News and Commentary
Origins & Design 18:1

Report on the Mere Creation Conference

On November 14-17, 1996, over 160 scientists, philosophers, theologians, and journalists met at Biola University in La Mirada, California, for the "Mere Creation" conference. While the participants represented a wide range of institutions, most came from secular or public universities to explore how the idea of "intelligent design" might bear on their thinking about origins and the philosophy of science. O&D editorial board member John Angus Campbell was one such participant, and the following is his on-the-scene overview.

- The Editors

John Angus Campbell
Department of Communication
University of Memphis
Memphis, Tennessee 38152

For me the conference began on the way there. I arrived Thursday about 1:15 PM local time and made my way to the shuttle van company that was recommended to us. First stop, who gets in but Paul Nelson. Paul and I have known each other. Then Thane Ury (Bethel College) gets in. We start talking and then son-of-a-gun Paul says, "There is Michael Denton"--I couldn't believe it. Lean 50-ish guy with a shock of white, close-cropped hair wearing a shirt that looks like the top for a pair of long underwear. I spent two weeks one summer vacation in Montana outlining various chapters from Evolution: A Theory in Crisis just to drive out the Darwinian poisons I imbibed from my mother's milk. The biggest shock was finding he is so engaging and approachable! He and Nelson started dukeing it out right away. It was fantastic. Here I was with a bad cold, barely holding on to my name tag, fortunate to have taken all the right turns thus far--and bango, the conference starts en route.

Paul says "common ancestry is an assumption." Denton says, "the such-and-such goes down and around the something else and why doesn't it just go straight across?" And Paul says, "But how do you know that the down and around isn't optimal?" I remember that point. Then Denton says, "Yeah but when you have delivered as many babies as I have you notice things." He gestures downward with both hands cupped as though he is about to deliver one. He says "Right after they are born they go like this"--he then does a grasping motion with both hands raised. In my semi-fevered state I saw a new born hominid grasping its mothers' fur--right there in the van. He gave a name for the reflex [primate grasp] but even without it I could see that he knew a thing or two about how our kind and kin are born.

The conversation in the van was not really a conversation. Denton started talking and gesturing in a very distinctive fashion. He makes his points by jabbing the air with his middle finger--quite unselfconsciously. Possibly this too is a primordial rhetorical reflex with an interesting aeteology. Denton proceeded to develop an evolutionary cosmology, the point of which is that there is abundant evidence for common descent and it is equally clear that evolution is directed and programmed. Indeed Denton affirmed two things--and this is apparently the thesis of his book now under contract at Simon & Schuster--that humankind literally is the point of creation and he is the end product of a divine design. Paul seemed to just let him go, but I sensed Paul was saving up for another time.

Well, before I got to the hotel it was clear that "intelligent design" is a general name for a diverse program.

After we all got registered and settled the motel van took us over to Biola University. We had dinner in a big tent they had on the lawn. It was great seeing everyone and meeting new people. After dinner we heard two talks in Marshburn Auditorium where all the sessions were held. On our seats we found a sumptuous loose leaf ring binder containing printed texts of each of the talks. Just having one of these is itself a great prize and made note-taking a much less desperate affair.

Walter Bradley (Texas A&M) did a superior job in a talk "Nature Designed or Designoid?" In this talk he fulfilled his often-given promise of writing out the mathematical laws of nature on a single page. He went on to talk about how these laws alone do not produce the kind of designed order characteristic of living systems.

Jonathan Wells (Berkeley) weighed in next with his account of how a great deal of development occurs independently of DNA. His talk was entitled "Recent Insights From Developmental Biology" Jonathan's slides of how he produced two-headed frogs by tipping the dish in which the embryo was developing at a particular point made it abundantly clear that something other than DNA had to be at work.

After each talk the floor was opened for questions. The responses were generally articulate, expert, and helped flesh out points in the talks.

The theme of the talks on Friday morning was "Foundations for a Theory of Design" and in the afternoon "Biological Evidence for Design." In the morning Nancy Pearcey (Wilberforce Forum) gave a wonderful talk, "'You Guys Lost' Is Design a Closed Issue?" Nancy pointed out that technically Darwin did not win--few scientists in the late nineteenth century really believed that random variations produced novel body plans. Some sort of Larmarckianism or what we would call theistic accomodationism won out. She gave a fine brief account of some of Darwin's persuasive strategies and ended with some unanswered questions of the Darwinian paradigm which justify its reopening.

Nancy's talk stimulated plenty of questions--more than there were time for.

