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Francis Beckwith’s Biography Pertaining to ID

At Biologos, Francis Beckwith has written what appears to be a biography of his interactions and considerations with Intelligent Design in two parts: Part 1 and Part 2. Thomas Cudworth has already done a wonderful job of explaining and engaging the content of the two-part blog. Since I had already started my response to Beckwith (before seeing Cudworth’s entry), I thought I would go ahead and publish my entry.

Beckwith’s definition of ID is that, at its core, ID is comprised of the arguments of irreducible and specified complexity:

At the time I was never fully at ease with the Behe/Dembski arguments that relied on notions of specified and irreducible complexity (which I now see as the essence of the ID movement).

There is, of course, the “fine-tuning of the universe, and our privileged place in it” argument that comprises ID, as propounded by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Wesley Richards in their book The Privileged Planet. This cosmological form of ID, along with the biological position, was what convinced Antony Flew to convert to deism from atheism. The point it that ID is not confined to biology, to begin with, nor is it confined to arguments of negations of natural causes, as Beckwith seems to assume in his assessment of irreducible and specified complexity. ID is comprised of positive arguments, not only that chance alone (non-intelligence) cannot account for the particulars in nature that appear designed, but that the formation and information of nature requires an intelligence. This is a positive argument in and of itself, regardless of how the design gets implemented (whether it’s through nature or through some other medium, doesn’t really matter to ID). It’s really an argument about intelligence v. non-intelligence.

Admittedly, I found (and continue to find) arguments offered by other thinkers (some of whom are associated with ID movement) convincing and worth defending. Here I am thinking of arguments for a first cause of the universe (William Lane Craig), the existence of the soul (J. P. Moreland), an evolutionary case against naturalism (Alvin Plantinga), and the existence of a moral law that Darwinism cannot explain (Moreland, J. Budziszewski). But none of these arguments, as I have come to better understand, are technically ID arguments. They are straightforward philosophical arguments that, to be sure, help support a non-naturalist view of the world. And in that sense they share the central aim of ID. But sharing that aim, as well as being offered by ID advocates (e.g., Craig, Moreland), does not make them ID arguments.

The “first cause” argument of Craig requires that the first cause be intelligent and that the resulting universe was designed. Which brings me to my second point, and that is that Beckwith seems to make arbitrary selections about which arguments make up ID and which ones don’t; that it is an endeavor only concerned with arguments that amount to negations of chance on the biological level. In his defining ID as such, I see no warrant. His definition of ID is arbitrary, and arbitrarily leaves out other particulars of the discipline.

His argument against Dembski’s specified complexity is a religious one, derived from a philosophy he sees in Thomas Aquinas (and hence considers to be classical theism):

According to Dembski, we discover design in nature after we have eliminated chance and law. And we do so by a conceptual device he calls the explanatory filter. If something in nature exhibits a high level of specified complexity for which chance and law cannot account, Dembski concludes that it is highly probable that the gap is the result of an intelligent agent. Design, therefore, is not immanent in nature. It is something that is imposed on nature by someone or something outside it.

It seems that Beckwith’s assumption of ID’s conceptual program runs like this: ID proponents posit that nature at large is undesigned, a blank slate of sorts, and that the designer intervened only at particular places and stamped his stamp on the otherwise blank slate, and that it’s ID’s job to discover the stamp only, whereas Thomism sees the whole thing as designed (slate, stamps and all). Thus Beckwith concludes that arguments deriving from the stamps alone are confusing what was actually designed (the whole show). But, what Beckwith fails to consider, is that it need not be this way. This is a false picture of ID. To say that design is detectable in some instances, is not to say that the rest of the instances are not designed. It only means that a particular methodology of design detection (specified complexity) can determine design in certain specific cases, not that it, therefore, negates all other cases. It has nothing to say about other cases. It can detect some instances where design is, but does not, by extension, say where design isn’t. Specified complexity never pretended to be exhaustive. This methodology does not have to be all encompassing or nothing. Certain literary devices detect certain hallmarks of authorship, but that doesn’t mean the critic believes that there is only one literary device to discover everything about literature, or that the literature that the narrow literary device can discover was all that was written.

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18 Responses to Francis Beckwith’s Biography Pertaining to ID

  1. Clive, thank you for taking on this subject matter. The claim that Aquinas’ philosophy of nature is incompatible with ID is demonstrably false and causes far more confusion and harm to the ID movement than any scenario Richard Dawkins could ever hope for. Your analogy on literature is apt, well thought out, and decisive.

  2. Clive writes: “It seems that Beckwith’s assumption of ID’s conceptual program runs like this….”

    You’re wrong. I don’t think it is an assumption. I believe it is what the ID project in fact entails when presented by some, though not all, figures in the movement.

