I’m writing this as a post, because it will be rather lengthy.
My immediate response is: Why do you care what I think? Feser is not only a real good professional philosopher but a very clear writer. I am a one-time philosophy MA from a no-name school with an hour to think about these things a day and prone to rambling. But who is the greater fool, the fool who speaks or the one who asks the fool a question?
To the question, I would respond at several levels.
The first is that though it may occur frequently, I would at first consider the virus example as a fringe case. In that sense, I don’t think fringe cases should be normative for our understanding of what something is. Hermaphrodites may be not infrequent, but it’s not going to change my position on binary sexuality. Relativity and quantum physics may explore the extremes, but it cannot fundamentally change what I would call the primacy of what is known first.
In this respect there seem to be at least two possibilities. Either the extreme case must be interpreted in a way that is consistent with what is known best or if it does in some way undermine my fundamental understanding, it must additionally show why we were misled. A case of the first is time in general relativity which cannot be interpreted in such a way that it is reducible to a spatial dimension. General relativity does reveal something new and interesting about time, but it doesn’t undermine our fundamental understanding of what time is based on our base experience. It is that fundamental understanding that General Relativity must adhere to and not the other way.
An example of the second is the move from the geocentric view of the universe to the heliocentric. The new data (Galileo et al.) is an extreme of a sort and differs greatly from our ordinary experience. Who can see Jupiter’s moons with his naked eye? However, the additional leg work is that it does from all appearance look like there are celestial spheres, but this is not from a error in my experience but a lack of precision. The extreme case doesn’t undermine the fundamental experience but adjusts the interpretation in manner consistent with the new data, thus retaining the consistency of the whole.
Therefore, whatever the answer, either the new extreme is interpreted in a way consistent with my fundamental experience and understanding of artifacts or it must be able to explain why it seems so obviously and immediately true and yet is mistaken, as it seems so obviously and immediately true that the celestial spheres circle the earth.
I didn’t read through all of links because I was looking for an argument about artifacts and wasn’t interested (or had the time) in digging through lengthy discussions on Intelligent Design to find something. But there may be something there that I missed.
The next level of my response would be to consider the case itself at least in abstract. Whatever the virus is it is either a natural substance or a collection of natural substances. If it is a collection of natural substances, say inanimate molecules with very complex interactions, then it would seem to possibly be an artifact (more on that in a minute). If it is a natural substance, then it would seem not to be an artifact, but let’s consider more.
Here we must discuss what we mean by an artifact. The key characteristic of an artifact is the extrinsic finality and the form that follows from that. For example, a horse does not become an artifact simply because I bridle it and connect it to a plow. Nor does a sharp rock become an artifact simply because I use it to cut things. The concept of an artifact proceeds from some extrinsic end which causes us to impose some form on the thing.
Suppose that the virus is simply an accidental unity of molecules. If we can order those molecules in such a way to achieve some end, then it would seem to be an artifact, much like we can order planks of wood to achieve the end of traversing large bodies of water. We may even test different structures to determine how they will behave under different circumstance. Will this construction float well with a catapult or will it move well with high waves, etc? Or will this structure kill only cancer cells or dance the jitter-bug or something else?
Whether we can actually impose a substantial form aside, if the virus is a natural substance, then it would seem to not be an artifact, even if we ordered to some particular end of our own. It would be like bridling a horse. The virus in itself has a natural tendency to do this or that, which may more or less correspond to needs. The fact that we only create viruses that do what we want is much like we only keep animals as pets or cattle because their intrinsic teleology corresponds to our desires.
This is to use a strict definition of artifact and I think at least part of the issue is with the definition. It strikes me much the way people demand that we “prove” there is a soul. There is no proving it, because soul is simply what it means to be alive. So, there doesn’t seem to be a proving here either, because its about applying what we mean by “artifact,” not demonstrating what artifact means. But I might be getting the dispute all lopsided.
