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Nature's Formational Economy

Now from the design theorist's perspective, there is plenty here to work on, and certainly enough to turn intelligent design into a fruitful and exciting scientific research program. Even so, many disagree. I want next to address some of their worries. Let me begin with the concerns of Howard Van Till. Van Till and I have known each other since the mid 90s, and have been corresponding about the coherence of intelligent design as an intellectual project for about the last three years. Van Till's unchanging refrain has been to ask for clarification about what design theorists mean by the term "design."

The point at issue for him is this: Design is unproblematic when it refers to something being conceptualization by a mind to accomplish a purpose; but when one attempts to attribute design to natural objects that could not have been formed by an embodied intelligence, design must imply not just conceptualization but also extra-natural assembly. It's the possibility that intelligent design requires extra-natural assembly that Van Till regards as especially problematic (most recently he has even turned the tables on design theorists, charging them with "punctuated naturalism" -- the idea being that for the most part natural processes rule the day, but then intermittently need to be "punctuated" by interventions from a designing intelligence). Van Till likes to put his concern to the intelligent design community this way: Design can have two senses, a "mind-like" sense (referring merely to conceptualization) and a "hand-like" sense (referring also to the mode of assembly); is intelligent design using design strictly in the mind-like sense or also in the hand-like sense? And if the latter, are design theorists willing to come clean and openly admit that their position commits them to extra-natural assembly?

Although Van Till purports to ask these questions simply as an aid to clarity, it is important to understand how Van Till's own theological and philosophical presuppositions condition the way he poses these questions. Indeed, these presuppositions must themselves be clarified. For instance, what is "extra-natural assembly" (the term is Van Till's)? It is not what is customarily meant by miracle or supernatural intervention. Miracles typically connote a violation or suspension or overriding of natural laws. To attribute a miracle is to say that a natural cause was all set to make X happen, but instead Y happened. As I've argued throughout my work, design doesn't require this sort of counterfactual substitution (cf. chapters 2 and 3 of my book Intelligent Design . When humans, for instance, act as intelligent agents, there is no reason to think that any natural law is broken. Likewise, should a designer, who for both Van Till and me is God, act to bring about a bacterial flagellum, there is no reason prima facie to suppose that this designer did not act consistently with natural laws. It is, for instance, a logical possibility that the design in the bacterial flagellum was front-loaded into the universe at the Big Bang and subsequently expressed itself in the course of natural history as a miniature outboard motor on the back of E. Coli. Whether this is what actually happened is another question (more on this later), but it is certainly a live possibility and one that gets around the usual charge of miracles.

Nonetheless, even though intelligent design requires no contradiction of natural laws, it does impose a limitation on natural laws, namely, it purports that they are incomplete. Think of it this way. There are lots and lots of things that happen in the world. For many of these things we can find causal antecedents that account for them in terms of natural laws. Specifically, the account can be given in the form of a set of natural laws (typically supplemented by some auxiliary hypotheses) that relates causal antecedents to some consequent (i.e., the thing we're trying to explain). Now why should it be that everything that happens in the world should submit to this sort of causal analysis? It's certainly a logical possibility that we live in such a world. But it's hardly self-evident that we do. For instance, we have no evidence whatsoever that there is a set of natural laws, auxiliary hypotheses, and antecedent conditions that account for the writing of this essay. If we did have such an account, we would be well on the way to reducing mind to body. But no such reduction is in the offing, and cognitive science is to this day treading water when it comes to the really big question of how brain enables mind.

Intelligent design regards intelligence as an irreducible feature of reality. Consequently it regards any attempt to subsume intelligent agency within natural causes as fundamentally misguided and regards the natural laws that characterize natural causes as fundamentally incomplete. This is not to deny derived intentionality, in which artifacts, though functioning according to natural laws and operating by natural causes, nonetheless accomplish the aims of their designers and thus exhibit design. Yet whenever anything exhibits design in this way, the chain of natural causes leading up to it is incomplete and must presuppose the activity of a designing intelligence.

