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 Three

Is ID Teleo-Mechanistic?

The discussion of the previous chapter might suggest that, while contemporary ID arguments may not be “mechanistic” in the stereotypical sense, perhaps they are teleo-mechanistic. Is ID inherently tied to the teleo-mechanist view of Newton, Boyle, and Paley?

There are certainly similarities between ID and teleo-mechanist arguments from figures like Newton and Paley; but as we’ve seen, there are also similarities between Newton and St. Thomas. In truth, it’s impossible to pigeonhole ID theorists so neatly. ID, after all, is a big tent intellectual program. Not all ID proponents share an identical philosophy of nature or the same theological views.

Moreover, much of the technical work by ID theorists purposefully avoids proposing a full-blown philosophy of nature. William Dembski’s analysis of the “design inference,” for instance, is an attempt to rationally reconstruct the elements by which we infer design in everyday experience.i His reconstruction is intended to provide statistical and scientific precision in analyzing a certain group of systems in microbiology. As he has stated many times, it is a complete misunderstanding to see this statistical analysis as supplying or implying a philosophy of nature. And yet certain critics continue to perpetuate just this misunderstanding.

In The Design Revolution, written in 2004, Dembski notes that

in focusing on the machinelike features of organisms, intelligent design is not advocating a mechanistic conception of life. To attribute such a conception of life to intelligent design is to commit the fallacy of composition. Just because a house is made of bricks doesn’t mean that the house itself is a brick. Likewise, just because certain biological structures can properly be described as machines doesn’t mean that an organism that includes those structures is a machine. Intelligent design focuses on the machinelike aspects of life because those aspects are scientifically tractable and are precisely the ones that the opponents of design purport to explain by physical mechanisms.ii

Moreover, in his other theological and philosophical writings, Dembski has complained about the limits of mechanistic philosophy. (This attitude is shared by other philosophically inclined ID proponents, most of whom think that modern philosophies of nature need to be radically rethought.) For instance, Dembski has referred to Paley’s teleo-mechanical philosophy as a “kludge of divine interventionism and material philosophy.” He goes on to say:

I am a much bigger fan of the Church Fathers than I am of William Paley. I like Paley and think he has a lot of good insights. But I think the watch metaphor was in many ways unfortunate. It is faulty, because the world is not like a watch.

The Church Fathers did not use the watch. Instead, they spoke about a musical instrument. Gregory of Nazianzus … makes a design argument which is virtually parallel to William Paley’s, except in place of a watch he has a lute. … I think this is a much better metaphor than a watch. As Christians, we believe that God is not an absentee landlord. God creates the world but then he also interacts with it.

The watch metaphor is the type of metaphor that we get from a mechanical philosophy. … But with a lute … you need a lute player; otherwise it is just sitting there. In fact, it is incomplete without the lute player. iii

Dembski is not a Catholic but it is very hard to see how his point contradicts Catholic theology.

ID as a Tertium Quid

Of course, like Aristotle and St. Thomas, design theorists often compare biological structures to human technology. Biochemist Michael Behe, for example, has compared the “irreducibly complex” properties of the bacterial flagellum to a mousetrap. But only the most unfair critic would take him to mean that God literally puts every bacterial flagellum together piece-by-piece, or that a bacterial flagellum is nothing more sophisticated than an isolated mousetrap. And even if Behe did claim that, it still wouldn’t be a reductionist argument–that the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. Quite the opposite. All the parts could exist simultaneously without producing the “machine.” So the arrangement of the parts constitutes something in addition to the parts themselves. (Note also that Behe is focusing on sub-systems of organisms, not whole organisms.)

Similarly, ID theorists enthusiastically compare biological systems with information and communications technology. In his important book Signature in the Cell, Stephen Meyer speaks of the coding regions of DNA as “software” and “blueprints,” and refers to cells as “information-processing systems.” Such software contains information, not just information in the sense of complexity or information capacity, but specified, sequenced, coded information, like human language.

Computer technology differs from earlier, “mechanical” technology. Our very way of speaking expresses the difference. In describing computer technology, we combine both mechanical and linguistic analogies, as the word “information” suggests. Meyer and other design theorists like William Dembski often appeal to language, written and spoken, in describing the design of the natural world. In his theological reflections, Dembski draws heavily on the Bible’s way of describing God’s interaction with the world–through the spoken and written word. God speaks the world into existence in Genesis 1. And the Apostle John, echoing the opening chapter of Genesis, refers to the Son as the Logos, the “Word,” of God. It is through this Word that “all things are made.” Rather than describing God as an artificer who “moves particles around,” Dembski describes God as speaking or “imparting information” to the world. (Of course, he still recognizes that if God wants to move particles around, he can do that too.) This way of speaking has connections not only in biology, but in quantum physics as well, where information increasingly is seen as fundamental to understanding the nature of the physical world.iv

I have spoken of nature as a book (echoing Galileo, Kepler and others), with a text that can be “read through” to the intentions of its Author. And in The Privileged Planet, Guillermo Gonzalez and I argue that the eerie correlation between the requirements for complex life and for scientific discovery suggests that nature is meant to be “read”–that it is designed not just for life, but also for discovery.

