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Varghese stresses he is not talking about intelligent design, the controversial theory that triggered a tempest on the campus of Southern Methodist University in mid-April when several of the university's science professors tried to shut down a conference dubbed Darwin vs. Design. The conference was staged by scientists and theorists from the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that actively promotes the theory that an unspecified intelligent mechanism drives evolution. ID theory is not science, the SMU profs scoffed. "Intelligent design does not contain the criteria for science, because a deity comes in and makes things happen," says SMU biology department chair Larry Ruben. "And once that happens science can't prove or disprove that."
Varghese mostly steers clear of the ID debate. He says the arguments sustaining it, such as the idea that certain biological systems are too complex to have evolved from less complete predecessors, are easily refuted. His arguments, he says, transcend such disputes.
A devout Syrian Rite Catholic, Varghese was born and raised in the mountains and jungles of Kerala, India, a small state on the southwestern side of the peninsula that's known for its lush natural beauty. Kerala is home to Anai Peak, which at 8,842 feet is the highest in peninsular India, and a linked chain of lagoons and backwaters along the coast, interspersed with vast coconut palm groves—the "Venice of India." Kerala is known as "God's own country."
Jewish immigrants arrived in Kerala in the first century A.D., and Syrian Rite Christians believe the Apostle Thomas arrived around the same time to proselytize amongst Kerala's Jewish settlements. Varghese belongs to one of the many Kerala families who believe they are the descendants of those converted by St. Thomas.
In college, Varghese studied literature and liberal arts, earning a master of arts from Madras University. While studying science and philosophy Varghese came to embrace atheism because, he says, atheism was the canon of many of the world's most famous thinkers. Why not emulate them? "I went through my own period of insanity," he admits. He has other names for atheism: confused, schizophrenic, arrant nonsense, a form of irrationality. After deeper study he became convinced of God's existence and gradually found confirmation in the works of leading philosophers and scientists.
In 1982, Varghese moved to Dallas to attend Baylor University, where he earned a master's degree in international journalism. But he is best-known for his passion for exploring the interface between science and religion. His writings have been praised by Nobel laureates such as Charles H. Townes (inventor of the laser) and Arno Penzias (co-discoverer with Robert Woodrow Wilson of the microwave background radiation in the universe that lent credence to Big Bang cosmology). In 1992 he edited (along with the late Yale physics professor Henry Margenau) Cosmos, Bios, Theos, a series of replies from 60 scientists (including 24 Nobel laureates) to questions exploring the relationship between religion and science as well as the origins of life and the universe. In 1995 he captured a Templeton Book Prize for his book Cosmic Beginnings and Human Ends, the reflections of leading scientists and thinkers on the limits of science in making sense of the cosmos. He landed on the science and religion panel of the Parliament of World Religions held in Chicago in 1993. Varghese is a man of huge philosophical appetites.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Wonder of the World, a book that demands stringent focus to maneuver through its many arguments and assertions. It's structured as a chat-room dialogue between two fictional characters: Joseph Levin, an MIT artificial intelligence researcher, and Madhva Mitra, founder of the fictional Sakshi Hermitage in the Himalayas and a professor from the fictional Wykeham College in Oregon. Levin says religious belief is superstition. Mitra argues modern science supports a religious view of reality. Levin adopts the screen name "Geek." Mitra takes "Guru." The chat is often clumsy, with Guru expelling torrents of philosophical argument running for pages to Geek's antagonistic spurts that barely form a paragraph. Geek seems a token, perhaps owing to his embrace of what Varghese deems arrant nonsense. Nevertheless, Varghese claims he has received requests seeking the e-mail addresses of Guru and Geek, so it seems an effective device.
The foundation of Wonder is what Varghese dubs "the matrix," a sort of theory of everything distilled by four great religious thinkers: Moses Maimonides (Judaism), Thomas Aquinas (Christianity), Avicenna (Islam) and Shri Madhvacharya (Hindu). The matrix is the engine of logic underlying the scientific method, Varghese says. Its basic tenets are simple: The world exists; the universe is intelligible and rational because it was brought into being by sheer intelligence; human beings can discover and know truths about the world because human beings have minds distinct from matter that function rationally and discern meaning.
Varghese argues passionately that science cannot proceed without faith in scientifically unprovable assumptions that the universe is logical, rational and governed by a consistent set of physical laws, that these assumptions are valid and that we can explore and then understand what is observed. If the universe is at bottom irrational, the product of chance without purpose or intelligibility and merely a random assemblage of atoms and fields, we should have no confidence in our judgments concerning it. Atheism is contradictory at its core in that it denies underlying rationality while clinging to the rationality and logical consistency on the surface of things.
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