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Interview with Christian Renewal

Not much new here except for some observations about my time at Baylor, observations I was finally in a position to share, not being on the Baylor faculty anymore. –WmAD

William Dembski: An Intelligent Voice in the Design Debate
An interview by Glenda Mathes
(appeared in the 28sep05 vol24, no2
issue of Christian Renewal)

Dr. William A. Dembski is one of the most articulate and productive proponents of intelligent design theory. With advanced degrees in mathematics, philosophy and theology, Dembski’s intellectual arguments are making inroads within the scientific community while a more general audience finds his writing understandable.

An astute debater and prolific author, Dembski has written, co-authored and edited several books including: The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence, Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities, The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems, Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing and Signs of Intelligence: Understanding Intelligent Design.

Dr. Dembski is the Carl F. H. Henry Professor of Theology and Science at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and the executive director of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design.

Christian Renewal recently had the opportunity to interview him via email.

CR: Dr. Dembski, you write in The Design Revolution: “Intelligent design is not creationism and it is not naturalism. Nor is it a compromise or synthesis of these positions. It simply follows the empirical evidence of design wherever it leads. Intelligent design is a third way” (pp. 26-27). Can you briefly explain for Christian Renewal readers how intelligent design differs from creationism and naturalism and what it offers as a “third way”?

WD: Naturalism affirms that reality is constituted of material entities governed simply by undirected forces. Intelligence, from a naturalistic perspective, is simply the result of material processes working over the course of history (“blind evolution”). Creationism, on the other hand, affirms that there is an intelligence that governs nature but then goes further to assert that this intelligence is the Christian God who acted in line with Genesis, and specifically by interpreting Genesis so that the days of creation are six consecutive 24-hour days. Intelligent design is merely committed to an intelligence acting in and governing nature, without any stake in harmonizing this view with the Bible. Moreover, it claims to show that the actions of this intelligence are scientifically detectable.

CR: Do you ever feel as if you’re caught between the “rock” of creationists, who wish you were more overt in the expression of your biblical faith, and the “hard place” of evolutionists who accuse you of covertly trying to inject biblical faith into scientific debate?

WD: In fact, I tend to be on good terms with creationists. Duane Gish, perhaps the best known young-earth creationist after Henry Morris, commended intelligent design at a conference last year, saying “I love what you guys are doing.” A few years back, John Morris, head of the Institute for Creation Research likewise commended intelligent design to me, saying that while it did not go the whole way with the Christian doctrine of creation, it did sound the death knell for Darwinism, which he regards as a very good thing (as do I). I think many creationists are happy to see intelligent design as a positive contribution to our understanding of God’s handiwork in creation. To be sure, intelligent design falls short of providing a full doctrine of creation and some creationists are not entirely happy with this because they see it as distracting Christians from such a fuller understanding. But even that difference is ultimately a difference in emphasis. It does not undercut intelligent design and its role within a Christian worldview. As for the Darwinists and their efforts to try to identify intelligent design with young earth creationism, this is merely a transparent ploy. It has no intellectual merit. It is done simply for political purposes because creationism was defeated in the courts in the 1980s, and by identifying the two, they hope to avoid the hard work of defeating intelligent design by sound argument, something they have been utterly incapable of doing.

CR: Why is the adjective “intelligent” necessary to distinguish intelligent design from apparent design?

WD: Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker asserts that “biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” The language of design is common throughout biology. But most biologists take a materialistic view of biological origins and regard biological complexity as the result of an impersonal naturalistic process (e.g., natural selection and random genetic change). Thus, for most biologists, every instance of design in biology is merely apparent — there is no actual intelligence behind it. By contrast, in putting the adjective “intelligent” in front of “design,” proponents of intelligent design are emphasizing that they are referring to real design and not merely to apparent design. Note also that the adjective “intelligent” does not mean to imply anything about the goodness, cleverness, or competence of the designing intelligence. It is merely stressing that the intelligence is actual.

CR: Did you coin the term “specified complexity,” how would you define it, and why is it so important for intelligent design theory?

WD: The term has been around for at least thirty years, though until I gave it a rigorous formulation it was used intuitively or, as philosophers of science might say, pre-theoretically. The term refers to a type of patterned complexity that is best explained as the product of intelligence. Recall the movie Contact, which was about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Radio astronomers in the movie were looking for signs of intelligence from outer space in radio signals. In the movie they received a radio signal that came in as a sequence of beats and pauses. It was a long sequence, so it was complex. But complexity itself was not enough to require a design explanation (get out a coin and start flipping it long enough, and you’ll witness a highly complex sequence of coin tosses; still there won’t be any design there). Additionally what was needed was that the signal these astronomers received exhibited a salient pattern — in this case, it was a sequence of prime numbers. So it was complexity plus a particular type of pattern, what I call a specification, that convinced the astronomers that they were dealing with intelligence. This concept is important to intelligent design theory because it shows that we are not just blowing smoke — we have solid methods for identifying the effects of intelligence that in principle are applicable to biological systems. In other words, intelligent design is fully scientific.

