Thursday, September 21, 2006

What is Darwinism? (4) The verdict of Phillip Johnson

Phillip E. Johnson, currently program advisor of the Discovery Institute's center for Science and Culture, gave back in 1992 a lecture titled What is Darwinism?.

We'll begin with jumping to Johnson's second to last paragraph:

We are now in a position to answer the question with which this lecture began. What is Darwinism? Darwinism is a theory of empirical science only at the level of microevolution, where it provides a framework for explaining such things as the diversity that arises when small populations become reproductively isolated from the main body of the species. As a general theory of biological creation Darwinism is not empirical at all. Rather, it is a necessary implication of a philosophical doctrine called scientific naturalism, which is based on the a priori assumption that God was always absent from the realm of nature. As such evolution in the Darwinian sense is inherently antithetical to theism, although evolution in some entirely different and non-naturalistic sense could conceivably have been God's chosen method of creation.

This should make it clear, which game we are playing here. Johnson is out to pitch Darwinism against theism; not in the sense of denying any and all evolution, but in the sense of denying 'macroevolution' - in the very end, common descent.

This of course puts Johnson among the baraminologists, those who believe that there are essential differences between organisms, the kind barriers, beyond which evolution cannot go.


Let's now return to the very beginning of the lecture. In the first paragraph Johnson mentions the Jeopardy television game:

There is a popular television game show called "Jeopardy," in which the usual order of things is reversed. Instead of being asked a question to which they must supply the answer, the contestants are given the answer and asked to provide the appropriate question. This format suggests an insight that is applicable to law, to science, and indeed to just about everything. The important thing is not necessarily to know all the answers, but rather to know what question is being asked.

So we know that Johnson is going to tell us that the question is not "What is Darwinism?", since Darwinism is the answer to the real question. This question is revealed by Johnson in the last paragraph of the lecture:

In 1874, the great Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge asked the question I have asked: What is Darwinism? After a careful and thoroughly fair-minded evaluation of the doctrine, his answer was unequivocal: "It is Atheism." Another way to state the proposition is to say that Darwinism is the answer to a specific question that grows out of philosophical naturalism. To return to the game of "Jeopardy" with which we started, let us say that Darwinism is the answer. What, then, is the question? The question is: "How must creation have occurred if we assume that God had nothing to do with it?" Theistic evolutionists accomplish very little by trying to Christianize the answer to a question that comes straight out of the agenda of scientific naturalism. What we need to do instead is to challenge the assumption that the only questions worth asking are the ones that assume that naturalism is true.

Johnson was at the time of writing this lecture professor of law, now retired. In a court case the two parties usually provide evidence for their claims. Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was actually written over this pattern, of course with Darwin providing evidence for evolution, but also suggesting, what line of evidence his opponents would need to provide.

In The Origin of Species chapter 6, "Difficulties on Theory", Darwin writes:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.

Aha; but Michael Behe can find them everywhere, so apparently Darwin's theory has broken down!

Except, of course, that Behe's examples all have been shown to not really fit the bill. A leading critique of Behe's is Kenneth Miller, who happens to be a Roman Catholic - just like Behe.


In the "Introduction" to The Origin of Species, Darwin outlines the case at hand:

In considering the Origin of Species, it is quite conceivable that a naturalist, reflecting on the mutual affinities of organic beings, on their embryological relations, their geographical distribution, geological succession, and other such facts, might come to the conclusion that each species had not been independently created, but had descended, like varieties, from other species. Nevertheless, such a conclusion, even if well founded, would be unsatisfactory, until it could be shown how the innumerable species inhabiting this world have been modified so as to acquire that perfection of structure and co-adaptation which most justly excites our admiration. Naturalists continually refer to external conditions, such as climate, food, &c., as the only possible cause of variation. In one very limited sense, as we shall hereafter see, this may be true; but it is preposterous to attribute to mere external conditions, the structure, for instance, of the woodpecker, with its feet, tail, beak, and tongue, so admirably adapted to catch insects under the bark of trees. In the case of the misseltoe, which draws its nourishment from certain trees, which has seeds that must be transported by certain birds, and which has flowers with separate sexes absolutely requiring the agency of certain insects to bring pollen from one flower to the other, it is equally preposterous to account for the structure of this parasite, with its relations to several distinct organic beings, by the effects of external conditions, or of habit, or of the volition of the plant itself.

