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Catholics and Intelligent Design, Part Four

This is the fourth in a series responding to certain Catholic critics of intelligent design. In the previous installment, we pondered whether ID ought to be considered "teleo-mechanistic" in its assumptions and implications. We also discussed the ways in which ID is really a tertium quid that should not be simply identified either with Aristotelianism or with teleo-mechanism.

In this installment, we consider two more complaints against ID. The first is a simple misunderstanding. Some critics see ID as treating only "what science can't explain" as evidence for design. This is incorrect.

The second complaint--that modern ID arguments are different from arguments made by the Church Fathers and St. Thomas--is partially true, trivial, and of no consequence in evaluating the validity of ID arguments.

For part one of this series, see here. For part two, see here. For part three, see here.

Translation Error: Chance, Law, and Design
Is ID a Zero-Sum Game?

Catholic physicist Stephen Barr is a frequent critic of ID. In an article in First Things, for instance, he says:

The ID movement's version [of the design argument] is hostage to every advance in biological science. Science must fail for ID to succeed. In the famous "explanatory filter" of William A. Dembski, one finds "design" by eliminating "law" and "chance" as explanations. This, in effect, makes it a zero-sum game between God and nature. What nature does and science can explain is crossed off the list, and what remains is the evidence for God. This conception of design plays right into the hands of atheists, whose caricature of religion has always been that it is a substitute for the scientific understanding of nature.i
Now the way some ID proponents write can lead to misunderstandings, if read with a jaundiced eye. When discussing aspects of biology, ID theorists frequently contrast the role of natural laws like gravity with the role of intelligent design. They may speak of natural selection as a "mindless" or "brute" or even "purposeless" process, and contrast such processes with intelligent design. For instance, in their lucid introduction to ID, William Dembski and Jonathan Witt ask: "Are things in nature the product of mindless forces alone, or did creative reason play a role?"ii

When interpreted theologically, it can sound (contrary to the intentions of the author) as if ID implies that God only acts apart from these natural forces, that he is merely an artificer who rearranges pre-existing material under the control of mindless forces. God's action, then, would be set up against nature, and left to fill the "gaps" that nature leaves empty.

These ideas would certainly create troublesome zero-sum games, as Barr charges, if anyone actually advanced them; but no theistic ID proponent ever has. As we discuss in the introduction to God and Evolution, no theist worth his salt believes that God is aloof from the world except when he acts directly in nature. For theists, God transcends the world, is free to act directly in it, and always remains intimately involved with it. God can act both primarily and directly as well as through so-called "secondary causes." These include natural processes and laws that he has established, such as the electromagnetic force.iii An event might be an expression of both a physical law and the purposes of God. It's not as if atheists appeal to gravity while theists appeal to miracles. Gravity is as consistent with theism as are miracles. It's just that most theists and atheists agree on gravity but not on miracles.

In most contexts, though, ID arguments are meant to be metaphysically minimal. That is, they are modest attempts to introduce purpose, intelligent agency, and the like as a legitimate way of explaining at least some things in nature, to the open-minded skeptic, with a minimum of metaphysical baggage. ID theorists don't want to smuggle theism, for instance, into their design arguments (even if those arguments have theistic implications). To argue that design is at least sometimes detectible or detected in nature, however, doesn't imply that only that part of nature is designed.

There's also a reason that ID theorists sometimes speak of the Darwinian "mechanism" (but not ordinary physical laws) as a "mindless process." As we noted in an earlier installment, the Darwinian "mechanism" is qualitatively different from ordinary physical mechanisms like gravity. You can express this law in mathematical form. Newton's law is F = Gm1m2/r2. If you know it and a few other things, you can predict where Jupiter is going to be in the sky on July 12, 2035. You can't use it to describe everything, of course, but the law explains a certain set of facts, and that very reliably.

