Francis Beckwith
 on May 21, 2010

Intelligent Design and Me: A Response to Some Critics

Following up on "Intelligent Design and Me," Francis Beckwith clarifies his intellectual and spiritual backgrounds, expands on ideas about Aquinas, and discusses ID arguments and their problems.


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Dear reader,

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This is a follow-up to 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.

On March 19 and 20 of this year I posted two brief essays on the BioLogos blog (Part I and Part II). In them I summarized my own intellectual journey on the issue of Intelligent Design (ID). Since their publication, many responses have been published online in the comment threads of this and other blogs. Dear friends and respectful acquaintances offered some of these critiques.

Given my ontological finitude, my publishing and teaching schedule, as well as my increasingly diminishing interest in the topic, I could not and can not respond to each and every criticism, though I know that virtually all of them were offered with genuine respect. It is my hope that in this brief, and no doubt inadequate, reply that I can replicate my critics’ sincere deference.

About My Background

On William Dembski’s blog, Uncommon Descent, Thomas Cudworth, in an otherwise carefully crafted reply, writes of me: “Originally a Protestant and a supporter of intelligent design as formulated by the major ID theorists, he has since become a Roman Catholic and a Thomist, and now believes that the best arguments for design are metaphysical arguments of a Thomist variety, rather than scientific arguments of the sort proposed by ID supporters.”

First, I was originally Catholic (baptized and confirmed by the age of 12) became Protestant and then returned to the Catholic Church (in 2007).

Second, I have been a Thomist since the mid-1980s, which I explain more fully in my 2009 book, Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic (Brazos Press).

Third, I have never been a supporter of ID, though I have argued (and still argue) that there is nothing unconstitutional with teaching it in public schools. I take this position largely because I think that establishment clause jurisprudence unjustly sequesters ideas from the public square simply because those ideas are informed by theological traditions, even though those ideas may be legitimately defended on the basis of “public reason.” My recent article in The Journal of Law and Religion“Must Theology Sit in the Back of the Secular Bus?” makes that very point.

About Thomas Aquinas

Fourth, Thomas Aquinas did not have an argument from design, as one finds in William Paley’s work.What Thomas had was an argument from final causes in nature to the existence of a Being that such causes require in order to account for their contingent existence. But those causes are not detachable from nature, as is the “design” found in Paley’s watchmaker argument. For Paley, living organisms may or may not be designed, and we are only permitted to infer design when an organism’s parts seem improbably arranged to achieve a particular end.

Not so for Thomas. For the Angelic Doctor, final causes are intrinsic to nature. To use an example: the purpose of the lungs is to exchange oxygen for the good of the whole organism. One could, of course, provide an exhaustive account of respiration relying only on efficient and material causes. But that account would not mean that one is not justified in saying that the lungs have a final cause. For Thomas, final causality is not a rival to efficient and material causes. Rather, it works in concert with them.

On the other hand, for Paley, “design” in living organisms is a rival to efficient and material causes. This is why he must point to the superb complexity of the watch to achieve its end (telling time) in order to provide justification for his claim that the watch is in fact designed and that it is analogous to what we observe in nature. But suppose someone offered a theory that may also account for this design relying only on efficient and material causes? (In fact, an evolutionary account would be such a theory.)2 In that case, there is a potential defeater to Paley’s theory. But that means for Paley that material and efficient causes are a rival and not a complement to final causality.

For this reason, I do not think that Cudworth quite captures my concerns when he contrasts my embracing of Thomistic “design” with my apparent lack of interest in “scientific” arguments by ID supporters. My concern is that the ID supporters (more specifically, those who rely on notions of irreducible or specified complexity in nature to detect design) in fact offer a case that is inconsistent with Thomistic metaphysics.3 I say this because ID supporters offer their understanding of “design” as a defeater to naturalism.4 But naturalism is a philosophical (indeed, a metaphysical) and not a scientific point of view. Moreover, to say that ID will accomplish this task by employing the methods of empirical science5 —which concerns itself exclusively with efficient and material causes—means that its proponents think of nature as Paley did, mechanistic. This is why, for example, ID advocates analogize their project with the detection of the agent causes of artifacts in anthropology, computer science, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). In each of these cases, the thing created is a result of a mind taking the material parts of other things and designing them for some end extrinsically imposed on the parts. Whether it is pottery, computer programs, or alien messages, each is the consequence of imposing form and finality on that which does not have them by nature.


ID advocates offer their case as a scientific defeater to naturalism. But naturalism is not a scientific theory. It is a metaphysical one. So, when Cudworth and other critics suggest that I am committing a category mistake by contrasting “ID science” with “Thomistic metaphysics” while they argue that “ID science” can defeat naturalism (a metaphysical theory), they snatch confusion from the jaws of clarity.

In my next essay I will 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.

