Evolution as an Argument for Intelligent Design

The presentation of evolution and intelligent design as competing approaches to the same scientific evidence is as useful as it is facile. The typical juxtaposition insinuates, at least in the popular imagination, that evolution invites with it not merely methodological but metaphysical naturalism, while intelligent design is inseparable from Theism (and, perhaps, religion). While this presentation has the prima facie advantages of providing an apparently clean distinction between science and pseudoscience along with being easily comprehended by anyone lacking intimate familiarity with the issue, explorations of any depth into the anatomy of the controversy reveal this picture of things to be superficial. It is at least complicated, for instance, by the fact that evolution and naturalism are arguably incompatible beliefs (in the sense that their conjunction implies a defeater for the belief in the reliability of our cognitive faculties, which in turn provides a defeater for the belief in that conjunction). This point has been elaborately argued by Alvin Plantinga1 and has gained indirect support recently from the work of Hoffman (et al.).2 Not to mention that intelligent design is compatible with both methodological and metaphysical naturalism, for intelligent design says only that we can, under certain (presently satisfied) conditions, make a justified inference to design (usually at the bio-chemical or genetic levels), and such unconventional views as directed panspermia,3 for example, could provide a naturalistic framework licensing the kind of design-inferences which figures like Behe4 and Meyer5 wish to make.6 To make matters worse, metaphysical naturalism is compatible with intelligent design on certain anti-realist readings of science, and even on realism there are design inferences which pose no challenge to contemporary scientific consensus (such as, for instance, the inference to which some fine-tuning arguments invite us). Thus, ironically, I think that while naturalism and evolution appear to be ideological siblings, on closer inspection we find that naturalism is more compatible with intelligent design than it is with evolution.7

Having sufficiently muddied the waters, I now intend to jump in. However, the obligatory preliminary caveat must be added at this point that I find the theory of evolution theologically unobjectionable, even in its so-called neo-Darwinian form. I find evolution more than theologically conscionable (even, and especially, in light of Humani Generis), and any residual (and recurring) doubts I may have about it come from philosophical and/or scientific considerations. There are some noteworthy doubts to survey here, including the criticism from Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini to the effect that evolution by ‘natural selection’ is not a properly scientific theory at all,8 or Kalevi Kull’s suggestion that there are now, in light of epigenetics, viable evolutionary theories which operate without natural selection,9 not to mention some of the better arguments from intelligent design theorists,10 in particular from the difficulty of finding a mathematically viable model of neo-Darwinian evolution.11 As the provocative title of Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False,12 suggests, the intellectual tide may be turning on this question.

Nevertheless, I remain for the moment cautiously committed to the (neo-Darwinian) theory of evolution, though I have become much less militant about this commitment over the years. Ever since I was made to really understand the theory of evolution (largely thanks to Kenneth R. Miller in a spectacular presentation here), I have been unable to shake a sense of awe at its elegance. The stunning beauty of the theory, its ability to explain so much with so simple a mechanism, impels my belief. This is more than just unhinged sentimentalism; there is some reason to think that beauty or elegance are indications of truth, even in the hard sciences. I have quoted the following passage from Robin Collins before, but it bears repeating;

To say that the beauty of the mathematical structure of nature is merely subjective, however, completely fails to account for the amazing success of the criterion of beauty in producing predictively accurate theories, such as Einstein’s general theory of relativity.”13

If beauty is a signpost of truth, a sort of ‘trademark of reality,’ then that provides at least some reason to think that the theory of evolution, in virtue of its captivating loveliness, is at least approximately true. At least we can say that given any two scientific theories which are otherwise empirically indistinguishable (or, less strictly, where neither one is empirically preferable to the other), the more beautiful of the two is more likely to be true. I continue to think that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution best exemplifies, on balance, the desiderata we look for in scientific theories (e.g., explanatory scope, predictive and retrodictive power, elegance, etc.). At least it does so, best I can tell, better than any currently available alternative view.

In any case, I am not here to defend any typical version of intelligent design proposed as an alternative to standard evolutionary theory. I want to do something much more interesting than that. I want to briefly explore whether, as I suspect, evolution lends credence to intelligent design. I think that it does, but in order to explain how it does I need to introduce the reader to an idea put forward recently by the philosopher Alvin Plantinga. In a recent best-selling popular-level book Plantinga gave an astonishing defence of Michael Behe’s case for intelligent design. It was astonishing because it offered a completely novel and innovative reading of Behe. In short, he suggests that we can form a properly basic belief in design which, while not indefeasible, may not be threatened by evolution. It may not be threatened by evolution because instead of being an inference to design, Plantinga suggests that our apprehension of design in nature is rather more like a perception.

