Intelligent Design Science, Mathematics, Philosophy and (Natural) Theology

Is ID about internal or external teleology?

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Some Aristotelian Neo-Thomists (E. Feser call them “A-T philosophers”) accuse intelligent design (ID) of being an expression of the modern mechanistic reductionist quantificationist mindset, and of denying an immanent teleology in nature. I would argue that the difference between internal and external teleology shouldn’t divide ID and A-T. ID doesn’t deny immanent teleology in nature, and has no specific commitment to external teleology or mechanistic thinking.

Teleology is synonymous with function, end, purpose, or goal. Design means conceiving hierarchies of functions. Therefore design and teleology are but the two faces of the same coin.

So why can one say with confidence that a living being has internal teleology and a machine has only external teleology? Because the living, manifested beings come from the ontological Being; they are its direct manifestations. Since the Being is the metaphysical Unity without parts, the manifested beings inherit an high essential degree of unity. All their parts cooperate harmoniously to form a true whole. Their principle is neither in one of their parts nor in the sum of all their parts. All their parts are a unity without composition. Given their direct origin and their integration one says that a living being has intrinsic or internal teleology. We could say also that living beings have a priori finality.

Note that the immanent teleology in nature, deriving from the transcendent Unity, and constituting the basis for a design argument, is so pervasive that a traditional dictum grants us that “in any [natural] thing there is a sign that the Being is unique”.

An artifact is made by man, is quite different. Consequently, its rank is very different fom that of a living being. A machine is not a direct manifestation of the Being (the human constructor introduces a hierarchical step in the middle), and the unity of the machine is low. Moreover the material machine is external to its human constructor. Given this situation one says that a machine has only external teleology.

We could say also that machines have an a posteriori finality. The machine parts — considered separately — have no inherent tendency to cooperate. Yes, there is also a sort of principle of unification, the idea in the mind of the human designer, but obviously it is a far lower principle, relative to the absolute Being. “The works of man are imitations of divine prototypes”, as one said.

The natural vs. artificial difference is fundamental because is ontological. By the way, one of its consequences is that in principle no robot will ever compare with a living being. No IDer to my knowledge claims that the living beings are machines. How could we, also considering that their origin is so different?

Also the claim that Aquinas’ and Paley’s views of design are in complete disagreement is not correct. Paley says that if he finds a watch in a ground he infers design. Paley does not say that living beings are machines in essence (that is what Descartes thought).

Analogously, when an IDer notes that some characteristics of organisms can be described by mechanics, informatics, thermodynamics, control theory, etc. he is not saying that organisms are machines. To describe some properties of an entity in mechanical (or more generally in scientific) terms and to say the entity is only a machine are two different things. By way of analogy, if I say that the side view of a 3D pyramid is a triangle, I do not mean that the pyramid is only a triangle.

IDers don’t confuse living beings and machines. ID must be neither redutionistic nor simplistic. To analyze patterns and relations, to consider parts and calculate the probabilities of their aggregations, is to make scientific models and descriptions. They are necessarily defective, but they may nevertheless help human understanding.

IDers do concur with Thomists in affirming that organisms show an internal teleological organization. ID recognizes the supremacy of natural teleology and doesn’t confuse it with the external teleology of machines. Aquinas’ views, properly understood, and ID arguments from design are compatible. Aquinas’ are “metaphysical demonstrations” (as Feser puts it) while ID deals with scientific inferences. Nevertheless both point to a designer of nature.

Neither is ID a form of deism. The Designer need not be anthropomorphic, a watchmaker who constructs a watch with hands and tool, puts it on a shelf, and then goes home. The universe is not at all external to its Designer (it is an effect in principle contained inside its cause). So the relation between the Designer and the universe cannot be seen mechanistically, as the relation between a watchmaker and a watch (external teleology). On the contrary, the universe can be considered as an idea/project in the “mind” of God (internal teleology).

A-T phylosophers affirm that Aquinas’ Fifth Way doesn’t use the concept of complexity, while ID focuses on it. But this is not necessarily a defect in ID, because spectacular complexity points to teleology in a way that communicates with people who are not convinced by Aquinas’ more essential arguments.

It is true, as Scholasticism affirms, that the supreme Esse transcends any multiplicity. But the cosmos is multiplicity, is complexity; otherwise it couldn’t be a cosmos at all. Science is not metaphysics, it is the study of creation, then of multiplicity. ID, as a scientific enterprise, must deal with multiplicity, with parts and relations among parts. That by no means denies the essence of the One, the First Cause of all. That Being is the supreme Essence, but the cosmos is made of essence and substance, quality and quantity. Metaphysics deals with pure essence, but science in general and ID in particular must deal also with quantity.

