In God's Country

William Dembski thought Baylor University would be the perfect place to investigate a scientific alternative to Darwinism. Little did he realize he would be crucified for his cause.

In the beginning, there was a bang. A very big bang. Nothing exploded into something. Quarks and leptons collided violently in an intense fireball of plasma. As the plasma expanded and cooled, the collisions became less violent, and particles joined together to form protons and neutrons and electrons, then nuclei and atoms and molecules. Huge clouds of these particles coalesced into galaxies of stars and planets, still expanding, always expanding, away from the central point of the explosion.

On one particular planet, in a very ordinary galaxy, molecules somehow formed living cells. And these cells linked together to become organisms, some of which had certain genetic mutations that better enabled them to survive and replicate in the primordial atmosphere. Over the next, oh, billions of years, the fittest of these organisms evolved into plants and fish and amphibians and birds and dogs and cats and apes and humans -- all thanks to the whims of chance and the laws of nature. If the pull of nuclei were slightly stronger, if the force of gravity were slightly weaker, if the speed of universal expansion were off just a hair, if the genetic mutations had been a little bit different, we wouldn't be here.

It's a fanciful story, but it's the best one that modern science has come up with so far to explain human existence. A small cadre of philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, however, have come to the conclusion that it's a little too fanciful, that perhaps there is a better explanation for the origin and diversity of life, that perhaps that explanation involves an intelligent designer, a.k.a. God.

Is it chance, or is it design? Dembski's explanatory process is laid out for laymen in his book, Intelligent Design.
Is it chance, or is it design? Dembski's explanatory process is laid out for laymen in his book, Intelligent Design.

It's not a new argument. Eighteenth-century British natural theologist William Paley gave the intelligent-design theory its most memorable metaphor: Happening upon a watch, one would notice that its various parts work together for a purpose, that the cogs and springs and gears produce motion, and that the motion is regulated to indicate time. We would infer from the watch that it was crafted by a watchmaker. Paley argued that living organisms are more complicated than watches "in a degree which exceeds all computation," therefore we too must be the products of some grand watchmaker, an intelligence.

Since the dawn of Darwinism, Paley's watchmaker analogy has been dismissed as a quaint notion of a much simpler scientific time. Darwin's theory of natural selection explained that the design we see in nature and in ourselves is merely an illusion: What appears to be design is not, in fact, the product of a designer, but the result of a long and undirected history of evolution in which organisms became better and better adapted to their environments. Darwin forever separated science and religion. Religion was a matter of faith; science, a matter of natural causes, observable fact, empirical evidence. Sure, you could believe in God if you wanted to, but you certainly couldn't look for him to reveal himself in the natural world.

But intelligent-design theorists are bringing religion back into the laboratory, adding bite to Paley's old watchmaker argument, attempting to show -- with mathematical theories and biological examples -- that a designer can be empirically detected. This has mainstream scientists hopping mad and may lead to the most intense battle between science and religion since the Catholic Church put Galileo under house arrest for suggesting that the earth was not the center of the universe.

The first major skirmish has already taken place at Baylor University, where William Dembski, a leading proponent of intelligent design, was demoted from his position as director of a center set up to study the theory. The last fight may be in your local school board.

William Dembski wasn't always a religious man. The only child of a college biology professor (who, in fact, didn't question Darwin's theories) and an art dealer, he spent six days a week at an all-male Catholic preparatory school in Chicago. He went through the motions at school, but he didn't buy into Christianity. "Any sort of God who was behind it all, who we were accountable to, who really cared for us, with whom we could have any connection, that was just off my radar," Dembski says. That is, until he came upon his life's first rough spot.

Dembski was always a good student, especially in math. He finished high school a year early, completing a full course of calculus in just one summer. The 17-year-old tested into some advanced mathematics courses at the University of Chicago, but he struggled in them. He was doing average, but he wasn't used to doing average. He couldn't handle the disappointment.

Dembski was having trouble outside of class as well. His experiences as an only child who spent most of his time in the insular world of a boys' school had not prepared him for college life. His social skills, Dembski admits, were a bit lacking. He dropped out of school and went to work in his mother's art dealership business. He built crates, typed letters, but mostly he just floundered. "It was just not a very happy time in my life," he says, "and I guess when you're not very happy, you start looking."

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