I Disagree with Mac Johnson

Michael Egnor

Mac Johnson is a columnist at Human Events who writes columns with which I often agree. Last month he posted a column with which I, and many commentators on his blog, disagree. His column, Intelligent Design and Other Dumb Ideas, attacks a theory not held by any advocate of Intelligent Design. Perhaps I can help clear up his misunderstanding.
Intelligent Design in biology is a straightforward idea — one that Mr. Johnson, who is a medical researcher and is well acquainted with the methods of science, should have no trouble getting right. Understanding what advocates of intelligent design are saying is a necessary prelude to a thoughtful critique, which Mr. Johnson has not yet offered.

Intelligent Design is the theory that some aspects of biological structure and function are best explained as the consequence of intelligent agency. That’s it. It’s a modest concept, and it’s caused a firestorm because it challenges dogmatic materialistic concepts that have crept into science over the past century or so. This materialistic dogma, most evident in Darwinism, utterly precludes intelligent agency as a scientific explanation in biology. This exclusion of even the possibility of intelligent design in biology is a philosophical dogma, not a scientific conclusion.
Mr. Johnson misunderstands Intelligent Design theory. To wit, he writes:

A few short years ago, nobody had ever heard of “Intelligent Design”.

The inference that intelligent agency is discernible in living things (and in nature as a whole) has been held by virtually all philosophers and scientists dating back to antiquity. Greek philosophers understood the intelligent agency as the logos, and Judeo-Christian scientists and philosophers understood the Logos in theological terms. The Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution were based the inference that there was design in the universe and that man could understand it using systematic investigation. Modern science arose from the design inference. All of the great scientists of the Scientific Revolution — Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, Linnaeus, Faraday, Maxwell, and Pasteur (among many others) — believed that intelligent design was discernible in nature. The inference to design was the basis — the indispensable basis — for modern science. The recent Intelligent Design movement is a restatement of the inference that gave us modern science. It’s not new.
The inference to design was excluded from many areas of science (such as biology) only in the later half of the 20th century. It wasn’t excluded for scientific reasons — if anything, modern science has shown us remarkable evidence for biological design — such as the genetic code and nanotechnology inside cells — that is even more compelling evidence for intelligent design that what was known to scientists in the past. The inference to design was excluded from biology for ideological reasons. The rise of atheism and materialism in the 19th and 20th centuries brought an atheist-materialist philosophical bias to our scientific understanding of nature. The bias was itself unscientific: only non-intelligent mechanical explanations were accepted, regardless of the evidence.
Mr. Johnson continues:

… [until] ten years ago, ID had enough confidence and honesty to go by its birth name, “Creationism.” Whereas today, it has been dressed up in a lab coat and a mail order Ph.D. and is trying to pass itself off as a scientific theory, thus the sudden re-branding as “Intelligent Design.”

Intelligent design is not creationism, and it is not derived from creationism. Creationism is the view that Genesis is literally true as science. Yet the historic inference to design, dating from the Greeks to scientists in modern times, wasn’t based on Genesis, but was based on the rather obvious inference that there was a kind of ‘reason’ in nature. Virtually all scientists and philosophers throughout history have attributed that ‘reason’ to intelligent agency. Intelligent design theory is the modern version of the theory that intelligent agency is discernible in some aspects of nature, using the scientific method. Intelligent Design is not biblical literalism, anymore than Plato’s or Aristotle’s inference to design in nature was based on the Hebrew Bible. Intelligent Design and creationism are not the same, and one is not derivative of the other. Mr. Johnson is smart enough to know this.
Furthermore, Mr. Johnson’s comment about “mail order PhD’s” is objectionable. Advocates of Intelligent Design theory such as Dr. Michael Behe, Dr. William Dembski, Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, Dr. Jonathan Wells, Dr. Steven Meyer, and Dr. Paul Nelson have quite real PhD’s, and over 700 scientists with real PhD’s have signed a statement dissenting from Darwinism. One doubts that Mr. Johnson would fare well in a debate with any of these scientists whose credentials he denigrates. Few prominent Darwinists are willing to debate them.
Mr. Johnson’s slur denying the “honesty” of Intelligent Design advocates is particularly reprehensible. Many scientists (e.g. Dr. Gonzalez and Dr. Sternberg) have paid a very high professional price for speaking out honestly about their support for intelligent design. Whether or not Mr. Johnson agrees with their scientific views, their integrity is above reproach.
It’s ironic that Mr. Johnson, who understands so little about Intelligent Design, would accuse others of dishonesty and academic fraud. I challenge Mr. Johnson to name the prominent Intelligent Design advocates who have a “mail order PhD” and have been dishonest in their views. If he can’t, he should publicly retract the slur.
I’ll deal with the other issues that Mr. Johnson raises in my next post.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.