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A Response to Some Critics, Part 2

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May 22, 2010 Tags: Design
A Response to Some Critics, Part 2

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.

This is the final entry in 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.

In yesterday’s entry, I corrected some misleading comments made about my background. I also explained why certain Thomist philosophers see in Intelligent Design (ID) a philosophy of nature that is nearly indistinguishable from William Paley’s failed mechanistic understanding of the universe. Today I want to 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.

About the Intelligent Design Arguments

After reading my previous BioLogos entry, I can hear my friend Jay Richards asking, “What about the ID arguments, Frank? Doesn’t it matter if they work?” That’s more than a fair question. So, let me address it. Of course, it matters, but it depends on what you mean by “work.” And in the ID debate what counts as “work” is multilayered and not easily answered. Consider this basic and straightforward question, “Does Michael Behe’s argument for irreducible complexity in nature succeed?” Suppose the answer is “yes” insofar as it is rational for one to accept Behe’s argument to an intelligent agent cause from the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum, and it is in that sense the ID argument “works.” But that’s not the end of the story.

Biologist Lynn Margulis, for example, has offered endosymbiotic theory1 as a non-neo-Darwinian evolutionary account that may explain irreducible complexity without requiring a design inference (as understood by Behe and Dembski). Other scientists have suggested something similar. Simon Conway Morris2 has argued that apparently irreducibly complex organisms are perfectly “natural” since the development of nature requires a goal-directness, a teleology if you will (though the biological sciences as sciences do not require final causes for theory-making3).

If, as some believe, either Margulis or Morris offers an account that can answer Behe’s concerns while at the same time supporting evolution, then the ID argument, in a sense, does not “work.” This is why former Discovery Institute vice president Mark Ryland writes in the New Catholic Encyclopedia:

Nothing of great philosophical or theological importance is at stake in whether or not material discontinuities or gaps exist in the secondary causes of cosmic and biological evolution. Although some extrinsic imposition of order like [Intelligent Design Theory] might be true, as far as scientific theories of evolution are concerned, teleological and structuralist interpretations of evolution—with their emphasis on intrinsic, purposive properties of nature—are closer to what natural philosophy would expect and predict.4

The Problem with Intelligent Design Arguments

Here’s the problem, as I see it: the ID advocate is assuming that an anomaly in the apparently seamless story of evolution is a necessary condition for a defeater to naturalism. But that assumption is mistaken, since it requires that we believe that efficient and material causality (not to mention evolution itself) are rivals to teleology in nature, which is the essence of the mechanistic view. This is why the ID advocate spends so much time protecting the non-seamlessness of nature by trying to find flaws in the works of thinkers like Margulis and Morris. Consider, for example, Dembski’s comments in his review of Morris’ book, Life’s Solution. In it Dembski lets the mechanistic cat out of the ID bag:

By refusing to allow that teleology can be scientifically tractable, Conway Morris remains squarely within the scientific mainstream. Yet, by making teleology a metaphysical addition to a science that otherwise is understandable entirely on materialistic principles, Conway Morris offers scientists merely a theological gloss on an otherwise thoroughly materialistic enterprise. Life’s Solution will no doubt comfort theistic evolutionists. But those without a stake in integrating faith and learning will see its theological project as an exercise in irrelevance, a view duly underwritten by Occam’s razor.5

But if ID does not assume a mechanistic view of nature, as some ID advocates claim, then why treat such accounts as defeaters to one’s project? (This is why Clive Hayden––another Uncommon Descent blogger—is mistaken when he claims that my definition of ID is arbitrary. As I hope I have made clear in my recent works on this matter, I see ID as distinct from other cases for natural teleology or non-naturalism in this respect: ID requires as a necessary condition that the story of evolution not be seamless).

In response to this sort of analysis, Richards says that ID supporters he privately contacted hold a variety of views on the nature of nature, and thus ID is not committed to one particular philosophy of nature. I have no doubt that his polling data are accurate. But what one claims to believe and what one can conceptually account for are two different things. It should be noted that Richards is presently working on a project in which he plans to sort out these and other issues relating to ID, Catholicism, Thomism, and the philosophy of nature. I look forward to reading this work when it is released.


