Further on “Why the Debate” (Intelligent Design and Thomism)


The responses to my question, “Why The Debate?” on Intelligent Design and Thomist theology have been most instructive for me. Blogging is for learning, too. Holopupenko disagreed with my characterization of Intelligent Design as a reductio-like approach, asking,

How do you think Meyer or Behe or Dembski would respond if you pressed them to re-characterize their efforts to a reductio argument? How far do you really think you’d get? (With acerbic Dembski, I doubt you’d even be given the opportunity to complete your sentence.)

As came out later in the discussion, I didn’t put Meyer’s approach in the same category as Behe’s and Dembski’s. Whether they would agree with me or not is up to them, and I think Holopupenko is right to say they would be hesitant to accept the appellation I put on them. If they said, “we’re not offering reductio arguments,” I would have to agree; that’s why I called them reductio-like. What they have in common with a reductio is pressing an opponent’s assumptions to see how far they can go. The Thomists’ objection (as it seems to me) is that ID accepts the wrong assumptions. What’s really going on instead, as I see it, is that ID accepts those assumptions for the purpose of testing them, and showing where they fail. If in my earlier post I communicated a stronger resemblance to reductio than that, I stand corrected. (Blogging is for learning, too.)

And since blogging is for learning, with some trepidation I’m going to take the risk of challenging some good Christian philosophers even further. This may be oversimplified, and if it is, then I expect it will be another occasion for learning; but it seems to me the objections to ID on that thread to boil down to two:

  1. ID inappropriately plays by the rules of the modern empirical sciences (MESs), and
  2. ID is a weak or inconclusive proof for God and/or design.

With respect to the first of these we have Holopunko’s observation,

Nowhere do I see [ID proponents] reducing their efforts to a reductio. (No pun intended.) In fact, quite the opposite is true: they bill themselves as a scientific (read: MES) THEORY. Once they do this, they MUST play by the rules of the MESs.

As well as Luke’s:

I’d have to agree with Holo… something like the MESs have a sandbox (a nice one) but it says nothing beyond the sandbox. IDT attempts to play by the sandbox rules while at the same time incorporating rules from outside the sandbox, which really doesn’t work if you can only join the sandbox by agreeing to its initial rules.

What’s wrong with ID following those rules? Holopupenko says,

One cannot possibly re-characterize ID Theory as a mere reductio argument when ID Theorists themselves are proposing it is much more: ID Theorists are NOT just trying to infer design–they’re trying to observe final causality by means of the MESs by proposing MES-based research directions, etc. NONE of which has produced a shred of strictly-MES based evidence.

The MESs are simply NOT qualified to address teleology or teleonomy.


One most certainly CAN infer design from nature, but one can NOT do it directly from the MESs: one needs (1) a rational agent, (2) philosophical reflection. But if that’s the case, then why are IDers hell-bent on introducing philosophical reflection into the science classroom?

What possible MES-based research program could be instituted to “see” a final cause–a being of reason only existing in the mind of a rational agent? Answer: none.

I hope that’s enough to represent the case fairly. Now, I have two concerns with this. First, ID is not limited to playing according to the MESs’ rules of naturalism, whether philosophical (which ID roundly rejects) or methodological (which ID, shall we say, handles with caution, since it often bleeds over into philosophical naturalism).

Second, although ID bills itself as science, it does not claim to be purely scientific, i.e., science not philosophically informed. We have encountered scientists here who seem to think science can operate without philosophy, but that is just false, as Holopupenko and other commenters here know very well. I have always understood ID to be both a philosophical and scientific program, as I laid out in some detail three years ago.

I have no idea where the ID literature says it is trying to observe design by means of the MESs. Instead ID theorists in the Dembski-Behe camp, through philosophical consideration, have proposed conditions that accomplish two simultaneous objectives: to support an inference of design, and to defeat a contrary non-design inference. They have proposed philosophically-based answers to, “Are there any conditions that, if they obtained in nature, would support a conclusion of design over against a conclusion of non-design?” Thus the Explanatory Filter; and thus Complex Specified Information and Irreducible Complexity.

Later Holopupenko writes,

It takes a human being (i.e., a rational agent) to demonstrate the existence of God (i.e., Existence itself… and it has been done) through philosophical reflection upon sensory-accessible knowledge.

