Interview

> With Granville Sewell

Q. The Darwin debate is usually fought in terms set by biology, chemistry and paleontology. What’s special or unique about a mathematician’s view on intelligent design that might make his opinion of equal or greater interest compared to a biologist’s?

A. I wouldn’t argue that a mathematician’s view is of greater interest, but I do think we have something to contribute, and that is the broader view that seems to be missed by many biologists, perhaps because they are too close to the details. And although I am not a biologist, I have been reading and writing on topics related to evolution and design for some 30 years now, so I am pretty familiar with the main issues. In any case, my book is not only about biological evolution, it also deals with the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of the laws of physics, quantum mechanics, and even design in mathematics.

Q. Mathematician David Berlinski, among others, has written about a current of distaste among mathematicians for Darwinian evolutionary theory. Do you find that as well?

A. Yes, but not because it requires any advanced mathematics to see the problems with Darwinism. They are really quite simple. In fact, although this may come as a surprise to our students, mathematicians are trained to value simplicity. When we have a simple, clear proof of a theorem, and a long, complicated, counter-argument, full of hotly-debated and unverifiable points, we accept the simple proof, even before we find the errors in the complicated argument. There is a clear, simple, argument against Darwinism -- indeed, against any attempt to explain the development of life without reference to intelligence. It is just that unintelligent forces cannot do intelligent things, and the layman understands this quite well. What I, and some other mathematicians such as Bill Dembski, have tried to do is to express this simple argument in more “scientific” terms.

Q. You express some doubt that even under “the right conditions, the influx of stellar energy into a planet could cause atoms to rearrange themselves into nuclear power plants and spaceships and computers.” This, you say, ought to be “considered an open question” at least by scientists and the public alike. Why isn’t it?

A. A typical college physics text I read contains the statement “One of the most remarkable simplifications in physics is that only four distinct forces account for all known phenomena.” Most people just haven’t ever thought about things in this way, that if you don’t believe in intelligent design, you must believe this claim, that the four unintelligent forces of physics caused atoms on Earth to rearrange themselves into nuclear power plants, spaceships and computers. When they do think about it, they may start to see things a little differently. This is part of the “broader view” that is often missed by biologists, but noticed by mathematicians and physicists.

 

Q. What has your campus experience been like as a scientific Darwin doubter? Have you suffered any of the slings and arrows that biochemist Michael Behe, for example, has contended with?

A. No, I don’t believe that I have ever suffered academically for my views on this topic. I have of course been insulted by a good number of people, but not by anyone in my department, or my university. This is perhaps because most other mathematicians can at least understand why some of us reject Darwinism, even if they don’t go so far as to advocate intelligent design. Or perhaps simply because people say, well, his views on this may be weird, but they don’t affect his mathematics research. A biologist who expresses the same views doesn’t have this to fall back on! When Michael Behe came to give a talk at the University of Texas, El Paso, in 1997, I told him I thought he would find more support for his ideas in mathematics, physics and engineering departments than in his own field, and this is no doubt true. There are large numbers of “Darwin doubters” in the more mathematical sciences.

Q. Let’s say I’m a Darwin-doubter who wants to stump my Darwin-faithful friends with a zinger. What’s the single strongest, and easily articulated, scientific objection to Darwinism?

A. For me, the strongest argument for intelligent design is to clearly state the alternative, which is that physics explains all of chemistry (probably true), chemistry explains all of biology, and biology completely explains the human mind; thus physics completely explains the human mind and all it does. One of the chapters in my new book is a short fictional account of an attempt to develop a computer model for all that has happened on Earth, starting with the initial positions of all the elementary particles and calculating the effect that the four forces of physics would have on these particles. Would we expect that this computer simulation would result in libraries full of books, computers, airplanes and the Internet? When one thinks about the idea that physics alone can explain all that has happened here, the intelligent design alternative doesn’t seem so unscientific after all.

Q. As you observe in the book, some of your earlier writing seems to have anticipated now familiar arguments for intelligent design. How did you come by your initial insights?

A. I have been reading and writing on this topic for about 30 years; for about the first 20 I thought I was almost completely alone in my views. Turns out there were a lot of us. We just didn’t have any way to communicate until more recently. It is really satisfying to see intelligent design being taken seriously by so many scientists. I would never have believed this could happen only 15 years ago.

Q. You call intelligent design “a science in its infancy.” Can you describe briefly what ID would look like as a mature science?

A. Good question. I’m not sure if ID will ever be considered a “mature” science, on an equal footing with others. Maybe it will -- only time will tell. But I’ll be happy if our science text writers will just admit that we have no idea of the causes of evolution, or of the origin of life, and let students draw their own conclusions about whether intelligent design was involved or not.

Q. You predict that in the future, biology textbooks will describe evolution as a “mysterious ‘natural’ process” that scientists hope to someday clarify. That would represent a major change in opinion. What could be the tipping point?

A. I have no idea when that will happen, but things are moving much faster in that direction than anyone would have predicted just 10 years ago. The tipping point will occur when scientists feel they will be seen as intellectuals for doubting Darwinism rather than seen as intellectuals for promoting it, and not before then!

Q. You comment that Darwinists maintain their faith mainly because they don’t like the alternative. Why do they find the idea of design in nature so disturbing?

A. I think most scientists just say, we seem to be able to explain most everything in chemistry, geology, astronomy, and so on, why shouldn’t we be able to, at least eventually, explain everything in biology as well? Well, evolution is different from other scientific problems. The problems are not just harder; they are fundamentally different. But of course there are also some who do seem to get very angry at any suggestion of design. I think many of these are people who were raised fundamentalist and have a very negative image of God.

Q. What you write about your wife’s tragic death is extremely moving. It goes very much, obviously, to the “problem of pain” -- the mystery of suffering in a world that faith tells us was designed by a loving God -- that you consider in your final essay. How would you crystallize what’s relevant about this to the debate about intelligent design?

A. I really believe that, contrary to common belief, the strongest arguments against ID are philosophical and theological, rather than scientific, and the problem of pain is no doubt the strongest of these, so that’s why I tried to address it. This is the only section of the book which deals with theology rather than science. The problem of pain is not a logical or scientific argument against design, it is an emotional argument against design, but it is quite strong, and we humans are not entirely logical animals.