On one side are the “ultra-Darwinists,” a term used by Stephen Jay Gould to criticize the stridency and excessive reductionism among some evolutionary biologists. On the other side are “creationists,” who argue—against not only science but also those faiths that accept the compatibility of evolutionary biology and Sacred Writ—that the earth was created on or around Sunday, October 23, 4004 b.c., a conclusion based on a sincere but discredited calculation by James Ussher in the seventeenth century. At first glance, Intelligent Design seems to offer hope: While eschewing the Young Earth theory of creationism, it acknowledges the need, deeply embedded in scientists and theologians alike, to recognize final cause, or telos, in the created universe. At first glance, “ID” might sound reasonable, even the answer to our prayers. It is not.
The first set of criticisms of Intelligent Design comes from the scientific perspective. These are well known and have been written about elsewhere, at length. Readers interested in these arguments are urged to visit websites such asThe Panda’s Thumb. In brief: Such websites point to logical and factual flaws in the writings of the Intelligent Design movement and take issue as well with their intellectual honesty—as when, ever eager to write the obituary for Darwinian theory, they fail to acknowledge progress in evolutionary biology.
But my task is elsewhere: to take to task the philosophy and theology behind Intelligent Design.
I turn, first, to philosophical criticisms of Intelligent Design. The movement attributes large changes in biological history to an “intelligence”—but what, exactly, they mean by this term is left largely in abeyance. Most, though not all, members of the movement are Christians and, more particularly, Evangelical Protestants. That’s as may be.
Perhaps to appeal to a broader base, they allow that this “intelligence” could be something other than God (an angel or extraterrestrial being, for example). But its being anything other than God would immediately raise the question of how such a being had arisen. Since they deny that even less advanced creatures, like trilobites, can arise by purely natural means, this is a big problem. So whether they arrive at it now or later, the conclusion seems unavoidable: Though reluctant to use the word, they are talking about the God of monotheism, and mainly the God of Christianity.
If God is omnipotent—that is, can do all that is possible without self-contradiction—what is the relationship between God and causality? Is there any causality outside an omnipotent God? Or is anything in nature that seems to act as an efficient cause only carrying out the causality of God, with no agency of its own? These questions get to the heart of a philosophical problem posed by Intelligent Design: It supposes that natural law, which is the basis for science, operates most of the time but is periodically suspended, as in the Cambrian “explosion” and the origin of life itself.
The philosophical belief that created substances cannot themselves be efficient causes is called “occasionalism.” In Islamic thought, occasionalism is most closely associated with al-Ghazali in the eleventh century and al-Razi in the twelfth. The early-eighteenth-century philosopher Nicolas Malebranche is the Christian most associated with occasionalism.
Occasionalists vary in their view of natural (or physical) law. Some argue that God’s rationality makes events occur in predictable sequences, giving the appearance of efficient causality in nature. Other accounts stress the inscrutability of God. They all, however, deny that efficient causality occurs outside God, and argue that there is no necessary, natural causal connection between two events seen in temporal and spatial conjunction. Instead, God causes first one and then another event. As Malebranche put it, God usually acts through “general volitions”—what we usually call natural or physical law—and rarely through “particular volitions” (miracles).
The Intelligent Design movement has not used the term “occasionalist” to describe itself, to my knowledge, but it is an occasionalist philosophy nonetheless. It does not credit natural or physical law with enough causal power to enact evolution on its own and educes supernatural causes to do most of the heavy lifting in worldly events. Fairly typical is this quote from Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt: “Though many biologists now acknowledge serious deficiencies in current strictly materialistic theories of evolution, they resist considering alternatives that involve intelligent guidance, direction, or design.”
The giveaway is the word “alternatives.” He might have written about adding or harmonizing a religious view to a scientific one, but instead he wrote about “alternatives.” (There are also serious questions about what he means by “strictly materialistic theories,” but let that pass.) Thus Meyer argues that if one searches for the causes of the Cambrian explosion or the origin of life solely within the ordinary bounds of biology (a part of natural philosophy), one will look forever in vain, for these things come directly from an “intelligence.”
Criticisms of occasionalism gave Malebranche pause—as, indeed, they should also give the Intelligent Design movement pause. A first critique starts with the question, posed by Leibniz, of whether a design that continually needs readjustment and intervention is a design at all. Leibniz argued that God’s creation is a harmonious whole—that God created a cosmos, an ordered universe. To illustrate this point, Leibniz used the analogy of two clocks and asked how they could be harmonized to keep the same time. They might be closely supervised by a craftsman who constantly reset them to make them agree, but surely this would be an inefficient and inelegant system—if it could be seen as a “system” at all. This troubled Malebranche, who, as a Cartesian as well as a Christian, saw creation as a mechanism set in motion by God. The best way to harmonize the clocks, Leibniz argued, would be to construct them with a common, functional mechanism so that they both kept the same time; this, surely, would be expected of a supremely good God.
