Manzi, while claiming to defend Wright, actually addresses a part of Coyne's review that does not even directly refer to Wright's book, but is some stage-setting by Coyne. So, the title to the article is rather incorrect, as Manzi does nothing to defend Wright at all. However, Manzi does defend his own ideas about the comparison of genetic algorithms on computers to the way genes behave, trying to set abiogenesis aside as a philosophical study (without referring to it by name), the importation of a goals into evolution, and the non-physical randomness of mutations. I might decide one day to fisk that article directly, but not today. Below the fold I will excerpt some of Dr. Feser's response to the article, and intersperse some of my own thoughts.
I argued in The Last Superstition that whatever one thinks of Darwinism, its truth or falsity is (contrary to what New Atheists like Richard Dawkins suppose) irrelevant to the cogency of the Thomistic proofs of God’s existence, including Aquinas’s Fifth Way (which Dawkins incompetently assimilates to Paley’s Design argument).
I actually agree with Dr. Feser here, for a given definition of "Darwinism" at any rate. To the degree that we are relying on the science, we have no method of elimination all sorts of exterior teleology and causality. If Dr. Feser is referring to ideas that go beyond the science, then we get into metaphysical assumption whose basis in reality can never be firmly demonstrated.
Indeed, if Darwinism has any relevance to the latter argument at all, it is in fact by slightly reinforcing rather than undermining it. The reason is that Darwinism, like any scientific theory, posits various causal mechanisms, all causal mechanisms presuppose (for reasons set out in TLS) final causality, and thus (since the take-off point of the Fifth Way is the existence of final causality) Darwinism, qua scientific theory, only lends further support to the Fifth Way.
This is a fine example of 'heads I win, tails you lose' argumentation. Any failures by science to explain something, such as the emergence of consciousness in the brain, is of course evidence that there is something non-physical at work. On the other hand, finding the causes and explanation things can only serve to strengthen the 'Fifth Way' argument of Aquinas for the existence of God. Dr. Feser relies on the work in his book (The Last Superstition, he abbreviates it TLS) regularly rather than outline its arguments, and I have not read it so far. However, I don't find the notion that there is some supernatural "final causality" to be any more likely a proposition than a natural final causality.
I also argued in TLS that the application by biologists, physicists, and other scientists of concepts like “algorithm,” “information,” “software,” “program,” etc. to the natural world evinces a tacit recognition of the reality of teleology or final causation. The reason (set out, again, in detail in TLS) is that the sort of directedness-towards-an-end that these concepts entail just is the core of the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of final causality.
I'm not sure whether Dr. Feser understands this or not, but terms like algorithm and information means very different things when applied to biological objects or other non-human-created systems than to computer programs. Algorithms are merely cycles enacted and altered by external stimuli and ended, if at all, by other stimuli (possibly external or internal), while information represents how easily a string can be compressed by interpretations functions that are not aimed specifically at that string. Neither concept has any recognition of teleology or lack thereof, they are statements of content, not purpose.
Again, Aristotle and his followers do not argue for a temporal beginning of the universe (even though some of them do happen to believe, on independent grounds, that it had such a beginning). Nor do they think that an infinite regress is a “problem.” For by “infinite regress,” one either means an infinite regress of accidentally ordered causes extending backward in time – in which case such a regress is perfectly possible (and, indeed, actual, in Aristotle’s own view) – or one means an infinite regress of essentially ordered causes of the sort that trace ultimately to simultaneously operating instrumental causes here and now – in which case such a regress is, not merely “problematic” or mysterious (as if such a regress could exist in some as-yet unknown fashion), but flatly impossible in principle. (Again, all of this is explained at length in TLS.)
