Phillip E. Johnson (1940-2019), Some Reflections
Editor’s note: Phillip E. Johnson, Berkeley law professor and author of Darwin on Trial and other books, died on November 2. Dr. Dembski’s many books include Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information. A mathematician and philosopher, he serves on the Board of Directors of Discovery Institute.
My friend and colleague Phil Johnson died this past Saturday, November 2, 2019. It was with sadness that I learned the news. I’d like in this post to reflect on his life and work, as well as to relate some more personal interactions that I had with him. I was privileged to organize the festschrift volume in Phil’s honor, titled Darwin’s Nemesis, which came out in 2006. Let me start this reflection with my introductory remarks about Phil from that volume. I’ll then add some further reflections afterward.
===INTRO TO DARWIN’S NEMESIS (lightly edited)===
Early in the morning on April 22, 2004, Phillip Johnson’s wife, Kathie, led him, unsuspecting, into a Biola University conference room where he was greeted with a standing ovation from people who were his friends from all over the world. One by one, these people thanked Phil for his pivotal role in their lives and went on to deliver speeches summarizing their written contributions to what now has become this festschrift volume in his honor, Darwin’s Nemesis.
Later that evening, Phil was again surprised to be the guest of honor at a large banquet, where he was the inaugural recipient and namesake of The Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth, an award honoring the lifetime achievements of an individual who has radically expanded the scope of academic freedom and truth seeking. The banquet also kicked off a twoday conference at Biola University titled “Intelligent Design and the Future of Science.” Hundreds of scientists, teachers and lay people attended this conference.
Those of us who organized this event decided that the best way to honor our friend would be to bring together Phil’s closest colleagues and simply “turn them loose.” It was a treat to sit back and listen to Phil’s colleagues speak of his accomplishments and impact on their lives, and it was gratifying to witness their eloquence and passion in describing the master. Phil’s close friend and Biola protégé, John Mark Reynolds, lauded his mentor as the “Wizard of Berkeley” and likened him to Tolkien’s Gandalf leading his followers to destroy the ring of Scientific Naturalism. On the other side, Michael Ruse, Johnson’s best “enemy,” undressed down to a T-shirt emblazoned with Darwin’s face and exclaimed that he was “Darwin-man,” adding that whereas “God had put Phillip Johnson on this earth to do good and spread light,” he had been put there to “make Phillip Johnson’s life that much more uncomfortable.”
The celebration in April 2004 was the happy conclusion to what all of us in the intelligent design (ID) community knew was long overdue, namely, a suitable tribute to the man who was the ID movement’s chief architect and guiding light. In particular, during the years leading up to these festivities, colleagues and I conversed at length about what kind of lifetime achievement award or book publication would be worthy of honoring Phillip Johnson and his accomplishments. Through the tireless efforts of faculty, students and staff at Biola University, the financial support of the Servants Trust, and the enthusiasm of InterVarsity Press, Phil’s closest colleagues were able to honor him with the inaugural Liberty and Truth award and now, with the publication of this festschrift volume, Darwin’s Nemesis. Appropriately, all royalties from this volume go toward that award.
The title Darwin’s Nemesis applies to Johnson’s roles as fearless leader, trusted friend and far-seeing visionary. Professionally and publicly, Johnson stepped into the controversy over intelligent design at just the right time as the fledgling movement’s field marshal. Later, eschewing authoritarianism and any desire to become a cult figure, he made room for a new generation of ID scholars, stepping back so that the movement could flourish, not through a top-down chain of command but through its own inner vitality. Personally and privately, Phil entered each of our lives at just the right time and in just the right way to help us channel our various talents in the right direction.
Strategist, Teacher, Prophet
I first heard of Phillip Johnson at the 1989 Spring Systematics Symposium at the Field Museum in Chicago. Some biologists from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had traveled to Chicago for this event, and one of them mentioned a Berkeley law professor who had written on evolution. This Calvin biologist subsequently mailed me a messy looking manuscript by this Berkeley professor. I’m afraid I gave the manuscript only a cursory look at the time; after all, what does a lawyer know about evolution? Johnson did have this going for himself, however: he was a graduate of the University of Chicago, where I had done my graduate studies in mathematics. I kept his name in mind.
