In a recent and very courteously worded article entitled, St. Thomas and the Inadequacy of Intelligent Design, Professor Beckwith summarizes his main beef with ID as follows:
According to Dembski, we discover design in nature after we have eliminated chance and law… Design, therefore, is not immanent in nature. It is something that is imposed on nature by someone or something outside it.
This means that for Dembski as well as other ID advocates, nature’s order, including its laws and principles, need not require a mind behind it except for in the few instances where the explanatory filter allows one to detect design.
Beckwith sees this line of argument as dangerous, because its case for a Designer of Nature is merely probabilistic rather than certain, and thus vulnerable to being falsified by future scientific discoveries. He later contrasts this view which he ascribes to Professor Dembski with his own theological position, which he believes rests upon a more secure metaphysical footing:
For the Thomist, and for many other Christians, law and chance do not eliminate design. “Design” does not replace efficient and material causes in nature when the latter two appear impotent as explanations (i.e., Dembski’s “gaps”). Rather, efficient and material causes require final causes… What is a final cause? It is a thing’s purpose or end… For the natural processes – even if they are complete and exhaustive – seem to work for an end, and that end is its final cause. This is why, in his famous Five Ways (or arguments) to show God’s existence, St. Thomas includes as a fifth way an argument from the universe’s design as a whole, appealing to those scientific laws that make motion possible…
Here are two quick questions I’d like to ask Professor Beckwith.
1. Which would you regard as the best piece of evidence for God’s existence:
(a) the existence of meaningful instructions in the natural world;
(b) the occurrence of end-oriented processes in the natural world; or
(c) random behavior taking place in the natural world?
2. Which gap do you think is greater:
(i) the gap between (a) and (b), or
(ii) the gap between (b) and (c)?
ID theorists would answer (a) to question 1, and (i) to question 2. I suspect Francis Beckwith would answer “Either (a) or (b)” to question 1, and (ii) to question 2. Am I right, Professor?
I’d like to respond up-front to Professor Beckwith’s theological charge against ID by saying that many Intelligent Design theorists would completely agree with him that the laws of Nature require a Designer, and I’m sure Professor Dembski would say the same.
However, there are three reasons why Intelligent Design proponents don’t usually appeal to the simple fact that there are laws of Nature when arguing for the existence of a Designer. The first reason is that we think there are much better arguments for a Designer of Nature. The second reason is that these arguments are also much better for establishing the Designer’s freedom as an Intelligent Agent. The third reason is that arguing for an Intelligent Designer on the sole basis of the laws of Nature is actually quite difficult, and in any case, Professor Feser’s construal of Aquinas’ Fifth Way doesn’t do the job, as I’ll show in my next post. One needs to take particular care when arguing from the laws of Nature to the existence of a Deity.
Before proceeding further, I would like to urge Professor Beckwith to acquaint himself with the online writings of Dr. David Abel, as an understanding of these is vital in order to grasp the logic of the Intelligent Design position. I’d like to recommend these three articles for starters:
1. The Cybernetic Cut in The Open Cybernetics and Systemics Journal, 2008, Volume 2, p. 255.
2. The Universal Plausibility Metric (UPM) & Principle (UPP) in
Theor Biol Med Model. 2009; 6: 27. Published online 2009 December 3. doi: 10.1186/1742-4682-6-27.
3. Online article The Cybernetic Cut (last updated 23 October 2010) by David Abel.
Dr. Abel is a very precise man, and his articles employ a lot of jargon which is somewhat daunting to someone who is unfamiliar with the terms used in his particular field. I hope Dr. Abel will forgive me if I attempt to express his case in layman’s terms, via the following simple syllogism:
1. Life is defined not by mere order, but by semiotic instructions, which make use of a representational material symbol system. (Think of the letters in the DNA code.) There is therefore a huge metaphysical gulf between things which embody semiotic instructions and things which don’t. Abel refers to this metaphysical ravine as the Cybernetic Cut.
2. The semiotic instructions which define life are what makes it posible for living things to have biological functions.
3. Neither chance nor necessity is capable, even in principle, of accounting for the semiotic properties of life.
a) First, laws cannot generate the genetic code used by living things, as this code is itself a choice from among many options: it is in no way dictated by the laws of nature.
b) Second, having selected the code, the generation of meaningful instructions requires total freedom in the selection of symbols that are used to write each instruction. (Think of the act of writing a sentence: if the next letter typed is selected either by chance or by some law dictating which letter follows which, there is no way that a meaningful message will be generated.) Neither chance nor necessity is capable of generating meaningful instructions which use a representational material symbol system: chance produces only chaos, while necessity produces only repetition.
