C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 3

| By Michael L. Peterson

This blog series, adapted from this article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, is a comprehensive study of the views of Christian author and apologist C. S. Lewis on the theory of evolution and the argument from intelligent design. In Part 2, Peterson began to show why Lewis, who did embrace some implicit or explicit arguments for an Intelligence beyond nature, rejected “design-type” arguments. Today he explores three features of ID and Lewis’s reaction to each.

C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 3



1. ID claims to be an alternative way of doing science.

Mainstream science restricts its investigation to the natural world—and the world of modern biology is a world of evolutionary processes. However, IDers insist that certain biological structures are better explained scientifically by referring to intelligent design than to blind, random evolutionary processes. The clash over these two approaches to science has been at the heart of recent academic debates, cultural divides, and court cases. In their crusade against establishment biology, IDers style themselves as the oppressed minority who cannot get a fair hearing. Ben Stein took up their cause in the recent film Expelled. (I have to admit that I strongly dislike this film: both its logical fallacies and its convenient editing that makes some experts who were interviewed seem to support ID although they are on record in many other venues criticizing it.) Also, the Discovery Institute, established in Seattle in 1990, supports, among other projects, intelligent design research that challenges the accepted Darwinian -approach. So far, the Institute has made no groundbreaking discoveries or overturned any widely accepted biological explanations.

What would Lewis say about an alternative science that claims to detect Intelligent Agency beyond nature? Lewis was a purist regarding the role of science and rejected any notion that its methods can deal with qualitative matters and values, let alone prove (or disprove) a Transcendent Intelligence or God. Although he was a scholar and lover of the humanities, Lewis still appreciated established science and the integrity of its method. As a Christian theist, Lewis envisioned the constellation of all fields of knowledge as providing different avenues for -discovering various kinds of truths about God’s creation (historical, mathematical, scientific, and so forth). Not that every scientific theory is always correct or that the findings of science can never be revised as science progresses, but that the method of science is geared only for discovering the linkages between natural causes and natural effects. In Lewis’s own words:

Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave. Every scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really means something like, “I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2:20 am on January 15th and saw so-and-so,” or, “I put some of this stuff in a pot and heated it to such- and-such a temperature and it did so-and-so.” Do not think I am saying anything against science: I am only saying what its job is.

And the more scientific a man is, the more (I believe) he would agree with me that this is the job of science—and a very useful and necessary job it is too. But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes—something of a different kind—this is not a scientific question. If there is “Something Behind,” then either it will have to remain altogether unknown to men or else make itself known in some different way. The statement that there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make. And real scientists do not usually make them. It is usually the journalists and popular novelists who have picked up a few odds and ends of half-baked science from textbooks who go in for them. After all, it really is a matter of common sense. Supposing science ever became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole universe. Is it not plain that the questions, “Why is there a universe?” “Why does it go on as it does?” “Has it any meaning?” would remain just as they were? (Lewis, "Mere Christianity", 22–3)

This brief sketch of the descriptive aspect of science should be augmented with information about the testing of hypotheses, which is central to science as it pursues its explanatory mission. But Lewis’s critical point for present purposes, in current parlance, is that we must distinguish the appropriate methodological naturalism of science from philosophical naturalism— something ID fails to do. Methodological naturalism is the scientific approach of restricting the explanation of natural phenomena to natural causes. Philosophical naturalism, on the other hand, is the philosophical view that nature alone is real, that there is no supernatural. Confusing these two definitions leads to the misunderstanding that mainstream science is inherently atheistic. In reality, methodological naturalism is completely neutral as to whether God exists or life has meaning; such lofty matters take us into the areas of theology and philosophy.

2. ID makes its living on what it takes to be deficiencies, incompletions, or gaps in existing science.

This specific strategy for formulating a design argument was first developed during the European Enlightenment when the scientific picture of the universe was that it is like a vast machine operating according to completely specifiable scientific laws. Many people looked for divine activity in this clockwork universe in events that science had not yet explained. Isaac Newton, for example, developed a precise mathematical formula “on paper” to describe how the planets move, but the actual motion of the planets varied slightly from the formula. So, Newton suggested that God periodically adjusts their orbits. The problem with god-of-the-gaps arguments was that they were already semi-Deist (admitting that God is only involved in special cases) and readily gave way to total Deism as science found natural explanations for what was previously explained by reference to God. In fact, historically, Deism eventually gave way to Naturalism, as God’s explanatory role in the scientific world was progressively eliminated. The mistake of making God-explanations competitive with natural explanations is now classic.

Yet this is exactly the mistake that ID is repeating. As ID arguments—regarding the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum, the eye, etc.—are rapidly being undercut by new and existing scientific knowledge, educated people, particularly scientists, wonder about the intellectual credibility of the underlying faith that seems to motivate the arguments. By contrast, Lewis calls us to a richer, more nuanced understanding of what kinds of explanations are appropriate within the various disciplines— e.g., empirical and scientific questions require natural explanations as distinct from questions about ultimates, values, and meaning, which require philosophical and theological explanations. Grasping this distinction allows us to explore more productively how different types of explanation are not necessarily mutually exclusive but can be entirely compatible— e.g., explanation in terms of physical causes and explanation in terms of personal agency. Consider a personal anecdote which makes the point. While driving on a family vacation many years ago, I asked my two sons why a certain billboard was standing along the highway. Adam, who was six years old and fascinated by building things, said, “Because trucks and high lifts came in and built it.” Aaron, twelve years old and wiser about life, responded, “Because the owner of that business wants to market a product and make a profit.” Here we have a causal and mechanical explanation alongside an explanation referring to intelligent agency. Both explanations of the billboard are correct, not at odds. The key is to be clear about the kind of question we are asking and what disciplines properly address it. The flaw in the ID argument is that it treats natural causes and supernatural action as incompatible, such that the explanation of some selected phenomenon must always be one type of cause or the other.

3. ID trades on a number of misleading dichotomies.

If space permitted, we could more fully expose the dichotomies between theology and science, divine action and physical process, primary and secondary cause, efficient and final causality, and so on. One dichotomy in ID that Lewis would certainly address in the present context involves pitting purpose and design against chance and evolution. Lewis rejects the view that reality exists completely by chance and without purpose as inconsistent with Theism, as we shall later see. But for biology to identify chance as a factor in the unfolding life process does not imply that the world is purposeless and not guided by a greater intelligence. The assertion that the biological realm involves chance as nondetermined contingency and thus the potential for development is not equivalent to the declaration that existence is ultimately without meaning or purpose. There are finer distinctions to be made in thinking carefully about the roles and levels of chance in relation to intelligent guidance.


About the Author

Michael L. Peterson

Michael L. Peterson is professor of philosophy at Asbury University. He is also managing editor of Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His books include Reason and Religious Belief (Oxford); God and Evil(Westview); With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy of Education (Notre Dame); and Evil and the Christian God(Baker). He has produced multiple edited volumes and journal articles.