Dear President Gora,
As an intelligent design advocate (Web page here) who contributes regularly to the ID Website Uncommon Descent, I would like to thank you for your recent statement to the faculty and staff of Ball State University, which clarifies your university’s official position regarding the teaching of intelligent design theory.
I hope you will not object if I ask you a few questions which your own faculty staff might want to pose to you, in future meetings.
You referred to “intelligent design” in your email to Ball State University faculty and staff, without saying what you meant by the term. So I’d like to ask: exactly how do you define “intelligent design”? Specifically: does it include the cosmological fine-tuning argument, which purports to show that the the laws and constants of Nature were designed by some intelligent being? Does it include the scientific theory proposed by physicist Silas Beane (see here and here) that the universe we live in is a giant computer simulation? (The same idea was proposed back in 2003 in an influential paper by the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom.) Does it include the theory that life on Earth was seeded by aliens, at some point in the past (never mind where they came from)? Does it include the evolutionary theory championed by Alfred Russel Wallace, who fully accepted evolution by natural selection as a fact which explained the diversity of living things, but who also believed on empirical grounds that unguided natural processes were, by themselves, unable to account for: (a) the origin of life; (b) the appearance of sentience in animals; and (c) the emergence of human intelligence?
Would a science lecturer at your university get into trouble for discussing these theories in a science classroom? Where do you draw the line, President Gora? What’s “in” and what’s “out,” at your university?
The reason why I ask is that the official definition of intelligent design at the Intelligent Design Website Uncommon Descent, on a Webpage entitled ID Defined, is quite broad:
The theory of intelligent design (ID) holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection. ID is thus a scientific disagreement with the core claim of evolutionary theory that the apparent design of living systems is an illusion.
In a broader sense, Intelligent Design is simply the science of design detection — how to recognize patterns arranged by an intelligent cause for a purpose.
If you construe “intelligent design” more narrowly, could you please tell us what you mean by the term?
Would you agree that the discussion of a bad scientific theory – even one whose claims has been soundly refuted by scientific testing, such as aether theories in physics, the phlogiston theory in chemistry, and vitalism in biology – can be productive and genuinely illuminating, in a university science classroom? The history of science, after all, is littered with dead ends and blind alleys, and scientists have learned a lot about the world – and about how to do science properly – from their past mistakes. Would you therefore agree, then, that even if the theory of intelligent design were found to be riddled with factual or theoretical flaws on a scientific level, that would not be a sufficient reason by itself to keep discussion of intelligent design out of the science classroom?
If you answered “Yes” to question 2, as I expect you did, then I shall assume that for you, the decisive reason for keeping intelligent design out of the science classroom is that it is essentially religious in nature. As you wrote in your email: “Teaching religious ideas in a science course is clearly not appropriate.”
I would now invite you to consider the following two quotes by the late Sir Fred Hoyle, FRS, an outspoken opponent of religion and a life-long atheist, as Jane Gregory notes in her biography, Fred Hoyle’s Universe (Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0 780198 507918, p. 143), and to indicate: (i) whether you think they are religious claims, and (ii) whether you think a discussion of their scientific merits belongs in a science classroom at your university.
A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.
(The Universe: Past and Present Reflections, Engineering and Science, November 1981, p. 12.)
If one proceeds directly and straightforwardly in this matter, without being deflected by a fear of incurring the wrath of scientific opinion, one arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure or order must be the outcome of intelligent design. No other possibility I have been able to think of in pondering this issue over quite a long time seems to me to have anything like as high a possibility of being true.
(Hoyle, Fred, Evolution from Space, Omni Lecture, Royal Institution, London, 12 January 1982; Evolution from Space (1982) pp. 27–28 ISBN 0-89490-083-8; Evolution from Space: A Theory of Cosmic Creationism (1984) ISBN 0-671-49263-2)
I am of course well aware of the scientific literature relating to “Hoyle’s fallacy”, which Professor Richard Dawkins has taken great pains to refute. (Biologist Stephen Jones’ article, Fred Hoyle about the 747, the tornado and the junkyard, contains a very fair-minded discussion of the relevant issues, for those who are interested.) The point I’m making here is that if Hoyle’s claims are scientifically refutable, as neo-Darwinian biologists assert, then surely a discussion of the flaws in those claims belongs in a university science classroom. But since Hoyle referred to his own theory as “intelligent design,” it follows that a discussion of the flaws in intelligent design belongs in a university science classroom.
Now I hope you can see where I’m heading with this line of inquiry. If the discussion of the flaws in intelligent design theory belongs in a university science classroom, it logically follows that discussion of the theory itself belongs in a university science classroom. But that contradicts your email, which states that “[d]iscussions of intelligent design and creation science can have their place at Ball State in humanities or social science courses,” clearly implying that a discussion of intelligent design has no place in a science classroom. Elsewhere in your email, you state that “intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses,” which once again implies that any discussion of intelligent design is off-bounds at a Ball State University science course.
