Intelligent Design

An argument about ships, oaks, corn and teleology – will Professor Feser finally concede that it is possible for a living thing to be the product of design?

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Professor Feser has drawn my attention to a remark he made in a recent post:

The dispute between Thomism on the one hand and Paley (and ID theory) on the other is not over whether God is in some sense the “designer” of the universe and of living things – both sides agree that He is – but rather over what exactly it means to say that He is, and in particular over the metaphysics of life and of creation.

In the interests of truthfulness and accuracy, I shall place this remark at the top of my post. I find it immensely heartening, as it means that the gap between Professors Dembski and Feser is much narrower than I had imagined. I would also like to assure Professor Feser that I have no intention of mis-representing his views, and I apologize for any implication on my part that Feser does not regard God as the designer of living things.


I have written this post in the hope of achieving a rapprochement of sorts between the Thomistic philosopher Professor Edward Feser and the Intelligent Design movement, which Feser has criticized in his books, The Last Superstition and Aquinas, and also in his blog posts (see here for a round-up of Feser’s online writings on Intelligent Design).

To be specific: Feser has frequently accused the Intelligent Design movement of holding the same mechanistic view of life as the neo-Darwinian evolutionists whose views they criticize – a view which Feser, as an Aristotelian Thomist, rejects as radically mistaken, as it ignores the fact that a living thing possesses certain built-in goals which are wholly contained within it and which benefit it. Now, Intelligent Design proponents have a wide range of views, and I have previously argued, on several occasions, that the Intelligent Design movement is not tied to any mechanistic philosophy. Feser insists, however, that the whole case for ID, which Professor William Dembski makes in his book, The Design Revolution, is based on a faulty analogy between living organisms (such as oak trees) and human artifacts (such as ships). Feser argues that on the contrary, the teleology of an oak tree is fundamentally different from that of a ship (as indeed it is) and that therefore the analogy is a bad one (which it is not). Hence the title of this post. In this essay, I will be arguing that Feser has in fact innocently misread Professor Dembski’s views on teleology. The misreading is a pardonable one, but I would like to propose a more charitable and (I believe) more sensible construal of Dembski’s views on the subject. In particular, the point which Feser thinks Dembski was making about ships and oak trees is quite a different one from the point he was actually making. I shall also argue that a living thing’s being designed is perfectly compatible with it having built-in, goal-directed processes that terminate in and benefit the living thing itself (i.e. immanent final causation, in Aristotelian terminology).

The concession I’m seeking from Professor Feser is an acknowledgment that there is in fact nothing in Dembski’s writings that ties the Intelligent Design movement to the philosophy of mechanism, and that Professor Dembski’s writings, properly understood, are perfectly compatible with an Aristotelian-Thomistic view of what it means for something to be alive.

How did the misunderstanding arise in the first place?

In his writings, Professor Dembski has often likened the act of designing a living creature to the art of ship-building. According to Professor Feser, that makes Dembski a mechanist. To support his contention, Feser cites a passage from pp. 132-133 of Professor Dembski’s book, The Design Revolution, in which Dembski invokes a distinction, familiar to the ancient Greeks, between design, or techne in Greek – from which we get our word technology – and nature, or physis, from which we get our word physics. As Dembski puts it:

Nature and design represent two ways of producing information. Nature produces information, as it were, internally. The acorn assumes the shape it does through powers internal to it – the acorn is a seed programmed to produce an oak tree. But a ship assumes the shape it does through powers external to it – a designing intelligence imposes a suitable structure on pieces of wood to form a ship.

It is very important to understand what Professor Dembski is saying and what he and is not saying in this passage. I’d like to draw the reader’s attention to three points that Dembski makes.

First, the reader will notice that Professor Dembski is well aware of the fundamental difference between an object produced by a natural process and an artifact. An object produced by a natural process is generated by something exercising its natural powers. For instance, a living organism possesses certain built-in powers, which belong to it by nature, and which are directed at certain goals that benefit the organism. The ability to grow into a mature individual is one of these powers. An acorn possesses the natural power to grow into an oak, and a mature oak acquires its powers as a result of this natural process of growth. The powers of an artifact, on the other hand, are not acquired by a natural process; they are imposed from outside by its designer. Notice that Dembski is not saying that the powers of an artifact are necessarily imposed on an object that retains its own nature throughout the process, although this is actually true in the case of the ship: the powers that a ship has to sail through both calm and stormy weather are imposed on the wood, which still retains an underlying nature of its own – the wood from which the ship is built retains its natural tendency to float, even after it is sawn into pieces to form a ship. However, we can envisage an act of design in which even the nature of the underlying raw material changes, in accordance with the designer’s plan: for instance, the wood might be chemically treated, in order to make it better able to withstand the ravages of sea water, but in the process it might lose some of its natural buoyancy – in other words, its nature changes.

