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The problem of induction and teleology

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

I was quite glad to see that The Third Man Podcast has invited Tomas Jakab back to discuss a few items triggered by a previous post on Apologetics Central on Aquinas' Fifth way.

When the conversation opened up, Tomas mentioned two items that he wanted to discuss as triggered by our article:

  1. Aquinas' fifth way works.

  2. The problem of induction does not exist.

  3. It is a contradiction to believe in teleology and that the problem of induction is a problem that needs to be solved.

Off the bat, it can be noticed that all three points are closely related. The fifth way would fail if the problem of induction holds water, and the problem of induction would not hold water if nature contains a teleology (that is, a purpose).

It would be useful to provide more clarity on what is meant by teleology in this context before proceeding with a few observations on the points raised during the conversation.

Dry wood in a fire will burn to ash. How do we know this?

Aquinas on teleology

According to Tomas, the teleology of the Thomist is not the mechanistic type of William Paley (e.g. the father of the watchmaker argument). The Thomist's (moderate realist) teleology rather relates to the natures of things (their internal identity). It has nothing to do with something externally applied after the thing exists. Teleology, for Aquinas, is something that is internal to the thing itself. So, teleology is not something that is external to it like a watchmaker is to a machine, but rather something that is within the thing itself that explains why we can define the thing in the first place.

It would also be useful to read more from Edward C. Feser (a popular Thomist philosopher) on Thomistic teleology as well. Feser writes:

[An] Aristotelian notion of natural teleology contrasts with the sort found in writers like William Paley, and can be illustrated via simple examples. The teleology or “directedness” of a watch towards the end of telling time is extrinsic to the parts of the watch, insofar as there is nothing in the bits of metal and glass that make up the watch by virtue which they inherently serve that end. The time-telling function has to be imposed on them from outside.
An acorn, by contrast, is inherently (intrinsicly) directed towards the end of becoming an oak. That’s just what it is to be an acorn. Whereas the teleology of the watch is extrinsic, the teleology of the acorn is intrinsic.
For Aristotle, that is what makes an acorn a natural object whereas a watch is not natural in the relevant sense but artificial. Paley’s view that natural objects are to be thought of on the model of watches and other human artifacts would in Aristotle’s view simply be muddleheaded. Precisely because they are natural - and thus have immanent rather than extrinsic teleology - acorns and the like are not like watches.

Haldane on Nagel and the Fifth Way

Feser, in a different article, explains Thomistic teleology through the helpful example of an ice cube. An ice cube floating in water cools down the water surrounding it. The ice will cool the water, and not heat it, or turn it into Coca-Cola. So, that the ice is an efficient cause (the source of the object's principle of change or stability) of coldness entails that generating coldness is the final cause (the end/goal of the object) of ice [1].

In general, if there is a regular efficient causal connection between a cause A and an effect B, then generating B is the final cause of A. Hence, when Aquinas writes about teleology and presents the fifth way, he is talking about final causes.

Now, how can we know that teleology exists? For Aquinas, it's easy. If there were no teleology, we would not be able to make sense of efficient causation. Thus, if the final cause of the ice cube was not to cool the surrounding water, we would not be able to explain how it is that the ice cube is the efficient cause of coldness in the surrounding water. Feser notes that the modern abandonment of final causality is the source of all the puzzles that arose about efficient causality since the days of David Hume) [2].

And so, Paley believed the extrinsic teleology of objects needs to be explained by a designer. Hence, the complex organisms we see today also need a designer (insert all the work currently being performed by the Discovery Institute). But, Feser asks, what explains the intrinsic teleology of natural objects? What drives an ice cube to cool the surrounding waters? What drives an acorn toward an oak tree? The teleology of natural objects comes from their nature (that is their form), and hence teleology is not something that is superimposed on the object over and above its nature (we'll come back to this later). However, the source of the thing's nature is God. So in the first sense, the teleology of the object is intrinsic, and in the second sense (since they derive their natures from God), their teleology is extrinsic.

