Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 112 (April 2001): 5-13.
I am glad that First Things asked Edward T. Oakes to review my book The Wedge of Truth (January) because I have admired his essays. Moreover, there are a number of compliments in the review for which I thank him. Hence I write not to complain, but rather to clarify. I fear that the review may give the impression that the differences between us are greater than they are.
First, I agree that merely recognizing the reality of a Designer in nature does not tell us whether the Designer is benevolent or cares about what we do. That is why special revelation is also indispensable, beginning with the opening verses of the Gospel of John. This important text states specifically that creation is by the Word, the same Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. I do not know why Father Oakes thought it appropriate to ridicule my citation of this Gospel. Although there is no reference to a “Holy Arranger” or “Celestial Cell Constructor,” John 1:3 does say that “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”
The critique of Darwinism is important not because Intelligent Design theory tells us about the character of God—it doesn’t. The problem is that so many educated people take the supposed success of Darwinian science as a proof of the materialist metaphysics upon which the theory is based. Given this widespread misunderstanding, secular intellectuals generally assume that texts such as John 1:1–14 express a prescientific mythology that modern people cannot take seriously. This is also why it is not sufficient merely to insist that there is a distinction between science and materialism, unless we can explain where the line is to be drawn. Otherwise, materialists like Stephen Jay Gould will do the line–drawing for us. They will put all objective knowledge in the realm of science, and leave to religion only subjective belief.
That the materialists have been making the rules also explains why the secular journalists interpreted the Pope’s statement on evolution as they did. I have the greatest respect for John Paul II, and have consistently defended his statement by explaining the importance of the crucial qualifying sentence that the reporters fail to quote. (“Theories of evolution [that], in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.”) However, I also have to be fair to the reporters who misconstrued it. A philosopher with a fine Catholic education would understand the Pope’s meaning, but a secular reporter, educated to see religion as always grudgingly retreating before the advance of science, could only be expected to read the statement as another reluctant concession.
I particularly appreciate Fr. Oakes’ opening reference to John Henry Newman’s description of the “favorite rhetorical trick” of secular intellectuals, especially scientific materialists. “They persuade the world of what is false, by urging upon it what is true.” Indeed they do. But why has the trick worked so well for so long, and why have Christian intellectuals not been more effective in exposing the rhetorical sleight–of–hand? They must be misunderstanding something, and that something is the subject of The Wedge of Truth.
Phillip E. Johnson
Boalt Hall, School of Law
University of California at Berkeley
In his review of Phillip E. Johnson’s excellent The Wedge of Truth Edward T. Oakes is correct that the argument to design does not get one to a supernatural designer, let alone to the merciful God that Christians confess. That’s appropriate, since our faith is based on the living works and teachings of Jesus—not on some laboratory experiment. Still, the design inference seems to have a lot more punch than Father Oakes allows, at least as judged by the reaction of many who oppose it. It has been my experience (and I have some) that Fr. Oakes’ materialist rogues’ gallery, and their many colleagues, bitterly attack even the most tentative suggestion of design in biology. Hume’s assurance that the design argument does not reach all the way to the God of Scripture softens them not a bit.
On the other hand, the theistic claim that natural selection was God’s way of creating life (sort of) doesn’t vex evangelical materialists much at all. Why not? Perhaps they are being philosophically unsophisticated, and will pay the price in lost prestige when the writings of Cardinal Newman become more widely known. Or maybe they can recognize the kinds of arguments that do and do not reach people (especially academic types) in our science–soaked culture.
The inference to biological design is a modest argument that doesn’t penetrate to the mysteries of our faith. Yet it has its uses. In some cases, for some people, it can suggest that the world may be more complex than they had been led to believe. If the data support the design inference, as I am convinced they do, Christians would be neglectful not to point it out.
