I’m not religious, nor am I a proponent of intelligent design (ID). But I am amused by alleged rationalists who think strident disbelief makes them enlightened primates rather than obnoxious atheistic evangelists. It interests me terribly that such people are so unhinged and emotional about their allegedly rational views. I scratch my chin and puff on my pipe when alleged free-thinkers fret about children being brainwashed with religion but have no qualms when the state forces ideological conformity on young minds.
The delusion that one must be an atheist to be a first-rate scientist is common among professional atheists. I can think of several religious Nobel Prize-winning physicists offhand: Abdus Salam, Joe Taylor, Bill Phillips, Antony Hewish, and C. H. Townes. There are doubtless more if you care to look.
An even more preposterous (yet widely held) delusion is the idea that teaching the standard model of evolution is necessary to produce the next generation of young scientists. Evolutionary biology has very little connection to other fields of scientific enquiry, including most of biology. I also know at least one very talented and productive scientist who has issues with the standard evolutionary model: David Snoke. I worked for him briefly. The subject never came up in the past, as it’s not particularly relevant when plugging in lasers and aligning copper oxide crystals. Considering the recent creationism controversy in Tennessee, I thought it might be of interest to hear from an intelligent ID advocate.
What are your main scientific beefs with evolution?
Define what you mean by “evolution!” People mean many things when they use the word. Some people define evolution as simply change over time, which very few people would disagree with. But others mean that undirected processes can explain everything that has happened from the time of the Big Bang. Do I believe that organisms change over time as a result of natural selection? Certainly! But I don’t think that this is the only mechanism. For example, nobody has a serious model which can actually explain the origins of life, and natural selection can’t work until simple life exists with something like 30,000 biological machines. There are also messy issues with phylogenetic trees and horizontal gene transfer: Much present evolutionary theory is in a turmoil because of this. Clearly natural selection is a mechanism with much explanatory power, but it is not the only mechanism. The work by ID people to show that natural selection can’t explain a lot of things is generally good science; shooting down theories is an activity which has a long history in science; it is part of the process.
Do you think some kind of directed evolution could be compatible with the Bible?
Certainly many in the ID community believe something like this. I am not persuaded by the strong version of this: the idea that everything was rigged at the Big Bang to end up the way it presently is. Some “Young Earth creationists” worry that the first chapters of Genesis must give exact history. I don’t think our interpretation of the Bible or the present scientific consensus is sacrosanct. The scientific consensus may be wrong; but if science tells us some new things, that can motivate us to look at the Bible in other ways.
Do you think being a Christian has made you a better scientist?
Well, if you have all your chips invested in being a successful scientist, it’s much more difficult to admit that you are wrong. Being a Christian allows me to be humble about cases when my views might be wrong, which allows more self-correction. It also allows me to be skeptical and ask questions that an atheist might not think to ask. Like the person from Missouri, I can say “show me” in regard to evolutionary theories.
Other than writing a paper with Michael Behe, do your ideas about ID inform any other areas of research?
Certainly; a recent example is an article to be published in Annals of Physics where I and my coworkers derive the second law of thermodynamics from quantum field theory considerations. The genesis of this idea came about from some intelligent-design arguments I was thinking about. I’m also presently working on a numerical project relating to combinatorial optimization, which was originally inspired by some ID ideas.
Do you have problems with other scientists because of your views?
When talking with people in the physics world, there is generally respect for religion. Many physicists are religious; evangelical Christians, Jewish people, Catholics, Muslims. It’s rare to get a push back to the idea of an “ordering principle.” Scientists know that the world is orderly. Some scientists seem to hold deistic beliefs; the idea that there is something more, some ordering principle, but they don’t feel comfortable saying “God” or adopting religious beliefs.
Do you know any non-Christian creationists?
By “creationists” I assume you mean people who believe we can see the hand of God in nature, that not everything can be explained by undirected random processes. There are quite a few associated with the Discovery Institute. Gerald Schroeder is a well-known Jewish scholar, as is David Berlinski, who has agnostic leanings. Antony Flew is a deist who converted from atheism in part because of intelligent-design arguments. Michael Denton is an agnostic, and I believe a Platonist, who believes that ideas exist independently and instantiate themselves. Most people who are interested in ID have very complex views that are difficult to reduce to a sound bite. Journalists like to comment as if everything were a football game. They seem to see the debate as between two teams, with Dawkins-type evolutionists on one side and Young Earth creationists on the other. The real world is much more complex than this. There are theistic evolutionists like the evangelical Francis Collins, ID-friendly evolutionists like the Catholic Michael Behe, and people who might insert a few miracles at certain times, such as evangelical chemist Fritz Schaefer.
What do you think of “Internet skeptics?”
I don’t go to blog or discussion-group types of things very much; I have a day job and many responsibilities and interests. This sort of activity also seems to appeal to a particular personality type. It seems to be a rule on such things that the guy who writes the most “wins,” which isn’t a very good way at arriving at the truth. There are, of course, many Christians who engage in this sort of thing; the personality type who likes this sort of thing isn’t restricted to Internet skeptics.
How do you react with dumb people try to be condescending toward you because you’re religious?
Well, it doesn’t happen very often. In most circles I travel in, people are aware that I am a physics professor. Occasionally you’ll have to hold your tongue at a party when someone rants about “stupid evangelical Christians.”
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