I do distrust the notion of being "flatly impossible in principle" for many reasons, not the least of which comes from my mathematical training. I find that the Axiom of Choice, or more precise the equivalent statement that the cross-products of non-empty sets is not empty, to be intuitively obvious, to the point that I find it ridiculous to claim that can be an empty cross-product of non-empty sets. The "flatly impossible in principle"Banach-Tarski paradox is a result does not change my mind, since I am forced to choose between to different flatly impossible notions, one of which must be true. I'm Dr. Feser feels he has a good argument for the impossibility of an infinite string of ontological causality, but my recent encounters with philosophers trying to use infinity in a mathematical way leaves me skeptical to the general abilities of philosophers who don't have an extensive mathematical background.
But Manzi’s remarks can be interpreted in another, more Aristotelian way. He might mean that even if the universe had no beginning in time, the basic laws that govern it, and the fact of their continual operation at any given moment, would still require an explanation. Talk of “laws of nature” is more a modern than an Aristotelian way of speaking, but the basic point remains that there is nothing inherent in material reality that can account for the “actualizing” of its “potential” for existing and operating in just the way it does at any particular instant. Unless we trace it down to that which is “pure actuality,” an Unmoved Mover or Uncaused Cause sustaining it in being and operation here and now and at any moment we are even considering the question, we would have no way in principle to account for why the universe exists at all and operates in precisely the way it does. The “problem of infinite regress” on this interpretation is not a matter of accepting a mystery which might have a solution – just one we do not and perhaps cannot discover – but rather the fatal (to naturalism) problem that without acknowledging that the regress of essentially ordered causes operating here and now terminates in an Unmoved Mover, the material world becomes unintelligible even in principle. (You know the drill: See TLS for the details.)
Having read up just a little on what Dr. Feser means by action and potentiality, this strikes me as being pure doggerel. The questions of why the universe exists and operates the way it does do not ever need to end, and they certainly do not end simply because we have an Unmoved Mover or Uncaused Cause. I don't know, nor pretend to know, that such a Mover/Cause does or does not exist, but I do know that, even if we arrive at such an august figure, they are not immune to the further questions of why the Mover/Cause does this, why they feel that, etc., and that the inevitable terminus of this chain is 'We just don't know'. This makes the end of the chain no different from the end of the chain of questions to the naturalist, except the naturalist stops the chain earlier in the process.
Manzi is clearer on the issue of final causality. Coyne seems to think that to attribute purposiveness to evolution entails seeing the human species, specifically, as having somehow been the end result toward which natural selection was working; and he trots out the usual ad hominem response to critics of Darwinism to the effect that they just can’t handle evolution’s humbling implications, blah blah blah.
This actually reverses motivation and effect from Coyne's point, which is not that attributing purpose to evolution allows the elevation of humans, but that the refusal to accept a non-elevation of humans results in the attributing of purpose to evolution. A => B is quite different from ~B => A.
And if this “algorithm” talk is taken seriously, then (to put things more strongly than Manzi does) it necessarily entails, given the nature of algorithms, that there is an end-state towards which the processes in question point – not, to be sure, the generation of some particular species (human or otherwise) at some temporal culmination point, but rather the (in principle non-stop) generation of species after species meeting certain abstract criteria of fitness.
Again, we have a reversal of cause and effect. It is not the algorithm that acts upon species causing new species to arise, it is the arising of new species in regular ways that is described in terms that look like algorithms to us.
Hence one either has to agree with the judgment of thinkers like John Searle that talk of “information,” “algorithms,” etc. is at best a misleading set of metaphors and at worst a complete muddle; or, if one thinks such talk is indispensible (and there is good reason to think it is) one must acknowledge that something like the Aristotelian conception of nature is correct after all.
I'm not sure if that is a necessary choice, but I do happen to be on, or at least closer to, the former side. We use terms like "information" and "algorithm" in a jargonistic sense to describe non-human-created systems, and this jargon has its beginning in metaphor. However, the terms have been fairly precisely defined in the given context, so I think it is going too far to say they are merely metaphorical now.
And, of course, I have noted the many neo-Aristotelian themes to be found in the work of many contemporary philosophers and scientists – including many who have no theological ax to grind – both in TLS and in earlier posts like this one and this one.
Another good case of a person seeing what they are pre-disposed to see.