Intelligent Design treats the origin of life and the sudden (in geological time, sixty million years) appearance of new phyla in the Cambrian period as nothing less than miraculous—but “miraculous” in a particular sense that is contrary to both science and traditional Judaism and Christianity. Many scientists—Newton, Einstein, and Darwin, among others—consider creation, and the existence of natural law itself, to be worth calling “miraculous.”
As to religion, Judaism and Christianity affirm the occurrence of miracles, but divine interventions occur within a particular religious context. The parting of the Red Sea, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, God’s peroration to Job: These address in some way the relationship between humanity and God—for example, the covenant between humanity and God, the remission of sin, or the return to God after death. But when proponents of Intelligent Design assert that an “intelligence” intervenes, they argue that it does so explicitly within the realm of nature, suspending ordinary natural law—thus abstracting the intervention from both a religious context and natural law. If an omnipotent God has created nature, one must ask why one should not then posit nature as capable of causing natural events on its own steam rather than requiring intervention.
From observing living beings, Darwin, like Aristotle, derived a sense of telos—end, purpose, or, as Aristotle put it, the “why” of a thing—in nature. Of the descent of all living organisms from a common ancestor, he wrote in On the Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Though denying any theological significance to teleology, Darwin was far from denying the existence of telos in such beauty. To him, the telos of natural beauty was inseparable from its usefulness for an end, especially sexual selection. Nevertheless, when it came to explaining the mechanisms by which nature works, he wrote that by arranging living beings into a system and attributing this to the plan of a creator, “nothing is thus added to our knowledge.” His point was not to deny (or affirm) whether nature comes from a creator but only that such a statement explains nothing about the mechanism by which species are transformed over time. Similarly, when Intelligent Design asserts that God planted many new phyla on the earth during the Cambrian period, “nothing is thus added to our knowledge” about the mechanism whereby such momentous changes occurred.
The Intelligent Design movement claims to be doing science, searching for evidence that an intelligence has sometimes intervened in natural history. This is not what scientists ought to be doing, however: God is not really an empirical datum. He is, rather, an inference that one might draw from empirical data. Or as St. Paul put it, more poetically: “The invisible things of him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” We learn of God from “seeing the invisible,” as an inference from our empirical experience of the things of the world.
A second problem with Intelligent Design is theological. In 1850, in In Memoriam, Tennyson expressed perplexity about the ancient earth and evolution, before On the Origin of Species was published in 1859: “Are God and Nature then at strife, / That Nature lends such evil dreams?” Though careless with individual lives, she seems careful with the type, but no: “From scarped cliff and quarried stone / She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone: / I care for nothing, all shall go.’” Here Tennyson asks why, if God made and loves the world, and saw that it was “very good,” nature should be “red in tooth and claw.” Why should it be that “all shall go”—“all” meaning not just mortal individuals but also species (“types”)?
Most, perhaps all, cultures and religious traditions have some version of the problem of evil, but as C. S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, this problem becomes scandalous in Christianity, which traditionally has held that the universe is governed by a loving and omnipotent God. I would like to call attention to the way in which the Intelligent Design movement unintentionally undercuts the orthodox Christian response to this problem.
Augustine and Thomas Aquinas viewed evil as privatio boni in subjecto (privation of the good in a subject). To summarize this view far too briefly: Privation, as opposed to simple absence or negation, is the lack of some part of a being’s nature, as when a human being is deprived of sight. Evil, in this view, is not a created substance; it can exist only as a privation within the context of a subject. Aggressive cancer cells, for example, invade precisely because they have lost some of their normal functions that tell them when and where to grow.
This view of evil is also quite compatible with Darwin and Tennyson’s view of nature as red in tooth and claw. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas argued that God did not create evil per se. Rather, he created a universe of beings in which evil is a possibility and has indeed occurred. There is a world of difference between those two views. Darwin and Tennyson attribute suffering in the natural world to the fact that our world consists of interacting, sometimes competing beings. To quote an example from Aquinas: Fire destroys wood and pollutes air only per accidens, not per se, in the act of perfecting itself.
It is also important to add that philosophy is less than the totality of Christianity, so that any philosophical understanding of evil cannot possibly be sufficient for anyone who suffers. “Rachel cried for her two sons, and would not be consoled,” we are told in Jeremiah, nor should she have been. Had Augustine or Aquinas considered his philosophical description to be a sufficient response to evil, he would not have needed to invoke the cross or, more broadly, the expiation of sin. Philosophy, like one of its branches, biology, can explain human existence accurately but not adequately.
