C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 2

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April 28, 2011 Tags: Design

Today's entry was written by Michael L. Peterson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 2

This blog series, adapted from this article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, is a comprehensive study of the views of Christian author and apologist C. S. Lewis on the theory of evolution and the argument from intelligent design. In Part 1, Peterson outlines the classic approaches to natural theology and argues that while Lewis did embrace several lines of reasoning which implicitly or explicitly argue for an Intelligence beyond nature, none of these lines of reasoning are really “design-type” arguments. Today we begin to see why.

The recent ID argument gets some support in the evangelical community because it taps into the conviction that “in some important sense” God is a Designer or Intelligent Agent behind the universe. This new argument, however, is not the first to go by the rubric of “intelligent design,” since design-type arguments have a long history, as noted in Part 1. In assessing the viability of all arguments from some orderly feature of the world to an Intelligence beyond the world, we must make some crucial distinctions. There are significant differences between traditional teleological or design arguments, on the one hand, and the new ID argument, on the other. These differences are reflected in their respective answers to two key questions: In what exact sense is God the Designer? And, what sorts of considerations, if any, legitimately point to a Designer? Although a comprehensive treatment of the intellectual history and logical structure of design-type arguments would review a generous handful of versions, here we will simply employ a two-fold classification: traditional teleological approaches and the much newer ID approach, as two very different ways of answering these questions.

Natural theology through the centuries includes a range of design-type arguments—from Aquinas’s reasoning to a Transcendent Intelligence as the best account of the teleology of natural objects, to Richard Swinburne’s contention that a Supremely Rational Mind is required to think and uphold natural laws.1 In 2004, the news broke that Antony Flew, one of the most famous atheistic philosophers of the twentieth century, had announced that he had come to embrace a more or less Deistic belief that there is a Supreme Being who intelligently structured the universe but neither interacts with it nor underwrites an afterlife. Soon thereafter, Flew’s book There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind appeared and provided a lucid retelling of his intellectual journey—a journey shaped by engaging the findings of science with insights from the traditional teleological argument, the fine-tuning argument (including the anthropic principle), and the cosmological argument.2 Throughout the book, Flew repeatedly explains that his arguments for a Supreme Mind are distinctively philosophical in nature, grounded in philosophical reflections on recent scientific findings as well as on the scientific enterprise itself. Flew distinguishes his approach from misguided attempts to provide scientific arguments for a Supreme Mind. Francis Collins and John Polkinghorne, both severe critics of ID, wrote enthusiastic recommendations of Flew’s book.

Flew, who deceased on April 8, 2010, is also interesting here because of his exposure to Lewis during the 1950s when Lewis was chair of the Socratic Club at Oxford. Flew’s approach to the present subject reflects a classical outlook similar to Lewis’s: a deep respect for the enterprise of science and informed awareness of the phenomena it studies, combined with the insight that both science and its important findings require philosophical explanation. Why does physical nature conform to mathematically precise laws? Why are there conscious minds which perceive this? And why does life seem inherently end-directed? Flew came to answer these sorts of philosophical questions by positing a Supreme Mind. ID, by contrast, is critical of mainstream science and seeks to develop an argument for a Transcendent Intelligence from within its remodeled version of science, as we shall soon see. One last fascinating point concerning Flew’s change of mind: from his newly adopted position of Deism, he considers Christianity to be the most rationally respectable living religion. He even includes in his book an appendix written by N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, presenting reasons why orthodox Christian claims about the historical Jesus are credible.

ID views itself as reviving and updating the eighteenth-century argument for God which assumes that science can discover traces of a designing intelligence in the natural world. William Dembski, founder and leading spokesperson for ID, states that “God’s design is … accessible to scientific inquiry.” The ID movement claims to work within the field of biology (specifically, biochemistry) in order to show that an Intelligence above nature is a better explanation of certain phenomena than is Evolution. Dembski says that mainstream biology operates on the evolutionary assumption that complex life forms developed gradually from simpler forms over long periods of time as natural selection winnows through genetic variations which occur by blind chance. This means that biological complexity should be reducible to simpler components—and we do, indeed, have such reducible complexity in a wide variety of organic forms. Yet, some special cases, Dembski claims, are “irreducibly complex.” Irreducibly complex forms have parts which themselves have complete and complex functions of their own, making it highly unlikely that all independently working parts could come together through evolutionary processes. Dembski writes: “The irreducible complexity of … biochemical systems counts powerfully against the Darwinian mechanism and indeed against any naturalistic evolutionary mechanism proposed to date.”3 Dembski and his allies, such as Michael Behe, have advanced several much-discussed examples of irreducible complexity— such as the bacterial flagellum, the blood-clotting mechanism, and the eye.4

IDers formulate statistical arguments to show how mathematically improbable it is that random genetic variations plus natural selection, even over great spans of time, could result in the highly complex structures they identify. These arguments involve lots of zeroes after a decimal point. Think of this strategy in terms of probabilities in poker. The probability of being dealt a royal flush on one hand is 0.000002. The probability of being dealt two royal flushes in a row is this number squared (0.0000022 or 0.00000000004). If a person keeps getting dealt royal flushes, we have to suspect cheating, which is a sort of “intelligent design” in cards.

