Phillip Johnson's Bold Stand

This issue came up in comments and is something I’ve been meaning to post about. It seems that most people, both pro and con, are of the opinion that ID “theory” accepts an old Earth. Most write-ups about ID in newspapers and magazines make mention of this as being something that distinguishes ID from old-school creationism. But it’s simply not the case. Leading ID proponents argue that the age of the Earth is irrelevant to ID, and that ID advocates are free to believe in an old Earth or a young Earth as they see fit. Indeed, it would be hard to explain the involvement of people like Paul Nelson, who is openly YEC, if ID theory were committed to an old Earth. Instead, they argue that the detection of “design”, whatever that means, is the only thing that ID is concerned with. And that’s prompted many critics to point out that ID is effectively useless when it comes to understanding natural history. In other words, ID “theory” isn’t a theory at all, it’s a collection of crappy criticisms.

The person most responsible for this strategy is Phillip E. Johnson, often referred to as the father of the ID movement. Most have assumed that Johnson is an old-Earther, since he doesn’t defend a young Earth or make it a part of ID. (The strategy is to change the subject when it comes up,) But as far as I know, Johnson has never committed himself in print one way or another. But in a recent article in Touchstone magazine, Johnson does us the favor of clarifying his position on the age of the Earth. And his position is. . .that he has no position.

Before discussing the current article, let’s back up a bit and look at a couple of other instances where Johnson has talked about his strategy and position. In an interview for Touchstone (you start to wonder if the people at Touchstone have a liking for ID) a couple of years back, Johnson explained the Wedge strategy:

So the question is: “How to win?” That’s when I began to develop what you now see full-fledged in the “wedge” strategy: “Stick with the most important thing”–the mechanism and the building up of information. Get the Bible and the Book of Genesis out of the debate because you do not want to raise the so-called Bible-science dichotomy. Phrase the argument in such a way that you can get it heard in the secular academy and in a way that tends to unify the religious dissenters. That means concentrating on, “Do you need a Creator to do the creating, or can nature do it on its own?” and refusing to get sidetracked onto other issues, which people are always trying to do. They’ll ask, “What do you think of Noah’s flood?” or something like that. Never bite on such questions because they’ll lead you into a trackless wasteland and you’ll never get out of it.

Claims about information have been dealt with elsewhere (needless to say, Johnson is full of it), but notice how the Wedge strategy is based upon pushing issues like Noah’s flood out of the picture? Heaven forbid we start discussing natural history, even though that’s what evolution is all about.

(As a quick aside, the whole interview is an enlightening read. Johnson candidly describes why he dedicated his life to attacking evolution. It’s because of a mid-life crisis that prompted his conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. Go figure.)

Now, let’s take a look at a slightly earlier piece by Johnson in which he addresses the age of the Earth directly (sort of). This is from a Weekly Wedge Update, hosted on ARN, in which Johnson describes some emails he had with Richard Dawkins:

Do you think the age of our planet is closer to 4000 million years or closer to 100,000 years?

The former, but with the caveat that I have made no effort to investigate the subject personally and am merely accepting the current scientific consensus. In lectures, I tell the audience that I assume that the earth is about 4.6 billion years old. If Darwinists would like to have more time, however, I am happy to grant them 46 billion years, or 460 billion. Regardless of the time available, their system of evolution cannot work because it never gets started with the essential job of creating new complex specified genetic information. See my review of Paul Davies’ book on the origin of life.

I would have more confidence in the dating evidence if I were assured that the scientists can tell the difference between speculative philosophy and empirical investigation. In this I tend to share the concern of Richard Lewontin, who wrote in the New York Review of Books: “Who am I to believe about quantum physics if not Steven Weinberg, or about the solar system if not Carl Sagan? What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and [Edward O.] Wilson tell them about evolution.” What worries me is that so many physicists and geologists seem to think that the peppered moth or finch beak observations illustrate a mighty creative force that produced moths and birds in the first place. I hope that they apply more rigorous standards for evaluating evidence when they are estimating the age of the earth.

Here he seems to say that he accepts an old Earth, but he qualifies it with all sorts of wishy-washiness that gives him an easy escape hatch. There’s not really much arguing with that position; he can play both sides of the fence with ease, claiming not really to be a young Earther, but not really an old Earther either. And of course he deftly deflects the issue by segueing into an attack on the standards of the scientific community. When looking at the Wedge strategy as outlined in his Touchstone interview, his stance, or rather his lack of a stance, makes perfect sense. Johnson is one slick dude.

