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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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Francis Beckwith - #14741

May 23rd 2010

“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. “

There is a third sort of argument: philosophical. The problem with “scientific” arguments is that they are not empirical enough. What I mean by that is that they deal with only efficient and material causes. But our experience—the true meaning of “empirical”—tells us that there are other sorts of causes and entities, formal and final.  For example, when I argue that properties like redness and goodness can be in more than one place at the same time, I am saying that I can have direct empirical awareness of non-material universal entities. When, for example, I say that the mind’s proper function is to know, that is an empirical argument, but it is not an appeal to efficient or material causes. It relies on formal and final causes. Is that a “scientific argument?” Probably not, as science is construed today. But so what? If science is impotent to account for the most important things we can know, e.g., the proper functions of minds and persons, then so much the worse for science.

(Continued in next post)

Francis Beckwith - #14742

May 23rd 2010

(continued from previous post)

The problem is that we have unwittingly accepted the modernist story that knowledge is virtually equivalent to the deliverances of the empirical sciences. So, we are forced to declare our projects “science” in order to acquire culture cache. But I say, break the back of the assumption. Firstly, it is self-refuting, since the claim that science is the paradigm of knowledge is itself a non-scientific claim about the limits of knowledge. Secondly, there are many things that I believe in that I am more confident about than certain scientific theories. I am, for example, certain that it is wrong to torture babies for fun, that human beings have intrinsic dignity, and that God exists, but tt wouldn’t rock my world if it were shown that it is false that Pluto is no longer a planet, that neo-Darwinian evolution is the final word, or that human-caused global warming is a fact.

(Continued in next post)

Francis Beckwith - #14743

May 23rd 2010

(continued from previous post)

It would be interesting to see what would happen if in these state textbook wars this disclaimer were proposed:

There are some scholars who believe that science is the only or best way of knowing things. And for this reason some of them believe that because God and morality cannot be proved by the methods of science, these things do not exist. But many scholars disagree.  They argue that knowledge of God and morality, though supported by reason, are not project objects of science.  We all know that it is wrong to lie, steal, and cheat, even though science cannot tell us why that is.  Many of us believe in God, because we have either experienced the divine or think we have good reason to believe that the universe’s existence requires God to account for it. These are legitimate ways of thinking, and it is wrong for your teachers, as employees of the government, to suggest otherwise.

Bilbo - #14744

May 23rd 2010

I agree with everything you just wrote, Frank.  Except that bit about Pluto.  My world is still rocking.

BenYachov - #14745

May 23rd 2010

>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.

I reply: You are entitled to your obviously false opinions which are false because they contradict my obviously correct views.

No seriously, I’ve been reading the Uncommon Descent blog for some time & the Discovery Institute website & I’m convinced they believe Evolution makes Atheism somehow more probable and by accepting Theistic Evolution you are somehow granting the lion share of the argument to the Atheists in regards to teleology in nature.  So it’s only fair to point out to them Mechanistic philosophical presuppositions do the same thing.  Edward Feser once quipped in his book THE LAST SUPERSTITION that ID advocate “give away the store” this way.  I agree with him.  It goes without saying you are free to differ.

Rich - #14747

May 23rd 2010

Dr. Beckwith:

I agree with everything that you have written in 14741-14743.

Yes, I would prefer that American jurisprudence and American culture did not take the worshipful attitude toward “science” that they do.  However, given that they do, it is understandable why ID proponents would push to be included in “science”, because the courts seem to have been hypnotized into the view that if it’s not science, it’s religion, and therefore unconstitutional.

I would be quite content if ID arguments were classed as philosophical arguments (based on the facts of empirical science), provided that it was allowed that philosophical arguments can still attain to truths about nature.  (As you believe, and as Gilson believed.)  However, note that many TEs have a fideistic rather than a philosophical understanding of creation.  They don’t argue, as you do, that we must supplement efficient causes with final causes, or natural science with philosophy of nature.  They argue, rather, that we know neo-Darwinism as true through science, and divine design as true only through faith.  Philosophy of nature plays no role in their thinking.  (Continued)

Rich - #14748

May 23rd 2010

Dr. Beckwith (continued from immediately above):

This is why I see your usage of the label “theistic evolutionist” to describe yourself as problematic.  On the etymological level, the label fits:  you affirm God and you affirm evolution.  But your notion of God and your notion of God’s relation to nature, and your notion of the relation of both God and nature to human knowing, is different from that of most TEs.  Most of the well-known TEs are Protestant (Miller and Ayala are in the minority), and their writings and arguments often show a strong streak of fideism, sometimes tending almost to Barthianism.  I do not hear in their religion anything like the defense of reason that Benedict advanced in his Regensburg address, let alone Thomist discussions of final causes.  Connected with this, they also tend, in my view (though they would angrily deny it) toward something like Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria”, and I don’t think that is quite Aquinas’ understanding of the chart of knowledge, nor yours.  So you may be a theistic evolutionist, but I think you should disassociate yourself from “TE” in the current sense.

