Zegiestow, Poland. 2019/8/10. Stained-glass window depicting the Creation of the World with the words "And God said, Let us make..." Roman Catholic Church of Saint Anne.
Zegiestow, Poland. 2019/8/10. Stained-glass window depicting the Creation of the World with the words
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Catholics and Intelligent Design

Published at Evolution News

Part One

In three chapters of God and Evolution, I respond to the criticisms of ID from certain, but by no means all, Thomists such as Ed Feser. Feser (whose work I generally hold in high regard) recently wrote a lengthy response to my arguments. Since Feser reiterates many of his previous arguments in this response, I’ve decided to post several excerpts from God and Evolution so that interested readers can evaluate the merits and reasonableness of the competing arguments for themselves.

As will become apparent, there are serious disagreements, both stylistically and substantively, between Feser’s view, which he calls “A-T” (Aristotelian-Thomism), and various ID arguments. (I would distinguish “A-T” from Thomism simpliciter.) Since ID arguments normally don’t propose a full-blown philosophy of nature, the disagreements, such as there are, are implicit. They revolve, in part, around the meaning and significance of various terms, such as “mechanism,” “immanent teleology,” and especially an analysis of the concepts of “nature” and “art.”

The word “mechanism” means lots of different things, and so it tends to create more heat than light in this debate, unless defined precisely rather being used as a pejorative term to refer to everyone whose views on teleology differ from Aristotle.

“Immanent teleology” is another confusing term. Feser takes his understanding of this concept to be identical with Thomas Aquinas’ view. I argue, in contrast, that Feser’s use of the term covers over some of the most crucial issues at stake in the discussion. Moreover, I argue that his understanding fails to capture Thomas’ written views of God’s purposeful creation of the world. To summarize my point unhelpfully here, I think Thomas’ view (and the correct view I suppose) is that nature’s teleology is immanent in some respects and extrinsic in others. Moreover, I argue that Feser’s notion of “immanent teleology” owes more to Aristotle than to Thomas or anything essential to Catholic theology. (I will trust careful readers to discern the significance of Thomas’ concept of exemplars and exemplar causality in this debate.)

In addition, Feser adopts Aristotle’s strong contrast between nature and art, and attributes the same view to St. Thomas. I argue, in contrast, that Catholics, unlike Aristotle, believe God created the universe and did the various things described in Genesis 1-3 (however precisely you interpret those passages), and neither needs nor ought to maintain so sharp a distinction. Moreover, I argue that Thomas’s views on the matter are much more qualified and are compatible with ID arguments (though ID theorists rarely raise this issue one way or another). I cite relevant texts from St. Thomas, which I take to establish this point. I also cite Pope Benedict XVI in his reflections on the doctrine of creation, who has said: “If creation cannot be recognized as the metaphysical middle term between nature and artificiality, then the plunge into nothingness is unavoidable.”i By my lights, the Pope has that exactly right.

Finally, there seems to be a background disagreement on the nature of how we refer to and make predications of God, such as when we say: “God is good.” Feser clearly adopts a strong interpretation of Thomas’ view of analogical predication with respect to God. In contrast, I agree with Duns Scotus‘ critique of what he took to be Thomas’ view of the matter. It’s possible, however, as Alex Pruss has argued here, that Thomas’ and Duns Scotus’ views are actually compatible, since they used “univocal” in different senses. I do think this is relevant to ID debates, but I’m not sure that it’s crucial. If it’s possible that God could leave traces of his activity in nature that we could discern to be the work of an intelligent agent, then ID arguments would go through.

Well, the devil is in the details. So with this introduction, let’s begin with a discussion of mechanism. (Note that these are excerpts from God and Evolution, rather than direct responses to Feser’s critique.)

The Whipping Boy: Mechanism

Thomist Ed Feser has said: “From an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, one of the main problems with ‘Intelligent Design’ theory is that it presupposes the same mechanistic conception of nature that underlies naturalism.”ii Other critics have said similar things. What’s going on here? To answer that question fully, we’ll need to do a lot of unpacking.

