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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Critiques of Anti-Evolutionist Phillip Johnson's Views

Copyright © 1993-2004
[Articles last updated: June 7, 1994]
[Links updated: March 18, 2004]

Phillip Johnson, a law professor who was a clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren, is the author of Darwin on Trial and is one of the founders of the "Intelligent Design" movement. This file has two articles on his views.

By James Lippard:

Johnson sent me a copy of the paper of this title from the January 1993 issue of First Things, and I thought some portions to be worth quoting:

p. 9: "Those who regard Scripture as more authoritative than scientific theories, and who are confident that they know the correct way to interpret it, may choose to defend the Genesis account as literally true and employ scientific argument to discredit the alternatives. Fundamentalist creationists of this kind make up perhaps half of the 47 percent that the Gallup poll described as creationist. Unfortunately, the commitment of this large group to a literal interpretation of Genesis has confused and divided the Christian world, and even played into the hands of the evolutionary naturalists. Darwinists assiduously promote the notion that the only possible alternatives are six-day Genesis literalism on the one hand, and fully naturalistic, neo-Darwinistic evolution on the other."

[Johnson suggests putting aside biblical issues, the age of the earth, and the method of creation on the same page. He seems to suggest that he is unconcerned about whether or not evolution has occurred or not.]

p. 10: "The theistic naturalists seem to share this fervent faith that a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life simply must be there to be found. To suppose that God may have played some direct, active role in creating the first life on earth would reduce God to the status of a creature, would posit an impossible missing relation between the members of nature, and would deny the functional integrity of the universe. One might almost say that it would constitute blasphemy."

[This is the view he is arguing against.]

p. 12: "In any case, Darwinistic evolution would be a most peculiar creative method for God to choose, given the Darwinistic insistence that biological evolution was undirected. That requirement means that God neither programmed evolution in advance nor stepped in from time to time to pull it in the right direction. How then did God ensure that humans would come into existence so that salvation history would have a chance to occur?"

[This is his critique of "theistic naturalism," which holds that God exists but that nature proceeds without supernatural influence.]

p. 12: "Of course, God could make some use of random mutation and natural selection in a fundamentally directed creative process. God can act freely as He chooses: that is just the problem for those who would constrain God by philosophy. God could employ mutation and natural selction or act supernaturally, whether or not His choice causes inconvenience for scientists who want to be able to explain and control everything. Once we allow God to enter the picture at all, there is no reason to be certain a priori that natural science has the power to discover the entire mechanism of creation. Maybe science can discover how living things were made, and maybe it can't. Consistent theists will therefore accept Darwinist claims for the creative power of mutation and selection only insofar as those claims can be supported by evidence. That isn't very far at all."

[This seems to me to be Johnson's central claim. That there is no a priori reason to suppose that God doesn't intervene, and that the empirical evidence for such things as common ancestry is so weak that we should be at best agnostic, and more likely reject it in favor of divine intervention. Further, he argues that the only reason people have thought that the empirical evidence for common ancestry is strong is because of their presupposition that God does not or cannot intervene. His argument about the a priori doesn't seem half-bad, but I think he is wrong about the state of the empirical evidence--and that his own presuppositions are biasing his own examination of it.]

p. 13: "When people ask whether Darwinism and theism are compatible, they normally take the Darwinism for granted and ask whether the theism has to be discarded. It is far more illuminating, however, to approach the question from the other side. Is there any reason that a person who believes in a real, personal God should believe that biological creation has occurred by Darwinian evolution? The answer is clearly no. The sufficiency of any process of chemical evolution to produce life has certainly not been demonstrated, nor has the ability of natural selection to produce new body plans, complex organs, or anything else except variation within types that already exist. The fossil record notoriously does not evidence any continuous process of gradual change. Rather, it consistently shows that new forms appear suddenly and fully formed in the rocks, and thereafter remain fundamentally unchanged. ... If Darwinian evolution is the only allowable source for life's diversity and complexity, then the shortage of evidence doesn't matter. The only question, to borrow Darwin's own words, is why 'Nature may almost be said to have guarded against the frequent discovery of her transitional or linking forms.'"

p. 14, continuing immediately: "Atheists can leave the matter there, but theists have to go farther. If God exists, then Darwinian evolution is not the only alternative, and there is no reason for a theist to believe that God employed it beyond the relatively trivial level where the effects of variation and selection can actually be observed.

