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How to Sink a Battleship: A call to separate materialist philosophy from empirical science

Phillip E. Johnson, J. D.

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I'll begin by remembering three important events that occurred when I was a young adult, events which symbolize the ideological shift that occurred in the second half of the 20th century.

The first event was the Darwinian centennial of 1959, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species. The celebration was held at the University of Chicago, where I entered law school shortly thereafter. Chicago was a particularly appropriate place to have the Darwinian centennial, because it was associated with other seminal events in modern science: the first atomic reactor was built there under Stagg Field, and in 1952 the famous Miller-Urey experiment had given scientists confidence that the Darwinian principle of materialistic evolution could be extended back to the ultimate beginning of life.

So, in 1959 the mood at the Darwinian centennial was one of triumphalism. Darwinism had gone through a rocky period when there was much dispute about the mechanism, but then the neo-Darwinian Synthesis had come to the rescue with its mathematical population genetics. Neo- Darwinism seemed like the ultimate truth, a biological "Theory of Everything."

Julian Huxley, grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley and brother of Aldous, was the most prominent speaker. He declared that supernatural religion was finished and that a new religion of evolutionary humanism based upon science would become the worldwide creed. We might say he proclaimed the death of an aged tyrant called God, and then credited Charles Darwin with supplying the murder weapon.

The second event to recall was the 1960 Stanley Kramer movie of "Inherit the Wind," starring Spencer Tracy as the agnostic lawyer patterned after Clarence Darrow. It was one of the great propaganda masterpieces of all time. In the context of presenting a very distorted account of the notorious Scopes trial, the film portrayed the moral side of the Darwinian triumph over Christianity.

"Inherit the Wind" is a simple morality play in which the Christian ministers are evil manipulators and their followers are bumpkins who sing mindlessly in praise of "that old time religion." In the movie, it appears that the theological content of Christianity amounts to threatening people with damnation if they dare to think for themselves. The overthrow of this caricature provides a liberation myth, which goes with the triumphalism of the Chicago celebration. The movie teaches that the truth shall make us free, and the truth, according to science and Hollywood, is that Biblical religion is an oppressor to be overthrown.

The film embodied a stereotype that has dominated public debate over evolution ever since the Scopes trial. As far as the media are concerned, all critics of Darwinism fit into what I call the "Inherit the Wind stereotype." No matter how well qualified the critics are, and no matter how well grounded their criticisms, the reporters assume that they are Bible-thumping fanatics challenging scientific fact in order to impose political oppression. The review in Nature of Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box [Free Press, 1996] fits squarely in that tradition. Behe made solid scientific arguments demonstrating the existence of irreducible complexity in biochemical systems, arguments that the reviewer did not dispute on scientific grounds. Instead, the review began and ended with irrelevant attacks on fundamentalists who want to substitute the book of Genesis for science. Like Marxism, Darwinism is a liberation myth that has become a new justification for ordering people not to think for themselves.

The third event in my trio is the 1962 school prayer decision of the United States Supreme Court, Engel v. Vitale. The school prayer involved in that case came not from the Bible Belt, but from the state of New York. The school authorities wanted to approve a prayer that would unite Christians and Jews, and so the prayer was not distinctively Christian. It read: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country." The phrase "under God" had recently been added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and so the educators had good reason to suppose that Americans of all races and creeds believed in honoring our common Creator.

I'm not concerned here with the merits or demerits of school prayer, but with the question of what unites us as a people, and what we regard as divisive. Before 1962, America was unified by the concept that people of different races and religious traditions all worship their common Creator, the God of the Bible; by 1962 that had been reversed. The 1959 Centennial proclaimed that a blind material process of evolution is our true creator. In 1962 the Supreme Court decided that even a very general evocation of God was a divisive sectarian practice, warning that government endorsement of religion is inherently associated with religious strife and oppression.

