In his own inimitable way, Berkeley Law professor Phillip Johnson (author of the controversial Darwin on Trial, Inter Varsity Press, 1993), has once more cast a wrench into the tottering spokes of naturalist dogmatism with his recent book entitled, Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law & Education. Lying beneath this ponderous title, as the astute reader will observe, is a scrupulously researched and eloquently written polemic abounding in witty anecdotes, droll quips, and an uncanny sense for unmasking the smoke and mirrors chicanery that has come to dominate much of the American intellectual scene. From the cloister of scientific academia, to the ranks of the arch-liberal, relativist gurus that now populate our university humanities departments, Johnson compellingly demonstrates that lying beneath the veneer of "objectivity" within the former, as well as the displacement of the realist conception of truth in favor of "cultural studies" in the latter, is an uncompromising and tacitly accepted view of reality: metaphysical naturalism.
In common parlance, metaphysical or philosophical naturalism is a view that conceives of nature as a fundamentally closed system consisting solely of material causes and effects. On the naturalist view, there might well be a reality that transcends the realm of sense perception, but in any case, this is not manifest in nature itself. A putative corollary to this position, widely held among the scientific elite, is that every thing that is knowable, in principle, exists within the causal fabric of the spatio-temporal universe. Among naturalists, this is understood to represent the "scientific" worldview. Accordingly, since the advent of the scientific revolution, culminating in Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the new quantum physics of the early twentieth century, the proposition that "nature" is not the only existent thing has generally been met with suspicion and even outright hostility. From this standpoint, assertions made in reference to a reality that defies naturalistic explication are thus relegated to the ignoble status of artifacts of a pre-scientific human imagination.
Admittedly, the foregoing discussion might leave the casual observer a bit overwhelmed. "After all," one might ask, "what does all of this have to do with me?" Yet according to Johnson, the issues hitherto presented concern (or should concern) every one of us in an infinitely deep sense. He writes:
In our greatest universities, naturalism…is the virtually unquestioned assumption that
then humankind created God—not the other way around. In that case, rationality requires
that we recognize the Creator as the imaginary being he always has been, and that we rely
only on things that are real, such as ourselves and the material world of nature. Reliance
on the guidance of an imaginary supernatural being is called superstition.
When such a view becomes intellectual "orthodoxy"—or as some scientist quip, "the equivalent of not believing in a flat earth"—the stage is set for mass indoctrination through, it seems, any means possible. Noted philosopher of science, and author of the acclaimed work, Against Method (Verso, 1993), Paul Feyerabend writes:
they regard as the rules of the scientific method; they want to universalize those rules,
they want them to become part of society at large, and they use every means at their
disposal—argument, propaganda, pressure tactics, intimidation, lobbying—to achieve
Which brings us to another consideration: what C.P Snow, in 1959, called the bifurcation of our intellectual life into "two cultures," with the humanities sharply split off from the sciences. In contemporary intellectual life, this ostensive rift has become less of a "bifurcation" amid "two cultures" and more a phenomenon approaching something of schizophrenic proportion. So it is, that in our philosophy and English classes we hear that logic and reason are artificial constructs imposed upon us by the ruling class—usually bound up with a Marxist, Feminist, Nietzschean, and/or Critical/ Deconstructionist twist a la Jacques Derrida—while restive science students shift uncomfortably in their seats as their professors cling precariously to a beleaguered 18th century enlightenment notion of "objectivity," "reason," and "truth." Johnson’s Reason in the Balance appropriately asks, and answers, the ineluctable question, "what’s going on here?"
It’s because the scientific elite, namely, those university professors and researchers who wield the cultural and intellectual authority to tell us "how things really are," are held under the sway of metaphysical naturalism that the humanities are in such a muddled state of subjectivism and relativism. Over the course of the last hundred years, Johnson tells us, the scientific enterprise’s hankering after the fulfillment of the "grand metaphysical story of science," has led it to an epistemic impasse. In his own words:
particles, and that mind itself is a product of matter. That makes it difficult to
understand how there can even be knowledge of objective reality in science.
