Over on Biologos, Francis Beckwith has posted a third and a fourth instalment of his “Intelligent Design and Me” series. He has dedicated these instalments to some of his critics, naming some UD people specifically, and also discussing the views of Jay Richards of the Discovery Institute.
I’m grateful that Dr. Beckwith has seen fit to reply. I must confess that I had almost written him off as a “drive-by shooter”, but now I must say “better late than never”, and thank him for his effort to get back to us.
First, as one of the UD people mentioned by Dr. Beckwith, I should apologize for misreporting, in my earlier column, some of the chronological details of Dr. Beckwith’s religious and intellectual life. Dr. Beckwith has corrected me on these in his new article. I can assure him that there was no conscious attempt to misrepresent anything, and I am glad he has reminded us that his adoption of Thomism preceded his return to Rome by many years. This makes the important point that Thomism is a theological approach rather than a religious confession, and is open to Christians other than Roman Catholics.
I won’t comment on Dr. Beckwith’s new articles point by point, but will focus only on two main ideas which I think need discussion.
A. Dr. Beckwith tells us that Thomas Aquinas did not have an argument from design in the style of William Paley, but an argument from the existence of final causes. I grant that there is no Paley-like argument in the famous “Five Ways”. But does it follow that arguments in the style of Paley are incompatible with the argument of Aquinas? Is there anything in Aquinas’s writing which would lead us to believe that he would have rejected Paley-like arguments?
I will not pose as an expert on Aquinas. We do know, however, that Aquinas was a very thorough student of Aristotle, and that his writings about nature are very heavily influenced by Aristotle’s conceptions. We know also that Aristotle himself was a good observational biologist (as even Darwin confessed), which is quite understandable given that Aristotle’s father was a physician. Aristotle was very much aware of the “adaptation of means to ends” in the bodies of plants and animals, and very much aware of what we now call “integrated complexity” in living systems. He at least at one point appears (though the meaning of the passage is debatable) to heap scorn on a very Darwinian-sounding hypothesis of Empedocles.
More important, Aristotle constantly makes use, in his descriptions of nature, of the analogy of the artisan or craftsman. True, he does not understand God to be literally an artisan. Nonetheless, the fact that he so often recurs to the artisan analogy suggests that natural things, and especially living things, are very much like the products of craftsmanship in key respects. One of the major similarities is of course that neither the products of craft nor those of nature occur by “chance”. This is not Paley, but it is not incompatible with Paley, either. If Aquinas absorbed Aristotle’s teaching about nature, which I believe he did, is it inconceivable that he took the artisan analogy with some seriousness? Can we be certain that Aquinas would have rejected Paley-like arguments as bad philosophy and bad theology? Need all modern Thomists reject Paley-like arguments?
B. Dr. Beckwith complains that ID confuses categories by offering “intelligent design” as a scientific theory, and expecting it to defeat “naturalism”, which is a philosophical position. If I understand Dr. Beckwith correctly, Thomism opposes naturalism, not on the level of natural science, but on the level of the philosophy of nature. Thus, Thomism avoids category confusion, and leaves modern natural science free to its own methods and investigations, while steadfastly upholding a teleological view of nature on the metaphysical level.
In order to respond properly to this, I must make clear my own notion of intelligent design. And let me say that I have no authority to speak for Uncommon Descent, or for The Discovery Institute, or for “ID” as a movement. I am simply going to state what I take to be the essence of intelligent design, based on my intensive reading of the major theoretical works of its leading proponents and associates, and my intensive reading of its critics and its rejoinders to its critics, over the past several years.
First, I concede that my notion of the essence of ID is a filtered and idealized notion, stripped of its cultural associations and given a consistency that it does not always present. It incorporates elements from Behe, Meyer, Dembski, Denton and others, and attempts to give these ideas a rough unity, but does not claim that it can reconcile itself with every individual statement these writers have ever made, let alone every statement about design or evolution that a fundamentalist pastor in Georgia or Oklahoma might have made.
I see ID as an attempt to construct an argument for the design of living nature, based on the empirical facts of living nature. The most striking fact about living nature is its high degree of integrated complexity. In a cell, physiological system, or organism, individual molecular, cellular or organic systems, each extraordinarily complex, interact harmoniously with other individual systems. The levels of complexity, interaction, efficiency, etc. are far beyond what the best human engineers have been able to achieve in inorganic systems.
We have no experience of such complex integrated systems being built up by chance, or by any process largely dominated by purely contingent events. Yes, crystals and snowflakes can form naturally into elaborate geometrical patterns, but crystals and snowflakes do not eat, breathe, digest, walk, fly, mate, think, laugh, cry or sacrifice themselves for a political or religious idea. Their mathematical structures are neither machinelike nor lifelike; they do not display the adaption of means to ends that both machines and organisms do.
