How is the Intelligent Design Movement Doing? Interview with William Dembski.
William A. Dembski is one of the founders of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. He is largely known for being the mathematician and philosopher behind ID, having written three critical academic books: The Design Inference (Cambridge University Press, 1998), No Free Lunch (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), and Being as Communion (Ashgate, 2014). He has also written a textbook on intelligent design (The Design of Life), and many other influential books such as The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (B&H Academic, 2009).
Since we wrote a book together in 2008 (Understanding Intelligent Design), people often ask me what Dr. Dembski is doing these days. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the state of ID and his current professional focus. Enjoy!
SEAN MCDOWELL: What kind of research and writing have you been up to lately? What do you hope to accomplish?
WILLIAM DEMBSKI: Thanks Sean for this opportunity to address your readers. It’s been almost a decade since we collaborated on our book Understanding Intelligent Design: Everything You Need to Know in Plain Language. It was fun working with you on that book, and I still think it’s a good book that wears its age well.
With regard to my research, it has shifted quite a bit these days. I’m largely retired from intelligent design. My last serious writing effort on intelligent design was my 2014 book Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information. It encapsulates my two decades work on intelligent design, and I’m not sure I have a whole lot more to add.
My work these days is focused on the connections between technology, education, and freedom. I tend to keep a low profile here, but I’m essentially an entrepreneur and businessman these days, involved with various startups and websites. I’m especially interested in developing interactive learning tools for helping people in the majority world get educated, get out of poverty, and enjoy freedom.
But I remain a writer at heart, and am still publishing books. My two latest are (1) a biography of the math teacher Jaime Escalante[i] and (2) an intelligent design book on evolutionary informatics (I said I was “largely” retired from ID, not fully retired!)
MCDOWELL: Now that it is over two decades in, how would you rate progress of the intelligent design movement in countering Darwinism?
DEMBSKI: I would say that we have by far the better argument. Indeed, the Conservation of Information results described in my book Being as Communion (cited in the last question) and developed at length by me and my colleagues at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab seem to me to show that Darwinism cannot succeed as a complete theory of evolution, and that it requires hidden sources of information that it must smuggle in and that are best conceived as the product of intelligence. So I would say we have shown (as in demonstrated and not merely gestured at) that naturalistic evolution is a failed intellectual and scientific enterprise.
Unfortunately, progress is not merely gauged in terms of intellectual accomplishment but also in terms of social and cultural impact. Here we still have our work cut out for us. Go to Wikipedia, and the editors responsible for the article on intelligent design have made sure to discredit it from the get-go: the very first sentence refers to it as a pseudoscience. So we may have truth on our side, but we’re still largely marginalized.
MCDOWELL: What do you consider some of the greatest successes, and also challenges, in the ID movement?
DEMBSKI: Unlike creationism, with which it is often conflated, intelligent design shifts the discussion of biological origins from a religion vs. science controversy to a science vs. science controversy. This is a success, even if ID’s critics continue to try to claim that it is religion in scientific garb.
There are really two strands to ID’s scientific program. There’s the pure information-theoretic side, as represented by the Evolutionary Informatics Lab, and then there’s the molecular biology research side, as represented by the Biologic Institute and its journal Bio-Complexity.[ii] We continue to push the research frontiers forward on both sides.
The biggest challenge for us is gathering a talent pool and the funding to accelerate this research program. The incentive structure in the scientific community rewards bashing intelligent design and vilifying its proponents. If you doubt this, see Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.
MCDOWELL: As a whole, how would you assess the reception of ID within the church?
DEMBSKI: I would say that the church broadly and even the evangelical community has --- on balance --- been somewhere between useless and downright counterproductive to the success of ID. I know this may sound strange, but note my qualification: on balance. Of course, a crucial nucleus of support for ID has come largely from the church and especially evangelical Christians. But that nucleus is small. By contrast, the opposition to ID in the church is large.
On the one hand, there are the theistic evolutionists, who largely control the CCCU schools (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities), and who want to see ID destroyed in the worst possible way --- as far as they’re concerned, ID is bad science and bad religion.
And then there are the young-earth creationists, who were friendly to ID in the early 2000s, until they realized that ID was not going to serve as a stalking horse for their literalistic interpretation of Genesis. After that, the young-earth community largely turned away from ID, if not overtly, then by essentially downplaying ID in favor of anything that supported a young earth.
The Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky is a case in point. What an embarrassment and waste of money. I’ve recently addressed the fundamentalism that I hold responsible for this sorry state of affairs.[iii]
MCDOWELL: How do you see the future of ID?
DEMBSKI: I think ID finds itself in a similar environment that democratically minded people behind the iron curtain found themselves in during the 1970s and 1980s. The communist ideology in Eastern Europe as dictated by the Soviet Union was clearly not working. Food shortages, poor standards of living, a world of grays rather than colors were the norm.
I would say we see a comparable failure with the ideologies of naturalistic evolution, theistic evolution, and young-earth creationism. Unfortunately, it often takes reality a while to catch up with bad ideas. With communism in Eastern Europe, reality came suddenly with the fall of the Berlin Wall (this was especially meaningful to me since my mother had lived through the Berlin Air Lift and my uncle was a professor at the Technical University in West Berlin when the Wall fell).
In the long run, I do see ID as succeeding. But as John Maynard Keynes put it, “in the long run we’re all dead.” I don’t have a crystal ball, and I’m not holding my breath that we’re going to see ID victorious, as in becoming the dominant paradigm of biological origins, any time soon. As a New Yorker cartoon put it over half a century ago --- attorney speaking to client: “You have a pretty good case, Mr. Pitkin. How much justice can you afford?” I’d say we have a very good case, but propaganda and ideology can be formidable foes.
TWO POST-INTERVIEW CLARIFICATIONS BY DEMBSKI
(1) The interview above was brief, and I had groups like AiG in mind when addressing young earth creationism/ists. I should have been clearer that my target was what may more precisely be called institutional young-earth creationism --- comprised of young earth creationists who think that anything other than a literalistic interpretation of the Genesis days constitutes heresy and that this interpretation needs to serve as a litmus test for biblical orthodoxy and right thinking in general. Frankly, I don't care what you believe about the age of the earth. But if you use the young-earth position as a club to beat down the views of others (and this has happened to me repeatedly, with my job on the line), then I do have a problem with you. My apologies to young-earth creationists who see the scientific merit of intelligent design and who hold their views about the age of the earth undogmatically. Thankfully, such do exist.
(2) In my remarks about the role of the church in advancing ID, I was trying to be a bit provocative to get people thinking. To be sure, well-wishers of ID abound in Christian circles. But how many are willing to put their necks on the chopping block and make a real difference in the scientific and cultural debate? As 19th century activist Annie Besant put it:
Plenty of people wish well to any good cause, but very few care to exert themselves to help it, and still fewer will risk anything in its support. “Some one ought to do it, but why should I?” is the ever re-echoed phrase of weak-kneed amiability. “Some one ought to do it, so why not I?” is the cry of some earnest servant of man, eagerly forward springing to face some perilous duty.
So, how much good has the Christian community really done in advancing ID? Sure, there have been pockets of genuine support in the Christian community. But why is the first and only ID think-tank/research center at a Christian college or university Baylor's Michael Polanyi Center (which I founded in 1999, and which was dismantled the following year --- thanks in this case not to young-earth creationists but to theistic evolutionists)? And why is the $100M spent on a Noah's Ark theme park several times more than has been spent on all ID efforts over the last 20 years? Let's get some sense of proportion.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.
[i] http://www.thebestschools.org/jaime-escalante-inspired-learning/ -- this is an ebook that will also be published in hardcopy.