Indeed, a consistent application of your injunction to faculty staff to keep intelligent design out of the science classroom would mean that any science professor who gave a lecture exposing the errors in intelligent design theory would be in violation of your university’s official policy. Is that correct, President Gora?
In your email, you state that “Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory.” I’m sure you can cite court decisions to back up that assertion of yours – notably the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District court case of 2005.
I wonder if you have heard of the late Professor Richard Smalley (1943-2005), winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In a letter sent to the Hope College Alumni Banquet where he was awarded a Distinguished Alumni Award in May 2005, Dr. Richard Smalley wrote:
Recently I have gone back to church regularly with a new focus to understand as best I can what it is that makes Christianity so vital and powerful in the lives of billions of people today, even though almost 2000 years have passed since the death and resurrection of Christ.
Although I suspect I will never fully understand, I now think the answer is very simple: it’s true. God did create the universe about 13.7 billion years ago, and of necessity has involved Himself with His creation ever since. The purpose of this universe is something that only God knows for sure, but it is increasingly clear to modern science that the universe was exquisitely fine-tuned to enable human life. We are somehow critically involved in His purpose. Our job is to sense that purpose as best we can, love one another, and help Him get that job done. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Towards the end of his life, Dr. Richard Smalley became an Old Earth creationist, after reading the books “Origins of Life” and “Who Was Adam?”, written by Dr. Hugh Ross (an astrophysicist) and Dr. Fazale Rana (a biochemist). Dr. Smalley explained his change of heart as follows:
Evolution has just been dealt its death blow. After reading “Origins of Life”, with my background in chemistry and physics, it is clear evolution could not have occurred. The new book, “Who Was Adam?”, is the silver bullet that puts the evolutionary model to death. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
I’m quite sure you will tell me that most biologists and chemists disagree with the late Nobel Prize Laureate, Dr. Richard Smalley, on whether the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution can account for the origin and diversity of life. Be that as it may, what interests me is that Dr. Smalley evidently felt that the question of whether life and the universe were intelligently designed was scientifically tractable. What’s more, he felt that science had already found the answer: “it is increasingly clear to modern science that the universe was exquisitely fine-tuned to enable human life.” That’s intelligent design.
So my question to you is: if a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry thought that intelligent design belongs in the category of “science”, what makes you so sure that it belongs in the category of religion? For that matter, was the late Sir Fred Hoyle, FRS, being religious when he argued on scientific grounds that “superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology”? Is that what you are saying?
Finally, I note that you remark in your email that “the scientific community has overwhelmingly rejected intelligent design as a scientific theory” (italics mine – VJT). However, the scientific community’s very rejection intelligent design as a scientific theory logically implies that it is a scientific theory – even if a bad one. Are you prepared to grant this point?
In your email, you state:
Discussions of intelligent design and creation science can have their place at Ball State in humanities or social science courses. However, even in such contexts, faculty must avoid endorsing one point of view over others.
I’d now like you to consider the hypothetical case of a humanities or social science lecturer at your university who is asked a very direct, personal question by a student: “Do you believe in intelligent design?” Let’s suppose that the lecturer answers like this:
Personally, I do. I should point out in all fairness that the vast majority of scientists currently reject intelligent design, and if you want to know why, then I’d invite you to have a look at the official statements on the Websites of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Astronomical Society, and the American Physical Society. I’ve spent some time sifting the arguments on both sides. I’m not a trained scientist; but I do have some (philosophical) training in spotting a bad argument. In my humble opinion, the scientific arguments against intelligent design are not very convincing; at most, they merely refute some of the more naive versions of intelligent design. Regarding the arguments in favor of intelligent design, I do think they raise some very real questions which science has not yet answered. Now you might say that some day it will answer those questions. And maybe you’re right. My own opinion – and I’d invite you to read the best books on both sides in order to arrive at yours – is that we already have enough information at our fingertips to conclude that most likely, the Universe itself – and life – was a put-up job. Who or what the “Putter-Upper” is, I leave for you to speculate, if you agree with my line of thinking.
In answering in this way, has the lecturer said anything that is “out of line” with your university’s policy on the separation of church and state? It should be noted that up to this point, the lecturer has not even expressed a belief in theism, let alone the tenets of any particular religion. Saying that the universe was designed (passive voice) says nothing, by itself, about the identity of the Designer.
Now suppose that the inquisitive student presses further: “Do you believe the Designer of life and the universe to be God?” and the lecturer answers, “Yes, that is my personal belief.” Does that answer qualify as “endorsing one point of view over others” – something which your email expressly prohibits? If not, why not?
What if, instead, the lecturer had answered the student’s question as follows: “I’m an atheist, and I think intelligent design is a load of pseudo-scientific religious claptrap.” Would such an answer constitute “endorsing one point of view over others”? If not, why not?
Well, I think five questions are quite enough for one day. Over to you, President Gora. Thank you taking the time and trouble to read this letter.