It seems to me that’s a great description of Intelligent Design. I think he probably intends “sensory-accessible knowledge” to refer to ordinary and everyday experience, but I’m not sure on what basis we can draw a line between that and science for these purposes. The role of science in ID (as in every other context) is to amplify and to refine observations (“sensory-accessible knowledge”), and to draw conclusions therefrom. ID amounts to rational agents observing nature, reflecting upon it philosophically, and inferring design. IDers are not hell-bent on introducing ID into science classrooms, of course; that’s an old misconception. What they do want to do is to correct the philosophical reflections already present in science classrooms, and the conclusion that non-design has been demonstrated by the MESs.

Moving on to the second summary set of objections raised against ID in that thread, we have Holopupenko’s statement,

Later Holopupenko says,

Worse, the question has already been addressed by a realist philosophy of nature and metaphysics: design is fundamentally teleological–end of story. No MES-based arguments can add to or change that truth, and no MES-based knowledge is needed to validate that truth.

And Brandon noted,

If we take the reductio-like approach seriously, with the structure you suggest in 1-4, or something like it, then a striking feature of the approach is that it does not — and cannot — prove the existence of an intelligent designer; rather, it merely identifies gaps in naturalistic explanation. Indeed, neither intelligence nor design shows up in any of the steps. Since it works on naturalistic assumptions, which are to be shown wrong or problematic by the end of the argument, it can’t prove anything positive about the world….

Thus ID requires, by its very nature, a positive inference. In Dembski and, if I recall correctly, Behe it is inductive; in Meyer you note it is abductive. But it has to be there or ID fails to manage to include any intelligence, design, or complete refutation of naturalism. And the positive inference has to be based on a correct view of natural objects and of intelligence; for the Thomist there are serious problems on both points.

I freely grant that ID cannot prove the existence of an intelligent designer. It’s hard to imagine an ID case being made any stronger than it is through cosmological fine tuning, and the naturalists have found a way to evade the design conclusion through multiverse theory. I also freely grant that ID is not needed to add to or change the truths we know about God and design through other means. Or rather, I grant that for some of us, ID doesn’t show us anything we didn’t already know through other means. But it still has considerable value.

For one, it helps focus the issue. If I may be allowed to quote myself,

The psychology, the motivation for it all could hardly be clearer than it is in this from cosmologist Bernard Carr. “If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.”

“Don’t want God.” Indeed.

For another, ID has the potential to speak to those who are not moved by scriptural or other philosophical evidences for God and for design. If some regard it as superfluous, others may not. If it is less conclusive to a Thomist (or a Baptist) than philosophy or Bible, it may be more conclusive to a modernist.

But is its persuasiveness to the modernist based on invalid assumptions or arguments? Perhaps, if its point is to prove God; for ID really cannot do that. But that is not what ID is about. ID is not even about validating truths regarding design, truths that are apparent to thinkers in the Thomist tradition. ID is about making an argument in favor of design, a supporting if not conclusive argument, for those who know little about Aristotle or Aquinas and care about them even less.

God is not proved by ID. Yet if naturalism is proved absurd, self-contradictory, or (more the case here) unreasonably unlikely to have done what is claimed of it, then one is forced to think through what else might explain the universe and its many complex features, especially life. I ask the obvious question: what directions might that lead?

Further, then: What if ID hints at God? And what if its hints are less definite than Scripture (which I certainly hold to be the case) or philosophical arguments for God (or intuitions of design such as Holopupenko wrote of yesterday)? Does ID’s being less conclusive or definite make it contradictory to other arguments? And is there not something to be said on its behalf, in that it employs the very tool, science, that some falsely claim has disproved God?

Does ID provide means for a positive inference, as Brandon says it requires? I think so. I do not agree that in either Dembski or Behe take an inductive approach to it, if by that one means that Dembski or Behe see a cumulative trail of design as such in nature. Instead, as I noted above, they have proposed philosophically based answers to the question, what features in nature, if they obtained, would support an inference of design over against an inference of non-design. They have gone looking for those features, and they think they have found them. Maybe they are wrong, as the Darwinists say they are. If they are, they are not wrong theologically. They are wrong philosophically, having proposed flawed criteria for what features of nature might support a design inference; or they are wrong scientifically, misidentifying the features that they think meet those criteria. But as far as I can tell they are wrong neither philosophically nor scientifically in the way Holopupenko, Brandon, and Luke have suggested they are.

Blogging is for learning. Have I missed something important, perhaps it is in what Brandon was hinting toward here?

Thus ID requires, by its very nature, a positive inference…. it it has to be there or ID fails to manage to include any intelligence, design, or complete refutation of naturalism. And the positive inference has to be based on a correct view of natural objects and of intelligence; for the Thomist there are serious problems on both points.

I await your responses.