Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Nature, Artifacts, Meaning and Providence

Dr Torley has composed a long and gracious response to my last series of posts, in which he continues to discuss the nature of life and why he believes life must be regarded as an artifact.

Dr Torley distinguishes living things from other natural substances by defining them as things which have a good of their own. He writes that the natural tendencies of nonliving things are not sufficient to satisfy this definition:

The effect they tend towards can be called their telos. Additionally, these things possess an internal unity, and may resist being taken apart. The atoms in crystals, for instance, are bound together by strong chemical bonds. However, this internal unity of natural objects does not mean that we can speak of anything as being good for them. For example, soil, water and sunlight are good for a plant; but it simply makes no sense to say that anything is “good for” soil, good for water, or good for sunlight. These things are not the sort of things that can meaningfully be said to benefit from anything. Only living things can properly be said to benefit, because they possess a good of their own.

I'm not sure about this definition of life as what has a good of its own. It's not completely clear to me that it's always wrong to speak of the good of nonliving things. I note that Dr Torley's examples - soil, water, and sunlight - are not substances but substantial kinds (at least the first two). Soil and water are stuff that come in amounts: we don't talk about a soil or a water. People do, however, talk about the good of things like the Chesapeake Bay, which is not far from me. Pollution is bad for the bay. Moisture is bad for books. Acid rain is bad for limestone rock formations. To the extent that favorable conditions are necessary for even nonliving things to remain in being, I'm not sure that it's impossible to speak of what's good or bad for them. However, I'm not very committed to this point.

When Dr Torley goes on to further define a living thing in terms of its form, I am both more and less satisfied. He says that a living thing as such contains the following feature:

a master program controlling the organism’s internal parts and their internal interactions from the top down, and also governing the organism’s vital processes and biological functions – especially nutrition, growth and reproduction

My concern is that speaking of the substantial form in terms of a "program" or "code" seems extremely metaphorical to me. Words like this already presuppose meaning and intentionality, but it's just the presence of meaning and intentionality in the natural processes of non-intelligent living things that ID is trying to show. It's the same with his later description of the master program as "a single, unified set of instructions". Now I agree that the substantial form is one thing which governs both the operation of the whole organism and the forms and operations of its parts; but to speak of it as a set of instructions seems to 1) presuppose semantic content, and 2) fail to distinguish between the essence as "information" in the sense of conveyable and conceivable abstract semantic content, and the essence as the presently existing and operating concrete form. While it seems clear to me that the parts of a living thing work together to serve the good of the whole, it's not clear to me that this must be understood in terms of intentionality and meaning; but Dr Torley's definition seems to presuppose this. Later on in his post he writes that the "program" in the organism is a recipe, and that "Recipes have meanings: they have a very highly specific semantic content." But I must admit that it's not clear to me that what happens in the generation of an organism is the application of meaning, according to grammatical rules, to transmit semantic content. Dr Torley writes "a living organism isn’t merely a kind of thing, like water: it actually embodies a message in its master program. The laws of nature are not directed at the production of messages." And, again, this appears to beg the question. Simply because a thing is very, very complex does not mean that it isn't "a thing like water", in the sense of a naturally occurring thing, nor does great complexity necessarily entail the presence of messages, which implies minds and communication. I am not convinced that in the production of a cell or of a chicken anything is expressed to anyone. The generation of a living thing is not ordered to produce an act of understanding in an intellectual subject, but to produce a subject capable of performing a complex but non-intellectual operation.

On the other hand, when he speaks of a "nested hierarchy of organization" in a living thing, "whose formation and maintenance is governed" by the whole, I am much more on board. It seems to me that being able to recognize the "nested hierarchy of organization" in natural substances is a big advantage that Scotism has over Thomism. Scotists accept a plurality of substantial forms in some substances, whereby we do not have to insist, as Dr Feser does, that there is precisely one and only one simple form per substance, and that generation and corruption happens only by prime matter "losing" the form that it has and acquiring a new one to replace it. It seems to me that recognizing that a new form can incorporate and integrate lower forms into a new and higher unity without necessarily destroying them is a big advantage, and comports much better with empirical observation. In the What's Wrong With the World discussions there was a lot of complaining about the fact that for Dr Feser and Thomists generally one must say that carbon or water or cells or whatever in an organism don't exist except potentially and virtually, since what exists is just the one complete substance, even though empirically the lower-level objects are obviously there. But this is a bit of a digression.

