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How to Completely Misunderstand Intelligent Design: A Response to Stephen Barr

Jay W. Richards

Intelligent design (ID) has attracted its fair share of critics. If it’s not the fulminations of New Atheists, it’s extremely uncharitable readings from some Catholic intellectuals who think they smell mechanism or interventionism. While the criticisms vary, they tend to have one thing in common: they’re based, not on actual ID arguments, but on stereotypes and misunderstandings of those arguments. It’s hard to find ID critics who actually describe an ID argument correctly before proceeding to refute it.
Catholic physicist Stephen Barr is a constitutionally uncharitable critic of ID. It’s not clear that he has even read the books that he criticizes. But he criticizes them nonetheless.
In a February 9 diatribe in First Things, he makes several complaints. For instance, he asserts, bizarrely, that ID claims that science is incompetent. He faults ID for effectively disagreeing with Bacon on the arbitrary rule that “science” can’t consider intelligence or purpose, implying that this somehow puts ID at odds with the Catholic tradition, even though science for St. Thomas and the Catholic tradition generally was never limited to a positivistic rendering of natural science. He faults ID for not using the same examples of design used by the author of the Book of Wisdom around 100 B.C. He claims, without evidence, that “very few religious skeptics have been made more open to religious belief because of ID arguments.” (How could he possibly know that?)
And he offers this stereotypical complaint, to which ID proponents have responded ad nauseam:

The ID movement’s version (of the design argument) is hostage to every advance in biological science. Science must fail for ID to succeed. In the famous “explanatory filter” of William A. Dembski, one finds “design” by eliminating “law” and “chance” as explanations. This, in effect, makes it a zero-sum game between God and nature. What nature does and science can explain is crossed off the list, and what remains is the evidence for God. This conception of design plays right into the hands of atheists, whose caricature of religion has always been that it is a substitute for the scientific understanding of nature. 1