Michael J. Behe
Department of Biology
I was disappointed to read Edward T. Oakes’ review of Phillip E. Johnson’s The Wedge of Truth. He faults Johnson’s logic in making a transition from the argument from design to a chapter on the Logos of John 1:1. Father Oakes describes this as “a strange segue from information theory to theology.” In fact, it is not at all strange, given the analogy that Fr. Oakes himself uses in his review. Suppose, he says, that Robinson Crusoe came across a circle of stones around some ashes. Crusoe could probably infer the existence of an intelligence that arranged the stones and lit the fire, but he would not know whether the agent’s intentions were benign or hostile. Fr. Oakes uses the analogy to show the limitations of the argument from design as a theological starting point, but he then mistakenly assumes that it is for that reason that Johnson appeals to the Logos of John 1:1 as, so to speak, a deus ex machina. Instead, to pursue the Crusoe analogy, suppose it was not at all obvious (or at least was still hotly contested) that the stones had been arranged by an intelligent agent. Would it not be admissible evidence to point to an Army manual for shipwrecked sailors that recommended building a circle of stones and lighting a fire in it? As scientists dispute the question of whether the record of life on this planet can be plausibly explained apart from some kind of intelligent source for its high information content, the relationship between information theory and theology is hardly inapposite.
Following Newman, whom he quotes (“I believe in design because I believe in God, not in a God because I see design”), Fr. Oakes is free to remain skeptical of the value of the argument from design as a strategic matter. But it is something yet again to suggest that there is a logical impediment to making it.
David K. DeWolf
Professor of Law
Gonzaga Law School
I was disappointed by Edward T. Oakes’ review of The Wedge of Truth by Phillip E. Johnson. Father Oakes seems to have committed a logical error, occasioned by his use of Cardinal Newman’s aphorism, “I believe in design because I believe in God, not in a God because I see design.” Johnson clearly does not believe in design simply because he believes in God—he thinks, and I agree, that the design of the universe and of many living things can be verified scientifically, without dependence on any special theological presuppositions. Ergo, Fr. Oakes infers, Johnson must believe in God simply because he sees design, and for no other reason.
For those of us who are familiar with Johnson’s work, this conclusion is blatantly false. Fr. Oakes has committed the fallacy of the false dilemma, erroneously assuming that the two parts of Newman’s aphorism exhaust all possibilities. It is a serious error (and an uncharitable one) to assume that those of us who belong to the Intelligent Design movement think that our belief in God depends on evidence for design. Many of us, Johnson included, think no such thing. As Johnson has clearly stated, biology informed by the recognition of intelligent design is “theism–friendly” in a way that doctrinaire naturalism is not. The existence of verifiable design is certainly compatible with theism (and with Christianity in particular), and it certainly gives some support to theism. However, as Newman himself recognized and articulated so brilliantly in The Grammar of Assent, the reasonableness of theism in general and of Christianity in particular is the result of the convergence of a large number of evidences and reasons, of which design is only a part.
In any event, Fr. Oakes’ complaint seems to be, not with Phillip Johnson, but with St. Thomas, who committed the blunder (by Fr. Oakes’ lights) of including the argument from design as one of his five ways by which the existence of God may be demonstrated.
Robert C. Koons
Department of Philosophy
The University of Texas at Austin
Though a warm admirer of both, I wish Edward T. Oakes had not quarreled with Phillip E. Johnson. His principal charge seems to be that Intelligent Design, being but half a gospel, is a false gospel. Yes, of course Cardinal Newman was right that design teaches us only the power, skill, and goodness of the Creator, not His sanctity, mercy, or future judgment. But why flog Johnson with such quotes when he agrees? He never claims that general revelation can prove the additional and indispensable truths of special revelation; he only claims that rejection of the former prevents reception of the latter. If you say “There is no God,” you certainly won’t ask “Is He a God of mercy?” If you say “There is no Meaning,” you certainly won’t ask “Has the Meaning become flesh and dwelt among us?” That is the situation in the academy.
Departments of Government and Philosophy
The University of Texas at Austin
The review of Phillip E. Johnson’s book The Wedge of Truth by Edward T. Oakes shows that the reviewer does not understand the concept of irreducible complexity without which the Intelligent Design movement cannot be understood.
Father Oakes does not see the issue involved in the distinction between micro–and macroevolution. The issue is this: the incapacity of random mutation and natural selection to account for the creation of new complex genetic information.
Fr. Oakes has failed to critique the book for what it is and instead condemns it for not being a systematic theology or a solution to the problem of evil. His anxiety to defend John Paul II’s statement on evolution has resulted in a prejudiced and uncomprehending review quite unworthy of First Things.