To return to the point, I accept that there is a nest hierarchy of organization in a living thing, but am much less sure that the ordered operations of the thing are necessarily and empirically explicable only in terms of "programming" and "encoding", the characterization of which seems to beg the question.

Now I move on the Dr Torley's discussion of the nature of artifacts. He defines an artifact as "a thing whose form is such that it could only have been reliably made through the application of skill, and not as a result of any other process."

I compare this with my own earlier discussion of what it is to be an artifact. I called an artifact in the narrow sense something without a nature, that is, a whole the principle of whose operation is given only extrinsically and whose parts are related to each other and to it only extrinsically or accidentally. In a wider sense I admitted that God could be called the artificer of the universe, in the sense that the universe was intentionally made, not generated, and its properties chosen by God, not intrinsic to the nature of being or of all possible universes. But the sense in which the world as a whole is an artifact is very different from the distinction between natural and artificial forms within the parameters of the universe as it now exists. Dr Torley's definitions of an artifact does not seem to take this distinction into account. For him an artifact is distinguished from a natural substance by appealing to the conditions of its origin, not to its essential properties. This seems wrong to me.

In saying that the first living thing was an artifact, I mean that it was an artifact in the narrow sense. Because it was the first living thing, it could not have been generated naturally from another living thing. Thus it must have either been generated from non-living matter, without the application of skill, or it must have been generated (somehow) through the application of skill. However, I would contend that the form of the first living thing was such that it could only have been made through the application of skill, and not as a result of any other process.

Dr Torley wants to exclude the possibility of life arising naturally as a matter of principle. For me it seems to be an empirical question. Our ancestors believed that life could be spontaneously generated from nonliving matter by the application of sunlight and other appropriate conditions. Is this true? It seems to me that the way to find out is to look and see if it ever happens. Is the production of life built into the laws of nature? Let's see if the laws of nature do in fact inexorably produce life the way they produce stars and rocks. If evolution from chance variation and natural selection happens, then it should be empirically demonstrable. If it isn't empirically demonstrable, then evolutionary theory has difficulties. But for a metaphysician the question of whether or not the laws of nature can produce life has no bearing whatsoever on the question of whether an intelligent God created the universe. If the laws of nature produce life, that is an astonishing fact about the natural world and the complexity and intelligibility embedded deep within its structure which must be accounted for. If the laws of nature cannot produce life, then the presence of life nonetheless is an astonishing fact about the world that must be accounted for. Either way, it seems to me, the order of the universe is an inescapable fact which cannot be accounted for by appealing to the contents of the universe itself.

For Dr Torley, on the other hand, this sort of consideration is again excluded in principle. Unfortunately his reasons for excluding the possibility that God created the universe in which life could arise naturally are not convincing:

However, what many ID proponents find offensive about the proposal that the laws of nature alone, operating on inanimate matter, could have accounted for the origin of the first living organism is that laws, being general in scope, cannot be said to be aimed at the production of any particular individual. Thus if the above proposal were correct, the first living thing would have been generated without any skill. Sure, God would have used His skills to “set up the show” by creating the universe with its laws, and continuing to conserve everything in existence. But the actual generation of the first living thing would have been accomplished via automatic processes (laws) that were not specifically aimed at the production of that particular thing. Thus no extra input of intelligence would have been required to create the first living organism that came into existence. I have to say that sounds rather godless to me. It just doesn’t smell right. It’s too “hands-off” – not much better than Deism. [emphasis in the original]

To say that this account of the origins of life is "offensive", "godless", "doesn't smell right", etc., does not seem rationally compelling. It seems to lend credence to the accusation that ID is question-begging, that it sets up its definitions and premises to lead inexorably to the desired conclusion, rather than being a dispassionate and rational examination of nature and the conditions of nature's existence which finds contemporary scientific accounts lacking.

Furthermore, this account seems to confuse the distinction with God's direct interference in the operations of the world - miracles - with God's providential governance of the world. God normally governs the world from outside the world, ordering every event in the whole from the perspective of eternity, so that what is rightly called chance from the perspective of the laws of physics, or of history, or whatever, are rightly called providentially ordained by God from the perspective of eternity. In that respect the fact that the laws of nature weren't combined with the initial conditions of the universe to necessarily lead to the production of any particular individual is just irrelevant to whether God willed the production of that individual.

