Naturalistic Fallacy

Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law and Education, by Phillip Johnson, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 245 pages, $19.99

Charles Darwin published his great work, On the Origin of Species , in 1859. In it he argued that all organisms, including us humans, are the product of a slow, gradual, non-miraculous (that is, law-governed) process of "evolution" from just a few, perhaps even one, simple forms. He was not the first evolutionist--his grandfather Erasmus Darwin was pushing the idea in the 18th century--but it was he who made the concept plausible. So plausible, in fact, that if we judge from reviews and comments and other such things (like the exam questions for undergraduates at leading universities), within a very few years educated people in Europe and North America--not just professional scientists--became evolutionists.

Much more controversial was the mechanism of change proposed by Darwin. He argued that, thanks to life's struggles, there is a constant process of "natural selection," with the winners (the "fit") alone surviving and reproducing. Over time, this winnowing process leads to full-blown change, change moreover of an adaptive nature. The eye, the hand, the heart, and--as Darwin made very clear in a later work, The Descent of Man --the brain and mind, all serve the end or interests of their possessors. Organisms are not just thrown together, but are as if designed by a conscious being.

Only in this century has selection come into its own and been seen to play the key role supposed by Darwin. Of course, I would not pretend that everyone in the scientific community is a hardline Darwinian. Notoriously, America's most famous evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, has expressed reservations about the ubiquity of adaptation and has promoted a less gradual and more jerky version of Darwinism --the theory of "punctuated equilibria."

Yet even people like Gould are more concerned to supplement Darwinism than to replace it. Like the best scientific hypotheses, it does not rest on past successes but points the way to new triumphs--most successfully, in recent years, showing how social behavior can be given a Darwinian explanation. "Sociobiology" is controversial, but it is the controversy of success. Bright graduate students are prepared to invest their careers in it, and that tells you everything. Indeed, even most religious types have made peace with evolution--so long as one is allowed miracles for the creation of souls (hardly a scientific concept anyway). The great exception has always been American biblical literalists or "fundamentalists," who argue that one must not deviate from one word of the Bible taken absolutely at face value, and that therefore evolution is the work of the devil. Inspired by the writings of the turn-of-the-century Seventh Day Adventist James McCready Price, a veritable industry of "Flood geology" has been spawned, trying desperately to show that such venerable myths as the six days of creation are scientific fact--and hence not only should be taken seriously but should be allowed in the nation's biology classes.

To be candid, this stuff has always been a bit down-market. For instance, Duane Gish, author of Evolution: The Fossils Say No! , may indeed have a Ph.D. in biochemistry, but there is a touch of Elmer Gantry about his style and rhetoric. In the 1980s, the creationists lost key court cases-- most famously in Arkansas in 1981, where a federal judge ruled firmly that a law mandating "balanced treatment" between evolution and creationism was a blatant attempt to get religion into the science classrooms, and thus unconstitutional.

Undaunted, the literalists switched strategies, trying to introduce the Bible by stealth--pressuring school boards and teachers, putting weight on textbook manufacturers, and the like. They have looked hard for academic heavyweights who, through shared religious sympathy, might be inclined to give support. This drive for respectability has been somewhat successful, netting such spokesmen for the creationist cause as Alvin Plantinga, professor at Notre Dame (though a Calvinist) and arguably America's best living philosopher of religion.

Another is Phillip Johnson, law professor, former clerk to Earl Warren, and holder of a named chair at Berkeley. Johnson is the author of the smoothest-ever presentation of the anti- evolutionary case, Darwin on Trial (1991). Not entirely original, Johnson's case invokes all of the old favorites of the creationist cause--the "incompatibility" of the fossil record with evolution (all of those notorious "gaps"); the impossibility of life's arising from the non-living by purely natural causes; and the irrationality of supposing that a simple mechanism like natural selection could create order out of randomness.

Now Johnson presents Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science , Law and Education. Here, laid out in full detail, are the reasons why a respectable and intelligent man like Johnson would freely and gladly make himself a pariah, even in conservative academic circles, and God only knows what on the Berkeley campus. It is not a little bit of evolution that worries Johnson and his ilk. A new adaptation here, a lost adaptation there--who cares? Rather, it is the very moral fiber of the nation that counts. Let in evolution, and pornography, abortion, and sodomy are next. Or rather, because we let in evolution, pornography, abortion, and sodomy are now.

Johnson starts with an introduction to the enemy: "The most influential intellectuals in America and around the world are mostly naturalists, who assume that God exists only as an idea in the minds of religious believers. In our greatest universities, naturalism--the doctrine that nature is 'all there is'--is the virtually unquestioned assumption that underlies not only natural science but intellectual work of all kinds. If naturalism is true, 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."

I must confess that on reading this, my jaw did sag somewhat. I have myself recently published a book with the title Evolutionary Naturalism . I had no idea that that which Johnson describes was the topic on which I was supposed to be writing! I am fascinated (and troubled) by the God question, but that I was denying God's existence was news to me. Naively, I thought that naturalism was about a particular attitude that one takes to understanding, refusing to appeal to the supernatural (miracles) in the physical world, but saying nothing definitive about whether there is a world beyond this. Perhaps God exists. Perhaps not. But, wonderful book though Evolutionary Naturalism may be, on these issues it says nothing.

Now, to be fair to Johnson, he is aware of a response like mine, and in an appendix does try to deal with it. But in a way it would be a mistake to get bogged down in Jesuitically fine distinctions of terms. Johnson's main argument is what counts and, as in his earlier book, evolution and its mechanism are the problem here, whatever the philosophical category into which you might dump them. Let in these ideas, he says, and anything goes.

The general argument runs somewhat like this: If evolution be true, then science as a whole has scored a success and should be taken seriously (perhaps more seriously than anything else). Furthermore, if science should be taken seriously, then its naturalistic methods should be endorsed. "If the scientists," writes Johnson, "have actually confirmed many of the most important elements of the story [of evolution], so that only a few gaps remain to be filled, then there are solid grounds (short of absolute proof) for believing that the story itself is fundamentally correct." Move on down the syllogism. If we endorse scientific naturalism, then we exclude God, certainly the God of the Christian. Even if one allows a god outside the natural world, this is little comfort, for a "Creator who merely sets a process in motion and thereafter keeps hands off is easily ignored." But, if we exclude or deny the Christian God, then we have no reason to endorse Christian morality. And, if we do not endorse Christian morality, then the only alternative is moral anarchy: "Naturalistic metaphysics leads inexorably to relativism in ethics and politics." Curiously, in my book on naturalism, the very thing I was trying to do was to get away from relativism. I abhor the sociological, "If it feels good, then it's OK!" Indeed, the very crux of the evolutionary approach to ethics is that nature sets certain universals and you break these at your peril. It is precisely for this reason that so many in the social sciences loathe any biological approach to morality.

But I get ahead of myself. Let me say two things on Johnson's behalf:

First, I am surely not alone in agreeing with Johnson that, in today's society, especially on university campuses, much that is of true moral value is brushed aside in a senseless rush to the politically correct. On my own campus, for instance, we have so many rules and regulations about minorities, real and apparent, that the results of important departmental elections are decided before the first ballot is cast. And more than one aged prof--thinking one might speak to one's students as one might speak to a grown-up--has been sent off for a week's "sensitivity training," under threat of really dire alternatives. Mistakenly, I thought that winning the Cold War was supposed to lift these sorts of things from the Russians, rather than impose them on North Americans.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties