My Problem With ID Arguments

One of the problems I have with Intelligent Design Creationists (IDCs) is that if one follows what they say, the universe and what happens within would be incomprehensible. Their argument is that of the God of the gaps. When they show that we do not know how things work, they can offer God as the answer. This, to some extent, would be reasonable, but only if that God they offered was reasonable. He is not.

They must first work against the laws of science, because they lead to a belief in evolution. We are constantly discovering more and more about the world which validates evolution and evolutionary understanding of the age of the universe. This, however, is something many, if not most IDCs are actively rejecting. Indeed, they see themselves as offering an alternative to evolution. Scientifically, they offer nothing — just philosophical questions. They cannot offer data. They cannot offer predictions of what one would expect in a universe created by a creator to use as a way to test their idea. There is no scientific hypothesis being offered. All they can suggest for us is an incomprehensible universe which was put together by an irrational God — their God made a universe whose appearance runs contrary to what they suggest to be fact. God, they argue, can do anything he would like, even making thing appear contrary to what they actually are, and there is nothing wrong with this; his omnipotence and will are explanation enough. This response and line of thought demonstrates their nominalism.

The nominalist God is arbitrary; analogy would have no ability in being used to determine anything about him, because the only thing which is true about God is his will, a will which he is free to change even if it were to contradict his own previous decisions. Michael Allen Gillespie describes this quite well in the thought of Ockham, whose work many consider as the nominalist foundation:

Since each individaul being for Ockham is contingent upon God’s free will, there can be no knowledge of created beings prior to investigation. As a result, humans cannot understand nature without an investigation of the phenomena themselves. Syllogism is thus replaced by hypothesis as the foundation of science. Moreover, human knowledge can never move beyond hypothesis, for God is free in the fullest sense, that is, free even from his previous decisions. He can thus overturn anything he has established, interrupt any chain of causes, or create the world again from the beginning, if he wants to. There is therefore no absolute necessity except for God’s will.[1]

Even though evolution appears to meet the laws of nature as they exist today, IDCs claim this would not be sufficient evidence for evolution, because they cannot accept the assumption that the laws of nature are constant. The universe is arbitrary, how it runs is arbitrary, and if there is anything which is keeping things going, and any current laws of nature to be found, it is because God wills it to be this for now. Such a response, of course, runs contrary to Catholic understanding of God, because we believe him not only to be omnipotent, but rational as well.

[1] Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 23.

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  • phosphorious

    I certainly agree that ID is bad christianity as well as bad science, but I wonder if nominalism is the real enemy here. Certainly this:

    As a result, humans cannot understand nature without an investigation of the phenomena themselves. Syllogism is thus replaced by hypothesis as the foundation of science.

    Seems to me to be quite right: if we want to understand Nature, we must look at nature. And this is precisely what IDers refuse to do.

    • Henry Karlson

      The problem is that nature is not itself seen in the light of universals with nominalism — which means nature itself has no universals beyond mere appearance, and this appearance is mutable by God’s will, without any reason for God not to do so. Modern science follows hypothesis because it understands the inability of complete interpretation and analysis through our reason, but not because it denies any universal objective reality. That is where the two divert and where the nominalist form of Christian thought can be best found in ID: the denial of one basic universal — the law of nature. This is also why ID doesn’t need to look to nature, since there is no universal there to find.

  • phosphorious

    By “universals” i take it you mean something like “an abstract description of objective reality?” So that Euclidean geometry would be a universal in this sense? And Newton’s Laws of Motion?

    If so, then I’m still inclined to think that nominalism is correct, because it correctly described the relation between Laws and individuals, namely, that our laws are abstarcted from the behaviors of individuals. Both Euclidean geometry and Newton’s laws of motion were discredited because they failed to account for individual observations that were made.

    And this, of course, is what ID refuses to do. It has its abstract description of Nature, “based” on the Bible, and will not allow any observation or new evidence persuade it otherwise.

