Blair Martin

Michael Polanyi Center

The Michael Polanyi Center (MPC), at Baylor University, was the first center at a research university exclusively dedicated to intelligent design study. It was founded in 1999 "with the primary aim of advancing the understanding of the sciences," in a religious context. All of the center's research specifically investigated the controversial subject of intelligent design, a widely-regarded pseudoscience claiming that life shows scientific evidence of being formed by an intelligent designer. The center was relegated in late 2000 to a minor program within the Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning and fully dissolved in 2003.



Baylor University was founded in 1845 by the Republic of Texas (before Texas Statehood) in Waco, Texas as a Baptist University. Baylor also developed into a research university with a reputable science department. In 1991 Baylor became independent from the Baptist General Convention of Texas to which it had been closely affiliated.

A new Baylor president, Robert Sloan was appointed in 1995. Sloan, was a New Testament Scholar with a doctorate in theology from the University of Basel. He proposed to return the school to its mission of integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment. As a result, the Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning (IFL) was established in 1997.

Sloan noted:

Baylor ought to be the kind of place where a student can ask a question and not just get the runaround. He shouldn't have to go to the theology department and be told, "Oh, that's a scientific question. Don't ask me that." And then the student goes to the science department and they tell him, "That's a religious question. Don't ask me that."

In 1998 Sloan read an article by mathematician, philosopher and intelligent design advocate William Dembski and was impressed. Sloan invited Dembski to the IFL, whose director Michael Beaty was also impressed by his work and credentials. They learned of Dembski's wish to establish an intelligent design research center. As a result in October 1999, Baylor's Michael Polanyi Center was quietly established separately from the IFL and without reference to science academics. Dembski named it after the Hungarian scientist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi (1891 — 1976). Dembski appointed Bruce L. Gordon as his deputy.

The MPC website stated:

The Michael Polanyi Center (MPC) is a cross-disciplinary research and educational initiative focused on advancing the understanding of science. It has a fourfold purpose: (1) to support and pursue research in the history and conceptual foundations of the natural and social sciences; (2) to study the impact of contemporary science on the humanities and the arts; (3) to be an active participant in the growing dialogue between science and religion; and (4) to pursue the mathematical development and empirical application of design-theoretic concepts in the natural sciences.

However, many within the science faculty were concerned that association with pseudoscience would adversely affect their reputations, careers and the quality of degrees offered by the university.

"The Nature of Nature"

Between April 12 and April 15, 2000 the Center held a conference entitled "The Nature of Nature," jointly sponsored by the Discovery Institute and the John Templeton Foundation. Critics of intelligent design within the scientific community were split as to whether to attend. They thought that the conference might give ID more academic credibility, something they argue it lacks, and that it would be used for propaganda by the ID movement and the Christian press. Nevertheless, the conference attracted a variety of scientists, theologians and philosophers, including Alan Guth, John Searle, Christian de Duve, and Nobel Prize-winner Steven Weinberg. Some who attended donated their speaking fees to the National Center for Science Education.

The conference brought things to a head and, as a result, on April 18 the Faculty Senate voted 27-2 for the center to be abolished. This call was rejected by Sloan on April 20, who commented:

I believe there are matters of intellectual and academic integrity at stake here … We should not be afraid to ask questions, even if they are politically incorrect

A compromise was later reached to form an independent committee to review the center, consisting of eight faculty members from across the country to be chaired by the Professor of Philosophy William F. Cooper.

The committee met between September 8 and September 10. On October 17 the committee released its report. Although it recommended that there should be a place for the study of intelligent design, it recommended that the center be renamed and reconstituted within Baylor's Institute for Faith and Learning. This was seen as a compromise between the two sides and an attempt to defuse the row that had developed.

Center moved and renamed

On October 18 Dembski responded to the report with a press release/email:

The report marks the triumph of intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry. This is a great day for academic freedom. I'm deeply grateful to President Sloan and Baylor University for making this possible, as well as to the peer review committee for its unqualified affirmation of my own work on intelligent design. The scope of the Center will be expanded to embrace a broader set of conceptual issues at the intersection of science and religion, and the Center will therefore receive a new name to reflect this expanded vision. My work on intelligent design will continue unabated. Dogmatic opponents of design who demanded the Center be shut down have met their Waterloo. Baylor University is to be commended for remaining strong in the face of intolerant assaults on freedom of thought and expression.

Sloan asked Dembski to retract this press release, feeling that it was an unnecessary escalation of the argument and not collegial, but Dembski refused. On October 19, Dembski was removed as director of the center, though he remained an associate professor. He was replaced by his deputy, Bruce L. Gordon.

Dembski responded with another press release claiming the "utmost of bad faith", and accusing the university of "intellectual McCarthyism". Critics suggested that Dembski deliberately provoked his employers in order to be fired and then be able to claim he was being witch-hunted.

The recommendations of the committee were carried out and the center was renamed Program in Science, Philosophy and Religion. Dembski never taught a course at Baylor. Dembski left Baylor in May 31, 2005 to take up a new position at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky as Carl F. H. Henry Professor of Theology and Science. After a year teaching in Louisville, he took a position at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas as Research Professor in Philosophy, where he remains to this day.


External links

Baylor University

Baylor press releases

Lariat news items

(Lariat is the Baylor campus newspaper)

Faculty Senate



Pro-intelligent design

Anti-intelligent design

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