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Baylor research center in middle of creation-evolution dispute

WACO, Texas (BP)–A scientific research center established at Baylor University last year to explore “conceptual problems” in “evolutionary biology” has come under attack by the university’s faculty.

Baylor’s faculty senate, in a 26-2 vote April 18, called on the university’s administration to dissolve the Michael Polanyi Center for Complexity, Information and Design.

The faculty senate’s vote came just three days after the center sponsored a four-day conference on the role of naturalism in science featuring leading proponents of both Darwinian evolution and intelligent design theories.

At issue during the conference was the question: Is the universe self-contained, as widely held throughout the scientific community, or does it require something beyond itself to explain its existence and internal function?

Reasons cited at the conference for questioning science’s naturalistic approach included “the origin of life, the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics at modeling the physical world and the fine-tuning of universal constants.”

Robert B. Sloan Jr., president of Baylor University, which is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said that while faculty members opposing the center have publicly taken issue with their lack of involvement in the administration’s decision to establish the center, he believes the controversy stems more from a “philosophical/ideological objection of some to the work of the center itself,” according to a statement by Sloan published on the university’s Internet site.

Sloan, a New Testament scholar with a doctorate in theology from the University of Basel, said faculty dissension at the university over the research center’s viability hinges on two competing theories for the origin of life — Darwinian evolution and intelligent design.

Grounded in a philosophy known as “scientific naturalism” or “materialism,” Darwinian evolution by natural selection advocates the position that nature does its own creating exemplified in the theory that all life derived from common ancestors through mutation and adaptation over millions of years.

The theory of intelligent design, on the other hand, supports the conclusion that life requires an intelligent cause instead of the purposeless naturalistic process of evolution.

Responding to critics’ charges that the establishment of the center is an effort to pursue pseudo-science driven more by religious convictions than scientific discovery, Sloan said his belief in a Creator God should not disqualify him or other proponents of intelligent design theory from participating in scientific research.

“I obviously do believe in the Creator God and that this is His creation, accomplished mysteriously through the agency of Jesus Christ,” Sloan said in his statement following the faculty senate’s vote. “Those are historic Christian beliefs. Whether or not there are patterns of design, information and purpose in this universe that can be detected by scientific processes, I do not know. I do think, however, that it is an interesting question. Indeed, many people regard it as an issue of significant intellectual import. Surely it is fair game in a place like Baylor to ask such questions. It is simply too easy to dismiss as ‘creation science’ every attempt to relate belief in the Creator God to the human processes of understanding the created order.”

The center is named after Michael Polanyi, a physical chemist and philosopher who lived from 1891-1976. Like Polanyi, the center “repudiates” any view that portrays science and religion “being at war with each other.”

The center’s purpose statement “affirms that science, philosophy and religion make claims of mutual relevance, and seeks to integrate what is known from each of these domains into a unified whole based on an explicit recognition of the principle that Truth itself must form a unity.”

Sloan said he has no intentions of prohibiting the teaching of evolution at Baylor. “That is not the way ideas are generated, corrected, flourish or even die,” he noted. “The various evolutionary paradigms have a respectable intellectual history as working models that continue to promote discovery and to produce research and new research hypotheses. … Ideas should rise and fall, or be revised on their own merit.”

To that end, Sloan said a panel, largely consisting of outside experts, will be assembled, from both “scientific and extra-scientific grounds,” to evaluate the “academic and intellectual legitimacy” of the center. “I call upon all faculty to let the peer-review committee do its work and make its recommendations,” Sloan said.

To dissolve the center as recommended by the faculty senate “would in effect be imposing a form of censorship on the work of the center,” Sloan said.

“But to quash their research and to mute their point of view because of political pressure and without sound intellectual cause is antithetical to everything for which a true university ought to stand,” Sloan said. “We should not be afraid to ask questions, even if they are politically incorrect. Indeed, I am proud of Baylor’s willingness to ask questions which some are apparently afraid to entertain.”

The center’s purpose statement published on Baylor’s website states in part its concern for “the pursuit of scientific research freed from programmatic external philosophical constraints, particularly associated with a materialist or naturalist agenda.”

Under the purpose statement, the center identifies several questions for investigation: 1) “What is the nature of science, or does it even have a nature?” 2)”Is it possible to distinguish between genuine science and pseudo-science, and what would be the criteria of such a distinction?” 3) “Must the methodology of science be thoroughly naturalistic?” 4) “What are the presuppositions and limitations of scientific inquiry?” 5) “How are scientific theories tested?” 6)”How do scientists go about justifying claims?”

William A. Dembski, one of the leading voices in the intelligent design movement, is the center’s director. Dembski has done post-doctoral work in mathematics at MIT, in physics at the University of Chicago and computer science at Princeton University. He earned a B.A. in psychology, M.S. in statistics and Ph.D. in philosophy all at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dembski also has earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago and master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.

Most recently, Dembski has written a book titled, “Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology,” published by Inter Varsity Press in November 1999. He also has written a book published in 1998 by Cambridge University Press titled, “The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities.”

In order to maintain a high level of debate in the scientific community, Sloan said everyone must acknowledge their assumptions and presuppositions and then “seek to see that these assumptions do not blind me to all of reality and to what all is going on.”

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  • Lee Weeks