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Intelligent Design and Me, Part 2: Confessions of a Doting Thomist

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March 20, 2010 Tags: Design
Intelligent Design and Me, Part 2: Confessions of a Doting Thomist

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

In his last post, Beckwith explained that he embraces certain arguments made by ID leaders against philosophical naturalism, but rejects the core ID arguments of irreducible complexity and complex specified information as formulated by ID leaders Michael Behe and William Dembski. 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.

Christian philosophy as delineated by Aquinas (“Thomist” philosophy), on the other hand, asserts that God is responsible for all final causes (explanations having to do with purpose, such as “the purpose of lungs is for breathing”), but these final causes do not replace material causes (explanations that can be derived from science, such as how lungs evolved or how they function in the body). In the Thomist view, then, law and chance, which work in concert with material causes, do not compete with or eliminate God’s design, thus showing a major philosophical weakness of the ID movement’s approach.

It was probably around mid-2005 that I started to understand why I could never defend the Behe/Dembski arguments. This is when I began to play down these arguments and put a greater stress on anti-naturalism in the way I defined ID. Hence, in a September 2005 online debate with Douglas Laycock, I define ID in this way:

Intelligent design (or ID) is not one theory. It is a short-hand name for a cluster of arguments that offer a variety of cases that attempt to show that intelligent agency rather than unguided matter better accounts for apparently natural phenomena or the universe as a whole. Some of these arguments challenge aspects of neo-Darwinism. Others make a case for a universe designed at its outset, and thus do not challenge any theory of biological evolution.

But even ID advocates who criticize neo-Darwinism are technically not offering an alternative to evolution, if one means by evolution any account of biological change over time that claims that this change results from a species' power to accommodate itself to varying environments by adapting, surviving, and passing on these changes to its descendants. This is not inconsistent with a universe that has earmarks and evidence of intelligent design that rational minds may detect.1

What was going on in my mind? I had begun to better appreciate why some Christian philosophers (mostly Catholic ones), all influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas, never jumped on the ID bandwagon. Although I considered (and still consider) myself a Thomist, it’s clear to me now that while working on my MJS dissertation, I had not properly thought through the implications of ID for a Christian philosophy of nature. For this reason, I am now convinced that my initial and growing unease with the Behe/Dembski arguments arose precisely because my Thomist philosophy could not accommodate them, even though it was not apparent to me until mid-2005. During that time I was beginning to think more critically of the Behe/Dembski arguments as I brought Thomist philosophy to bear on them.

Several works shaped my thinking on this matter. They include the writings of Etienne Gilson, William E. Carroll, Stephen Barr, Marie I. George, Ric Machuga, and Michael W. Tkacz. One could say that what these thinkers did was to bring to my attention the reason why I had always harbored doubts about the Behe/Dembski arguments but could not find the conceptual language to articulate. And it seems that I am not the only one who has had this epiphany. Mark Ryland, a former vice president of the Discovery Institute, and now the director of the Institute for the Study of Nature, writes in a recently published entry in the New Catholic Encyclopedia: “In some respects, standard reductionistic neo-Darwinism and IDT [intelligent design theory] are mirror images of each other, and suffer from some of the same defects.”2 What does Ryland mean by this?

According to Dembski, we discover design in nature after we have eliminated chance and law. And we do so by a conceptual device he calls the explanatory filter. If something in nature exhibits a high level of specified complexity for which chance and law cannot account, Dembski concludes that it is highly probable that the gap is the result of an intelligent agent. 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. But whatever design we detect, it can always be overturned by future discoveries, and thus conceding yet another slice of nature to atheism.

