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What Francis Beckwith Gets Wrong about Intelligent Design


Francis Beckwith is one of the more interesting commentators on Darwinism and intelligent design.  Beckwith is intelligent and independently minded, willing to move with the evidence and the arguments, and thus capable of non-partisan thought on the issues.

Originally a Protestant and a supporter of intelligent design as formulated by the major ID theorists, he has since become a Roman Catholic and a Thomist, and now believes that the best arguments for design are metaphysical arguments of a Thomist variety, rather than scientific arguments of the sort proposed by ID supporters.  In a recent two-part posting on the Biologos site, Beckwith has explained why he was uncomfortable with ID from the beginning, and how his new Thomist insights clarified for him the defects of ID as an argument for natural theology.  The articles can be found at:




 There is a Comments section following each article, with some useful criticism of Beckwith’s position, notably from Mike Gene and from a poster writing under the alias of “pds”.  There is also further discussion of Beckwith articles, with more from “pds” and some responses by Beckwith, at:


 It would be impossible in one column to discuss both of Beckwith’s articles and all of his responses to commenters, so I will content myself with pulling out the highlights of Beckwith’s arguments from these three locations, and responding to them.

First, it is important to note that Beckwith’s criticism of ID is not on the plane of natural science.  He does not pretend to referee between Ken Miller and Michael Behe on the irreducible complexity of the flagellum; nor does he object in principle to the attempt to show, against Dawkins & Co., that Darwinian processes are incapable of producing complex organs and biological systems.  As he puts it in Comment 48 on the beliefnet.com/jesuscreed site:

“If ID theorists think they have good arguments, more power to them.  I don’t have a horse [in] that race.  If there are arguments [that] work, or at least [are] plausible, it is a scandal that they are treated with such contempt and hatred in the academy.”

Beckwith’s current opposition to ID is theological.  He thinks that it makes the wrong sort of argument for the existence of God, by giving the wrong impression of the relationship between God and nature.  He thinks that ID conceives of the order of nature as an externally-imposed construction, after the manner of Paley, and therefore reduces the action of God in the natural world to mechanistic terms typical of Enlightenment philosophy.  It thus represents a surrender to modern philosophy and theology, and a departure from classical Christian theology, which for him is best represented, it seems, in the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

Thus, in the continuation of the passage quoted above, he writes:

 “But my problem is that the case for ID … is presented as if it is the last best hope to rescue Christian theism from the clutches of materialism.  By locating the dispute in that narrow question, teaches the wrong lesson about God and one’s philosophy of nature.”

More insight into Beckwith’s view is provided by this comment, given by the editor at the Biologos site in his/her introduction to one of Beckwith’s articles:

“Today, Beckwith discusses how arguments by Thomas Aquinas and others led him to see that ID advocates and atheists both share a view inconsistent with classical theism: that an intelligent agent is only required in cases where natural laws and chance cannot account for a phenomenon.  ID proponents think such phenomena exist, while atheists do not.”

Now as ID supporters know, it is not part of ID to assert that “an intelligent agent is only required in cases where natural laws and chance cannot account for the phenomenon.”  Yet when this statement was challenged by “pds” [Post #7239] on the second Biologos link above, the Biologos editor replied [Post #7253] that his/her summary of Beckwith’s argument had been looked over and approved of by Beckwith himself.  Beckwith did not contradict this statement in any of his subsequent comments on the thread.  So we will take as a working hypothesis that Beckwith endorses the statement, unless he writes to us here to correct this impression.

I will now offer a few critical comments regarding Beckwith’s remarks.