Ending the "Introduction", Darwin writes:

No one ought to feel surprise at much remaining as yet unexplained in regard to the origin of species and varieties, if he makes due allowance for our profound ignorance in regard to the mutual relations of all the beings which live around us. Who can explain why one species ranges widely and is very numerous, and why another allied species has a narrow range and is rare? Yet these relations are of the highest importance, for they determine the present welfare, and, as I believe, the future success and modification of every inhabitant of this world. Still less do we know of the mutual relations of the innumerable inhabitants of the world during the many past geological epochs in its history. Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgement of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained -- namely, that each species has been independently created -- is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.

Now, if Darwinism is the answer to the question: "How must creation have occurred if we assume that God had nothing to do with it?", Darwin would probably have phrased this rather differently. Note that even baraminologists, such as Johnson, do not believe "that each species has been independently created", only that each kind has been independently created. However, we are still waiting for the baraminologists to hand us a working definition of a kind.

This is of course assuming that Charles Darwin was a Darwinist. But even if he wasn't, the main point here remains that the micro-macro distinction may be more a question of pragmatics than a question of reality.


Returning to Johnson, he aks the question, why macroevolution is still considered scientific, although it lacks any empirical basis - it being simply an extrapolation of microevolution. He then writes:

The answer to that question lies in the definition of five key terms. The terms are creationism, evolution, science, religion, and truth. Once we understand how these words are used in evolutionary discourse, the continued ascendancy of neo-Darwinism will be no mystery and we need no longer be deceived by claims that the theory is supported by "overwhelming evidence."

It's certainly always nice in any discussion to have clear definitions of terms used - if for no other reason, then at least to figure out, what it's all about. So let's have a look at, how Johnson defines his five key terms.

First creationism:

The first word is creationism, which means simply a belief in creation.

Fine; but what does 'creation' mean? Let's again look at Johnson's claim that Darwinism is the answer to the question: "How must creation have occurred if we assume that God had nothing to do with it?" Apparently Johnson acknowledges that it is meaningful to talk about non-theistic creation, and apparently any Darwinist is a creationist.

But let's return to Johnson:

In Darwinist usage, which dominates not only the popular and profession[al?] scientific literature but also the media, a creationist is a person who takes the creation account in the Book of Genesis to be true in an very literal sense. The earth was created in a single week of six 24-hour days no more that 10,000 years ago; the major features of the geological [column?] were produced by Noah's flood; and there have been no major innovations in the forms of life since the beginning. It is a major theme of Darwinist propaganda that the only persons who have any doubts about Darwinism are young-earth creationists of this sort, who are always portrayed as rejecting the clear and convincing evidence of science to preserve a religious prejudice. The implication is that citizens of modern society are faced with a choice that is really no choice at all. Either they reject science altogether and retreat to a pre-modern worldview, or they believe everything the Darwinists tell them.

I beg to disagree - though acknowledging that I am guilty and used to equate 'creationist' and 'YEC'. A few months ago I suggested on an evolutionist web-site that the expression "the Intelligent Design creationist William Dembski" should be changed to "the Intelligent Design proponent William Dembski", since I didn't consider William Dembski to be a creationist - after all Henry Morris didn't either. However, I was informed that there were many varieties of creationism. Intelligent design being one. Then I considered claiming that if 'Intelligent Design' implies 'creationist', the latter word was redundant; but I gave up the fight. So Johnson is not necessarily quite right here, and we still don't really know, what he means by a 'creationist', since we don't know what he means by 'creation'.

Johnson then gives us his own definition of, what a creationist is:

In a broader sense, however, a creationist is simply a person who believes in the existence of a creator, who brought about the existence of the world and its living inhabitants in furtherance of a purpose.