Corn is an even better example of a designed artifact in which the nature of the underlying raw material changed over time. Corn is a grain domesticated by the indigenous people of Central America in prehistoric times. Corn may have been domesticated from either Mexican teosinte or wild maize; alternatively, it may be the result of hybridization. Certainly the natural change effected by humans in the domestication of corn is a relatively small one, compared with the much more radical changes required to get from a land-dwelling animal like Pakicetus to an early whale like Basilosaurus in the space of 10 million years (see here for an overview of whale ancestry). However, the point of my illustration is simply to show that during the process of corn’s domestication, the nature of the crop from which it was derived was transformed, resulting in a new kind of crop.

I would also like to point out that in the passage above, Dembski is not saying that the powers of an artifact are directed at goals which provide no benefit to itself; rather, he is simply saying that the attainment of these goals is intended by the artifact’s designer. Certainly, a ship is designed with a view to goals that provide no benefit to itself, and which only benefit its designer; but conceivably, an artifact could be designed with a view to goals that provide some benefit to it, as well as being in accordance with the designer’s plans. Corn is a relevant example from human prehistory: since it has a somewhat different nature from the plants from which it was originally domesticated, it must have new built-in goals (which it possesses by virtue of being a living thing) which distinguish it from its wild predecessors, and which at the same time provide benefit to itself, as well as to providing benefit to humans, who cultivate corn for food. Or to take another example from biotechnology: genetically engineered crops benefit from being designed to be drought-resistant, and so do we, who designed them.

Second, it is vital to grasp the point that Professor Dembski is making about oaks in the passage quoted above. Of course, Dembski is not saying that an oak tree (genus Quercus) generates itself, since of course nothing can. That would be a contradiction in terms. Rather, he is saying that a young individual belonging to this kind (i.e. an acorn) is programmed to develop into a mature one of the same species. The shape of a mature oak tree is the product of the nature of the acorn it develops from. The acorn generates that shape by exercising powers internal to it, in order to attain its end.

However, although the shape of an oak tree can be explained in terms of its underlying nature (which is the same nature as the acorn it developed from), the shape of an oak tree is nevertheless distinct from its nature. The shape of an oak tree is what Aristotelian philosophers would call an accidental form, while the underlying form which gives an oak tree its nature and makes it an oak tree which rather than a pine tree, is called its substantial form by Aristotelian philosophers. An acorn has the same substantial form as the oak it eventually develops into, and Aristotelian philosophers would say that an acorn develops into an oak because it has certain natural powers that are directed at becoming an oak, and thereby acquiring the shape of a mature oak tree (which is an accidental form).

But what gave the acorn its natural powers in the first place? And what gave the acorn its substantial form? Since oak trees reproduce sexually, we can say that the acorn’s parents did. Indeed, one of the ends of a mature oak tree is the generation of new individuals of the same kind, through the process of sexual reproduction: an oak tree’s fruit (an acorn) contains a seed which takes 6 to 18 months to mature, depending on the species.

Feser’s dilemma: how did the first oak tree originate, if not by design?

Now here’s a question for Professor Feser: what about the first oak tree that ever existed? Where did it get its powers from, and where did it get its substantial form from? Our knowledge of the nature of an oak tree does not enable us to answer this question. But of one thing we can be sure: it was not produced by something whose natural end was to generate another oak tree. Only an existing oak tree could have such an end, and before the first oak tree appeared, there were none.

Of course, I am well aware that a Darwinian biologist would say that there was no “first oak tree,” as boundaries between species and genera are inherently blurry, but that’s not an answer that Professor Feser could give. As an Aristotelian-Thomistic essentialist, he believes that something either has the nature of an oak tree, or it doesn’t. Being an oak tree, for Feser, is not something that comes in halves. So for Feser, the question of where the first oak tree came from is a meaningful one. I will argue below that unless Professor Feser holds that the first oak tree was created ex nihilo (a view which a plain reading of Genesis does not support – see Genesis 1:12), he is bound to accept, as a Thomist, that it was somehow produced from pre-existing matter by an Intelligent Being (God). I will also show that whatever process this Intelligent Being used to produce the first oak tree would qualify as an act of design, under Dembski’s definition.

Now, Professor Feser has previously addressed the origin of living things in a blog post entitled, “Intelligent Design” theory and mechanism (10 April 2010). He writes:

The way God creates living things, then, is the same way He creates everything else, viz. by conjoining an essence to an act of existence, which in the case of material things (including plants and animals) entails conjoining a certain kind of prime matter/substantial form composite to an act of existence.

What Feser is saying here is that living things, like other contingent beings, do not exist in their own right; their existence is something which is gratuitously given to them by God, who is Pure Existence. This is all very well and good, but it fails to address the question: supposing that God made the first oak-tree using pre-existing material (be it the dust of the ground, or the seed from an ancestral plant that was not yet an oak), did He input any kind of information that brought about the transformation of this material into an oak-tree? If He did, then that was an act of design, according to Professor Dembski’s definition. And as Dembski has repeatedly insisted in his writings, it does not matter if this information was input immediately prior to the appearance of the first oak tree, or at the dawn of life, or even at the Big Bang. All that matters, from an ID perspective, is that the information was added to the natural world by an Intelligent Being who intended that this information should result in the (immediate or subsequent) appearance of an oak tree. If Professor Feser believes that, then he is an Intelligent Design proponent too!

