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The Mind of God (Part Five of my reply to Professor Tkacz)

The Helix Nebula, also known as the "Eye of God."

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four
Part One (longer version)

This post is my last post in reply to Professor Tkacz. It is intended to be an exploration of the Mind of God, and it will be divided into two parts.

In the first part, I shall attempt to show that Intelligent Design theory is necessary, not only in order to explain what it means to say that God is intelligent, but also in order to establish that God is indeed intelligent.

In the second part, I shall identify what I believe to be the real reason why some Christians have a visceral dislike of Intelligent Design: it clashes with their idea of what is beautiful. ID opponents and ID opponents are divided by mutually incompatible aesthetics: "Your 'beautiful' is my 'ugly.'" I conclude by suggesting that ID opponents need to broaden their concept of beauty.


It is easy to show that the universe is contingent, and that whatever explains its existence cannot be something composed of parts, or possessing quantitative attributes, for then it too would be contingent. Thus we are led to a Necessary Being. But we still haven't shown that the Necessary Being must be intelligent. And a Necessary Being that wasn't intelligent, wouldn't deserve to be called "God."

The appeal to the order and harmony of the cosmos

Professor Tkacz attempts to remedy this defect in the revised version of his talk to the Gonzaga Socratic Club. However, I have to say that his argument would not convince an atheistic Darwinist. He writes:

Beginning with the insights of Aquinas, Thomists can show that the order and design evident in nature is precisely that which makes natural science possible ... Without order and design in nature, then, there cannot be natural science. So, the followers of Darwin who argue that evolutionary theory removes all need for positing a design in nature are inconsistent.

But atheistic Darwinists don't deny the existence of design in Nature, Professor. A design is just an intelligible pattern, and there are patterns a-plenty out there. What they deny is the existence of a Designer, or putting it more precisely, an Intelligence that created the cosmos, with all its various patterns.

I notice too that Professor Tkacz uses the terms "order" and "design" inter-changeably. He would be well-advised to read Dr. Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell to understand the distinctions that ID proponents draw between order and complexity. Some patterns are a lot more interesting than others. A salt crystal is highly ordered, but not very complex; the pattern is a simple one. By contrast, the pattern in DNA is not a regular, repeating pattern, but it exhibits a high degree of specified complexity, because it performs a lot of very specific tasks in the cell. If I had to choose which to use as an argument for God's intelligence when addressing a skeptical audience, I'd pick DNA, every time.

What about the Laws of Nature?

"But surely the remarkable thing about the cosmos is that there are any laws of nature at all!" Professor Tkacz might respond. "A simple example ought to be enough, even if it's just the chemistry of sodium chloride." I'll answer that with a simple question: what is a law of nature, anyway? Ever since Galileo, scientists have conceived laws of nature as mathematical descriptions of the way the cosmos works. And it is indeed a remarkable thing that some mathematical statements - including some beautiful equations that tax the brains of our best scientists -seem to apply to Nature at all times and places. The beauty of these laws suggests that "the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a machine," as the astronomer Sir James Jeans put it in The Mysterious Universe (1938, Pelican Books, London; reprint of the second edition of 1931). If Sir James Jeans is right, then the world is the creation of a Master Mathematician.

But let me ask Professor Tkacz: what if Nature wasn't mathematical? What if there were no mathematical equations that held at all times and everywhere? What if all laws were local? Worse yet, what if there were no mathematical equations describing natural changes at all? What if we could only formulate qualitative descriptions of natural change, like "Some leaves turn red in autumn," "Most people will need spectacles before they get old," and "All men are mortal"? And now ask yourself: supposing that an Intelligent Creator exists, does Aristotelian-Thomism offer any reason why we should expect such a Deity to make a universe with any mathematical laws at all, let alone laws that apply everywhere in space and time, let alone laws that human beings are capable of understanding (some of them, anyway)? As far as I can tell, the answer is: no. Aristotelian-Thomism requires the universe to be intelligible, but not elegant from a mathematician's or a physicist's perspective. However, I really don't think any modern atheist would be terribly impressed by an argument that claimed to derive the conclusion, "There is an Intelligent Creator of the cosmos," from the premise, "Leaves turn red in autumn." The cosmos needs to be intelligible in a much deeper, richer sense than that, if we are to defeat modern atheists in philosophical argument.