Within the realm of philosophical “explanations” of evil, Augustine’s and Aquinas’s may be as good as explanations can be. The problem is that when a philosopher (Leibniz comes to mind) tries, with sunny demeanor, to rationalize everything within the limits of philosophy, he is doomed to failure. No doubt this is why Leibniz opened himself up to parody by Voltaire, in the person of Pangloss, who endlessly reminds the hapless Candide that this is “the best of all possible worlds.” Even if it is, this is precisely what sufferers do not want or need to hear.
The problems with Panglossian explanations go further than this: They display not only insensitivity but also intellectual pride on a monumental scale. And this is where the explanations from Intelligent Design (if they can be called that) fall short. Sciences such as evolutionary biology can explain, albeit partially, how evolution occurred, but not why. A religious discussion of evolution might provide some insight as to the “whys” of evolution; and philosophy can abet both science and religion in that process.
The problem, again, is that Intelligent Design denies being a religious movement and so is hoisted on its own petard. They claim to remain solely within philosophy (i.e., they claim to do science). Yet they educe, albeit only on rare occasions, the actions of an intelligentia ex machina (they rarely refer to Deus). In the interims, they allow that nature should be red in tooth and claw and that ordinary biological history should be a nightmare. But this inevitably raises the question of why, if the “intelligence” can intervene, did nature need to be so rife with suffering in the interim?
This, of course, is the question anyone who suffers asks. Such questions become even more painful when the sufferer is forced to face the blandishments of theodicy—such as Job faces from his interlocutors. The question regarding Intelligent Design is this: Which position in Job, that of the interlocutors or of Job, does Intelligent Design’s position resemble? In one sense, neither, for both Job and his interlocutors derive their understanding of suffering from particular religious contexts. At the risk of oversimplification, the interlocutors argue for God’s temporal as well as eternal justice, while Job expresses perplexity over their claim for his temporal justice. But now, imagine these interlocutors removed from their religious context, and what does one have? Perhaps Leibniz, allowing for suffering as necessary for running the mechanisms of the best of all possible worlds—or ID, as part of a grand design in natural history.
To understand this point about Intelligent Design, first consider two stories that have happy if improbable endings. First, Job, after his sufferings, after God’s scolding peroration, is restored, receiving new children, and doubling his original wealth. Second, Tom Jones, foundling, in the final chapters of Henry Fielding’s novel, is transformed through incredible coincidences from a bastard into a wealthy gentleman of impeccable virtue; he even gets to marry the girl he loves. While these endings are superficially similar, the critical difference is that God restores Job, while Fielding restores Tom within the bounds of nature (God does not intervene) and eighteenth-century English society. The irony of the novel’s ending is obvious. The ending of the Job narrative might also be taken as ironical—brand-new children!—except that Job’s restoration comes from God, raising the possibility of some greater reward beyond this world and its history.
Now consider the following quotation from the Idea Center website (an ID site), contrasting intelligent design with the randomness of Darwinian natural selection. Natural selection, the site states, does not “have [human beings] in mind.” In contrast, “under intelligent design, humans exist because an intelligent being did ‘have them in mind.’”
This is a comforting thought, but severed from any religious context, there is more than a touch of wishful thinking in it. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus remarks, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” To this, Mr. Deasy, Dedalus’s bigoted, complacent employer, blandly replies, “All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.” History may well move toward the manifestation of God, as natural history may well have had human beings in mind. But these responses go against the grain of ordinary human suffering, and against the bloodiness of natural history. Intelligent Design denies that it is a religious movement, and to demonstrate this point, it rarely uses the G-word. Yet even without recourse to religion, it treats biological history—thereby remaining solely within nature—as a miracle that leads inexorably to the human species.
This is neither good science, nor good—i.e., mature—theology. We have passed the time for easy certainty. We live in an era of the Holocaust; we are—or should be—horrified. We are haunted by Ivan Karamazov’s question: “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end . . . but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that infant beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?” Answers to such questions are possible, and indeed, one can view Dostoevsky’s entire novel as an extended answer to Ivan’s question.
But such answers cannot come from science. A sufficient answer, surely, is not that the machinery of the world “requires” (per Leibniz) an infant to suffer, nor (per ID) that the periods of ordinary natural history require it. Applying Dedalus’s remark to biology, one can ask: What ensures that the human species will not someday be one of the “thousand types” for which nature does not care, which will perish in a global holocaust of the type that befell the dinosaurs? Precisely nothing—at least, nothing from evolutionary theory, with or without an “intelligence.”
