What Was Eric Cornell Thinking?

Eric Cornell won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2001. He authored an essay in the November 14, 2005 edition of Time magazine titled, “What Was God Thinking? Science Can’t Tell.” Cornell makes the point that the idea of “intelligent design” (ID) should not be taught in science class since “science isn’t about knowing the mind of God.” Instead ID should be confined to courses in philosophy or religion. 1

Cornell’s comments are the latest salvo in the battle against introducing any competing theory to that of Darwinian evolution. Yet, there are several problems with Cornell’s thesis. First, he begs the question. To say that science can’t tell why God made the sky blue is not the point. The central question of the current debate is how living organisms came to be. That is a scientific question and the one being addressed by ID scientists.

Second, Cornell paints a caricature of intelligent design. For scientists involved in the ID movement, the issue is not, as Cornell asserts, “that nature is the way it is because God wants it to be that way.” This misrepresents the purpose of those involved with the intelligent design project. According to their own statements, ” . . . Intelligent Design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” 2 This statement outlines the crucial fault line between the two competing camps: the failure to recognize the legitimate relationship between science and religion.

The Intersection of Science and Religion

For Cornell to frame the debate as one between science and religion is a red herring, a maneuver used to lead the discussion away from the real issue. He assumes that science and religion do not intersect. He is not alone in this view, being a prominent tactic among many scientists today. For example, Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences, writes, ” . . . science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each.” 3

Similarly, in last month’s legal case regarding the introduction of intelligent design into Pennsylvania public school biology classes, the presiding judge referred to intelligent design as an “untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion.” This reveals a glaring misunderstanding concerning the relationship between religious ideas and the scientific enterprise, and is why most evolutionary scientists, judges, journalists, and even many Christians have missed the main point in the debate over what should be taught in science class.

The debate is not about “science,” by which is meant evolution, verses “religion,” the label attached to the theory of intelligent design. The debate is actually over two competing religious views. The reason for this is that the way someone interprets scientific observations is ultimately grounded in a religiously orientated understanding of the world. Worldview thinking provides the necessary framework to sort out why this is the case.

Worldview Thinking Begins with Theology

A worldview approach can be unpacked this way: The word “science” comes from the Latin root word, scire, meaning to know. But when we attempt to define how knowledge is gained we have moved outside the realm of science and are considering a question of philosophy. So right off we find that the discipline of science is based on another discipline, philosophy. But it goes further. Philosophy, too, does not stand alone. One’s theory of knowledge is the outgrowth of a certain view of God.

Since every worldview begins by answering the theological question, “What about God?,” every worldview is equally religious. For instance, if we begin with the premise that a personal, intelligent God exists and mankind is made in His likeness, than we conclude that knowledge (science) can be gained by observing the Designer’s handiwork. In other words, the universe is knowable because it was designed by a rational being. Modern science as we know it today was founded on this premise.

Take as one example, Johann Kepler (1571–1630), considered the founder of modern astronomy. Kepler demonstrated that the sun is the center of the solar system, published the first tables for tracking star motions, and contributed to the development of calculus. He stated that his research into the workings of the cosmos was merely “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” Kepler began his scientific research with the understanding that God had created the world in such as way that he could discover how it works.

So we find that modern science was founded on the intersection of a Christian theological/philosophical view of the world. Biblical theology and philosophy, as two sides of the same coin, provided the necessary starting point for unraveling the mysteries of the universe and the origin of life. Without this specific worldview, there would be no modern science as we know it today. This is why modern science did not develop in Hindu India or animistic Africa. Those worldviews did not provide the necessary theological starting point for a robust study of the world of nature.

Naturalistic Religion = Designer Substitute

On the other hand, if one assumes that God does not exist, he also holds a religious worldview, for atheism is just as religious as any other worldview; it is simply a different religion from theism, pantheism, or polytheism. Why? Because everyone has the same starting point for building their worldview, so every view is equally a religiously held belief.

Starting from an atheistic theology, matter (or nature) becomes the only reality. This philosophical view is called naturalism, and leads to the idea that knowledge only comes from natural causes. And with this theological/philosophical bias, scientists observe the universe and arrive at naturalistic conclusions regarding the origin of life.

An example of a non-theistic approach to science is the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. Contrary to popular belief, Charles Darwin was not a dispassionate scientific observer. He, too, began with a theological assumption: that nature, apart from God, can account for the diversity of life. According to Nancy Pearcy,

By the late 1830s [Darwin] writes . . . “The more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become.” This commitment to “the fixed laws of nature” preceded Darwin’s major scientific work and made it virtually inevitable that he would interpret the evidence through a naturalistic lens. 4

Darwin coined the phrase “natural selection” to describe how forces of nature combined to shape life into its various configurations, leaving God out of the picture. On Darwin’s view, Mother Nature was the “designer,” not Father God.

Note how today’s scientists are aware that scientific views cannot be disconnected from religious assumptions and implications:

British scientist Richard Dawkins observed that Darwin “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

Dr. Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy of biology at Florida State University, wrote, “Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today . . . [Evolution] came into being as a kind of secular ideology, an explicit substitute for Christianity.” 5

Harvard Paleontologist Richard Lewontin has said, “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to Materialism [naturalism]. Materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” 6

The current philosophy of knowledge related to the search for the origin of life is acknowledged in a statement issued by the National Academy of Sciences, which reads, “it is the job of science to provide plausible natural explanations for natural phenomena.” 7 Here we find a shift in the traditional definition and purpose of science. Instead of viewing the cosmos as a total system of God and nature, this new definition excludes God and leaves only nature. As it turns out, this is not a “neutral” view, one devoid of theological/philosophical assumptions. This statement reveals a worldview bias toward naturalism, the philosophical view that only nature exists, which itself rests on the theological assumption that God does not exist.

In other words, the supernatural (i.e., God) is left out of consideration by definition. But what if God is real and had something to do with creating life? According to the National Academy of Sciences we could never find that out by looking at nature. But that is a dogmatic, biased, belief one that is religiously held by the authors.

Intelligent design to the rescue

On the other hand, those who defend ID are open about their philosophical/religious assumptions in the interpretation of natural phenomena. ID scientists are willing to make observations about the natural world and are not afraid to explore both natural as well as supernatural explanations for interpreting the data, whichever best fits the facts.

So the real issue is whether an intelligent designer exists and what scientific observations lead to that conclusion. The origins debate is whether the current naturalistic bias will be the only religious worldview allowed in the classrooms of America. And this is where scientists, philosophers, professors, and educators involved in the intelligent design movement are raising interpretive challenges to a dogmatic naturalistic paradigm. Only when students are allowed to hear both sides of the current controversy will they be given a true education. Anything less is blatant indoctrination. For that reason, ID deserves a place in the science classroom.

Resources for Further Study


  1. http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,1126751,00.html. Accessed 03 January, 2006.
  2. Quoted from Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, heading “What is Intelligent Design?” Accessed 03 January, 2006.
  3. Bruce Alberts, in the Preface to Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences. Accessed 03 January, 2006.
  4. Nancy Pearcy, “You Guys Lost”: Is Design a Closed Issue?, in Mere Creation: Science, Faith & Intelligent Design, William A. Dembski, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), p. 77.
  5. Michael Ruse, “How evolution became a religion: creationists correct?” National Post, May 13, 2000, pp. B1, B3, B7.
  6. Quoted in “Billions and Billions of Demons,” The N.Y. Review of Books, January 9, 1997.
  7. From the online booklet, Science and Creationism: A View From the National Academy of Sciences. Accessed 03 January, 2006.