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Two distinguished scholars whose careers have been devoted in large part to attempts to explain the origin of the striking complexity and order of the natural world will be sharing the platform in Woodward Hall 101 on the UNM campus at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, November 13. The featured speakers in this two-hour symposium are Dr. Stuart Kauffman, one of the founding members of the Santa Fe Institute, and Dr. William Dembski, an associate research professor in the conceptual foundations of science at Baylor University.
Kauffman and Dembski are strikingly similar in some respects and radically different in others. Similarities can be seen in their academic training, their area of expertise, their publication history and their view of the inadequacy of a dominant paradigm. Both are true Renaissance men. As an undergraduate Kauffman focused on philosophy, psychology and physiology, collecting bachelor's degrees from both Dartmouth and Oxford. While his terminal degree is an M.D., Kauffman has served on the faculty of departments of theoretical biology (University of Chicago), biochemistry, and biophysics (University of Pennsylvania College of Medicine) as well as biology and medicine, and currently he is the chief scientific officer of Bios Group, a Santa Fe-based software company he founded.
For his part, Bill Dembski has two Ph.D.s, one in mathematics (from the University of Chicago) and another in philosophy (from the University of Illinois at Chicago) as well as graduate degrees in statistics and theology. Before going to Baylor, Dembski was affiliated with Northwestern University and the University of Notre Dame.
In terms of their expertise, both could be said to be in the emerging field of “bioinformatics”, an interdisciplinary area exploring mathematical and information processing methods and theory as they apply to molecular biology, with the ultimate challenge being the explanation of the information content of the human genome. Kauffman has made extensive use of computational methods in his work, simulating how systems of varying complexity evolve over time. Dembski, more the mathematician than computer scientist, lives in the realm of the implications of theorems, such as those pertaining to the conservation of information.
In terms of their publication history, Kauffman, the more senior and prominent of the two, is widely known for three books published in the last eight years, beginning with the heavy-weight volume Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. This was followed by the more popularly written, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, and the bold and provocative Investigations, where Kauffman probes the essence of life itself. Dembski's first book was also a tome, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities, which was followed by the more approachable Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology. Perhaps his best book is the forthcoming No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity cannot be Purchased without Intelligence, currently circulated as a pre-print and due out next month, in which Dembski develops the implications of results in information theory for, among other things, Kauffman's proposed fourth law of thermodynamics.
The final similarity, at once the most subtle and most telling, is their agreement on two general points regarding the Darwinian paradigm: first, the inadequacy of natural selection for explaining the emergence of complexity, and second, the moral anguish seen in its wake. Regarding the former, as Kauffman writes in At Home, “Since Darwin, we turn to a single, singular force, Natural Selection, which we might as well capitalize as though it were the new deity. Random variation, selection-sifting. Without it, we reason, there would be nothing but incoherent disorder. I shall argue in this book that this idea is wrong” (p. 8). Regarding the latter, “We are but accidents, we're told. Purpose and value are ours alone to make... [T]he rise of science and the consequent technological explosion has driven us to our secular worldview. Yet a spiritual hunger remains” (p. 4). Dembski would agree on both counts. But the differences are profound.
Most important are their radically different answers to the question of the origin of order. Kauffman proclaims it arises spontaneously, the result of naturally occurring “laws of complexity”: “the origin of life itself comes because of what I call 'order for free'--self organization that arises naturally” (p. 71). Dembski, in contrast, armed with proofs regarding the conservation of information, believes such assertions by Kauffman are merely a modern form of alchemy and demonstrably false. In short, his argument is there is No Free Lunch, and the only legitimate inference is that complexity bespeaks a designing intelligence.
The Symposium on the Origins of Order provides an opportunity to listen in on a public conversation between two brilliant thinkers. The symposium is jointly sponsored by the University Honors Program, the Center for Advanced Studies, and the Department of Psychology at UNM and is supported by a grant from the Templeton Foundation and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at Berkeley. Dr. Dembski will also be giving a lecture at 7 p.m., Monday, November 12, on “Darwin's Unpaid Debt” at the UNM Continuing Education Center, 1634 University Blvd. N.E. For more information, call 277-5224.
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