ID Opens Astronomer’s Mind to Universe’s Surprises

Guillermo Gonzalez talks about why he’s an intelligent design astronomer and how that opens his mind.
Julia C. Keller
Science & Theology News
November 10, 2005
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Related Story:Gonzalez, Iowa State’s "Wizard of ID," on defensive
Iowa State astronomy assistant and Intelligent Design supporter Guillermo Gonzalez says his critics have got him wrong.

In 1995, a solar eclipse he saw in India made him think about Earth’s unique place in the universe — a place designed to be able to study such phenomenon. Though there was no “Eureka!” moment, Gonzalez felt strongly that chance couldn’t explain Earth’s privileged position. And last year, Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards, another fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, published The Privileged Planet.

Currently, Gonzalez has been busy fighting intellectual battles on campus (See sidebar.) and continuing his own research on the Galactic Habitable Zone — the part of the galaxy that seems to have the right conditions to support life: conditions that all together, he says, are very rare.

Taking time out of his astrobiology studies and stepping out of the debate for a moment, Gonzalez talks about why he is an intelligent design astronomer and how that lets him travel in an unbounded universe.

What is your definition of intelligent design?

Intelligent design is the study and search for objective evidence of design in nature. It holds that certain features of nature are best explained by an intelligent cause.

When did you start thinking about intelligent design?

It’s hard to pin a precise year on it. I gradually became interested in the idea of possible evidence of design in nature, in astronomy in particular. I was interested in reading about fine-tuning.

The fine-tuning argument basically is that the concept of physics requires being set within certain narrow ranges for the possibility of life in the universe. And so fine-tuning makes this a very low-probability universe.

And with the anthropic principle, you have to come to terms with that observation.

Basically there are two camps: One camp says that it’s just an observer selection effect. And we’ve just selected this universe out of a vast ensemble of habitable universes. The other camp says that intelligent design is the best explanation, since we have no evidence for any such vast ensemble of universes.

How do use intelligent design in your research?

My argument that I wrote up with Jay Richards we presented in our book, The Privileged Planet; it’s a completely original argument. We present the discovery that I made around the late ’90s, where I noticed that those places in the universe that are most habitable for life also offer the best opportunities for scientific discovery. That seems completely unexplainable in terms of the usual naturalistic causes. So, intelligent design is the only alternative.

We actually drew that out a bit and further implied that the universe is designed for scientific discovery. So science is built into the fabric of the universe from the very beginning.

What is the most compelling example of design in the universe?

The first example I thought of was the solar eclipse. The conditions you need to produce a solar eclipse also make Earth a habitable planet.

The other one that really intrigues me is being able to detect microwave background radiation. Microwave background radiation is the leftover radiation from that early epoch when the universe was much hotter and denser. It was the deciding observation between the steady-state theory and the big-bang theory. Our ability to discover it and then measure it subsequently is very sensitive to our location in the galaxy, and also the time and history of the universe that we live in.

What does using ID allow you to do that current scientific inquiry doesn’t allow for?

I asked and continue to ask kinds of questions that a naturalist wouldn’t ask. For example, if we were living on a different planet, or around a different star, or in a different place in the galaxy, how would things look different, and what kind of scientific progress would we have?

It’s a perfectly reasonable set of questions — it’s just a set of questions that hasn’t occurred to anybody else to ask. I think it’s because they haven’t been open to the possibility of design, or getting an affirmative answer, which would point to design.

How would you construct a research program around this?

I could imagine having a student do a Ph.D. thesis asking the question: What is the best time in the history of the universe to be a cosmologist? They can modify that using the standard cosmological models. They can find out if we are, in fact, living at the best time, or if it’s a distant time from now. It’ll be interesting to find out the answer to that.

How does your faith affect your

I am a Christian. I’ve had a strong intuition from a very early age that there had to be something behind all this.

It makes me open to discovering the possibility of design, but I don’t impose my faith on the data. I’m constantly reminding myself of my own personal biases so I don’t inject them into research. But at the same time, I have a very open mind to seeing evidence that may not fit into the nice, neat categories provided by naturalism.

Why does science need the concept of intelligent design?

It’s not something that a priori needs the concept of intelligent design. Here’s something I stumbled upon and I discovered this pattern in the universe. It just screams out for another kind of explanation. It’s not that I’m saying that the universe must display evidence of design, or I must be able to find something to fit that. I stumbled upon this and I can’t explain it in the usual terms.

How does this alternate explanation of design in the universe lend itself to theology?

I’d like to try to keep my work in intelligent design separate from discussions of the implications of intelligent design. As an ID researcher, I know my limitations. You can say, “Okay, I think I’ve identified design in the universe, and here is the evidence.” And that’s it. I can’t identify the designer uniquely.

If you want to partake into the theological discussion, let’s bring in theological elements into it. Then it becomes broader than intelligent design.

I can imagine expanding this discussion, writing a second book just discussing the implications — bringing in aesthetics, philosophy and theology, which are less objective. But in our book, we wanted to keep the theology separate from the science.

Why do you need an intelligent >design paradigm to explain the natural world?

As a scientist looking out at nature, I want to be open to possible evidence that a designer exists. If I say ahead of time, “Well, I’m not going to allow the universe to present objective evidence,” then you’re never going to be open to it. It’s like the SETI [Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence] researchers who say, “The probability of life in the universe may be small, but if we don’t look we’ll never know.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, virtually all scientists believed the universe was eternal. Then came the shock of the big-bang theory with the evidence of the expansion of the universe. They had to actually consider the possibility the universe had a beginning. So, the universe can surprise us. I would rather be more open to the possibility of being surprised.

Is this the suggestion you would give the scientific community about intelligent design?

Scientists, who may not even be design-friendly, may stumble upon design evidence, and I’m just hopeful that they’re open-minded enough to just present it and admit that they stumbled upon it.

Julia C. Keller is the science editor of Science and Theology News.