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What Is Intelligent Design? A Thomistic Perspective


All of nature manifests design. Design is everywhere — in the laws of physics, in quantum mechanics, in biology, in relativistic cosmology, in every crevice of nature. There is little in the universe that is not designed. Accidents do happen, but even accidents are the conjunction of designed events. Two cars colliding at an intersection are designed vehicles driven by intelligent drivers on planned roadways. Chance itself presupposes a framework of design in which chance occurs. 

A Thomist might say that design in biology is not qualitatively different from design in quantum mechanics. Both manifest teleology — directedness in act. This has been the root of many Thomists’ critique of ID science. Thomists often claim that ID makes a false distinction between design in physics and design in biology. This provides a wedge by which to criticize ID science, and I believe this wedge is misguided. 

A Misguided Wedge

Consider SETI research, which is a fine example of ID research. SETI researchers look for evidence of intelligent artifacts in the universe, using the tools of astronomy. There’s no doubt that if we found a radio beacon transmitting a language, or an interstellar probe, or a Dyson sphere that we would (justifiably) infer intelligent design. How does this design differ from the design that is obvious in all the laws of physics?

ID theorists have proposed design filters, which are quite valid methods of inferring design and are used implicitly in many scientific disciplines (e.g., archaeology, cryptography, astronomy). But what is it, metaphysically one might say, that distinguishes design in the ID sense from ubiquitous teleological design, in a Thomistic sense?

I would suggest that ID design is a manifestation of life, in a Thomistic sense. St. Thomas asked: What is it that characterizes living things, and distinguishes them from inanimate objects? Both inanimate and animate things can change, move, appear, and disintegrate, etc. 

Immanent Versus Transuent Causation

Living things, St. Thomas observed, differ from inanimate things in that living things act for their own perfection. By perfection, he meant that living things act to become more realized versions of their type. A squirrel seeks food, defends itself, has offspring, heals wounds, etc., all of which are essential to what it means to be a squirrel. A rock doesn’t do anything to make itself a better rock. It merely is what it is. Living things have immanent causation — causation that arises from within and tends to the betterment of the organism. Inanimate things have transeunt causation — causation that arises from without, and that acts on, and not by, the object itself. Transeunt causation does not tend to the betterment of the object.

In intelligent design science, we infer design by looking for evidence that the system under study acts in a way that betters itself or realizes a goal that improves it. This we call “specified complexity” which, I believe, is tantamount to inferring immanent causation. In archeology, we infer design by identifying an object as a part of a building or a tool or a sample of writing, rather than a random stone. Building or tool-making or writing are examples of immanent causation — acts of intelligent agents seeking to realize their nature. Intelligent agents seek shelter and make tools and express thoughts. Inanimate objects don’t. 

Causation in SETI Research

The same distinction between immanent causation and transeunt causation appears in SETI research. Astronomers look for artifacts of life — energy-gathering devices such as Dyson spheres or vehicles such as spacecraft or communications such as meaningful radio signals — each of which is the kind of thing made not only by generic intelligence but by living agents. Energy harnessing and transportation and communication are not only evidence of design, they are evidence of life. 

In biology, ID research looks for characteristics of living organisms that imply living intelligence not originating from the organism itself. A bacterium knows nothing of molecular genetics, yet the organism’s DNA is essential to its survival and thriving. A rat knows nothing of cardiology, yet proper functioning of its heart is essential to its thriving. 

ID science seeks to distinguish natural things that manifest generic teleology from natural things that manifest teleology characteristic of a living agent. From a metaphysical perspective, it may be said that ID science seeks not merely design and not merely intelligence (which are manifest in all of nature) but living intelligence — immanent causation — which is a hallmark of biology. In this sense, Thomism has much to contribute to ID theory, and ID theory can be understood as an application of basic Thomistic insights about life to modern science. 

Editor’s note: For more on the relationship between intelligent design and the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, please see the website Aquinas.Design.

Photo credit: Jasper van der Meij via Unsplash and Aquinas.Design.