Thursday, January 19, 2012

Interview with William Dembski

A website called The Best Schools conducted a fascinating and wide-ranging interview with William Dembski who is one of the leading lights of the Intelligent Design movement. The interview gives numerous insights into Dembski the man - his youth, his family, his motivations, etc. - and then closes with this Q & A:
TBS: Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers? What do you see as the chances that free and open debate, without intimidation, about natural selection and evolution will be possible in this country anytime soon? Where do you hope to be personally 10 years from now? What does the future hold for the ID movement? Where would you like see it stand in coming generations?

WD: The epigraph to my book The Design Revolution is a quote from a short essay of Pascal’s called the “The Art of Persuasion”: “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” When I got into this business, I thought truth and its validation (what Pascal calls “proof”) was enough, or at least close to enough. Now that I’m older and wiser, I see that the majority of people have other priorities. Even those who protest that they love truth (Richard Dawkins is one) will use such protestations to advance their own biases and agendas.

Here, I’m addressing myself, as well—certainly earlier in my career, selfish ambition and narcissism were vying furiously in my so-called “quest for truth.” Perhaps I’ve not put these aside yet.

I’ve found self-deception as much among Christians as among atheists and agnostics. In fact, I’ve come to like dealing with secularists better than with the Christians who use religion as a cloak to cover their pride and absence of love. Secularists are at least more likely to admit that they’re being bad. Christians, especially American evangelical Christians, with pietism and puritanism always in the background, have to pretend to be good.

What does all this have to do with your question? It’s this: Whereas a decade ago I was all gung-ho about ID becoming the new reigning paradigm that would replace conventional evolutionary theory, I no longer have that optimism. That’s not to say I’m not going to continue to work toward that end. I will. And I could see ID’s fortunes changing quickly. But I could also see the old paradigm lingering on. The former Soviet Union collapsed very quickly even though it looked invincible a few years earlier. Our banking system, by contrast, has been skirting insolvency for decades and continually seems able to kick the can down the road.

ID, in my view, has the better argument. But as an attorney sitting across his desk from a client put it in a New Yorker cartoon dating back more than 50 years: “You have a pretty good case, Mr. Pitkin. How much justice can you afford?” I’m not sure how much justice ID can afford. Despite all the publicity it’s gotten, it has few backers. Atheistic evolutionists hate it. Theistic evolutionists hate it. And fundamentalists are also beginning to hate it, because it doesn’t deliver the pat answers about creation that they desire.

Machiavelli got it right: “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly for fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

With this preamble, let me answer your questions directly: I don’t see free and open debate regarding evolution coming anytime soon—not until the Darwinists, kicking and dragging, are forced to acknowledge that there is a problem with their view. This may happen with another court case (the Dover case was a loss for ID, but it did not go to the Supreme Court; so, I could see another case reversing Dover).

That said, I put very little stock in court cases. Eventually, the evidence for ID will disseminate widely enough so that Darwinists will not be able to stifle the conversation. For now, however, they can. I think of a story told to me by one Baylor student (this happened after I left): Biology students wanting to do a summer research internship in the Biology Department are quizzed regarding their views on ID. If they are perceived as sympathetic to it, they are denied the research opportunity. For now, that’s how the game is played, and ID is kept at bay. Ten years from now, I expect still to be working on ID, but I expect to have branched out into economics and the development of social technologies. I have some ideas about developing a strongly encrypted, decentralized, information-based form of money that cannot be proliferated at will, as are our present fiat currencies. I want to write this up and patent it, and then work on disseminating this and other social technologies that advance human freedom.

It seems to me that the greatest challenge to our freedoms—a challenge I see all the time in the ID debate—is the centralization of power. I see my coming years as an effort to unseat these monopolies. I realize this may sound unduly ambitious, but we live in a technocratic age in which the elite think they know what’s best for us—and they do not, the evidence of which is staring us in the face (that’s why we now see books with titles such as When Genius Failed).

Ultimately, I think ID will win. A few years ago, I thought I’d be around to see its victory. Now, I’m not so sure. The Bible actually gives me great comfort in this regard, because one sees in it that God’s purposes are not generally carried out by the flamboyant, well-placed, and powerful. But in the end, the false prophets are always clearly identified, and those who were true are vindicated. ID, in my view, plays a prophetic role for our culture.