Orthodox Catholics have long opposed the overreaching of the so-called “mechanical philosophy” that came to prominence in the seventeenth century with René Descartes (1596-1650) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626). In the foreword to an important text by French Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson (From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution), Christoph Cardinal Schönborn calls mechanism “the dominant form of reductionism in science.”iii As critics of the Aristotelian philosophy that had come to dominate the thinking in medieval Europe, Descartes and Bacon banished formal and final causation (which explain, respectively, what something is and its purpose, or the end toward which it tends) from science for leading to dead ends and sterile explanations. Bacon continued to affirm that formal and final causes existed, while Descartes seemed to deny them altogether. In fact, Descartes departed so far from Aristotle’s “qualitative” way of describing the natural world that he reduced matter to mere extension. This foreshadowed a tendency in modern science to reduce every material object to mere quantity.

Unfortunately, the word “mechanism,” like “evolution” and “creation,” has always meant different things to different people.iv Defined etymologically, a “mechanical” natural philosophy would be one that treats certain natural objects as machines–as various parts or systems arranged to perform a certain function. So, according to Merriam-Webster, a “machine” can be “a constructed thing whether material or immaterial,” “an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion, and energy one to another in a predetermined manner.” Secondarily, it can refer to “a living organism or one of its functional systems.”v

But mechanism is often summarized more narrowly. Here’s how Cardinal Schönborn describes the problem of “mechanism” in his foreword to Gilson’s book:

While no one can question the methodological value of treating natural things as if they were nothing but an agglomeration of simpler parts “all the way down” … the ontological question remains … : Is a stable natural whole — whether atom, or molecule, or bio-chemical, or cell, or plant, or animal–truly nothing but an arbitrary combination of “indifferent” parts? In other words, is it not really a whole at all, but only a label we give to a relatively stable interaction of parts? vi

When push comes to shove, the Catholic Encyclopedia defines mechanism in the same way. The author, like Schönborn, admits that mechanistic explanations are useful for understanding natural objects, and even allows that emphasizing such explanations was a legitimate reaction to a “decadent scholasticism” that used fruitless appeals to formal and final causation. It’s widely agreed that this tendency in Aristotelian philosophy became an obstacle to exploring and understanding the material aspects of nature and needed to be challenged. Mechanism was a chief form of the challenge. Unfortunately, the challenge often came in the form of an over-reaction, and in Catholic intellectual surveys, the legitimate challenge is often defined, confusingly, in terms of the overreaction. So despite affirming the legitimacy of the mechanistic challenge, the Catholic Encyclopedia ultimately defines mechanism as the project of reducing wholes to parts, physical objects to mere quantity, and, in the end, objects to mere mathematical abstractions.vii In other words, it identifies “mechanism” with its most extreme manifestation.

Mechanism and Reductionism

But why is this procedure called “mechanism” rather than simply reductionism, which is surely the more apt term? Either some natural wholes are greater than the sum of their parts, or they’re not. If you affirm the first proposition, then you’re not a complete reductionist. If you affirm the second, then you are.
Mechanism, on the other hand, involves a cluster of ideas much broader than whole-to-part reductionism. As a result, identifying these two ideas as synonyms is bound to be misleading, and seriously so, for several reasons.

First, machines are more than the sum of their parts. To claim otherwise, ironically, is to be highly reductionist about the reality of a machine. Some critics of “mechanistic” philosophy deny this obvious point. Ed Feser, for instance, says:

Take a few bits of metal, work them into various shapes, and attach them to a piece of wood. Voila! A mousetrap. Or so we call it. But objectively, apart from human interests, the object is “nothing but” a collection of wood and metal parts. Its “mousetrappish” character is observer-relative; it is in the minds of the designer and users of the object, and not strictly in the object itself. “Reductionism” with respect to such human artifacts is just common sense. We know that cars, computers, and cakes are objectively “nothing but” the parts that make them up — that their “carlike,” “computerlike,” or “cakelike” qualities are not really there inherently in the parts, but are observer-relative — precisely because we took the parts and rearranged them to perform a function we want them to perform but which they have no tendency to perform on their own.