Let me conclude by reminding readers on all sides of this debate a simple truth that we should never forget, one recently penned by my friend and fellow Catholic, Jay Richards: “[T]he issues at stake are subtle and complicated, and often involve translations into somewhat different `conceptual schemes’; so it’s hard to deal with them adequately in the drive-by fashion appropriate to the blogosphere.”

Can I get an “Amen”?


1. Lynn Sagan, "On the Origin of Mitosing cells,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 14.3 (1967): 255–274.

2. Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

3. This, by the way, is the view embraced by the great Catholic philosopher, Etienne Gilson:

[F]inalists…are constrained by the evidence of facts, which in the tradition and through the example of Aristotle they desire to make intelligible. As far as I know, they do not claim anymore that “scientific” evidence is on their side; the scientific description of ontogenesis and phylogenesis remains identically what it is without the need of going back to the first, transscientific principles of mechanism or finalism. Natural science neither destroys final causality nor establishes it. These two principles belong to the philosophy of the science of nature, to that which we have called its “wisdom.” What scientists, as scientists, can do to help clarify the problem of natural teleology is not to busy themselves with it. They are the most qualified of all to keep philosophizing about it, if they so desire; but it is then necessary that they agree to philosophize… Finalist philosophies are responsible to themselves; they do not involve themselves with science at all, and science, as such, has no cause to concern itself with them. (emphasis added)

(Etienne Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species and Evolution, trans. John Lyon [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009], 15–16, 133)

4. Mark Ryland, “Intelligent Design Theory,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement Vol. 1. ed., Robert L. Fastiggi (Detroit: Gale Publishing, 2009), 477.

5. William A. Dembski, “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” Books & Culture (Nov/Dec 2004): 42.

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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Norm - #14565

May 22nd 2010

Thanks for the clarity. It seems to me that often ID proponents are hesitant to share the stage with TE’s failing to realize that TE’s attribute creation to God just as they do. The difference seems to be that TE’s or EC don’t insert special creation points into what appears to be a “God driven” naturalistic process that has birthed the good earth and inhabitants. The IDer’s often seem to be hanging on to an approach born from Young Earth Creationism in which there is a desire for special miraculous insertions into the process (God of the gaps). 

There is an inclination to not give TE’s full credit for also being creationist in the final accounting. We look for the answers in the “God driven” state of naturalism instead of stating that God had to come back in and insert a little change here and do a little tuck there repeatedly over millions of years. Of course our foil is the naturalistic dead material atheist like R Dawkins that perhaps thinks the “seed” somehow was started by “aliens”: wherever they got their start from who knows.

karl Giberson - #14603

May 22nd 2010

Nice post.  Some discussion about what ID and TE are talking about is needed.

Unapologetic catholic - #14610

May 22nd 2010

As one o f those critics, I can say, “Very well done—very well stated.”  This advances the discussion immensely.

listener here - #14632

May 22nd 2010

I do not see ID as a scientific project is a defeater of philosophical naturalism. This may not be the view of some of the ID advocates, but a possible one. Rather it is a natural extension from the philosophical ID, unless either TE or philosophical Darwinists have shown that it is unsupportable. To me if you subscribe to the philosophical ID, it is imperative that you accept a possible scientific ID project unless proven otherwise. That is why I found a position rejecting a possible scientific ID an incoherent one, or at least an unjust one when witnessing how many of the ID advocates are being treated.

listener here - #14640

May 22nd 2010

Let me clarify further. Science, by its very nature is a working model. It should not presume what future experimental results will lead. It can only strengthen or weaken certain philosophical viewpoint. So how could a scientific theory be a defeater of philosophical naturalism? The main issue is not whether it is a defeater, but coherency between philosophical acceptance and its natural extension.

