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Science and Religion at the Portsmouth Institute

Portsmouth Abbey.jpgSome months back I was invited to speak at this summer’s Portsmouth Institute, which took place last weekend (June 22-24). The title of this summer’s symposium was “Modern Science/Ancient Faith.” See here for the schedule of talks. The speakers included Michael Ruse of Florida State University (keynote), Kenneth Miller of Brown University, John Haught of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, Abbot James Wiseman of St. Anselm’s Abbey and the Catholic University, Joe Semmes of the True North Medical Clinic, the Reverend Nicanor G. P. Austriaco of Providence College, and me, representing Discovery Institute.
Anyone who knows anything about the science-religion dialogue will realize, simply from scanning these names, that I was the odd man out. When I was invited to speak at the event, I didn’t know who the other speakers would be. Not that that would have made a difference in my attending or foregoing the event. I’ve just recently relocated my family to Iowa and I knew that this symposium would come in the midst of a lot of chaos connected with the move, so I tried to get out of it. But the organizers insisted I come because I’m an alumnus of the school that forms the backdrop for the Portsmouth Institute, namely, Portsmouth Abbey, a Catholic prep school in Rhode Island. It was good to get back to the school and see some faces I hadn’t seen in many years.
The intelligent-design position has become increasingly unwelcome at science-religion events where Darwinian evolution is presupposed and intelligent design is assumed to have been tried and failed. It was therefore interesting to see Ken Miller in action, who takes precisely such a position. And even though I missed the talks of Michael Ruse and John Haught, who hold a similar view, I suspect that given Miller’s talk, I didn’t miss much (I know the work of Ruse and Haught also through their books).
Miller’s talk was titled “To Find God in All Things: Exploring the Evolutionary Architecture of Life.” With such a title, one would expect a talk sketching in broad strokes how evolution has played out in natural history and then making some (preferably nuanced) theological connections with evolution. Nothing of the sort. Miller devoted about twenty minutes of the talk to going after me personally, lifting dated (2005 and 2006) and out-of-context quotes from the blog and trying to discredit me with some outright fabrications (I’ll elaborate momentarily).
He spent another 20 minutes or so reviewing the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, stressing over and over again how it demonstrated the “collapse” (his word) of intelligent design. And for the balance he did a once-over-lightly of evolutionary theory, exaggerating modest evolutionary changes and underscoring the supposed wonder-working power of natural selection. Perhaps most jarring for me, though I assume that this was simply a philosophical faux pas on Miller’s part, he ended by proudly proclaiming himself an advocate of “materialism” (yes, you heard right). Earlier, Miller had said, with an obvious allusion to C.S. Lewis, that matter is good since God had after all created it. But the goodness and creation of matter have nothing to do with materialism, which is a metaphysical position about the whole of reality being coextensive with the material world. As a Catholic, Miller obviously doesn’t believe that. So embracing materialism as he did demonstrates either a shameful disrespect for language or a breathtaking philosophical naivet�.
Finally, Miller stressed to the audience that he would attend my talk but couldn’t stay for the discussion at lunch following because he had to take care of his five (or was it six?) horses. And before his talk, he came up to me, all smarmy, asking about my recent move to Iowa and showing awareness of an ongoing health problem in my family. All in all it was quite a performance. I had the sense of someone who has no interest in any real conversation, no desire for a real meeting of minds, just wants to set you up and then stick in the knife.
So what were Miller’s out-of-context quotes and fabrications? I’ll focus on just two (his talk was recorded and you should be able to view it online at the Portsmouth Institute website shortly): (1) he claimed I had withdrawn as an expert witness from the Dover v. Kitzmiller trial, with the implication that this represented a lack of willingness on my part to subject intelligent design to critical scrutiny; (2) he presented my “Vise Strategy,” which was a tongue-in-cheek interrogation manual for cross-examining Darwinists, as a serious document and then claimed that in the Dover trial he had in fact been subjected to the Vise and had answered all serious objections to Darwinism described by the strategy.
In response, let me just say: (1) The public interest law firm that represented the Dover School Board and that had hired me, namely, the Thomas More Law Center, never received or accepted a withdrawal for the case from me. The simple fact is that they fired me — a fact that was widely publicized. I was to be deposed by the ACLU in Waco for the trial and I was looking forward to it. (2) Ken Miller gives the impression that the Thomas More Law Center thoroughly interrogated him about his views on evolution and that he had made it through the ordeal with resounding success. In fact, the Thomas More Law Center was severely understaffed for a case like this and the attorneys were out of their depths, as was clear to me when I sat in on the deposition of Barbara Forrest in the summer of 2005. The Vise Strategy to which he refers is given on my website. I’d be delighted if Miller would post his answers to the questions posed there on his Brown University website.
For many readers all of this will seem like nitpicking, so why am I rehearsing it? Contentwise, there’s nothing new here. Miller has been proclaiming the death of intelligent design ever since the Dover case as he has been misrepresenting my role in it and using his misrepresentations to discredit my work. The lesson in all this has nothing to do with the actual content of the arguments he makes but rather with the proper strategy with which to engage him and those like him. After approaching me before his talk, all friendly and earnest, he pulls out the knife and goes for the jugular, no mercy. The organizer who had invited me to this event said afterward to me that he wondered how I would get out of the hole that Miller had dug for me, but he thought I handled it very well.
