Part 1: The Limits of Scientism
The public conversation about the evidence for design in nature has grown more heated of late even as it has grown more complicated. While newspaper reporters continue to serve up easily digestible sound bites, the controversy has developed into one far more variegated than any simple clash between evolution and creationism, let alone science and religion.
A recent flashpoint in the debate serves well to illustrate. Iowa State University Astronomy Professor Guillermo Gonzalez was denied tenure last spring despite what was arguably the single most distinguished record of publication and citation in his department. ISU physics professor John Hauptman, who supported the decision to terminate Gonzalez’s employment after the spring 2008 semester, described Gonzalez’s record of achievement this way: “He is very creative, intelligent and knowledgeable, highly productive scientifically and an excellent teacher.” Why was Gonzalez denied tenure by the department of physics and astronomy? Hauptman suggested that it was Gonzalez’s work, The Privileged Planet, that played the decisive role. Two other ISU professors, also opponents of Gonzalez, told a similar story to World magazine, conceding that The Privileged Planet played a key role in the decision.
Gonzalez did not present his Privileged Planet argument to his classes. And as for the substance of the argument itself, his Templeton Foundation proposal for the book project was cogent enough to persuade prominent researchers to select it for funding, including Max Tegmark, John Barrow, and atheists Peter Atkins and Michael Ruse. Then ISU tacitly endorsed Gonzalez’s work on it by administering his Templeton grant for the project while he was writing it. And when the book was finished, several prominent scientists endorsed or favorably reviewed the book, including Cambridge’s Simon Conway Morris, Harvard’s Owen Gingerich, and a vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society, David Hughes.
Keep in mind that ISU recently promoted to full professor Gonzalez’s chief opponent at ISU, an atheist religion professor named Hector Avalos, who in a 2005 book argued that the Bible is worse in some ways than Mein Kampf. Thus, the university would appear to possess a well developed appreciation for academic freedom. What about Gonzalez’s book, then, was apparently beyond the pale even for them?
The Privileged Planet argues that a purposive cause is a better explanation for certain features of our cosmic habitat, over against the idea that our universe is merely one of the lucky universes among an ensemble of universes. For many at ISU, this was an impermissible thought for an academic scientist to articulate in public. As Hauptman explained in a June 2 essay in The Des Moines Register, the decision boiled down to the question, “What is science?”
Iowa State’s attack on Gonzalez’s intellectual freedom is so naked that it has brought to Gonzalez’s side even critics of intelligent design, such as historian of science Edward B. Davis, who recently offered a spirited defense of the astronomer at the American Scientific Affiliation’s online discussion board.
According to the journalistic trope popularized by the classic but fictional film ‘Inherit the Wind,’ Bible thumping fundamentalists stifle the intellectual freedom of enlightened scientists. The Iowa State case could hardly be more different from that stereotype. Gonzalez’s argument makes no appeal to Scriptural authority, assumes the standard 14 billion year cosmic evolutionary model, and does not even treat biological evolution. And here it is not religious fundamentalists who have led the attack on academic freedom but people such as Hector Avalos, who is seemingly bent on purging even the scent of religion from the public square.
One might assume that the Gonzalez case is an exception to what has otherwise been a straightforward origins controversy involving two largely stable and opposing camps. In fact, the larger debate consists of a dizzying array of shifting alliances, making it a challenge to find any simple way to characterize the field of battle. Most prominently in the debate we find an alliance of atheists and some theists defending the creative power of Darwinian natural selection to generate the diversity of all life around us. Although at odds over the existence of God, both hold to a common rule to exclude God from the work of science. This rule, called methodological naturalism or methodological materialism, insists that a scientific explanation must invoke only impersonal or mechanistic causes. When they are asked, “What is science?,” they answer with one voice, “Methodological materialism.”
