Phillip Johnson on the Scope of Intelligent Design

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In response to the claim that ID is just creationism (a slippery enough term as it is that can range from mere theism all the way to those who think Genesis 1 is a science textbook), I've been saying that ID is perfectly consistent with a closed universe of evolution, as long as the natural causes involved are not merely natural causes but are purposive, intelligent causes, and as long as those causes are detectable as intelligent causes. Most theistic evolutionists do not say that and therefore do not accept ID arguments. But someone who does should be welcome under the ID umbrella.

I looked at William Dembski's statements on this in my last post on the subject. I now turn to Phillip Johnson. Since this interview is one common place anti-ID folk have pointed to in order to argue that Johnson holds the opposite view, I've decided to use that as my source. Here is the first major quote relevant to this issue:

Theistic evolution is the same thing as atheistic evolution with a certain amount of God-talk. They don’t see any merit whatsoever in alleging that God left us some fingerprints on the evidence.

I think what's often going on is that ID opponents see him distancing himself from theistic evolution, and they then wrongly conclude that he's ruling out the sort of view with theistic evolution and signs of intelligent design together. But look closely about what he says about theistic evolution. He's not complaining about the view that everything was designed in such a way that evolution would happen but would reveal the signs of intelligent design. He's talking about the view that everything happened the way atheistic evolutionists say it did, i.e. God's fingerprints aren't on creation in order to have something to base an ID argument on. So he's not disagreeing with theistic evolution per se. He's disagreeing with theistic evolution as it's normally held. The usual theistic evolutionist does have a view that contradicts ID. The theistic evolutionist who insists that God left fingerprints that we can detect and then use as a basis for an ID argument is, of course, not inconsistent with ID, because it's the presence of those footprints that's all that the ID argument insists on.

Johnson then goes on to explain that this conclusion is not what he expected but was what resulted when he tried to talk to theistic evolutionists, to get them on board with his mission to focus on an issue that would unite such diverse groups as 6-dayers, old-earther creationists, and theistic evolutionists. In the interview, he explains that he hadn't expected theistic evolutionists to reject his position. After all, his arguments were consistent with all three positions (old-earth creation, young-earth creation, and theistic evolution), but the theistic evolutionists wouldn't have it. They didn't want his arguments. He says what he learned was that they hold an additional view beyond merely combining theism and mere evolution. They add in methodological naturalism and its assumption that there couldn't be any fingerprints of God in creation. That's why theistic evolutionists happen to believe something inconsistent with ID. Theistic evolution isn't in principle in conflict with ID. It's just that theistic evolutionists, as it turns out, almost all hold some additional view that is.

So, in the end, Phillip Johnson does not have any problem including under the ID umbrella someone who holds that God set up the laws of the universe ahead of time with a very particular plan as to what would happen and when, and the plan includes some elements that give clear marks of an intelligent mind behind the plan. The marks of intelligent design would be there, so the ID arguments would make sense. Johnson does say the theistic evolution view as it's standardly held would not make sense with ID, but he's not talking about theistic evolution in principle. Those who insist on misreading him to be talking about the mere mixture of theism and evolution need to pay more attention to the details of what he says.

6 Comments

Hey Jeremy,

I wish you would go over to John Pettigrew's site, Barefoot in the Wilderness (he has posted in the carnival) and interact with him around the ID issue. I've been "trying", but not as informed as you on this issue! He's a theistic evolutionist, and thinks ID is fundamentally flawed--I disagree with him!

In Christ,

Bobby

I haven't said anything about ID not being fundamentally flawed. I've just been saying that there are two separate issues: (1) whether it's fundamentally flawed and (2) whether it's consistent with theistic evolution.

The first issue is about whether the arguments are any good. I haven't taken any stance on that issue, and in fact I think I'm completely unqualified to evaluate the biological arguments. (I'll be posting something about the fine-tuning arguments once the end-of-semester grading subsides, and on that issue I have more of a view of what to say about the argument.)

The second issue is about whether someone who holds the thestic evolution perspective could hold the arguments to be good. That's where I'm going to insist that the answer is a very clear yes. Most theistic evolutionists seem not to think the arguments are any good, but that's no reason for thinking the arguments are inconsistent with theistic evolutionism. Someone could endorse ID arguments, even biological ID arguments, and accept the full theistic evolutionary view.

Thanks for your response, Jeremy--actually I said Pettigrew believes ID is fundamentally flawed not you :-).

And I agree with your point on theistic evolution and ID!

I'll look forward to your "fine-tuning arguments"!

Good dialogue with John P., I just read through your interaction with him; and I think you made some excellent points! It seems that he wants to make a faulty distinction between "nature" and "super-nature"--pressing a heavy distinction between meta-physics and ontology.

Right, and I said that I didn't say that it's not fundamentally flawed, so I'm not going to disagree with him on that point.

Johnson's just wrong. There are lots of God's fingerprints in creation. Johnson doesn't know fingerprints, and he points to the wrong things. What he calls the design of God, isn't.

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