This is a response to Matt, a friend of mine who has posted on his blog the first in a series of posts in which we will discuss the merits of evolutionary theory and intelligent design. For all interested in reading the conversation, I highly recommend beginning at the beginning, which can be found here.
By way of introduction I’d like to respond informally to the spirit in which this conversation has begun and should proceed; this is a discussion in which both Matt and I share a great deal of common ground, as we are not only both Theists and Christians, but also we are both adamantly Catholic. There are, therefore, not surprisingly, a number of points with which I take absolutely no issue. I myself used to be a strict theistic evolutionist who had often flirted with romanticized versions of evolution such as exemplified by Teilhard de Chardin (and to be honest, I still do). With evolution as a biological theory of the origin of organisms I have no theological problem at all – it is indeed even conducive to faith in some ways, as the evolutionary narrative is rife with ‘apparent’ teleology. The question at hand, therefore, is one on which I am not dogmatically decided in any sense. However, since I used to be adamantly opposed to Intelligent Design, for many of the same reasons Matthew is, and since I have come to realize that my reasons were not as spectacular as I used to think they were, what I intend to do here is to open the door to some kind of intelligent design. I imagine that there are already intelligent design inferences with which Matt would not take issue (for instance, modern Teleological arguments from the Fine-Tuning of the physical constants and quantities which make a universe sustaining life forms possible are all involving themselves in some kind of ‘Intelligent Design’. Where the inference to Intelligent Design becomes a matter of controversy, however, is in biology. The idea that one can detect ‘Intelligent Design’ in biology, however, is philosophically very old and very common.
First we should begin by defining what Intelligent Design is, and what it is not. Matt has already alluded to the association of Intelligent Design with creationism. However, creationism in that peculiar sense (in the broader sense every Christian is a ‘creationist’) is, I think, best defined as the project of correlating and interpreting all the scientific information in harmony with “Biblical Literalism” (a phrase which I dislike for theological reasons precisely because I think it is misleading). To be clear, that is not a position I endorse, so whatever I mean by Intelligent Design just isn’t in the ballpark of this kind of ‘creationism’. Rather, the conviction of ID theorists is that we have the means to detect what William Dembski calls ‘specified complexity’ from which we can legitimately infer Intelligent Design. His work started back when he was doing his doctoral work in Mathematics, and his work focused on random number generators. The idea was that if, over time, you could detect a pattern in the output of a ‘random number generator’, then it wasn’t really ‘random’ after all. In the process of trying to ensure that some number generator could be truly random, methods developed to test for randomness. Dembski realized that what he was doing, however, was in effect checking for design or detecting a pattern. He thus developed a whole theory of design detection, which he published by Cambridge press called “the Design Inference”, most of which is high level Mathematics and hard to follow (I have the book and I’m still working through it). His method was employed by computer programmers, by SETI, and a number of others as well. The only time his theory of inferring to design becomes controversial is in biology where it is used as one of the cornerstones of ID theory. Intelligent Design is also often thought to be the antithesis of evolution – but this can’t itself be an intelligible caricature until we have clearly defined evolution.
Evolutionary theory in a broad sense, of course, involves simply the change of species over time – something with which not even the crudest YEC (Young Earth Creationist) takes issue. Often YEC make a distinction between micro and macro evolution – but that is a distinction which, as I have explained in a previous post on ‘the fixity of species’, is not yet philosophically intelligible to me (I honestly don’t even know how to go about making sense of it). However, most people mean more by evolution than merely that. Is often taken to be a theory of origins according to which all life forms on this planet are part of one great lineage going back to the first single-cell organism (obviously nobody has any good theory on how that first single-cell organism came into existence, and thus this ‘theory of origins’ is inevitably incomplete even when it comes to life forms and leaves cosmogony out of it).
Evolutionary theory in some general sense has been around from before the time of Darwin, as Matthew suggested. However, it goes further back than I think even he realizes, being one of the ideas entertained even by Epicurus. The genius of Darwin was in providing an elegantly simple mechanism for how this evolution occurs: by natural selection. It is this very narrow definition of evolution which is being called into question by those who wish to make the inference to design based on the biological datum. Intelligent Design says that there is something else, in addition to natural selection, which accounts for the specified complexity which arises in biological structures. What this is, Intelligent Design theorists differ on. For instance, some might interpret Francis Crick’s suggestion of Directed Panspermia (or indeed, any kinds of exogenesis) to plausibly involve intelligent design. To take an inventory of just how many flavours of ID theory there are would be a task beyond the purview of this blog post. What I will tentatively mean by Intelligent Design is the idea that the evolutionary process, in addition to being regulated by natural selection, involves also teleology.
To reiterate again, the question at present is one on which I am not dogmatically decided, and certainly I have no immediately theological motivation for rejecting Evolution by natural selection. My intention here in flirting with the idea of intelligent design is to demonstrate that the postulate is not ‘out of bounds’ as an aid to evolutionary theory. In other words, what Intelligent Design typically challenges is quite minimal: it typically challenges that evolution actually proceeds exclusively with the mechanism of natural selection; indirectly it challenges the idea that teleology can be recognized as the scientifically legitimate category which it used to be (it was dropped with the advent of mechanistic modern philosophy, and later, with the advent of Naturalism more formally systematized with empiricism as its foundation, teleology dropped completely out of the natural sciences).
The idea of Teleology is simply that some things by their natures strive to realize certain ends. For instance an acorn tries to realize becoming a tree, in the sense that becoming a tree is the natural end of an acorn. Similarly, perhaps life itself on this planet has some end towards which it aims. Empirically, this would simply mean that the statement that mutations have absolutely no relation (direct or indirect) to fitness is false (See Pruss here). Of course, this raises an interesting issue in itself: Teleology in general, even with respect to evolution, does not entail Intelligent Design. Notice that Teilhard de Chardin proposed that the evolutionary process was aimed to the omega point without ever challenging neo-Darwinian orthodoxy. Indeed, it is precisely because Chardin doesn’t accept any relation between mutations and fitness that his view of teleology doesn’t qualify as Intelligent Design (it cannot be empirically detected). Some people have made the mistake of suggesting that because evolution is ‘unguided’ in this sense, that it presents itself as the antithesis to a Catholic paradigm, since God is the ‘guide’ of evolution on the theistic view – whoever, there are a number of ways in which God could ensure that evolution realizes the ends for which he purposed it (for instance, I highly recommend listening to this podcast episode from William Lane Craig on evolutionary theory).
What I will propose in what follows is merely that teleology is logically and nomologically possible, and that it acts as a superior scientific explanation to standard Darwinian theory. Moreover, I will point out that the only reason ID is being rejected seems to be ideological Naturalism – and it is precisely the ideology of Naturalism which Christians have good reason to be suspicious of.
Having set a clear and realistic goal for this conversation, I will now proceed to take Matt’s points in turn and respond to, or interact with, them.
To the argument about Homologous structures, I answer that ID does not commit one to the ‘special creation’ of individual organisms or of species of organisms. The same can be said in response to the second point. An ID theorist need not take issue with any of those points (though a YEC would want to respond to them, I am not a YEC). Evolution has been observed, and this point is accepted uncontroversially even by YEC’s.
At the conclusion of a very succinct and impressive explanation of how Polymerase works, Matt says “If this isn’t proof of evolution, I don’t know what is.” To which I would playfully respond: if this is an argument for evolution, then I don’t know what isn’t. Let us be clear that what is being contested is not the evolutionary paradigm in general, nor the basic story of origins, but rather whether one can make any inference from specified complexity in biology to intelligent design. One of the proposed paradigm cases is the Bacterial Flagellum, which Dr. Michael Behe proposes is irreducibly complex.
Matt says ” Living things do not arise from non-living things. All I can say is this: just because we haven’t seen it happen, doesn’t mean it couldn’t” to which I would respond: us never having observed any way in which it even could happen is good reason to not assume that it did happen. Obviously things like the origin of life, along with the resurrection of Jesus, are physically possible according to a very loose scientific paradigm, but neither can reasonably be accounted for naturalistically given our current scientific paradigms. The reason the origin of life is an issue which some biologists prefer to see conceded to some numinous naturalistic explanation is that the ideological naturalism demands it. Anyone who posits a divine act at the origin of life is accused of a ‘God of the gaps’ fallacy, which is clearly no more a fallacy (and significantly less dangerous) than a ‘Naturalism of the gaps’. However, at issue in the present discussion is not the origin of life, so these points are not germane anyway – the issue is about evolution by natural selection and detecting intelligent design in biology which suggests a mechanism beyond natural selection. The gaps in the fossil record don’t concern me (as I agree with Matt entirely), and the notion that scientists disagree about the mechanics of evolution would provide a quasi argument from authority to which I think it legitimate to appeal in some cases, but to which I do not appeal in this case.