Nature re-expresses existing information but does not create new information

The third point I’d like to make is that Professor Dembski, in the passage quoted above, is not saying that nature creates information. Rather, he says that nature produces information. This is a vital point, which Dembski elaborates in his 2009 paper, Life’s Conservation Law: Why Darwinian Evolution Cannot Generate Biological Information, which he co-authored with Robert J. Marks II. Allow me to quote an extract:

The central issue in the scientific debate over intelligent design and biological evolution can therefore be stated as follows: Is nature complete in the sense of possessing all the resources it needs to bring about the information-rich biological structures we see around us or does nature also require some contribution of design to bring about those structures? Darwinian naturalism argues that nature is able to create all its own information and is therefore complete. Intelligent design, by contrast, argues that nature is merely able to reexpress existing information and is therefore incomplete….

The challenge of intelligent design, and of this paper in particular, is to show that when natural systems exhibit intelligence by producing information, they have in fact not created it from scratch but merely shuffled around existing information. Nature is a matrix for expressing already existent information. But the ultimate source of that information resides in an intelligence not reducible to nature. The Law of Conservation of Information, which we explain and justify in this paper, demonstrates that this is the case. (Emphases mine – VJT.)

Now let’s go back to Dembski’s book, The Design Revolution, which Professor Feser attacks for its allegedly mechanistic view of life. Professor Dembski continues:

Design, art and techne are synonyms. The essential idea behind these terms is that information is conferred on an object from outside the object and that the material constituting the object, apart from that outside information, does not have the power to assume the form it does. For instance, raw pieces of wood do not by themselves have the power to form a ship.

Thus whereas nature produces information in an object internally, design adds that information from an external source. An object formed by art (or design) does not have the power to assume the form it does; hence its form must be conferred on it from outside.

Again, it is important to note what Professor Dembski is and is not saying here. Dembski is not saying that when the form of a designed object is imposed on a pre-existing object, that object retains its nature. Rather, he is simply saying that the form of a designed object is conferred on it from outside. This form could be an accidental form (e.g. the shape of a statue, or the structure of a ship). In these cases, the raw materials (stone and wood respectively) upon which the form is imposed undergo no change of nature. Alternatively, the form might be a substantial form, giving the object a new nature. That would be a more radical act of design, but it would still be a perfectly legitimate example of design, since the form is conferred from outside by an intelligent agent. (I have already discussed the domestication of corn as an example of this kind of radical design.) In this radical act of transformation, nothing from the old object would remain except for the “prime matter” underlying the change. From the perspective of the “prime matter”, the powers of the new object would be imposed from outside. However, since the powers of the new object arise from its new nature (which includes its new substantial form), these powers would still be natural to the object itself.

How Professor Feser misinterprets Dembski

It seems that Professor Feser has misread Dembski’s meaning in the passages above, judging from certain remarks he makes in a blog post entitled, “Intelligent Design” theory and mechanism (10 April 2010):

Dembski goes on explicitly to acknowledge that just as “the art of shipbuilding is not in the wood that constitutes the ship” and “the art of making statues is not in the stone out of which statues are made,” “so too, the theory of intelligent design contends that the art of building life is not in the physical stuff that constitutes life but requires a designer” (emphasis added). And there you have it: Living things are for ID theory to be modeled on ships and statues, the products of techne or “art,” whose characteristic “information” is not “internal” to them but must be “imposed” from “outside.” And that just is what A-T [Aristotelian-Thomistic] philosophers mean by a “mechanistic” conception of life.

Remember, this does not mean that A-T [Aristotelian-Thomism] denies that living things are created by God; far from it. The point is rather that for A-T, the way God creates a natural substance is not to be understood on the model of a shipbuilder or sculptor who takes pre-existing bits of matter and rearranges them to serve an end they have no tendency otherwise to serve. Nor is the point affected in the least if we imagine that when the pre-existing bits of matter are created this external order is imposed immediately; temporal considerations are irrelevant.
(Square brackets mine – VJT.)

I shall discuss below Professor Dembski’s remark that “the art of building life is not in the physical stuff that constitutes life but requires a designer.” Before I do, I’d like to point out that Professor Feser completely misconstrues the distinction Dembski is making here between artifacts and natural objects. Feser thinks that Dembski is making the following distinction:

(1) A designed object is formed by an external intelligent agent acting upon a pre-existing object which retains the nature it already possesses. The object is made from pre-existing matter which already has a substantial form that makes it the kind of material it is (e.g. stone or wood). For example, the stone in a statue or the wood in a ship already has a substantial form which belongs to the underlying raw material, or the stuff from which the designed object is shaped or put together. By contrast, the form imposed on the object by the designer is an accidental form (e.g. the shape of a statue, or the arrangement of the pieces of wood in a ship). Thus the end for which the object is designed is imposed on it from outside. The object’s pre-existing “second matter” (i.e. its prime matter plus its substantial form) has no inherent tendency to serve the end imposed by the designer.

