Monday, July 28, 2008

Phillip Johnson & "Theistic Realism"

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

SOURCE: Original essay

COMMENTARY: That's up to you...

Phillip Johnson, one of the founders of the intelligent design movement, has proposed an alternative form of reasoning to that used by modern scientists. He refers to his form of reasoning as "theistic realism", while the alternative could be called "empirical naturalism". In this blog post, I intend to contrast these two forms of reasoning, to determine what assumptions one must hold to apply them, and what consequences flow from adopting one or the other position, which I freely admit at the outset are essentially metaphysical (i.e. not scientific) positions.

According to Charles Darwin, Ernst Mayr (and most other evolutionary biologists), evolution has two stages:
• the origin of variations via various mechanisms
• the origin of adaptations via natural selection

Johnson's critique of evolution centers on the origin and patterns of variation, since he has repeatedly granted in various venues that natural selection occurs. However, according to Johnson, "God" (i.e. the supernatural entity/force behind "theistic realism") causes and/or guides the generation of variations, leaving natural selection as a mere "stabilizing force" that only maintains adaptations by weeding out unfit individuals. In this sense, Johnson's version of "natural selection" is virtually indistinguishable from that proposed in 1835-37 by Edward Blyth.

There are two fundamental problems with Johnson's position, one theological and one metaphysical:

• First, the idea that stabilizing selection maintains God-created variations is essentially a form of "statistical norming", and therefore violates the Judeo-Christian (and presumably, "theistically realistic") principle of "sanctity of the individual". If "not a sparrow falls, but that [God is] mindful of it", then God doesn't (indeed, cannot) treat individuals (including, presumably, individual humans) as instrumental entities (i.e. as means, rather than as ends) by weeding them out if they depart too much from the statistical norm of His created types. But, if God does pay attention and therefore intervenes on behalf of any and all individuals, then stabilizing selection doesn't really exist, and we are back to a theory of "theistic evolution" in which God directly intervenes in nature, controlling and guiding (i.e. determining) absolutely everything that happens at all times and in all places.

• Second, if Johnson grants that God directly intervenes only in the generation of variations (and lets stabilizing selection maintain the particular variations He specifies), there are still two alternatives:

- That God creates a multiplicity of variations, and then lets natural selection operate to choose which ones will become adaptations; or

- That God determines which variations will be adaptive at the instant of their creation, thereby rendering natural selection (and all naturalistic mechanisms of variation) superfluous.

In the first case, God not only commits the sin of "statistical norming" (as described above), the process by which He does so would result in a pattern of evolutionary change that would be virtually indistinguishable from purely naturalistic evolution by natural selection, which does not require God to intervene at all. He would, in other words, render Himself and His actions completely pointless and invisible.

But in the second case, the apparent stabilizing selection described earlier is illusory, since all created individuals would be ipso facto adaptive. Indeed, unless God deliberately intends to create maladaptive individuals that depart significantly from the adaptive norm (and which therefore would be eliminated by selection), there should be virtually no maladaptive individuals at all, which should be easily verifiable by empirical analysis.

Either Johnson must grant that stabilizing selection does, in fact, operate (and God is therefore not mindful of individuals, but only of types), or he must grant that it does not. In the second case, natural selection doesn't really happen at all, at any level, and God must therefore intervene directly in the survival and reproduction of every living organism that has ever existed, exists, or ever will exist. Furthermore, God does this despite the fact that only one type of organism, namely humans, has any choice about its behavior, about its living or dying (as far as we can tell).

To sum up, either:

• God (or the “Intelligent Designer”) intervenes directly in evolution via stabilizing selection, thereby destroying uncountable trillions of His creations (all of them innocent except humans, and even some of them, too) in order to "stabilize" His specified adaptations, or

• God (or the “Intelligent Designer”) doesn't intervene via stabilizing selection, in which case He's either irrelevant (i.e. natural selection "just happens") or He completely determines absolutely every event that occurs throughout all time and space, in which case "free will" (and therefore sin) is an illusion.

Furthermore, since Johnson grants that natural selection really does occur, but only as stabilizing selection, this limits God's intervention in the evolutionary process to the instant of the creation of variations. Under such conditions, the circumstances following this instant are empirically indistinguishable from pure naturalistic processes, regardless of whether God "specifies" such variations. Either that, or such variation is essentially random (and therefore "Godless" and “unspecified”).

But this position puts Johnson inescapably in the position of arguing once again for a "God of the gaps" position, since the only intervention God is capable of under such conditions is into the generation of variations; what happens afterwards is essentially "Godless". This is a "God of the gaps" position because there are only two alternative scenarios:

• A mechanism that produces variations that does not rely upon supernatural intervention will eventually be discovered and applied to the entire fossil and genetic record, the "gap" will be closed, and God (like the Baker) will "softly and silently vanish away"; or

• No matter when one inquires, a mechanism that unambiguously does not rely upon supernatural intervention will not yet have been (and indeed, cannot ever be) discovered.