After reading Edward T. Oakes’ patronizing review of Phillip E. Johnson’s The Wedge of Truth, I read the book and reread the review. It seems to me that it is Father Oakes, not Johnson, who is grinding an axe.
Fr. Oakes devotes more than half his review to deploring Johnson’s detection of intelligent design in biological species. But the quotation from Newman that closes Fr. Oakes’ review shows that he has distorted Johnson’s (and even Newman’s) point. Newman wrote: “I believe in design because I believe in God, not in a God because I see design.” So does Johnson. The quote supports Johnson, not Fr. Oakes. Newman indeed saw design in nature, unlike Darwinists (and Fr. Oakes). Nowhere does Johnson hint that design in nature grounds belief in God. He never appeals, as Fr. Oakes implies by comparing him to William Paley, to apparent design in biology as an “argument from design” to prove the existence of God. Rather, because he already believes in God he is receptive to the possibility of design in nature. His point, which Fr. Oakes distorts, is that there is no scientific excuse summarily to dismiss as illusory the design that seems so apparent. If Johnson chooses to speculate, on what he explicitly declares to be philosophical grounds, that what looks like the design he finds there is attributable to God, what is wrong with that, scientifically or otherwise?
Fr. Oakes also claims that Johnson has shifted his ground over the course of his several books. As proof, he points to Johnson’s statement 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 we will ever have,” and he calls the statement a “concession.” How so? Those initial qualifiers seem pretty significant and it has always been Johnson’s contention that they are false and have nothing to do with real science.
Is it Fr. Oakes’ view that the argument about design in biology is neither final nor conclusive? Who says it is? Certainly not Johnson. But it does raise and focus the proper questions. The most obvious explanation for what happened in the biological world is intelligence. The materialist must prove, rather than assume, that intelligence had nothing to do with it.
Oak Park, Illinois
Edward T. Oakes misunderstands the structure of Phillip E. Johnson’s argument in The Wedge of Truth, and his tone of mockery is unseemly. Father Oakes is correct in characterizing intelligent design as an update of the design argument: it uncovers evidence of a Mind in the structure of living things (especially the DNA code) and the physical universe (anthropic “coincidences”). This is all in the spirit of Romans 1, which says that certain of God’s attributes are “clearly seen in what was made.”
But no one—not Paul in Romans nor Aquinas in his Five Ways nor Intelligent Design theorists—supposes that arguments from nature lead directly to the God of Scripture. They merely place a lower limit, so to speak, on what kind of Creator may reasonably be proposed. That’s why Aquinas’ arguments all end with the rather odd phrase, “to which everyone gives the name ‘God,’” or “and this we call ‘God.’” He could have concluded, “and therefore the God of Christianity exists,” but he does not. Aquinas’ point is that the human mind is ordered to its Creator; but he does not assume a continuity from the God of philosophy to the God of revelation. Likewise, Intelligent Design theorists meticulously note the limits on what may be concluded from nature: the structure of living things implies an intelligent agent, but it does not give grounds to identify who that agent is.
Having made the case for a generic intelligent agent, however, one may then switch categories from science to apologetics, and propose the biblical God as the best candidate, as Paul did in Acts 17 when he proposed to tell the Athenians the identity of the “unknown god.” Many have found such apologetics persuasive. In How We Believe, Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptics Society, describes a poll asking Americans why they believe in God. The number one reason cited was some variation on the design argument.
Phillip Johnson stands squarely within a long Christian tradition in identifying the Logos that orders the universe with the Logos of the gospel.
Nancy R. Pearcey
The Discovery Institute
Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture
Finally, at long last, some sense of sanity in the intelligent design debate. Edward T. Oakes’ review of Phillip E. Johnson’s book is very welcome, both because of its scientific lucidity, and its grounding in Catholic sensibilities.
Father Oakes rightly summarizes the objections to evolution as being based not on science but on implicit philosophical assumptions attributed to evolution by its critics. This often leads them, as Johnson did, to lecture the Pope on what’s wrong with Catholic theology.
The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. The acknowledgment of the scientific basis for evolution by John Paul II is gratifying. And the recognition that criticism of evolution is often based on philosophy, not science, is very welcome.
