First Things 60 (February 1996): 62-65

Books in Review

Naturalism on Trial


Reviewed by Nancy R. Pearcey

Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law, and Education. By Phillip E. Johnson. InterVarsity. 238 pp. $19.99.

In Richard Rorty's long march to becoming a postmodernist guru, the decisive step was his rejection of Christianity. In an autobiographical essay, Rorty writes that as a college student he sought a unified vision of truth and justice. He was at first attracted to Christianity, especially the Anglo-Catholicism in T. S. Eliot's poetry. But finding himself "incapable" of "the humility that Christianity demanded," he turned from religion to philosophy. Platonism had "all the advantages of religion" without its uncomfortable demands.

Yet he soon ran up against a familiar problem: Every philosophical system is built on first principles that, by definition, cannot be justified by prior philosophical principles. In frustration, Rorty writes, "I decided that only religion"-only an ultimate Being embodying love and justice-"could do the trick Plato wanted done." And since, once again, he "couldn't imagine becoming religious," he gave up hope of ever achieving a vision of absolute truth or goodness. And the rest, as they say, is history-or in Rorty's case, historicism, as he drifted first to Hegelianism and finally to Deweyan pragmatism. In his Consequences of Pragmatism, Rorty applauds pragmatists for disregarding "what propositions we believe" and for reducing statements to tools that "help us get what we want."

The story is retold in Phillip E. Johnson's Reason in the Balance to illustrate the consequences of rejecting Christian theism. Johnson argues that a host of contemporary debates-over postmodernism, fem- inism, abortion, education-are the result of a more fundamental debate between theism and naturalism: between the conviction that God created us and the conviction that we are products of solely natural forces. In the academy, naturalism has triumphed, leading down exactly the same path traced by Rorty in his personal odyssey: the reduction of truth to pragmatic strategies for "getting what we want."

The central battleground in this debate, Johnson insists, is Darwinian evolution. Naturalism attained cultural dominance only after Darwin provided a plausible naturalistic story of the origin of life forms. Rorty himself makes the connection explicit in a recent New Republic article: "Keeping faith with Darwin," he writes, means abandoning the concept of objective, transcendent truth and treating ideas as merely problem-solving tools that evolve as means of adapting to the environment. "The idea that one species of organism is, unlike all the others, oriented not just toward its own increased prosperity but toward Truth," Rorty argues, is frankly "un-Darwinian."

The link between postmodernism and Darwinism may at first seem a bit of a stretch. We're accustomed to an intellectual life bifurcated into what C. P. Snow in 1959 called "two cultures," with the humanities sharply split off from the sciences. Even in the elementary grades, many English teachers have tossed out their red pencils, insisting that grammar, logic, and even factual accuracy are artificial constructs imposed by the ruling class. Meanwhile, down the hall in the science classroom, educators still cling precariously to the Enlightenment notion of objective truth. Darwinian evolution is rarely open to question, and students are not invited to judge for themselves whether it is true or not.

Johnson's unique contribution is to show that these widely divergent approaches are in fact internally connected: It is because science is committed to Darwinism, he argues, that the humanities are in such a muddle of subjectivism and relativism. In the academic hierarchy, science is given authority to describe the world as it "really is." Hence Darwinism is regarded not only as a biological theory concerned with genes and selection but also as the factual basis for naturalistic philosophy. As historian Neal Gillespie writes, "Darwin's rejection of special creation was part of the transformation of biology into a positive science, one committed to thoroughly naturalistic explanations based on material causes and the uniformity of nature." Or, as biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, Darwin "made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

Naturalism, materialism, and atheism are roughly equivalent terms in this context to express the conviction that nature is all there is-that there exists no transcendent or spiritual realm. Once naturalism was enshrined as orthodoxy in science, Johnson argues, it became the foundational assumption in every other academic field.

Take law, the subject Johnson has taught for almost thirty years at the University of California at Berkeley. In the traditionalist view, positive law is based on a transcendent moral order-often called natural law, generally conceived ultimately as divine law. But if Darwinism is true, then life has no divine creator and there is no divine law or transcendent moral order. Morality and justice are merely ideas the human mind invents when it has evolved to a certain level. Hence there is no final, authoritative basis for law-no answer to what law professor Arthur Leff whimsically calls "the grand 'sez who?' " American legal theory reflects the views of Oliver Wendell Holmes, an avowed Darwinian, who taught that law is simply a matter of imposing political and economic policies judged to be socially advantageous. In short, law is whatever the sociologist or economist "sez" it should be.