"In short, the reason that Darwinism and theism are fundamentally incompatible is not that God could not have used evolution by natural selection to do his creating. Darwinian evolution might seem unbiblical to some, or too cruel and wasteful a method for a benevolent Creator to choose, but it is always possible that God might do something that confounds our expectations. No, the contradiction between Darwinism and theism goes much deeper. To know that Darwinism is true (as a general explanation for the history of life), one has to know that no alternative to natural evolution is possible. To know that is to assume that God does not exist, or at least that God does not or cannot create. To infer that mutation and selection did the creating because nothing else was available, and then to bring God back into the picture as the omnipotent being who chose to create by mutation and selection, is to indulge in self-contradiction."

[Here Johnson seems to contradict his earlier statements about what can and cannot be established a priori. His sentence "To know that Darwinism is true ... one has to know that no alternative to naturalistic evolution is possible" is false, whether he means "logically possible" or "physically possible." Either way, it leads to a radical skepticism, to a rejection of virtually all knowledge. Ruling out all alternative possibilities is far too strong a condition for knowledge. I would challenge Johnson to specify what relevant probabilities (as in probable explanations, not numeric probabilities) have not been ruled out as an alternative to "naturalistic evolution." If there are no highly probable alternatives to naturalistic evolution, then we do know that naturalistic evolution has taken place. Johnson suggests that there are such possibilities, but never actually specifies any. This is surely a tactic to avoid having to defend his own views, as I suspect that any possible alternative he would be happy believing suffers from problems of internal incoherence. (E.g., if God is good and doesn't want to deceive us, why plant all this misleading evidence for evolution? Johnson's only response to this will be to deny that there is such evidence.)]

[Added July 1, 1994: Timothy Chow has suggested to me that what Johnson means by his claim that "To know that Darwinism is true (as a general explanation for the history of life), one has to know that no alternative to natural evolution is possible" is that Darwinism rests on the assumption that there are no possible alternatives, i.e., that's the only argument for Darwinism. If this is indeed what Johnson meant, then my response above misses the point of his argument. Instead, the proper response is simply to deny the claim that Darwinism is predicated on the assumption that no other alternatives are possible.]

[From part 3 of a review of Michael Bauman, editor, Man and Creation: Perspectives on Science and Theology, 1993, Hillsdale College Press, originally posted to on February 2, 1994 in <>:]

Phillip E. Johnson, "What Is Darwinism?"

Johnson begins by describing what he thinks is uncontroversial about Darwinism:

Darwinian theory tells us how a certain amount of diversity in life forms can develop once various types of complex living organisms are already in existence. If a small population of birds happens to migrate to an isolated island, for example, a combination of inbreeding, mutation and natural selection may cause this isolated population to develop characteristics different from those possessed by the ancestral population on the mainland. When the theory is understood in this limited sense, Darwinian evolution is uncontroversial and has no important philosophical or theological implications. (pp. 177-178)

He immediately goes on, however, to say that

Evolutionary biologists are not content merely to explain how variation occurs within limits, however. They aspire to answer a much broader question: how complex organisms like birds, flowers and human beings came into existence in the first place. The Darwinian answer to this second question is that the creative force that produced complex plants and animals from single-celled predecessors over long stretches of geological time is essentially the same as the mechanism that produces variations in flowers, insects and domestic animals before our very eyes. (p. 178)

Johnson claims that this latter view is "a philosophical doctrine so lacking in empirical support that Mayr's successor at Harvard, Stephen Jay Gould, once pronounced it in a reckless moment to be 'effectively dead.'" (p. 178)

He asks how so many people could hold such an unscientific theory, and states that the answer requires definition of key terms: creationism, evolution, science, religion, and truth.

Johnson begins with creationism, which he says "means simply a belief in creation." He chides Darwinists for using the term to refer to young-earth creationists, which he takes to be an illegitimate way of setting up a false dilemma. (Here, I think the blame falls as much on non-young-earth-creationists as it does on evolutionists. By failing to stand up to the young-earthers and make it known that belief in a creator doesn't entail such views, the use of the term "creationist" has come to mean "young-earth creationist" in the English language. Old earth creationist Davis Young concedes the term "creationist" to the young earthers in his book Christianity and the Age of the Earth.)

Johnson goes on to say that in the broadest sense, a creationist is someone who believes that there is a creator who has created the world and its inhabitants with a purpose. He then asks if creationism in his sense is compatible with evolution. Of course it is, right? Here's Johnson:

The answer is "absolutely not," when "evolution" is understood in the Darwinian sense. To Darwinists, evolution means naturalistic evolution, because they insist that science must assume the cosmos to be a closed system of material causes and effects that can never be influenced by anything outside of material nature--by God, for example. (pp. 179-180)

Johnson has just complained about illegitimate narrow definition of "creationism," but then he immediately turns around and does exactly what he was complaining about to "evolution"! Further, even the definition of evolution that Johnson gives here is, contrary to his claims, quite consistent with the existence of a creator, at least a deistic one. It is perfectly consistent for a theist to say that God created the universe as "a closed system of material causes and effects that can never be influenced by anything outside of material nature" AND that what is produced in that closed system has meaning and purpose as a result of God's design. (BTW, it is a consequence of the commonly held evangelical Christian view that God is "outside of time" and immutable that the universe is such a system. See the first few chapters of Richard M. Gale's On the Nature and Existence of God, 1991, Cambridge Univ. Press, for detailed argument. Gale argues that theists should give up both the "outside of time" notion of God's eternity and the immutability doctrine.)

