The Rise of Evolution: Darwin’s Modernism

This series of articles will consider how evolution got to the place of prominence that it now enjoys.  The story goes that Darwin “discovered” evolution on the isles of Galapagos.   While this is popular, it is also untrue.  Darwin’s path to evolution was not governed by scientific discovery, but by his own brand of theology; attempting to reconcile the problem of natural evil.  Later articles will be dedicated to further developing that argument.  This article will focus on the intellectual environment that allowed Darwin’s theology and theodicy (a branch of philosophy dealing with the problem of evil) to thrive.

These articles were inspired by Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil by Cornelius Hunter. 

The purpose of these articles will be to show that, “at it’s core, evolution is about God, not science” (Cornelius Hunter, Darwin’s God).

Notions About God

In theological thought, all doctrines are built upon the doctrine of God.  Similarly, in secular thought, there is an underlying view of God.  Charles Darwin, his contemporaries and even today’s modern evolutionists make many mentions of the Creator.  Their notions of God are part of their basic reasoning. 

The question becomes:  How did the evolutionary notion of God become so widely accepted that it now needs no justification?  When they mention God, their definition of Him is unexplained and unquestioned.  How did it get like this?  The answer to this lies in. . .

The History of Religious Thought

I obviously can’t get close to specific about this topic, so the basics will have to suffice.

The trend, in the modern age, is to think of God as being comprehensible.  And if a certain aspect of God is incomprehensible, then that part must either be irrelevant or not truly part of God.  God’s acts of creation and intervention are being thought of as things that can be understood, reasoned about and even scientifically modeled.

Centuries before Darwin, thinkers began to scrutinize God according to rules of reason and began seeking to describe creation in accordance with natural law, not just divine intervention.  Since the Middle Ages, nature has been seen as having a certain level of autonomy.  Sure, God may have started it all and arranged things the way they are now, but nature has, since then, operated according to uniform, unchanging laws that need no divine maintenance. 

Descartes (1596 – 1650) is considered, by many, to be the first of these thinkers.  However, many like Thomas Burnet (1635 – 1715), Edmund Halley (1656 – 1742) and William Whiston (1667 – 1752) all added their brand of natural explanations for God’s creation and intervention.  Could God have miraculously started The Flood?  Surely.  However, isn’t it more amazing, and doesn’t it use more wisdom and power, to cause these events to come about by secondary means?  A God who just changes things because He can is certainly less impressive.

Hume’s Attack on Miracles

David Hume’s (1711-1776) argument against miracles is considered by many to be the pinnacle of this line of thinking; that God does not dabble in His creation.  Hume turned the notion of miracles around from being a point of evidence for the believer to being a liability. 

Hume argued that as we observe the natural laws all around us, we must weigh the evidence of the natural law being broken just once, against all the instances of the natural law working just fine.  Since this is the case, the evidence for that single instance of a miracle would have to be compelling indeed.  The report of a miracle becomes a case of “proof against proof”.  Needless to say, Hume looked into history and never found evidence of a miracle to be compelling.

Hume’s Uniformitarianism

Of course, Hume’s argument has a problem.  C.S. Lewis pointed out that Hume argued in a circle because he must presuppose that nature is absolutely uniform to begin with (Beckwith, David Hume’s Argument against Miracles:  A Critical Analysis).  Half of the “proof against proof” statement is the proof of nature’s uniformity.  Yet, this cannot be proven by science, so Hume must assume it. 

The other assumption is that the natural laws do not leave room for any exceptions to the rule.  By attempting to limit exceptions that would make science useless, scientific thought has ruled out exceptions altogether, no matter the cause.  Again, Hume must assume this.

That Hume’s argument fails because of these assumptions is not what we’re concerned with here.  What is important to this article is that Hume’s proof against miracles was widely accepted in his day, and continues to be.  In the vast majority of instances, the presupposition of uniformity and simplicity are transparent or purposefully ignored by practicing scientists. 