The major element in the "grand metaphysical story of science,"—Darwinism—with its reliance on diversity and reproductive success, is inexorably bound up with the principle that only those genetic mutations that render an organism more fit to meet the challenges of a profligate nature will ultimately survive in future generations. While Darwinism is able to adduce a plausible scenario for the emergence of, say, an organism with the modest intellectual ability necessary to survive in a "hunter-gatherer" environment, this is not only empirically vacuous as an explanation, but the very notion that humans have arrived at objective-truth-out-there-in-the-world through a gradual process of genetic mutation and selection is hopelessly inconsistent. Consistently espoused, Darwinism lends more support to relativist epistemology than anything else. In this vein, philosopher and gifted defender of relativism, or as he prefers, "neo-pragmatism," Richard Rorty glosses:
truth and treating ideas as merely problem-solving tools that evolve as means of adapting
to the environment. The idea that one species of organism is, unlike all the others, oriented
not just toward its own increased prosperity but toward truth is frankly un-Darwinian.
of losing its ecological niche to another species…can find a "fact of the matter" to settle
Evidently for Rorty, the idea that humans are, unlike all their animal siblings, oriented toward truth is as "un-Darwininian" as "the idea that every human being has a built-in-moral compass—a conscience that swings free of both social history and individual luck." Once we flesh out the implications of naturalistic Darwinism, it seems that objective morality goes into the same trash can as objective truth.
Still, most naturalists abhor relativism and struggle vigorously to maintain the objectivity and rationality, both of themselves and the external world. UC Berkeley Philosopher John Searle is one such person. In chapter six of his book, Johson relates Searle’s predicament—and indeed the predicament of all metaphysical naturalists—in repudiating Rortyan relativism in favor of metaphysical realism. While Searle opposes the current reductionistic trends in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, as well as the widespread rejection of metaphysical realism among philosophers, his efforts are nevertheless beset by an intellectual culture that regards naturalism as foundational.
Despite the fact that the reduction of the mind to physical states pure and simple is fraught with insuperable difficulties, Searle is forced to tow the intellectual party line in admitting that human consciousness—all beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and intentional mental states—are the result of "surplus neurons," the likes of which baboons apparently lack. Even thought this view holds fatal consequences for the metaphysical realism (at least on issues of value) that Searle holds so dearly, his position in the academic hierarchy of knowledge necessarily precludes him from calling "science" into question. To do so would be to risk being labeled a crank. Instead, he ends up "opposing reductionism on reductionist grounds." That kind of reasoning, Johson quips, "is like trying to get to outer space by ascending in a balloon. The very conditions that allow the device to work at all guarantee that it will never leave the atmosphere that sustains it, and that it will eventually return to the level where it started."
Yet, Johnson argues, all hope is not lost. The "grand metaphysical story of science" is not only far from proved, but contains a number of critical fissures, wide enough, that is, to justify skepticism about the whole project. For example, astrophysics seem to point to a creation event (the Big Bang); positive confirmation of physicist Stephen Hawking’s celebrated claim about a soon-to-be "theory of everything," remains nil; natural selection is preposterously inadequate to account for conscious, reflecting, equation solving, poetry writing minds; and finally, the whole theory of "blind watchmaker" evolution relies on dubious assumptions and virtually refutes itself when the fossil evidence is examined without the aid of naturalistic spectacles.
Nevertheless, Johnson warns that it would be a big mistake to therefore conclude that the scientific enterprise has failed to provide us with a coherent world-view. Naturalists are as emphatic as anyone that their work, as of yet, is far from over. The real question is whether or not "the grand metaphysical story of science" can even be conceivably be disproved, and herein lies the rub. When methodological naturalism is coupled with a strong a priori confidence that all things are explicable in terms of the physical, then the distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism collapses. This conflation tends to spawn an impressive array of non-sequiturs, however, some of which go something like this: "since science cannot study a cosmic purpose, therefore there is none," "since science can’t study ethics, they are purely subjective," et cetera. When scientists define the game of "science" in such a way that only purely naturalistic theories are open to consideration, and provide that the best naturalistic theory—despite disconfirming evidence—is to be trumpeted as fact until a better one comes along, then the proposition that Darwinism—or at least something like it—is true, is a foregone conclusion.
