Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science
Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design

Understanding Design Arguments: An Introduction for Catholics

Image: Thomas Aquinas, via

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present this excerpt from the new book edited by biologist Ann Gauger, God’s Grandeur: The Catholic Case for Intelligent Design. You can download a full chapter and purchase the book at

In my experience, Catholics face many challenges when it comes to thinking about evolution and intelligent design. Many of us somewhere along the way had a priest or teacher tell us not to trouble ourselves about this issue; whatever “science” says is fine. In addition, there is even some confusion over the very meaning of the terms evolution and intelligent design.

In my introductory chapter to the new book God’s Grandeur, I aim to help readers think more carefully and critically about these ideas. Without worrying yet about whether design arguments are sound, we must first figure out what these arguments claim — and, just as importantly, what they do not claim. To this end, I provide some background, attempt to define our terms, discuss the form of such arguments, and consider common Catholic misconceptions. My hope is that we will then be in a better place to evaluate the success of such arguments in the chapters that follow.

An Ancient Dialectic

For many American Catholics, discussions of evolution and intelligent design dredge up images of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” or Fundamentalist Christians attempting to have literal six-day creationism taught in public schools. While most of us Catholics are uncomfortable with the aggressive evolutionary atheism of Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists, we don’t feel that we have much of a dog in such fights. Yet we can be too hasty in this regard. The fundamental debate is not of recent vintage. The West has long had two dominant narratives about where our world’s astonishing and beautiful creatures come from: accidental events or intelligent foresight. These narratives predate not only Fundamentalist Christianity but Christianity itself. This issue pushes all the way down to fundamental metaphysics: What is the self-existent ultimate reality — impersonal matter or a personal Creator?

As far back as Socrates in the fifth century BC, we see the father of Western philosophy making an explicit design argument. His student Xenophon records Socrates’s view that we have been most favored by the supreme deity. We are uniquely arranged in body and mind. All other things appear to be here for our benefit. And nature itself seems consistently arranged in the best or finest way. All of this, Socrates argues, bears witness to divine providence. Variations on this basic theme appear in his successors Plato and Aristotle and beyond.

The opposing narrative came from the Greek atomists like Democritus, Leucippus, and Epicurus. Humans, they claimed, are intelligent of course. But this intelligence is a late arrival on the scene. Ultimate reality isn’t intelligent. What fundamentally exists are atoms and empty space in which the atoms collide. Just as you hear many today saying silly things like, “Love is just a chemical reaction in the brain,” so too did the atomists believe that all phenomena really reduce down to the properties of material bodies. For the atomists, highly organized beings like ourselves self-organize by accident. There are an infinite number of worlds. So with an infinite amount of time, every combination of atoms must manifest itself somewhere! Sure, organisms look intelligently designed, but poor accidental designs disappeared while good accidental designs survived.

There is truly nothing new under the sun. There are differences, to be sure, but the atomist narrative clearly anticipates not only Darwin’s theory but multiverse scenarios as well. The fundamental issue, all the way back, is whether the apparently designed features of our world are truly intelligently designed or whether they can be accounted for by lucky accidents with no intelligence involved. As even Richard Dawkins recognizes, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Like the atomists before him, of course, he thinks this design is only apparent and not real.

What Intelligent Design Is

With this classical dialectic in view, intelligent design (ID) proponents typically define intelligent design as the view that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process. Note that this doesn’t mean that no evolution has occurred, or that natural processes and forces don’t have their place. It is rather the minimal claim that it’s not natural processes and forces all the way down — a claim to which we Catholics are dogmatically committed, believing as we do that all things originate in God.

Design proponents have made arguments for real rather than apparent design at different levels. For instance, they’ve argued that the beginning of the universe requires an intelligent cause (William Lane Craig and James Sinclair), that the laws of physics are designed (Robin Collins), that our planet is uniquely designed (Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards), that chemistry as we know it is designed for life (Michael Denton; Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt), that the building blocks of living things cannot be found by blind searches but must be designed (Douglas Axe), that the first living creature and the fossil record give evidence of design (Stephen Meyer), and that both macro- and micro-features of living things give evidence of intelligent design (Michael Denton; Michael Behe).

Note three quick things about these arguments. First, contrary to stereotypes, these arguments are not “god-of-the-gaps” arguments. None of these arguments claims, “I don’t know what caused this, so God musta done it.” Rather, the standard mode of argumentation for design proponents is an inference to the best explanation — a common form of reasoning in general and in the historical sciences (like evolutionary biology) in particular. They argue that there are positive signs of intentional design in nature and that non-intentional explanations are weak by comparison. This is highly consonant with the Catholic faith. The Scriptures (e.g., Ps. 19 and Rom. 1), the Church Fathers (e.g., St. Gregory of Nazianzen), and the councils (e.g., Vatican I) all declare that God’s handiwork in nature is detectable by human reason and not just by faith.

Second, detecting design does not entail that we have detected divine “intervention” in nature. Design can be detected whether or not there was any direct action. One can tell that a field of corn was intentionally planted even if intermediate causes such as drones were used to plant the seeds. Similarly, design arguments need not imply unmediated divine action. 

Third, these arguments have clear theological implications, but ID proponents attempt to stick to the publicly available scientific evidence and do not argue from religious texts. Most intelligent design proponents are Christians, but an argument that the designer is the Christian God would require more than just the scientific evidence. ID proponents are not being coy about their belief in God but being careful about their conclusions. Aquinas does the same thing.

What Intelligent Design Isn’t

Many Catholic intellectuals labor under the false impression that intelligent design theorists propose a false dilemma: either there is an intelligent designer or else natural laws are responsible for these designed looking features of our world — as though God cannot be responsible for the natural laws themselves or that natural causes cannot be instruments of God (i.e., secondary causes). This would indeed be an unfortunate dilemma. Fortunately, this is a misunderstanding. ID does not imply a zero-sum game where if God is responsible for something then He must act directly and nature cannot be a true cause as well. Rather, the minimal claim is only that some features of our world give very good evidence of having been intelligently designed somewhere in their origin story. What ID denies is that every feature of nature is the product of natural forces all the way down. Given that this commitment is necessarily shared by Catholics, Catholic hostility to ID on this point is surprising, to put it mildly.

Read the rest, including the notes to this chapter, by purchasing your copy of God’s Grandeur: The Catholic Case for Intelligent Design now!