Intelligent Design Debate and the Rehabilitation of Analogical Knowledge

Intelligent Design Debate and the Rehabilitation of Analogical Knowledge

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The Intelligent Design theory is based on a valid form of reasoning and is essential to the proper understanding of nature, but it is not a theory in natural science.

 1. Is there a limit to knowledge attainable by natural science?

The Intelligent Design theory makes two assertions:

1. The Darwinian mechanism is unable to explain the evolution of central biological systems in nature.

2. Only an intelligent cause can explain the evolution of such systems.

As far as I can see, only the first of these assertions is amenable to discussion on the terms of natural science.

For a philosopher without a background in natural science, it can be very difficult properly to assess debates in this area; but to the extent that I have been able to follow the discussion revolving around the first assertion, it seems to me that Intelligent Design theory (hereafter ID theory) presents strong arguments.

The core argument in the critique of Darwinism is the claim that nature encompasses systems that are irreducibly complex. Irreducibly complex systems cannot emerge as a result of serial cumulative improvements in a system. The existence of such systems in nature therefore raises a problem for the Darwinian explanation, since the latter explains evolution in nature by appeal to the notion of the gradual improvement of systems.

It is important to note that there is one kind of evolution found in nature for which ID theorists such as Michael Behe do not deny the Darwinian mechanism’s ability to account – microevolution. Nor do they claim that it is impossible that an irreducibly complex system should arise by virtue of natural selection and random mutations. Behe distinguishes between direct evolutionary pathways and indirect pathways. While the notion of direct pathways is dismissed out of court that of indirect pathways is not. Behe argues, however, that an indirect pathway is improbable. Significantly, then, this concession shows that the ID theorists do not blanketly reject every Darwinian explanation.

The Darwinian defence typically comprises two arguments. One involves the extrapolation of provable microevolution to macroevolution. This argument appeals to the extraordinary temporal span of 3-4 billion years through which the evolution of living organisms has progressed and the scope for complication such an expanse involves. Another argument involves the identification of possible indirect pathways that Behe and others have overlooked. Kenneth Miller points out that the functions of the components of a system are subject to change over the course of evolution, which feature may explain how a complex system gradually came to be. And Allan Orr has pointed out that functions which begin merely as an advantage to the organism may later become indispensable to it, which circumstance may explain the emergence of complex systems.

The possibility of indirect pathways is not the sort of consideration that will settle the scientific issue. Both sides agree that indirect pathways are a logical possibility. No clinching argument would appear to be forthcoming.

The ID theorists’ defence against the Darwinian critique is to point out that the latter’s putative explanations of irreducibly complex systems by appeal to indirect pathways are too speculative to qualify as natural science. Rather, they are speculative conjectures about how evolution might have taken place through natural selection and random mutations. Now, the ID theorists’ attack on Darwinism on this point proceeds entirely on the premises of natural science, invoking the very criteria that natural science itself has defined. Rather than seeking to go beyond science, they adhere more rigorously to its canons than do the Darwinists. Loose speculation and an appeal to fabulously felicitous random mutations do not amount to valid scientific explanation.

On my reading of the discussion, Michael Behe, William Dembski and others succeed in offering an assessment of the Darwinian defence that is predicated on the premises of natural science itself. They reach the verdict that the Darwinists’ defence consists of speculative and scientifically unsound explanations. Indeed, they bolster their case further by showing that there are features of Darwinian theories that are improbable according to probability theory. The strength of an argument based on probabilistic calculations is of course its mathematical rigour.

It must be concluded that it is intrinsic to this discussion that it resist closure. Both sides party to it are natural scientists, and the discussion proceeds on the terms laid down by natural science itself. Yet there is no agreement; the opposite is the case. It is difficult to judge who is right. The Darwinists are always going to be able to say that a Darwinian explanation is not impossible, and that sometimes speculative conjectures are required if science is to advance. The future, they maintain, will surely vindicate Darwinism. We know that natural science progresses and is forever broadening its explanatory scope. At some point in the future, we will be able to explain the evolution of irreducibly complex systems in a way that satisfies the criteria of natural science. The critics of Darwinism, for their part, will reply that the relevant hypotheses remain either outright improbable or else wildly speculative, and that gesturing towards the future is no argument at all. Nobody knows the future. It may prove Darwinism to be right, but it may equally well show that its critics are.

There is a real risk that this discussion will go on forever. New data is likely to be forthcoming. The Darwinists are going to interpret them as confirming Darwinism, and its critics will be able to point to the speculative and improbable elements in the Darwinian hypotheses. Is it conceivable, they will say, that the evolution of something as complex as, for instance, the human stem-cell, which contains within it the potential for all other types of human cells, will ever be scientifically explicable by reference a pair of factors as simple as natural selection and random mutation? Or that the evolution of anything exhibiting such an astonishing degree of complexity should be explicable in terms of self-organization?

