This is the third of a now five-part series of blogs offering my historical and philosophical story of the interaction of science and religion in Western culture and, eventually, my sense of the implications of that interaction for the future of the Christian faith and society. The second installment can be found here.
In the first post in this series, I said that there would be four posts. The second post was rather long and I apologized for that. But as I was working on this third post I realized that its subject matter was so rich it would be even longer. So, rather than inflicting that upon you, dear reader, I have broken this third post in two. The first part will deal with the emergence of an evolutionary vision of the history of the cosmos, particularly of the Earth and life on Earth, and its philosophical implications, particularly with respect to epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge. The second part will focus on the development of relativity and quantum physics and their philosophical implications.
That explanation aside, you may remember that in the first post in the series “The Baptism of Aristotle” I examined the Classical “artichoke” view of the world that made a clear distinction between the appearance of a thing (like the petals of an artichoke) and its essential core (the artichoke’s heart). I proposed that the relation between Aristotle’s natural philosophy and essentialist metaphysics, Ptolemy’s geometric model of the cosmos, and Christian theology became so tightly interwoven that it was virtually impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. Thus, a challenge to the prevailing natural philosophy (science) provoked by Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the cosmos and Galileo’s ardent defense of it (plus his own contra-Aristotelian scientific studies) shook the prevailing religious orthodoxy as well.
In the second post “How the World Was Divided” I explored the history of the Copernican revolution, Galileo’s involvement in it, and how it provoked in Descartes and later in Kant the development of powerful dualisms. These cosmological and epistemological dualisms, I suggested, allowed infant and adolescent modern science and traditional religion to proceed upon distinctly separate paths. But I also claimed that it led to a split in the Western cultural psyche between matter and mind, knowledge and faith, facts and values with far-reaching consequences. I also considered a variety of philosophical and theological developments in relation to that division of the world.
In this third post (in two parts) I will try to show how the tide of Modern culture is ebbing in the light of 19th and 20th century scientific discoveries. These developments have led to a new, unsettling cultural tide that is rising. Part 1 will explore what Stephen Edelston Toulmin (1922-2009) and his wife, June Goodfield (1927- ), have called “the discovery of time;” the emergence of historical geology and evolutionary biology and their philosophical and theological implications.
The vanishing essence
Developments in geology and biology in the last 250 years have in large measure contributed to the emergence of a fundamentally new cosmic vision. The prevailing cultural metaphor for the Classical world was the organism. Those for Modern culture were the machine and dualism. I’m proposing that one of the characteristic metaphors for the emerging worldview is history.
In 1788 the Scotsman, James Hutton (1726-1797), published his Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe. It helped initiate uniformitarian geology, a theory that all of the observed geological features of the Earth could be explained largely in relation to ordinary natural processes (e.g., wind and rain erosion) acting over long periods of time.
Drawing on Hutton’s work the Englishman, Charles Lyell (1797-1875), published his three-volume Principles of Geology between 1830 and 1833. The uniformitarian theory did not deny the geological effects of catastrophic events like earthquakes, floods, or volcanos. But it argued that these were the exception rather than the rule. It is significant that Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who had signed on as naturalist on the HMS Beagle for a South American survey and circumnavigation of the globe, took with him the first volume of Lyell’s Principles.
Although interested in observing nature from an early age, Darwin was initially directed to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor. But he was bored by the medical courses at the University of Edinburgh to say nothing of his upset over the dissecting theater and surgery. His father then sent him to Cambridge to begin studies for the Anglican priesthood. Darwin found these studies no more appealing than his medical studies and neglected them. His father despaired of Darwin ever amounting to anything as he declared “you care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” It was when he was selected to join the crew of the Beagle, that he had at last found his vocation.
(I’ve known quite a few people who have wandered the halls of academia before discovering their calling. I confess I was one of them.)
During his five-year voyage on the Beagle, Darwin collected a wide range of flora and fauna. When he arrived home in 1836, he was already something of a celebrity because of his collections. He had received the second volume of Lyell’s Principles during the voyage and had come to accept a uniformitarian view of the geological history of the Earth. It provided an historical framework to which he would ultimately relate the flora and fauna he had observed and collected on the voyage. As I indicated above uniformitarianism suggested that the Earth had formed over a long period of time. Actually, several natural philosophers had been proposing non-traditional ages of the Earth.