Thanks to Fr. Oakes, and to the editors of First Things, for clearing some of the fog.
I am sorry if Phillip E. Johnson feels I ridiculed his citation of the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel, which was not my intention. Rather, I criticized his use of the Prologue to effect a transition from his earlier disquisitions on Intelligent Design in chapters 1–6 of The Wedge of Truth to his certain identification in chapter 7 of this putative Designer as the Logos of God, an inference supposedly based on special revelation.
This move I hold to be illegitimate. For such an identification would force us to claim that the Logos of God directly attached the flagellum to the first bacterium, that the Second Person of the Trinity explicitly toggled a complex molecule to bring about the first act of self–replication, and that the Deity immediately altered the architecture of one species, say a tiger, to lead to another conspicuously different species. For each and every one of these hypotheses (when they are not downright preposterous) the scientific evidence is exactly zero, the logic fallacious, and the theo logical implications grotesque.
To speak for a moment of the general argument of the Intelligent Design movement before getting specifically to Professor Johnson’s latest book, I would like to make the following point clear. I agree with the advocates of Intelligent Design at least to this extent: that Darwinism cannot explain chemical complexity. But this point should be noncontroversial. Darwinism cannot explain chemical complexity for the very good reason that natural selection requires a harsh environment brought about by overpopulation. Obviously (as Charles Darwin himself conceded) such a situation cannot obtain when we are speaking of the first complex molecule, the first moment of self–replication, the first cellular life form, etc.
Moreover, since, in my view, the value of Darwin’s theory was primarily heuristic and not probative (because he lacked the knowledge of genetics necessary to give explanatory power and certain evidence to the theory), there can be no question that biochemistry now represents the real frontier of evolutionary theory. I once took a private vow to the Muse of Academia never to use the term “paradigm shift,” but I grant myself a dispensation here: I do not dispute that classical Darwinism is under great strain, and in fact seems to be mutating to a new paradigm (see Darwinism Evolving by David Depew and Bruce Weber for a useful account of this mutation in process).
Now if I were as much under the grip of the “fallacy of the false dilemma” as Robert C. Koons seems to think, I would indeed harp on these strains as a sure sign that all those Christians were right all along who have been battering away at Darwinism for the past one hundred and forty–odd years. But in fact the ones who are trapped inside a false dilemma are theists uncomfortable with Darwin. More to the point, just as William Paley, in his perverse way, acted as a kind of accidental midwife to Darwin’s theory, so too I think the speculations of Michael J. Behe and William A. Dembski (and others, many of whom belong to the Discovery Institute) will lead not to a more robust theism but to a new impetus to find adequate explanatory laws for chemical complexity.
Now it well might happen that, for reasons of inherent limitations (such as the fact that the earliest life forms leave no fossil record behind, or the impossibility of replicating in a laboratory the amount of time necessary to see chemicals work their way toward complexity), these laws will remain forever beyond human ken. But I suspect that if those laws do emerge it will be via some theory roughly along the lines of the “complexity theory” of Stuart Kauffman and other members of his Santa Fe Institute. And I know that it will not be via Intelligent Design theory, since the First Cause of that theory must remain by definition beyond human specification, as even advocates of Intelligent Design admit when they concede that we really have no idea who this remarkably clever Designer might be without dragging in special revelation at the last minute as their Trinitas ex machina.
True, Complexity Theory is not without its problems. Critics such as the biochemist Robert Shapiro accuse the advocates of Complexity Theory of spinning an elaborate tautological amplification of the obvious: things are complex because the universe is complex. Perhaps so. At all events, I would at least say that, pending the outcome of later research, one should adopt a more becomingly demure attitude toward complexity. In other words, we should not claim that cells, molecules, bacteria, etc. are so much irreducibly complex as, so to say, awesomely complex. Certainly, the Intelligent Design advocates have a point: if natural laws can be shown to be inherently unable to explain complexity, then one may legitimately claim for the entity in question an irreducible complexity.
Unfortunately, that was Paley’s logic too; and life–forms that he, with an annoying self–assurance, so insouciantly assumed were irreducibly complex soon proved to be eminently explainable in other terms.