Insofar as we are able to calculate the odds against complex organic systems forming by chance, or by any evolutionary process largely driven by chance, we come up with numbers so large as to be beyond human imagination.
When we take all of this into account, and when we ask the question: “Could complex integrated organic systems have arisen without any input, direct or indirect, from intelligence or something in the universe that resembles intelligence?”, it would appear that the most rational answer, i.e., the one most in accord with evidence and logic, is: “Based on our current understanding of nature, no.” And with this negative answer, the positive suggestion of intelligent design is implied.
Now, note that I have spoken only of “design”, not of “miracle”, “intervention”, “supernatural causes”, filling in “gaps” in naturalistic explanation, etc. In my view, ID, in its purest form, has nothing to do with these things. In my view, ID is a theory of design detection, applied to nature, especially to biological nature. It detects design, not how the design was implemented. And it detects present patterns, not past events which might account for those patterns. In other words, ID is (or at least in my view should be) an a-historical theory of design, not a historical theory of “origins”.
Is this nonsense? Am I ignoring the obvious fact that many ID proponents, major and minor, have insisted that ID is a theory of origins? And one that involves divine activity?
Not at all. It is inevitable that human beings will ask origins questions, i.e., “How did this design get into nature?” And it is almost inevitable that some design theorists will conclude that certain designs could not have found their way into nature without the direct manipulation of nature by God. But neither an affirmation of a particular historical narrative nor an insistence upon divine interventions is essential to ID theory as I understand it.
So if Nelson believes that direct creation was necessary and that macroevolution did not occur, and if Behe accepts macroevolution and is open-minded about whether or not it needed to be executed or supplemented by divine intervention, and if Denton accepts macroevolution and utterly rejects intervention, this is not an inconsistency in ID theory as such; it is a difference of opinion about second-tier questions among ID proponents. All of them are agreed that neo-Darwinian processes, which lean heavily upon chance (the purportedly non-chance character of natural selection notwithstanding), are not a credible explanation of the empirically verifiable facts of nature. Chance and selection may have played a role, but without the co-ordinating effects of design, they cannot give a rational accounting for the existence of life and life-forms as we know them.
Now, I come back to Dr. Beckwith’s objection. I don’t think that ID proper uses science to defeat “naturalism”, even if ID proponents sometimes slip into that language. I think that ID proper uses science to defeat “chance”. The Paley-like arguments of ID do not refute naturalism as such; rather, they refute only that form of naturalism which is intensely dependent upon chance, upon blessed combinations of mutations which are (to use neo-Darwinian language) “random with respect to the outcome”. ID is completely compatible with naturalism of other sorts. For example, it is compatible with a naturalism in which the whole course of evolution is laid out by physical and biochemical necessities programmed into the universe from the moment of Creation.
Thus, I think it is wrong to oppose ID to “naturalism”. I think it is wrong not only when the foes of ID do this, but even when the friends of ID do it. ID is, or should be, neutral on the question of “naturalism”, if by “naturalism” is meant only “the Designer implements his design through wholly natural means, without having to make special interventions”. ID has no axe to grind against naturalism in that sense. Of course, if by “naturalism” is meant, “there is nothing in the universe but nature, and nature does not include God”, then naturalism is just materialism and atheism, and automatically excludes a Designer. Obviously ID is opposed to naturalism in that sense. But in the former sense, there is nothing in ID that rules out wholly naturalistic macroevolution. The design can be conceived of as built into the universe, to unfold or evolve over time.
Note that a wholly naturalistic version of ID, just as much as any interventionist version, is compatible with Paleyan arguments. However, it does not involve the notion that God assembled each species bone by bone and feather by feather, as the clockmaker image suggests. Rather, what living things have in common with clocks is the adaptation of means to ends. This does not require that they were actually, historically speaking, built as clocks are built. I doubt that even Paley ever meant that, and certainly I don’t think that is what Behe, Denton and Sternberg envision when they talk about design within an evolutionary process.
So I throw the question back to Dr. Beckwith: If ID can in principle accept macroevolution as a historical process; if ID can go further than this, and even contemplate macroevolution as a wholly natural (though intelligently pre-planned) process; if ID does not require that each species or even each body plan be built up miraculously, via supernatural interventions, feather by feather or bone by bone; if ID can conceive of evolution as the unfolding of a latent design rather than the constant imposition of an extrinsic design — is ID still necessarily incompatible with the view of final causation held by Thomas Aquinas or by modern Thomists? Is it only the miracles, the interventionism and the literal understanding of the clockmaker metaphor that are unacceptable to Thomism? Or is the idea of design detection itself, even in the context of a seamless naturalism, antithetical to Thomist thought? Is it simply wrong, from a Thomist point of view, for a Christian to think that the details of God’s creation might point decisively against chance and decisively in favor of design?