What's unusual about ID theology - and yes, I will call it that - is that it is tied to a specific conception of the Deity, as a Being Who not only understands but Who wants to be understood by His creatures, insofar as they are able to do so. God knew that human beings are an inquisitive bunch, inclined to question everything, so He deliberately made the cosmos to make it look to us like the work of a Creative Intellect. He made it with laws that He knew our scientists would eventually uncover, and He made these laws in such a way that scientists would recognize the Intelligence that thought them up. On such an account, we should expect the world to be as science-friendly as possible. Now that's a rich, robust definition of intelligibility, that we can all sink our teeth into.

Let me give a couple of examples of predictions that I would make, using this definition of intelligibility. First, I would expect the laws of Nature to cohere in the most beautiful possible way, if there should be one. I am therefore intrigued by Dr. Garrett Lisi's Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything, which purports to describe all of the elementary particles and forces in the Standard Model of physics, as parts of a uniquely beautiful mathematical structure known as E8 - a 248-dimensional structure considered by many mathematicians to be the most beautiful structure in mathematics. In order to qualify as a genuine Theory Of Everything, Lisi's model must eventually predict the exact number of fundamental particles, all of their properties, masses, forces between them, the nature of space-time, and the cosmological constant. Lisi's theory is nowhere near being fully formulated at the present time, but he has made predictions that could be scientifically tested by the Large Hadron Collider experiment which is currently underway in Switzerland.

E8 is surprising not only for its beauty but also for the fact that it is comprehensible by the human mind, but only just. According to a recent article by Roger Highfield, it took a team of eighteen mathematicians from America and Europe four years (and a lot of computing power) to formulate a complete a complete description of the structure of E8. If the description were written out on paper, it would cover an area the size of Manhattan. A structure like this sound like the sort of challenge that a science-friendly God might set for His human creatures.

A second prediction that I'd make, using the definition of intelligibility put forward above, is that one would expect to find a record of the history of the cosmos, including the times of God's acts of "intervention" (to use Professor Tkacz's phrase) in the cosmos. I have already argued, in "Smoking Gun" number 12 of Part One, that I would expect to find such information for the cosmos in the cosmic microwave background radiation filling the universe. I believe that its fluctuations may contain some kind of code specifying the large-scale structure of the cosmos.

As for God's "acts of intervention" on Earth, I would expect that the genome of each kind of organism should contain enough information to allow scientists to reconstruct the organism's entire history sequentially, from the first primordial cell to the present day - including sudden "leaps" in specified complexity during the organism's history, which unintelligent natural causes could not possibly account for. To some readers, this proposal might sound ridiculously far-fetched; but from my perspective as an Intelligent Design proponent, it seems eminently reasonable. After all, it was God Who gave us our sense of scientific curiosity, and He did not mean to frustrate human beings' quest for knowledge. Human scientists are very curious to know "what happened when" during the history of life on Earth, so it is reasonable to suppose that God has placed the answer somewhere on Earth. If you believe that this question has a scientifically discoverable answer, then the genome is the logical place to look. As yet the biological function of much of the genome remains unknown. From a theological standpoint, it is reasonable to suppose that each organism's genome might contains a coded representation of the organism's biological history over time. If this representation were coded, it would qualify as language, and hence, according to Aquinas' "Smoking Gun" number 12 (discussed in Part One), it would point unambiguously to an Intelligent Designer of life on Earth.

A transcendental argument for God's intelligence?