One reason for the vigor of my review is rooted in my conviction that Paley did far more damage to nineteenth–century Christianity than Friedrich Nietzsche ever managed to do to twentieth–century religion. Design is the founding axiom of Deist religion; and as Darwin’s own life attests, nothing more rapidly congeals into atheism (or agnosticism) than Deism (see James Turner’s Without God, Without Creed for an account of this declension).
This point leads me to the objection raised by Prof. Koons and Nancy R. Pearcey. They claim that my criticism of Phillip Johnson entails an identical critique of St. Thomas’ Fifth Way of proving the existence of God. Not so. True, Aquinas’ Fifth Way is often called the Teleological Argument, and since designing is one form of teleological activity, Paley and Thomas are often—but erroneously—conflated here. Their differences, however, are crucial, for the teleology referred to in the Fifth Way refers to all aiming activity, from an archer hitting a bull’s–eye to a river flowing downstream or a rock rolling downhill.
It might come as some surprise to readers of this reply to learn that Thomas’ argument in the Fifth Way amounts to no more than five or six sentences in Latin (depending on the punctuation decisions of various editors). So short is the argument that it bears quoting in full:
The fifth way is based on the guidedness of nature. We see that things lacking awareness, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result [which was exactly Darwin’s point, by the way]. Whence it is evident that they truly tend to goals and do not merely hit them by accident. But nothing lacking awareness can tend to a goal except it be directed by someone with awareness and understanding; the arrow, for example, requires an archer. Everything in nature, therefore, is directed to its goal by someone with understanding, and this we call God. [emphasis added]
I take it as granted on all sides that while the arrow is a man–made object and thus irreducibly complex, Thomas is focusing not on its manufacture but on its motion as an otherwise inert object. Thus Thomas cannot even remotely have in mind the staggering intricacies of our modern–day neo–teleologists (and as if he could deal with such complex issues in a mere six sentences). For this reason I consider it rather a misnomer to call Thomas’ Fifth Way the “teleological” argument, if only because so many people, including Prof. Koons and Ms. Pearcey, conflate teleology with design, no doubt under Paley’s malign influence. Perhaps the argument should instead be called the Argument from Order, as many Thomist commentators call it. For really, what the argument is referring to is the orderedness of nature as a whole, and not the itty–bitty particularities of cellular biology.
Another advantage of this terminological clarity emerges in the analysis of the famous Roman Catholic apologist Monsignor Ron ald Knox, who pointed out in his sermon “The Cross–Word of Creation” (published in his 1942 collection In Soft Garments) that order must not be confused with design. In fact, all complexity, whether designed or not, whether irreducible or not, must first emerge out of a prior environment of order. (How that emergence might occur naturally is the burden of Complexity Theorists to explain. But the Intelligent Designers cannot join in that search because they have already shut off the debate with their unverifiable, or at least yet–to–be–verified, assertions of irreducible complexity.) And that prior orderedness is the precise focus of Thomas’ Fifth Way. Which is why Msgr. Knox can say: “I don’t believe that St. Thomas meant to use the argument from design when he gave his fifth proof. I don’t think what impressed St. Thomas was the fact that everything conspires together for a beneficent purpose; what impressed him was the fact that things conspire together at all.”
Albert Einstein famously said that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is so comprehensible.” Thomas’ Fifth Way addresses exactly that sense of wonder. The word kosmos in ancient Greek actually means “order” and not “universe,” and in their mythology the Greeks claimed that the cosmos emerged out of Chaos, which is simply a way of terminating the wonderment in a non–explanation, indeed in a nonsensical non–explanation. For Thomas’ Fifth Way insists that it is metaphysically impossible a priori for order to emerge out of chaos, which is why his argument is sometimes also called the “cosmological” argument.
But that he is not speaking of design is clear from his use of the term “guidedness” [ex gubernatione] to describe the gist of his argument. Just as the governor of a state is responsible for the smooth running of a state’s government without having to become personally involved in every decision—without, in other words, feeling that his office obligates him to serve as the traffic cop at every busy corner—so too the Cosmological Argument contains no implication whatever that God has become the traffic cop of cellular evolution.
