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October 21, 2004

The War Against Science?

I have stated before that I think a naive secularist historiagraphy that manufactures a "War Against Science" is fallacious, that myths like the church's "burning of Galileo" (almost certainly a conflation of the burning of Giordano Bruno, a minor figure who was replaced in the public mind with a major one) issue out of a post-Protestant mindset which utilizes anti-Catholic polemics initially popularized by Reformation thinkers and now expanded to encompass all of Christianity. Ironically, aside from a few hold outs like Bob Jones University, I doubt that most Protestants have much affinity or knowledge of the robust anti-Catholic demonology associated with their traditions. But in any case, the past is not the present. I have hinted before that I believe that some of the theorists of "Intelligent Design" seem intent on undermining science and sparking a war of faith against science.

Here is Philip Johnson, doyen of the Intelligent Design movement, being interviewed about post-modernism:


CJ: Much has been said about the impact of our entering the post-modern era. How do you anticipate post-modernism will impact the debate?

Phil: ...I think it's positive, on the whole, in the sense that it focuses attention on assumptions that people make, and there really isn't one single kind of rational system that can combine everything in the world. Then, where it becomes excessive is when it verges over into nihilism or indifference ideas...taken in the right doses, it's a healthy antidote to excessive rationalism; taken in overdose, it poisons the mind. But you find the notion that non-Western ways of thinking must be treated with respect, that even ancient traditions of tribes may have their truth value--these are healthy developments, I think, and they help open up the universities to challenges to the dominant scientific materialism. So yeah, it's having a big effect and I think, on the whole, a healthy one.


Johnson in sensible in cautioning against excessive post-modern(ish) thinking (Derridaism for example), and I do believe he his correct that one should examine and expose one's assumptions. His response, interpreted narrowly is not something I would normally object to, the world of values and the world facts should be mixed judiciously, with caution. Nevertheless, I think Johnson and company are playing with fire. They are using post-modernism to win battles, it is part of the sensibility that gives them the commanding heights when they argue for "equal time" in the classroom. Also, I think we can intuit which "ancient traditions of tribes" Johnson wishes to extoll. The irony is that the Christian-monotheistic tradition has often been given credit for the rise of science becauses of its idea of a unitary harmonious universe ordered by a Creator, subject to invariant laws. In any case, I think the important point is not to neglect that Johnson believes that on the whole post-modernism is healthy.

This might not be isolated, though I am not familiar with the current mood in sophisticated Christian philosophical circles. I saw a book at the library titled The Twilight of Atheism. I checked it out, but I haven't had time to read it. I've skimmed enough to pick out some basic errors from the angle of data collection1, but one thing I have noted in several passages, and confirmed by examining the index, the author seems to believe atheism is irrelevant in a post-modern world. The assumption is that post-modernism is basically already triumphant. If anyone has read the book in full they can correct me for missing something, but this is a troubling development, because Christian philosophers often have an indirect influence on the direction of clerical training.2

All I can say is that is that it might be true that the Nothing will swallow up your enemies, but it never stops in its march. Count me as part of the remnant who still hews to the vision of the Enlightenment, and on this count, I stand with many theists like Martin Gardner.

Related: An old post where I examine the intellectual backgrounds of some Intelligent Design theorists.

1- Near the end he asserts of Korea that "49% of the population was Christian" (in the year 2000). Actually, that is 1/2 of the 1/2 of the population that is religiously affiliated is Christian. You can confirm this by checking CIA Factbook. Either he lied to bolster his thesis about the inexorable rise of religion in the post-modern world, or he doesn't have a more than a superficial grasp of worldwide religious change (the 49% figure often shows up in many places, like The World Almanac, because they simply exclude those who don't profess an affiliation from the total).

2- From page 218: "Reacting against the simplistic overstatements of the Enlightenment, postmodernity has stressed the limits to human knowledge, and encouraged a toleration of those who diverge from 'one size fits all' philosophy of modernity. The world in which we live is now is seen as a place in which nothing is certain, nothing guaranteed, and nothing is unquestionably given."

Posted by razib at 11:08 AM