On the first of November, at the age of 79, Phillip E. Johnson died at his home in California. Johnson was a gifted author who produced many fruits. By his late 20s, he was a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. He studied at both Harvard and the University of Chicago. In his 30s, he underwent a divorce and became rather disillusioned with his life. Although he was well-published in his field, he began to see the meaninglessness of life in the absence of any ultimate purpose. At the age of 38, he converted to Christianity, which profoundly changed the way he viewed life, the universe, and humanity’s place within it.
Evolving Our Thinking About Evolution
In 1987, during his sabbatical in London, England, he stumbled upon two diametrically opposed books on evolution written by scientists. The first was The Blind Watchmaker by the famed vociferous atheist-zoologist, Richard Dawkins, which is still one of the best-known books making the case for Darwinism. The second, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, was written by a little-known Australian geneticist and medical doctor, Michal Denton, who was an agnostic. Johnson was more persuaded by the argument put forward by Denton. At the time, Denton’s book was the most thorough scientific critique of Neo-Darwinism. Johnson saw Dawkins’s rhetoric as a mask for covering deep-rooted scientific problems in a failing theory.
Several years after this period of deep reflection on Neo-Darwinism, he published his seminal book, Darwin on Trial, which was widely reviewed, albeit critically, by both scientists and philosophers, including the late paleontologist Stephen J. Gould. Soon after, he was dubbed the godfather of intelligent design (ID). For those unfamiliar with the term ID, it is the study of the effects of intelligence, including the universe itself and that which is contained within it. In other words, that intelligence (mind) best explains the existence of complex, information-rich structures and processes over that of purely undirected and naturalistic accounts.
Please note that this essay is neither an endorsement of all of what Johnson had argued for nor a denial of evolutionary processes or that evolution, in the sense of universal common descent, has indeed taken place, but it is an acknowledgement of his profound impact since the 1990s on the debate regarding origins. I am confident in stating that even his strongest detractors cannot deny this fact; he framed questions pertaining to the origin of life, organisms, organelles, etc., in a fresh new light, which brought a critique of naturalism’s unnecessary stronghold on science. Naturalism, i.e., metaphysical naturalism, is the view that nature is all that exists. Methodological naturalism, on the other hand, is a method employed in the sciences that only makes use of natural causes to explain all phenomena within the universe. The two are distinct, but Johnson argued that the former, for all intents and purposes, was equivalent to the latter. Although I do not fully embrace his position, Johnson rightfully rejected the famous biologist Richard Lewontin’s candid statement about scientific materialism and its allegedly necessary stranglehold on science:
It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.
Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.
Mere Dilettante or Skillful Logician?
Phillip Johnson was often dismissed by his critics for not being a scientist. This is a facile way of dismissing inconvenient arguments, i.e., to demonize one’s opponent and label them a mere dilettante with respect to the subject in question. For instance, the late physicist Mark Perakh, who authored the book Unintelligent Design, devoted a whole chapter titled “A Militant Dilettante in Judgment of Science” to critiquing Johnson’s work. It’s interesting to note that Charles Darwin’s formal postsecondary educational background was in medicine and theology, not biology. Likewise, his mentor, Charles Lyell, the founder of modern geology and a famous advocate of uniformitarianism—the notion that the earth was shaped by slow processes still acting—was originally a professional lawyer. So, it is possible for an outsider or a non-trained scientist to have a long-lasting impact within a given scientific domain. Johnson’s contribution to the origins debate was not a scientific one but one of applying logic to broad, sweeping claims. This is where his training as a legal expert helped cut through much of the presuppositions that bolster the thinking of countless evolutionary biologists and their scientistic and naturalistic inclinations.
In Darwin on Trial, he was able to demolish the popular misconception that seeks to pin biblical truths against scientific knowledge. There are many approaches and typologies to examining the relationship between science and theology, as exemplified in Ian Barbour’s seminal text, Religion and Science. Johnson, himself, sought an approach to critiquing aspects of Darwinism while leaving the door open to the question of design, which had been predominantly closed to scientists with respect to their research. Throughout the majority of the twentieth century, there had been a bifurcation between a scientist’s beliefs, if they were theists, and their research. A practice popularized by Stephen J. Gould with his NOMA approach, which placed science and theology into separate, non-overlapping domains. Although this was never the case since scientists have always brought presuppositions regarding the world into their research, whether knowingly or unknowingly, in recent years, scientists and philosophers have been emboldened by Johnson’s legacy. Consequently, they have sought to bring to the fore the notion of design into the origins debate and their scientific research; the Biologic Institute in Seattle would be an example.
Ever since Johnson published Darwin on Trial, there have been scores of seminal documentaries produced, such as Unlocking the Mystery of Life and The Privileged Planet, and books and articles published supporting ID and critiquing Neo-Darwinism and naturalism more broadly. He was able to organize and unite thinkers with the same dissatisfaction for naturalism (both methodologically and metaphysically), such as Michael Behe, Stephen C. Meyer, William A. Dembski, Jonathan Wells, Michael Denton, and many others.
Johnson was able to rally a number of good speculative scientists and philosophers who shared similar discontents with both scientific materialism and Neo-Darwinism. The discontents, although in some cases inspired by theological presuppositions, were nonetheless scientific in their approach. Johnson ignited a quiet revolution within the halls of academia throughout the world, consisting of a growing number of scientists who have been chipping away at the edifice of both methodological and metaphysical naturalism. Johnson’s gift to posterity was the revival of the design question, not only among a group of renegade scientists and free thinkers but also within popular consciousness for the past 25 years. As Johnson had always insisted, good science follows the evidence wherever it leads, and good pedagogy asks the right questions, as he stated in his book The Right Questions: Truth, Meaning, & Public Debate: “The questions I am asking are the ones they should be asking, and that their education to this point has prepared them to ask the wrong questions [instead of] the right ones.” So, we bid farewell to Johnson, the man who has been rightfully dubbed “Darwin’s nemesis.”