Intelligent Design is sometimes accused of being creationism in a cheap tuxedo. This label is not altogether undeserved when Intelligent Design is considered as an academic curriculum, for that is exactly what it was being used for at Dover in the U.S. However, notice that of the expert witnesses called at Dover, only one agreed to support the school board (Michael Behe), as the others all felt that ‘Intelligent Design’ was being misused by those involved as a trojan horse for creationism. However, intelligent persons of good will recognize that the propaganda about Intelligent Design being creationism is not much more than a political-rhetorical tool for undermining the idea of Intelligent Design, and certainly to cripple the project of imposing the idea on school children (most of whom, and whose parents, would more gladly accept it than strict evolutionary theory). Intelligent Design, considered as a topic in the philosophy of science, represents an innovative, empirically verifiable project of detecting specified complexity in biology, and making an inference to intelligent design, which minimally requires more than the mechanism of natural selection to explain the data of biology. Rhetoric about it being ‘creationism’ simply isn’t an intellectually appropriate response to the issue.
Finally, a point about inferring from Intelligent Design to some intelligent designer: I’d like to say that if the Naturalist rejects the Principle of Sufficient Reason then they can accept intelligent design without feeling the need to infer to any intelligent designer – any more than big-bang cosmology entails an inference to some cause of the ‘bang’. A Naturalist could just propose that Intelligent Design is a brute fact, not amenable to explanation. If they have trouble with this, then they will have trouble with a great deal of science as it now stands, especially in the field of physics. If they accept the PSR (principle of sufficient reason), then, it is not controversial to say, Theism seems to be logically entailed anyway. Moreover, even if they accept the PSR, the inference to an intelligent designer could possibly be to intelligent aliens who seeded life on this planet, but who themselves evolved by a long process involving no pathways which produced the empirical appearance of irreducible complexity.
Here, with your next point, I have difficulties theological, philosophical and practical in nature; you say that we cannot prove the existence of God, and thus you conclude from that that intelligent design cannot be a legitimate scientific inference. First, theologically, since we are both Catholic, we are both bound to realize that the protestant apologetic which says that there is not, strictly speaking, any ‘proof’ of the existence of God, is not acceptable to Catholicism. As the Catechism teaches clearly:
Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith. The proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason.
Take note that the existence of God is not an article of faith according to the Catechism: it is the presupposition of faith. Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical on evolution called Humani Generis also taught the same, saying:
It is well known how highly the Church regards human reason, for it falls to reason to demonstrate with certainty the existence of God, personal and one;
For this philosophy, acknowledged and accepted by the Church, safeguards the genuine validity of human knowledge, the unshakable metaphysical principles of sufficient reason, causality, and finality, and finally the mind’s ability to attain certain and unchangeable truth.
~Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis
It is, far from contrary to the nature of God to provide proofs for his existence in the observed secondary causes, the conviction of the Catholic faith that he always and everywhere provides such proofs in secondary causes. This is the conviction behind St. Thomas’ five ways in the Summa, along with the traditional conviction of ALL the Church Fathers, and continues to be the conviction of the Catholic Church in our day. If Intelligent Design is an implausible proposal, then it is implausible for some reason other than that it provides evidence for the existence of God.
Moreover, though I know that John Paul II provided his answer to the question of what the status of evolutionary theory had become in the eyes of the Church, I would like to reiterate Pius XII’s word of extreme caution, which still applies:
For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith. Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.
~Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, paragraph 36
I have often wondered what response I would get from people like Miller if I proposed to take a time machine into the future, to a time when the Church had declared infallibly that evolution by natural selection alone was incompatible with some article of faith – would they really submit to the Church’s authority? Perhaps they are comfortable with the Church’s stance right now, but is that because they think the Church implicitly agrees with them, or is that because they feel intellectually free to entertain a robust Catholicism in tandem with some tentative scientific paradigms? That is a rhetorical question for personal reflection, and I don’t anticipate any response to it.
