"A Senior Fellow with Seattle’s Discovery Institute and Professor at Southwestern Seminary, William Dembski is a leading theorist for intelligent design. He has published articles in mathematics, engineering, philosophy, and theology journals and authored/edited over 20 books. In The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (Cambridge University Press, 1998), the first book on intelligent design published by a major university press, he analyzed the connections linking chance, probability, and intelligent causation. In 2000, he founded the first intelligent design think-tank at a research university, Baylor’s Michael Polanyi Center. He lectures widely on intelligent design and has appeared on various radio and television programs, including ABC’s Nightline and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. [Photograph courtesy of Laszlo Bencze.]

[to discuss this interview, visit our blog by clicking here]

TheBestSchools: Thank you for allowing us to interview you for TheBestSchools.org. You are a mathematician, philosopher, theologian, prolific author, and one of the leading lights of the intelligent design (ID) movement, which has mounted a very public and highly controversial attack on mainstream neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory—so we have a lot of ground to cover.

Could we begin by asking you to give us some personal background? Where were you born and raised? Were you brought up in an academic environment? What set you on the track toward a life of scholarship, writing, and teaching?

William Dembski: Thanks for the opportunity to do this interview, which looks as though it will be my most extensive interview to date. I was born on July 18, 1960, in Chicago. My dad, who was from Chicago, was a World War II veteran who had dropped out of high school but after the war finished it in an accelerated program on the GI Bill. He then went on to study at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Though from a thoroughly blue-collar background (he was selling newspapers on the streets of Chicago at age seven—those were Depression-era days), he came to love the academic life. After getting his bachelor’s in biology, he went on for a master’s in biology and another in education, all at the University of Illinois. After that, in the early to mid-1950s, he was teaching high school in the Chicago area.

He was still single and he loved teaching biology, so in 1957 he went on a Fulbright scholarship to Germany. There he met my mother (who was a German citizen). They got married in 1958 and moved to the U.S. in 1959. Upon their return, my dad started teaching biology at the University of Illinois, Navy Pier campus (which eventually became the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle and then—as it is today—the University of Illinois at Chicago).

Although it was not mandatory to have a Ph.D. back then, as it is now, his supervisors at the University of Illinois encouraged him to get one. It turned out that getting that degree in the U.S. would have required a lot of jumping through hoops, so he decided to return to Germany and get his doctorate there (from the University of Erlangen—Erlangen being the town where he and my mother had met). In Europe, doctoral level work tends to focus directly on research rather than requiring lots of course work, qualifying exams, and other busy work.

My dad was 40 when he started his doctorate in Germany in 1963, and it took him three years to complete it. My parents had saved up $10,000 during the three years prior to that. During those three years before leaving for Erlangen, we typically lived on 50 cents a day for food (I don’t remember, but so I’m told). We also didn’t have a car, with my dad taking public transportation to work every day in Chicago.

Once in Germany, my parents continued to carefully apportion their money. I was three when we arrived (I had no siblings). My parents immediately bought a gray VW bug, which we drove the three years that we were there. It’s incredible to think that $10,000 could cover a family of three for three years as my dad worked full-time on his doctorate. Sure, the exchange rate of the DM (deutsch mark) to the $US was great back then (four to one), but even accounting for inflation, it’s still hard to fathom.

When our family returned to the U.S. in 1967, the country was a very different place. The University of Illinois, though having encouraged my dad to get a PhD, did not hire him back—by “unfortunate coincidence,” as they put it, his job had gone to a young Ph.D. from Harvard. So my dad taught for the City Colleges of Chicago. The campus where he taught had a lot of racial tension, with faculty getting mugged and even killed. Martin Luther King was assassinated during that time. The Black Panthers, with their berets and 50-caliber bullets around their necks, disrupted faculty meetings and forced the school president to resign. When my dad didn’t return home at the expected hour, I recall my mother comforting me with the thought that if he got killed, at least I still had her. I remember the race riots and seeing Madison Avenue burning from our high-rise apartment.