This gives us a slight problem, namely that many people who do not consider themself to be creationists will come to count as creationists. When we talk about evolution versus creation, it's the process we are dealing with, not whether there is some underlying purpose. Compare to for instance the process of publishing books; this can be described without reference to why a certain publisher publishes certain books. Some publishers specialize in books with certain political content; but they still use the same techniques as anyone else.

And Johnson runs into an even bigger problem, when he continues:

Whether the process of creation took a single week or billions of years is relatively unimportant from a philosophical or theological standpoint. Creation by gradual processes over geological ages may create problems for Biblical interpretation, but it creates none for the basic principle of theistic religion.

Apparently Johnson hasn't spent much time talking with YECs. For any YEC, you either accept the six-day creation, or you are heading straight for hell.

Jonathan Wells, who is a fellow of the Discovery Institute has written a Handy Dandy Evolution Refuter, where he in the first chapter writes:

5. What is the biblical doctrine of creation?

Answer: The Bible teaches in the first chapter of Genesis that God created all things, and that His work of creation had the following characters:
  • Ex nihilo Out of nothing
  • Fiat By His word or command
  • Special Each created "kind" of organism reproduces separate from the other kinds
  • Perfect Good, very good, to glorify the Creator and make His creatures happy
  • God's image Intellect, affections, moral responsibility, and will in man
  • Six-day creation

The literal six-day creation is important to YECs, because a literal interpretation of Genesis 2-3 is crucial to their entire argumentation. So it's not simply a question of "problems for Biblical interpretation", but for some it is of fundamental importance.

However, Johnson is not the one to worry about this. He continues:

And creation in this broad sense, according to a 1991 Gallup poll, is the creed of 87 per cent of Americans. If God brought about our existence for a purpose, then the most important kind of knowledge to have is knowledge of God and of what He intends for us.

Since I happen to not be a US citizen, I really enjoy such statements. Did God anly bring about the existence of (US) Americans? Science has the peculiar property that it has to be the same everywhere. If the earth is around 6,000 years old, it is around 6,000 years old in India as well as in the USA. If the earth is around 4.55 billion years old, it is around 4.55 billion years old in Russia as well as in South Africa. We cannot vote about these things nation by nation. We need to provide evidence that everybody can agree upon.

All in all, Johnson's big creationist tent is both too big and not big enough.

Johnson spends the next paragraphs discussing, whether "creation in that broad sense [is] consistent with evolution". Not surprisingly he says "no", if evolution is understood as fully naturalistic evolution. In the process Johnson confuses the theory of evolution with the Big Bang theory, although they are not really related. The theory of evolution deals with how speciation occurs here on earth, while the Big Bang theory deals with the origin of the universe, and how its structures develop.

But we'll leave that aside. After discussing creationism and evolution, Johnson's next point is science:

We have already seen that Darwinists assume as a matter of first principle that the history of the cosmos and its life forms is fully explicable on naturalistic principles.

As mentioned above, Darwinists, who limit themselves to what the theory of evolution is about, are not dealing with the history of the cosmos. They may certainly accept e.g. the Big Bang theory; but they don't do that as Darwinists, since it's an entirely different issue.

Let's return to Johnson:

This reflects a philosophical doctrine called scientific naturalism, which is said to be a necessary consequence of the inherent limitations of science. What scientific naturalism does, however, is to transform the limitations of science into limitations upon reality, in the interest of maximizing the explanatory power of science and its practitioners.

I suppose that Johnson would also claim that since land surveyors employ plane geometry, they must believe in a flat earth. Well, they need not, so Johnson's argumentation doesn't quite work.

It is, of course, entirely possible to study organisms scientifically on the premise that they were all created by God, just as scientists study airplanes and even works of art without denying that these objects are intelligently designed. The problem with allowing God a role in the history of life is not that science would cease, but rather that scientists would have to acknowledge the existence of something important which is outside the boundaries of natural science. For scientists who want to be able to explain everything-and "theories of everything" are now openly anticipated in the scientific literature- this is an intolerable possibility.

Ehh, but what does this have to do with Darwinism? It certainly has little to do with Darwin's theory of evoltion. Anyway, some theists claim that God being rational created a rational world; that is, a world we can understand through conservation and reason. The Pythagoreans believed that arithmetic was a theory of everything; but they were certainly not atheists.

