Aside from my work in bioethics, I have worked in the area of science and culture, in general, and intelligent design, in particular. Intelligent design is a paradigm that 1) allows for non-naturalistic explanations of design in nature and 2) seeks to detect design in nature. Much of the early ID literature was devoted to countering methodological naturalism, a worldview that presupposes only natural phenomenon and explanations. This worldview had a stronghold in our culture and in academia. The rules of the game excluded any non-naturalist theory from being an active contender in the market place of scientific ideas. However, evidences were mounting that showed the narrow range of acceptable explanations needed to be extended. In other words, there were some observations in nature that cannot be explained from naturalistic presuppositions.
In 1991, UC Berkley Law professor, Phillip Johnson, wrote a little piece entitled Darwin on Trial. In this book, he brings Darwinian evolution to task as being a theory motivated more so by a commitment to methodological naturalism than to scientific evidence. Not all aspects of evolutionary theory were wrong. We see small-scale changes that involve adaptation to environmental pressures all of the time. We see changes in populations due to fitness in a particular environment. However, this is not what Darwin proposed. Darwin provided a naturalistic origins story that takes the observations of microevolutionary events and extrapolates them out to large-scale events that explain the origins of all of the organisms that we see today. Darwin was operating on a worldview that removes any supernatural or non-natural events from the picture.
These distinctions were not always so clear. It was Johnson’s book that first put teeth on the rhetoric. Yes, there was something different between the microevolutionary events that were observed and the extrapolations to account for origins and creativity, but it was difficult to untangle the knot of science, philosophy, worldviews, and religion. Johnson did that. He wasn’t the first to address these issues, but he certainly got the ball rolling. Using his adept skills as a lawyer, he carefully untangles the knot through discourse, examples, and analysis. He framed the debate.
Today, a new web site is being launched in honor of the twentieth anniversary of Darwin on Trial. Whatever your views may be on evolution, Darwinism, and intelligent design, the information content in DNA, the fine tuning of the universe and the irreducible complexity of molecular machines demand an explanation. Methodological naturalism does not provide an adequate framework to explain these phenomena, so perhaps we need to adjust our framework. I encourage you to explore this web site about who provided the spark that set “the match that lit the tinder beneath a stockpile of dry logs” of mounting evidences.
As a note: While this post does not deal with bioethics directly, it deals with worldview issues which affect how we approach bioethics. Methodological naturalism and Darwinian evolution inform our views on anthropology. Much of Darwin’s work in Descent of Man discusses the implications of his theory coupled with his worldview presuppositions for man and morality. By definition, methodological naturalism rejects supernatural explanations and therefore non-natural criteria for personhood.