Why Phillip Johnson is a Dangerous Man

From: Chris Cogan (ccogan@sfo.com)
Date: Tue Jan 11 2000 - 23:14:42 EST

  • Next message: Huxter4441@aol.com: "I'm so upset....."

    From: Stephen E. Jones <sejones@iinet.net.au>
    > May I also take the opportunity to bring to the List's attention some
    > recently webbed articles by Johnson:
    > http://www.svmagazine.com/2000/week03/features/Story02.html "Phillip
    > E. Johnson is a dangerous man." Profile of Johnson in the Sunday Silicon
    > Valley magazine of the San Jose Mercury News.

    He is a dangerous man, in the same sense that all rabble-rousing demagogues
    are, in a culture already overrun with superstition for people like him to
    tap into and seemingly justify. Everyone on this list should read the above
    interview, to see the demagogue at work. His lies begin in his first answer,
    when he claims the physically demonstrable falsehood that mutation and
    selection cannot create genetic information. That this is false has been
    demonstrated in laboratory environments, and it can be demonstrated in
    natural conditions as well (it's easy, really: Take a bunch of organisms and
    their offspring and you will find that some of the offspring do in fact have
    *more* genetic information than their parents. QED).

    No, I don't grant him the "Stephen Jones" escape of claiming to be
    innocently, honestly ignorant of the relevant facts in this case; he has
    been promulgating this crap for way too long for it to be innocent
    falsehoods. He has been informed of the facts (i.e., physical proof that
    offspring sometimes have more genetic information than their parents), so,
    unless he wishes to claim he has some horrible mental or brain disorder that
    prevents him from considering such evidence against his case, then, yes, we
    *must* conclude, beyond any *reasonable* doubt, that he is simply outright

    His comparison of the cell with a city is apt, but it doesn't support his
    case. He claims that the activities of a cell must be directed (i.e., from
    some source outside the cell), apparently on the premise that the components
    of the cell do not have their own causal natures. But cities often do not
    operate on the basis of any particular overall direction. Cities, in fact,
    usually *evolve*; people gradually accumulate and evolve ways of living and
    working together, *without* direction from on high. The parts of a city or a
    cell are directed, but not by any outside source of direction. Instead, they
    may be directed mainly by *each other*. There is no more need to postulate
    an outside director for this case than to postulate one for the operation of
    a television set. Once the right parts are put together in the right way,
    and the right forms of energy are supplied, both operate *without* programs,
    without external detailed control.

    Of course, information is involved. That's true in *any* machine, or any
    causal process. Where does the information come from? According to Johnson,
    it cannot come from "random mutation" or selection. But, of course, if genes
    are randomly mutated, then some of these mutations *must* be *increases* of
    information (as empirical observation shows some of them indeed are
    increases in information). Further, as Johnson well knows, much of genetic
    variation is not properly called "mutation" because it comes from the
    mingling of the genetic material from two different parental genomes.
    Further, as Johnson well knows, some of these combinations result in more
    information than was present in *either* parental genome, thus increasing
    the total genetic information. But, apparently, truth really is a stranger
    in Johnson's mind, at least as anything other than a hindrance to the
    promulgation of his religious views.

    At the end of his second answer, he says, "If there's a process that turned
    a bacterium into a butterfly, it's unknown how it happened. It's a mystery.
    There is no such mechanism we can observe in nature or in the laboratory."
    Presumably, he means that we have not actually been able to observe a
    bacterium turn into a butterfly. Big deal. When I watch a person through a
    window approaching a door, disappear from view, and then a moment later
    appear on the other side of the door, should I assume that there is no
    process by which a he could have gone from being on one side of a door to
    being on the other side, merely because I was not able to observe him the
    whole time? Should I conclude that the man who appears on the other side of
    the door is *not* the same man as the one I saw through the window a moment

    I don't think so. I don't think Johnson thinks so, either. Though I agree
    that we cannot *absolutely* prove that bacteria evolved into butterflies
    (and numerous other things as well), it is ludicrous and absurd (and, in
    Johnson's case, dishonest as well) to claim that such a process is a
    "mystery." Why? Because *far* from being a mystery, we can offer, at a
    sufficiently high degree of detail, *thousands* of was by means of which
    bacteria could evolve into butterflies. The only true mystery is what the
    *actual* evolutionary path was, because, beyond a certain level, we simply
    do not have enough historical details to piece the actual path together in a
    conclusive way.

    What's really a mystery is why Johnson continues to try to pass off such
    sophomoric garbage as serious intellectual debate of a scientific issue.

    Because the next question and answer are short, I quote them here in their

    Michelle Quinn: Why can't we come up with a theory based on what we know?
    Isn't it somewhat unfair to say, "'show me how evolution happens in a
    laboratory,'" given that this is a process that has taken millions of years?

