Intelligent Design as foundational science

When the first attempts were made at serious natural philosophy by the Greeks two and a half millennia ago, the most fundamental disagreement was between those who held that chance was at the root of the world, and those who considered there was direction to it, telos. In the former category would be the atomists like Democritus and Lucretius, and in reaction to them were those like Plato and, particularly, Aristototle, who held the teleological view.

This, although a metaphysical disagreement, can also be seen as the most basic scientific question, because whatever the philosophical musings of the antagonists, what was to be decided was, “Is this the kind of world that would be best explained by chance, or by teleological order?” Empirical observation of the world and its ways was therefore at the heart of the matter. To quote Aristotle:

Democritus has spoken of these questions but not well, for he assigns the cause too generally without investigating the facts in all cases… This mistake, then, was due to his speaking generally without examining what happens in all cases; but this is what we are to do, for any one who makes any general statement must speak of all the particular cases.

Aristotle, then, in arguing that chance would be expected to result in chaos, not cosmos, needed first to demonstrate from evidence that we indeed inhabit a cosmos, not a chaos. Likewise his four types of causation – material, formal, efficient and final – did not arise merely from contemplation, but from phenomenological observation of the world.

Aristotle’s side was the outright winner as far as the science of the next 2 millennia goes. If he had a competitor at all, it was Plato and his followers, who likewise concluded that teleology was indisputable in the world of physical evidence, whilst envisioning a different system in detail. It was not until the early modern period that Aristotle’s grip on the science market began to be consciously loosened. Why that was needn’t concern us overmuch here, but it was decidedly not over the question of teleology, though it involved a decision to avoid seeking final causes in the scientific enterprise.

Broadly speaking, a form of atomism came back with the likes of Robert Boyle, in order (as its teleological cause!) to remove what was taken to be an excessively autonomous view of nature in Aristotle’s system, which was thought to rob God of his glory. Matter could be viewed as effectively inert, and instead of being seated in the secondary natures of things, teleology was transferred to the laws of God, the divine lawmaker.

I’m not the only one to have pointed out how problematic this is in naturalistic terms, that is when God is methodologically or conceptually removed from the picture. Ed Feser, for example, replies astutely to the common idea of replacing God with natural law:

“The explanation isn’t God, it’s rather the laws of physics, where ‘law of physics’ originally meant ‘a decree of God’ and where I don’t have any worked-out alternative account of what it means.”

Hence the “alternative” explanation, when unpacked, is really either a tacit appeal to God or a non-explanation. In short, either it isn’t alternative, or it’s not an explanation. The utter cluelessness of this stock naturalistic “alternative explanation” would make of it an object of ridicule if it were not so routinely and confidently put forward by otherwise highly intelligent, educated, and widely esteemed people.

This quotation makes it clear that there is a fundamental conceptual gap at the very heart of modern science, but it’s worse that that. The shift of emphasis in early modern science, by invoking unbreakable divine law, presupposed the existence of the teleology that had underpinned science since Democritus and his “random atoms” were demonstrated to be inadequate by Aristotle. The fact that, during the Enlightenment, God was increasingly assumed to be irrelevant led by default to the re-instatement of chance as the basis of everything, without any process of rational justification for the change. Quite the reverse – the continuing appeal to “laws of nature” is a metaphysical commitment to teleology, which is at complete odds with the overt commitment to ateleological forces. In this way, the whole natural science enterprise has become self-contradictory, even incoherent, at the deepest level, even if the surface holds together.

Richard Dawkins’ famous quote is, for all that he is an atheist propagandist, in accord with the current modus operandi of the natural sciences:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

This comes from River out of Eden, a popular science book subtitled “a Darwinian view of life.” Is it then a scientific statement? One might well argue that it’s a metaphysical, even a theological assertion, for all that it poses as science. But in fact it’s a basic empirical claim just as were those of Democritus or Aristotle, back in ancient times.

