Books in Review

The Wedge of Truth:
Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism

Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 109 (January 2001): 48-52.

Newman, Yes; Paley, No

The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism. By Phillip E. Johnson. InterVarsity Press. 220 pp. $19.95.

Reviewed by Edward T. Oakes

In the course of the lectures that later became The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman neatly de­ scribed the favorite rhetorical trick of secular intellectuals: “They persuade the world of what is false,” he said, “by urging upon it what is true.” Newman wrote these words in 1852, seven years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859; and although he expressed no disquiet at the book when it was finally published (initial reviews in the Roman Catholic press were generally positive), one must salute his uncanny insight into the ways of what might be called the “hegemonic Darwinians.” For sleight–of–hand artists such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Pinker dupe the public with this very same distracting trick.

Unfortunately for these masters of legerdemain, law professor Phillip E.  Johnson has taken on a second (though related) career: exposing the forensic tricks used by these totalitarian Darwinians. The job, admittedly, is tricky: because secular intellectuals (especially those who espouse philosophical naturalism, the doctrine that says that every event in nature is caused by nature) invariably start with eminently true facts about the world, the trick for the antinaturalists is to find the false amid the true. But because the reasoning of naturalists is often subtle (or, frequently, just plain aggressive), the temptation often proves irresistible to deny the true in an effort to uproot the false, much like the servants in Matthew 13 who first wanted to tear up the weeds only to be told by their master that they would destroy his crop of wheat thereby.

It must be said that in his past writings Johnson has not always spared the wheat of evidence to uproot the naturalist weeds. Although Johnson’s citations of his past writings in The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism imply (in the author’s mind, at any rate) a continuity in his views, the careful reader will detect more concessions here to a Darwinian view of evolution than were obvious in his previous polemics. For example, he now concedes that “if nature is all there is, and matter had to do its own creating, then there is every reason to believe that the Darwinian model is the best model we will ever have of how the job might have been done.” This sentence at least hints that a frontal assault on Darwinian doctrine will prove difficult, and perhaps bootless. Moreover, in a sentence that comes close to echoing Newman, Johnson admits that criticism from outside the naturalist’s proper domain will work best: “Science itself requires the assistance of outside critics to check the tendency of ambitious scientists to go into the worldview business.”

Johnson’s shift of strategies be­ comes most evident in his treatment of Pope John Paul II’s famous letter on evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Science in October 1996. In his book Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (1997), Johnson had treated his readers to the rather amusing spectacle of a Presbyterian professor  lecturing a Polish Pope on his dangerous flirtations with evolution, materialism, and secularism. The criticism was friendly, of course, somewhat on the analogy of the Jewish Norman Podhoretz warning the Prime Minister of Israel not to trust Yasir Arafat. Johnson even went so far as to say that the Pope had only himself to blame when the media implied that the Roman Catholic Church had capitulated to science.

Now he seems more inclined to let the Pope’s text speak for itself; and in letting go of his annoyance at the Pope, Johnson makes clear that the Holy Father is merely applying Newman’s generic insight to the specific question of evolution. For in Johnson’s phrasing, the Pope “drew a line between 1) legitimate scientific theories based upon empirical evidence, which the Church will honor, and 2) overly ambitious manifestations of materialist philosophy, which contradict truths which are fundamental to the Church’s magisterium.”

True enough, but how we draw the line remains the sticking point, on which the Pope (quite wisely, in my opinion) offered no advice. In general (again in my opinion) Johnson succeeds best when he stands outside the whole Darwinian system as a worldview and approaches it with the forensic skills he gained from his years as a law student and professor; he proves weakest when he takes on the Darwinians in their own chosen (battle?)field of evolutionary biology. This judgment might seem surprising to those familiar with prior attacks on Johnson’s work from the bulldogs of Darwinian naturalism, men who are not loath to point out that he is no biologist but “just” a kibbitzing lawyer swimming out of his depth. But then, in moments of delicious irony, many of these same men seem to stumble into embarrassed floundering when it comes to answering his objections to the specifics of their theory.

a close reading of The Wedge of Truth will demonstrate, I think, the legitimacy of this judgment. First, lawyer Johnson has a wonderful capacity for remembering the exact wording in the “briefs” for Darwinism written by its many apologists and can spot a contradiction in an author’s writings separated by decades; and his respect for rules of evidence means that he can detect a rhetorical sleight of hand no matter how subtle the guise or intimidating the authority. In the margins of the galleys given to me for this review I would mark “Gotcha!” or “Oops!” every time Bulldog Johnson took a bite out of the pant legs of the Darwinians, and to see him on the attack is alone worth the price of the book.

My favorite passage in that regard comes from his chapter on the raw hokum purveyed under the fancy name of “evolutionary psychology,” which “discipline” insists that the mind is just a collection of copycat units of mental replication called “memes” (analogous to, and pronounced like, “genes”). As Johnson rightly points out, a “memetic” account of the mind is fatal to science, “since it implies that even the scientists are not really scientists [just mindless copiers], and that their boasted rationality is really rationalization. In that case, why imagine that scientific reasoning can make true statements about ultimate reality? Extreme forms of modernist rationalism thus merge seamlessly with postmodernist relativism.”

Similarly, under this rubric both “religion” and “natural selection” are memes. But what makes one true and the other false? Victory inside the brain of one meme over another? The elevation of one meme over another by state censorship? Some extreme Darwinians are fond of calling the meme of religion a “computer virus,” but that implies that the very idea of religion somehow undermines the efficient functioning of the human brain. Not only is there no evidence for that, even if there were, it would reintroduce the teleological question—what is human functioning for—so that one could distinguish a meme as virus from one that helps the brain correspond to reality. As Johnson pointedly asks: “If unthinking matter causes thoughts the materialists don’t like, then what causes the thoughts they do like?”