JKnott - #14749

May 23rd 2010

Just a quick demurral…lets be clear that there are different philosophies, some of which affirm something, as it were, “between” empirical scientific knowledge on the one hand and faith on the other, and some which do not.  Kant is a good example of the latter, I believe. So rejecting metaphysics is not necessarily anti-philosophical. It just seems some are suggesting that. In my view, anti-metaphysical theologies a la Barth are still developing, and should be given a chance before they are rejected wholesale. It’s an experiment, as all theology is to some extent. A bit more of the “Gamaliel Spirit” is called for than is often exhibited by the metaphysically minded.

JKnott - #14750

May 23rd 2010

I’m referring especially to Dr. Beckwith’s comment in 14742.  Of course it is not a scientific statement that all knowledge is of the intuitable (to use Kantian terms…a dangerous move, perhaps by a non-specialist), but a philosophical one.  Does that make it out of bounds?

norm - #14754

May 23rd 2010

Rich #14738

I recognize that my thoughts may be confusing because I’m mixing seemingly empirical issues with those of a faith expression. What I conceive as possibly pragmatic evidence such as convergence reinforcing my creation intuition may be understood by the atheist or agnostic as the product of naturalist chance. I can see how that can be confusing to either side of the argument.

Gregory - #14760

May 24th 2010

First, I’d like to thank Dr. Beckwith for these two messages on the BioLogos site.

2nd, let me follow Rich’s critique of Francis calling himself a ‘theistic evolutionist.’ Likewise, I don’t see the need for this, as it is an obvious form of privileging evolutionism. Pope Benedict XVI helps us to “put evolution in its place,” as do other Catholic thinkers.

Two quotes on ‘causality’:
“The Aristotelian teaching of causes lasted in the official Western culture until the Renaissance. When modern science was born, formal and final causes were left aside as standing beyond the reach of experiment; and material causes were taken for granted in connection with all natural happenings – though with a definitely non-Aristotelian meaning, since in the modern world view matter is essentially the subject of change, not ‘that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists.’ Hence, of the four Aristotelian causes only the efficient cause was regarded as worthy of scientific research.” – Mario Bunge

Gregory - #14762

May 24th 2010

I’m surprised that Bilbo and Rich don’t speak more about ‘formal’ causes. Why not?

Are they teleo-centric, persisting as they do to argue for ID in the natural-physical sciences?

It sounds strange, i.e. when ‘design’ is already a legitimate ‘cause/effect’ in NON-natural-physical sciences.

“Aristotle gave equal weight to all four causes. In particular Aristotle would have regarded any inquiry that omitted one of his causes as fundamentally deficient. … Bacon adamantly opposed including formal and final causes within science (see his Advancement of Learning). For Bacon, formal and final causes belong to metaphysics, not to science. Science, according to Bacon, needs to limit itself to material and efficient causes, thereby freeing science from the sterility that inevitably results when science and metaphysics are conflated.” … “By limiting scientific inquiry to material and efficient causes, Bacon fed into a mechanistic understanding of the universe that was soon to dominate science.” – Dembski (1999)

Dembski *seems* to recognize Beckwith’s critique. But he seems incapable of doing anything with it. Perhaps his Baptist-Protestant repertoire forbids him?

Gregory - #14763

May 24th 2010

This is ironic:
“I would be quite content if ID arguments were classed as philosophical arguments (based on the facts of empirical science), provided that it was allowed that philosophical arguments can still attain to truths about nature.” - Rich

It is *absolutely clear* that the IDM wants ID to be called *scientific* & to say that ID is (a) *science* and not *merely* philosophy.

I agree with Rich & Francis on the philosophical dimension being both important and under-highlighted (as is common on many topics in the US today).

Rich counsels to Beckwith: “So you may be a theistic evolutionist, but I think you should disassociate yourself from “TE” in the current sense.”

Let me counsel then to Rich: “You may be an IDist, but I think you should disassociate yourself from ‘IDM-ID’ in the current sense.”

It’s only fair and thus not hypocritical, don’t you think, Rich?

Rich - #14771

May 24th 2010


I’ve never considered myself part of “ID” if ID is regarded as some sort of religious or cultural movement.  I’ve never anywhere conflated ID as a theory of design detection with restoring America to Christianity, defending a young earth, destroying “naturalism”, proving that Darwin was responsible for Hitler, or any of the other social-cultural things that ID people get themselves exercised about.  My defense of ID concerns the sort of arguments advanced by Behe, Dembski, Denton, etc.  It does not go beyond that.  And remember, someone who knew nothing about the American culture wars, who was ignorant about YEC, TE, Kansas education hearings etc., and who knew ID only from Behe’s books, would not guess that ID had anything directly to do with politics or culture.  They would think that ID was simply a science-based argument against Dawkins-Darwinism. 