Earlier design arguments tended to work with only two categories: order and chance/chaos. As a result, Aristotle and St. Thomas could speak of a rock falling to Earth and an insect moving toward its food as examples of the same phenomenon–end-directed order. But the simple, repetitive order evident in, say, physics, is quite different from the integrated complexity of, say, written text and the coding regions of DNA. Such complexity is similar to randomness since it is not repetitive. (See Stephen Meyer’s chapter in God and Evolution for more details.) But we still recognize that it is qualitatively different from mere randomness or chaos, and cries out for a different type of explanation.

Moreover, a great deal of the evidence to which ID theorists appeal is of very recent vintage–revealed with the sensual prostheses of telescope and microscope. No one knew about the cosmic microwave background radiation or the bacterial flagellum, or the fine-tuning of the fundamental forces until well into the twentieth century. So ID arguments appear quite modern compared to the broad, metaphysical arguments contained in St. Thomas’ Summa contra Gentiles.

At the same time, contemporary ID arguments represent a return to a very traditional and biblical way of speaking. Linguistic metaphors have closer affinities to the Bible’s way of describing God’s relation to the world than to either the Aristotelian or teleo-mechanist ways of speaking. Rather than high tech teleo-mechanistic philosophy, ID draws on elements from both the Aristotelian and teleo-mechanist traditions, but doesn’t fit wholly in either camp. It is in many ways a tertium quid, a third possibility.

Once we realize this, it becomes obvious that, contrary to the suppositions of some Catholic critics, ID is highly anti-reductionist. Unlike materialists, who seek to ground everything in matter or physical laws, ID theorists argue that such laws point beyond themselves to a purposive agent. And unlike Neo-Darwinians, who tend to have a simplistic “beads-on-a-string” view of DNA, and to reduce life to the coding regions of DNA, Stephen Meyer and other design theorists argue emphatically for the priority of the whole to the parts: it is only in the context of the entire cellular system, for instance, that the coding regions of DNA code for proteins. To speak in medieval scholastic terms, the nucleotide pairs that make up the “letters” in DNA have a passive potentiality to be arranged specifically, so that they can code for proteins. But they don’t have the power by themselves to perform that function or to specify the order in which they are arranged. In fact, if they did, they would be poor carriers of information.

The cell, like the organism, contains a nested hierarchy of orders, in which the lower orders are taken up by the higher orders. We know empirically that organisms are far more than mere matter in motion. We have every reason to doubt that they can be reduced to simple particles and repetitive laws. They are constrained by rich and purposive “in-formation” that includes not just the one-dimensional instructions in DNA (in both coding and non-coding regions) but also the three dimensional architecture of the cell as a whole. And in multicellular organisms, the cell itself is but one part of a larger, exquisitely integrated, three-dimensional architecture that is irreducible to the lower levels. Most design theorists are convinced that we are just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding the irreducibly informational nature of organisms, and that we can only begin to grasp that nature when we think in a top-down rather than bottom-up fashion.v

While the refined concept of information is not drawn from Aristotelian philosophy, it’s no coincidence that the word “information” contains the word “form.” In fact, I suspect that the rich concept of information common in the ID literature captures some of the intuition that inspired Aristotle’s concept of “formal” cause. (It also distinguishes ID from teleo-mechanists like Paley, who had a sense of a final causation, but not formal causation.) Information may be “in” matter, but it is decidedly not matter, energy, particles, or laws. Information orients and transcends all these things, as written text transcends ink and paper, and as form transcends matter. The concept of information is essential for understanding the biological world. And its presence in nature bespeaks purpose, that is, a final cause. That means that modern biological discoveries have already pushed science beyond the default position of particles-and-laws reductionism (as the eerie discoveries of quantum physics pushed physicists beyond the vision of atoms as little balls in the void). Contemporary ID arguments follow that trend and extend it.

Interestingly, in its discussion of evolution, the International Theological Commission’s Vatican Statement on Creation and Evolution, when headed by Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI, drew just this parallel:

Modern physics has demonstrated that matter in its most elementary particles is purely potential and possesses no tendency toward organization. But the level of organization in the universe, which contains highly organized forms of living and non-living entities, implies the presence of some “information.” This line of reasoning suggests a partial analogy between the Aristotelian concept of substantial form and the modern scientific notion of “information.” Thus, for example, the DNA of the chromosomes contains the information necessary for matter to be organized according to what is typical of a certain species or individual. Analogically, the substantial form provides to prime matter the information it needs to be organized in a particular way. This analogy should be taken with due caution because metaphysical and spiritual concepts cannot be simply compared with material, biological data.vi

Read one sentence again: “This line of reasoning suggests a partial analogy between the Aristotelian concept of substantial form and the modern scientific notion of “‘information.'” In my view, that is exactly right. The authors of the document clearly have in mind the integrated, specified information found in DNA and the three-dimensional architecture of organisms, and not so-called “Shannon” information, a concept that does not discriminate between random noise and specified information. This is a point at which Catholicism could benefit from the work of ID theorists, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, on these matters, some Thomists, even those who ought to sympathize with ID, frequently misconstrue ID arguments. Edward Feser, for instance, in his excellent introduction to St. Thomas, shows skepticism of Darwinist “attempts to discard final causality and explain biological phenomena entirely in terms of efficient causality.” And he reflects on the inadequacy of materialist explanations of DNA and the genetic code, that

seem teleological through and through. Descriptions of this famous molecule make constant reference to the “information,” “data,” “instructions,” “blueprint,” “software,” “programming,” and so on contained within it . . .”