As early as the mid-1600’s CE there were debates about how old the Creation was. Even Isaac Newton had proposed that the creation took place around 4000 BCE. But it was the Irish Bishop, James Ussher (1581-1656), whose calculations from his study of the Old Testament that led him to set the first day of creation at October 23, 4004 BCE. This became a standard date among many Christians. (By coincidence, October 23rd is my brother’s birthday.) Subsequent natural philosophers, some on the basis of experiments, proposed much older ages.
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) heated a sphere composed of material similar to the Earth and recorded its rate of cooling. On this basis he calculated in 1779 that the Earth was about 75,000 years old. Two important factors about which Buffon was unaware were the decay of radioactive elements that produces heat and the convection within the Earth that transports heat from the Earth’s mantle to its crust.
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), held that the Earth had cooled from a completely molten state and proposed that the age was between 20-400 million years. (Quite a big margin of error). Lyell doubted Kelvin’s proposal as too short. Later Darwin and his supporters judged that even Kelvin’s longest proposed date allowed too little time for the evolution of life.
Nevertheless, the scientific investigation of the age of the Earth was raising questions about the adequacy of the standard Biblical chronology, which Ussher had so meticulously calculated. Also, these proposals were suggesting that the Earth had not remained essentially the same since its creation. Rather, its current state was different from its original state and the cause of that difference was its history.
One may wonder why it took Darwin 23 years from his return home on the Beagle before he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859. One reason is that Darwin was himself a very meticulous researcher. In addition to his observations and collections gained from his voyage, he produced numerous notebooks filled with such observations as the results of pigeon and other agricultural efforts at selective breeding. It is also the case that Darwin suffered from chronic illness that impeded his ability to work for long periods. A third factor may be the concerns of his wife, Emma Wedgwood Darwin (1808-1896).
Darwin had known Emma, his first cousin, virtually all of his life. She, like many of Darwin’s extended family, was a devout Unitarian. It is notable that Darwin’s concern about her reaction to his developing evolutionary vision was such that, against his father’s recommendation, he shared this vision with her on the occasion of his proposal of marriage. Even with her misgivings, by all accounts their union was a cherished one. Ironically, the fact that Darwin’s religious views remained unsettled through the rest of his life may be one reason that their relationship remained strong.
By his own report Darwin did not have a unifying concept for his evolutionary hypothesis until 1838 when he read the 6th edition (1826) of Thomas Robert Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population. In that work Malthus argued that although population grew geometrically, food production grew only arithmetically. This mismatch of rates, Malthus concluded, would ultimately lead to famine and the natural culling of population. In 1858 Darwin wrote:
I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.
Thus, the idea of “natural selection” was born. Yet, it remains uncertain when Darwin might have finally published On the Origin of Species, if it had not been for correspondence he received from a younger colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913).
While suffering from a fever on the Malay Peninsula, Wallace also made the connection between Malthus’ work and species development. He even came up with the same concept, natural selection. It was this idea that he shared with Darwin in his letters. It prompted Darwin to move forward with publication. In an 1858 meeting of the Linnean Society of London a paper by Wallace, including the idea of natural selection, was presented along with excerpts from an unpublished essay by Darwin and his correspondence with other scientists on the subject that indicated Darwin’s priority on the concept. A year later On the Origin came off the press.
The developments in uniformitarian geology and evolutionary biology led to an appreciation of the ontological impact of history; that is, that things did not have a history, they were their history. The earth and all life upon it came to be seen as historical and contingent (i.e., not necessary). The world was no longer simply here. It was a drama of creation and extinction, of the rise and fall of continents and species alike, of creative emergence and transformation.
In previous eras, an entity came to embody (or failed to embody) what it already metaphysically was, its eternal essence. That essence determined its nature and value (the artichoke view). However, in a contingent and historical world, an entity does not become what it is but rather is what it becomes. And what it may become cannot be known beforehand. In such a world the idea of a determining essence loses its meaningfulness.
Thus, an “onion” vision of the world began to emerge. When you peal an onion, at the end you have nothing at all. An onion is comprised of a series of interrelated layers and each layer is laid down in the historical process of its development. The resulting onion is its history.
