Afraid of Reason
Has Scientism Become Obscurantism?
by John Mark Reynolds
Not much is left of the old British imperial era. Queen Victoria, living symbol of that era, died in 1901 and the last human links with that time are now passing from the scene. Ideas often last longer than men, but today, 100 years later, many of the ideas of that era are of more historical than practical interest. Who advocates, or even remembers, the dabbling in magic by Yeats or the colonialism of Roberts? Of the three greatest ideas of the period—Marxism, Freudianism, and Darwinism—all but Darwinism obviously are on the way to extinction.
Darwinism, the creation myth of the triumphant and confident British Empire, survives undaunted. Of course, there is a good reason for that. Men cling to their creation myths with the most fervor and passion. To use the language of the period: it is basic to the human race to wish to know for certain who or what we can call “father” or “mother.” We are justly concerned to preserve our view of our origins: no good man willingly commits patricide.
We moderns do not often match the certainty of the naturalists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who embraced Darwinism. One such lion of the imperialist order, T. H. Huxley, recommended that critics of Mr. Darwin need only “...a little sound, thorough, practical, elementary instruction in biology.”
Huxley’s confidence in naturalism went beyond explaining the origin of our species. With absolute confidence he could turn to theology and say, “I conceive that the origin, the growth, the decline, and the fall of those speculations respecting the existence, the powers, and the dispositions of beings analogous to men, but more or less devoid of corporeal qualities, which may be broadly included under the head of theology, are phenomena the study of which legitimately falls within the province of the anthropologist.”
Such confident affirmations were common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was self-evident to Huxley that Victorian science was rapidly discovering Truth. Soon all the old problems of theology and metaphysics would be sent to the right science department for quick solutions.
But even Huxley did not see that the same reductionism he had applied to Christian theology eventually might be turned on his own passionate defense and exposition of Darwinism. It is impossible to read the old Bull Dog without an affectionate smile in this regard. Every line of argument rests on the naive materialism that well-educated men of his era took for granted.
It is not irrational, however, to wonder if the arguments of Darwin seemed convincing for the same reason the flawed economic science of Marx seemed convincing at the time: it filled a deep nineteenth-century need. It is not unreasonable, given the track record of the other great ideas of the era, to ask if Darwinism is something a rational mind must accept. That is why questions raised by thoughtful skeptics of Darwinism like Phillip Johnson deserve such careful scrutiny. We know that ideas can seem attractive to a culture far in excess of their actual merit because of prejudice or unexpressed desire. This is as true of the critics of Darwinism as the proponents, but it is no less true. It could be, in final analysis, that the case for Darwinism rests as much on nineteenth-century philosophy as it does on evidence. The theory may not be compelling without Huxley’s dogma to go with it.
Still, the fact that Darwinism so neatly encapsulated the beliefs of a time does not mean that is is all wrong. Darwinism might have been a truth discovered only in that epoch for the very reason that there was a happy convergence of biological truth and the prejudices of the day. Darwinism may in fact be “true.” But is it?
Critics of Darwinism
The Darwinists were fortunate that their early critics were hampered by a form of Genesis literalism not held by many in the historic Church. The secularism of Huxley was often put in juxtaposition with the most primitive and ill-equipped forms of theism. In such a situation, even most theists felt compelled to concede the argument to the Darwinists.
It was congenial to the prejudices of educated society to widely report on the “debate” between Huxley and Wilberforce, which went badly for theism, while ignoring the sparkling rejoinders by G. K. Chesterton and others. But to be critical of Darwinism, one need not be a Christian fundamentalist. There were, and still are, larger issues involved, as Darwinists themselves admitted. The questions remains not so much whether some form of religion allows for Darwinism—Huxley though that a purely ethical religion was still possible—but whether Darwinism is true. Must a Christian believe it?