Notice where the reductionism lies here. Feser assumes that unless a whole is already present inherently in its parts, then there really is no whole. “[T]he object,” we’re told, “is ‘nothing but’ a collection of wood and metal parts.”viii Such reasoning is a universal acid. One could just as well argue that Handel’s Messiah is nothing but a compilation of musical notes and words to accompany them!

The reasoning is equally absurd when applied to machines. In truth, even the simplest human machines, like a mousetrap or a cotton gin, are greater than the sums of their parts. You can lay out the parts of a mousetrap on a table and they won’t do anything useful. They certainly won’t reliably trap mice. Indeed, in even the simplest human machine, the parts are taken up, as it were, in service of a function imposed on them by an agent. Practically everything interesting about the machine is its arrangement for a function. That function is distinct from the parts, it is real, even if when separated from them, it doesn’t exist except in the mind of the builder. That’s why we issue patents and have intellectual property laws. The function defines the purpose of a machine — its end. Since such machines aren’t even reducible to their parts, they certainly aren’t reducible to particles, laws, extension, or matter.

This purposive nature of the machine is especially obvious in high technology — such as computing and communications technology — in which the role of intelligence and information predominates over the material substrate in which it is embedded. So the concept of a machine does not imply, let alone entail, reductionism.

Second, whether organisms simply are machines, or are nothing but machines, is a separate question.

Third, even if parts of organisms are literally machines, it doesn’t follow that complete organisms are so, any more than it follows that because Van Gogh’s Starry Night is made of paint, it’s just paint.

Fourth, while organisms are far more than mere machines built by humans, they are surely not less.

Fifth, if mechanism is the belief that natural wholes are reducible to their parts, then not all thinkers frequently identified as “mechanists” deserve the label. Conversely, if mechanism is defined broadly enough to encompass figures as diverse as Descartes, Bacon, Robert Boyle, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Gottfried Leibniz, Isaac Newton, and William Paley–all of whom are often called “mechanists”–then the word can’t plausibly be identified with pure, whole-to-part reductionism.

Sixth, “mechanism” is often wrongly contrasted with teleological explanations, such as final causation, and different thinkers are then lumped together under the label. Edward Feser, for instance, says that “the founders of modern science — Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, et al. . . .” held “that final causes and the like ought to be eschewed in favor of ‘mechanical’ (i.e. non-teleological) explanations … .”ix But, this is simply not true for Newton, Boyle (as we’ll see below) and several other founders of modern science. Besides, Galileo, Kepler, and others were Renaissance Neo-Platonists, not mere reductionists.x They sought formal patterns, and especially mathematical patterns in the physical world, but this has little to do with the idea that wholes are nothing more than the sum of their parts.

What is happening, I think, is that one historical figure — Descartes — is being used to represent the different and even contradictory views of some who came after him, such as Isaac Newton (1643-1727). This has led to a simplistic stereotype of “mechanists” in some Catholic literature that is hard to correct because it is so widespread. This wouldn’t matter, except that the stereotype creates blind spots that become obvious in the ID debate. Thinking clearly on these subjects requires more refined categories.


Etienne Gilson can help in this regard. What distinguishes his book, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, from the pack is that it treats the so-called “mechanists” individually, rather than lumping them together.

