Why philosophy is vital in the debate about Intelligent Design
There are many ways in which philosophy contributes to the debate about origins of life and the universe. Even if you are not a philosopher or have never studied philosophy, you are, like it or not, taking a particular philosophical view about this subject – perhaps unconsciously. Here are just a few areas of philosophy that are relevant to the discussion about our origins and whether there is design in the universe.
Why is there something rather than nothing? Why should anything exist at all? And what started it all - if there was a beginning? These are not idle questions and thinkers have been writing about them for thousands of years.
There are some articles on this site about the scientific and mathematical reasons for believing that there had to be a beginning of everything. It is also argued mathematically that it is impossible to have an infinite past – there had to be a start of all things. If there was a beginning, then there had to be a cause. There are certain things we can also say about a cause of everything: the cause must be immensely powerful, immensely creative and be outside of the created universe. That means also that the cause is outside of time.
The fact that this reasoning is consistent with the concept of an eternal creator God, is surely of great interest. The cosmological arguments for the existence of a Creator remain extremely powerful.
Design in nature
Now you might think that talking about design in nature is only a philosophical or religious pursuit and not scientific. Well, it is all these.
The big question is whether design is detectable in living things. Are there hallmarks of design that mean that there is purpose and not mere accident in producing life? We are taught that evolution has produced humans and all living things purely by random, purposeless errors in genetic information over a long time – selecting those that survive best. It seems neat and indeed is the orthodox view currently in biology. But what, if any, features of living things can be only produced by a designer? Is it reasonable to use science to infer design? Some, such as Richard Dawkins, will argue that talking of design in biology is prohibited because design means something supernatural is occurring and that is outside of science. But what would he say about forensic science; which is all about looking for design? And what about archaeology; which is often about deciding if an object is designed or not? There are scientific methods for detecting design. There are mathematical arguments also, to do with probability, that something could not have come about without an outside input of information.
One of the hall marks of design in living things, it is argued, is ‘irreducible complexity’. If a complex part of a living thing could not have come about by gradual change over time – then it could be inferred as having been designed. In fact it can be shown (as other articles on this site demonstrate) that there are hosts of mechanisms in living things that have no way of being merely end stages of gradual processes; they either work as they are, in all their complexity, or they are useless. Many of these are mentioned in detail on this website.
Another way of looking at design is referred to as ‘complex specified information’, a term coined by William Dembski. If something is complex then it might have come about accidentally. A string of words is complex but might have come about by chance. If however it is specified then there is actual meaning in the combination of words. The existence of complexity plus specificity (such as this article) infers design. This article could not have reasonably appeared by chance as it is both complex and specified. This logic can be equally used when looking at the natural world.
To say that we cannot discuss design in the biology classroom is to shut off a valid area of scientific enquiry. Many of the greatest scientific successes over the centuries have involved scientists who firmly believed in design – Newton, Faraday, Mendel, Maxwell (to name but a few). Should we not challenge the prevailing view that design arguments are prohibited in the science classroom? This view, sometimes called naturalism, does not allow discussion in scientific circles about anything outside of what is physical (essentially matter and energy). The big question then : is naturalism a proper and consistent viewpoint or one that is more a particular, and very disputable, way of believing how the universe is made up?
A very major discipline in current philosophy is studying the mind. In particular, the fact that we have consciousness is a hotbed of discussion. What is consciousness? Is consciousness something that is physical or not? If it is not physical then can it be produced purely by physical means? Articles on this site go much further into this fascinating subject.
There is something about being conscious that seem to defy reduction to a physical origin. Is that simply because we cannot understand it or because there is something genuinely non-material about who we are? Are we just very advanced machines or have we also something that traditionally is called a soul? When I fall in love, is this entirely a process of neuronal connections or something more? Can a computer be conscious? Is consciousness even necessary for living things to survive? Why would a random process of evolution produce consciousness if it is not needed? Would a non-conscious animal be just as good at survival and reproduction as a conscious one? Are animals conscious?