Two years later that law professor created a sensation with the book that emerged from that manuscript — Darwin on Trial. It is hard to overestimate the impact of that book. Some of the chapters in this collection will describe its influence in detail, so I won’t repeat what will be said there. In my view the book’s primary importance is as the beachhead that finally put effective criticism of Darwinism on the map. Beachheads by themselves are not enough. They are the means toward greater ends. Johnson, as a master strategist, saw how to make this beachhead into the start of a comprehensive intellectual program for reforming science and revitalizing culture.
I had a conversation with Phil some years after the publication of Darwin on Trial in which I asked him how this book fit into his overall strategy for unseating Darwinian naturalism. He remarked that the book, though effective at laying out criticisms of Darwinism, would by itself never have been enough to unseat Darwinian control over science. As he noted, the opposition would either ridicule the book or, more likely, just ignore it — and, after some months or years of ignoring it, would dismiss it as “that discredited book that was refuted a long time ago.” Phil’s comment brought to mind that old Marx brothers movie Duck Soup, in which Groucho Marx, as president of Freedonia, presides over a meeting of his cabinet. The following exchange ensues between Groucho and one of Freedonia’s ministers:
Groucho: “And now, members of the Cabinet, we’ll take up old business.”
Minister: “I wish to discuss the Tariff!”
Groucho: “Sit down, that’s new business! No old business? Very well — then we’ll take up new business.”
Minister: “Now about that Tariff …”
Groucho: “Too late — that’s old business already!”
It was not enough for Phil to write a great book (which he did and which, by the way, the scientific community did not ignore). Also required was a plan of action and the follow-through to bring the Darwinian edifice crashing down. Johnson had both the plan and the will. Trained in law, he knew that contests are meant to be won, and he was not about to lose this one, especially since he had the better case.
The first glimmers of Johnson’s grand designs could be seen in 1992, the year following the publication of Darwin on Trial. Several events that year and the next foreshadowed the juggernaut that Johnson would unleash. The highlight was a symposium organized by Jon Buell, Tom Woodward, and Steve Sternberg, which took place at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in the spring of 1992, and had as its stated topic Johnson’s critique of evolution. Phil Johnson and Michael Ruse were the star attractions and key antagonists at this symposium, but it also included other key people on both sides of this debate. It was at this event that I first met Phil, Mike Behe and Steve Meyer.
Why was this event so significant? Here, for the first time, a radical nonmaterialist critique of Darwinism and naturalistic evolutionary theories was put on the table for a high-level, reasoned, academic discussion without anyone promoting a religious or sectarian agenda. In particular, this symposium was not about reconciling science with the Bible or about showing that evolution is inconsistent with traditional views about religion or morality. It was about looking at the merits of design and Darwinism on their own terms.
This symposium legitimized the debate over evolution at the highest levels of the academy. With that legitimization came an openness to think new and hitherto forbidden thoughts. And with that openness came converts and volunteers to the cause of intelligent design. Within a year following that symposium, Phil had gathered a band of such converts and volunteers, mainly scientists and philosophers. The next step was to organize that band. This Phil did in 1993. Two moves on his part proved crucial for organizing the fledgling ID movement. The first was to organize a private several-day meeting of potential leaders in the ID movement at Pajaro Dunes, south of San Francisco. (This event is described in the opening segment of the video Unlocking the Mystery of Life.) The second, which followed that meeting, was to insist that the participants get on email and be part of a listserv that he would run from U.C. Berkeley. The meeting at Pajaro Dunes was critical for getting all of us on the same page. The listserv was critical for keeping us networked and for building momentum.
Phil’s listserv, which continues to this day [yes, even into 2019], was in the early days the lifeblood of our movement. It still remains important, but with other centers and discussion boards that address ID, it is no longer as critical. Today, twelve years later [this was written in 2005], it may be difficult to appreciate just how important it was in those early days to get networked over the Internet. Today, everyone has email. That was not the case in 1993. Moreover, Netscape and Internet Explorer did not come into common use until two years later — surfing the Web was largely unknown at the time. But Phil saw what was coming and how the Internet would allow for the dissemination of knowledge that would make it increasingly difficult for secular elites to maintain control over what people think. He even offered to buy email accounts for those of us who were without university appointments and thus without free access to university servers.