(2) An object formed by a natural process has a substantial form, whose internal powers direct it toward the end it finally attains (e.g. the oak tree which the acorn matures into). The end is not imposed from outside. Rather, the end is intrinsic to the object’s nature. That is, the object’s substantial form gives it an inherent tendency to achieve its built-in end.

The contradiction that Feser rightly perceives here is that if one maintains (as some ID proponents, including myself, do) that the first oak tree was designed, this would entail that the first oak tree had no inherent tendency to realize its ends, which were imposed on it from outside – which would then entail that its descendants had no inherent tendency to realize their ends either. In other words, all oak trees are simply glorified machines, the descendants of an original oak tree that was designed by God, as a mere artifact.

But the distinction Professor Dembski is actually making is quite a different one:

(1) A designed object is formed (not created) by an external intelligent agent. The object is made from pre-existing matter that already has a substantial form, which it may or may not retain. What is important is that the object acquires a new form, which enables it to realize the end for which it is designed. This new form can be described as information which is imparted to the object. This may happen in two ways. First, this information may totally transform the object’s nature, conferring on it a new substantial form so that it becomes a radically different kind of thing from what it was before, with a new nature which is itself the product of design. In this case, the new form is imposed on the object’s “prime matter,” replacing the old substantial form of the object. Second, the information may be super-imposed on the substantial form of an existing substance (e.g. stone or wood), giving it a new accidental form – a new shape or structure, which does not alter the nature of the underlying substance. In any case, the distinguishing feature of a designed object is that it has a (substantial or accidental) form which it acquired as a result of the input of information by an external intelligent agent.

(2) An object produced by a natural process has a substantial form which was generated as a result of some natural process, without any input of information by an external intelligent agent.

Now if one adopts this distinction, then there is no contradiction in maintaining that the first oak tree was designed, as ID proponents like myself do. All we mean when we affirm this is that the Designer took some pre-existing matter (e.g. an ancestral tree) and added information to it which totally transformed its nature, from something which was not an oak tree into something that was an oak tree. I have to say that I can see nothing in this scenario that an Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher could reasonably object to.

Religious believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition generally hold that God did not create the first living things ex nihilo, but formed them out of pre-existing material. The book of Genesis itself affirms as much, on a straightforward reading (see Genesis 1:12, 20, 24; Genesis 2:7, 19), and St. Thomas Aquinas affirms as much too, as Professor Feser will readily acknowledge: Aquinas repeatedly speaks of God as producing or forming the first living things, according to their various kinds, rather than creating them (e.g. Summa Theologica I, q. 69, art. 2; q. 71, art. 1; q. 72, art. 1; q. 91, arts. 1-4; q. 92, arts. 1-4). Thus the Designer of the first oak tree did not create it ex nihilo, but formed it out of pre-existing matter, which He had already created in the Big Bang. The Designer took pre-existing bits of matter and rearranged them, in the process giving them a new substantial form, and thereby an inherent tendency to serve some end: the telos of an oak tree. Before the Designer’s act of re-arrangement, these pre-existing bits of matter were a piece of “second matter” (matter already possessing some substantial form or other). This piece of “second matter” might have been a piece of non-living organic material (e.g. a clod of earth) whose atoms were completely re-arranged, or it might have been an already existing organism (i.e. an ancestral organism) whose DNA the Designer re-arranged. On either scenario, as a result of the re-arrangement, this piece of “second matter” lost its old substantial form, and acquired a new substantial form from outside it, in the process becoming a new substance. The new substance is a composite of “prime matter” (matter having no form at all) and the new substantial form that the Designer has endowed it with. The “prime matter” has thus acquired a new substantial form from outside itself. This new substance’s causal tendencies, including its biological functions, are inherent to it, a reflection of its essence or nature; it simply could not possibly exist as the kind of thing it is in the first place if it did not have those tendencies.

But would a living thing which was designed by God still possess immanent final causation, which is the distinguishing hallmark of living things? Indeed it would. In his blog post, “Intelligent Design” theory and mechanism (10 April 2010), Professor Feser carefully distinguishes between two kinds of immanence. He writes of “(a) the distinction between immanent versus transeunt causation with (b) the distinction between immanent versus externally imposed final causes.” Indeed, he even reproaches me for overlooking this distinction is earlier posts of mine. I do not want to revive old controversies, so I shall simply say that the distinction Feser draws is a significant one. Let’s have a closer look at what he says:

Distinction (b) is a distinction between final causality understood the Aristotelian way (as inherent to natural substances) and final causality understood the way Newton or Paley understood it (as not inherent to natural substances, but imposed from outside). Distinction (a) is a distinction between causal processes that terminate in and benefit the cause itself (“immanent” causation) and causal processes that terminate outside the cause (“transeunt” causation)… [L]iving things manifest immanent causality in the sense of distinction (a).

