Ben Kissling Raises Questions about Aristotle, Thomism, Egnor, Feser, and ID

Near the bottom of another current discussion, Ben Kissling raises some interesting and important questions which deserve a discussion of their own. I’m copying Ben’s remarks and questions here.


Hey Eddie, sorry for the late entry into the convo, but you are exactly the sort of person I was hoping I’d find here. You stated this parenthetical earlier:

Yes, there was some resistance regarding the earth’s location and motion, but it was more the non-Biblical authority of Aristotle than the Bible which shaped medieval and early modern Christian views there, and it’s now almost universally conceded that nothing central to Christian faith was lost in accepting the new view of the solar system.

I’ve actually been thinking a lot of about this myself the past few years and was surprised to see experts on the subject agree. I have some questions for you.

  1. What do you think of the neo-Thomist critique of ID as put forth by Ed Feser and others?
  2. Do you think Aristotelian teleology is compatible with ID, as Michael Egnor has argued, or is it incompatible as Feser does?

I used to be more inclined to agree with Egnor but I don’t think I do anymore. I think Feser is correct and ID is incompatible with Aristotelian teleology. The teleological view suggests that purpose is mystically internal to natural objects, while ID argues that purpose was imposed externally, otherwise the very idea of natural objects as information carriers is incoherent with the obvious problems that poses for ID. What do you think?

  1. Does Feser still hold to his critique of ID? I haven’t followed him for some years.
  2. If ID and Aristotelian teleology are incompatible, what does that mean for Catholics? Are Catholics required to accept Aristotelian teleology as part of their theology? If so are they required as Feser argues to choose one or the other?
  3. Do you think that Feser’s critique of ID is so general an indictment of modern scientific understanding that it must also logically apply to many, many other areas of modern science that Feser doesn’t comment on?

That’s what Ben wrote. The floor is now open.


Thanks. I’m familiar with Torley and I may have even read some of his response back in the day. I’m not Catholic but it does interest me. There aren’t many metaphysical alternatives that have been as well developed as Thomism.

Ben, so that everyone else will understand your reference to Torley (which is a response to my remark to you in the previous discussion), here are some links to pages where Vincent Torley has discussed Thomism and Intelligent Design:

The first five links are to the five parts of a longer article; the last link is to a separate article.

Along the same lines as Vincent Torley’s arguments in these articles, there is the book Aquinas and Evolution, by Michael Chaberek, O.P.

I mention these sources because many Catholic TE/EC proponents, some claiming to speak for Thomism, have argued that the position of Aquinas is very compatible with Darwinian evolution, but incompatible with the views of ID. Torley and Chaberek take the opposite view, and argue for it based on actual texts of Aquinas, as opposed to the “general Thomistic principles” which the other writers employ.

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Right, still making my way through this, but this is all about Aquinas. The reason I asked about Feser’s views is he calls himself an “Aristotelian Thomist” and emphasizes Aristotelian influence on Aquinas and argues that Aristotelian teleology is incompatible with ID. Tkazc, whom Torley is critiquing here, also makes the same argument, but Torley only addresses Aquinas, not Aristotle. I want to ask about Aristotelian teleology. I’m not particularly interested in Aquinas. He was a Christian and adhered to orthodox Christian theology but was famous for attempting to baptise Aristotle. I don’t question whether Aquinas would have agreed with ID. I question whether Aristotelian teleology is compatible with the modern information theoretic ID argument. Aquinas knew nothing about information theory. Ultimately, I’m questioning whether Aquinas’ baptism of Aristotle was appropriate or perhaps is simply outdated and ought to be discarded altogether.

Hello, Ben.

You’re asking questions about difficult material. I can’t begin to cover everything relevant about Aristotle, but here are some points:

  1. Aristotle had a teleological understanding of natural things, but he was not a design theorist in the sense that, say, William Paley was. He did not infer a transcendent designer.

  2. Nonetheless, Aristotle uses the “craftsman” metaphor in ways that border on design thinking. So his thought is ambiguous. He does not seem to think that natural things had a designer, but he sometimes analyzes them metaphysically as if they did.

  3. The best discussion I know of regarding Aristotle’s thought in relation to design thinking (I don’t mean modern ID, but design thinking more broadly) is found in Sedley’s Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity. It is a very detailed scholarly study of ancient classical sources on nature, creation, and design, and not light reading, but it is very good at taking the reader through the difficulties and ambiguities of Aristotle’s language and argument. And the book is written in such a way that you can get a lot out of the Aristotle chapter even if you haven’t read the rest of it. (By the way, I don’t know how much of Aristotle you have read, so I have no way of telling how much background you would bring to Sedley’s book. If you have read very little of Aristotle firsthand, you might want to do a warm-up with Mortimer Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody, which has a good layman’s introduction to the four causes. But if you have read lots of Aristotle, and already have a very good handle on the four causes, you could proceed directly to Sedley.)

  4. I would not say that Aristotle’s thought is identical to modern ID thinking. However, I think there is some overlap in their thinking. I think that when the idea of “formal cause” is fully developed, similarities between the two appear. But of course the language of information theory is different from Aristotle’s language, so a conscious effort to translate from one language to the other must be made, and it won’t be easy.

  5. Whether Aquinas’s adoption of Aristotle was the right way to go is a million-dollar question. Certainly it produced some great intellectual fruit, but whether Aristotle’s view of the world and a Biblical view can be fully synthesized remains open to doubt. Feser rejects Plato and Platonism and therefore he has to go the Aristotelian route if he wants to oppose modern philosophy (which he does). But Platonism always remains an option for anti-moderns, and for Christians, Christian Platonism is always there as well. And at least on some points, Plato is easier to synthesize with Biblical notions than Aristotle is. Examples of people with strong doses of Christian Platonism in their writing are C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dean Inge, and in earlier eras, Thomas More and Henry More.

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