BU science-religion center draws critics

Polanyi Center's views may hurt department reputations, some fear


Baylor's Michael Polanyi Center, a new center devoted to the study of science and religion, is hosting a conference, "The Nature of Nature," Wednesday at various campus buildings. Because of the center's controversial views, faculty will be watching closely.

"The purpose of the conference is for the scientists, philosophers, historians and theists to get together and talk about the complexity in nature in relation to scientific and philosophical religious concerns," said Dr. Bruce Gordon, associate director of the Michael Polanyi Center.

The Polanyi center sees itself as creating a dialogue connecting religion with the sciences.

"We see science and religion as complementary ways of looking at the earth because they have mutual relevance to each other," Gordon said. "I think they contribute to a more completely adequate understanding of the world and in order for us to derive to that state, we must take into account the relationship of science and religion and find harmony in between."

However, many professors in Baylor's arts and science departments are alarmed that the center's rhetoric will generate negative publicity that could harm the reputations of their departments.

"I am concerned as a science professor because something involving the sciences occurred without us [faculty] knowing about it," said Dr. Joe Yelderman, a geology professor.

Yelderman said he was not aware the center existed until after looking on Baylor's Web site and finding that the Polanyi Center stated that it was involved in the natural sciences.

"As a professor, I am concerned that people will make us guilty by association and assume that we are associated with or linked to this organization that is very well established as a pseudo-science rather than science," Yelderman said.

Dr. Charles Weaver, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, agrees that the new center may jeopardize the integrity of Baylor science degrees.

"Historically, Baylor has been successful in attracting potential pre-med students and accomplished faculty," Weaver said. "But, if I'm a potential physician, I am not going to a school that has questions about scientific integrity."

In response, Gordon attributes much of the debate as a misunderstanding of the intended purpose of the center.

"I think the science faculty has been concerned that we might be infringing on their area of expertise," Gordon said. "What we are doing is merely asking the question of whether there are empirical means in nature. The significance of that, of course, is not a scientific question; it needs to be evaluated from the perspective of philosophy and theology."

Gordon said he thinks the conference will serve as evidence of the center's good faith and the legitimate nature of its research. He invited faculty to attend a session they find interesting.

Though Yelderman and Weaver agree that the conference will be a good test for the Polanyi center, they do not plan to attend because of time constraints and the belief that the conference's approach to science is unproductive.

"One of the many problems that many of us scientists have is that it is very time-consuming to discuss our views," Yelderman said. "That is not the productive end of science. I would rather experience science, through my students or in my own research, than just talk about it."

Weaver said he will not attend because his colleagues' input is not encouraged.

"We are asked to observe, but our input has never been asked for," he said.

The Michael Polanyi Center, established in October 1999, consists of two people, director William Dembski, mathematician and philosopher, and associate-director Gordon, philosopher of physics.

The concept for creating such a center was sparked after Dr. Michael Beatty, director of the Institute of Faith and Learning and philosophy professor, and Dr. Donald Schmeltekopf, provost and vice-president of academic affairs, read the articles of director William Dembski.

They approached Dembski with the idea of creating a research center that would be a component of the Institute of Faith and Learning.

Named after Michael Polanyi, a physical chemist who studied the interaction of science, philosophy and religion in the 1930s, the center is affiliated with Baylor's Institute of Faith and Learning. It was established as a research initiative, focused on advancing the understanding of science, and exploring the interaction between science and religion.

Speakers from many disciplines, such as philosophy, theology and biology, plan to attend the event, including two Nobel Laureates, theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg of University of Texas in Austin and biochemist Christian de Duve of the Universite Catholique de Louvian in Belgium.

Guest speakers will discuss topics such as the origins of life and consciousness, the fine-tuning of physical constants, the effectiveness of mathematics at modeling the physical world and the role of naturalism in the history of science.

A pre-conference lecture will begin 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Cashion Academic Center.

Opening remarks will begin the conference at 7p.m. in Cashion.

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