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Dembski & FSU prof assess Intelligent Design, evolution

MARIETTA, Ga. (BP)–Proponents of Intelligent Design claim the theory explains complexity in nature that evolution cannot. Detractors dismiss ID as religion in disguise.

Both sides of the debate presented their case at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum “Debating Design” Feb. 3-4. Hosted by Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., the forum featured leading ID proponent William Dembski and one of his key critics, Michael Ruse.

Dembski, a mathematician and philosopher, is the Carl F. H. Henry Professor of Theology and Science at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and senior fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.

Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and professor of zoology at Florida State and editor of the “Cambridge University Press Series in the Philosophy of Biology.”

Dembski opened the forum Feb. 3 with a defense of Intelligent Design as viable science. He began by defining what he means by the term “evolution.”

“We are not talking about a guided form of evolution in which God or some intelligence is guiding the process in some sustentative way,” Dembski said. “Evolution is a process that, for all we know, did not require any intelligence.”

Darwinian naturalists deny the presence of design in nature, he noted; instead, they attribute the diversity and complexity they observe to natural, but random processes.

The scientific community has a double standard when it comes to ID and evolution, Dembski said. If scientists can imagine any natural process to explain something, it immediately “trumps” ID, he said, whereas facts are demanded of design researchers.

Observable evidence, Dembski said, points to a designer.

On the cellular level, organisms exhibit the “hallmarks of design,” he said, citing the bacterial flagellum as an example of the complexity and design researchers have discovered.

Scientists have called the flagellum “the most efficient machine in the universe,” Dembski said, recounting that Michael Behe first drew attention to the bacterial flagellum in his 1996 book “Darwin’s Black Box.” Since then, the complex and efficient flagellum often has been called the “icon of ID.”

Evolutionists do not have a good explanation for the flagellum, Dembski said. Darwinists have pointed to a subsystem embedded in the flagellum which they speculate could be a precursor to the full system, he said.

“What you have here is not a fully articulated [evolutionary] path,” Dembski said. “What you have here is an island and you have a huge jump to the next island. The problem is unresolved.”

ID researchers are not simply defaulting to design, Dembski noted; they believe that intelligence best describes what is happening in the flagellum.

“Intelligent design is the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the result of intelligence,” Dembski said, defining ID theory. He cited archaeology and forensics as special sciences that already operate under this definition.

ID is not just creationism in disguise, Dembski maintained. Creationism focuses on the “doctrine of creation,” while ID seeks to detect design through something Dembski calls the design inference.

While Dembski sees much evidence pointing to an intelligent designer, he said ID theory does not identify the nature of the designer.

Dembski, who identified himself as a Christian, said believers must utilize theological resources to point to the Christian God. However, he sees apologetic value in ID. He said the theory can clear away objections to Christianity and make faith “plausible.” Darwinian naturalism, he said, is still the leading cause of disbelief.

Michael Ruse began by saying that he grew up as a Quaker in England. He stopped attending Quaker meetings at the age of 20 and became an evolutionist.

“If you grow up a Quaker, it’s very hard to hate Christianity,” Ruse said. “[But] I think people like Bill Dembski are completely mistaken, I don’t want to mince words about that.”

Ruse explained how Charles Darwin, whom he credits for changing the biological science paradigm, developed his ideas about natural selection. While visiting the Galapagos Island, Darwin observed great diversity in turtles and birds. The birds and turtles differed significantly from one island to another.

One finch species exhibited a beak uniquely fitted for eating cactus, others had beaks fitted for eating insects, with one finch species even using twigs as tools to obtain food, Ruse said.

“These are all examples of adaptation -– things the natural theologians before Darwin had said obviously had to be designed,” Ruse said. “What Darwin said was, ‘No, I think that these can be explained through unbroken law and there is no need for a designer to get them’ -– natural selection can do it.”

Darwin did not say that a designer was impossible, only that a designer was not necessary, thus making made it possible to be a non-believer, Ruse said.

Ruse compared Darwin’s argument for natural selection to a court case with no direct eyewitnesses. Courts often convicted people for crimes that no one witnessed. For Darwin, Ruse said, all the clues pointed to natural selection.

“I am an evolutionist because of that kind of legal argument,” Ruse said. “I am also a believer in natural selection because, like Bill Dembski, I think the world is very much as if designed.”

Ruse claimed that Intelligent Design is the product of Protestant evangelicalism bent on literal interpretations of the Bible, describing this approach as a unique development of the American South and West.

From the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial throughout the 20th century evangelicals have promoted creationism in their struggle against evolution, he said, linking Intelligent Design to creationism.

“To say that Intelligent Design has nothing to do with religion is to miss the elephant in the room,” Ruse said. “I see Intelligent Design as part of the overall American, indigenous Protestant and evangelical sort of position.”

Ruse offered one analogy of how a pathway to the origin of an organism could be undetectable. A scaffold is used while building a bridge, he said. After construction is complete, the scaffold is removed leaving only the finished product. Ruse suggested that processes leading to the development of organisms could fade when no longer needed.

With all of his objections to Intelligent Design, Ruse said he has an even greater theological objection. He pointed to the many genetic disorders in the world. Ruse said he wonders why a designer would not “clean up the defects.”

Ruse said Dembski is not a traditional creationist, but deemed ID as “creationism-lite.” ID supporters, he said, are generally moralists who oppose abortion and gay marriage and support capital punishment.

In conclusion, Ruse said, ID is a matter of the “red states and the blue states” of the past presidential election, reflecting the deep cultural divide facing America.

The forum continued Feb. 3 with a question-and-answer session with Dembski and Ruse and a panel of scholars: William Lane Craig, research professor at Talbot School of Theology; Martinez Hewlett, professor emeritus of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona and adjunct professor of philosophy and theology at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, Calif.; Francis Beckwith, associate professor of church-state studies at Baylor University; and Wesley Elsberry, information project director for the National Center for Science Education.

Craig, Hewlett, Beckwith and Elsberry each presented papers Feb. 4. Dembski and Ruse responded after each presenter.

“I was pleased with our ability to bring together two sides and disagree agreeably,” said Robert Stewart, director of the Greer-Heard Forum at NOBTS.

“I think Dembski showed what his project is and that it is substantial,” Steward said, describing Intelligent Design as a serious attempt to “find a better way to do science.” Ruse, meanwhile, “largely argued that Darwinism is a better explanatory hypothesis than Intelligent Design.”

Established through a gift from Bill and Carolyn Heard, NOBTS President Chuck Kelley said the forum is designed to help students and ministers learn to think critically about issues in secular society.

“It is because of our theological convictions that we have [the Greer-Heard Forum],” Kelley said. “We believe it is important for believers to not shy away from the discussion on any issue.”

The exchange of ideas, he said, helps prepare Christians to engage and share the Gospel with individuals with a secular worldview.

Next year’s topic for the Greer-Heard Forum, set for Feb. 16-17, 2007, will be atheism. Oxford scholar Alister McGrath, a defender of Christianity, will dialogue with Daniel Dennett, a professor at Tufts University and an outspoken atheist.
Audio recordings of the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum are available at www.greer-heard.com.