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Walter Bradley: Finding a Life of Greater Purpose

Bradley has been a pioneer in the development of appropriate technologies for developing regions of the world

In last week’s podcast, “The Life of Walter Bradley With William Dembski (Part I),” Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks and design theorist William Dembski discuss the biography they have written about a remarkable engineer, Walter Bradley, For a Greater Purpose: The Life and Legacy of Walter Bradley. It also helps explain why we call ourselves the Walter Bradley Center, as we seek to extend Dr. Bradley’s work.

A partial transcript follows. This transcript begins at 02:55. Show notes and links follow.

Before getting down to the main business, design theorist William Dembski, possibly the best known theorist of design in nature, told Robert Marks that he plans a second edition of his Cambridge University Press book, The Design Inference (2006). He says the core ideas will remain but the approach will be “radically rewritten.”

But now … what has stood out in Walter Bradley’s life?

Robert J. Marks: The irony about Walter’s life is that you cannot be like Walter Bradley by trying to be like Walter Bradley, rather you’re like Walter Bradley if you spend your life, as the book says, for a greater purpose. Not looking at your accomplishments and not looking at things that you would like to do to build up your legacy, but to do things that should be done for the purpose of doing them right.

We met, Bill Dembski, Walter Bradley, and I met at Baylor University. … Robert Sloan, the President of Baylor University, currently the President of Houston Baptist University writes about Walter Bradley when he came to Baylor University. And this is very typical of the accolades that we get about Bradley. It says, “Walter Bradley is one of the most remarkable Christian scholars I’ve ever known.” …

But for Robert Sloan to have said, “He is one of the most remarkable Christian scholars I’ve ever known,” is saying a lot. He said, “All of us, as his colleagues were encouraged by his enormous capacity to integrate historic Christian faith with cutting edge scientific thinking.” …

We have people like William Lane Craig saying, “Walter Bradley is one of the most extraordinary men I have ever known. I am in awe of him.” That’s a comment again from William Lane Craig. We have Douglas Axe, who said, “Luminaries like Walter Bradley paved the way for me to dedicate my career to advance design thinking in biology.”

The discussion turned from accolades to Bradley’s pioneering approach to technology in the developing world:

Robert J. Marks: We have Brian Thomas, a professor here in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University. He says, “Walter was instrumental in helping me understand that my gifts and talents as an engineer could be used to serve the poor and marginalized.”

Walter was one of the founders of the idea of appropriate technology. The idea is that, in developing countries, you do not need a new supercomputer. You need technology which is going to help the country where it’s at.

He noticed around the world that coconuts were a waste product. In fact, coconut hulls used to accumulate on the ground in these developing countries. And they used to fill up with water and just like abandoned tires, mosquitoes would lay their eggs in there. It would be a great farm for mosquitoes coming out. So the question is, is how could coconuts be used in a free market sort of situation, to do some incredible things? His idea was to go into these different countries and help the people help themselves. The idea was to set up a company which nationals could take over. They could run and use their local natural resources in order to perpetuate the business. And then Walter would step away and the business would continue.

Note: See, for example: Coconuts go high tech: Plastics from coconut waste offer economic benefit to poor farmers.

Robert J. Marks: This is what Professor Brian Thomas in our department is still doing. He goes to places such as Haiti (street scene pictured). He used to go to Africa, still does, Central America, and help the poor and marginalized.

Under the sponsorship of the Bradley Center, he went to Haiti. One of the fascinating things is that everybody in the world today has a cell phone, no matter where you go, but they have problems with wi-fi, with reception, but more importantly, they have problems with recharging their cell phones.

So he put out solar panels and nationals would run little businesses where people could take their cell phones and get them recharged for a small fee. This is a classic example of so-called appropriate technology.

Note: See, for example, “Haiti calling … reaching out: touching the world: Baylor Engineering prof Brian Thomas has been helping Haitians establish businesses to recharge cell phones, using solar panels.


Can the newest technology liberate the poorest communities? In Haiti, new technology bypasses many development pitfalls

Robert J. Marks: Bill, I wonder if you could comment on The The Mystery of Life’s Origin, and maybe the impact that Walter’s book had on you.

William Dembski: In the mid eighties,popular books that were critical of evolutionary theory and origin of life … were largely the young earth creationist literature. There were some good valid insights there but it was also always combined with a young earth, six, 24 hour-day creation approach. So, there was always this sense of conflation of science and religion. And then in the end, people on the atheistic side could always say, “Well, it’s really just a science versus religion controversy.”

