Intelligent Design vs. the Argument from Design

Last time, we noted the surprising fact that Thomist fans of the Argument from Design and partisans of Intelligent Design don’t see eye to eye.  This confuses many people, who ask the very reasonable question, “What’s wrong with noticing, as Intelligent Design fans do, that a cell is incredibly complex and fine-tuned (compared to, say, a rock) and that if you can’t account for this specialized complexity of a cell by natural means, you should suppose it’s due to supernatural intervention in the normal course of nature?  How is that any different from what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say?”

Actually, there are several problems with that approach, though not with the basic instinct of intuiting a Designer. 

The first is this: St. Thomas himself never says “We can’t explain X, so God did it”, and for good reason.  The problem with “God of the Gaps” arguments (“I don’t know how this thing works or originated, so God must make it work by a direct miracle”) is that we are constantly filling in the gaps.  A few hundred years ago, people could have said, “If there’s no God, then explain lightning!”  Then somebody explained that lightning was a big static electricity discharge.  A little after, they might have said, “If there’s no God, then explain magnetism, or immunity from disease, or where babies come from!”  Now we know how these processes work pretty well.  People who thought such arguments were bulletproof often lost their faith when those arguments fell apart.

That’s why St. Thomas never relied on them.  It’s also why he was never bothered when the sciences found (as it is the job of science to do) natural explanations for natural processes.  Thomas (much to the surprise of moderns) never appealed to things like miracles or the inexplicable to demonstrate the existence of God.  And that’s where he differs from Intelligent Design arguments. 

Intelligent Design arguments look at the radical difference between living organisms and non-living matter and say, “There has to be a supernatural explanation for these radical exceptions to the Rules of how matter normally behaves.”  But this is another God of the Gaps argument, and one whose holes have, in great measure, been filled in by Catholics themselves.

(Fun fact: Two of the most important figures in the sciences who contribute to our understanding of both the evolution of the universe and of life on earth were Catholic. 

Gregor Mendel, the guy who basically invented the science of genetics, was a 19th century Augustinian monk pottering about in the garden and noticing how cross-breeding different flowers led to change in the coloration of subsequent generations.  The science of genetics (which gives us a mechanism of mutation) is hugely important in describing the process of evolution.

Monsignor Georges Lemaître was a 20th century physicist who looked at the evidence that everything in the universe was moving away from everything else and realized that if you ran the film backwards you eventually wound up with all of time, space, matter and energy crammed into a single “primeval atom” as he called it.  Run it forward and you have what is now commonly referred to as the “Big Bang”.  Interestingly, that name was originally used as a sneer at Lemaître’s theory since, as the product of the mind of a Catholic priest, it appeared to atheist materialists that his theory gave entirely too much aid and comfort to the idea that the universe had a beginning in time (as revelation had always said) and was therefore trying to smuggle You Know Who into cosmology.  Many scientists clung to a Steady State theory with an eternal universe because it kept that uncomfortably biblical picture of a universe with a Beginning at bay.  Wish fulfillment fantasies aren’t something only religious believers can fall for.)

So what did St. Thomas do?  He appealed, not to exceptions to the Rules, but to the fact that there were any Rules at all.  His Argument from Design is not that living systems are amazing exceptions to a lawless and chaotic world, but that the world is not lawless and chaotic.  A complex living thing is not a proof of creation while an uncomplex rock is not.  Rather, the rock and the living thing and everything else in creation bears witness to its Designer and Maker by the fact that it exists, it is obedient to the Rules, and it is intelligible to the three pound piece of meat behind our eyeballs.  It is this lawfulness of all of nature, not the exceptions to the laws, that impresses St. Thomas.  It is from this that he infers Design, just as we infer design when an arrow (that is not itself intelligent) keeps finding its mark or a goose (also not too brainy) keeps finding its migratory nesting ground every year.  And it is this consistent lawfulness of nature that makes things like science possible at all.  If there were no consistent laws governing time, space, matter, and energy, there could be no science to discover what those laws are and make use of them to create the technology we enjoy.  So the irony is that those who keep appealing to "science and reason" in opposition to God are, without realizing it, bearing witness to St. Thomas' point that nature is lawful--and therefore the creation of a God who not merely exists, but who is an orderly Legislator.  And this is why, as we shall see next time, the best fig leaf atheist materialists have for their philosophy--evolutionary science--no more disproves the existence of God than the science  of hydraulicss, nuclear power, or optics does.  Of which more next time.