“In many cases, so the thought goes, the belief that something or other is a product of design is not formed by way of inference, but in the basic way; what goes on here is to be understood as more like perception than like inference.”14

On his view, a person whose cognitive faculties are operating correctly while being appropriately connected to the external world can perceive design. Now, the astute reader will have noticed a tension here, since intelligent design as I previously defined it was supposed to be an inference. However, if we relax our definition of intelligent design a little bit, we can see a way to take evolution as evidence, in some loose sense, for intelligent design. Define intelligent design roughly as:

Intelligent Design =def. the justified/warranted belief in design in the natural world.

How, though, could evolution possibly provide any support for intelligent design thus defined? Well, I have already hinted at how; the evolutionary process itself may give us the impression of design. Notice that I am not merely saying that the products of the evolutionary process give the impression of design, but that the evolutionary process itself bespeaks intelligence.

Ever since seeing the beauty and elegance in the theory of evolution, I have had a difficult time understanding how anyone who believed in it could avoid what seemed to me to be the obvious conclusion; namely, that the process of evolution seemed an intelligent orchestration. I am, on this point, in strong agreement with the heretic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who could not help but read (perhaps too much) religious significance into evolution. Those who do not see this have, in my opinion, not sufficiently reflected upon the apparent design of the evolutionary process itself. How odd would it be if a universe fundamentally comprised of unintelligent elements and forces with no intelligently designed fundamental structure (laws, etc.) just happened to give rise to the overwhelming appearance of design? It seems nearly unconscionable to me. Some unscrupulous thinkers dismiss this intuition as naïve, suggesting that the mechanisms responsible for the appearance of design are comprehensible without any appeal to intelligence. In one sense, they are quite right. In a deeper sense, I think they are the ones being naïve. Judgments about design (i.e., teleological judgments) are similar to judgments of the good, and the beautiful in that they are profoundly subjective (more so than, say, mathematical judgments, or judgments relying on logical intuitions). How, then, can I expect to convey this sense of ‘perceived design’ to those who do not apprehend it as readily as I do? Perhaps an illustration will be helpful here.

People often chuckle irreverently when first learning of the philosophical views of several pre-Socratics, including, for instance, Diogenes Apolloniates who argued that air is intelligent. I often chuckle just as irreverently when I compare those views to the currently fashionable materialism adopted unthinkingly by so many people today. The pre-Socratics were attempting to explain why the world appears to be intelligently structured, and the answers they came up with almost invariably posited some underlying intelligence (usually in an element, or some other alleged fundamental ingredient of reality). By contrast, the materialist strangles intelligence out of the picture entirely, insisting instead that the fundamental elements of the world are unintelligent, and the complex underlying structure of the natural order (with all its laws and constants) is an inexplicable accident. Sure, they express hope that one day it will become an explicable accident (unconsciously committing a sort of materialism-of-the-gaps fallacy), but in this they have already missed the point. What makes their view so odious is that it suggests that ‘unintelligence’ is the best explanation for order (and, ultimately, even order enough to instantiate intelligence itself). In other words, their view is that unintelligent matter guided by no intelligence at all just happens to organize itself into highly complex structures (from sub-atomic particles all the way up to galaxies), including (eventually) the human brain (the paradigmatic locus of intelligence). This seems incredible, to put it mildly. I, for one, can more easily see the sense in thinking that if matter arranges itself into complex end-directed structures it must be intelligent than I can in thinking that matter arranges itself into complex structures with the appearance of being designed for a purpose under no intelligent impulse or direction at all. To put it somewhat poetically: the view that matter is intelligent is much less crazy than the view that intelligence is matter.

Evolution provides a microcosm of this general phenomena; it, too, involves matter arranging itself in ways which give the appearance of design, and by a process (namely natural selection operating upon phenotypically relevant gene-expression profiles which are engineered to replicate themselves in ways open to the editing power of mutation) which appears intelligent. The indelible impression I am left with when pondering the evolutionary process itself, then, is that it must be intelligently designed. That it, in other words, requires an explanation involving some deeper more fundamental intelligence.

