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Platonic Forms and Aristotelian Teleology: Let’s Explore the Philosophical Roots of Intelligent Design

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Editor’s note: We are delighted to welcome Walter Myers III as a new contributor. He has had a long career as an architect and project lead for one of the world’s largest software companies, located in Redmond, WA. He studied philosophy at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology under J.P. Moreland, Gary DeWeese, as well as John Bloom, Paul Nelson, and Cornelius Hunter. After receiving an MA in philosophy, he joined the program as an adjunct.

I am glad to take this opportunity to introduce myself, with my areas of interest and research. I would like to think that my background in mathematics and computer science, along with the study of history, philosophy of science and religion, origins of life, human origins, Darwinism, and intelligent design, have prepared me to look at evolution deeply, critically, and thoughtfully. In the course of this work and study, I came to the conclusion that a design theoretic best describes the origins and diversity we see in the natural world. Having written hundreds of thousands of lines of code as a professional over decades, I see programming and engineering constructs down to the lowest levels of biological reality.

As to my philosophical approach to ID, I take an Aristotelian-Thomist approach, also incorporating elements of Platonism. In making a case for ID, I do not necessarily include Thomistic arguments, since that would place us firmly in theistic territory. However it must be noted that the pure Aristotelian view assumes 1) an eternal universe, and 2) that final (teleological) causes are immanent within nature itself. We know that Aristotle was wrong on (1), but on (2) we have to ask why the natural world is so orderly, and what precisely are those final causes that drive nature towards order. That is precisely what the Thomistic view attempts to reconcile: how we came to “ends” or “purposes” in the natural world that argue for design rather than being the result simply of fortuitous and undirected events, as the Darwinian paradigm contends.

The Platonic element in my thinking focuses on non-physical forms (or ideas). For Plato, intelligible forms constituted ultimate reality, with the physical world being but a dim reflection. He saw the world as the work of a craftsman. That craftsman (the Demiurge) could only work within the order of nature using pre-existing materials, thus accounting for the world’s imperfections. In this view we see the roots of intelligent design. While I don’t agree that material things are a dim reflection of the ultimate reality of forms, I do believe ordered material things have a corresponding non-physical structure that is simply translated into (obviously imperfect) material structures. One way to envision this is to think of a musical composition, which combines a set of abstract “rules” along with novel creative information that can be represented physically through a performance, with varying degrees of perfection (as any school music teacher would attest).

Similarly, I think of biological organisms as having non-material structural configurations that are translated into a physical substrate through coded information. Thus, we have a non-physical structural “form” that represents a particular biological organism. This structure is then coded in physical DNA. Finally, we have an underlying physical execution fabric that realizes those instructions, similar to the machine language instruction set of a computer. I believe the evidence shows that whether for a single-cell or multi-cell organism, the original forms (whether single or paired) of any organisms had to be created in toto so they could subsequently generate progeny through either asexual or sexual reproduction, respectively. Speciation could take place through inherent variability of code, modification of existing code, or through the addition of code, as with computer programs.

Both Platonic forms and Aristotelian teleological concepts lay a firm groundwork for intelligent design, even though in their pure forms, both are based on immanent constructs as opposed to a transcendent designer outside of space and time. That distinction is immaterial from an ID perspective since ID makes no claims about the designer, but simply seeks the hallmarks of design. The concepts of mind, agency, non-physical structures, and instantiation of non-material entities in the realm of the physical are problems we continue to wrestle with up to the current day in the fields of philosophy and science. I look forward to exploring these and other issues in future posts.

Image: Plato and Aristotle, by Raphael, detail from “The School of Athens” via Wikicommons.

Walter Myers III

Board of Directors, Discovery Institute
Walter is a Principal Engineering Manager leading a team of engineers, working with customers to drive their success in the Microsoft Azure Cloud. He holds a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Biola University's Talbot School of Theology, where he is an adjunct faculty member in the Master of Arts in Science & Religion (MASR) program teaching on Darwinian evolution from a design-centric perspective. He is also a board member of the Orange County Classical Academy (OCCA), a classical charter school in Southern California associated with Hillsdale College.