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Dissecting a Dead Jellyfish: Reading Stephen Meredith on Intelligent Design

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As Michael Flannery observed earlier, here and here, First Things recently published "Looking for God in All the Wrong Places," an essay by Stephen Meredith, a professor in the departments of pathology, neurology, and biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Chicago. He also teaches courses on literature, philosophy, and theology. For brevity he ought to list the departments he's not in. His essay, a longish, rambling attack on intelligent design, citing especially Thomist philosophy and theology, cries out for reply.

Yet Meredith's essay is an amalgam of so many insubstantial half-truths that exegesis is akin to dissecting a dead jellyfish. Nothing really holds it together. It's diaphanous. There's not much to grab. In the end, you wonder if it is really worth it. And the more time you spend with it, the more it smells. 

But it begs for a scalpel and tweezers, because it's poisonous. So I'll pick at it, tentacle by tentacle.

Meredith begins, conventionally, with a "pox on both their houses." On one side, he says, there are the ultra-Darwinists, on the other, the "creationists." Both are terribly strident, of course. 

Yet all is not lost. Meredith's hopes are briefly raised:

At first glance, Intelligent Design seems to offer hope: While eschewing the Young Earth theory of creationism, it acknowledges the need, deeply imbedded in scientists and theologians alike, to recognize final cause, or telos, in the created universe. At first glance, "ID" might sound reasonable, even the answer to our prayers. It is not.

Why not? Meredith sets out to explain:

The first set of criticisms of Intelligent Design comes from the scientific perspective. There are well known and have been written about elsewhere, at length. 

Where would Meredith have gone to find critiques of ID at length, but not at depth? 

Readers interested in these arguments are urged to visit websites such as The Panda's Thumb

Panda's Thumb, a pubescent blog littered with sneers and end-zone dances about court cases, is a great resource for those trying to understand the Darwinist critique of ID. The combox is particularly erudite. Presumably Meredith accesses it at work by turning off his obscenity-blocking software.

What has Meredith learned about ID from Panda's Thumb and the like?

In brief: Such websites point to logical and factual flaws in the writings of the Intelligent Design movement and take issue as well with their intellectual honesty -- as when, ever eager to write the obituary for Darwinian theory, they fail to acknowledge progress in evolutionary biology. 

An obituary for Darwinian theory would be progress in evolutionary biology. But pathologist, neurologist, biochemist and molecular biologist Meredith has nothing really to add about science and ID but what has already been said by the commenters at Panda's Thumb. His task is elsewhere.

But my task is elsewhere: to take to task the philosophy and theology behind Intelligent Design. 

For that, to which website does he turn?

I turn, first, to philosophical criticisms of Intelligent Design. The movement attributes large changes in biological history to an "intelligence" -- but what, exactly, they mean by this term is left largely in abeyance. 

ID abeys the nature of the intelligence because it just follows the evidence, which points to rarified design, inferred only by the fingerprints left by intelligent agency, without any knowledge of the putative designer. That is, design in which the identity of the design(ers) is... in abeyance. This must not have been discussed at Panda's Thumb

Meredith continues:

Most, though not all, members of the movement are Christians, and, more particularly, Evangelical Protestants. That's as may be. 

"Evangelical Protestants"? Considering just Discovery Institute and its associates, Bruce Chapman, Richard Sternberg, Michael Behe, Jay Richards, Ann Gauger, and I are Catholics. David Klinghoffer, Michael Medved and David Berlinski are Orthodox (Klinghoffer and Medved) or secular (Berlinski) Jews. The ID movement is more like "commuters on a city bus." We're a cross-section, non-sectarian in the extreme. By comparison, Darwinism is an atheist church, about as ecumenical as a reunion of the Dionne quintuplets in the Hall of Mirrors. 

This next tentacle is a long one. Meredith launches into a disquisition on causality. 

If God is omnipotent -- that is, can do all that is possible without self-contradiction -- what is the relationship between God and causality? Is there any causality outside an omnipotent God? Or is anything in nature that seems to act as an efficient cause only carrying out the causality of God, with no agency of its own? These questions get to the heart of a philosophical problem posed by Intelligent Design: It supposes that natural law, which is the basis for science, operates most of the time but is periodically suspended, as in the Cambrian "explosion" and the origin of life itself.

From a Thomist and essentialist perspective the origin of life and the rapid appearance of body forms without precursor and the irreducible complexity of intricate molecular pathways do pose a substantial philosophical challenge. A fascinating one, I might add. However, the philosophical problem is posed not by intelligent design, but by the evidence -- the fossil record, the molecular histories and the biology of living organisms. The theory of intelligent design merely points to the evidence that, until lately, has been swept under a Darwinian rug.


The philosophical belief that created substances cannot themselves be efficient causes is called "occasionalism."

The theory of ID has nothing to do with occasionalism. The rhetorical tactic of misrepresenting another's argument to render it vulnerable is called "creating a straw man." Meredith himself half-acknowledges the straw man:

The Intelligent Design movement has not used the term "occasionalist" to describe itself, but it is occasionalist philosophy nonetheless.