First, “pds” is right: ID proponents have never restricted design in nature to those places where design can be detected by ID’s methods.  There is a big difference between saying that design is only detectable in nature at certain points, and saying that design only exists in nature at certain points.  There has been much confusion over Dembski’s “Explanatory Filter”, due to failure to observe this distinction.  Dembski never claimed that God was involved in creation only at the points where the “Explanatory Filter” could detect it.  Nor did Behe ever say that God was not involved in the creation of living systems except in the case of the five examples of “irreducible complexity” that he provided in Darwin’s Black Box

What Beckwith and the Biologos editor overlook is that Dembski, Behe, and most other ID theorists are in fact “classical theists”.  They are generally Christians of Catholic, Presbyterian, Reformed, Anglican, Baptist and other persuasions who accept the Creeds as well as the Confessions of their various branches of Christianity.  They affirm the doctrine of Creation – which means that they believe that God is responsible for more than the bacterial flagellum or the blood clotting system or other irreducibly complex structures.  They believe that God is the maker of everything in heaven and earth.  Most of them also affirm other doctrines relevant to discussion of evolution — such as the doctrine of Providence, and the traditional explanations of the existence of evil – and they affirm these things without qualification or embarrassment.  (This is not the case for some of those who call themselves “theistic evolutionists”, a point to which Beckwith should pay some attention, since he is speaking from the platform of the Biologos site – sponsored by theistic evolutionists – while at the same time calling for a firm belief in “classical Christian theism”.)   So unless by “classical theism” Beckwith means narrowly “the particular school within the Roman Catholic Church which endorses a certain interpretation of Thomas Aquinas”, he is simply incorrect to deny the classical theism of ID supporters.

Next, Beckwith is concerned that ID rests on the “wrong” notion of the relationship between God and nature – a Paleyan notion of God as a sort of external manipulator of matter.  For Beckwith, it appears, the “right” notion is a Thomistic one, where God is, in Aristotelian fashion, operating from within the parameters of nature.  There are a number of things which could be said about this:

First, “pds” challenges Beckwith’s interpretation of Aquinas, indicating that Aquinas implicitly accepted Paley-like arguments [Biologos site, comment #7242].  Beckwith has not yet responded to this rebuttal.

Second, it is clear that Aquinas’s understanding of nature is built on Aristotle’s.   I am a great admirer of Aristotle and think he has been given a bad press by progressivist historians, but we must acknowledge that Aristotle’s understanding of nature, while doubtless still full of valid insights, contains egregious errors.  His astronomy and earth-physics are simply no longer tenable, and it is simply not possible to pretend that Galileo, Descartes, Kepler, Newton, Faraday, Clerk-Maxwell, etc. never happened.  I think that any attempt to revive an Aristotelian or Thomistic account of nature – an account to which I would be very open – has a lot of philosophical and scientific work to do. 

Third, the sharp distinction between the Paleyan approach and Aristotle’s may not be warranted.  Paley’s watch analogy is only that – an analogy, and need not imply that nature is nothing but a machine.  Further, if Beckwith has read Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity by Andrew Sedley — a very fine scholarly work by an expert in the Greek philosophy of nature — he will know that Aristotle never escaped the “artisan” analogy himself.   It may be that Paley’s conception of nature was less mechanistic, and Aristotle’s more mechanistic, than Beckwith allows.

Fourth, and finally, why must it be either/or?  Why is it not possible to argue, on the level of efficient causation, that natural causes, being blind, cannot generate major new body plans, systems, etc., while arguing, on the level of final causation, that the purposiveness in the products of nature indicates design?  Why not employ a double-barrelled argument?  Should the first, Paleyan argument succeed, so much the better; that would confirm on the level of empirical science the conclusion reached independently from Thomistic metaphysics — and arguments on the level of empirical science are much more accessible to, and much more convincing to, a modern, educated secular audience than arguments from metaphysics.  And should the Paleyan argument fail, the Thomistic argument is still available. 

Beckwith’s statements often seem to imply a category confusion.  He seems to be opposing “naturalistic” and “designed”, and he seems to think that ID-based arguments for the existence of God depend upon proving that a “naturalistic” account of origins is impossible.  But that is not the case.