To take an analogy, there are no natural laws which can explain just why I came to exist rather than millions of other possible children my parents might have had. For me to come into being one particular sperm had to unite with one particular egg at one particular time, when so far as the laws of nature were concerned any number of other combinations might have occurred. Naturally speaking, the fact that I was produced and not some possible brother is due only to chance. And from the perspective of the physicus, so far as natural laws are concerned, the fact that my parents met at all is also due to chance, and so forth for a vast of array of conditions that were necessary for my particular existence. Does all of this pose a threat to the theological notion that God in his providence willed that I in particular come to be, that he loves me in particular and desires my salvation and beatitude? Not at all, for the providential ordering of the world takes place on a different plane of reality than the laws of physics, so that what is chance from the perspective of physics is willed and chosen from the perspective of providence.

What actually seems Deist is the dichotomy that God is either the blind watchmaker that winds up the universe at the big bang and then lets it unspool according to blind laws, or that he has to enter into the world and tinker around with particles in order to make things come out as he likes. It seems to me that this is poor theology - and, either way, irrelevant to determining just what the laws of physics and biology are, and what are their possible effects.

To conclude, I am not convinced that Dr Torley has demonstrated that a living thing is naturally and evidently best understood as an expression of meaning, or that the complexity of life is semantic complexity such that any apprehension of its nature whatsoever leads us to recognize in the genesis of that nature a message which demands that we infer an act of intelligence above and beyond what is required to account for the laws of nature or the general intelligibility of the cosmos. I think it should be clear that I'm not stumping for Darwinian evolution or any other account of the origins of life in physical terms; nor am I rejecting any such account. What I am objecting to is the metaphysical presuppositions behind Dr Torley's account of Intelligent Design theory, which seem to include a petitio principii.


turandot said...

Dr. Sullivan:

Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to Dr. Torley's recent commentary, and responding so civilly and "impersonally." I've found your and Dr. Torley's discussion really fascinating and enlightening.

My genuine congratulations to you for having earned your Ph.D. Impressive accomplishment!

onus probandi said...

Not only were the last four paragraphs of this post particularly phenomenal -- it was capped with such rousing preoration, it can only have been written by the eloquent Mr. Sullivan!

(or, should I say -- quite rightly now, "Dr." Sullivan!)

What a way to mark a wonderful return! Well done!

Edward Feser said...

A fine set of posts, Dr. Sullivan. Torley has part 2 of his reply up now, and he thinks he sees a disagreement between us that seems to me (in this case, anyway) to be illusory, as Torley is confusing two senses of "immanent." I explain why in Update 2 of this post:

but correct me if I've misunderstood you.

Burl said...

Dr. Sullivan

A well phrased presentation of the God-Nature continuum.

I tend to agnosticism, by which I mean non-dogmatic approach to philosophy and just about everything else, I suppose. There is some truth and some misconception in almost any stance anyone may take on any subject.

Regarding God and Nature, I am not sure if my agnosticism is directed to God or to what we say thru science about Nature.

I think Richard Rorty was wise to conclude that taking the narrative approach may be the most honest paradigm for seeking understanding.

Michael Sullivan said...

onus, thank you as always for your kind words.

Dr Feser, I believe you're right and we don't really disagree. I hope to reply to Dr Torley one final time and then I think I'll have said all I have to say on the subject for now.

eric said...

Dr. Sullivan: "For him [Dr. Torley] an artifact is distinguished from a natural substance by appealing to the conditions of its origin, not to its essential properties. This seems wrong to me."

It would depend on the use or distinction that the word "artifact" was meant to serve.

Consider, for example, artificial diamonds. By essential properties, they are not artifacts. By conditions of their origin, they are artificial and in that sense are artifacts. It depends on what distinction one is trying to capture and express.

Unlike diamonds, living organisms are distinguished from non-living by their essential properties.

I would consider living organisms to be artifacts/artificial in that these properties are beyond the reach or range of natural processes to produce, regardless of the time allowed.

You are quite right in identifying this as an empirical question that is indeed independent, i.e.

"the question of whether or not the laws of nature can produce life has no bearing whatsoever on the question of whether an intelligent God created the universe."

Well said. I greatly appreciate not only the clarity but also the courteousness with which you discuss such subjects. Sincere thanks.

Michael Sullivan said...


Thanks for all your comments. I'm sorry I'm getting back to you late.

Consider, for example, artificial diamonds. By essential properties, they are not artifacts. By conditions of their origin, they are artificial and in that sense are artifacts. It depends on what distinction one is trying to capture and express.

I agree with this. However, in this discussion, we cannot define artifacts in terms of their agent of origin, or efficient cause, because this is just what is under dispute and an intelligent source of the origin of living forms is what the ID proponents are trying to prove. As I've been saying, you can't define your terms in such a way that you get your desired conclusion automatically.