Hume’s proof against miracles highlights these unspoken assumptions that are no longer questioned.  That these assumptions are taken for granted as fact, shows just how deeply they have been internalized in the modern scientific mind.

What Affect Did This Have?

Many theologians in the centuries before Darwin used logic, reason, and scientific inquiry to provide arguments for God.  The logical conclusion is that if the existence of God can be argued for in this way, then so can His non-existence.  If God only interacts with His creation through natural laws, why not just describe phenomena according to natural laws?  Why “add” God?

In attempting to rationalize God, modernist thinkers also distanced God from His creation.  Darwin started his work in this theological climate.  His definition of God needed no explanation, because it was already accepted.  Darwin merely pushed God further from His creation, and provided a coherent scientific framework in which to do it.  How and why Darwin was able to do this will be further explored in the future articles in the series.

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13 Comments on “The Rise of Evolution: Darwin’s Modernism”

  1. Matt Says:

    Hi Eric,

    It seems to me that Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection has such a prominent position because people like yourself are so vocal in your opposition to it.

    Natural selection is a scientific theory just like any other. However, because it proposes a mechanism for something that you (I’m using a wide plural “you” here, if you’ll pardon me) consider the realm of God and God alone, you take it as a violation of your belief.

    It’s no different to the Catholic Church considering the work of Galileo heretical back in the day. They changed their position on that and those opposed to Natural selection will eventually do the same.

    The truth has a pleasant habit of outlasting its critics.

    Maybe Darwin did develop his theory with a theological purpose in mind (I’m not aware of this story so I’ll be interested to hear it), but that doesn’t make the theory, considered on its own merits, any less powerful, predictive and scientific.

    And his work was the basis of many decades of additional scientific findings that have only confirmed and built upon his legacy.

  2. markbey Says:

    Eric I left a comment for you over at UF please respond if you get the chance.

  3. dwilli58 Says:

    “The thoughts of man are mere foolishness to God.”

    Great article, Eric, I’m looking forward to more! I may, over the next few days, press your article, since I have been writing on Darwin lately!

    Thanks again!

  4. Eric Kemp Says:

    dwilli

    Thanks for the encouragment!

  5. Eric Kemp Says:

    Matt

    “It seems to me that Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection has such a prominent position because people like yourself are so vocal in your opposition to it.”

    You misunderstand me, I’m not arguing against Natural Selection. In fact, in this particular article, I haven’t argued against anything. Two points, 1: I will never argue against Natural Selection because it’s as close to scientific fact as you get and 2: please don’t be naive enough to think that Darwin’s Origin was merely explaining the theory of Natural Selection. Darwin uses Natural Selection to remove God from the naturalistic picture, this is the point of Origin and I will show this in the coming articles in the series.

    “However, because it proposes a mechanism for something that you (I’m using a wide plural “you” here, if you’ll pardon me) consider the realm of God and God alone, you take it as a violation of your belief.”

    Actually no. The unscientific premise that I reject is that since we can describe Natural Selection, therefore God is out of a job, both in the present and in origins past. However, in this article, I am merely pointing out that Darwin’s evolution depends very heavily on Darwin’s definition of God.

    “It’s no different to the Catholic Church considering the work of Galileo heretical back in the day. They changed their position on that and those opposed to Natural selection will eventually do the same.”

    This is another lie you’ve been told. The Church didn’t put Galileo away for a science vs. religion debate, they put Galileo away because of a theological disagreement, and mostly because of insubordination.

    “Maybe Darwin did develop his theory with a theological purpose in mind (I’m not aware of this story so I’ll be interested to hear it), but that doesn’t make the theory, considered on its own merits, any less powerful, predictive and scientific.”

    Sure, but it does destroy the premise the evolution is purely scientific. And it’s future predictive power isn’t the problem, it’s that evolution is used to describe the unobservable, untestable past. And since science can’t reach into the past, this is done with negative theological arguments. I will develop that argument soon.

    “And his work was the basis of many decades of additional scientific findings that have only confirmed and built upon his legacy.”

