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Hylomorphism as a Metaphysic for Intelligent Design Science

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome JT Bridges to the pages of ENV. Dr. Bridges is a professor of philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina.

Dollarphotoclub_43630481.jpgCatholic theologian Thomas Aquinas is popularly known for his "Five Ways" of demonstrating God’s existence. (See, for example, Michael Egnor’s recent article here, "Lawrence Krauss, Eric Metaxas, and Aquinas’ Fifth Way.") But Aquinas in many of his writings also provides a detailed philosophical account of God’s created order and man’s ability to know it. In doing so, Aquinas offers insights in the areas of metaphysics, philosophy of nature, and epistemology that bear on how one might give a philosophical justification for the conclusions arrived at scientifically by ID theorists.

Given Aquinas’ obvious theistic position and his classical empiricism it likely seems strange to many people when they hear some contemporary Thomists critiquing intelligent design on various grounds. As someone who sees a deep coherence between Aquinas and the modern design movement, I think these criticisms are misguided (part of my doctoral dissertation shows how ID and Thomism are compatible). I also think that such claims of incompatibility are unfortunate because they miss the ways in which Thomistic philosophy and ID science can be mutually informative.

Here I’d like to focus on one of those ways — how Thomistic hylomorphism can provide a philosophical foundation for the insights of modern design theorists. Further, once one sees the nature of hylomorphism, it provides another sound critique of the design theorists’ arch nemesis, philosophical naturalism.

As Intelligent Design (ID) science has matured over the past several decades, it has gone through several phases of growing pains both as a scientific paradigm and as an idea in the culture. One facet of this growth that interests me as a philosopher is the recent discussion over ID and the metaphysics of information prompted by William Dembski’s Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information. Among other things, metaphysics is concerned with giving a philosophical account of how things exist the way they do. For example, the scientist may be concerned with why A causes B, but the metaphysician is concerned with the nature of causality per se. What follows is a brief and simple presentation of a hylomorphic account of ID science.

First things first: What is hylomorphism? From two Greek words "hyle" meaning "matter" and "morphe" meaning "form," hylomorphism is a view of natural objects as being a unified composite of form and matter. Thomist Edward Feser notes, "So, form and matter considered by themselves are, in general anyway, mere abstractions; they exist in the mind, but not in reality."1 Every horse, oak tree, dog, and human being is composed of these principles. Form and matter considered on their own are merely concepts in the mind; in things they are two distinct principles that make the one unified individual thing. The substantial form makes a thing what it is and the accidental forms (e.g. quantity and quality) modify it to have the types of quantity and qualities it has. So a substantial form makes a cat a cat, but an accidental form makes it a "black cat."

Besides the form of a thing, there is its underlying matter. Matter plays two important roles in hylomorphism. First, matter is a principle of change. Why? Because it is the matter that makes sense of the thing’s ability to receive one form (e.g. having black hair) and then another (having white hair), while remaining the same thing. James Madden says succinctly, "The point then is that there is something present in the object that provides the potential to be in indefinitely many different ways, and we call this matter."2 Second, matter is a principle of individuation. John Wippel writes:

[Matter] is a real intrinsic principle which must be present in every corporeal being both to account for the fact that such a being is capable of undergoing substantial change and to allow for the possibility that a given kind of being can be multiplied in numerically distinct individuals which belong to the same species.3

What differentiates Seabiscuit from Secretariat is not horse-ness, since they are both horses; matter makes Seabiscuit this particular horse and Secretariat that particular horse.

Given these metaphysical categories, what would a hylomorphic view of ID science be? The first thing to note is that it is best to think of ID science in terms of quantification. For example, Dembski and Wells write:

Unlike irreducible complexity, which is a qualitative notion, specified complexity can be quantified and falls within the mathematical theory of probability and information…. [And specified complexity can be] formulated as a statistical criterion for identifying the effects of intelligence…4

So for influential ID proponents like Dembski and Wells, what makes ID a properly defined and scientific analytic tool for design detection is its essentially mathematical character.

Following Dembski and Wells in their view of ID, we now have to find the role of quantity in hylomorphism. Joseph Owens tells us that a thing’s corporeity (the fact that it is a physical body) is intimately bound up by its having dimension or dimensive quantity.5 The details need not detain us; the important point is that we have a bridge between ID mathematics and the quantity that follows directly on a thing’s corporeal nature. The hylomorphic philosophical analysis of physical realities shows that there is a purely intelligible aspect to any physical reality (its substantial and accidental forms). This aspect is in no way reducible to its purely material component (contra philosophical naturalists), and it is the intelligible quantitative aspect that allows for the empirical detection of design (a la Dembski and Wells).

It is possible, then, to understand ID science through the lens of Thomistic hylomorphic metaphysics.6 When ID makes informational claims about a thing, it requires a metaphysic to account for what makes its mathematical analysis ultimately real. One way of doing that is to say that the quantitative dimensions of a thing are themselves formal in nature and are therefore susceptible to formal (e.g. mathematical) analysis, but that these forms are in matter in such a way that it makes them empirically detectable and therefore objects of science.

There may be other metaphysical systems within which ID science could find its home. The above is an account of how Aristotelian-Thomistic hylomorphism is one of those systems.


(1) Edward Feser, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), 58.

(2) James D. Madden, Mind, Matter & Nature: A Thomistic Proposal for the Philosophy of Mind (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013), 235.

(3) John F. Wippel, The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas: From Finite Being to Uncreated Being (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000), 317.

(4) William A. Dembski and Jonathan Wells, The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems (Dallas, TX: Foundation for Thought and Ethics, 2008), 165 & 168.

(5) Joseph Owens, "Thomas Aquinas: Dimensive Quantity as Individuating Principle," Mediaeval Studies 50 (1988), 279-310.

(6) Though some Thomists, e.g. Edward Feser, deny that ID and Thomism are compatible, I defend this compatibility in my dissertation, "An Analysis of the neo-Darwinism/Intelligent Design Debate based on an Eclectic Philosophy of Science Grounded in Thomistic Realism," (Charlotte, NC: Southern Evangelical Seminary, 2012).

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