Thomism and Evolution

@Art and others:

If you want to get in touch with Dr. Douglas Axe, you need to write to him. I have it on good authority that he doesn’t respond to email.


As you know, I’m a thorough-going evolutionist: I affirm common descent, as well as abiogenesis (having been convinced by Rumraket’s arguments on the subject). Back in 2016, I wrote a critical review of Dr. Douglas Axe’s book, Undeniable, which got me politely booted off Uncommon Descent (no hard feelings).

But my objections to Intelligent Design are purely scientific, not theological or philosophical. Personally, I have no problem with a God Who designs proteins, primordial cells, bacteria flagella, Cambrian phyla, whales, orphan genes, or what have you, and Who leaves behind scientific evidence of His handiwork. After all, why shouldn’t He? Who are we to tell God how to act? So when I read your list of philosophical arguments against ID, my initial reaction was: “I’ve seen this before.” As they say, there are two sides to any story, and you need to read the other side.

I’d like to address your comments, one by one.

My basic problem with ID is its philosophical framing. ID assumes a modernist, mechanistic conception of the natural world. This seems to not gel with the common intuition that there seems to be teleology or design in nature. But within this mechanistic conception of nature, all you can get is extrinsic teleology, like the Watchmaker argument. The Designer tends to be viewed as a super-powerful demiurge who takes the components of nature and assembles them into purposefully built machines. He intervenes in nature at the appropriate times, making it able to overcome (what ID advocates view as) natural constraints. Thus we have book titles like Darwin Devolves . The implication is that a designer is required to prevent this devolution and create useful things.

I’m afraid you’ve been reading too much of Dr. Ed Feser. First of all, Feser totally misrepresents William Paley’s Watchmaker argument: contrary to what Feser asserts, Paley didn’t reject classical theism, his design argument wasn’t mechanistic, his argument wasn’t inductive either (Paley repeatedly referred to it as a deductive argument), and it certainly wasn’t based on a mere analogy. These are cheap canards. I suggest you have a look at the following three articles of mine:

Was Paley A Classical Theist, And Does His Design Argument Lead Us To A False God?
Was Paley A Mechanist?
Paley’s Argument From Design: Did Hume Refute It, And Is It An Argument From Analogy?

Feser also maintains that Intelligent Design is tied to a mechanistic view of nature. For a counter-balancing view, I suggest you have a look at my online article, Building A Bridge Between Scholastic Philosophy And Intelligent Design, which I wrote back in 2013. As I demonstrate in the article, Intelligent Design is perfectly compatible with intrinsic teleology. I also conclude that Feser has presented a false dichotomy between Aristotelian Thomists (who believe in causal powers and in the holistic unity of living things) and mechanists (who reject talk of causal powers and view living things in reductionistic terms, as assemblages of parts). There are other, intermediate views. See also my article, Intelligent Design And Mechanism: Laying A Myth To Rest.

Finally, for a comprehensive reply to Feser, see my Web page, Thomism and Intelligent Design - A Series of articles in response to Professor Edward Feser.

I also suggest that you read Part 4 of my five-part reply to Professor Tkacz on Aquinas and Intelligent Design. It shatters the myth that Intelligent Design proponents are committed to a Deus ex machina God Who intervenes in Nature and works miracles to achieve His ends. Some ID proponents do believe that, but front-loaders don’t. ID doesn’t require miracles or even Divine interventions.

The Designer doesn’t need to intervene to prevent devolution - he implants and sustains teleology and purpose in the fundamental behavior of nature from the very beginning.

You appear to be laboring under the misconception that ID theorists believe that living things will inevitably degenerate over the course of time. Not so. ID theorist Granville Sewell, in a recent article at Evolution News and Views titled, Vindicated by Behe: Devolution Is Natural, Evolution Is Not (April 1, 2019), plainly declares that “living species are able to preserve their complex structures and pass them on to their descendants without significant degradation, generation after generation.” You cannot get an affirmation of teleology which is any clearer than that. What he denies is that “random mutations could produce major improvements” (italics mine).

This actually fits better with classical conceptions of who God is. Instead of a superpowerful demiurge, God is the cause and ongoing sustainer of existence of all things including the laws of nature itself.

Once again, I refer you to my article, Was Paley A Classical Theist, And Does His Design Argument Lead Us To A False God? The remarks on Paley apply equally well to Intelligent Design theory.

This conception of reality is based on Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy, and is common among Catholics (which is probably also why fewer Catholics are anti-evolution compared to evangelicals). Edward Feser has talked about this at length, for example in this blog series: Edward Feser: ID versus A-T roundup.

My own round-up can be found here: Thomism and Intelligent Design - A Series of articles in response to Professor Edward Feser.

