Lehigh University
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Intelligent design sparks intellectual discussion

More than 200 people turned Room 480 of Maginnes Hall into a makeshift sardine can Wednesday to hear six members of the Lehigh faculty discuss the topic of intelligent design at a Chaplain’s Forum.

The 60 seats in the classroom were filled by 3:45 p.m. By the time the discussion began at 4:20 p.m., more than twice that number of people were sitting on the floor or standing along walls.

At the last minute, the panelists moved their chairs back to make space for two more rows of people to sit on the floor. Outside the classroom’s two entrances, dozens of people tried to listen from hallways and dozens more left.

The forum, titled “Intelligent Design: What does it mean for science? For religion?,” featured three professors of biological sciences—Michael Behe, Lynne Cassimeris and Tamra Mendelson—along with Michael Raposa and Lloyd Steffen, professors of religion studies, and Steven Goldman, professor of philosophy.

A growing national controversy

The forum was held against a background of growing national controversy over intelligent design (ID). Religious and other groups are lobbying public schools in a dozen states to discuss intelligent design (ID) on an equal footing with evolution when they teach students about the origin of life. President Bush voiced his support of those efforts in an interview last month with reporters.

ID has been described as a theory that holds that life is too complex to have developed through evolution, suggesting that a higher power played a role in the development of life. The movement is not monolithic, as ID advocates accept varying degrees of Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection, including a common ancestor to all living systems.

The chief proponent for intelligent design at Lehigh is Behe, who has drawn international acclaim and criticism for his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.”

In his book, Behe introduced the concept of the irreducibly complex biological system, which he explains as a “single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.”

At Wednesday’s forum, Behe said of intelligent design: “I see it not as an argument for the existence of a creator, not as a search for the meaning of life, but as a humdrum [scientific] explanation for the complexity of life. Intelligent design is not a mystical decision; it is a concrete decision.”

Behe said that many scientists, including the renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, agree with the proposition that the appearance of design is “overwhelming” in biology. The difference between himself and his detractors, he said, “is that I do not see [Darwin’s theory of] natural selection as the explanation for design as Richard Dawkins does.”

Cassimeris: “Science is falsifiable”

Cassimeris, an expert in cell biology, countered Behe by saying that intelligent design “is not science. It invokes a supernatural, not a natural force. Intelligent design is not a science. It’s that simple—for me. As a scientist, I think we can explain things by natural law and the material world.

“Intelligent design does nothing for me as a scientist. It doesn’t provide me with any insight; it doesn’t tell me anything new about how cells work. It doesn’t give me a new approach to a problem.”

Some ID supporters promote design as an alternative to evolution and others offer it as the “driving force” behind evolution, Cassimeris said, but either proposition is unacceptable to science.

“Some supporters of ID state that, for them, the designer is God. [But] science is falsifiable. If I follow that chain of reasoning, that means that as a cell biologist I could conceivably … do an experiment that disproves God. That’s not why I went to graduate school. That’s not why I do experiments in the lab.”

By contrast, Cassimeris said, Darwin’s theory of natural selection has proven fruitful for scientists doing laboratory experiments, especially for those attempting to develop new medicines and drug therapies.

The theory of the survival of the fittest, Cassimeris said, offers insights into the speed at which cancer cells divide and form tumors and the manner in which they mutate. And, because of the interrelatedness of all species emanating from a common ancestral cell 1.3 billion years ago, she said, “scientists can find out how human cells work by studying cells from other organisms, including yeast cells. We find the same proteins doing the same things in different systems.”

Mendelson: “Science must restrict itself to the material world”

Mendelson lauded Behe for making a “real contribution by identifying some really interesting gaps in our knowledge of evolutionary processes, in particular, evolution of complex biochemical structures.”

But she said that to propose ID as an alternative hypothesis to natural selection is “not scientific.

“To criticize Darwin, to criticize evolutionary theory—that’s great. We can design experiments to test hypotheses and identify gaps in our knowledge of evolutionary processes. But ID is not the flip side of evolution. If we disprove evolutionary theory, that does not prove ID.

