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Stephen Meredith’s “Looking for God in All the Wrong Places” in the February 2014 issue of First Things accuses Intelligent Design theory (ID) of being a variant of occasionalism, which he defines as the denial “that efficient causality occurs outside God.” Occasionalism blurs the difference between God’s causal powers, what theologians call primary causation, and the causal powers God builds into nature, what theologians call secondary causation. If God is the efficient cause of every event, then the supernatural replaces rather than guides and completes the natural. Meredith is right that occasionalism is bad theology, but he is wrong that ID is a species of it. In fact, it would be truer to say that Darwinism is.

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.

Meredith thinks that the problem with ID is that it identifies God’s will with efficient causation, so it is not surprising that he thinks that the way to reconcile evolution with belief in God is to distance God from natural processes. “Whereas science deals mainly in efficient and material causes, religion deals mainly with formal and final causes. . . . Science and religion each excel at doing what each does best, and neither is especially good at doing what the other does.”

True, Meredith goes on to say that “when dealing with different aspects of causality, science and religion need to interact.” But he recommends that such interactions remain very limited. Religious awe needs to “stop at the door of the laboratory” even though “a scientist can still be inspired by it.” Purpose or “telos” is “beyond science” even though it is not “beyond nature.” In the end, ID “must learn to let the biological chips fall where they may.”

Meredith’s position relies on what I call “the myth of secondary causation,” a position crafted to help Darwinism fit smoothly into traditional Thomism. It is a myth because it isolates secondary from primary causation in ways that Thomas Aquinas never would have allowed. Even worse, it anthropomorphizes God as a white collar manager who disdains to get his hands dirty in blue collar work. “If an omnipotent God has created nature,” Meredith writes, “one must ask why one should not then posit nature as capable of causing natural events on its own steam rather than requiring intervention.” Meredith uses the problem of evil to argue that if God worked directly through secondary causes, then God would be directly responsible for every natural calamity. Conveniently, the segregation of secondary causation saves God’s honor by keeping God clean of messy material realities just as it preserves Darwinians from having to think about purpose and meaning in evolution.

Darwin made the same argument, namely, that it is more dignified for God to create new species through secondary causation rather than intervening directly into biological processes. The problem is that Darwin thought that those were the only causal possibilities: either efficient causation or miraculous intervention. Moreover, Darwin thought that when you add up all the efficient causal sequences in nature, you end up with nothing more than the struggle for survival, and he concluded, like Meredith, that it is more ennobling for creatures to be responsible for this struggle than for God to be the cause of it.

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. 

Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author of Jesus Christ, Eternal God and, forthcoming, Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed.

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