It was probably around mid-2005 that I started to understand why I could never defend the Behe/Dembski arguments. This is when I began to play down these arguments and put a greater stress on anti-naturalism in the way I defined ID. Hence, in a September 2005 online debate with Douglas Laycock, I define ID in this way:

Intelligent design (or ID) is not one theory. It is a short-hand name for a cluster of arguments that offer a variety of cases that attempt to show that intelligent agency rather than unguided matter better accounts for apparently natural phenomena or the universe as a whole. Some of these arguments challenge aspects of neo-Darwinism. Others make a case for a universe designed at its outset, and thus do not challenge any theory of biological evolution.

But even ID advocates who criticize neo-Darwinism are technically not offering an alternative to evolution, if one means by evolution any account of biological change over time that claims that this change results from a species’ power to accommodate itself to varying environments by adapting, surviving, and passing on these changes to its descendants. This is not inconsistent with a universe that has earmarks and evidence of intelligent design that rational minds may detect.6

What was going on in my mind? I had begun to better appreciate why some Christian philosophers (mostly Catholic ones), all influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas, never jumped on the ID bandwagon. Although I considered (and still consider) myself a Thomist, it’s clear to me now that while working on my MJS dissertation, I had not properly thought through the implications of ID for a Christian philosophy of nature. For this reason, I am now convinced that my initial and growing unease with the Behe/Dembski arguments arose precisely because my Thomist philosophy could not accommodate them, even though it was not apparent to me until mid-2005. During that time I was beginning to think more critically of the Behe/Dembski arguments as I brought Thomist philosophy to bear on them.

Several works shaped my thinking on this matter. They include the writings of Etienne Gilson, William E. Carroll, Stephen Barr, Marie I. George, Ric Machuga, and Michael W. Tkacz. One could say that what these thinkers did was to bring to my attention the reason why I had always harbored doubts about the Behe/Dembski arguments but could not find the conceptual language to articulate. And it seems that I am not the only one who has had this epiphany. Mark Ryland, a former vice president of the Discovery Institute, and now the director of the Institute for the Study of Nature, writes in a recently published entry in the New Catholic Encyclopedia: “In some respects, standard reductionistic neo-Darwinism and IDT [intelligent design theory] are mirror images of each other, and suffer from some of the same defects.”7 What does Ryland mean by this?

According to Dembski, we discover design in nature after we have eliminated chance and law. And we do so by a conceptual device he calls the explanatory filter. If something in nature exhibits a high level of specified complexity for which chance and law cannot account, Dembski concludes that it is highly probable that the gap is the result of an intelligent agent. Design, therefore, is not immanent in nature. It is something that is imposed on nature by someone or something outside it.

This means that for Dembski as well as other ID advocates, nature’s order, including its laws and principles, need not require a mind behind it except for in the few instances where the explanatory filter allows one to detect design. But whatever design we detect, it can always be overturned by future discoveries, and thus conceding yet another slice of nature to atheism.

So, ironically, as Ryland notes, the IDers, like Dembksi and Behe, and atheists, like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, wind up agreeing that without “gaps” in nature belief in an intelligent designer is not justified. The IDer thinks he can fill the gaps with intelligent agents; the atheist sees no reason to abandon fruitful theories because of a few anomalies he thinks he can someday account for. Ironically, Dembski accepts this narrative, but is confident that the atheists will not be able to “explain” everything:

The “gaps” in the god-of-the-gaps objection are meant to denote gaps of ignorance about underlying physical mechanisms. But there is no reason to think that all gaps give way to ordinary physical explanations once we know enough about the underlying physical mechanisms. The mechanisms simply do not exist. Some gaps might constitute ontic discontinuities in the chain of physical causes and thus remain forever beyond the capacity of physical mechanisms.8

On the other hand, Thomists and many other Christian philosophers do not accept this philosophy of nature. For them, design is immanent in the universe, and thus even an evolutionary account of the development of life requires a universe teeming with final causes. What is a final cause? It is a thing’s purpose or end. So, for example, even if one can provide an evolutionary account of the development of the human lungs without any recourse to an intervening intelligence, there remains the fact that the lungs develop for a particular purpose, the exchange of oxygen for the sake of the organism’s survival. This fact, of course, does not contravene the discoveries of modern biology. And neither does it mean that final causes should be inserted into scientific theories. All it means is that the deliverances of the sciences—even if needing no intelligent intervention to be complete—are not nature’s whole story. For the Thomist, and for many other Christians, law and chance do not eliminate design. Rather, all three work in concert with each other because nature as a whole requires a Necessary Being (i.e., God)

This is why, in his famous Five Ways (or arguments) to show God’s existence, St. Thomas includes as a fifth way an argument from the universe’s design as a whole, appealing to those scientific laws that make motion possible. He writes:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.9

For St. Thomas, the design or purpose of nature refers to the interrelationship of “all things” in the universe, including scientific laws and all inanimate and animate things and their powers, which have their own natures that direct them to certain ends. And they are all kept in existence by God, Who brought the universe into beingex nihilo. St. Thomas, though a believer in design, was no ID advocate.

I hope that what I shared in these two blog entries will help others to better understand the sort of internal deliberations that go on in the minds of many of us who are committed Christians wanting to live the life of the mind with full integrity.

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