Consciousness throws up many questions about who we are. It is an important role of ‘philosophy of mind’ to discuss this and to see if we can provide any answers about our very nature as sentient beings. Are we simply physical matter or is there more to us?
Then there is the issue of free-will. This is probably the most debated aspect of the mind, both by philosophers and neuroscientists. The problem is that we think we have free-will and can make genuine choices in life, but it is hard to see how, in a purely physical universe, we can have this freedom.
With free-will comes responsibility; if we can choose to do good or evil, then we are responsible for our thoughts and actions. If we have free-will then it is reasonable to punish evil actions and to reward good ones. But if all our thoughts and actions are determined by physical laws, then we are always blameless and we are never deserving of reward; we could not do other than what we do.
The issue philosophically often comes down to the fact that if we are only physical beings then all our thoughts are the product of brain processes that are determined by the laws of physics. There is no freedom in that. Every thought and ‘decision’ would be, however complex, just due to the current physical state of the brain and the environment.
If however there is a soul or non-material aspect to us, we could be free from the tyranny of the physical laws and have genuine autonomy in making choices. What is it about our nature which points to genuine freedom to choose? If we have such freedom then does this indicate a non-material aspect to our nature? This has obvious importance in discussing whether we are designed or not.
Like it or not we all seem to have values and moral codes. We somehow know when an action is good and when an action is evil. We feel deep down that there are some moral or ethical laws that are universal. It is wrong, for instance, to torture people and it is wrong to abuse children. It is good to help people and to sacrificially give up our own needs to help others.
We apply such moral judgments all the time and vigorously defend them. Most atheists are no different from those who believe in God when it comes to the majority of moral issues about good and evil.
Why is it good to feed someone who is starving? Why is it bad to steal from your neighbour? Are such morals merely instinctive survival mechanisms that are ‘programmed’ into our minds, or are they really true whether you and I exist or not? If there are some universal moral laws then where do they come from?
The issue is this: if there are really some universal values or moral laws that are objectively ‘out there’, what or who is the origin of these? It is reasonable and logical for us to infer a moral mind behind such morality. In fact many are led to believe in a ‘good’ Creator of this moral universe. Are they right?
We look at our world with all its problems and sadness but we see also immense beauty. This beauty is seen even in the smallest molecular machine in the cell, in the flowers around us, in the sunsets and the mountains, in the sky at night, in the views we now have of the earth from space and in the awesome images of the galaxies.
The philosophical question that is asked is this: is such beauty objective or merely the product of our minds? Are these things actually beautiful whether we are there to behold them or not? If they are indeed beautiful in themselves objectively, where does such beauty originate? If we come to the conclusion that an object is beautiful in itself, then we inevitably have to ask about the cause of such beauty. This leads then to a discussion about a mind which is outside of nature and which has placed things in nature that are beautiful. We can even infer certain things about this mind: such a mind appreciates great beauty and is immensely creative. Does this lead one to a Creator who made and designed it all – or not? These are valid philosophical questions.
Philosophy is important because it helps us to see where our beliefs and values come from. Are they logically sound? Have we considered all the possibilities? Are we driven by a particular worldview (such as naturalism or theism). Can we defend our particular worldview? Philosophy helps us greatly to untangle our particular position over design in nature.
 See Was there a cause of the universe?
 See Common questions 1: Is there real design in nature or do we just impose it?
 Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box. New York: Free Press, 2nd edition 2006.
 William A Dembski. ‘The Logical Underpinnings of Intelligent Design’ in Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA. Ed. William A Dembski and Michael Ruse; CUP, 2004.
 Latham, Antony. The Enigma of Consciousness: Reclaiming the Soul. London. Janus 2012.
 Swinburne, Richard. The Evolution of the Soul. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012.
 Well argued in C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity. 50th Anniversary ed. Harper Collins. 2011.
Peter S. Williams. A Faithful Guide to Philosophy. A Christian introduction to the love of wisdom. Paternoster 2013.
J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.IVP 2003.
Thumbnail - © Clker Free Vector Images - Pixabay.com CC0 Public Domain