The key point of difference between Johson and his opponents seems to lie in his entire approach to the whole question of naturalism. For many scientists, metaphysical naturalism in not a controversial philosophical thesis but is regarded as one and the same thing as science. And in today’s culture of technocratic self-worship, "science" is equivalent to rationality. On this view, rationality would perforce require that we espouse metaphysical naturalism. It is here, contends Johnson, that the source of all the confusion that envelops much of the creation/evolution debate finds its origin. When naturalists employ loaded words like "science," "evolution" or "creation," in public debates, the meaning implicit in their definitions usually begs the question under dispute and wrongly construes the problem as a question of "facts," as opposed to the interpretation of facts.
Appellations such as "creationist" or "evolutionist" lead the public to mistakenly believe, for instance, that the debate concerns the mere question of whether finch beaks have "evolved," rather than two markedly different ways of thinking. Moreover, words like "science," "reason," and "knowledge" are defined in such a way as to protect cherished doctrines from being held up to critical scrutiny. When scientists tell us that "evolution" is based on "science" and "creation" is based on faith, the effect is not very different from stating that the former is fact and the latter is fantasy. As Johson puts it, "science, reason, and knowledge easily trump religion, faith, and belief."
But when the question is put another way, namely, "is naturalism true?" we are met with responses from the scientific community that reveal, what Johnson shrewdly calls, "the subtext of contempt." We are all, I’m sure, well acquainted with the "subtext of contempt." Those of us who have participated—or at least stood at the sidelines—in the culture war that continually transpires in the United States, have no doubt seen or heard it in action. Every time a gay-rights lobby is referred to as an organization "seeking to undermine Christian morality," and a right-wing conservative group like the Rutheford Institute is derided as "homophobic" the subtext of contempt brandishes its ferocious teeth. Similarly, when naturalists characterize skeptics of Darwinism as "enemies of science" or even worse, "fundamentalists seeking to impose an oppressive sexual morality," the meaning that underlies the choice of the words reflects feelings of contempt for the party or idea thus described.
This is expected, Johson argues, when we live in a culture that is saturated by relativist ideas about the nature of truth. Since, on a Rortyan account of truth, there is no common basis for rational dialogue with those whom with we disagree, the only viable alternative is to adopt a "let’s keep the bad guys down" mentality. Accordingly, issues are argued in propagandistic terms and opponents are stereotyped as ideological buffoons, as was William Jennings Bryant in the landmark Darwinian morality play, Inherit the Wind. Even in today’s "tolerant," "liberal," "open-minded," pluralistic, American culture, skepticism of the more aspiring naturalist claims—such as that human minds are, along with the entire universe, a product of a purposeless natural process—is denied a fair hearing and summarily dismissed as "irrational."
In identifying this phenomenon, Johnson’s book takes a bold step toward a potential solution to the ongoing culture war. Reason in the Balance urges us to abandon the vice of "correctness," whether on questions of a scientific, ethical, or political order, and bring our concerns back into the safe-haven of the democratic process. Only then, contends Johnson, can stereotypes be transformed into people and the truth prevail over sophistry and mass-indoctrination.
Although there’ve been a number of writers who have preceded Johson
in the critique of materialist philosophy and its far-reaching effects,
the bravado and panache which he musters in this all-out salvo makes it
a gem worthy of every bookshelf in America. Johnson’s penetrating look
into the wonderful world of Darwinian dissimulation successfully charts
a course of escape for those of us who refuse to pander to the pabulum
of accepted opinion, and for this, we owe him a great debt of gratitude.