But for me the greatest difference between Thomas Aquinas’ Cosmological Argument and any and all arguments from design comes from what all the advocates of design admit: that the candidate for the Intelligent Designer could be, at least theoretically, just about any supra–human intelligent manipulator of complex artifacts, from outer–space aliens to Al Gore’s Mama Gaia.
Many readers have informed me, and in rather schoolmarmish tones to boot, that I have missed the point by criticizing Phillip Johnson for the vagueness of the identity of the Designer, since it is the job of special revelation to identify the Unknown Designer. Not for Thomas Aquinas. As Étienne Gilson says in The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas: “We have, therefore, in the proof of finality, as in all the preceding proofs, a sensible datum which looks for its sufficient reasons in God and finds it in Him alone” (emphasis added). If we are clueless as to the identity of the Designer until we get to special revelation, then we do not have a Thomistic argument. Moreover, as Gilson further points out, all of Aquinas’ Five Ways require that one respect the hierarchy of causes and refuse to identify, at any point along the line, the First Cause with one of the secondary causes. This perhaps is the most glaring flaw in all arguments from design trying to lead to the Creator God: they take the First Cause, yank it out of place, and insert it into the stream of things. As Gilson rightly says, “The whole series of intermediate causes [is] one sole second cause, of which God is the first cause.”
David K. DeWolf accuses me of misusing the Robinson Crusoe analogy, but I think he has misunderstood me. First of all, I only used the analogy to describe the inadequacies of Intelligent Design, even if true. But as should be obvious from my response here, I hold for other reasons that the theory cannot be true. But I could also use the Robinson Crusoe story to establish the falsity, and not just the inadequacies, of Intelligent Design. Odd as it may sound, the arrangement of campfire stones is more irreducibly complex than a cell. The circle of stones is genuinely irreducibly complex because the arrangement automatically testifies not just to complexity but also to manipulation for an immediate purpose, which to my mind is lacking in the cell, staggeringly complex though of course it is. Try as I might, I can see no signs of manipulation in the cell. Although I gave his book How the Mind Works a severe drubbing in these pages, I think Steven Pinker captured the essence of this issue quite well when he made this observation:
Natural selection is a falsifiable hypothesis about the origin of design and imposes onerous empirical requirements. Remember how it works: from competition among replicators. Anything that showed signs of design but did not come from a long line of replicators could not be explained by—in fact, would refute—the theory of natural selection: natural species that lacked reproductive organs, insects growing like crystals out of rocks, television sets on the moon, eyes spewing out of vents on the ocean floor, caves shaped like hotel rooms down to the details of hangers and ice buckets. Moreover, the beneficial functions all have to be in the ultimate service of reproduction. An organ can be designed for seeing or eating or mating or nursing, but it had better not be designed for the beauty of nature, the harmony of the ecosystem, or instant self–destruction. Finally, the beneficiary of the function has to be the replicator. Darwin pointed out that if horses had evolved saddles, his theory would immediately be falsified.
To my mind, the most reliable indicator of irreducibility in a complex arrangement is our instant recognition of its presence. In other words, irreducibility tends to be noncontroversial. If Robinson Crusoe were to be shipwrecked with a companion, you can be sure that they would not break into a debate about Intelligent Design upon discovering a circle of stones. But conversely, Michael Behe cannot expect to show up at next year’s convention of the American Chemical Society and elicit automatic and immediate agreement that the cell unambiguously displays signs of manipulation for a purpose. Of course there are ambiguous cases that require further investigation, as in the way crystals look chiseled and polished, but prove not to have been once their chemical structure is explained.
For that reason—much as this assertion will stick in the craw of Phillip Johnson—Richard Dawkins is right when he says that “biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed.” The truth of this principle, however, in no way justifies the metaphysical implications that this doctrinaire atheist tries to squeeze out of it. Tellingly, Dawkins makes the same mistake as his opponents in assuming that when design loses its explanatory purchase on evolutionary biology, then all arguments from order have thereby also been automatically dispatched. He revealed as much when he once admitted that, had he lived in the eighteenth century, he would have found William Paley more convincing than David Hume. Imagine the shock when he realized how much Darwin had demolished Paley’s arguments. No wonder his atheism seems so rancid.
