The Case of the Missing Book: Setting the Record Straight on William Dembski, the Templeton Foundation, and Intelligent Design
A February 27, 2007 posting on Wikipedia by Joseph C. Campana with ResearchID.org suggests that “Media Misreports Intelligent Design Research and the John Templeton Foundation”.1 Campana argues that contrary to recent press statements by Charles Harper, the Templeton Foundation in fact does or at least once did supported Intelligent Design Theory (ID). William Dembski has also taken up this discussion on his own blog found at UncommonDescent.com.2
In 1998 and 1999, under the auspices of the Philadelphia Center for Religion and Science (PCRS), now known as the Metanexus Institute3, I managed a grant program for the John Templeton Foundation. The project was advertised under the title “Research, Writing, and Publications Exploring the Constructive Interaction of Science and Religion” and offered seven $100,000 grants. The project was designed and implemented at the request of Sir John Templeton and designated three-topical areas for funding: Evidence of Purpose, Human Creativity and Understanding, and Concepts of God. There were some 400 letters-of-intent received in January 1999, from which twenty-eight were invited to submit full proposals in May 1999.
Seven grants were awarded in September 1999, including one to William Dembski for his proposed book Being as Communion. Dembski has an impressive curriculum vitae, including a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago, a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. His dense book The Design Inference (Dembski, 1998) launched a highly technical debate among academics about information theory, complexity, and evolution. At the request of Dembski, the grant was received on his behalf by the Discovery Institute4, rather than Baylor University, where he had been hired to serve as the director of the newly created Michael Polyani Institute in October 1999.5
The judges involved in selecting the seven grantees were John Polkinghorne, Cambridge University; Philip Hefner, Zygon Journal; and Lawrence Sullivan, then director of Harvard University Center on World Religions. The Templeton Foundation played no role in the judging and selection process. Dembski’s book proposal set out to develop a scientific and theological reflection on the elusive nature of information:
“Being as Communion weds specified complexity to Shannon’s theory of information. An immediate consequence of this marriage is a conservation law for complex specified information. According to this law, undirected natural causes can transmit but cannot originate complex specified information. This law suggests that a fundamental teleology underlies the natural world. It follows that complex specified information, though instantiated in the natural world, is not reducible to the natural world. This is precisely the opening one needs for a relational ontology of communion: To be is to be in communion, and to be in communion is to exchange information. Being as Communion argues that this view makes not only good scientific sense, but also good metaphysical and theological sense.”6
The judges were skeptical about whether a law for complex specified information could be formalized and also shared concerns about the emerging Intelligent Design movement, but were intrigued by the metaphysical and theological treatment proposed by Dembski. Relational ontologies are not altogether new in metaphysics, see for instance A.N. Whitehead, but an information centric approach seemed new and promising.
In 2002, Dembski published No Free Lunch and requested a second installation payment on the Book Grant from the Templeton Foundation (Dembski, 2002). In correspondence with him, he was told by me that this book did not fulfill his obligation to publish a work on metaphysics and theology as detailed in his book proposal entitled Being as Communion. That book has still not been produced.
This is the case of the missing book, one that I sincerely hope Bill Dembski will write, a constructive theology of evolution and information theory. In truth, Dembski is not the only one of the seven grant winners who has not yet completed their proposed books. Three others, while productive in other ways, have also not completed their proposed books.
This book grant was launched at an early stage in both the evolution of the John Templeton Foundation and also the evolution of the Intelligent Design Movement. There were certainly sympathies towards aspects of the ID arguments and interest in pushing the technical and theological sides of their inquiry, but as the ID Theory became a political movement, the John Templeton Foundation began to slowly–perhaps too slowly–to disassociate itself from the Discovery Institute, William Dembski, and other protagonists in the debate.7
Metanexus Institute has hosted extensive discussions pro and con on Intelligent Design8, including many essays authored by William Dembski on our website.9 At our 2001 conference at Haverford College, we hosted a series of debates that included William Dembski and Michael Behe.10 At our Academic Board Meeting at Arizona State University in January 2006, we held an all day consultation on the topic followed by a public program in the evening.11 At our 2006 conference at the University of Pennsylvania, we held a teach-in entitled “Beyond Intelligent Design, Science Debates, and Culture Wars”. The latter is now available for purchase as a 3 DVD set.12 Our approach has always been to object to the polarization, the obfuscation, and mutual demonization that has characterized much of the debate about Intelligent Design. Metanexus affirms that a long and evolving Earth and Cosmic history is a well-established fact of science, but that the interpretation of this natural history, how it happens and what it means, is open to diverse points of views.