Since I wish to be fair to Professor Tkacz, I'll try to recast his argument for God's intelligence in a more sympathetic light. It seems that he is implicitly appealing to a "transcendental" argument for God's intelligence: if the cosmos as a whole is systematically intelligible, then it requires an Intelligent Being to ground its intelligibility. For only an Intelligent Creator could be guaranteed to make the cosmos intelligible. Bernard Lonergan seems to have argued along these lines (if Reality is intelligible then God exists), and I've done the same myself on this Website, many times. The problem is that most sophisticated modern atheists reject the first premise: they deny that reality is completely intelligible. They suggest that reality is only intelligible at certain scales of magnitude, and that its intelligibility breaks down at the level of the very large and the very small - which is why physics seems to have hit a brick wall in its attempts to develop a Theory of Everything that unifies all these different levels. A complete theory of everything will forever elude us, they say, because there isn't one. What's more, they add, even if there were one, we wouldn't be able to understand it anyway, because of the cognitive limitations of our glorified monkey brains. All scientific models rest on some underlying metaphor, and there's no reason to think that a monkey brain should be able to dream up adequate metaphors to describe everything out there in the cosmos. The universe may well be "queerer than we can imagine," as J.B.S. Haldane put it. Right now, physicists are exploring string theory, but what if everything is composed not of strings, but of some other kinds of entities that we can't even picture?

Additionally, the atheists I've debated online often fall back on some version of anti-realism: they suggest that our scientific theories do not really describe the way the world is. (Does that include neo-Darwinian evolution, I wonder?) Instead, they just happen to work well for making predictions. And when you consider that there are currently no less than a dozen interpretations of quantum mechanics, not counting the minority interpretations, it's hard not to concede that they may have a point, at least at certain scales of reality.

When I ask these atheists, "Well then, how do you know your scientific experiments will work the next time you try them?" they answer, "Honestly, we don't. What we can say is that they've worked many times before, so it's reasonable to expect that they'll work next time we perform them." (Usually an appeal to Bayesian probabilistic logic follows, which I have to say I find unconvincing, as it merely shows that the hypothesis that the laws of Nature will always hold is more probable than any particular alternative hypothesis that the laws will fail - but this overlooks the fact that there is an infinite number of crazy alternatives to a universe with unchanging laws.) However, the point I wanted to make is that it's not easy to defend the transcendental argument for God's intelligence against a smart skeptic. In short: the transcendental argument for God's intelligence only works on people who are committed to believing that science will continue to progress indefinitely in its quest to understand the cosmos, without hitting any brick walls. But that's a belief that only a religious person would be likely to have, in the first place - and in particular, someone receptive to Intelligent Design.

The way I see it, the best way to bolster the transcendental argument is for scientists to develop a successful "Theory of everything" which finally proves that the universe is comprehensible, after all. Should Garrett Lisi's Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything prove to be correct in its claim that the fundamental particles and forces of Nature can be mapped onto the most beautiful structure in mathematics (namely E8), it would provide dramatic confirmation of the metaphysical postulate that the universe is indeed intelligible at all levels of reality, from the very large to the very small.

Why Aquinas' arguments for God's intelligence are incomplete

(1) Intelligence requires an understanding of a thing's form as well as its ends

St. Thomas Aquinas put forward several sophisticated Aristotelian arguments for God's intelligence in his Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1 chapter 44 (That God Is Intelligent), which "flesh out" the brief argument given in his famous Fifth Way. However, I have to say that Aquinas' arguments are suasive rather than demonstrative, and they would probably not convince a modern-day skeptic. Here's why.

Intelligence requires concepts. You can't be said to understand something unless you have a concept of it. And to have a concept of a natural entity, you need to know its form, and not just its ends.

The concept of a natural entity cannot be adequately characterized in terms of that entity's ends alone. (That would be like trying to define a flower as something that grows and is nourished by sunlight, water and minerals: it still doesn't tell us what a flower is.) The entity's form also has to be specified; without this, there can be no concept of an entity. (For instance: a flower is something that has roots, a stem, leaves and petals.) Hence in order to show that God, the Necessary Being, is intelligent, it is not enough to demonstrate that He assigns ends to natural entities. We also need to show that He is acquainted with the forms of these entities.

For this reason, I do not think that Aquinas' argument for God's intelligence in his Summa Contra Gentiles Book I, chapter 44, paragraph 7, actually demonstrates that God is intelligent. In this passage, Aquinas argues that each kind of natural entity has "ends" (i.e. built-in tendencies towards future states), but that things are incapable of setting ends for themselves, as they lack the concept of what an end is; hence, there must be a Being who assigns ends for these things - namely, "the author of nature, ... who gives being to all things and is through Himself the necessary being." Aquinas then argues that being able to assign "ends" for each kind of thing presupposes that one has a conception of that thing. But this argument overlooks form. We have to demonstrate that the Necessary Being is acquainted with the forms of these things, before concluding that this Being is intelligent.

