Johnson's Berkeley Faculty Symposium: Memo of Recollections

Johnson's Berkeley Faculty Symposium

Memo of Recollections


Phillip Johnson wrote a lengthy research thesis on the creation/evolution issue while on sabbatical in England during the 1987-88 school year. When he returned to Berkeley, he asked for an opportunity to present his paper to his faculty colleagues. This is his dictated recollection of what happened in that momentous meeting. The paper, after a three-year revision process, became the book Darwin on Trial.

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September 26, 1988

Notes on the Faculty Colloquium of September 23, 1988

I am dictating my recollections of the faculty colloquium which was held on Friday, September 23, 1988, and at which I defended the August 1988 version of my paper on "Science and Scientific Naturalism in the Evolution Controversy." There were about 20 person present, the most active of whom were the non-lawyers. These included two first-class philosophers, who defended scientific naturalism on philosophical grounds. They were David Lyons (of Cornell) and Jeremy Waldron) of Oxford and our own faculty). Also present at my invitation were Professor Sherwood Washburn of Anthropology (an emeritus professor of human evolution with an enormous reputation), and two professors from the Biological Sciences Division. They were Thomas Duncan (Botany) and Montgomery Slatkin (Zoology, Evolutionary Biology). I invited Duncan because he serves with one of my law colleagues on the Graduate Council and is a leader in designing the biology curriculum here. I invited Slatkin at the suggestion of William Provine of Cornell, who said that he would be a particularly effective critic of my paper. The turnout among the law faculty itself was relatively light, because of conflicting commitments and also because I insisted that all participants read the entire paper and notes as preparation. Most of the law faculty who did come participated very little in the discussion. Two of my colleagues who have told me they agree with my position were present but generally silent; three of four other colleagues who have said they were persuaded, did not come. Professor Paul Carrington, formerly dean at Duke University, was present as a visitor; he is also favorable to my thesis and participated briefly in the discussion. Paul Ruud, a newly-tenured associate professor of economics, was also present as a visitor; he also takes my side, and his economics scholarship is heavily involved in assessment of empirical research and its relationship to concrete reality. The questions from members of the law faculty who did participate mainly dealt with the legal-political question of just what adjustments in present law would satisfy me.

began the discussion by saying that I would assume everyone present had read the paper and therefore would only state its thesis briefly. I started with the title, which focuses attention on the difference between scientific evidence or scientific method on the one hand, and the philosophy of scientific naturalism on the other. My argument was that, although most people believe that an enormous amount of empirical evidence supports the general theory of evolution, this is in fact an illusion. Most people in the intellectual world are certain that evolution must be true because it is the only tenable naturalistic explanation for the development of complex life, or life in general, and it therefore must be true if non-naturalistic explanations such as creation are ruled ineligible for consideration. The evidence is then built up upon this pre-existing theoretical certainty based on philosophical presupposition. Non-evolutionary explanations of the evidence are not considered, and therefore the evidentiary support which seems to exist is the product of the cultural certainty rather than its cause or support.

I explained that my thesis could be attacked in three ways. First, someone could deny that the official doctrine of evolution is in fact based on a conclusive presumption in favor of scientific naturalism. I doubted that anyone would want to deny so obvious a fact, however. Second, one could defend scientific naturalism on philosophical grounds, arguing that it is a very good philosophy and we are therefore justified in assuming it to be true. The problem with taking this line is that it removes the question from the area of biology or scientific expertise, and puts it firmly in the camp of philosophy, where scientists cannot claim to be experts. Third, science could offer evidence which is capable of proving the truth of the doctrine of evolution without support from the philosophical presupposition that only naturalistic explanation can be considered. I doubted that any such evidence exists but expressed myself as eager to hear of any.

Most of the ensuing discussion took the second path, arguing that the presumption of naturalism is philosophically valid and that any other approach was tantamount to irrationalism or mysticism. Professors Lyons and Waldron were particularly aggressive in taking this line, but the biologists also spent more time arguing philosophy than scientific evidence. The philosophers insisted on labeling the alternative to naturalism as "magic," in what I considered a transparent effort to prejudice the inquiry from the start. I protested this briefly but then let the matter pass. Lyons argued that all science and not just evolution is based on naturalism, and that the commitment to naturalism is what makes science possible. Basically the strategy here was to insist that by asserting "magic" as a legitimate possibility for study that I was making scientific inquiry impossible, since such inquiry must presuppose uniform physical laws. How do we know that an experiment performed yesterday will have the same result today, that a ball will not start falling upward tomorrow, etc? Thus my position was characterized as an attack upon science generally and a form of irrationalism. Of course I denied this, claiming that my attachment to the scientific method was in fact greater than that of my critics, since I refused to rule out certain hypotheses as out of bounds from the start. On the other hand, I insisted that it may well be the case that science cannot answer all the questions that we would like to have it answer (such as the origin of life, and so on). That is a real possibility, and every bit as plausible and eligible for serious intellectual consideration as the contrary assertion that there is a naturalistic explanation for everything.

On the question of scientific evidence, Washburn invoked the hominid fossils, stressing that human paleontologists were willing to change their mind when faced with contrary evidence and that they sometimes found confirming evidence which they had not expected to find (the Laetoli footprints). He did not seem to have comprehended the argument in part three of my paper in the slightest. Slatkin argued that the fruitfly experiments show that every characteristic of a fruitfly can be modified by inducing mutations. He conceded that the resulting populations were infertile and composed of creatures which could not survive in the wild, but argued that all this was a problem only in the laboratory and would not impede evolution in the wild where populations are larger. In short, there was nothing new on the evidentiary line. I did not reply to these arguments particularly vigorously, being content to use this session for exploring the issues.

My law colleagues were particularly eager to press questions about what I want the schools to do--teach "creation science," teach religious doctrines generally, and so on. There was a bit of suspicion that I might have some kind of hidden agenda, and there some bafflement when I insisted that I would be content with a more modest science class of the kind outlined at the end of my paper, where there was candid teaching about the many problem areas that could lead to doubt about whether evolution is true. Some of my law colleagues then insisted that there could be no possible objection to reforming the curriculum along these lines, a point I labeled as naive. Professor Carrington from Duke broke in with the statement that he is a veteran of education politics and school board issues, and he knows for a fact that there is a powerful lobby that simply will not stand for a curriculum that expresses any doubt about the truth of evolution. I noticed that the scientists present were staring stone-faced at this suggestion from the lawyers that they would be willing to agree to a science class of the kind I proposed.

All told, the session was remarkably calm considering the controversial nature of my argument. I think that the scientists and Professor Washburn were baffled to see such a topic discussed in all seriousness in a law faculty, and I imagine they are passing the word now that some people over at our school have gone out of their minds. I urged one and all to provide written as well as oral critiques of my paper. In all I consider this session a success from my point of view: A previously unthinkable claim - that the general theory of evolution is not true - was put out on the table for serious consideration and debated just as if it were any other academic topic.

The professor who presided over the colloquium, a non-religious Israeli who is very sophisticated in philosophical issues, told me privately afterwards that he was very impressed by the paper and even more impressed by my performance in the debate, particularly in view of the intellectual courage he thought it required to advance such an argument in front of hostile experts from the sciences.