Is Intelligent Design a Form of Natural Theology?

Is Intelligent Design a Form of Natural Theology?

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There are good and bad reasons to be skeptical of intelligent design. Perhaps the best reason is that intelligent design has yet to establish itself as a thriving scientific research program. Thus far philosophical, theoretical, and foundational concerns have tended to predominate. From the vantage of design advocates, this simply reflects the earliness of the hour and the need to clear the decks before a shift of paradigms can take place. Give us more time, and we’ll deliver on the program. That’s our promise. Skeptics are at this point in their rights to refuse such promissory notes, albeit without sabotaging our efforts to make good on this promise.

Besides good reasons for being skeptical of intelligent design, there are also bad reasons. I list about ten in the appendix of my book Intelligent Design [InterVarsity, 1999] and another ten or so in the final chapter of my forthcoming book No Free Lunch [Rowman & Littlefield, 2001]. One bad reason I’ve touched on but haven’t addressed at length in either of these books is the charge that intelligent design is a form of natural theology. These days within the science-religion community, natural theology tends to be viewed as a disreputable enterprise that hearkens back to pre-Darwinian days and is now thoroughly passé. While I regard this judgment as unduly harsh, I also regard it as irrelevant to intelligent design. Intelligent design is not a form of natural theology.

Not everyone agrees. Ian Barbour is a prominent case in point. In speaking before the AmericanAcademyof Religion regarding Huston Smith’s doubts about evolutionary theory, Barbour directed the following criticism at intelligent design: “Philosophical proponents of intelligent design, such as William Dembski and Stephen Meyer, write in the tradition of natural theology in which science is used as evidence of the existence of a designer. My own approach is not natural theology but a theology of nature in which one asks how nature as understood by science is related to the divine as understood from the religious experience of a historical community.” [Metaviews 099, 30 November 2000; talk originally presented at the AmericanAcademyof Religion, Nashville, 19 November 2000.]

In this essay I’m going to argue that intelligent design is not a form of natural theology. What’s more, I’m going to argue that Barbour’s theology of nature, as he calls it, is itself a form of natural theology, though the theology in this case is not traditional theism but the panentheism of process theology. First let’s turn to the charge that intelligent design is a form of natural theology. To be fair to Barbour, he does not say that my colleagues and I are actually doing natural theology. Rather, he says that we write in the tradition of natural theology. He therefore seems to allow that we are not committing the exact same mistakes (if in fact they were mistakes) as natural theologians of the past. On the other hand, in saying that we write in the tradition of natural theology, he suggests that our aims are substantially those of the old natural theologians.

I submit that intelligent design isn’t doing natural theology. What’s more, I submit that whatever intelligent design is doing, its aims are substantially different from those of natural theology. To see this, consider the last major push of natural theology prior to the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. I have in mind here the eight Bridgewater treatises. The Rev. Francis Henry Egerton, eighth and last Earl of Bridgewater, died in 1829. At the time of his death he directed that £8,000 be used by the president of the Royal Society of London to publish works on “the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as manifested in the Creation illustrating such work by all reasonable arguments as, for instance, the variety and formation of God’s creatures, in the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms; the effect of digestion and thereby of conversion; the construction of the hand of man and an infinite variety of other arguments; as also by discoveries ancient and modern in arts, sciences, and the whole extent of modern literature.”

This passage from Lord Bridgewater’s bequest captures perfectly the spirit of natural theology. Natural theology was primarily in the business of identifying and expatiating on features of the natural world that provided independent evidence of what revealed or sacred theology already knew about God, namely, that God is powerful, wise, and good. The titles of the eight Bridgewater treatises indicate this as well: (1) The Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man, by Thomas Chalmers (1833); (2) Chemistry, Meteorology, and Digestion, by William Prout, (1834); (3) History, Habits, and Instincts of Animals, by William Kirby (1835); (4) The Hand, as Evincing Design, by Sir Charles Bell (1837); (5) Geology and Mineralogy, by Dean Buckland (1837); (6) The Adaptation of External Nature to the Physical Condition of Man, by J. Kidd, (1837); (7) Astronomy and General Physics, by William Whewell (1839), (8) Animal and Vegetable Physiology, by P. M. Roget (1840).

