Faith & Science
Response to Michael Tkacz’s Critique of ID
In my previous installment, I discussed St. Thomas’s views of creation and his understanding of how God interacts with the world. The subject could easily fill a long book, of course, but I hope to have provided enough to serve adequately as background for evaluating the criticisms of ID from a few Thomists.
One such Thomist is Gonzaga University philosopher Michael Tkacz, who wrote an article criticizing ID in This Rock magazine, published by Catholic Answers, back in 2008. I read both This Rock and the Catholic Answers website frequently. Both are generally very reliable, orthodox sources of information. So the piece would never have seen the light of day if it had been called: “Why God Is Only Allowed to Act in One Way.” Instead, it’s called “Aquinas Vs. Intelligent Design.”
What I’d like to focus on here, primarily, is his presentation of the views of St. Thomas. First, a couple of caveats: I am only focusing on this single article by Tkacz, on what Tkacz says, and on what I think are its implications. I do not intend to imply anything about Tkacz’s personal views, which his short article may not represent accurately. Moreover, while Tkacz’s criticisms are similar to the critiques of ID from some other Thomists, I do not mean to imply that these others agree with Tkacz’s specific argument. (In fact, I suspect there would be disagreement on the details.)
Tkacz presents his argument as if it were a straightforward, uncontroversial rendering of “Thomism” and the “Catholic intellectual tradition.” He argues that God’s creative activity never involves a change from one thing to another. So he objects to ID arguments that he thinks (incorrectly) imply that God “intervenes” in nature:
This is the view that nature, as God originally created it, contains gaps or omissions that require God to later fill or repair. Given the Thomistic understanding of divine agency, such a “god of the gaps” view is clearly inconsistent with a proper conception of the nature of creation and, therefore, is cosmogonically fallacious.1
This is a familiar caricature of ID, which ID proponents have corrected many, many times. In truth, ID per se is neutral with respect to how and when intelligent design is implemented (though God can do what he wants to do). Logically, detecting design within a framework in some particular locus within nature (the subject of ID arguments) is a different issue from determining how that design came about.
Tkacz attributes this “god of the gaps” view to Michael Behe (who is a conservative Catholic):
Now, a Thomist might agree with Behe’s knowledge claim that no current or foreseeable future attempt at explanation for certain biological complexities is satisfactory. Yet, a Thomist will reject Behe’s ontological claim that no such explanation can ever be given in terms of the operations of nature.
But Behe has never made any such claim and Tkacz provides no reference to substantiate his characterization of Behe’s argument. On the contrary, in The Edge of Evolution, Behe suggests just the opposite–that everything might trace back to the fine-tuning of physical constants and cosmic initial conditions.2This creates a problem for Tkacz’s conclusion: “Insofar as ID theory represents a ‘god of the gaps’ view, then it is inconsistent with the Catholic intellectual tradition.” Since the “insofar” clause isn’t satisfied, I think, the central thesis for the article dissolves.
Rather than belabor his inaccurate portrayal of intelligent design, however, let’s focus instead on Tkacz’s representation of St. Thomas and the Catholic tradition. I think (perhaps because of the limitations that a short article imposes), that that attempt falls short of the mark.
Creation Ex Nihilo Isn’t the Whole Story
As we saw in the previous piece, it’s true that Thomas considers creation ex nihilo to be the pre-eminent meaning of the word “create.” And it distinguishes God’s creative power from the kind of “creation” of which human beings are capable. As he puts it: “To create [in the unique sense attributable to God] is, properly speaking, to cause or produce the being of things.” (ST I:45:6). In other words, God doesn’t just take a pre-existing substratum and fashion it, as does the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus. God calls the universe into existence without using pre-existing space, matter, time, or anything else. So when he creates the universe from nothing, God’s creative act does not involve changing one thing into another,3 as Tkacz notes.
But as we’ve already seen, for Thomas (and Christianity for that matter), this isn’t the only thing God does. It’s not God’s only mode of action. As part of his initial creative activity, in particular, God also “fashions” the things he has created (though God doesn’t need hands and fingers to do this of course). Or, to put it differently, he uses his transcendent power to change natural entities, even to change them into something else entirely. This may be embarrassing to some; but Thomas couldn’t be clearer on this point. He believed that God made Adam, not ex nihilo, but from “the slime of the earth” (Thomas’ words). And God made Eve, according to St. Thomas, not ex nihilo, but from Adam’s rib, which obviously pre-existed Eve. These actions may not be “creation properly speaking,” but they involve God exercising his creative power in a different but still direct way within the created order.