Anyone familiar with ID will know that Barr is simply defining science to exclude consideration of intelligence, whereas the burden of ID is arguments is to show that intelligence is within the purview of science properly construed. But rather than going into all that, let’s just focus on Barr’s theological complaint against ID, since it’s quite common.
Admittedly, the way some ID proponents speak can lead to misunderstandings, if read uncharitably. When discussing biology, for example, ID theorists frequently contrast the role of natural laws like gravity with the role of intelligent design. They may speak of natural selection as a “mindless” or “brute” or even “purposeless” process. To the grumpy reader interpreting this language theologically, this can sound like ID implies that God only acts apart from these natural forces, that he is merely an artificer who rearranges pre-existing material, that there are forces in the world that seem to exist apart from God’s activity, or that God only acts where nature leaves off. God’s action, then, would be set up against nature, and left to fill the “gaps” that nature leaves empty.
These ideas would certainly be problematic, as Barr charges, if anyone actually advanced them; but no theistic ID proponent ever has. No theist worth his salt believes that God is aloof from the world except when he acts directly in nature. That would be a sort of modified deism–though, strictly speaking, deists don’t think God acts within the world at all. For theists, in any case, God transcends the world, is free to act directly in it–however unfashionable that might be–and always remains intimately involved with it.
At the same time, the theist need not believe that God always acts directly in the world. He can act directly or “primarily,” such as when he creates the whole universe or raises Jesus from the dead. It’s God’s world, so that’s his prerogative. He’s not violating the universe or its laws, or invading alien territory when he does this, since he’s the source of both the universe and whatever “laws” it might have.
He also can act through so-called “secondary causes.” These include natural processes and laws that he has established, such as the electromagnetic force. (I think it’s problematic to speak of physical constants as “causes,” but let that pass for now). An event might be both an expression of a physical law and the purposes of God. It’s not as if atheists appeal to gravity while theists appeal to miracles. Gravity is as consistent with theism as are miracles. It’s just that most theists and atheists agree on gravity but not on miracles.
When an ID theorist in question is also a theist, then these distinctions are always in the background, even if they don’t show up in every argument. That’s because ID arguments often focus on discrete, empirical evidence of design in nature–that is, with “design” insofar as it is detectible and tractable in an open-minded scientific framework. This is nothing new. While St. Thomas made broad design arguments, he also pointed to specific examples of design within nature. ID theorists simply point to evidence that Thomas knew nothing about.
Consider Mike Behe. When he is discussing the bacterial flagellum, he is evaluating the powers and limits of regular, repetitive physical laws (or, as I would say, of matter insofar as it acts according to these laws), and of the Darwinian “mechanism”–natural selection and random genetic mutation. He concludes that these processes, which are not intelligent agents per se, probably don’t have the power, by themselves, to produce the bacterial flagellum. That’s because the locomotive function of the flagellum is inaccessible to the cumulative power of natural selection. It is, as Behe says, “irreducibly complex.” It needs many separate parts working together before it gets the survival-benefitting function. That’s the negative part of his argument.
To get a working flagellum, according to Behe, you need foresight–the exclusive jurisdiction of intelligent agents. That’s the positive part of his argument–not just against the adequacy of selection and mutation, but for intelligent design. An agent can produce a system for a future purpose, for an end. Now it’s the obvious purpose of the flagellum, along with the fact that it is almost surely inaccessible to Darwinian selection–not merely the fact that it’s really complicated–that justifies his conclusion that the bacterial flagellum is better explained by intelligent design than by repetitive natural laws or the Darwinian mechanism.
Behe makes a similar argument with respect to the biochemical cascade in a light-sensitive spot, from which, say, the mammalian eye putatively evolved by Darwinian means. Behe focuses on the light sensitive spot, not because he thinks the entire eye is easily accessible to Darwinian mechanism, but because the eye depends for its function on the simpler light sensitive spot, which is well-understood and tractable.
But it’s a misunderstanding to construe Behe’s arguments as complete descriptions of what God is doing. He is talking about detectible design in a subfield of biology, in which physical constants are treated as given, and the limits of mutation and natural selection can be discerned. In the case of the bacterial flagellum, intelligent design goes beyond what known, repetitive, natural processes, as well as selection and mutation would do if left to their ordinary capacities. So we invoke intelligent design rather than impersonal processes alone here. Contrary to Barr’s argument-free assertions, this is not an appeal to go “beyond science” or a claim that science is incompetent. It’s an argument for why science ought to include teleology within its explanatory toolbox if it wants to adequately account for major aspects of nature.
That’s how the design argument works here; but it’s not how every design argument, focusing on every feature of nature, works.
Ordinarily, when a scientist invokes a physical law, he intends to appeal to some fixed feature of the physical world. A ball falls to the ground when dropped from the Leaning Tower of Pisa “because” of gravity. So a scientist can say that gravity “causes” the ball to fall (once dropped). (Again, I think this way of speaking is misleading, but it’s conventional so I won’t challenge it.) Since it’s constant–it always does the same, mathematically describable thing–and isn’t an intelligent agent, gravity is seen as an impersonal property of matter. But that doesn’t mean the scientist intends to exclude God’s role in some broader sense, or that God is so excluded whatever the scientist intends. The scientist has simply taken gravity as a given fact about the natural world.
Similarly, Behe’s argument does not imply that nature is a self-contained entity going on its merry way except when God decides to jump in to build a bacterial flagellum. Nor is Behe implying that natural laws or so-called impersonal processes are outside God’s purposes or control. Nor is he saying anything about the value of other teleological arguments–such as Thomas’s Fifth Way. He’s simply talking about detecting design in tiny domains of biology that we understand well, and treating impersonal constants and mechanisms, such as gravity and the Darwinian mechanism, as givens. 2
The Wrong Kind of Design Argument?
Stephen Barr offers another common complaint, which is that ID is quite different from the design argument made by the Church Fathers and scholastics:

The emphasis in early Christian writings was not on complexity, irreducible or otherwise, but on the beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony found in the world that God had made. 3