It would seem like the second situation would validate Johnson's position. However, the second situation involves a fundamental (i.e. metaphysical) problem: the only absolutely validating outcome for the second alternative is that every possible mechanical (i.e. "Godless") explanation for the origin of variations must have been tested and falsified. This is a metaphysical impossibility, as the empirical method relies on induction, and no amount of positive evidence for Johnson's hypothesis (i.e. negative evidence for a "Godless" origin of variations) is enough to absolutely validate it (unless Johnson wishes to declare himself a logical positivist, which seems highly unlikely).

Given the foregoing, it appears that Johnson's assertion that God guides the origin of variations directly violates Popper's falsifiability criterion (just as Johnson claims evolutionary theory does). This is because, no matter how fine a level of discrimination one specifies for ruling out supernatural intervention in the origin of variations, Johnson can claim that God's intervention lies somewhere "deeper" (even if we someday get down to the level of sub-subatomic particles).

But, at some arbitrarily fine level of discrimination, either God's intervention will "jump out" of the statistical analysis (i.e. it will violate accepted principles of statistical reliability) or it won't. If it doesn't, the hypothesis of God's direct intervention in the origin of variations will have once again become unnecessary, and by the standard of parsimony (i.e. "Occam's razor"), if a causal factor is unnecessary, it isn't included in a scientific (i.e. empirically grounded) explanation of a phenomenon.

When one examines Johnson's metaphysical positions on these subjects, it is clear that he doesn't give a damn about empirical validation or falsifiability or statistical reliability or anything else that could conceivably be called "scientific". For example, in Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds [1], Johnson states quite unequivocally:

"Truth (with a capital T) is truth as God knows it. When God is no longer in the picture there can be no Truth, only conflicting human opinions. (There also can be no sin, and consciousness of sin is that built-in moral compass [pro-Darwinian philosophers] illusory.)" [Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, page 89]

In my opinion, no more succinct a statement of anti-scientific thinking could be imagined. Johnson asserts that the only two alternatives are
(1) God-given Truth and
(2) conflicting human opinions.
Where, in either of these, is empirical verification? Is "God-given Truth" amenable to empirical verification? If Johnson thinks so, he flies in the face of centuries of both scientific and theological metaphysics, which has consistently concluded exactly the opposite. But what about the alternative: is Johnson asserting that all scientific principles, such as the law of gravity, are "human opinions"? This was the position taken by the author of the "Sokol Hoax", which of course was shown to be both a hoax and an indirect validation of the assumption that physical laws are not subject to human opinions. Ergo, if Phillip Johnson were of the opinion that the law of gravity does not apply to him, could he thereby escape its operation? Don't be ridiculous...

Johnson argues that we should, as scientists, conflate two totally incommensurate forms of "knowing":

Deontological Absolutism - a universe in which God's direct intervention in events occurring in the real world is self-evident and does not require empirical verification (in fact, to attempt such verification would qualify as blasphemy), or

Scientific Empiricism - a universe in which the assumption that God intervenes in any event that occurs in the phenomenal/physical universe is unnecessary, and therefore irrelevant to such an explanation.

That's what all this really comes down to: Johnson's "theistic realism" is semantically reducible to "its True because I say so, and I say so because I believe that God says so, too", since no amount of empirical evidence can either validate (or invalidate) his position. The only "proof" he provides (or requires) for his position is his assertion of it. Interesting, perhaps, as an exercise in theological metaphysics (not to mention hubris), but not, by any stretch of the imagination, science.


[1] Johnson, Phillip (1997) Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, ISBN #0830813624, 137 pages.

As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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At 7/29/2008 06:15:00 PM, Blogger John Farrell said...

Superb piece as always.

At 8/08/2008 07:08:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is the 'God-given Truth' actually an alternative to 'human opinion'? How do we establish what the GGT is? I suupose he thinks we should look in the Bible, but the existence of multiple conflicting 'holy books' would seem to indicate that that's a matter of opinion.

At 11/16/2008 02:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I think the argument centering on the "origin and patterns of variation" is ill advised in the first place. If I were to act as the devil's advocate (or God's advocate), I would uphold the position regularly taken now and not only accept selection but also variation within a "kind" and micro evolution. Micro evolution is routinely refuted because by taking a numerous steps one can eventually get from here to there, but then there are these holes, so the steps are difficult when you want to speciate and you are asked to "step" off a cliff and fly or "step" in the direction ocean.

The argument is that there are these large chasms (holes in the record) and cliffs that make the steps not only improbable but impossible. The argument is that steps required steps are bigger than the stride or the grade too steep and generally you just can get there from here. So a wolf-like creature stepping into the ocean and eventually flipping instead of stepping is difficult to the point of being impossible.

We should refute the best of their arguments not waste time on their weakest and Phillip Johnson held a poor excuse for a critique. It is akin to them attacking Darwin limited views, ignorant of modern facts and sciences involving radiometric dating, DNA, new fossil evidence, etc.


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