Now there is a real sense in which we can call the virus (if it is a natural substance) an artifact. It would be in the same sense that we would call a mule, a hybrid fruit, or certain high atomic number atoms. These are all created through human ingenuity and activity, bu this is what I think James Chastek calls “art cum nature.” A mule would not exist apart from human activity, but it is not in virtue of a substantial form imposed on something by a human that it exists. This I think gets us to the real heart of the problem.
Now I approach the third level. Thus far nothing I’ve written has what I would consider metaphysical consequences, such as are referenced in the second comment. So, here I will take a leap of interpretation. I haven’t read the dispute in detail, but given the example given regarding the creation of life from inanimate matter and the discussion taking place within the context of Intelligent Design, I will infer that the real dispute is about whether men can impose a substantial forms on something.
In the case of the virus, there seems to be no other cause operative to explain the ontological jump between inanimate to animate matter. Whether this jump occurs does not impact what is meant by “artifact” in the strict sense, so I think posing the question in terms of artifacts is a bit misguided. However, the real question of the move remains. Either there is a proportionate cause or there isn’t. If the virus is not the result of human action as it seems obviously to be so, then as Zippy says, ” we don’t really have a way to distinguish between artifacts [in the broad sense] and substantial forms,” (my qualification) and if the virus is caused by man’s imposing not simply accidental forms but a substantial form, “the metaphysics is empirically falsifiable (and possibly even falsified if viruses are natural substances).”
Supposing this to be the substance (pun most definitely intended) of the dispute, then I respond thus. I have no problem with the virus being a natural substance. I am of the tentative position that in history life arose from inanimate matter in some natural way. Whether or not Aristotelian metaphysics can account for that, I’m not sure, but I’m strongly suspicious of any claim that such a powerful metaphysics could be “falsified.” I would find it more likely with respect to the second course mentioned above, that some adjustment might be implied, such as in Euclid’s Axioms, the parallel postulate is not necessary for the others. So, I would sooner suppose that some underlying and unnecessary assumption is falsified before the metaphysics, in any significant degree, is falsified.
All that aside, John Deely (not an average Aristotelian) in his two part article (Part 1, Part 2) on evolution take up many of the supposed problems with Aristotelian natural philosophy and metaphysics with respect to evolution. He addresses the way that life can arise from inanimate life with respect to proportionate cause in Part 2 pg 324-325:
This is the basis for the prior possibility in principle of so-called ” equivocal generation “: the origin of living matter out of non-living matter by reason of a fortuitous dispositioning of the latter in a chance (or laboratory controlled) series of causes. That this is possible follows from the very nature of the soul as the first act of a body disposed through organization to sustain in being the operations of life. It does not matter by what agencies this organization is effected: the sole condition essential and primary for educing a soul (= for constituting a living being) is the production of an organization suited to life; the actual processes through which this organization is constituted are accidental and purely secondary considerations. A univocal cause is always proportioned to its effect, either in the sense of belonging to the same irreducible ontological level, or in the sense of belonging to a higher order, such that it contains the ontological species of its effect within itself eminently. An equivocal cause, on the other hand, need not be proportioned to its effect except per accidens, in the general way that any material substance is able to act on another by very reason of belonging to a common ontological genus. In this way, as the investigations of biochemistry sufficiently indicate, the structures of the living world are potentially latent throughout the whole of secondary matter;273 for which reason again a concatenation of special circumstances could efficaciously though in a per accidens way disposition the specific (ontologically specific) organization of a living being which otherwise pertained to any one of the circumstanced entities only potentially and indeed inefficaciously. In such a case, there would be no violation of the principle of causality and no need for a ” special” divine concursus (still less intervention) , any more than there are instances of either of these in our everyday experience.274 The soul is but the first actuality of a disposed physico-chemical structure.
I don’t know if Deely is right and I can barely understanding his writing most days let alone his arguments.
If Deely is right about this, then there seems to be no problem with creating viruses form inanimate matter. It would be a matter (yes, pun intended again) of getting matter to the point of organization suitable for life.
Now, all of that said, I may have got everything completely wrong and spent a few days thinking about something other than the question at hand, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.