Barr seems to imply that there’s some theological problem with appealing to certain kinds of complexity; but obviously there is not. The Church Fathers didn’t talk about bacterial flagella or DNA because they didn’t know anything about them.
In any case, this complaint is also based on a misunderstanding. Neither Behe’s nor any other ID argument implies that other design arguments are illicit. From a different vantage point, the “fine tuning” of physical constants may itself be evidence for intelligent design. There’s no zero-sum game here. It’s not as if gravity and electromagnetism are points for the materialist, whereas the bacterial flagellum is a point for the theists. It’s just that we might only notice the “designedness” of physical constants when we attend to them directly. In biology, physical constants are often part of the background. That’s true of Behe’s argument, as well as of Steve Meyer’s argument concerning biological information. But the background is interesting too.
Think of it this way. Imagine an expedition of future astronauts is exploring a distant planet. They find something that looks like a book with pages, which look like they contain written text. The language is unique; no one has ever seen it before; and the “book” is quite exotic. So it’s given to a crack team of exoplanet cryptographers, who eventually determine that it is in a fact a book–a cookbook. Now they know that the text was written by intelligent beings. They would not have been able to determine that without focusing on the text, and treating the pages, binding, and cover as background contrasts to the text. But once they decrypt the text, they could then turn their attention to the book itself. Noting its chemical composition, artful design, and user-friendly layout, they would then realize that the book itself, and not just the text, is the product of intelligence.
In the same way, one can make a design argument based on some narrow feature in the biological world without denying that the background media, considered on their own, are also evidence of design. ID theorists do that all the time. They point to evidence for design from physics and cosmology. And they appeal to beauty and rationality in nature as evidence for design. ID is not an either-or approach, but rather a both-and.4
In fact, some recent design arguments go well beyond biological function and its constraints. Guillermo Gonzalez and I, for instance, developed a design argument based on evidence ranging from geology to astronomy and cosmology suggesting that the universe appears to be designed not just for intelligent life but also for scientific discovery.5 It’s very hard to see how such an argument is anti-science, as Barr suggests.
Of course, as with the case of the book and text, even if, say, fine tuning in physics is evidence of design, it doesn’t follow that the fine-tuning of, say, gravity and electromagnetism are adequate to give rise to reproducing cells or other things we discover in nature. There’s no theological principle that requires otherwise. In fact, we may still detect design at the cellular level in part by contrasting it with the background regularities of physics. It would then be an example of what philosopher Del Ratzsch calls “counterflow”6 : it exhibits features we have good reason to doubt can be produced by ordinary, repetitive physical processes, but that could be produced by an intelligent agent. Pointing to evidence of counterflow is no insult to physics or to God, anymore than saying that gravity alone couldn’t produce Shakespeare’s sonnets is no insult to gravity–though it might be an insult to Shakespeare.
I should add that even if we can’t render a stand-alone design argument from some narrow aspect of nature, it doesn’t follow that God is not still in charge of that part of nature, or that it might not still be the occasion for someone to see or experience God. Scientific study is not the only way to experience or gain knowledge of nature. But it is one way. And if there is evidence of design in that realm that natural scientists study, then there’s no good reason, either philosophical or theological, why they shouldn’t be free to consider it.
Again, Barr’s complaints are so varied and scattered that it’s cumbersome to respond to them all in one place. But if he’s going to be a career critic of ID, perhaps he might actually read the books by ID proponents, and critique those, rather than continue to offer these angry drive-by shots based on his misinterpretations.
1 Stephen Barr, “The End of Intelligent Design?” First Things (February 9, 2010), at: Obscurely, after his diatribe, Barr admits: “None of this is to say that the conclusions the ID movement draws about how life came to be and how it evolves are intrinsically unreasonable or necessarily wrong.”
2 Behe discusses this issue in “God, Design, and Contingency in Nature” (Nov. 12, 2009), at:
3 Barr, “The End of Intelligent Design?”
4 For discussion of beauty as evidence of design, see Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
5 See, for instance, Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Cosmos is Designed for Discovery (Washington DC: Regnery, 2004), and Stephen C. Meyer, “The Return of the God Hypothesis,” available online: here.
6 Del Ratzsch, Nature, Design, and Science (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001).

Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow at Discovery, Senior Research Fellow at Heritage Foundation
Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the Executive Editor of The Stream. Richards is author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated (2013) and Indivisible (2012); The Human Advantage; Money, Greed, and God, winner of a 2010 Templeton Enterprise Award; The Hobbit Party with Jonathan Witt; and Eat, Fast, Feast. His most recent book, with Douglas Axe and William Briggs, is The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic Into a Catastrophe.



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