Christians against Intelligent Design

I was an Intelligent Design enthusiast at one time, but my ardor was cooled a bit when I learned that some Catholic, Thomistic philosophers whom I respect, namely Edward Feser and Francis Beckwith, hold no truck with it. This surprised me when I first heard it, and I couldn’t imagine what the problem might be.

Feser has written numerous blog posts on the topic, and Beckwith a couple of articles as well. Even after reading these articles, I can’t say I fully grasp the problem they have with ID. But I thought I would make an effort to express it in my own words, in the hope that it will help me to get my head around it. And maybe some reader will be kind enough to correct me where I’m wrong and fill in any blanks that I leave.

The issue seems to revolve around the difference between a substance and an artifact in Aristotelian/Thomistic (A-T) philosphy. A substance is something that occurs in nature, whereas an artifact is something that is made by man (or another intelligent creature, although we don’t know of any others). The illustration that Feser uses is the liana vines which Tarzan uses to swing from tree to tree; and a hammock which Tarzan makes out of those vines. The former is a substance, the latter is an artifact.

An artifact has its form imposed on it from outside, whereas a substance possesses its form intrinsically.

Another way of looking at it, is to consider the four causes of an object: Material, efficient, formal and final. In the case of an artifact, the efficient, formal and final causes are imposed by the artisan. He decides what form the artifact will take (formal cause) and what its purpose is (final cause), and of course, shapes, forms or assembles the artifact (efficient cause). The material cause is the natural substance of which it is made, which in the case of Tarzan’s hammock is the liana vine.

Whereas in the case of a natural substance, the formal and final causes are intrinsic to itself. They are “built-in” to the thing as part of its nature, and not imposed by an external artisan.

The question arises, aren’t the formal and final causes of a natural substance imposed on the substance by God, and therefore “from without”?

This is one place where I’m not sure what Feser’s argument would be. But I’ll take a stab at it.

It’s true that God is the ultimate source of a substance’s formal and final causes. But he gives a thing its formal and final causes by creating its nature in the first place.

So, what’s the problem (the ID proponent asks)? Creating natures is what we’re talking about. ID doesn’t deny that the eye, for example, is a part of an animal’s nature. All it argues is that the eye could not have arrived at its present form through purely natural causes.

Ah, but see there: “It could not have arrived at its form through natural causes.” This implies that something besides nature is responsible for its form. But the AT guy just said that its form is intrinsic to its nature. Its form is intrinsic to its nature (AT), yet nature could not be responsible for its form (ID). I suspect, though I’m having trouble expressing it, that herein lies the conflict. Or at least one point of conflict.

Another way to express the conflict (I’m hoping these will all meet up eventually) is that ID treats natural substances as though they were artifacts, and God as an artificer rather than a creator. This is because ID purports to be a testable scientific hypothesis, accepting and working within the ground rules of science.

The ground rules of science (as far as I understand them) call for people to look for nothing but natural, by which is meant material and efficient, causes. Formal and final causes are ruled out.

ID accepts this and therefore treats a substance as though it only has material and efficient causes. It then treats God as though he is the efficient cause of the substance’s form. What this implies (I think) is that God is treated as a tinkerer, someone who takes material causes, or in other words matter, and forms or assembles it — from outside — into complicated machines which are then capable of living.

But here again is where I start to feel lost. I don’t think ID theorists are arguing that God assembles each and every substance “by hand”. I think they’re only saying that he designs them, and once designed he incorporates their design into their nature, such that they can reproduce and pass it on to their offspring. This design-cum-nature then becomes their formal cause, does it not?

Clearly I’m missing something, though not for lack of trying.

Let me be clear that I’m not arguing against or in favor of either side, but just trying to understand the A-T arguments against ID. If anyone can clarify any of this for me, it would be much appreciated!


4 thoughts on “Christians against Intelligent Design

  1. Not in the space of a comment, but here’s one important point: if you accept ID as a *scientific* approach in the modern sense, with only material and efficient causes, then every time somebody comes up with a way to explain some natural thing like an eyeball without recourse to an intelligent designer, the very idea of a designer loses something. This is why evolution set the Protestant world on its ear – they found the materialistic explanations threatening to their core conception of God, which had purposely excluded Thomism as evil Catholic nonsense, while Catholics for the most part just shrugged, because a Thomistic view expects there to be natural causes for everything in nature – the discovery that a feature of the natural world has thoroughly understood material and efficient cause touches the Catholic Thomistic conception of God not at all.

    Why that is so traces back, as you correctly stated above, to the Aristotelian conception of substances, accident, and causes.

    And here’s where I’d need to stop to do a month of research to reload this into RAM and write 100 pages to explain.


  2. Pingback: Christians against ID, Part 2 | Agellius's Blog

  3. Hmm interesting post. Maybe I can shed some light on this… or maybe just confuse things worse!

    ID conflicts with something called Neo-Darwinism, which “contends that evolution is driven by natural selection acting on random mutations, an unpredictable and purposeless process that ‘has no discernable direction or goal, including survival of a species.” (Source: Discovery Institute’s Briefing Packet for Educators

    Here’s where I think the confusion is: You stated that ID argues “that the eye could not have arrived at its present form through purely natural causes.” It’s true that ID makes an appeal to an intelligent agent but ID has not theorized what the intelligent agent might be. Some Pantheists adhere to ID. Because Pantheists see the cosmos as identical with divinity, they could make an appeal to an intelligent agent and yet still claim that the eye arouse from natural causes because the cosmos is natural.

    In Intelligent Design, whether or not the causes leading to life’s complex structures are “natural” might depend on your definition of “nature” and what you believe the intelligent agent to be. Here, I would say we have left science and entered the domain of Philosophy or Theology. The pantheistic ID proponent would essentially be saying that The Cosmos, as the totality of everything, is itself intelligent agency and plays a role in the evolution of life. The Theist would believe that an intelligent agent plays a role in the evolution of life but that The Agent is separate from the cosmos. The Neo-Darwinist would deny any intelligent agent in the evolution of life.

    Whereas Neo-Darwinism is restrained to Biology, Intelligent Design encompasses Physics and Cosmology. Neo-Darwinism does not explain the origin of the first life nor does the theory explain the origin of the eye’s precursor – the first light-sensitive spot, which is a complex biochemical pathway. Intelligent Design attempts to explain complex, biological structures by making an appeal to intelligent agency. Usually the structures in debate are biochemical because the structures are at the edge of what would be considered life and what would be considered chemical.


  4. Pingback: Christians against ID, Part 3 | Agellius's Blog

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