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At First Things, Columnist Stephen Webb Gives Intelligent-Design Critic Stephen Meredith an Education

Feb2014_120-01-15-2014-101005.jpgLately, when someone writes about intelligent design in a conservative magazine and he actually knows how ID theorists argue, it's a cause for celebration. So I found it quite satisfying to turn to the First Things homepage today.

First Things, a thoughtful ecumenical journal, earlier published Stephen Meredith's absurd denunciation of intelligent design as a form of "occasionalism," meaning that it sees all causation in nature as following without intermediary from God ("Looking for God in All the Wrong Places"). Even crazier is that in the The American Spectator, atheist-racialist writer John Derbyshire recently leveled the same obscure accusation. Neither Meredith nor Derbyshire had much to say about the science of ID, focusing instead on an arcane straw man.

I doubt that Meredith and Derbyshire travel in the same intellectual circles -- though they rely for their science on the same Darwinist website, Panda's Thumb. How they both came up with the bit about occasionalism is a question I've wondered about. If readers have any ideas about the derivation of this loony libel, please email me.

Anyway, now First Things has published an online reply by the magazine's own columnist Stephen H. Webb ("Intelligent Design Might Be Wrong, But Not the Way You Think"). Webb's article should give Dr. Meredith an education both about intelligent design and about the medieval Christian philosophy he tried -- irrelevantly -- to deploy against the theory of ID.

Irrelevantly, I mean, because since ID is a scientific idea, trying to batter it down with theology seems beside the point. But, this being the habit of theistic evolutionists -- meeting scientific evidence with religious opinions -- it's necessary to square off with folks like Stephen Meredith on their own terms.


Meredith's definition of occasionalism is accurate, but his claim for its relevance in debates about evolution is not. ID theorists infer their hypothesis from an examination of efficient causality and its empirical limits. They then test their hypothesis by calculating the probability that a specific set of causes can create new biological forms. They might be wrong in everything that they say, but they do not deny efficient causation and thus have no relation to occasionalism.

Meredith also equates occasionalism with the interventionist view of miracles and writes that "proponents of Intelligent Design assert that an 'intelligence' intervenes" into nature. He is wrong on both counts. Occasionalism thinks God is the immediate mover of every natural process. Therefore every occasion is a kind of a miracle, which is another way of saying that there are no occasional miracles in occasionalism; God cannot intervene in the world when the world is nothing more than what he wills it to be already. Miracles are in our minds, not God's. God just brings things together in ways that sometimes surprise us.

Moreover, ID theorists reject an interventionist account of God's relationship to nature. They argue that the intelligent designer of nature can be discovered in ways that are similar to how we figure out that a human mind has been at work in nature. In other words, minds have causal powers that do not break natural laws, even if minds originate outside of nature. The effects of mental causation, whether divine or human, are open to study. Again, ID might be wrong about this, but they do not think that intelligent design is another name for miraculous divine intervention.

Bravo, the man has done his homework. Far from ID's being "occasionalist," the term is more accurately applied to Darwinism itself:

Discussions about secondary causation were common in Darwin's day, mostly shaped by the Spanish Thomist Fracisco Suarez. It was from Suarez that Darwin and company learned their theory of causation. For Aquinas, secondary causes could not create new kinds of things (new species), because God gives everything its own essence. Suarez denied the metaphysical status of essences by arguing that they are not ultimately different from the thing in which they exist. He also turned the theological argument that it is best for God to create by means of secondary causation into a general philosophical principle. Suarez thus opened the door for Darwin to isolate matter from the form it takes.

Aquinas inherited from Platonic philosophy the idea that matter is pure potentiality. It has no organizational capacity of its own. Some modern Thomists like Jaques Maritain tried to reconcile Thomas and Darwin by suggesting that Thomas can be interpreted as inscribing a desire for form into matter, but this only confuses Thomism with what is called vitalism. Matter's potentiality has no appetite for Aquinas; matter itself is not inclined toward self-perfection. Only form actualizes matter, and form is, in the words of Lawrence Dewan, O.P., "something divine in things." Dewan points out that in Thomas' day celestial bodies were thought to be a higher form of matter and thus could function as an intermediate cause between primary and secondary causation "Perhaps someday," he writes, "we will have discovered enough about corporeal reality to provide candidates for such universal causality under God." The Design Hypothesis is, in a way, such a candidate.

Darwin, like all moderns, believed that matter was something particular, that matter is composed of small bits of stuff called atoms, and thus it can be pushed from behind, as it were, without being pulled from beyond, by form. His theory of the struggle for survival is a direct result of this isolation of secondary causation. Nature is all pushing and shoving, with no direction or goal. Causation for Darwin becomes a perverse kind of vitalism where violence and chance are the chief manifestations of life.

In a way, ID theorists follow in the steps of Bonaventure, who thought Aquinas exaggerated the self-sufficiency of secondary causation. But they also follow Aquinas, who thought that matter cannot be the cause of the form that things take. For Thomists, matter is nothing without form. For Darwinians, by contrast, specific forms are nothing but the accidental byproduct of matter's generic form of struggle and chance. From a Thomistic perspective, the separation of efficient causation from formal causation makes Darwinism a scientific version of occasionalism: Molecules bounce against each other randomly, and only occasionally does their strife lead to biological advances. 

Webb's disemboweling of Meredith is polite and respectful, as it would need to be in order to be published by the same journal that published Meredith to begin with. Indeed it is perfectly pitched for First Things. He's a heavyweight, by the way, whose own books on Christian theology are published by Oxford University Press.

For a more no-holds-barred response, see Dr. Michael Egnor's article here, "Dissecting a Dead Jellyfish: Reading Stephen Meredith on Intelligent Design," and Professor Michael Flannery's two-part reply, "Writing in First Things, Stephen Meredith Offers Confusion in the Guise of Critique" and "Critiquing Intelligent Design in First Things, Stephen Meredith Seeks to Serve Two Masters."

I'm now on Twitter. Find me @d_klinghoffer.