    First there is Nature, as it washes over us in an ocean of individual experiences, then there is our attempt to describe it terms of abstract theories. ID reverses that procedure.

    • Henry Karlson

      Whether or not our way to getting the universals is through abstraction or not does not matter (St Thomas was a moderate realist, and he did not discount the universals, though he knew we got to them, at least in part, through analogy and reason, starting with our senses). Nominalists would say that the universals are not just abstractions, but they are mere abstractions, and arbitrary relationships being formed. They were not real in any sense of the word. That is why universals such as “human nature” or “nature” could not be accepted by them. They would even suggest that Biblical accounts of “nature” though abstracted, is just that, and should not be seen as universal in truth. It’s quite radical because — it is atomistic without any sense of real essences. Empirical science might debate as to what those essences are, but it is a general agreement there are universal truths (otherwise there could be no empirical science; we would end with skepticism such as Hume’s refutation of causality might lead).

      ID in theory is “the Bible” as you say, but it is “the Bible” because “God willed it this way, and can make nature change, so there are no universal rules to allow us to discount the Bible.” That’s the thing — the disagreement with universal standards based upon reason. It’s all based upon will and what God wills, so that God can and does make “nature” not consistent or universal.

  • M.Z.

    I’m not sure why you placed Creationist next to Intelligent Design. Behe, for one, doesn’t subscribe to anything approaching a Genesis account of creation, accepting almost all the tenants of evolution.

    • Henry Karlson


      Behe is only one such example, though I am dealing with the group as a whole. ID for the most part are creationists trying to find a paradigm to claim they are following science. Behe helped them in some ways, which is why they like him. But don’t think the other side of the equation has not been noticed; I’ve seen criticism of his insufficient creationism from those who would otherwise propose ID. Nonetheless, I put creationist because I wanted to make it clear that I am dealing with a subset here.

  • David Nickol

    Behe, for one, doesn’t subscribe to anything approaching a Genesis account of creation, accepting almost all the tenants of evolution.


    From the quote from Behe that follows, that’s like saying someone accepts almost all the tenets of Catholicism except the parts about Jesus. If by evolution you mean that there has been a gradual progression in the development of life forms, then Behe believes in evolution. But if by evolution you mean the currently accepted theory that life evolves by means of random mutations and natural selection, then Behe doesn’t believe in the most basic tenets of evolution.

    I conclude that Darwinian processes account for little of the machinery of life, and that most positive evolution must be nonrandom — guided somehow — and I argue that result fits well with the fine-tuning of the universe discovered by physics.

    • M.Z.

      From our friends at Wikipedia:

      “Evolution is a controversial topic, so it is necessary to address a few basic questions at the beginning of the book. Many people think that questioning Darwinian evolution must be equivalent to espousing creationism. As commonly understood, creationism involves belief in an earth formed only about ten thousand years ago, an interpretation of the Bible that is still very popular. For the record, I have no reason to doubt that the universe is the billions of years old that physicists say it is. Further, I find the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it. I greatly respect the work of my colleagues who study the development and behavior of organisms within an evolutionary framework, and I think that evolutionary biologists have contributed enormously to our understanding of the world. Although Darwin’s mechanism – natural selection working on variation – might explain many things, however, I do not believe it explains molecular life. I also do not think it surprising that the new science of the very small might change the way we view the less small.” Darwin’s Black Box, pp 5-6.

      “For example, both humans and chimps have a broken copy of a gene that in other mammals helps make vitamin C. … It’s hard to imagine how there could be stronger evidence for common ancestry of chimps and humans. … Despite some remaining puzzles, there’s no reason to doubt that Darwin had this point right, that all creatures on earth are biological relatives.” The Edge of Evolution, pp 71-2.

