Originally published in Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Volume 5, No. 1 (2003).

Francis J. Beckwith, Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design

New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003. 183 pages with index.
Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis

An entrenched orthodoxy, such as Darwinism, does not loosen its grip easily or relinquish without striking blows in return. While most Americans are theists and are not evolutionists (although some, of course, are both), the cultural elites—in the media, education, and the law especially—are much more secular than the population at large. Even though polls consistency show that the majority wants credible alternatives to Darwinism taught in the public schools, the majority is helpless before the veto of the elites. It is these largely secular elites who are instrumental in propagating Darwinism as “the only available creation story” (Phillip Johnson). The cognitive enforcers of Darwinism (and its presupposed philosophical materialism) seek to control the discourse by defining the terms of the debate (science verses religion) and by caricaturing those who object to the received wisdom as fundamentalist obscurantists whose ideas are as irrational and archaic as alchemy, flat earthism, and geocentrism. The champions of orthodoxy fear that such anti-Darwinist blasphemy, if taken seriously, will rob science of its most noble and hard-won achievements and plunge Western civilization back into the prescientific and barbarous bogs of ecclesiastical dogma and superstition. After all, those ignorant and anti-scientific creationists lost their respectability long ago—at the Scopes trial in 1925.

Such is the taken-for-granted template for contention among the gatekeepers. Any concepts outside the template are taken to be nonexistent or must be distorted in order to be forced within its contrived framework. Procrusteus strikes again. As long as this basic template is cemented in place, alternative theories of origins outside of Darwinism will appear implausible—especially to the culture-shaping elites—no matter how rational these theories may be when all the cards are laid on the table. Plausibility, as the sociologists of knowledge tell us, is relative to a culture’s intellectual filtering system. Gatekeepers decide (often unconsciously and habitually) which ideas are “legitimate” and worthy of public consideration and which are not. These decisions may have little to do with the intellectual virtues of the ideas in question.

Cultural attitudes about worldviews, such as Darwinism, are not transformed without a protracted battle; and this process of change is multifaceted and tortuous. For an intellectual movement in a free society to challenge a dominant paradigm, it must operate at three levels. (1) It must muster arguments sufficient to challenge their opponents at the highest academic levels. (2) It must creatively make their ideas widely known to the culture at large through presently available means. (3) It must secure the legal means by which to undermine any prearranged censorship of its views in public life, particularly in state education, since the public school curricula shape the minds of so many for so long.

Readers of this journal are likely aware that in the last decade or so the Intelligent Design movement (ID) has assembled a wide-ranging and impressive assault against the proud citadel of Darwinism. Moreover, this critique, given the credentials and publications of its leading proponents (William Dembski, Michael Behe, Phillip Johnson, and others), cannot be reduced to “stealth creationism” (as has been charged). As articulated in Phillip Johnson’s The Wedge of Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), ID’s wedge strategy of is to separate philosophical materialism from empirical science in order to unseat naturalism’s hegemony of explanation and plausibility—as well as to break up its monopoly on public funding for origins research. ID also debunks the notion that the methodological naturalism of Darwinism is neutral with respect to religion; it is, rather, an attempt to fumigate design from the cosmos, leaving no room for a Creator. Philip Johnson’s logical critique of the evidential shortcomings of Darwinism and his exposure of it dependence on philosophical materialism was the sharp leading edge of this wedge. The philosopher of science William Dembski and biochemist Michael Behe and others have sought to widen the gap between materialism and empirical science by making ID into a full-fledged research program, which is in direct competition with Darwinism, instead of merely criticizing it. ID groups have thus sponsored major academic conferences at notable institutions—such as the one anthologized in William Dembski, ed., Mere Creation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998)—and has produced a string of popular articles and books as well. Instead of demanding a creedal center, it has cast its net widely to include all who take Darwinism to be scientifically inadequate and who are willing to readmit intelligence as a bona fide explanation for certain natural phenomena. This minimalism is essential to its genius. Therefore, its numbers are not limited to Christians; and the movement is not interested in arguing for many of the points deemed fundamental by the older style creationism (a young earth, six literal days of creation, a global flood, and so on). Henry Morris, the grand old man of creationism, has criticized the movement for just this reason.