So, on the one hand, the Church encourages us to recognize that the existence of God can be proven with certainty. On the other hand, it seems to me that to say that no scientific evidence can obviate the conclusion that God exists is not only patently false from a Catholic perspective, but is also, I think, special pleading for methodological naturalism – a principle which, it is proposed, would negate any suggestion of intelligent design. That entire approach to science is wrong headed. For instance, Humani Generis clearly does bind Catholics to believe in a literal first Adam and first Eve, whom together (and exclusively) produced the whole human race, without interbreeding with others of their ‘biological’ species. Now, the scientific evidence has waned back and forth for this thesis, but suppose that we were to accept, for the sake of argument, that this suggestion was scientifically impossible; wouldn’t we still think that the doctrines of the Church were more certain than the fleeting paradigms of science in our age? Not only does science have a track record of changing, while doctrine does not, but science also has had a track record of confirming, over time, the doctrines of the Catholic Church (such as it did with the big-bang). That doesn’t mean we should be dismissive of science, but we cannot pretend in good conscience to be as confident of science as we can be in the Church (at least if we are both Catholic).
You continue by making the claim that ID theorists confuse primary and secondary causes, to which I think I would respond simply that you have probably gotten ID confused with some form of special creationism which ID is not, on its own, strong enough to entail. Moreover, though I agree with you about primary and secondary causes, it is worth noting just how much this claim depends on people like Malebranche, Leibniz, Spinoza or others being wrong about ‘causation’ – we can dismiss them for the time being, but it deserves to be noted that the distinction is probably not as clear as you think it is. In any case, it doesn’t add or take away from the conversation at all, since, again, it has nothing to do with Intelligent Design (since the mechanism of ID can be a secondary cause).
With respect to intelligent design being unscientific, I think you need a better definition of science. Technically speaking, we cannot prove by experimentation that the big bang is true. Rather, we should say that something is scientific just in case it is empirically verifiable, empirically verified and has to do with the natural sciences. Moreover, I’ve already explained how the inference to intelligent design comes about when one can reliably detect specified complexity, so the inference to intelligent design is empirically verifiable by the very standards Dembski proposes.
I think it is worth pointing out, at this juncture, that Ken Miller’s response to Behe’s suggestion that the bacterial flagellum could not have evolved in a typically Darwinian-fashion step by step process because without the rotary motor it would not have any use, is an excellent example of rhetoric. Keep in mind that both Miller and Behe are also committed Catholics. Miller suggests that there are unrelated functions which the bacterial flagellum, minus the rotary motor, may still be used for – he often uses a mousetrap as a crude and humorous analogy. In a certain debate between the two, I noticed this very same response trotted out by Miller. Behe then pressed him asking him if he seriously thought that the bacterial flagellum could have evolved that way. Miller responded that it was not possible/plausible that it did. Behe then asked if there was ANY pathway at all which would explain the evolution of the bacterial flagellum. Miller answered that there was not, but his only concern in the debate was to demonstrate that it isn’t impossible for there to be one (in other words, it isn’t possible for the reasons Behe was supposing, which were that no pathway ‘could’ exist). This is the point: even if we concede to Miller that a pathway is logically possible, the incredible implausibility of any pathway already suggested is good reason to doubt whether there is a pathway. Supposing that one were to find a pathway which was incredibly (incredulously) implausible – ought one to prefer the implausible and simple naturalistic answer over a non-naturalistic one? Moreover, it isn’t even clear yet that ID is non-naturalistic! It seems relatively clear that it is empirically detectable. More than that, it seems clear that most biologists see the attraction of the ID proposal, even if they want to say it is off limits.
You say: “Intelligent design is based on arguments that are doomed to fail. Intelligent design is merely a modernization of the arguments used against Darwin. Some people argued that the eye was something so complex that it could not have been brought into existence by natural selection. Later discoveries of mollusk eyes show that they evolved by a gradual process, thus undermining the opposing arguments. Intelligent design simply points to biological systems whose mechanisms of evolution have not yet been discovered. This does not mean that they won’t be discovered; it just means that they haven’t yet.”
Well, having found antecedents in the evolutionary lineage of eyes does not guarantee we will find mechanisms of evolution for certain bio-chemical molecular machines or other structures. One must be mindful of this blind ‘naturalism of the gaps’ which is proposed in place of a ‘god of the gaps’. I don’t think I care if we do find them either – the question on the table is merely whether the best explanation for how they arose is by natural selection working alone, or else by natural selection in company with an ID producing mechanism.
