Michael Behe and Stephen Barr debate intelligent design

Michael Behe is Catholic and Stephen Barr seems to be a theistic evolutionist (naturalist). (H/T Evolution News via ECM)

The main page is here, and it has the video.

There is an MP3 file here, 71 minutes long.

Michael Behe goes first, then Stephen Barr.

Keep in mind that the dividing line in the debate on intelligent design vs. Darwinism is between open-minded scientists who think that there might be objective evidence that material cause-and-effect may not be able to account for specific kinds of complexity (specified complexity) in nature, and philosophers who believe that is never permissible to overturn the philosophical assumption of materialism, regardless of what the scientific evidence shows.

So the pro-ID side is like “let’s look at the evidence and see what naturalism can and can’t do” and the anti-ID side is “the presupposition of materialism is absolute for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door”. It’s ID scientists vs naturalist materialism pre-supposers. Reason vs faith. Inquiry vs dogmatism.


Upcoming conference features pro-ID scholars and theistic evolutionists in Austin, Texas in October.

16 thoughts on “Michael Behe and Stephen Barr debate intelligent design”

  1. “Behe is a Catholic and Stephen Barr appears to be a theistic evolutionist (naturalist).” Did you actually listen to the debate? Did you here me explain to the audience that both Behe and I are Catholics? Are you excommunicating me? I guess I have to give back the papal honor I was awarded then. The word naturalism has several meanings. What do you mean by it? Is anyone who believes that there is a natural order that comes from God and that there are such things as natural causes and natural explanations a “naturalist”? Then St. Thomas Aquinas, Nicole Oresme, Francisco Suarez, and the whole of Catholic theological tradition is “naturaist”.

    I am not very familiar with Prof. Feser’s work. Does he know anything about science?


    1. All I am asking for is that we not ASSUME in advance of a fair and balanced scientific investigation that God cannot act as an intelligent cause during the history of life.

      Let’s look at the data, and see what unintelligent causes can do, and then we can decide whether God acted. Your position seems to be that we can assume that nothing we find in nature is going to showing God’s fingerprints. If God can raise Jesus physically from the dead, as a historical event, then why is it so hard to believe that it may be possible that God has acted in the history of life? You write papers every day, and I write code at work on my good days. We sequence symbols into functional patterns using our intelligence. The papers you write and the software I write is beyond the reach of chance, law, and any combinations of chance and law. The written word and software code is best explained as the result of intelligent causes. I am asking for scientists to be OPEN to the idea that God has acted in a way that science can detect, and to allow those who want to dispute the assumption of naturalism a place in the secular education system to do research, and to critically engage Darwinism, as appropriate.

      I’m sure you are familiar with the resistance that naturalists like Arthur Eddington showed to the Big Bang. It’s not good when scientists like Einstein introduce fudge-factors to make a static universe when their data shows that the universe began to exist. It leads to disasters that undermine the reputation of science, much like Climategate or the Piltdown Man. Let’s go where the evidence leads, searching for the truth, no holds barred.


      1. Again here you several times use the word “naturalism” without defining it. Why don’t you answer the question that I posed to you, i.e. What do you mean by the term “naturalism”? In philosophy, that is generally understood to be the denial that any causes but natural ones exist. In that sense I am emphatically not a naturalist. I am an orthodox Catholic. (Nor, by the way, was Eddington a naturalist, as far as I know. He was, I think, a believing Quaker.)

        My position is not at all that “we can assume that nothing at all in nature is going to show God’s fingerprints”. Actually, if you had listened to the debate carefully (which apparently you have not — since you were unaware I am a Catholic), you would have heard me say that I am quite open to the possibility that certain structures in biology were “intelligently designed” in the sense that the ID movement uses that term. You have completely misunderstood my position, which was very clearly set forth in the debate.

        Your account of Einstein and his “fudge factor” is distorted. (I explain the subject in my book, BTW, for those who are interested.) The cosmological constant term that he introduced was not just a “fudge factor.” If you have studied General Relativity (I teach it regularly), you would know that the logic which led Einstein to his equations of gravity in the first place leads to equations that contain this term. Einstein at first somewhat arbitrarily dropped this term, as he thought the equations would be simpler without it. Then, when he realized that without the term the universe could not be static, he put it back in. It should be noted that when all this was going on there was no evidence that the universe was expanding. Strong evidence of that didn’t come till 1929. So Einstein’s assumption of a static universe was reasonable at the time. And his putting back the cosmological constant term was not unreasonable either. That is shown by the fact that recent evidence (dark energy) suggests very strongly that this term is actually present after all. Your account is highly tendentious and distorted. yes, if Einstein hadn’t believed in a static universe for philosophical reasons, he might have come up with the Big bang theory himself. That was his mistake.

        And if you had listened to the debate, you would know that I am all for going where “the evidence leads, …, no holds barred”.
        As I said over and over in the debate, I have nothing against trying to make ID arguments. it is just that I think that at a certain point they take one out of the realm of natural science and into the realm of philosophy and natural theology.

        We need less overcharged rhetoric, sloppy use of terms, and mis-characterizations of what people say, and more careful and accurate analysis. Why? Because truth requires it. truth does not give up its secrets to the sloppy thinker, in physics or philosophy.


          1. Of course atheists have cleverly hijacked the word natural and evacuated it of its original meaning. But its true that once the meaning of a word has been altered and the new one commonly accepted its fair in conversation to admit of this current meaning. And as it stands naturalism surely means disbelief in God’s intrinsic causation of physical events as the ground of being and His extrinsic causation of physical events as an ultimate ordering intellect.