Occasionalism is irrelevant to ID for two reasons:

1) Occasionalism is the metaphysical view that no efficient causes exist in nature. It is the view that primary cause -- direct intervention by God -- is the proximate cause of all change in nature. Meredith is thus confused even about the definition of occasionalism. ID in no way entails an occasionalist view. In fact, the inference to rarefied design presupposes efficient causality in nature -- efficient causality being the law-like causes invoked by Dembski's Explanatory Filter. 

2) ID is a scientific inference, not a metaphysical inference, so the attribution of occasionalism to intelligent design is akin to the attribution of panpsychism to quantum mechanics. It's never invoked by the scientists and it's irrelevant to the science anyway. 

Meredith goes on to invoke Malebranche, Leibniz, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Job, the harmonization of clocks, the parting of the Red Sea and the raising of Lazarus. His redundant parsing of his error obfuscates, while it sustains, the error. 

In case I wasn't clear before: Intelligent design has nothing to do with occasionalism. 

Meredith next signs Darwin to the telos team by assuring us of Darwin's affirmation of the relevance of teleology in evolution. In the next sentence Meredith points out that Darwin believed that from teleological understanding "nothing is thus added to our knowledge." "Meredith contradicting Meredith" is a recurring theme of the essay.

His next point is remarkable:

The Intelligent Design movement claims to be doing science, searching for evidence that an intelligence has sometimes intervened in natural history. This is not what scientists ought to be doing, however: God is not really an empirical datum. He is, rather, an inference that one might draw from empirical data. Or as St. Paul put it, more poetically "The invisible things of him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made." We learn of God from "seeing the invisible," as an inference from our empirical experience of the things of the world. 

Searching for intelligence in natural history is more tractable than searching for intelligence in that paragraph. No intelligent design scientist has invoked the Almighty as "an empirical datum." ID scientists point out that the inference to rarified design is a reasonable explanation for some of the data. The empirical data are fossils and molecular genealogies and biological structure and function.

As with occasionalism, Meredith accuses ID scientists of inferences that reflect nothing more than his own mistakes. 

Meredith moves on to the problem of evil. He meanders for paragraphs about Darwin and Tennyson and Rachel and Jeremiah and Augustine and Aquinas and Leibniz, without discernable relevance to intelligent design. 

He then clears up all the confusion:

The problem, again, is that Intelligent Design denies being a religious movement and so is hoisted on its own petard. They claim to remain solely within philosophy (i.e. they claim to do science). Yet they educe, albeit only on rare occasions, the actions of an intelligentia ex machina (they rarely refer to Deus). In the interims, they allow that nature should be red in tooth and claw and that ordinary biological history should be a nightmare. But this inevitably raises the question of why, if the intelligence can intervene, did nature need to be so rife with suffering in the interim?

Again Meredith takes issue with Meredith. ID "educes" nothing. It infers rarefied design as a scientific explanation for some aspects of biology. It is not theology, or theodicy. 

Nature is messy. Nature manifests evidence in some ways for rarefied design. Theology and theodicy are concerned with the former. ID is concerned only with the latter. 

Meredith wanders for another couple of pages, invoking assorted philosophers and scientists and theologies and conundrums. He ultimately muses about the time that "evolution becomes as much as a nonfactor in religion as heliocentrism is today." The answer, of course, is that evolution will become as much a nonfactor in religion as heliocentrism is today when evolution becomes as true as heliocentrism. In evolution's current Darwinian iteration, that day seems a long way off. 

Darwinism's obituary would hasten evolutionary verisimilitude, but Meredith seems obsessed with the old fellow's resuscitation. Which is, at first glance, strange. Why would a man who obviously has Thomist and Christian leanings pump so hard on the chest of a 19th-century materialist creation myth? Why would Meredith -- apparently a Christian of Thomist stripe -- try to poke and prod to life the most effective engine of atheism in modern times? If he has scientific reasons, those are not much in evidence beyond the citation of Panda's Thumb.

Meredith is a constituent of a conspicuous class of scientists, theologians and other commentators who may loosely be designated as "Vichy Thomists." It includes ex-priestsgrant- and book-contract-seeking Catholic scientists, and even some otherwise vertebrate philosophers and theologians who find resistance fatiguing. At the sight of the unstoppable tide of materialism and Darwinism, Vichy Thomists take not to the redoubts and ramparts but to the endowed chairs. They collaborate.

Vichy Thomism is practical because it mollifies the occupiers. One can continue to garner applause and grants and academic appointments in disparate disciplines without inconvenience. All that the occupiers ask is tractability. Google a few websites, dream up a few names that you suspect ID'ers hold for rarified designers, pick and choose conveniently tangential Thomist doctrines, prattle a bit about theodicy, and Darwinists will leave you alone. You might even get an academic appointment in an eighth department at the University of Chicago, if you cooperate. 

Others, including ID folks and a few of us vertebrate Thomists, don't give a damn about accolades and ask no favors from materialists and Darwinists. We have no interest in working under the new management.

Why resist, you ask? This is why: intelligent design, as an inference to rarified design in nature, is an inference that in its character is wholly biblicalwholly Thomist, and wholly empirical

So my suggestion to Meredith and other Vichy Thomists: put down the pen the Darwinists gave you, push aside the document, and walk out of the railway car

The outcome of this struggle with materialism will determine the fate of Western civilization, and each of us must account for the part we played. The evolution that Vichy Thomists need to embrace is the evolution of the backbone.

Image source: Gwen Harlow/Flickr.