Since the issue is irresoluble by appeal to natural science, I believe we have no choice but to be agnostic about which side is right. And I would venture the prediction that that is how the situation is set to remain. Both parties to the debate find support for their positions in natural science. The standard criticisms of Darwinism have a pedigree that dates back to its first beginnings. What is new about the latest ID challenge to Darwinism is that it is strictly scientific – indeed, as scientific as Darwinism itself purports to be. Darwinism is no longer the only party to the dispute able to invoke natural science to validate its claims; its critics do so too.

I think that we are forced to conclude that so far as natural science goes, the debate between Darwinism and its critics reveals that we simply have no fix on how irreducibly complex systems have evolved in nature. Participants to the discussion should be prepared to make this concession: that We simply don’t know.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant shared the opinion of today’s ID theorists. He writes:

“[I]t is absurd for men…to hope that another Newton may some day arise, to make intelligible to us even the genesis of but a blade of grass from natural laws that no design has ordered. Such insight we must absolutely deny to mankind” (i).

It may be objected that Kant could have had no inkling of Darwin’s discoveries. Darwinists will claim that “the Newton of the blade of grass” has arrived, and Darwin is his name. It was impossible for Kant to foresee that a mode of explanation would emerge that involves chance and the combination of necessity and chance as essential factors in the scientific explanation of nature. However, Dembski’s analysis of what a stochastic process is able to explainii shows that Kant’s assertion remains irrefragable to this day.

2. Both Darwinists and ID theorists overstep the bounds of natural science.

Neither Darwinists nor ID theorists make the concession referred to above. Both sides press further. But I would contend that assertions that ramify beyond a confession of agnosticism as regards the evolution of irreducibly complex systems are plainly not natural science.

Darwinists go beyond the evidence in two ways. Firstly, they claim that at some future point the Darwinian mechanism will be capable of accounting for the emergence of irreducibly complex systems. Secondly, they claim that any theory attributing to an intelligent cause the emergence of irreducibly complex systems is a non-starter. Such assertions have no foundation in natural science but are the expressions hope or conviction. They are indicative of the trust or conviction that such is the explanatory power of natural science that it will some day prove capable of explaining all natural phenomena. Add to this the conviction that ID theory is impossible and we can further define Darwinism as the naturalistic belief to the effect that all the phenomena existent in nature are explainable in terms of unintelligent, immanent causes. It surely hardly needs arguing that the hope, trust and conviction to the effect that that natural science is in principle capable of explaining the totality of natural phenomena is not itself a piece of science. It adds nothing to the explanation of empirical observations. It is a belief predicated on the success that natural science has enjoyed to date. Since natural science has proved capable of explaining increasingly many natural phenomena, we come to believe that it will ultimately be able to explain all phenomena. The result of induction, this theory is susceptible to Karl Popper’s falsification test. Since natural science has proved capable of explaining some natural phenomena, it must in principle be capable of explaining all natural phenomena. The theory is falsified if it is possible to identify just one phenomenon in nature – e.g. an irreducibly complex system – which natural science cannot explain. There are grounds, then, for thinking that the Darwinian argument errs by overextending the concept of a natural science theory. I think it more reasonable to say that the trust and conviction that underpin the claim are not part of a scientific theory at all but constitute a metaphysical belief with no real foundation in natural science – indeed, the belief is a naturalistic religious belief.

The ID theorists match the Darwinists in their reluctance to embrace agnosticism in respect of the question of how irreducibly complex systems evolved in nature. They too go further and claim that the emergence of irreducibly complex systems can indeed be explained by an intelligent cause. They do not see this claim as some sort of leap of faith. It is not a conviction based on belief in a divine creator. It is a claim underpinned by the findings of natural science.

Now it is right to say that it is not a claim which presupposes a belief in a divine creator, but nor does it qualify as a scientific claim. The claim is not predicated on some metaphysical tenet; it is based on empirical data and on a rational interpretation of these data. The claim looks as though it fits into a natural science context because it is based on empirical data – the demonstration of a system’s being irreducibly complex is essentially empirical in character. But what sets this claim apart from the body of knowledge we call natural science is the species of reasoning that invests it with its content. The mode of cognition in play is analogical cognition. We engage in analogical reasoning whenever we grasp the nature of something in virtue of its similarity to something with which we are already familiar. Given some unfamiliar X, we are able to get a grip on what X is because it resembles something already known. We frequently acquire knowledge in this way. Natural science, by contrast, proceeds not on the basis of analogical reasoning but by establishing causal relationships.  In natural science, we get to understand a phenomenon by establishing its cause. There is a significant difference between the two modes of cognition. But more on that later.

