More than 145 people crowded into Science Complex room 101 last Wednesday, some curious, some armed for debate.
The event was a presentation on intelligent design (ID), the concept that the origin of life is better explained as the work of an intelligent designer than by the mechanisms of evolution.
ID has recently been getting national attention due to a Dover, Penn., court case which ruled in December that ID was a “re-labeling of creationism,” “not a scientific theory” and was “unconstitutional to teach . as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.”
The presentation consisted of a showing of “The Privileged Planet,” followed by a question-and-answer session with Robert Kaita, a research physicist from the Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton University.
The hour-long video presentation suggested that the statistical improbability of life forming on earth, as well as humanity’s ability to discover, supported the idea of a higher design and purpose.
The event was sponsored by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and Protestant Bible Fellowship. The Physics Club was asked to co-sponsor the event and declined.
Before the event, members of the Progressive Student Alliance and the TCNJ Socialists handed out papers at the door describing the lack of support for ID in the scientific community and urging for separation of church and state.
Participants in the question-and-answer session were allowed 30 seconds to speak and one follow-up comment. Despite these limitations, the debate lasted almost two hours.
Students questioned the scientific validity, history and logic of ID, as well as why an event that claimed to be scientific in nature was sponsored only by religious campus organizations.
“What is intelligent design?” asked senior biology major John Pennisi. “What can I take into the lab and test?”
Kaita described ID as “being able to set up a series of criteria to decide whether something is designed or not.” He compared ID methods to detecting a picture on the back of a coin, an answer that Pennisi said evaded the question.
“You’ve published 300 scientific papers,” Anthony Milici, senior English major, said, citing the lack of scholarship on ID. “Is there a reason number 301 can’t be on intelligent design?”
Kaita said he already used the principles of ID in his work, and such a paper would not be relevant to his field.
Milici also pointed out that the argument presented in the film was a philosophical contradiction. Kaita finally said that Milici’s question was “difficult,” and, like many other questions that night, “beyond the realm of science.”
Members of the sponsoring groups were pleased with the turnout. “In an educational institution such as (the College), more conversation is better than less, and there is no topic that should be off limits from questioning,” Logan Liskovec, senior English major and outreach coordinator for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, said. “What matters is that we worked with our differences and our uneasiness and had the discussion.”
Danielle Dalafave, associate professor of physics and an organizer of the event, said she believes in the validity of the ID approach. “The physical constants, for example, are a strong indication that there is something beyond nature,” Dalafave said. “(But) if I did not believe in God, I would not act on my conviction.”
“Religion is a valid way of knowing,” Donald Lovett, associate professor of biology, said. “It’s one of the valid ways we know. The problem is, it’s not science.”
Both Kaita and Dalafave maintained that ID opponents fail to consider the possibility that evidence in nature points to the existence of a designer.
“We’re not saying that there is or is not God,” Lovett, who is also an ordained elder in Ewing Presbyterian Church, said. “What we’re saying is science cannot address the ‘why.'”
The Discovery Institute, which produced “The Privileged Planet” and at which Kaita holds a fellowship, calls itself a “secular think tank” concerned with issues of economics and public policy.
Its Center for Science and Culture (CSC), which is at the forefront of the ID movement and concerns itself solely with ID issues, has been criticized for spending the majority of its budget on public relations rather than research. A 1999 document known as “the wedge” says one of the CSC’s goals is to “replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”
A larger crowd is expected on March 28, when author, leading ID proponent and Discovery fellow William Dembski is scheduled to speak at the College.
A request is also pending for Brian Alters, a professor of science education who served as an expert witness on the side of evolution in the Dover trial, to speak at the College on April 12.