Intelligent Design: Losing the Catholics

12/05/2010 09:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John Farrell Author, 'The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaitre, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology'

This has not been a good year for the Discovery Institute. I'm sure book sales to their core creationist audience of Biblical literalists are steady. And, as Barbara Forrest has shown, they're hoping the Louisiana State Education Act, which is directly based on their own template for state public education policy, allows Fundamentalists in at least one state to disallow biology science textbooks that teach evolution.

But that's not the same thing as having one of your Institute Fellows get a paper published in Nature. Or Cell. Or Science. It's not the same thing as celebrating a grant from the NSF to pursue some promising research.

The Discovery Institute has from its beginning claimed it would in short order get actual scientists to consider intelligent design as a viable scientific theory, by publishing peer-reviewed articles in the leading science journals.

But they've failed. And no matter how much cheering the Institute Fellows get from friendly audiences at Bible schools and church socials, the reality is: this was not the way things were supposed to turn out.

And now, they're losing the Catholics.

This past year, prominent Catholic conservative intellectuals at once ID-friendly magazines and web sites, started to break their silence about the vapidity of intelligent design.

First, Edward Feser, professor of philosophy at Pasadena College, began posting a series of essays showing up the hollow philosophical shell at the heart of intelligent design. Feser's main point is that, at least for Catholics, ID is hopelessly devoid of solid metaphysical grounding:

The problems are twofold. First, both Paleyan "design arguments" and ID theory take for granted an essentially mechanistic conception of the natural world. What this means is that they deny the existence of the sort of immanent teleology or final causality affirmed by the Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic tradition, and instead regard all teleology as imposed, "artificially" as it were, from outside.

Feser's posts are detailed, well-researched, and an excellent resource for any Christian parent confused by the contradictory claims of ID proponents.

Next, University of Delaware physicist Stephen M. Barr decided it was time to be frank: intelligent design, he wrote in First Things, has been a disaster:

What has the intelligent design movement achieved? As science, nothing. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of the natural world, and there is not a single phenomenon that we understand better today or are likely to understand better in the future through the efforts of ID theorists. If we are to look for ID achievements, then, it must be in the realm of natural theology. And there, I think, the movement must be judged not only a failure, but a debacle.

There have, of course, been weak attempts by Discovery Institute flaks to claim Aquinas as an ally in support of their argument for design; indeed some claim that Aquinas' Fifth Argument is the classic argument for design. But this does not stand up to scrutiny, as philosopher-blogger Brandon Watson has pointed out:

The problem is that the Fifth Way is not actually a design argument. The phrase translated by 'designedly' here is actually ex intentione; but ex intentione does not signify design but orientation. The Fifth Way is actually an argument not from design but from the fact that there's any causation at all. On Aquinas's scholastic adaptation of Aristotle, the end or final cause is what selects the effect for the efficient cause -- in other words, it is what answers the question, "Why does this cause produce this effect rather than some other effect?" The disposition of the cause to the end is its intentio. The word is associated in the medieval imagination with archery: the aim of the arrow is its intentio. So the argument of the Fifth Way is roughly that because nonintelligent things act regularly in order to achieve an end, they must achieve their end not a casu, by chance, but ex intentione, by being disposed to it. But things not capable of determining their own ends have to be, in the end, disposed to them by things capable of determining ends, namely, intelligences. So what is supposed to be at stake in this argument is not design but any sort of causation that is not due to deliberate self-determination; what's being examined is the very possibility of bodies having effects at all. This is perfectly general; final causes are for Aquinas the explanation for the fact that efficient causation occurs at all.

The 13th century Dominican theologian would have been as puzzled by intelligent design proponents as today's Dominican biologists are.

Father Nicanor Austriaco, a biologist and Dominican who has his own lab at Providence College, published a paper in 2003 called In Defense of Double Agency in Evolution: A Response to Five Modern Critics (not available online, alas) in the Rome-based Catholic journal, Angelicum, showing just how comprehensively evolution can be accommodated in a true Catholic philosophical and theological tradition.

For Austriaco, the tradition is clear. "When double agency is cast within the classical framework of Western theism especially as it was articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas," he wrote, "it remains a coherent and fruitful theological explanation for divine action in an evolving world." No watchmaker in the sky is required in the simplistic sense that ID proponents insist is the only explanation standing ... between Christian children and certain atheism.

"When we talk about evolution," Austriaco told me in a recent interview, "most people think that to affirm that evolution is a contingent process, is to necessarily exclude divine providence." But this is simply not the case, he argues. "The irony about the intelligent design debate today, is that the intelligent design proponents, like the Darwinists, presuppose an opposition between chance and design. They necessitate an opposition between chance and design. If it's design, it cannot be chance. If it's chance, it cannot be design. There is no option -- and there are philosophical reasons why the moderns can't come up with this -- there is no option, no one thinks about the possibility of talking about God's design working through chance, through contingency."

Needless to say, Catholics like Fr. Austriaco, Professors Feser and Barr, are not the kind of Christians whose views are welcome at the Discovery Institute. [It goes without saying that Brown biology professor Kenneth Miller might as well be Public Enemy No. 1.]

So, all is not well in Seattle. For Christians who support solid science education, that's something to celebrate. The more the vapid arguments of the Discovery Institute are exposed, the smaller and smaller their audience will become.