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Thoughts on "Intelligent design: Who has designs on your students' minds?"

Part I -- by Salvador Cordova

President of IDEA Club at George Mason University

On April 28, 2005, the world's most prestigious scientific journal, Nature, published a cover story by Geoffrey Brumfiel on the growing intelligent-design movement in universities. The article reported on many facets of intelligent design in the universities, and featured George Mason University's IDEA chapter prominently. The reporter interviewed me, Caroline Crocker, a professor of cellular biology, and some of our IDEA members.

Brumfiel also reported on a survey I commissioned. The survey came about because of discussions I had with various faculty members at universities about the viability and profitability of having intelligent design and/or creationism offered in the philosophy and religion departments.

Though I feel that intelligent design ultimately belongs in the science curriculum, most faculty I spoke with on both sides of the issue felt there would be absolutely no problem offering it in the philosophy and religion department. To that end, I commissioned an atheist and agnostic group of students known as the Free Thinkers at James Madison University (not George Mason) to take a survey of the student's level of interest in taking such courses. They polled 331 students. They gave the students a written description of intelligent design and creationism, and then asked the students the following questions:

Please indicate if you would be interested in taking any of the courses below. If you are already a grad student, or already have enough elective Gen Ed credits, please indicate if you would have taken any of the following courses as Gen Ed elective courses had they been offered.

(please circle one the following choices )

A. Intelligent Design (3 credit hours)

B. Creationism (3 credit hours)

C. both A and B (6 credit hours)

D. none of the above

To my astonishment interest in biblical creationism was extremely high, but it at least seemed consistent with polls conducted by other organizations. Here are the results:

Results for general student population:
A. 14%
B. 17%
C. 39%
D. 30%

Total percent of general student population wanting courses in ID and / or creationism: 70%
Results of the bio majors:
A. 12%
B. 25%
C. 38%
D. 25%

Total percent of bio majors wanting courses in ID and / or creationism: 75%

Our survey results were intended to be only a crude measurement of student interest. My goal was to provide some evidence to school administrators that intelligent design and/or creationism courses would attract enough students to justify offering these courses in the philosophy and religion departments. And even if the survey was off by a factor of 10, at a school like James Madison, the numbers would still indicate over a thousand students would take the courses at that school.

There are some other facts that didn't make it into the article which are worth mentioning.
  • At our IDEA chapters in Virginia, we have a good number of biology majors, grad students, PhD candidates, and even faculty who do not believe in Darwinian evolution, but who believe in intelligent design and/or creationism. Gordon Wilson and Timothy Standish are 2 PhD's in environmental science who graduated from George Mason and who have publicly rejected Darwinian evolution and now teach biology at private universities.

  • Another story which did not make it in the article, but which I feel represents the advance of intelligent design in the universities, are the writings of two of George Mason's distinguished professors of science.

    Here is an interesting quote by distinguished professor of biology Harold Morowitz who teaches at George Mason. Morowitz was one of the world’s most respected origin-of-life researchers. In his book Emergence of Everything, Morowitz wrote, "We study God’s immanence through science…Deep within the laws of physics and chemistry the universe is fit for life. This fitness we identify with God’s immanence….The present study of this fitness take place under the rubric of 'design' ". And in his book Cosmic Joy, Morowitz commenting on Quantum Physics, wrote, "What emerges from all this is the return of "mind" to all areas of scientific thought. This is good news from the point of view of all varieties of natural theology. For a universe where mind is a fundamental part of reality more easily makes contact with the mind of god than does a mindless world." Yet this is the same Morowitz who testified as an eminent origin-of-life researcher against the creationists in the famous case, Mclean v. Arkansas in 1982!

  • Then there is the story of distinguished professor of physics at George Mason, James Trefil wrote in his book, Are We Alone, "If I were a religious man, I would say that everything we have learned about life in the past twenty years shows that we are unique, and therefore, special in God's sight." Trefil's book was a forerunner of the recent intelligent design friendly book and video The Privileged Planet. To be fair, I do not know where Morowitz or Trefil stand on intelligent design, but what they have written is certainly agreeable to many who believe in intelligent design.
  • For the most part Brumfiel was accurate and fair, and I commend his hard work over the last two months to put together the article. But there are a few points that I should clarify. Brumfiel describes my view of intelligent design as a "divine hand has shaped the course of evolution" and some sort of “supernatural intervention”. That is close to my personal view of intelligent design, but it is not necessarily that of intelligent design community, so he did reflect my personal views reasonably well, but my personal views do not necessarily reflect the views of other advocates of intelligent design. The official view of intelligent design of IDEA is presented at Intelligent Design Theory, and the Relationship between Science and Religion. And for the record, although I do advocate scientific discussion of an intelligence guiding evolution, I also entertain discussion of the possibility of an intelligence forming life through a special creation event.

    In fact, discussion of special creation is unavoidable in these contexts, but I was careful to point out that religious texts cannot be the foundation of scientific theories no matter how much we may desire our religious views to be true. I left it as an open issue whether physical first principles and purely empirical methods could arrive at some sort of scientific theory of creation where physical laws would be applied to existing physical artifacts to infer the initial conditions of the universe and life. Stephen Meyer addresses the issue of a scientific theory of creation in

    I encouraged the listeners, though they may be eager to prove their religious convictions through science, they must not take shortcuts in the scientific method and not allow their biases (which we all have) to compromise their calculations and logical deductions or their conduct of the scientific enterprise.

    Brumfiel mentioned the group at the IDEA meeting were all Christians. I am not sure if this was actually the case at the meeting. I want to make it clear that during the meeting, the officers of the club made it clear we welcome people of all persuasions and the meeting was advertised as such. In regards to the educational background represented, of the 20 or so in attendance 11 were science majors, and of those 6 were biology majors including Professor Crocker. In fact I do not even know if all of those in attendance were Christians. However, to be fair to Geoff Brumfiel, I can understand that he may have had that perception because over half of those in attendance were open about their religious orientation during the question answer session in the last half of the meeting. But I am not sure exactly what percentage of the group were actually Christians.

    In Part II, I’ll discuss more of what happened during the interview and the meeting which Brumfiel attended. Some of arguments I presented that day were from cosmology and physics, and particularly quantum mechanics. Mention of those arguments was not elaborated in the article, and I wish to pursue it more. I’m strongly convinced that the work of Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner in quantum mechanics makes him, in my view, “a grandfather” of intelligent design. And it was the writings of Professor Morowitz at George Mason who led me to that view.

    Brumfiel asked probing questions about my personal beliefs, and I feel he represented me accurately, but there is also a greater story there, and it pertains to the relationship of religious faith to the scientific method. Deductions from the scientific method cannot be colored or compromised by one’s religious faith, no matter how intensely one desires certain conclusions to be made. Facts are facts. However the question arises, “can scientific facts affects one’s religious views?” I believe the answer is yes. I will cover that in, Part II.

    Stay tuned.