Naturalism, Theism and the
Austin, Texas: February 20-23, 1997.
Upland, IN 46989
From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49 (June 1997): 72-74.
The ongoing debates over naturalism, theism and science, particularly as manifested in the intelligent design (ID) and theistic science (TS) movements, were revisited in Austin, TX in February. Robert Koons, a philosopher at the University of Texas at Austin, organized a well-balanced program that included as plenary speakers biologist Fred Grinnell, attorney Phillip Johnson, and philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Michael Ruse. Contributed papers were delivered by several prominent proponents of ID and TS, including Steve Meyer, Paul Nelson, Bill Dembski, and Jonathan Wells. There were thirty-nine presentations in all, the remainder given by philosophers, scientists, and a few theologians.
The attendance list totaled 116 names, but there were probably 150 present at some of the plenary sessions. I don't know the details of how the meeting was organized but the result, in my view, was a fair airing of the issues. Clearly, there is no way to do justice in a brief report on a meeting like this because of the wide diversity of presentations and exchanges among participants. Moreover, there were usually three sessions running concurrently. This report is, at best, an attempt to convey a sense of some of the trends and major developments. The emphasis is on the ID and TS movements because the movements themselves and the issues they have raised were really what the meeting was about.
I need to state at the outset that for several years I have been a dissenter with respect to both movements, although I am sympathetic to some of their arguments. My major motive for attending was to see how things were progressing for the ID and TS people, particularly in the presence of what I suspected would be a criticalˇand more importantly, philosophically sophisticatedˇcrowd. I wasn't disappointed. I was a little encouraged by what seemed like a few promising developments.
There were no clearly consensus views on any topic, and none should probably have been expected. The closest thing to consensus I heard dealt with Phillip Johnson's persistent (going on about five years now) broad-brush statements regarding "naturalism." It was repeatedly argued that he is simply wrong in equating the methodological naturalism (MN) of science with a metaphysical naturalism that denies the existence of God. The philosopher Michael Ruse made the most pointed and extensive statements I heard, with Johnson in the audience. He posed this question as being at the core of one of Johnson's foundational arguments: Can one hold to the MN of science and be a Christian theist? Ruse's answer was: "It depends on what you mean by a Christian theist." He then proceeded to briefly, but I think fairly, characterize the kinds of Christians who can and cannot embrace MN. Most of his presentation at this point was a discussion of Philip Hefner, Langdon Gilkey, and others who have written extensively on their Christian faith and respect for the MN of science. His point was that Johnson simply has not engaged a rich literature, and this is wrong. It is simplistic and even insulting to act as if the serious work of these theologians (not to mention the work of many in the ASA) is essentially futile and self deceiving. Johnson did not respond.
As I listened to Michael Ruse, a confessed non-Christian (though not an atheist), tell of his personal interactions with the Lutheran theologian Phil Hefner, particularly his respect for Hefner's views on Christ as his Savior, I sat there almost embarrassed to be an evangelical. Why? Mainly because of the warfare kind of mentality that is so popular among us. It just seems so inappropriate for dealing with scientists generally, most of whom have devoted their lives to searching for a truthful understanding of how the world works. When will we begin to dialogue in careful, thoughtful, and considerate terms with our "enemies" instead of rushing to ill-informed conclusions about "truth" and refusing to budge? Critics of science (like Johnson), who paint everything in broad strokes, badly need to appreciate some of the subtleties involved in these issues, which includes the wide diversity of theistic perspectives among scientists.
Ruse also chided his fellow philosopher Alvin Plantinga (who had left the meeting and could not respond) in what seemed to me minor ways, but only after describing him as the foremost religious philosopher in North America. He then turned to the materialists, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, William Provine, and E. O. Wilson. Overall, his complaint was what many others (including Phillip Johnson, and I am sure most of us in the ASA) have long maintained: they simply take their science too far, inappropriately using it to somehow try to "prove" God does not exist. No one escaped Ruse's scrutiny, and I was surprised to find myself largely in agreement with most of his major criticisms.
At one point in Ruse's presentation, when things were getting pretty wild, I was strangely tempted to ask a question just so I could join the ranks of the criticized and embarrassed! All in all, I think his session was alone worth the price of the meeting. You simply had to be there.
I also noted in at least two sessions that there may be some fine-tuning going on among TS proponents that might be in a promising direction. The major discussion was by Alvin Plantinga, perhaps the primary architect philosophically (at least in this generation) of the TS movement. He briefly discussed the potential fruitfulness of assessing TS by levels or academic disciplines. For example, he noted that probably no one would try to argue for something like a "Christian engineering." He suggested that in general the closer you get to the study of humans, or "origins" of various sorts, the more relevant TS becomes. Such a notion certainly doesn't solve all the problems. However, it does represent a fine-tuning of what I have always seen as a far too general (much in the fashion Johnson treats "naturalism," as discussed above) approach to TS in the past.
In a related vein, Steve Meyer emphasized that his presentation on explaining the development of DNA using information theory was aimed at "original origins" or the area usually called "chemical evolution." I suspect many scientists consider such research to be at the boundaries of science. So, I think if any area of science could benefit from ID-type work, this is it. I am still not persuaded, but at least it is in the proper direction for now.