Not only did nature per se come to be seen as contingently historical but humans came to be seen as fully immersed in that history as both product and participant. Today, Homo sapiens are understood scientifically to be a contingent historical product of universal natural processes. On the basis of this understanding, our species is not the crown of a primordial act of creation, an act whereby an eternal essence was first divinely implanted in a material body. Rather Homo sapiens are a recent embodiment of a particular historical legacy of “decent with modification” (Darwin’s preferred way of saying “evolution”) from the first cellular life on Earth. Further, the historical processes that have led to the appearance of human beings did not come to an end when Homo sapiens showed up. Evolution continues. Chapters in the biography of our species, in fact chapters of the whole history of the cosmos, are still being written. And that biography is not simply the history of this thing or that think but of the creative emergence of things in relation to one another; what the Buddhists call pratītyasamutpāda (dependent co-origination).
The evolution of knowledge
In the Classical period knowledge was acquired by simple observation, mathematical intuition and logic. In the Modern period knowledge was acquired through analytic reduction and critical reason. In the Emerging period in which we are now living, knowledge is not simply there for the gathering nor can it be acquired simply through critical analysis. Rather knowledge emerges through an historical process.
Over against the positivists, Karl Popper (1902-1994) argued that the advance of scientific understanding ultimately depends not upon some sort of inductive critical analysis but instead upon the exercise of creative alogical human imagination to provide a starting point for scientific inquiry.
Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pioneered the analysis of science as an historical phenomenon in which fundamental shifts in theory are not logical modifications or reinterpretations of past knowledge, but are instead radical transformations of worldview, what he called “paradigm shifts.” For Kuhn the acquisition of new understandings of the world involves a conversion-like experience, a gestalt shift, in which the same data is suddenly seen differently.
Historian and philosopher Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009) argued that the process of human knowing is appropriately understood as an evolutionary or ecological process paralleling what is found in biology. Knowledge for Toulmin exhibits both a dynamism in which newer views emerge out of older ones culled by historical circumstances and a rationality grounded in intention or purpose rather than logic.
In The Future of Man Victor Hugo (1802-1885) wrote “Nothing else in the world…is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BCE), the Pythagorean, described a heliocentric cosmology. That idea persisted in a small cultural niche of preserved classical knowledge until it was recovered by Copernicus almost 2000 years later. But this rediscovery occurred in a new cultural context in which there was a revival Platonic and Pythagorean thought, a challenge to traditional authority (both “scientific” and religious), and the advent of new technological means to observe nature (e.g., the telescope).
One last scientist/philosopher for this post. Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) made significant contributions to physical chemistry, economics and philosophy. For my purposes it was his work in the area of the philosophy of knowledge that is particularly relevant. While Modern culture divided knowledge into the objective and the subjective, Polanyi proposed that knowledge was neither but was instead personal. It is objective in the sense that knowledge must meet the standards of credibility of a particular community of knowers and it is at the same time subjective because it depends on faith in the standards of credibility of that community. For Polanyi you cannot know anything without believing something first. This belief cannot be justified through proof.
In addition, knowledge can be tacit as well as explicit. Explicit knowledge is the knowledge you can say. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge you can show, skill knowledge, knowledge that is embodied. The knowledge associated with riding a bicycle is an example of these two dimensions of knowledge. You can read about, gain explicit knowledge about bicycle riding but that by itself does not make you a bicycle rider. Without reading about bicycle riding you can get on a bike and try to ride and fall off and get on and pedal again. Over time you become more and more proficient until you ride with ease and without actually explicitly thinking about it. You have acquired tacit knowledge of bike riding. Similarly, a physician learns to diagnose disease not simply by reading medical books or learning to read test results but more particularly by doing rounds with an accomplished diagnostician.
In this respect Polanyi declared that we know (tacitly) more than we can say (explicitly). He also claimed that we say more than we know; that is, for example, new theoretical insights into nature bear in them implications that the original discoverer may not have recognized. So, Einstein did not originally realize that his work on General Relativity and Quantum Physics would open up the possibility of an expanding universe and quantum indeterminacy respectively. Both of which he resisted. But more about that in the next blog.
Perhaps the most significant feature of the emerging worldview is that the universe is not a thing that has a history, it is its history; the universe does not become what it is, it is what it becomes. What it becomes is the result of a historical dynamism of changing relationships.
Jim is an honorably retired teaching elder of the Presbyterian Church (USA). For most of his career he served as a minister in higher education at Michigan Tech, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. However, immediately following seminary, Jim worked in the School of Engineering at North Carolina State University. From 1996-2006 he was the Senior Program Associate for the Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Jim is the immediate past president of the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith and currently serves as co-chair of the Broader Social Impacts Committee of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. In 2021 Jim was elected a Fellow of the AAAS.