Ironically, the more stereotypical view of intellectual history appears in Cardinal Schönborn’s Foreword to Gilson’s book. There, Cardinal Schönborn claims that Newton held a “particles and laws” view of nature: “Others provided much of the tinder for revolution,” he says, “but it was Isaac Newton who set the fire blazing.” By bringing “into stable alliance the opposing intellectual poles of empiricism and rationalism under a ‘particles and laws’ model of all physical reality, these two poles were yoked together in a new synthesis expected to reach and explain all of physical reality!”xi

To establish this point, the Cardinal quotes Newton’s stated wish at the beginning of the first edition of his Principia (1687): “I wish we could derive the rest of the phenomena of Nature by the same kind of reasoning from mechanical principles.” And, from this, Schönborn can then say that Darwinism followed from the ideas Newton set in place:

Darwinism represents the final triumph of the Newtonian revolution, a “particles and laws” mode of explanation with an added element of chance to provide an entirely mechanistic solution to the problem of biological origins.xii

Now, Newton certainly wanted to explain as much as possible in mathematical terms, and he studied an aspect of nature–planetary orbits — highly submissive to such explanations. This can lead to a type of reductionism in which everything from physics to psychology gets shoehorned into a mathematical box. But Newton never proposed, as did Descartes, that animals were mere automata. Nor did he ever imply that all wholes are reducible to their parts. Besides, Darwin didn’t even propose a mathematical idea: he proposed a design-substitute. Clearly, there are several distinct concepts getting confused here.

Schönborn’s explanation, though quite representative of many Catholic summaries of intellectual history, not only fails to capture Newton’s views, but also elides the most glaring difference between Newton and Darwin: Newton defended the reality, indeed, the indispensability of real design in explaining the natural world.

Gilson, though, is a careful reader of Newton. He recognizes that while Newton (successfully) extended mathematical explanation of nature farther than anyone who preceded him, nevertheless, in his overall approach, Newton was much closer to Thomas Aquinas than he was to either Bacon or Descartes. “The first great and indisputable triumph of mechanism was the astronomy of Newton,” Gilson writes. “However, Newton gave proof of more prudence than Bacon or Descartes in his philosophy of nature.”xiii This is an important observation, by an eminent Catholic philosopher. Would that it would trickle down to the textbook summaries! For contrary to stereotype, Newton didn’t observe the boundaries supposedly laid down for science by Descartes and Bacon.

In fact, Newton’s appeal to a gravitational force — which implied that objects influence other objects instantaneously from a distance — seemed like occultism to those Cartesians whose intuitions were more decidedly materialistic. If you view reality as a bunch of little sticky balls bouncing around in the void, then Newton’s idea of gravity — instantaneous action at a distance — seems downright spooky. In his Opticks (1704) Newton tried to persuade the Cartesians as best he could by appealing to the idea of ether through which rays of light could propagate. But in doing so, Gilson notes, he

gave as proof of it something which appears today to be a curious process of scientific reasoning. Speaking of those who denied his theory of a gravitational force, he reproached recent philosophers for banishing “the consideration of such a cause out of natural philosophy, feigning hypotheses for explaining all things mechanically, and referring other causes to metaphysics; whereas the main business of natural philosophy is to argue from phenomena without feigning hypotheses, and to deduce causes from effects, till we come to the very first cause, which certainly is not mechanical.”

There follows then in Newton’s text a long series of questions that mechanist science leaves without answer, or in view of which, in order to find answers to them, the mechanists invent gratuitous explanations. xiv

According to Gilson, Newton asks questions that would have delighted Aristotle. Indeed, Newton was optimistic about reasoning from effects within the physical world back to a first cause, as Thomas did in his famous “fifth way,” the last of his five arguments for the existence of God.

To speak of Newton as a mechanist in the mold of Descartes or, worse, Darwin, then, is surely to obscure his actual view, which is better described as “teleo-mechanist.”xv This is the view also held by William Paley, the English author of Natural Theology and of watch-resting-on-a-heath fame. Charles Darwin read Paley as an undergraduate. And it was Paley’s view that was to serve as a foil in Darwin’s Origin of Species.

