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Cards on the Table

In the movie Dream Team starring Michael Keaton, Keaton plays a psychiatric patient who must feign sanity to save his psychiatrist from being murdered. In protesting his sanity, Keaton informs two New York City policemen that he doesn't wear women's clothing, that he's never danced around Times Square naked, and that he doesn't talk to Elvis. The two police officers are much relieved. Likewise, I hope with this essay to reassure our culture's guardians of scientific correctness that they have nothing to fear from intelligent design. I expect to be just as successful as Keaton.

First off, let me come clean about my own views on intelligent design. Am I a creationist? As a Christian, I am a theist and believe that God created the world. For hardcore atheists this is enough to classify me as a creationist. Yet for most people, creationism is not identical with the Christian doctrine of creation, or for that matter with the doctrine of creation as understood by Judaism or Islam. By creationism one typically understands what is also called "young earth creationism," and what advocates of that position refer to alternately as "creation science" or "scientific creationism." According to this view the opening chapters of Genesis are to be read literally as a scientifically accurate account of the world's origin and subsequent formation. What's more, it is the creation scientist's task to harmonize science with Scripture.

Given this account of creationism, am I a creationist? No. I do not regard Genesis as a scientific text. I have no vested theological interest in the age of the earth or the universe. I find the arguments of geologists persuasive when they argue for an earth that is 4.5 billion years old. What's more, I find the arguments of astrophysicists persuasive when they argue for a universe that is approximately 14 billion years old. I believe they got it right. Even so, I refuse to be dogmatic here. I'm willing to listen to arguments to the contrary. Yet to date I've found none of the arguments for a young earth or a young universe convincing. Nature, as far as I'm concerned, has an integrity that enables it to be understood without recourse to revelatory texts. That said, I believe that nature points beyond itself to a transcendent reality, and that that reality is simultaneously reflected in a different idiom by the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

So far I'm not saying anything different from standard complementarianism, the view that science and Scripture point to the same reality, albeit from different vantages. Where I part company with complementarianism is in arguing that when science points to a transcendent reality, it can do so as science and not merely as religion. In particular, I argue that design in nature is empirically detectable and that the claim that natural systems exhibit design can have empirical content.

I'll come back to what it means for design in nature to have empirical content, but I want for the moment to stay with the worry that intelligent design is but a disguised form of creationism. Ask any leader in the design movement whether intelligent design is stealth creationism, and they'll deny it. All of us agree that intelligent design is a much broader scientific program and intellectual project. Theists of all stripes are to be sure welcome. But the boundaries of intelligent design are not limited to theism. I personally have found an enthusiastic reception for my ideas not only among traditional theists like Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but also among pantheists, New-Agers, and agnostics who don't hold their agnosticism dogmatically. Indeed, proponents of intelligent design are willing to sit across the table from anyone willing to have us.

That willingness, however, means that some of the people at the table with us will also be young earth creationists. Throughout my brief tenure as director of Baylor's Michael Polanyi Center, adversaries as well as supporters of my work constantly pointed to my unsavory associates. I was treated like a political figure who is unwilling to renounce ties to organized crime. It was often put to me: "Dembski, you've done some respectable work, but look at the disreputable company you keep." Repeatedly I've been asked to distance myself not only from the obstreperous likes of Phillip Johnson but especially from the even more scandalous young earth creationists.

I'm prepared to do neither. That said, let me stress that loyalty and friendship are not principally what's keeping me from dumping my unsavory associates. Actually, I rather like having unsavory associates, regardless of friendship or loyalty. The advantage of unsavory associates is that they tend to be cultural pariahs (Phillip Johnson is a notable exception, who has managed to upset countless people and still move freely among the culture's elite). Cultural pariahs can keep you honest in ways that the respectable elements of society never do (John Stuart Mill would no doubt have approved). Or as it's been put, "You're never so free as when you have nothing to lose." Cultural pariahs have nothing to lose.

Even so, there's a deeper issue underlying my unwillingness to renounce unsavory associates, and that concerns how one chooses conversation partners and rejects others as cranks. Throughout my last ten years as a public advocate for intelligent design, I've encountered a pervasive dogmatism in the academy. In my case, this dogmatism has led fellow academicians (I hesitate to call them "colleagues" since they've made it clear that I'm no colleague of theirs) to trash my entire academic record and accomplishments simply because I have doubts about Darwinism, because I don't think the rules of science are inviolable, and because I think that there can be good scientific reasons for thinking that certain natural systems are designed. These are my academic sins, no more and no less. And the academy has been merciless in punishing me for these sins.