    Johnson: If you are a philosophic materialist, you don't need any evidence
    at all. It's got to be true as a matter of logic. If you are Christian, like
    I am, you might say: "'Show me. I want to see it.'" That's a higher
    standard. But it's perfectly rational.

    First, notice that he does not answer Quinn's question at all.

    Second, notice that he is attempting to put metaphysical non-naturalism on
    the same epistemological par with scientific naturalism, *totally* ignoring
    the fact that non-naturalism violates the principle of metaphysical
    minimalism (a derivative of the principle of Occam's Razor) and the
    principle of naturalistic sufficiency (which is the principle that, for any
    empirical fact or collection of facts for which there *is* an explanation, a
    naturalistic explanation can be offered that is *better* than *any*
    non-naturalistic explanation, if only by the expedient of mechanically
    "naturalizing" any allegedly necessary non-naturalistic explanation). The
    principle of Occam's Razor has long been *the* major hang-up for creationist
    theories, because they require a metaphysical level of reality that is
    simply *never* necessary for the empirical facts at hand, because there are
    too many naturalistic explanations possible for such facts. For example,
    even if a novel causal principle has to be proposed to explain some fact,
    that is *vastly* preferable to positing an entire new metaphysical level of
    reality populated by supernatural gods.

    Third, it's hypocritical to an *extreme* degree for a *Christian* (which he
    claims to be) to be demanding *evidence* for *anything*, since, by
    definition, Christianity is based on *faith*, not cognitive contact with
    reality. In fact, *rational* proof of the existence of God would be, at
    best, essentially irrelevant to Christianity, even if it were possible.
    Thus, Johnson's demand, "Show me. I want to see it," is ludicrous. Has he
    seen his alleged designer? If he claims he has, can he prove it was a
    designer that he saw? Did he *see* the designer create the various species
    that he claims did not evolve? Has he *observed* the designer tinkering with
    the genes of bacteria to make butterfly genes? If so, precisely when and
    where did he observe this remarkable event? Or does he claim to have
    *observed* some designer creating butterfly genes de novo? Again, if so,
    when and where? Can he provide the details so that *others* may duplicate
    these remarkable observations?

    Scientific progress is often a matter of competing theories. Pure
    naturalistic evolutionary theories are one category of such competing
    theories. They compete not only with each other, but also with
    non-naturalistic theories, such as Johnson's. They compete in terms of how
    well they work to logically *imply* empirically observable facts based on
    *other* observed facts, and in terms of other epistemological principles
    (such as Occam's Razor, mentioned above). Johnson's theory posits a vast new
    metaphysical level of reality, an alleged designer, and a vast array of
    facts not in evidence even in a *much* weaker sense than what he demands of
    evolutionary theory. Evolutionary theory starts from empirically observable
    facts (such as the fact that genetic information *does* increase, in
    laboratory experiments (just as he demands), and logically interpolates and
    extrapolates other facts, according to a small set of testable causal
    principles (i.e., principles that have empirical implications that are not
    implied by other theories).

    When intellectual criminals like Johnson can come up with a theory that can
    do *half* as well as naturalistic evolutionary theory did in 1859, when
    Darwin's theory was first published, *then* he should start talking about
    whether his theory is preferable to such theory -- and then only if he can
    also show that such a theory *requires* his non-naturalistic components,
    that the principle of naturalistic sufficiency is false, that, *despite*
    Occam's Razor, such non-naturalism really *is* rationally justified.

    Johnson's answer to Quinn's next question is simply irrelevant. Yes,
    computer software requires intelligence. But there is no viable analogy (at
    least not one that helps Johnson's case) between computer software and the
    development of genetic information. Further, as he probably knows but does
    not want the *reader* to know, there is a type of programming called
    "genetic" programming because it *does* use random mutation (or, more
    generally, random variation) and selection to produce information. Trial
    programs are generated randomly. The ones that come closest (by dumb
    mechanical test) to doing what is needed are saved, and used as the basis
    for another generation of programs that are variations on these. Again, the
    unintelligent selection process is applied to determine which programs will
    survive to reproduce and provide the basis for the next generation of

    The end result of this process of random variation and selection is a
    program that has the information (computer instructions) needed to carry out
    the required operation. Intelligence goes into designing the *environment,*
    but not into the *process*. Of course, what evolutionists suggest is that
    *physical* evolution occurs in functionally similar environments that
    occurred and occur naturally. If such an unintelligent *process* can create
    information in one case, why can't essentially the same unintelligent
    process create information in other cases? What we observe is that it *does*
    create information in other cases.