I remain entirely conscious that this impression is not very widely shared, but to assume, as does the materialist, that unintelligent matter guided by no intelligence whatsoever can arrange itself in ostensibly intelligent ways has always seemed, to me, to be nothing short of insane. We aren’t merely speaking about gravity being a sufficient explanation for matter organizing itself into roughly spherical shapes; we’re talking about the very structure of DNA, the chemical structures of carbon and water, the structure and precise calibration of the fundamental laws governing our universe, and the process by which, beginning with one modest single-celled organism, a veritable explosion of life into kingdoms of wildly intelligent structures can succeed. Hardly anything seems more forcefully evident to me than that intelligence went into the world. What Plantinga has done for me is to clarify that my impression need not be cashed out in terms of an inference, but may be more appropriately regarded as a perception. This opens up some new avenues to explore philosophically, in particular by removing ‘intelligent design’ from debates about evolution altogether.

This line of reasoning, if it has the potential I think it does, may even restore credibility to other arguments in the near neighbourhood. For instance, the argument presented and developed in Immanuel Kant’s much neglected third installment of his famous critiques, namely, theCritique of the Power of Judgment, may be recuperable. This critique was largely discarded in the wake of On the Origin of Species, in particular because the thesis seemed to depend on the impossibility of a theory like Darwin’s. One particularly damning but famous line reads as follows:

“For it is quite certain that we can never adequately come to know the organized beings and their internal possibility in accordance with merely mechanical principles of nature, let alone explain them; and indeed this is so certain that we can boldly say that it would be absurd for humans even to make such an attempt or to hope that there may yet arise a Newton who could make comprehensible even the generation of a blade of grass according to natural laws that no intention has ordered; rather, we must absolutely deny this insight to human beings.”15

It was after Kant’s declaration (that there would never be a Newton for the blade of grass) that God (or whatever cosmic force is responsible for sublime irony) gave the world Darwin. However, I think there is a more profound reading of Kant’s argument throughout the Critique of the Teleological Power of Judgment (the second part of the third critique) which isn’t susceptible to so casual a dismissal. Upon closer inspection, we find Kant’s claim to be more nuanced; his argument, precisely, is about our teleological power of judgment, and not about alleged teleology in the world.

“There is thus left nothing but a proposition resting only on subjective conditions, namely those of a reflecting power of judgment appropriate to our cognitive faculties, which, if one were to express it as objectively and dogmatically valid, would say: There is a God; but all that is allowed to us humans is the restricted formula: We cannot conceive of the purposiveness which must be made the basis even of our cognition of the internal possibility of many things in nature and make it comprehensible except by representing them and the world in general as a product of an intelligent cause (a God).”16

As always with Kant, there is much here to unpack (and I will not even attempt to do so here), but, in effect, Kant is arguing that while we cannot justify any claim of intelligent design about the world we must nevertheless axiomatically presuppose intelligent design, otherwise we will be ultimately unable to comprehend the natural world. We might call this methodological intelligent design, as opposed to metaphysical intelligent design. In Kant’s view, intelligent design is not a perception so much as a presupposition which serves as a necessary precondition for our teleological judgments.

This critique of the teleological power of judgment may have as much going for it as Thomas Aquinas’ fifth way. In fact, rereading the last of the Quinque viæ through this lens also lends it enormous credibility. Although it is also readily dismissed by modern thinkers, St. Thomas’ teleological argument may be no worse for ware given the assumption that design is perceived. Aquinas’ fundamental point is that nothing which lacks intelligence can move itself, with any considerable consistency or regularity, toward a beneficial end.

The argument can be briefly outlined as follows:

  1. Anything which acts “always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result”17is either intelligent or being directed by a being “endowed with knowledge and intelligence”18
  2. Natural bodies act always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result.
  3. Natural bodies are not intelligent.
  4. Therefore, natural bodies are directed to their ends by a being endowed with knowledge and intelligence

Et hoc omnes intelligent Deum. The crucial assumption here is that “whatever lacks intelligence cannot move [itself] towards an end.”19 Thus, if the fundamental ingredients of the world are unintelligent, they will not be able to conspire to combine themselves or work together towards an intelligent end of any kind, including the development of intelligent creatures, or even creatures whose parts are intelligently ordered so as to take aim towards the ends beneficial to the organism as a whole.

