On Phillip Johnson

The recent death of the founder of the Intelligent Design Movement (and seriously accomplished legal scholar), Phillip Johnson, put me in mind of the fact that I once met him, but had never read his work.

In 2004 I received, out of the blue, an invitation to hear two scientists speak on creation at both our local Elim Pentecostal Church, and a prestigious meeting of Christian leaders in London. Eventually I discovered that the invitation had come from a guy who was once in my house-group before we both moved to different churches and lost regular contact. He had been instrumental in organising a tour of the two somewhat ill-matched speakers, one an Australian young-earth creation scientist, and one this “Intelligent Design” chap Phillip Johnson, of whom I hadn’t heard.

As it happens (but unknown to my friend) I’d heard about Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box in 1998 through the Christian grapevine, and found it intriguing. I was subsequently slightly surprised that the review by the Christian Medical Fellowship journal slammed it, basically on naturalistic grounds. It may be significant that the same reviewer was also noted for taking a skeptical and cessationist position on contemporary miraculous healing. So I suspended judgement on Behe, being at that time only peripherally concerned with origins stuff, compared to my busy medical practice.

Knowing very little, therefore, about ID, I went along to the meetings with an open mind. I was very impressed by Johnson (especially in contrast to the YEC, who disappointed me as much as I expected, which really deserves a separate post). There was no antagonism between the two speakers, but it was clear to me that they were singing from different hymn-sheets.

I can’t, at this remove, remember much of what Johnson said, except that he was clearly not talking about denying deep time, or even “evolution” understood in terms of succession of species over time, including the possibility of common descent. He was obviously very much in command of the science, and also obviously a deep thinker who brought sound philosophy and sharp logic to the issue. He responded well to questioning from the couple of scientifically-literate people who had found their way into a Pentecostal church, probably from the local Marconi Research facility.

This was clearly something new and significant, so I managed to speak to him after the local meeting (he was sitting down, and clearly not in great health: at this stage he had already suffered his first stroke), and he graciously allowed me to re-publish one of his essays in the magazine for which I was working at the time. Unfortunately it didn’t get in, in the event.

The London meeting had much the same content as the Chelmsford one, except that I got a posh meal rather than Pentecostal bear-hugs, and was introduced to some of the luminaries of the British Evangelical Movement, including the guy who’d written the negative review of Behe. He’d actually heard of me, for some obscure reason.


Johnson’s death has produced, understandably, a stream of appreciative eulogies from the Intelligent Design people. Over at Peaceful Science, which has a far higher proportion of skeptical scientists than is demographically representative, even of science, the predominant mood was one of “speak well of the dead, but good riddance to bad rubbish.” The consensus was that the ID movement is falling apart for lack of arguments. One guy was sounding its funeral bell by saying that William Dembski has abandoned the movement (he actually wrote an enthusiastic obituary – it’s probable that his withdrawal from the public arena on the matter has to do with paying his mortgage and dealing with health issues in his family – few people can manage that at the same time as being a public hate-figure), and that Bill Lane Craig has moved away from it to some idea involving guided evolution.

It’s fruitless getting involved in conversations like that, but the point about Lane Craig, together with the general tone of skeptical comments, made me fairly sure they had not actually engaged with Johnson’s thinking, since I clearly remembered, because of the contrast with the YEC speaker when I heard him, that he had not excluded guided evolution as God’s possible modus operandi. His aim had not been to show that creation trumps science, but rather that mainstream science is no less metaphysically committed than religion.

Anyway, since I’d not engaged with his thinking either, I thought it was time to read his seminal 1991 book, Darwin on Trial, in which he actually confirms his “equal footing” idea:

My primary goal in writing Darwin on Trial was to legitimate the assertion of a theistic worldview in the secular universities. (p199)

I won’t attempt a full review here, but suffice it to say that I am mightiliy impressed that, back then, he nailed virtually all the key issues in the “origins debate” that I had to tease out for myself through several years of discussion and frustration at BioLogos, Uncommon Descent, and here at The Hump.

He saw that the primary issue was not about evidence, but about metaphysical commitments wrongly substituted for inadequate evidence. He has a superb grasp not only of the then-current state of both evolutionary and origin-of-life science, but of the philosophical and historical background behind the science. And not only behind the science, but behind the various existing Christian responses to the science, from Creation Science (with which he radically, if respectfully, disagrees) to theistic Evolution of the semi-deist type that so frustrated me in my years interacting at BioLogos.

Respect for his opponents is evident in the whole book, which makes later accusations that he misused his sources entirely unjust: he is at pains to point out when the conclusions he draws from others’ work differs from their own convictions.

The other hugely positive thing about his work is his lawyer’s attention to trying to define his terms and stick with those definitions. You may disagree, for example, with his application of the term “Darwinist” for all those who take a naturalistic view of evolution including some version of natural selection, but it is actually a useful category which he uses consistently (and, contra certain internet bigots, “Darwinism” is a term used in the scientific literature from Wallace to recent times – all Johnson does is define it more closely than others).

Indeed part of the problem he sees and to which he draws attention (as I and others have since) is the constant shifting of terms to win arguments rather than to clarify issues. The term “evolution” itself is the most obvious example, as for example the aforementioned example of using Lane Craig’s cautious embracing of “evolution” in an unusual sense to put him against Johnson as a “creationist.” Johnson is, indeed, a creationist – but he has carefully defined what he means by that term, and what he does not mean by it. And I’m pretty sure that under that definition he and Lane Craig would be on the same page, which is the page I share.

Enough on the book – I can only say that, nearly thirty years on, it is still a brilliant introduction to the issues involved in the compatibility of “science” and “religion” on origins. If you’ve not read it, you may misunderstand the problem, and will certainly misunderstand Phillip Johnson.

