Final and Efficient Causes in ID Arguments

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Ryan Miller at The Buckingham Inquirer raises some interesting worries about Intelligent Design arguments. I'm having trouble understanding what the argument is supposed to be, though. He says that intelligent design arguments confuse final and efficient causes. As I argued in a previous post, you can accept final causes in nature based on God's purposes without denying efficient causes that a naturalist might have accepted. I don't think it follows that a strong view of God's providence "makes no claims about efficient causes", as Ryan claims. Final causes are what things point toward, but why do they point toward them? In God's providence, Judas' betrayal of Jesus served the plan of redemption, and that doesn't require that God efficiently caused Judas' betrayal of Jesus, but it does require that God oversaw the efficient causes in a way that ensured that Judas would do it. It thus does make a claim about efficient causes. The efficient causes had to have been what they were, or the final cause never would have been realized. Whatever your view on how God ensures that final causes will be realized, you have to admit that God's provides isn't completely unrelated to efficient causes. It in fact requires God's oversight of efficient causes, including efficient causes behind the creation of human beings, however that might have come about.

I'm really having trouble with Ryan's statement that final causes must be a "fundamentally religious matter". The statement is given in support of the claim that we shouldn't be sure of any final causes (except, presumably, those we have on religious grounds that we should be sure of for entirely religious reasons). I know Aristotle wouldn't have liked that idea. He thought it was just obvious that leaves are for absorbing light and that teeth are for chewing food. Those are final causes. The efficient causes involve chemical processes that lead to the growing of teeth and leaves, and none of that requires talking about what they're for. Final causes don't seem to me to require religious talk at all, at least on the level of describing them and concluding which ones there are. Some final causes might indeed be knowable only through revelation of some sort, but that doesn't mean final causes are in principle knowable only through revelation. I'm not sure final causes make sense without God, but that doesn't mean you need specific information from God about a cause to know of a particular final cause in nature. I don't think Thomas Aquinas would have been any more friendly to Ryan's claim than Aristotle would have been, for exactly the reasons I've been explaining.


It seems he is interested in supporting his claim that ID conflates efficient and final causes, in addition to attacking the theory for sloppy ontology and statistics. He doesn't seem to support these conclusions, but instead he just asserts them. I don't see it, either.

You are probably right that Aquinas wouldn't be any more friendly to that line of reasoning. Certainly your opinion is consistent with Aquinas' high regard for reason and his emphasis on natural revelation.

There is a good comment on that post that points to the difference between primary and secondary causation. According to Catholic doctrine God must be the ultimate efficient cause of the universe's continued existence. If science deals only with efficient causes and with all of them then God is a part of science.

For myself, I am convinced that any good sort of answer to the demarcation problem in science will be unable to exclude God completely from science. Any attempt to do so will be arbitrary.


I know this is woefully late, but this discussion is obviously one I'm very interested in, so I'll try to further it a bit.

First of all, by "makes no claims about efficient causes" I meant not "makes no claims related to efficient causes" but rather "makes no claims about what the efficient causes are." So to say that God created human beings in his image and likeness does not seem, to me, to imply anything about efficient causes which could contradict any claim made by science. I'm aware that I haven't really made a case for this being necessarily so, but I think the burden is on one who claims that revelation makes truly scientific claims.

Second, I grant your point about discerning final causes in nature--after all, that's what natural law is all about. I was definitely being polemical, and I don't think the claim was central to my argument. That said, I do think there's something interestingly related to religion about final causes, but I need to think more about that.

Third, you miss that this post was not an argument against ID as such, but rather an attempt to disentangle claims about God's providence and claims about ID. My fundamental argument against ID centers around the question of prior probabilities, which I explain in earlier posts and you fail to address.


As noted above, this post was specifically about the Cardinal's NYT editorial, not a rebuttal of ID generally.

But to make the principal argument, the trouble is that intelligence is simply not an efficient cause. Intelligence is the act of understanding, which is incapable of *doing* anything. You seem to assume that when a human exercises intelligence to create something, that there is intelligence, which causes chemical reactions in the organism, which then moves graphite against paper. That's a wierd dualism which just doesn't make any sense. The appropriate way to talk about intelligence is as a description of a certain set of processes, which are insufficiently describable at the level of chemistry, rather than being causally separate. I know that's short, but this is just a combox.

The heart of my argument against ID, however, is not about "sloppy" statistics, but rather non-existent statistics. There simply are no non-revealed prior probabilities about what kind of thing created the universe. Thus, there's no way of saying what the final probability is without introducing theological claims. Ergo, ID either doesn't offer real reasons, or it offers theological ones. Either way, it's not science.

That makes more sense. Thanks for the clarification.

Anything I didn't talk about wasn't because I missed the point. It was because I saw it and either didn't have any problem with it or didn't have anything to say about it. What I was doing in this post was responding to things you said that I didn't understand. I wasn't pretending to be engaging your main point, either to disagree or agree with it. That wasn't my focus.


The problem with your argument is that science can only investigate causes by the statistical relationship of events. Since the world was only created once, and before creation there was no time, the only evidence we have about any statistical likelihood with regard to creation is revelation.

As for God's continuing sustenance of the universe, again there is no relationship of events merely qua events which can demonstrate God's sustanence.

In order to do the Aristotelian/Thomist thing and read final causes from nature, you need not only the data of events but the data of qualities as well. These qualities are not necessarily religious in character, but they certainly go beyond the domain of science, as the content of a final cause is a meaning, whereas the content of an efficient cause is a fact.

Over and above arguments of finality, or perhaps the underlying argument is that to say 'God' di this or that offers no more useful information than to say that Winnie the Poo did it. The word 'god' has no place in any scientific explanation for the simple reason that if it is included then scientific enquiry has stopped right there. Suppose humanity and in particular the emerging scientific community had adopted that position 400 years ago. We would still be travelling in horse drawn carts, treating the sick with spells and leaches, admiring the way the Sun travells around the earth and utterly bemused by how apples end up on the ground. Science succeeds because it ignores super natural suggestions and looks for natural explanations.

Ian, the scientific community 400 years ago did adopt that position. They were almost all theists, and they almost all believed that God intended events in the scientifically observable order for deliberate purposes. They also believe in seeking to understand efficient causes. You've made the same mistake most anti-ID folk have made. You're confusing efficient causes and final causes. You've thus commented on a post about that very issue and in your comment made exactly the mistake the post was supposed to be pointing out.

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