Phil’s listserv brought us together, continually increased our talent pool and, most importantly, gave us a support network. One reason nothing like an ID movement critical of Darwinian naturalism had blossomed previously is that critics of Darwinism were typically isolated; thus the Darwinian establishment could go after them mercilessly without anyone coming to their aid. With Phil’s virtual community that was no longer the case. To see this, contrast the case of Dean Kenyon with that of Percival Davis. Both were coauthors of the ID supplemental textbook Of Pandas and People. Davis, as it turned out, was also a coauthor of the bestselling basal biology textbook known simply as Villee (after Claude Villee). Someone complained to the publisher of Villee about Davis also being the author of an ID textbook. The publisher immediately dropped Davis as an author for subsequent editions of Villee. As a consequence, Davis now has little to do with ID and makes his living as a computer programmer.
Dean Kenyon likewise faced pressures for expressing views favorable to ID. But Kenyon, unlike Davis, had the benefit of Phil’s support network. Kenyon’s department chair tried to prevent him from teaching freshman biology at San Francisco State University even though Kenyon was a full professor in the biology department. Why? Because Kenyon had expressed doubts about Darwinism and a preference for intelligent design in his classes. In this case, however, the persecution backfired. Steve Meyer wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal detailing the biology department’s assault on Kenyon’s academic freedom. Within days the university called the biology department on the carpet and reinstated Kenyon’s right to teach freshman biology.
The SMU symposium and the Pajaro Dunes meeting were watershed events in the ID movement. There have been more visible events subsequently (for instance, the “Mere Creation” conference at Biola in 1996 and the “Nature of Nature” conference at Baylor in 2000). But these early events laid the foundation for all that followed. Around the same time as these watershed events, two lesser events happened that to this day characterize the main challenges facing the ID movement.
The first is an encounter between Phillip Johnson and Howard Van Till at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1992. Phil had hoped that his message would be received warmly by evangelicals, and it largely was among the rank and file. But among evangelicals teaching at Christian colleges and universities, Phil found that he faced considerable opposition. A view of divine action in which God plays no evident role in nature had taken root in Christian higher education. Thus, rather than being welcomed for critiquing Darwinian naturalism, he found himself attacked for proposing an outdated and ill-conceived theology of nature. Howard Van Till epitomized this position and strongly objected to Darwin on Trial. Phil in turn characterized Van Till’s position as “theistic naturalism.” At the time Van Till rejected that designation. Nowadays he accepts it, having embraced the process theology of David Ray Griffin.
If the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities was divided over Johnson’s message, the secular elites, notably in the academic and scientific establishments, were not. As far as they were concerned, Johnson was a threat to science and needed to be stopped. There’s no dearth of examples in this book about the sort of opposition that Phil has had to face from this quarter, but an event in the spring of 1993 epitomizes for me the shamelessness of this opposition. During the academic year 1992-1993, I was a postdoctoral fellow in the history and philosophy of science at Northwestern University. That spring, David Hull, one of the premier philosophers of biology, gave a seminar that I attended. One day, during the seminar, he mentioned Darwin on Trial and remarked that an editor at Nature had contacted him and asked him to write a negative review of the book. Hull, a convinced Darwinist, boasted to the seminar that he was only too happy to oblige, duly delivering to Nature the requested hatchet job. Hull told the story with pride, as though he had done a good deed. To this day I find many Darwinian naturalists exhibiting this same these-ideas-must-be-stopped-at-all-costs mentality.
Phil’s pivotal role in shaping the ID movement following those early days is well known and discussed at length in this volume. Nevertheless, it is the seeds that Phil sowed early on, emphasizing the need for a community of thinkers willing to challenge Darwinism at the root, that made the success of this movement possible. In the summer of 2000 I invited Michael Ruse to speak at a seminar on ID that I was conducting at Calvin College. At that seminar Ruse, though no friend of ID, remarked that the ID movement had till then not made one misstep. Ruse was exaggerating, but not by much. The ID movement has exhibited a remarkable cohesiveness, unity and focus.
