What is ID’s efficient cause?

IDists are keen to return Aristotle’s “final cause” to the sciences, or at least to biology (see Dembski, for example).  Which is rather sad, because they can give us no evidence for the purpose of organisms, instead they wish to insist that life “had to be designed” and thus has purpose.  One has to wonder what good that would be to know, since we would still need to be able to discover purpose for it to impact us, and ID has never been able to demonstrate any purpose (to be sure, nearly all IDists have sacred writings in mind to provide specific purpose, but will not admit it in their supposed science).

So OK, they want final causes (aside from those of animals such as humans), and perhaps formal and material causes as well, but where is their “efficient cause”?  That is the closest that Aristotle’s “causes” (aitia, which probably would translate better as “reasons” than “causes”) come to fitting with scientific causation in the classical realm, they do not deny the importance of efficient causes, and yet they have none whatsoever.

It should be noted that Aristotle was not one who simply called “intelligence” or “design” the cause or the reason (not of a manufactured item, that is), the aition, because intelligence is just a faculty, and design is merely a category of actions or “causes”.  Thought using intelligence might be a cause, and design may be part of a specific process, but simply invoking intelligence, thought, or design would explain nothing by themselves.  There is an apparent exception to Aristotle’s “efficient cause” as a specific cause or set of causes, which is God the unmoved mover–a very indefinite “cause”–but even IDists don’t appeal to such ancient fictions, partly because it would too readily reveal the religious motivation behind ID.

Aristotle has these things to say of the “efficient cause”:

Again (3) the primary source of the change or coming to rest; e.g. the man who gave advice is a cause, the father is cause of the child, and generally what makes of what is made and what causes change of what is changed.

e.g. both the art of the sculptor and the bronze are causes of the statue. These are causes of the statue qua statue, not in virtue of anything else that it may be-only not in the same way, the one being the material cause, the other the cause whence the motion comes.

All causes, both proper and incidental, may be spoken of either as potential or as actual; e.g. the cause of a house being built is either ‘house-builder’ or ‘house-builder building’.

In investigating the cause of each thing it is always necessary to seek what is most precise (as also in other things): thus man builds because he is a builder, and a builder builds in virtue of his art of building. This last cause then is prior: and so generally.

Further, generic effects should be assigned to generic causes, particular effects to particular causes, e.g. statue to sculptor, this statue to this sculptor; and powers are relative to possible effects, actually operating causes to things which are actually being effected.  Aristotle’s Physics

In a scientific sense, this is all rather imprecise.  But even Aristotle’s generic causes, such as “the art of building,” is far more precise and meaningful than anything we have gotten out of ID as an efficient cause.  Dembski even makes “efficient cause” more precise than Aristotle does:

The efficient cause is the immediate activity that produced the statue–Michelangelo’s actual chipping away at a marble slab with hammer and chisel.  Dembski

Dembski’s example of an efficient cause moves us closer to scientific causation, and is a typical example used by those who are explaining Aristotle’s “four causes”.  Despite the fact that he waffles on mechanism in that article–and attacks the strawman of design being “barred from the content of science” (has any archaeologist tried to explain pottery without intelligent agents involved somehow?)–he is still hardly consistent when he makes statements such as this one:

You’re asking me to play a game: “Provide as much detail in terms of possible causal mechanisms for your ID position as I do for my Darwinian position.” ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories. Notorious Dembski comment

Ah yes, Dembski has neither evidence for a final cause, nor for an efficient cause.  Likewise with Behe, who pretends to take a more scientific approach than Dembski, he will not even commit to the specificity that an ancient thinker like Aristotle would:

Another problem with the argument from imperfection is that it critically depends on a psychoanalysis of the unidentified designer.  Yet the reasons that a designer would or would not do anything are virtually impossible to know unless the designer tells you specifically what those reasons are.  One only has to go into a modern art gallery to come across designed objects for which the purposes are completely obscure (to me at least).  Features that strike us as odd in a design might have been placed there by the designer for a reason–for artistic reasons, for variety, to show off, for some as-yet-undetected practical purpose, or for some unguessable reason–or they might not.  DBB, 223

What, people refuse to call something like that science?  Notice how desperate he is to claim no distinguishing marks of design (since he knows that these are lacking from life that we have not engineered) that he goes to deliberately obscure art as his “example.” 

