Darwinism: Science or Philosophy

Chapter 8
Radical Intersubjectivity:
Why Naturalism is an Assumption Necessary for Doing Science

Frederick Grinnell

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Response to this paper.

AT ONE LEVEL, Phillip Johnson's book Darwin on Trial{1} is a critique of modern evolutionary biology. He interprets the contradictions and controversies within evolutionary biology as evidence for the inability of scientists to understand evolution in scientific (read naturalistic or materialistic) terms, an inability he says that scientists themselves refuse to acknowledge.

Johnson's response to evolutionary biology can be understood as part of a larger tradition of religious and humanistic thought that doubts the ability of science to describe "life" according to physical and chemical ideas. For instance, until 1828 when Wohler synthesized urea, it was believed that organic matter and inorganic matter were uniquely different; that only living things could give rise to organic matter. Even after the barrier between organic and inorganic was overcome, controversy continued to surround the mechanism by which biological systems carried out complex reactions: was it enzymes or vitalistic forces? Buchner ended this dispute and won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of fermentation by cell-free yeast extracts. Afterward, doubt persisted about the chemical nature of enzymes until 1930 when Northrop crystallized the enzyme pepsin.{2} After each advance, however, the key question remained: was/is life a biochemical event, or the work of a creative intelligence?

At a more fundamental level, Darwin on Trial is a critique of modem science, its assumptions, its implications, and its relationship to religion. Johnson resents what he understands as the central claim of scientific naturalism:

that scientific investigation is either the exclusive path to knowledge or at least by far the most reliable path, and that only natural or material phenomena are real. In other words, what science can't study is effectively unreal (p. 114),
He doesn't understand why science resists creationist accounts of evolution.

In the broadest sense, a "creationist" is simply a person who believes that the world (and especially mankind) was designed, and exists for a purpose. With the issue defined that way, the question becomes: Is mainstream science opposed to the possibility that the natural world was designed by a Creator for a purpose? If so, on what basis? (p. 113).
And he thinks that the persistence of scientists in their naturalist beliefs is an attack against the importance of God and the meaningfulness of religion.

Naturalism does not explicitly deny the mere existence of God, but it does deny that a supernatural being could in any way influence natural events, such as evolution, or communicate with natural creatures like ourselves.... A God who can never do anything that makes a difference, and of whom we can have no reliable knowledge, is of no importance to us (p. 115).
How should one respond to this critique of science? In his review of Darwin on Trial,{3} David Hull makes the following point:

Johnson finds the commitment of scientists to totally naturalistic explanations dogmatic and close-minded, but scientists have no choice (my italics).
Why does Hull say that scientists have no choice?

How Scientific Discoveries Become Scientific Discoveries

There are two possibilities for understanding the absolute relationship between science and naturalism. The first possibility is to make a utilitarian argument Science provides naturalistic explanations about the world. Modern technology, a product of science, demonstrates the "truth" of science. Therefore, naturalistic explanations are the only possible way to gain a meaningful understanding of the world. This argument fails, however. Although its practical effects indicate that science is powerful, the realization that scientific beliefs evolve over time{4 } should act as an antidote to scientific hubris. Science can never have more than a limited understanding of the world.

The second possibility takes the opposite approach. It is not that science teaches us the necessity of naturalistic explanations. Rather, and here is the point to be explored in the remainder of my paper, naturalistic explanations are an assumption necessary for doing science. Only naturalistic explanations can become part of science because of the way in which scientific discoveries become credible.

Elsewhere I have written in detail about The Scientific Artitude{5} and have described three interdependent levels of action that taken together provide an account of what doing science entails. At the first level, the individual researcher works alone; at the second level, the researcher participates in scientific communities; and at the third level, the researcher lives as a person in the world. This multilevel approach is necessary to understand the cognitive features of science, the social structure of science, and the relationship between science and other aspects of human life. The researcher engages in a dialectical process whose key elements are discovery and credibility. Discovery is the first part of the dialectic; credibility is the second. Individual scientists make discoveries; scientific communities make discoveries credible. That is, credibility is embedded in the social structure of science.

Why must communities rather than individual investigators make discoveries credible? Remember Meno's question to Socrates: "How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is?"{6} This problem perplexes every scientist in modern terms, how do you know that what you are seeing is real? How do you distinguish between data and noise? Perhaps your results result from an artifact of your experimental design or assumptions.