How did I handle it? After being attacked as viciously as I was by Miller, my natural impulse was to open my talk by defending myself against his fabrications. But if I had done so, I would have been sufficiently upset that I would not have been able to pull it off successfully. Besides, I had a prepared talk, and it would have looked unduly defensive if I had digressed too much from it, especially at the start. Still, to let his misrepresentations stand would have significantly undercut my credibility. So, instead of responding to his attacks on me, I got right into my material (it helped that I had a nice introduction by one of my former math teachers at the school).
Nevertheless, I found appropriate places in the talk to respond to his attacks. My presentation was titled “An Information-Theoretic Proof of God’s Existence,” in which I showed how the type of information we find in living systems is beyond the creative means of purely material processes, so that if we backtrack this information in time, the amount of information that needs to be accounted for only intensifies. This leads to a regress of information that naturally points to some ultimate source of information. Who or what is such an ultimate source of information? From a naturalistic perspective, such a source remains a mystery. But from a theistic perspective, such an information source would presumably have to be God. I made this argument in a Festschrift volume for Norman Geisler (published with IVP in 2003) and it is implicit in my book No Free Lunch (2001). I chose to speak on this topic because it provides a nice vehicle for introducing many key concepts from intelligent design and also brings in some very classical ideas about the distinction between information and matter on the one hand, and nature and design on the other.
My talk provided plenty of openings to respond to Miller’s attacks. I felt it important to respond to them because, as Aristotle noted, rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, has three primary means of appeal: logos (or rational argumentation), ethos (or the credibility of the speaker), and pathos (or the emotion that the speaker is able to elicit from the audience). Miller was weak on logos, but effective if left unchallenged in attacking my credibility, and then also big on pathos, fanning the audience’s fears that those who question evolutionary theory are undercutting the place of science in society. I was able to call Miller on both these issues in my talk.
I’ve had to spar with Miller in public settings now for about 12 years. Our first encounter was in Mequon, Wisconsin, at a conference titled “Design and Its Critics,” which issued in my anthology with Michael Ruse titled Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA (Cambridge University Press, 2004). I’ve found that Miller is very shrewd and that if there is any loophole at all in one’s rebuttal, he will find it. Thus any rebuttal needs to be a steel trap.
The three most effective points I made in rebuttal — judging by the response from the audience, who increasingly seemed to come to my side during the talk — were the following: (1) Miller’s constant fear-mongering about intelligent design was a smokescreen that distracted people from the real substantive scientific issues raised by intelligent design. (2) I had not withdrawn but had been fired in the Dover case. (3), and this was by far the most effective rebuttal point I made, which got everyone laughing uproariously, I suggested that the Thomas More Law Center was incompetent in examining Miller and that if he really wanted put both intelligent design and Darwinian evolution on the intellectual chopping block, he should get together his best three champions, I would get mine, we would each get an attorney or two from a public interest law firm (he, presumably from the ACLU), and then we would have an online dialogue that would continue until all the issues were hashed out.
In making this challenge, I was not engaging in a histrionic flourish. I’m perfectly serious. I would propose Michael Behe, Steve Meyer, and myself and would like to have Edward Sisson, who assisted in the Kansas State Board of Education hearings in 2005, guide the interrogation of the Darwinists. I await Miller’s proposal laying out his team. As it is, after I laid out this challenge, Miller said nothing, nor did he say anything during the Q&A.
Closing thought: I often tell my students that in the debate over intelligent design, people on the other side are very unlikely to be convinced by anything you say. Your task is not to convince them but rather to speak to those in the middle who are watching the debate and wondering what to make of it. In fact, to say that our task is to convince those in the middle is a bit too strong. Given the hostility of our secular culture to ID, our task is to indicate that ID has more going for it than they previously suspected. As John Angus Campbell, a rhetorician who has done so much to advance ID, once put it, “a draw is a win.” If we can continue to win the middle and debunk the overinflated rhetoric of those like Miller who want to claim that ID has collapsed, we’ll see our ideas continue to gain traction and eventually win the day.

William A. Dembski

Founding and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture, Distinguished Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence
A mathematician and philosopher, Bill Dembski is the author/editor of more than 25 books as well as the writer of peer-reviewed articles spanning mathematics, engineering, biology, philosophy, and theology. With doctorates in mathematics (University of Chicago) and philosophy (University of Illinois at Chicago), Bill is an active researcher in the field of intelligent design. But he is also a tech entrepreneur who builds educational software and websites, exploring how education can help to advance human freedom with the aid of technology.