On pages 164-71 of his Scholastic Metaphysics, Edward Feser denies the division between natural and artificial forms. One has to read the chapter carefully to see him do it, since it seems like he is simply trying to explain and even defend the difference between them, but the difference turns out to be only that nature and art provide us with good first examples of substantial form and accidental form. This is a Thomistic defense of modern philosophy, though to explain this we need to take a short detour though the old notions of particular and universal agents.
On the older account of things, nature and art where names for, respectively, an intrinsic and extrinsic principle of action. Seeds need only the right conditions to make plants, but pages and ink need more than the right conditions to make books; and since pages need a writer, one assumed that the “intrinsic principle” that nature needed was also some agent cause. Now Aristotle knew that nature needed extrinsic agents too, which is why he said that man came to be from man and the sun, but this agency only helped to buttress the absolute distinction between nature and art since “the sun” was seen as exerting a mysterious, astrological causality on generation, and the suggestion that we could control this sort of astrological causality would have struck Aristotle as both ridiculous and hubristic. Astrology is fate, and to pretend to control fate is both ignorant and immoral.* And so Aristotle was convinced that nature and art were ontologically distinct on the level of agent causality, since nature traced back to an utterly mysterious sort of natural agency which did not admit of manipulation by any human art, even in principle.
St. Thomas, of course, had a troubled relationship with astrology, though it’s unclear whether he appreciated the full force of the conflict between having both astrological, fatalistic causes and free will. St. Thomas usually addresses the problem by saying the will is a spiritual cause and the stars are not, but this argument collapses as soon as one inquires about the physical effects of a free choice. STA even seems to speak at cross-purposes when he tries to explain himself on this, as in Q. 115 of the Prima Pars, where he starts of with a proof that no body can be a universal cause (a. 1), before going on to prove that the heavenly bodies are universal causes (a. 3).**
But our best guess about nature is now that there is no in principle division between natural and artificial agents. Whatever nature can do, we can do also. There is no special sort of energy that nature can control and we can’t. Soul alone is the universal agent cause of things. But this is exactly what Descartes was arguing for in his cry to “becomes masters and possessors of nature”, namely, It was no longer hubristic or ignorant to lay claim to exactly the same power that nature used to do things, since now soul, and above all the human mind, had been literally exalted in excelsis.
Though this isn’t exactly right. In eliminating the distinction in agency between nature and art, it is just as right to say that nature became art as art became nature. Just as art could do no more than rely on the powers of things to form a unity, so now nature could do no more than this. This left us either having to deny real unitites in nature altogether, or to say that both natural and artificial agents did not suffice to give us the unified beings we actually find. The first option is metaphysical nonsense, and we are forever in debt to Plato in Parmenides for insisting on this (Proclus would later make this the foundational doctrine in theology in his Elements) the second option sees all natural unity as a participation in a divine reality, communicating its being to nature. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity puts the finishing touches on this by seeing this communication of being as intrinsic to God himself.
Objection: But “nature” is still different by the fact that matter has an intrinsic order to being a natural thing, but not to being an artificial thing. Steel has a natural order to whatever-it-is steel does, but not to being a car.
Response: But all “natural” can mean in this sense is “something that some matter was ordered to”, and the only cash value of this is in seeing what we can make out of what. If we made a salmon out of an acorn, then an acorn would “naturally” make a salmon on this sense of nature; if we made an intelligence out of drums of chemicals or microchips, then, mirabile dictu, microchips and drums of chemicals could naturally make an intelligence (and yes, I think this makes me revise a lot o what I’ve said in the past about the ontology of strong AI, though I’m still uncomfortable about the idea of an intelligent machine, which to me would be a finite intelligence existing for another finite intelligence). This leave no meaningful division between the natural and the artificial, though this is a completely different division from the substantial and accidental.
*This belief persists with us as a ghost-like possibility, though not with reference to the heavens but with reference to time itself in movies like 12 Monkeys, Deja-Vu, Terminator III (yes, I watched it).
** Before we chuckle at the ignorance of those poor, astrological medievals, we should take a minute to reflect on our hopelessly confused opinions on the relationship between physical bodies and mathematical laws. Why do we think that nature is determined because the result of an algebraic expression is? When we speak of the causal close of the physical, how does this leave room for the mathematical formalism of the very laws we say are at work in it?