God takes matter and does something with it that it wouldn’t do on its own. Call it “making,” “crafting,” “producing,” “quasi-creating,” “fashioning,” “fiddling,” “tinkering,” “breaking the rules,” or whatever you like. But contrary to Tkacz’s assertion, the “Thomistic understanding of divine agency” (assuming that locution refers to Thomas’ view of the matter, in conformity with the settled teaching of the Church) includes God creating ex nihilo both initially and subsequent to his initial creation of the world, his acting directly in nature–sometimes using pre-existing material–and his acting through secondary causes. And by implication, this would include every permutation of these options.
Must All Organisms Have “Natural” Explanations?
Tkacz also implies that Thomas’ view of creation entails that everything in nature must have a “natural” cause:
Unlike the causes at work within nature, God’s act of Creation is a completely non-temporal and non-progressive reality. God does not intervene into nature nor does he adjust or “fix up” natural things. God is the divine reality without which no other reality could exist. Thus, the evidence of nature’s ultimate dependency on God as Creator cannot be the absence of a natural causal explanation for some particular natural structure. Our current science may or may not be able to explain any given feature of living organisms, yet there must exist some explanatory cause in nature. The most complex of organisms have a natural explanation, even if it is one that we do not now, or perhaps never will, know.
It’s unclear how Tkacz knows these things, or on what basis he asserts them. Is it a dogmatic truth for Catholics that for “any given feature of living organisms . . . there must exist some explanatory cause in nature”? No, it’s not. Does the catechism say that the “absence of a natural causal explanation for some particular natural structure” can’t be even one piece of evidence that nature depends on God? No. Did Thomas make this claim? Hardly. Do we know empirically that every aspect of every organism in nature has an explanation within nature? No.
While Tkacz’s claim may be a logical possibility (though I’m not sure about that, since the world isn’t eternal), it’s not a logical truth. And more to the point, there is nothing in St. Thomas’ own words that commends it. It contradicts Thomas’s views about the origin of the world and it blatantly contradicts settled Catholic doctrine, which holds, for instance, that God directly creates each human soul, which obviously is a feature of those living organisms known as human beings. Besides, there’s nothing in Catholic doctrine that prevents God from, say, turning a banana into a bonobo–though we have no reason to think he has done so. In fact, that follows straightforwardly from the fact that God is transcendent and omnipotent. Frankly, I’m at a loss to understand the basis of Tkacz’s sweeping assertion.
Tkacz’s assertions look more like deductions from naturalism, rigid Aristotelianism, or a hybrid of the two, than like implications of Thomism. Naturalism and orthodox Aristotelianism seem to require that everything in nature have a cause within nature, because there aren’t any other possibilities. There isn’t anything transcending nature and there is no “beginning” at which a transcendent God created the world–in whatever fashion he chose to do so. Of course Aristotle had a concept of an unmoved mover eternally wedded to the cosmos (itself the subject of much scholarly dispute), which goes farther than modern naturalism; but that entity alone does not capture the concept of a transcendent God free to create or not create the universe, or to act freely within it. Thomas incorporated Aristotle’s idea, but his understanding of God vastly outstripped it.
A God who acts within nature has always been an embarrassment to large strands of Greek philosophy. When Paul preached to the Athenians at Mars Hill (in Acts 17) they were intrigued as long as he was talking vaguely about an unknown God, “in whom we live and move and have our being.” But the moment Paul claimed that this God had raised Jesus from the dead, they scoffed and most of them left. Since the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is central to Christianity, it should be obvious that Christianity implies that God, at least sometimes, acts directly within nature.
Catholics believe that many if not all of the miracles described in the Gospels–from the feeding of the five thousand to the restoration of the sight of the man born blind–were not the result of an ordinary natural process but rather an occasion of God’s direct and manifest action in nature. Many theologians or Scripture scholars, not to mention average Christians, have sought to avoid the embarrassment of the physicality of Christianity by providing natural explanations for the miracles in the Bible. Whether it was a “miracle of generosity” that allowed five thousand people to appear to be fed by a few loaves and fishes, or merely a psychosomatic effect that allows someone crippled to walk, a “natural” explanation for something apparently miraculous would reconcile our ordinary experience of the regularity of nature while maintaining the “spiritual” comfort from faith. But Jesus frequently made such reconciliations impossible. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” This was only one of many scandalizing comments he made, which Catholics receive at face value.
In the cases above, we’re dealing with modernist and naturalist philosophy that overrides the claims of the faith. Orthodox Catholics are usually quick to sniff out that sort of thing. In Tkacz’s article, I think we’re dealing with an overbearing Aristotelianism refracted through modern naturalistic science. An orthodox Catholic is less likely to resist this, since it appears to be more traditional than mere modernism is. In fact, rhetorically it’s anti-modern. In either case and whatever the diagnosis, whether we like it or not, Catholics are stuck with a theology and philosophy that features a very active God, who delights to be different, who acts in a variety of ways in nature. If you’re Catholic and your philosophy–whether ancient or modern–makes that a problem, then you should fix your philosophy.