Does evolution occur? It depends on what one means by evolution. Evolution takes place, if by evolution one mans simply “change over time.” But the changes scientists actually observe in the laboratory or in the fossil record do not force the rational person to conclude that all life and the basic body plans originated from these same observed, modest mechanisms. Such large-scale evolution possibly could take place, of course, but his conclusion is not forced on us by the evidence alone. One needs the further philosophic impetus, a logically necessary demand for a “natural” account. If we must have a naturalistic creation story, then evolution of this grander sort is the only game in town. On the other hand, the Christian theist does not need the story of evolution to create life or explain the origin of basic body types. He is, therefore, free to look at other points of view.
The Panda’s Bad Thumb
In this sense, the Christian scientist need not risk the danger of obscurantism faced by his secularist colleagues. If there is a God, and that God did intervene in the history of life, it will begin to be evident to both the secularist and the theist. The theist is, however, free to acknowledge the implications of such data without risking his entire worldview; he has a certain metaphysical freedom. The non-theistic scientist does not have the same freedom. He can see a “lack” of design but his metaphysics will retard his ability to see intelligent design. He might, for example, see the panda’s thumb as an example of bad design. He would view it as the product of natural causes and not the intelligent design of a creator. His difficulty is in seeing it any other way.
In fact, the panda’s thumb is quite efficient at stripping bamboo and is labeled “bad design” only for the aesthetic reason that it is an extension of the wrist bone rather than a true opposable thumb. Let us grant the Darwinist his argument, however, and label the thumb “bad design.” The theistic scientist is free to recognize this bad design and attribute it to natural selection or any other natural mechanism.
The theist need not find design in every piece of the natural order. Just as he can postulate a God who acts, without attributing every falling snowflake to God’s primary causation, so he can find “direct” design in some parts of the created order and not in others. He can even make mistakes, and see design in a place where it turns out not to be. His attribution of design is not an empty concept that can never be shown to be wrong. In the case of the panda’s thumb itself, the non-theist believes he has found such an example. Within the framework of his worldview, the theist can recognize, at least in theory, a naturally caused object and a supernaturally caused object.
The Narrow Path
The non-theistic scientist does not have the same options. To recognize intelligent design would be to cease being a naturalistic scientist and to become open to theism. Suppose some part of the cosmos resists natural explanations. It seems to have all the attributes of a designed object and none of the attributes of a naturally occurring object. The theistic scientist is free to tentatively recognize this fact and to move on with his work. He recognizes that such objects may turn up in the natural world. Of course, he also is free to probe away at this answer. His quick attribution of design may be in error. The non-theist, on the other hand, can never accept a “designed object” in the natural world. Such a fellow must always have more time to work on the problem, or plead any number of other difficulties. If God designed an object in the natural world, this scientist will never be able to admit it, because of the obscurantism of his methodology. Only natural answers can be found, and so he is stuck if the universe contains some object produced by supernatural causes. But if theism with an active Creator is a real possibility, then such a scientist has a very high chance of missing important truths about the cosmos.
The common response to this point is that Darwinism is the best answer humans have. Religious people have failed again and again in their predictions regarding Intelligent design. Modern naturalistic scientists make much of such failures. Natural causes have been found again and again for things that at first glance appeared to demand immediate divine action. Given this, why doubt that such a powerful theory as Darwinism will solve its problems an that natural answers eventually will be found here as well?
In responding, it is important to remember that the Christian theist could give up any particular example of intelligent design. It may be that all basic body plans came into existence through natural means. The evidence is not good now, but it may be better later. There is no known mechanism to provide for this, but perhaps one will be found in the future. In any given case, a good theist is open to more information. the story of theistic predictions is not as simple as the naturalist implies. Intelligent design theorists have not failed in all their predictions, in fact key predictions have been confirmed.
What About Life Itself?
However successful science has been in providing explanations in some areas—physics and chemistry, for example—it has been, over the same period, much less successful in the reduction of other fields to natural causes. Christian theism traditionally saw most non-living events or things as being caused by natural means. Many theists did not hesitate to give natural accounts for the actions in those very areas where naturalistic science has been most successful. However, in fields like psychology, where traditional theism saw the most important supernatural action, naturalistic science has had the least success. No theist is very shocked by the power of naturalistic chemistry, but neither is he shocked by relative lack of power in naturalistic psychology. Physics has had revolution after revolution in its understanding of the world. Biology has not. Where is the biological Einstein? The creaking old paradigm of Darwin is good for explaining many things, but it has not been very good at explaining the crucial things.