To answer the question posed by the title, ID is compatible with both kinds of teleology. ID is simply a science-based method for design detection. Signs and patterns of design can be similar between living beings and artificial systems. Information processes in the cell are similar to those in informatics. A submarine sonar works according to the same principles of a bat echometer. Control systems in the nervous apparatus of animals work according to the paradigms of cybernetics, etc.

More, ID is compatible with A-T. In fact I know many Thomists who are also sympathetic to ID. ID gains nothing by rejecting A-T, because it can be a solid philosophical framework for ID. Conversely A-T gains nothing by rejecting ID because it then discards a useful tool in science that can take its place in the hierarchy of knowledge, and help greatly in refuting Darwinism (unfortunately, some Neo-Thomists actually believe that Darwinism is true!).

For this reason I would invite our A-T critics to meet in friendly discussion with IDers, where sure there would be more agreement than disagreement. After all both A-Ts and IDers — as opposed to atheists/Darwinists — believe in “the existence of a divine ordering intelligence”, and that is what matters.

13 Replies to “Is ID about internal or external teleology?

  1. 1
    bFast says:

    A very interesting post, but no comments, hmmm.
    I find the “internal intelligence” model, the model you are calling A-T, to be what the “3rd way” is talking about. (I like the 3rd way philosophers partly because they are so well studied.)

    So the question seems to be one of locus of intelligence — is the “intelligence” within or from the outside of the organism. This certainly is a valid question as we tweak out what camp within ID we dwell. However, both are intelligence.

    There is one very necessary note of caution, however. Could it be that organisms have internal intelligence, but that this intelligence came to existence through a neo-Darwinan process. This is, after all, the assumption about our own intelligence. Could all of the “3rd way” be the result of neo-Darwinian evolution? If it is, then neo-Darwinism is unswayed, in fact, strengthened.

  2. 2
    niwrad says:


    Good comment. I spoke of “internal teleology”, you speak of “internal intelligence”, and maybe we could speak also of “internal essence”, to use a typical A-T term.

    As said, this “internal essence” of any being comes from the Being. It is indeed a priori (I spoke of “a priori finality” in this sense) because nothing is more a priori than its cause, the supreme Essence.

    As such, it is due to a top-down causation. It cannot arise from a bottom-up process as evolution in principle. In fact essence (also relative essence as that of the created beings) cannot come from substantial processes, much less random material processes as Darwinian ones.

    If you want the above is a “metaphysical demonstration”, implicit in A-T philosophy. A-T thinkers who doubt if Darwinism is true or false should remember this simple kind of reasoning.

  3. 3
    StephenB says:

    I enthusiastically support two of niwrad’s points:

    ID does not, in any way conflict with Thomism. “Neo-Thomists who say that it does either do not understand their own master, do not understand ID, or both. The idea that Aquinas would have had any part of neo-Darwinism is insane.

    What a thing is, or what it is for, cannot simply arise out of random process. This is true for artifacts as well as organisms. The purpose of a can opener is to open cans. It is what it is only because an outside agent fashioned it to serve that purpose.

  4. 4
    niwrad says:


    I knew you agree. I don’t remember a single disagreement between us in many discussions.

    You are right, today Aquinas would be an ID ally. Differently from certain his self-declaring “followers”, no one was more creationist than him and he would be horrified by modern evolutionism.

    We must consider that at his time the scientific data available were far less rich than today. I even bet that now Aquinas would add a … Sixth Way, specifically based on information, organization, complexity, etc. In fact, the essence/substance A-T categories could be — roughly speaking in modern terms — related to the actual scientific dualism between information and matter.

  5. 5
    Box says:

    Niwrad, very good to see you here again.

    If there are two types of teleology — external and internal — then it follows that there are two types of function. If no external function is imposed on a thing — if a thing is not designed —, then there must be internal function or no function at all. Function can only exist in the context of a hierarchical relationship between either a designer and an artifact or a whole and its parts. In other words, if a thing consists solely of parts, then there is nothing for the parts to be functional for.

    If there is no external function imposed on organisms then in order for function to exist it must be internally grounded in a hierarchical whole-parts-relationship; in which the parts are submissive (functional) to the whole. The realness of function depends on the realness of the hierarchical relationship. The hierarchical relationship in biology is only real if there is a real whole with real causal power; distinct from the parts.
    In other words a theory cannot speak coherently of function if it cannot ground the independent ontological reality of the whole.

    // The argument from internal biological function //

    1. Internal function can only exist in the context of a hierarchical relationship between the whole and the parts.
    2. Naturalism cannot ground the existence of such a whole.
    3. Internal function in biology is real.
    4. Naturalism cannot ground internal function. (1,2 & 3)
    Conclusion: naturalism is false.