Johnson spends the next paragraphs discussing scientific paradigms in the sense these were introduced by Thomas S. Kuhn. This discussion lead up to:

I am not suggesting that scientists have to change their rules about retaining and discarding paradigms. All I want them to do is to be candid about the disconfirming evidence and admit, if it is the case, that they are hanging on to Darwinism only because they prefer a shaky theory to having no theory at all. What they insist upon doing, however, is to present Darwinian evolution to the public as a fact that every rational person is expected to accept. If there are reasonable grounds to doubt the theory such dogmatism is ridiculous, whether or not the doubters have a better theory to propose.

Unfortunately things aren't that simple. We cannot return to studying organisms in isolation. An important ingredient in Darwinian biology is the interaction between organisms. Note that the word 'ecology' was coined by the evolutionist Ernst Haeckel, who has become ever so demonized by creationists, YECs or otherwise. The theory of evolution has become the faoundation of several fields of practical importance, and that's a more important factor than mere orthodoxy.

Following the above quoted paragraph, Johnson writes:

To believers in creation, the Darwinists seem thoroughly intolerant and dogmatic when they insist that their own philosophy must have a monopoly in the schools and the media. The Darwinists do not see themselves that way, of course. On the contrary, they often feel aggrieved when creationists (in either the broad or narrow sense) ask to have their own arguments heard in public and fairly considered. To insist that schoolchildren be taught that Darwinian evolution is a fact is in their minds merely to protect the integrity of science education; to present the other side of the case would be to allow fanatics to force their opinions on others. Even college professors have been forbidden to express their doubts about Darwinian evolution in the classroom, and it seems to be widely believed that the Constitution not only permits but actually requires such restrictions on academic freedom. To explain this bizarre situation, we must define our fourth term: religion.

Again it is clear that Johnson is really addressing an issue that is somewhat peculiar to the US scene, and that his case is neither scientific nor theological, but political. However, let's read, what he has to say about religion. Johnson begins his expositions with:

Suppose that a skeptic argues that evidence for biological creation by natural selection is obviously lacking, and that in the circumstances we ought to give serious consideration to the possibility that the development of life required some input from a pre-existing, purposeful creator. To scientific naturalists this suggestion is "creationist" and therefore unacceptable in principle, because it invokes an entity unknown to science. What is worse, it suggests the possibility that this creator may have communicated in some way with humans. In that case there could be real prophets-persons with a genuine knowledge of God who are neither frauds nor dreamers. Such persons could conceivably be dangerous rivals for the scientists as cultural authorities.

The problem here is obviously: how do tell the real prophets from the false prophets? In science there is no such thing as revelation, because any two persons given the same evidence must be able to come to the same conclusion. Referring to an authoritative source of knowledge peculiar to one of the persons is not acceptable.

And moving from origins to eschatology, which after all is the proper domain of prophets, we run into the problem that there is quite some disagreements between the interpretations of past prophecies, in particular whether they have been fullfilled. For contemporary prophets, the case is simpler, the end is as near as it has always been. Why listen to the prophets? When the term they have set expires, a new term will be set, so why not simply wait for that to happen?. Anyway, while some scientists - such as Richard Dawkins - do have status as cultural authorities, they have that status due to going outside their proper field of expertise. The problem is not with science as such, only that maybe currently people with a background in natural science may rank slightly higher as cultural authorities than people with a background in theology or, as in the case at hand, in law.

But let's return to Johnson:

Naturalistic philosophy has worked out a strategy to prevent this problem from arising: it labels naturalism as science and theism as religion. The former is then classified as knowledge, and the latter as mere belief. The distinction is of critical importance, because only knowledge can be objectively valid for everyone; belief is valid only for the believer, and should never be passed off as knowledge. The student who thinks that 2 and 2 make 5, or that water is not made up of hydrogen and oxygen, or that the theory of evolution is not true, is not expressing a minority viewpoint. He or she is ignorant, and the job of education is to cure that ignorance and to replace it with knowledge. Students in the public schools are thus to be taught at an early age that "evolution is a fact," and as time goes by they will gradually learn that evolution means naturalism.