The Reformed have always distinguished between primary and secondary causes. The idea is that even though secondary causes derive their causal power from the primary cause, the secondary causes are still true causes.

In the same way, the teleology of natural objects is intrinsic in one sense, but also extrinsic in another. Hence, it seems there's no reason to differ with Feser or Thomists on this particular point with regard to teleology. Both Thomists and Van Tillians agree that nature contains a certain teleology that is intrinsic to the objects such that the forces at work in nature are real forces. It is really the ice cube that cools the surrounding waters. The points of difference lie elsewhere, as I hope to show going forward from here.

However, it's still unsure whether the teleology of the object (its directedness) can be conflated with its nature. We'll further explore the above by introducing the doctrine of concursus.

Have you heard about Thomism?

  • Yes

  • No

Van Til (following Geerhardus Vos) on concursus

The doctrine of concursus relates to the providence of God. The second causes are related to their first cause (G0d). If we negate second causes we end up with fatalism, but if we elevate second causes to first causes then we end up with a form of deism (in which God merely puts the world into motion and then lets it play out without intervention).

First, God conserves natural objects in their relations and identity. Second, God (in a separate activity to the conservation) upholds the power (or causes) of the objects: Just as nothing exists in and of itself without the sustaining work of God, so second causes cannot work without the upholding power of God. This is what is called concursus. God makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good (Mt 5:45), He gives us rain from heaven (Acts 14:17), and thus, in short, works in all the second causes of nature.

All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”

Daniel 4:35, ESV

Sacred history (that is history recorded in Scripture) speaks of a constant teleological operation of God. Also, the life of every individual in all its acts is dependent upon God [3].

God has created powers in the universe e.g. gravitation. Whatever may be the nature of these causes, God concurs with them, to maintain them as he conserves the once-created substance (objects of creation). It is not a physical or metaphysical power by which God affects his concurrence, because that could lead only to identification with the second causes or to a mechanical separation giving half to each, but it is by an act of the will, whereby He also has created the world [4].

Now, very importantly, the nature of these causes is not identical to the objects themselves. That is, is not part of the nature of the created rock to fall to the centre of the Earth (or whatever is the nearest gravitational force). If it were part of the nature of the rock, in order to work a miracle, God would be destroying the rock. So miracles (in this case) would become impossible without continuous recreation. For example, in 2 Kings 6, we read of Elijah recovering a sunken axhead by God making the axehead drift on the water. Now, we know that heavy objects sink when thrown into the water, and that's how the axhead was lost initially. But then, by working a miracle, the powers at work on the axehead caused it to drift rather than sink, yet it was still the exact same axehead.

Similarly, God destroys Sodom through the means of fire, a secondary cause, but, by an immediate concurrence enables the fire to burn. Yet, when Daniel's friends were thrown into a great fire by Nebuchadnezzar, the fire did not burn them nor did their clothes even reek of smoke. Hence, by another immediate concurrence, fire no longer burned.

The point is this: The powers in creation are real, however, they are not absolute. God can change the inner workings and powers in creation as he pleases. Nothing works without concursus. No laws were broken when God saved Daniel's friends, and no laws were broken when God made the axehead float. That God governs creation in one way more generally rather than in another is because of His covenantal faithfulness to the benefit of His creatures. This is the reason God can promise that the Earth will never again be destroyed by a flood like the one Noah experienced, and why He can promise that the general fixed order of nature will remain (Jeremiah 31:35-36).

Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the Lord of hosts is his name:
“If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.”

Jeremiah 31:35-36, ESV

The problem of induction and the fifth way

So what then is the difference between the Thomist and the Van Tillian? Perhaps the difference lies in the following explanation offered by Feser:

For Aquinas, it is easy to show that teleology exists; for without it, efficient causation becomes unintelligible.
What takes work is showing that the existence of teleology entails the existence of God*.
After all, Aristotle himself, even though he firmly believed both in final causality and in the existence of an Unmoved Mover, did not think that final causality needed an explanation in terms of the Unmoved Mover, or indeed any explanation at all. He took it to be just a fundamental feature of the natural world; his argument for the Unmoved Mover begins instead with the existence of change or motion, not the existence of teleology.