Since a living thing that had been designed by God would have a good of its own, that terminates in and benefits itself, then it would indeed possess immanent causation in sense (a) as opposed to “transeunt” causation. Of course, the living thing would also be designed for God’s ends, but there’s nothing in the definition of a living thing which precludes it from serving other ends as well as its own. As for (b), I believe that my preceding comments suffice to show that Professor Feser has overlooked the fact that design comes in two varieties – a superficial variety (which imposes a form on a natural substance) and another, more radical variety (which transforms the nature of a substance). If a living thing were designed by God, then it could only be designed in the second sense. But in that case, the final causes would not be imposed on its nature; they would merely be imposed on the prime matter underlying the transformation.

I therefore conclude that if a living thing were designed by God, it would still possess bona fide immanent final causation – immanent as opposed to transeunt, and immanent in the sense of not being imposed on its nature.

Why the art of building life is not in the physical stuff that constitutes life but requires a designer

What are we to make of Professor Dembski’s remark (quoted by Feser above) that “the art of building life is not in the physical stuff that constitutes life but requires a designer”? First of all, it should be noted that Dembski does not say that this stuff retains its nature after being designed into a living thing. On the contrary: the transformation of a bunch of organic chemicals into a living cell is about as radical a change of nature as can possibly be imagined. Indeed, it is for precisely that reason that Dembski writes: “the art of building life is not in the physical stuff that constitutes life.” It is not natural for an assortment of chemicals floating around in the Earth’s primordial ocean – or for that matter, near some alkaline vent, according to the latest hypothesis – to spontaneously organize themselves into a living cell. To get that result, you need a very large amount of information. However, it can be shown that organic chemicals don’t possess anything like the requisite degree of information to build a living thing. Hence if, at some distant stage in the Earth’s past, a bunch of organic chemicals did suddenly assemble into a living thing, we can conclude that some Intelligent Agent must have helped them to do so – either by specifying the initial arrangement of the chemicals in question with an extreme degree of precision (which would have required an intelligent input of information) or by directly manipulating these chemicals to form a living thing (thereby directly adding organizing information). That was what Professor Dembski meant. I see nothing about this claim that Professor Feser could take exception to.

Teleology and Darwinism: Why there is no fundamental difference between Professors Feser and Dembski

Both Professors Dembski and Feser are on the record as saying that to the extent that Darwinism works, it must be teleological, and both of them have even stated that they are prepared to envisage Darwinism as immanently teleological. I conclude that there is little, if anything, to distinguish their views on the relationship of teleology to Darwinism.

In his book, The Last Superstition, Professor Feser insists that while he is no fan of Darwinism, he would be unfazed should it prove to be true, as it would still require teleology to make it work:

[W]hile Darwinian explanations of various biological phenomena are a serious challenge to the arguments of Paley and “Intelligent Design” theorists, they are almost totally irrelevant to Aquinas’s Fifth Way; and I say “almost” totally irrelevant not because they might slightly hurt the Fifth Way, but because, on the contrary, if anything they slightly help Aquinas. (p. 112)

… What I am saying is that even if, per impossibile, everything in the biological realm could be explained by means of natural selection, this would not affect the Fifth Way specifically at all, even if it would affect other positions Aquinas takes. And since, as far as a follower of Aquinas is concerned, the evolutionary process would itself, even in that case, manifest final causality or goal-directedness, it would simply constitute one more example of the general phenomenon that forms the starting point of Aquinas’s argument, and in that sense therefore at least slightly help his case. (p. 114) (Bold emphasis mine – VJT.)

But Professor Dembski and Robert J. Marks II make exactly the same point in their 2009 paper, Life’s Conservation Law: Why Darwinian Evolution Cannot Generate Biological Information:

Nature, as conceived by Darwin and his followers, acts without purpose—it is nonteleological and therefore unintelligent. As evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne puts it in opposing intelligent design, “If we’re to defend evolutionary biology, we must defend it as a science: a nonteleological theory in which the panoply of life results from the action of natural selection and genetic drift acting on random mutations.” But why do Coyne and fellow Darwinists insist that evolutionary biology, to count as science, must be nonteleological. Where did that rule come from? The wedding of teleology with the natural sciences is itself a well-established science—it’s called engineering. Intelligent design, properly conceived, belongs to the engineering sciences. (p. 2)

The challenge of intelligent design, and of this paper in particular, is to show that when natural systems exhibit intelligence by producing information, they have in fact not created it from scratch but merely shuffled around existing information. Nature is a matrix for expressing already existent information. But the ultimate source of that information resides in an intelligence not reducible to nature. The Law of Conservation of Information, which we explain and justify in this paper, demonstrates that this is the case. Though not denying Darwinian evolution or even limiting its role as an immediate efficient cause in the history of life, this law shows that Darwinian evolution is deeply teleological. Moreover, it shows that the teleology inherent in Darwinian evolution is scientifically ascertainable – it is not merely an article of faith.

