From the July/August, 2001 issue of Touchstone

Engaging Science by David J. Tyler

Engaging Science

The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism
by Phillip E. Johnson
Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000
(220 pages; $17.99, cloth)

reviewed by David J. Tyler

Why is it that so many young people go into higher education and emerge as agnostics or atheists? Is it really a case of exposure to truth—an experience that sweeps away the “childish mentality” associated with a religious upbringing? Many seem to view it like this and consider that scholarship can liberate people to escape, as they put it, from the superstition and ignorance on which religion thrives.

Phillip Johnson begins his challenging book with the story of Philip Wentworth, who went to Harvard University in 1924 to prepare himself for the Christian ministry and ended up rejecting the faith that had nurtured him. Johnson shows that instead of examining the issues in a scholarly way, Wentworth welcomed the critical environment that enabled him to justify his desire to become a skeptic. Far from helping him towards maturity of thought, his educational experience undermined his ability to make a sound judgment. According to Johnson, Harvard did not help him to ask the right questions or to find rigorous ways of answering those questions.

Johnson then takes up the theme of “asking the right questions” and visits numerous topics demonstrating that the problem is widespread among intellectuals. The first example comes from evolutionary biology. Advocates of origins via incremental transformation point to “change” as proof of the theory. The real issue, however, concerns the origin of biological information. Where does it come from? Does evidence of “change” (as presented in the textbooks, for example) cast light on increases in information and the origins of complexity? An incident in the life of Richard Dawkins reveals him protesting against the right questions being asked. In a recent book, Paul Davies correctly puts his finger on the information challenge that needs to be addressed when thinking about “the origin of life,” but then he pulls back from the revolutionary implications of his own logic. Davies started well in asking the right questions, but stumbled when he came to answering them.

Science & Religion

Surveys of the religious views of scientists reveal that many of them do not consider science neutral about religious matters. Some others will say that religion occupies a distinct and separate domain from science, but this position leaves room only for deism and existentialism (and definitely not biblical Christianity). The key question here is: Does theology provide any objective knowledge? If the answer is yes (and all biblical Christians agree that God has revealed truth and that there is a source of authority outside of science), then there is a tension between the basic tenets of Christianity and the widely held view of what constitutes science. Johnson challenges Christians to make their case on this point. “If theologians are unwilling or unable to challenge the materialist definition of ‘knowledge’ implicit in evolutionary science, then they deserve no more cognitive status than [Stephen Jay] Gould and [Richard] Dawkins are willing to give them” (p. 103).

Many Evangelical scholars have made a concerted attempt to engage in a “meaningful interaction” with the wider academic world. Some seem to think that they have escaped the “ghetto mentality” exhibited by some Christians in the past. While the principle of engagement with the world at all levels is commendable, this particular strategy has yielded many problems. Observers have commented on the lack of distinctiveness in the emergent Evangelical scholarship. Others have noted that, despite this attempted involvement, the wider community of scholars continues to ignore the contributions of Evangelicals.

Johnson’s perceptive discussion of the issues explains why: A fundamental principle of contemporary scholarship is that God has nothing to contribute to our intellectual life. To join the academic world on its own terms is to throw in the towel as far as providing a distinctive Christian contribution is concerned. Christianity is tolerated as long as it is for private consumption, but if it claims to bring genuine knowledge to the world of refereed journals, academic debate, and research grants, it is regarded as a dangerous subversion. The problem for many Evangelical scholars is that, having entered the arena with a willingness to keep revealed truth out of their academic work, they end up with a Christianity that is entirely peripheral to their professional activities.

Science & Reason

In his chapter on “Darwinism of the Mind,” Johnson examines the views of some intellectual gatekeepers in the sciences of humanity: sociobiology, cognitive psychology, and the neurosciences. The inhumane implications of Dawkins’s views on “selfish genes” and on ourselves as “robot survival machines” are discussed, and the weakness of Dawkins’s proposed solution—he advocates a “robot rebellion” for us to “upset” the designs of our selfish genes—Johnson describes as “both scientifically absurd and morally naive” (p. 107). This leads to a discussion of the theory of “memes”—which supposedly account for ideas as genes account for physical attributes—of the way Steven Pinker has attempted to explain infanticide using evolutionary psychology, and of attempts to apply naturalistic thinking to several other current issues. The key question in this area is: Is the thinking, choosing self an illusion? The dominant response in the intellectual world is yes. Johnson concludes by throwing down the gauntlet: “It is time for an effective challenge to this constricting, authoritarian, self-contradictory ideology” (p. 124).