But while atheists and theists in this alliance make common cause against critics of Darwinism, there exists an obvious inner tension beneath the surface agreement. Some atheists, like Richard Dawkins, believe that methodological materialism describes reality as such, rather than merely defining the boundaries of science. On this view, science rules out the existence of God. Other atheists, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould, argue that science rules neither for nor against God, but remains astutely neutral. Many prominent scientists who are outspoken theists adopt this view.
But then we find a subset of theists in this alliance breaking with the atheists to argue that a teleological process (alternately referred to as purpose or design or formal causation or creative reason) best explains things like the origin of our universe fourteen billion years ago or the fine tuning of the physical constants of nature to allow for life (relying on much of the same evidence that Gonzalez set forth). Suddenly these same theists who had gone on record supporting methodological materialism sound more like proponents of intelligent design (ID).
As for those who see clear evidence of design in nature, they are a loose-knit and multiform group of scientists and scholars who define the core tenet of ID as the broad claim that certain features of the natural world are best explained by reference to an intelligent cause. Some design theorists focus on physics and cosmology, others on chemistry and biology, others on comprehensive cross-disciplinary design arguments. Still other scientists and scholars make arguments that fall under the above definition of intelligent design but eschew the intelligent design label.
Among biologists who self-identify as advocates of intelligent design, some embrace universal common descent, some are merely open to the idea, and some insist that the evidence points strongly away from it. In dealing with evidence within the natural world, some design theorists contrast design with chance and the laws of nature. For others (and this is the mainstream view among contemporary design theorists) the finely tuned laws of nature are themselves seen as one of the strongest cases for purposive design in the natural world.
Also part of the debate, of course, are the young earth creationists who begin with a six 24-hour day reading of the Genesis account and then seek to provide scientific evidence to support this reading. Many of these creationists make common cause with ID folk, but many of them also chastise design theorists for supporting evolution in any form, and for using scientific arguments that contradict a YEC reading of the Bible.
Are these YEC creationists the creationists? Should we distinguish Bible-based arguments from those design arguments not based on appeals to scriptural authority? Is Darwin-defender and prominent ID critic Kenneth Miller a creationist for seeing the designing work of the creator as the best explanation for the Big Bang and the fine-tuning of the physical constants of nature? He conceded as much in the 2005 Dover Intelligent Design trial even while arguing against intelligent design in biology. Is Miller pursuing pure reason when he insists on blind material causes for various features of the biological realm, but falling into muddled God-of-the-gaps reasoning when he considers design a reasonable and persuasive explanation for certain things in physics and cosmology? If we shut the door to design in biology, can we legitimately leave it open in physics and astronomy?
The apparent inconsistency begs for a deeper inquiry. To untangle an often tangled debate, we need to move beyond discussion of the proper definition of such words as science, creationism, and evolution and ask more fundamental questions such as: What, in principle, can the book of nature reveal about the cause or causes of its origin? Is it possible, even in principle, for human reason to detect design in the natural world? And more ambitiously still, can human reason applied to the natural world tell us anything about God?
We want to argue that the answer to each of these questions is yes, and then suggest some ways that this view of human reason can enrich our exploration both of the natural world and human culture. Happily, Pope Benedict XVI has provided useful reflections on these questions, reflections that move from the details of science to the philosophy of science, from physics to the metaphysics that undergirded the birth of physics as a scientific discipline. For Pope Benedict, the problem causing most of the confusion in the origins controversy centers around methodological materialism, a point he developed at some length in his now famous Regensburg Address.
The question of Islam’s relation to the West is a pressing one, of course, but in focusing on this element of the address, the mainstream media missed the fact that the Pope’s comments about Islam were but a minor premise in a more fundamental argument about the relationship of Christian faith and reason, an argument with clear implications for the ongoing debate about whether science supports theistic belief, contradicts it, or has little if anything to say about it.
For the Pope, we cannot achieve clarity in this controversy without a thoroughgoing critique of our modern conception of reason. The problem, in the Pope’s words, is “the modern self-limitation of reason,” a self-limitation that amounts to self-strangulation. As he put it in his comments following a talk by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn at a Castle Gandolfo meeting last fall, we must be about the task of recovering a dimension of reason we have lost, without which “faith would be banished into a ghetto” and lose its significance.