And Mystery of Life’s Origin (1984) really put the whole question of the origin of life as a science versus science controversy. It showed that all these naturalistic scenarios for explaining how life could have arisen by purely materialistic means couldn’t work. There is an information problem and an entropy problem that was insuperable for these materialistic scenarios. And the thing is the book was published by Philosophical Library. This was a publisher that had published eight Nobel laureates. It was respectable. It was finally getting out of the Christian publishing ghetto and getting the material out in front of the mainstream audience.

And I don’t mean to be unkind when I say Christian publishing ghetto. But there’s a sense in which credibility is just so hard won. And this is what was really needed to get that book the eyeballs that it needed from the people who understood what the debate was and could really engage in it. So it was groundbreaking in. In the appendix, it raised the question of, “Well, if naturalistic or materialistic origin scenarios don’t work, then what could?” And it raised the possibility of intelligent design.

William Dembski: And the thing is with the origin of life, if you don’t have a naturalistic origin of life, then you really don’t have a naturalistic theory of evolution, because evolution, biological evolution is downstream from an origin of life. So if you’ve got a gaping hole at the start, everything that follows isn’t going to work either. So it was a huge event. I mean, I give Walter credit, John Buell, who was with the foundation, or actually I think it was Probe Ministries at the time, that got behind it, Charlie Thaxton, Roger Olson.

Note: The book was revised and republished in 2020, with chemist James Tour added as an author, along with a number of design theorists.

William Dembski: And it was just wonderful to see 35 years later, this new edition, and it’s not just a new edition, it’s not like it’s just been lightly touched up. I mean, you have all these contributions by luminaries in the field of origin of life, coming at it from various perspectives and disciplines, and really bringing it up to date. So here you have a 35th anniversary edition, but that really does bring the discussion up to date. And nothing has really changed except that the problems have gotten worse for the materialists. The information problem is worse for them. So the case that Walter Bradley and his colleagues made back 35 years ago is if anything, stronger now.

Robert J. Marks: Yes, and it turns out that Walter’s work has been celebrated by some pretty top flight scientists. We have Henry (Fritz) Schaefer, for example, who has been nominated for the Nobel prize a few times in chemistry and Marlan Scully , who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences …

Walter in writing and coauthoring The Mystery of Life’s Origin hit a nerve with some people. Some people didn’t like the fact that his last chapter had to do with possible theistic solutions…

After going through all the problems, they laid out all of the possibilities for the mystery of life’s origin. Could it have been panspermia where life was planted here? Could it have been just spontaneous generation where chemicals turned into life? That was basically what they debunked in the book. And there is also the possibility of a creative God. So the authors presented a small section at the end of the book about that. And I don’t know, people didn’t like that. Bill, what’s the deal?

William Dembski: Well, I think it’s a matter of presuppositions, right? If you want the world to be a certain way, and if God is not supposed to be part of that, then anything that would point to it becomes a challenge. And there are people who just don’t like it.

Robert J. Marks: Well, this brings up one of my favorite Walter Bradley stories. He was under deposition for textbooks in Texas. And there’s always a question of the degree to which evolution should be presented. Should the controversy be also presented? Walter was on deposition by the opposition and an ACLU lawyer that came up and says, “Dr. Bradley,”

  • they always say “Dr. Bradley” in the most condescending tone that they possibly can.

He said, “Are you a Christian?” Walter says, “Why, yes I am.” He says, “Dr. Bradley, how is it then that you can be objective when looking at scientific issues, if you’re a Christian?”

And Walter shot back, “Well, I’m not really the one that is not objective. You live in a little silo of materialism. You can’t see outside of the silo. I live in a much larger perspective, a much larger worldview. My question is not whether or not God did it. My question is, how did God do it? And I would submit to you, sir, that you are the one with the narrow perspective on life, and I have a much more broader perspective and could therefore be much more objective in my analysis than you and your ilk.”

And it shut up the ACLU lawyer. And he totally changed the topic immediately.

Next: More about the book, For a Greater Purpose: The Life and Legacy of Walter Bradley.

Show Notes

  • 00:38 | Introducing the new biography, For a Greater Purpose: The Life and Legacy of Walter Bradley
  • 01:16 | Introducing William A. Dembski
  • 02:55 | Background on the book
  • 06:53 | Accolades for Walter Bradley from colleagues
  • 09:06 | Bradley’s book, The Mystery of Life’s Origin
  • 15:18 | Professional celebration of Bradley’s work
  • 17:16 | Walter Bradley under deposition

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Walter Bradley: Finding a Life of Greater Purpose