4. However, intelligent agency is certainly capable of generating meaningful instructions.
5. Since nothing else is up to the task, we may conclude that only intelligent agency is capable of generating life.
The important thing to note about Abel’s argument is that he does not merely claim that the evolution of life is improbable; he regards it as absolutely impossible, even given infinite probabilistic resources (a multiverse). The reason is that neither chance nor necessity is capable of generating instructions. As he puts it in his article, The Universal Plausibility Metric (UPM) & Principle (UPP) (Theor. Biol. Med. Model. 2009; 6: 27, published online 2009 December 3, doi: 10.1186/1742-4682-6-27):
Even if multiple physical cosmoses existed, it is a logically sound deduction that linear digital genetic instructions using a representational material symbol system (MSS) cannot be programmed by the chance and/or fixed laws of physicodynamics. This fact is not only true of the physical universe, but would be just as true in any imagined physical multiverse. Physicality cannot generate non physical Prescriptive Information (PI). Physicodynamics cannot practice formalisms (The Cybernetic Cut)… Symbol systems and configurable switch-settings can only be programmed with choice contingency, not chance contingency or fixed law, if non trivial coordination and formal organization are expected. The all-important determinative sequencing of monomers is completed with rigid covalent bonds before any transcription, translation, or three-dimensional folding begins. Thus, imagining multiple physical universes or infinite time does not solve the problem of the origin of formal (non physical) biocybernetics and biosemiosis using a linear digital representational symbol system. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Abel’s writings are widely cited by Intelligent Design proponents. Here Abel states clearly that he regards the evolution of the instructions we find in living things as an impossibility, and not as merely improbable. I would therefore invite Professor Beckwith to retract his accusation that Intelligent Design only claims to show that the existence of a Designer is highly probable, and not certain.
Here is how Dr. Abel describes the Cybernetic Cut, which divides living things from inanimate objects:
The Cybernetic Cut (Abel, 2008a) delineates one of the most fundamental dichotomies of reality. Physicodynamics (physicality: Jacques Monod’s “chance and necessity”) lie on one side of a great divide. On the other side lies formalism – the abstract, conceptual, non physical ability to choose with intent what aspects of ontological being will be preferred, pursued, selected, rearranged, integrated, measured, calculated, computed, and organized into pragmatic utility. Cybernetics studies mechanisms of control. But control requires purposeful choice contingency, not chance contingency. To control is to steer toward the goal of pragmatic success. Neither chance contingency nor the fixed laws of physics can participate in purposefully choosing arbitrary controls.
How did inanimate nature give rise to an algorithmically organized, semiotic and cybernetic life? (Barbieri, 2008). Both the practice of physics and life itself require traversing … the Cybernetic Cut. All known life is cybernetic.
The Cybernetic Cut elucidates the difference between constraints and controls, between laws and rules, and between order and organization. Constraints consist of initial conditions and the orderliness of nature. Controls steer toward the goal of function. Laws describe fixed relationships of invariant physicodynamic orderliness. Rules suggest what voluntary behavior will produce the best formal utility. Rules are regularly broken; laws are not. When rules are voluntarily disobeyed, practical proficiency usually suffers. Rules are formal. Rules are generally made to streamline and optimize pragmatic behavior. Such behavior is choice contingent, not physicodynamically determined.
(Online article The Cybernetic Cut, last updated 23 October 2010, by David Abel.) (Emphases mine – VJT.)
And here’s another quote from Abel, on the Cybernetic Cut:
The Cybernetic Cut defines one of the most fundamental dichotomies of reality. The law-like orderliness of nature along with the seeming chance contingency of heat agitation and stochastic quantum reality lie on one side of the divide. On the other side of this ravine lies the ability to choose with intent what aspects of being will be preferred, pursued, selected, rearranged, integrated, organized, preserved, and used…
Traversing the Cybernetic Cut first requires contingency. Contingency means that events could happen in multiple ways, or could have happened in a way different from what occurred under the same physicodynamic constraints. But there are two kinds of contingency: chance contingency and choice contingency.
(The Cybernetic Cut in The Open Cybernetics and Systemics Journal, 2008, Volume 2, p. 253.)
The Cybernetic Cut is a fundamental divide of reality. The law-like orderliness of nature along with the seeming chance contingency of heat agitation and statistical quantum reality lie on one side of the divide. Choice contingency lies on the other. Choice contingency is the ability to choose with intent what aspects of being will be preferred, pursued, selected, rearranged, integrated, organized, preserved, and used. Chance and necessity cannot generate choice contingency. The Cybernetic Cut can only be traversed through nonphysical, formal, purposeful, decision-node choice-commitments.