As Pope Benedict is careful to note, his critique “has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age.” Instead, he calls for a “broadening [of] our concept of reason” to “disclose its vast horizons.”
As Benedict indicates, “This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology.” The empirical or Baconian element focuses on “nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty.” Francis Bacon (1561-1626) hoped to cut through the philosophical wrangling and mystification of the natural philosophers of his day by shifting the definition of science from what nature is to what we want nature to do. On his view, science must reduce its scope and aspirations, changing from a contemplative to an active approach to nature. To understand what nature really is, we must forcefully take it apart through experiment. As he put in his New Organon, nature must be considered “under constraint and vexed; that is to say, when by art and the hands of man she is forced out of her natural state, and squeezed and moulded,” “the nature of things betrays itself more readily under the vexations of art than in its natural freedom.”
The Cartesian element, Benedict explains, “presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature.” It is Platonic insofar as the reinvigoration of Plato in the Renaissance carried within it the Pythagorean tendency to see reality as fundamentally mathematical, a tendency that Descartes crafted into a new mathematized account of nature. Descartes thought he could overcome the skepticism of his time through the certainty of mathematics. To establish certainty, Descartes imagined nature to be essentially mathematical. Thus he argued, the most certain science of the human intellect, mathematics, exactly matched the very being of nature. What could be more air-tight against skepticism?
But if it was a victory, it was a Pyrrhic one. To triumph thus over skepticism in this way, we must jettison everything about reason and nature that is not amenable to mathematical analysis. Reason becomes more powerful, like a beam of light pulled to a point through a magnifying glass, but the gain in intensity leaves large areas of reality unilluminated. Whatever cannot be illuminated in mathematical terms is thrown overboard into the vast sea of subjectivity. Yoked to the Baconian element, this approach has led to the conclusion, as Benedict explained, that “only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific.” From here it is only a short step to scientism, methodological materialism on the way to metaphysical materialism, the conviction that matter is all there is.
But affirmation of the method does not have to lead to scientism. If we understood “scientific” to mean simply whatever knowledge can be gained using the mathematical-empirical method, then little harm would be done. We would clearly recognize that we were viewing reality according to a certain, well-defined lens. But too often the modern mind equates science thus defined with reason and knowledge themselves. The self-limitation is forgotten, leading to the peculiarly modern belief that what cannot be reduced to the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements is non-rational or even irrational. This is scientism and, according to Pope Benedict, “by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question.” Again, little harm would be done if we understood that God was excluded from this constricted mode of reason, but not from consideration by reason in its natural state. But scientism either forgets this crucial point or, in remembering, quietly assigns everything outside its scope a depreciated status: “Well that may be true enough after a fashion, but it’s not science.” Many who speak this way seem serenely unaware that such claims are themselves unscientific according to the rules of scientism. As Benedict notes, scientism lacks the resources to defend its own premises. Nor can it give an account of why science succeeds to the degree that it does. Using mathematics is one thing; but explaining why mathematics is such an effective scientific instrument is quite another. The constricted reason of scientism can do the first, but it cannot do the second.
Thinking about the nature of purely formal systems, about how and why they map onto reality, and about the nature of the mind itself revealed in such thinking – all of this undergirds the Platonic-Cartesian element of the modern scientific synthesis. But since such work is not essentially mathematical (rather it is about mathematics), it fails the Platonic-Cartesian test of scientific rationality. Scientism’s dismissals are, thus, self-refuting.
Those dismissals are also vacuous, as if affixing the label non-science to an argument tells us anything meaningful about the strength of the argument. The “it isn’t science” response to contemporary design arguments is neither a reasonable nor a particularly stimulating reply. In such cases, the mathematical/empirical approach has degenerated from a way of thinking into a way of stopping thought, a Procrustean bed for chopping off and discarding whatever doesn’t fit within its narrow confines.