So, ironically, as Ryland notes, the IDers, like Dembksi and Behe, and atheists, like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, wind up agreeing that without “gaps” in nature belief in an intelligent designer is not justified. The IDer thinks he can fill the gaps with intelligent agents; the atheist sees no reason to abandon fruitful theories because of a few anomalies he thinks he can someday account for. Ironically, Dembski accepts this narrative, but is confident that the atheists will not be able to “explain” everything:

The “gaps” in the god-of-the-gaps objection are meant to denote gaps of ignorance about underlying physical mechanisms. But there is no reason to think that all gaps give way to ordinary physical explanations once we know enough about the underlying physical mechanisms. The mechanisms simply do not exist. Some gaps might constitute ontic discontinuities in the chain of physical causes and thus remain forever beyond the capacity of physical mechanisms.3

On the other hand, Thomists and many other Christian philosophers do not accept this philosophy of nature. For them, design is immanent in the universe, and thus even an evolutionary account of the development of life requires a universe teeming with final causes. What is a final cause? It is a thing’s purpose or end. So, for example, even if one can provide an evolutionary account of the development of the human lungs without any recourse to an intervening intelligence, there remains the fact that the lungs develop for a particular purpose, the exchange of oxygen for the sake of the organism’s survival. This fact, of course, does not contravene the discoveries of modern biology. And neither does it mean that final causes should be inserted into scientific theories. All it means is that the deliverances of the sciences—even if needing no intelligent intervention to be complete—are not nature’s whole story. For the Thomist, and for many other Christians, law and chance do not eliminate design. Rather, all three work in concert with each other because nature as a whole requires a Necessary Being (i.e., God)

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. He writes:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.4

For St. Thomas, the design or purpose of nature refers to the interrelationship of “all things” in the universe, including scientific laws and all inanimate and animate things and their powers, which have their own natures that direct them to certain ends. And they are all kept in existence by God, Who brought the universe into being ex nihilo. St. Thomas, though a believer in design, was no ID advocate.

I hope that what I shared in these two blog entries will help others to better understand the sort of internal deliberations that go on in the minds of many of us who are committed Christians wanting to live the life of the mind with full integrity.


1. http://legalaffairs.org/webexclusive/debateclub_id0905.msp (26 September 2005).
2. Mark Ryland, “Intelligent Design Theory,” New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2009, 2 volumes. Robert L. Fastiggi, ed. (Detroit: Gale, 2009), 1: 476.
3. William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 334-335.
4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. 2, art. 3, available at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm

Francis Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies at Baylor University and is a prolific scholar of jurisprudence, the theory of law. His most recent book, Politics for Christians: Statescraft as Soulcraft, clarifies the confusion many Christians feel about how their faith should shape their involvement in the public square, particularly within politics.

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Kendalf - #7305

March 21st 2010

In fact, he seems to state the opposite. An excerpt from Dembski’s essay, “The Explanatory Filter”

When the Explanatory Filter fails to detect design in a thing, can we be sure no intelligent cause underlies it? The answer to this question is No. For determining that something is not designed, the Explanatory Filter is not a reliable criterion. False negatives are a problem for the Explanatory Filter. This problem of false negatives, however, is endemic to detecting intelligent causes. One difficulty is that intelligent causes can mimic law and chance, thereby rendering their actions indistinguishable from these unintelligent causes…

Intelligent causes can do things that unintelligent causes cannot, and can make their actions evident. When for whatever reason an intelligent cause fails to make its actions evident, we may miss it. But when an intelligent cause succeeds in making its actions evident, we take notice. This is why false negatives do not invalidate the Explanatory Filter….

Alan Fox - #7315

March 22nd 2010

Re Dembski’s essay (written in 1996), his view on the usefulness of the “Explanatory Filter” has changed somewhat.

pds - #7316

March 22nd 2010

Kendalf, thanks for the quote.

Jay Richards has responded  to the same straw man put forth by Stephen Barr:

These ideas would certainly be problematic, as Barr charges, if anyone actually advanced them; but no theistic ID proponent ever has. No theist worth his salt believes that God is aloof from the world except when he acts directly in nature. That would be a sort of modified deism—though, strictly speaking, deists don’t think God acts within the world at all. For theists, in any case, God transcends the world, is free to act directly in it—however unfashionable that might be—and always remains intimately involved with it.

