Home > Polanyi and "Intelligent Design"


An attempt at Baylor University to use Michael Polanyi’s name for an academic research center fostering the views of the “Intelligent Design” movement was abandoned in 2000. The Center was called “The Michael Polanyi Center.” Questions from the faculty of Baylor led to an investigation by an External Review Committee appointed by the university. The External Review Committee Report, October 16, 2000, p. 2 said:

“It is quite appropriate to associate the name of Michael Polanyi with discussions of science and religion. However, Polanyi explicitly indicated that he did not think that an agency such as that implied by claims of the intelligent design need to be invoked when dealing with the growth in complexity of the living world over aeons past (Personal Knowledge, p. 395). Given this, and given also the debates that have surrounded the Michael Polanyi Center from its origins, it would seem best that whatever research is carried out at Baylor on the design inference should not bear the Polanyi name."
(Baylor External Review Committee Report - Dembski, Polanyi and ID.pdf)

Following the External Review Committee’s report, the Polanyi name was removed and the work of the Center was moved to the Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor. Drs. William Dembski and Bruce Gordon who led the Intelligent Design project were also placed under the supervision of Dr. Michael Beaty, Director of the Institute for Faith and Learning.

Because of the Baylor incident, The Polanyi Society invited Dr. William Dembski in 2003 to present a paper at their annual meeting in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The Polanyi Society also asked three senior Polanyi scholars, Richard Gelwick, John Apczynski, and Walter Gulick, to respond to Dembski regarding how and if Polanyi’s views are relevant to “Intelligent Design.” Dembski accepted the invitation to discuss Polanyi and “Intelligent Design” with Polanyi scholars but later withdrew. Nevertheless The Polanyi Society held its meeting and the three Polanyi scholars identified above discussed Polanyi's teleology and its relation to the ideas of “Intelligent Design.” All three investigators independently came to the conclusion that Polanyi would not support the “Intelligent Design” project. These presentations can be found in the March, 2005 issue of Zygon, Journal of Science and Religion. Vol. 40, No. I.

There is a significant body of Polanyi scholarship. The leaders of the Baylor “Intelligent Design” movement have not participated in scholarly discussion with those who have spent careers studying Polanyi’s ideas. Particularly disturbing is the apparent lack of interest-- by those who adopted Polanyi’s name for the Baylor Center-- in the views of Polanyi scholars on Polanyi’s teleology and its bearing on “Intelligent Design.”

While Polanyi’s views were critical of reductionist views in biological science and evolutionary theory, Polanyi was an ardent defender of the autonomy and freedom of scientific inquiry and would oppose religious impositions on the self-governance of science. Further Polanyi’s view of science’s pursuit of discovery of truth was rooted in a view of reality as surprising and unfolding, not fixed or predetermined by an external divine agency. From the point of view of Polanyi studies, the action of the Baylor faculty and the university administration in dropping the Polanyi names seems most fitting.