Part II: Beyond Scientism: Nature’s Genius
A central feature of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy has been his unsparing critique of what he calls “the modern self-limitation of reason.” We find it, among other places, in his now famous Regensburg address, and in a meeting with his former students last fall at Castle Gandolfo. The self-limitation he speaks of generally goes by the name methodological naturalism or (where the method has lost any sense of its artificial limits) scientism.
Scientism (not to be confused with science) leaves no room for contemporary design arguments, and it reduces the Christian faith to the realm of the non-rational. As noted above, Pope Benedict’s response has been to urge the recovery of a dimension of reason we have lost, without which “faith would be banished into a ghetto” and lose its significance.
The scientific method as understood by the contemporary mind calls for researchers to seek mathematical/empirical explanations for the things around us. The proponents of scientism further insist that such explanations mark the limits of reason. And yet, as Pope Benedict XVI has noted, scientism lacks even the resources to explain why the modern scientific method is fruitful. Why is mathematics so effective at describing the regularities of nature? And why is the human mind so well suited to understand the rational order of nature? To answer such questions we must move beyond the narrow confines of scientism.
Reflecting on the clarity and precision of higher mathematics, and its amazing effectiveness in the natural sciences, can stir in us the Platonic effect–one closer to Plato himself than to the Platonism of modernity. Plato thought that the study of mathematics could awaken the reasonable human soul from its slumber in carnality, lead it upwards to a contemplation of the order and harmony of the cosmos, and draw it inward to a contemplation of the soul capable of knowing that order. This double reflection (a kind of union between the human soul and the order and harmony of the heavens) is possible because there is a profound correlation between reason (in Greek, logos) in the human soul and the logos of the heavens. Without this correlation, there could be no science.
This expansion of the radius of reason is, for Plato, the fundamental experience necessary to becoming philosophic (rather than remaining merely a sophist, whose reason is tightly bound to the earth and the vagaries of human affairs). This expansion of reason is also natural. Recalling Benedict’s words, it entails an exhilarating natural disclosure, a revelation of the vast horizons of human reason as it explores the profound reason, the logos, of nature. This expansion explains how science is even possible; it therefore explains why the approach of scientism is powerful even if scientism itself cannot give an account of that power.
Modern science depends on the intelligibility of nature. It depends on, in Benedict’s words, this “correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature,” a correspondence between mind and thing. That this correspondence is given, not contrived, is what makes science a meaningful activity. If no such correspondence existed–if nature were mere random gibberish under its surface–then science of any kind would be entirely pointless, at best an impotent, entirely artificial projection of its own merely human logos upon an essentially meaningless natural canvas. Indisputably, science depends on the rational order, the logos, pre-existent in nature. And the logos in nature leads reasonably to consideration of the cause of this inherent intelligibility, the Logos, the intelligent cause of nature.
This is why Benedict regards the “inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry” as a decisive event for Christianity. This rapprochement presents “the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words, ‘In the beginning was the λόγος,'” a logos that reveals itself to the human logos both in nature and history.
This is no license to collapse the divine into the human, the supernatural into the natural. Divine reason and human reason, Divine Logos and human logos, the Pope reminds us, are not identical but analogous. As Benedict remarks, “The faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which—as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated—unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language.”
Scientism cannot see God because, by its own self-limitation, it excludes God. Expanded natural reason can see the wisdom of God in creation in accordance with the likeness in the analogy. Revelation discloses truths that for the most part reside in the “unlikeness” of the depths of the Divine Logos.
The implications of this multi-faceted debate summarized at the beginning should now be evident. First, the alliance between some atheists and theists cemented by common acceptance of methodological materialism is questionable. The demand of methodological materialism is written into the method, not into reality. It is definitional, not ontological. To identify it with reason itself, or nature itself, leads to the unwarranted conclusion that reason and science can only illuminate the material realm. Or to give a specific instance from the current debate, to say that Darwinism is science and the inference of intelligent design is mere religion (misunderstood as something beyond reason) is to construe evolutionary theory as a form of scientism. It restricts the possible reasonable explanations in historical biology to a reductionist and materialist framework. To say that historical biology permits only material causes merely reveals the self-limited form of reason of such an approach; it does not vindicate that approach.
