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Responding to “Thomist” Critics of Intelligent Design

Jay W. Richards

Preliminary Matters
I’m currently editing a volume called God and Evolution that deals with the general subject of theistic evolution (to be released by Discovery Institute this fall), and I am contributing a couple of chapters to the volume on Catholicism and ID. I’m also working on a book-length treatment of the same subject. As a result, over the last six months, I’ve been studying the relationship between Catholic theology and contemporary arguments for intelligent design.
Various “Catholic” assessments of ID have been appearing on for years, and no doubt will continue to do so. (See this 2007 article from the New Oxford Review, for instance.) But recently, a certain “meme” has begun to emerge that ID is somehow un-Catholic, contrary to the Catholic intellectual tradition, or some such. This seems to me to be a serious mistake that needs to be challenged directly. So one (though only one) of the purposes of the publications I’ve been working on is to respond to a cluster of criticisms of ID by some recent Catholic critics, including those by Ed Feser, Frank Beckwith, Michael Tkacz, and Stephen Barr. Some of these criticisms have taken place online, others in printed publications.
Unfortunately, the issues at stake are subtle and complicated, and often involve translations into somewhat different “conceptual schemes”; so it’s hard to deal with them adequately in the drive-by fashion appropriate to the blogosphere. Moreover, I don’t think that these gentlemen are all making exactly the same arguments, though their criticisms are related. So there’s a danger of over-generalizing.
Since print publications have such a long gestation period, however, and the debate seems to be creating far more heat than light, I’ve decided to weigh in more promptly. My first response, to Stephen Barr, appeared several weeks ago. I’ll offer a few more responses here at Evolution News & Views, one at a time, over the next couple of months. (See also Vincent Torley’s response to Ed Feser over at Uncommon Descent, including the discussion in the comments section. Torley has promised more along these lines in coming weeks.)