In truth, the distance between Aristotelian and teleo-mechanist reasoning is not nearly as great as is often maintained. Again, Gilson recognizes this:

[C]ontrary to what we most often imagine, the substance of finalist reasoning is exactly the same as that of mechanist reasoning. The most attentive mechanists recognize the fact after their fashion, which is, not to deny teleology; but to try to give it mechanist explanations, taking the risk of falling back in the last resort on chance as an explanation of the living organism….xvi

Even among the “most attentive mechanists,” however, there are profound differences. Gilson recognizes this reality, though not quite clearly enough. Darwin, in effect, denied real teleology. He accepted the thing needing to be explained in biology–a certain type of adaptive, integrated complexity that functions for the benefit of an organism. This, he agreed, looks designed. And he could not talk about such things without talking of functions, which seem to imply purpose (modern Darwinists have the same problem). But he tried to explain these realities, or explain them away, with an impersonal process that lacks foresight–natural selection plus chance variation. Teleo-mechanists like Newton and Paley, whatever the current value of their arguments, defended real teleology, as did Thomas Aquinas and to a certain extent Aristotle (though Aristotle’s concept of teleology didn’t imply ultimate consciousness or intention).

Now the common response to this line of argument goes something like this: “Yes, yes. Newton thought God created and designed the world. He even thought that God tinkered with the orbits of the planets. But then Laplace came along and showed that God wasn’t needed to keep the planets in orbit. And then Darwin came along and showed that God wasn’t needed to explain the adaptations in living organisms. And all this made it look like God was out of a job. . . .”

As the famous story goes, when Napoleon asked Laplace of God’s role in his nebular theory of the planets, Laplace replied: “I have no need of that hypothesis.” This seems to crystallize the complaint against “mechanism”: we have gone from a poorly conceived interventionism to a functional deism or even atheism, all as a result of a trajectory set in motion by mechanists like Newton and perpetuated by Paley. Thus Schönborn refers to “the deistic conception of God and the static conception of living things implicit in Paley’s mechanistic ‘watchmaker’ arguments.”xvii Newton is often charged with such deism as well.

Now let’s set aside the merits of Newton and Paley’s arguments, and consider this charge that their conception of God is deistic. The charge is as common as it is mistaken. Deism is the belief that God sets up everything at the beginning and then lets nature run itself. This is obviously not Newton or Paley’s view. Newton at least thought God did all sorts of things in the created order. He once wrote: “[W]here natural causes are at hand God uses them as instruments in his works, but I do not think them sufficient alone for ye Creation.”xviii

For Newton, God maintained and interacted with everything in the physical universe, which he called the “divine sensorium.” Since God is infinite, Newton supposed the universe, too, was infinite. He argued that God’s ordering activity was apparent in the orderly orbits of the planets. The “mechanism” of Newton and others like William Paley was not a particles and forces view; it was at the very least a particles, forces, and design view, in which material objects somehow have purposive form imposed on them. That form determines what they are and what they do. Natural wholes, on this view, are still greater than the sum of their parts.

Schönborn (along with many others) is apparently using “deism” to refer to the idea that God lets nature run its course except when he occasionally intervenes. That’s a problematic view, to be sure. But it’s not Newton’s view, nor is it an implication of his view. And it’s obviously not even deism. It’s akin, perhaps, to Olympian polytheism, in which gods act within nature to change the weather and the outcomes of battles, but don’t create, transcend or uphold nature itself.

Moreover, to claim — along with Newton, Thomas, Augustine and every orthodox Christian from time immemorial–that God sometimes acts directly in nature to effect certain outcomes, implies nothing about what God is doing at every other time. It does not imply, as is sometimes claimed, that God is merely another member of the universe.xix God can act directly in nature, while still upholding and transcending it.