Now let’s see what he says in his recent (from May 2004) article in Touchstone:

I have to say I was favorably impressed, although I know that I invite disapproval by praising a book written by creationists. I continue to take no position on either the age of the earth or the origin of the Grand Canyon, but the exquisite photographs of canyon scenery are exceptionally well presented, and the accompanying articles, including several by persons with doctorates in geology or related sciences from well-regarded universities, are reasonable and informative–at least if you concede the possibility that an argument for biblical creationism can be based on anything more worthy than ignorance and prejudice.

(Emphasis added.)

The article is about a recent dust-up concerning a YEC book on the Grand Canyon being sold in the National Park Service’s bookstore alongside of actual science books. (PZ Myers shows here that the book makes no attempt at disguising its extreme religious views.) Johnson loves this sort of thing; it plays right into his attempt to stereotype scientists as a bunch of dogmatists trying to shut down discussion. Of course he doesn’t explore any of the pertinent issues, such as whether it’s appropriate to have a religious book being sold in a government owned bookstore. But I don’t want to discuss the whole article, except to point out something I’ve noticed about Phillip Johnson’s argumentative style. Johnson employs a tactic that is so frequently used, so well-worn, that I suspect he’s had it written up and made into a poster that hangs on his wall along side his word processor. Whenever he’s at a loss for words, he just looks up at it and gets inspiration. The tactic works like this:

  • Claim that the evidence supports your position. (cf. “Both sides to the dispute are trying to advance or protect the truth as they see it, and the outcome should depend upon the evidence, not the labels.”)
  • When confronted with the fact that the evidence actually supports the opposite position, claim that the evidence isn’t really evidence at all, but is actually just a bunch of presuppositions, dogmatism, and wishful thinking.
    (cf. “I only wish that the rulers of science would state their precommitment to naturalism openly and defend it forthrightly, instead of hiding naturalism in the definition of “science” and then presenting as observed or experimentally tested fact conclusions that are actually derived from naturalistic philosophy.”)

Now Johnson of course doesn’t take a position here, but he gives us a taste of logic that he uses to attack his hated enemies, like the theory of evolution or the idea that HIV causes AIDS. And it’s the kind of logic that can be used to prove almost anything, because the evidence itself can be arbitrarily tossed-out simply by declaring it to be the result of philosophical bias. Just so long as you don’t apply the same standard to yourself, you can still claim to be on the side of the evidence.

Now that I think about it, Johnson has another signature tactic that he employs here: Talk about how mainstream scientists are in disagreement about this or that, as if the entire field is in total disarray, which is somehow supposed to make your own wild alternative look plausible. I don’t know the current state of Grand Canyon geology (and neither does Johnson), but I do know that Noah’s flood is not among the theories under consideration. That’s not due to dogmatic bias, as Johnson would probably have it, but because the flood story is indefensible, as too is the notion that the Canyon is only 4000 years old. Pretty much everything we know about modern science would have to be wrong in order for flood geology to be right. It’s just that bad.

And that brings me to the point I wanted to address, which is that Johnson’s position on the age of the Earth, which is that he has no position, is downright ridiculous. First and foremost, the age of the Earth is most certainly not irrelevant to evolution, which is the issue that Johnson wishes to focus on. While not a part of evolutionary biology itself, an ancient Earth is a necessary prerequisite in order to provide the vast amounts of time necessary for diversity to evolve. If the Earth were really only 6000 years old, then large-scale evolution would be impossible, and we could just drop the whole thing right there. On the other hand, if the Earth is really as ancient as geologists say it is, then creationists like Johnson need to somehow explain natural history sans Noah’s flood. And I mean explain it, not just claim (falsely) that it doesn’t square with evolutionary theory. Why should fossils be ordered the way they are if Johnson’s preferred theory, whatever it may be, is the correct one? YECs can at least explain the fossil record as the result of a worldwide flood, fraught with difficulty though it may be. Old-Earth creationists (and other IDists) need to come up with a consistent explanation of their own, something Johnson has never bothered to do.