The stereotypical argument of a natural theologian begins with “Isn’t it amazing how ….” The natural theologian then fills in the blank with some feature of the natural world that inspires admiration and argues how this feature, once properly interpreted, demonstrates the manifold wisdom, power, and goodness of God. The problem with such arguments, of course, is that they can be turned on their head. Thus for every instance where the natural theologian finds reason to sing God’s praises, the natural anti-theologian finds reason to lament nature’s cruelty. Darwin, for instance, thought there was “too much misery in the world” to find solace in natural theology: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” Other examples he pointed to included “ants making slaves” and “the young cuckoo ejecting its foster-brother.”

The impulse to natural theology remains alive to this day, though its particular expressions have changed. These days, instead of looking to some particular feature of the world located at a specific place and time (e.g., the human hand, the mammalian eye, or some other biological contrivance), contemporary natural theologians tend to look to global features of the natural world. Thus Michael Corey will look to the laws of physics and the fine-tuning of cosmological constants and therewith draw inferences about the attributes of God [cf. his forthcoming The God Hypothesis: Discovering Design in Our “Just Right” Goldilocks Universe with Rowman & Littlefield]. Or consider Michael Denton’s Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe [Free Press, 1998]. In that book Denton considers the highly specific conditions that needed to be satisfied in our solar system and on the earth in particular for intelligent life like ours to form. From these considerations Denton concludes that there is a grand purpose behind the natural world.

Dentonand Corey are happy to identify themselves as doing natural theology. Other thinkers, especially those influenced by process theology, though perhaps disavowing that label, are nonetheless properly viewed as engaged in natural theology as well. To see this, consider the locus classicus of natural theology, namely William Paley’s Natural Theology, subtitled Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. The subtitle is revealing. Paley’s project was to examine features of the natural world (“appearances of nature”) and therewith draw conclusions about a designing intelligence responsible for those features (whom Paley identified with the God of Christianity).

The impulse to natural theology is always this: To look at some aspect of the natural world and therewith draw conclusions about some reality that extends beyond the natural world. This impulse is anti-reductionist. Thus instead of seeing nature built from the ground up of mindless elementary constituents that come together through equally mindless forces, the contemporary natural theologian argues that a top-down purposiveness is intrinsic to a proper understanding of the world. Contemporary natural theologians point to the very existence of the world, the laws by which the world operates, the capacity of the world to organize itself, the intelligibility of the world, and the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics for comprehending the world as questions that nature raises but that also point beyond nature.

In this respect Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, and Ian Barbour are as much engaged in natural theology as any natural theologians of time past. Peacocke, for instance, is much taken with Charles Kingsley’s children’s book The Water Babies, in which nature is described as “making things that make themselves.” This self-organizational co-creating feature of the natural world is for Peacocke unaccountable except in theological terms whereby God becomes the source of being for the world. What’s more, on the basis of what contemporary science teaches about the natural world, Peacocke is as quick to ascribe attributes to God as any of the British natural theologians of old. To be sure, Peacocke’s list of attributes differs significantly from the lists of earlier natural theologians, who were seeking to underwrite traditional Christian theism. Peacocke has little use for traditional Christian theism, with its outdated (at least from his perspective) view of miracles and divine perfections. For instance, on the basis of contingency in both quantum physics and evolutionary biology, Peacocke rejects the idea that God knows future events. For Peacocke the future is simply not there to be known. Our best science doesn’t allow it, and so theology must follow lock step. This is natural theology. Moreover, unlike natural theology prior to Darwin, this is natural theology unconstrained by revealed theology.

I want now to return to the question that motivated this essay in the first place: Is intelligent design a form of natural theology? If intelligent design were a form of natural theology, then intelligent design should be looking at certain features of the natural world and therewith drawing conclusions about some reality that extends beyond the natural world. Is intelligent design doing that? I submit it is not. The fundamental idea that animates intelligent design is that events, objects, and structures in the world can exhibit features that reliably signal the effects of intelligence. Disciplines as diverse as animal learning and behavior, forensics, archeology, cryptography, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence thus all fall within intelligent design.

Intelligent design becomes controversial when methods developed in special sciences (like forensics and archeology) for sifting the effects of intelligence from natural causes get applied to natural systems where no reified, evolved, or embodied intelligence is likely to have been involved. What if the methods for identifying intelligence tell us that Michael Behe’s irreducibly complex biochemical machines are in fact designed? What if careful analysis of such systems shows that natural causes (like the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection and random variation) are in principle incapable of generating such systems? In that case to charge intelligent design with trading in arguments from ignorance or invoking a god-of-the-gaps is no longer tenable. In that case, gaps in naturalistic explanations for such systems are not gaps of ignorance about underlying natural causes but rather gaps in the very structure of physical reality.