Now, I resolutely refuse to engage in this same form of dogmatism (or any other form of dogmatism, God willing). To be sure, I think I am right about the weaknesses of Darwinism, the provisional nature of the rules of science, and the detectability of design in nature. But I'm also willing to acknowledge that I may be wrong. Yet precisely because I'm willing to acknowledge that I might be wrong, I also want to give other people who I think are wrong, and thus with whom I disagree, a fair chance -- something I've too often been denied. What's more, just because people are wrong about some things doesn't mean they are wrong about other things. Granted, a valid argument from true premises leads to a true conclusion. But a valid argument from false premises can also lead to a true conclusion. Just because people have false beliefs is no reason to dismiss their work.

One of the most insightful philosophers of science I know as well as one of my best conversation partners over the last decade is Paul Nelson, whose book On Common Descent is now in press with the University of Chicago's Evolutionary Monographs Series. Nelson's young earth creationism has been a matter of public record since the mid eighties. I disagree with Nelson about his views on a young earth. But I refuse to let that disagreement cast a pall over his scholarly work. A person's presuppositions are far less important than what he or she does with them. Indeed, a person is not a crank for holding crazy ideas (I suspect all of us hold crazy ideas), but because his or her best scholarly efforts are themselves crazy.

If someone can prove the Goldbach conjecture (i.e., that every even number greater than two is the sum of two primes), then it doesn't matter how many crazy ideas and hair-brained schemes he or she entertains -- that person will win a Fields Medal, the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize. On the other hand, if someone claims to have proven that pi is a rational number (it's been known for over a century that pi is not only an irrational number but also a transcendental number, thus satisfying no polynomial equation with integer coefficients), then that person is a crank regardless how mainstream he or she is otherwise. Kepler had a lot of crazy ideas about embedding the solar system within nested regular geometric solids. A full half of Newton's writings were devoted to theology and alchemy. Yesterday's geniuses in almost every instance become today's cranks if we refuse to separate their best work from their presuppositions.

I challenge anyone to read Paul Nelson's On Common Descent, which critiques Darwin's idea of common descent from the vantage of developmental biology, and show why it alone among all the volumes in the University of Chicago's Evolutionary Monographs Series does not belong there (of course I'm refusing here to countenance an ad hominem argument, which rejects the book simply because of Nelson's creationist views). I don't distance myself from creationists because I've learned much from them. So too, I don't distance myself from Darwinists because I've learned much from them as well. I commend Darwinists like Michael Ruse, Will Provine, and Elliott Sober for their willingness to engage the intelligent design community and challenge us to make our arguments better.

Unlike Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA ("Non-Overlapping Magisteria") principle, which separates science and religion into tight compartments and which Todd Moody has rightly called a gag-order masquerading as a principle of tolerance, intelligent design theorists desire genuine tolerance. Now the problem with genuine tolerance is that it requires being willing to engage the views of people with whom we disagree and whom in some cases we find repugnant. Unfortunately, the only alternative to the classical liberalism of John Stuart Mills, which advocates genuine tolerance, is the hypocritical liberalism of today's political correctness.

In place of Gould's NOMA, design theorists advocate a very different principle of interdisciplinary dialogue, namely, COMA: Completely Open Magisteria. It is not the business of magisteria to assert authority by drawing disciplinary boundaries. Rather, it is their business to open up inquiry so that knowledge may grow and life may be enriched (which, by the way, is the motto of the University of Chicago). Within the culture of rational discourse, authority derives from one source and one source alone -- excellence. Within the culture of rational discourse, authority never needs to be asserted, much less legislated.

But is intelligent design properly part of the culture of rational discourse? At every turn opponents of design want to deny its place at the table. For instance, Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, claims intelligent design is even less reputable than young earth creationism because at least the creationists are up front about who the designer is and what they are trying to accomplish. Howard Van Till for the last several years has been claiming that design theorists have not defined what they mean by design with sufficient clarity so that their views can be properly critiqued. And most recently Larry Arnhart, writing in the current issue of First Things (Nov. 2000, p. 31), complains: "Do they [i.e., design theorists] believe that the 'intelligent designer' must miraculously intervene to separately create every species of life and every 'irreducibly complex' mechanism in the living world? If so, exactly when and how does that happen? By what observable causal mechanisms does the 'intelligent designer' execute these miraculous acts? How would one formulate falsifiable tests for such a theory? Proponents of 'intelligent design theory' refuse to answer such questions, because it is rhetorically advantageous for them to take a purely negative position in which they criticize Darwinian theory without defending a positive theory of their own. That is why they are not taken seriously in the scientific community."

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. William Dembski

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