One must not confuse different levels of discussion.  There is the level of architecture, and the level of historical origin.  On the level of architecture, the question is not “design versus naturalism”; it is “design versus chance”.  On the level of historical origin, the question is not “design versus naturalism”, but “naturalism versus supernaturalism”, where by “supernaturalism” is meant “direct intervention by God, at particular points in the past, to alter the normal course of nature”.   Elements from the two different levels can be combined.  An atheist will choose “chance” from one level and “purely natural causes” from the other.  Young Earth Creationists will choose “design” from one level and “supernatural causes” from the other.  These seem like natural combinations to the popular mind, but others are possible.  For example, Michael Denton, in Nature’s Destiny, combines “design” on the one level, with “purely natural causes” on the other.  He affirms an evolutionary chain of development “from molecules to man” which involved no supernatural interventions, but was nonetheless planned from the outset to yield specific results, most notably, the emergence of man.  And while Denton does not call himself an “ID proponent”, both Behe and Dembski have at various times acknowledged that the combination of naturalism and design is within the bounds of the definition of intelligent design.

Thus, Beckwith’s fear – that since a wholly naturalistic, “molecules to man”  account of origins may one day be available, ID’s attempt to connect belief in God with the denial of naturalistic accounts could backfire on religious faith – is unfounded.  ID as such does not depend on refuting naturalistic accounts of origins at all.  It is compatible with a thoroughgoing naturalism from the moment of the Big Bang.  ID depends on showing, not that the creation of life or species requires supernatural intervention, but that it requires design – the rational adjustment of means to ends.  Whether the design is implemented via purely natural means, via nothing but miracles, or via some combination, is irrelevant to ID as such.  Whatever sharp disagreements might exist within the ID camp over miracles vs. naturalism, macroevolution vs. special creationism, etc., all ID proponents are united on what I have called the architectural level, where the question is design versus chance.  It is here that ID poses a much clearer alternative to Dawkins and Coyne than do any of the theistic evolutionists, who are notably slippery when it comes to discussing the role of chance. 

It is not surprising when obviously partisan ID critics like Coyne, Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, Ken Miller, Francisco Ayala, and Michael Shermer get ID wrong.  It is surprising when someone with Francis Beckwith’s level of familiarity with ID, and with his level of intellectual integrity, gets ID wrong.  I am not asking Dr. Beckwith to recant his Thomism, or to “join” ID as a movement, but I would invite him to reformulate his criticism of ID in the light of what ID is actually about, not in the light of bogeymen associated in his mind with creationism, miraculous interventions, anti-evolutionism, and so on.  I would also hope that, if he insists on talking about theology rather than science, he will one day publish a criticism of the grossly inadequate accounts of Christian theology offered by Francis Collins, Ken Miller, and Francisco Ayala, to balance out the criticism he has levelled at William Paley, a man much closer to “classical theism” than any of the aforementioned.