The idea that nature is a closed system of natural causes and that natural causes provide a complete account of everything that occurs in nature is deeply entrenched in the West and in its current incarnation is most directly traceable to Spinoza (within liberal Christian theology its fountainhead is Friedrich Schleiermacher). Nevertheless, the idea that natural causes are complete has no more warrant than that mathematics should be complete in the sense that every true mathematical claim should be deducible from a simple set of axioms. Gödel effectively demolished the latter misconception. Intelligent design is challenging the former. Moreover, it is challenging the former by pointing to phenomena in nature that nature is in principle incapable of accounting for strictly in terms of natural causes.

In arguing that naturalistic explanations are incomplete or equivalently that natural causes cannot account for certain features of the natural world, I am placing natural causes in contradistinction to intelligent causes. The scientific community has itself drawn this distinction in its use of these twin categories of causation. Thus Francisco Ayala writes, “Darwin’s greatest accomplishment [was] to show that the directive organization of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process, natural selection, without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent [read ‘design’].” Natural causes, as the scientific community understands them, are causes that operate according to deterministic and non-deterministic laws and that can be characterized in terms of chance, necessity, or their combination [cf. Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity]. To be sure, if one is more liberal about what one means by natural causes, and includes among natural causes telic processes that are not reducible to chance and necessity (like the ancient Stoics did by endowing nature with immanent teleology), then the claim that natural causes are incomplete dissolves. But that is not how the scientific community understands natural causes.

The distinction between natural and intelligent causes now raises an interesting question when it comes to embodied intelligences like us, who are at once physical systems and intelligent agents: Are embodied intelligences natural causes? Even if the actions of an embodied intelligence proceed solely by natural causes, being determined entirely by the constitution and dynamics of the physical system that embodies it, that does not mean the origin of that system can be explained by reference solely t natural causes. Such systems could exhibit derived intentionality in which the underlying source of intentionality remains irreducible to natural causes. A fundamental tenet of intelligent design is that intelligent agency, even when conditioned by a physical system that embodies it, cannot be reduced to natural causes without remainder. Within the intelligent design literature that remainder is typically identified as some form of complexity (“irreducibly complexity” for Michael Behe, “functional complexity” for Marcel Schützenberger, and “specified complexity” in my case).

Design has had a turbulent intellectual history. The chief difficulty with design to date has consisted in discovering a conceptually powerful formulation of it that will fruitfully advance science. While I fully grant that the history of design arguments warrants misgivings, they do not apply to intelligent design. The theory of intelligent design as my colleagues and I envision it is not an atavistic return to the design arguments of William Paley and the BridgewaterTreatises. William Paley was in no position to formulate the conceptual framework for design that is now being developed. This new framework depends on advances in probability theory, computer science, the concept of information, molecular biology, and the philosophy of science — to name but a few. Within this framework, design promises to become an effective conceptual tool for investigating and understanding the natural world.

Increased philosophical and scientific sophistication, however, is not alone in separating our approach to design from Paley’s. Paley’s approach was closely linked to his prior religious and metaphysical commitments. Ours is not. Paley’s designer was nothing short of the triune God of Christianity, a transcendent, personal, moral being with all the perfections commonly attributed to this God. On the other hand, the designer that emerges from a theory of intelligent design is an intelligence capable of originating the complexity and specificity that we find throughout the cosmos and especially in biological systems. Persons with theological commitments can co-opt this designer and identify this designer with the object of their worship. But this move is strictly optional as far as the actual science of intelligent design is concerned.

The crucial question for science is whether design helps us understand the world, and especially the biological world, better than we do now when we systematically eschew teleological notions from our scientific theorizing. Thus a scientist may view design and its appeal to a designer as simply a fruitful device for understanding the world, not attaching any special significance to questions like whether a theory of design is in some ultimate sense true or whether the designer actually exists. Philosophers of science would call this a “constructive empiricist” approach to design. Scientists in the business of manufacturing theoretical entities like quarks, strings, and cold dark matter could therefore view the designer as just one more theoretical entity to be added to the list. I follow here Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote: “What a Copernicus or a Darwinreally achieved was not the discovery of a true theory but of a fertile new point of view.” If design cannot be made into a fertile new point of view that inspires exciting new areas of scientific investigation, then it deserves to wither and die. Yet before that happens, it deserves a fair chance to succeed.