Bilbo - #14648

May 22nd 2010

Hi Frank,

Let’s assume, for the moment, that there are no atheists or agnostics in the world.  There are only Christians.  And we are playing a game titled, “Figure out how God brought about life.”  Some of us think God did it seamlessly, from the beginning o the universe, with only the discoverable physical laws Others of us think that God has either set things up exactly, either fine-tuning special events,  or He has intervened in creation from time to time.  Is either view theologically objectionable?  No!  God could have done it either way.  So instead of accusing IDists of having a wrong view of nature, why don’t you just let us play in the game?  Maybe we’ll find something out.

norm - #14654

May 22nd 2010

How would one verify the veracity of either position? I think it becomes very difficult so it becomes a logical application of the prevalence of the data which is also arguable. What one may eventually determine is God acting supernaturally may be explained eventually through God invoked naturalism and then we are off to the next assessment. And on it goes never ending from the viewpoint of the IDer’s raising up new propositions through the ages. I think for myself it boils down to seeing the TE position as more consistent through my own limited viewpoint. I think this is all any of us can do. If I were to have a desire to be an evolutionary scientist I don’t see how I could ever find a way to test the supernatural intervention implication and take myself seriously in my work. If it was there then I would simply never notice it because it’s probably not detectable. It’s really not about theology as I believe theology sheds no light upon it.

Bilbo - #14661

May 22nd 2010

Hi Norm,

So in our Christian game of “How did God bring about life?” we agree that we are treading on holy, mysterious ground, and that any conclusions we reach are wholely tentative and subject to future correction.  Having done that, we proceed to see if the process could have occurred through purely natural means, or if nature is incomplete and depends upon God to bring about life, realizing the either might be the correct view. 

The IDist will proceed the way one normally proceeds when trying to determine if something was the product of design.  The TEist will proceed as if it was the product of natural forces.  But we wil both agree that God was ultimately responsible.

Drew - #14671

May 22nd 2010

Hello Dr. Beckwith,

      I was just curious if you have ever read the book entitled The Mind of the Universe by the late Catholic priest Mariano Artigas? It is an excellent work that I think is germane to the issues you are responding too. Thank you for your responses.

Norm - #14683

May 22nd 2010


I think that works from a faith perspective but not from an analytical reality. Let me state that I’m not sure why a TE can’t see intelligence or design in the process either albeit not intercessory supernatural intervention. Conway Morris’s observation concerning convergence would be an example that doesn’t seem to imply the supernatural but it does indicate intelligent design that illustrates itself through observable naturalism.

Bilbo - #14684

May 22nd 2010

Hi Norm,

I agree that a TE can see design in nature by either philosophical reasoning—such as Thomists do, or by faith.  Now Morris’s reasoning from convergent evolution is interesting.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Morris argues that the amount of convergent evolution is improbable on Gould’s history-is-contingent hypothesis.  It is much more likely that either nature or something in it is not contingent, so that certain outcomes are much more likely.  And that this would be consistent with God creating nature so that it evolves in a certain direction.  It doesn’t necessarily refute an atheist position, but it seems to strengthen a theistic position.

But now the question that the IDist would ask is, Is it nature or is it the initial design of the first cells that directs evolution?  And so the game goes on.

BenYachov - #14688

May 23rd 2010

I have never been impressed by most polemics against ID put forward by either Atheist Naturalist Evolutionists or Theistic Evolutionists.  However IMHO only Thomism can mount any reasonable & or compelling argument to question ID.  In the end it’s all about the Final Causes that really are in nature.  Ironically most ID advocates mistakenly believe TE because of it’s acceptance of evolution has one foot in the camp of Atheism.  I believe that ID with it’s Mechanistic philosophical presuppositions(i.e. denial of final causes inherent in nature that don’t have to be imposed externally by some intelligent agent) has more in common with Atheism.  OTOH I will grant to the ID people that they are correct to question any form of TE that dogmatically mandates a methodological naturalism, claims human souls can “evolve”, denies a historical Adam & Eve & or original sin.  Many TE advocates still need to clean up their act.

Bilbo - #14694

May 23rd 2010

Hi Ben,

Is it legitimate to try and determine whether ID or TE has more in common with atheism?  I could be wrong, but I don’t think it is.