On the other hand, theists have made some predictions that have held up well over the course of time in biology. For example, theists traditionally have held that life cannot come from non-life. There is no real evidence or mechanism on the horizon that seems likely to show that assertion ill-founded.
Some theists predicted that all life, at its most basic levels, would prove to be complex and give the appearance of design. They believed basic types were created, even if they were not always clear on what constituted such a type. No modern discovery has thrown that hypothesis in peril and new support for it comes every day. The simplest living thing shows complexity and design in its basic body plan far beyond what any nineteenth-century scientist could have predicted. In short, while perhaps mistaken in some auxiliary theories, theists have been quite successful in their core predictions.
Secular scientists, or Christian theists hoping to win the favor of such folk, like to talk about the Flood and the age of the Earth to discourage people from examining the claims of scientists who see intelligent design. Of course, since many Christian theists did not believe in a global, geologically important Flood, and disagreed about the age of the Earth, these issues were sidelights to the basic questions. Darwin was not deemed important because he showed there was no flood in the days of Noah, but because he was alleged to have shown (by the end of his life) a means whereby life could come into existence with the appearance of design, and yet have no designer.
If Darwinism has failed to demonstrate the means for producing basic body plans or life itself, then naturalistic science has failed to disprove theism’s central scientific predictions. Darwinists are rightly critical of certain young Earth creationists who think every fraud or wrong prediction made in the name of Darwinism should be taken as a blow to the general edifice. So too Darwinists and naturalists should refrain from triumphing over theism if they have cast the idea of a global flood into peril. Theism’s basic predictions about the origin of life remain quite viable.
Is It Junk?
It is true, however, that not all theists have made such predictions. Many theists—theologians and scientists—have embraced the standard scientific view. They have formed a sort of religious auxiliary to the main set of naturalistic arguments against divine intervention and design in creation. Such theists are never at the center of the establishment power structure, but are allowed a sort of marginal existence on the fringes of respectable science. One could have easily been a theist within the nineteenth-century framework; Huxley even encouraged it. Today, however, one cannot be the sort of theist whose religion causes him to deny the validity of the Darwinist dogma as held by the new scientists.
This dogma’s central tenet is that only natural explanations are acceptable. A case in point: some evolutionists believe that when looking at DNA they are seeing evolution firsthand. Let us assume for the sake of argument that it is possible to create evolutionary schemes from DNA data. What does the relationship of human DNA to that of a chimp tell the scientist? Does it say that humans are descended from a common ancestor or that we are creations of the same Designer? Metaphysical assumptions will have to come into play. Even if we were genetically so close to a chimp as to be difficult to distinguish from a chimp, it would not logically demonstrate that we had the same ancestor. One can only suspect that many scientists will always prefer the “ancestor” thesis to the design thesis because the first answer is naturalistic. Nineteenth-century dogma, pounded into each apprentice scientist, teaches that natural accounts are to be preferred to supernatural accounts.
In the same manner one can quickly deal with the notion of “junk” DNA used by some to support evolution. This notion, at our stage of biological knowledge, is dangerous. Early scientists spoke confidently of “vestigial organs” that later turned out to have functions. Only rarely now are “vestigial organs” used as a strong argument for large scale evolution. Junk DNA may turn out to be like the junk you find in your grandmother’s attic that turns out to be worth more than everything else in the house.
Once again, however, let us assume that all junk DNA is, in fact, junk. What would this prove? It would only prove a difficulty for young earth creationism. All that junk needs time to develop, unless you believe that God can create with an “appearance of history.” Still, it does not prove the theory of common ancestry, unless we import some theological certainty about how God would create life.
What can the thoughtful Christian make of such defenses of theory proclaimed as fact? If Darwinism is a fact, then let the opponents of creationism or design theory list their arguments in a way that a lay reader can follow them.
Actually, many scientists and philosophers have tried to do this. A good way to become critical of Darwinian evolution is to read this anti-creationist literature with a careful eye. I was a contented theistic evolutionist until I decided to read up on the issue to attack a young earth creationist at my school. The literature I found was full of bad argumentation and unexamined metaphysics fresh from the streets of Victorian London.
