St. Thomas Aquinas and the Inadequacy of Intelligent Design

My friends Edward Feser and Jay Wesley Richards, both fellow Catholics, are engaged in an online dispute about whether contemporary Intelligent Design theory (ID) runs counter to classical Thomistic understandings of nature and final causality. On this matter, I am with Ed. For I believe that ID, as defended by Michael Behe and William A. Dembski, is a view that in the long run serves to undermine rather than advance the cause of Christian theism. Of course, I see why some of my fellow Christians, both Protestants and Catholics, are so attracted to ID. For it promises to beat the apologists of atheism at their own game with the only tools they believe are epistemically appropriate, the methods of the empirical sciences. But this posture, it seems to me, uncritically accepts this first premise, which is inherently hostile to the sort of metaphysical thinking on which large swaths of the Christian worldview depend.  To get an idea of what I mean, what follows is an excerpt from my recent article published in Synthese, “Or We Can Be Philosophers: A Response to Barbara Forrest” (citations omitted):

Take, for example, Mark Ryland, a former vice president of the Discovery Institute, and now the director of the Institute for the Study of  Nature. He writes 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”…. 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 naturalism.

So, ironically, as Ryland notes, ID advocates, like Dembksi and Behe, and defenders of naturalism, like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, wind up agreeing that without “gaps” in nature one is not justified in believing that there is design in nature. 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 for which he thinks he can someday account. Ironically, Dembski accepts this narrative, but is confident that the naturalists 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….

This, however, is not the only option for Christian theists. Followers of St. Thomas Aquinas (Thomists) and many other Christian thinkers do not accept this philosophy of nature…. For the Thomist, 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 they need no intelligent intervention to be complete—can never be nature’s whole story. For the Thomist, and for many other Christians, law and chance do not eliminate design. “Design” does not replace efficient and material causes in nature when the latter two appear impotent as explanations (i.e., Dembski’s “gaps”). Rather, efficient and material causes require final causes. For example, my belief that the lungs’ purpose is to exchange oxygen is not falsified simply because I can provide an exhaustive scientific account of the natural processes of the evolution and development of the lungs. This is because final causality is not a substitute for a scientific account of nature. For the natural processes—even if they are complete and exhaustive–seem to work for an end, and that end is its final cause. 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…. For this reason, I write in a recent article [in the University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy]: “[Although] I have maintained and continue to maintain that ID may be taught in public schools without violating the Establishment Clause… [,] I sincerely hope that no public school teaches it. For I think that ID advances an inadequate philosophy of nature that suggests a philosophical theology that is inconsistent with classical Christian theism”….

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  • vjtorley
  • ethan

    Chance versus law is a false dichotomy. For example, it was by chance that Mercury was in transit when Jim was born. But this does not imply that laws are not involved in Jim’s birth or Neptune’s motion.

    But another equally disturbing trend is to portray St. Thomas as an evolutionist. How bizarre. St. Thomas said many times that while the distinction between individuals may be due to chance, the distinction between species is not. For example,

    Accordingly, there is diversity and inequality in things created, not by chance, not as a result of a diversity of matter, not on account of certain causes or merits intervening, but from God’s own intention…

    The distinction of things is not from chance… those things which are distinct by their forms are not distinct by chance, but perhaps those things are, whose distinction is from matter. But the distinction of species is from the form, and the distinction of singulars in the same species, is from matter. Wherefore the specific distinction of things cannot be from chance…

    It follows therefore that theform of the universe is intended and willed by God. Therefore it is not from chance: for we
    ascribe to chance those things which are beside the intention of the agent. Now the form of the universe consists in the distinction and order of its parts. Therefore the distinction of things is not from chance.

    the specific distinction in things, which is according to their form, is not on account of their matter: but on the contrary matters were created diverse, that they might be suitable
    for diverse forms. Hereby is excluded… the opinions of any who held the distinction of things to be the result of various material principles.

  • withouthavingseen

    Ethan, I sense that your explanation using the example of Mercury and Jim’s birth might be problematic though it may also seek to demonstrate a true point. The problem is that chance can be used equivocally, and here I think you may have.

    Sometimes, for instance, we use the word “chance” to signify happenstance, that a thing’s causes are unrelated to its role in a larger event. “It was by chance that I was at the store and met Sue,” means that I went to the store for causes unrelated to my meeting with Sue – it does NOT mean that I was there by luck.

    Chance can also signify “luck” in the sense of effects from unpredictable (which is not the same as unknown) causes. When one rolls the dice, the physical forces upon the dice are all very well understood, but nobody can have the slightest clue which number will come up.

    There is a third sense that I can think of, even more extreme than the second: chance can signify causelessness among options. A thing turns up as X when it might have gone as Y or Z, and there is no reason; it just is. This sense of chance is akin to fate, though fate usually has a concept of arbitrary intelligence underlying it, as in the Greek goddesses who controlled the destinies even of the gods.

