an earthquake happening.

Nor can we posit that an earthquake happens _outside_ of His providential ordering of creation, since this would imply that things happen which do not comport with His overall order and plan.

So, even if we are confident that God orders all things to the good of those who love him, we should never be ready to posit that God intended some misfortune as retribution on account of that person's sin. Did God provide that Jesus would die a horrible death because he was such a horrible sinner? Of course not. There are other possibilities. I think Robertson must be in his dotage to fail to recognize this.

So, aside from Step2, I'm seeing a lot of the problems inherent in Thomism:
Determinist approach to existence, failing to understand that the features we posit for God are analogs for our conceptualization of the order and intelligence we perceive in phenomenal reality. This did lead to the "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" debates in the past and stubborn refusal to accept that Thomas was a revolutionary thinker, but not the end-all-be-all of philosophy or theology which keeps more modern and open-ended thought (like Rahner's) from penetrating the mental shroud of this determinism.
And to Step2, yes Thomas Aquinas himself would have shuddered and chastised Robertson for his declaration, any clear minded person can see how his approach to ID, built on a constipated understanding of apophainesthai (a misfortune of the loss of the context-sensitive Middle voice), does indeed lead to a paradox. By sustaining the position that phenomena have a definite link to noumenal realities, even by way of analogy, one posits the needed connection of teleological determinism required to understand order in the universe as a "proof" for the existence of God. By the same coin, however, one is also positing that God's will is acted out by phenomena, which logically removes both responsibility and merit from all phenomenal entities (as they cannot defy the will of God in fact) and puts it in God's hands. This paradox which Thomists try to side-step and wave away is stating that man's actions (as part of the phenomenal order) are God's actions and that free will is an illusion. God did set the order to the universe and did create the earthquake which destroyed so many lives in Haiti, just as he toyed with Pharaoh's heart and hardened it, so as to make Moses that much more the hero in getting his people's freedom.
Evolution, understood by both philosophers and theologians is a theory of how God's will is acted out in time. Time itself is really just a mode of apperception, or if you prefer a schema by which phenomena are experienced. God, in this case cannot be discussed at length, as it is an unavoidable Idea arising from experience, but to try to understand Him is the folly of man's hubris. He is both cruel and loving and bereshit (the first word in the Bible) is not an absolute beginning, but a relative one, which points us in the direction of understanding that God, as eternal, defies the definitions the list-making Thomists and their ilk try to create for Him and His actions.
What is important to maintain is an open comportment to being, including each other as we can experience it. We are not ourselves possessed of the capacity to perceive, judge, or understand noumena beyond what can occur within that scope. It is all so much straw to try.

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