            The Aristotelian hylemorphic dualist says that both IDer’s and Theistic Evolutionists assume a mechanical philosophy that was metaphysically bankrupt from the beginning. E.A. Burtt, a non-Christian is trenchant here.

            The status of immanent causation is the crux of the dispute it seems to me:

            David Oderberg.
            Teleology: Inorganic and Organic

            Click to access Teleology_Inorganic%20and%20Organic.pdf


  2. Prof. Barr I presume Prof. Feser knows as much science as Cardinal Schonborn – they’re both philosophers. But I would have thought it was just their Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics that was relevant i.e. formal and final causes, substance and the act/potency distinction as opposed to the mechanical philosophy of nature that informs the neo-Darwinian account of evolution.

    Apart from many of Prof. Feser’s blog posts The classic work is of course E.A. Burtt’s ‘The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science’ http://www.archive.org/details/metaphysicalfoun00burtuoft

    If what you meant was how much does Feser talk about scientific discoveries in particular, I think as much as required to show that within Aristotle’s philosophy of nature science is rational all the way down. David Oderberg’s ‘Real Essentialism’ though goes into specifics on evolution.


  3. Many Thomists and many atheists alike say that modern science in general (not just neo-Darwinism) makes no use of final and formal causes. The Thomists conclude that modern science is defective, the atheists that Thomism is defective. In my view, however, the basic claim is utterly without merit. Those who understand in a concrete way how modern science actually explains things realize that it *does* make heavy use of form and finality. The problem is that the Aristotelian/Thomistic scheme of material/formal/efficient/final causality, as used by some people at least, is somewhat wooden and is not a very useful way of classifying in practice. Looking at actual explanations (not only in science, but in many areas) it is often not easy to decide where they fall in that fourfold scheme. I would say that most explanations in modern physics, for example, are much closer to being based on formal causation than material causation. And something very much like final causation is used in science, both physics and neo-Darwinian biology.

    Admittedly, ideas like “substantial form”, as conceived by many Thomists, is probably useless in physics.

    As for “mechanical philosophy of nature”, I am not sure what that means in this context. The term “mechanistic” science is used in various ways.

    Many of the comments made by Thomists on the subject of modern science strike me as way off the mark. I think they couldn’t be made by people who really understood the science in its own terms. And I frankly do not think they would have been made by St. Thomas himself, who would have had no problem, I suspect, with the theories of modern physics and biology.

    Thanks very much for the Burtt reference.


    1. As far as I’m aware Aristotelians very readily acknowledge that scientists in practice actually do assume the existence of something like final and formal causes in their work; e.g. substances are artificially isolated and tested and manipulated in order to flush out their intrinsic powers – or essence. They argue that given its common sense usefulness and scientific fecundity and the incoherence of alternatives, a fully articulated Aristotelianism ought never have been abandoned. E.A. Burtt explains this elegantly.

      Of the claim to woodenness, Aristotelians would reply that more often than not caricatures replace serious attempt at understanding the categories. E.A. Burtt shows how the turn to mechanism alone and away from Aristotle was motivated in large part by anti-Catholic and anti-ecclesiastical sentiment. Given 400 yrs of animus against Aristotle because of his central place in Catholic theology David Oderberg’s ‘Real Essentialism’ probably warrants a reading, or even only because of the strong recent return to Aristotle in metaphysics and essentialism in philosophy of science generally.

      Of substantial form Oderberg writes: It is a principle in the sense of being that from which the identity of the substance is derived – that by virtue of which the substance is what it is.

      “There seems to be no way of describing the unity of things without reference to it – not arrangement of, or relation between, micro particles at some level. Crawford Elder has produced powerful arguments against the very idea that arrangements of micro particles can take the place of real substances. Suppose a substance S is just an S-wise arrangement of micro particles. The reductionist must identify a relation that binds all and only the particles that belong to S – but none is forthcoming.”

      I’m persuaded by my reading of Edward Feser that Aristotle’s hylemorphic dualism would most definitely be retained by St. Thomas. I think he would see the alternative philosophy of nature leads to incoherence, most spectacularly in philosophy of mind where so much attention is focused at the moment. The 17th century scientific revolution proposed a reductionist conception of matter (stripped of non-quantifiable properties colour, taste, smell etc and swept them under the rug of the mind) that seems to logically entail the elimination of belief itself from explanations of the mind. This is a reductio ad absurdum of the mechanical philosophy of nature, and this is synonymous with the modern philosophy we all live under. It can’t be true. (mechanical here just means the telos of natural activity is believed to be extrinsic to it the way a watch has its purpose imparted from the outside to it by a watchmaker). Aristotelians just want dispense with falsity and do serious ontology. They know they are resisted because Aristotle means purposes in nature which means purposes for human nature, which leads to intelligible natural and ultimate ends of human behaviour, a meaning to life and inexorably to God.

      I hope that a few blog posts of Prof. Feser’s or his ‘The Last Superstition’ might persuade you too.

      It might just be co-incidental but presently I was trying to understand this article.

      Animals, Inertia, And Projectile Motion — Or, What is Force?

      It might be more immediately useful to you than me.




  4. Prof. Barr writes:

    “Many Thomists and many atheists alike say that modern science in general (not just neo-Darwinism) makes no use of final and formal causes… I would say that most explanations in modern physics, for example, are much closer to being based on formal causation than material causation. And something very much like final causation is used in science, both physics and neo-Darwinian biology.”

    I don’t know which Thomists he has in mind. I am a Thomist, and what Barr says about science here is pretty much exactly what I say about it in The Last Superstition. In general, what Thomists like myself and Oderberg are critical of is not science, but an anti-Aristotelian philosophy of nature which is often confused with science. Since Barr is happy to affirm the existence of formal and final causes, I take it he would (at least to some extent) agree with us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s