CR: You’ve written several books and numerous articles, given lectures and participated in debates promoting the intelligent design theory. Yet it seems as if the more you articulate, the harsher criticism you receive. For instance, H. Allen Orr in “Devolution: Why intelligent design isn’t,” which appeared in the May 30, 2005 issue of The New Yorker, admits that your books “are generally well written and packed with provocative ideas,” but he also sharply criticizes you and calls intelligent design “junk science.” How do you view such attacks? Are they part of Darwinism’s death throes?

WD: I like to think of how scientists are reacting to intelligent design in terms of the stages of grief when someone is confronted with a catastrophe. Intelligent design represents nothing less than a catastrophe to conventional materialistic science, committed as it is to an atheistic understanding of the physical world. That’s because if we’re right, it’s not just evolutionary theory that must change but our very conception of science, which must open itself to intelligence as a fundamental power in nature. Recall that the stages of grief are usually the following:

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance

Even two or three years ago, the scientific community was still in a state of denial, denying that ID was any sort of factor in scientific discussions. We’re now clearly in the anger stage, with violent attempts to shut down the discussion (Orr’s criticisms are actually fairly tame — compare, for instance, the attacks by his close colleague Jerry Coyne). I expect soon enough evolutionists will start bargaining, attempting to minimize the importance of ID while trying to incorporate some of its legitimate insights. The problem is that ID cannot be assimilated into a strict materialism, and so the more atheistic scientists will become depressed. As for acceptance, I doubt that the old guard will ever get that far. Rather, acceptance will come from a younger generation that is able to throw off the shackles of materialistic thinking.

CR: When you wrote your preface to No Free Lunch in 2002, you were an associate research professor with no teaching duties at Baylor University’s Institute for Faith and Learning and thanked Robert Sloan, the University president, for the opportunity to devote “uninterrupted time” to research on intelligent design. Last September you were appointed as director of the newly established Center for Science and Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and began your new duties as the Carl F.H. Henry Professor of Theology and Science on June 1. What happened at Baylor?

WD: My story at Baylor has been widely reported and I give a complete chronicle on my website (www.designinference.com/documents/2005.05.ID_at_Baylor.htm). The short of what happened is that dogmatic materialists, both inside and outside the school pressured the Baylor administration to shut down an intelligent design research center that the administration had previously encouraged me to found. The administration bowed to pressure.

CR: One of your first actions at the Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor was to organize the impressive April 2000 conference on “The Nature of Nature,” which examined the role of naturalism in science, featured high profile scientists (including two Nobel laureates) from a variety of disciplines, and allowed good-natured exchanges between differing views. It was a huge success. In spite of that, the Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly just a few days later to request that the Baylor Administration dissolve the Center. The Administration appointed an External Review Committee whose report, while flattering Baylor’s scientific community, endorsed the work of the Center by suggesting that it expand its vision and change its name to reflect that broader scope. Your press release in response hailed the Committee’s report as a victory not only for academic freedom, but also for intelligent design “as a legitimate form of academic inquiry.” The final two sentences of your press release, which created an immediate uproar, stated: “Dogmatic opponents of design who demanded the Center be shut down have met their Waterloo. Baylor University is to be commended for remaining strong in the face of intolerant assaults on freedom of thought and expression.” Looking back on the firestorm that ensued from that press release, do you think you might have been hasty and do you regret the wording? Or do you believe your response was necessary and appropriate?

WD: Many people have interpreted my press release and the now famous “Waterloo” comment (it was widely reported in the press; Google reports over 500 hits) as an intemperate assault by a feisty academic who should have known when to shut up. Now that my appointment with Baylor is over, let me give you the real story. In May of 2000, before the review committee was installed, I was invited to speak on Capitol Hill before members of Congress. This was a bipartisan briefing — not a hearing — so there was no policy or law to be enacted on the basis of my remarks.

The Baylor administration, despite installing me as director of the Polanyi Center with duties to raise monies for the center, forbade me from attending this conference. I decided to play along (despite the clear violation of my academic freedom), but when a press release mistakenly appeared saying that I would be at the meeting on Capitol Hill after all, the Baylor campus was in an uproar and the Baylor administration drafted a letter which they wanted me to sign addressed to the Baylor community assuring them that I was not going to the Capitol Hill briefing because that would politicize intelligent design, something I could not do as director of the Polanyi Center.

