Where Intelligent Design and Dawkins meet

irreducible complexityHow about this for a headline? "Intelligent Design Proponents and Richard Dawkins Reach Out to Each Other for Darwin’s Bicentennial." Well, actually, I made that up. However, for better and for worse, there is more similarity between the ideas of the proponents of intelligent design and those of Dawkins that either would like to admit.

For the worse: Members of the intelligent design (ID) movement have a penchant for arguing that since natural causes cannot produce a given feature or system, it must therefore be the product of some intelligence. Michael Behe argues this way based on the idea of "irreducible complexity." Irreducible complexity is the notion that complex functional wholes have to have all their essential parts in place or they won’t work.

Behe’s classic example is a mousetrap: remove one piece from a mousetrap and it won’t catch mice. Irreducibly complex things cannot arise in the stepwise fashion from simpler systems that the Darwinian theory of random variation and natural selection seems to require; they thus require an intelligent agent to assemble them. Behe goes from there to delineate the irreducible complexity of the flagellum and the clotting system—if one component isn’t there, the system won’t work. Whence he concludes an intelligent designer is needed to put the parts in place.

In some places Behe acknowledges that if Darwinian stepwise evolution cannot explain the assembly of such systems, perhaps some other form of natural causality is responsible for it. He regards this as extremely unlikely. While Behe sometimes acknowledges that natural causes could in principle be compatible with the existence of an intelligent designer, the reason he consistently gives for positing an intelligent designer is the inadequacy of natural causes to explain the production of a given effect (see Darwin’s Black Box, 203-04 and The Edge of Evolution, 165-66).

Richard Dawkins is in full agreement with this way of thinking, which pits natural causes against a designer. But Dawkins maintains that natural causes will eventually be found to explain the flagellum and clotting system and this will eliminate the need for a designer. Science has filled in gaps in our understanding of nature that previously were plugged by invoking God, he contends. He is fully confident that science will continue its task of demystifying the world and ridding it of superstitious belief in a divinity.

A false dichotomy

Both parties are at fault for agreeing on a false dichotomy. What both fail to distinguish is that causes which physically produce an object may be other than the cause responsible for the plan according to which the object is made. The mediaeval philosopher Thomas Aquinas pointed this out long ago: It is one thing to be responsible for a plan and another to execute that plan. The architect may never touch the house, but is certainly responsible for its construction; whereas the artisans who actually assemble the house may have no idea of its overall layout, and are simply following instructions.

Let me give another illustration of the mistake the IDers William Dembski and Michael Behe are making. It is like saying that if someone can provide a complete account of the mechanism/program for the feature of a computer that saves documents automatically after a certain period of time, then there is no need to bring in an intelligent being to explain it. But of course someone had to design the mechanism. Dembski acknowledges that it is possible that nature, similar to a computer, could be programmed to produce living things, but still insists that if natural causes responsible for the assembly of the flagellum were discovered, ID would "pass into oblivion" (The Design Revolution, 113).

To attempt to establish that an effect is the product of an intelligent being on the grounds that natural causes could not be immediately responsible for its production is to set oneself up for defeat. Therefore, one might ask whether there isn’t some better way of arguing to an intelligence behind nature.

What about the older tradition of "natural theology" that is associated with figures like Thomas Aquinas and the 18th century English writer William Paley? Natural theology is generally understood to be a philosophical endeavour to establish the existence of God and his attributes by arguments that take as their starting point what we know about natural things. Generally speaking, ID proponents partially or entirely distance themselves from this tradition, and especially from Paley. Some maintain that his argument is irredeemably defunct, others claim that ID arguments put Paley’s argument on more solid footing, and yet others claim that ID is science and not philosophy. Yet, as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn suggested in a provocative 2005 New York Times article, perhaps there is more substance to philosophical design arguments than either IDer or Dawkins care to acknowledge.

Aquinas and Paley do not look to gaps in our knowledge about how complex parts and systems in living things came to be assembled. They look rather to what we know, namely, there is an ordering to an end in natural things, and especially in living things. They maintain that non-intelligent beings are not capable of accounting for this known order. Aquinas says things which lack cognition do not tend to an end unless directed by someone knowing and intelligent, as the arrow by an archer. Paley says that a thing having multiplicity of parts ordered and adjusted to achieve a goal is necessarily the work of an intelligent being. Aquinas also says that the ancient philosophers were led to posit that nature was a work of intelligence from observing the members in the animal body being ordered in such a way that the nature of the animal was preserved.