Darwinian evolution, as it plays out in real life, could potentially look into the future (and thus be teleological) if the fitness it employed were, as Meester puts it, “programmed with insight into the future.” And how do we know that it isn’t? The search algorithms in evolutionary computing give rampant evidence of teleology – from their construction to their execution to the very problems they solve. So too, when we turn to evolutionary biology, we find clear evidence of teleology: despite Dawkins’s denials, biological evolution is locating targets. Indeed, function and viability determine evolution’s targets (recall section 3) and evolution seems to be doing a terrific job finding them. Moreover, given that Darwinian evolution is able to locate such targets, LCI underwrites the conclusion that Darwinian evolution is teleologically programmed with active information. (p. 32)
(Bold emphases mine – VJT.)

Now, it might be objected here that the teleology that Dembski and Marks are discussing here is purely external, like that of a machine, as opposed to immanent. But a closer look at their paper suggests otherwise. Dembski and Marks even acknowledge in their paper that “if one is more liberal about what one means by natural causes and includes among them end-directed (teleological) processes that are not reducible to chance and necessity (as Aristotle and the ancient Stoics did by endowing nature with immanent teleology), then our claim that natural causes are incomplete dissolves.” The view that Dembski and Marks wish to attack, however, is the current “scientific” view that “intelligent causes are always reducible to nonteleological natural causes, ultimately to the motions and interactions of particles governed by forces of attraction and repulsion.” Their primary concern is to show that to the extent that evolution occurs, it must be a teleological process. Exactly where this teleology resides is a secondary question.

Having said that, it must be said that the idea of the evolutionary process itself possessing immanent final causation – as opposed to externally imposed goals – is a philosophically problematic one, for three reasons.

First, as Professor Edward Feser correctly points out in his book, The Last Superstition (p. 66), “for common sense it is ultimately things that are causes, not events.” And I would add that it is things that have goals, not events. To speak of “the evolutionary process” having a built-in goal sounds a bit nebulous to me. I can certainly understand how a built-in goal can reside in a thing, since the attainment of that goal is obviously good for that thing, as anyone can verify for themselves. For instance, oaks thrive on water, soil and sunlight: anyone can see that. But what does it mean for “the evolutionary process” to thrive? I have no idea. Does it make any sense, then, to impute immanent finality to a process that not only goes beyond any individual living thing, but also transcends any species of living thing?

The second problem with the notion of the evolutionary process possessing immanent final causation is that it seems to imply that the end-products of evolution (e.g. human beings) are somehow implicit in the first living cell – but as Dembski and Marks argue in their paper (pp. 5-6), this claim is quite absurd:

As philosopher Holmes Rolston points out, humans are not invisibly present in primitive single-celled organisms in the same way that an oak tree is secretly present in an acorn. The oak tree unfolds in a lawlike or programmatic way from an acorn. But the same cannot be said for the grand evolutionary story that places single-celled organisms at one end and humans at the other (“monad to man” evolution). There’s no sense in which human beings or any other multi-celled organisms are latent in single-celled organisms, much less in nonliving chemicals. For Rolston, the claim that life is somehow already present or lurking in nonliving chemicals or that complex biological systems are already present or lurking in simple biological systems is “an act of speculative faith.” 15

Speculative faith is not science.
(Emphases mine – VJT.)

15. Holmes Rolston III, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 352.

The third and final problem I have with the notion of “the evolutionary process” possessing immanent final causation is that it seems to be based on a false personification of Nature, combined with a poor analogy, which equates the relationship between Nature and “her” long-term goals to that between a living organism and its long-term goals. Now, I know for a fact that Professor Feser is very faithful to Aquinas’s thought and teachings, so if Aquinas did not envisage Nature in holistic terms, then I doubt whether Professor Feser will be tempted to do so. Unlike certain so-called “modern Thomists” such as Professor Michael Tkacz, Aquinas did not make the mistake of treating Nature as One Big Agent. Nor did he regard Nature as autonomous, as some have falsely claimed (see here and here, and see here for my reply, and in particular, see here for my “reply proper”). In fact, while searching through the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles for the phrases “nature act(s),” “nature operate(s)” and “nature produce(s),” I came up with a meager handful of phrases, none of which support the claim that Nature can be viewed as One Big Agent, who is autonomous in her operations. Here is what I found:

Summa Theologica I, q. 19, art. 4 (Whether the will of God is the cause of things):

Since both intellect and nature act for an end, as proved in Phys. ii, 49, the natural agent must have the end and the necessary means predetermined for it by some higher intellect; as the end and definite movement is predetermined for the arrow by the archer.