Schönborn knows this, surely, since he writes elsewhere about Newton’s “vehement critique of deism” in the General Scholium in his Principia.xx And the Cardinal also knows, despite his slip-ups in the introduction to Gilson’s book, that Newton was no mere mechanist, and that he steadfastly opposed the creative capacities of chance, contrary to Darwin. In Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo, Schönborn writes:

For [Newton] the symmetry and regularity of the planets’ orbits is a phenomenon that cannot be explained by “mere mechanical causes”. This “most elegant” system can have arisen only through the counsel and dominion of a supreme intelligence. From natural phenomena we arrive at certainty about the Creator.xxi

This inconsistent treatment of Newton (and those like Paley who shared his view), I would suggest, is the result of using words like “mechanism” and “deism” ambiguously, and acting as if the only options are Aristotle and Descartes (or worse, Aristotle and Darwin). Again, grappling with the current debate over intelligent design requires that we be much more precise.

Of course, when Newton (purportedly) proposed that God tweaked the orbits of the planets from time to time to prevent them from spinning out of control, he was a bit hasty. It’s certainly not the best design argument ever devised. In his desire to avoid what he saw as the complete “mechanistic reductionism” of Descartes, he appealed to God’s direct activity; but he did so in an area of ignorance. Once the planetary orbits were better understood, and other planets and bodies discovered, the problem Newton tried to solve, disappeared. This was truly an example of an argument from ignorance and God of the gaps reasoning. There’s nothing logically wrong with pointing out gaps in certain forms of explanation. If materialist explanations cannot explain, say, altruism, there’s nothing whatsoever wrong in pointing that out. Of course it’s imprudent to invoke God’s action directly if the “gap” is simply a gap of ignorance; but truly bad god-of-the gaps arguments actually are extremely rare in Judeo-Christian Western history.xxii The God of the gaps accusation is mostly a myth used by atheists to exclude teleological explanations — no matter how reasonable or solidly based on knowledge rather than ignorance. It’s troubling to see certain Catholics use the same rhetorical ploy.

Besides, just because Newton mistakenly invoked divine action is no reason to reject the possibility that purpose could be the best explanation for some things in nature, including nature herself. On that general point, the Christian tradition, including especially Thomas Aquinas, agrees with Newton. Newton should not be blamed for the view of Laplace and others, who added another idea, which philosophers refer to as the “causal closure” of the universe. According to this idea, the workings of the physical universe are purely deterministic and not open to “outside” influence. Everything that happens is the necessary outcome of the initial conditions set up at the beginning.xxiii

Now, the teleo-mechanistic philosophy of Newton and Paley is not without its dangers. In fact, it could lend itself to deism, but at the level of metaphor rather than logic. If nature is conceived of as a watch, for example, as William Paley suggested in his famous story of a watch resting on a heath, then it might eventually occur to someone that the best kind of watch would be self-winding. And then people would get the impression that God, if he’s really powerful, would set the whole thing up at the beginning. And then someone would argue that it would impugn his dignity and power to be tinkering with his creation after he’s got it running. And suddenly everyone would have the impression that it would be “best”xxiv if God just got everything started correctly and then retired. So you’d go from teleo-mechanism to a highly deterministic deism.xxv

That is an unsavory suggestion; but not one step in this chain of reasoning is entailed by the previous step. It all proceeds by impression and supposition, as a result of the promiscuous use of a very limited metaphor, and a single bit of carelessness by Newton. It’s hardly inevitable. So the first take-home lesson is that we should avoid arguments from ignorance. The second is that we should always mind our metaphors.

The third take-home lesson is this: there’s no need to wrestle on the horns of a false dilemma: Aristotle and Descartes do not represent the only logically possible views of nature’s teleology.