Next, Johnson talks more about "materialistic evolution." He says that on this view, evolution is at bottom based on chance, "because that is what is left when we have ruled out everything involving intelligence or purpose" (p. 180). He maintains that evolutionary speculation need not be confirmed by any evidence (experimental or fossil), but that "To Darwinists the ability to imagine the process is sufficient to confirm that something like that must have happened" (p. 180).

The next term to be defined is "science." Johnson maintains that Darwinists (all of them, apparently) assume "scientific naturalism"--that (a) science is inherently limited to the natural and (b) science (potentially) describes all there is. This claim is falsified by Van Till, who accepts evolution and (a) but rejects (b), by me (I accept evolution, reject (a), and am agnostic about (b)).

Johnson goes on to say that scientific naturalism has normative rules which govern criticism and replacement of theories based on Kuhn's notion of a paradigm--that acceptable explanations must fit the requirements of the paradigm (in this case, evolution), no matter how wild and contorted such explanations may be. Unless a suitable replacement paradigm is available, this process continues. (Johnson explicitly says that the contortions may involve deception: "Supporting the paradigm may even require what in other contexts would be called deception" (p. 182).)

The last term to be defined is "truth," which Johnson claims "is not a particularly important concept in naturalistic philosophy" (p. 186). (This is completely at odds with the naturalism advocated by such persons as Philip Kitcher (The Advancement of Science) and Alvin Goldman (Epistemology and Cognition), for whom truth is central to their epistemological views.) Johnson's reason for his statement is that scientific knowledge is dynamic rather than absolute--what was scientific knowledge in the past is not so today. This seems to take for granted the Kuhn/Laudan critique of scientific progress, which I think is a major mistake (chapters 4 and 5 of the above-mentioned Kitcher book give a good account of genuine scientific progress and elucidate problems with Kuhn's and Laudan's arguments).

Johnson maintains that theism is a source of truth which competes with science and gives a framework from which one can reject evolution because of its weaknesses (which he claims the scientific naturalist can't do unless another paradigm comes along).

Near the end of his article, Johnson again argues for his claim that creationism and evolution in his senses are contradictory (which I disputed above). Here's the core of his argument:

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. (p. 188)

Here I think there is a possible confusion of levels of description. One can consistently hold that the processes of evolution are inherently "unguided and purposeless" at one level of description, while simultaneously holding that the system in which the processes operate was "programmed in advance" by God. Johnson seems to hold that it is contradictory for God's plan to have components that make use of randomness.


By Bill Hamilton:

The following communication appeared in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation), Vol 44 No 4, December 1992, pp. 253, 254

I thought the comments on the value of evolution as an explanatory framework, the nature of science and the need for an alternative model (i.e. a "Theory of Creation") if creationists expect creationism to be considered science are especially appropriate to some of the current discussions.

Note that Gingerich is a Christian, and he has concerns about the potential for abuse of evolutionary theory to "support" atheistic and social agendas. But he defends evolution as science because of its explanatory power.

Further Reflections on "Darwin on Trial"

By Owen Gingerich
Astronomy and History of Science
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Cambridge, MA 02138

For some of the ASA members attending the 1992 Annual Meeting in Kona, Hawaii, a highlight was a spontaneously organized discussion session following Phillip Johnson's paper. In the round-robin of correspondence that has ensued since the meeting, I realize that some of my own remarks at this session as well as my review of Johnson's Darwin on Trial (PSCF, June 1992) were not understood as clearly as I had hoped.

On one point there was unanimous agreement: the issue is not evolution versus creation. The issue is design versus accident.

Phillip Johnson has impressively documented the extent to which much evolutionary teaching comes with philosophical baggage claiming that "accident" is a real feature of the world, "proven" by evolutionary doctrine. In the time since Newton, science has used mechanistic explanations that dispense with divine intervention (the "God of the Gaps"), and with considerable success. To the extent that design represents divine intervention and "accident" does not, the later explanation can be invoked as part of a mechanistic explanation. All too frequently teachers in their naivete, or because of a deliberate atheistic orientation, present their material as if such a mechanism describes the actual world rather than being simply a rule of science.

