Communiqué Interview: Phillip E. Johnson

Jeff Lawrence

This article appears in Communiqué: A Quarterly Journal, Spring 1999. We have reprinted it here with permission.

For most of his life, Phil Johnson has been an insider. He graduated from Harvard and the University of Chicago. He worked as a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. He taught law at "always-in-the-news" Cal-Berkeley. Johnson has experienced much of what you and I can only read about.

In the late 80s, however, Johnson found himself on the outside. Gaining an interest in Darwinism while on a sabbatical in England, he began to study the theories surrounding naturalistic evolution. In 1991, he began a controversial venture into the field of science with the publication of Darwin On Trial. The book drew great criticism from a scientific community that had long accepted its assertions as true. Johnson's experience in law and as a logician, however, led him to different conclusions. To the chagrin of those who accept naturalism, Johnson has been calling into question naturalistic rationale ever since. While the view from outside the club may leave one excluded at times, it may, in fact, prove to be the more honest perspective.

CJ: How would you summarize the Intelligent Design (ID) movement for those who might be unfamiliar with its basic premise and goals?

Phil: The Intelligent Design (ID) movement is attempting to reformulate the whole creation/evolution debate around the most important questions, and the starting point is, as the leading Darwinist Richard Dawkins acknowledges, "Biology is the study of extremely complicated things that look as if they were designed by a creator for a purpose." Every biological organism from the simplest to the most complex is very, very complex. A bacterial cell is a miniature chemical factory that is far beyond the capacity of anything that human beings can design. So, it seems like the starting point is that these things appear to be designed, because that's what they are. Now, the Darwinists that dominate mainstream science have insisted that the appearance of design is an illusion and that natural selection is responsible for it. So, we're asking for the evidence of that. We're asking for something other than bluff and promises to demonstrate that unguided and purposeless material mechanisms can really do work that is beyond the capacity of human software designers and engineers. And we want to focus on that rather than on other questions that tend to distract us from the main point. We don't want to talk about the biblical chronology, the age of the earth, whether or not there is a relationship among living things, and so on. The mainstream scientific community manages to get this whole issue tremendously confused by stating the question as being whether evolution has occurred. Well, evolution then just means any change whatsoever, so of course when it is put that way, well yeah, some change has occurred. So they say, "Right. There's no god." [laughs] The designing was done by natural selection--wrong. And so what we're really trying to do is get the logic working right. Ask the important questions and examine the answers to those questions to see whether they are true or not, instead of getting off on these confusing sidetracks that has prevented the truth from coming out.

CJ: So, would it be fair to say that the goal is to undermine or call into question what has generally been accepted in the scientific community rather than purporting your own answers to all of the questions?

Phil: Yes, the starting point is to understand what in the official answers is just dead wrong, because you can't get anywhere until you've made that step. Now, obviously at some time in the future you hope to get to better answers which are actually true, and that's a positive program, but you can't begin to work in that direction until you have an acknowledgement that the existing answers are false. You have to get the questions right before you can even determine the falsity of the answers. So, for the time being, it's primarily a destructive work that's aimed at opening up a closed dogmatic field to new insights.

CJ: You alluded to a few of these a moment ago, but what are some false assumptions that Christians often make when discussing science-related issues, and especially in the area of the creation/evolution debate?