With my dad teaching for the City Colleges of Chicago, I saw first-hand the dark side of academic politics, the self-servingness of teacher unions, and the decay of learning standards. I also saw my dad’s love for teaching and research die. It gave me a bad taste for aspects of the academy and probably more than anything contributed to my unwillingness to sacrifice intellectual work to academic fashion (for which I’ve paid a cost).

Despite my ambivalence toward the academy, it’s always been front and center in my life. I always felt most at home in the world of abstractions and ideas. And I always did well in the academy (until I fell afoul of it for questioning Darwinism). A life of scholarship, teaching, and writing therefore seemed to me inevitable from the start. How it’s all played out has proved less inevitable.

TBS: What religious tradition were you raised in? Was there ever a time in your life when you doubted the existence of God? What were the events that led to your present religious views and affiliation?

WD: I was raised a nominal Roman Catholic, with strong emphasis on the word “nominal.” I jumped the required hoops at the appointed times (getting my first holy communion at age seven and being confirmed at age 13). We went to mass very sporadically. I rejected many of the standard doctrines, such as the deity of Christ and the reality of hell (I don’t recall what I thought of the resurrection).

I went to public schools through the start of grade seven. Fourth through seventh grade was in the Evanston school system, which was nationally regarded as very good (Evanston Township High School was at the time regarded one of the best public high schools in the nation). Nonetheless, by the time I showed up, a permissive and secular educational philosophy had thoroughly vitiated that school system.

Discipline was horrible. I was constantly being assaulted and getting into fights. I remember being chased during recess outside by a boy with a baseball bat who meant to use it on me. When he threw it at me, I tried to get my hands on it and I meant to use it on him, I was so angry. My hands fumbled and I couldn’t get a grip on it, so I just ran inside. Looking back, I think it was the grace of God that I didn’t beat his head in.
On another occasion, I remember one boy waiting outside the school complex to beat me up, with about ten of his companions waiting to enjoy the festivities. They were all outside in clear view with clear intent. The assistant principal happened to be there. I pointed out to him all the boys standing around and that they meant to do me harm. Rather than take action, he simply shooed me to the door. I was totally disgusted. Rather than go out that way, I went to the very rear of the school and walked the long way home. There were many more incidents like this.

Yet, despite all this, my parents wouldn’t pull me out of the school system. My dad, as I mentioned, was from a thoroughly blue-collar background. The best he offered me here was advice on how to fight. What finally caused my parents to pull me from the school was a complete disintegration of the curriculum in the seventh grade.

My parents went to an open house at the junior high school. In the science classroom, the word “pseudopodia” was misspelled on a large sign stuck to the blackboard. When my dad inquired, he found that the science teacher had misspelled it. In the math class, there was no textbook or clear curriculum. When my dad asked what we were covering, the teacher had no coherent answer.

I still remember that math class. An A for the fall term could be gotten by computing 60 factorial by hand (this was before calculators), which is 1 times 2 times 3 etc. all the way to 60—an 80 digit number. This was sheer busy work. It was on coming back from that open house that my parents pulled me from the public school system and sent me to Catholic schools.

I give this background, because it helps explain some of my contrarian ways. I came to loathe the permissive and secular philosophy that I saw as responsible for the utter nonsense I had to endure in the Evanston school system, the same philosophy that provides such a cozy home for Darwinian naturalism.

In any case, one might think that, upon entering Catholic schools, I would have been indoctrinated into this form of Christianity. But it didn’t happen. I was a thoughtful boy and I had serious religious questions. The nuns at Hardy Prep in Chicago were not interested, it seemed, in answering those questions. I remember, on being confirmed in the eighth grade, that I had to write a letter to the bishop. It was to be a pro forma thank-you letter, but in it I raised some questions about confirmation, indicated that I really didn’t understand what it was all about, and mused that one day I would (which I do now). The nun in charge sent the letter back and had me omit all this questioning, turning the letter into pabulum. Nor did she take me aside to answer my questions.