For example, almost every text argued that small changes within or at the species level (finch beaks and dog breeding) are examples of and clinching proof for macroevolution While this extrapolation from small change to large change might be compelling to those who must have a naturalist theory of origins, it is not at all compelling to someone who is at least open to the idea of a Creator who did not use natural means entirely. Changes in the size of finch beaks only show that Darwinian evolution might be possible. (A world with no small-scale change would not admit even that much.) But God might have done something else.
The Intervention of God
Why might an orthodox Christian theist believe that a God who could intervene in his creation has actually done so? After all, it is possible that God has started the creation and continues to sustain it, but aside from the miracles of Salvation History, leaves the working out of the cosmic history to his created secondary agents. This is certainly possible, but I believe it is not plausible given what the traditional theist already knows of God and his Creation. It has not been the view of most of the Church Fathers.
Let me give one example of the sort of reason traditional theists might have for believing that god has taken an active role in the working out of his creation. A traditional theist examines his own mind and the essence of what it is to be a human. He sees a being with apparent free will and a non-material soul. Most theists agree with the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church when it claims each soul is created by God and imparted to the flesh at the moment of conception. There is certainly no theory or “fact” of modern psychology that would compel him to abandon such a view. He believes, therefore, that God is involved in the order of creation.
Where else might these interventions have occurred? Some traditions might suggest other points during ht creation history. If he literally interprets the Bible, a person may look for such interventions in places other theists would not. All theists are free to examine the evidence for other moments when God continued his constant involvement in the cosmos by direct means. Perhaps God only intervenes in the creation of the soul, but given his billions of interventions since creation, it seems legitimate to look for other examples.
Will They See God?
Are such moments of divine intervention acknowledged by the honest scientist? I believe that they are. I predict that any reasonable scientist, of any religion or belief system, will be forced finally to admit that life cannot come from non-life. I also predict that scientists will discover that basic body plans (at least at the level of the phyla) also are the products of divine intelligence, however they came to be the species we see today.
These conclusions will not be based on some secret, religious knowledge of the theist, but on the same sort of criteria that allow the archeologist to recognize an artifact in the disorder of a dig or gives the scientist searching for extraterrestrial life the confidence that he will know it when he sees it. Intelligent design is something all people will eventually be able to see, if it is there. If it is not there, then like all failures it too will become evident over the course of time.
Traditional theists will then have to rethink or abandon their particular version of theism. Recognizing intelligent design may be hard for the non-theist, but though difficult and obscured by their basic assumptions, such a recognition is not impossible for them even within their naturalistic worldview. It is possible, of course, to recognize that your vision of reality has failed to account for the facts.
The Last Colonel Blimp
The great failure of the Victorians was in their inability to examine their own views, to be self-critical. The hubris that allowed them to take up the White Man’s burden in Africa also allowed them to set an intellectual agenda that brooked no rival. Any foe was cast aside for failing to grasp the self-evident truths of the modern world.
The confidence of those old colonialists, and a thousand Colonel Blimps everywhere, has been lost forever in the postmodern academy. It would be a shame if only science, historically the home of free thought, should cling with the zeal of the true obscurantist to the old creation story of these same men. Will the last Blimp be found in a white lab jacket still repeating his Victorian metaphysical platitudes?
The scientific academy need only allow theists who want to look for intelligent design the academic freedom that the Huxleys demanded so long ago. The knee-jerk hostility of Darwinists, some few claiming to be theists, to any cosmological hypothesis that includes the supernatural cannot be conducive to open and fair debate. The traditional Christian, knowing the freedom he has gained by his own encounter with Truth, only can ask sadly of these men, who are often his friends and coworkers, “What is the harm in free thought and free minds?”
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. The author of Toward a Unified Platonic Human Psychology (University Press of America), he writes an active weblog on religion and science (www.johnmarkreynolds.com). He, his wife Hope, and their four home-schooled children are members of St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church.
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“Afraid of Reason” first appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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