It is delightful to hear from Dr. Beckwith. I offer some clarifying points: 1. I did not mean to imply that because Aristotle’s “science” (as we should now call his remarks about the motions of the planets, etc.) was often wrong, his “metaphysics” was therefore all wrong. Equally, I would prefer not to suggest that while his “science” was often wrong, his “metaphysics” was generally right. To speak in this way would be to employ an anachronistic distinction – I might say (not intending to be too polemical against one who has criticized Paley for being too modern), a *modern* distinction. Aristotle’s division of the types of knowledge was different from our modern scheme (a scheme which I believe to be faulty). Thus, instead of Aristotle’s “science”, I spoke of Aristotle’s “understanding of nature” or “account of nature”. Aristotle’s “nature” (which he called physis) had aspects that we would now call physical, and aspects that we would now call metaphysical. Think of his discussion of “the four causes”. Was he doing physics, there, or metaphysics? The answer is: both. Thus, in relating the Aristotelian understanding of nature to the modern understanding, it is not adequate to say: “We’ll be moderns in our science of nature and Aristotelians in our metaphysics of nature”. Aristotle’s thought was not meant to be dismembered in that way. Aquinas was not tempted to do that, but we are. Thus, I think that any attempt to make use of Aristotelian concepts of nature is fraught with difficulty. This does not mean that the attempt should not be made. If Dr. Beckwith is still reading, I would be grateful for a short list of writings, by Gilson and others, where an Aristotelian “corrective” to the modern understanding of nature (specifically non-human nature) is offered. 2. Dr. Beckwith’s fourth paragraph I will attribute to reading and/or writing in haste. He seems suddenly to start defending himself from criticisms that I have not made. I do not think that Thomas Aquinas is “some idiosyncratic medieval thinker only read and followed by a small slice of Christendom”. I think Aquinas was one of the greatest Christian theologians of all time, and also one of the greatest expositors of Aristotle who ever lived. I do not think that the Roman Catholic Church (which I qualify with “Roman” because there are other churches which can reasonably claim to represent “Catholic” thinking) represents only a small slice of Christendom. Further, I have tremendous respect for the recent leadership of the Roman Church, and was impressed by Benedict’s remarks about rationality in the Regensburg address. And last, I would never “marginalize” Dr. Beckwith’s views. It is because I consider him a significant voice in the ID debates that I devoted a long (and I hope careful) post to discussing his ideas and arguments. 3. I am hoping that Dr. Beckwith will find time to address the part of my discussion which is focused on the non-contradiction between design and naturalistic explanation. I think that most critiques of ID stumble here. I think the blame for this is to be shared equally by ID proponents and their critics. The critics have often been impatient listeners, eager to equate ID with creationism so that they can dismiss it; but some ID proponents have written as if “naturalism” is the antithesis of design, and inherently Godless, and I think this is a mistake. There is a difference between a nature that replaces God, and a nature that is programmed by God. Anti-evolutionary sentiment in the USA has been motivated by the fear that in evolution nature replaces God, and there is some justification for this fear in the writings of numerous famous scientists and science popularizers; but Denton and others have shown that it is not necessary to conceive of evolution in this way. (In saying all of this, I stress that I am making a theological point, not a historical claim about whether macroevolution has in fact happened; the theological point is that if macroevolution has happened, that fact need not be interpreted atheistically, but can be thought within the conception of an omnipotent and providential God.) Thomas Cudworth
---F. Beckwith: "There you have it. ID is Darwinian Kryptonite! But, alas, this means that Superman gets to live if it’s Silver Kryptonite." A good metaphor but a flawed analysis. ID is not anti-Thomism; ID is Thomism lite. Your arguments are the equivalent of saying that Cliff’s notes on Shakespeare are anti-Shakespeare because they fail to cover a sufficient range of Shakespearian perspectives. ID doesn't make claims about the nature of things; it just draws inferences from patterns and measures what it sees of things that have natures. Aquinas not only would have had no problem with that, he likely would have encouraged it. With respect, you seem to be reading only the anti-ID neo-Thomists and ignoring the others. It simply makes no sense to reject ID on the grounds that it may not deliver a knock out blow to Darwinism. There are many true world views that lose out in the marketplace of ideas, especially in an age where truth is hated, persecuted, and suppressed. In keeping with that point, no Christian that I know of, certainly not me, has placed all his bets on the ID movement as the only means of combating atheistic materialism, and any Christian who would lose his faith if ID fails, is one shallow Christian indeed. Of course, my views, and the views of other Catholic