For the moment, I just want to point out that the ID theory’s claim to the effect that the evolution of irreducibly complex systems results from an intelligent cause reposes on an argument by analogy. We recognize that an irreducibly complex system bears a strong resemblance to a man-made machine. The two phenomena share certain essential features. Both a watch and an irreducibly complex biological system exhibit parts that enter into an integrated whole, which performs a specific function. The parts of a watch are mutually adjusted so that their interaction performs the function of telling the time. By the same token, the parts of a cilie interact as elements of a well-integrated whole to fulfil the function of enabling the organism to swim. However, this conception of the constitution of an irreducibly complex system occurring in nature is not a scientific one. Our grasp of an irreducibly complex system is not the result of understanding what causes it. Our grasp of what it is derives from what it resembles. Reasoning from analogy, then, enables us to get a grip on what an irreducibly complex system essentially is. It might be alleged that the analogical inference paves the way for its scientific counterpart since on its basis we are able to infer that the irreducibly complex system has an intelligent cause. Surely, it might be argued, once causal inferences are in play, what we’re dealing with is natural science. So ID theory emerges as scientific after all.  But no, for it is crucial to the argument that its conclusion to the effect that the irreducibly complex system is caused by an intelligent cause is reached by indirect means. Analogical reasoning does all the work. The inference has it that because a man-made machine has an intelligent cause, an irreducibly complex system must also have an intelligent cause. But this inference rests on a piece of analogical reasoning. Plainly, then, the inference is not intrinsically causal but analogical.

ID theory may appear to carry the credentials of natural science because it ends up by explaining a natural phenomenon by reference to a cause. But this is how it looks only if that the intervening analogical reasoning is discounted. However, the analogical argument is no mere sideshow, it is crucial. It implies a categorical shift in what concerns the acquisition of knowledge. Anyone concerned to analyse and evaluate ID theory needs to sharpen the focus on analogical reasoning.

When ID theory moves from criticizing Darwinism on the premises of natural science to drawing the inference that there must be an intelligent cause, it performs quite a leap. This emerges clearly from a reading of books and articles about ID theory such as, say, Michael Behe’s Darwin,s Black Box or Stephen Meyer’s articles. The greater part of Behe’s book is devoted to a critique of Darwinism that proceeds on the premises of natural science, offering a wealth of scientific detail. The claim that irreducibly complex systems can only be explained by an intelligent cause is addressed with striking brevity. Indeed, the topic is dealt with in a few sentences: Irreducibly complex systems look like man-made machines. Man-made machines are the work of human intelligence. Consequently, irreducibly complex systems owe their existence to an intelligence. Detailed explanation is largely absent. The whole tenor of the writing shifts. This leaves most Darwinists bemused: is that all that these theorists have to say?

 3. ID theorists erroneously consider ID theory to be a natural science theory.

Dembski writes:

“In response to the question, how did life originate and develop?, what is wrong with saying we don’t know? … As philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn and Larry Laudan have pointed out, for scientific paradigms to shift, there has to be a new paradigm ready and waiting. You cannot shift into a vacuum. Napoleon III put it this way: ‘One never really destroys a thing till one has replaced’ (ii)”(iii).

This statement is an expression of the view that ID theory is a natural science theory, destined to replace Darwinism as the appropriate natural science explanation. I think Dembski is wrong on this head.

It is obvious that why ID theorists want to propound ID theory as a natural science theory. The term “natural science” is prestigious. In our contemporary cultural climate, to say that a theory is not scientific is tantamount to saying that it is subjective and arbitrary. Clarity would be served, however, by ID theorists’ desisting from calling their theory natural science. If they continue to insist on doing so, they risk losing the argument to the Darwinists. For it is readily shown that ID theory contributes very little real natural science. Behe’s book, for instance, makes no real contribution to biochemistry. Rather, it represents an interpretation of biochemical research, and the chief contribution it makes is to analogical reasoning, science theory and philosophy. In the same spirit, I had a mathematician read Dembski’s book The Design Inference, and his conclusion was that the book contributes fairly little to mathematics, but that it might prove fertile in other ways. Sam Northshield writes in The American Mathematical Monthly Review: “Not a textbook but a philosophical tract about when one can infer design behind events of very small probability. Thought provoking, fun to read, full of interesting examples”(iv). Dembski’s contribution adds first and foremost, then, to the articulation of analogical reasoning and to philosophy.  If ID theorists insist that what they are offering is a contribution to natural science, I fear they’ll undermine their own cause, with their theory going the way of so many other attacks on Darwinism since its emergence, simply on account of a failure to attend to the difference between knowledge of causal relations and analogical reasoning. ID theory’s signing itself into oblivion would be very regrettable, for its time has come.

If ID theorists overextend natural science theory by insisting on ID theory’s scientific credentials, it becomes almost impossible to repudiate the charge persistently levelled at it by Darwinists to the effect that ID theory is a “God of the gaps” theory: the theory fills a gap that natural science cannot fill. Or to repudiate the criticism that ID theory is an “argument from ignorance”. I think the answer to these points of criticism is to say that insofar as ID theory steps beyond the realm of natural science, it does so in virtue of being a non-scientific mode of cognition. The way to respond to the “God of the gaps” argument is to deny that ID theory is part of natural science. And the answer to the “argument from ignorance” critique is to maintain that the design inference is founded, not on ignorance, but on analogical reasoning.

