What Role Naturalism? 2 – Insights from Thomas

Last Friday and Saturday Francis Beckwith, Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies at Baylor University, posted an essay describing his journey through the concepts of intelligent design, philosophical naturalism, and Christian philosophy. Beckwith has been no stranger to controversy the last five or six years – for a wide range of reasons from his criticism of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision to his return to the Catholic church and resignation as president of the ETS. He doesn’t seem one to take the easy way out – or to go along with prevailing opinion. His essays are worth reading – Intelligent Design and Me, Part I: In the Beginning and Intelligent Design and Me, Part II: Confessions of a Doting Thomist to gain some insight into thinking about the issues in intelligent design.

In what follows I am going to reflect on one piece of the discussion in Beckwith’s essay. Toward the end of the second post Beckwith gives two quotes – one from Dembski ‘s book No Free Lunch and one from Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica – and includes some observations.

First Dembski as quoted by Beckwith:

The “gaps” in the god-of-the-gaps objection are meant to denote gaps of ignorance about underlying physical mechanisms. But there is no reason to think that all gaps give way to ordinary physical explanations once we know enough about the underlying physical mechanisms. The mechanisms simply do not exist. Some gaps might constitute ontic discontinuities in the chain of physical causes and thus remain forever beyond the capacity of physical mechanisms. (p. 334-335)

Christian advocates of intelligent design will agree, I think, that God is present in all of nature and that his design is found throughout all of nature, including natural mechanisms. Still, there is an emphasis on these “ontic discontinuities,” an expectation that mechanisms do not exist to provide natural explanations for empirical observed phenomena, for the nature of the world. In the work of Dembski and Meyer the origin of life, and of the “specified information” of the cell, is proposed to represent one of these discontinuities. Old earth creationists suggest that these discontinuities are also seen in the diversity of life – natural mechanism is insufficient to account for the appearance of complex life from simpler forms. This leads to an interesting theological question.

Does the evidence for a designer really hinge on such ontic discontinuities and the absence of “natural” mechanisms? Is there any reason to expect such discontinuities?

Beckwith contrasts this with a Thomist approach as reflected in Summa Theologica (written between 1265 and 1274), and particularly with Thomas’s fifth way. Thomas answers an objection (Quotes from this link to Summa Theologica article three):

Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

This is an objection at play in much of the discussion of science and faith – if there is a natural explanation there is no need consider the possibility that God exists. It is a card played often by those who wish to claim that science disproves the existence of God. But it misses the point After giving four other ways to demonstrate the existence of God, Thomas concludes with:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. 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; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

The presence of God is seen not in the empirical phenomena of nature, but in the purpose behind those phenomena. Thus Thomas answers objection 2:

Reply to Objection 2. Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human  reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.

This is an interesting thought. The suggestion is that the evidence for design – and a designer – is not “ontic discontinuities” or the absence of adequate physical mechanism to describe phenomena, including the origin of life. Rather following Thomas the evidence for a designer is found in the purpose of the design.

Philosophical naturalism, ontological naturalism, secular naturalism, what ever term you use, is a real force in our world, and especially in the academy. This view is counter to the heart and soul of Christian belief and a Christian should have an argument and an answer for this challenge.  But we don’t refute this view by denying science. When a Christian approaches science – from evolutionary biology to cosmology – the goal is not to look for evidence against philosophical naturalism, but to understand the “natural” means used to achieve God’s purpose.

The argument against philosophical naturalism comes from a different direction. The atheist or agnostic denies the existence of God and the purpose inherent in his creation. This purpose is revealed, not in “ontic discontinuities,” but through relationship and interaction. Scripture  is a record of God’s interaction with his creation. Perhaps the purpose is also written into our consciousness in the moral law and search for meaning – something worth thinking about anyway. This purpose is witnessed through the missional life lived walking in the Spirit – through a life lived with love of God and love of others as central focus.

What do you think? Where should we expect to see evidence of design – and how will we recognize it? How should we answer the challenge posed by philosophical naturalism and the denial of purpose?

If you wish to contact me you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you wish to comment on my posts please see Jesus Creed.

This entry was posted in Science and Faith, Theology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.