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Marshall McLuhan Responds to the National Catholic Register

Don't you just love writers who purport to criticize what some person or group thinks, but never manage to quote them? Mark Shea, a blogger for the National Catholic Register, holds forth on why some Thomistic philosophers look askance at claims of intelligent design in biology. Of course, we at ENV and Discovery Institute have been down this road many times before, holding joint science/philosophy conferences (see here, here, and here), writing books

and blogs (see Jay Richards's series on "Catholics and Intelligent Design," here, here, here, here, and here) about all manner of philosophical and other distinctions proper to a scientific claim of intelligent design. (For those who want a relatively painless introduction to some of the relevant issues, here is a place to start.) Unfortunately, Shea betrays no evidence of having read or listened to any of it. Instead he issues the kind of opinion a well intentioned person might form after perusing, say, a New York Times story on the topic.

The blog post is extended but here's the gist of his musings:

Intelligent Design arguments look at the radical difference between living organisms and non-living matter and say, "There has to be a supernatural explanation for these radical exceptions to the Rules of how matter normally behaves." But this is another God of the Gaps argument, and one whose holes have, in great measure, been filled in by Catholics themselves.

Reading this reminds me of the scene from Annie Hall right before Woody Allen brings Marshall McLuhan on camera to tell someone pontificating about his ideas that "You know nothing of my work." Regrettably, Shea appears to know little about ID.

Here is a very brief reply. No published ID proponent has ever said or written, "Golly, look how complex life is. Must be some sort of supernatural explanation for that." And, quite irresponsibly for a journalist, Shea produces no quote remotely resembling it (or any quote or link at all, for that matter). Rather, design proponents have carefully explicated how we ordinarily come to a positive conclusion of design from physical evidence (by apprehending a purposeful arrangement of parts, in my formulation), and show that sophisticated biological systems which have been uncovered in recent decades by the hard work of science fit those criteria to a T. We then demonstrate that, Darwinian pretensions notwithstanding, no non-design explanation for the elegant molecular machinery and copious genetic information of the cell is anywhere in sight. We therefore tentatively argue (all science is necessarily tentative) that currently the best explanation for those features of life is deliberate intelligent design.

Notice that, in fact, this is not a "God of the gaps" argument. ID does not argue from "gaps" at all. It argues from hard-won, positive knowledge of the foundational structures of life. It was a lot easier in Darwin's day, when the cell was naïvely thought to be a "simple globule of protoplasm" -- or even up to a few decades ago, when much less was known of the workings of life -- to imagine that random mutation and natural selection might explain the unfolding of life. It is the acquisition of positive knowledge about the foundational level of life that has exposed the utter inadequacy of Darwin's theory.

Notice also that nowhere in the ID argument is found the word "supernatural." That's because the scientific argument is not that God exists, or that the "supernatural" has "intervened" in nature. Rather, the conclusion is precisely and exactly and simply that parts of life have been designed by an intelligent agent. That conclusion is based entirely on physical evidence -- the kind that science restricts itself to -- plus the ordinary inductive logic that is involved in coming to a conclusion of design for any physical system. It is certainly true that a scientific conclusion of design may have implications for philosophical or theological questions (as do virtually all ideas about the origin of the universe, life, and mind), but those implications are logically separate from the scientific theory itself.

This should not be a difficult distinction to grasp. For example, one of the two Catholic scientists that Shea points to was the physicist/priest Georges Lemaître, whose work helped launch the Big Bang theory. As Shea himself notes, the theory seemed to support a point of Judeo-Christian belief, that the universe had a beginning, and the theory was opposed by some scientists because of that. Yet, even though it had theological implications, the Big Bang theory was completely scientific -- it supported itself by physical data, not by Scriptural citations. Even less was the Big Bang theory presented as an argument that God exists, or that the "supernatural" had "intervened" in nature (even if only at the beginning). All of that is also true of the theory of intelligent design in biology.

One other distinction needs to be made. Shea has his ID impersonator conclude that "There has to be a supernatural explanation for these radical exceptions to the Rules of how matter normally behaves." Yet there are no known exceptions, "radical" or otherwise. As far as science can determine, the matter of living systems behaves identically to the matter of nonliving systems. Protons and electrons are the same regardless of where they are found. The chemical and physical properties of carbon in the cell are the same as when it is out of the cell. Life has its remarkable properties not because of any special kind of matter of which it is composed, but because of the purposeful arrangement of its matter -- just as the purposeful arrangement of, say, the iron and other materials of a lawn mower can cut your grass much more efficiently than a nondescript lump of elemental iron.

Gregor Mendel, father of genetics and the second priest/scientist Shea cites, was investigating how the matter of life is arranged, and how that arrangement allows it to work. He did not investigate how the matter of life came to be arranged in a way that allows it to accomplish sophisticated functions. Similarly, an explanation of the structure and mechanics of a lawn mower tells us nothing about how its parts came to be arranged as they are.

None of what I say here should be read as implying that the theory of ID should be exempt from criticism (good luck with that), or that its philosophical or other implications should not be closely scrutinized, or that Thomistic philosophers should automatically support the modern scientific theory of intelligent design in biology just because St. Thomas constructed a philosophical argument for the existence of God that is known as the argument from design. Rather, I ask that, in fairness to their readers and to the reputations of their publishers, critical writers take the trouble to become informed on pertinent issues and avoid constructing straw men.