ID theorists are trying to establish an ID theory scientific research program, but not, to my knowledge, with significant success so far. One of the claims for which they seek to argue is that “reverse-engineering” constitutes a positive contribution to natural science. “Intelligent design’s positive contribution to science is to reverse engineer objects shown to be designed” (v). But does “reverse-engineering” really qualify as a natural science input to biology? We need to draw a distinction between theories that properly belong to the sphere of natural science and those which serve as purely heuristic ideas. I would contend that ID theory is a heuristic idea that is indispensable to biology. As a heuristic idea, it enables us to attain an essential grasp of what an organism is, namely, a specified complex system. The actual natural science contribution concerns the mapping out of the immanent causal relations that inform the system. Nothing should prevent a Darwinist from acknowledging ID theory’s status as a heuristic idea; indeed, it is questionable whether he or she can so much as avoid doing so.

Dembski often stresses the importance of investing ID theory with the status of natural science. The difference between ID theories of the past and their present-day counterparts is that contemporary ID theory is or ought to be scientific, while the ID theory of the past amounted to mere philosophical speculation. I find this contention misguided. ID theory should not be propounded as having the status of natural science, but as what it is – argument by analogy.

ID theory should not replace scientific theories. Darwinism and theories of self-organization are the only natural science theories that we have about the evolution of nature.

I will refrain from going into detail here about theories of self-organization since they are without implications for any of the points I am arguing in this essay, The discussion about theories of self-organization parallels that concerning Darwinism. Theories of self-organization can explain the emergence of systems which exhibit a fair degree of complexity, but can they explain the emergence of enormously complex biological systems? On this point, I refer the reader to Behe’s discussion with Shanks and Joplin(vi). Behe admits that theories of self-organization are able to explain the emergence of systems that exhibit some degree of complexity, but can these theories explain the emergence of highly complex systems? Behe distinguishes between simple interactive systems and irreducibly complex systems, but he admits that it can be difficult to make the distinction with any precision. The proponents of self-organization theories claim that these theories will some day be able to explain the emergence of highly complex systems. ID theorists point out that self-organization theorists have enjoyed little success until now and remain sceptical of the hopes invested in their project. Will that discussion also prove to be an interminable one?

To this point, I have not offered any definition of natural science. This is because I agree with Larry Laudan that it is impossible to define natural science in the abstract(vii). However I shall now venture what I would call a contextual definition, which is to say a definition that is restricted to a particular context of discussion: I shall offer a definition of natural science as it pertains to the context of ID theory and theology. Against this contextual background, I would define natural science as the endeavour to explain the phenomena of nature in terms of cosmically immanent causes. As opposed to the analogical mode characteristic of ID theory, natural science is a causal mode of cognition. And, as opposed to theology, which may properly appeal to a transcendent cause explanatory of the natural world, the causes to which natural science refers are strictly immanent. I do not believe anyone would sanction calling an explanation that invoked a transcendent cause scientific. Over its history, natural science has defined itself as a mode of systematic inquiry which confines itself to immanent causes. The project that is natural science is one whose defining task is to investigate how far we may extend the scope of our knowledge by explaining nature in terms of immanent causes. Dembski often argues that the immanent/transcendent causal disjunction is false, because appeal to intelligent causes has a legitimate place in natural science. The problem, however, is that explanations which refer to intelligent causes are based on arguments from analogy, which, ipso facto, do not qualify as natural science. Consequently, intelligent causes have no place in natural science. Dembski also points to the fact that in other fields of rational inquiry, intelligent causes are entirely licit – in archaeology, forensic science, etc. My answer to that is that my contextual definition aims solely to capture the meaning of natural science, and does not apply to studies in the humanities, theology, etc.

The Darwinian theories and self-organization theories are the only natural science theories we currently have about the evolution of nature, and the question here is how far these theories take us. ID theory should seek neither to halt their progress nor to replace them. Rather, it should make a contribution to them. Indeed, this is precisely what it does when it seeks critically to estimate their scope.  Behe’s book is an input to Darwinian theory, because Behe is himself a natural scientist and criticises the Darwinian theory on the premises of natural science.

The discussion between Darwinists and ID theorists is often virulent and acrimonious. Richard Wein writes for instance:

“Some readers may dislike the frankly contemptuous tone that I have adopted toward Dembski’s work. Critics of Intelligent Design pseudoscience are faced with a dilemma. If they discuss it in polite, academic terms, the Intelligent Design propagandists use this as evidence that their arguments are receiving serious attention from scholars, suggesting this implies there must be some merit in their arguments. If critics simply ignore Intelligent Design arguments, the propagandists imply this is because critics cannot answer them. My solution to this dilemma is to thoroughly refute the arguments, while making it clear that I do so without according those arguments any respect at all”(viii).

It is my impression is that the reason why the discussion so often becomes vitriolic is that while it is ostensibly about science, what is really at issue is metaphysics and religion. The Darwinists are not just defending scientific results and theories, but also the quasi-religious belief that the Darwinian mechanism is able to explain all biological phenomena. Similarly, ID theorists are not just attacking certain scientific theories, but are attacking Darwinism as a naturalistic metaphysics while defending that informing ID theory. The discussion often quickly becomes a war on Darwinism or a war on ID theory.

