From the May, 2008 issue of Touchstone

Science Futures by Phillip E. Johnson

Science Futures

“Predicting is very difficult, especially when it is about the future.” I probably don’t need to tell readers of Touchstone that this weird sentence, paradoxically both wise and absurd, bears the trademark of New York Yankee sage Yogi Berra, the Buddha of baseball.

I think of the great Yogi’s maxim whenever I hear theistic evolutionists warn intelligent design theorists against committing what they call the “God of the gaps” fallacy. Their point is that it is futile to rely on “gaps” that the theory of evolution has not yet explained as places where divine acts might be necessary, because those gaps will inevitably be filled as science progresses. Eventually, God will be squeezed out of these spaces, with consequent embarrassment to the cause of religion.

To avoid committing this fallacy, they claim, we must concede that evolutionary naturalism in biology has been proved beyond doubt, since whatever proof is missing today will surely be supplied tomorrow. I see the point, but I wonder how these folks can be so sure that the future discoveries will always support naturalism. Don’t they know that predicting is difficult, especially when it is about the future?

I agree that science is a dynamic enterprise, and any objections I may have to claims for the creative power of natural selection may be satisfied by the science of some future date, if indeed natural selection really has the required creative power. If natural selection does not have that power, it is reasonable to expect that the difficulties of the theory will only multiply as knowledge grows.

I presume that even the most advanced science of the future will not discover things that do not exist, provided that science remains open to the free expression of dissent and criticism. True believers in the theory of evolution, however, do not consider the possibility that reality may not be as evolutionary naturalists have assumed it to be. They are willing to acknowledge that the current version of the theory may be in need of revision, but not that the theory might be wrong in some way that can’t be fixed by further research along the same lines.

These true believers know that every flaw can be fixed, because they have a basis for being certain that evolutionary science is on the right track, a basis that goes beyond the state of the evidence. The famous Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin has explained that scientists like himself believe in the enterprise of naturalistic science because “we have a prior commitment—a commitment to materialism.” That prior commitment tells him what is and is not possible, regardless of the state of the evidence at any particular time.

It is easy for me to understand why atheists believe a priori that all life must have evolved by purely naturalistic means all the way from non-living chemicals to modern human beings. They have no alternative that is consistent with atheism.

Protecting God from Embarrassment

It has been much harder for me to understand why Christian theists, who emphatically declare their belief in God, would have an equally firm commitment to a completely naturalistic understanding of the history of life. However, I have personal knowledge that theistic evolutionists in academia are often more offended than atheists when I argue that a pre-existing intelligence may be needed to account for the high information content of living cells.

I could easily understand how they might reluctantly acquiesce in the ruling theory of evolution as a result of being intimidated by the cultural power of the Darwinists, but this hypothesis does not explain why so many Christian academics are genuinely enthusiastic about naturalistic evolution, regarding it as superior to any alternative on theological as well as scientific grounds.

What are their theological grounds? The best explanation I know of the theological preferences that have been so helpful to evolutionary naturalists in achieving a dominant position even in Christian academic institutions is to be found in the most recent book by my friend and colleague Cornelius George Hunter, Science’s Blind Spot: The Unseen Religion of Scientific Naturalism (Brazos Press, 2007). I have space here to provide only a few of Hunter’s main points, but no matter—the book itself is slender, inexpensive, easily available, and a good read. I need only to whet your interest.

Many Christian theists, including some who boldly proclaim their faith at the risk of courting the disdain of their secular colleagues, have adopted a theology that considers it unworthy of God to take a direct role in creation after the initial step. Thereafter, they believe, a proper God would create only by means of secondary causes, and would never find it necessary to “interfere” in creation in order to supply something that ought to have been included in the first place.

The need to interfere, according to theological naturalism, is an indication of an incompetent designer—as when, for example, an automobile has to be recalled by the manufacturer. By this standard, I suppose that the need for the incarnation of God in Jesus is evidence of a blunder of the worst kind, compared to which the need to provide the information stored in DNA is a trivial matter.

Another motive for adhering to theological naturalism is a desire to protect God from having to take responsibility for the nasty things in nature. It is all very well to give God credit for designing the beautiful things, but what kind of God would have designed the mosquito? I fail to see, however, how theological naturalism protects God from responsibility for everything that exists. Granted that God created by natural laws, should he not have designed the laws so that mosquitoes would not come into existence?

A Partial Prediction

Keeping Yogi’s maxim in mind, I will nonetheless hazard a cautious prediction that the scientific problems of evolutionary naturalism will continue to mount as Darwinists have to make their theory increasingly complicated in order to defend its core from the impact of unanticipated discoveries. This statement is only partly a prediction, though, because some of the unanticipated discoveries are already being acknowledged by scientists of unimpeachable orthodoxy.

To give one example, a few years ago, Darwinists liked to argue that there could be no designer because over 90 percent of the DNA in our cells is useless “junk,” which does not code for proteins. More lately, however, scientists have learned, and now everywhere agree, that the non-coding DNA is not junk, but plays an indispensable role in cellular activity, probably controlling the expression of the genes that do code. This means that the language of genes is far more complex and subtle than had been thought before.

Although such a discovery creates new problems for Darwinists, it is safe to say that they will seek to accommodate them by complicating their theory to make it fit whatever surprises nature may throw at them. Eventually, this process of complication and accommodation will make the theory seem less elegant, and hence less satisfactory.

Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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