The Augustinian and Thomistic response to evil sometimes sounds, to a student new to the idea, like a denial of the reality of evil in the world. Not so. In fact, denying evil is the very opposite of what these authors do. Their description of evil in negative terms, as privatio boni in subjecto, is somewhat analogous to the description, in physics, of coldness or darkness. Yet at the same time, by always insisting on the inadequacy of philosophy to explain evil, they resist any tendency to “explain evil away” or “neutralize” it by a greater good, and thereby render evil in our world terribly real to us. This contrasts with philosophies that, justifying the existence of evil in God’s creation, would posit it as necessary for the machinery of the world—in other words, with all forms of theodicy that merely explain evil away.
Augustine and Aquinas, of course, do argue for a plan in history and for a human end of happiness—and for the reality, if one is not too squeamish to use the word, of heaven. At the same time, they do not presume to understand how all of that will work. But the ultimate end of the human species, like the question of whether God does or does not intervene in the machinery of the world, remains a properly metaphysical and theological question, one of faith, not science. Such questions cannot be answered by bland assurances that there is an “intelligence” directing our biological, political, or historical fates.
A friend of mine relates how, when he was in college, he was using electron microscopy to look at subcellular organelles. The beauty and order of the cell struck him with religious awe. When he said as much, his instructor angrily rebuked him and told him sternly not to say such a thing again in his laboratory. In one sense, the instructor was right. Religious awe is not particularly helpful in doing science; indeed, it may be useless or even harmful if it distracts or inhibits a scientist from performing experiments. But my friend’s response was properly human, and many great scientists, including Newton and Einstein, have expressed similar feelings. Indeed, the chill that Darwin felt down his spine when he pondered the sublime complexity of the eye seems distinctly like a religious sentiment.
Science and religion have often been at odds in the past two centuries, and we should pause, briefly, to examine why things have gone wrong.
Darwin’s rejection of religion was based mainly on a narrow definition of it: the dubious religious doctrine of a six-thousand-year-old earth and the constancy of species since creation. Today, some scientists declare God to be a delusion based on equally dubious theology: on the proposition that God’s existence cannot be proven empirically and on the presumption that only scientific data count. On the other side, creationists simply deny scientific data; but Intelligent Design, having abandoned this tactic, now tries to use science to promote religious doctrines, and this, too, is a philosophical error.
Perhaps it is just a matter of time before evolution becomes as much of a nonfactor in religion as heliocentrism is today. Looking beyond Intelligent Design, one should ask why, exactly, such errors as heliocentrism occur. Why is it an error to conclude from religion that the sun revolves around the earth, or that the transmutation of lead into gold is a spiritual purification, or, more recently, in Duncan MacDougall’s experiments weighing patients as they died, that the soul weighs twenty-one grams?
In a sense, both religion and science sometimes founder on the same error: believing themselves to be sole purveyor of all truth. To remain immured in only science or religion is to fall prey to error—in both cases, flawed philosophy and, in particular, flawed metaphysics of causality. Whereas science deals mainly in efficient and material causes, religion deals mainly with formal and final causes. Not the least misfortune of enmity between science and religion is the loss of recognition that true knowledge is a knowledge of all four causes. But science and religion each excel at doing what each does best, and neither is especially good at doing what the other does.
Without sound metaphysics to ground both science and religion, both degenerate into shallowness or, worse, the doctrine of the “double truth,” one from reason and one from faith. Prominent in the twelfth century (in ibn-Rushd, for example), this doctrine was rejected by later thinkers, notably, Aquinas, who insisted that faith and reason cannot contradict one another. The idea of the non-overlapping magisteria of science and religion, proposed (separately) by Stephen Jay Gould and Langdon Gilkey, is peaceable, attractive, and well-intentioned, but when dealing with different aspects of causality, science and religion also need to interact.
A “sound philosophy” of science and religion, to begin with the obvious, should result from a discussion, not a war. This would require a level of intellectual modesty that is only sometimes present on either side. Beyond that, I would add one more thing that many present-day biologists usually do not recognize. Although religious awe might need to stop at the door of the laboratory, a scientist can still be inspired by it, as were Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, and even Darwin.
In any case, “telos” should not be treated as a toxin or a swear word. To say that telos is beyond science is one thing; to say that it is beyond nature is quite another. It informs not only the great questions but, again, also the more modest ones of understanding mechanisms—for what can one know of the mechanisms of a heart or a fuel injector without knowing what these things are for? The corresponding “concession” (though not truly one) from the “side” of religion is that movements such as Intelligent Design must learn to let the biological chips fall where they may, as one also needs to do for history. In a sense, this, too, would be a more honest and honorable way of dealing with telos.
Stephen Meredith is professor in the departments of pathology, neurology, and biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Chicago, where he also teaches courses on literature, philosophy, and theology. This essay was underwritten by the Issachar Fund.