Another indicator of change by ID and TS people, or at least a new revelation for me, started in informal conversation with Bill Dembski, a major contributor to ID in the area of information theory. In response to a question about the possibility of decoupling ID from TS, he indicated that they weren't necessarily associated now. But he recognized that in most people's minds ID implies theism. Moreover, he suggested that TS was probably just a temporary development along the way toward a "new" science of some kind. What kind of new science might this be? Well, I don't know exactly what Dembski has in mind but I did learn a little about what one of his colleagues from Berkeley, the developmental biologist Jonathan Wells, is thinking.
As noted above, Ruse's talk was worth the trip for me, for his insights as well as entertainment. Wells' presentation (which was attended by several of us biologists) was of similar value, but for a different reason. He spoke several times of a paradigm shift being underway, and this shift was going to involve abandonment of "neo-Darwinism." But just how much abandonment was going to occur? Wells admitted that he had no quarrels with the notion of common descent, meaning organic continuity among species over time. But he really couldn't say much about what the new science would be like. Moreover, in general the "problems" for neo-Darwinism Wells spoke about were either adamantly argued by the biologists present as misconceptions on his part, or simply evidence of incomplete knowledge. Neither of which seem very serious for neo-Darwinism. After all, we don't discard a whole theory because of some gaps in our understanding. But even if Wells is right and a shift away from neo-Darwinism is underway (which has been argued by others, mainly from the perspective of "chaos" or "complexity" theory), the shift will not mean abandonment of the notion of common descent. I suspect that many evangelicals who heartily support Johnson and Wells (and others predicting the demise of whatever they think neo-Darwinism entails) don't really understand that neither rejects the notion of common descent, which has always seemed to me to be the core concept of neo-Darwinism that bothers most evangelicals.
The only explicit argument I heard for a fully materialist form of naturalism as the foundation of science was made by Steve Schafersman, a geologist at Miami University. During his presentation and in several subsequent sessions, Schafersman seemed to represent the lone metaphysical naturalist perspective. Though I found myself in disagreement much of the time, I was at the same time impressed by his arguments which were measured and calm. Maybe other materialists were just keeping quiet, but I suspect his was the extreme minority view. Interestingly enough, his is the same basic argument that many claim permeates science. A little data in the form of a comprehensive survey might go a long way toward settling some of the peripheral issues, for example, who believes what among scientists.
A final topic that garnered at least some amount of consensus was the opinion stated by some of the scientists (myself included) who professed an ongoing willingness to fully consider IDˇor any other new approachesˇif they can be demonstrated to be better. Quite frankly, this has always been one of my major reasons for not supporting ID and TS. As Fred Grinnell (and others) emphasized, science is fundamentally about mechanisms. ID explanations seem to be dead ends scientifically, having no more long-term potential for understanding than saying "God did it." This is not to say that recognizing that "God did it" is wrong, rather that it is not fruitful for further research. Hence, for me, as a scientist I am not attracted to such notions as a part of my science. The ID people may be on to something, but even they admit that no convincing demonstration of a superior new way to do science has been achieved. I certainly do not aim to hinder or in any way denigrate their work, I just remain skeptical.
My skepticism, however, stands in stark contrast to how Phillip Johnson assessed the situation on the closing day of the meeting. He predicted that in 1998 the debate would move on "...to the merits of the issue on the evidence" and further indicated that the legitimacy of ID and TS in science (which have been associated with the ongoing "culture wars") essentially have been settled in the affirmative. I have two responses to such a conclusion.
First, from the perspective of a practicing scientist I see both movements as being little more than embryonic in their development, as indicated by my comments above that there has been no clear demonstration of ID or TS as a superior way to do science. Moreover, based on the number of scientists involved in the discussions compared to the number of scientists in North America, I think this suggests that both movements are really little more than a tiny blip on the screen. This is not meant to play down the importance of the debate, but rather to try to set it in perspective for the scientific community as a whole. In a question to Paul Nelson, I stated that I thought 90 to 95% of practicing scientists would not be affected at all by what was being proposed by the ID and TS people. He replied that he thought my figure was low! So, surely science in generalˇwhich everyone admits has been solidly based on MN for many yearsˇhas not been revised. Exactly what part of it will soon include ID and TS approaches?
My second response might seem strange because of the first, but I think I am happy to hear such a pronouncement of "victory" of some sort with respect to this part of the debate. I say this because of all the discussion that has been going on, I have been most concerned about the association of our academic debates with the notion of an ongoing "culture war." Warfare approaches do not lead to better understanding, only to strife, discord, and eventual schism. I am convinced that the vast majority of us who are involved in the debates are seriously searching for better understanding. The meeting we just completed is strong evidence for such a conclusion. Sure, there are exceptions, but they are just thatˇexceptions. As in most controversies, it is easy to identify the extreme "either/or" kinds of positions. The middle ground, however, is complicated. In the case of naturalism, theism and the scientific enterprise, the middle ground is also very broad. Work in this area requires slow going, including careful consideration of the full range of perspectives among the scientists, theologians, philosophers, and others involved. As an evangelical, I continue to be embarrassed by warfare rhetoric and the damage I fear it is doing within our academic communities. I sincerely hope these fears are unfounded.
My sincere thanks to John Burgeson for his assistence in preparing this report. Rob Koons has included many of the presented papers on his website http://www.dla.utexas.edu/depts/philosophy/faculty/koons/ntse.hmtl