Intelligent Design and Me, Part 2: Confessions of a Doting Thomist

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In his last post, Beckwith explained that he embraces certain arguments made by ID leaders against philosophical naturalism, but rejects the core ID arguments of irreducible complexity and complex specified information as formulated by ID leaders Michael Behe and William Dembski. Today, Beckwith discusses how arguments by Thomas Aquinas and others led him to see that ID advocates and atheists both share a view inconsistent with classical theism: that an intelligent agent is only required in cases where natural laws and chance cannot account for a phenomenon. ID proponents think such phenomena exist, while atheists do not.

Christian philosophy as delineated by Aquinas (“Thomist” philosophy), on the other hand, asserts that God is responsible for all final causes (explanations having to do with purpose, such as “the purpose of lungs is for breathing”), but these final causes do not replace material causes (explanations that can be derived from science, such as how lungs evolved or how they function in the body). In the Thomist view, then, law and chance, which work in concert with material causes, do not compete with or eliminate God’s design, thus showing a major philosophical weakness of the ID movement’s approach.

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.1

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.”2 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.3

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.4

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.




Beckwith, Francis. "Intelligent Design and Me, Part 2: Confessions of a Doting Thomist" N.p., 20 Mar. 2010. Web. 23 January 2019.


Beckwith, F. (2010, March 20). Intelligent Design and Me, Part 2: Confessions of a Doting Thomist
Retrieved January 23, 2019, from /blogs/archive/intelligent-design-and-me-part-2-confessions-of-a-doting-thomist

References & Credits

1. (26 September 2005).
2. Mark Ryland, “Intelligent Design Theory,” New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2009, 2 volumes. Robert L. Fastiggi, ed. (Detroit: Gale, 2009), 1: 476.
3. William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 334-335.
4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. 2, art. 3, available at

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