Several readers also accuse me of denying the doctrine of general revelation contained in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Again, not so. “General,” after all, means “general.” In other words, the whole point of Paul’s first chapter must be the sheer obviousness of God’s existence. All of my critics seem to approve of Cardinal Newman’s apologetics, and seek merely to claim that I have misunderstood him. But one of Newman’s points in The Idea of a University is that, among other things, the Argument from Design is too hard to follow, and thus fails to qualify as general revelation. Once more, this becomes another opportunity to salute Newman’s prescience. For he spoke long before William Dembski began stringing out his texts with all those ones and zeros, and long before Michael Behe began instructing the lay public in the intricacies of bacterial flagella. If he were alive today, one can only imagine what Newman might say upon being told that his ability to stem the tide of atheism would depend on his mastery of information theory.
Robert Ghelardi accuses me of reading more into Prof. Johnson’s “concessions” than is warranted. Admittedly, Johnson is a lawyer who has furnished us in The Wedge of Truth an (at times effective) exercise in forensics. As the Roman rhetorician Quintilian shrewdly observed, one of the best strategies for assuaging the anxieties of an audience is what he calls concessum non datum. Unfortunately, Johnson’s own concession has ended up selling the company store. In my review I was not referring so much to his concession (quoted by Mr. Ghelardi) that if God does not exist then natural selection is our best available candidate for how complex forms came to be—although that quote certainly is as good an indication as any of my contention that the design argument will only end up becoming a breeding ground for atheism, a fetid terrarium for a whole new brood of Richard Dawkinses (not a pleasant thought, that).
Rather, I was referring, at least primarily, to Prof. Johnson’s concession of handing over microevolution to Darwinian natural selection while reserving for the Second Person of the Trinity the role of jump–starting evolution and of intervening now and again to create a new Bauplan when God thought it necessary to move from elephant to tiger, or whatever. Apparently, the finches can take care of themselves, but conspicuously different species must certainly have had a Designer in their background, who it seems must have devised them in his celestial studio.
Now Prof. Johnson’s concession of microevolution to materialist Darwinism while cordoning off macro evolution as a redoubt of Intelligent Design is either Creation “Science” on the installment plan, or (more likely) Deism put under a stroboscope. If one must conceive of the universe as an artifact (and how odd that materialist Darwinians and Intelligent Designers both hold that life is a mechanical artifact), then the idea of a Clockmaker God who winds it all up and then departs the scene has a certain plausibility, I suppose. But the idea that God swooshed down from heaven 3.5 billion years ago to toggle some organic–soup chemicals into self–replicating molecules and thereafter, as occasion warranted, had to intervene to jump–start new species is, quite literally, incredible. Prof. Johnson’s God is not even the recessive Clockmaker God of the Deists. Rather, his God is one who, with disconcerting inconsistency, intervenes every now and again. As I say, Deism under a stroboscope.
Keith Masson claims that because Prof. Johnson has not set for himself the task of providing a solution to the problem of evil, I am in effect taxing him for not doing what he had no intention of doing. I certainly agree that nothing is more irritating to an author than to be judged for failing to do what he never planned to do. Thus I do not lament the author’s failure to provide a well worked out theodicy. But as a systematic theologian myself, I would insist that at a minimum a natural theology not make the task of theodicy impossible, which is just what The Wedge of Truth has done. For by the author’s lights, God has left the finches on the Galapagos Islands to fend for themselves, and will intervene but occasionally, and only when absolutely necessary, to get a significantly different species up and running.
Besides making it impossible for humans to come to terms with tragedies like birth defects, where the most minor genetic variation can later cause catastrophic effects in the phenotype, Prof. Johnson’s schema must raise in every believer’s mind the central dilemma that lurks in his strategy of concessum non datum: if God was supposed to have intervened so directly 3.5 billion years ago to construct a well–designed cell, and if He is needed to design new Baupläne at irregular intervals, why does He not intervene when a fire breaks out in the cockpit of an airplane flying over the Atlantic? Or when stray radiation from the sun affects the sequence of a DNA molecule, later causing birth defects?
In my opinion, the only possible approach for a Christian theologian in dealing with the presence of evil is that of Thomas Aquinas, who holds, pace David Hume, that an omnipotent and benevolent God can coexist with evil in His finite creation, but only when the world is viewed both as a totality and under the aegis of eschatology. In the passage immediately following his six–sentence discussion of the Fifth Way, Aquinas explains the connection: “As Augustine says, since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil. This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.”
