Science & the Christian Faith
Johnson’s Scientific Method Flawed
by Raymond E. Grizzle
I am writing in response to the review by Brian McDonald of Phillip Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial in the Fall 1994 issue of Touchstone (Vol. 7.4). As an evangelical Christian who is also a scientist (Ph.D. in Biology from Rutgers University, 1988), I would like to offer a view of Johnson’s book that differs substantially from McDonald’s view.
Johnson has been preaching a message about the philosophy of science and biological evolutionary theory that is in my opinion simply inaccurate. He has been criticized in print by philosophers and scientists, but he seems only to acknowledge those who agree with him. Based on his recent essay in Christianity Today (October 24, 1994), I see that he has heeded little if any of the advice of his critics. Johnson has made some valid points, but the science he describes is not the science that I was taught and that I currently practice. Furthermore, I consider the core of his overall argument to be seriously flawed.
Johnson’s overall message is one that many Christians have tended to more or less uncritically accept. In essence, he is preaching the centuries-old view that science (and in the last 100 or so years, particularly biological evolutionary theory) is by design anti-Christian. I believe he seriously misunderstands the nature and practice of both science and science education.
I will use one group of statements from Johnson mentioned by McDonald (p. 26) in his review to describe my major point of disagreement:
Johnson is correct when he indicates that biological evolutionary theory and Darwinism are essentially synonymous for most scientists. He is also correct when he points out that Darwinism can be defined broadly as “. . . fully naturalistic evolution. . . .” It is not mentioned above, but perhaps Johnson’s most important point is that some atheistic scientists wrongfully try to use science to defend their metaphysical beliefs. I agree. The last phrase above (“[Darwinism is] . . . utterly incompatible with any broadly Christian view.”) is McDonald’s paraphrase of what appears to be the basic belief from which Johnson constructs his overall argument. Such a conclusion is a tragic mistake.
Acceptance of biological evolutionary theory as a scientific explanation for development of life on earth is not compatible with some interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis. This is an important point to admit. It most certainly, however, is compatible with Christian belief generally. Christian theologians of many persuasions have produced a voluminous literature on the general compatibility of evolutionary theory and Christian belief.
Johnson has apparently arrived at his mistaken notion of the incompatibility of Darwinism and Christianity because he incorrectly concludes that the naturalistic bent of modern science is equivalent to a philosophical naturalism that denies the existence of God. Some scientists are philosophical naturalists, but such a view is not pushed upon young scientists as the only option. In fact, most science courses I have taken did not even deal with philosophical aspects. And we were also more or less left on our own when it came to integrating science with other disciplines like religion. Furthermore, most scientists I have interacted with are not philosophical naturalists. I suspect that atheistic scientists are in the vast minority for the scientific community generally.
Johnson also seems to think that Darwinism’s naturalistic perspective is some philosophical fatal flaw that will allow dismissing it as valid science. If this conclusion were justified, then Johnson has also discovered a fatal flaw for science generally because all of science today is “fully naturalistic.” It had been moving in this direction since the time of Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei in the 1500s when Charles Darwin (in the 1800s) completed the transition for biology that astronomy and geology had made earlier.
There is no need to argue philosophically or historically about this—simply pick up any science text published this century and look for God as a causal explanation. God as a causal explanation has not been a part of science for at least 100 years. This is the science of the scientific community today generally, not just biology. The restriction of modern science to fully naturalistic descriptions and explanations is termed “methodological naturalism.”
Does methodological naturalism mean that science denies the existence of God? Of course not.
Scientists often admit feelings of awe and wonder over the complexities and beauty of nature. As a Christian, these insights cause me to worship our Creator. Hence, science often points beyond itself to God. And for me, these pointers are many times more persuasive than any human argument I have ever read for God’s existence. Yet so many critics of modern science seem to think they must somehow destroy science, or its naturalistic perspective, in order to defend God. How sad.
Johnson, and ironically the atheistic scientists he correctly criticizes for mixing their science and metaphysics, have both failed to deal comprehensively with the literature on science/religion interactions. There are many ways in which individuals relate their science and religion, and there is a rapidly growing literature in this area. As best I can tell, the heart of Johnson’s problem is that he does not respect the view that naturalistic science and Christian theology are compatible as two largely separate but in some ways interacting areas of inquiry. The result, in essence, for both Johnson and his atheistic colleagues is that they set up an either/or situation for science and religion.
I view the world dualistically, with the two major forms of inquiry being science and theology. I do not hold to a dualism that requires a total separation of science and theology, but rather to a limited interaction. The Scriptures tell me God created and maintains the entire cosmos. I believe God was and is ultimately responsible for creating all species, but I accept natural selection (the hypothesized major mechanism of evolutionary change) as the most likely secondary explanation for how each new species has arisen. This is the crux of my view: theology deals mainly with ultimate causes that typically involve God as an explanation, but science can only deal with naturalistic secondary causes which explicitly exclude God. The two together can potentially provide a complete explanation, as well as offer useful insights for modifications of both theological and scientific views.