(Ibid., p. 259.) (Emphases mine – VJT.)
For Abel, then, the great divide is not between the law-governed and apparently lawless events, but between events which inherently manifest the free choices of an intelligent agent and those events which serve to either constrain our free choices (laws) or throw them into chaos. So I’d like to ask Professor Beckwith: if you disagree with Abel on this point, could you please explain why?
Finally, here is Abel on the need for choice in the design of living things, and on why laws are inherently incapable of explaining semiotic instructions, which constitute the defining feature of living things:
In language and operating systems, choices of alphanumeric characters are controlled by the arbitrary rule conventions of that language. An example would be the high frequency of occurrence of the letter “u” after the letter “q” in English. Such arbitrary rule controls must never be confused with the physicodynamic law constraints of physicality. No law of nature forces u‘s to follow q’s. The sequencing of letters in language is arbitrary.
The letters on this page are physical. But their sequencing and function are formal, not physical. They function as physical symbol vehicles in a formally generated material symbol system…
Traversing the Cybernetic Cut is governed by arbitrarily written rules, not by inescapable physicodynamic laws. The word “arbitrary” is often confused with “random.” In a cybernetic context, arbitrary refers to choice contingency in the sense that no selection is constrained by cause-and-effect determinism. Neither is it forced by external formal controls. The choice at any decision node is uncoerced by necessity. But it is not just contingent (could occur in multiple ways despite the orderliness described by the laws of physics). Any of the switch options, or any member of a finite alphabet, can be deliberately selected. The chooser has complete freedom of choice with intent without constraint…
No such freedom exists in any law-determined system. Laws constrain; they do not control. To control is to steer. Where there is no freedom of choice, steering is not possible. Laws describe an orderliness that forces outcomes. This is the very reason we are able to predict outcomes in physics. Laws produce order, not organization. Organization is formal and choice-based. Little flexibility other than heat agitation and the complexity of interacting causes exist to produce chance contingency in inanimate nature. But such contingency never generates choice with intent, formal computational success, engineering prowess, or true organization. The laws and constraints of inanimate nature operate without regard to pragmatic goals. To look to laws (especially to “yet-to-be discovered” imagined laws) as an explanation for the derivation of formal controls of physicality is not only empirically unfounded, it is logically fallacious (a category error). No law can produce algorithmic organization…
Base-pairing of existing positive nucleotide single strands to form double strands is a purely physicodynamic phenomenon… What physicalism cannot explain, however, is how each template or original positive strand acquired its own prescriptive informational sequencing. Physicodynamics such as base-pairing appears to play no role in the determination of which particular monomer is added next to a positive single-stranded instructional biopolymer. Neither the individual nucleotide selections in these positive single strands nor optimization of life’s literal genetic algorithms proceeds according to laws. Sequencing (primary structure) instructs the folding of both structural proteins and regulatory ncRNA shapes. Life uses these strings of dynamically inert configurable switch-settings to record formal programming selections. Nothing is more highly informational than life…
The nucleic acid of living organisms contains extraordinarily sophisticated linear digital programming. Particular monomeric sequencing is crucial to life. More than any other characteristic, computational linear digital algorithms distinguish life from non life [73, 76]. Says Yockey,
“The existence of a genome and the genetic code divides living organisms from non-living matter. In living matter chemical reactions are directed by sequences of nucleotides in mRNA. . . . There is nothing in the physico-chemical world that remotely resembles reactions being determined by a sequence and codes between sequences” [74, pg. 54].
Specific switch-settings determine how RNA strands fold back onto themselves, forming helices, bulges, loops, junctions, coaxial stacking, etc. [79, pg. 682-683]. Not even the hypothesized pre-RNA World and RNA World escape the formal linear digital algorithmic governance of computational function. The generic chemical properties alone of nucleic acid and protein are insufficient to generate life.
(The Cybernetic Cut in The Open Cybernetics and Systemics Journal, 2008, Volume 2, p. 257-258.) (Emphases mine – VJT.)
In the light of these remarks, I’d like to ask Professor Beckwith: do you now agree that the distinctive features found in living things (semiotic instructions) enable us to mount a much more effective argument for a Designer of Nature than an argument based solely on the fact that there are laws of Nature?
Finally, I hope these extracts will whet your appetite to read more of Dr. Abel, Professor Beckwith. Enjoy!