Intellectual movements often fragment, with cults of personality developing around key figures and bitter rivalries ensuing. Nothing like this has happened in the ID movement (or, indeed, shows any sign of happening). Insofar as the credit here goes to any one person, it goes to Phil — and specifically in his capacity as teacher. Phil’s role as a teacher is, of course, evident in his being a professor, a writer of books and a public intellectual. Yet, with respect to the health and vitality of the ID movement, Phil has done far more than merely teach us a set of propositions. He has taught by example.
Accordingly, he has not taught us what or even how to think but rather a certain style of thinking or habit of thought. The issue for Phil has always been not whether you get the right answers and not even whether you pose the right questions (as important as these are, and notwithstanding the title of his last book [i.e., The Right Questions]), but rather the humility to consider all questions and not to reject any because our well-worn presuppositions tell us “you can’t go there.” In other words, Phil has taught us to put our presuppositions — all of them — on the table for examination, to ask the hard questions of them and to seek answers by following the evidence wherever it leads.
As a consequence, there are no secret handshakes or initiation rites needed to join Phil’s club. The ID movement is a big tent and all are welcome. Even agnostics and atheists are not in principle excluded, provided they can adopt this open attitude of mind. In practice, however, most agnostics and atheists have their minds made up. Agnostics know that nothing is knowable about a transcendent reality. And atheists know that no transcendent reality exists, so again nothing is or can be knowable about it. Accordingly, agnostics and atheists tend not to join the ID movement.
Johnson is a radical skeptic, insisting, in the best Socratic tradition, that everything be put on the table for examination. By contrast, most skeptics opposed to him are selective skeptics, applying their skepticism to the things they dislike (notably religion) and refusing to apply their skepticism to the things they do like (notably Darwinism). On two occasions I’ve urged Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, to put me on its editorial board as the resident skeptic of Darwinism. Though Shermer and I know each other and are quite friendly, having debated each other many times, he never got back to me about joining his editorial board.
Finally, I want to consider Phillip Johnson in his role as prophet. This may seem like a strange designation for Phil, but I contend that it fits. A popular stereotype conceives of prophets as wild-eyed individuals, living unconventionally, out of touch with the practicalities of life and offering enigmatic utterances about strange unseen worlds. But in fact, a prophet is anyone who holds up a mirror to the culture and forces it to acknowledge the idols it has constructed. Moreover, because we resent being told that our idols are idols, we tend to despise prophets. Only later, when we’ve constructed new idols, does it become clear that the old idols were indeed idols, at which point we no longer despise those prophets, now long gone, but instead venerate them. This is how hagiography is born.
What is an idol? Leslie Zeigler, in a book I edited with Jay Richards (Unapologetic Apologetics), offers the most perceptive analysis of idolatry that I know:
This God who tells Moses “I am Who I am,” who enters into contingent relationships with human beings at particular times and in particular places, who approves of certain actions and not of others, has always been, to say the least, hard to live with. Human beings have always preferred gods for whom they can write the job descriptions themselves.
Scripture refers to these preferred gods as idols, and the author of Isaiah 44:9-20 gives us as clear a description as has ever been written of the idol maker and his idol. The craftsman cuts down a good, healthy tree, uses part of it for a fire to warm himself and to cook his dinner. Then from part of it he makes a graven image, to which he falls down and worships, praying, “Deliver me, for thou art my god!”
It’s only at this point that Isaiah delivers his punchline, a punchline which is all too often overlooked. He tells us of the awesome power of the idol. That piece of wood which the craftsman himself has formed has deceived him — has led him astray to the point that he no longer recognizes it as his own creation. He has been blinded — blinded by his own creativity — so that he no longer recognizes that he is worshipping a delusion and hence is no longer able to deliver himself. He is unable to ask himself, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
Other Old Testament passages speak eloquently of the idols as being useless, unable to do anything, unable to support their people; instead, having to be carried around and being a burden to them. But Isaiah puts his finger on a far more dangerous characteristic: they have the power to delude and deceive their makers.