Not quite that simple. The idea that religion is 'mere belief' is mainly associated with very strict forms of positivism; but there's even more to it than that. In Deuteronomy 18:22 we read:

When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him. (KJV)

So, even the very Bible dabbles in religion critique and educates its readers (or rather, listeners originally).

And even if students are taught that "evolution is a fact", and they gradually learn that evolution means naturalism, then that only implies that they learn that "naturalism is a fact". If naturalism isn't a fact, what is then Johnson's case? I suppose that students in the USA are not taught that the USA does not exist; the existence of the USA is a fact, yet it isn't a natural fact. Non-natural objects do exist. That's a fact. It's also a fact that the theory of evolution exists; but that theory is not a natural object. If all humans died, there would be no theory of evolution, but evolution would of course still function, though there wouldn't be anyone around to be concerned with it.

Let's return to Johnson:

In short, the proposition that God was in any way involved in our creation is effectively outlawed, and implicitly negated. This is because naturalistic evolution is by definition in the category of scientific knowledge. What contradicts knowledge is implicitly false, or imaginary. That is why it is possible for scientific naturalists in good faith to claim on the one hand that their science says nothing about God, and on the other to claim that they have said everything that can be said about God. In naturalistic philosophy both propositions are at bottom the same. All that needs to be said about God is that there is nothing to be said of God, because on that subject we can have no knowledge.

Again Johnson is referring to old school positivism. Anyway, did Johnson as a professor of law teach about Mosaic law? If not, why is it then a problem for him that creation isn't taught in a science class?

And next up is truth:

Truth as such is not a particularly important concept in naturalistic philosophy. The reason for this is that "truth" suggests an unchanging absolute, whereas scientific knowledge is a dynamic concept. Like life, knowledge evolves and grows into superior forms. What was knowledge in the past is not knowledge today, and the knowledge of the future will surely be far superior to what we have now.

Reification of adjectives should be handled with some care. A statement may be true; but does that mean that we can cut it in pieces, and one of those pieces will be made of the stuff "truth"? Yes, "truth" suggests an unchanging absolute, and how can we obtain knowledge about such a thing, when knowledge is changing?

Continuing the paragraph, Johnson writes:

Only naturalism itself and the unique validity of science as the path to knowledge are absolutes. There can be no criterion for truth outside of scientific knowledge, no mind of God to which we have access.

Yes, science defines its own path to knowledge, but not necessarily as an absolute. Also we may wonder, what Johnson means with access to the mind of God. Does he mean that we have such an access through the Bible? Then he has the problem that not all religions acknowledge the divinity of the Bible, and how will Johnson explain to members of those religions that there can be no criterion for divine truth outside the Bible?

Johnson continues his discussion about scientific metaphysics and writes:

So far I have described the metaphysical categories by which scientific naturalists have excluded the topic of God from rational discussion, and thus ensured that Darwinism's fully naturalistic creation story is effectively true by definition. There is no need to explain why atheists find this system of thought control congenial. What is a little more difficult to understand, at least at first, is the strong support Darwinism continues to receive in the Christian academic world. Attempts to investigate the credibility of the Darwinist evolution story are regarded with little enthusiasm by many leading Christian professors of science and philosophy, even at institutions which are generally regarded as conservative in theology. Given that Darwinism is inherently naturalistic and therefore antagonistic to the idea that God had anything to do with the history of life, and that it plays the central role in ensuring agnostic domination of the intellectual culture, one might have supposed that Christian intellectuals (along with religious Jews) would be eager to find its weak spots.

Maybe so, maybe not so. Again Johnson appears to confuse the 'how' and the 'why'. Let me illustrate it quite simply. In Genesis 1, God tells the sea and the earth to bring forth plants and animals; but God doesn't give any detailed instructions about how that should be done. As for the 'why', it appears to be that it looks good in the eyes of God - no matter how it is actually done. Maybe it is Johnson who is on the wrong track?