I told the administration that I did not attend the briefing out of courtesy to them because of all the pressure they were under on account of the Polanyi Center, but that I would not sign the letter because I saw it as well within my prescribed duties to attend such meetings and that in the future I would do so. They reacted very negatively to this. In fact, they wanted to settle with me right then and there and show me to the door. I had to get a lawyer and after two months of negotiations they offered me $15,000 to buy me out of a five and a half year contract. I told them to forget it and that I would be moving to Waco [Ed. note: Baylor is located in Waco]. All this happened summer of 2000.

When the review committee finally met in September of 2000, it was a star chamber. I was grilled. All my works were scrutinized. I had no recourse to anyone on or outside campus. Unlike tenure review decisions, all the findings of the committee would be made public. John Moore, one of the persons on the committee, was interviewed in the local paper the day before the committee met with me and told the reporter that I was clever but that my work had only political, not scientific, significance. So the deck was already stacked against me.

When the committee issued its report a month later, they made four recommendations: (1) drop the name of the Polanyi Center; (2) absorb whatever entity it might become into Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning (in which I had no administrative authority); (3) change the emphasis of whatever this center might become from the scientific investigation of intelligent design to that fuzzy catch-all category known as “science and religion”; and (4) institute an advisory board to determine what should be done on the Baylor campus with regard to science and religion issues. In short, there was no more Polanyi Center.

The Baylor administration immediately signed off on these recommendations. I was to have been given two days notice about the review committee’s recommendations and the Baylor administration’s decision whether to adopt them. Instead, I learned of the recommendations Monday late afternoon. By Tuesday morning the review committee’s report was broadcast all over the Internet along with the Baylor administration’s full endorsement. By Tuesday afternoon the press was after me for comment. I therefore decided to issue the press release to which you referred. The one bright spot in the peer review committee report was that they had said my work had legitimacy. I decided to highlight that in the press release.

On the other hand, my whole purpose for coming to Baylor had been thwarted. My “Waterloo” comment was meant to underscore the irony, indeed the ridiculousness, of these entire proceedings. Unfortunately, those Baylor faculty who were most eager to shut down the Polanyi Center down were also the most humorless people I have ever met. Rather than seeing the irony and understanding that they had been completely victorious in crushing the Polanyi Center, they agitated still further, thereby compounding the irony. Thus Baylor president Robert Sloan, after shutting down the Polanyi Center, went further and fired me from a center that no longer existed. I still have that letter.

CR: Now that you’ve received the appointment at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and are regularly teaching classes, how will you find time to continue your research and your prolific publication schedule? How will your current work at the Seminary promote your goals with regard to intelligent design?

WD: As for my duties at Southern Seminary, I see this as an opportunity to influence and attract talent to the ID movement from a denomination that has by and large stayed faithful to traditional Christian belief. I don’t see my teaching duties as undercutting my research. I can do doctoral seminars on books that I’m writing, and I find it helpful to interact with students to see how my ideas are being received and how I need to clarify them.

CR: In your preface to The Design Revolution, you write that clearing away the stumbling blocks is “the most important task in moving the design revolution forward.” What are the primary stumbling blocks, what can the average person do to clear them away, and why should a Christian work to promote intelligent design theory?

WD: As for clearing away stumbling blocks, I was referring to questions raised in many people’s minds about intelligent design that prevent them from taking its claims seriously. I think my book The Design Revolution does a good job clearing away such obstacles, as do many other books and videos that my colleagues and I have recently produced — I think especially of the video Unlocking the Mystery of Life, available through Illustra Media. Such a “ground clearing” operation is important from the vantage of Christian apologetics because atheists and agnostics often appeal to a materialistic way of viewing science to dismiss the claims of Christian faith. Richard Dawkins, for instance, remarks that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Intelligent design no longer leaves atheists that option.

CR: I’ve read that a sovereign Creator who was also a personal God was “off your radar” when you were younger. How and when did that change for you and what role has your Christian faith played in developing your theories of intelligent design? What role does your faith continue to play in your work?

WD: I would say my faith has been very important in getting me to think that certain lines of scientific inquiry might prove fruitful when on materialistic grounds those lines of inquiry would be precluded from the start. In short, my faith encouraged me to look in new places and explore new possibilities. Robert Schuller has coined the phrase “possibility thinking,” which, regardless of how one views Schuller’s theology, seems to capture what my faith brought to my scientific and intellectual endeavors. Because Christian theology teaches that God by wisdom made the world, it is a perfectly natural question whether any aspects of that wisdom might be evident to scientific investigation. What I found is a natural world chock-full of design.

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2 Responses to Interview with Christian Renewal

  1. Baylor missed an opportunity when the Polanyi Center was closed.
    Darwinists won that battle. But I don’t see how they can win the war.
    Heavy handed attacks are the last resort of a failing regime. (For an historical on this theory see…events surrounding the Cross.)

  2. If Darwinism ain’t a religion, then what’s all that foam on their lips?

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