We are now in a position to see how intelligent design parts company with natural theology. Ian Barbour claims that my colleagues and I are in the business of using scientific evidence to establish the existence of a designer. And presumably once we’ve established the existence of a designer, then we’ll want to expatiate on the attributes of that designer. If Barbour’s characterization of our enterprise were correct, then the charge that intelligent design is a form of natural theology would stand. But that’s not what we’re about. Barbour has the logic of intelligent design backwards. That logic does not move from features of the world to proof of the existence of a designer to cataloguing attributes of the designer. Rather, intelligent design begins with features of the world that are inherently inexplicable in terms of natural causes — not merely features of the world that for now lack a natural-cause explanation but rather for which natural causes are in principle incapable of providing an explanation (for instance, in my writings I argue that the specified complexity of certain biological systems constitutes such a feature). Next, intelligent design notes that in our ordinary experience, when objects whose causal story we know exhibit such features, then a designer was crucially involved in the object’s causal history.

It’s at this point that intelligent design could be co-opted into doing natural theology, proclaiming that natural objects exhibiting such features establish the existence of a designer. But intelligent design resists that temptation. Instead of arguing for the existence of a designer (and thus formulating a revamped design argument), intelligent design asks how positing an intelligent cause to explain such objects offers fresh scientific insights. The designer of intelligent design is not the God of any particular religious faith and not the God of any particular philosophical reflection but merely a generic intelligent cause capable of originating certain features of the natural world. Positing such a designer to account for certain types of biological complexity is like positing quarks to account for certain properties of subatomic particles. The point is to see what a designer helps explain; the point is not to establish the existence of the designer.

Granted, many of my colleagues in the intelligent design movement are Christians and believe on independent theological grounds in a designer qua God. But some, like Todd Moody, are agnostics who are perfectly content investigating design in nature, reject the sufficiency of undirected natural causes to account for that design, but also avoid making any ontological commitments about a designer. To be sure, intelligent design provides ready fodder for natural theology. Thus it’s understandable why critics of intelligent design are eager to conflate it with natural theology. But intelligent design’s connections with natural theology are peripheral. Unless and until intelligent design can be made to succeed as a scientific research program, there can be no talk of developing a natural theology from it. And even if intelligent design succeeds as a scientific research program, developing a natural theology from it is purely optional.

Indeed, when I consider my own motivation and that of my colleagues in the intelligent design movement, the traditional concerns of natural theology seem largely irrelevant. Our motivation is certainly not to offer yet another argument for the existence of God. Instead, our motivation is to explore some fascinating possibilities for science and create room for that exploration to proceed unfettered. The subtitle of Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker reads Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Dawkins may in the end prove right about design being absent from the universe. But design theorists insist that science needs to address not only the evidence that reveals the universe to be without design but also the evidence that reveals the universe to be with design. Evidence is a two-edged sword: Claims capable of being refuted by evidence are also capable of being supported by evidence. Even if design ends up being rejected as an unfruitful explanatory tool for science, such a negative outcome for design needs to result from the evidence for and against design being fairly considered. Darwin himself would have agreed. At the very start of the Origin he wrote, “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” Consequently, any rejection of design must not result from imposing arbitrary constraints on science that rule out design prior to any consideration of evidence.

Two main such constraints have historically been used to keep design outside the natural sciences: methodological naturalism and dysteleology. According to methodological naturalism, in explaining any natural phenomenon the natural sciences are properly permitted to invoke only natural causes to the exclusion of intelligent causes. Methodological naturalism is a regulative principle that purports to keep science on the straight and narrow by limiting science to natural causes. In fact it does nothing of the sort but constitutes a straitjacket that actively impedes the progress of science. If an intelligence actually did play a crucial role in the origin of biological complexity, methodological naturalism would ensure that we could never know it. Imagine a detective absolutely committed to explaining by natural causes why Frank’s corpse has a knife through the heart and the words “Die, Frank, Die!” etched on his chest. Methodological naturalism requires the same unthinking commitment from science.