He then speaks of DNA as “directed toward” a sort of “goal” or “end.”vii

The ID theorist might sense an ally, but Feser quickly clarifies:

It is important to note that this has nothing whatsoever to do with the “irreducible complexity” that “Intelligent Design” theorists claim certain biological phenomena exhibit; the Aristotelian need not take sides in the debate between Darwinian biologists and “Intelligent Design” theorists (who generally accept the mechanistic view of nature endorsed by their materialist opponents). Final causality is evident in DNA not because of how complex it is, but because of what it does, and would be equally evident however simple in physical structure DNA might have been.viii

Really? These ideas have “nothing whatsoever to do” with one other? And Aristotelianism is neutral in the debate between anti-teleological Darwinism and teleological ID? If so, then something is seriously wrong with Feser’s brand of Aristotelianism (note that though Feser is a Thomist, he speaks of the “Aristotelian,” which is not the same thing).

From our discussion above, it should be clear why this critique misfires. Behe’s argument is not based on the idea of “how” complex a bacterial flagellum is. In his arguments concerning systems like the bacterial flagellum, Behe points both to the type of complexity exhibited — which is out of reach to Darwin’s “numerous, successive slight modifications” — and to the fact that the system has a function, a discernible purpose. It is the combination of these observations — inaccessibility to the Darwinian mechanism and the presence of a purposive function — that justifies the design inference.

Function, in Behe’s argument, is a type of what William Dembski calls a “specification.” Dembski’s insight, widely used by ID theorists, is that it is specified complexity rather than mere complexity that reliably indicates an intelligent cause (it doesn’t follow that specified complexity is the only such indicator). While in some cases complexity can be analyzed and measured quantitatively, specifications — meaningful, independent patterns — are qualitative rather than quantitative.

Steve Meyer’s argument, which focuses mainly on the coding regions of DNA and the information processing at the cellular level, proceeds along similar lines. We observe in organisms — and in their organs — purposiveness, function, adaptation, and the like. Everyone, including the most dedicated Darwinists, recognizes this fact. Now, though we don’t nearly understand all the details, we know that organisms use proteins to build organs. And we know that proteins are constructed from sequential strings of amino acid chains built and folded inside cells, and the information for their sequencing (and much more besides) is coded linearly in DNA. This process is extraordinarily difficult to explain briefly, but when we get to the “coding regions” of DNA, we can then isolate information into the one dimensional-vertical axis of the DNA molecule, just as we can isolate the information in written English by following the text from the left to right across a page. So far, it is only at this very low level, focused very narrowly, that we can quantify the “complexity.” But it is the fact that that high complexity contributes to an end-directed function at higher levels that allows us to discern a specification. Otherwise, for all we would know, the sequence of base pairs, like the random letters from a Scrabble game, might just be a jumble.

So again, for the most common ID arguments in biology, the quantitative and qualitative — complexity and a special kind of end-directed pattern — together allow us to discern purpose and intelligence, if not in the organism itself, then in its ultimate origin. It’s not mere “complexity” alone.

This ID insight has obvious affinities with the teleological view of St. Thomas, despite the fact that he lacked the category of “specified complexity.” In any case, it should be clear that it is erroneous to treat ID arguments as if they were merely a rerun of the teleo-mechanist, let alone the reductionist arguments of previous centuries.

  • iHis seminal study is The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Dembski has refined his analysis since this initial study.
  • iiWilliam A. Dembski, The Design Revolution (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 152.
  • iiiWilliam Dembski, “Intelligent Design: Yesterday’s Orthodoxy, Today’s Heresy“. See also Dembski’s discussion, and response to Ed Feser and some other Thomist critics, in “Does ID Presuppose a Mechanistic View of NatureUncommon Descent (April 18, 2010), at: . See the Gregory of Nazianzen text in “Oration XXVIII — The Second Theological Oration,” William Dembski, Wayne J. Downs, and Fr. Justin B.A. Frederick, The Patristic Understanding of Creation (Riesel, TX: Erasmus Press, 2008), pp. 277-278.
  • iv“There is a growing sense that the properties of the universe are best described not by the laws that govern matter but by the laws that govern information. This appears to be true for the quantum world, is certainly true for special relativity, and is currently being explored for general relativity.” “Physicist Discovers How to Teleport Energy,” Technology Review (February 3, 2010), at: http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/24759.
  • vSee, for instance, the forthcoming books by Richard Sternberg, The Immaterial Genome, and Jonathan Wells, The Myth of Junk DNA.
  • viInternational Theological Commission: Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God; Vatican Statement on Creation and Evolution (July 2004).
  • viiEdward Feser, Aquinas, p. 45
  • viiiIbid., p. 46.

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.