Back to ID calculations: the probability of irreducibly complex forms being brought about by evolution is argued to be infinitesimally small, making ID the only reasonable alternative. Behe cites the blood-clotting mechanism as a case in point. Animals with blood-clotting cascades have about 10,000 genes, and each gene has three pieces. This totals 30,000 gene pieces. TPA (tissue plasminogen activator) has four different types of domains. As Behe argues, the odds that the right pieces can come together for blood-clotting to occur are therefore supposed to be 1 in 30,0004 (or 0.0000000000000000012407). Behe estimates that it would take about a thousand billion years before blood-clotting occurred, whereas the earth is only about 6 billion years old, and even the simplest life forms did not occur until perhaps about 3 billion years ago.5 So, blood-clotting represents too many royal flushes in a row, so to speak. Behe’s claim, then, is that natural laws plus time simply cannot account for the phenomenon. According to the new ID argument, it is much more probable that an intelligence beyond nature instantaneously brought about this fully functioning mechanism. In effect, blood-clotting becomes a candidate for special creation, a miracle. Now, IDers will not say that the Intelligent Being behind nature is God, but it is clear that they think they are establishing two attributes of God: (1) intelligence and (2) the power to act on intelligent planning.


1. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1948), Question 2, Art 3. Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 153–91. See also Laura Garcia, “Teleological and Design Arguments” in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, 2d ed., ed. Charles Taliaferro, Paul Draper, and Philip L. Quinn (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 375–84.

2. Antony Flew, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: HarperOne, 2007).

3. William Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 148.

4. Critics of ID have provided sound scientific explanations for these phenomena without reference to a transcendent intelligence. See, for example, Philip Kitcher, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Francisco Ayala, Darwin and Intelligent Design (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006) and Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion (Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2007). It is particularly fascinating to account for the significant weight that the mapping of the Human Genome lends to the confirmation of biological evolution. Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project in the 1990s and now Director of the NIH, who was greatly influenced in his faith by Lewis’s Mere Christianity, makes the scientific case for evolution based on the amazing accomplishments of research in molecular biology in recent years. See Collins’s The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006). Collins founded the BioLogos Foundation to promote engagement of science and faith as well as to help navigate various errors committed by both secular and religious perspectives (http://biologos.org, last accessed September 22, 2010).

5. Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Free Press, 1996), 94.

Michael L. Peterson is professor of philosophy at Asbury University. He is also managing editor of Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His books include Reason and Religious Belief (Oxford); God and Evil (Westview); With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy of Education (Notre Dame); and Evil and the Christian God (Baker). He has produced multiple edited volumes and journal articles.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #60076

April 28th 2011

ID’s calculations may be right, but ID is not the only possible alternative.  God and nature have their own ideas.

Bilbo - #60231

April 28th 2011

As I mentioned in my previous comments in this series, I think Peterson is an unreliable interpreter of C.S. Lewis.  However, an essay that reveals Lewis’s thought on the relationship between science and apologetics can be found here:


The relevant passage:

“I am speaking, so far of theological reading. Scientific reading is a
different matter. If you know any science it is very desirable that you
should keep it up. We have to answer the current scientific attitude
toward Christianity, not the attitude scientists adopted one hundred
years ago. Science is in continual change and we must try to keep
abreast of it. We may mention such things; but we must mention them
lightly and without claiming that they are more than “interesting.”
Sentences beginning “Science has now proved” should be avoided. If we
try to base our apologetic on some recent development in science, we
shall usually find that just as we have put the finishing touches to our
argument science has changed its mind and quietly withdrawn the theory
we have been using as our foundation stone. Timeo Dananos e dona
ferentes is a sound principle.”

So would Lewis have rejected ID?  No.  Would he have made it a major part of his apologetics?  No.  Would he have mentioned it as “interesting”?  Yes.

Bilbo - #60232

April 28th 2011

By the way, no doubt Lewis would have applied this principle to the “Fine-tuning” argument, as well.