  • John Henry

    “Intelligent Design Creationists” is an oxymoron. I’m not a fan of ID; I don’t see why pointing out gaps in our understanding of evolution and saying ‘lets put God there until we find a natural explanation’ is particularly helpful. But the chasm between Creationists, who basically reject physics, astronomy, evolutionary biology and everything the natural world tells us, and ID proponents is much larger than the chasm between ID proponents and Henry.

    • Henry Karlson

      John Henry

      Not really; the fact of the matter is, when I read the ID arguments, they ARE geared towards the rejection of evolution first, and despite the claim to the contrary ARE coming from creationists, who are the chief supporters of ID. Indeed, the argument continues to be, as I said, the God of the gaps. Which is arbitrary and changing as the gaps change. And the way to see this is to see how they quickly attacked Schönborn, who they first treated as one of their own.

  • John Henry

    By ‘creationists’ do you mean ‘young earth creationists’? If so, then, again, I think you’re pretty clearly mistaken. Here are the basic positions:

    1) YEC: The earth is six thousand years old. We reject all physical evidence to the contrary because it conflicts with a literal reading of Genesis.

    2) ID: The earth is millions of years old, most development of life on earth can be explained by evolution and other natural processes. Genesis is not a history textbook. We accept fully whatever science demonstrates about the universe, but there are some unexplained mysteries regarding evolution that we think would require some sort of supernatural intervention.

    3) Evolution Only: The earth is millions of years old, most development of life on earth can be explained by evolution and other natural processes. Genesis is not a history textbook. We accept fully whatever science demonstrates about the universe, and we see no need to posit supernatural intervention at any point in evolution (even the parts that are least understood).

    To me it seems pretty clear that 2 & 3 agree about the facts (that is about what we can explain well), and have a methodolical dispute about how to explain what we don’t understand. Either way, equating 1 with 2, as your description does, strikes me as roughly equivalent to referring to Benedict XVI as a fundamentalist because he and biblical literalists both make similar arguments for the reliability of the Gospels.

    • Henry Karlson


      I didn’t call them young earth creationists, though we both know YEC use them as a tool to put a wedge into the sciences. ID is all about the irrational nature which can’t be used to explain what we have, though theism would denounce this position. ID is a creationist position , following claims about science which creationists do, and the same tactics. It is just a variant, just like Hindu creationsts are a variant. It’s not science. It strikes against science and reason. It isn’t a “first cause” theology of medieval scholasticism.

      Your, “but there are some unexplained mysteries regarding evolution that we think would require some sort of supernatural intervention” is exactly the problem — they are making things unexplained in evolution, when there are reasonable explanations, and they are indeed working to make a “gap.”

      More than that, ID wouldn’t need to be placed as an alternative to evolution in the schools, as is the suggestion, if it teaches evolution is acceptable. This is one of the proofs that your argument, de facto, is contrary to what ID is suggesting. It is claiming “it was created by poof” can be a scientific response. It isn’t. To try to make it into a science is absurd, to claim it is not being used as an alternative to evolution is absurd. And philosophically, it follows nominalism and an irrational approach to nature.

      • Henry Karlson

        I would suggest this text as well. I had not read it until just now –but it goes into some of the same concerns as I in how ID presents itself, though doesn’t go into the theological nonsense of ID, it does how how ID is in trying to expound itself as a science and the faults of this.

        And the notion that “they don’t say it has to be a young earth” doesn’t mean they are not creationists; before ID, you had similar old earth creationists. The problem is trying to turn God into an object of empirical science, which is as absurd as it can be. Yes, we can discern God in creation — saying that is not the same as discerning God as an object of science. That “God did it” is possible, but it is not possible to use it in science, and what science would require for it to be a scientific explanation would turn God’s doing things into magic.

  • phosphorious

    Again, I don’t think nominalism is the enemy, and John Henry’s comment illustrates why.

    His number 2) above is the classic “God of the gaps argument” where God is posited as a mysterious force that “explains” the otherwise unexplainable. It only appears to be more sophisticated than YEC, because it delays the conclusion “God did it” a bit longer than the young earthers, but still, the answer to the question “Why?” is always the uninformative “Because God said so.”