Bill Dembski (Notre Dame) was up next, followed by a break and then by Steve Meyer (Whitworth College) and Paul Nelson (University of Chicago). Since 1992, Dembski, Meyer, and Nelson have been working to formulate a rigorous theory of design, using what they call the "Explanatory Filter" to sift events for the indicia or markers of intelligent causation. Events with known natural causes are trapped by the filter, while those caused by design must satisfy the joint criteria of "specification" and "small probability."

Dembski gave what I thought was one of his most cogent accounts of how and where "intelligent design" fits into science as an explanation. His talk was titled "Redesigning Science"--and that clearly is what he had in mind. He offered us the Explanatory Filter, explaining how the three levels (law, chance, design) functioned in scientific explanation. Meyer was just as cogent and came through with an exceptionally lively and detailed talk on "DNA and the Origin of Information." I have heard Meyer on this theme before but he was at the top of his form and was as good as he ever was in densely footnoted print. The presentation was deep, clear and, I thought, very effective. Of this trinity presaging the designed philosophic wrath to come, Nelson spoke last, on "Applying Design Within Biology." He stressed that worries about making erroneous design inferences (as, for instance, Kepler did concerning intelligent life on the moon) should not exclude design from science generally. Then, shifting topics, he talked about assumptions made in biology that did not square with facts and which overlooked design. He was particularly "on" on blithe scientific assumptions that we know what is or would have been optimal. I think he was letting go of what he had saved up from his initial van encounter with Denton.

After each of these talks there was spirited questioning. By no means were the questioners in agreement with the positions advanced. Pointed objections were offered and explanations were returned. There were vigorous exchanges. I think it is fair to say there were no "hostile" questions in the existential sense--but neither was there oneness of view. My own sense or belief is that for many hearers the questions were motivated by "the shock of the new." I believe that with time, dialogue and familiarity that some version of the Dembski/Meyer/Nelson program is inevitable and people will, through their own emendations and deviations, reach a consensus.

In the afternoon Michael Behe (Lehigh) weighed in with the most entertaining and one of the most effective talks of the conference. Had there been TV cameras there and a sound bite needed, this would have been the presentation to feature. What I thought was particularly helpful and new in Mike's talk was his theme, which as his title indicated was "Intelligent Design As a Tool for Analyzing Biochemical Systems." I came away from Mike's talk in particular impressed with the point that "intelligent design" offers real research program.

Mike also had more questions than could be allowed for the time.

Siegfried Scherer (Technical University of Munich) then gave a very stimulating talk, "Basic Types of Life: Evidence for Design from Taxonomy." Siegfried showed how certain families of animals--ducks for example--only vary within a certain range. He made a strong case for natural "families" or "types" which also are capable of a number of permutations and variations but which retain certain common characteristics and do not develop past certain morphological limits. One of the things I liked best about his presentation was the way he incorporated both design and descent models into his explanation. It seemed clear that one could develop a teaching program in which one could teach both intelligent design and even Darwinian accounts to show how well they encompassed the facts. To me this is a very important teaching point--the design program in principle encompasses more data, more points of view and teaches something of the philosophy of science in the process of presenting the science. What better guard against surreptitious ideology? It seemed to me Scherer was teaching the controversy while teaching the facts and appropriate interpretations.

There were two more presentations on Friday and eight more on Saturday. My stamina began to waver, so I am skipping a bit. Friday evening after dinner we had a general question and answer session in one of the large meeting rooms at the hotel. This was really quite a diverse but, I thought, useful session. All the presenters were up front and people could come to the mikes and ask questions. There were plenty of questions. Phil Johnson moderated the session and did a fine job of keeping things focused. When one theme had had its run he deftly moved things on to another. I'll mention one question. John Leslie (Guelph), whom Bill Craig (Talbot) says is "the authority" on the anthropic principle, got up and said that he thought that the whole bunch of us had too clear an idea of how God ought to have handled things. There were various responses. I spoke to him and a small group afterward and offered an alternative view. I saw us as a party in the parliamentary sense. I urged that we were in the process of putting together a case we could take to the people. I pointed out that this meeting is part of a clash of two very different cultures--and that we were articulating a scientific and cultural platform alternative to Dawkins, Dennett et al. I urged that whatever the fine philosophic points of the intelligent design program it was substantively grounded and had the rhetorical virtue of being expressible in common language--people know perfectly well when a thing is caused by intelligent agency. Further, I urged, the Dembski/Meyer/Nelson explanations of specific practices where appropriate sciences actually infer agency (actuarial tables, the SETI project, cryptology) allow our side to compete with the Origin on its own ground--the ground of common sense practices comparable to Darwin's appeal to the breeder analogy. I think he caught my drift but I cannot say I know what he thought of it.