Why distance oneself from the Intelligent Design Movement? I cannot speak for the John Templeton Foundation,13 but we at Metanexus grew tired of the increasingly politicized debates about Intelligent Design Theory. Proponents were clearly engaged in a political campaign to change public education. While the erudite advocates were proposing what might be called “Intelligently Designed Evolution,” the core of the movement were mostly Young Earth Creationists. The genealogy of the movement was clearly motivated not by a technical scientific debate, but by a longstanding religious and ideological concern to overthrow evolution. The logic of the ID movement is essentially that evolution = Darwinism = materialism = atheism = immorality = nihilism. This is not a necessary correlation.
The evidence for a long and evolving Earth history has mounted exponentially over the centuries, even as our understanding for how this happens grows more complex.14 Whatever the inadequacies of the Darwinian paradigm, these do not undermine the reality of evolution. Darwinian natural selection alone may or may not be adequate for explaining the florescence, diversity and complexity of life on the planet (Wesson, 1991), (Depew, 1996), (Stewart 1998) (Oyama 2000), (Morris 2003). Darwin himself raises the question in The Origin of Species:
“I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species… Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the most important, but not the exclusive, means of modification.”
Whatever the deficiencies in Darwinism, whether it is an exclusive or even most important mechanism in the transmutation of species, these scientific debates do not necessarily imply “intelligently designed complexity” as an alternative and certainly not the only alternative.
Metanexus proposed in 2006 to clarify the public debate in our schools by focusing on teaching the history of nature as understood by science, before getting bogged down in interpretation of that history. While humans regularly distinguish between natural occurring objects and artifacts (those created by humans), there is no formal logic that allows one to make that distinction, nor any computer algorithm capable of making that distinction. Intelligent Design, therefore, is no more a scientific concept, than those who say that science proves meaninglessness and purposelessness in nature (Dawkins, 1986), (Dennett, 1995). Science qua science cannot detect meaninglessness and purposelessness as a metaphysical statement.
Historical sciences are necessarily different from laboratory sciences, because cosmology, evolution, and history are singular cases, which cannot be repeated in a controlled laboratory study. Intelligent Design is a plausible interpretative move, but not something that can be resolved by science, any more than science can tell us whether the universe is truly random. This limitation applies also to the apparent fine-tuning problem debated in contemporary cosmology.
Back in the fall of 2000, I privately challenged Dembski to publicly disassociate himself from the Young Earth Creationists and “come clean” on what version of natural history he thought should be taught in schools. His response, “Intelligent Design Coming Clean”, was published on Metanexus.net on November 18, 2000. Dembski wrote:
“I do not regard Genesis as a scientific text. I have no vested theological interest in the age of the earth or the universe… 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… ”
No argument here. Indeed, I would say a thoughtful reading of contemporary science is more indicative of transcendence, broadly defined, than of crass materialism reductio ad absurdum. Dembski continues:
“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…”
Agreed, but transcendence does not require or demand the use of the metaphor “design,” taken from human architecture and engineering. Nor, for reasons already stated, will it be possible to give a formal logic for distinguishing between natural and artifactual entities, especially when we employ different time frames and size scales in the examination. Dembski continues in his Metanexus essay:
“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…”15
And there with comes the rub. One can legitimately debate the meaning of evolution and how it occurs. These are engaging and difficult issues in science, philosophy, and the theology of nature.16 On the other hand, it is pretty stupid to choose as one’s allies those who deny the overwhelming accumulation of evidence in favor of a long Earth history and the transmutation of species.
I, for one, look forward to reading Bill Dembski’s proposed book Being as Communion, for which he was paid a generous advance by the John Templeton Foundation. I do not expect this book to discover empirically detectable design in nature, but rather to offer a rich and compelling metaphysical and theological discussion of how evolution might be understood in light of information theory and what it might mean in conversation with our theistic traditions.
10. Webcasts of these debates is available at http://www.counterbalance.org
12. The DVD includes lectures by Ian Barbour, George Ellis, Ursula Goodenough, John Haught, Nancey Murphy, Jeff Schloss, William Grassie, Norbert Samuelson, Stephen Barr, and many others. It is available for purchase for $49.95 plus $3 shipping. Contact [email protected].
16. I have already cited some of the literature, which while controversial, is nevertheless published with leading university presses and based on excellent research in embryology, developmental biology, mathematical biology, ecology, microbiology, genomics, proteomics, and systems theory.
Demski, W. (1998). The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities. New York, Cambridge University Press.
Demski, W. A. (2002). No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence. Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield.
Depew, D. a. B. W. (1997). Darwinism Evolving: Systems Dynamics and the Genealogy of Natural Selection.
Morris, S. C. (2003). Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. New York, Cambridge University Press.
Oyama, S. (2000). Evolution’s Eye: A Systems View of the Biology-Culture Divide. Durham, NC, Duke University Press.
Stewart, I. (1998). Life’s Other Secret: The New Mathematics of the Living World, Wiley & Sons.
Wesson, R. (1991). Beyond Natural Selection. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.