    Compare this to Augustine’s and Plato’s theory of knowledge: the human mind, as a physical thing, is incapable of knowing anything (although it might be capable of sensation). Knowledge, properly understood, is the product of a supernatural reality impinging upon the mind. Augustine’s doctrine of illumination (I think he called it that) claimed that we only know anything through the constant and active presence of God in our minds. How do our brains work? God makes them work.

    As opposed to the Aristotelean/Thomistic approach that claims that knowledge is simply a function of the mind. To understand how we know, we need a complete description of the organ in question, and that description is sufficient.

    In other words, when we face a phenomenon we do not understand, the key to understanding does not lie in saying “God did it” but in exploring in more detail the particualr objects in question. More observation is needed, not more theory.

    that may not be full blown nominalism, but it points in that direction and AWAY from platonism.

    (I’m sorry if this is a threadjack, and my grasp of the relevant metaphysics might not the best, but this strikes me as an important point to make. Empiricism, nominalism, even skepticism and pragmatism are NOT the enemies of faith.)

    • Henry Karlson

      Plato and Augustine are not offering a God of the gaps theory — while ID is. Plato and Platonism and Augustine all offer positions of God which go well beyond “gaps.” They are not scientific forms of reasoning, to be sure, but then again, no one is claiming it is. You are confusing their non-scientific, non-sense based form of knowledge as in saying one can’t know anything — which is not their position.

      The fact that nominalism says to look to phenomena and science says we should look to phenomena does not make them the same; again, nominalism says we look to them because we can’t make explanations beyond “God’s will” and so it’s all we have. Anything else, any other universal, any attempt to quantify and build theory — while it might be valid now, will just as likely not be valid tomorrow, because God is liable to change everything. The rules of the universe are not constants.

      This is exactly the kinds of arguments which also come from ID, even when not being YEC. That is the problem. They work to undermine the constants and thus, really are working within the nominalist framework –their answer is “will of the creator” and nothing else — the CLASSICAL answer of nominalism. That is EXACTLY how nominalism reasons. And like ID, they will be more than willing to explain “how our experience now makes them appear” — no problem with that. ID is trying to use that to appear as a science to say “of course, we agree.” But they do not. Here, a book on that fact:

      Nominalism is not saying we cannot make theory because the truth is beyond our ability to reason, but that even if we reason correct about the here and now and what is now, it means nothing since everything, including causality, is arbitrary and everything can change on the will of God.

      As an aside, don’t confuse “ID” as “anyone who believes in a creator.” It’s a kind of position trying to claim itself as a science, though undermining all that is scientific — and reasonably theological.

  • David Nickol


    There were theories about evolution before Darwin. Lamarck published a theory of evolution before Darwin was even born. It is not a concession to the Darwinian theory of evolution to acknowledge that humans and chimps have a common ancestor.

    Intelligent design and the notion of “irreducible complexity” are not science. Others who demonstrated that what is knowable in science can be limited didn’t avoid peer review. I am thinking of Heisenberg and the uncertainty principle. Also in math there is Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.

  • John Henry

    Well, I certainly agree that I.D. isn’t science. Its central claim is not demonstrable or falsifiable empirically, which is an important marker of science. But neither is it Young Earth Creationism. To me the major dividing line is an acceptance of the physical sciences as valid forms of knowledge. YEC’s explicitly reject this. ID proponents do not. Evolutionists and ID proponents can agree there are gaps; they disagree about how to describe them. YEC’s reject the conversation altogether. To me that’s a significant difference, regardless of whether or not there are similarities in their theologies (which don’t seem that similar given their obvious and serious disagreements about Biblical interpretation).