    Chance in the sense of happenstance and in the sense of luck or causelessness are different things. Your example gives an illustration of chance-as-happenstance, but that is a very different thing (as far as the relevant point is concerned) from chance-as-luck. When evolutionists speak of chance, as in chance mutations, they almost always mean the second sort, and because of their atheism, the third sort by implication. They emphatically do not mean the first sort, the sort that your example illustrates.

    I am shooting from the hip here, so please challenge me if you see a mistake in my reasoning.

    Now, your basic point that chance – in the first sense – is not contrary to law is certainly true. I think we all sense on some level, that law is a reality – Pavlovians believe it and so do Newtonians. We all believe it about the inanimate universe. But denial of the soul (the anima) entails denial of freedom. So we are left, in this conception, with humans-bound-by-nature-laws, even in on the level of our thinking. But we are also left, if we reject free will, with humans acting all kinds of unpredictable ways. We then come to conceptualize our lives as at once bound by laws and yet arbitrarily predetermined in unpredictable ways. If we do not believe in human freedom, then we are left with law and savage luck. Life becomes a meaningless slavery to be escaped: philosophers try to invent meaning and simpler minds divert themselves from the meaninglessness, but really, if there is only law and luck, there can be no meaning because meaning arises from intention, that is, from free will choosing for a purpose.

    Isn’t this the fate of the modern world with its materialist and rationalist explanations for everything, why the post modern world rejects all that and is getting back to crystals or what have you: because we cannot accept being bound by law and yet ruled by luck? Of course we cannot. We are made for more.

  • scutumveritatis

    Very interesting article. Three main reservations:

    1) I agree, I absolutely don’t want to tie evidence of divine design to cases of order that lie outside the scope of natural physical laws. Indeed, some of the strongest evidence that I know for divine design comes from the natural laws themselves – anything ranging from the set of constants that form the basis of the “anthropic/ principle” to the simplicity that lies behind the complex beauty of crystal structures. However, I really don’t think Dembski, Behe and Co. would dispute this at all. Rather, the point is that the very notion of order (of many things, each with their own separate natures, tendencies and ends, being harmonized and brought together to serve a single end) necessarily involves contingency on some level: for the natural physical laws themselves are contingent with respect to their own “backdrop,” i.e., to the infinite number of theoretically possible variations on those laws. Thus, Dembski et al. certainly ought not to be construed as denying final causality to laws/processes that are necessary in this particular universe, since their purposes are met by the deeper contingency of these laws (that they need not have been thus).

    2) The idea that “lungs develop for a particular purpose” is not what St. Thomas means by the final causality of organs such as lungs. The specification of final causality (to tend towards this, and towards nothing else) is rooted in what a thing is, not in what it may become. The only way in which a Darwinian model could evince Thomistic final causality would be if, by virtue of what, say, gills were, they were ordered to becoming lungs (and nothing else) just as an embryo is ordered to becoming an adult (and nothing else) – which is obviously not the case, since there are plenty of gills floating around that stayed gills, and did not fail to attain their natural end by so doing. – In other words, for Thomas’ understanding of final causality to apply to proto-organisms’ development into higher animals, the higher level of order would have to be a blueprint “written into” the proto-organism just as the higher order of the adult is “written into” the DNA of the embryo. Darwinism perforce must deny this.

    3) The article simply doesn’t address what is in many ways ID theory’s main point: that i) the only theoretically possible way to overcome the massive improbabilities calculated by Dembski is to show that natural selection is a step-wise process of ever-increasing complexity accompanied by ever-increasing advantage, and ii) that such a step-wise process is logically impossible for any of the myriad biological systems that can function at all only when the system is complete. The only way around this difficulty for a Darwinist is to come up with an elaborate explanation of why the development of every little component of each new, complex system was independently advantageous, and then to claim that finally the new system suddenly coalesced out of these independent parts while the old (usually incompatible) system simultaneously disappeared – which, in the absence of any observable evidence of such a process, is more than a little reminiscent of the conspiracy-theory mentality.

  • tamingauthor

    Intelligent Design may be more robust than presented by Dembski and Behe, though they have made a good start.

    One example, frequently overlooked, is genetic design taking place in today’s labs. We have an intelligent being, a scientist, modifying the genetic properties of organisms. Intelligent design at work.

    This is obviously an alternative to evolution through mutation with natural selection. So to be fair, one has to have two options on the table: Natural Selection and Intelligent Design.

    This would appear to take God out of the argument, but it does not. In fact, it provides a more reliable bridge. We see the role of consciousness, a conscious being, in altering the environment. So then we are left with the challenge of understanding consciousness.

    And, of course, it is in consciousness that we must seek an understanding of the relationship between man and God. So we have a dual need to understand consciousness.

    If we are consistent with our faith, we know it is through the conscious soul of a being that God makes himself known. And God works in the world through conscious souls, who possess and act on free will. So we know we are in the ballpark when it comes to identifying the primary area of research.

    Thus, for a full understanding of Intelligent Design we need a much better understanding of consciousness and how God works in the world through sentient or conscious beings.

    This makes ID (which can be verified in the lab) the number one explanation to pursue. ID has all the characteristics of a possible solution whereas other routes, such as natural selection are obvious dead ends.