A Response to Some Critics, Part 2

Bookmark and Share

May 22, 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.

A Response to Some Critics, Part 2

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.

< Previous post in series

Share your thoughts

Have a comment or question for the author? We'd love to hear from you.

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 3 of 4   « 1 2 3 4 »
Norm - #14813

May 24th 2010

Not being Catholic or Reformed I’m not sure I would classify my philosophical understanding outside of a Biblical derived faith realm. I try to take my cue from biblical disclosure which provides the basis for my philosophy. It helps me keep the issues framed in simpler terms and doesn’t add additional layers onto my analysis. It may end up being essentially the same viewpoint but that would be determined if ones philosophy could be considered in concord with a biblical one.

I would like to ask the question from some that tend to the ID viewpoint how they would evaluate the evolution of Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Could an ID proponent espouse purely an evolutionary progression without having to resort to a special supernatural intervention from the divergent earlier species?  How would one explain the movement from Homo erectus to Neanderthals or our species?

Gregory - #14816

May 24th 2010

Yes, indeed ‘science’ is a social-cultural & sometimes political construct or way of knowing. This is a HUGE part of the conversation & debate @ ID’s place in the Academy today, i.e. if it belongs ‘inside’ or not. Yet this aspect is under-acknowledged.

It can be recognized in transition from philosophy of science (PoS) to sociology of science (SoS), as displayed in the ‘expertise’ given to Michael Ruse, more recently to Steve Fuller.

Fuller says ‘intelligent design’ roots most ‘modern’ scientific work & that atheism is more ‘science stopper’ than science informed by religion. & he is a secular humanist!

“Many of them understand ID to be genuine science, not merely philosophy built upon science.” - Rich

Here I disagree with language choice. Idists do not ‘understand’ it, but rather ‘interpret’ it as ‘genuine science.’ *Philosophy built upon science* is a strange category, but at least it indicates that interpretation happens, i.e. not *pure objectivity*.


What do you mean, Bilbo, saying “life has formal cause”? How would you demonstrate this (i.e. not necessarily scientifically)?

Bilbo - #14822

May 24th 2010

Hi Gregory,

By formal cause, we mean that the form is part of what the thing is, regardless of what it is made of.  Thus a statue of Venus is a statue of Venus, regardless of whether it is brass, stone or wood.

Life is what it is regardless of its matter.  They allow life to be what it is, but do not fully account for what it is.  Science has yet to come up with an adequate definition of life.  Yet no scientist doubts that there is such a thing and that it is different from non-life.

R Hampton - #14887

May 24th 2010

ID has no interest in reviving courses in Western Philosophy, since that defeats their purpose - to destroy the “materialism” worldview - which they believe can only be accomplished by altering Science itself.

William A. Dembski, August 10, 2001

Whence the removal of purpose and therewith design from nature? I lay the blame with the mechanical philosophy that was prevalent at the birth to modern science. Paradoxically, the very clockwork universe that the early mechanical philosophers like Robert Boyle used to buttress design in nature was in the end probably more responsible than anything for undermining design in nature. The mechanical philosophy viewed the world as an assemblage of material entities interacting by purely mechanical means. Boyle advocated the mechanical philosophy because he saw it as refuting the immanent teleology of Aristotle and the Stoics for whom design arose as a natural outworking of natural forces. For Boyle this was idolatry, identifying the source of creation not with God but with nature.

R Hampton - #14888

May 24th 2010

(cont.) The mechanical philosophy offered a world operating by mechanical principles and processes that could not be confused with God’s creative activity and yet allowed such a world to be structured in ways that clearly indicated the divine handiwork and therefore design. What’s more, the British natural theologians always retained miracles as a mode of divine interaction that could bypass mechanical processes. Over the subsequent centuries, however, what remained was the mechanical philosophy and what dropped out was the need to invoke miracles or God as designer. Henceforth, purely mechanical processes could themselves do all the design work for which Aristotle and the Stoics had required an immanent natural teleology and for which Boyle and the British natural theologians required God.

Rich - #14893

May 24th 2010


My suggestion that information theory could contribute (in the long run) to a changed definition of science was speculative, and not intended dogmatically.