Thomists who are sympathetic to ID, such as Father Thomas Dubay, Scott Hahn, Bishop Donald Weurl, Michael Behe, Benjamin Wiker, George Weigel, the late William F. Buckley, our own VJTorley, and many others do not count because, well, because, one gathers, they could not possibly read Aquinas with the same perspicacity as Templeton prize winners and therefore are not to be consulted. In fact, until ID came along, there was virtually no one who would forcefully confront the Darwinists--certainly not the modern TE contingent with which you seem to identify. They ventured little or no public criticism of the Darwinian paradigm or the anti-intellectual nature of an unguided evolution until Behe, Dembski, and others started raising the issue and doing the job that Catholics like us should have been doing all along. Now, all of a sudden, the TE's want to use their clout not so much to challenge Darwin, which they do timidly, tepidly, and mostly as a reaction to having been shamed into it, but to knock out Darwin’s most important public adversary, which they do with unbridled ferocity. StephenB
As a EC/TE I would agree that either Beckwith or the moderator got it wrong and that ID claims Design is much more prevalent than just the famous cases where irreducible complexity etc can be shown. In some sense I would assert that design is everywhere based upon the form of the laws of nature, their constants and the initial conditions at the time God created all that is. Question how far does ID on this blog take Design? eg is the virus or germ that causes diseases like leprosy explicitly Designed. I have a guess at what Behe's answer would be, but then as I read him he accepts common descent and limited RM+NS as a partial explanation for life's diversity. gingoro
Thomas Cudworth: Thank you for a very thought-provoking post. You write:
Third, the sharp distinction between the Paleyan approach and Aristotle’s may not be warranted. Paley’s watch analogy is only that – an analogy, and need not imply that nature is nothing but a machine. Further, if Beckwith has read Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity by Andrew Sedley – a very fine scholarly work by an expert in the Greek philosophy of nature — he will know that Aristotle never escaped the "artisan" analogy himself. It may be that Paley’s conception of nature was less mechanistic, and Aristotle’s more mechanistic, than Beckwith allows.
I would broadly endorse those sentiments. I haven't read Sedley's book, but I have unearthed these passages from St. Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophy I esteem highly (for like Professor Beckwith, I am a Catholic):
For when we call the builder the principle of the house, in the idea of such a principle is included that of his art; and it would be included in the idea of the first principle were the builder the first principle of the house. God, Who is the first principle of all things, may be compared to things created as the architect is to things designed. - Summa Theologica Vol. I, q. 27, article 1, reply to objection 3. Although creatures do not attain to a natural likeness to God according to similitude of species, as a man begotten is like to the man begetting, still they do attain to likeness to Him, forasmuch as they represent the divine idea, as a material house is like to the house in the architect's mind. - Summa Theologica Vol. I, q. 44, article 3, reply to objection 1. For just as an architect, without injustice, places stones of the same kind in different parts of a building, not on account of any antecedent difference in the stones, but with a view to securing that perfection of the entire building, which could not be obtained except by the different positions of the stones; even so, God from the beginning, to secure perfection in the universe, has set therein creatures of various and unequal natures, according to His wisdom, and without injustice, since no diversity of merit is presupposed. - Summa Theologica Vol. I, q. 65, article 2, reply to objection 3.
I appreciate that Aquinas' conception of finality is a very rich and profound one; nevertheless, I respectfully submit that the contrast between Aquinas and Paley is over-drawn, and that their imagery and metaphors for God's creative activity had a lot in common. vjtorley
I would agree with much of Francis Beckwith's article. But arguing that Bill Dembski's explanatory filter is inadequate and needs revising doesn't invalidate some of the other ID arguments such as irreducible complexity. I think as well that Dembski would agree that laws of nature are also designed (although I am sure he can speak for himself on this). Andrew Sibley
Dr. Beckwith: Regarding your last point, let's grant that Dembski's EF is Darwinian Kryptonite in the sense that IF scientists vote with their feet and accept that it applies to biological systems, it shows that design is real and Darwinism is empirically inadequate (and therefore likely false). That's a big "IF," granted, but how would that in any way undercut your program of developing a Thomistic philosophy of nature? If Dembski is right, Darwinism crashes and burns. If Dembski is wrong or only partially right (say his ideas apply to the origin of life but not to stricter Darwinism), could he not say, "more power to you, Dr. Beckwith, go to it and defeat the materialism that depends on Darwinism with your philosophy of nature." But that raises a question: just how successful can you expect to be in defeating Darwinian materialism? Thomism has been around a long time and been tried. It has largely failed to stem the tide of materialism resulting from Darwinism. So for my money, I'd rather bet on ID and the EF than on a Thomistic philosophy of nature to do the heavy lifting in the battle against materialism. kibitzer