The work of those attempting to craft a god of their own making, the god we want, and for whom we can provide the job description, is rampant within the church today.
The trouble with Darwinian naturalism is that it turns nature into an idol, making brute material forces rather than the all-wise God into the source of creativity in nature. Moreover, it tries to justify this idolatry in the name of science. To the Darwinian naturalist, Johnson the prophet says, “Your idol cannot support itself because it is founded on a false philosophy and a biased construal of scientific evidence.” Moreover, to the theistic evolutionist, Johnson the prophet says, “You have avoided turning nature into an idol, but at the cost of requiring God to act hiddenly in nature; yet what if nature reeks of design and our best scientific understanding confirms this, demonstrating that design is manifest in nature?”
Like Francis Schaeffer a generation before him, Phillip Johnson has put his finger on the key place where our generation has forgotten God. For this generation it is the place of our origin. To a generation that regards God as increasingly distant, with nature as all there is and humans as mere appendages of nature, Johnson the prophet points us to the true God, the one in whose image we are made and to whom we must ultimately render an account.
Life After Dover
On December 20, 2005, as this book was going to press, Judge John E. Jones III delivered his verdict in the first court case involving intelligent design. In Kitzmiller v. Dover, also billed as Scopes II, Judge Jones not only struck down the Dover school board policy advocating intelligent design but also identified intelligent design as nonscientific and fundamentally religious. Accordingly, he concluded that the teaching of intelligent design in public school science curricula violates the Establishment Clause and therefore is unconstitutional.
It is hard to imagine that a court decision could have been formulated more negatively against intelligent design. In light of this decision, one may therefore wonder about the appropriateness of titling this book Darwin’s Nemesis. To read Judge Jones’s decision, one gets the impression that Darwin is alive and quite well. Even so, let me suggest that this decision is a bump in the road and that Phillip Johnson’s program for dismantling Darwinism remains well in hand.
To see that Judge Jones’s decision is not nearly the setback for intelligent design that its critics would like to imagine, let’s start by considering what would have happened if the judge had ruled in favor of the Dover policy. Such a ruling would have emboldened school boards, legislators and grassroots organizations to push for intelligent design in the public school science curricula across the nation. As a consequence, this case really would have been a Waterloo for the supporters of neo-Darwinian evolution (the form of evolution taught in all the textbooks).
Conversely, the actual ruling is not a Waterloo for the intelligent design side. Certainly it will put a damper on some school boards that would otherwise have been interested in promoting intelligent design. But this is not a Supreme Court decision. Nor is it likely this decision will be appealed since the Dover school board that instituted the controversial policy supporting intelligent design was voted out and replaced November 2005 with a new board that campaigned on the promise of overturning the policy.
Without an explicit Supreme Court decision against intelligent design, we can expect continued grassroots pressure to promote intelligent design and undercut neo-Darwinian evolution in the public schools. Because of Kitzmiller v. Dover, school boards and state legislators may tread more cautiously, but tread on evolution they will — the culture war demands it!
It is therefore naive to think that this case threatens to derail intelligent design. Intelligent design is rapidly gaining an international following. It is also crossing metaphysical and theological boundaries. I now correspond with ID proponents from every continent (save Antarctica). Moreover, I’ve seen intelligent design embraced by Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics and even atheists [atheist philosopher Bradley Monton, for instance, published a book favorable to ID in 2009 titled Seeking God in Science]. The idea that intelligent design is purely an “American thing” or an “evangelical Christian thing” can therefore no longer be maintained.
Even if the courts manage to censor intelligent design at the grade and high school levels (and with the Internet, censorship means nothing to the enterprising student), they remain powerless to censor intelligent design at the college and university levels. Intelligent design is quickly gaining momentum among college and graduate students. Three years ago, there was one IDEA Center at the University of California at San Diego (IDEA = Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness). Now there are thirty such centers at American colleges and universities, including the University of California at Berkeley and Cornell University. These centers are fiercely pro-intelligent design.