    Now, personally I don’t see much value in I.D., and certainly YEC’s are inclined to grasp at straws and use I.D. arguments about gaps to reject everything about modern science, including everything I.D. proponents accept. But the point is that YEC’s and I.D. proponents have very serious disagreements about the validity of scientific knowledge, biblical interpretation, and theology in general that I think the post overlooks. That said, I don’t really have a dog in this fight, and I would certainly oppose teaching I.D. in schools in science classrooms, so I’ve probably said all I’ll say about it. Cheers.

    • Henry Karlson


      I would strongly disagree with “ID proponents do not.” Their arguments lead to such a denial. I think the book I linked to on Amazon does a good job showing this.

  • M.Z.

    This is like saying liberation theologian’s arguments lead to…. Like John Henry, I don’t have a big dog in this fight. My knowledge of evolution is dated and half forgotten, and my knowledge of ID is less.

    Acknowledgement of common descent of monkeys and humans is most certainly not creationism under any guise.

  • David Nickol

    On the other hand, reconciling Catholicism with the current understanding of evolution is not something I have figured out how to do. And the “requirement” to believe the human race descended from two parents who caused “the Fall” is not the least of the obstacles.

  • David Nickol

    Acknowledgement of common descent of monkeys and humans is most certainly not creationism under any guise.


    I would agree that it is not the fundamentalist kind of creationism that takes Genesis as literally true. But it was the kind of “creationism” I was taught in Catholic school in the 1950s. God created the earth in six days, but a day to God could be like a billion years to humans. If “evolution” happened, it was directed by the hand of God. And if God didn’t create Adam and Eve and put them in a garden, at minimum he directed evolution to the point where he could put souls in two creatures and thus begin the human race. That isn’t fundamentalist creationism, but neither is it science.

  • phosphorious

    You are confusing their non-scientific, non-sense based form of knowledge as in saying one can’t know anything — which is not their position.

    This I’m not sure about. Our ability to know is not a natural functioning of our brains, it requires a supernatural explanation. This is what ID argues as well: anything they can’t explain in terms of the natural properties of matter is ascribed to supernatural causes. Not a “God of the gaps” perhaps, but still explanatory sleight of hand.

    But we might be talking at cross purposes here, since the version of nominalism I’m defending is actually completely secular. Hume wouldn’t talk about “the will of God”, but instead something like “the perceived regularities in nature,” which of course might change at any time for no reason at all.

    Nominalims is valuable because it puts us guarg against thinking that the theory we have come up with at the present moment is in fact “the essence” of things.

  • John Henry

    And if God didn’t create Adam and Eve and put them in a garden, at minimum he directed evolution to the point where he could put souls in two creatures and thus begin the human race. That isn’t fundamentalist creationism, but neither is it science.

    I think you raise a very good point, David. But I’m not sure anyone ever claimed it was science. We can’t prove the existence of the soul at any point in time including right now. Now, I think the soul exists; I think people are different from animals in a qualitative way, and that this difference might tell us a bit about the universe we live in. But this is not an empirically demonstrable belief. Others think the notion of the soul is a romantic fairytale (although they often then proceed on to romances equally fantastic and far more idiosyncratic).

    But, either way, the existence of the soul is not empirically provable; it is an inference or a first principle. We will never be able to prove a soul came into being at some point in the evolutionary process, but I don’t think there is any absurdity in suggesting that an omniscient and omnipotent being could have directed the evolutionary process that resulted in the soul.

    Of course, if a person don’t believe in the soul – if their lived experience suggests to them that there is nothing particularly remarkable about people. For instance, about the human desire for such bizarre things (from an evolutionary perspective) as artistic beauty, moral goodness, or truth for its own sake, then naturally it will appear equally strange to suggest the existence of the soul. I think you’re right that an explanation of how the soul came to be through evolution isn’t science. But that’s only because believing in the soul at all isn’t science.