Every experiment tests two hypotheses, one overt, the other hidden. The overt hypothesis is what the researcher thinks he/she is testing. The hidden hypothesis is the researcher's assumption that the experimental design, methods, and equipment are adequate for testing the overt hypothesis. One's discoveries are inextricably linked to one's expectations: expectations about what might be seen; expectations about how experiments should be done; expectations about what counts for data. Where do these expectations come from? They develop according to the scientist's education, experience, and temperament. Each investigator is unique; each investigator develops a unique style of doing research, a scientific thought style.{4}

No matter how convincing the results seem to be to the individual, they may be wrong. Although researchers believe that their discoveries are scientific, that their methods are reliable, and that the data are interpreted properly, they all are subject to the possibility of unrecognized error. As a result, individuals cannot verify the credibility of their own work. Rather, they must turn toward the scientific community. The credibility of my discoveries initially will depend on how convincing the results and interpretations appear to others (more on this below). And the others to whom I present my research take seriously the motto of the Royal Society, Nullius in verba, which P. B. Medawar translated: "Don't take anybody's word for it."{7}


By turning toward others, scientists intuitively and implicitly move their research out of a strictly subjective framework. They transcend their subjectivity by becoming intersubjective. Intersubjectivity here refers to my recognition of others as people who are like me, whose basic experience of reality complements mine. If they were standing where I am standing, they would see something very similar to what I see. I anticipate that we share reciprocity of perspectives, an assumption that derives from my typical experience of the world as present not only to me but to others as well; as ours, not mine alone.{8}

Therefore, belief that observations made by one scientist could have been made by anyone makes intersubjectivity a founding assumption of the scientific enterprise. The scientific attitude believes itself to be raditcally intersubjective. Moreover, it is precisely this assumption that leads scientists to think that their observations are objective. I assume that my observations are not a result of my personal biases since I believe they can be verified, at least potentially, by everyone else. Because of this commitment to intersubjective verification, the ideal goal of science becomes inclusive knowledge. Science aims toward (although never reaches) consensus.{9}

Practically speaking, to paraphrase William James, Credibility happens to a scientific idea.{10} Discoveries are made credible by subsequent events, events that develop in the context of the relationships between individual investigators and the scientific communities in which they participate. At first, new research is accepted depending upon how reasonable it appears. Subsequently, as the new research is used successfully it will gain in credibility. Investigators rarely replicate each others' research exactly. Rather, they use the results while pursuing their own aims. But regardless of how credible the work appears to become, the absolutely credible, or truth, remains the vanishing point in the future toward which science moves.

When research is first presented formally by an individual to the scientific community, often in the form of a manuscript submitted for publication or a grant submitted for funding, what makes the work appear credible? Reviewers of manuscripts and grants ask themselves if the results are consistent with what already is known, if the methods are contemporary, and if the procedures and findings "look" as if they could be verified. Research presented in instrumental and mathematic terms gains in credibility because it seems to depend less on personal observations. On the other hand, the more one's work appears to depend on the individual "I," the less credible it will seem. When you write a scientific paper, wrote Nobel laureate Francois Jacob, "rid [the research] of any personal scent, any human smell."{11} That is why most investigators write their papers in the anonymous third person. Since any investigator could have made the discovery, science denies the validity of any privileged perspectives that cannot be shared by all.

The Domain of Science

There are many different ways of experiencing the world. Here are three different perspectives about the sun. They reflect scientific, poetic, and religious attitudes.

All the spheres revolve about the sun as their midpoint, and therefore the sun is the center of the universe.
But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; And thou, Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.
Why can the first statement become part of science but not the second or the third?

A well-known story tells of a night watchman who finds a man searching under a street lamp for lost keys and offers to help. Unsuccessful, the watchman finally asks the man if he is sure they are looking in the right spot. "No," came the reply, "but we can see better here."{12} One cannot look where one cannot see. Similarly, the assumptions of science constrain those aspects of experience that can be investigated scientifically.

How typical experiences are and how clearly they can be described together determine a continuum of what can and cannot be verified intersubjectively. Experiences that typically can be had by anyone and that can be described readily are the ones most easily incorporated into the scientific domain through the scientific attitude. Conversely, those aspects of the world not subject to intersubjective verification are excluded from the scientific domain.

