Researcher Brings Intelligent Design to Mind
By RICHARD MONASTERSKY
When the leaders of the intelligent-design movement gathered for a secret conference this month in California, most of the talks focused on their standard concerns: biochemistry, evolution, and the origin of the universe. But they also heard from an ally in the neurosciences, who sees his own field as fertile ground for the future of ID.
Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a research professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles, presented a paper titled “Intelligence Is an Irreducible Aspect of Nature” at the conference, held at Biola University, which describes itself as “a global center for Christian thought.” Dr. Schwartz argued that his studies of the mind provide support for the idea that consciousness exists in nature, separate from human brains.
Organizers of the conference, called “Research and Progress on Intelligent Design,” had hoped to keep its existence out of public view. The university held a well-advertised public debate about ID that same week, but Michael N. Keas, a professor of history and the philosophy of science at Biola who coordinated the private meeting, would not confirm that it was happening when contacted by a reporter, nor would he discuss who was attending. “It’s our policy just to keep the names out of the public limelight, since this kind of research tends to draw more attention than many other science topics,” he says.
Intelligent-design proponents believe that an intelligent force rather than natural selection created the diversity of life seen today, a proposition that has sparked conflicts over public-school curricula across the nation. It has also led to debates in higher education. Dr. Schwartz says the other participants at the conference were afraid of losing their jobs if their names were released, but he describes himself as “incendiary,” and discussed his talk in advance with The Chronicle.
Dr. Schwartz treats people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorders by teaching them to focus their attention away from their urges. He says the therapy can actually change people’s patterns of brain activity, an observation that shows that the mind can exert control over the brain, which challenges the material concept of the mind. His theory leads to the conclusion that consciousness exists separate from the human body, he says.
“You can’t get the intelligence out of nature,” says Dr. Schwartz. “Intelligence is an intrinsic part of nature.”
Many other scientists have been highly critical of Dr. Schwartz; even some researchers interested in exploring spirituality discount his theory. The Templeton Foundation, a philanthropy devoted to forging links between science and religion, rejected a grant proposal by Dr. Schwartz, says Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president of the foundation. A cosmologist by training, Mr. Harper says the proposal was turned down because “it had to do with a lot of hocus-pocus on quantum mechanics.”
Leaders of the intelligent-design movement, though, see clear potential for Dr. Schwartz’s message to resonate with the public.
“When I read Jeff’s work, I got in touch with him and encouraged him to become part of this ID community,” says William A. Dembski, who next month will become a research professor in philosophy at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Texas. “I regard him as a soul mate,” says Mr. Dembski.
Though Dr. Schwartz’s theory has not won over many scientists, some neurobiologists worry that this kind of argument might resonate with the general public, for whom the concept of a soul, free will, and God seems to require something beyond the physical brain. “The truly radical and still maturing view in the neuroscience community that the mind is entirely the product of the brain presents the ultimate challenge to nearly all religions,” wrote Kenneth S. Kosik, a professor of neuroscience research at the University of California at Santa Barbara, in a letter to the journal Nature in January.
Pope John Paul II struck a similar theme in a 1996 address focusing on science, in which he said theories of evolution that “consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.”
Dr. Kosik argues that the topic of the mind has the potential to cause much more conflict between scientists and the general public than does the issue of evolution. Many people of faith can easily accept the tenets of Darwinian evolution, but it is much harder for them to swallow the assumption of a mind that arises solely from the brain, he says. That issue he calls a “potential eruption.”
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