Intelligent Design and Me, Part 1: In the Beginning

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This is the first entry in a two-part series, closely related to which is a Scholarly Essay entitled “Intelligent Design, Thomas Aquinas, and the Ubiquity of Final Causes.

As a philosopher who critiqued philosophical naturalism in his doctoral dissertation, Francis Beckwith was originally intrigued by the Intelligent Design Movement when it was first developing in the mid-1990s. However, a nagging sense of discomfort with the arguments of Michael Behe and William Dembski left him unable to call himself an “ID advocate”. After the famous Kitzmiller trial in 2005, in which the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) in public schools was declared unconstitutional, Beckwith argued against aspects of the decision. This led many to label him as an ID advocate. In this post, Beckwith explains that he came to his position on the case because it is unjust to declare any policy unconstitutional on the basis of it being religiously motivated. Furthermore, he contends that one does not become an ID advocate by simply agreeing with certain arguments ID leaders have made against philosophical naturalism. In his next post, Beckwith will discuss how arguments by Thomas Aquinas and others convinced him of the philosophical weakness of these core ID arguments.

Like many Christian academics, I never thought well of creationism or creation science. However, I always had an interest in philosophy of science and how the issues raised in that sub-discipline may help Christians to think more clearly about the relationship between science, theology, and philosophy of religion. In fact, my 1988 Fordham Ph.D. dissertation (in philosophy) dealt with issues over which these areas overlap: David Hume’s Argument Against Miracles and Contemporary Attempts to Rehabilitate It and a Response.

After earning my doctorate, I began to gravitate to issues in moral and legal philosophy, specifically dealing with bioethical questions and the role of religion in the public square. This was soon reflected in both the courses I taught and the articles and books I published. For this reason, I took a sabbatical year from teaching at Trinity International University (2000-01) to pursue an MJS (Master of Juridical Studies) degree at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. The fact that the degree program required a dissertation of some size made Washington University’s offer of admission extremely attractive to me, for it allowed me to write at the intersection of a number of my philosophical interests in law, religion, science, and politics.

In my dissertation and the subsequent book––Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003)—I focused on one narrow question: Could a public school require or permit the teaching of ID without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment? My answer, with a few caveats, was “yes,” and I still think that conclusion is sound. However, I was not convinced (and I am still not convinced) that the ID arguments for the specified and/or irreducible complexity of parts of living organisms establish their case. That is why I was careful in all my publications to not pronounce a verdict on them.

When the ID movement first burst on the scene in the mid-1990s, it lacked the amateurishness of the creation-science movement while at the same time making its main goal to unseat philosophical naturalism. As a philosopher who had critiqued one sort of naturalist project in his doctoral dissertation, ID intrigued me, especially since its first major conference at Biola University in 1996 (attendees pictured above) included many respected and accomplished philosophers, including Alvin Plantinga, J. P. Moreland, Del Ratzsch, and William Lane Craig.

Thus, for me, what is known today as the ID movement, seemed in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a loose collection of Christian academics (mostly philosophers) that thought that there was a good case to be made against philosophical naturalism. For this reason, much of what constituted ID at the time was fairly unclear to those of us who traveled in circles in the world of Christian philosophy in which many of these writers often gave papers and lectures at the same meetings and contributed to each other’s books. It never occurred to us that to engage these thinkers, and to even find some of their work worthy of a fair and non-polemical assessment, somehow made one an “ID advocate.” In my mind—and I still think this way today—there are some important arguments against philosophical naturalism that are offered by ID advocates that are not integral to what most critics and supporters think of as ID. (What I mean by the latter are the arguments for irreducible and specified complexity defended by Michael Behe and William A. Dembski.)

This is why in my 2003 book, as well as subsequent publications, I define ID as a cluster of arguments (rather than “a theory”) offered by philosophers and scientists that attempt to unseat philosophical naturalism. Included in this definition are not only the arguments of Behe and Dembski, but also philosophical critiques of naturalism as well as cosmic fine-tuning arguments that are sometimes defended by ID critics! So, this is what I write in my 2003 book:

The main thrust of this new movement, known as Intelligent Design (ID), is that intelligent agency, as an aspect of scientific theory-making, has more explanatory power in accounting for the specified, and sometimes irreducible, complexity of some physical systems, including biological entities, and/or the existence of the universe as a whole, than the blind forces of unguided and everlasting matter. ID proponents also argue that the rejection of intelligent agency by mainstream science is the result of presupposing the philosophical doctrine of methodological naturalism, an epistemological position that ID proponents maintain is a necessary presupposition for the veracity of the evolutionary edifice and entails ontological materialism as a worldview, but is arguably not necessary for the practice of science qua science. Other proponents argue that the exclusive teaching of naturalistic evolution in public schools may violate political liberalism’s call to state neutrality. And yet others maintain that certain philosophical arguments--e.g., arguments for substance dualism, the existence of an immaterial first cause, and the existence of non-material entities and moral properties --reveal the weaknesses of both methodological naturalism and ontological materialism. These and other arguments will be discussed in Chapter 3 of this book.1

Whether ID “worked” as a theory or not was not the point of my book or of virtually any of my subsequent work on ID. My point was to critique the dominant legal view of how religion and public life ought to interact. It seemed to me that the burgeoning ID movement provided the almost perfect foil by which to assess the conceptual limits of contemporary church-state jurisprudence. The chief concern of my book was the difficult question of how our legal regime can affirm both religious liberty and disestablishment while not unjustly sequestering points of view from public policy that arise from citizens’ religious motivation even though those points of view are accompanied by arguments and reasons that are public in their nature. So, even though some aspects of the ID movement seemed more persuasive to me than others, it was not relevant to my case for me to announce in these writings why I thought certain ID arguments were better than others.

At the time I was never fully at ease with the Behe/Dembski arguments that relied on notions of specified and irreducible complexity (which I now see as the essence of the ID movement). However, I have to confess, that I had not come up with a way to think through their arguments that adequately explained my reluctance.

Admittedly, I found (and continue to find) arguments offered by other thinkers (some of whom are associated with ID movement) convincing and worth defending. Here I am thinking of arguments for a first cause of the universe (William Lane Craig), the existence of the soul (J. P. Moreland), an evolutionary case against naturalism (Alvin Plantinga), and the existence of a moral law that Darwinism cannot explain (Moreland, J. Budziszewski). But none of these arguments, as I have come to better understand, are technically ID arguments. They are straightforward philosophical arguments that, to be sure, help support a non-naturalist view of the world. And in that sense they share the central aim of ID. But sharing that aim, as well as being offered by ID advocates (e.g., Craig, Moreland), does not make them ID arguments. This is why it was a mistake in my earlier work to lump all critiques of naturalism under the umbrella of ID. But, as I already noted, a decade ago it was difficult for someone like me, who ran in Christian philosophical circles, to know where exactly ID ended and mere critiques of naturalism began.

In the next post, Beckwith discusses how arguments by Thomas Aquinas and others convinced him of the philosophical weakness of these core ID arguments.




Beckwith, Francis. "Intelligent Design and Me, Part 1: In the Beginning" N.p., 19 Mar. 2010. Web. 18 December 2018.


Beckwith, F. (2010, March 19). Intelligent Design and Me, Part 1: In the Beginning
Retrieved December 18, 2018, from /blogs/archive/intelligent-design-and-me-part-1-in-the-beginning

References & Credits

1. Francis J. Beckwith, Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

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