    Only if you accept Darwin’s beginning definition of God and his negative theology. I promise I’ll develop that argument soon.

  6. Matt Says:

    Hi Eric,

    That’s interesting that you don’t reject the theory of Natural selection. I thought all YECs did. I’ve learnt something today. Thank you.

    I don’t think anyone’s claiming that the theory of Natural selection puts God out of a job. At least, I’ve not heard that argument.

    It’s more that our presence and complexity here on Earth was always considered positive evidence for God. And what Natural selection did was show that all this complexity actually has a perfectly natural origin.

    So it really only puts God out of a job for people who thought that Creation was God’s only job.

    It did, however, make those who are inclined to look for evidence of God in the natural world change their tactics, which is how we got the Intelligent Design “theory”.


  7. […] via The Rise of Evolution: Darwin’s Modernism « Apologia. […]

  8. Eric Kemp Says:

    Matt

    “That’s interesting that you don’t reject the theory of Natural selection. I thought all YECs did. I’ve learnt something today. Thank you.”
    I have actually never read a YEC author or scientist who rejects Natural Selection as a predictive, observable and testable phenomena. I don’t know how, I’m sure they exist, but I’d try to show them the error of their ways as much as you would. For a YEC, it is the unobservable, untestable and philosophically naturalistic, materialistic and uniformitarian conclusion of “therefore we all came from a common ancestor” that we reject. We start from a different set of presuppositions, so we come to a different conclusion.

    “I don’t think anyone’s claiming that the theory of Natural selection puts God out of a job. At least, I’ve not heard that argument.”
    At the very least God is no longer “needed” to keep nature going. He set nature in motion and has left it alone or only works through the natural laws.

    “And what Natural selection did was show that all this complexity actually has a perfectly natural origin.”

    Actually, observable Natural Selection can do nothing of the sort. It must be assumed and extrapolated that all complexity has a natural origin. The science of explaining origins is not science at all Matt.

    “So it really only puts God out of a job for people who thought that Creation was God’s only job.”

    Yea, you know, you’re kinda right here. The definition of God that we inherited from the modernist thinkers is a definition that makes God easy to exclude.

    “It did, however, make those who are inclined to look for evidence of God in the natural world change their tactics, which is how we got the Intelligent Design “theory”.

    Yea, again I kind of agree with you. The idea of a God who only works through natural laws puts God in a box that He can’t be removed from without putting the very validity of science into question. However, the only reason ID is in quotations as a “theory” is because the vast majority evolutionists and atheists have swallowed evolutionary and naturalistic speculation as absolute fact. And if naturalism and evolution are absolute facts, therefore anything else MUST BE wrong.

  9. Matt Says:

    It’s a little simplistic to say that evolution has been “swallowed as absolute fact”. I’d say that evolution of species via natural selection stands as the single best explanation we have for the diversity of life we see.

    If a better explanation comes along it’ll be superceded as a theory.

    Anyway, to pick up on one of your earlier points about miracles:

    Hume’s point was that if nature is uniform then miracles can be defined in terms of violations of the natural laws. That’s a perfectly reasonable conclusion under that assumption. But more to the point, it’s the only assumption under which miracles can be considered to exist at all.

    This is because if you take the alternative assumption, that nature is not uniform, then how can miracles even be defined?

    If you want to claim an event as miraculous you actually need to assume uniformity of nature, and then show that that uniformity has been violated.

  10. Eric Kemp Says:

    Matt

    “It’s a little simplistic to say that evolution has been “swallowed as absolute fact”. I’d say that evolution of species via natural selection stands as the single best explanation we have for the diversity of life we see.”

    It’s only the single best explanation if you first subscribe to the starting assumptions. This is what I’ll develop in the article series.

    “If a better explanation comes along it’ll be superceded as a theory.”

    Well, I can’t agree with you there. This is just not how evolution is treated. If this statement was true, then ID would be given an open forum. Science would welcome the challenge, welcome a “better” explanation if maybe ID was it. But that’s not how it goes down in the real world. So while this ideal is noble, it’s also naive.

