The Provenance of Intelligent Design Creationism

As I pointed out yesterday when considering a critique of Swinburne, a lot of popular science blogging is concerned with the arguments for intelligent-design creationism: the argument that the nature and complexity of the world yields empirical evidence for the existence of a god, an “intelligent designer” who designed the world.

Such arguments have a long provenance. Thomas Aquinas published his five proofs of God’s existence near the beginning of his Meisterwerk, the Summa Theologiae, written somewhere between 1265 and 1268 when he was in Rome (see Anthony Kenny, Medieval Philosophy, vol. 2 of A New History of Western Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005, pp 67-9).

Aquinas’s arguments are known as the Five Ways, of which the fifth is “the ordinary teleology of non-conscious agents in the universe entails the existence of an intelligent universal orderer.” (Kenny, op.cit., p303). Kenny judges that “non of the Five Ways is successful as aproof of God’s existence: each one contains either a fallacy, or a premiss that is false or disputable” (op.cit., p303). But he considers the fifth way to be “much the most persuasive of the arguments, but its key premiss, ‘Things that lack awareness do not tend towards a goal unless directed by something with awareness and intelligence, like an arrow by an archer’, needs, since Darwin, more supporting argument than we are given.” Kenny considers the arguments in depth in The Five Ways, London: Routledge 1969.

As a good Aristotelian, Aquinas thought that all knowledge either came as deduction from self-evident premisses, or as revelation. Some 750 years later, we tend to restrict the first realm to math, logic, and some analytic philosophy, and obtain much of our knowledge of the natural world by looking at it, poking at it, and thinking about what we find. This latter means of knowledge was promoted by Aristotle, of course, and Augustine at the end of the fourth century C.E. It is not as if it was invented during the Enlightenment, as many seem to assume.

But, one might think, so what if the argument from Intelligent Design for the existence of God (let us call it the ID argument) occurred in Aquinas? Why hasn’t it died yet? One answer, proposed by the philosopher Avrum Stroll, is that the question cannot be decided (Did My Genes Make Me Do It? And Other Philosophical Dilemmas, Oxford: Oneworld, 2006, Chapter 3: Does God Exist?, especially “No decisive answer is possible”, p123). Stroll considers at length the discussion of the ID argument in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779, reprinted Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett, 1998, ed. with an introduction by R. H. Popkin). He emphasises that the ID argument is meant to be an empirical argument, and notes that Isaac Newton was an adherent (op.cit., p106), which may be why Hume considers it at length. Indeed, according to Stroll, Newton invented the universe-as-watch analogy that influenced Hume, Paley, and countless others since. Stroll says that the ID argument ” is essentially a product of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution. Galileo, Newton and Descartes [had a] common outlook [that] the natural world (or universe) is a complicated machine and like all artifacts can be brought into existence only by an artificer or designer. This is of course God” (op.cit., p122). So much for attempts to contrast enlightenment science with ID.

Stroll’s book is intended for those without academic philosophical experience in the subjects beforehand. I read through it pretty quickly, but slowed at his discussion of Hume’s Dialogues (between Demea, “an exponent of orthodox Christianity, a rationalist, in the philosophical tradition of Descartes and Leibniz”, and the sceptics Cleanthes, who proposed the ID argument, and Philo, who “support[s] a form of agnosticism or even atheism” (Stroll, op.cit., p107). I was left with the desire to read Hume’s Dialogues (for the first time in my career; I read the Treatise and Inquiry, of course, many moons ago, and had to take exams on them) as well as the feeling that maybe, as with so many other things, Hume has already said it all.

So, folks, pro or contra ID, have you read your Hume today?

Finally, for those who believe in objective truth (and if you think truth is relative to belief, then there is little reason for you to be technically interested in the ID-argument controversy at all), comes the question: what if Stroll is right? What if the ID argument cannot be decided? That is, no matter what argument we discover, or rediscover, its conclusion (for or against the existence of an IDer) either does not follow from its premisses, or one or more premisses are false.

On the personal level, one reaction would be to quit and go bicycle riding. Rational as it may be, this would hardly be emotionally satisfactory. But what would be? We could ignore the rhetoric and sophistry surrounding the argument, work diligently on producing a better argument for or against, knowing that it is going to be wrong, in that it will not establish what we set out to prove. Is that emotionally satisfying? Well, not if you care about arguments. The bicycle looks better.

On the social level, well, this one will run and run. Remember, it is 750 years old already. I guess we might hope that Newton will find his Einstein, this time on the theological side (which is reputed to have been his first love in any case).

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