At the same time, the theist need not believe that God always acts directly in the world. He can act directly or “primarily,” such as when he creates the whole universe or raises Jesus from the dead. It’s God’s world, so that’s his prerogative. He’s not violating the universe or its laws, or invading alien territory when he does this, since he’s the source of both the universe and whatever “laws” it might have.

pds - #7317

March 22nd 2010

(cont. quote)

He also can act through so-called “secondary causes.” These include natural processes and laws that he has established, such as the electromagnetic force. (I think it’s problematic to speak of physical constants as “causes,” but let that pass for now). An event might be both an expression of a physical law and the purposes of God. It’s not as if atheists appeal to gravity while theists appeal to miracles. Gravity is as consistent with theism as are miracles. It’s just that most theists and atheists agree on gravity but not on miracles.

When an ID theorist in question is also a theist, then these distinctions are always in the background, even if they don’t show up in every argument. That’s because ID arguments often focus on discrete, empirical evidence of design in nature—that is, with “design” insofar as it is detectible and tractable in an open-minded scientific framework. This is nothing new. While St. Thomas made broad design arguments, he also pointed to specific examples of design within nature. ID theorists simply point to evidence that Thomas knew nothing about.

Brian - #7348

March 22nd 2010

But whatever design we detect, it can always be overturned by future discoveries, and thus conceding yet another slice of nature to atheism.

That’s one way to frame the discussion.  Another might be like this: 

Mainstream biology states that undirected, mechanistic forces are sufficient to create all that there is.  A designer either doesn’t exist at all, or is irrelevant to the process, which happily hums along with no teleological input whatsoever. 

In opposition to this, Biologos (BL) and ID both agree that a designer DOES exist.  ID holds, at least in theory, that biology is a tool which can be employed to demonstrate the possible existence of this designer.  BL, on the other hand, believes that any such attempt is futile, thus conceding yet another slice of science to atheism.

Unapologetic Catholic - #7352

March 22nd 2010

Dembski self identified as an old earth creationist rejecting both common descent and common ancestry.  His opinions on science are, accordingly,  too suspect to give any credence.  Furthermore, special creation of differnt “kinds’ and special creationof homo sapiens does require a supernatural intervention.  Beckwith is corerct to point this out,

Dembski’s extremely tardy 2008 rejection of the explanatory filter is a good example.  The error in his Explanatory Filter analysis was pointed out in 1996 by multiple scientists.  It took 12 years for him to concede the obvious.

Alan Fox - #7355

March 22nd 2010

It took 12 years for him to concede the obvious.

Though there was a retrenchment Dembski has not subsequently made any public reference to the EF, as far as I am aware.

pds - #7357

March 22nd 2010

“BL, on the other hand, believes that any such attempt is futile, thus conceding yet another slice of science to atheism.”

Good point.  If you concede it all at the outset, there is nothing left to concede later.  Perhaps the better metaphor is “conceding the whole pie.”

Alan Fox - #7360

March 22nd 2010

If you concede it all at the outset, there is nothing left to concede later.  Perhaps the better metaphor is “conceding the whole pie.”

You don’t think striving for the truth is a worthier goal?

Kendalf - #7378

March 23rd 2010

Alan, do you think BL is the only group striving for the truth?

Gregory Arago - #7391

March 23rd 2010

You’ve done a good job so far, Bilbo, of not showing what position(s) you represent. It’s of course easy for someone to sit on a fence critiquing everyone, until they are asked to throw in their hat & actually take a personal stand. You lean heavily on Mike Gene’s approach to ‘design’ & ‘intelligence’. What do you actually believe or accept?

Resist labels if you wish, but the positions in this discussion are named: theistic evolutionist, evolutionary creationist, ‘young’ earth creationist, old earth creationist, progressive creationist, intelligent design advocate/proponent, etc. I don’t think, from memory of previous conversations, that you’re entirely on-board with IDM’s definitions of ‘intelligence’ & ‘design,’ with their EF, or CSI, with their ‘cultural renewal’ strategy. But I’m finding it difficult to see what your position is. Perhaps could you clarify this?

