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Phillip Johnson Challenges Advocates of Evolution

Insight on the News, October 25,1999

By Stephen Goode

Reprinted with permission of Insight

Law professor Phillip Johnson is a legal philosopher whose books on Darwinian speculation have shaken the liberal establishment and embarrassed doctrinaire naturalism. On a Sunday evening in September, more than 700 people poured into the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington to hear Phillip Johnson challenge the Darwinian orthodoxy that dominates thinking in the world of science. The speaker is a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, but what brought the crowd to church that night--Johnson regularly attracts such attention--wasn't his legal expertise but the series of books he's published since 1991's Darwin on Trial attacking evolutionary theory. Johnson accepts micro-evolution, the changes that take place in living organisms that make possible horse breeding or that cause bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics. But he calls macro-evolution--the notion that species change over time to become other species (that reptiles developed feathers, becoming birds, for example)--pure speculation on the part of scientists. What disturbs Johnson most deeply about current evolutionary theory is that it assumes God isn't necessary to explain existence and that nature alone is sufficient to explain how we (and the universe) came into being. This"naturalistic" approach to scientific knowledge Johnson deems intellectually dishonest because it begins by saying only nature itself can produce natural things and only after it asserts that proposition does it add: Therefore, God isn't necessary to explain how things came into being. Insight sat down with Johnson the morning after his Washington talk.

Insight: You became seriously interested in Darwinism on a 1987-88 sabbatical in London?

Phillip Johnson: I was generally aware of evolutionary science and curious about it. It just so happened that on the way from the bus stop to my office at University College in London was a scientific bookstore, and in the window was prominent British Darwinist Richard Dawkins' book The Blind Watchmaker. It was new at the time, and I gradually picked up one book and then another about evolution. I became fascinated with the whole subject. I saw that it purports to be a scientific theory. It is that, but it's also something that is broader. Evolution is a creation story and as a creation story, it's the main prop of the materialist explanation for our existence. It gives the biological history on how you get life, the part that materialists found unsolvable before Darwin. So Darwin came along and gave this creation story with all of these interesting consequences. Before Darwin, for instance, there were atheists. They were a marginalized group. After the triumph of Darwinism, you have the invention of the word "agnostic" by Darwin's disciple T.H. Huxley, who described the agnostic view as one that says you can get knowledge from science, but you can't get knowledge of God that way, so God is something we inherently can know nothing about so there's no point in talking about the poor fellow. Agnosticism is a more effective dismissal of God than atheism. The atheist raises the issue by saying that God does not exist. But the agnostic very simply has nothing to say on the subject, so you don't discuss it. If you have a biblical creation story, then getting the right relationship with God and getting to heaven are the most important things. If you throw that overboard and you have a naturalistic creation story, those things become unimportant and what becomes important is how we apply scientific knowledge to make a heaven here on earth. That's a dream of various kinds of reform programs--socialism, for example.

Insight: How did you, a professor of criminal law, master the science necessary to debate the Darwinists?

Phillip Johnson: Naturally, I get asked all the time, "How can you do this when you're not a scientist?" The answer is that it is not mainly about science. It is about a certain way of thinking. The science part of it is easy to learn. It's very repetitive. All the books cite the same examples: the fossil examples, the genetic examples and so on. A relative handful of them is used over and over. So a Darwinist will look at the evidence of finch beak variation--the beaks of finches on the Galapagos Islands have been found to vary in average size between peeriods of drought and periodsof plenty--and say, "This shows Darwinian natural selection affecting a species. Doesn't that mean that given enough time and the right circumstances a species can evolve into another species?" But the theist will step back and say; "All I see in the variation of finch beaks is a trivial variation within one type of bird and can find no creative power there at work at all. You don't give me any reason to think that variation can create a new species, that you don't have a need for a preexisting supernatural power to do the creating." So my point is that what carries the whole project is not the scientific evidence. What carries the whole project is the philosophy of naturalism which says that nature had to have the resources to do its own creating, and the only question that we plausibly can ask is, "What is the specific path that nature took to be able to do its own creating?" If that really is the only question, then the Darwinian answer or the neo-Darwinian synthesis of today is the only plausible answer.

