C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 4

| 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 3, Peterson explored three features of ID and Lewis’s reaction to each. In this post he encourages Christians to distinguish between scientific and philosophical arguments for ID and to not treat all ID arguments as equally valid.

C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 4



Let us turn from a Lewisian evaluation of certain characteristics of ID per se to a more general and very perceptive point that Lewis makes. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis categorically rejects unqualified, stand-alone intelligent design arguments—and, of course, this would include ID arguments—because their strategy for explaining order in the world in terms of God’s guidance is always countered by the problem of suffering:

You ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit … [Regarding the basis of religion, reasoning] from … this world to the goodness and wisdom [or intelligence] of the Creator [is] preposterous. (pp. 14-16)

In nearby passages, Lewis states the scientific fact that the universe is running down and that all life will ultimately come to an end, as well as the obvious fact that pain is experienced by all sentient animals, including human beings. Lewis knows that such important facts must be included in the complete rational evaluation of any case for an Ultimate Being or Transcendent Intelligence. This is why Lewis would say that it is too glib—and conveniently selective—for IDers to argue that a Transcendent Intelligence is the best explanation of selected complex forms (e.g., the whip-like tail of a certain bacterium) while ignoring other phenomena in the biological realm such as carnage, pain, and death. Lewis clearly believed that, when the arguments for and against God are weighed, Theism indeed appears more rational than any other philosophical position. Yet his knowledge of the relevant arguments on both sides makes him sensitive to weak or fallacious forms of theistic argument which he felt no obligation to defend. This is why Lewis’s own apologetic approach is helpfully characterized as a “cumulative case” which connects some of the stronger individual arguments for specific divine attributes, such that all of the arguments taken together provide coherent and convergent philosophical support for a theistic deity.

For Christian theists to identify the defects of ID’s core argument from irreducible complexity is not to dismiss all design arguments in a wholesale way or to abandon the idea of God as intelligent Creator and Sustainer of nature. It is simply to analyze objectively the strategy of one highly specific line of argument based on an understanding of what counts as good theistic argumentation and a commitment to the integrity of various fields of knowledge. Understandably, many people mistakenly associate ID with the larger family of design-type and design-related arguments, both historic and recent. In fact, in the past decade or so, discussions of ID such as those collected on the website of the Discovery Institute, have touched on various philosophical arguments from natural theology: the fine-tuning argument, the traditional teleological argument, the cosmological argument, and the moral argument. As we know, Lewis believed in the effectiveness of many of these types of arguments, making it possible to acquire the misimpression that Lewis would endorse ID, or that perhaps he had offered his own argument for intelligent design. We should note, too, that ID advocates have also proposed that their position be viewed as—or at least be closely associated with—a theory of information, particularly regarding the intelligent origin of information embedded in organic nature. While interesting and important, information theory really forms the basis for yet another distinct design-type argument that must be distinguished from ID’s irreducible complexity argument. The argument from information is a relative newcomer to the family of design arguments and will need to survive legitimate scrutiny on its own terms.

The basic point here is that well-constructed design arguments, when conjoined with other well-constructed theistic arguments, can mount a formidable case for a Transcendent Intelligence—which even Antony Flew felt was compelling. But these other intelligent design considerations originated independently of ID, have their own inherent philosophical weight, and do not logically lend support to ID’s quite specific assumptions and strategy. No doubt it is helpful to find a number of design-type and design-related arguments assembled in one location, such as on the Discovery Institute’s website; but these arguments can be found in many other locations and without association with ID’s idiosyncratic approach. Wisdom counsels us, then, to distinguish between the arguments for a Transcendent Intelligence that are specific to ID and the broader lines of teleological reasoning. It is entirely possible to reject the ID movement’s attempt to prove this Intelligence from within science while endorsing expressly philosophical arguments for it. The philosophical approach is to consider critically what is required for the very existence of science, its rational nature, and the overall structure of the world it studies, as well as to reflect on the significant findings of science in an effort to find their larger meaning and relevance to theology.

We may now employ the distinctions above in developing judicious answers to the two previous questions. To make important distinctions between ID and traditional teleological argumentation, we first asked: In what exact sense is God the Designer? We learned that Christians need not accept the notion that there are complex biological structures created directly by God without antecedent forms; they may hold a different view of how God brought about biological complexity. Avoiding ID’s dichotomy between primary and secondary causes, for example, allows natural process (including evolutionary process) to be seen as the manner in which God brings about complex forms or the presence of complex information. The second question was, What sorts of considerations, if any, legitimately point to a Designer? Again, a Christian believer can be critical of attempts to prove scientifically that there is an intelligent designer while still embracing insightful philosophical renditions of the teleological argument. Progress is made in this discussion when we avoid the category mistake of proposing God as a scientific explanation of certain phenomena and instead consider God philosophically—and, of course, theologically—as the best ultimate explanation of nature, science, and human rationality.

In the next post, we go on to look at Lewis's views on evolution.


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.