  • grega

    “reconciling Catholicism with the current understanding of evolution is not something I have figured out how to do. And the “requirement” to believe the human race descended from two parents who caused “the Fall” is not the least of the obstacles.”
    In my view Catholicism/Christianity is just the somewhat latest attempt of a rather large group of humans to find formal expression for something in my view indeed real, mysterious and divine – yes we are soulful, conscious creatures that enjoy pondering philosophical and religious thoughts.
    It also seems that in all cultures and times we found ways to express our thoughts and desires ‘religiously’
    Isn’t it rather funny that a significant fraction of the oh so rational scientifically minded folks that get bend out of shape to proof the various irrationalities of every single Religion ever practiced on this planet can not bring themself to hold the same standard to various other irrational human activities like music, art, fashion etc.
    Doesn’t it seem that we find our irrational activities particular enjoyable?
    David for myself I made peace with the obvious ‘scientific’ shortcomings of our religion by focusing on the strong points. And yes our Creator seem to have given us conscience and the desire to express our self ‘religiously’ – and that is as close to proof as we will ever come.
    Works for me

  • wj

    I have a question for someone who knows the relevant literature much better than I do (probably Henry Karlson knows this):

    What are the options for orthodox Catholic believers regarding the literal existence of Adam and Eve? If evolution is true (and I believe that it is), then it doesn’t seem to allow for the sudden emergence of two individuals who suddenly constitute a new species, who are placed in a Garden, converse with God, sin, etc. I am aware that the account of physical creation in Genesis can be interpreted as allegorical, and thus as keeping with the findings of the best science, but what about the Fall?

  • Brian Killian

    I used to follow an ID blog called Telic Thoughts. The authors were not young earth creationists and nor did they reject evolution in general. It certainly wasn’t God-of-the-gaps as far as I could tell. I don’t follow ID much anymore.

    Evolution is a very messy thing to wade into because it’s at the center of an ideological war between atheistic materialism, creationism, theistic evolution, etc. It’s hard to sort out facts from philosophy sometimes. Perhaps that in itself tells you something.

  • Lamont Johnson

    Henry, I think your argument leads to deism. I believe in a God who gets his hands dirty, answers prayers, works miracles, and creates things when and where He chooses. This is not irrational. It is simply the way intelligent free beings act. To say that God cannot do that because it violates science is foolishness to God. I think St. Paul would agree.

    • Henry Karlson


      Wrong, my view is very much opposed to deism, because my position is a personalism — there is a reason by which we can know God, there is an analogia entis which brings us to an understanding of God. We can have faith in God because he is not irrational, he is going to be true to himself. God is love, and he is true to love. God is wisdom, and he is true to wisdom. God is the beautiful, and he is true to his aesthetic grace. That is the issue. This is, if we look closely, the problem that Benedict had with some forms of Islamic theology (and thus, Christian theology). It rejects the use of reason as a means of understanding God.

      Beyond that, God continues to be at work with the world, who said otherwise? Look into my work on eschatology on Vox Nova.

  • Lamont Johnson

    I did not say that you are a deist, but that millions of people who hear arguments like this will conclude that God is remote, impersonal, and unwilling to act because it might violate some higher principle. Talk to the catholics who have stopped going to church. Jesus is unreal to them. The fundamentalist have found a way to keep Jesus real even if they make some mistakes along the way. What academics say and how they say it eventually has an effect on ordinary people. Answered praryer and miracles are just as unscientific as a special creation.

  • MelodyK

    Interesting discussion. John Henry articulated some of my thoughts; there are some things we can’t prove or disprove with science.
    wj, I don’t think Catholics are bound to believe Genesis literally. But there are theological truths contained in it; God as the author of creation, human beings as the users and mis-users of free will. And the promise of redemption; the belief that we are not abandoned by God.
    A literal Adam and Eve? Perhaps not, but someone, or a group of persons, had to be the first to be graced by an immortal soul. There are many nuances of belief between the YECs, the IDs, and the pure evolutionists (who seem at times to make God so remote from the process as to be out of the picture in any meaningful way).