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.