I should say upfront that this and future posts on this subject are my responses and I’m responsible for any glitches I introduce. At the same time, my arguments should not be seen merely as a clever Catholic gloss on ID. While not all ID proponents share exactly the same philosophy of nature–which would be unlikely, since it’s a big, diverse tent–I have taken the time to talk to or correspond with at least fifteen of the most publicly identifiable ID advocates–including Bill Dembski, Steve Meyer, Mike Behe, Jonathan Wells, Paul Nelson, Jonathan Witt, Guillermo Gonzalez, David DeWolf, John West, Casey Luskin, Rick Sternberg, David Klinghoffer, Bruce Gordon, and others–to make sure I understand both their personal views and what they intend to argue (those aren’t quite the same thing). (I have privileged access to my own views.) I’ve done the same with some ID-oriented scientists and scholars of diverse theological backgrounds, but will not mention them by name here.
As it happens, there is a surprising amount of consensus on many of the big issues I will discuss (even among those who disagree on certain matters). For instance, I have yet to find a public, theistic proponent of ID who thinks that the only places where God is active, or where design is discernible or relevant, are in those loci in nature that often get the most attention–coding regions of DNA, bacterial flagella, etc. I have yet to find an ID proponent who thinks that it’s a problem for philosophers to pursue arguments akin to St. Thomas’ Fifth Way. Nor have I found anyone who objects to the idea of an explicitly Thomistic rendering of ID.
And since I’ve been personally involved in the ID “movement” since 1996 (and reading the relevant materials for several years before that), I think I’ve got a pretty good sense of the lay of the land. So while I hope to see various explicitly Catholic articulations of ID (may a thousand flowers bloom!), in my responses I’m trying to represent the actual views and arguments of the ID proponents I discuss, rather than giving simply my way of appropriating their arguments.
I understand that there’s a difference between one’s personal views and any particular argument one makes. It’s possible to make an argument unwittingly that doesn’t actually reflect your view of a subject. I’ve discovered myself doing it when I read back over a draft of something I’ve written after being away from it for weeks or months. It can be very hard to say exactly what you mean, especially when you’re dealing with a hard subject. It’s possible to fall back into an easier, “default” way of thinking about a subject with which you don’t quite agree. But I’ve found very little evidence of disparity between the personal views and public arguments among the ID folks I’ve read and corresponded with. Of course, some ID proponents have modified, expanded, or clarified their arguments in later publications to take account of criticisms or confusions that may have resulted from their first pass. But this is a normal part of the process of discovery and scholarship, and fair critiques should take account of that.
What Kind of Criticisms Are These?
I’ll try to take issues one at a time. First, what type of criticisms are Feser, Beckwith, Tkacz, and Barr making? I think they’re best understood primarily as theological, philosophical, and sometimes rhetorical criticisms, and not, say, as attempts to reconcile Darwinism with Catholicism. For the most part, these gentlemen don’t deal with the empirical arguments made by ID proponents. (In fact, Stephen Barr has suggested that some of the empirical arguments made by ID proponents may have merit.) In large part, these critics and some others are targeting what they take to be a false or inadequate philosophy of nature that is presumed to lie behind the arguments of ID proponents. This is usually identified as a “mechanistic” philosophy of nature, a rough-hewn category that I will discuss at a future date.
These gentlemen obviously disagree with the philosophical assumptions of most Darwinists. They of course deny a materialist understanding of nature, and they believe we can have knowledge of God that derives from our knowledge of nature. So they share these assumptions with (theistic) ID proponents. But they accuse ID proponents of holding more or less the same philosophy of nature as the materialists with whom they disagree. Their impression is that ID folks depart from materialists on only a few details, such as when God has to step in to sequence some base pairs in DNA or to put together a bacterial flagellum. (I’m exaggerating of course; but I think that’s the basic complaint.) Otherwise, they think, ID is OK with a materialist view of nature in which natural laws and nature itself are not in need of explanation.
For a long time, I’ve thought that ID and Thomism (both broadly construed) could benefit from interaction. (Incidentally, Thomism, like ID, is not one, simple, monolithic idea, but a cluster of related ideas. Not all ID proponents agree with each other about everything. And not all Thomists agree with each other about everything.) But, alas, rather than mutually beneficial interaction, in which similarities and differences are either clarified or resolved, most of the interaction so far has been in service, I think, of mutual incomprehension and at times, misunderstanding and mischaracterization.
Ways to Mischaracterize an Argument
Of course, a misinterpretation can be the result of several things. If I write an article and make an argument, and someone mischaracterizes my views or my argument, it can be the result of: (1) unintelligence on the part of the critic, (2) reading things into my argument that I have not maintained or implied, (3) failing to read or attend carefully to my argument in the context of my wider views, (4) unclear or imprecise writing or thinking on my part, or (5) any combination of the above.
Moreover, option (2) splits into two categories. A critic may read something into my argument because (2a) he is working in a different conceptual framework and uses words similar to mine, but with different meanings, or he doesn’t like certain words I use because he identifies them with a view he opposes, or (2b) he’s being uncharitable for some reason.
The Main Problems
In the current debate, we can easily rule out (1). (I doubt any really unintelligent people are even following the debate.) I would maintain (and hope to show) that most of the trouble in the current controversy between ID proponents and (a few) Thomists results from a combination of (2), (3), and (4), with the majority of the trouble resulting from (2) and (3).
One of the recurring complaints is that ID arguments, and the presumed philosophy of nature implicit in those arguments, differ (in some illicit ways) from the view of St. Thomas Aquinas. While there are certainly differences between, say, Michael Behe’s argument in Darwin’s Black Box, and Thomas’ Fifth Way, I’m convinced that the stark contrasts between Thomas and ID presented by these critics are mostly the result of the above problems,
The other problem, which we will see over and over again, is the unfortunate tendency by some Thomists to make Thomas a straight-up Aristotelian, which he was not. Feser is helpful in this regard, because at least he talks about “Aristotelian-Thomistic” conceptions, so that one is free to maintain that such conceptions might, in some relevant cases, be different from Thomistic conceptions. Though I don’t know if Feser would be happy with the distinction, getting clarity in this debate requires that we clearly see the places where Thomas and Catholicism differ from Aristotle. We’ll return to this point over and over again, on the question of “immanent” or “intrinsic” teleology, the diverse modes of divine agency, the origin of natural objects versus their ordinary operation, the similarities and differences between artifacts and natural objects, the metaphysical implications of an eternal, uncreated universe versus a temporally finite, created universe, the difference between a view shaped by biblical revelation and one that is not, and so forth.
So, for clarity in this debate, we’ll have to remember several important distinctions. Among them are the following:

  • Thomism A does not equal Thomism B. (That is, there are lots of different versions of Thomism).
  • Thomism A does not equal Thomas Aquinas’ actual views. (That is, many Thomists depart dramatically from Thomas himself, though many fail to indicate that fact clearly to lay readers.)
  • Thomism does not equal Catholicism.
  • Thomism does not equal Aristotelianism.
  • Strict Aristotelianism and textbook Cartesianism are not the only options when it comes to a philosophy or theology of nature.

Obviously there’s a lot of stuff to cover, but we have to start somewhere. So let’s start with this question: What was Thomas Aquinas’ view of creation? I’ll deal with that question in the next post.