Admittedly, this is a difficult perspective to adopt for those whose experience of tragedy prevents them from seeing the cosmos as a whole, and under God’s judgment. That situation is perfectly understandable. But the argument from design prevents a global perspective from the outset and by its very presuppositions, which is why Paley’s last chapter in his Natural Theology, which treats of this issue of evil, sounds so offensive to modern ears, ears now acutely attuned to the cries coming out of the abattoir we call the twentieth century.
Which brings me to Phillip Johnson’s criticism of the Pope. When I first read his accusations of recent papal lapses into secularism and materialism in his previous book, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, I thought the charge too risible to merit refutation. For that reason, I greeted his gentler treatment of the Pope in The Wedge of Truth with relief, which is why I wished to compliment him in my review for his more sensible views. Now I gather from his letter that he still harbors these same misgivings.
But besides the sheer prima facie preposterousness of the charge that John Paul II has been taken in by secularist and materialist arguments, my main worry in Prof. Johnson’s criticism of the Pope’s letter on evolution is the way he continues to suffer under, well, the fallacy of the false dilemma. If the inevitable consequence to acknowledging the truth of evolution is secularism and materialism, then of course the Pope has made an epochal blunder. But not only has the Holy Father showed no discernible signs of doctrinal latitudinarianism since the time the letter was published in October 1996, but the entire premise of Prof. Johnson’s criticism is wrong.
For example, J. Budziszewski worries aloud that by assaulting Intelligent Design I have deprived Christians in academia of a perfectly serviceable argument. But besides the fact that Thomas Aquinas says that bad arguments for God’s existence do more harm than good, since they give unbelievers an occasion to laugh (ST I, q. 46, art. 2, response), I would also claim that apologetics is not that difficult. Why not start with perfectly obvious features of our existence that cannot in principle be explained—or even explained away—by naturalism? Just two or three well chosen lines from the pen of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would be enough to stop a materialist dead in his tracks: “What is good is also divine. Queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics. Only something supernatural can express the Supernatural.” “People keep forgetting to go right down to the foundations. They don’t put the question marks down deep enough.” “We feel that when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.”
In almost every regard except their theistic conclusions (or deistic, I would maintain), advocates of Intelligent Design share the metaphysical presuppositions of their opponents, and so it is no wonder that I am greeted with dismay and charges of “mockery,” “ridicule,” and closet treason to the cause of Christian apologetics for pointing out the glaring flaws of their argument. For by their lights I am depriving theists of their last remaining redoubt against the acid of modernist positivism. As to that charge, I would merely reply with the retort of the medieval logician: nego suppositum (“I deny the premise of the argument”).
Finally, Prof. Johnson praises me for my citation of Cardinal Newman’s deft description of secular intellectuals (“They persuade the world of what is false by urging upon it what is true”) and claims that his own work as a Christian apologist does battle against this very legerdemain. Unfortunately, his own work falls into that same trap. In fact, I would hold that all of the current Intelligent Designers engage in that same trick. This becomes especially evident when they give lectures to church groups or other congregations of the already convinced and trot out giant–sized Styrofoam mock–ups of mousetraps or other similar toys. In the first part of their lecture they will first urge upon the audience the blatantly obvious truth, which no one has ever denied, that contraptions require assembly. But then in the next part of the lecture comes the whopper: and therefore God is the Artificer of the universal artifact.
Even when argued not so crudely as I have described it here, the argument, in essence, hearkens back to Plato’s famous passage in the Timaeus where God is likened to the Demiurge (Carpenter) of the cosmos. Perhaps because Cicero happened to translate that particular dialogue for his aristocratic Roman public and thereby unintentionally made it one of the few texts from Plato available to the Latin West in the early Middle Ages, this image of God as Artificer proved to have a tenacious hold on the medieval imagination. Only after long and arduous reflection was its incompatibility with the Christian notion of God eventually established. Still, it was an image so powerful and tenacious that it took the Christian philosophers of the Middle Ages literally centuries to purge. Why revert to it now?
In conclusion, I thank Bob Puharic for his generous letter.