    Clive writes: “To say that design is detectable in some instances, is not to say that the rest of the instances are not designed.” You’re missing the point, badly. Thomas is not teaching that the universe consists of lots of “Instances” of designed entities some of which may be detected and some of which may not. Rather, he is saying that the entire universe is governed by four causes–efficient, material, formal and final–none of which can ultimately account for itself. If the universe consisted only of two atoms orbiting each other, it would require a necessary being to account for its contingent being including its final causality.

    Clive writes: “His argument against Dembski’s specified complexity is a religious one.”

    Good thing you didn’t say it was a bad one. I am always trying to avoid those kind. Just the other day, in fact, someone accused me of offering “tall” and “blue” arguments. But when I reflected on the accusations, I was relieved to discover that terms like “tall” and “blue,” like “religious” and “stuffy,” are not the sorts of adjectives that properly modify the word “argument” in the way relevant to assessing an argument. Those words would be “sound,” “unsound,” “strong,” and “weak.”

    StephenB; “The claim that Aquinas’ philosophy of nature is incompatible with ID is demonstrably false and causes far more confusion and harm to the ID movement than any scenario Richard Dawkins could ever hope for. ”

    So, saying that Thomistic metaphysics may be incompatible with ID is more dangerous than atheism. But it’s worse than that, it is, according to StephenB, demonstrably false to believe otherwise. Thus, believing that Thomistic metaphysics may be incompatible with ID is right up there with denying that “2 + 2 = 4.”

    You heard it here first. Amazing. Just amazing.

  3. fbeckwith@2:

    Prof. Beckwith, you are an intelligent man, but that does not make up for not being a good listener. You are so eager to make your point about Thomas Aquinas (a point which almost no ID proponent would disagree with), that you don’t understand what Clive is objecting to.

    The prologue to your Biologos article attributed to you the view that, according to ID, design is found only in certain structures in nature, and that God is not involved in the rest. You did not correct that characterization of your views when it was challenged on the Biologos site and elsewhere. Therefore we must assume that you believe ID asserts this.

    Clive is telling you that ID does not assert this. And you are brushing him off, by telling him he badly misunderstands. And what you are not seeing is that Biologos, your latest platform, is crawling with TEs who have also asserted this mischaracterization of ID. We at UD are therefore very nervous when you, a Thomist, appear on Biologos and appear to defend these TE mischaracterizations. We have long since learned to expect that we will be willfully misconstrued by TEs, but we expect more from Thomists who come from a more disciplined intellectual tradition.

    And by the way, I have never seen any ID person, anywhere, write or imply that Thomas Aquinas was:

    “teaching that the universe consists of lots of “Instances” of designed entities some of which may be detected and some of which may not.”

    No, Aquinas did not *teach* that, but if that should turn out to be *true* about the universe, nothing is taken away from Thomas’s teaching. There is no *clash* between Thomism and ID. That is Clive’s point. And you seem to be determined to establish that there is a clash. And we wonder why.

    It is not as if ID people have said: “We don’t need those stinkin’ Thomist arguments to prove the existence of God; we’ve got irreducible complexity.” ID people have not ruled out, and many of them embrace, metaphysical arguments for the existence of God. Thus, you seem to be picking an unnecessary fight, and you are doing it from a platform, Biologos, which hardly has the theological high ground, from a Thomist point of view. You’ve stopped short of defending TE against ID, but you certainly seem more interested in embarrassing ID than embarrassing TE. Why is that, given that I haven’t seen a TE writing which doesn’t contain at least one heresy that would make Aquinas wince?

    The other difficulty I am having is that you keep speaking of Aquinas in weighty tones, but when people here offer you passages of Aquinas which do not appear to fit into your own version of Thomism, you do not engage. Is it possible that you know Thom*ism* much better than you know the texts of Thomas himself? Perhaps not, but if you know Aquinas’s texts well, let’s have some *expositio*, please. You know the threads where the exegetical challenges have been posted, here and on beliefnet. I’ll be watching for your counter-exegesis.

    T.

  4. Well said, Clive. This point about the particular tools of ID saying nothing about the design of the world/universe as a whole is so obvious it is getting irritating how often is is misrepresented.

  5. I have immense admiration for F. Beckwith but agree with most of Timaeus’ comment above.

  6. Professor Beckwith,

    First of all, let me say that I completely agree with your comment:

    If the universe consisted only of two atoms orbiting each other, it would require a necessary being to account for its contingent being including its final causality.

    For my part, I have defended the cosmological argument on UD many times. Here is an example, taken from what may be our longest thread (746 posts):

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....ent-311713

    What followed was a very lively exchange of views from all sides. You are welcome to peruse the debate and offer your own critique, if you wish.