Phil: The great problem from the Christian viewpoint is that the whole controversy over evolution has traditionally been phrased as a Bible vs. Science issue, and then the question becomes how do you defend the Bible? Or do you defend it? You might just give up and say, "Well we'll treat it as myth," but then if you don't do that, you have to decide what to defend, and you make a defense of the Bible and Biblical authority. Now, the problem with approaching it this way is that in our culture it is understood that science is some objective fact-finding proceeding. And if you are arguing the Bible vs. Science, then people think that you are arguing for blind faith against objectively determined knowledge or experiment. That's the way the press always presents it, and so the argument's over before it even gets started when it is phrased in those terms. What we want to do is to explore the difference between good science and bad science without bringing the Bible into it at all, because that just confuses the issue. So, I want to ask questions like: Does natural selection have the fantastic creative power that's assigned to it? Can it add vast amounts of genetic information that weren't there before? Does it have this creative power, more so than any other human designer? The moment you ask that question, you see, then you open up to scientific investigation what natural selection can and can't do. And you immediately see that there is this huge gap between what natural selection is supposed to be able to do and what it has actually been seen doing, which is practically nothing. That's why the whole field is so crazy. It requires this vast information-building system that just doesn't exist. What natural selection is supposed to be able to do, has to be able to do, and what it has never been seen doing. And of course there is no creative power there at all that's ever been demonstrated. It's just amazing to me when I got into this field that the scientists couldn't see that or couldn't see the importance of it. I found it hard to believe that otherwise intelligent scientists really believed that the micro-evolutionary examples of mutations that could make a bacteria resistant to antibiotics or something really are the same thing as the creative process that created bacteria and human beings in the first place, but they do seem to believe it. And they're totally oblivious to the enormous evolutionary inadequacies. And they go on saying, "Well, we found a fossil" or "we found a dinosaur with feathers," or "apes and humans have 98% of their DNA in common" or something. So, they'll just find something that is consistent with their picture of the world and then that is just taken to prove it all. It was an enormous shock to me getting into this to see, in fact, how bad the reasoning really is, how illogical the whole scientific field of evolution is and how resistant the scientists are to having any logic brought into it. So I felt like there was a real opportunity for somebody outside of science whose interest was in good logical thinking rather than in promoting any one particular set of solutions, and that's the mission I've been on ever since.

CJ: So, your outside perspective coming at the problem from a background in law has been a real benefit to you, while you've also had to deal with the criticism you've taken for not being a scientist?

Phil: That's right. It's really within my field. Biologists who spend their lifetimes studying biology will be legitimate authorities, obviously, on the details of what they've learned in that investigation, and an outsider can't really challenge that, but an outsider definitely can challenge their thinking, particularly when it turns out that they believe in what they believe in not because of what they know as biologists, but in spite of what they know as biologists. It's a philosophical movement based on materialism. And they say, "Well, materialism--that's science and that's our philosophy, and you should believe it because we believe it." At this point, you know, they're not entitled to any particular respect because they are not telling you what they know as biological specialists. They're telling you the prejudice that dominates the their field. So, that's a thinking issue, and it's really more within my discipline than it's within theirs.

CJ: Let's shift the discussion just a bit. At the bare bones level, what essentials do you believe the Christian must maintain in the question of human origins in order to remain essentially Christian?

Phil: Well, the first thing, I guess, is the role of God as our Creator. The evolutionary naturalists have been telling us that you don't need God in the system, you don't need a creator in the system because these purposeless forces can do it all. If they are right on that, then I would tend to think that probably Christianity should be given up as a bad show, considering most of the people that come to believe that that's what they conclude too. If God is an illusion and the Bible's just been wrong about everything, and religious belief is just believing what you want to believe and the facts show you that it didn't happen that way, well then the logical conclusion it seems to me would be not to try to save Christianity but to give it up as a mistake. Now, that's one reason I was so interested in this field. Because, now, on the other hand, if it turns out that the evolutionary theory is what's mistaken, and natural selection has no creative power, and you have this whole scientific culture that has been believing something dead against the evidence because that's something they want to believe, then even without knowing any more about it, I would say that the theistic and Biblical worldview has been tremendously validated. That is to say it's been validated in the sense that you do need a creator after all, but even more, what's been validated is the biblical view that it's a major part of the human project to get rid of the creator; because their deeds were evil, they did not want to honor god as God, and so instead they imagined various forms of idolatry and nature worship of which Darwinian evolution is just the most prevalent modern form. So, at this point, you say that not only has it been revealed that science points to the reality of a creator after all, but the enormously bad and self-deceptive thinking of the Darwinian evolutionist is something straight out of Romans 1. Without going any further than that, I'd say that the biblical worldview has been enormously affirmed. When it comes to questions like "Is it really important that the Genesis chronology be upheld?" or whatever, I'm more inclined to "hang loose" on that. For one thing, I'm very much opposed to restrictions on considering the evidence, and so it might be very convenient for us theologically if the Genesis chronology is true, and so, for that reason we might want to believe it, but that doesn't mean that the evidence necessarily supports it. If the evidence overwhelmingly says that that chronology is not true, then we can't make it true by wishful thinking. So, my basic inclination is to follow the evidence wherever it leads, and then live with the consequences of that. What has happened so far when we've done that is that the materialistic and naturalistic view that dominates our culture has been shown to be self-deceptive in every way. So I'm inclined to think we can afford to follow that program forward courageously without being afraid of what the facts will show.