The same goes for Aquinas' argument from the order and harmony of the cosmos, in Summa Contra Gentiles Book I chapter 13, paragraph 35, where he puts forward various arguments for God's existence:

Damascene proposes another argument for the same conclusion taken from the government of the world [De fide orthodoxa I, 3]. Averroes likewise hints at it [In II Physicorum]. The argument runs thus. Contrary and discordant things cannot, always or for the most part, be parts of one order except under someone's government, which enables all and each to tend to a definite end. But in the world we find that things of diverse natures come together under one order, and this not rarely or by chance, but always or for the most part. There must therefore be some being by whose providence the world is governed. This we call God.

But God cannot govern the cosmos unless He understands it. And He cannot understand it unless He has concepts, giving Him a perfect knowledge of the forms of the various kinds of things it contains. Without a knowledge of these forms, He would not be able to make them part of one harmonious cosmic order. Ends alone - even ends pertaining to the universe as a whole, such as the harmony of the cosmos - are insufficient to characterize God's intelligence as such.

So my question is: is there a specific feature of the cosmos that would lead us to believe that God has concepts which include the form as well as the ends of the various kinds of entities in the cosmos? I'll return to this question below.

(2) "Receiving" or "grasping" an abstract form is not the same as understanding it

Another key feature of concepts is that they are inherently normative. To entertain a concept of a certain kind of thing is to follow a rule which defines how we should think about that kind of thing. None of the commonly used spatial metaphors for intelligence can capture the act of following a rule.

Thus we cannot define intelligence in terms of an ability to "receive" abstract, universal forms, or to "contain" these forms, or to be in "immediate contact" with these forms, or to "extract" these forms, or to "grasp" these forms. Receiving, containing, touching, extracting and grasping are not rule-following activities as such. They are spatial metaphors for intelligence, but they do not capture its very essence.

In his Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1 chapter 44, paragraph 5, Aquinas argues that since God the Prime Mover is Pure Act, without any admixture of matter, the only forms He can receive are forms which are universal (i.e. abstracted from matter) - which makes them concepts, which means that God must be intelligent. I have to say that I don't think this argument works, if it is meant to be a demonstrative argument. For the act of understanding a concept cannot simply be defined as the "receiving" of a form - even a universal one. Most contemporary philosophers would reject such a "definition" as merely stipulative, and would probably retort, "Why?"

(3) Intelligence cannot be adequately characterized without language

What I am proposing in this post is that the act of understanding a natural entity can only be characterized by the ability to specify the concept of that entity, in language. This specification has to include a complete description of its "whatness" (or substantial form), as well as its built-in "ends" (finality). Not for nothing do we say: "In the beginning was the Word" (John 1:1).

Aquinas' arguments for God's intelligence in his Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1 chapter 44, paragraph 5 do not establish that God is capable of specifying the concepts of natural entities in language; hence they fail to conclusively demonstrate that God is intelligent. As such, they are incomplete.

Interestingly, though, there is a passage in Aquinas where he seems to suggest that language is an effect peculiar to intelligent beings, as I showed when I cited his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, chapter 104, paragraph 3 (That the Works of Magicians Are Not Solely Due To The Influence Of Celestial Bodies), in "Smoking Gun" number 12 of Part One of my response to Professor Tkacz. In this passage, St. Thomas writes that "speech is itself an act peculiar to a rational nature," and his subsequent remarks on the ability to "reason discursively about various matters" show that by speech, he means language (and not the mere production of speech sounds).

How Intelligent Design complements Aquinas' arguments

The beauty of Intelligent Design, in my opinion, is that it complements Aquinas' arguments, by appealing to empirical phenomena which can only be produced by being specified in some sort of language. If each cell in an organism can be accurately described as running a set of programs, written in various programming languages, then since language is a "signature trait" of intelligent beings, it follows that these phenomena obviously require an Intelligent Being to produce them.