Summa Theologica I, q. 118 art 2, ad. 3 (Whether the intellectual soul is produced from the semen?):

Now it is manifest from what has been said above (105, 5; 110, 1) that the whole of corporeal nature acts as the instrument of a spiritual power, especially of God.

Summa Theologica I-II, q. 1 art. 2 (Whether it is proper for the rational nature to act for an end?):

On the contrary, The Philosopher proves (Phys. ii, 5) that “not only mind but also nature acts for an end.”

I answer that, Every agent, of necessity, acts for an end… But an agent does not move except out of intention for an end. For if the agent were not determinate to some particular effect, it would not do one thing rather than another..

Summa Contra Gentiles Book III, chapter 75, paragraph 8 (That God’s Providence Applies to Contingent Singulars):

[8] … Moreover, good uses of these cannot fail to be made, except in rare instances, because things that are from nature produce their effects in all cases, or frequently. Thus, it is not possible for all individuals to fall, even though a particular one may do so.

Summa Contra Gentiles Book IV, chapter 81, paragraph 5 (Solution of the Objections Mentioned [to the doctrine of the Resurrection]):

[5] … But the divine power which produced things in being operates by nature in such wise that it can without nature produce nature’s effect, as was previously shown.

There are some beautiful quotes here by Aquinas, which would cheer the heart of any creationist or Intelligent Design theorist. I especially liked the one where St. Thomas wrote that “the whole of corporeal nature acts as the instrument of a spiritual power, especially of God.” But there is nothing in the quotations listed above which even remotely suggests that Aquinas viewed Nature as One Big Agent, let alone One Big Autonomous Agent. Even when Aquinas writes that “nature acts for an end,” he immediately follows it with an explanation restating his claim as an assertion about each and every natural agent: “Every agent, of necessity, acts for an end.” The only time when Aquinas is genuinely enthusiastic when speaking of Nature holistically is when he speaks of it as God’s instrument – which means that Nature is not autonomous, after all.

Nor does Aquinas’ oft-repeated phrase, “Nature does nothing in vain,” provide any support for the claim that Aquinas viewed Nature as One Big Autonomous Agent. Indeed, Aquinas often quotes alternative versions of the same saying, which refute this claim. For instance, he writes that “God and nature make nothing in vain,” “God and nature do nothing in vain,” “God makes nothing in vain,” “None of God’s works have been made in vain,” and “Nothing in nature is in vain.” Viewed against this context, it can no longer be seriously maintained that Aquinas envisaged Nature as One Big Autonomous Agent.

For these reasons, then, I am skeptical of the notion that the evolutionary process could possibly possess built-in goals which individual living things do not possess. However, if Professor Feser can explain how a process which transcends any individual or species can be meaningfully said to possess long-term immanent goals, then I am all ears. I await his response on this issue.

The teleology of a 21st century ship: what it does and does not tell us about living things

In their 2009 paper, Life’s Conservation Law: Why Darwinian Evolution Cannot Generate Biological Information, Professor William Dembski and Robert J. Marks II narrate a parable about teleology, using the example of a 21st century ship on auto-pilot (p. 31):

Certainly it is part of the popular mythology associated with Darwinism that it is a nonteleological theory. We quoted Jerry Coyne to that effect in section 1. Such quotes appear across the Darwinian literature. But how do we know that evolution is nonteleological or that any teleology in it must be scientifically unascertainable. Imagine you are on an ancient ship and observe a steersman at the helm. The ship traverses difficult waters and reaches port. You conclude that the vessel’s trajectory at sea was teleological. Why? Two things: you see a steersman controlling the ship’s rudder who, on independent grounds, you know to be a teleological agent; also, you witness the goal-directed behavior of the ship in finding its way home. Now imagine a variation on this story. An ancient sailor comes on board a twenty-first century ship that is completely automated so that a computer directly controls the rudder and guides the vessel to port. No humans are on board other than this sailor. Being technologically challenged, he will have no direct evidence of a teleological agent guiding the ship – no steersman of the sort that he is used to will be evident. And yet, by seeing the ship traverse difficult channels and find its way home by exactly the same routes he took with ancient ships guided by human steersmen, he will be in his rights to conclude that a purpose is guiding the ship even if he cannot uncover direct empirical evidence of an embodied teleological agent at the helm.

Now, the Law of Conservation of Information gives this conclusion extra quantitative teeth. According to LCI, any search process that exhibits information by successfully locating a target must have been programmed with no less than what we defined as the active information. Thus, armed with LCI, our ancient steersman, however technologically challenged otherwise, could reasonably infer that a teleological agent had put the necessary active information into the ship (the ship, after all, is not eternal and thus its information could not have resided in it forever). Like the ancient sailor, we are not in a position to, as it were, open the hood of the universe and see precisely how the information that runs evolution was programmed (any more than the sailor can peer into the ship’s computers and see how it was programmed). But LCI guarantees that the programming that inserts the necessary information is nonetheless there in both instances. (p. 31) (Emphases mine – VJT.)

