ID and Thomism: Why the Debate?

I’m only partway through my reading of the long debate on theology and ID, but some patterns seem to be falling into place already. As I read it, the Thomists in the discussion (all of whom are far better philosophers than I) object to Intelligent Design because ID is mistaken regarding what life is in itself, and how life relates to God in himself. I think that’s fair as a very brief summary. They say, for example, that ID commits to a mechanistic view of life, and that it fails to recognize the teleology or final causation that inheres not only in life but in all substances (life’s teleology being of course of a different order than inanimate objects’). ID is said to err in accepting false, non-teleological, reductionistic or mechanistic assumptions of modern empirical science. The result of this, they say, is that ID gets God wrong, it gets life wrong, and it even gets molecules, cells, and everything else wrong with respect to what they actually are

All of this might be true. I know very little of Aquinas. Thomistic language of final causes and natures and etc. remains rather opaque to me. I’ll have to keep working at it. But unless I’m severely mistaken in what I do understand, all that is beside the point anyway, because it misconstrues who ID is for and what ID is for. Intelligent Design, as I understand it, starts from a different place altogether and has different purposes. Its argument (as I understand it; I speak for myself) has a form similar to a reductio ad absurdum. If it allows naturalistic assumptions into the picture, so what? That’s how reductio arguments are conducted: by starting with the opponent’s assumptions, and in the end showing they fail.

The ID question in its current form could never have arisen before Newton. Democritus may have proposed an essentially lifeless and purposeless vision of all reality, but it was not until Newton (himself a theist) that theoretical foundations were laid to make such a world plausible. LaPlace expressed it as well as anyone: nature works mechanistically. At least inanimate nature did, in his mind; but his machine-picture had a gap that remained for Darwin to fill. The Origin of Species completed the picture: all the cosmos was explainable by purposeless principles of law plus chance, leaving room for no transcendent intelligence whatever. Ultimate being was no longer considered to be God. Eventually, ultimate reality was understood as a handful of fundamental particles and forces. Reality was explainable—and defined—by and through all these tiny, mindless, insignificant forces and particles repeated ad nauseum throughout the galaxies. That was all there was.

Such a picture is only true, however, if those forces and particles really are “all there was.” The Bible tells us God is a jealous God (often misinterpreted, but never mind that for now); no other god can stand next to him. But God’s jealousy is at least matched by that of mechanistic naturalism: no god, no minor angel or demon, no imp or leprechaun, no tiniest hint, even, of any supernaturalism can stand next to it. This is not because naturalism cares about supernaturalism; such an anthropomorphism would itself violate naturalism. It is because either naturalism is the whole story or else it is the wrong story. There is no middle way.

Intelligent Design takes naturalism, in all its jealously, quite seriously. This bothers the Thomists. But in fact ID can be conceived of as an investigation into what must be true if naturalism is true. Should that investigation lead to a dead end—if naturalism turns out to entail facts that cannot be true—this provides strong evidence that naturalism itself is a dead end. (Whether it does indeed lead to such a dead end is a different question not at issue in the current debate.)

To restate the point, naturalism presumes that chance plus law acting on purposeless initial conditions led to life and all its diversity. If it should turn out that chance and law can’t do those sorts of things with any reasonable likelihood, then that would pose severe problems for naturalism. Roughly stated the reductio-like approach goes this way:

  1. Assume the truth of naturalism, which entails that all of the cosmos and all life and its diversity came about by some set S of circumstances characterized by purposeless law and chance acting on likewise purposeless initial conditions.
  2. Using methods and constraints entailed by naturalism (including methodological naturalism as a guidepost for inquiry) explore the likelihood that all features of the the cosmos and life can be explained through S.
  3. If there is at least one feature F of the cosmos, life, and/or its diversity that cannot, in principle, be explained by S within bounds of reasonable probability, then
  4. Naturalism is false in either assumptions, methodology, or both.

The argument hinges on (3). (If there is more than one such unexplainable feature F, then ID’s case is all the stronger.) But the test for (3) must be conducted on naturalistic assumptions. To introduce Thomistic conceptions of substance, being, and causation would be inappropriate. It would invalidate the argument—and this is so even if Thomism (in any form) is exactly the truth about God and reality. A reductio argument must remain within its own parameters. This is what Dembski and Behe have been working on.

Now, you have likely noticed that this does not represent all of Intelligent Design. (It seems to me that it does cover the part the Thomists have most often identified as being objectionable.) Stephen C. Meyer’s approach is different. For him ID is not just a negative argument; it is a positive inference to intelligence, based on the fact wherever we see information of the sort coded in DNA, it always has intelligence as its source. His argument for ID is not a reductio, it is abductive, an inference to the best explanation. It begins at the same starting point Dembski and Behe use, however: the findings of the natural sciences, in all of their details and particulars. This to the Thomists is a fundamental error. But Meyer is not making his argument to directing his argument toward the Thomists primarily, or to any other theists.* Neither are Dembski or Behe. They are making their arguments to directing their arguments toward the world of science—people who couldn’t tell a final cause from their “final answer,” and who don’t care that they can’t. They are speaking the language of their audience those on the other side of the argument.

The Thomists start with certain observations and assumptions going back to the thirteenth century (Aquinas) or some some 1500 years before that (Aristotle). Meyer starts with 21st century biochemistry. Is there something wrong with starting with biochemistry? Does it not represent real data? And if the path he takes from there does not land him where Thomas landed, does that necessarily signify a contradiction? I don’t see how it does. Or, if starting from naturalistically conceived biochemistry, he arrives at the conclusion that naturalistic biochemistry cannot be the whole story, does that put him at odds with Thomistic beliefs about causes and natures? How does it do so?

Here in summary is what I am saying: Intelligent Design cannot tell the story of God as theology can (whether Thomistic, Scotistic, or Baptistic or Presbyterianistic). If that were its purpose, yes, it would be a dismal failure, just as the Thomists are saying it is. Aristotelian-Thomism might have it in its capacity to go further than that. Biblical theology certainly does. But just because ID cannot go where they go, does that mean it is fundamentally wrong-headed? ID can’t get very far at all into an understanding of God’s nature, or even the nature of nature itself. What it can do, though, is point to the absurdity of naturalism, and hint at the necessity for an intelligence behind nature. It can do it using language that modern Westerners generally understand. These are eminently worthwhile projects.

Perhaps I’ve utterly misunderstood the Thomists’ position. If so I’d be glad to be corrected. As I see it now, though, ID’s validity has nothing to do with Scholastic conceptions of causes, natures, being or any of the rest. There are valid reasons behind ID’s non-theological, non-Aristotelian assumptions. I find it hard to see why there is any debate at all.

*See here regarding the edits.