Pointing this out is not a rejection of the importance of either chance processes or physical regularities in historical biology. But it does open up for consideration a type of cause not reducible to either of these types of explanation, namely intelligent causation. Indeed, the very possibility of grasping causes in biology depends upon a pre-existent logos in biological things. It follows that an understanding of reason and science expanded beyond the self-limitations of scientism might reveal much in living things that has been obscured.
Consider the example of genetic reductionism yoked to scientific materialism. Genetic reductionism is the idea that virtually everything about us can be explained by our genes. According to a common materialistic rendering of this view, we are the epiphenomenon of a blind process, natural selection working on genetic mutations. Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins makes the point in the starkest of terms in his book The Selfish Gene:
Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.
Dawkins, a strict Neo-Darwinist, takes DNA in isolation from the larger and almost unimaginably more sophisticated context necessary for DNA to express its functional meaning and purpose. Dawkins’ description may sound like good, hard-nosed science, but his reductionism leads him to ignore recent insights in biology that emphasize this larger biological context for DNA, insights that a growing number of structural biologists—including Franklin Harold, Richard Sternberg, Giuseppe Sermonti, and Brian Goodwin—have explicated in increasing detail in the peer-reviewed literature. Structuralism makes clear the grave problems for any attempts to explain the origin of biological form strictly by reference to genetic variation and natural selection. What these biologists are uncovering (and most, keep in mind, are not even making design arguments) is a biological realm of astonishing depth, harmony, and elegance, a world where supposedly non-coding regions of DNA turn out to code for unforeseen function, and where the boundary between form and information blurs in living information-processing systems without equal in the realm of human design.
Is Dawkins unaware of these developments? It seems unlikely. But his reductionism, coupled to his scientism, allows him to see only what reductionistic models consistent with scientism will allow him to see, thus cutting him off from an objective consideration of this intricate context and its larger implications for origins science. Thus, scientism is not only a problem for metaphysics. It’s a problem for science. Science at its best should be a search for the truth about the natural world, no holds barred, rather than merely a search for the best explanation consistent with philosophical materialism.
These considerations also call into question the approach of those who allow design in physics and cosmology while considering it off limits in biology. If they see evidence of the logos in physics, on what specifically methodological grounds can it be denied in biology? If design is apparent in the fine tuning of the physical constants of nature, then it is reasonable to be open at least to the possibility of evidence of it in biology, and not merely in the outworking of certain mathematically tractable regularities (i.e., the laws of physics) but in the origin of biological form and information not attributable to such regularities.
A rejection of reductionism as the be-all and end-all of science has led to fruitful work in structuralist biology. It also is bearing fruit for cross-disciplinary approaches in the historical sciences, approaches that focus on what Pope Benedict emphasized in his Regensburg address, the intelligibility of the natural world. Gonzalez’s The Privileged Planet (co-authored with philosopher Jay W. Richards) is a case in point. More recently, the two of us have extended Gonzalez and Richards’ cross-disciplinary approach into the realm of biology, and extended the logic common to contemporary design arguments. Such arguments have focused on one narrow quality of intelligence, its ability to choose among options for a future end. But agents have other characteristics. Some agents exhibit not merely intelligence but genius. And from a theistic perspective, we should expect not merely signs of intelligence but also signs of genius in the natural world.