Insight: So they've predetermined the answer by excluding God from the question and requiring an answer that is entirely naturalistic.

Phillip Johnson: So long as there is only the one question on the table, "How does nature do it all alone?" the neo-Darwinian answer stands, no matter how much refutation it encounters, because any alternative would have to be fundamentally different and would have to involve a creator or a preexisting intelligence, a life force, something that is involved, a directing intelligence, which would be by definition supernatural and hence unacceptable to the world of scientific naturalism. So there you have the standoff. To the scientists the unbelievers in Darwinism and evolution are irrational because they're asking the wrong question: They're not asking, "How does nature do it alone?" But this question is incredible to people who reject the naturalistic premise and who find limiting ourselves just to that question unsatisfactory.

Insight: What do you regard as the strongest argument of Darwinism?

Phillip Johnson: Their strongest argument isn't really an argument in the strictest sense. It's authority. These are all the people our culture regards as wise. They're the scientists and engineers we rely upon to make sure our airplanes don't crash and to see that our diseases are cured. So how could they be wrong about something so fundamental? Naturalism is identified with the scientific culture and forms its basis. It's assumed that it's because of their naturalistic assumptions that these wizards are able to work their wizardry. So to undermine their naturalistic assumptions is to try to undermine all science, and all science can't be wrong because it has achieved such wonders.

Insight: How strong is their authority?

Phillip Johnson: It doesn't really bother me because I know what's wrong with it. What's wrong with it is that the wonders of scientific technology do not come out of naturalism at all. They come out of the metaphysical assumption that nature is rational, that it is something that can be understood by the human mind. It comes out of the assumption that God created nature and created our minds in his own image, the assumption that we can understand the nature that God created because God created it and created how it works. So you can be an electrical engineer, an aeronautical engineer, a particle physicist, a quantum chemist--you name it--without making any naturalistic assumptions.

Insight: Early science assumed that the world had been designed rationally in a way man could comprehend because it had been created by a God who also had created us?

Phillip Johnson: Of course science historically grew out of a Christian theistic environment. Science was not invented by pagans or pantheists or anything like that. It grew out of an environment in which the world was understood as regular and comprehensible because it was the product of a mind. It is extraordinarily paradoxical to say, as mainstream scientists do say today, that the world can only be rationally comprehensible if it was made by an irrational force, but that if it were made by a rational mind it would be incomprehensible. But that actually is what they are saying and it is an absurdity, in my view. In my view, effective science rose out of what effectively are theist premises: God made the world and made our minds so that we can understand the world He made. Our understanding often is dim or distorted. We see through a glass darkly because we're not as God meant us to be.

Insight: Your conversion to Christianity came in your mid-thirties?

Phillip Johnson: I often say I was raised as a nominal Christian and I graduated from being a nominal Christian to being a nominal agnostic, which is to say that I don't believe I had any absolutely firm convictions. I grew up in the late 1940s and 1950s when religion and churchgoing were part of the American way of life. I went away to Harvard University very young, right after my 17th birthday, and I went away with the attitude: I'm going into the real world now, and I'll adopt the thinking of Harvard professors and other leading intellectuals of the culture. I saw that as my path to worldly success, which is the only kind of success I had any knowledge of or interest in, and I did pretty well in the academic world. I was graduated at the top of my class in the University of Chicago Law School. I was law clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren; then I got a professorship at Berkeley, which is extremely attractive in terms of the quality of the university and the quality of the lifestyle of Northern California. I was married. I had kids, and I thought: "I've got it made; all I have to do is build on this." But, as time went on, I became eventually quite disillusioned in the kind and quality of thinking that was going on in academic life. It seems to me that basically academic life is the business of showing that you're more intelligent than other people by publishing papers hardly anybody reads. It seemed to me I had a genuine talent but I had wasted it. Then I went through a divorce, a period of single-parenting, and these experiences combined to convince me to a large extent, at least that people like me were not superior because of our higher rank in the intellectual hierarchy. I began to think this Christian Gospel could be true for me, which is something that before that time I had been unable or unwilling to consider.