Yet in the first and second Dembski links (to the same source), it is argued, against a strawman, that design is readily detectable.  To be sure, he misunderstands his own sci-fi analogy as the search for “complex specified information,” when in fact it was rationality behind the signal that indicated intelligence.  Dembski explaining what was detected in the movie Contact:

In this sequence of 1126 bits, 1’s correspond to beats and 0’s to pauses. This sequence represents the prime numbers from 2 to 101, where a given prime number is represented by the corresponding number of beats (i.e., 1’s), and the individual prime numbers are separated by pauses i.e., 0’s).  Dembski

Yes, that’s right, it isn’t complexity that is discovered (Dembski calls unlikely simplicity by the name “complexity,” a distortion even of the meaning of the term), it is rationality.  Even Behe gets it slightly, and ludicrously brings up rational agents:

Rational agents can coordinate pieces into a larger system (like the ship) to accomplish a purpose.  Edge of Evolution, 168

Yes, and the context from which that comes has any number of rationally-devised artifacts being discovered.  Nevertheless, note how carefully he words it, to avoid the implication that life ought to appear rationally designed if it was intelligently designed.  He’s still relying on evident “purpose,” which he deliberately tried to avoid as a test of “design” in the previous quote.  There, too, he wrote of “reasons” for design, as he denied their visibility, suggesting that he knew very well that he was denying that purpose is evident in life, while in this later quote he is trying to suggest that rationality is found exactly through evident purpose (as he had also done in DBB, prior to denying it in order to avoid predicting evident purpose in life–in response to those who noted exactly the lack of purpose in so many aspects of life).

The fact of the matter is that both Dembski and Behe do not wish “design” to be tested by evidence of purpose, for they know that, for instance, malaria pathogens do not seem to fit any kind of evident purpose.  They bring up purpose in order to ignore efficient causation and the rationality typically evident behind such causation (even if some art is hard to figure out, the rationality of the frames betrays intelligence via rational efficient causation).  Likewise, they totally avoid efficient causation, for as I previously argued, they have no causes at all, only unconstrained accident (or whim).

Evolution is also fraught with accident (see link above), but these are “lawful accidents,” of the kind that are permitted and even (probabilistically) predicted.  We have “efficient causation,” or more exactly, scientific causation.  And what is interesting to note is that while Dembski and Behe contradict themselves and each other with their “arguments,” primarily because they can show no “intelligent design” causation whatsoever, earlier ID really did mean to find the marks of intelligence and rationality in life:

…We allege, that the same principle of intelligence, design, and mechanical contrivance, was exerted in the formation of natural bodies, as we employ in making of the various instruments by which our purposes are served […]. William Paley

Paley was looking for efficient cause (see also pp. 8 & 233 of the above link for his criticisms of explanations lacking in efficient causes), and for observable purpose.  Behe and Dembski contradict themselves on these matters, while generally trying to smuggle “purpose” in via “complexity.” 

Paley’s ID was tolerably close to a scientific hypothesis–which Darwin took seriously.  By avoiding all causes (even the ones they bring up, like “purpose”–Aristotle’s “final cause”), the current crop of IDists cannot even match Paley’s now-failed “science,” nor even keep from contradicting themselves as they both claim that purpose and rationality are evident, and that they are not.

This is part of a series of posts that I am combining into one long post, which may be found at Darwin’s Black Box.

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One Comment on “What is ID’s efficient cause?”


  1. […] have discussed the differences significantly in the past, like in this recent post.  However, I would like to quote extensively from Paley’s discussions of the failings of both […]


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