  6. 6
    niwrad says:


    You describe pretty well an holistic view on which ID and A-T can agree.

    “In other words a theory cannot speak coherently of function if it cannot ground the independent ontological reality of the whole.”

    That is exactly what evolutionary theory — naturalistic and anti-ontological by definition — cannot do. Evolutionism cannot account for the whole, and in a sense it can neither account for the parts, because by definition the very concept of “functional part” is always related to a whole, when real organization is at issue. That is eminently true for the living things.

  7. 7
    Box says:

    Niwrad, I cannot agree more.

    Stephen L.Talbott, a holistic philosopher on biology, has written a critical article on intelligent design. The points it raises are very relevant to your OP.


    How both Meyer and the neo-Darwinist see the world. (…) And so when Meyer and the neo-Darwinist look “out” at the world, they both assume, in the first instance, that they are gazing at a realm of mindlessly material mechanism. Consistent with the “Cartesian dichotomy” and the habits of thought bequeathed to us by the scientific revolution, this envisioned world has as far as possible been purged of thought, quality, and intention — and, indeed, of anything at all akin to our own interior life. It is a world, as Coleridge puts it, of pure “outness”, a world deprived of meaning, idea, and inwardness — of anything that might manifest itself as a content, or potential content, of consciousness.
    In addition to this, both Meyer and the neo-Darwinist accept a machine-like understanding of the organism. This goes without saying for the conventional biologist. But Meyer, too, refers freely to “molecular machines” and “protein machines”; he talks about “instructions”, “switches”, and “circuits”; and he imagines “digital” elements of DNA functioning like “computer code”. Part Two of his book is entitled “How to Build an Animal”.
    Where Meyer wants to differ from the neo-Darwinist is in his belief that this world of mindless stuff is by itself inadequate to explain the rise of complex, meaningful (“informational”) order over the course of evolution. (…)
    Meyer’s solution — since he assumes throughout that nature really is, in its own right, a strictly materialistic affair — is to posit a designing intelligence acting upon the evolutionary process somehow from without, rather as a human engineer contrives to build various devices with the materials at hand. In both cases the affected materials, in themselves, remain innocent of the designer’s ideas and intentions.

    In a follow up article Talbott poses three questions for ID:

    Question 1. Do you see the organism as a thoroughgoing expression of present, active, and living intelligence? Or do you instead see only the products or artifacts of an intelligent designer’s previous efforts — artifacts functioning for the most part “on automatic” without any “live” intelligent activity?

    Question 2. If you do acknowledge a present intelligence at work in the organism, and if you were to watch this organism at a moment in evolutionary history when a special designing intelligence was also active in it, how might you distinguish the two intelligent activities? What would the designing intelligence be doing that was separable in principle from the kind of native intelligence we see in the organism? What would prevent us from saying, “Oh, that’s the organism acting as we might expect, given its nature and present context”.

    Question 3. Do you believe there are “strictly material” (Meyer 2013, p. 337-40*) or “purely physical” or “purely natural” processes (Dembski 2004, passim*) or “mindless material mechanisms” (Dembski 2004, p. 275) at work in the organism?

  8. 8
    Box says:


    excuse me for dominating your thread, but you have been away for a long time. 🙂
    How would you respond to the following attempt by Searle to naturalize top-down causation?

    Consider a wheel rolling down hill.
    The wheel is entirely made of molecules. The behavior of the molecules causes the higher-level, or system feature of solidity. Notice that the solidity affects the behavior of the individual molecules. The trajectory of each molecule is affected by the behavior of the entire solid wheel.

    But of course there is nothing there but molecules. The wheel consists entirely of molecules.
    So when we say the solidity functions causally in the behavior of the wheel and in the behavior of the individual molecules that compose the wheel, we are not saying that the solidity is something in addition to the molecules; rather, it is just the condition that the molecules are in. But the feature of solidity is nonetheless a real feature, and it has real causal effects.

    The consciousness of the brain can have effects at the neuronal level even though there is nothing in the brain except neurons (with glial cells, neurotransmitters, blood flow, and all the rest). And just as the behavior of the molecules is causally constitutive of solidity, so the behavior of the neurons is causally constitutive of consciousness.

    When we say that consciousness can move my body, what we are saying is that the neuronal structures move my body, but they move my body in the way they do because of the conscious state they are in. Consciousness is a feature of the brain in a way that solidity is a feature of the wheel.

    My conscious intention-in-action causes my arm to go up. But of course, my conscious intention-in-action is a feature of my brain system, and as such at the level of the neurons it is constituted entirely by neuronal behavior. There is no ontological reductionism in this account, because at no point are we denying that consciousness has an irreducible first-person ontology. But there is a causal reduction. Consciousness has no causal powers beyond the powers of the neuronal (and other neurobiological) structures.