Feser, Teleology revisited,* Bold emphasis is my own

And later again,

[The] inference from teleology to an ordering intelligence is not immediate. There is logical space for an alternative understanding of teleology, and it requires significant philosophical work to rule that alternative out.

Feser, Teleology revisited

In short, Thomists want to argue from the existence of teleology to the existence of God as a probable inference. After all, God might be the explanation of teleology (if He exists), but He might also not be. It might be a council of gods, or might even be due to chance. Now, to be fair, Aquinas does rule out chance as a possible explanation when offering his proof. He writes:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence (such as natural bodies) act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result.
Hence it is plain that not fortuitously (by chance rather than intention), but designedly, do they (things) achieve their end.

Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.II.3, Whether God exists?

But on what grounds can Aquinas rule out chance as a possible explanation? He believes it to be plain that it is not by chance (as Feser notes as well), and the justification for this belief comes from "their acting always or nearly always" in the same way. But this is just begging the question. It is still possible that objects always or nearly always acted the same way "by chance". We can see efficient causes at work, (e.g. the ice cube cools the surrounding water), but that does not establish a necessary causal connection between the ice cube and the cooling of the water that would necessarily drive someone to the existence of an ordering intellect that explains final causes which in turn explains the orderly and repeatable efficient causes.

Now, in a sense, the philosophy of Aquinas is much better than the modern philosophy that succeeded him in Hume or Kant (as Aquinas actually believes in an ordering intellect and teleology in nature), but unfortunately, Aquinas' argumentation still falls prey to Hume's critique.

Hume writes,

From the mere repetition of any past impression, even to infinity, there never will arise any new original idea, such as that of a necessary connexion; and the number of impressions has in this case no more effect than if we confin’d ourselves to one only.

Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

In other words, when we observe what we call "cause and effect" relations, even if we observe an ice cube cooling then surrounding water for an infinite amount of time, there will never arise the idea of a necessary connection between the ice cube and the cooling of the water. It might well be that in the following repetition the ice cube will turn the water into Coca-Cola, or actually heat it up. Anything is possible in a universe that is governed by chance. How can Aquinas know what the final cause of an object is, without first observing a series of efficient causes from which to infer the final cause?

Now, again, Aquinas is a Christian and He does not believe that the order in the universe is by chance, but he must admit that according to his scheme it is at least possibly by chance and so Aquinas begins his philosophy by assuming that any kind of fact may exist. Thus God may or may not exist.

For the Van Tillian, the chance is ruled out from the start as the author of nature Who explains the teleology in nature is presupposed. Hume's critique cannot touch the Christian precisely because not any kind of fact may exist. Any facts, if it exists, exist by the counsel and decree of God. If God is presupposed, all the facts of the “course and constitution of nature” are bound together by the mind of God [5]. There are no brute facts. All facts are God-created and God-interpreted facts. The Van Tillian relies on the faithfulness of God and on His revealed Word to know the ordering and facts of nature would sustain their current relations. The Van Tillians aren't phased when an axehead floats, when Daniel's friends are saved from the fire, or when Christ rises from the dead. Echoing Paul we can simply ask: "Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?" So, the Van Tillian can be assured that creation contains final causes as God controls whatsoever comes to pass - but that these final causes are not absolute and are subject to change.

Tomas mentioned lots of times (and I do agree with him) that "We must start with creation". Indeed! But the word "Creation" implies that it was created, which in turn implies the Author of nature and rules out chance. I've never actually heard Thomists say that we must start with "creation". I have heard them say we must start with "reality", and it's an open question of whether reality is created or not when Thomists start their philosophy - hence why they will fall prey to Hume as we discussed above.

