Tuesday, January 24, 2006


April 15, 1998

Phillip E. Johnson (http://www.arn.org/johnson/johome.htm), a law professor, is stalking the land on a crusade to legitimize "creation science". Last year I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to this man when he appeared at the University of Texas. Last night, I saw a tape of that very lecture - with my best question (and his clumsy response to it) edited out. Typical.

His case boils down to this: materialism is an unproven philosophical position, but modern science accepts it as an apriori assumption. Therefor, "theistic realism" (as he calls it), another unproven philosophical position, deserves to be taken just as seriously by the scientific community. He points to open questions in evolutionary theory, and argues that if scientists were willing to give theistic realism its fair due, it would be obvious to them that the answer to those questions is "God did it".

Let's do a little science, and try out Johnson's idea.

Suppose we mix two chemicals together, and the mixture turns green. We repeat the experiment 100 times, and the mixture turns green 99 out of those 100 times. If we assume that chemicals behave solely according to materialistic principles, we can pretty safely predict that the next time we mix those two chemicals, the mixture is going to turn green. There is a small degree of uncertainty, since in one instance the mixture didn't turn green, but we recognize that human beings perfoming tests can make mistakes. The chemicals could have been contaminated, or the proportions could have been off, or something else might have gone wrong that we can't even guess. This leaves us room for improvement, but we still have a nice statistical probability to justify a prediction that the next time the test is performed, the mixture will turn green.

Now let's do the same experiment again, but this time we presume that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and invisible being hanging around - who "works in mysterious ways". We mix our chemicals 100 times, and 99 times out of 100 the mixture turns green. What can we conclude? The answer is: Nothing. We have no way of knowing whether this omni-entity has tampered with the results. All we can do is sit and wonder whether the results of the experiment reflect the natural behavior of the chemicals involved (possibly influenced by human error), or an unfathomable expression of God's will. If we want to draw a conclusion, we will have no option but to ask for an interpretation of God's will - from the church.

The materialistic assumption made in the first experiment, which Johnson finds so unfair, does not *deny* the existence of God - it simply refrains from attempting to account for Divine influence, and thereby avoids the trap which the second experiment falls into. Now, it may be that God *does* exist, and that He may have a hand in experimental outcomes. But since it is already understood by "materialistic" scientists that their conclusions contain some degree of uncertainty, wouldn't we rather assume that an experimental result which seems likely really *is* likely? By asking for Divine influence to be seriously considered by scientists, Johnson is in effect asking scientists to rely on their church leaders to tell them what to conclude from their experiments. Like they did in the good ol' days of Galileo, I suppose.

The acknowledged (if small) degree of uncertainty in scientific results leads to another major flaw in Johnson's proposal. Let's take his favorite topic, evolutionary theory, as an example. Nobody is arguing that evolutionary theory is 100% complete and 100% certain. But Johnson siezes upon the open questions in evolution and says, "here, have theistic realism, that way you can close those questions by saying "God did it", and your work will be done. Done? So, then we can stop worrying why that one mixture in 100 didn't turn green? We can *stop* admitting that there is any uncertainty in out scientific conclusions, because "God did it" answers all the open questions? That's awfully appealing, but suppose the reason why the one mixture that didn't turn green was because I accidentally put in too much Chemical A?

Hopefully, scientists have too much integrity to start claiming certainty when it isn't justified.


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