These three events symbolized a tremendous change in the ruling philosophy in our country. Science now teaches us that a purposeless material process of evolution created us; the artists, poets, and actors teach us that Biblical morality is oppressive and hateful; and the courts teach us that the very notion of God is divisive, and so must be kept out of public life. The Pledge of Allegiance may say that we are "one nation, under God," but we have become instead a nation that has declared its independence from God.

Bicentennial of "what went wrong"

I believe that at some time well before the bicentennial year 2059 of Origin of the Species, perhaps as early as 2009 or 2019, there will be another celebration that will mark the demise of the Darwinist ideology that was so triumphant in 1959. The theme of this anti- centennial will be "What Went Wrong?" or perhaps, "How could we ever have let it happen?"

What went wrong is that scientists committed original sin, which in science means believing what you want to believe instead of what your experiments and observations actually show you. In small matters, as a scientist you cannot afford to indulge in original sin because your colleagues will show you up and make a fool out of you. If, however, you're leading the whole research community in a direction it wants to go, your colleagues might not be motivated, or may be even afraid, to challenge you.

What happened in that great triumphal celebration of 1959 is that science embraced a religious dogma called "naturalism," or "materialism." Science declared that nature is all there is, and that matter created everything that exists. The scientific community had a common interest in believing this creed because it affirmed that, in principle, there is nothing beyond the understanding and control of science. What went wrong in the wake of the Darwinian triumph was that the authority of science was captured by an ideology, and the evolutionary scientists thereafter believed what they wanted to believe rather than what the fossil data, the genetic data, the embryological data, and the molecular data were showing them.

What are we going to do to correct this deplorable situation? Most of us at this conference are in academic life, and we will be doing the academic job of research, writing, and teaching. We have launched a new journal, Origins and Design, and we have had a very successful first conference here at Biola. Many more people have attended than we originally expected, and a lot of very able people are now making a contribution in the area of intelligent design. We hope to schedule future conferences at major secular universities. We are developing a research agenda. We have confidence in our intellectual position. We are observing that the materialists have to rely on distortion and appeals to prejudice to defend their position. This is a sign that we have taken the high intellectual ground.

We have our healthy disagreements about all sorts of specifics, but we are united on a common approach, a shared determination to define the issues correctly. It is an approach that everyone can contribute to-not just people with academic positions but also schoolteachers, parents, youth workers, and everyone who has some influence over the education of the next generation of thinkers.

The basis for rationality

I was asked to supply a theme for this conference, and the theme I chose was this: "The first step for a 21st century science of origins is to separate materialist philosophy from empirical science." Actually, that's the basis not just for a science of origins; it's the basis for a proper understanding of rationality. To materialists, rationality starts with the realization that in the beginning were the particles, and that mind itself is a product of matter. That makes it difficult to understand how there can even be knowledge of objective reality in science.

In Chapter Six of Reason in the Balance I compared two prominent philosophers, John Searle and Richard Rorty. Searle argues that there are objective standards of value in academic life, and that mind is not reducible to matter. Yet he also insists that all thinking must be based on materialistic and Darwinian assumptions, thus undercutting his own conclusions.

Rorty has a poorer philosophy, but he is far more discerning about the implications of materialism and Darwinism. Rorty notes that Darwinian selection promotes only what is useful for survival and reproduction, and concludes that "The idea that one species of organism is, unlike all the others, oriented not just toward its own increased prosperity but toward Truth, is as un-Darwinian as the idea that every human being has a built-in moral compass-a conscience that swings free of both social history and individual luck." When materialism is fully understood, objective truth goes into the trash can along with objective morality.

The post-modernist irrationalism that is sweeping our universities is thus the logical outcome of the scientific rationalism that prepared the ground by undermining the metaphysical basis for confidence in objective truth. A wrong view of mind has come out of science because science has become confused with materialist philosophy. And that wrong view has become a compulsory dogma for every discipline, and for the intellectual culture in general.

Richard Dickerson, a professor of molecular biology at UCLA, provides a good example of how the basis of modern science has been articulated. He states as Rule Number One of scientific investigation, "Let us see how far and to what extent we can explain the behavior of the physical and material universe in terms of purely physical and material causes without invoking the supernatural."

