Dr. Robert Koons is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, where he has been since he earned his doctorate from UCLA in 1987. He is currently working on the logic of causation.
It was a conference that included keynote speakers of such caliber as Phillip Johnson (UC-Berkeley), Alvin Plantinga (University of Notre Dame), Michael Ruse (University of Guelph), and Frederick Grinnell (UT Southwestern Medical Center). Thirty-nine papers were read by specialists in the philosophy of science, history, geology, biology, physics, computer science, rhetoric, and the social sciences.
It brought together 120 scientists, scholars and students from around the world to discuss the relationship between methodological naturalism, theistic hypotheses and explanations, and the practice of science. It was a major step forward in introducing theistic thought into science.
The event: Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise, a conference in February hosted at the University of Texas and the brainchild of just two professors, Dr. Robert Koons and Dr. John Cogdell.
What follows is an interview with Koons, a professor of philosophy at UT, on how he organized the conference, and an insightful summary and commentary by Koons of the main points discussed at the conference.
An Interview with Dr. Rob Koons
RI: How did the NTSE come about?
Koons: The conference was an outgrowth of work that I was doing for the Veritas Forum at the University of Texas. We wanted Phil Johnson for that, but he was more interested in interacting with faculty and graduate students, as well as an undergraduate audience. That sparked our thinking, and we decided to put together an academic conference around the themes of naturalism and theism in the sciences. I then spoke to my chair about making the department the official host. My chairman is a good friend of mine (who also happens to be a Christian and is very sympathetic to this sort of thing) and he agreed to attach the department's name to the conference. We didn't get any money from the university, but we did get clerical and administrative support.
Although the conference started as a spin-off of the Veritas Forum, it was from the start a very distinct and separate enterprise. It was designed to be an academic conference in a secular setting, and we followed through on that, I think.
RI: After you received approval, what were the next steps you took to put this conference together?
Koons: We intended to put together a balanced and diverse program, so we made a call for abstracts and made it clear that we would accept
anything that was good from any point of view on these issues. Then we put together a program committee to read and evaluate the abstracts as they came in. As it turned out, we received about 70 abstracts.
The main advice I would give others who would consider hosting a conference is to start further in advance than we did. We had a little less than a year to do itand that was very short. I think a person should start about two years in advance. For instance, we were constantly missing deadlines, like making the call to papers, and getting the papers published in different places. We relied almost exclusively on the Internet, which was a lifesaver.
We contacted all the different "list-serves" and bulletin boards, etc.anything to do with origins and naturalism and Darwinism, philosophy of science, history of scienceas well as the ASA listserve.
RI: Who did you work with most in putting the conference together?
Koons: Mostly it was John Cogdell and me. He's in the electrical engineering department here. We were the two faculty most involved in the early planning of the Veritas Forum, so we were the ones who came up with the idea for the origins conference, and began to work on the university-end of that. Also, a couple of the people on the program committee were from the faculty fellowship at UT. And we had administrative support from the department officefor printing, mailings, and the like.
RI: What were your objectives for the conference?
Koons: The basic objective I had was to get together those on each side of the basic issue: the question of methodological naturalism (whether naturalism is some kind of boundary that defines science that you can't exceed). I wanted to get them together in an academic setting where they could really talk to each other and reason with each other, rather than just shouting at each other across a big chasm.
People on both sides enjoyed the conference and learned a lot, and they gained respect for the other side. I think there was some movement on both sidessome constructive convergence.
RI: How did you handle the physical arrangements?
Koons: One thing we did that turned out well was to contact some of the local hotels. We ended up having the conference at a hotel so all the arrangements, including setting up the rooms, having equipment, refreshments, and all the rest, were provided as a package deal. That simplified things a lot. Hotels are competing for business and they want to bring in conferences, and so they are very helpful.
RI: Did arranging the conference take up a lot of your time?
Koons: The conference did interfere with my regular responsibilities, but not to a huge extent. Actually, I was gone for most of January doing research, and that was just before the conference. I left a lot of the work to the departmental staff while I was gone. The clerical help made a big difference because it's the kind of thing that, even if I have the time, I wouldn't be able to do well.
RI: If the university didn't contribute any money, how did you pay for the conference?
Koons: The funding came essentially from registration fees. As it turned out, we exactly broke even. So it's possible to do this on a real shoestring budget. I think people aren't aware of that. Most people probably think that you need a big grant to get something going, but it's not really true.
RI: What have you done or will you do with the abstracts?
Koons: We're working with the ASA journal called Perspective of Science in the Christian Faith. The ASA is interested in publishing three or four papers from the conference in their journal. Otherwise, we don't have any plans to publish anything, but I left my web page up, and that's where the abstracts are.
I have 34 or 35 of the papers on the website from the conferenceall but one of the submitted papers. I didn't have papers from the plenary speakers; I didn't really expect them to contribute a text.
RI: Do you recommend others host similar conferences, even in different fields?
Koons: I think it's a good idea. A lot of times we assume the university won't be open to it and we eliminate things before we even get them out there. All the university can say is "no," and you haven't lost anything. But if you are going to approach the university, you need to design a conference that's intended to stimulate dialogue and discussionconversation among people with different views.
The courts have made it pretty clear that the fact that you might have God or theism in there somewhere doesn't disqualify it by any means. Of course, you can probably get away with more in philosophy than in other fieldssome people may look askance at things that are revolutionary relative to their own disciplines.
RI: What other topics could you suggest that could serve as conference themes?
Koons: Perhaps something on the origins of life, or the anthropic principle (for a physics department), or something on the problem of homologythere are all sorts of things you could introduce.
When you just abandon whole fields of thought, then it creates the impression in everybody's mind that Christianity and theism is as dead as a doornail. It only takes one person to stand up and say, "Well, nolet's talk about that some more."