It’s actually a very bold assertion, because it denies the teleology implied both by Aristotle’s long-lived science of natures, and the law-based teleology that replaced it as the bassis of science. If accepted (whether overtly or tacitly) it dictates the direction that science must go and the kind of results that will be found. If Democritus was, in point of fact, as badly wrong as Plato and Aristotle would suppose, then it will lead science badly off course from empirical truth – especially since, as I have said, it is internally inconsistent in accepting laws but confusedly claiming “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”.

It would seem that somewhere along the way during the last couple of centuries, that very first conclusion of natural philosophy – teleology – has been mislaid or badly misconstrued. In order to correct this error, there is clearly a need to return to basics: to the empirical examination of the natural world with a view to refuting (or, per impossibile, confirming) Dawkins’ empirical statement about the actual properties of the universe. That would require a comparison of the two hypotheses – chance and teleology – in some kind of rigorous, preferably mathematical, way in order to expand and improve the more intuitive arguments that prevailed for the Greeks or the early moderns. In other words, one needs to engage in a quantitative science of design in nature if one is to re-establish a stable platform on which the rest of science can rest.

Funnily enough that, at root, is what Intelligent Design is. Yes, the waters have been muddied by accusations of creationism, apocalyptic fears about the end of civilisation, claims that it’s really about God though it cunningly doesn’t mention him, etc. I see that such disinformation has yet again surfaced in the last day or two on BioLogos, in the claim that ID is all about supernatural tinkering in an imperfect natural system. But as William Dembski wrote:

ID is not an interventionist theory. Its only commitment is that the design in the world be empirically detectable. All the design could therefore have emerged through a cosmic evolutionary process that started with the Big Bang. What’s more, the designer need not be a deity. It could be an extraterrestrial or a telic process inherent in the universe. ID has no doctrine of creation.

I don’t see why that’s considered problematic or evasive – the core issue is teleology v chance, exactly as it was for Aristotle, and if the IDM didn’t exist, then responsible scientists ought to invent it in order to resolve the currently incompatible belief in both fundamental chance and fundamental laws not only in biology (though it’s particularly moticeable in evolutionary theory) but in the whole of science. Such a discipline would have to consider new tools for refining Aristotle’s arguments for teleology, but I suspect they’d be bound to look first in areas like information theory and probability, on which Intelligent Design has concentrated.

ID, then, which has been largely disowned by science as well as by many philosophers and theologians, actually in my view retraces the earliest steps of natural science, in order to correct a couple of centuries of collective amnesia by which the fundamental importance of teleology to science has been allowed, on ideological and theological grounds, to lapse into confusion. In that sense it is the most fundamental science being undertaken today.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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14 Responses to Intelligent Design as foundational science

  1. GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    ” In that sense it is the most fundamental science being undertaken today.”

    ID has failed in the most fundamental way possible in today’s scientific context. For any idea or school of thought to be scientifically interesting, it must have a basis for scientific examination – without this, it may be philosophically interesting, but it cannot go anywhere. You mention chance and teleology, but it takes people like Wagner (a Darwinist and perhaps an atheist) to examine the issue seriously and show that it is impossible to use stochastic methods to quantify a link between chance variations and phenotype. It is up to the ID people to get past their philosophical and critical comments on what Darwinists put forward, and come up with a scientific program that would equate design with an intelligence. Until then, we are left with an endless repetition of past philosophies and maybes.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      That may be so, but the stated objectives are valid ones, and (as I have argued above) necessary in order to resolve an internal contradiction in naturalistic science. Let those with better understanding approach the objectives in a more valid way.

      • GD says:


        It seems that you are arguing for ID as a foundational science, and yet you yield to those with a better understanding …..

        “Likewise his four types of causation – material, formal, efficient and final – did not arise merely from contemplation, but from phenomenological observation of the world.”

        But what observations did Aristotle make that we scientists would take seriously? The material that Aquinas thought needed a prime mover. Just how scientifically verifiable is this?

        If we are to be tied to past schools of thought, we need to provide a reasoned outlook for this. Yes, we need to develop a better understanding of the objectives, and if my comments ever make a contribution to this, it would be to indicate a need to move past arguments and disagreements, and to a new and novel outlook. I wish I can say more, but this obsession with what I understand (perhaps incomplete) is a Protestant tradition that started with the clockwork cosmos and Darwin’s chaos, must be left behind before this argument can move on. It is mealy my opinion, but it may be worth consideration.