I'll come back to what it means for a designing intelligence to act in the physical world, but for now I want to focus on the claim by design theorists that natural causes and the natural laws that characterize them are incomplete. It's precisely here that Van Till objects most strenuously to intelligent design and that his own theological and philosophical interests come to light. "Extra-natural assembly" for Howard Van Till does not mean a miracle in the customary sense, but rather that natural causes were insufficient to account for the assembly in question. Van Till holds to what he calls a Robust Formational Economy Principle (RFEP -- "formational economy" refers to the capacities or causal powers in nature for bringing about the events that occur in nature). This is a theological and metaphysical principle. According to this principle God endowed nature with all the (natural) causal powers it ever needs to accomplish all the things that happen in nature. Thus in Van Till's manner of speaking, it is within nature's formational economy for water to freeze when its temperature is lowered sufficiently. Natural causal powers are completely sufficient to account for liquid water turning to ice. What makes Van Till's formational economy robust is that everything that happens in nature is like this -- even the origin and subsequent history of life. In other words, the formational economy is complete.

But how does Van Till know that the formational economy is complete? Van Till was kind enough to speak at a seminar I conducted this summer (2000) at Calvin College in which he made clear that he holds this principle for theological reasons. According to him, for natural causes to lack the power to effect some aspect of nature would mean that the creator had not fully gifted the creation. Conversely, a creator or designer who must act in addition to natural causes to produce certain effects has denied the creation benefits it might otherwise possess. Van Till portrays his God as supremely generous whereas the God of the design theorists comes off looking like a miser. Van Till even refers to intelligent design as a "celebration of gifts withheld."

Though rhetorically shrewd, Van Till's criticism is hardly the only way to spin intelligent design theologically. Granted, if the universe is like a clockwork (cf. the design arguments of the British natural theologians), then it would be inappropriate for God, who presumably is a consummate designer, to intervene periodically to adjust the clock. Instead of periodically giving the universe the gift of "clock-winding and clock-setting," God should simply have created a universe that never needed winding or setting. But what if instead the universe is like a musical instrument (cf. the design arguments of the Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nazianzus, who compared the universe to a lute -- in this respect I much prefer the design arguments of the early Church to the design arguments of the British natural theologians)? Then it is entirely appropriate for God to interact with the universe by introducing design (or in this analogy, by skillfully playing a musical instrument). Change the metaphor from a clockwork to a musical instrument, and the charge of "withholding gifts" dissolves. So long as there are consummate pianists and composers, player-pianos will always remain inferior to real pianos. The incompleteness of the real piano taken by itself is therefore irrelevant here. Musical instruments require a musician to complete them. Thus, if the universe is more like a musical instrument than a clock, it is appropriate for a designer to interact with it in ways that affect its physical state.

Leaving aside which metaphor best captures our universe (a clockwork mechanism or a musical instrument), I want next to examine Van Till's charge that intelligent design commits one to a designer who withholds gifts. This charge is itself highly problematic. Consider, for instance, what it would mean for me to withhold gifts from my baby daughter. Now it's certainly true that I withhold things from my baby daughter, but when I do it is for her benefit because at this stage in her life she is unable to appreciate them and might actually come to harm if I gave them to her now. The things I am withholding from her are not properly even called gifts at this time. They become gifts when it is appropriate to give them. Nor is it the case that if I am a good father, I must have all the gifts I might ever give my daughter potentially available or in some sense in reserve now (thus making the economy of my gift giving robust in Van Till's sense). It's not yet clear what gifts are going to be appropriate for my daughter -- indeed, deciding what are the appropriate gifts to give my daughter will be situation-specific. So too, Judeo-Christian theism has traditionally regarded many of God's actions in the world (though certainly not all -- there's also general providence) as carefully adapted to specific situations at particular times and places.