    “This is because if you take the alternative assumption, that nature is not uniform, then how can miracles even be defined?”

    Matt, exactly! Modern thinking has separated reality into two categories, the natural and the supernatural. The miraculous and natural law. This is an assumption, a constructed dichotomy. That’s my entire point in showing the modernist thinking. In order to define miracles as you do, you must first define nature as you do. Both definitions/assumptions are unscientific in nature. That is, science can’t tell you that nature is uniform and science can’t tell you that miracles are only defined as that which violates natural law. Those are metaphysical and theological positions.

    But let me show you what you just did Matt. In order to provide evidence for your own position, described above, you merely provided a negative argument for the opposite position. Specifically, you said, “If you take things differently, then how would we define the opposite?”, suggesting because the opposite would be difficult to define, therefore your definition is correct. This is what evolutionists do all the time. They provide negative arguments like “God wouldn’t have done it this way” or “This doesn’t look designed” to take their empirical evidence to heights it wouldn’t go on it’s own. If you don’t believe me, just stick with the article series and I’ll show you.

    Honestly, Matt, the point of this series of articles is only to show the metaphysical arguments and beliefs used to prove evolution, not to prove evolution wrong. If the articles start you thinking about the arguments you use, and the assumptions you must have, to defend evolution then that’s the entirety of my goal.

    “If you want to claim an event as miraculous you actually need to assume uniformity of nature, and then show that that uniformity has been violated.”

    Correct, you must argue in a circle.

  11. Matt Says:

    The dichotomy isn’t between natural and supernatural. It’s between uniform and not-uniform. That’s not an invented dichotomy. Nature must be one or the other.

    Even without making a statement about which you think is correct, Hume was saying that miracles don’t exist.

    If you assume nature is uniform, miracles can be defined as violations of natural laws. We don’t see any, so miracles appear not to exist. (Of course this may be changed in the future).

    If you assume nature is not uniform, you can’t even sensibly define what a miracle is. Literally anything could be claimed as a miraculous.

    The problem is that Christian theology presents miracles of the first type as evidence of (for example) Christ’s divinity (walking on water, water into wine etc) so they are the ones first assuming uniformity in nature

    On Intelligent Design, the current controversy is not that it’s not a sufficient explanation. The problem is that it’s not a scientific explanation. (And I suspect you agree with that statement.) It’s a theological idea and therefore it shouldn’t be taught in science classes.

    I’ve talked about this over at my own blog a fair bit:
    http://ilikeportello.blogspot.com/2008/06/manufacturing-controversy.html

  12. Eric Kemp Says:

    Matt

    “The dichotomy isn’t between natural and supernatural. It’s between uniform and not-uniform. That’s not an invented dichotomy. Nature must be one or the other.”

    Correct, in a uniform nature, miracles have almost no place unless you can show alot of evidence for one. In a non-uniform nature, the door is wide open for anything. Now, my point isn’t to say that one or the other is correct, only to point out that “uniform or non-uniform” is a metaphysical question and picking one is a metaphysical assumption. Something that is not proved by science. That’s all.

    “The problem is that Christian theology presents miracles of the first type as evidence of (for example) Christ’s divinity (walking on water, water into wine etc) so they are the ones first assuming uniformity in nature.”

    Well, I might agree with you here. Christian theologians were the ones who thought up science using modernist thinking described in the article. Modernist thinking including the belief that God ONLY acted through natural laws.

    “On Intelligent Design, the current controversy is not that it’s not a sufficient explanation. The problem is that it’s not a scientific explanation. (And I suspect you agree with that statement.) It’s a theological idea and therefore it shouldn’t be taught in science classes.”

    Here’s the problem with this: I disagree that ID scientists aren’t doing science. But I agree that ID’s conclusion isn’t scientific. However, neither is evolutions’ conclusion. Sorry to keep doing this to you but . . . this is an argument I will further develope in the series and I really do look forward to discussing it once I get there. I just want to do the subject justice, so I don’t want to rush it.


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