“Science must restrict itself to the material world.”

Goldman: “A fallacy in reasoning”

The other panelists commented from more philosophical perspectives.

Goldman, who is the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, said ID represents “a reasonable hypothesis for understanding the meaning of human life,” a point on which many “extremely intelligent people” have concurred in the past 2,500 years.

“But the question is this: Is intelligent design a reasonable hypothesis in the context of science? That changes things very substantially. One thing ID smacks of is a fallacy in reasoning [called] the argument from ignorance, which runs like this: X cannot explain y; therefore, x is false and z is true.

“One must be extraordinarily careful of that, not just because of the gap between ‘X is false, therefore, z is true,’ but also because the history of science shows that scientific theories [including Darwin’s theory of natural selection] themselves evolve.”

Goldman agreed with Cassimeris that ID “seems to be a vacuous hypothesis because it doesn’t change the way that you would do your research. If you had access to the designer, that might make a difference in how you do your research.”

Intelligent design, Goldman continued, “violates the 900-year-old principle of science that one must not invoke supranatural causes to explain natural phenomena. Scientists write the rules of science, and those rules have been extraordinarily fertile over the last 300 to 400 years.”

Raposa: “The problem of evil”

Raposa, who is the E.W. Fairchild Professor of American Studies, traced the origins of the modern ID movement to 18th and 19th century theologians who campaigned to have their discipline considered as a science “with its own compelling data,” including miracles and the design of nature.

Little or no scientific burden of proof was placed upon these theologians, Raposa said, even though philosophers had already criticized the “appeal to design” by arguing that it was impossible to interview the God or gods who had created the universe and by pointing out that the natural world was both beautiful and brutal.

Modern efforts to include ID as a science, Raposa said, “run headfirst into the problem of evil. No theology, no monotheistic theology, can do an end run around this. People who already believe in God might nourish their faith by observing the beauty and complexity in the natural world; this seems to me to be completely rational. But like Job, they have to wrestle with the problem of evil.”

Theists “need not posit supernatural causes in competition with natural causes,” Raposa said. It is possible, he added, to believe as St. Augustine did that a miracle need not be regarded as a violation of God’s natural order while still embracing—as do many educated Christians, Jews and Muslims—the sophisticated explanations of nature put forth by scientists in the past few centuries.

Steffen: An “incredibly un-Protestant” approach

Steffen, who organized the forum as university chaplain, said ID proponents’ appeal to the “orderliness” of nature is a “questionable assumption” because not all people would accept the judgment that nature is orderly.

Intelligent design confuses faith and science, said Steffen, “by making faith dependent on science and on an understanding of the natural world.

“As a Protestant Christian, I see that approach as incredibly un-Protestant. Protestantism historically has rejected any appeal to nature as evidence for God; it believes that only through faith or Scripture can people know God. One of the most surprising things about intelligent design is that it is embraced largely by Christians in total contradiction to Protestant history and Protestant thought.”

Behe: “Extra-scientific implications”

Behe, who spoke last, countered the arguments of other panelists by saying that ID advocates were not alone in invoking, whether explicitly or implicitly, supernatural causes to explain natural phenomena.

“Any scientific theory that purports to say where we came from or where the universe came from has extra-scientific implications,” he says.

“Scientists cannot factor any theological concerns into their theory building. We have to build our theories without regard to whatever extra-scientific implications they may have. We should instead allow philosophers and theologians to worry about the extra-scientific implications of our work … and support the model that best explains the data.”

The controversy over ID, Behe said, can be likened to the opposition voiced by some physicists in the 20th century to the Big Bang Theory. Several scientists, he said, went so far as to posit philosophical and even theological arguments against the Big Bang.

“To my mind, intelligent design is the same thing. It is a straightforward, simple conclusion based on what everyone sees,” Behe said. “If science avoids obvious ideas based on [extra-scientific] considerations, then it’s going to be in a heap of trouble.”

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Thursday, September 15, 2005

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