I've also always wondered what Thomists make of the documentation of a floating axehead in 2 Kings (and any other miracle for that matter). Because God can change the inner workings of His creation at will, is the floating axehead evidence for, or against the existence of God? I think the consistent Thomist would have to say that it is evidence against the existence of God (as it reduces the probability that axheads are directed to sink, and increases the probability that this world is governed by chance).

The relationship between general and special revelation

Tomas also mentioned a few times that general revelation validates special revelation. I think this is simply false when taken at face value. There is no way to validate that a Donkey spoke to Balaam, that an axhead floated, or that a dead person can come back to life. If anything, the general way God governs creation restricts these sorts of occurrences from being regular. Donkeys don't speak, axheads don't float and dead people stay dead. It would seem that nature (if taken as a thing in itself apart from God's counsel) witnesses against Special revelation.

Perhaps another (and more pressing) example would be the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden. How exactly does general revelation validate God's claim that eating the fruit of the tree would surely lead to death? I would encourage Tomas to read how Van Til tackles this question in his other writings. The short answer is that it can't be validated. It must be taken on the absolute authority of God's Word. What God says is true, and is not subject to validation or confirmation. Thus, what God says of the tree is true simply because there is nothing that makes the tree what it is other than God. The tree did not lend itself toward God's revelation that it causes death - it was just another normal tree as far as observation was concerned. The reason for God's revelation was, therefore, to teach Adam a lesson - whatever he goes about doing in God's world, he ought to do it in faithful submission to God and His Word (read more in Van Til's Nature and Scripture).

The relationship between general and special revelation (for my purposes here special revelation is everything not contained in general revelation) was also a hotly discussed topic, and I agree with Jimmy (the person opposing Tomas in the conversation) that general and special revelation should be taken as an organic whole. One cannot do without the other. Surely Adam learned what a tree is from creation, and this in turn allowed him to understand which particular tree he may not eat from (it would not have been useful if Adam believed the tree of knowledge of good and evil to be some kind of armadillo). But then God's special revelation of the tree of knowledge of good and evil leads him into a deeper appreciation of how he ought to go about working in creation. Both these types of revelation are dependent on each other for proper functioning. As soon as Adam opened his eyes he knew himself as a creation in covenant with God, and no later did the command come to Adam as to what God's requirements are of him - and Adam recognised the voice of God immediately.

Van Til writes,

It is of prime importance to observe that even in paradise man was never meant to study nature by means of observation and experiment without connection with positive super-natural thought communication given to him by God. Nature could not be observed for what it actually is except in relation to history, and history cannot be seen for what it is at any stage except it be viewed in relation to its final end. And only by direct supernatural revelation could man have an adequate notion of this end.

Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), 68.

And so we ask that if even in paradise man was meant to interpret nature in terms of self, and both in the light of the supernatural communication of God’s thoughts with respect to the course of history as a whole, how much the more should man as sinner seek to understand nature in relation to self and to this self as interpreted in Scripture [6]?


Getting back to Tomas' initial three points he wanted to clarify, I am still of the opinion that the fifth way fails as long as the Thomist refuses to take on a revelational epistemology.

I do agree that the problem of induction is not a problem once we grant natural objects a teleology as determined by God - but Thomists, given their starting point, cannot know this. You cannot establish that objects have final causes that drive efficient causes by observing even an infinite sequence of efficient causes. Final causes are an implication of creation and must be revealed. Moreover, miracles seem to be something that reduces the probability of the conclusion of the fifth way.

I want to applaud Tomas and Jimmy for having the conversation and taking the time to work through many of the issues. Both gentlemen are wonderful brothers in Christ, and I do hope to see more of them in the future.


[1] Edward Feser: Teleology revisited. 2022. Edward Feser: Teleology revisited. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 27 July 2022].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cornelius Van Til and Eric H. Sigward, Unpublished Manuscripts of Cornelius Van Til, Electronic ed. (Labels Army Company: New York, 1997).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cornelius Van Til, Christian-Theistic Evidences (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1978), 1.

[6] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), 84.


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