As simplified examples, consider the following. The Scriptures teach that God created the “dry ground,” but geologists explain the formation of land features such as mountain ranges in terms of crustal folding and thrust faulting. Jesus said his Father feeds the birds (Mt. 6:26), but no ornithologist would include the Father in a scientific description of the feeding ecology of birds. Each of us is created in God’s image. Yet a complete (Johnson’s “fully naturalistic”) biological description of the events that occur during fusion of sperm and egg, embryonic development, birth, growth, and maturation would not include God. For me, there are two different views of all events and processes: a theological one and a scientific one. The problem lies in working out how the two should be related.
Such a view is the basis for major philosophical concepts like “complementarity” and “levels of explanation.” And it is broadly the perspective of hundreds who are working in the area of science/theology interactions. This is an exciting area of research with much to offer Christians who are not scientists, and I encourage Touchstone readers to sample it. Johnson’s book is just one example, and not a very useful one.
Whether or not he intends to do so, Johnson is perpetuating a conflict approach for science/theology interactions. Such an approach has been going on in one form or another (e.g., young-earth creationism) since the Middle Ages. In contrast, there are some who have dedicated much of their careers to reconciliation and peace between science and religion; actually, in some cases, forging a partnership. Quite frankly, I suspect most of them view Johnson’s work as a step backwards.
There is no room to treat them here, but in other respects as well, I believe Johnson’s views are flawed. He has made statements that reveal a serious misunderstanding of current ideas on mechanisms of evolution as well as the structure and practice of science generally. Biological evolutionary theory is one of the most fact-based scientific theories in existence. It represents a coherent generalization of a huge, carefully documented database. It provides fruitful direction for many kinds of research programs. It is continuously undergoing revision in light of new findings. It fits perfectly into the broader scientific description of an old and dynamic cosmos as provided by theories in astronomy and the earth sciences. And although it has been dismissed by thousands of critics (most of whom are not scientists), it is nearly universally embraced by the scientific community at large.
In conclusion, I would like to move beyond Johnson’s book and make some general comments related to the conflict view of science/theology interactions that so many Christians seem fixated upon.
I urge Touchstone readers who may have reason to deal with issues that involve some area of science, and in my opinion this includes many if not most of our modern controversies, to please corroborate with scientists. After all, if God is the author of both the Scriptures and Creation (the “nature” of science), shouldn’t we use evidence from both to answer questions that involve both? We must learn to more comprehensively and cautiously evaluate the various views of Creation that are provided by both scientists and theologians, and stop acting as if science and theology are always at war.
To go one step further, I suggest that we also need to abandon the widespread practice of almost automatically using interpretations of Scripture to judge the validity of scientific theories. The Scriptures do not “plainly teach” so much as some would think. I believe the Scriptures are infallible, but theologians (both professional and nonprofessional) are not. Some kind of interactive partnership relationship between science and theology that involves heavy doses of humility must be worked out. When this is done, I suspect we will have taken a giant step toward allowing Christian truths to again become influential in academic and political spheres.
Response to Raymond E. Grizzle
by Phillip E. Johnson
Raymond E. Grizzle states the usual theistic evolution position, which goes something like this: Religion and science are separate realms; religion deals with ultimate causes and invokes God; science deals with secondary natural causes and by some internal necessity excludes the possibility that God ever did anything detectable; religion and science are hence completely compatible; a few atheistic scientists may misuse science to advance their metaphysical naturalism, but the official scientific research community is in no way to blame for this; the evidence for the enormous creative power of the Darwinian mechanism is so overwhelming that we can’t even tell you what it is; Christians ought to behave themselves and stop entertaining the possibility that what the metaphysical naturalists who rule science are telling us isn’t completely reliable.
It’s an appealing rationalization if you want to be an orthodox member of two communities, one committed to a naturalistic understanding of reality and another committed to theism. It’s also an exercise in self-deception. The aggressive promotion of metaphysical naturalism is performed by all the leading voices of science who speak to the general public, including Weinberg, Hawking, Davies, Sagan, Crick, Dawkins, Futuyma, Gould, and many more. The most aggressive prophets of naturalism, Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan, have received public service awards from the most prestigious scientific bodies of their countries for their contributions in educating the public. The same message of naturalistic evangelism pervades the classrooms. Here is how Douglas Futuyma’s widely-used college evolutionary biology text explains the importance of Charles Darwin:
That’s what evolutionary science really teaches, and it is not compatible with any meaningful theism. Well-meaning theistic evolutionists like Raymond Grizzle end up running interference for the metaphysical naturalists when they try to reassure the Christians that the rulers of science don’t really mean what they say. For further details, see Darwin on Trial, and especially my forthcoming Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law, and Education (InterVarsity Press, July 1995).
Raymond E. Grizzle, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Environmental Science at Taylor University.
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“Science & the Christian Faith” first appeared in the Winter 1995 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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