    The point I want to make here is that it is very hard to convert someone to theism on metaphysical grounds alone, unless their metaphysical instincts are very finely honed, like those of G. K. Chesterton, whose book Orthodoxy is a real gem. For the most part, I personally feel it is best to challenge skeptics on their own “home turf,” in order to shake them out of their complacency.

    Modern-day people have been brainwashed (without their being aware of it) into thinking that minds can only emerge from matter, so that the notion of an immaterial Mind that created nature sounds completely topsy-turvy to them. To counteract that prejudice, it is necessary to show that science itself paints a very different picture, when looked at with an unbiased eye. Taken together, the evidence from the elegance of the laws of nature, cosmological fine-tuning, and the astronomical improbability of scientific laws and chance events generating structures with a large quantity of specified complexity, such as a cell or a Cambrian animal, even over billions of years, strongly indicates that living things and the Universe itself (with all its matter and energy) are the product of a Super-Intellect.

    Is this the God of classical theism? Not quite. But it’s a big step in that direction. Once you get people to recognize that Mind is more fundamental than matter, the greatest intellectual obstacle to theism has been overcome. People who are persuaded that Mind came first are then much more likely to be receptive to metaphysical arguments, such as St. Thomas’ argument for a Necessary Being which causes other beings to exist, or his argument for an intelligent being by whom all natural things are directed to their end.

    If you have a better technique for converting people to belief in the God of classical theism, then by all means pursue it, and I wish you every success. But I do know one thing: a house divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:25). That’s what I believe StephenB was getting at in his comments (which you quoted) and that’s why I believe that religious believers should never “diss” each other’s arguments. Too much is at stake; there’s a worldwide battle for souls going on.

  7. vjtorley,

    —”For the most part, I personally feel it is best to challenge skeptics on their own “home turf,” in order to shake them out of their complacency.”

    I agree with you. C. S. Lewis said, I’m paraphrasing, that the only reason we need good philosophy is to counteract all the bad philosophy.

  8. Timaeus and fbeckwith,

    —”You’ve stopped short of defending TE against ID, but you certainly seem more interested in embarrassing ID than embarrassing TE. Why is that, given that I haven’t seen a TE writing which doesn’t contain at least one heresy that would make Aquinas wince?”

    I would also like to know why you, Beckwith, would have a certain fellowship with Biologos in light of their TE position and other heretical views that would make Thomas Aquinas wince. The issue of differences in design detection is a side street nuance in the otherwise straight path of design, and doesn’t merit the theological critique from you (in my opinion) that Biologos merits daily.

  9. I hope it’s not a crime to post at Biologos ;).

    I, for one, am very interested in seeing a restoration of Aristotle/Thomas and think that it can only help the Intelligent Design cause (no pun intended).

  10. Heresy?

    If you were the magisterium I’d be worried. But you are, like me, just a dude with a keyboard.

  11. —F. Beckwith: “So, saying that Thomistic metaphysics may be incompatible with ID is more dangerous than atheism.”

    It is more dangerous to ID and reason, yes, because half truths are always more dangerous than obvious lies. Perhaps an analogy would help. Who do you think hurts the Catholic Church more? Atheists who rant and rave with their irrational secularism or high ranking bishops who turn their backs on sexual deviants and give the those atheists something substantive to attack with. “Corruptio, optimi, pessima”

    Who does more violence to reason? An atheist nitwit who might stupidly say that Aquinas was a bad philosopher, or a Thomist who acknowledge his greatness only to grossly misrepresent him and use his legacy against his true philosophy?

    —”But it’s worse than that, it is, according to StephenB, demonstrably false to believe otherwise.”

    It is demonstrably false that Aquinas’ metaphyics is incompatible with ID, yes, most definitely.

  12. fbeckwith@10:

    Several people have posted on this site with serious arguments based on a great deal of learning. Your responses of cute one-liners, expressions of exasperation, etc. do not do your reputation justice. Where is the deep Thomistic thinker that many of us hoped Francis Beckwith would be? He seems to have gone AWOL.

    C’mon, Dr. Beckwith, you are better than this. Some of the people writing here have doctorates in religion from top-ranked universities. Others have philosophy degrees and have applied them to reading a considerable amount of the writings of the Angelic Doctor. How about engaging on Aquinas and defending your exegesis?

    T.

  13. fbeckwith,

    We’re all dudes with keyboards these days. And yes, heresy, such as theistic evolution, and a theodicy that removes God completely from creating anything biological. For that matter absolves God from any responsibility to His creation when it tries to give all evil consequences of nature red in tooth and claw over to evolution, a force that even God cannot control. I’ve read it on biologos myself and written about it here. That man and all of biology are results of the power of evolution (that even God cannot change) once set into motion, they think, absolves God of evil, thus their theodicy; even going to far (again, I’ve seen it myself) of calling Christians who believe in special creation heretics. In Darrel Falk’s view, Thomas Aquinas was a heretic. So yes, heresy on Biologos, all in the name of mighty Evolution will they jettison scripture and religious understanding. Why do you associate with those people who are so obviously theologically heretical? Why? I really want to know, sincerely I do. Please don’t be anything but honest, please, because I’m being very sincere.

