An expansion on the earlier post “Framing Darwin in History“
Darwin’s life was surrounded by the industrial revolution. Life was motivated by progress. England seemed unbeatable, apart from that little setback in the Americas. Raw materials were coming in and finished goods were going out. There was profit for many and job security for most. Society was getting better. Of course there were still hurting and destitute people but now there were resources for their basic needs.
The industrial revolution may have centered on the island but the ideas driving it went much deeper. The Kingdom of God is at hand. It was time to prepare the world for the return of Christ. Take care of the poor. Spread the gospel around the world. The improving lot of all was certainly part of God’s plan.
Evolutionary thought had been developing at the same time as this theological persuasion (postmillennialism). Charles Darwin was simply the first to create a system that appeared workable. Many before him had tried but had not completed something suitable to the Rationalist mind.
Components of Darwin’s model reflect a mechanical and materialistic world view. There is no room for an actively involved creator in his system. All that occurs happens as a result of either randomness or, for higher beings, the desire to become better. These are core to his model.
Darwin’s understanding that beings better themselves was taken from a passive position to an active one by the progressive movement. The “do gooders” of the era would force things on people to make their lives better whether or not they wanted them. (“Pollyanna” may have been overly optimistic but still he exposed the do-gooders for their failings.) We cannot forget the active intrusion of the eugenics movement and the rise of abortion and birth control (as well as the genocide in Europe). Though these may be indirect fruit of Darwinism they none the less represent a clear parallel between Darwin’s model and the theology of the day.
But what of Darwin’s model? Is it possible that these principles are not scientific but are actually sociological and even theological? Does a theology without the Theo lead to such utilitarian results?
The question is not about the legitimacy of the questions raised by scientists (or anyone for that matter). The issue revolves around the supposed precision of any theory. What does it take to separate a theory from cultural influences. For Feyerabend it was nigh to impossible. The influences of history and culture were, for him, so intertwined with theory that distinguishing one from another became a near impossibility.
… it suffices to remember that observational reports, experimental results, ‘factual’ statements, either contain theoretical assumptions or assert them by the manner in which they are used. … Thus our habit of saying ‘the table is brown’ when we view it under normal circumstances, with our senses in good order, but ‘the table seems to be brown’ when either the lighting conditions are poor or when we feel unsure in our capacity of observation expresses the belief that there are familiar circumstances, when they are deceived. It expresses the belief that some of our sensory impressions are verdical while others are not.[i]
To explain this, let’s say that we state a theory as “If hydrogen added to oxygen the product is water.” There are some of our senses and their applications, such as language, which allow us to communicate through terms which are understood by convention. We know what hydrogen, oxygen, and water are by experience. What remains is more than the induction of a formula. The assertion itself comes into question.
Feyerabend says that the assertion is also tainted. Though the simpler the formula the less the potential for tainting, the tainting remains. The statement itself is an assertion. It falls from that assertion that our senses are capable if discerning the results. Water, of course, seems simple enough to observe.
Yet in a more complex model the fruit of any experiment might be even more difficult to discern. For instance, if a model predicts something which is just outside the capacity of our senses and is only available to the logic of our mind, we might be tempted to accept the results as “logical” without empirical evidence. Logic often seems enough.
The follow-up question is whether we ought trust our senses to interpret the results. Results may be consistent but is our observation of the results of an experiment or test reliable? Is it merely mathematical precision that we require or do we need to find out how to eliminate history and culture from our tests? Is there some degree of culture and theology inhabiting our test? Certainly this is the case more often than we might at first think.
Darwin’s work suffers from this lack. All ideas suffer the same fate. Darwin is not alone in this. But the extreme pessimism and skepticism of Feyerabend is not necessary, except perhaps as a falsifier t help us build better theories. The commonalities that we share with all ideas of all ages allow us to reduce these ideas and theories to core principles and then make use of them. Of course we do not have the capacity to employ them in the same way as they were originally developed.
In the case of Darwin’s work there are two principles which must be rejected because of the visible external influences which are not part of observation but social and theological constructs inserted into the theory. These are directionality and materialism.
Materialism is the one we hear the most about. Darwin presented a mechanical and material-only view of the universe. By doing this he effectively rejected the concept of “mind” thus reducing all life to meaninglessness. It is not only the theologian who confronts this. Butler, Barzun, Nagel, and Fodor (and certainly others) have declared Darwin to be in error. These are not theological voices. These are scientists concerned about sound theory.
Directionality falls in line with the concept of social and theological progress brought by the postmillennial theologians to the era. This will be expanded on another time, at this time let’s leave it at the principle that progress may not be all that we think it is. We might be change for the sake of change instead of improving the human condition.
In the end it seems that there is more to theory-building than we have thought.
[i] Feyerablend, Paul, Against Method, 2010, Verso (NY), p. 14-15
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