Although this argument could be interpreted inferentially (i.e., as suggesting that design is an inference to the best explanation of end-directedness, or suggesting that it attempts to infer by analogy (e.g., because C has features {a,b,c} and things with features {a,b,c} are known to usually be designed, so C is probably designed, etc.)), I want, here, to suggest that this argument could be interpreted as proposing that we perceive design when observing teleological behaviour.

Although one could retort that it is logically possible that something appear designed without a designer, possibilities are renowned for coming cheap, we are all naturally (and appropriately) epistemic conservatives (and, given our psychological predisposition to believe in design, we would need some very good argument to persuade us otherwise unless we abandoned epistemic conservatism altogether), and ultimately, in the absence of some very good argument for thinking we are mistaken about our impression of design, the retort has no more force than the power of suggestion. I’m sure a more responsible and elaborate development of the reasoning here would repay the inquiring mind, but I will leave my exploration here for now in the hope that I will, in future, return to these thoughts and finesse them appropriately.

1 Platinga, Alvin. “An evolutionary argument against naturalism.” Disputatio philosophica 1, no. 1 (1999): 50-69.

2 Mark, Justin T., Brian B. Marion, and Donald D. Hoffman. “Natural selection and veridical perceptions.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 266, no. 4 (2010): 504-515.

3 Crick, Francis HC, and Leslie E. Orgel. “Directed panspermia.” Icarus 19, no. 3 (1973): 341-346.

4 Behe, Michael J. Darwin’s black box: The biochemical challenge to evolution. Simon and Schuster, 1996.

5 Meyer, Stephen C. Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. Zondervan, 2009.

6  As could time travel scenarios or other outrageous science fiction scenarios which would still, in principle, be compatible with Naturalism.

7 As an aside, I note that while it may seem ridiculous to combine intelligent design with (metaphysical) naturalism, I think that the fault here lies more with naturalism than with intelligent design. It continues to baffle and scandalize me that anyone continues to put any credence in naturalism as a viable vision of reality. Philosophy, at least in metaphysics, is supposed to be about making as good a sense as it is possible to make of the world around us. The idea is supposed to be to come up with a systematic and synoptic eagle’s eye view of reality which makes more sense, on balance, than any other competing views. In no way does Naturalism appear to me to achieve this. It fails to explain consciousness, it fails (even in principle) to explain the existence of the world as a whole, it fails to explain the efficacy of science (on a realist reading of science), it fails to do justice to our moral and aesthetic experiences, it fails to explain how there could be mathematical and analytic truths, it seems to get the extension of possibility wrong, the whole philosophy is just a hopeless mess. What’s worse, I cannot think of a single halfway decent argument for it and I’m doubtful that this is due to my lack of philosophical imagination. If intelligent design is ‘problematic,’ then Naturalism is beyond the pale.

8 Fodor, Jerry, and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. What Darwin got wrong. Profile books, 2011.

9 Kull, Kalevi. “Adaptive evolution without natural selection.” Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 112, no. 2 (2014): 287-294.

10 For a good collection of such arguments and counter-arguments, see: Dembski, William A., and Michael Ruse, eds. Debating design: from Darwin to DNA. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

11 See Dembski, William A. “The logical Underpinnings of Intelligent Design.” Debating design: from Darwin to DNA, Cambridge (2004): 311-440. And Meyer, Stephen C. “The Cambrian Information Explosion.” In Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA (2004): ??-??.

12 Nagel, Thomas. Mind and cosmos: why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. Oxford University Press, 2012.

13 Robin Collins, The Case for Cosmic Design, (2008), http://infidels.org/library/modern/robin_collins/design.html

14 Alvin Plantinga, “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism,” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011): 245.

15 Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Edited by Paul Guyer. (Cambridge University Press, 2009): 270-271.

16 Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Edited by Paul Guyer. (Cambridge University Press, 2009): 270.

17 Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, Question 2, Article 3.

18 Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, Question 2, Article 3.

19 Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, Question 2, Article 3.

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One thought on “Evolution as an Argument for Intelligent Design

  1. Off topic so excuse me. Do you have any book recommendations for learning the difference between Catholic and Protestant understandings
    On justification ? Also what would you recommend reading on the immaculate conception ?
    Thank you,
    Declan.

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