CJ: How essential would you consider the nature of humanity and the supremacy of humanity over the rest of creation? It is often called the vice-regency of humanity over creation, the idea that the human being is ultimate creation or the final end of the creation process...

Phil: Yes, well, that I think is central to Christianity--that the creation was meant to culminate in human beings who are created in the image of God and who are different from everything else. So this is another area in which evolutionary thinking, in so far as it says, "Well, human beings really are just another part of the animal world like any other"--the "third chimpanzee," as the title of one book has it, is profoundly anti-Christian, and again, if it's true, perhaps Christianity should be given up as a bad show. Now it isn't true at all. This is a conclusion that I came to before I really took up Darwinism as such. One of the things I had noticed as a professor of law was how unsuccessful science was at explaining human behavior and the human condition on the basis of material factors or scientific ideas of causation. We saw this in the insanity defense and in the efforts to reform it into a scientific model in which we would have science tell us that crimes and even non-crimes--all human actions--are the product of physical causes. Or, perhaps it's psychological causes in early childhood as in Freudianism, perhaps it's training as in behaviorism, perhaps it's chemical reactions as in modern neuroscientific theories of the brain, but these are all responsible for human action. And whenever you go in this way, you end up in madness very quickly. You actually cannot explain human behavior on the basis of cause and effect relations like that. The law has understood this for centuries--we don't speak of behavior as caused but rather as chosen. The physicalists, you know, scientific materialists tell us you can't have thought determining action because we don't know of any way in which a spiritual or immaterial thing can influence the physical world. Only physical things can influence the physical world. Well, this to me just shows that your philosophy is totally inadequate, because there is nothing we are more directly conscious of than first thinking of something and then acting to bring it about. That's simply true as a matter of our basic direct experience. Any theory that doesn't account for it is a defective theory. So really, the truth about human beings it that they possess free will, the ability to choose between good and evil. They possess an inherent knowledge of the difference between good and evil. This is assumed in criminal law, for example. It's just the truth about what people are. I'd say again, the Christian theistic view of the human condition and its capacities is vastly more realistic than the scientific materialist view. And so, we always have to forget about the scientific materialist view whenever we are going to do any serious work--even scientific work. That's the really hilarious thing about it. If our mental capacities are produced by natural selection or by chemical reactions in the brain, how in the world would we ever have developed the capacity to produce true scientific theories? This has no ability to increase the organism's powers of reproduction so that they could breed more viable descendents or whatever. So the very nature of doing science is based on the view that it's thought which determines actions, and our thought is not just the product of mechanical forces. There again, I'd say that the Christian theistic view of the human condition and of human action is realistic and consistent with our experience; the scientific materialist view of these things is a fairy tale that even the scientists themselves have to forget whenever they are doing their theorizing. So there is another enormously powerful confirmation of the Christian theistic worldview.

CJ: How would you answer the charge that Darwinism is the latest Galileo mistake the church has made?