I believe we are able to avoid this distortion of the debate, which renders it profitless, by making it clear that what we are dealing with are two separate discussions. One discussion concerns the explanatory scope of the Darwinian mechanism. Darwinists don’t have to panic and turn hostile because they have to admit that so far we haven’t explained a great deal. That circumstance doesn’t disqualify the theory. And nor do ID theorists have to enfranchise their theory as natural science. Its having another status doesn’t disqualify it. ID theory should not be introduced into education as the proper candidate to replace Darwinian theory or as an alternative theory of natural science. It should be introduced as a theory that reinstates analogical reasoning – as a piece of science theory and philosophy. Both sides have to address the issue of how much the Darwinian theory or self-organization theories are capable of explaining. Both sides have to address the issue of the validity of analogical reasoning. There is no reason why these two problems should not be discussed equably and with appeal to objective arguments.

I also think that it is important to keep the cultural and political agendas out of the scientific and philosophical discussion. The findings of gallop polls are totally irrelevant here. The scientific and philosophical discussion should proceed on scientific and philosophical premises, just as the cultural and political debates should be pursued on their own terms.

 4. ID theory and Darwinism qua metaphysical beliefs.

ID theory should not replace Darwinism as a theory in natural science; it should replace Darwinism as a metaphysical belief. I believe this to be the claim that goes to the heart of what ID theory is essentially about. The thrust of ID theory is to challenge naturalism. But the effectiveness of this challenge does not depend on the formulation of ID theory as a theory in natural science. The problem with Darwinism is that it refuses to acknowledge its inability to explain how irreducibly complex systems have evolved in nature. It seeks to finesse away its ignorance by proffering what is in effect an article of naturalistic faith.  It is this naturalistic doctrine that ID theory should seek to replace.

What needs addressing in the discussion between Darwinism and the ID theory is which of the two theories is the better founded. The crucial question, then, is what is better founded, the Darwinian belief in the potential reach of the natural sciences, or the theory that the emergence of irreducibly complex systems is properly attributable to an intelligent cause?

On my assessment, ID theory is the better-founded option, because while the Darwinian belief is purely conjectural, ID theory is the expression of a piece of intuitively compelling rational knowledge. ID theory is not based on an arbitrary belief to which we may or may not decide to subscribe. It is the expression of a cognition whose compelling character is universally recognized. It is based on empirical data and on an analogical interpretation of them. The crucial question is whether the knowledge purportedly acquired through analogical reasoning is indeed valid knowledge or whether it is merely a subjective supposition, a projection, or the like.

Analogical reasoning has been the target of vigorous criticism in the history of philosophy. David Hume’s strictures in particular are well known and have exerted considerable influence on the subsequent evaluation of this mode of cognition. In my view, Hume’s criticism overshoots its aim. Hume shows that analogical reasoning is weaker than a deductive proof. He is right about that. Analogical cognition is not as certain as a deductive proof and nor does it match the findings of the exact sciences. If we are able to observe that a given enzyme triggers a particular process we are possessed of more secure knowledge about the cause of this process than when we surmise that an intelligent agent has contrived the existence of a cell on the grounds of the cell’s resemblance to a man-made machine. But the mere fact that analogical reasoning does not yield results as certain as a deductive proof or the facts established by the exact sciences does not disqualify it as a valid mode of cognition. So to disqualify it would be tantamount to claiming that scientific knowledge stands as the norm for all valid knowledge.

In response to Hume’s criticism, Dembski has argued that the analogy between an irreducibly complex system and a man-made machine is far stronger than the forms of analogy refuted by Hume(ix). This is an important argument.

Dembski has also pointed out that analogical reasoning is widely practised in the humanities. If the archaeologist finds a stone bearing cuts that present a pattern, he or she will conclude that the cuts do not result from the operation of natural laws or chance, and will go on to infer by analogy that it is a man-made axe. It is the product of human intelligence. The analogical mode of cognition is routinely practised in several of the human sciences and regarded as valid.

In his The Design Inference, Dembski seeks to strengthen the analogical mode of cognition by formalising the logic behind it. This too constitutes an important defence. The defence of the analogical mode of cognition by giving it a sharper articulation does not invest it with certainty. It is not a mathematical proof. Even if an analogy is very strong, it cannot lay claim to certainty. And even if the analogical approach is routinely practised in the human sciences, we cannot simply assume that it is equally applicable to natural phenomena. It is one thing to infer from an unfamiliar item displaying irreducibly complex features that it was brought into being by a human intelligence; it is quite another to infer from a natural phenomenon displaying irreducibly complex features that an intelligent agent caused it, because no such intelligence in incarnate form exists. We are on firmer ground when conducting analogical reasoning in the human sciences than when applying it to the natural world. None of this allows us to infer, however, that analogical reasoning is invalid as applied to natural phenomena.

The most important argument for the validity of analogical reasoning arguably comes from phenomenological philosophy, which has evolved since the beginning of the 20th century on the European continent. Phenomenological studies have revealed that analogical reasoning is fundamental to our apprehension of the world. The German philosopher Hans Lipps, in particular, has contributed to this discovery. His phenomenological analysis shows that analogical reasoning is both universal and intrinsic to our acquisition of knowledge(x). As the phenomenological analysis of everyday language shows, analogical thinking is no mere option.