Consider the following Zen koan.{13}

The wind was flapping a temple flag. Two monks were arguing about it. One said that the flag was moving; the other said that the wind was moving. Arguing back and forth they could come to no agreement. The Sixth Patriarch said "It is neither the wind nor the flag that is moving. It is your mind that is moving."
(And the thirteenth century commentator adds:)

The wind moves, the flag moves, the mind moves: All of them missed it. Although he knows how to open his mouth, he does not see that he was caught by words.
Zen truth is lost once articulated. The Sixth Patriarch was "caught by words." The attitude of Zen experiences everyday life directly at a holistic level beneath and beyond any possibility of intersubjectively shared experience. Consequently, the truth of Zen is inaccessible to the scientific attitude.

For similar reasons, mystical religious experience also is inaccessible to science. The Christian philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart wrote:

What is contradiction? Love and suffering, white and black, these are contradictions, and as such these cannot remain in essential Being itself.... When the soul comes into the light of reasonableness (the true insight) it knows no contrasts. Say, Lord, when is a man in mere "understanding" (in discursive intellectual understanding)? I say to you: "When a man sees one thing separated from another." And when is a man above mere understanding? Then I can tell you: "When he sees all in all, then a man stands beyond mere understanding."{14}
At the ideal limit of the mystical domain of experience, the person becomes no-one, the world becomes no-thing, and the two fuse into an ineffable but revelatory moment.{15} In this moment, as described by Martin Buber:

The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant ... far more clearly than all the clarity of the experienced world. Not as a thing among the internal things, nor as a figment of the imagination, but as what is present. Tested for it objectivity, the form is not there at all; but what can equal its presence? And it is an actual relation: it acts on me as I act on it. What then does one experience of the Thou? Nothing at all. For one does not experience it. What, then, does one know of the Thou? Only everything, for one no longer knows particulars.{16}
For both Eckhart and Buber, true knowledge transcends the world of things, the world of contradictions, the world of logic. Encountering the presence of God means extinguishing the human intellect to the point of no-thingness. One experiences nothing by intellectual reflection, yet learns everything. Here is privileged perspective, not reciprocity of perspectives; here is an experience of "mine," not "ours.'' Belief is possible; intersubjective verification is not.


Religious faith orients the person toward the ultimate meaning of the world,{17} a meaning whose context is private and needs no intersubjective verification for validation. How different this is from the scientific attitude that orients the person toward the possibility of an operational understanding of the world, an understanding that depends on intersubjective verification for credibility.

As much as Phillip Johnson might wish it otherwise, the sacred dimension of life witnessed by the religious attitude cannot be seen from the perspective of the scientific attitude. Because science is radically intersubjective, because science aims toward a consensus of credibility based on intersubjective verification, the naturalistic world shared by everyone is the only world accessible to science. If it can't be measured or counted or photographed, then it can't be science-even if it's important.


I am indebted to my colleagues Drs. William Snell and Richard Anderson for their advice and encouragement. Scientific research in my laboratory is supported by grants from the National institutes of Health, CA14609 and GM31321.


{1} Johnson, P. E., Darwin on Trial, Regnery Gateway, Washington,

{2} Northrop, J. H., Biochemists, biologists, and William of Occam. Annual Review of Biochemistry 30:1-10, 1961.

{3} Hull, D. L., The God of the Galápagos. Nature 352:485-486,

{4} Fleck, L., Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1979.

{5} Grinnell, F., The Scientific Attitude 2nd Edition, Guilford Press, New York, 1992.

{6} Plato, Meno, tr. G. M. Grube, Hackett Publishers, Indianapolis, 1980.

{7} Medawar, P. B., The Limits of Science, Harper and Row, New York, 1984.

{8} Schultz, A., The Phenomenology of the Social World, tr. G. Walsh and F. Lehnert, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1967.

{9} Ziman, J. M., Public Knowledge: An Essay Concerning the Social Dimension of Science, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1968.

{10} James, W., Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth, Harvard University Press, 1975.

{11} Jacob, F., The Statue Within: An Autobiography, tr. P. Franklin Basic Books, New York, 1989.

{12} Carmell, A., Freedom, providence, and the scientific outlook. In Challenge, ed. A. Carmell and C. Domb, Feldheim Publishers, New York, 1972.

{13} Shibayama, Z., Zen Comments on the Mumonkan, tr. S. Kudo, Harper and Row, New York, 1974.

{14} M. Eckhart quoted in Otto, R., Mysticism East and West, Macmillan Co., New York, 1932.

{15} James, W., The Varieties of Religious Experience, Macmillan, New York, 196 1.

{16} Buber, M., I and Thou, tr. W. Kaufmann, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1970.

{17} Fowler, J. W., Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, Harper and Row Publishers, San Francisco, 1981.

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