Saturday, August 6, 2011

Nature: God’s Artifact

The Fifth Way teaches us that the telos in nature does not come from matter but from mind.  Thus, the matter that makes up a human being does not have, on its own – of itself – the goal of sustaining a human body.  That telos, that goal is the product of the divine mind.  That is the lesson of the Fifth Way.  So, in this way, nature is no different from the artificer’s watch whose pieces do not, of themselves, have a propensity for timekeeping.  Just as the watch’s form or final cause is imposed upon it by a designer’s intellect, so too the form and final cause of nature’s wonders are imposed on them by the Designer’s intellect.
Now the argument (made by many Thomists - including Edward Feser) against this is that – although they ultimately come from God – these forms, natures, or essences are inherent in natural things and thus are not cobbled together artifacts like the watch.  But is that really the case?  Let me ask two questions:  Is the form of the watch a product of its parts?  Is the form of a worm the product of its parts?   I think we can safely answer “no” to both questions.  So the form of something – be it human artifact or natural – does not depend on its constituent parts but rather on an idea, a concept of mind. 
But, it is argued, the constituent parts of a worm do have it in their natures to sustain the overall well-being of the worm while the watches parts do not.  Yes and No.  Although the constituent parts of a worm have it in their nature to sustain the worm, they do not do this on their own.  Their natures are imposed on them by the form of the worm – which is ultimately the product of the divine mind as well.  The arrow (to use Aquinas’ example) does not move toward the target unless shot there by an agent.  Why does matter obey form?  It does so because it is “shot there”.  In this way, the constituent parts of the worm are no different than the constituent parts of the watch – both are “shot there” by an action of mind.
Now the term “artifact” carries with it the connotation “artificial” and man’s artifacts are artificial in that they are natural objects with unnatural forms imposed upon them.  So what of God’s artifacts?  What would be “artificial” to God?  Well, God is immaterial and exists supernaturally (that is, outside of nature) so for God, nature itself – the material world – is, in a sense, “artificial” and the natural world can, in this light, be called God’s artifact. 
Ultimately this discussion boils down to the differing capabilities of the supernatural mind vs. the natural mind.  A natural mind can only take that which is natural and develop it into some other form.  A supernatural mind can form nature itself however it sees fit.  A natural mind is limited – it can only work within nature.  To be sure, a natural mind can impose new forms on natural objects – as it does on the natural elements it shapes into a watch.  What it cannot do is impose new natures on objects – because the natural mind itself exists within the confines of nature.  The supernatural mind is unlimited – it can impose forms on nature from outside nature.  The supernatural mind can instill new natures into substances.  It is not limited by nature – in fact it sets the limits of nature.  Still, what’s behind all of it are ideas, concepts, planning, goals – mind. 
Nature is God’s idea (and life is just God showing off a bit!)

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