Intelligent Design and Me: A Response to Some Critics

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May 21, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's entry was written by Francis Beckwith. 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.

Intelligent Design and Me: A Response to Some Critics

This is a follow-up to a series by Francis Beckwith, the first of which can be found here. Closely related to these blogs is a Scholarly Essay entitled “Intelligent Design, Thomas Aquinas, and the Ubiquity of Final Causes.

On March 19 and 20 of this year I posted two brief essays on the BioLogos blog (Part I and Part II). In them I summarized my own intellectual journey on the issue of Intelligent Design (ID). Since their publication, many responses have been published online in the comment threads of this and other blogs. Dear friends and respectful acquaintances offered some of these critiques.

Given my ontological finitude, my publishing and teaching schedule, as well as my increasingly diminishing interest in the topic, I could not and can not respond to each and every criticism, though I know that virtually all of them were offered with genuine respect. It is my hope that in this brief, and no doubt inadequate, reply that I can replicate my critics’ sincere deference.

About My Background

On William Dembski’s blog, Uncommon Descent, Thomas Cudworth, in an otherwise carefully crafted reply, writes of me: “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.”

First, I was originally Catholic (baptized and confirmed by the age of 12) became Protestant and then returned to the Catholic Church (in 2007).

Second, I have been a Thomist since the mid-1980s, which I explain more fully in my 2009 book, Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic (Brazos Press).

Third, I have never been a supporter of ID, though I have argued (and still argue) that there is nothing unconstitutional with teaching it in public schools. I take this position largely because I think that establishment clause jurisprudence unjustly sequesters ideas from the public square simply because those ideas are informed by theological traditions, even though those ideas may be legitimately defended on the basis of “public reason.” My recent article in The Journal of Law and Religion, “Must Theology Sit in the Back of the Secular Bus?” makes that very point.

About Thomas Aquinas

Fourth, Thomas Aquinas did not have an argument from design, as one finds in William Paley’s work.1 What Thomas had was an argument from final causes in nature to the existence of a Being that such causes require in order to account for their contingent existence. But those causes are not detachable from nature, as is the “design” found in Paley’s watchmaker argument. For Paley, living organisms may or may not be designed, and we are only permitted to infer design when an organism’s parts seem improbably arranged to achieve a particular end.

Not so for Thomas. For the Angelic Doctor, final causes are intrinsic to nature. To use an example: the purpose of the lungs is to exchange oxygen for the good of the whole organism. One could, of course, provide an exhaustive account of respiration relying only on efficient and material causes. But that account would not mean that one is not justified in saying that the lungs have a final cause. For Thomas, final causality is not a rival to efficient and material causes. Rather, it works in concert with them.

On the other hand, for Paley, “design” in living organisms is a rival to efficient and material causes. This is why he must point to the superb complexity of the watch to achieve its end (telling time) in order to provide justification for his claim that the watch is in fact designed and that it is analogous to what we observe in nature. But suppose someone offered a theory that may also account for this design relying only on efficient and material causes? (In fact, an evolutionary account would be such a theory.)2 In that case, there is a potential defeater to Paley’s theory. But that means for Paley that material and efficient causes are a rival and not a complement to final causality.

For this reason, I do not think that Cudworth quite captures my concerns when he contrasts my embracing of Thomistic “design” with my apparent lack of interest in “scientific” arguments by ID supporters. My concern is that the ID supporters (more specifically, those who rely on notions of irreducible or specified complexity in nature to detect design) in fact offer a case that is inconsistent with Thomistic metaphysics.3 I say this because ID supporters offer their understanding of “design” as a defeater to naturalism.4 But naturalism is a philosophical (indeed, a metaphysical) and not a scientific point of view. Moreover, to say that ID will accomplish this task by employing the methods of empirical science5 —which concerns itself exclusively with efficient and material causes—means that its proponents think of nature as Paley did, mechanistic. This is why, for example, ID advocates analogize their project with the detection of the agent causes of artifacts in anthropology, computer science, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). In each of these cases, the thing created is a result of a mind taking the material parts of other things and designing them for some end extrinsically imposed on the parts. Whether it is pottery, computer programs, or alien messages, each is the consequence of imposing form and finality on that which does not have them by nature.