The theme of Saturday was "Philosophy and Design." I will just mention a few presentations. I was very impressed with J.P. Moreland (Biola), who edited The Creation Hypothesis and whose book Christianity and The Nature of Science I bought at the book table. His "Explanatory Relevance of Libertarian Agency as a Model of Theistic Design" gave me a great deal of encouragement. I found myself thinking: this just does not look like God in general. We are hearing from a bright, hard-line orthodox theist. Del Ratzsch did very well with "Design, Chance and Theistic Evolution," though I was suffering from overload at this point and did not quite catch it all. It struck me he had a number of points of affinity with Denton. John Mark Reynolds (Biola) did a fine job of addressing an old bugaboo in "God of the Gaps: Intelligent Design and Bad Apologetic Advice." I had not had the pleasure of meeting John Mark except on the Internet and I was impressed with his combination of erudition and clarity. I was deeply taken by William Lane Craig's "Design and the Cosmological Argument." What particularly struck me in Craig's presentation was how patently the objections to the "big bang" cosmology are motivated by atheism. Clearly one of the great motivations in contemporary cosmology is the desire to avoid the God hypothesis. After lunch Hugh Ross (Reasons to Believe) led off in the afternoon and seconded Craig in his report of recent developments in astronomy which strengthen the Big Bang theory in "Big Bang Model Refined by Fire." I went right out at the break and bought one of his books.

For me the highlight of the afternoon was meeting and hearing David Berlinski. I guessed that the gentleman I had not seen before and who was talking to Tom Bethell in the portico where they had the coffee and juice was David Berlinski. I introduced myself. Berlinski was as approachable as Denton but had quite a different style. He seemed to have stepped right out of the pages of GQ and spoke like a literary critic who was also a mathematician or vice versa. I thanked him for his Commentary essay "The Deniable Darwin" and particularly commended him for the point and grace of his second Commentary piece in the face of all those shrill and intemperate objections. He seemed appreciative, gracious and very easy to talk to. I think one of the best things that could happen to our movement--right up there with Behe--would be for Berlinski to write a book. Berlinski on Darwin--at a bookstore near you! Just think of it! Imagine Behe and Berlinski in a holiday gift pack. How about Behe, Berlinski and Johnson? Merry Christmas to all our separated friends.

I cannot claim to have fully comprehended Berlinski's talk on a technical level--though I think I followed its general drift. I credit him with some of the finest lines of the conference. "It is not the fact of our ignorance, but its vitality..." On why more mathematicians don't get into the fray: "It is the quality of the opposition. The polemical style of a Dawkins or a Dennett could, with some exaggeration, be described as 'crude.'"

At the very end of the conference on Sunday, Phil Johnson gave a wrap-up. It is a shame they did not have a camera or a tape. This was Phil at his best. He warmed, cajoled and reassured the gathering in an address that was part pep talk part benediction. Phil set the movement in a cultural context and spoke of how metaphysical naturalism has become a kind of unofficial creed which the powers that be refuse to distinguish from empirical science. He spoke of our successes, growing numbers, the good spirit of this diverse meeting and of things to come. He urged that there were things for each of us to do whether we were parents, scholars or teachers. At one point he even claimed that there was a place in our movement for lawyers of integrity. At this point there were loud boos. Phil paused and, with his signature grin, said "I just wanted to see if I could get you to believe anything."

One of the things I liked best about the conference was its friendly spirit. I met some key players for the first time--Nancy Pearcey, Del Ratzsch, Tom Woodward, John Mark Reynolds, Walter ReMine, Robert Koons--and renewed old acquaintances. I also enjoyed the meeting's oppositional character. The conference had the feel of dissent. Not that we all were of one mind--but that all of us believe the current philosophic/scientific establishment has been deluded by a mistaken philosophy and we intend to do our parts to expose it and open the academy and the culture to reasoned debate. I was reminded in private conversations of the courage of our members in the biological sciences who risk careers and the possibility of future grants by being associated with our movement. I am particularly grateful to Behe, Wells, Bradley, and many others in the sciences for their courage and integrity. Phil deserves thanks for his unflagging energy and vision, and for all who helped him, in making this conference possible.

Copyright © 1997 John Angus Campbell. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 5.1.97