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A New Study of James Clerk Maxwell Attempts to Defend His Design Argument at the Expense of Intelligent Design


In an article recently published in the British Journal for the History of Science, Matthew Stanley shows how Victorian physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) proposed a design argument in which “the deep connections among electrical magnetic and optical phenomena suggested a unity of nature” that gave evidence of God’s handiwork (“By design: James Clerk Maxwell and the evangelical unification of science,” March 2012).

Stanley’s point seems to be that Maxwell’s concept of the uniformity evidenced in nature showed that there was “no level of explanation at which science was instructed to stop, and there was always something more to be found.” Thus, far from being a “science stopper,” Maxwell’s argument for design offered a positive and constructive grounding for religion and science.

One can surely agree with Stanley (who teaches at New York University ) that design arguments need not be “science stoppers” and that religion and science need not be understood as being in a state of war. Nor do we need to make them “safe” from each other by creating arbitrary non-overlapping magisteria. In this sense, Stanley is right.

He is also right in clarifying Maxwell’s historical significance. As Stanley explains, Maxwell (pictured above) helped to stem the domination of the X Club’s “areligious vision” and turn back its incursion into physics. (The group was formed by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1864 to seize control of science by pushing Darwinian theory and advocating not just the study of nature but naturalism as a guiding paradigm.) Thus we can give at least some support to Stanley’s general thesis, namely, that James Clerk Maxwell breathed new life into natural theology and helped in some measure to sustain the design argument in Victorian England.

Unfortunately, Stanley seems pleased to do this only by placing Maxwell’s views in sharp distinction to modern intelligent design theory, which he insists is opposed to scientific inquiry because its “claim that complex mysteries must be accepted as impenetrable barriers forbids further exploration.” Stanley completely mischaracterizes ID, establishing a false dichotomy between Maxwell’s design theory based upon uniformity and modern ID theory based upon complexity. In so doing he further misunderstands Maxwell’s design argument itself and fails to appreciate how Maxwell’s views are really complementary rather than oppositional to intelligent design’s position.

Stanley’s understanding of ID is shamefully shallow and will mislead many readers. Offering no references and only a series of unsubstantiated claims, he describes ID as an argument that “The complexity of living things seemed to have no explanation other than God.” Linking modern molecular biologist Michael Behe with the apologist and natural theologian William Paley (1743-1805), Stanley grossly mischaracterizes “the Paley-Behe argument” as one in which “we can see design through our inability to understand complexity.” According to Stanley, “ID-style design arguments have real problems for the practice of science.” They are, for him, true “science stoppers.”

But when has any current ID proponent ever made such an argument? No one — not Stephen Meyer, not William Dembski, not Behe himself — has ever once defined ID as the study of biological complexity having “no explanation other than God.” Meyer says ID argues “that there are certain telltale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause — by the conscious choice of a rational agent — rather than a blind, undirected process.” Whether this intelligent agent is God (as Meyer believes) or some less-than-personal Omega Point or other telic principle is really not addressed by any formulation of ID.

William Dembksi has referred to ID as “the fundamental claim…that intelligent causes are necessary to explain the complex, information-rich structures of biology and that these are empirically detectable.” It proposes “neither a creator nor miracles. Intelligent design is theologically minimalist.” In fact, I am unaware of any ID proponent advocating the study of nature as a negative “God only” project. The basic definition, had Stanley chosen to familiarize himself with it, is that intelligent design suggests that certain features of the natural world and the cosmos are better explained by an intelligent cause than by some unguided process. Far from being a “science stopper,” ID relies upon science to make this determination.