ID advocates offer their case as a scientific defeater to naturalism. But naturalism is not a scientific theory. It is a metaphysical one. So, when Cudworth and other critics suggest that I am committing a category mistake by contrasting “ID science” with “Thomistic metaphysics” while they argue that “ID science” can defeat naturalism (a metaphysical theory), they snatch confusion from the jaws of clarity.

In my next essay I will say more about Thomism and ID by addressing the charge that some of us do not take into consideration the central question of whether or not ID arguments are reasonable.


1. In a recent article I do refer to Thomas’ view as “Thomistic Design,” though I am using the term as a shorthand way to label Thomas’ understanding of final and formal causality. The article is “How To Be An Anti-Intelligent Design Advocate,” University of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy 4.1 (2009-2010): 35-65.

2. I am careful to say “evolutionary account” rather than Darwinian or neo-Darwinian account, since one can legitimately raise objections to either account without abandoning the notion that living organisms have in fact evolved. Here, I am thinking of the works of such thinkers as diverse as Etienne Gilson, Lynn Margulis, Simon Conway Morris, Leon Kass, and Jerry Fodor.

3. Jay Richards, by the way, rightfully maintains that there are many schools of Thomism. Although I do not believe that a Thomist taxonomy helps us much in this debate, I could be wrong about that.

4. “Naturalism is the disease. Intelligent design is the cure.” (William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999], 120.). “The evidence for intelligent design in biology is thus destined to grow even stronger. There’s only one way evolutionary biology can defeat intelligent design, and that is by in fact solving the problem that it claimed all along to have solved but in fact never did—to account for the emerge of multipart, tightly integrated complex biological systems (many of which displace irreducible and minimal complexity) apart from teleology or design.” (William A. Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About intelligent Design [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004], 115)

5. Writes Dembski: “[t]he related concepts of irreducible complexity and specified complexity render intelligent causes empirically detectable and make intelligent design a full-fledged scientific theory, distinguishing it from the design arguments of philosophers and theologians, or what has traditionally been called natural theology.” (Dembski, The Design Revolution, 37)

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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BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #14369

May 21st 2010

Only Thomism IMHO can successfully polemic ID.  So far other non-Thomistic critics more often than not misrepresent ID & I have never been impressed with their criticisms.  But Thomism has it going on.

HornSpiel - #14389

May 21st 2010

So would you say that ID is trying to use a naturalistic methodology, science, to defeat naturalism? In other words, to the extent they try to use scientific arguments (rather that philosophical), their methods are indistinguishable from naturalism. Therefore, in a way, they are trying to defeat the very method they are using. If they could succeeded in doing that, then science would have no meaning.

More simply put and self evident: ID is a science stopper.

BenYachov - #14392

May 21st 2010

I would say ID is philosophically Mechanistic like their Atheist opponents.

see the following:

JKnott - #14395

May 21st 2010

Dr. Beckwith—

Great level-headed, clear-eyed criticism. Thank you.

Irenicum - #14482

May 22nd 2010

Thank you for posting this. This is one of the best essays I’ve seen so far. Thomist philosophy is a sadly underutilized and still greatly needed analytic tool in critical thinking. Kudos to Dr. Beckwith.

gingoro - #14532

May 22nd 2010

Interesting post!  Am looking forward to reading more. 

In your next post could you recommend a couple of good introductions to the thinking of Thomas.
Dave W

dopderbeck - #14797

May 24th 2010

Yes, yes, yes!  I’ve been saying exactly the same thing for several years.  The Thomistic understanding of causality is the “traditional” Christian view (it’s found in Augustine as well).

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