Phil: The first thing is that the Galileo episode has been greatly misunderstood. The idea that there has been a warfare between Christianity and science is an artifact of Darwinist propaganda. They made this story up in the nineteenth century in order to promote their theory and their atheism. But the church has always been the patron of science and of scientific thinking. Now that, of course, has sometimes led to controversies. Galileo got in trouble with the professoriate of his day because he was a cocky, arrogant theorizer who treated everybody else with contempt. He was brilliant, of course, and he was right about important things, but people who've studied the history of the Galileo episodes don't find it too surprising that he eventually got into trouble. Moreover, this all occurred in a particular moment in history when the Catholic church was under enormous pressure because of the spreading Protestant rebellion and when there was a tendency to be very defensive about the Aristotelian philosophy that had come to dominate the church, because that was one of the things that the Protestant church was attacking. So, there were political currents that were unique to that particular time, but more than that, if you want to think of what the College of Cardinals of Galileo's day was like, the analogy today, the equivalent body today, is not the College of Cardinals in Rome, it's the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. See, that's our College of Cardinals--the official government and power-wielding leaders of the intellectual world. And they will always crack down on heresy that threatens their position. So, the Darwinists are the College of Cardinals today. They're the ones who are trying to keep their belief system going by censorship and the use of their power. And they're analogous to the Aristotelian professors whom Galileo got in trouble with. In fact, not only has there not been a history of conflict between the churchmen and the scientists, in a way, the problem has been that there hasn't been enough conflict. That is to say, when Darwin propounded his theory, the clergy were so easily intimidated that they gave way right away. There was no battle against Darwinism from the theologians. The battle came from the fossil experts. The theologians were, if anything, too willing to put aside their intelligence and their better judgment because they didn't want to have a conflict with the scientific world and its experts. So the whole history of this has been greatly misunderstood and misrepresented from the Galileo case, which was very atypical, on down to the present.

CJ: Much has been said about the impact of our entering the post-modern era. How do you anticipate post-modernism will impact the debate?

Phil: Well, It's already having a big effect. The world that I grew up in was one in which a very confident rationalism dominated all of the universities...scientific rationalism, and the thought was that you could have a rationalism in the world of values as well, but now the idea that there are different rationalities has taken hold. I think it's positive, on the whole, in the sense that it focuses attention on assumptions that people make, and there really isn't one single kind of rational system that can combine everything in the world. Then, where it becomes excessive is when it verges over into nihilism or indifference ideas. Post-modernism is like a whole lot of things: taken in the right doses, it's a healthy antidote to excessive rationalism; taken in overdose, it poisons the mind. But you find the notion that non-Western ways of thinking must be treated with respect, that even ancient traditions of tribes may have their truth value--these are healthy developments, I think, and they help open up the universities to challenges to the dominant scientific materialism. So yeah, it's having a big effect and I think, on the whole, a healthy one.

CJ: There seems to be a recent increase of attention given to science and religion by pop culture. For example, the movies "Contact" and "Gattaca" as well as television shows like "The X-Files" have dealt in this arena. How would you characterize that trend?

Phil: I thought the movie Contact was absolutely fascinating. It was all over the place--didn't have any clear message. For part of the movie the scientific rationalists are the heroes and the Christians are all terrorists and villains, and then at the end of the movie, it's these same Christian popular movements who believe the scientist Ellie Arroway when the scientific testing has turned her down. So it sends very mixed messages. It's an awfully entertaining movie with lots of ideas shooting off in all directions. Scientific rationalists like Richard Dawkins are tremendously upset at programs like the X-Files because they indicate the degree of popular resistance to adopting a strictly scientific and materialist view of the world. In the university world, there is a very limited dialog of science and religion that's carried on and the ticket of admission to it is that you have to accept Darwinian evolution. So you have these institutions (the Templeton Foundation funded things and all) where the idea is that you are going to have a friendly conversation and it can only be friendly if the religious people accept the scientific frame of reference. So they engage in a certain amount of dialog, particularly with physicists and cosmologists, who are quite open to vaguely religious ideas, not really traditional Christianity, but the physicists tend to be Platonists or pantheists more than hard core materialists, and so they'll engage in these sorts of dialogs. The biologists usually don't place any value on them and are much less likely to be involved, but it's the biologists who call the tune because any person in academic life like myself who's known to be critical of Darwinian evolution will be frozen out of those. The professors at the Christian institutions, or Christian professors at secular institutions, or pantheistic professors don't want to have anything to do with radical criticism of scientific materialism, so accepting the creative power of natural selection against all the evidence is sort of the statement of faith you have to make to be admitted.

CJ: How do you think this trickles down to the popular level?

Phil: Well, at the popular level there is and there always has been an enormous amount of traditional Christianity that is openly defiant of evolutionary science, for example. It either contradicts it or just ignores it. There is a lot of that. One of the things that is interesting to me is that I'm now getting published quite a bit in journals that are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. These have become very friendly environments. I've written two pieces recently, and pretty radical ones, for "Commonweal," which is a moderately liberal Catholic organ, and it's a wonderful thing that they are open to this perspective. The Eastern Orthodox tend to be very much in agreement with me, that evolution science is materialistic and atheistic in orientation and that it's not good science. So, at the popular level, outside the universities, I think there is a tremendously healthy revolt against the scientific orthodoxy.