Ultimately, the significance of a court case like Kitzmiller v. Dover depends not on a judge’s decision but on the cultural forces that serve as the backdrop against which the decision is made. Take the Scopes Trial. In most persons’ minds, it represents a decisive victory for evolution. Yet, in the actual trial, the decision went against evolution (John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee statute that forbade the teaching of evolution).
Judge Jones’s decision may make life in the short term more difficult for ID proponents. But the work of intelligent design will continue. In fact, it is likely to continue more effectively than if the judge had ruled in favor of intelligent design, which would have encouraged complacency, suggesting that intelligent design had already won the day when in fact intelligent design still has much to accomplish in developing its scientific and intellectual program.
Instead of ruling narrowly on the actual Dover policy, Judge Jones saw his chance to enter the history books by assuming an activist role, ruling broadly and declaring intelligent design to be unconstitutional. Yet if he and his ruling are remembered at all, it will be not for valiantly defending science but for pandering to a failed reductionist way of doing science.
Just as a tree that has been “ringed” (i.e., had its bark completely cut through on all sides) is effectively dead even if it retains its leaves and appears alive, so Darwinism has met its match with the movement initiated by Phillip Johnson. Expect Darwinism’s death throes, like Judge Jones’s decision, to continue for some time. But don’t mistake death throes for true vitality. Ironically, Judge Jones’s decision is likely to prove a blessing for the intelligent design movement, spurring its proponents to greater heights and thereby fostering its intellectual vitality and ultimate success.
===END INTRO TO DARWIN’S NEMESIS===
Here it is late 2019, almost 15 years after I wrote these remarks about Phil, and he has just died. I don’t disagree with anything I wrote above. Yet my tone these days would be different. I’d be more sober and less triumphalist about ID’s prospects. I’d have warned that things might not unfold in ID’s favor nearly as quickly or easily as my tone above suggests. But none of this is to diminish Phil’s monumental impact on the ID movement.
I want to underscore Phil’s pivotal role in organizing disparate voices critical of Darwinism and convinced of design in nature into a cohesive community. That community exists to this day and continues to grow, both nationally and internationally, and to provide mutual support for its members. Without that community, envisioned and fashioned by Phil, scientific naturalism’s implacable defenders would have been in a much stronger position to isolate and silence ID proponents.
My own pursuits have largely turned to business in the last few years, so I don’t keep up with ID as I used to. But in March of this year I had the pleasure of attending a symposium celebrating the 25th anniversary of the historic Pajaro Dunes conference that I describe in my intro to Darwin’s Nemesis. Phil organized the original conference and he was there at the anniversary conference via Skype (which was the last time I saw him, albeit virtually). Participants at the anniversary conference were from all over the world, who described some amazing progress of ID in making academic and scientific inroads, the case of the new Intelligent Design Center at Brazil’s Mackenzie University being especially remarkable.
I can therefore honestly report that the trend-line for ID, especially internationally, is on an upswing, and this is the case even in the U.S., where I regularly hear reports of public intellectuals of the highest caliber coming on board with Darwin skepticism (an especially notable example recently being Yale’s David Gelernter). So I would say the movement and community that Phil founded to critique Darwinism and advance ID is still intellectually vital.
That said, I would say we’re still far from having won the day. A decade or so ago, I still harbored the hope that Darwinism would collapse and in much the way the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in the late 1980s. But that hasn’t happened and many cultural forces run counter to design in nature, preferring to view humans as machines or as infinitely malleable social constructs or anything but creatures made in the image of a holy God who commands that we live our lives in keeping with our divine image. Of course, intelligent design doesn’t entail Christian theism, but for those intent on defeating Christian theism, banishing intelligent design first ends up being a convenient prophylactic.
Phil led the intelligent design movement until his stroke in the summer of 2001. That stroke was a big blow to our movement, which was perhaps no longer fledgling at the time but also still not mature. It was sad to see the toll that the stroke took on Phil. The listserv that he founded and described above received almost daily emails from him before his stroke. I remember reading his emails and marveling at the mind that could produce them: the clarity, the comprehensiveness, the laser-like focus on the issues we were facing were beautiful to behold. There was a poetry to some of his missives from before the stroke, and it would be interesting to collect those missives into a collection (unfortunately, a computer virus chewed through my emails pre-2001, so I no longer have those emails).