The Darwinian selection-variation "mechanism" isn't like that. Darwin simply proposed a designer-substitute by extrapolating from a somewhat trivial, known set of facts. In the twentieth century, this variation came to be identified with genetic mutations. And yet, despite some trivial examples, the power of this "mechanism" to explain as much as Darwin intended has not been demonstrated. If anything, the evidence suggests that its powers are quite limited. We don't even have reason to believe that natural selection and directed genetic mutations can do much creative work.iv

Of course, while Darwin proposed variation and natural selection as a "mindless" substitute for design, it doesn't follow that these processes could not be features of the world God has created. To some degree, they obviously are. We have several good though modest examples of natural selection preserving survival-enhancing variations. Still, we need to recognize Darwin's mechanism for what it is, and for what is was intended to be. We need to take a hard look at the evidence and not just assume it can really fulfill Darwin's aspirations. Moreover, if God is in charge, then even where natural selection is working, no variations will be literally random in the sense that most Darwinists understand the word. They won't be purposeless.

When an ID theorist is also a theist (as is often though not always the case), these distinctions are always in the background, even if they don't show up in every argument. That's because ID arguments often focus on isolated, empirical evidence of design in nature--that is, with "design" insofar as it is detected and tractable. The theological implications, such as there are, can be treated separately.

Consider Behe again. When he is discussing the bacterial flagellum, he is evaluating the powers and limits of regular, repetitive physical laws (or, as I would say, of matter insofar as it acts in the God-given, normative ways that we refer to as physical laws), and of the Darwinian "mechanism." He concludes that these processes, which are not intelligent agents, probably don't have the power, by themselves, to produce the bacterial flagellum. That's because the locomotive function of the flagellum is inaccessible to the cumulative power of natural selection acting on random mutations. It is, as Behe says, "irreducibly complex." It needs many separate parts working together before it gets the survival-benefitting function. That's the negative part of his argument.

To get a working flagellum, Behe argues, you almost surely need foresight--the exclusive jurisdiction of intelligent agents. That's the positive part of his argument. An agent can produce a system for a future purpose, for an end. It's the obvious purpose of the flagellum, along with the fact that it is almost surely inaccessible to Darwinian selection--not merely the fact that it's really complicated--that justifies his conclusion that the bacterial flagellum is better explained by intelligent design than by repetitive natural laws or the Darwinian mechanism alone.

But it's a misunderstanding to construe Behe's arguments as complete descriptions of what God is doing. Behe is talking about isolated, miniscule bits of one organism in a subfield of biology, in which the limits of mutation and natural selection can be discerned. In the case of the bacterial flagellum, intelligent design goes beyond what known, repetitive, natural processes, as well as selection and mutation would do if left to their ordinary capacities. So we invoke intelligent design rather than repetitive physical processes alone in this case. But this isn't how every design argument, focusing on every feature of nature, works.

Ordinarily, when a scientist invokes a physical law, he intends to appeal to some repetitive feature of the physical world. A ball falls to the ground when dropped from the Leaning Tower of Pisa "because" of gravity. So a scientist can say that gravity "causes" the ball to fall (once dropped). Since it's constant--it always does the same, mathematically describable thing--and isn't an intelligent agent, gravity is seen as an impersonal property of matter. The very fact that it's so general suggests that it is great for explaining some general truths about nature, but not nearly everything.

The ultimate origin of such laws is a separate question, so the scientist need not be intending to exclude God's role in some broader sense, and God is not excluded whatever the scientist intends. Similarly, Behe's argument does not imply that nature is a self-contained entity going on its merry way except when God decides to jump in to build a bacterial flagellum. Nor does it imply that natural laws or so-called impersonal processes are outside God's purposes or control, or can explain themselves. He's simply talking about one way of detecting design in tiny domains of biology that we understand well, and treating impersonal constants and mechanisms, such as gravity and the Darwinian mechanism, as givens.v

ID Arguments Are Different

Stephen Barr, like Ed Feser earlier, offers another representative complaint, which is that ID is quite different from the design argument made by the Church Fathers and scholastics: "The emphasis in early Christian writings was not on complexity, irreducible or otherwise, but on the beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony found in the world that God had made."vi

The obvious response is, So what? Neither Behe's nor any other ID argument implies that there are no other good design arguments. If you're thinking in broadly Aristotelian terms, for instance, then Thomas's argument based on a sophisticated use of Aristotle's ideas on causation is just fine. And if you're thinking in terms of physical laws and constants, then the "fine tuning" of those constants is, I would argue, evidence for intelligent design. There's no reason to concede the laws of physics to materialists, for whom the very idea of "laws" ought to be perplexing.