When we are struck by the fact that an irreducibly complex system resembles a man-made machine this is no subjective arbitrary observation but a non-optional shared cognition. Everyone – including the Darwinist – perceives irreducibly complex systems in this way, not just ID theorists. Without this analogy we would have no fix at all on what an irreducibly complex system essentially is. Throughout the history of mankind, scientists and philosophers and laypeople have sought to understand nature by drawing analogies to human artefacts.

If you open any biology book today, you will find that it abounds with analogies to human artefacts. Darwinist or not, no one who teaches biology can dispense with analogies to artefacts. And the more well-defined irreducibly complex systems aside, no one, Darwinist or not, is able to avoid describing organisms as if they displayed intentional behaviour. All this supports the case for the validity of analogical cognition.

But why doesn’t that convince Darwinists and others that the inference by analogy to an intelligent cause is reasonable and cogent? Darwinists and others readily admit that they draw copious analogies to man-made machines in their books and teaching, but add that these analogies are all fictions. They are mere pedagogical means, and not to be taken literally. To take the analogies literally is to fall victim of an illusion. There is no real intentionality or intelligence inherent in nature.

The scepticism the Darwinists harbour towards analogical cognition is not unmotivated. Natural science as we know it today has become what it is through its emancipation from a mixture of ID theory and natural science. There are many examples of invalid analogies and of ID theory being used to plug gaps in scientific explanation. When Kepler, for instance, had shown that planetary orbits are elliptical, he was faced with the question of the mechanisms that steered the planets along these oblique orbits. It is not difficult to think of planets tracing smooth circular paths, but isn’t some constant correction required if planets are to describe elliptical orbits? What secures this correction? Kepler’s reply was that angels fly behind each planet, deftly sweeping it onto its proper course with their wings.

Criticisms of the analogical method should be countered by making it clear that analogical knowledge is not natural science but represents cognition of a different kind, and that although analogical reasoning may be misapplied, the mistakes do not disqualify this mode of cognition as such. Mistakes are made in natural science too. The analogical method can be recast and refined just as empirical methods can.  Present-day ID theory is a contribution to this end.

The claim that analogical reasoning is an illusion is not well founded. If it is an illusion, it has the peculiarity of being one over which we have no control and which has all of us in its grip. One might as well claim that all of mankind inhabits a projection of its own making since all have succumbed to the same irrational conviction that analogical reasoning is valid. Some scientists would doubtless say precisely that. Science, they would allege, is gradually going to disabuse us of the belief that nature is suffused with design and meaning. But I would contend that that is unlikely to happen. A good argument against the projection theory rests on the fact that the perception of design in nature is an inescapable part of our experience, the experience of scientists being no exception. Darwin and Dawkins admit that it does indeed look as though nature is replete with intelligent design. Paul Davies, who is not a supporter of ID theory says: “The impression of design is overwhelming”(xi). But they add that it is an illusion. But is it, when the impression is so patently inescapable?

The discussion about design in nature finds a parallel in the discussion of whether qualia are subjective. Unless they are colour-blind, everyone who sees a red rose will say that it is red. Now natural science describes the colour red in terms of electromagnetic frequencies. This circumstance led Galileo and others to advance the theory of the subjectivity of sensory perception. Colours are a subjective illusion. But any such claim is not science; it is an ontological claim. It says something about what colour really is. But that is not a matter for natural science to decide. We can say that when we describe colour in the terms of natural science we are talking about electromagnetic frequencies. We cannot, in those terms, make any claim about the ontological status of colour. Again, to do so would be to buy into the contention that natural science delivers the norm for all valid cognition. According to that norm, our spontaneous apprehension of the rose as red has no validity. It has often been argued that colour-blindness and sensory illusion undermine our claim to spontaneous cognition. But the fact that a sense organ may be defective does not disqualify sense perception per se as a mode of epistemic access. Or the fact that certain configurations provoke sense-illusions – a straight stick in a glass of water looks broken – does not disqualify the perception as such.

 If the recognition that the rose is red is an illusion, it is a strange kind of illusion because it survives our being apprised of what is going on. Normally, if an illusion is shown up as such, it dissolves as immediately as does a dream when we awake. But this so-called illusion does not. The physical description delivered by science and the theory of the subjectivity of sense perception have been around for several hundred years, but our perception of the rose as red survives intact. The illusion is equally vivid to the physicist who has devoted his or her working life to the scientific description of the colour and is convinced beyond peradventure of the subjective character of sense perception. He or she will continue to see the rose as red. But if the illusion has this involuntary character, does it really make any sense to call it an illusion? The idea that all of the spontaneous cognition of mankind should be an illusion strikes me as bizarre in the extreme. Wherein lies its expediency? Why should mankind have evolved such unshakable illusions? How come we have made out so well, if all our spontaneous cognition is so erroneous and illusionary? The Darwinist will of course answer that the illusion is expedient for survival. And there the discussion ends. No one is able to ascertain whether all knowledge is actually an illusion. Descartes’ evil demon, tricking us all, is always a logical possibility.