Creationism (or “scientific creationism”) has repeatedly failed in its attempts to implement a “two model” approach to origins in the public schools, suffering one well-publicized legal defeat after another. But is ID doomed to the same fate? ID advocates have, in a short time, made significant progress on points (1) and (2) mentioned above. The are also endeavoring to move ahead on point (3) as well by advocating “teaching the controversy” in the public schools; but their efforts have just begun. Francis J. Beckwith, a Christian philosopher well-published in the areas of apologetics and ethics, believes that ID, because of its significant differences from creationism, does not fall under the legal strictures that have muzzled creationism. After a helpful introduction surveying the growing ID movement, in chapter two Beckwith explains the meaning of evolution as a thoroughly naturalistic account of all of life. The claim that it is neutral with respect to religion is but a ruse, as its leading proponents—such as Richard Dawkins and Francis Futuyama—readily admit. To limit scientific explanations on the ultimate matters of the origin and development of life to merely natural causes is not merely an epistemology; it presupposes a metaphysic as well—what Beckwith calls “ontological materialism.” This metaphysic lies behind the teaching of Darwinism in the schools. Beckwith explains, “What I mean by evolution, in this book is naturalistic evolution, the view that the entire universe and all the entities in it can be accounted for by strictly material processes without resorting to any designer, Creator, or non-material entity or agent as an explanation for either any aspect of the natural universe of the universe as a whole” (6).

He spends the rest of chapter one and all of chapter two meticulously analyzing the various court cases that have addressed the teaching of creation along side of evolution. While Beckwith is often critical of the legal judgments that have barred creationism from the classroom, his point is not to damn the past but to chart the future. That is, his strategy is to synthesize the basic legal principles employed in previous rulings against creationism and apply these same standards in a case for the teaching of ID. He argues that the failures of creationism in the courtroom by no means insure a similar fate for ID.

In chapter three, Beckwith presents a superb summary of the case for ID, although he claims that ID need not be true in order to be legally sanctioned: “I believe that that all that is legally necessary to permit (or require) ID in public school classes is that it does not unconstitutionally advance religion, that is proponents make a reasonable and intellectual respectable case for their position, that the state have a legitimate interest in exposing students and faculty to ID, and that the state have legitimate means by which to accomplish this” (92). Under “the case against methodological naturalism” he argues that methodological naturalism is not a claim of science itself, but a (dubious) philosophical assumption applied to the philosophy of science.  Moreover, this assumption is often held with a kind of religious fervor, as evidenced by this statement from Harvard geneticist, Richard Lewontin: “We take the side of science [meaning ontological materialism] in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. . . . Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” (93).

In addition, demarcation theories that attempt to draw hard and fast lines between science (defined as methodological naturalism) and other disciplines fail to pass muster. Methodological naturalism may also be challenged by “external conceptual problems” that are brought to bear against it. Scientific theories should not be isolated conceptual islands removed from other logical concerns. Rather, as philosopher of science Larry Laudin has argued, “contrary to common belief, it can be rational to raise philosophical and religious objections against a particular theory of research tradition, if the latter runs counter to well-established part of the general Weltbild—even if that Weltbild is not ‘scientific’ (in the usual sense of the word)” (96).

Beckwith then challenges methodological naturalism by giving four arguments against it. First, he aptly summarizing the argument for creation ex nihilo based on the kalam cosmological argument and on Big Bang cosmology. Second, he argues that a strong philosophical case can be made for the existence of non-natural properties pertaining to “souls, minds, and essences.” Third, a case for moral properties being irreducible to natural properties means that they cannot fit into a naturalistic account of the world. Fourth, Beckwith presents a brief version of Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism, which brings into serious question the reliability of a naturalistically evolved mind—ironically, the same mind that purportedly deems Darwinism rational.