High school at Portsmouth Abbey, a prep school in Rhode Island, was better, but by then I had veered into Eastern philosophy and what later came to be called the New Age. When I left high school after three years to go to the University of Chicago, I recall being asked in a questionnaire for my religious preference. I put down Hindu. It sounds crazy in hindsight, but religiously that’s where I was. When I left Catholic school after my junior year, I had no intention of returning to Roman Catholicism, or to any form of Christianity for that matter. Christianity, it seemed to me, was completely lacking in power and relevance.

My parents never pushed religion on me. My mother always had an affection for Jesus—as a young girl, she seems to have had a divine encounter. But then in school, reading Hermann Hesse, she lost any traditional Christian belief. My dad would occasionally go to Catholic mass by himself—I think he found some comfort there. But there were a lot of secular elements to his thought. He was never a dogmatic Darwinist, but one of his favorite quotes was Robert Green Ingersoll’s “In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.”

It wasn’t until two years after leaving high school in 1979 that the claims of Christianity became pressing for me. Although I was never an atheist, my biggest problem religiously was seeing how God could make a meaningful connection with humanity. God was perfect, humans were in a condition of suffering. How could God really know what we were experiencing? It was in pondering that question that the Incarnation of Christ finally made sense to me. Even while attending Catholic schools, I had consciously rejected the deity of Christ. God becoming human in Jesus suddenly answered my deepest question.

It was shortly thereafter that I become a Christian. That happened in broadly evangelical circles. I’ve moved in these circles ever since.

TBS: When did you first come to doubt that the theory of natural selection adequately explains the fact that living things appear to be designed—an appearance that even Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett freely admit?

WD: The funny thing—especially in light of my work on intelligent design—is that evolution played no role whatsoever in my conversion to Christianity. My dad was an evolutionist. He even taught evolution at the college level. He would often joke that a few million years ago, we were swinging from trees. I accepted evolution on becoming a Christian, and I didn’t see any fundamental conflict between the two.

After becoming a Christian, I started reading the creationist literature (there was no ID literature to speak of, then) and seeing the tension between Darwinism and the more conservative reading of Scripture that was customary in the evangelical circles in which I moved. But what decided me against Darwinism wasn’t its unacceptability to any preferred construal of Christianity. It was this.

We all have intuitions about what’s within the reach of chance and what isn’t. If I get out a fair coin and flip it three times, I might witness three heads in a row, no problem. I might even flip 10 heads in a row if given an hour or two to toss the coin. But getting 100, to say nothing of 1,000, heads in a row by chance seems completely absurd.

Well, when I was reading about the origin of life (this was in 1980), it seemed to me utterly ridiculous that chemistry left to its own devices could pull off this feat of forming first life. Once naturalism lost its hold on me with regard to the origin of life, skepticism of Darwinism vis-à-vis the subsequent history of life followed. Indeed, without naturalism to prop up Darwinism, the evidence for this unguided form of evolution is underwhelming, to say the least. Phillip Johnson showed this quite effectively in Darwin on Trial. Others have as well. I came to the same conclusion within a year after my conversion to Christianity.

My situation was the diametric opposite of Lee Strobel’s. He lost his faith in God when he was exposed in high school to the Miller-Urey experiment, which showed that certain basic building blocks of living systems might form by chance chemistry. He mistakenly inferred that life could easily be formed without the need of any actual design or teleology. For me it was the absurdity of chance chemistry forming anything that could even approach the complexity of the cell that for me undid chemical, and then Darwinian, evolution.

I subsequently coauthored a book with Jonathan Wells titled How to Be an Intellectually Fulfilled Atheist—Or Not, keying off of Richard Dawkins’s claim that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. The book covers the state of origin-of-life research as of 2008 and confirms that my intuitions back in the early 1980s were exactly right. There is no coherent account of a naturalistic origin of life. Indeed, the chemistry on which life is based, apart from any real teleology, resists the formation of the individual biomacromolecules necessary for life, to say nothing of bringing them all together in a cell..."

That is part one of the interview.    It is interesting to comprehend the journey that an academic rising star embarked upon and the twists and turns that were driven by worldview and not science!