Insight: You have lived in two very different worlds, that of the highly esteemed university and that of a committed Christian.

Phillip Johnson: There's a great cultural divide here. It is the cultural arrogance of intellectuals that I think is one of their big problems. And it's always the case with the Christian Gospel that it is more attractive to people on the bottom of the ladder than to people on the top of the ladder. Paul says in First Corinthians, "Not many of you are wealthy, not many of you are of high rank, not many of you are wise as the world counts wisdom." That's always been true about Christianity, and that's why the Gospel is often denigrated as slave religion. There's an element of truth in that. It's the slaves, who really see this reality, so it is nothing peculiar to me that a person who is intellectually gifted and well rewarded for it would think more highly of himself than he ought to. The experience of having marriage and family life crash under me, and of achieving a certain amount of academic success and seeing the meaninglessness of it, made me listen and give myself to Christ at the advanced age of 38. And that aroused a particular level of intellectual interest in the question of why the intellectual world is so dominated by naturalistic and agnostic thinking.

Insight: Why is the intellectual world so attracted to naturalism and agnosticism?

Phillip Johnson: It follows along on my own experience of the intellectual arrogance that comes naturally to an academic winner, an academic gold medal winner such as myself. Scientific naturalism is a thing that's attractive to that sort of people because it says that the secular intellectuals are the people to whom the world should look for all wisdom. The secular intellectuals become the priesthood. Their cultural story dominates. It feeds their sense that they have a wisdom the masses don't have. Naturalism is their vehicle to replace the religious clergy with the scientific and intellectual professionals, the priesthood being the people who tell a society its creation story, and in this case the creation story being the naturalistic one.

Insight: So challenging the evidence for Darwinian evolution isn't merely an intellectual challenge, it's attacking the scientific and intellectual elite on the very points they believe distinguish them from the average man, their superior knowledge about how the world works, their superior wisdom?

Phillip Johnson: Sometimes I put that point this way. Suppose you really want to be dogmatic. You lay down the law with no back talk allowed. Well, if you're a Christian fundamentalist, there's an inherent limitation on your ability to be dogmatic: You might be able to do that with your own flock, but of course they listen to the radio, they watch television and those outside authorities creep into your world, and they have to be taken into consideration because they, too, are governing authorities. This is a check on any desire to be dogmatic that you might have. But if you're a member of the scientific elite, you can go much further. You can indulge your passion for dogmatism much more completely because you never meet anyone who thinks differently from you that you have to take seriously. So, honestly, if you want to see real dogmatism unrestrained, you must go to the higher reaches of the academic world and the scientific profession because the natural checks on dogmatism aren't there. Now, you're aware that out there in the culture there are people who are thinking differently than you, but they're not authority figures, they don't have any authority over you, so you don't have to take them seriously if you're in the higher reaches of the academic world and the scientific profession.

CURRENTLY: Professor of law, University of California at Berkeley; author of books challenging Darwinian evolution and naturalistic philosophy.

BORN: June 18, 1940; Aurora, Ill.

FAMILY: Wife, Kathie; three children. Member, First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, Calif.

EDUCATION: B.A. in English, Harvard University; J.D., University of Chicago.

BOOKS: Darwin on Trial (1991); Darwinism: Science or Philosophy? (1994); Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law, and Education (1995); Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (1997) and many works on criminal law.

FAVORITE READING: Currently, the novels of Anthony Trollope. "I think if young people read a lot of him while they were growing up, they would get a superb grounding in moral reality, and Trollope's very witty, too."

Copyright 1999 New World Communication, Inc. All rights reserved.

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For more of Phillip Johnson’s writings visit his web site at http://www.arn.org/