Here, in short, are some arguments against ID which I thought of and to which I very very briefly respond. There are a few avenues which one might take to object to intelligent design:
- It is logically possible that the naturalistic account is true – this being Miller’s point, it is rather a weak point, as there are any number of things which are logically possible. It is possible for a mouse to give birth to a fish. The interesting question is whether the naturalistic pathways which are possible (albeit none are presently on offer) are more plausible than the ID alternative. Which is more reasonable to believe? I think the issue here is not so much over how to empirically verify hypotheses, but rather whether our philosophy of science should exclude, wherever possible, the taint of Theism (or, in other words, whether disregarding methodological naturalism is legitimate in the field of the natural sciences).
- God of the Gaps objection – Naturalism of the Gaps isn’t much better off – moreover intelligent design does not require an intelligent designer unless one accepts the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which, if accepted, proves the existence of God and thus the possibility of something like ID in nature, and so opens the question up just as widely.
- Creationism with a cheap tuxedo – I often smell a hint of the genetic fallacy, maybe with an implicit ad hominem when I hear this objection. In any case, what fundamentalist creationists have tried to do with the ideas proposed (making them the wrappings of religious YEC or something relevantly similar) is just immaterial to the scientific and philosophical issues at hand.
- No peer review – obviously not true, but it is worth nothing that ID is not well published – this is because ID defenders are often barred from publishing in certain journals who wish to avoid attracting that kind of controversy, or giving themselves a poor reputation.
- Is there any theological problem with evolution by natural selection? Not in any profound sense – though there are puzzles about the relationship of soul and body which theologians are free to explore (for instance, see this review of Ratzinger‘s essay on the issue). The issues at hand here are principally philosophical, and more precisely they are matters of the philosophy of science.
- If Intelligent Design is logically possible, and if the question is only whether it is empirically verified, then it seems admitted on all sides that there is, at present, good evidence to think that it is reasonable to believe in intelligent Design as a model of evolutionary development – thus, the mechanism of natural selection is not acting alone to temper the process, and there may be teleology involved.
- If God is involved with creation as an immediate ‘intelligent architect’, then doesn’t that make God look like an imbecile for all the failed species? – efficiency is just not a value for a being with unlimited time and unlimited resources. Moreover, it is difficult to say that such a ‘picture’ of history is not ‘designed’ with something greater in view, such as our recognition that the species of animals come and go… Finally, intelligent design doesn’t require God to act as an immediate cause of information and design, but rather may simply imply that God ensures through teleology that information aims at realizing certain ‘forms’.
Those were notes I had made prior to the discussion at hand.
Now, what does the positive case for Intelligent Design require? Well, it is rather minimalistic. It requires that explanations which themselves rationally beg theism are admissible in the natural sciences. It requires that the methods of detecting specified complexity, along with the inference from that to intelligent design, are empirically legitimate, and that the methods yield the result that there are some cases were inference to intelligent design is obviated. It does not require God, or even an intelligent designer, so long as one does not think science requires the PSR, or else if one simply thinks that science cannot interfere with metaphysics (in which case, regardless of what it entails metaphysically if the science is accurate, science qua science cannot in principle entail anything transcendental). Intelligent Design requires some mechanism, which may just be teleological.
Intelligent Design does not require that God act immediately to ensure the fitness of all or any mutations. It does not require that the basic story of origins by common descent be false. It does not require, strictly speaking, even that methodological naturalism be disregarded. It only requires that some instantiations of specified complexity be best explained by the inference to Intelligent Design.
One final thought: although I used to think that the view of theistic evolution was more elegant, as God does not enter into creation now and again to tinker with the machinery (as he does on the progressive creationist view, which ID seems to offer some form of), that view has been challenged impressively by Robert C. Newman, who made an interesting point in “Three views on Creation and Evolution”. He pointed out that if one is inclined to think of God as something of a computer programmer, or a watchmaker, then it seems unreasonable to think that God would periodically have to intrude into his work and ‘set it straight’ again. This was Leibniz’ qualm with Newton, and I had always been more inclined to Leibniz than Newton. However, Newman pointed out that if God had created the world as a guitarist creates his instrument, then perhaps it was ‘made for playing’ in such a way that God would want to engage his creation in that dynamic way. This point has always stuck with me as a point in favour of progressive creationism. In the end of much reading and reflection on these issues, I have come to the conclusion that the Intelligent Design issue is really an issue for the Philosophy of science, and has to be decided there. Can or should a Theist be open to suggestions which smack of theism?
For now, I will leave the discussion at that. I hope to hear more from Matt soon, and I invite everyone to check out his blog – he’s a great moral theologian and apologist.