    [Footnote: The term "create" in this context is misleading. I'm using it
    only because Johnson did. Information is never truly created, but random
    variation *is* the variation of information, so, in effect, mutation and
    variation are force-feeding information into the replication process.
    Sometimes it cancels out information already present, resulting in offspring
    that have *less* genetic information than their parents did. But,
    *observationally*, sometimes the genetic information in the offspring's
    genome *is* greater than the information in the parent genome(s).

    Where *does* such information in the genome come from? It comes from the
    almost constant ebb and flow of the environment, the chaotic "stirring" of
    both external and internal environments by heat, cosmic rays, mechanical
    movement, chemicals occurring in food, water, and air, by the evolved
    process of recombining genes, which allows the micro-accidents of the moment
    to largely determine many of the details of the resulting genomes (which is
    why siblings from the same parents are often *very* different, even if they
    are the same gender and born at the same time). In short, there is a
    *constant* flow of information through an organism (if it is alive and
    functioning), and this information influences the replication process and
    sometimes causes the resulting offspring genome to have more information
    than the parent genome(s) did.]

    Is Johnson's theory (i.e., "a supernatural being did it") really supposed to
    be any *better* than this? How then, does the positing of a supernatural
    designer explain and predict that, if you take a previously untested microbe
    and breed it in an environment that is uniformly hostile to it because of
    some factor (such as heat or reduced resources), such that the only
    available "solution" for the organism is to increase genetic information (so
    as to provide the organism with a means of dealing more effectively with the
    special environmental factor), it *will* increase genetic information? I
    predict, on the basis of evolutionary theory, that this will happen. What
    does positing an allegedly intelligent designer enable us to predict about
    such a case?

    That's right: Nothing at all. Why? Because we don't have a causal principle.
    *All* we have is the alleged cause, but no defined and empirically
    verifiable causal mechanism by which it works.

    Finally, notice that when it comes to evidence of evolution of bacteria to
    butterflies, Johnson demands to *see* it. But, when it comes to evidence of
    a preposterous and scientifically useless non-naturalistic "intelligent
    creator," he is only able to offer his *ignorance* of how evolution could
    produce butterflies from bacteria. His argument is, in short: "I don't
    understand how it could happen, therefore it did *not* happen, therefore an
    intelligent designer exists." Of course, nearly *all* arguments for such an
    intelligent designer's existence fall into the category of argument from
    ignorance, so this is nothing new. Nor is it new that ignorance of
    alternatives does not constitute proof of one's pet theory. What's important
    to notice here is the hypocrisy of Johnson's demand for *direct* physical
    observation of a process of evolution that took millions of years while
    simultaneously proclaiming that his *ignorance* of this very same process
    *proves* the existence of an "intelligent creator."

    But, if he didn't observe the process of evolution, does he claim to have
    observed the *non-evolutionary* history of life for the past few billion
    years. *Show* me. I want to *see* it. He doesn't seem to grasp that the very
    same observational limitations that make such direct observation of
    evolution over a period of millions or billions of years impossible are
    *exactly* the same limitations *his* theory faces; *he* has no more
    observational basis for his claim than does the most naive evolutionist.

    But, he wants to have it both ways. For the simpler, minimalist theory that
    life evolved by a process of variation and replication, he wants complete
    observational evidence, but for his *own* theory, he wants to dispense with
    any evidence stronger than "I don't see how it evolution could work" (i.e.,
    his own ignorance, which he has steadfastly and willfully maintained against
    all attempts to educate him for many years now). For his *own* theory,
    Occam's Razor no longer applies, and it's perfectly okay to arbitrarily
    posit some supernatural realm populated by supernatural beings. I say, "Show
    me. I want to see it."

    Finally observe that at some points Johnson tries to pretend that he is not
    arguing for a belief in a Christian God, but then, at several other points,
    including at the end of the interview, he states the issue solely in terms
    of a belief in God. Talk about wanting to have it both ways!

    But, he would be even more hypocritical to stick with the view that it's
    just a matter of competing scientific theories, because his real motive has
    nothing to do with science. He is simply trying to push science aside in
    order to promote religion. That's why the complete reversal on the issue of
    observational evidence when he switches from demanding complete
    observational evidence for the evolution of bacteria to butterflies, but
    relies solely on his *ignorance* (a *lack* of observational evidence) as his
    "evidence" for the existence of an intelligent designer. That's why the
    incredible pretense that non-naturalism has no more requirements for
    evidence than does naturalism (as if we did not all agree that the natural
    world exists). That's why, in general, he evades issue after issue, and lies
    through his teeth and his hat at nearly every step of the way.

    In short, Johnson is a dangerous man because he is a demagogue with almost
    no respect for the truth or reality.


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