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From the January/February, 2001 issue of Touchstone


Debating Design by Patrick Henry Reardon

Debating Design

The Concordia Conference on Intelligent Design

by Patrick Henry Reardon

From June 22 to 24 of this past year, Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin, hosted a conference entitled “Design and Its Critics,” jointly sponsored by the Cranach Institute and Touchstone. The purpose of this conference was to bring together some of the leading names on both sides of the current controversy regarding the application of intelligent design theory to the various branches of science. As my own active participation in the conference was limited to a modest 30-minute presentation of the role of logical positivism in modern science, I was blessed with the leisure to compare and reflect on the more substantial papers presented by a series of philosophers, biochemists, physicists, mathematicians, and other scholars.

Arriving at the conference I was not entirely sure what to expect. Although Touchstone’s involvement with intelligent design theory (cf. Touchstone, July/August 1999) had made me familiar with the general lines of argument supporting this theory, my reading of literature explicitly critical of the theory was pretty much confined to Robert T. Pennock’s Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism, a book singularly disappointing in every respect. In spite of the promising subtitle, the author of this volume introduced not a shred of new evidence in support of Darwinism, unless under that heading we include his puerile remarks about the variety of sexual postures employed by other primates as confirming their bio-historical relationship to human beings. Largely ignoring the strong evidence advanced against Darwinism from biochemistry and microbiology, Pennock spent most of his efforts on the purely rhetorical and deceptive task of painting intelligent design theorists as simply a new species of Creation scientists. As the Wisconsin conference began, I sincerely hoped that the arguments raised against intelligent design in the ensuing days would be marked by a greater intellectual integrity than that displayed in Pennock’s remarkably bad book.

In this respect the opening night of the conference was hardly reassuring. It featured a “debate” between two entirely mismatched opponents. The first lecturer, Stephen C. Meyer of Whitworth College, delivered a brilliant 45-minute presentation on the genetic structure of living cells, with particular attention to the storage and dispersal of genetic information. This masterful performance was “answered,” in a style chiefly reminiscent of a circus barker, by Michael Shermer, the well-known agnostic talk-show persona who serves as director of the Skeptics Society. As he devoted the first part of his presentation to explaining why he is no longer a Christian, one observed that Shermer’s delivery seemed to be somewhat off in timing. The reason became clear rather quickly. Accustomed to pausing slightly for laughter and snickering from his audiences after his profane and irreverent attempts at humor, Shermer found his efforts on this particular night rather wasted. No one in this audience was laughing. Indeed, those who did not actually feel sorry for his failure began scratching their heads in wonderment at how seriously this poor man had misread his listeners. Shermer went on to contend that intelligent design theory is essentially a disguise for reintroducing the biblical God into the world of science. In all, then, the first night was something of a disappointment for those who had hoped to witness a genuine debate. Someone compared the event to an encounter between an Olympic wrestler and some overwrought actor from the World Wrestling Federation.

Fortunately for the conference, that initial debacle was never repeated. Over the next two days the participants were treated (from the design side) to Michael Behe’s argument from “irreducible complexity,” William Dembski’s mathematical foundation for “the design inference,” Scott Minnich’s stunning analysis of the structure of the unicellular flagellum, and arguments from physics by John Leslie and Robin Collins.

From the critical side, these presentations were answered by Ken Miller, who endeavored to show (unsuccessfully, in my opinion) that a natural selection hypothesis can explain Behe’s “irreducible complexity”; by Brian Josephson, who challenged Dembski’s computations with regard to random selection; by Michael Ruse and Larry Arnhart, who very helpfully cautioned against anthropomorphizing the very concept of design; and by Lenny Moss, who reminded the assembly of other “naturalistic options” more compatible with theism, such as epigenesis, developmental fields, and autopoesis. One regrets that Moss had such a short time for his presentation; I told him afterwards that I could have listened to him all day.

The other plenary lecturers included Kelly Smith, Ted Davis, Paul Nelson, Mike Thrush, Robert O’Connor, Michael Roberts (who spent some time correcting historical errors in the aforesaid book by Robert T. Pennock), Del Ratzsch, and Walter and Lawrence Starkey.

With respect to the political question of introducing intelligent design theory into high-school science curricula, David De Wolf, Stephen Meyer, and Warren A. Nord argued pro, and the renowned historian Ronald Numbers argued contra.

Three other aspects of the conference should be mentioned: (1) a series of 35 concurrent presentations held over two afternoons; (2) a luncheon lecture by Dr. Jean Staune, of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales in Paris, on the current state of Darwinism in Europe; and (3) an after-dinner speech by Dr. Diogenes Allen, who examined the relatively late introduction of Creation themes into the faith of ancient Israel (selon Gerhard Von Rad some half-century ago).

The conference was helpful in the sense of being hopeful. It augured well for the continuing scientific discussion properly raised by the intelligent design theory.

Will the fortunes of this theory lead to a revolutionary “paradigm shift” in scientific method? Not soon, I think, because at present the movement favoring this theory bears a twofold burden that a scientific theory should not have to bear: (1) a cumbersome alliance with certain Christians who regard it chiefly as an apologetic tool with which to defend Holy Scripture, and (2) a distracting preoccupation with the (admittedly just and proper) political impulse to deprive Darwinism of its near-monopoly on the American educational system.

In addition to this double burden, intelligent design theory at present strikes me as simply too thinly diffused and dispersed across the various disciplines, perhaps laboring under the impression that current scientific paradigms are more uniform than may be the case. In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (specifically on page 49), the late and much lamented Thomas S. Kuhn reminded us that modern science, in spite of appearances, is not really monolithic with respect to paradigms, though it tends to be so with respect to its explicit rules. One suspects that intelligent design theory, if it is to prevail, will have to prove itself repeatedly as a challenger to the interpretive paradigms currently prevailing in some particular discipline. Right now it would appear that the latter will be microbiology or biochemistry, but who knows?

If there are to be future conferences such as the one here reported, this writer would urge that the speakers should be chosen only from the fields of science and philosophy. That is to say, if it is to be a scientific and philosophical discussion, there are two types of people who should not be invited to speak. First, those persons explicitly and principally preoccupied with Christian apologetics and the defense of the Bible. To be sure, discussions of this sort are of great apologetic interest (indeed, an interest that I share with vigor and enthusiasm), but the overt insertion of such an interest into a conference of this sort seems misplaced and distracting. Second, those persons whose major contribution to such a conference amounts to hardly more than vestigial vaudeville.

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

“Debating Design” first appeared in the January/February 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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