        • Jon Garvey says:

          GD, I don’t think it’s a merely Protestant tradition to seek a general understanding of the world from observation, though in its modern form it arguably had most impetus from the Protestants of northern Europe. However, Galileo, Laplace, Descartes and Lamarck and a host of others were Catholic; Pavlov, Dobzhansky, Mendeleev and Friedmann, for example, were Orthodox.

          I can see how using science solely as a handmaiden to solve practical problems can be more or less independent of conscious metaphysical choices about teleology: I drill in that kind of rock and find oil, or I find 75% of people survive a certain cancer operation. I don’t worry on what principle those patterns occur.

          Beyond that, though, even at the level of a defined science like biology, both the science itself and how it is pursued, together with the practical implications, depend greatly on whether chance is seen as the only ultimate agent at work, or whether there is an internal or external telos in what’s happening.

          For example, if there is a discrete thing called a gene that arose by chance and alters by chance within an equally contingent organism, then modifying any gene to taste is simply the imitation of nature (or rather the improvement of nature, since it introduces purpose for the first time).

          If, on the other hand, there is a teleology at the level of the organism, wholesale interference with it may have huge unforeseen results as the organism – maybe its environment too – attempts to compensate. And so Darwinian chaos could lead to actual chaos. Conversely, if teleology in nature were more widely acknowledged, Darwinism would never have lasted this long without considerable alteration.

          What I’m talking about is quite separate from any question of arguing to God’s existence from scientific research. Aristotle deduced the existence of a prime mover after he had established a concept of teleology that arose through observation (in his discussion of Democritus he used the maturation of teeth). And his prime mover wasn’t very like the God of Aquinas’s development of Aristotle.

          The rival Platonists may have postulated a world of forms stemming from God, but the reality of form itself had already been impressed on them by observation.

          I grant that the early modern science of divine laws originated in their faith commitment to the gospel, but it also stemmed from being persuaded, by a more sophisticated measurement of the world than that of the Greeks, that the world is indeed purposeful and orderly, consistent with the accepted Faith of the time.

          My argument is that the current default expectation that there is no telos in nature is a falling away from basic scientific principles, and that it needs correcting. It’s a metaphysical correction, but one that, from the beginning, has been reached by empirical means. What, then, are the right empirical means for our time, when Democritus has a majority of the academy on his side?

          • GD says:


            “My argument is that the current default expectation that there is no telos in nature is a falling away from basic scientific principles, and that it needs correcting.”

            On this we are in agreement – my point (if I can make it clear), is to pose the next step – how can science address the telos you advocate? Perhaps the academy is now with Democritus, and in days past, it was with Aristotle – but we need to move past both of these chaps (they are rather old). I think that until we do, Darwin will reign supreme – my cent worth to this is that those who are keen on progressing this area (natural theology) should think of the intelligibility of nature, which I am convinced goes past Aristotle and Democritus – I still recall (even when I was 14-15 years old) how atomism seemed absurd to me when one thought of it in toto – it is so childish, in that we can continue to divide things until we end with an indivisible something that does what it wants. It is so silly – but people believe it. Then we have an unmovable primordial stuff and along comes our own Thomas and he discovers the prime mover! Really? I take Thomas at his word, in that he is contra gentiles, not with them.

            I simply want to point out the need to move on – I think science can help us to do this.

            • Jon Garvey says:

              OK – Agreed. Of course, if either of us knew the way to such a programme, we’d be doing it rather than discussing it.

              “Intelligibility”, surely, is what the “ancient teleologists” shared in their approach, though just as the mathematics of Newton refines intelligibility beyond the “teeth” of Aristotle, so a new research programme would probably be investigating the nature of intellibility itself.

              How (if at all) would telos give rise to intellibility? How would chance (if at all) give rise to intelligibility? Does a hypothetical multiverse actually make all intelligible patterns inevitable somewhere, and is that compatible with our deeply intellible universe?