Dembski has always insisted that at its heart ID is actually a “scientific research program that investigates the effects of intelligent causes” and as such has certain deep affinities with the forensic sciences, cryptography, artificial intelligence, archeology, SETI, and similar intelligence-based systematic inquiries. Meyer sees ID as resting upon information theory and the method of abductive reasoning first described by mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and more recently advanced by the late Head of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, Peter Lipton (1954-2007), in his Inference to the Best Explanation (2nd ed., 2004). This is surely no argument from ignorance. Far from Stanley’s misrepresentations, Michael Behe has also explicitly tied ID directly to the scientific research project:

The conclusion of intelligent design flows naturally from the data itself — not from sacred books or sectarian beliefs. Inferring that biochemical systems were designed by an intelligent agent is a humdrum process that requires no new principles of logic or science. It comes simply from the hard work that biochemistry has done over the past forty years, combined with consideration of the way in which we reach conclusions of design every day (Darwin’s Black Box, p. 193).

The argument that certain features of biological organisms are functionally irreducibly complex (that is, not explicable by the small, incremental and blind building processes insisted upon by Darwinian formulations) is itself an explanation derived by studying these organisms at the molecular level.

Dembski’s argument is similar. As Dembski himself has remarked, “Biochemist Michael Behe’s ‘irreducible complexity,’ mathematician Marcel Schützenberger’s ‘functional complexity’ and my own ‘specified complexity’ are alternate routes to the same reality. It is the empirical detectability of intelligent causes that renders intelligent design a fully scientific theory and distinguishes it from the design arguments of philosophers or what has traditionally been called ‘natural theology'” (Intelligent Design, pp. 106-107).

Are these the “go-no-further claims of ID” to which Stanley refers? Has Stanley actually read any of Behe’s work? Has he read anything by any major ID proponent? Does he have even a passing familiarity with what the major ID proponents have actually said and how they’ve supported their case? There is surely no indication of it. It would appear that, with regard to ID, the only argument from ignorance here comes from Stanley himself.

Stanley could have made a valuable contribution by locating Maxwell within a generation of men like John Herschel, Charles Babbage, William Whewell, Richard Jones, Edward Hitchcock, Peter Mark Roget, William Buckland, Alfred Russel Wallace, and others who saw science and design in nature as uncontentious partners, but instead his idiosyncratic effort to locate Maxwell in the panoply of design arguments makes his position strained and ultimately untenable.

It is better to view Maxwell’s unity-of-nature argument as complementary to both Paley’s historical argument and to modern ID. Stanley points out that in making his case, Maxwell primarily used the concept of analogy, something Behe also does in likening the flagellum to that of an “outboard motor.” While Maxwell’s analogies of certain laws in one science to those of another differs from Paley’s approach, he never intended this difference to put him in opposition to Paley.

Evidence for this appears in his letter of November 22, 1876, to the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol. Maxwell noted that considering atoms or molecules analogous to “manufactured articles” was first suggested by John Herschel (the same Herschel who derided Darwin’s natural selection as “the law of higgledy-piggledy”). While this analogy was famously criticized by C. J. Munro in a February 3, 1870, issue of Nature, Maxwell explains to the Bishop that

What I thought of was not so much that uniformity of result which is due to uniformity in the process of formation, as a unity intended and accomplished by the same wisdom and power of which uniformity, accuracy, symmetry, consistency, and continuity of plan are as important attributes as the contrivances of the special utility of each individual thing.

Campbell and Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, London, 1882, p. 393

Again, Maxwell seems to be indicating a complementary view of uniformity and unity of contrivance and process; both suggesting intelligence and design. Maxwell, in fact, earnestly insisted upon a unity of laws governing the mind and those of nature, suggesting a harmony between the subjective observer and the objectively observed. Paley would hardly have argued otherwise; Maxwell departed from Paley only in emphasis.

So in the end it doesn’t appear that Stanley gives us much that is reliable here. After constructing a straw-man representation of modern ID, he presents a false dichotomy in which Maxwell serves as a proponent of “science-friendly” design against a “science stopper” design argument fancifully imputed to Paley-Behe. Yet an examination of Maxwell’s own views calls this into question.

What Stanley’s article on Maxwell does show is that his inability to understand and honestly assess ID makes for bad history. His efforts to cast Maxwell against intelligent design seem awkward, unnecessary, and perhaps even agenda-driven. Whatever else may be said for this article, at best it is scholarship gone seriously awry and at worst it is intentionally disingenuous. I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume the former.