Beckwith then shifts to the positive case for ID based on four factors. First, “specified complexity” as developed by Dembski can be used as a criterion to select designed systems in nature not otherwise explicable given naturalism. A process or entity exhibits design when if it can be determined to be contingent (not produced by impersonal, automatic laws), complex (not simple), and specified (as opposed to fabricated). Beckwith’s discussion, while relatively brief, is marvelously lucid. His use of examples (especially from plagiarism) to illustrate specified complexity are quite telling. Second, design may be indicated by Behe’s notion of the presence of “irreducible complexity” in some living systems. A living system, such as the bacterial flagellum, is irreducibly complex if all of its constitutive parts are required for its essential function. In this case, the function (necessary for the survival of the organism) cannot be accounted for on the basis of gradual Darwinian mechanisms in which systems are build up bit by bit as they evolve. Third, the informational content found in DNA is a clear case of specified complexity, since the information cannot be explained according to chance or natural laws alone. Fourth, the intricate and multifaceted fine-tuning of the universe as a whole similarly resists adequate explanation on the basis of chance and natural necessity because it evinces specified complexity. Beckwith continues by drawing significant differences between ID and creationism and concludes by arguing that banning ID from public schools would cut against the best of the classical liberal tradition of open debate in the marketplace of ideas. Here he deftly employs an ingenious argument to this effect by Alvin Plantinga.

The book’s arguments are brought to a head in the concluding chapter, “Would Teaching Intelligent Design in Public Schools Violate the Establishment Clause?” Beckwith powerfully argues that established legal principles concerning the definition of religion in conjunction with previous rulings on creationism cases opens the door for ID to be taught as a rival theory to Darwinism. The fact that ID’s contentions are compatible with religion—although ID itself is not a religion—or sometimes offered by religious people does not disqualify it from being taught in the public schools as long as the teaching of ID would advance legitimate “secular goals” such as “exposing students to new and important scholarship” and “furthering and protecting academic freedom” (160).

I have two minor complaints with this stellar work, neither of which undermines its thesis. The first is a concern that may have considerable apologetic and philosophical significance. Beckwith quotes Dembski approvingly that ID is not merely a Christian or even necessarily a theistic hypothesis but that it is compatible with “pantheism, panentheism, Stoicism, Neoplatonism, deism, and theism” (149). (Behe has made similar claims.) This comment is offered to deflect the notion that ID is merely “stealth creationism.” But the claim that ID is compatible with all these views may be casting the metaphysical net a bit too wide. I will limit my comments primarily to pantheism of the nondualistic sort, which has been represented historically by Advaita Vedanta Hinduism or Zen Buddhism.

Contemporary nondualistic pantheistic philosophers such as Ken Wilber oppose the naturalistic reductionism of Darwinism—Wilber calls it a “flatland” worldview—in favor of a “spiritual” worldview (see A Brief History of Everything [Boston: Shambhala, 2nd ed., 2001]). However, it is not clear that nondualistic pantheistic worldviews—for all their claims about “Mind-at-Large” (Aldous Huxley) or “Spirit” (Wilber)—can account for the design in the universe. This is because the nature of a pantheistic God is (1) impersonal and (2) exists beyond all dualities. The pantheistic divine reality is taken to be identical with the totality of being. In other words, it is “non-dual” (or monistic). Therefore, any subject-object relationship is unreal and must be transcended. (There is no Creator/creation duality, as in theism.) Moreover, this god’s impersonal nature eliminates conscious agency. However, if there is a Designer, this being must be an intellect agent. Furthermore, there must something distinct from the Designer that is designed. That is, there must be a subject-object relationship between the maker and the made. The concepts of Designer and designed are correlative; they cannot be synonymous. Yet nondualistic pantheism admits of no such distinction between designer and designed, since there is but one divine reality. Therefore, according to nondualistic pantheism, there can be no design at all and, therefore, no evidence for design. In addition, if “Spirit” is nondual, then the concepts of (1) the designer planning among diverse possibilities and (2) the Designer actualizing the design among and through the diverse phenomena of nature are both ruled out in principle, given the nondualism. There are no options (plural) among competing designs; there are no entities (plural) on which to implement the chosen design.