              That’s why I suggested that information theory and the mathematics of probability, both central concerns of ID, were fruitful fields of endeavour.

              • GD says:


                “That’s why I suggested that information theory and the mathematics of probability, both central concerns of ID, were fruitful fields of endeavour.”

                Fair enough, and I think the central question is found philosophically in the thesis that a human being is in the world, and not of the world, while science concerns itself with the almost magical(?) world of maths, symbolic logic (the ability to convey meaning through symbols), and fundamental physics (whatever that means to non-physicists like you and me).

                You and I will not make a mark on such endeavours, but we may advocate for such, and not dwell on past thinking.

                Meanwhile we may all progress to a deeper understanding of the exquisite harmony that faith and nature provides to a Christian – not so bad I think.

  2. Cath Olic says:

    I don’t see ID so much as foundational science.
    I see ID more like foundational TO science.
    The reasonable assumption of ID goes with other assumptions (e.g. consistent order to the universe; the reliability and validity of our senses and rationality) without which science would be impossible and ludicrous.

    Stated still differently, I see ID as a form of common sense.

    “It would seem that somewhere along the way during the last couple of centuries, that very first conclusion of natural philosophy – teleology – has been mislaid or badly misconstrued.”

    And coincidentally, during the last couple of centuries, evolution has become “science”.

  3. Jon Garvey says:

    Stated still differently, I see ID as a form of common sense.

    There’s a lot of truth in that, Cath Olic. Aristotle’s approach to teleology was very much based on the self-evident. Even Prof Dawkins said, “Biology is the study of complex things that appear to have been designed for a purpose.” This cuts right across his quote in the OP and actually exemplifies the internal contradiction I suggest – though no doubt he was speaking rhetorically. He would say that to the uninitiated and simple things look designed, but the commonsense of the bright detects the properties we would expect from randomness.

    The early scientists, I guess, informed by their faith, quantified things in teleological laws not to prove it, but to bring glory to God by showing his precision. But they did also show that not all that is true is intuitive to commonsense – Newton showed that Aristotle’s laws of trajectory, relied on by artillery men for centuries, were plain wrong.

    So in an age when it’s possible to get away with saying that common sense shows underlying randomness (and the superficial plausibility, to Victorian mass-readers, of Darwinian natural selection certainly facilitated that), there is a need in my view to go beyond self-evidence to evidence.

    Metaphysical first principles would do it, only most people have become as closed to them as they are to the self-evident directedness of nature.

  4. Cath Olic says:


    “So in an age when it’s possible to get away with saying that common sense shows underlying randomness…”
    That made me think of the oft-heard and widely-accepted words of Dobzhansky: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
    They’re non-sense to me.

    “… (and the superficial plausibility, to Victorian mass-readers, of Darwinian natural selection certainly facilitated that)…”
    But not only to Victorians. I, too, accepted evolution for most of my life, because it had a superficial or intuitive plausibility to me. (And also because the ‘Evolution is true’ media message was, and still is, pervasive and constant. Like propaganda.). Only when I began reading the evolutionist literature itself and understanding the details of their theories and seeing their actual “evidence”, did I begin my conversion to non-evolutionist.

  5. Jon Garvey says:

    Dobzhanzky’s famous phrase, it seems, was (though he didn’t seem to realise it) about theology more than biology. A couple of pieces by philosopher Stephen Dilley show how common that is (I commented and linked here)..

  6. pngarrison says:

    Oh, come on Jon, be candid with the gentleman and tell him you think evolution happened. 🙂

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Preston, I think that Cath Olic should be aware that I affirm the fact of evolution, from a mountain of stuff here and elsewehere.

      The immediate issue, though, is that of undirected evolution and, specifically, its underlying paradigm.

      As ever, one is open to endless misunderstanding as soon as a word like “evolution” is used, but I’ve tried in this post to use it specifically of “Darwinian” and/or “Neodarwinian” processes (conceived as complete theories) as space permits.

      Of course, if Gregory were still here, we’d have been definitioned into complete paralysis.

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