That's a rational project, but there's another sentence that has to be added for the rule to make any sense, and that is, "At some point we'll stop to audit the books and see how far we've gone." For example, if your investment advisor suggests plunging wildly in the corn futures market, then at some point you're going to want to know if you have anything left, or whether you've made any money. If he tells you "Let's just always assume that corn futures go up in value," you know you are giving your money to somebody who has lost touch with reality.

It follows from Dickerson's first rule that at the end of the day you have to come in without a materialist bias and analyze what's been happening. You've been trying to explain the complexity of biology by mutation and selection, now what does the evidence really show? How successful have you been? Does the fossil record fit when you look at it objectively, and without a Darwinian bias? We know the answer to that is "no." We ask, "Does finch beak variation really show how you can get finches in the first place?" No, of course not. Neo-Darwinism is a failed project-give it up! "Not yet!" you say. "We're still trying to succeed." Good luck to you friend, but the evaluation for now is you aren't making it. It's what in tenure cases we call the mid-career review; you haven't published and you're going to perish!

The naturalists say, "Let's protect naturalism for a while longer to give us a fair chance to succeed." It was reasonable to say that a few decades ago. But now it's time to audit the books.

Most philosophers, literary critics, and Supreme Court Justices assume the materialist picture of reality, even if they are not consciously aware of it. As Paul Feyerabend put it, "Scientists are not content with running their own playpens in accordance with what they regard as the rules of the scientific method; they want to universalize those rules, they want them to become part of society at large, and they use every means at their disposal--argument, propaganda, pressure tactics, intimidation, lobbying-to achieve their aims." With these tactics they have been successful in imposing a naturalistic religious philosophy on the entire culture.

Rule #1: Do not fool yourself

In his famous 1974 Commencement address at Caltech, Richard Feynman provided an inspiring counter-example of how science ought to be practiced. He began by warning against self- deception, the original sin of science, saying that "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." To avoid self- deception scientists must bend over backwards to report data that cast doubt on their theories. Feynman applied this principle specifically to scientists who talk to the public:

"I would like to add something that's not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the laymen when you're talking as a scientist. . . . I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you're maybe wrong, [an integrity] that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen."

That's such a magnificent statement, I wish it could be set to music. Richard Feynman's kind of science has the virtue of humility at its very core. Honesty and humility. This is what has to be brought into evolutionary science; it's an understanding of the obligation of science to separate materialist philosophy from scientific investigation, to maintain that separation and be honest about it, and not to mislead the public about what has been demonstrated and what hasn't.

When science aspires to establish a ruling philosophy for all aspects of life, and to replace God as the basis of rationality and human unity, it has to resort to the methods Paul Feyerabend condemned rather than the humility that Richard Feynman commended. It has to employ the bluster of such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, both of whom have been highly honored by the scientific establishments of their respective countries for promoting naturalism and materialism in the name of science. We need to replace Dawkins-style and Sagan-style science with a science that is humble about what it can do. A science that sticks to its data, that is careful to consider alternative explanations, and that does not allow itself to be ruled by a philosophical or religious agenda of any kind. A science that does not commit the original sin of believing what you want to believe. A science in which the scientists do not fool themselves and therefore do not try to fool the public either.

Separating empirical science from materialistic philosophy is a big job, and everyone with the right spirit can contribute to it. If you are a scientist, you can follow the path set by Michael Behe and others and bring out the crucial information that is not widely reported because it does not fit materialist preconceptions. If you are a philosopher, you can encourage your colleagues to speak out against other philosophers and scientists who abuse their authority by using it to promote dubious philosophies as if they had been empirically confirmed. Lawyers also have an important role to play, especially in persuading judges that constitutional principles of freedom of expression apply to criticism of evolutionary naturalism. Too many judges have the idea that criticism of naturalism and materialism constitutes "religion," and hence is forbidden on public property.

