Debate rages over design, and designer, of the universe

Like a good many people, I'd dismissed intelligent design as nothing more than biblical creationism trying to slip into our children's classrooms sporting an Einstein mustache and wig ? a plot cooked up by some wily bunch harboring an ulterior motive.

How mortified I was to admit that to myself. And I'm ashamed to confess it publicly.

I was, though, in the best of company. In December, Pat Morrison, who writes opinions for the Los Angeles Times, described intelligent design as a "not-so-extreme makeover" of creationism, spiffed up by its adherents in order to "contrive the controversy" by which they could then demand it be taught in public schools.

Other writers cleverly depicted it as the "evolution of creationism."

I hadn't read a single book or even a short paper by an intelligent design scientist or theorist. I simply rejected their claims without bothering to find out what they were.

As for scholars and researchers that are highly educated and trained in fields like biology, astrophysics or the philosophy of science, I'd never given them a thought.

Color me lazy or stupid, or both. But I snapped out of it. For that I can thank Jeff Ludington ? pastor for Emerge, the college and young adult ministry at Christ Presbyterian Church ? and a man named J.P. Moreland. In February, Ludington invited me to listen while Moreland spoke to his congregation about intelligent design.

A philosopher and a theologian, Moreland is the author of a book (among scads of others) called "Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation." He's soft-spoken, well spoken and smart, with a quiver full of graduate degrees.

Quite pleasantly, his lecture beguiled me to do what I should have done long before. I began reading ? William A. Dembski, Steve C. Meyer, Michael Behe, Guillermo Gonzales ? the masterminds of intelligent design. I spent hours listening to some of them speak and debate.

By e-mail, I wrote to Jay W. Richards, vice president of the Discovery Institute, a senior fellow at its Center for Science and Culture and author of "The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery." He replied with a good deal of patience and clarity.

What about the contention expressed by Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts that science and faith are "diametric opposites" and intelligent design the product of "unbecoming neediness ? to dress religion up as science"?

What about the idea put forth by Crispin Sartwell, a political science professor at Dickinson College, that intelligent design proponents "have religious motivations for trying to insert it in the curriculum"? Sartwell claims to see "the clash between evolution and intelligent design" as "the most profound intellectual dilemma in the West: the disagreement between reason and faith, Athens and Jerusalem, science and Scripture."

What about what U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III wrote in his decision on the Dover, Pa., case that intelligent design "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents" and therefore is not science?

Read any of the primary sources on intelligent design and you'll find not a theological argument but an argument "for design based on publicly available empirical evidence from nature," Richards replied. The central claims of the idea are these: "The effects of intelligent agency are ? at least sometimes ? empirically detectable and nature exhibits just such effects," for example, information in DNA and the fine-tuning of the physical constants.

Its proponents don't ground their arguments on private religious experience or on biblical texts. It's not creationism in a science costume.

Dembski simply puts it like this: "Intelligent design is the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the result of intelligence." Whatever that intelligence may be.

Some who embrace intelligent design do believe that intelligence is God, even the God of the Bible. But when they do that, they've moved beyond science. Detecting design in the universe is one thing, they'll tell you. Identifying the designer is another.

Intelligent design doesn't stipulate any particular theological belief. Among its proponents there are known to be Hindus, Jews, Muslims and agnostics.

In some ways, the idea isn't all so new. Albert Einstein believed there had to be an intelligence behind the universe. In 1897, Oxford scholar F.C.S. Schiller wrote that it would never be possible "to rule out the supposition that the process of evolution may be guided by an intelligent being."

Even Socrates and Plato made arguments for a universe by design.

In any case, Richards says, "motive mongering is a double-edged sword." One only has to read evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, he suggests, "to discover the anti-religious motivations of some Darwinists."

Arguments, though, proceed by way of reasoning from evidence to conclusion. Motives are logically irrelevant to their soundness. Any student who takes Logic 101 learns that.

Yet in the friction between Darwinian evolution ? as Richards describes it, the idea "that all living things have evolved without purpose or design from a common ancestor by natural selection working on random genetic mutations" ? and intelligent design, the religious motives of its proponents are constant, if irrational, suspects.

Yet all theories of the origins of life, even Darwinism, bear theological implications.

In a column last year about intelligent design, Leonard Pitts mused, "It's always the people of faith who beg for validation [on the question of human origin]." Then he asked, "I mean, when has any scientist ever sued for equal time in the pulpit?"

Given that the controversy is about the teaching of our children in public schools, his question struck me as both cunning and nonsensical.

But here's my answer: In 1925, a substitute biology high school teacher named John Scopes went to court in Tennessee over his right to discuss Darwin's theory of evolution, not in a pulpit but in a public classroom. And if we learned anything at all from that famous trial, those who want to discuss intelligent design with our children would never have to.

Jay Richards will speak on the subject of intelligent design at 7 p.m., Wednesday, at the Evangelical Free Church in Huntington Beach, in a talk titled, "The Death of Materialism: Evidence of Intelligent Design from Cosmology to Capitalism."

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