Secondly, the age of the Earth is certainly not irrelevant to creationists. Leading YECs will attack old-Earth creationists with as much bitterness and acrimony as they attack evolutionists. It’s a major, major issue for them. As they see it, if you doubt the Bible’s plain meaning, which tells us that the Earth is young, then you may as well quit your religion and start eating babies like the atheists do. YECs spend an inordinate amount of time going after what they consider compromising Christians who are willing to imperil their mortal souls by flirting with an old Earth. (See for example Operation: Refuting Compromise by our pals at Answers in Genesis.)

That makes it really hard to believe that Johnson is sincere when he says he has no position on the age of the Earth. The fundamentalist circles that he hangs out in certainly don’t think it’s a minor issue, nor one that can be ignored. Johnson would have to be unique among fundamentalist Christian antievolutionists not to have given it a great deal of thought. His reply to Richard Dawkins claiming that he hasn’t looked into the issue is hard to take seriously – if you are interested in the “origins” debate at all, the age of the Earth is not only something you should look into, it’s the first thing you should look into. Subsequent arguments about evolution depend critically on how old the Earth is. And it’s not that hard of a thing to look into either. This is one area where the creationist view and the mainstream view are so vastly different that the evidence can clearly adjudicate between them. You don’t need to be an expert to understand evidence that the Earth is a good deal older than 6000 years.

So why is Johnson so wishy-washy about this not-so-irrelevant subject? There are two obvious reasons. The first is that Johnson’s biggest contribution to the antievolutionist movement is the “Big Tent” strategy. He wants to combine all opponents of mainstream evolution, from YECs on up to the people who simply think God intervened in evolution from time to time, together into one big happy family. That provides what any political movement needs most, which is sheer numbers; their differences can be worked out later, according to Johnson. Part of the difficulty with this strategy is that the bulk of creationists in America (and probably the majority of ID advocates) are of the young-Earth variety. And as we’ve seen, these people tend to be quite inflexible about their views concerning Genesis. If Johnson wants to keep his Big Tent from tearing itself apart with infighting and squabbling, he cannot allow ID to become an old-Earth theory. He has to either make it a young-Earth theory, or debase it to the point where it says nothing about the age of the Earth one way or the other.

The second reason is that ID was conceived, at least in part, as something that could pass constitutional muster when mandated for public school science classes. We’ve seen over the last few years a pretty steady parade of ID attempts at altering public school curricula. But the Supreme Court has ruled, in a series of decisions, that teaching creationism is unconstitutional. So if they’re going to get ID taught in pubic schools (over the objections of those know-nothing scientists), then ID cannot be equated with creationism. Few things would bring about ID’s legal demise faster than identifying it with YEC. ID advocates have in fact tried to use the young-Earth provision of YEC as means of distinguishing ID from creationism. See for example the way in which creationism is defined by Discovery Institute fellows DeWolf, Meyer, and DeForrest in Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curricula: A Legal Guidebook:

Furthermore, the propositional content of design theory differs significantly from that of scientific creationism. Scientific creationism is committed to the following propositions:116

(1) There was a sudden creation of the universe, energy, and life from nothing.

(2) Mutations and natural selection are insufficient to bring about the development of all living kinds from a single organism.

(3) Changes of the originally created kinds of plants and animals occur only within fixed limits.

(4) There is a separate ancestry for humans and apes.

(5) The earth’s geology can be explained via catastrophism, primarily by the occurrence of a worldwide flood.

(6) The earth and living kinds had a relatively recent inception (on the order of ten thousand years).

These six tenets taken jointly define scientific creationism for legal purposes. The Court in Edwards ruled that taken jointly this group of propositions may not be taught in public school science classrooms.

Notice that the last two propositions are characteristic of YEC and not necessarily of other forms of creationism. The authors go on to define ID as consisting of a few meaningless and redundant propositions, with the age of the Earth being noticeably absent. Since DeWolf et al are using this as the legal basis on which they hope to get ID taught in public schools, they know good and well that if ID were equated with “scientific creationism”, they’d be sunk. That’s why ID advocates get quite defensive and angry if you equate the two.

So as we see, if Johnson comes out in favor of an old Earth, he risks alienating the critical YEC contingent of the ID movement. Yet if he comes out in favor of a young Earth, he risks ruining the ID movement’s overarching goal of getting ID taught in public school science classes. So instead he adopts an implausible pretense of sitting on the fence, not really knowing and not really caring. So much for evidence and discourse.