The other constraint for excluding design from science is dysteleology. Dysteleology refers to inferior design — typically design that is either evil or incompetent. Dysteleology rules out design from the natural sciences on account of the inferior design that nature is said to exhibit. Dysteleology might present a problem if all design in nature were wicked or incompetent. But that’s not the case. To be sure, there are microbes that look designed to do a number on the mammalian nervous system and biological structures that look cobbled together by a long trial-and-error evolutionary process. But there are also biological examples of nano-engineering that surpass anything human engineers have concocted or entertain hopes of concocting. Dysteleology is primarily a theological problem. To exclude design from biology simply because not all examples of biological design live up to our expectations of what a designer should or should not have done is an evasion. The problem of design in biology is real and pervasive, and needs to be addressed head on and not sidestepped because our presuppositions about design happen to rule out imperfect design. Nature is a mixed bag. It is not William Paley’s happy world of everything in delicate harmony and balance. It is not the widely caricatured Darwinian world of nature red in tooth and claw. Nature contains evil design, jerry-built design, and exquisite design. Science needs to come to terms with design as such and not dismiss it in the name of dysteleology.

A possible terminological confusion over the phrase “intelligent design” needs now to be cleared up. The confusion centers on what the adjective “intelligent” is doing in the phrase “intelligent design.” “Intelligent” can mean nothing more than being the result of an intelligent agent, even one who acts stupidly. On the other hand, it can mean that an intelligent agent acted with consummate skill and mastery. Critics of intelligent design often understand the “intelligent” in “intelligent design” in the latter sense, and thus presume that intelligent design must entail optimal design (and therefore a program of natural theology). The intelligent design community, on the other hand, understands the “intelligent” in “intelligent design” simply to refer to intelligent agency (irrespective of skill, mastery, or cleverness) and thus separates intelligent design from optimality of design.

But why then place the adjective “intelligent” in front of the noun “design”? Doesn’t design already include the idea of intelligent agency, so that juxtaposing the two becomes redundant? Redundancy is avoided because intelligent design needs also to be distinguished from apparent design. Because design in biology is so often attributed to natural forces (e.g., natural selection), putting “intelligent” in front of “design” ensures that the design we are talking about is not merely apparent but actual (for scientific realists, actual in the sense that there is a real designer behind the design; for scientific anti-realists, actual in the sense that the design is in principle irreducible to natural causes). Whether the intelligence thus posited acts cleverly or stupidly, wisely or unwisely, optimally or suboptimally are separate questions.

At this point critics of intelligent design often protest that design theorists have yet to provide a careful definition of intelligence. While I agree that terms need to be defined as carefully as possible, the call for definition can itself become a subterfuge. Thus the call for definition can become a way of avoiding the challenge posed by an idea by endlessly requiring further clarification of key terms. The later Wittgenstein certainly thought the call for definition was overrated. Indeed, the finiteness of language itself implies that the call for definition must at some point either end or issue in circularity. Within intelligent design, intelligence is a primitive notion much as force or energy are primitive notions within physics. We can say intelligible things about these notions and show how they can be usefully employed in certain contexts. But in defining them, we gain no substantive insight.

The very word intelligence derives from the Latin words “inter” (a preposition meaning “between”) and “lego” (a verb meaning to “choose” or “select”). Thus strictly speaking intelligence refers to the capacity to choose or select. Yet unlike natural selection, which operates without goals or purposes, ordinarily when we think of an intelligence as choosing or selecting, it is with a goal or purpose in mind. We could therefore define intelligence as the capacity for rational or purposive or deliberate or premeditated choice. Have we therefore defined intelligence to the satisfaction of the critics of intelligent design? Hardly. When Howard Van Till, for instance, issues his call for definition, his worry is not what intelligence or design means as such, but what these terms mean in contexts where no embodied intelligence was acting and thus where his view of nature as a complete system of natural causes [cf. his fully gifted creation and robust formational economy] comes under pressure. Invariably I’ve found that the call to define intelligence by critics of intelligent design is not a call for clarification but a defensive move to relieve pressure from some aspect of the critic’s own worldview that intelligent design calls into question.

 From the foregoing description of intelligent design it’s clear that intelligent design is not a form of natural theology. Natural theology attempts to answer theological and metaphysical questions on the basis of what the science of the day is saying about nature. Intelligent design, on the other hand, is simply interested in seeing whether any interesting science can be done once it is found that certain natural systems bear marks that in other contexts reliably signal the effects of intelligence. Ian Barbour is therefore mistaken when he claims that Stephen Meyer and I “write in the tradition of natural theology in which science.