A Response to Some Critics, Part 2

| By

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.

A Response to Some Critics, Part 2



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.


About the Author

Francis Beckwith

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.

More posts by Francis Beckwith