The following comments by an IBM colleague of mine, Randy Isaac (an ASA member; director of IBM's Austin Microprocessor Development lab):

Randy comments on Phil Johnson's appearance at the University of Texas recently. Phil is the author of DARWINISM ON TRIAL and REASON IN THE BALANCE.

His comments are posted here with his permission.

Burgy --------------------------------------------------------------------------------- LECTURE REVIEW

On October 16, 1995, Phillip Johnson was hosted by the UT philosophy department in Austin, Texas. He gave a lecture on naturalism with a commentary by Steven Weinberg. The following comments are my personal notes and perspectives of that meeting.

The lecture hall was literally packed. Students continued to pour into the hall well after every available seat and floor space was occupied. Interest in the topic was clearly strong. Some classes had been assigned to attend the lecture.

Phillip Johnson (PJ) began by pointing out that there seems to be general agreement that the origin of life is a mystery. The key to confidence that this mystery can be solved is that everything in between has been explained. That is, since evolution has been so successful in explaining everything from the origin of life to the present, then surely someday we will also be able to solve the mystery of the origin of life. PJ wants to explore and challenge this confidence that everything has been explained. He stated he was a Christian theist and would put aside an invisible, undetectable God. By this I believe he meant a Deist type of God whose involvement with the creation was not discernible. His interest was only in a God whose action was evident in the world.

PJ gave two examples of current philosophical views. On one hand is John Searle at Berkeley. John is a critic of artificial intelligence and a critic of relativism. He believes that mind is more than matter but he is neither a dualist nor a reductionist. His views are built on assumptions that include that the universe consists entirely of particles and that evolution occurred. On the other hand is Richard Rorty who is a key relativist and anti-objectivist. His views are also based on the belief that evolution occurred. Personally, I'm not sure why PJ gave these examples. I think he meant to show that evolution was central to key world-views. But by showing two diametrically opposite world-views as being based on evolution, it seems to me that evolution is less likely to be the progenitor of either. That is, if two opposite conclusions can be drawn from the same base, then maybe the base really says nothing about that topic. Perhaps his point was the pervasiveness of evolution--proponents of widely varying philosophical views seem to agree on evolution.

PJ then expressed his view of evolution: "I doubt it." He gave three reasons why he was unconvinced by evolution. Before giving those reasons, he dismissed three other perspectives:
1) science is by definition naturalistic. If so, then it would all be a circular argument.
2) cosmological arguments for the existence of God (apparently an irrelevant God)
3) theological arguments for Darwinism (e.g. since there is evil in nature, there is no God, or the Panda's thumb "no-designer" argument by Gould)

Then he moved to his reasons for not believing in evolution. His attack was directed toward Richard Dawkins' blind watchmaker hypothesis.
1)Limited scope of variation in species. He commented on all sorts of oft-cited variations such as peppered moths, finch's beaks, Colorado potato beetles, etc. and argued that we have never observed variations large enough to accommodate a change in species.
2)Evidence of non-gradual development of species. Here he built on the Gould and Eldridge work of punctuated equilibrium and argued that their data implies such an erratic pace of evolution that it couldn't possibly have happened.
3)Embryological indications did not support evolution. He gave some quotes from embryologists indicating evolution didn't follow from their work. Although embryological similarities have been used as proof of evolution, current studies of embryos show that such similarities are different from that expected from evolution.

Personally, I was surprised that his "evidence" against evolution was so weak. None of it is new and all of it has been addressed, I think. The limited scope of observed variation is expected; punctuated equilibrium argues against gradualism, not evolution; and embryology is not a necessary proof of evolution.

Next PJ asked "why, if evolution is so controversial, does it continue?" He asserted that it continues because the "political" consequences of claiming an error in the theory of evolution are tremendous. This peer pressure keeps it going. He admitted there is reason to be concerned about religious right extremism and nihilism. But in reaction to those extremes, he feels Darwinism has survived by use of a stereotype: the only alternative to Darwinism is young-earth creationism. He said this was a false dichotomy. Finally, PJ predicted a biology revolution in the near future as a new non-Darwinian view of the development of species comes to pass. Steven Weinberg (SW) then took the floor. His first comment was to note that PJ's congenial pleasant manner made it difficult (but not impossible) to refute him. I would concur that PJ's approach is a refreshing change from typical creationist debaters.

SW pointed out several areas where he agrees with PJ:

SW then pointed out that PJ has been remarkably silent on what he does believe and why. He feels that PJ's reasons for what he believes may not be based on any stronger logic than the belief he attacks.

SW stated it was impossible to prove that everything occurred naturalistically, but it could be shown to be plausible. It could in principle be disproved but it never has. It is possible to find something that couldn't have evolved (for example something based on radically different biomolecules) but nothing has. Darwinism didn't prove naturalism but made it intellectually possible to maintain naturalism. There have been many challenges but none that were insurmountable.

In contrast to PJ's view that it was political suicide to oppose evolution, SW felt that a scientist's greatest achievement would be to find an error in the theory of evolution. Many have tried but the objections have been resolved. Darwinism hasn't been proven but the fact that no one has been able to disprove it is very good proof in itself.

Finally he asked, how should society (as opposed to the individual) consider the differences of opinion on Darwinism. He feels the universities should be indifferent to the impact on religion of evolution.

PJ then commented that he believes in the rationality of value and truth but sees a strong anti-religious bias in today's universities. SW followed by saying that naturalism is continually under attack. In contrast to being the established, unquestioned bias that PJ claims, naturalism is attacked from all sides. He didn't say but I presume he means not only theism but astrology, superstitions, new age, Eastern mysticism, etc.

Q&A: When asked about the fossil record, PJ claims that "no one knows" because the fossil record is so sparse. SW pointed out that "miracles are the only other option" to the Darwinist interpretation.

A student asked why his own religion, Hinduism, was considered to be wrong. I don't recall if PJ said anything but SW took the opportunity to point out that he had many friends who were Baptists, Presbyterians, etc. and none had ever tried to convert him. Either they didn't believe what they said they believed or they didn't care if he went to hell.

Someone asked PJ if God were a bungling engineer, obviously referring the Gould's approach. PJ of course pointed out there was no bungling involved. Finally, someone asked about the track record of success of materialism/naturalism. PJ of course feels it hasn't been so successful. But then he made an intriguing statement: "the truth of neo-Darwinism is a valid test of naturalism." This sentence pinpointed for me the key concern I have for PJ's position. SW would, I believe, agree with that statement. Only he thinks that such truth has been shown whereas PJ thinks it hasn't. I feel this statement is fundamentally wrong. Neo- Darwinism may or may not be a true, or even nearly true, description of the origin of species but that has nothing to do with the validity of philosophical naturalism. The unwillingness of PJ to differentiate between the the theory of evolution and evolutionism has forced him, I believe, into an untenable position. Opponents like SW are only to happy to agree with him since they are confident of their scientific grounds for evolution.

My own view is that the dialogue to be engaged on university campuses and theological circles is how naturalistic explanations, no matter how complete they may be at a physical level, do not preclude a Creator and Sustainer. Nor do those explanations make our Creator irrelevant and invisible. Our Creator's power and glory are revealed by those observations.

Randy Isaac

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