The biggest tragedy, to me, is exemplified by the demonization of Johnson, and his ID movement, in those dismissive obituary comments by “real scientists.” For it was not so “in the beginning.” The current edition of Darwin on Trial has a chapter on the responses to it. What is intriguing is that, although there was much understandable kick-back from the biological community (and it generated a significant number of papers in opposition), the more intellectually honest amongst his readers took his book as a serious, and even a welcome, challenge in the first few years.

Some conferences were organised, in which the scientific attendees were impressed and surprised both by the credentials and scientifc grasp of Johnson and his supporters, and also by the mutually respectful tone of the debaters. There were serious points to be made, and serious answers to be grappled with by the scientific community. You can read about some of that in the book, but from memory a couple of names stand out. The first is Michael Ruse, who was deeply appreciative of Johnson’s critiques, and whose name appears in a number of joint ventures with ID people. William Provine remained more skeptical than Ruse, but remained a friend of Johnson and even moved closer to his approach.

A third interesting example is Anthony Flew, whose negative criticism is answered in the book – but who later came to accept Intelligent Design, much to the disgust of the New Atheists. These also took the same stance when Tom Nagel, another atheist philosopher discussed in the book, cast his vote against materialist naturalism, though not for God, almost certainly partly in response to the questions Johnson raised.

Yet this positive programme of dialogue lasted only a short time, to the extent that it is now largely forgotten. Johnson has become part of the tired old scientistic myth: “Superstition and ignorance challenge the progress of science, and were smitten into nothingness and everlasting night.” As time went on the ID speakers were disinvited, the new academic units were disbanded, the heretics who found the idea productive began to lose their jobs, the work of ID researchers began to be rubbished in the literature whilst not actually being cited (lest it be acknowledged as debatable) and so on. The status quo was re-established, and the naturalistic paradigm defeated its challenger by political, rather than intellectual, means.

In other words, it is hard to see what happened after the initial productive response to Darwin on Trial as anything other than a doubling-down of the intellectually weak scientism Johnson so ably exposed. Sadly, it is closely parallel to what one sees in so much of modern life, especially where science has been co-opted by the state or by special interest groups. You will be silenced and castigated if, like Judith Curry, you begin to question the state of climate science, or if (like the same guy in the Christian Medical Fellowship who criticized Behe and miraculous healing, ironically) you dare to present the scientific evidence that there are only two genders.

Johnson’s ideas will not go back in the box, though.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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7 Responses to On Phillip Johnson

  1. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    Thanks, Jon, for this generous, fair-minded engagement with the thought of Phillip Johnson. I never had a chance to meet him, and I’ve only read a bit of his actual writing, but I’m grateful for his role in organizing the ID movement and presenting articulate lay-level arguments to the public regarding Darwin and design. He certainly helped hold ID together in its early days, and now, thanks in part to him, it has a life of its own and can carry on even in his absence. I’m sure he’d be glad to see that.

    I haven’t dropped in at Peaceful Science lately, but it doesn’t surprise me that the atheists there have little respect for the man. As for their claim that the ID movement is falling apart, the fact is, it’s stronger than ever. Discovery keeps putting out books, many of them very good books, and in scientific circles, even in peer-reviewed literature, more and more biologists are critical of superficial origin-of-life “research,” noting strong parallels between living systems and information technology, etc. There may not yet be many scientists that openly embrace ID, but the concepts, and the language, are finding their way into the discourse of science.

    There is also increasing criticism of the notion that we must accept “consensus” thought, whether regarding origins or global warming or anything else, and a backlash is starting, even among some university faculty, against the attempt to impose monolithic thinking on students and the rest of the world. All of this, if not directly related to ID in many cases, is very much something that ID supporters can applaud. It’s also something Johnson would have applauded.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    It’s also something Johnson would have applauded.

    His book shows it was part of his original project, Eddie! More even than promoting a design element to nature, it’s clear that he was concerned with how to think. For example, he quotes some scientist’s dismissal of the “pedantry” of philosophers of science (have we not seen that at BioLogos), which clearly reflects blindness to the issues.

    Maybe we have “wokeness” to thank for showing where intellectual fascism is bound to end up eventually.

  3. Alan Fox says:

    Hi Jon

    Wondered why I hadn’t seen you at Peaceful Science lately. I have dropped out of participation there, too, for different reasons.

    I was surprised to learn:

    William Provine remained more skeptical than Ruse, but remained a friend of Johnson and even moved closer to his approach.

    I have a soft spot for the late Will Provine, mainly because of his scepticism about the importance of genetic drift to evolution but I’ve never heard he was friends with Johnson before.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Alan

      Well, I was back at PS today, plugging my forthcoming book!

      As for Provine, not only does Johnson mention him in his book (which was where I picked up on it), but I see a short obituary from Provine amidst the others at ENV.

      I hasten to add that the “approach” I mean in the OP is a greater appreciation of philosophy and metaphysics etc – we don’t see Provine embracing ID. The most significant factor is mutual respect, though.

  4. Alan Fox says:

    I see a short obituary from Provine amidst the others at ENV.

    Are you sure? Will Provine died in 2015.

  5. Robert Byers says:

    Good piece. he was indeed a rare important person in scientific progress. He contributed to ID becoming famous and feared. ID’s contribution to correction on origin matters in the future will be exalted and so will his name. He will endure or rather become classic thinker in science. it was sad to see him die, for the usual reasons of death, but its like losing a fun and cool person in science and human thought. Not just losing one of the good guys but sad for earths loss.

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