Johnson and I both agree that the teaching must become more nuanced in its presentation, and we both reject evolutionism as a philosophy. But in my reading of Johnson, his strategy appears to invoke a frontal attack on evolution. I think this is misguided and ultimately fruitless. My brief is to launch the attack against the atheists who are using evolution to further their materialistic philosophies, against those who raise a reasonable structure of scientific explanation into a naturalistic ideology.

In an upcoming article ("Theistic Naturalism and The Blind Watchmaker," scheduled for the March 1993 issue First Things [published as "Creator or Blind Watchmaker?" in the January 1993 issue -- T.O. editor]) Johnson presents statistics to the effect that only a small minority of Americans accept the seemingly accidental, zig-zag pathways of evolution as being the wholly mechanistic way that brought intelligent life into existence. Part and parcel of Johnson's strategy is to define evolution in those terms, with the insinuation that anyone who thinks of evolution otherwise (in fact, the majority) is being duped. And, he maintains, the mechanisms that could build up the great chain of being, from microorganisms to fishes to mammals, are so flimsily and inadequately demonstrated that the whole structure should be dumped.

My counterstrategy would be to accept evolution as a reasonable theoretical structure for explaining a great many relationships in the biological world. It gives a very sensible explanation of why the DNA in yeast is so closely related to the DNA in human chromosomes, or why the genetic content of chimpanzees is so similar to those of Homo sapiens. It explains numerous morphological patterns from the coelocanth to the gorilla. It provides an insight into the many examples adduced by Darwin for imperfect adaptation. It helps us understand why Hawaii has so few species compared to the older continental areas, and why there would be flightless birds on the islands (now, alas, extinct since the recent introduction of such predators as the mongoose). Johnson's rejoinder is that distribution of species is not evolution. Of course not, and I never claimed so; but it is an excellent example of the sort of empirical evidence that remains mysterious and even capricious in the absence of some sort of explanatory structure, which the theory of evolution supplies.

The theory of evolution requires two basic elements: variation and selection. Darwin was greatly baffled as to how variation could arise, and his theory was rejected in many scientific quarters until a much greater understanding of genetics, and ultimately of the chemical basis of genetics, was achieved. There still is no satisfactory detailed mechanism for producing large enough, non-lethal variation of the DNA to produce a new species in a single jump, and it remains an act of faith on the part of evolutionists that there is some way for it to have happened bit by bit. As a Christian theist, I believe that this is part of God's design. Whether God designed the universe at the outset so that the appropriate mechanisms could arise in the course of time, or whether God gives an occasional timely input is something that science, by its very nature, will probably never be able to fathom. But as a scientist, I accept evolution as the appropriate explanatory structure to guide research into the origins and affinities of the kingdoms of living organisms.

In closing my review of Darwin on Trial, I expressed my frustration by Johnson's apparent lack of appreciation about how science works, and this seems to be the least understood statement in my review. In Kona I tried to illustrate what I meant by mentioning Foucault's pendulum experiment, carried out in Paris on the night of 7-8 January 1851. The next morning there was not dancing in the streets because finally experimental proof for the earth's rotation had been found and that Copernicus was right. It was a marvelous demonstration, but Foucault's pendulum hardly affected the status of Newtonian theory or heliocentrism. It made no differenceQpeople were already convinced about a rotating earth because Newtonian physics connected so many observations together into a coherent structure. I firmly believe that science concerns itself mostly with building coherent patterns of explanation, and rather little with proof. Lawyers seek proofs, and that's why I said that Phil Johnson was approaching science like a lawyer, somehow supposing that if he could show that evolution has no proofs, it would crumble. That, I think, is misguided.

In the discussion in Hawaii, John Wiester spoke well of the Science paper by Alan Lightman and me, in which we analyzed anomalies in science and the resistance of scientists to acknowledging them (Science, 255, pp. 690-695). But the essential, underlying thesis of the paper was that anomalies will generally pass unrecognized until the availability of an alternate theory in which they suddenly make sense. When I said above that Johnson's approach would probably be fruitless, I did so in this precise context. Until or unless there is another acceptable scientific explanation for the temporal and geographical distribution of plants and animals and their structural relationships, biological evolution will remain the working paradigm among scientists. To invoke God's active agency as the explanation for slow, long-term changes in the biological record will be no more efficacious as a scientific theory than to say that the moon orbits the earth or apples fall from trees because of God's sustaining activity in the universe. While I believe both to be true, they do not pass as scientific explanations. In reading Darwin on Trial, I am left with the impression that Johnson wishes they would.

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