CJ: You've said that as a young atheistic academician, you thought Christianity was a dead religion or at least a quickly dying religion, but now you see a resurgence of Christian intellectuals in the universities. Why do you think this transformation has occurred?

Phil: Well, the fact is that Christianity is a permanent thing. Fads come and go, but ever since Jesus walked the Earth, there's never been a time when he hasn't been the most important figure in all of Western culture in terms of setting the agenda. Even the Communists had to turn to a liberation theology to theologize their position. What I tend to say is that a couple of centuries from now, you won't hear about Charles Darwin except in courses on British intellectual history, Marx will have been forgotten, Freud will be a footnote to history, but Jesus Christ will still be a prominent part of the culture, and the gospels will still be read and preached. There'll never be a day when everybody believes, but there will never be a time when it isn't alive and active and, really, a trend-setting kind of belief. I think it's just a matter of what is permanently good and true outlasting the faddish ideas we're attracted to in our foolish youth.

CJ: Along those lines, what encouragement would you offer to a young student of science--let's say a young lady beginning a Ph.D. program in microbiology at a major university?

Phil: We have a wonderful example here in Michael Behe [Associate Professor of Biochemistry, Lehigh University; author of Darwin's Black Box] in what he is able to do while retaining a well funded lab and standing in the scientific world and so on. The fact is that there are a lot of people in science who just don't want to be bothered with the whole Darwinian ideological agenda. It doesn't have anything to do with the scientific work that they do, so they are patient with it. I think if we're clever enough in quoting the arguments and keeping people in the conversation and so on, and reassuring them that they can doubt Darwinism and still practice science just as well as ever--that it doesn't mean they are going to give up science and, you know, start thumping bibles instead or whatever--I think there'll just be a growing number of people who will get used to that conversation in that element. Behe has so far been able to maintain his standing, and he's getting invitations everywhere. Once you get someone like that breaks the ice, then there are opportunities for more people. So, I don't think you need to be in despair, but you need to use a lot of tact and judgment and keep your head down while you're getting your Ph.D. in a lot of places--because there is dogmatism, but there are ways to overcome that.

CJ: That seems to be the idea behind your concept of driving "the wedge" into the scientific community--that you'd just encourage them to get behind guys like Behe and join that momentum.

Phil: Yes, the idea is that you get a few people out promoting a new way of thinking and new ideas, it's very shocking, and they take a lot of abuse. The thing is that you have to have people that talk a lot about the issue and get it up front and take the punishment and take all the abuse, and then you get people used to talking about it. It becomes an issue they are used to hearing about, and you get a few more people and a few more, and then eventually you've legitimated it as a regular part of the academic discussion. And that's my goal: to legitimate the argument over evolution and particularly over the Darwinian mechanism and its supposed creative power, to legitimate that as a mainstream scientific and academic issue. As soon as we can do that and put the spotlight on it, then everybody knows that there is no evidence. So, we can't lose the argument. We're bound to win it. We just have to normalize it, and that takes patience and persistence, and that's what we are applying.

CJ: To put a bookend on this, how would you describe your dreams for the Intelligent Design movement? How would you like the movement to be remembered fifty years from now?

Phil: Oh, I often say that in 1859, Darwin published the Origin of Species. In 1959, there was a very triumphalist celebration of the centennial of its publication at the University of Chicago, and the scientists came from all over and every message was "Darwinian evolution has conquered all, it has defeated Christianity, it has taken over science, it is the wave of the future." I think that in 2059, there will be another vast convention on this subject and the theme will be "How could we ever have let this happen?" When the truth finally comes out, when people understand, I hope we'll be remembered as the pioneers who opened up the criticism and made it possible for the change to occur. It'll take decades for it all to happen, and we won't be around to see the final days, but maybe we'll be remembered as among those who started the ball rolling, and that'll be a great satisfaction.

Works cited:
Darwin's Black Box : The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution
by Michael J. Behe; Free Press, 1996; ISBN: 0684827549

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