Rich - #14711

May 23rd 2010

Norm (14565):

ID people don’t deny that TEs believe in creation.  The problem with TEs, for ID, is not that TEs see creation as an evolutionary process; it is that for most TEs, there is absolutely no scientific, mathematical, empirical or rational way of telling the difference between God-guided or God-planned macroevolution on the one hand, and God-less, Dawkins macroevolution on the other.  So a TE and Dawkins look at the universe, see exactly the same phenomena, use exactly the same intellectual procedures, and provide exactly the same causal account of origins, and TEs only speak of God’s role outside of the lab and off-campus, so to speak.  In their professional lives they consent to strip all their scientific writing and teaching and thinking of any shred of teleology.  Teleology is purely a matter of faith, not *displayed* by nature, but *read into* nature from Christian premises.  It is this compartmentalization of both truth and mind, not “miracles” or “interventions”, that is the crucial difference between ID and TE.  (continued)

Rich - #14712

May 23rd 2010

Norm (continued):

Lest my remarks above be misunderstood in a thread about the views of Beckwith, let me clarify:

Thomistic TEs such as Beckwith are in a slightly different position than the TEs I have just described.  Thomistic TEs will say, with Gilson, that teleology is not merely a matter of faith, but of knowledge, and a proper part of a truly rational account of nature.  Admittedly, the knowledge is generated by the philosophy of nature rather than by natural science proper, but it is still genuine knowledge of what nature is really like.  Most non-Thomistic TEs, however, do not grant any epistemic status to design inferences.  For most non-Thomistic TEs, design inferences are assertions of faith, made by believers who, through the eyes of faith, see creation, design, providence, etc., rather than a mere series of efficient causes with no discernible plan.  They are not truths about nature that the human mind, qua human, can grasp.  They can be known as truths only by the assurance of revelation.  TEs who take this point of view are as far from Thomism as ID is.  Beckwith is by no means a typical modern TE.

Karl A - #14717

May 23rd 2010

Rich, I was hoping you’d join this discussion!

Bilbo - #14721

May 23rd 2010

It seems to me that final causes in nature can be empirically detected.  For example, the apparent fine-tuning of the physical laws and constants would appear to be detection of final causes.  Likewise, Morris’s argument from convergent evolution. 

So even though a TE might not be a Thomist, it seems they can strengthen their faith in telelogy in nature empirically, without being a (biological) IDist.

norm - #14722

May 23rd 2010

Bilbo - #14684
Convergence is an interesting topic in that rerunning the tape of life may not always produce us. In fact for 99.9% of life existence we never showed up so it depends upon at what point you check life out for verification. Convergence coupled with raw corruptible physics that seemed bent upon destroying life actually helped bring about our existence. What is the probability of those physical sequence of events occurring again perfectly to bring us into the biblical fullness of time occurring? As a natural scientist all I could do is make the observation but as an observer I also may see the hand of God through faiths eyes.

That is an interesting point you make concerning cells in lieu of the recent announcement this week.
“It’s alive! Artificial DNA controls life”

norm - #14723

May 23rd 2010

As one of faith my mind would ask how a dead materialistic view of physical matter could ever bring forth life. I would make the observation that it would not based upon logic. That seems to be the conundrum for the Dawkin atheist as probabilities don’t seem fathomable from “dead” matter. IMHO Dawkins and company are not working with “dead” materialistic matter but matter that is God breathed. They have hitched their wagon to a natural model that does not reveal a “dead” material universe and thus the reason Dawkins has been left grasping for Alien intervention for the kick start of life. Otherwise probabilities say never should we have life from the “dead”. 
So yes if I were an evolutionist scientist today I could easily compartmentalize my naturalistic work in the field and laboratory realizing that my faith view would have no effect upon my work of objectivity.

My biblical theological views are outside those investigations but they are paramount investigations to my faith more so than my science would be.  It is my observation that the bible is speaking about the origins and establishment of the faithful church in Genesis and not biological mankind and this reinforces my comfort with my science.

Rich - #14738

May 23rd 2010


Your reply is confusing because your first paragraph sounds like ID proponent Stephen Meyer, and your last two paragraphs sound like standard modern TE.  If I try to put them together you seem to be affirming divine creation *both* by reasoning from the facts of nature (life doesn’t come from non-life, or at least there is no evidence for it, and the probability seems fantastically low) *and* by relying on faith alone.

This combination, if slightly massaged, is closer to ID than to typical modern TE.  For ID people (at least, those who are Christian) *also* affirm that, were there no scientific arguments for creation, it would still be sensible to accept it on the grounds of divine revelation.  But they happen to believe that there are also scientific arguments.  Most modern TEs, however, deny that there are or even could be any scientific arguments, and that is where the divide lies.

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