In some respects parents, school teachers, and youth workers have the most important role in preparing the next generation of thinkers to understand the difference between real science and materialist philosophy. It's never too early to learn good critical thinking-but sometimes, after years of indoctrination in a biased educational system, it's too late. Some of us are preparing teaching materials to help home- schoolers, private schools, and even adventurous public school teachers to teach the kids what the textbook writers and curriculum planners don't want them to know. Of course the Darwinists and their lawyers will resist this ferociously. Recently, some of them have even taken to saying that "critical thinking" is a code word for creationism, and hence for religious oppression. They have cause to worry, because when the young people learn to spot hidden assumptions and know about the evidence the textbooks slide over, they will be very hard to indoctrinate.

We need people who have enough courage to say this to the scientific materialists: "We're going to challenge the claims that you're making that seem to go beyond what you know. You can tell us what you know as biologists, and we want to know and honor that specialized knowledge. But when, as biologists, you tell us that you are believers in materialism as philosophy, we will reply, 'Who cares? You don't know that as biologists, and we're going to call you on your false claims of expertise over philosophical issues.'" We need to have lots of people doing just that.

Wanted: unbiased scientific process

What we need for now is people who want to get thinking going in the right direction, not people who have all the answers in advance. In good time new theories will emerge, and science will change. We shouldn't try to shortcut the process by establishing some new theory of origins until we know more about exactly what needs to be explained. Maybe there will be a new theory of evolution, but it is also possible that the basic concept will collapse and science will acknowledge that those elusive common ancestors of the major biological groups never existed. If we get an unbiased scientific process started, we can have confidence that it will bring us closer to the truth.

For the present, I recommend that we also put the Biblical issues to one side. The last thing we should want to do, or seem to want to do, is to threaten the freedom of scientific inquiry. Bringing the Bible anywhere near this issue just raises the "Inherit the Wind" stereotype, and closes minds instead of opening them.

We can wait until we have a better scientific theory, one genuinely based on unbiased empirical evidence and not on materialist philosophy, before we need to worry about whether and to what extent that theory is consistent with the Bible. Until we reach that better science, it's just best to live with some uncertainties and incongruities, which is our lot as human beings-in this life, anyway. For now we need to stick to the main point: In the beginning was the Word, and the "fear of God"- recognition of our dependence upon God-is still the beginning of wisdom. If materialist science can prove otherwise then so be it, but everything we are learning about the evidence suggests that we don't need to worry.

One by one the great prophets of materialism have been shown to be false prophets and have fallen aside. Marx and Freud have lost their scientific standing. Now Darwin is on the block.

Some of us saw a clip of Richard Dawkins being interviewed on public television about his reaction to Michael Behe's book. You can see how insecure that man is behind his bluster, and how much he has to rely on not having Mike Behe on the program with him, or even a lesser figure like Phil Johnson. Darwinists have to rely on confining their critics in a stereotype. They have learned to keep their own philosophy on the stage with no rivals allowed, and now they have to rely almost exclusively on that cultural power.

These are exciting times. When I finished the Epilogue to Darwin on Trial in 1993, I compared evolutionary naturalism to a great battleship afloat on the Ocean of Reality. The ship's sides are heavily armored with philosophical and legal barriers to criticism, and its decks are stacked with 16-inch rhetorical guns to intimidate would-be attackers. In appearance, it is as impregnable as the Soviet Union seemed a few years ago. But the ship has sprung a metaphysical leak, and that leak widens as more and more people understand it and draw attention to the conflict between empirical science and materialist philosophy. The more perceptive of the ship's officers know that the ship is doomed if the leak cannot be plugged. The struggle to save the ship will go on for a while, and meanwhile there will even be academic wine- and-cheese parties on the deck. In the end, the ship's great firepower and ponderous armor will only help drag it to the bottom. Reality will win.

Phillip E. Johnson, J. D. is a Professor of Criminal Law at the University of California, Berkeley

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