It’s been almost two thousand years since Paul’s speech on Mars Hill, but little has changed. Some philosophies find a God tangibly active in nature to be distasteful. More troubling, some Catholic scholars, despite the clear demands of the faith, surrender to the same kind of thinking. Rather than admitting the surrender, however, they disguise it as a demand of orthodoxy and claim it is based on the thought of Thomas Aquinas.
The real question, in any case, is not whether God has to “fix up” or “adjust” natural things (as Tkacz says). Nor is it whether God “intervenes,” which is a pejorative way of putting the point, since it implies that God, if he acts within nature, is breaking in from the outside, and upsetting some natural balance. That stacks the deck against a God who is active in nature. The real question is whether, according to Thomas and the Catholic tradition, God acts only in the way Tkacz dictates. As we’ve seen, the answer to that question is a resounding no. God creates the world from nothing and continually upholds it, to be sure, but he also acts directly within it for his purposes. To affirm the latter is not to deny the former.4
Tkacz is a so-called “River Forest” Thomist.5 This school of Thomists interpret Thomas in a highly Aristotelian fashion. Other Thomists disagree with them. (My own view is that Thomas’ thought is “Aristotelian” compared to the patristic consensus but is still a sophisticated synthesis that resists Aristotelianism at important points.) However one assesses that broader dispute, however, Tkacz seems to have subordinated Thomas to Aristotelian and perhaps other philosophies in this article, even at the expense of core truths of the faith. I assume this is unintentional.6 Although modern naturalism and Aristotelianism differ on many points, both are hostile to the idea of a transcendent God who acts directly in nature, and both assume that whatever “teleology” exists in nature, it can’t have a truly transcendent source. In this, they contradict St. Thomas–and Christianity. When either view–modern naturalism or Aristotelianism–is fused uncritically with Christian theology, you end up with either a muddle or heterodoxy.
Of course, it doesn’t follow that to be a good Catholic, or even a good Thomist, you have to follow St. Thomas on every detail. Presumably few would agree with him when it comes to astronomical details–that the heavenly bodies orbit the Earth in perfect circles–or that God created everything in six, ordinary Earth days. But departures should be identified for what they are–departures. Departures motivated by the desire to adapt to Aristotelian or Darwinian orthodoxy, or to avoid violating the strictures of “methodological naturalism” or whatever, should be frankly identified, rather than given a fake historical pedigree.
Most importantly, departures from settled Catholic doctrine should be ferreted out, even when they come from the pen of well-meaning scholars. Catholic theology has always maintained that God can and does act within nature in a variety of ways, including ways that almost seem designed to scandalize certain philosophical rules of propriety. Isn’t this obvious? After all, Catholics believe that God miraculously transforms bread and wine into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus–while these remain under the appearance of bread and wine–every time the Mass is performed on Earth. That happens thousands of times a day. If this is how God chooses to dispense his grace, then who are we to erect philosophical constructs that make such behavior appear inappropriate? In short, it misrepresents the tradition to imply that God acts only in one way–the way that just happens to cause naturalists the least consternation.
1Michael Tkacz, “Aquinas vs. Intelligent Design,” This Rock 19, no. 9 (November 2008), at: http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2008/0811fea4.asp.
2 I am skeptical that everything in nature can be tied back to the quite abstract (known) constants of nature and cosmic initial conditions, but that is not important here.
3See, for instance, Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles 2: 17, in which he spells out the doctrine of creation: “God’s action, which is without pre-existing matter and is called creation, is neither a motion nor a change, properly speaking.” Notice that he says “properly speaking.” That’s because he elsewhere describes God doing all sorts of things within nature, using pre-existing material.
4Again, lest I be misunderstood, my point here is not the ID per se requires God to act directly in nature. That is a separate question. My point is that Tkacz suggests that Catholic teaching, or the “Thomistic understanding of divine causation,” requires that every feature of every organism have a “natural” explanation.
5This label refers to a suburb of Chicago, where the Albertus Magnus Lyceum for Natural Science is located. It is associated with this approach to St. Thomas. For more on this and other “brands” of Thomist, see Edward Feser, “The Thomistic tradition, Part 1,” (October 15, 2009), at: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/10/thomistic-tradition-part-i.html. See also his “The Thomistic tradition, Part 2” (October 18, 2009), at: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/10/thomistic-tradition-part-ii.html.
6In his lucid summary of the history of Thomism, philosopher John Haldane observes “that the task of synthesis is promising but difficult. Thomism began as a synthesis of philosophy and theology and versions of it have ended in the tangled wreckage of unworkable combinations.” John Haldane, Faithful Reason: Essays Catholic and Philosophical (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 4.