This is the strong version of Intelligent Design espoused by Dr. Don Johnson, who has both a Ph.D. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in computer and information sciences. On April 8, 2010, Dr. Johnson gave a presentation entitled Bioinformatics: The Information in Life for the University of North Carolina Wilmington chapter of the Association for Computer Machinery. Dr. Johnson's presentation is now on-line here. Both the talk and accompanying handout notes can be accessed from Dr. Johnson's Web page. Dr. Johnson spent 20 years teaching in universities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Europe. Here's an excerpt from his presentation blurb:

Each cell of an organism has millions of interacting computers reading and processing digital information using algorithmic digital programs and digital codes to communicate and translate information.

I'd like to quote a brief excerpt from Dr. Johnson's presentation:

"Somehow we have a genetic operating system that is ubiquitous. All known life-forms have the same genetic code. They all have the same protein manufacturing facilities in the ribosomes. They all use the same types of techniques. So something is pre-existing, and the particular genome is the set of programs in the DNA for any particular organism. So the genome is not the DNA, and the DNA is not the program. The DNA is simply a storage device. The genome is the program that's stored in the storage device, and that depends on the particular organism we're talking about."

It is worth repeating Dr. Johnson's point that DNA itself is not a program. To describe it as one is an inaccurate oversimplification, which ignores the advances in cell biology that have taken place in the last few decades. Neither would it be accurate to say that the suite of programs running within the cell are simply written on its DNA. Instead, DNA could be better described as a data storage device, used by the programs running the cell.

What is important, however, is that we can legitimately speak of a network of regulatory programs existing within the cell, which DNA enables and of which DNA forms a vital part.

On a slide entitled "Information Systems In Life," Dr. Johnson points out that:

To sum up: the use of the word "program" to describe the workings of the cell is scientifically respectable. It is not just a figure of speech. It is literal. Additionally, the various programs running within the cell constitute a paradigm of excellent programming: no human engineer is currently capable of designing programs for building and maintaining an organism that work with anything like the same degree of efficiency as the programs running an E. coli cell, let alone a cell in the body of a human being.

The standard version of Intelligent Design

Alternatively, on the standard version of Intelligent Design, we can formulate a simpler and more modest argument for a Designer. It is universally agreed that the DNA of the cell contains a bona fide digital code, which exhibits a very high degree of specified complexity. This code contains the information needed to make a living thing of a certain kind - say, a giraffe. Putting it in Thomistic terms, the digital code in the cell's DNA is a specification of how to make an organism's form, written in a language we can all understand: digital code.

Note: I am not advocating a reductionist account of form here. In particular, I am not saying that an organism's form is nothing more than the specifications in its DNA. What I am saying is that the DNA specifies how to make the organism's form. Even this is not the whole story, however: scientists now realize that DNA alone is not enough: the three-dimensional information required for the embryo's formation is stored in the global arrangement of the mother's egg: in its cytoskeleton, membranes, and other structures. This information determines the global form of the embryo, and adult, to come.

So how does digital code get us to an Intelligent Designer? Whereas the strong ID argument states that this digital code is written in a programming language which can only come from a Master Programmer, the standard Intelligent Design argument focuses instead on the code's high degree of specificity, and asserts that the only cause which is known to be adequate for producing this degree of specified complexity is intelligent agency. As Dr. Stephen Meyer, author of "Signature in the Cell," put it in a recent interview with Biola magazine (Summer 2010):

We now know that what runs the show in biology is what we call digital information or digital code. This was first discovered by [James] Watson and [Francis] Crick. In 1957, Crick had an insight which he called "The Sequence Hypothesis," and it was the idea that along the spine of the DNA molecule there were four chemicals that functioned just like alphabetic characters in a written language or digital characters in a machine code. The DNA molecule is literally encoding information into alphabetic or digital form. And that's a hugely significant discovery, because what we know from experience is that information always comes from an intelligence, whether we're talking about hieroglyphic inscription or a paragraph in a book or a headline in a newspaper. If we trace information back to its source, we always come to a mind, not a material process. So the discovery that DNA codes information in a digital form points decisively back to a prior intelligence. That's the main argument of the book.

