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Design Yes, Intelligent No A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory and Neocreationism

The claims by Behe, Dembski, and other "intelligent design" creationists that science should be opened to supernatural explanations and that these should be allowed in academic as well as public school curricula are unfounded and based on a misunderstanding of both design in nature and of what the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is all about.

A new brand of creationism has appeared on the scene in the last few years. The so-called neocreationists largely do not believe in a young Earth or in a too literal interpretation of the Bible. While still mostly propelled by a religious agenda and financed by mainly Christian sources such as the Templeton Foundation and the Discovery Institute, the intellectual challenge posed by neocreationism is sophisticated enough to require detailed consideration (see Edis 2001; Roche 2001).

Among the chief exponents of Intelligent Design (ID) theory, as this new brand of creationism is called, is William Dembski, a mathematical philosopher and author of The Design Inference (1998a). In that book he attempts to show that there must be an intelligent designer behind natural phenomena such as evolution and the very origin of the universe (see Pigliucci 2000 for a detailed critique). Dembki's (1998b) argument is that modern science ever since Francis Bacon has illicitly dropped two of Aristotle's famous four types of causes from consideration altogether, thereby unnecessarily restricting its own explanatory power. Science is thus incomplete, and intelligent design theory will rectify this sorry state of affairs, if only close-minded evolutionists would allow Dembski and company to do the job.

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Aristotle's Four Causes in Science

Aristotle identified material causes, what something is made of; formal causes, the structure of the thing or phenomenon; efficient causes, the immediate activity producing a phenomenon or object; and final causes, the purpose of whatever object we are investigating. For example, let's say we want to investigate the "causes" of the Brooklyn Bridge. Its material cause would be encompassed by a description of the physical materials that went into its construction. The formal cause is the fact that it is a bridge across a stretch of water, and not either a random assembly of pieces or another kind of orderly structure (such as a skyscraper). The efficient causes were the blueprints drawn by engineers and the labor of men and machines that actually assembled the physical materials and put them into place. The final cause of the Brooklyn Bridge was the necessity for people to walk and ride between two landmasses without getting wet.

Dembski maintains that Bacon and his followers did away with both formal and final causes (the so-called teleonomic causes, because they answer the question of why something is) in order to free science from philosophical speculation and ground it firmly into empirically verifiable statements. That may be so, but things certainly changed with the work of Charles Darwin (1859). Darwin was addressing a complex scientific question in an unprecedented fashion: he recognized that living organisms are clearly designed in order to survive and reproduce in the world they inhabit; yet, as a scientist, he worked within the framework of naturalistic explanations of such design. Darwin found the answer in his well-known theory of natural selection. Natural selection, combined with the basic process of mutation, makes design possible in nature without recourse to a supernatural explanation because selection is definitely nonrandom, and therefore has "creative" (albeit nonconscious) power. Creationists usually do not unde rstand this point and think that selection can only eliminate the less fit; but Darwin's powerful insight was that selection is also a cumulative process--analogous to a ratchet--which can build things over time, as long as the intermediate steps are also advantageous.

Darwin made it possible to put all four Aristotelian causes back into science. For example, if we were to ask what are the causes of a tiger's teeth within a Darwinian framework, we would answer in the following manner. The material cause is provided by the biological materials that make up the teeth; the formal cause is the genetic and developmental machinery that distinguishes a tiger's teeth from any other kind of biological structure; the efficient cause is natural selection promoting some genetic variants of the tiger's ancestor over their competitors; and the final cause is provided by the fact that having teeth structured in a certain way makes it easier for a tiger to procure its prey and therefore to survive and reproduce--the only "goals" of every living being.

Therefore, design is very much a part of modern science, at least whenever there is a need to explain an apparently designed structure (such as a living organism). All four Aristotelian causes are fully reinstated within the realm of scientific investigation, and science is nor maimed by the disregard of some of the causes acting in the world. What then is left of the argument of Dembski and of other proponents of ID? They, like William Paley (1831) well before them, make the mistake of confusing natural design and intelligent design by rejecting the possibility of the former and concluding that any design must by definition be intelligent.


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