For these reasons (and others), it is highly unlikely that any form of nondualistic pantheism will find direct or indirect rational support from ID arguments, despite claims to the contrary. While ID provides some intellectual support for non-materialist worldviews outside of Christian theism, ID seems most clearly to provide epistemic support for a rather small cluster of theistic worldviews, given theism’s ontology of the designing intelligence itself (as a knowing agent) and the ontology of what is designed (the facts of creation). Any impersonal, immaterial worldview—such as nondualistic pantheism—seems to lack the metaphysical components necessary for the concept of design to obtain. If this account is correct, arguments for ID are also arguments against nondualistic pantheism.

ID arguments may also count against any other impersonal, nontheistic worldview, since all such worldviews lack the concept of a Designer as an intelligent agent (even if they are not strictly nondualistic). Therefore, Stoicism, panentheism, and Neoplatonism may suffer a conceptual fate similar to nondualistic pantheism in the face of strong ID arguments. But even it this is the case, ID are arguments are still not narrowly sectarian, and Beckwith’s key points concerning its legality as a subject to be taught in the public schools still appears to go through.

My second concern is a matter of consistency. In making his case that scientific theories can be supported or challenged by epistemic resources outside of science itself (96-107), Beckwith approvingly quotes a passage by William Lane Craig in which Craig endorses Richard Swinburne’s well-known dichotomy between two types of causal explanations: “scientific explanations in terms of laws and initial conditions and personal explanations in terms of agents and their volitions” (102). Swinburne has used this distinction forcefully in his arguments for God’s existence in order to allow for wider metaphysical explanations that are epistemically appropriate and cogent. However, Swinburne is a theistic evolutionist who believes that God did not directly intervene in the creation of life; and his evolutionary views are not incidental to his scientific/personal explanatory dichotomy. He claims (along with Howard Van Til) that God, in his capacity as a personal Cause, did everything necessary and sufficient for the evolution of life at the moment of creation. That is, the initial conditions of the universe were adequate for all the subsequent development of the universe. God then, as it were, relied on the laws and the elements of creation—which he sustains in existence—to achieve God’s telos. Therefore, Swinburne’s scientific/personal explanatory dichotomy seems to rule out any ID argument (qua scientific argument) for specific organisms in principle. Instead Swinburne supports “scientific explanations”—sans agents and volitions—for the origin and development of life (but not, of course, for the origin or design of the universe as a whole at its inception). ID explanations, of course, accept the fine-tuning and Big Bang argument for the origin and nature of the universe; but they take these facts to be only the necessary conditions for the origin and development of life. Intelligent design can be inferred, ID claims, from the existence of entities that appear long after the Big Bang, and which cannot trace their origin merely to the laws and elements of the universe at its inauguration.  Because ID explanations appeal to the volitions of a personal agents in order to explain the character of certain natural phenomena after the Big Bang—such as the information-rich nature of life and irreducibly complex systems—it appears that they cannot, on Swinburne’s account, be scientific explanations at all.

I suggest that the problem may lie in Swinburne’s conceptual breakdown. ID seems right to insist that an appeal to designing intelligence (personal causation, as it were) need not be deemed outside the ken of science. But this discussion needs more elaboration. As it stands, both Swinburne and the ID movement cannot be correction in their concepts of causal explanation.

This review has not done justice to the breath, depth, and subtleties of Beckwith’s analysis, particularly in relation to the specifics of the legal reasoning pertaining to the many cases analyzed. Suffice to say that his case is extremely thorough and abundantly documented (although not intimidating to readers lacking extensive knowledge in this area). Law, Darwinism, and Public Education is both a winsome defense of ID as legitimate science (chapter three alone is worth the price of the book) and a practical manual for writing and defending laws for the introduction of ID into public school curricula. When the history of the ID movement is written, this book may be esteemed as one of ID’s most important and decisive strategic assets. But whatever its historical fate, it is an appropriate text for courses in public policy, apologetics, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of science. All those interested in ID should put it at the top of their “must read” list.