  14. Hi Clive,

    Though I think Prof. Beckwith is guilty of bad philosophy, I do not think that either he or the people at Biologos are guilty of heresy. God certainly has my permission to bring about life in whatever manner He chooses. I think the evidence indicates that He has at least on occasion chose to intervene directly in the origin and evolution of life. But it’s at least logically possible that He didn’t.

  15. I’ve written an academic article on this matter: http://homepage.mac.com/franci.....STJLPP.pdf If you would like to engage it, I encourage you do so. But the sort of cliquish posturing displayed here is unhealthy. That is why I respond as I do.

    What I find incredibly ironic is that the very comments made by the pandasthumb.org crowd about my association with Discovery are being made by you about my association with BioLogos. The fact that that has become the default mode for your dialoging seems to confirm what I write in my article: the ID movement has assimilated both the rhetorical and scientific posture of its enemies. It is true-believers-only club in which dissenters are routinely accused of heresy.

  16. Dr. Beckwith:

    Let’s say for the sake of argument that we have been guilty of some “cliquish posturing”. I ask you, then, to turn your attention back to the very first column about you, which appeared a few days ago, i.e.:

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....nt-design/

    Now, if you look at the reply from vjtorley in Post #5 and the rejoinder from Thomas Cudworth in Post #8, I don’t think you will find any “cliquish posturing”, but an attempt to engage you in serious scholarly dialogue about (a) different approaches to natural theology and (b) the exegesis of Aquinas. I think these replies were polite and even respectful of you and your work. But you have simply dropped that thread entirely. So what are we to think? Do you not want to exchange ideas with people who have identified themselves, directly or indirectly, as fellow-Catholics and/or scholars in the history of ideas? I would think that you would welcome the challenge to make clearer how Aquinas’s natural theology differs from Paley’s, by quoting and interpreting for us passages of Aquinas, and by responding to those who have found passages of Aquinas which appear to show ideas kindred to those of Paley.

    I will keep my eye on that older thread to see if you continue that civilized conversation. If it is productive, I may join in.

    T.

  17. Hi Timaeus,

    What are you to think if Prof. Beckwith doesn’t respond? That he’s a heretic of course, just like those other Biologos people. Burning them at the stake would be too good for them though. I suggest making them read the complete works of Hegel.

  18. Bilboe:

    I don’t think Dr. Beckwith is a heretic. I think he is an orthodox Roman Catholic. But this is what is so puzzling.

    His attack on ID, he says, is not over the science. He says the arguments about irreducible complexity etc. are not his concern, and he’s happy to let ID make its case, without censorship, in the scientific world.

    His criticism of ID is theological. He thinks it surrenders to a mechanical world view just like that of the Darwinists. And he thinks this is a theological error, based on a misunderstanding of nature and a misunderstanding of how God relates to nature.

    Well, if Dr. Beckwith is going to go around correcting the metaphysics and theology of all those who do not hold to a Thomist metaphysics and theology, I hope he will apply that to *everyone* who writes about creation and nature, not just ID people.

    I’d like to hear his Thomist perspective on “evolution must be true, otherwise God would be responsible for evil” — an argument that Ken Miller and Francisco Ayala have made. I’d also like to hear his Thomist perspective on the numerous Barthian attacks on natural theology which have been made by TEs. Does he think that Thomas Aquinas is compatible with Barthianism?

    If Dr. Beckwith wants to “be his own man”, distinct from ID and from mainstream TE, that is fine with me. But so far I have heard only what distinguishes him from ID. I haven’t heard what distinguishes him from the overwhelmingly Protestant and utterly non-Thomist approach of most TEs.

    Unless he tackles the theology of TE in whatever books and articles he puts out in the future, he will have no credibility as a theological referee in the debate between ID and TE.

    Unfortunately, Dr. Beckwith seems to have decided to back away from a detailed discussion of theology and metaphysics here. His total contribution has been to refer us to one of his articles, which is excellent on the legal aspects of the ID debate but only an undergraduate-level introduction to Thomism, and hardly capable of refuting the counter-claims about Thomas which have been made by posters here, backed with quotations from Aquinas himself. Beckwith’s mastery of the Thomistic tradition has not yet been demonstrated, and will not be demonstrated by half a dozen quotations from Aquinas, Gilson and Feser. Until he shows more academic substance, I for one do not regard him as capable of speaking for Thomistic metaphysics or Thomistic theology, let alone of judging ID in its lights.

    Nonetheless, I wish him a refreshing Easter holiday.

    T.

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