A Critique of Phillip E. Johnson's "How Can We Tell Science From religion?"
Roland Watts



Phillip E. Johnson in his How Can We Tell Science from Religion? offers two definitions of science:

a)  The materialist model (MM) - "[E]very event or phenomenon is conclusively presumed to have a material cause, at least after the ultimate beginning."  Supernaturalist explanations are therefore fantasy explanations.

b)  The testability model (TM) - Science is defined in terms "of accepted procedures for testing hypotheses, such as repeatable experiments."  Thus a phenomenon being caused by material or non-material agencies is open for investigation.



To me, Johnson is being disingenuous with his definitions.  They are somewhat contrived to achieve a purpose in line with Johnson's supernatural metaphysic.  He is comparing apples and oranges.


Definition MM is clearly a belief statement.  Definition TM is a methodology for doing science.


If Johnson really wished to compare apples with apples, oranges with oranges then he would have offered definition 3 - The Supernaturalist model (SM).  Every event or phenomenon is conclusively presumed to have a (direct or indirect) supernatural cause.  Purely materialist explanations are fantasy explanations.


Clearly, definition 3 is the equivalent of definition 1 and both are different in context to definition 2.


Many posters on this board [NAiG Message Board] have the SM metaphysic and, to take Johnson at his word, this is their scientific method.



In quoting Dawkins and Lewontin, Johnson is picking just those people whose beliefs suit his argument.  Who are these men?  They are atheists who are naturally going to use TM to undertake science and interpret their results in line with MM.


Had Johnson selected others, say YECs Duane Gish or Jonathan Sarfati, he would have picked just those people who used TM to undertake science and interpret their results using SM.


Had he selected yet others, say Birch or Polkinghorne, he would have selected those who use TM and interpret their results in the light of SM.  However, even though they would have fitted Johnson's criteria for a kind of "fairness" in all of this, simply because they are devout theists (Christian), they happily accept the modern theories and hypotheses of science Big Bang cosmology, the Theory of Evolution (ToE), abiogenesis, ancient Earth, etc.



In making his appeal, Johnson confuses TM with MM and leaves SM undefined, but associates it with TM by inference.  Johnson is therefore arguing for others to do that which he rejects.  He is asking for a non believer to re-interpret or reconsider his/her beliefs in line with SM which he has brought right into the methodology of science by, dare I say, sleight of hand.


Science does not work this way.


There is nothing to stop Johnson from setting up his laboratories and demonstrating acceptable evidence for the existence of the supernatural and deriving some of the rules for how it interacts with the material world.  That this has not happened cannot be blamed on the unbeliever nor on other believers.  Clearly Johnson is failing and so he appeals to "fairness".  It is precisely because people such as Johnson have failed to demonstrate their case that -

a) science is methodologically naturalist, and

b) ultimate theological interpretation is left up to the faith of the individual.

Frankly, I think Johnson is attempting to be a bit mischievous and use special pleading.  "I cannot demonstrate something to you in a convincing manner but in the interests of fairness, I want you to use it anyway." 


Well, I certainly am not going to use the supernatural.  I am an atheist.  However, many will use the supernatural, and what does Johnson say about them?  Nothing!  Why?  He says nothing because they do not match his own theological beliefs.  If Johnson was frank he would recognise that there is a world of (Christian) believers out there who do meet his criteria of keeping their minds open, use TM and accept SM.  It is just that they do not accept SM in Johnson's peculiar way.



If Johnson is serious then why stop at origins?  Although he is not explicit and I suspect that he has an axe to grind against the ToE, the main thrust of the paper seems to be origins, i.e. abiogenesis or special creation.  Why not bring his undefined version of science in to explain all aspects of the natural world?


One thing that conventional abiogenesis has to offer is an explanation and a means for deriving such.  Certainly there is no acceptable explanation for the origin of life to date.  Nevertheless, progress towards one is occurring.  The situation now is much better than it was twenty years ago.  Fifty years ago, the first experimental verification of some ideas began.  One hundred years ago, the situation was that of unverifiable speculation.


Compare this with Johnson.  As far as I can see, Johnson's side still wants to be able to say "Goddidit", and offer nothing more.  Notions such as irreducible complexity are important because they give people ideas and definitions that can be argued about, discussed and tested.  Yet beyond attempting to spoil the party for naturalistic explanations, the other side appears to be able to offer nothing more than an unverifiable "Goddidit".  The naturalistic side does go forwards.  The supernaturalistic side has, to date, been only reactionary.



If Johnson's estimation of Lewontin is correct then I sympathise with Johnson to some degree.  I accept that it should be spelt out to children that the only sensible basis for science is that of materialism, because science can only deal with a material world, (I do include mind as a part of the material world).  However, that could change.  This world is not so well understood that it is impossible for Johnson to make his case.  And certainly, science is not the only begetter of the truth.  Or if it is, then it is a fact of life that we often have to make truth judgements without any recourse to science or its methodology  - leaving it effectively hopeless.


Nevertheless, Johnson has not made his case and it would be helpful if -

a) he did not confuse belief with methodology,

b) was more frank, and

c)  was less reactionary and did just do what naturalists do, provide some substantiative evidence for his case that is convincing to most scientists, philosophers, theologians and laypeople.