Borrowing and adapting Thomas Aquinas’s framework for considering the elements of beauty, we argue that those artistic works regarded as the products of genius across a variety of cultures both East and West possess four qualities to a high degree: depth, harmony, elegance, and clarity (where clarity involves, as in its root sense, not simple transparency but radiance). We do not argue that this is the only illuminating framework for considering what is common to works of genius, only that these elements of genius are widely recognized. Finally, we offer evidence that this signature of genius is visible in the natural world. First, biological life itself exhibits the marks of genius, particularly when one sets aside the blinders of genetic reductionism and explores the biological realm from the perspective of structuralist biology. Second, a range of evidence suggests that nature has been ingeniously ordered to allow for biological life, an order of great depth, harmony, and elegance, one in which the constants of physics, the particular qualities of the chemical order described by the Periodic Table of Elements, the unique and life-friendly qualities of carbon and water, all of these and other features of the natural world find their full meaning in biological life. Third, there is evidence of genius in the way the natural world appears ordered to allow humans, working at their maximum capacities, to plumb nature’s depths, much as a great work of literary genius is readable but also demands of its readers their complete attention, their full intellectual energies, if its riches are to be fully appreciated. The deep intelligibility of nature is not something philosophical materialism would lead us to expect, but it’s just what we could expect from the book of nature if it were written by an ingenious author.
Such a conclusion does not imply that nature will conform to some human standard of perfection, certainly not perfection in any narrow sense. (Think of the neoclassical critics of Shakespeare and their unities of time and place, or their rule against mingling the comic and the tragic.) Our experience with works of genius suggests that while certain elements of these works conform to our expectations, these works also routinely frustrate our expectations. In appreciating nature as a work of genius, we would, as the founders of modern science did, expect able and persistent researchers to discover hidden levels of order and meaning in the natural world. But we also would not be surprised to find things ordered differently in certain ways from how we might have ordered them if we had been given the task, a good motivation, incidentally, for experimentally testing our ideas about the natural world whenever possible, rather than assuming that our deductive conclusions about it are certain.
This argument to genius, of course, violates the modern taboo against mingling the arts and the sciences unless the intention is to subsume the arts under the sciences (usually by reducing art to an epiphenomenon of material processes). The argument also challenges a theological presupposition of many in this debate, for a legacy of reductionism is to encourage a watchmaker view of God’s relationship to the natural world, even among some who decry scientism. Unlike the biblical God, the watchmaker God has the good taste to remain, like the God of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, aloof from the Earth, paring his nails after finishing the work of speaking into existence the singularity in that first spinning place, complete with its fully gifted array of mathematically tractable regularities. But what if the Logos is livelier? What if his relationship to creation is more like a gardener to his garden, a musician to his instrument, a lover to his beloved, or in various ways like all of these as well as the watchmaker with his appreciation for the power of precise, mathematical regularities? What if, while appreciating what the watchmaker metaphor illuminates, we remembered its limitations and regarded God as an artist, a creative Genius without parallel or peer, and nature as his full-blooded and intricate drama?
Such a notion is only irrational if rationality has been artificially defined to exclude it from the outset in a mathematical-mechanical paradigm. The real offense against rationality is to declare the debate about the evidence for design in the natural world closed. Exploring these questions fully and openly will not end Western Civilization as we know it, never mind various Chicken Little claims to the contrary. To consider the evidence for design and genius in the natural world by unshackling reason and following the evidence is not a science-stopper, as it is sometimes claimed. Rather, it is the lifeblood of science. It allows for the possibility once again of not only grasping, but being grasped by, the inherent meaning-fullness of the natural order, including the sheer depth and genius of its intelligibility. This inherent intelligibility, this logos, is a sign of nature’s origin in an intelligence, in a Logos far beyond ours, even while our merely human logos bears some “real analogy” to the Divine Logos.
Focusing on the inherent intelligibility of nature not only allows for a more robust natural theology, it allows for one deeply rooted in scientific achievement, and indeed explains how science has been so wonderfully effective. The genius of scientific discovery is possible because of the inherent intelligibility of nature, a recognition that leads us from the logos of human genius, through the logos in nature, to the Logos, to the Genius, of nature.
Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt are authors of A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature. Wiker is a senior fellow of Discovery Institute and author of Moral Darwinism and The Mystery of the Periodic Table of Elements. Witt is a senior fellow of Discovery Institute and research fellow and writer in residence of Acton Institute.