Does ID presuppose a mechanistic view of nature?
|April 18, 2010||Posted by William Dembski under Intelligent Design|
Thomas and Aristotle have loomed large on this blog recently. I would like to have weighed in on these discussions, but I have too many other things on my plate right now. I therefore offer this brief post.
One critic, going after me directly, asserts that I’m committed to a mechanical view of nature and that I develop ID in ways inimical to an Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of nature, according to which nature operates by formal and final causes. Life, according to this view, would be natural rather than artifactual. ID, by contrast, is supposed to demand an artifactual understanding of life.
I don’t think this criticism hits the mark. I have to confess that I’ve always been much more a fan of Plato than of Aristotle, and so I don’t quite see the necessity of forms being realized in nature along strict Aristotelian lines. Even so, nothing about ID need be construed as inconsistent with Aristotle and Thomas.
ID’s critique of naturalism and Darwinism should not be viewed as offering a metaphysics of nature but rather as a subversive strategy for unseating naturalism/Darwinism on their own terms. The Darwinian naturalists have misunderstood nature, along mechanistic lines, but then use this misunderstanding to push for an atheistic worldview.
ID is willing, arguendo, to consider nature as mechanical and then show that the mechanical principles by which nature is said to operate are incomplete and point to external sources of information (cf. the work of the Evolutionary Informatics Lab — www.evoinfo.org). This is not to presuppose mechanism in the strong sense of regarding it as true. It is simply to grant it for the sake of argument — an argument that is culturally significant and that needs to be prosecuted.
This is not to minimize the design community’s work on the design inference/explanatory filter/irreducible-specified-functional complexity. ID has uncovered scientific markers that show where design is. But pointing up where design is, is not to point up where design isn’t.
For the Thomist/Aristotelian, final causation and thus design is everywhere. Fair enough. ID has no beef with this. As I’ve said (till the cows come home, though Thomist critics never seem to get it), the explanatory filter has no way or ruling out false negatives (attributions of non-design that in fact are designed). I’ll say it again, ID provides scientific evidence for where design is, not for where it isn’t.
What exactly then is the nature of nature? That’s the topic of a conference I helped organize at Baylor a decade ago and whose proceedings (suitably updated) are coming out this year (see here). ID is happy to let a thousand flowers bloom with regard to the nature of nature provided it is not a mechanistic, self-sufficing view of nature.
This may sound self-contradictory (isn’t ID always talking about mechanisms displayed by living forms?), but it is not. As I explain in THE DESIGN REVOLUTION:
In discussing the inadequacy of physical mechanisms to bring about design, we need to be clear that intelligent design is not wedded to the same positivism and mechanistic metaphysics that drives Darwinian naturalism. It’s not that design theorists and Darwinian naturalists share the same conception of nature but then simply disagree whether a supernatural agent sporadically intervenes in nature. In fact, intelligent design does not prejudge the nature of nature—that’s for the evidence to decide [[I would change this parenthetical now; metaphysics needs to be consulted as well, 4.18.10]]. Intelligent design’s tools for design detection, for instance, might fail to detect design. Even so, if intelligent design is so free of metaphysical prejudice, why does it continually emphasize mechanism? Why is it constantly looking to molecular machines and focusing on the mechanical aspects of life? If intelligent design treats living things as machines, then isn’t it effectively committed to a mechanistic metaphysics however much it might want to distance itself from that metaphysics otherwise?
Such questions confuse two senses of the term “mechanism.” Michael Polanyi noted the confusion back in the 1960s (see his article “Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry” in the August 1967 issue of Chemical and Engineering News): “Up to this day one speaks of the mechanistic conception of life both to designate an explanation of life in terms of physics and chemistry [what I was calling “physical mechanisms”], and an explanation of living functions as machineries—though the latter excludes the former. The term ‘mechanistic’ is in fact so well established for referring to these two mutually exclusive conceptions, that I am at a loss to find two different words that will distinguish between them.” For Polanyi mechanisms, conceived as causal processes operating in nature, could not account for the origin of mechanisms, conceived as “machines or machinelike features of organisms.”
Hence in focusing on the machinelike features of organisms, intelligent design is not advocating a mechanistic conception of life. To attribute such a conception of life to intelligent design is to commit a fallacy of composition. Just because a house is made of bricks doesn’t mean that the house itself is a brick. Likewise just because certain biological structures can properly be described as machines doesn’t mean that an organism that includes those structures is a machine. Intelligent design focuses on the machinelike aspects of life because those aspects are scientifically tractable and precisely the ones that opponents of design purport to explain by physical mechanisms. Intelligent design proponents, building on the work of Polanyi, argue that physical mechanisms (like the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection and random variation) have no inherent capacity to bring about the machinelike aspects of life.
Darwinism deserves at least as much philosophical scrutiny from Thomists/Aristotelians as ID. It’s therefore ironic that ID gets so much more of their (negative) attention.
P.S. ID’s metaphysical openness about the nature of nature entails a parallel openness about the nature of the designer. Is the designer an intelligent alien, a computional simulator (a la THE MATRIX), a Platonic demiurge, a Stoic seminal reason, an impersonal telic process, …, or the infinite personal transcendent creator God of Christianity? The empirical data of nature simply can’t decide. But that’s not to say the designer is anonymous. I’m a Christian, so the designer’s identity is clear, at least to me. But even to identify the designer with the Christian God is not to say that any particular instance of design in nature is directly the work of his hands. We humans use surrogate intelligences to do work for us (e.g., computer algorithms). God could likewise use surrogate intelligences (Aristotelian final causes?) to produce the sorts of designs that ID theorists focus on (such as the bacterial flagellum).