Now one might ask, isn’t this what Behe and company are saying? The answer is no. Paley has no problem with blind intermediaries being immediately responsible for an effect. It is the disposition of the parts, their arrangement in view of serving an end that can only be explained by reference to an intelligent being. Assembly workers ignorant of the plan and purpose of what they are making can be responsible for the assembly of the product. But the directions for the assembly line workers have to come from an intelligent being. This is what the ID people should be saying, instead of harping on biology’s current inability to offer explanations in terms of natural causes for the origin of complex feature or systems.

Dawkins’s unwitting argument for design

Whether or not they come out and say so, IDers, like Paley, have in their sights the atheism promoted by scientists like Dawkins. However, because they do not adopt the natural theologian’s approach, not only do they end up uniting forces with Dawkins, they typically overlook the support that Dawkins offers for a philosophical argument from design.

In The Blind Watchmaker Dawkins seeks to convince us that the God that Paley argues to, starting from his example of a watch, is superfluous for explaining organs such as the eye or molecules such as haemoglobin. He begins by informing us of the statistical improbability of the haemoglobin molecule arising by pure chance (one chance in 10190). Then, in order to show us how something like a haemoglobin molecule could be arrived at by blind causes, he presents an analogy with a computer. Mind you, he is trying to show how one can get something of "irreducible complexity" or a determinate complex order without any input from intelligence.

He takes a target sentence from Hamlet, "methinks it is like a weasel," and he admits that if he had his computer randomly generate a string of letters, that the chances of coming up with even such a short sentence are astronomical. He then asks, what if the computer retained those of the randomly generated letters that happened to fall in the right places, and then generated random letters only for the remaining places? He programs his computer thus, and indeed in a very short period of time his computer arrives at the target sentence. Voilà, complex order without any input of intelligence, just random letter generation and the automatic retention of the correct letters. Dawkins goes on to say that blind forces in nature have set up a similar process, whence the haemoglobin molecules, eyes, etc.

But wait a minute. How was the computer able to retain the correct letters that were randomly generated? Dawkins programmed it. The whole point of his analogy was to show that natural causes can produce haemoglobin and the eye without the input of intelligence. But what has his analogy in fact indicated? That intelligence is required in order to generate complex forms of order. Intelligent beings do programming; non-intelligent ones do not.

I think it is self-evident that where non-intelligent causes are coordinated to achieve an end, this must be the work of intelligence, and that all one can do is try to show the absurdities that follow from saying otherwise. The 18th century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid concurs, noting that the typical defence for reasoning from ordering to an end in nature to an intelligence behind nature is by reduction to the absurd. Dawkins’ argument against design ends up defeating him.

Ultimately I think that people cannot fail to see that if it is unbelievable that a computer arose by the action of blind forces that a fortiori the human body could not have so arisen. One can show the absurdity of the various scenarios concocted to get around this. One cannot, however, give an argument or proof for what is obvious, since there is nothing better known to start from. And so, for example, people point out that if a set of instructions for a machine that was comparable to the DNA instructions for an organism were to arrive from outer space, everyone would acknowledge that it was the work of an intelligent extra-terrestrial. Whence the absurdity of denying that the ordering to an end in DNA must ultimately be traced back to some intelligent being. And this is true, even if DNA did arise by some natural process, stepwise or other.

IDers should re-examine whether they want to remain in the same camp as Dawkins when it comes to pitting natural causes against a designer. They should also welcome the ammunition Dawkins provides for those arguing from the ordering to an end in nature to an intelligence behind nature. Thereby lies a more promising path for justifying Darwin’s insertion of the words "by the Creator" in his famous affirmation: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator 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."

Marie I. George is Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University, New York. An Aristotelian-Thomist, she holds a PhD from Laval University, and a MA in biology from Queens College, NY. She has received a number of awards from the Templeton Foundation for her work in science and religion.


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