The Right Questions
A review of Phillip Johnson's, "The Right Questions," by Kevin Condon.
Johnson, Phillip E. The Right Questions. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002. 191 pp.
Phillip E. Johnson’s recent publication, The Right Questions, is my favorite of his several books about Darwinism and what has come to be known as the Intelligent Design Movement (or ID). All of his books offer crystal clear critiques of the “philosophical” structure beneath Darwin’s natural selection. They reveal the surprising superficiality of the evidence that supports Darwin’s theory and give the reader a vicarious glimpse into the good fights that Johnson and his colleagues are picking all over the academy. They also showcase his dry wit and incisive intellect, dismantling the neo-Darwinian arguments and adroitly refuting the evidence offered in support of each argument.
The power of Johnson’s method is a valuable technique in legal scholarship refined through his years of teaching at Cal Berkeley’s law school. He knows from experience that incorrect conclusions usually proceed from false premises; and, similarly, that false premises often arise from asking the wrong questions. This insight is no doubt one of the keys to his success as a law professor and to his success in debates with Darwinists as well. It is the demolition weapon that he has used in all of his ID books. With it, he skewers his opponents on the weakness of their theory, re-framing the whole discussion. He does this by creating room for doubt and then simply stating a clearer and wiser question. He then builds an argument in response to the better question, and in the process establishes a different rhetorical structure that strongly hints at different, and perhaps better, conclusions.
When Darwinists defend their turf, they usually attempt to confine all discussion to the Genesis accounts, which is old, familiar ground. Darwinists have learned to anticipate a befuddled response when they ask exactly how Noah got all those animals on the ark. Genesis also offers them “days” of creation, missing ribs, and other tales that are completely unverifiable through anything outside the Bible. Since no one can re-visit the biblical beginning of time to verify the details, “creationists” routinely lose arguments to Darwinists among secular and religious naturalist audiences. Enter the unassuming, professorial Johnson. In his debates, if his Darwinist opponent insists on comparing Bible passages to Darwinian empirical studies, Johnson innocently suggests two things. First, he suggests that his opponent look first at the evidence for the theory. Then, in workmanlike fashion, he reviews the key evidence and shows it to be shockingly weak.
Johnson is especially eager to take a helpful look at the macro-evolutionary creation premises. Then, when the Darwinist is shown to have a shaky foundation or some irrationality in his discussion points, Johnson moves to reframe the debate. But, instead of appealing to Genesis, he suggests the familiar first chapter of The Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” Though mysterious, this foundation statement is considered by his audience as somewhat more promising. It cannot be merely dismissed. The word used by John, “logos,” is full of possibilities. It introduces the possibility for intelligent order, from outside the system. With intelligence and order thus provided, creation seems less improbable. Something cannot come from nothing. This first intelligence, this logos, or word, seems to be a logical candidate for consideration by those discussing creation stories, doesn’t it? A theory that design instructions and information can bring order from nothing, seed-like, seems less arbitrary. Then, with great humor, Johnson contrasts John’s words with the opposing Darwinian view, “In the beginning were the particles,” which, if it is not an absurd statement, comes close.
Johnson’s work demonstrates that Darwin’s creation story is founded on enormous blind “faith” in the necessary, but inadequate processes of randomness and time. In fact, much of the Darwinian story of creation is derived contrapuntally from denying the possibility of pre-existing order and making an alternative story from what is left, namely nothing. God’s creation story comes from God. Darwin’s derives from random mutation, chance, and time.
The application of Johnson’s work to other academic disciplines and to our time is significant. The present intellectual and cultural era is afflicted with the blurred vision that comes from asking the wrong questions, and constructing theories to answer them. Darwin’s error has given us an age with enormous materialist wealth, which has no real sense of meaning or purpose. We cannot find one in naturalism. Random mutation, natural selection and the passage of time establish no meaning and no purpose. Johnson points out that when we question the scientists who have claimed to be our pilots on the voyage to knowledge, they usually claim for themselves special status and special interpretive knowledge. They counsel us to ignore any signs of weakness in the course they direct us to follow. From their superior position of understanding, they simply deny the validity of any other course, particularly one that might be derived from a source superior to themselves. In that context, they must deny the wisdom of God. But it is a bluff we have let them use for too long. With Johnson’s training in dismantling fallacious arguments, he drags them and us back to Darwin’s map and points out the places where the data points have been misinterpreted. He points out where “ground truth” for their course was poor or missing. Key data points on Darwin’s map are false. Johnson shows us that a bad map and the bad course it is founded on have brought us to ruin, pain, and suffering. With his eye on true north, he is encouraging scientists to produce a better map. Johnson shows the scientist as would-be pilot up for what he is not. The scientist is not the author of truth, and his map is not trustworthy. It should be redrawn.
By injecting skepticism back into the offered alternative creation story of Darwin, Johnson’s work will advance science. The next generation will examine the damage caused to the world by Darwin’s inferior course and find another course whose truth is true. All this is due to a law professor who took the trouble to ask “the right questions.”
I began the reading of Phillip E. Johnson’s works with Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, which he wrote for youth. Having been stimulated, I then read Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, and finally The Right Questions in quick succession. By the time I got to The Right Questions, I was a devotee, ready to cheer my hero as he challenged the pillars of academia, relishing with righteous indignation the superficiality of mainstream science and its smug practitioners, while affirming the profundity of my own thought. So, I was ready for The Right Questions. But strangely and wonderfully, I met a friend here as well. Dr. Johnson’s personal epiphany is revealed in The Right Questions. I was prepared to appreciate the academic battles there. I was unprepared for the revelation given to him and to us by the paralyzing stroke that he suffered before its writing. The stroke made him realize that much of his “fun” in intelligent design argument and ID leadership had not been about anything more than his personal pride, the pleasure of the battle and the devastating rhetorical moves he was able to make in besting his opponents. With the help of his church and his wife Kathie, Johnson realized that the stroke he suffered was a gift from God. Jesus was calling him to a closer walk by shaking the false foundation he had built upon his own intellect and cleverness. His stroke put the permanence of his dependably superior intellectual gifts in jeopardy. Through it, Johnson arrived at the humble spirit and contrite heart that is so acceptable to the Lord. Recovering in the hospital, he was forced to ask the right questions about his own life. Through this questioning he saw the obstacle that his pride and ego posed to a closer walk with Christ. Inspired and humbled, he yielded his mind to the mind of Christ and took up his cross to follow Jesus even more closely.
By participating in his experience vicariously, I have been able to process the same material and learn the same lesson in my life. I am thankful to Philip Johnson and all those who supported him in his physical and spiritual recovery.