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Thursday, November 29, 2007

University of Toronto intelligent design course wrap-up

A while back, there was a minor flap about the course I was teaching in why there is an intelligent design controversy, which wrapped up Tuesday evening (November 27, 2007) with a most interesting presentation by journalist and columnist David Warren, who writes twice a week for the Ottawa Citizen.

The things that I found most significant about the course:

- the calibre of the students. Beforehand, I really worried that students would grouse about hard topics. But they were wonderful! Their facial expressions implied that they were prepared to tackle serious propositions about origin of the universe, of life, of information, etc. What a joy!

My unrealized fears: Six week sentence in Hell - arguing with someone who expects guest lecturers at the peak of their professional careers to explain stuff he should have learned in Grade Six science or demonstrate why it is not true that green alien worms control our lives.

- the calibre of the guest lecturers. I came away with a renewed respect for people like Robb Mann, Don Wallar, Kirk Durston, and David Warren, who helped students understand the depth and magnitude of the things we understand, the things we only partially understand, and the things we do not yet understand about our universe. A clear warning against grasping at too easy solutions to our puzzling universe.

Anyone can shout: Darwin explains it! Fundamentalism explains it! I’m glad that I did not have to deal with fanatics while acting as the course’s lead instructor. Fanatics have their salons where, one would hope, they can splinter their tea tables in peace, and far, far from 100 Carr Hall.

Also, one interesting item recurred now and again - and I was glad because I learned a lot from it:

Some students doubted that we can conceive of design without a designer. They said, “Design means a designer and we all know that the designer is really the God of the Bible!”

Well, do we all know that? And if so, how do we all know that?

One student, who was aware of Eastern (vs. Western) views on these subjects smiled as the objection was raised, and I thought I knew why. But I am not sure I gave a good account of the matter at the time, so here I offer a more carefully considered account, admitting that it is difficult for some Westerners:

Westerners are raised in a culture where, generally speaking, if they have any religious convictions, the Bible is a primary source. The Bible introduces us to God as an actor in the stories in the Bible.

For what I am about to say now, I ask readers to set aside the question of whether the revelation of the Bible is true or false. Focus simply on seeing it as an interpretation of design in the universe.

If you had never heard of the Bible, how might you account for design in the universe? Here are two options:
- there is a “way” - the way things must be in order to work. Not a personal deity, but underlying laws Many such laws may remain to be discovered. Some may be incomprehensible to us.

- we are all - usually unconsciously - part of a cosmic mind that conceived this world and its design. The world itself is an illusion, but its design is real, and we must be in the right relation to it in order to be reunited with the cosmic mind.

I do not raise these ideas here to argue for or against them but to establish that design in the universe can easily be identified without a Designer. Hundreds of millions of people have lived and died assuming that that is so.

It will be interesting to see whether the course runs again in the spring.

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