R Hampton - #60290

April 28th 2011

Now, IDers will not say that the Intelligent Being behind nature is God…

Dembski admitted just the other day that the “Intelligent Designer” can be none other than God:

Most ID proponents are Christians and believe, like BioLogos, that God
is present and active everywhere in nature. Yet we hold that in some
cases God makes his activity more obvious than in others
. Design
detection calls forward these more obvious instances of design.

...Giberson and Collins’ insistence that God work through rather
than outside natural laws is problematic but raises some interesting
possibilities. It presupposes that nature operates without
discontinuities. But how do we know that? Such discontinuities or gaps
need not be gaps of ignorance but gaps in the very fabric of nature.
This is a logical possibility and one that needs to be considered. As
they read the evidence of evolution, no such gaps exist. As I read it,
they do (e.g., the Cambrian explosion—but note, there are design
theorists who find no gap here, such as Michael Behe). Nature’s
operations, without the activity of God, might be fundamentally
Yet such activity need not be construed as “interventions.”


Bilbo - #60615

April 29th 2011

An example of how C.S. Lewis used science in his apologetics can be found in his essay, “Dogma and the Universe,” in his book, God in the Dock:

”...I would like
to clear up certain points about the actual relations between Christian
doctrine and the scientific knowledge we already have.  That is a
different matter from the continual growth of knowledge we imagine,
whether rightly or wrongly, in the future and which, as some think, is
bound to defeat us in the end.

In one respect, as many
Christians have noticed, contemporary science has recently come into
line with Christian doctrine, and parted company with the classical
forms of materialism.  If anything emerges clearly from modern physics,
it is that nature is not everlasting.  The universe had a beginning, and
will have an end.  But the great materialistic systems of the past all
believed in the eternity, and thence in the self-existence of matter. 
As Professor Whittaker said in the Riddell Lectures of 1942, ‘It was
never possible to oppose seriously the dogma of the Creation except by
maintaining that the world has existed from all eternity in more or less
its present state.’  This fundamental ground for materialism has now
been withdrawn.  We should not lean too heavily on this, for scientific
theories change.  But at the moment it appears that the burden of proof
rests, not on us, but on those who deny that nature has some cause
beyond herself.

how Lewis briefly mentions a scientific discovery (the universe had a
beginning) in order to score a point for Christianity.  But then he
advises us not to “lean too heavily on this, for scientific theories

So yes, Lewis has no problem using science to support
his apologetics.  But he never made it the major part of his argument
and always cautions that science can change.

So would Lewis have
used ID arguments in his apologetics?  Since ID is still very
controversial, Lewis would have been even more cautious, but I have no
doubt that in the right context he would have referred to them.

Bilbo - #60641

April 30th 2011

A second example comes from Lewis’s book, Miracles; a Preliminary Study.  He
begins his third chapter, “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism,”

by Naturalism we mean the doctrine that only Nature—the whole
interlocked system—exists.  And if that were true, every thing and
event would, if we knew enough, be explicable without remainder (no

heel-taps) as a necessary product of the system….
One threat
against strict Naturalism has recently been launched on which I myself
will base no argument, but which it will be well to notice….Some
modern scientists seem to think…that the individual unit of matter (it
would be rash to call it any longer a ‘particle’) moves in an
indeterminate or random fashion;  moves, in fact, ‘on its own’ or ‘of
its own accord.’...Now it will be noticed that if this theory is true we
have really admitted something other than Nature.  It would be, indeed,
too great a shock to our habits to describe them as
  I think we should have to call them
sub-natural.  But all our
confidence that Nature has no doors, and no reality outside herself for
doors to open on, would have disappeared.  There is apparently
outside her, the Subnatural; it is indeed from this Subnatural that all
events and all ‘bodies’ are, as it were, fed into her.  And clearly if
she thus has a back door opening on the Subnatural, it is quite on the
cards that she may also have a front door opening on the Supernatural—
and events might be fed into her at that door too.
I have mentioned
this theory because it puts in a fairly vivid light certain conceptions
which we shall have to use later on.  But I am not, for my own part,
assuming its truth.  Those who like myself have had a philosophical
rather than a scientific education find it almost impossible to believe
that the scientists really mean what they seem to be saying.  I cannot
help thinking they mean no more than that the movements of individual
units are permanently incalculable to
us, not that they are in
themselves random and lawless.  And even if they mean the latter, a
layman can hardly feel any certainty that some new scientific
development may not tomorrow abolish this whole idea of a lawless
Subnature.  For it is the glory of science to progress.
mine]  I therefore turn willingly to other ground.

Bilbo - #60642

April 30th 2011

By the way, RH, you’re right and Peterson is again mistaken.  IDers usually admit that they think the designer is God.  What they usually add is that the evidence of ID does not prove that the designer is God.  Somehow critics manage to miss this distinction.

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