What's the role of a creator in nature?
What's the role of a creator in nature?
By JEFFREY WEISS - Dallas Morning News, Sept. 9, 2005, original

A visit with 2 experts
Controversy begets humor.

And you can't get much more controversial than the debate about evolution versus intelligent design.

Despite the scientific trappings, the argument is really over whether life on Earth was shaped by natural or supernatural forces.

From the covers of newsmagazines to the comments of President Bush, the dispute is all but unavoidable.

So are some of the jokes.

One is the creation of Bobby Henderson, an out-of-work Oregon techie. A few months ago, he got worked up about the Kansas Board of Education, which was considering a requirement that public schools teach intelligent design as science. (ID holds that only a supernatural force maybe God, maybe some other force can explain certain features and varieties of life.)

To Mr. Henderson, that sounded like mixing religion and science. And if proponents of intelligent design can demand that their faith be taught, he reasoned, then why not followers of any belief ?

What if you wanted to teach that the world was created by an invisible Flying Spaghetti Monster?

In a letter to the Kansas board, Mr. Henderson explained that his intelligent designer was undetectable by scientists because every time they tried to observe his handiworks, "the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with his Noodly Appendage."

A few weeks later he put his tongue-in-cheek notion up on a Web site, www.venganza.org. Whereupon the Flying Spaghetti Monster took on a life of its own. Followers call themselves "Pastafarians."

In another humorous barb aimed at intelligent design, The Onion, the online satire magazine, weighed in with a parody about the "Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning" and its alternative theory of gravity: intelligent falling.

The parody notes accurately that there are gaps in what physicists know about gravity: "Even critics of intelligent falling admit that Einstein's ideas about gravity are mathematically irreconcilable with quantum mechanics."

Which means that God or some other supernatural force is the best way to fill those gaps and explain why things fall, the Onion-aires joked. If it's true for evolution, why not for gravity?

The yuks aren't all on one side. Here's a joke culled from a Christian Web site, creationsafaris.com.

One day a group of scientists got together and decided that people had learned so much that they no longer needed God. So they sent a delegation to tell God to move along.

God listened patiently before challenging the scientists to a man-making contest. "And we're going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam."

A scientist said, "Sure, no problem" and bent down to grab a handful of dirt

God looked at him and said, "Oh, no. Get your own dirt."

Ba-dum-bum.

A serious point behind the jokes is this: Both sides face hard questions.

We searched out proponents of evolution and intelligent design and hit them with some of those hard questions. Each is a scientist, a teacher, and a person of faith.

Speaking for the teaching of intelligent design is William Harris, a professor at the University of Missouri medical school in Kansas City. He's a researcher in nutritional biochemistry, a Methodist and managing director of the Intelligent Design Network, an online information site supporting intelligent design.

We asked Dr. Harris: Religion is not supposed to be endorsed in public schools. Is intelligent design unavoidably religious? If not as religious as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, at least as religious as intelligent falling?

His answer, boiled way down: Probably so. (Plus a lot of important nuance.)

In the other corner is Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University, Catholic and the author of Finding Darwin's God.

We asked Dr. Miller: The goal of science is supposed to be to try to explain the Way Things Are and How They Got There. What if intelligent design is true? Can science possibly arrive at something like God as an explanation? Or can science ever find its own dirt?

His answer, boiled way down: Probably not. (Plus a lot of important nuance.)

What follows are edited portions of interviews with the two men, interviews that were conducted mostly via e-mail.

For the opposition

Dr. Miller, you oppose teaching intelligent design as part of a science curriculum. What about the possibility of science's discovering evidence of ID in other words, what if it turns out to be right?

When you ask "what if ID is right?" I take that to mean something very specific namely, that the patterns of natural history, including the appearance and disappearance of millions of species at distinct times in the past, the branching patterns of biochemical relatedness and structural similarities, and the appearance of descent with modification (which is everywhere in the fossil record) are all the result of a supernatural force working outside of nature.

What if that is indeed true? Well, it certainly could be just as any explanation of any historical event could be attributed to supernatural forces. We could have prevailed in the American Revolution not because of determination and force of arms, but because God rigged the battles. The Boston Red Sox could have won the World Series last year because God willed it or at least willed the Yankees to lose in the American League Championship Series!

How can science approach such an issue? It cannot. By definition, the work of such a god, designer, or creator exists outside the natural world. That's reason No. 1 why ID is not science and cannot ever be part of science.