Oops, i should have said "three flaws." My bad. francisbeckwith
Although I appreciate your kind comments about me, there are numerous flaws in your post. Because there are so many hours in a day, and too many projects to work on, I will correct only two of them. First, Aquinas's philosophy of nature, though clearly influenced by Aristotle, does not require that one accept Aristotle's science (or even Aquinas' science). Consider, for example, Aquinas' embryology. It has been shown to be mistaken. We all know that. But the underlying metaphysical views about the nature of persons--that human beings are substances that maintain identity over time--remains untouched by the "science." Why? Because it is metaphysical question and not a scientific one. There is nothing is modern science that would preclude a rational belief in formal or final causes. Of course, there are some atheists like Jerry Coyne who believe this. But they are, like many of that ilk, confusing science with metaphysics. Ironically, you are doing precisely the same thing by suggesting that refuting Aristotle's science is equivalent to refuting Aristotle's metaphysics. By suggesting that Thomas Aquinas is some idiosyncratic medieval thinker only read and followed by a small slice of Christendom (some "Roman" Catholic philosophers), tells me several things. (1) You are pulling the same "scientific consensus" trick used by your enemies and applying it to the question of Christian metaphysics (see, for example, Jay Richards recent piece in AEI's online journal on how this trick is employed from Climate Alarmists). But if its wrong for ID critics to employ it, why is it okay for you to do so? (2) For some reason you seem to think that marginalizing my view somehow diminishes its philosophical force. But in that case, you must think that when Marilyn Manson sells more records than Mozart that tells us who is the better composer. Thomism is the metaphysical position embraced by the Catholic Church, and highly recommended by John Paul II (Fides Et Ratio) as the most important view by which to understand the relationship between faith and reason. Second, you correctly point out that most ID advocates consider themselves "classical theists." That is true. But being a classical theist does not mean that one has an adequate philosophy of nature. For example, Descartes, though a classical theist, was instrumental in helping rid natural philosophy of final and formal causes. For Descartes, nature was mechanistic (an idea that caught on and dominated natural philosophy and shaped the ideas of all of Descartes' successors, some of whom you name above). Oddly, your appeal to ID advocates' self-understanding is precisely what some theistic evolutionists do when they treat God as a free-rider. They sometimes say, "I believe in evolution and in God, therefore, they are consistent." But that's not the same thing as offering a conceptual account of the two beliefs--God and evolution--that would show them to be compatible. The question, then, is not whether Bob, Fred, or Sally is an ID advocate and a classical theist. The question is whether their understanding of classical theism appropriatery locates God's role as creator and sustainer of all that exists. In my recent article in the University of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy, "How to Be Anti-Intelligent Design Advocate," I am much more clear on this. Because of space constraints and word limitations, I was not able to cash it out in my BioLogos pieces as I do in this article. You can find it on my website here: http://web.me.com/francis.beckwith/FrancisBeckwith.com/Articles.html Third, you write: "Dembski never claimed that God was involved in creation only at the points where the `Explanatory Filter' could detect it." That is certainly correct. I do not deny that. But I am suggesting is that the fight between the atheists and the ID advocates is precisely over the question of whether the EF works as a design detector. In fact, Bill, in the post that appeared after years, seems to reinforce this narrative:
The only thing theistic evolutionists have to say to a Richard Dawkins who uses evolution as a club to beat believers is that he’s making a category mistake, trying to get science to do the work of theology (to which Dawkins would respond “so much the worse for theology”). By contrast, ID takes the club out of Dawkins’ hands and breaks it, showing that the theory of evolution on which he relies is all washed up.
There you have it. ID is Darwinian Kryptonite! But, alas, this means that Superman gets to live if it's Silver Kryptonite. One last thing: the late Avery Cardinal Dulles wrote a nice piece on evolution and Christian faith in First Things. I think he accurately gives us the lay of the land, showing that there are more options out there than atheistic materialism, crude theistic evolution, and ID.. You can find Dulles' piece here: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/09/001-god-and-evolution-33 francisbeckwith

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