Galileo’s theory about the subjectivity of sense-perception does not follow as a necessary consequence from the scientific explanation of qualia. What the scientist ought instead to be saying is that when we seek to account for the red rose scientifically, we set aside the deliverances of our senses and our everyday reference to the rose as red.

So too with the recognition that nature is bursting with intelligent design. This recognition represents a powerful and immediate insight which we find utterly inescapable. Why should this perception not be a true reflection of reality? The scientific explanation of nature is not necessarily a rejection of design in nature. Darwinists ought not to be saying that intelligent design is an illusion that Darwinian theory replaces. Rather, they should say that when we explain nature in the terms of natural science, we prescind from the manifest circumstance that nature is shot through with intelligent design. We suspend this knowledge in order to see how far scientific explanation will take us. This has no bearing on the issue of whether nature is full of intelligent design. For patently it is.

Behe forcefully makes the point in his book that overlooking intelligent design in nature equates to overlooking an elephant which is in the same room as you are. Naturally, Behe considers this a great mistake. But I would contend that natural science does so rightly when it sets itself to explain nature scientifically. For natural science won’t get going at all if it doesn’t overlook the elephant. So doing is a legitimate methodological reduction. However, if natural science overlooks the elephant per se, we must conclude that it is afflicted by a species of blindness.

Behe also writes that the “sighting” of the overlooked elephant is “so significant that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. The discovery rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schroedinger, Pasteur and Darwin”(xii). That is not quite accurate. It makes ID theory sound like a new scientific theory. It is not. But I think that Behe is right to say that our being alerted to the presence of the elephant – which is to say, of intelligent design in nature – with all the weight of argument, will have an immense impact on our conception of nature.

I would contend that the authority the natural sciences have acquired in the Western world has immensely weakened our confidence in analogical reasoning. We have readily absorbed the naturalistic ideology that claims that knowledge attained through analogical reasoning is an illusion. In particular, there is the impact of popular Darwinism as disseminated by the media, now so well assimilated as to have become an unconscious psychological mechanism. When the diversity of organic life emanates and proclaims its “We are intelligently designed!”, we recognise its truth, but another voice inculcated within us swiftly interposes itself and drowns out that recognition with the cry, “Remember that it is an illusion!” Only the proper reinstatement of analogical reasoning in our thinking will demolish the power of this now entrenched assumption. In its increasingly sophisticated versions, modern ID theory makes an essential contribution towards the restoration to analogical reasoning of the status it deserves. I agree with Behe that when that happens, the consequences will rank, for instance, with those of the Copernican turn in astronomy. We can scarcely imagine how much our view of nature and our ethics would change if we stopped blinding and deafening ourselves to the message with which the variety of organic life resonates – that it is designed. What would happen if instead of stifling this cry we too were to give it unqualified utterance!

ID theory’s proper aim should be that to dispose of naturalistic censorship. This goal is not achieved by launching ID theory as a theory in natural science, but by rehabilitating analogical knowledge.

Kant struggled with the question whether the analogical method is no more than a projection and an anthropomorphic construction. As far as I can judge, his answer, which is to be found in his somewhat haphazardly structured work, The Critique of Judgement is unclear. Kant agrees with the ID theorists of today that organisms cannot be explained by non-intentional causes alone. Kant’s main argument is that the kind of causality which you find in an organism, where the parts and the whole are reciprocally the cause of each other – causality operating in both directions at one and the same time – is of a different kind from non-intentional causality, where the causality only has one direction with cause and effect following each other progressively(xiii). Kant calls the organism self-organizing, which corresponds to the ID theorists’ description of certain organisms as being irreducibly complex. The kind of causality we find in the organism is familiar to us from ordinary life. Kant mentions the example of a house being built for the sake of the revenue the landlord will be able to get in rent, but at the same time the house is the cause of the rent. Therefore the self-organizing system can be understood on analogy with human artefacts.

On Kant’s analysis, our problem is that human reason does not have concepts at its disposal which are adequate to the task of explaining the self-organizing organism. Our minds command two kinds of concept. One kind is able to explain unintelligent objects and processes while the other is able to explain the actions and products of human beings. Confronted with organisms that are self-organizing systems, we have to do with objects and processes which cannot be explained by reference either to unintelligent causes or to human causes. We are bereft, then, of the concepts we need for the job. What do we do? We don’t just abandon the enterprise. The organism presents itself as an intelligible item. We have recourse to concepts which are not intended to provide the delivery of an understanding of the organism, but are intended for other purposes. We have recourse, that is, to the concept of teleology, primarily applied to human actions and products. This concept is not adequate to the purpose; we use it in an analogical way.

Note that the role of analogy is to deliver the form of the reasoning. For Hume, the analogy concerns the objects. The point is that, here, human cognition is limited to the application of argument by analogy since it does not have at its disposal a mode of inquiry which is fully adequate to explain organic life.

