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Review of Robert Pennock's "Tower of Babel"

by Wesley R. Elsberry

I heard Robert Pennock's vivid and powerful presentation at a theism and science philosophy conference in 1997, where I first heard of "the problem of the devil lettuce". St. Gregory reported a case of a woman who ate a devil in the form of a lettuce, or invisibly hiding therein. Pennock questioned how we can know this to be true, and demonstrated that "theistic science" shares the same problem. "We can observe mutation, recombination, inheritance, natural selection, and the resultant changes in gene frequencies in populations. Can the creationist do as well with the Creation hypothesis? On this point, I now issue another challenge to [UC Berkeley professor of law Phillip E.] Johnson to come clean: Are divine interventions occurring today in particular cases? If so, which ones, and how do we tell? If not, why not, and again, how do we check?" (pp.297-298.)

In discussions afterward, he spoke of writing a book that would broaden and strengthen his arguments from the conference, which is now available as the incisive and compelling "Tower of Babel".

There are both compatibilist and anti-evolutionary creationists, where the compatibilists accept the findings of modern science as unthreatening to their spiritual beliefs. Pennock authoritatively describes a variety of factions within anti-evolutionary creationism whose tenets are mutually incompatible severally amongst themselves, but who share an adversarial stance against both modern evolutionary biology and their compatibilist brethren.

Pennock's main subjects are the "Intelligent Design Creationists" (IDC), a recent offshoot which comprises the "New Creationism" of the book's subtitle. "Intelligent design" proposes that certain systems are simply too complex and functional to have come about without an intelligent designer, and that science will be better off once its reliance upon "naturalism" is discarded. The IDC group seeks on one hand to distance themselves from the legal entanglements raised by young-earth creationist factions in Alabama and Louisiana in the 1980s, and on the other to provide a non-denominational anti-evolutionary bandwagon that everyone can climb aboard. IDCs look forward to the quick collapse of naturalistic biology and the establishment of a richer and more productive "theistic science" to take its place. But the IDCs present a God-of-the-gaps apologetic and rely upon negative argumentation rather than specifying that new approach for scientific investigation and pedagogy. As Pennock notes, "If intelligent-design theorists were to wear their religious colors openly, they could not hope to gain a foothold in the public school classrooms." (p.276.)

Although Pennock provides many cogent criticisms of anti-evolutionary stances and arguments, he is not simply taking up a knee-jerk anti-creation stance. His discussion of the core concerns of creationists of all stripes -- the desire for moral conduct and the need to have purpose -- specifically addresses how acceptance of science as it is currently constituted does not displace or threaten those values, despite the misappropriation of science for promotion of atheism by some authors.

Pennock offers a spirited defense of "methodological naturalism" as a necessary part of scientific method, along the way pointing out the consequences of re-admitting supernatural explanation into the law (remember witches and the devil lettuce), as IDC and law professor Phillip E. Johnson wishes science to re-admit supernatural explanation. A theistic science also runs the risk of "naturalizing" God, with the result being a God who is not really very godly.

Pennock employs analogy to clarify and educate, as seen in his example of the creationist theory of origin of languages (God's fiat creation of the world's languages at the Tower of Babel) versus linguistic evolution and its parallels with creationism and biological evolution. Various anti-evolutionary creationists do reject linguistic evolution on just those grounds, and Pennock argues that a consistent literalist creationism must do so. But there is less ego-involvement in the concept of change in languages than there is in consideration of one's ancestry, and so Pennock hopes that examination of the parallel case may help those who accept the anti-evolutionary arguments see where those arguments have weaknesses.

Another analogy comes in the form of the Raelian movement and its anti-evolutionary creation story of UFO-using alien biologists producing life on earth. IDCs invoke the SETI project as a case in which an unknown designer of a message can be recognized, and promote a conjecture of intelligent design of life on earth. "If so, then it looks as though the conclusion we should draw is that we were designed and created by intelligent extraterrestrials." (p.233.) It would seem that the IDCs should merge with the Raelians, who claim special revelation of just such extraterrestrial design of life on earth and who also claim that evolutionary biology is misconceived. But these two groups are, in practice, also inimical to each other, despite the similarities in argument and mode of argumentation.

"Tower of Babel" advocates a robust science that works for everyone, and opposes the substitution of bad theology posing as science in our classrooms. I recommend it highly as a detailed overview of a complex and controversial topic.


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