Back to Johnson:

Instead, the prevailing view among Christian professors has been that Darwinism-or "evolution," as they tend to call it-is unbeatable, and that it can be interpreted to be consistent with Christian belief. And in fact Darwinism is unbeatable as long as one accepts the thought categories of scientific naturalism that I have been describing. The problem is that those same thought categories make Christian theism, or any other theism, absolutely untenable. If science has exclusive authority to tell us how life was created, and if science is committed to naturalism, and if science never discards a paradigm until it is presented with an acceptable naturalistic alternative, then Darwinism's position is impregnable within science. The same reasoning that makes Darwinism inevitable, however, also bans God from taking any action within the history of the Cosmos, which means that it makes theism illusory. Theistic naturalism is self-contradictory.

Maybe so, maybe not so. Again Johnson appears to confuse the 'how' and the 'why'. Hey, haven't I written this somewhere before? Johnson appears to be too concerned about having a micro-managing god. But even if there be a micro-managing god, how are we to know how that god micro-manages? Does Johnson have a theistic alternative that can approach anywhere near the level of detail of naturalistic science? If he hasn't, what has he then really to offer?

Two paragraphs later, Johnson writes:

Persons who advocate the compromise position called "theistic evolution" are in my experience always vague about what they mean by "evolution." They have good reason to be vague. As we have seen, Darwinian evolution is by definition unguided and purposeless, and such evolution cannot in any meaningful sense be theistic. For evolution to be genuinely theistic it must be guided by God, whether this means that God programmed the process in advance or stepped in from time to time to give it a push in the right direction. To Darwinists evolution guided by God is a soft form of creationism, which is to say it is not evolution at all. To repeat, this understanding goes to the very heart of Darwinist thinking. Allow a preexisting supernatural intelligence to guide evolution, and this omnipotent being can do a whole lot more than that.

As Johnson writes, "Darwinian evolution is by definition unguided and purposeless". It does not carry its purpose within itself. True, but what does that mean? Johnson is apparently measuring Darwinian evolution by a very specific theism as if that theism was the only one. What problem would be solved by admitting creationism to be taught in science classes? Wouldn't we end up with having it all become a battle between preterists, pre-tribulators, post-tribulators, and whoever else has an opinion? That kind of political battles are all fine and dandy in the appropriate arena; but is a science class necessarily such an arena?

Continuing, Johnson writes:

Of course, theists can think of evolution as God-guided whether naturalistic Darwinists like it or not. The trouble with having a private definition for theists, however, is that the scientific naturalists have the power to decide what that term "evolution" means in public discourse, including the science classes in the public schools.

Again Johnson is turning things the political way around. He can of course do that as much as he wants; but then we are not dealing with a naturalism versus theism issue; but possibly a political party issue.

Back to Johnson:

If theistic evolutionists broadcast the message that evolution as they understand it is harmless to theistic religion, they are misleading their constituents unless they add a clear warning that the version of evolution advocated by the entire body of mainstream science is something else altogether.

The entire body of mainstream science. Now, that's quite a mouthfull, isn't it? Are all of these people Darwinists? Members of the secret evilutionist conspiracy? But Judge Phillip E. Johnson has seen through it all, even to the very heart of that conspiracy, hasn't he?

That warning is never clearly delivered, however, because the main point of theistic evolution is to preserve peace with the mainstream scientific community. The theistic evolutionists therefore unwitting serve the purposes of the scientific naturalists, by helping persuade the religious community to lower its guard against the incursion of naturalism.

Indeed he has, and he has even seen that theistic evilutionists are the unwitting zombies used by the atheistic evilutionists to blindfold the religious community.

After these shocking exposures of the evolutionist conspiracy, Johnson writes:

We are now in a position to answer the question with which this lecture began. What is Darwinism? ...

But are we? Methinks it is rather like we are more in a position to see that Johnson shouldn't watch all those horror movies. That's not healthy for a man aged 50+. Maybe he should take a long vacation, spend some more time with his family, and things like that. Then, I think, all those bad dreams will wither away by themselves.

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A Christian in Satanist clothes