Again, consider sex education. The traditionalist side is manned largely by theists, who believe a transcendent God created us for a purpose. A person who ignores the Creator is ignoring the most important part of reality-clearly an irrational thing to do. The most rational approach to sex ethics is to ask what God's purpose was in creating humans as sexual beings and what we must do to fulfill that purpose.

Naturalism, on the other hand, claims that God did not create us, we created Him-or rather, we created the idea of God. He "exists" only in the minds of religious believers. In that case, the most rational course is to relegate religion to the realm of wishful thinking and to base sex ethics squarely on what is real-on scientific knowledge and personal experience. Hence the nondirective approach to sex education, which introduces students in clinical terms to a host of sexual alternatives while encouraging them to make up their own minds, is completely logical.

Piling example on example, Johnson pushes current debates back to their starting points in theism or naturalism. His primary audience consists of fellow theists, yet along the way he has picked up some surprising allies, including several hard-nosed atheists. For example, he and Cornell biologist William Provine "have become the friendliest of adversaries," Johnson writes. While the two men disagree on whether evolution actually happened, both insist that a consistent Darwinism is corrosive of traditional beliefs and morality.

And both are impatient with those who want to keep a foot in each camp- to have their Darwinism and keep their theism, too. Many Christian academicians have made peace with Darwin by adopting forms of theistic evolution, ceding science to the naturalists and relegating God's activity to a realm accessible solely to the eyes of faith, undetectable to science. For example, the Christian philosopher Nancey Murphy writes, "For better or worse, we have inherited a view of science as methodologically atheistic." To which Johnson tartly replies, why should Christians let the atheists make the rules? If a supernatural Creator really exists, He just might have chosen to do some creating. It's silly to speak as though the Almighty God is forbidden to affect nature. And if theism is true, then it's not at all obvious that valid scientific theories can be achieved only by making the counterfactual assumption that atheism is true.

Indeed, that assumption has produced bad science, Johnson argues. It forces biologists to accept even weak theories so long as they are naturalistic. Darwinism itself is the prime example. Observational evidence cited for Darwinism consists of minor variations, akin to those routinely produced by farmers and breeders. For example, in a New York Times article, Jonathan Weiner describes a study of Darwin's famous finches: The finches' beaks grew larger in dry seasons, when the seeds they eat were tough and hard, but grew smaller again after a rainy season, when tiny seeds became available once more. This is evolution happening "before [our] very eyes," Weiner writes.

But as Johnson points out, it is precisely the opposite. The change in finch beaks, he argues, is a minor, cyclical fluctuation that allows the finches to adapt and survive. Translation: It's a small adjustment that allow finches to stay finches. It does not demonstrate that finches are evolving into another kind of bird, nor that they evolved originally from another kind of organism. It's odd that a mechanism permitting an organism's major features to remain unchanged should be cited as evidence for a theory of limitless change.

Moreover, the naturalistic assumption compels biologists to ignore the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design that can be read right off the face of nature. It seems intuitively obvious that eyes are designed for seeing, ears for hearing, and fins for swimming. Even dyed-in-the- wool atheists such as Dawkins acknowledge the prima facie evidence of purpose: his definition of biology is "the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." The goal of Darwinism is to demonstrate that, contrary to appearances, these complicated things are really the product of random changes and natural laws.

But a century and a half after Darwin, that goal has not been reached. (The scientific failures of Darwinism are discussed at length in Johnson's first book, Darwin on Trial, and outlined only briefly here.) The meager factual basis for Darwinism makes plausible Johnson's thesis that the major reason for the theory's dominance is not science but philosophy: It reassures secularists that they don't have to worry about a Creator.

In making his case, Johnson adopts a somewhat episodic approach, jumping from theoretical arguments to current issues to practical strategies for advancing a theistic point of view. (Don't say you want to introduce a new subject-religion-into the school curriculum, Johnson advises. Instead, say you want to offer a Christian viewpoint on an existing subject, such as science or sex education. "Viewpoint discrimination" has been ruled unconstitutional.) The current issues Johnson analyzes will be familiar to readers who follow cultural controversies closely, yet all will benefit from the book's clarity as it hammers away at the central point: Once you admit Darwinian evolution, God becomes a fiction, and everything else in postmodern culture flows from that. Secularists may be friendly toward religion, viewing it as harmless and even morally uplifting, or they may be hostile. But when the chips are down, they see religion as a fantasy, and the sooner believers grasp that, the sooner we will be able to counter what Johnson calls "the subtext of contempt" running through so many public debates today.

Nancy R. Pearcey is Fellow and Policy Director of the Wilberforce Forum, and coauthor with Charles Thaxton of The Soul of Science (Crossway).