Van Till's Robust Formational Economy Principle is entirely consistent with the methodological naturalism embraced by most scientists (the view that the natural sciences must limit themselves to naturalistic explanations and must scrupulously avoid assigning any scientific meaning to intelligence, teleology, or actual design). What is unclear is whether Van Till's Robust Formational Economy Principle is consistent with traditional Christian views of divine providence, especially in regard to salvation history. Van Till claims to hold to the RFEP on theological grounds, thinking it theologically preferable for God to endow creation with natural causal powers fully sufficient to account for every occurrence in the natural world. Let's therefore grant that it's an open question for generic theism whether for God to deliver gifts all at once is in some way preferable to God delivering them over time. The question remains whether this is an open question for specifically Christian theism. Van Till after all is not merely a generic theist but, at least until his recent retirement from Calvin College, was required to belong to the Christian Reformed Church (or some other denomination squarely in the Reformed tradition). Consequently, Van Till was required to subscribe to confessional standards that reflect a traditional Christian view of divine providence.

Now it's not at all clear how the RFEP can be squared with traditional Christian theology. Please understand that I'm not saying it can't. But it seems that Van Till needs to be more forthcoming about how it can. In his older writings (those from the mid 80s where he attempted to defend the integrity of science against attacks by young earth creationists -- unfortunately, Van Till was himself brutally attacked by creationists for his efforts), Van Till seemed content to distinguish between natural history and salvation history. Within salvation history God could act miraculously to procure humanity's redemption. On the other, within natural history God acted only through natural causes. I no longer see this distinction in Van Till's writings and I would like to know why. Does Van Till still subscribe to this distinction? If so, it severely undercuts his RFEP.

The RFEP casts God as the supreme gift giver who never withholds from nature any capacity it might eventually need. According to Van Till, nature has all the causal powers it needs to account for the events, objects, and structures scientists confront in their investigations. Why shouldn't God also endow nature with sufficient causal powers to accomplish humanity's redemption? Human beings after all belong to nature. Throughout the Scriptures we find God answering specific prayers of individuals, performing miracles like the resurrection of Jesus, and speaking directly to individuals about their specific situations. These are all instances of what theologians call particular providence The problem with the RFEP from the vantage of Christian theology is that it seems to allow no room whatsoever for particular providence. Yes, it can account for God sending the rain on the just and the unjust, or what is known as general providence But the RFEP carried to its logical conclusion ends in a thorough-going Pelagianism in which redemption is built directly into nature, in which Jesus is but an exemplar, and in which humans have a natural capacity to procure their own salvation. I'm not saying that Van Till has taken the RFEP to this conclusion, but if not, Van Till needs to make clear why he stops short of assimilating the redemption in Jesus Christ to his robust formational economy.

Van Till's Robust Formational Economy Principle provides a theological justification for science to stay committed to naturalism. Indeed, the RFEP encourages science to continue business as usual by restricting itself solely to natural causes and the natural laws that describe them. But this immediately raises the question why we should want science to continue business as usual. Indeed, how do we know that the formational economy of the world is robust in Van Till's sense? How do we know that natural causes (whether instituted by God as Van Till holds or self-subsistent as the atheist holds) can account for everything that happens in nature? Clearly the only way to answer this question scientifically is to go to nature and see whether nature exhibits things that natural causes could not have produced.

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Intelligent Design Coming Clean

Nature's Formational Economy

Cards on the Table
Situating Intelligent Design in the Contemporary Debate
Intelligent Design as a Positive Research Program
Can Specified Complexity Even Have a Mechanism?
How Can an Unembodied Intelligence Interact with the Natural World?
Must All the Design in the Natural World Be Front-Loaded?
The Distinction Between Natural and Non-Natural Designers
The Question of Motives


William A. Dembski
Dr. William Dembski

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See also:

Van Till: E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom...
Purpose and Design
Charles Darwin
Bacterial Flagellum
DNA Double-Helix
Books on Biology, Genetics and Theology