But doesn't that say science can never explain physical reality, if reality includes ID? Isn't that a serious flaw in science?

As a Christian, I believe that God is active in my life and yours, and that God's purpose for our lives is evident in the world around us. However, I never pretend that this theological understanding of nature is scientific. That's where I part company with the ID crowd.

Does that mean a scientist must approach research with the implicit assumption that there is no God, no intelligent designer?

Science most definitely does not decide a priori that there isn't a God. If it did, I'd have to stop being a scientist, or stop going to church every Sunday.

What science does is investigate the way in which the natural world works. To a person of faith, that means science is the best way we have to understand and appreciate the greater glory of the Creator's work a labor he clearly carried out by the process we call evolution.

But doesn't defining science that way in itself reflect a particular religious point of view?

Science can't be the whole story. Why do we exist? Why is there something instead of nothing? That has proven to be an almost intractable question for science to answer. That is a question that clearly leaves room for God.

Is there any evidence that could convince you that intelligent design is true?

The actions of a God who intervened in reality in the direct and obvious ways that ID requires might be detectable. For example, one of the key tenets that most ID supporters hold is that our species, Homo sapiens, did not share a recent common ancestor with the other great apes. They maintain that we are the direct and intentional "creation of a being," and not descended from any other organism.

Unfortunately for ID, a close look at genomes tells exactly the story that evolution predicted. Our genes look like slightly modified versions of our primate relatives.

Is it possible for scientists to produce evidence that would convince ID supporters that they're wrong?

[Not those who say that an intelligent designer God's hand is needed to confer a moral purpose on humanity.] A person who believes that can never be convinced that evolution is true. If you have laid down the gauntlet and said, "For God to be true, evolution must be false," then any argument or person in favor of evolution must be anti-God.

The hand of ... someone

Dr. Harris, for all the claims your side makes about intelligent design being science, isn't it also religion?

It's consistent with a theistic explanation but does not demand that any particular godhead be credited with that activity.

But you're talking about an entity who stands outside the limits of time and space with the power to affect the physical world. Isn't that a god by most definitions?

Yes. Is that impossible?

Science should be seeking the truth about the natural world regardless of the implications. Why do the implications [that God may be responsible for creation] stop something from being scientifically valid?

But how would a public school teacher legally present that point of view in science class? Even if the teacher didn't specify who did the designing, wouldn't students ask?

Why can't teachers say, "We don't know," and leave it at that? Why is that such an awful outcome?

Proponents of intelligent design claim there are biological systems that are just too complex and intraconnected to have developed on their own. But scientists every day say they find better explanations for those kinds of mysteries. Doesn't that constantly narrow the "gaps" left for God?

It's OK to hope to someday fill every gap with a natural cause, but it's faith to claim that all gaps will be filled. And it's wrong to teach that a natural explanation will be found when at present there is none.

If a biologist believes in intelligent design, how should she decide which questions are worth researching and which are a waste of time, only explainable by ID?

Defining those limits is the scientific challenge. Darwin was right that there is plasticity within species, yet everyone knows that no amount of artificial breeding will convert a dog into a cat. There is a wall, a limit. So where is that wall? That's a very good scientific question that can be explored and is being explored.

Proponents of evolution say they have examples of how it worked in the past and even on a small level how it's working now. Can you point to comparable evidence that intelligent design is working today?

Is there evidence that a supernatural agent is at work in the world today, manipulating stuff? That's obviously a question that we'll not settle here.

But there is a growing literature exploring the effects of nonmaterial forces. I published a study on the effects of remote, blind intercessory prayer on heart patients. So, yes, there is some evidence.

But the question misses the point. Can any scientist rule out the possibility that the world came to be and life was created by an intelligent agent manipulating matter and energy? No. Not possible.

What makes the Darwinian side hard for you to buy?

The central issue is the guided-unguided controversy. Can't have it both ways. There is a deep disconnect between an accidental, unplanned, unintended universe/life, and the world that most theists conceive.

Is there an argument that you hope would convince the other side?

Nobody is asking anyone to reach a conclusion [that intelligent design is right]. Just allow that design is a reasonable explanation if that's the case.

The hysteria on the evolutionist side is such that the most simple, reasonable, logical inference is verboten. Philosophy drives this reaction, not dispassionate searching for truth.

E-mail jweiss@dallasnews.com