It's just that we might only notice the "designedness" of physical laws or constants when we attend to them directly. In biology, physical laws are often part of the background. Think of it this way. Imagine an expedition of future astronauts is exploring a distant planet. They find something that looks like a stack of thin tablets, which look like they contain written text. The language is unique; no one has ever seen it before; and the "book" is quite exotic. So it's given to a crack team of exoplanet cryptographers, who eventually determine that it is in a fact a book--a cookbook. Now they know that the text was written by intelligent beings. They would not have been able to determine that without focusing on the text, and treating the tablets, binding, and cover as background contrasts to the text-like pages.

But once they decrypt the text, they could then turn their attention to the book, that is, the tablets and cover. Noting their unusual chemical composition, artful design, and user-friendly layout, they would then realize that the book itself, and not just the text, is the product of intelligence.

In the same way, one can make a design argument based on some narrow feature in the biological world without denying that the background media, considered on their own, are also evidence of design. One can focus on parts without denying the whole. ID theorists do that all the time, pointing to evidence from physics, cosmology, and astronomy, and appealing to beauty and rationality in nature, as Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt have done in A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature.vii

But like the case of the book and text, even if fine-tuning in physics is evidence of design, it doesn't follow that the fine-tuning of, say, gravity and electromagnetism can give rise to reproducing cells or other things we discover in nature. One can argue that one set of conditions, which is evidence of design, is necessary for life, but not sufficient for it, and that another set of conditions that goes beyond the first set is also evidence for design.

In fact, we may detect design at the cellular level in part by contrasting it with the background regularities of physics. Such evidence would be an example of what philosopher Del Ratzsch calls "counterflow"viii: it exhibits features we have good reason to doubt can be produced by ordinary, repetitive physical processes, but that could be produced by an intelligent agent. Pointing to evidence of counterflow is no insult to physics or to God, anymore than saying that gravity alone couldn't produce Shakespeare's sonnets is an insult to gravity--though it might be an insult to Shakespeare. The properties of nature that we refer to as physical constants are highly abstract, isolated regularities. They explain some things; not everything. And we have no reason to assume that the Darwinian "mechanism" can explain everything else. We should determine the explanatory power and limits of all these means by empirical observation.

As we saw previously, the Church already infallibly has declared at least one place in nature where we should expect evidence of counterflow: the origin of human beings. God immediately creates human souls (at least), and these cannot be reduced to pre-existing material constituents or mechanisms.ix Human beings are body/soul unities, not merely souls inhabiting bodies, so our souls must have effects in the physical world. That means there can be no Catholic objection, in principle, to the existence of counterflow within the natural world. At the very least, we should be open to discovering it elsewhere.

Of course, scientific study is not the only way to experience or gain knowledge of nature. So why consider ID a part of science? We will discuss that in the next installment.

iStephen Barr, "The End of Intelligent Design?" First Things (February 9, 2010), at: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/02/the-end-of-intelligent-design. Obscurely, after his criticism of ID, Barr admits: "None of this is to say that the conclusions the ID movement draws about how life came to be and how it evolves are intrinsically unreasonable or necessarily wrong."
iiWilliam Dembski and Jonathan Witt, Intelligent Design Uncensored (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p. 7.
iiiI think it's problematic to speak of physical constants as "causes," but let that pass for now.
ivIt's anti-teleological purpose makes Darwinism different even from other theories of biological evolution, such as endosymbiosis and convergence. For instance, no one, so far as I know, has ever said that convergence makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Denyse O'Leary in "Coffee!! Which of These Theories is Not Like the Others?" Uncommon Descent (February 20, 2010), at: http://www.uncommondescent.com/evolution/coffee-which-of-these-theories-is-not-like-the-others/.
vBehe discusses this issue in "God, Design, and Contingency in Nature" (Nov. 12, 2009), at: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2009/11/god_design_and_contingency_in.html.
viBarr, "The End of Intelligent Design?"
viiFor discussion of beauty as evidence of design, see Wiker and Witt, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006); Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Cosmos is Designed for Discovery (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2004); Fr. Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999).
viiiDel Ratzsch, Nature, Design, and Science (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001).
ixPius XII, Humani Generis 36.