William A. Dembski has been one of the leading voices of the Intelligent Design movement. He is an associate research professor at Baylor University and a senior fellow with Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture in Seattle. He is also the executive director of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design. 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. Dembski earned a B.A. in psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago, 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.
Dembski's books include The Design Inference, No Free Lunch, Intelligent Design, and most recently The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design.
What is intelligent design, and how did you become a believer and an advocate for the idea?
What intelligent design does is it looks for signs of intelligence. Where it gets controversial is when it starts looking for signs of intelligence in biological systems. What makes it controversial is that if there is actual intelligence or design behind biology, it means that the intelligence is not an evolved intelligence. It's not an intelligence that's the result of blind purposeless material processes, as the Darwinists tell us. That's really what's at stake there.
I'm a mathematician, not a biologist. But in the late '80s, at the height of the chaos theory craze, I attended a conference on randomness at Ohio State University. The point of the conference was to try to understand the nature of randomness. But the conference concluded that we don't know what randomness is, or the way we get at randomness is by knowing what randomness is not. What would happen repeatedly was you'd find something with a pure random but then you'd find the pattern in it. Randomness was always a provisional designation until we found the pattern or design in it. I became something of an expert in the study of randomness, wrote on this, and from there got into the whole question of what are the patterns that we use to defeat randomness and infer design? And that set me on a trajectory I've been on for about 15 years now.
You talk about this being an old idea, what is new that gives it some kind of new impetus?
What it's got are precise criteria for identifying the effects of intelligence. The last time it had real currency was before Darwin. What intelligent design can do is we can get to some sort of generic intelligence and also these sort of intuitive criteria. We can get some precise, logical, mathematical and biological criteria. For instance, Michael Behe has his notion of irreducible complexity. I have a notion of specified complexity. We can start seeing how these ideas apply to actual biological systems.
Once you have identified the effects of intelligence, once you can be confident that you're dealing with a real intelligence in biology, then a host of new questions arise. We're not going to say, biological systems are designed, end of story, now we've proven our point and gone home. Intelligent design is an ambitious scientific program. We want to do more than just identify the effects of intelligence, we want to then work with that and see if we can get biological insights that we couldn't get otherwise.
Where do you see yourself right now as a movement in those stages?
I like to characterize this in terms of an alliteration that begins with P, the letter P, for preposterous, pernicious, possible, and plausible. I think that maybe about ten years ago we were at the preposterous stage.
Now we're at the pernicious stage. There are lots of people saying this is really dangerous, this threatens to overthrow science, these people have to be stopped. The real challenge is to move it from this to getting a fair hearing.
What are you trying to do in The Design Revolution?
I speak in a lot of different venues, mainly colleges and universities, and I find that often the most productive time there is not during my actual talk but afterwards when people ask questions. I thought it would be helpful in trying to move intelligent design from the pernicious to the possible stage, to write a book where I'd address these questions. And so what I did was I collected these questions together and then tried in some short, snappy chapters to answer them.
What is one of the most common questions that needs clarification?
One of the biggest is the difference between intelligent design and creation. Creation is always a doctrine of being, where did the world come from? Intelligent design is not concerned with ultimate origins, it's concerned with how do you explain the arrangement of certain material substances? How do you do that without saying where that stuff came from in the first place?
In what sense are the critics of intelligent design correct in saying that the ultimate conclusion and driving force behind intelligent design is a theistic drive?
Motivations are things held by people, not by theories. Intelligent design, as a scientific project, is trying to come to grips with effective intelligence, if such there be, in biological systems. The practitioners of intelligent design, the creationists, the fundamentalists, or the evangelicals, are they religious people? It seems to me that the question is irrelevant, and if you're going to pose it then I think you also need to pose it for the Darwinists, many of whom are militant atheists.
If you're going to put people on the couch and analyze their motivations, you look at Stephen Jay Gould, at Richard Dawkins, look at these people. Their evolution is serving their ideological end every bit as much as intelligent design may be serving someone else. I'm not sure I see it as a red herring.
Is it hurting the intelligent design movement within the scientific community that it is being embraced and promoted by leading evangelicals and by fundamentalists who want to see changes in school curriculum?
I don't think you've really nailed it down accurately. I'm finding that intelligent design is being accepted well outside any sort of evangelical or Christian mold. I was recently speaking at Oxford University. My sponsors were the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies. They were very much impressed with intelligent design. I'm finding that just about anybody with religious sensibilities who holds to, has some sort of spiritual longing, thinks that there's some sort of meaning or purposiveness behind the world, they're going to be favorably impressed with intelligent design. And they are going to be put off by this materialist bullying which says there's nothing behind the world.
Is intelligent design testable right now within science?
I would say intelligent design is testable, and Darwinian evolution is not testable. Darwin said that for a complex organ to form it would have to form according to a series by a numerous successive slight modifications. And then he said I can't think of anything that couldn't have formed that way. Well of course, if you don't specify a process any more specifically than numerous successive slight modification, then anything might be the result of such a process. The Darwinists assume no burden of evidence of proof as a consequence. And that holds to this day.
Now, with intelligent design, you can look at certain biological structures. We're arguing that they are intelligently caused. The most popular one that's been investigated is the bacterial flagellum. It's a little bi-directional motor-driven propeller on the backs of certain bacteria, marvel of nano-engineering, and so we've started to analyze systems like that and argue for their intelligent design.
It would be an easy enough thing for the Darwinists to come along and say, "this is how sub-systems could have formed." They would have to get a detailed testable step-by-step scenario of how these systems could have formed, according to some Darwinian trajectory or pathway, and if they did that for a number of such systems, I think intelligent design would crumble.
But the fact is that none of these systems has been amenable to Darwinian explanation. The thing is, this is from a theory without which nothing in biology is supposed to make sense.
What are the questions that are being driven into the intelligent design movement that are specifically designed to derail the movement?
There are many. Probably the main one is the argument from ignorance objection. The idea there is you really haven't proven design, what you've done is you've shown that current scientific theory still hasn't explained certain systems. But just give us enough time and research funding, and we'll show you how those material mechanisms, these Darwinian prosthesis could do the job. It's a big promissory note.
From their vantage we're guilty of incredulity. We're not seeing the brilliance of Darwin and the immense wonder-working power of natural selection. And from our vantage it's a problem of credulity. They're willing to believe anything. They're willing to believe anything about natural selection and not give intelligent design a shake, not being willing to consider it fairly.
The issue is to look fairly at both sides of the question and try to form a reasonable conclusion, and not just one that fulfills your pre-existing views.
What will it take for that to happen in large enough numbers for this to be a sustainable movement that changes things, versus a smaller subset who are dismissed as on the periphery of science?
We have the better argument, so I think increasingly people are going to realize that. But I think another thing which is going to work for us—and I think this is why I have a sense of inevitability even that we will succeed with this—is you found a younger generation who is looking and seeing, what do the Darwinists, materialists have to offer? What do the intelligent design people have to offer? And people's intuitions start with intelligent design, they don't start out as Darwinists. You have to be educated out of design. Someone like Richard Dawkins will write, "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." Now, that's page one of The Blind Watchmaker, and I don't think he needs 300 pages to explain why it's only an appearance.
If we can show that it's not merely an appearance but there is actual design there that's really appealing. So we've got a younger generation that is now going through the educational process, Darwinism is totally status quo, youth thrives on rebellion. I think it's only a matter of time. I think there will be a Berlin Wall collapse. It could happen fast if we see some major conversions.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More about the book is available from the publisher.
More about Dembski, including tons of Intelligent Design articles, is available from his web site.
The Discovery Institute has more information about Intelligent Design.
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