Who is William Dembski?
Dr. Dembski has taught at Northwestern University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Dallas. He has done postdoctoral work in mathematics at MIT, in physics at the University of Chicago, and in computer science at Princeton University. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago where he earned a B.A. in psychology, an M.S. in statistics, and a Ph.D. in philosophy, he also received a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1988 and a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1996. He has held National Science Foundation graduate and postdoctoral fellowships.
I found this fascinating interview posted at “The Best Schools”. It’s an exceedingly great read. I could not take my eyes off of it until I read the whole thing.
TBS: You have stated that “design theorists oppose Darwinian theory on strictly scientific grounds.” But then why is the ID movement so heavily populated with religious believers? Could we not expect more of the scientific community to support ID if your statement were true? Why do the majority of the world’s leading scientific bodies oppose ID and claim that it does not qualify as science?
WD: The quote needs context. I’ve also written that intelligent design, besides being a scientific program, has a theological dimension, in trying to understand divine action, and a cultural dimension, in trying to overturn naturalism. So intelligent design is a number of things. But at its core, it is a scientific program. Indeed, unless there is good science to back it up, all the cultural and theological superstructures that people build on it will be in vain.
As for why religious believers tend to be associated with design, I could turn the question around. If Darwinian evolution is strictly scientific, then why is that field so heavily populated with atheists? In one survey of around 150 prominent evolutionary biologists, only two were religious believers (as I recall, Will Provine was behind this survey). I see a scientific core to both intelligent design and Darwinian evolution. And I see no merit in questioning their scientific status by the company they keep. The character of the proposals that both approaches make is what really ought to count.
But why, then, have so many scientific bodies turned against ID? I recall speaking at a symposium at Grove City College back in 2007, and University of Wisconsin historian of science Ron Numbers mentioning that over 100 professional scientific societies had issued formal denunciations of intelligent design. It’s probably more by now.
I’ve been unimpressed with these denunciations. In every case, they have seemed to me politically motivated, attempting to ensure that the professional society doesn’t lose face should some of its wayward members be perceived as sympathizing with ID. I recall the AAAS denunciation of ID. I was a member at the time, though I let my membership lapse subsequently. When my colleagues inquired into who was behind their denunciation and what materials they had read that convinced them to issue it, it became clear that the materials were unread and the denouncers didn’t understand what they were denouncing.
As for more scientists coming on board with ID if it were legitimate, I think this question misses the point. The question is not legitimacy, but incentives. There are no incentives for coming on board with ID save that one thinks it offers some interesting ideas and true insights. There is no federal funding for ID research. If it’s known that you accept intelligent design and you’re in the mainstream academy, you can expect your career to be derailed. Support ID and expect some pain.
On the other hand, if you denounce intelligent design, you score points. Think of Judge Jones (right) in the Dover v. Kitzmiller case. After ruling against ID in 2005, he was voted one of 2005’s ten most sexy geeks by Wired magazine. Time magazine voted him one of the 100 most important thinkers of 2005. And the last I heard, he had been awarded four honorary doctorates (I’ve confirmed two of them). Jones’s claim to fame prior to Dover was not expertise in the theoretical underpinnings of evolutionary biology, but rather heading the Pennsylvania liquor commission.
I could recount case after case of mediocre academics who have done well for themselves (tenure, named professorships, etc.) by denouncing ID. And I can recount case after case of very bright individuals whose careers have been derailed for supporting, or even showing sympathy toward, ID. The documentary Expelled demonstrates this last point.
TBS: In 2000, after organizing and hosting a very successful and visible international conference (whose proceedings, coedited by you and Bruce Gordon, are now published as The Nature of Nature[ISI, 2011]), you were first demoted, then essentially fired, by Baylor University, in Waco, Texas. Can you explain how this came about? What were the ramifications of Baylor throwing you under the bus for you personally? What do you think the long-term ramifications of this incident have been for our intellectual culture as a whole?
WD: The short of it is that Baylor hired me to start an intelligent design think-tank, the Michael Polanyi Center, we put on a tremendously successful conference, and three days after the conference the faculty senate voted 27–2 to shut the center down. Not immediately, but a few months later, the Baylor administration acceded to the faculty senate’s wishes.
When I protested the center’s dissolution, I was fired as director from a center that had already ceased to exist. This, at Baylor—an ostensibly Christian institution. But in fact, the science faculty at Baylor were probably more Darwinian than their secular counterparts, having to prove that they were as “reliable” in their science as those outside.
The whole story is available online, arranged chronologically in a series of news articles: “The Rise and Fall of Baylor University’s Michael Polanyi Center.” If I had it to do again, I would never have gone to Baylor. But the past is past. It’s all there. It made national news. And Baylor got a black eye for its failure to respect freedom of thought and expression. But massive institutions like Baylor can handle a bit of battering. Private individuals who get chewed up by them are less fortunate.
The bottom line is that ID remains without the sort of institutional support that could accelerate its research and acceptance. I give the Darwinists credit here for their implacable opposition to ID. The Polanyi Center was the first and remains the last ID center at any college or university. It’s a sad commentary, not just on higher education, but on Christian higher education specifically.
One of the main lessons I’ve drawn from this is that most of the academic world, Christian included, is not so much concerned with truth as with fitting in and looking good. Perhaps I should have known that from the start. After the Polanyi Center closed, so too did much of the sympathy toward and curiosity about ID. In many people’s minds, ID was no longer a winner, and people like to be associated with a winner. We saw the same phenomenon a few years later with the Dover trial.
But history teaches that truth has little to do with winning and losing. Christ—the one who calls himself “the way, the truth, and the light”— is hardly a picture of victory on the Cross. So, I never lose heart.
For me personally, the Baylor episode has been better in the aftermath than in its unfolding at the time. Lots of people rallied to me. And I gained many valuable conversation partners. I had enough visibility and support so that I could land on my feet. But it could easily have turned out worse.
As for the ramifications of this incident for our culture as a whole, I don’t want to read too much into this. I don’t think it should be read as a decisive battle that changes the course of a war. Rather, I would see it as emblematic of the corruption that had existed in the academy already. This incident merely underscored the degree to which secular ideology was and remains entrenched in the academy.
This interview is fairly long, and well worth the read. William Dembski is someone I admire a great deal. He is probably the toughest Christian I know. How could someone as intelligent as he is – with multiple Masters degrees, Ph.Ds and post-doctoral posts – persist in his Christian faith after having his career ruined by Darwinian fascists and cowardly Christian theistic evolutionists, too? If you ever wondered where my extreme disgust for theistic evolutionists comes from, the answers are in this interview. It is not easy to do what Bill Dembski did and come out the other side. People in evangelical circles seem to fixate on sports heros, musicians, theologians and pastors. But none of these comes close to the level of toughness and defiance of William Dembski. If the world were fair in any way, then Christians would know more about William Dembski and his academic work than they know about Tim Tebow – no offense to Tebow.