I should add that there are Thomists who support Intelligent Design and who reject the modern theory of evolution as un-Thomistic. I suggest you have a look at this Website: Aquinas on Evolution and Intelligent Design by Fr. Michael Chaberek, O.P. (For a reply, see In Defense of Thomistic Evolution: A Response to Chaberek by Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., and for a counter-reply, see The Five Arguments Stand: Response to a Critic on Aquinas and Evolution by Fr. Chaberek.) See also this article by the late Thomistic philosopher Dr. Dennis Bonnette: The Philosophical Impossibility of Darwinian Naturalistic Evolution.

You might also like to have a look at my five-part article (which I wrote back in 2010) titled, St. Thomas Aquinas And His Fifteen Smoking Guns (A Five-Part Reply To Professor Tkacz).

To be sure, there are also Thomists who believe in the modern theory of evolution and reject Intelligent Design. But when we look at their objections to Intelligent Design, we can readily see that they are based on emotion, rather than reason. See this article by Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., who nearly has a meltdown online over the suggestion that the HIV virus might have been designed. He writes:

Theologically, and more significantly, could this have been done by any other intelligent designer other than the intelligent designer commonly known as God? And if so, what does this say about God: Did He intentionally create us thousands of years ago so that we could be infected by a killer virus in the 20th century?

Why would a good and gracious Father who would not give His sons and daughters a snake if they asked for fish (cf. Lk. 11:11) handicap His children from the start so that they would struggle and suffer later? These are just a few of the many profound and difficult – and I would add, unnecessary – theological questions raised by the ID proposal.

End quote.

See what I mean? It’s emotion, not reason, that’s driving the Thomistic opposition to Intelligent Design.

Because in this view, design operates at the level of metaphysics, there is no need to make scientific arguments against evolution in order to “prove” design like many ID proponents do.

I reply: why not both? Design does indeed operate at the level of metaphysics, but who is to say that it only operates at that level? There’s no theological reason why science and metaphysics couldn’t both point to God.

Some Thomists might retort, “What need have we for scientific evidence of God?” But that argument proves too much: it could equally be used to show that the miracles recorded in the Bible are redundant, as natural theology alone suffices to show that there is a God.

Here’s what Aquinas himself taught. In his Summa Contra Gentiles Book III, chapter 99, paragraph 9 (That God Can Work Apart From The Order Implanted In Things, By Producing Effects Without Proximate Causes), he wrote:

[D]ivine power can sometimes produce an effect, without prejudice to its providence, apart from the order implanted in natural things by God. In fact, He does this at times to manifest His power. For it can be manifested in no better way, that the whole of nature is subject to the divine will, than by the fact that sometimes He does something outside the order of nature. Indeed, this makes it evident that the order of things has proceeded from Him, not by natural necessity, but by free will.

Finally, you write:

Thomists regard teleology as evident from nature, but it’s not measurable or quantifiable. It’s somewhat like a basic metaphysical intuition like the belief that there is a mind-independent reality. This is to me the strongest “argument”, not necessarily for Intelligent Design™, but for design and teleology in general.

But how is that an argument for an Intelligence beyond Nature? As Dr. Ed Feser readily acknowledges, Aristotle believed in intrinsic teleology, but didn’t draw any theological conclusions from it. Aquinas’ teleological argument is in bad need of patching, too. See my online article: Feser’s Fifth: Why his up-to-date version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way fails as a proof, and how to make it work.

To sum up: thirteenth-century metaphysics, by itself, isn’t enough to convince modern atheists of the reality of an Intelligence beyond nature. A more up-to-date philosophical argument based on the existence of laws of Nature can be constructed, and the cosmic fine-tuning argument can also lend scientific support to this argument. But let us not retreat to the past. Please.


I may respond more fully later, but I would like to first note that I am aware that not all Thomists support evolution. I have heard Fr. Austriaco talk about his own proposals to reconcile Thomism with evolution a few times, and I’m not fully convinced. In other words, I’m not as naive on the relationship between Thomism and evolution as you seem to think.

Secondly, of course I do believe in the miracles of the Bible, which means that sometimes God can indeed change the regular course of nature in order to accomplish particular things. The more pertinent question is whether we need to affirm miracles beyond that of which are clearly testified as such in the Bible. Miracles are usually performed for demonstrating God’s power to people in real time - such as Moses dividing the Red Sea, Jesus healing blind and lame, feeding the 5000, and the resurrection. This doesn’t seem to apply to the case of God intervening in nature to cause the bacteria flagella to be put together, for example.

Thirdly, I am aware that Aristotelianism doesn’t necessarily point to God directly; you need more argumentation to get to that point - Feser concedes as such. In fact, that’s why he thinks it’s “theologically neutral” ground, and that Aristotelianism could have wider appeal than merely to Christian Thomists.

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Always great hearing for you @vjtorley, both when we agree and when we disagree.


Thank you, @swamidass.

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