  9. 9
    niwrad says:

    Box #8

    Searle: “Consciousness is a feature of the brain in a way that solidity is a feature of the wheel.”

    No. Consciousness in intelligent beings like us is manifestation of the Being. The brain intervenes — as a tool to govern the body — only at the last step in the top-down causation chain.

    To confuse the two “features” is a serious error of naturalism. Solidity is simply a trivial physical property of some substances (no top-down causation). Knowledge (in its highest sense) is co-essential to the Being. Consciousness is an effect of knowledge, and as such is co-essential to the Being too. Intelligent beings inherit directly from the Being their form of knowledge/consciousness. Therefore we could say in a word that consciousness is ontological.

    Of course here we are miles distant from naturalism/evolutionism.

  10. 10
    niwrad says:

    Box #7

    Talbott: “In addition to this, both Meyer and the neo-Darwinist accept a machine-like understanding of the organism.”

    My answer — I don’t think so. Remember in my op the pyramid analogy? When Meyer speaks of biological machines he knows that it is only a limited “2D triangular view” of a more complex 3D thing. For the Darwinists there are really 2D things only, because their worldview is only materialistic. In short I don’t think Meyer is a materialist.

    Talbott’s Question 1 to ID. “Do you see the organism as a thoroughgoing expression of present, active, and living intelligence?”

    My answer — Yes, see my comment #2.

    Talbott’s Question 2 to ID. “If you do acknowledge a present intelligence at work in the organism, and if you were to watch this organism at a moment in evolutionary history when a special designing intelligence was also active in it, how might you distinguish the two intelligent activities?”

    My answer — The essence of a being is always an expression of the supreme Essence. There is never an instant where this relation breaks down. Remember what I said: the Being is not a watchmaker who goes home.

    Talbott’s Question 3 to ID. “Do you believe there are “strictly material” (Meyer 2013, p. 337-40*) or “purely physical” or “purely natural” processes (Dembski 2004, passim*) or “mindless material mechanisms” (Dembski 2004, p. 275) at work in the organism?”

    My answer — No. Matter is on the side of substance. The cosmos, also in its small parts is *always* essence + substance. To say that something is “strictly material” is like to say that a part of the cosmos has no essence, and this is impossible.
    That said, IDers can consider simplifications to help understanding, but well knowing that in principle reality is richer.

  11. 11
    computerist says:

    niwrad (great article), I’d like to propose an ID-subset hypothesis that crossed my mind recently and get your feedback if possible. I propose the self-constructive/repairing universe hypothesis (SCUH). SCUH basically says that the universe is constantly in the process of being created/repaired (creation never ceased) in order to achieve a definitive state of goodness. Laws of the universe as well as entities within this universe (including ofcourse biological intelligent entities) are helpers or extensions of the primary designer (who is acting externally and/or internally to this process) in achieving this eventual state of goodness. The evidence for this is overwhelming IMHO. We find that the universe out of all the chaos/disorder/evil has a tendency to achieve a state of order/organization/goodness. This organization bias principle is the driver of SCUH. Progression will not be entirely smooth and/or deterministic, but inevitable given the primary intent.

  12. 12
    niwrad says:


    Interesting comment, its topic would be worth of an entire essay.

    I can tell you what the traditional cosmological doctrines teach. They teach that the universe is constantly in the process of “solve et coagula” (roughly speaking = solution-condensation, but with many other related meanings). “Solve et coagula” is a key-paradigm of the cosmos. Some of the meanings of “coagula” in this context are: manifestation, creation, organization, design, construction, grouping, order… while some of the meanings of “solve” are: return to non-manifestation, transformation, corruption, division, disorder, destruction…

    As you rightly say, obviously intelligent beings are active parts of these processes. They should mainly apply their intelligence to “coagula”. Unfortunately often we operate in the direction of “solve”…

    The blind random forces of nature mainly apply to “solve”. A physical aspect of this is the 2nd law of thermodynamics and its entropic trend toward disorder.

    The two phases are concurrent in time and can have different extension in space. Yourself can find countless examples of that in all fields. Even in politics you see “solve-coagula”: the former is tendency to division, revolution, anarchy, war… the latter is tendency to union, state organization, confederation, peace…
    You see that in the same time, today, in the world there are many examples of the two phases in action. In biology “coagula” is the formation of organisms, life… while “solve” is the decay of them, death…

    Of course the Fiat Lux of Creation was the command of “coagula” per antonomasia, while, eschatologically, the ultimate “solve” for the actual human cycle will be the forthcoming Apocalypse (“Dies irae, dies ille, solvet seculum in faville”)…

  13. 13
    computerist says:

    Interesting as well, thank you.

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