  • iPope Benedict XVI, “In the Beginning . . .“, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 93.
  • iiEdward Feser, “‘Intelligent Design Theory’ and Mechanism,” What’s Wrong with the World (April 10, 2010).
  • iiiEtienne Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), p. ix. Gilson did not write the book as a response to ID. In fact, it was first published in French in 1971 and in English in 1984. But it was recently republished by Ignatius Press with a lengthy foreword by Cardinal Schönborn. Schönborn places Gilson’s book in the context of the modern debate over Darwinism and intelligent design, so that makes it especially fitting. But his foreword must be read with caution, especially in its summary of intellectual history.
  • ivThe opening line from the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on “mechanism” says: “There is no constant meaning in the history of philosophy for the word Mechanism.” Mark Mary de Munnynck, “Mechanism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 10 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), available online at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10100a.htm. This is the original Catholic Encyclopedia published in the early twentieth century, which orthodox Catholics continue to trust. The newer Catholic Encyclopedia published in the 1960s is less theologically reliable from an orthodox perspective, so I won’t cite it.
  • v“machine,” at: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/machine.
  • viIn the Foreword to From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, pp. ix-x.
  • vii http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10100a.htm.
  • viiiEd Feser, “Nothing But,” Edward Feser (April 8, 2010): 
  • ixEdward Feser, Aquinas (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), p. 39.
  • xThomas Kuhn emphasizes, even overemphasizes, the role of Neo-Platonism in the thought of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler in The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, reprint, 1992).
  • xiFrom Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, p. xi.
  • xiiIbid., p. xii.
  • xiiiIbid., p. 32.
  • xivIbid., pp. 32-33.
  • xvLenoir coined the term, though he applied it to Kant and certain German thinkers. For Newton, however, teleology was not merely a mental construct used to make sense of natural phenomena. It was a real feature of the natural world, and a legitimate basis on which to infer that the world is the product of a purposeful Creator.
  • xviGilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, p. 127.
  • xviiIbid., p. xxi.
  • xviiiIn a letter to Burnet, quoted in A.J. Pyle, “Animal Generation and the Mechanical Philosophy: Some Light on the Role of Biology in the Scientific Revolution,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 9 (1987): p. 246, note 130.
  • xixMark Vernon makes this charge in “Bad Science, Bad Theology, and Blasphemy,” The Guardian (May 7, 2010), at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/may/05/intelligent-design-theology.
  • xxIn Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, “Fides, Ratio, Scientia: The Debate About Evolution,” Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), p. 85.
  • xxiIbid., p. 87.
  • xxiiSee physicist David Snoke’s provocative article, “In Defense of God-of-the-Gaps Reasoning,” Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith53, no. 3 (2001): pp. 152-158. He urges an important distinction:

We must distinguish between bad explanations for certain things within the theistic world view, and arguments for the theistic world view itself. People arguing that comets were signs from God or that demons caused all sickness did not argue that God existed because comets and demons existed. Rather, starting from a belief in God, they posited a reasonable, though ultimately falsified, theory about comets and demons.

  • xxiiiFor more on this distinction, see Alvin Plantinga, “What is ‘Intervention’?” Theology & Science 6, no. 4 (2008): pp. 369-401.
  • xxivIn a justly famous article, philosopher Robert M. Adams showed that the idea of God creating the best possible world is riddled with all sorts of difficulties, and has often presupposed that there is just one such world. See his “Must God Create the Best?” Philosophical Review 81, no. 3 (1972): pp. 317-332.
  • xxvThis is precisely the complaint that Gottfried Leibniz had against Newton’s suggestion that God tweaked planetary orbits from time to time. He charged that in Newton’s view, “God Almighty wants [that is, needs] to wind up his watch from time to time; otherwise it would cease to move.” To Leibniz, this suggested that God’s creation is “so imperfect . . . that he is obliged to clean it now and then by an extraordinary concourse, and even to mend it, as a clockmaker mends his work.” Gottfried Leibniz, The Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence, 1715-1716, ed. H.G. Alexander (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1956) pp. 11-12. Quoted in Schönborn, “Fides, Ratio, Scientia: The Debate About Evolution,” Creation and Evolution, p. 88.

Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow at Discovery, Senior Research Fellow at Heritage Foundation
Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the Executive Editor of The Stream. Richards is author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated (2013) and Indivisible (2012); The Human Advantage; Money, Greed, and God, winner of a 2010 Templeton Enterprise Award; The Hobbit Party with Jonathan Witt; and Eat, Fast, Feast. His most recent book, with Douglas Axe and William Briggs, is The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic Into a Catastrophe.