Does this mean that analogical understanding is nothing more than a form of projection? I think Kant is unclear on this point and no consensus obtains among Kant researchers. Kant calls the understanding of the organism reflective. By this he means that the relation between the concept and what it explains is indirect. There is a gap between the concept and that which it is intended to capture. This gap invites reflection. Consequently, Kant says, when we apply the notion of teleology to the organism, it is merely a mode of reflection on the organism. Nature in itself – Ding an sich – as Kant calls it, is non-cognisable. He doesn’t say that only an intelligent cause is able to explain the organism. He says that when we reflect on the organism, we can only conceive of it as something created by an intelligent agent. It sounds as if in this reflection we are only able to cognise what we ourselves read into nature. It is a problem with Kant’s philosophy that he dichotomises thinking and reality.

In spite of this unclarity, I still consider Kant to be the philosopher who has most accurately defined the epistemological status of ID theory. He establishes five points.

1) ID theory is categorically different from the explanation of the phenomena of nature by appeal to unintelligent causes.
2) ID theory is the systematisation of an unmediated cognition – it is the analysis in which we engage when we want to understand the self-organizing organism.
3) Cognition by analogy of the self-organizing organism is incomplete.
4) Our ability to comprehend nature is limited.
5) Natural phenomena, such as the self-organizing organism, are open to the interpretation that they have been created by a transcendent cause, but we cannot prove the existence of God.

J.W. Goethe dissented from Kant’s view, finding his scepticism exaggerated. He is not claiming that we have adequate concepts at our disposal with which to cognise living nature, but he does claim that when we use analogical reasoning in a precise and disciplined way we experience an encounter with nature in itself. Goethe developed an epistemology of nature that is based on analogical reasoning. There is no cause to be sceptical about our recognition that we are faced with a manifestation of transcendence when we recognise self-organizing organisms as such. “We make ourselves worthy of intellectual participation in the works of nature through the perception (Anschauung) of ever-creative nature”(xiv). Goethe called this reflective understanding anschauende Urteilskraft – perceptive judgement. The expression indicates that Goethe did not limit the status of cognition by analogy to that of mere reflection. The gap between the human cognitive powers and nature is bridgeable by analogy, when analogy is justly applied. This species of perceptive understanding, anschauende Urteilskraft, is the human cognitive power that is the correlate of self-organizing organisms. It is open to the transcendent. Goethe didn’t naively believe that we have direct epistemic access to the transcendent, only that we are capable of recognising a manifestation of the transcendent in nature. Underlying this disagreement between Kant and Goethe is a disagreement about the epistemological status of sense perception.

 5. Theistic evolution.

One often hears it said that Darwinism and theism are not mutually exclusive. This is true in a very basic sense. A causal mode of explanation inevitably raises the question of a first cause, causa prima. What, it is asked, is the cause of the natural laws? And if you are able to identify an immanent cause for the natural laws, you must go on to ask about the cause of that cause, etc. A causal mode of explanation always leads to the old Thomistic question of the first cause.

The assertion that Darwinism doesn’t exclude theism is, however, commonly propounded as though it were entirely optional whether or not you add a transcendent cause to the Darwinian explanation. It is presented as a fideistic choice. But were this really its status, the concept of theistic evolution would be completely empty. If it is up to you whether you add a transcendent cause or not, the transcendent cause becomes completely superfluous. Why bother adding in a transcendent cause when there is no need for it? Dembski has made this point trenchantly, although as far as I can see, he misses the problem presented by the first cause in a causal mode of explanation (xv).

The problem of the first cause is not just a problem for those who “choose” a religious interpretation. It is a problem for all who accept the validity of causal explanations. On this perspective, then, there is no such thing as an a-religious interpretation of Darwinism. Either a transcendent cause caused nature and its mechanisms, e.g. the Darwinian mechanism, or nature inclusive of its mechanisms is its own cause, causa sui = God. The question is not whether or not you opt for a religious interpretation or not, but which religious interpretation is the better founded.


i Immanuel Kant The Critique of Judgement (1790) translated by J.C.Meredith (1928,1952), Part II, p.54.

ii William Debski No Free Lunch, Boston 2001, p.157.

iii William Dembski: “Introduction: Mere Creation” in Mere Creation ed. William Dembski 1998, p.28.

iv The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol 106 no. 5, p.486.

v Mere Christianity p.18.

vi Michael Behe: “Self-Organization and Irreducibly Complex Systems: A Reply to Shanks and Joplin” in Philosophy of Science 67, pp.155-162.

vii Larry Laudan: “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem” in But is it Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy ed. M.Ruse, 1988.

viii Richard Wein: “Not a Free Lunch But a Box of Chocolates” in The Talk. Origen Archive (internet) 2002.

ix No Free Lunch p.31.

x Hans Lipps Werke I-V, Frankfurt am Main 1977.

xi Paul Davies The Cosmic Blueprint, New York 1988, p.203.

xii Michael  J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box 1996, p.233.

xiii Jakob Wolf.  “Two Kinds of Causality.”  In The Archive 2002,

xiv J.W.Goethe: “Anschauende Urteilskraft” in Werke Band 13, Hamburg 1982, p.30.

xiv Mere Creation pp.19-23.