F. Beckwith is well in-tune with what IDM is doing & now rejects its ideas. The IDM has only Behe and one or two more Catholic Christians on its roster; otherwise evangelical Protestants & dissidents. How does this relate to Bilbo?

Alan Fox - #7393

March 23rd 2010

Alan, do you think BL is the only group striving for the truth?

That would be a depressing thought. No, I am an optimist, more so now that the Dover issue seems settled, and hope that achieving progress such that parties in a discussion discover more than they previously knew becomes a more standard goal rather than “winning” an argument.

Gregory Arago - #7395

March 23rd 2010

Alan, I’m a bit concerned that we’re speaking past each other. Did you not know what ‘scientism’ meant before checking the ‘definition’ at Wikipedia? This is a very significant ideology in the current era and without taking it seriously, one simply cannot address many of the topics involved in the conversation here at BioLogos with much hope of success.

To equate science with ‘study of reality’ is a big stretch. Other fields and disciplines also deal with reality. Perhaps a bit more humility for the actual practice of ‘doing science,’ which is a messy activity also, just like reading Scripture, is a prudent step forward.

Do you at least openly acknowledge the possibility for mutual cooperation of science, philosophy *and* theology or religion in our contemporary situation?

Gregory Arago - #7396

March 23rd 2010

“why I prefer reality to nature as a word describing what is available for scientific scrutiny” - Alan

The additional question for you then, Alan, is to ask: what in your view is ‘not natural’ but nevertheless still ‘real’, i.e. that science can scrutinize?

What ‘non-natural’ things are ‘real’ that ‘science’ can study?

Alan Fox - #7398

March 23rd 2010

The additional question for you then, Alan, is to ask: what in your view is ‘not natural’ but nevertheless still ‘real’, i.e. that science can scrutinize?

I am trying to avoid the ambiguity inherent in natural i.e. artificial and supernatural. So all natural things are real, all artificial things are real.

What ‘non-natural’ things are ‘real’ that ‘science’ can study?

None that I can think of. I am also discussing this on Mike Gene’s blog on various threads if you are interested. Link

Alan Fox - #7399

March 23rd 2010

La vache!

blookquote indeed!

Alan Fox - #7400

March 23rd 2010

Do you at least openly acknowledge the possibility for mutual cooperation of science, philosophy *and* theology or religion in our contemporary situation?

I fully support and endorse the free and unrestricted exchange of ideas and information. I can’t help what I believe or don’t believe. I am always open to persuasion. (Except by Mormonism or Jehovah’s witnesses.)

And no, i hadn’t previously come across the label of “scientism” and I don’t think the label fitsme, on reflection.

Gregory Arago - #7408

March 23rd 2010

Ideas and information are one thing, Alan, and I’m glad you endorse free and unrestricted exchanges. Yet, science, philosophy and religion occuring in cooperative dialogue are at another level. Would you support their cooperation, Alan?

I asked: “What ‘non-natural’ things are ‘real’ that ‘science’ can study?”

You answered: “None that I can think of.”

This represents a view called ‘naturalism,’ the idea that the only ‘real’ things in existence are ‘natural’ things. As a ‘scientist’ in the ‘non-natural sciences’, and as one who studies ‘science’ as a non-naturalist, I find this position highly problematic.

Yet you also spoke of ‘artificial’ and ‘supernatural’ as examples of ‘non-natural’ things.

Thus, artificial things are real, as you say. Sciences study them. They are non-natural. So, I see a contradition in your position, from a philosophical point of view.

Would accepting a transcendatal source make any difference here?

Gregory Arago - #7409

March 23rd 2010

Transcendental source

Bilbo - #7411

March 23rd 2010

Hi Gregory,

I just noticed your questions to me.  Unlike Prof. Beckwith, I see no serious philosophical or theological obstacles of any of the views, from TE (or EC) to YEC.  I like the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers view, myself.

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