On either the strong or the standard version of ID, then, we are led inexorably to an Intelligent Designer. Thus ID provides a via manifestor for modern skeptics, and helps us reason our way towards the existence of an Intelligent Designer of life and the cosmos, because it argues from specific effects which are peculiar to intelligent beings, and which intrinsically require concepts in order to produce them.

And that's as far as ID alone can take us. But when Intelligent Design is further buttressed by Aquinas' arguments, which show that the Designer of the cosmos must also be transcendent and unbounded, then we have a very powerful argument for the existence of God, and we have a much clearer image of what the Mind of God is like.

Intelligent Design arguments also supplement Aquinas' Five Ways by offering a much clearer definition of what intelligence is. On the standard version of Intelligent Design, intelligence is anything which can generate meaningful information specifying an organism's form (or alternatively, how to make that form), on a systematic basis. On the stronger version of ID, intelligence can be defined as anything which is able to output meaningful language.


I would like to conclude by suggesting that the real reason why some people (including many Christians) dislike ID is an aesthetic one. Their notion of beauty is overly influenced by mathematics: they define beauty as a delicate and interesting balance between variety (or plenitude) and simplicity (or economy). (A recent post by the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser exemplifies this kind of thinking; as he correctly points out, it goes back to Leibniz and beyond.) Both qualities are needed: a very simple world containing just one object would be simple but intolerably boring, while a world lacking simple laws would appear messy and mathematically inelegant. Thus a beautiful world should contain many different kinds of things, governed by just a few underlying laws or principles. The variety of elements in the periodic table is a good example: it is aesthetically pleasing, because they can all be explained in terms of just a few underlying principles: the laws of physics and chemistry, whose underlying mathematical simplicity is evident in their regularity, symmetry and order. Many people would like to think that living things possess the same kind of beauty: an ideal balance between variety and underlying simplicity. Because the underlying laws are mathematically simple in this model of beauty, these people reason that the act of generating things that possess the attribute of beauty should be a simple one. Neo-Darwinism appeals to them as a scientific theory, because it purports to account for the variety of living things we see today, on the basis of a few simple underlying principles (natural selection acting on variation arising stochastically, without any foresight of long-term goals).

But living things aren't like the periodic table. The phenomenon that characterizes them is not order but complexity - and complexity of a particular kind, at that. The beauty you see in a living cell is more like the beauty of a story than the beauty of crystals, which are highly ordered but still not very interesting, even when you contemplate them in all their variety. Stories have a much richer kind of beauty: they have parts (e.g. a beginning, a middle and an end; or the chapters in a novel), and these parts have to be ordered in a sequence specified by the author. The idea of writing a mathematical program that can generate a meaningful story from a "word bank" is comically absurd. Even a master programmer could not do that, unless he/she "cheated" and pre-specified the story (or a data bank of stories) in the program itself. But that wouldn't save any effort, would it? And one cannot even imagine a simple procedure for writing a story. Stories are inherently complex; so the notion that they could be generated by a single, simple act makes no sense. The same goes for living things. They cannot be produced by a single, simple act. And just as one story cannot be changed step-by-step into another while still remaining a coherent story, so too, it is impossible for one type of living thing to change into another as a result of a step-by-step process, while remaining a viable organism.

Stories are not like mathematical formulas; and yet, undoubtedly they are still beautiful. They require a lot of work to produce. They are not simple, regular or symmetrical; they have to be specified in considerable detail. Who are we to deny God the privilege of producing life in this way, if He so wishes? The universe is governed by His conception of beauty, not ours, and if it contained nothing but mathematically elegant forms, it would be a boring, sterile place indeed. Crystals are pretty; but life is much richer and more interesting than any crystal. Life cannot be generated with the aid of a few simple rules. It needs to be planned and designed very carefully, in a very "hands-on" fashion. In order to facilitate this, God needs a universe which is ontologically "open" to manipulation by Him whenever He sees fit, rather than a closed, autonomous universe. St. Thomas Aquinas was aware that many living things could not be naturally generated, and had he known what we know today about living things, he'd be the first to affirm that each and every kind of living thing must have been individually designed by God.

The beauty found in living things, then, cannot be defined as a balance between plenitude and economy, as Leibniz thought. It is a different kind of beauty, like that of a story. That is why life needs to be intelligently designed.

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four
Part One (longer version)