I am thinking of the way in which ID people (especially Dembski and Meyer) have tried to employ information theory.  Suppose, for a moment, that they could make their applications “stick”, to the extent that more and more biologists, even those who don’t accept ID as such, start talking about cells, genomes, protein synthesis, etc. in terms of the storage, transmission and manipulation of something called “information”, which is regarded as something real, and genuinely inhering in living nature, not a supernatural bogeyman that violates the laws of nature.  Once it becomes possible to think of “information” as a kind of “third factor” beyond matter and energy, and once it becomes accepted that speaking of this “third factor” does not violate “methodological naturalism”, the way would be clear—via the connection of information with design—for design inferences that do not require “the supernatural”.  Design could then find its way back into natural science again, after a 400-year period of banishment.

Bilbo - #14897

May 24th 2010

Hi RH,

Even if we drop three of the four causes, Hume pointed out that efficient cause is not self-explanatory.  There is no apparent necessary connection between a cause and its effect.  So a mechanistic universe can only get rid of metaphysics by refusing to think about it.  So I’m not buying the argument that mechanism is the problem.  The problem is truncated thinking.

unapologetic catholic - #14900

May 24th 2010

“I am thinking of the way in which ID people (especially Dembski and Meyer) have tried to employ information theory.”

A very good start. I’d like to see this too.  What is the information content of a flagellum?  What are the units of measure?  Is the information content of a flagellum greater or lesss than that of a cillium?

Is the information content of the humand genome greater or less than the informaiton content of a marbled lungfish.  Why the difference?

R Hampton - #14901

May 24th 2010

The Discover Institute’s interest in metaphysics is injecting it into Science classes, because that is the only way they believe materialism can be defeated. Implicit in their argument is a philosophical (theological) motivation. Naturally the view held by TE’s that Science, as is, accommodates God and Creation without injury is a threat. Hence DI equates TE with atheism.

Benjamin D. Wiker, July 8, 2004

...as Darwin made quite clear in his Descent, the species distinction “human being” has an ephemeral, not eternal, foundation. But this very distinction is the foundation of the command “Thou shalt not kill.” The prohibition against the murder of innocent human beings presupposes that (1) killing a gnat, a cow, and a human being are very different acts and (2) there is a real difference between living and nonliving beings. Absent these distinctions, the prohibition against killing human beings is merely a parochial and groundless taboo.
- continued

R Hampton - #14902

May 24th 2010

(cont.) . . . Such is the real moral crisis, the greatest one possible, since upon its outcome hinges the existence of morality itself. The good news is, oddly, that it is still a crisis; that is, human nature hasn’t been destroyed yet. It is still possible that human nature may be salvaged from the ruins of the project to reconstruct it according to our will.

For Catholics, this is an especially important call to arms. Catholicism almost alone among Christianity roots its moral arguments in the natural law, and hence it has fought almost alone to keep what God has joined and distinguished in creation from falling asunder into indistinction and confusion . . . We can expect, then, a great battle between those who regard human nature as the sacrosanct origin of all moral distinctions and those who regard human nature as clay under construction. It will be, for all of humanity, the last battle, for it is a battle over the existence of humanity itself.

R Hampton - #14903

May 24th 2010

Stephen C. Meyer, January 1, 1999

. . . barring an empirically unsupportable and theoretically incoherent commitment to the view that the laws of nature can create novel specified information, it is difficult to see what empirical content Lamoureux’s teleological evolution has or how it differs in substance from standard Neo-Darwinism with its denial of any evidence of actual, as opposed to merely apparent, design. To cite C. S. Peirce’s maxim “for a difference to be a difference, it must make a difference.”

Bilbo - #14913

May 24th 2010

Hi RH,

I’m a little confused what your point is.  And I’m not always sure I know what the DI’s point is.  My point is that science has left God out of the picture through truncated thinking.  Using the assumption that we can understand the universe by only considering efficient causation has “worked” for science.  It has worked so well that science has forgotten why it works.  It works because God has created the universe to work that way. 

Yes, we should consciously “inject” metaphysics into the science classroom.  Because we are already injecting it unconsciously and badly

And this is regardless of the truth or falsity of ID.