After the stroke, Phil could type with only great effort, and even though he was still all there, he had lost the easy grace of his former intellect. Now it seemed he had to expend inordinate effort to accomplish the things that he readily managed in the past. The beautifully worded and organized missives came to an end, looking much more fragmented with numerous typos. It was sad to see.
Phil’s stroke came unexpectedly, and yet I wasn’t surprised. I recall seeing Phil at Princeton University in 1996 (I was finishing my M.Div. at the seminary across the street that year). Phil had just flown in from the U.K. and spoke multiple times on the Princeton campus, to large auditoria as well as to small student groups (if memory serves, he gave about six talks). I could see how Phil was pushing himself. The speaking schedule he kept was punishing. No one in the ID community had his stature or energy (I’m twenty years younger than Phil, and I recall thinking to myself at the time in Princeton that I couldn’t keep up with him).
Two years later, in 1998, I was living in the Dallas area and Phil stayed with me and my wife to visit the Cooper Clinic. Ide Trotter, a Dallas supporter of ID and friend of Phil’s, urged him to have a full physical. Ide was concerned for Phil’s health. The Cooper Clinic determined that Phil’s heart and general health were good, though he could afford to drop about 20 pounds (he was staying at our home, so we learned the results in real time). I don’t know if dropping the 20 pounds would have made the difference with Phil’s stroke. But I do know that he felt he had the weight of the ID community on his shoulders, and he drove himself harder than he should have.
He had another stroke after that. I recall seeing him at a conference near Seattle in December 2003. I’m not sure if that was after or before his second stroke. But even then, two years after the first stroke, I was disheartened to see how much Phil had aged. Through it all, Phil was still articulate and there mentally. But I sometimes wonder where we in the ID movement might have been if Phil had stayed healthy another ten years.
The last clear memory I have of seeing Phil in the flesh was in 2006. I was visiting U.C. Berkeley to give some lectures on ID, under the auspices of Berkland Baptist Church (subsequently renamed Gracepoint Berkeley Church). My daughter, aged six or seven at the time, was able to join me because the church agreed to watch her when I was busy speaking or engaging with people. My daughter and I visited Phil and Kathie at their home in Berkeley. Kathie had re-purposed the garage to serve as a local library for the community, so there was a lot of keep my daughter busy. It was a very pleasant time for me in visiting with Phil and Kathie. He had mellowed, I thought, and also looked much better than he had at that 2003 conference described above.
It’s time to wrap up these reflections. I’ll therefore close with what, in my view, may be the key to Phil’s legacy to the ID movement. Phil was a law professor specializing in criminal law. In fact, he wrote one of the key textbooks on criminal law (you can find his legal texts on Amazon, where one of the volumes retails for over $400). In criminal law, guilt must be decided to a moral certainty and beyond reasonable doubt. Phil’s standards of evidence were thus always high. He therefore eschewed the porous Darwinian thinking that could see evolutionary connections and the hand of natural selection not because there was hard evidence for these but because materialistic bias required it.
This is why, to this day, the ID community is, by and large, unconvinced of common descent (and not just skeptical of the power of natural selection). It’s not that common descent is inimical to ID (Mike Behe, a key ID proponent, accepts both common descent and ID). It’s just that, to a hard-nosed criminal attorney like Phil, common descent, to be credible, requires compelling evidence and not a handwaving argument to the effect that reasonable minds must needs explain biological similarity in terms of evolutionary connectedness.
Phil’s habit of mind of following the evidence where it leads and not being misled by assumptions that are suspect is perhaps Phil’s greatest gift to the ID community. We see it in Steve Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt. We see it everywhere in the ID community to this day!
Photo: Phil Johnson reading in a beach house, Pajaro Dunes, California, June 1998, by Suzanne Nelson.
Cross-posted with permission from Dr. Dembski’s blog, Freedom, Technology, and Education.