In the end, what I see as winning it for ID is the tendency in the long run for reality to vindicate truth. Unfortunately, as Keynes pointed out, in the long run, we’re all dead. I believe the most interesting and fruitful science will in the end be done under ID’s umbrella, because it gets at the truth of the matter—the intelligence that animates nature. When that happens, scientists will vote with their feet, abandoning Darwinism and embracing design. I hope to see this in my lifetime, but I’m not holding my breath.
It is remarkable that so much vitriol has been metaphorically thrown in the faces of the intelligent design people by their opponents given the seemingly minor scientific differences between their positions. The IDers don't disagree with the empirical data but the do disagree with the interpretation of that data. They disagree, for example, with the assertion of the Darwinians that physical processes and forces are adequate to explain the origin of life and its subsequent diversification. They argue that the fine-tuning of the cosmos as well as the amazing complexity and information-laden nature of living things points to the involvement of an unspecified intelligent agent. This, however, is not a scientific disagreement. It's a philosophical disagreement.

No other controversy in science has engendered the level of personal invective and acrimony that has been aimed at the upstarts who've challenged the darwinian status quo as has this one, and the reason is that, unlike other scientific disputes, this one is really not about science at all. It's about the metaphysical assumptions of the scientists.

Intelligent design does not threaten evolutionary theory, it threatens the naturalism to which so many darwinian scientists cling. The Darwinism/ID controversy is not about the relevant science, on that there's actually a lot of agreement. The debate is about the fact that the dominant, entrenched religious establishment in the academy, i.e. metaphysical naturalism, finds itself under assault after enjoying a century and a half of hegemony. They now find themselves on the defensive and see their religion (naturalism) threatened. That's why their reaction has been so ugly, vicious, and seemingly desperate. They're fighting for their metaphysical lives, and I think they feel themselves losing.

Why Read Good Books?

Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and a farmer, limns a half dozen or so reasons why people should read great books and why a culture which abandons the classics is doomed to superficiality and tawdriness. Here's his opening:
So what are the reasons, in this age of the iPhone, Xbox, and PlayStation — or Fox News blondes and HBO — to sit down and read old stuff for an hour or two each week?

Here are a few reasons other than the usual defense of the “classics,” the “canon,” and the glories of “Western civilization.”

Mental Exercise

The mind is a muscle. Without exercise, it reverts to mush. Watching most TV or using the normal electronic gadgetry does not tax us much — indeed that is by design the very purpose: to eliminate effort, worry, unease, and afterthought. None of us thinks back a year ago to a great video game session. Few off-hand can recall the Super Bowl winner of 2001. I remember the scenes in a Shane or Casablanca, but not many others in the other thousand of movies that I have watched.

By nature, our ways of expression and even thinking always fossilize and are withering away with age and monotony — a process accelerated by the modern electronic age and the neglect of replenishment through reading. The actual vocabulary of our present youth seems to me reduced to about 1,000 words or so. “Like,” “whatever,” “you know,” “cool,” and other pop culture fillers now substitute for entire phrases, a sort of modern porcine grunting. The Greeks used particles to accentuate vocabulary and guide syntax; we used them instead of vocabulary. Our syntax, both written and oral, is reverting to “Spot is a dog”: noun, verb, predicate — period.

How did incomprehensible slang, spiced with vulgarity, become an object of emulation? I used to listen to farmers without college degrees speak wonderful English; now to listen to a member of Congress almost requires a translator.

Reading alone enriches our vocabulary; it teaches us that good writing requires a sense of melody as well as a command of grammar. Soon those well-read become the well-spoken.
Hanson closes with this:
Somehow we must convince this new wired generation that speaking and writing well are not just the DSL lines of modern civilization, but also the keys to self-mastery, a sort of code that one takes on — in addition to others, moral and legal — to uphold standards of culture itself, to keep the work and ideas alive of our long gone betters for one more generation — as if to say, “I did my part according to my time and station.”Nothing more, nothing less.
In between his opening and his conclusion there's much to delight anyone who loves great literature. You can read the whole thing here.