All well and good; unfortunately, after having nicely roughed up his opponents Johnson fails to land the knockout punch he thinks he can claim for himself. Throughout his writings on this subject, he has explicitly aligned himself with the so–called “intelligent design” theory most famously expounded by biochemist Michael Behe and mathematician William Dembski (thinkers often afforded the hospitality of these pages). Just as the ordered and irreducible complexity of a human artifact infallibly indicates a designing artificer (no watch without a watchmaker), so too, says the theory, does the irreducible complexity of the universe—and more specifically of life—indicate an intelligent (divine?) Artificer creating and guiding the universe.

Although I do not subscribe to this theory, the space of a book review does not permit adequate treatment of this theme, so for these purposes I will grant, for the sake of argument, the truth of the theory. But if Johnson has been most successful in this book as a lawyer and not as a biologist or exponent of information theory, perhaps I can step outside Johnson’s project as a whole and kibbitz as a theologian by pointing out the theological inadequacies of his strategy, even when true. The main problem, at least for a theologian, is that the results are so nugatory. Consider an analogy: to vary the Robinson Crusoe story, suppose I had been stranded on an island as the lone survivor of a shipwreck and was “searching for intelligent life” in that small “universe.” But instead of finding the human footprint of Man Friday in the sand, let us say that I was to come upon a clearing in the forest with a circle of ten roundish stones. Even without the presence of recent ashes in the center I would know from both the form and the “irreducible complexity” of the arrangement that humans had done this work of arrangement for a purpose. But unless the ashes were recent, I would not know whether these artificers were still alive; and, ashes or no, I would have no indication whether these presumably living men might prove friendly or hostile.

Similarly with the intelligent design argument: Who, pray tell, is this artificer? The God of Genesis 1–3? Visitors from outer space expert in cell engineering? David Hume’s clumsy craftsman who botched the job? Malign Sartrean gods who, to paraphrase Gloucester’s lament in King Lear, kill us for their sport as wanton boys do to flies?

The surprising, indeed eye–popping, answer Johnson comes up with is: The Holy Arranger is the Logos of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. For the first six chapters, the author had been simultaneously conceding microevolution to Darwinism while barring the way to macroevolution: that is, the different species of finches on the Galapagos Islands, with their differently sized beaks adapted to the respective flora of each island, arose purely from natural selection. But apparently the divergence between elephant and tiger is too much for Johnson’s imagination, and here he implies, without fully saying it, that intelligent design must be responsible for the unique architecture (or Bauplan, to use the standard taxonomic terminology) of the elephant versus the tiger.

These are standard objections in the anti–Darwinian literature and are easily met (by genetics primarily, a subject not treated by Johnson here). But at least we are debating inside the world of biological controversy. Then suddenly in the seventh chapter, the author lurches, without so much as a by–your–leave, into a theological meditation on the Logos of John’s Gospel, all but claiming that the Intelligence behind intelligent design is indeed the Second Person of the Trinity. Leaving aside the uncomfortable fact that no biblical or doxological text in either Judaism or Christianity praises God as the Celestial Cell Constructor or Divine Bauplan Architect, such a strange segue from information theory to theology could look even remotely plausible only if the bond between the ratio of the Divine Logos and the working out of evolution is extremely tight, so tight that one can, like some theological Merlin, read back into the character of the designer from the morphology of living beings. But in that same chapter Johnson forbids just such a move; in a sentence that out–Barths Karl Barth, he explicitly says that “a God created by human philosophy is just another idol.” Thus does the lawyer himself lapse into contradiction.

The problem with this whole line of argumentation is not just that the intelligent design partisans need to reread their Hume, although they do. The man they really need to consult is, once again, Cardinal Newman, who leveled devastating artillery against the argument from design, especially in The Idea of a University, which despite its well–deserved fame has long gone underutilized by philosophers of religion, perhaps because his critique of their work is so devastating. In any event, he rightly calls any attempt to read the nature of God directly from the universe “physical theology,” which, he says, he has ever viewed with the greatest suspicion: “True as it may be in itself, still under the circumstances [it] is a false gospel. Half of the truth is a falsehood.”

Throughout Johnson’s book, and indeed throughout all his writings on this subject, there lurks, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, clanking chains and all, the unexorcised spirit of the Anglican Archdeacon William Paley (1743–1805), whose lucubrations on the “clockmaker God” so impressed Darwin in his undergraduate days. In my opinion, anyone who follows that hyper–cheerful, almost Candide–like clergyman down the designer road is asking for trouble later on; and indeed once Darwin became a naturalist (in the nineteenth–century meaning of that word: an investigator and collector of species), his departure from Christian orthodoxy was well–nigh inevitable. (Think of the difference it would have made to contemporary Christianity if Darwin had read Pascal instead of Paley in his days as a divinity student.)

One concludes this book not only grateful for the Pope’s letter on evolution, where all of Johnson’s mistakes are assiduously avoided, but also in admiration for the Holy Father’s lavish praise of Cardinal Newman in his more recent encyclical Fides et Ratio. For in the fewest possible sentences Newman has summarized every logical flaw in this book: “Half the world knows nothing of the argument from design—and when you have got it, you do not prove by it the moral attributes of God—except very faintly. Design teaches me power, skill, and goodness [meaning here, cleverness in craftsmanship], not sanctity, not mercy, not a future judgment, which three are of the essence of religion. . . . I believe in design because I believe in God, not in a God because I see design.”

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. His translation of Josef Pieper’s The Concept of Sin has just appeared from St. Augustine’s Press.