The point that Dembski and Marks are making here is not that an automated ship is just like a living thing: obviously it isn’t, as the ship lacks immanent final causation, which is the distinguishing hallmark of a living thing. Unlike the purpose of a living thing, the purpose served by the ship is wholly extrinsic to it: it is built to transport human passengers and their cargo over water. But in any case, the analogy Dembski and Marks are making is not between an automated ship and a living thing, but between an automated ship and the evolutionary process.

What the automated ship and the evolutionary process have in common is that both of them require the input of a massive amount of information by an external Intelligent Agent, in order to achieve their respective goals. This justifies the conclusion that evolution must be teleological, if Darwinism is true. Dembski and Marks go on to say that in all currently used mathematical models of evolution, “careful tailoring of fitness functions that assist in locating targets is always present and clearly teleological,” adding that “no nonteleological mathematical models of Darwinian evolution are known.” They then deliver a knockout blow against non-teleological accounts of evolution by pointing out the effectiveness of mathematical models which explicit invoke teleology: “If these models adequately represent biological evolution, then this teleological feature of fitness ought to be preserved in nature, implying that Darwinian evolution is itself teleological” (p. 31).

The limitations of design arguments

I would like to conclude by quoting a passage from an earlier article by Professor Dembski, entitled “An Information-Theoretic Design Argument,” in chapter 5 of the apologetics text To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian World-view, edited by Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2004). The passage clearly establishes that: (a) Dembski is careful to distinguish between design and creation; (b) he is fully cognizant of what design arguments can and cannot prove; and (c) his model of design is perfectly compatible with a belief in immanent final causation:

The design argument begins with features of the natural world that exhibit evidence of purpose and from there attempt to infer the existence and attributes of an intelligent cause responsible for those features. Just what features signal an intelligent cause, what the nature of that intelligent cause is (for example, personal agent or teleological process) and how convincingly those features establish the existence of an intelligent cause remain subjects for debate and account for the variety of design arguments over the centuries. In this chapter I formulate the design argument in terms of information theory.

…For Kant, the design argument legitimately establishes an “architect” (that is, an intelligent cause whose contrivances are constrained by the materials that make up the world), but it can never establish a Creator who originates the very materials by which the architect then fashions.

We need to draw a clear distinction between creation and design. Creation is always about the source of being of the world. Design is about arrangements of pre-existing materials that point to an intelligence. Creation and design are therefore quite different. One can have creation without design and design without creation. For instance, one can have a doctrine of creation in which God creates the world but nothing in the world points to design. Richard Dawkins has a book titled The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Suppose Dawkins is right about the universe revealing no evidence of design. It would not logically follow that it was not created. It is logically possible that God created a world that provides no evidence of his handiwork. By contrast, it is logically possible that the world is full of signs of intelligence but was not created. This was the ancient Stoic view, in which the world was eternal and uncreated, and yet a rational principle pervaded the world and produced marks of intelligence in it.
(Emphases mine – VJT.)

The reader will notice, by the way, that Professor Dembski speaks of design as being about arrangements of pre-existing materials, not pre-existing objects.


I have argued that there is nothing in Thomistic philosophy which precludes the idea of a living thing being the product of design. So now I would like to ask Professor Feser: will he finally concede that the scenarios I have outlined above for the origin of life and for the origin of the first oak tree are (a) perfectly compatible with Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and (b) perfectly compatible with Intelligent Design?

In my next post on the subject, I’ll be having a look at Aquinas’ Fifth Way. Professor Feser has argued in his books, The Last Superstition and Aquinas, that the Fifth Way is a much more powerful argument for God’s existence than any Intelligent Design argument, and that the latter cannot establish the existence of God in any case. I shall argue that on the contrary, Intelligent Design arguments actually strengthen the Fifth Way, and that Thomists ignore these arguments at their peril.

(Acknowledgments to Sten Porse for the photo of the oak tree at the top of this post.)

3 Replies to “An argument about ships, oaks, corn and teleology – will Professor Feser finally concede that it is possible for a living thing to be the product of design?

  1. 1
    Ilion says:

    … will Professor Feser finally concede that it is possible for a living thing to be the product of design?

    I’m confident that the answer is “No.”

    But I wouldn’t worry too much about what the good doctor does or does not say. For, after all, he also holds that morality is self-contradictory — he will, of course, vociferously deny that, but statement is nontheless true. I tried once (to no avail) to explain to him just why that is the inescapable meaning of his version of Thomism; and by his reaction to that, I lost resoect (and interest) in him.

  2. 2
    paragwinn says:

    Big apologies for really OT comment:

    Has KL or IDC been banned? I havent seen any responses from them in an unusually long time (Internet-wise).

  3. 3
    Ilion says:

    Told ya’

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