Monday, May 31, 2010

Darwinism's Commitment to Materialism

The contemporary Darwinian establishment is philosophically committed to naturalism (or materialism) as a worldview and modus operandi. This cannot be stated too strongly. The natural world is all that can be studied and must, by itself, provide all the answers to scientific questions. Darwinian naturalism takes two forms: metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism is the philosophical claim that only material states exist; there is nothing immaterial, spiritual, or supernatural. Methodological naturalism is the means of scientific inquiry, given the presupposition of metaphysical naturalism (namely, that what does not exist cannot be detected). This methodology can also be stated in supposedly agnostic fashion. A scientist claims that she is not ruling out God and the supernatural, but that science qua science should not attempt to study such things. Therefore, only natural explanations are allowable; only materialistic explanations are christened “scientific.”

While methodological naturalism appears modest and agnostic to the untutored, it is a ruse for metaphysical materialism. Methodological naturalism assumes that even if God or anything supernatural exists, this cannot be evident in the universe. It thereby issues a metaphysical veto against any empirical evidence for the immaterial—such as the soul, God, or the supernatural—regardless of the evidence that may be available. This is hardly a neutral strategy. If the mandate of science is to follow the evidence wherever it leads, and then to select the best hypothesis for any given field of study, methodological naturalism betrays science itself.[1] The prevailing naturalism of biology is evident in this pronouncement by Richard Lewontin, an eminent biologist and defender of Darwinism.

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.[2]

As Philip Johnson has cogently argued in his pivotal book, Darwin on Trial (1991), if one is committed to naturalism a priori, something like Darwinism must be true, since naturalism disallows the existence of any intelligence behind the origin and development of life.[3] Before this, but with less cultural impact, cultural critic Richard Weaver made the same essential claim, arguing that if naturalism is the only allowable worldview, then alternatives to Darwinism would not be considered.[4] Even during Darwin’s day, George Mitvart, a distinguished professor of biology, claimed that Darwin presupposed naturalism in order to explain away any religious realities.[5]

When Lewontin warns of “the Divine Foot in the door,” he means that anything but “absolute materialism” will undo science itself by allowing for haphazard divine interventions into the natural order that would subvert the regularities required for scientific observation and theorizing. That claim will be a taken up in the next chapter.

If empirical scientific study regarding the origins of life is separated from “absolute materialism,” the possibilities for explanation expand tremendously. This “wedge” strategy—i.e., introducing nonmaterialistic considerations into the investigation—is central in reopening the debate concerning the best explanation for the origins and development of life on earth.[6] As Philip Johnson puts it, for naturalists, “In the beginning were the particles,” and the particles had to do all the creating. This stands opposed to the biblical claim that “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1).[7]

Chesterton noted that the Christian need not be committed to a completely static creation, because natural development occurs in God’s world; but the materialist must not allow any element of design to creep into his theory: “The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle.”[8]

[1] On methodological naturalism, see Cornelius Hunter, Darwin’s Proof (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books 2003), 147; William Dembski, The Design Inference (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 171-72; Alvin Plantinga, "Methodological Naturalism." Origins and Design 18(1) (1996): 18-27; Methodological Naturalism? Part 2: Philosophical Analysis” Origins & Design 18:2 (1997). We will return to a proper sense of science in the next chapter.

[2] Richard Lewontin, ‘Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review, January 9, 1997, 31.

[3] Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial, 2nd ed. (Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

[4] Richard Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time (orig. pub, 1964; Bryn Mahr, PA: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995), 139-140.

[5] See the discussion in Benjamin Wiker, The Darwin Myth (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2009), 124-130.

[6] Phillip Johnson explains this strategy in depth in The Wedge of Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

[7] Phillip Johnson, Reason in the Balance (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), chapter five.

[8] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York, Image Books, 1908), chapter two.


Brandon1988 said...

The argument of the naturalist appears highly circular. It is claimed that the "material world is all that can be known because this is all that can be quantitatively measured and sensed".

Interesting how this argument neglects to mention that the foundation of the material world is based on unseen principles (ie mathematics). Where, pray tell, do these originate?

Dr. Polhemus said...

Some scientists do engage in a sort of circular logic. Others, like myself, became scientists as believers interested in learning how the world works. After years of study we concluded that the evidence for anything supernatural was quite weak, while the evidence that the world operates without supernatural intervention is strong.

You can find scientists that have put predetermined restrictions on what they are willing to consider, but you can also find many scientists who approached the issue of God with an open mind, assessed the data, and became atheists.

Doug Groothuis said...

Dr P.:

Whatever individuals scientists may do, it is unfair to eliminate the possibility of design in nature by a mind of metaphysical fiat: design is not scientific. Darwin supposedly defeated design by empirical evidence. Why not consider whether there is new evidence against his naturalistic understanding?

1. Have you read the better ID material: Stephen Meyer, Mike Behe, William Dembski?

2. Have you ever considered the evidence for miracles in the New Testament? See arguments by William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, and so on.

Dr. Polhemus said...

Many scientists are open to whatever the evidence shows, and we do consider new evidence. However, the work of Stephen Meyer, Mike Behe, William Dembski and others is not convincing. I have read much of it myself, and it is full of vague arguments and basic misunderstandings. I hope they eventually produce serious academic work to support the claims in their popular books and press releases. Right now they are not presenting a strong case, even in their academic papers.

I have also considered evidence for miracles in the new testament and find it unpersuasive. Being a scientist, I've looked at the scientific issues in much greater depth. The scientific evidence convinced me that the universe does not have a supernatural component.

Not everyone who disagrees with ID is wearing philosophical blinders. Many scientists disagree with ID based on a serious consideration of the arguments and the evidence.

RkBall said...

"After years of study we concluded that the evidence for anything supernatural was quite weak".

Perhaps the best evidence for the supernatural comes not from (scientific) study but from experience. The apostle Paul had positive knowledge of the supernatural, as did indeed all the apostles, and as indeed do all Christians led of the Spirit. After all, a fountain within is pretty hard to ignore and impossible to deny. Regeneration itself (the mark of a Christian) is both supernatural and miraculous -- the effect of a divine agency. It may not submit to scientific scrutiny, but, like consciousness, and the existence of abstracts, that is no reason to deny it.

You don't find the Spirit by peering into either a microscope or a telescope (although you might spot a fingerprint or two!).

Jim Weaver said...

Dr. Polhemus --- what kind of scientist are you?

Dr. Polhemus said...

Jim, I am a physicist. My research is on quantum aspects of black holes. ID proponents talk quite a bit about information theory and probability, two things I understand pretty well. I'm looking for some actual, correct calculations of probability or information content in ID arguments, and I've been disappointed. That is why I have found ID arguments unconvincing, not because of a philosophical objection to their conclusion.

Steve Perry said...

Dr. Polhemus,
Have you read anything from Bernard Espagnat? He makes a strong case for the metaphysical from the quantum perspective. I think the problem with the naturalist assumption is that it fails to acknowledge other forms of inquiry concerning knowledge. Certain aspects of reality do not submit themselves to quantitative analysis. That doesn't mean if something cannot be measured it is not real. Geology, history etc. are premised upon unrepeatable events yet we acknowledge them as true. I think you are correct that not all scientists are unaware of their philosophical commitments. Sometimes I have to ask though if those commitments are truly justified rather than convenient.