R Hampton - #14916

May 24th 2010

“Yes, we should consciously ‘inject’ metaphysics into the science classroom.  Because we are already injecting it unconsciously and badly”

Precisely the attitude that make TE unacceptable to ID proponents (even though it isn’t a specific claim of ID, it just happens to be the universal position of its supporters - funny, don’t you think?). Science is the study of what can be objectively and repeatedly measured or tested, by anyone in the world regardless of their religious/philosophical background. In contrast, (a given) philosophy never can, nor never will, transcend religious/philosophical backgrounds.

Furthermore, not mentioning God is not the same thing as denying God. Science can not prove nor disprove the existence of God - nor does it try to. You know that.  Not that metaphysics can either, but at least it provides room for people like you who feel the need to present a rational argument for God. In this respect, you are no different then the Atheists who are compelled to provide a definitive answer where none can be had. Thus ID, like atheism, buddhism, et al. belong properly in a course on philosophy. Everyone with a dog to race can get their time on the track.

Francis Beckwith - #14918

May 24th 2010

Science is the study of what can be objectively and repeatedly measured or tested, by anyone in the world regardless of their religious/philosophical background.

That means that a game of checkers is science.

1946 called, they want their positivism back.

Gregory - #14936

May 25th 2010

Glad to hear a reference to positivism here. Some people speak of scientism and others of some kind of philosophicalism, as if philosophy were no longer all that relevant to these conversations.

But I’m not satisfied with Bilbo’s IDist understanding of A-STA formal cause. This requires some philosophical competence, which has not yet been displayed.

“science has left God out of the picture through truncated thinking.  Using the assumption that we can understand the universe by only considering efficient causation has “worked” for science.” - Bilbo

Why does efficient causality work for science? Should science ‘put God in’? Does Bilbo want a ‘scientific’ formal cause?

Dr. Beckwith has challenged ID with his neo-Thomistic (i.e. 21st century) views of science, philosophy & religion. He says that ID continues the Euro Enlightenment’s entreaties to mechanistic thinking.

Behe, among many other IDists, says: Organisms *are* mechanisms. He cites the *concept* of ‘molecular machines’ in his reperatoire. But ORGA and MECHA are in some ways opposites.

Or is it just a time to conflate them?

R Hampton - #14940

May 25th 2010

That means that a game of checkers is science.

You are correct. It’s part of a larger scope of mathematics called “game theory.”

unapologetic catholic - #14945

May 25th 2010

Three votes for checkers as science and three votes for ID as something other than science.  Sounds like agreement on the simple stuff.  Let’s move on to the more difficult issues.

Rich - #14958

May 25th 2010

R Hampton:

Mathematics is not natural science.  Francis Beckwith was referring to natural science.

Rich - #14959

May 25th 2010


Mechanism and organism both display the purposeful arrangement of parts, the adjustment of means to ends.  Aristotle understood this, which was why he so frequently compared them.  And for Aristotle “final cause” is not some lofty metaphysical notion disconnected from grubby physical arrangements like the organization of parts.  Without final causation, there would be no “end” which organizes the parts, and hence no organisms.  Final causes in Aristotle are part of physics, not just metaphysics.  Aquinas was a very good student of Aristotle, and I’m not convinced that the banishment of “final cause” to “metaphysics”, leaving “physics” entirely to “efficient causes” would meet with his approval.  Yet this partitioning of the four causes, assigning some of them to “metaphysics” alone, seems to be the basis of Francis Beckwith’s rejection of ID reasoning.  It is almost as if Beckwith is unconsciously adjusting Aquinas to accommodate the exhaustive claims for efficient cause made by modern science.

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #14998

May 25th 2010

Personally, I would think intelligent design would be every biologists primary interest.

Scientists Say First Artificial Living Cell Developed

The real advances in biology will come from intelligently designed applications such as this and the obvious extensions to this work, and even more so, the extensions no one today can imagine, but will soon be common place.  The advantage intelligent design has over evolution is “with writing new ‘computer software’ to create ‘new biological systems.’”


Page 3 of 4   « 1 2 3 4 »