Oh, yes, I know that ID people usually insist on the word “science”.  But in the courtroom ethos of America, they have little choice, since if they can’t prove they are “science”, they will be classed as “religion”.  Judge Jones gave them no third option, i.e., Francis Beckwith’s option of “philosophy”.

Gregory - #14775

May 24th 2010

Dembski & Behe are currently Discovery Institute’s CSC fellows. It was previously named CRSC. Denton was a fellow before rejecting DI & its predominantly-Christian orientation (Denton is not a Christian himself).

Thus, defending ‘ID concerns’ made by fellows of the DI puts you right in the category you seek to disown, Rich. Just reading Behe’s books is not enough. He is funded by the DI to write those books and give interviews. Look where the ideology leads…

Beckwith is honest & open about his former connections with ID. And even though he may call himself a TE, he nevertheless places limits on evolution, following the Vatican’s statements.

How do you ‘limit evolution,’ Rich? E.g. many things evolve, but what *doesn’t* evolve’?

The DI pulled out of the Dover trial. IDM-ID’s insistence on Yes-It-IS-Science cannot be blamed on USA courts.

Imho, Jay Richards’ work could be quite helpful, if post-neo-Thomism is taken into account wrt ‘design’ arguments & Aristotle-STA’s four causes. Let us hope BioLogos will continue to promote this dialogue!

Rich - #14778

May 24th 2010


I know that the constitutional question isn’t the only reason that ID proponents claim the name of “science”.  Many of them understand ID to be genuine science, not merely philosophy built upon science.  But then there is ambiguity about what they mean, because Meyer has in mind “historical science” as a special sub-category of science with slightly different procedures from “experimental science”, whereas Behe does not appeal to “historical science” in this way, but appears to regard ID as a legitimate extension of experimental/observational science. 

I personally could go either way on the question, calling ID either “science” or “philosophy based on science”.  There’s no right answer, since “science” is (as you must know well, from your training) a cultural construct, and there is no reason why the current construct should be sacrosanct.  Indeed, ID may be one of the elements in a new mix which is beginning to alter the notion of “science” (another element would be information theory). 

The point is that “science” has cultural prestige, suggesting systematic and reliable knowledge, as opposed to things like “values” or “beliefs”.  That’s why everyone fights for possession of the term.

Rich - #14779

May 24th 2010


I believe that Behe had already begun to formulate his basic arguments (stimulated in part by Denton’s first book) before he received any support, financial or otherwise, from Discovery.  And the same applies to Denton, whose book came out in 1986, before the CSC existed.

I don’t know whether Denton is a Christian or not, but if he isn’t, the parallel of his anti-Darwinian, pro-design model of evolution with that of Catholic Behe just goes to show that intelligent design as a theoretical perspective is not intrinsically tied to Christianity, however useful it may be to some Christians for apologetic purposes.  I’m not interested in ID for its apologetic value; I’m interested in it because I think it points to something true about nature that Darwinian thought systematically denies.

dopderbeck - #14796

May 24th 2010

Great post.  If ID had gone to the sources—Thomas, Augustine, and Aristotle—on causality from the beginning, we wouldn’t be having these fights.

gingoro - #14802

May 24th 2010

Rich @14778
“another element would be information theory”

How do you see information theory as changing the definition of science?

Info Theory (ITh) is really a misnomer in my estimation as it should be called data theory since it deals with bits of information not the significance or meaning of the message whatever.  Algorithmic ITh seems to give some really strange results since as best I understand it makes an equivalence between an encoded message and a decoded one or between a fractal pattern and the program that produces that fractal.  In general both Shannon ITh and AIT should not be mixed.  I tend to think of AIT as a characteristic of info not as a definition of info (or I should say data).  Shannon’s original work was about sending bits down a noisy phone or radio circuit. 
Dave W

Bilbo - #14807

May 24th 2010

I’m not sure using Aristotle’s concepts of causation would solve the problem.  ID regards physical life as the
product of techne or art, either directly, or through a chain of deterministic efficient causes.  Certainly ID thinks the matter that life is composed of possesses special properties that allow for life.  And it appears the universe had to be very finely tuned to bring those properties about.  But those properties are not sufficient (so ID maintains) to bring about life.

If I understand it, this would be different from an Aristotelian view, which would say that the matter that life is composed of has the properties in it to bring life about.  I think determining which view is correct is an empirical question.  And if we want to define science as the systematic, empirical investigation of such questions, then ID is science.

I think we could all agree, though, that life has formal cause, so that it is more than the sum of the parts.

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