The world of scholarship has moved far from its roots. Most Christians appear to be unaware of the mindset of today’s intellectual leaders. According to Johnson, academia has moved beyond atheism. It is not even important to people to debate the existence of God. This is because knowledge is defined in naturalistic terms. If God exists, he must be subject to the laws of nature and must be accessible to man’s intellectual probing. It is into this marketplace of ideas that Christians must enter and find ways of contributing confidently.

Clearly, Christians need to contribute to the debate about what science is. These debates are important for the intellectual health of the different disciplines, because the present culture is increasingly resistant to rational debate and more conducive to power struggles. This degeneration is widespread. Reason gets us from premises to conclusions but does not tell us what premises to rely on. Modernists try to derive ultimate premises by reasoning from other premises, and they end up with circular arguments. Reason needs to build on a solid foundation of truth, and this is exactly what God has given us by revealing himself in Jesus Christ and in the Scriptures. Our starting point has been given to us by Solomon: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). In the latter chapters, Johnson presents his thoughts on what this revealed foundation looks like.

Johnson’s strategic approach is best illustrated by reference to the creation-evolution controversy. The exchanges have been characterized by polarization, where caricatures and straw men have stultified meaningful debate. Johnson successfully demonstrates that there are more fundamental questions for Christians in academia to answer. The most important of these relates to the way we handle the issue of design. Naturalistic philosophy cannot entertain Intelligent Design, for a fundamental principle of naturalism is that there can be no teleological interpretation of matter or life. Living things may look designed, but science proceeds only on the basis that purposeless natural causation is sufficient to explain all the data. By contrast, the Intelligent Design approach is to bring the design inference within the boundaries of science. A science that defines design out of bounds is emasculated. If design is a reality, we must be able to address it scientifically.

The world of scholarship provides us with fascinating paradoxes. Naturalistic scholars have spoken of Darwinism being a universal acid, eating into everything it meets. By this they mean that Darwinist thinking has the ability to sweep away the traditions, superstitions, and myths that people have accumulated in their cultural lives. However, as Johnson shows, the intellectual revolution of Darwinism leads to unexpected applications of the acid, with nihilism in the humanities and the adoption of postmodernist relativism.

What has not yet happened is for this universal acid to be applied to the foundations of scientific rationalism. It is necessary to ask how naturalistic thinkers can place such confidence in the powers of reason. Ultimately, rationalism is heading for self-destruction. If our minds are to be explained purely by physics and chemistry, this “implies that even the scientists are not really conscious and that their boasted rationality is really rationalization. In that case, why imagine that scientific reasoning can make true statements about ultimate reality? Extreme forms of modernist rationalism thus merge seamlessly with postmodernist relativism” (p. 119). The Christian is on strong ground here: Our rationality is God-given and an aspect of our bearing his image. However, as soon as the idolatry of rationalism gains ascendancy, the foundation is compromised and the idol may finally collapse in a heap of relativistic rubble.

Anyone involved with the world of scholarship, including students, will find benefit in thinking through the varied issues presented. Johnson has his finger on the pulse of the debates he describes, and he always has a refreshing and interesting perspective to contribute.  

David J. Tyler (Ph.D., Management Science, University of Manchester; M.Sc., Physics, Loughborough University) is Senior Lecturer in Manufacturing Systems at Manchester Metropolitan University, U.K. He has written one undergraduate textbook on materials management, and edited another textbook on manufacturing technology. He has written over 30 articles that seek to develop a Christian perspective of origins. He is a member of Mottram Evangelical Church. This is an expanded version of a review originally written for Origins, the Journal of the Biblical Creation Society.

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