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Originally published in Creation 3(1):28–32, February 1980
Scientific knowledge in the two hundred years from 1500 to 1700 AD expanded enormously.
During the time of the Reformation the monolithic structure of West European religious thought was subdivided and subdivided. People could only see the impressive mass of natural knowledge. And somewhere floating around, not related to it, living in a little realm of its own, was a tiny unimpressive and irrelevant miniscule of religious and theological knowledge. Although this is an oversimplification, it was this type of “social environment” which was a major influence in the direction and basis modern science was to take.
By the 1840’s in Germany, at least some people were quite confident that human beings could be explained almost entirely, or entirely, in terms of basic physics and chemistry. Let me give you two examples of the extreme sort of views. One chap was called Carl Bogt, and he came up with the immortal statement: “The liver secretes bile, and the brain secretes thought.” Fairly hard-nosed materialistic explanation, isn’t it! There was another chap called Buchner, Ludwig Buchner. His great effort was a book called Graft and Stoff, Force and Matter, the argument that everything consists of either energy or matter, and he wrote edition after edition after edition in the second half of the nineteenth century. Everything consists of energy and matter, that’s all! Why was it that these people were coming up with these sort of advances? I suggest the major reason why this was done was that the answers they wanted to the questions they were asking were a very special kind.
Go back to Pierre LaPlace in the eighteenth century, the man who said, “Sire, I have no need of that additional hypothesis.” Basically, what LaPlace said was this: “How can we explain the solar system in terms of the physics and the mathematics that we presently understand without any assumption of supernatural intervention? How can we explain the world in natural terms only?” On those terms his nebular hypothesis can fit very nicely. In the nineteenth century the scientists were doing much the same thing without being anywhere near as honest. They were really saying “Given that the natural is what we can know, how can we explain everything in terms of it?” This outlook has become what is called the scientific explanation.
In geology or in paleontology the only things that you can know are present conditions; therefore you have to account for the thing you want to explain, only in terms of present conditions.Charles Darwin basically provided a natural account of the diversity of living things and of how that may have come about. Darwin’s account is couched in the terms, “Given that the only things we are allowed to use in our explanation are forces and things that we currently see around us, how can we account for what we now see?” Darwin was part of what had become the major thrust of scientific tradition, where “explain” meant how x could be accounted for by means of other known things and “know” meant “known by means of observation.” In geology or in paleontology the only things that you can know are present conditions; therefore you have to account for the thing you want to explain, only in terms of present conditions. That, of course, leads to the so-called law or principle of uniformity, which says that forces operating now, are the same forces operating in the past. How do we explain a four hundred foot bed of sandstone? Using the assumption of “uniformity,” you simply measure the rate at which sand is carried down a river, find it is a millimetre a year of buildup somewhere, divide your millimetre into four hundred feet and you find out how many years it took to build up the sandstone layer. You must operate with presently known forces. You see the point? The suppressed premise that we tend to forget is that the whole game is coached in terms of, “Your explanation must only include presently operating forces, presently observable forces.”
Well, why object to this? What other forces could you take into account? Let me take this example. You go into a room with a pendulum swinging, happily on its string, and you watch it for a while. After a while you see that it appears to be slowing down, or swinging a lesser distance. So you take some observations and you calculate that at some point in the future the remaining movement will be imperceptible. The pendulum will stop. It has been damped down by air resistance to the point, where it will to all intents and purposes have stopped. This we can predict. But what happened to make it swing in the first place? If you only operate in terms of what you now know, you must say, “At the moment it’s swinging through a small distance, five minutes ago it must have been swinging through a larger distance, seven minutes ago it must have chipping the plaster off the ceiling.” Stupid conclusion isn’t it? Reality forces us to make a guess and say, “Some idiot must have come in and given it a push to start with, or there was an earthquake.” But when we think this way we have stopped thinking just in terms of what is presently known. We have stopped being uniformitarian. We have to make a guess that something else outside of our observations might have happened.
It seems to me that a lot of our science is like our pendulum observations and conclusions, only it doesn’t become crucial or obvious most of the time. In the areas of physics that most of us come into contact with, such as mechanics or basic electrical theory, it’s not a problem because what happened to these systems in the past doesn’t really matter. Where it comes as a real crunch point is in areas of cosmology, working out where the whole universe comes from. It emerges as a problem in areas of paleontology (what sort of living things have there been?) and it shows in geology (how did that rock get there?). It doesn’t become a problem in things that haven’t got an interest in or need of investigating the past. Most science isn’t concerned with the past, it’s concerned with predicting what will happen in five minutes’ time or two days’ time or a week’s time. When you drive over a bridge, you are very concerned with the engineer’s predictions that the bridge has a reasonable safety factor and it won’t fall down this afternoon. You’re not awfully concerned with the ancient history of the atoms of iron that make up the structure. You are more concerned with the immediate and the immediate future.
In practice we live with a science that asks only limited questions because most of the time it doesn’t really matter. But every now and then we come to an area where limited questioning and the use of only “acceptable” types of evidence does lead to some very real difficulties. Why eliminate evidence of any other kind? Why limit the type of questions we ask? The historical reason why we do it comes back to the concept that you can have a clear distinction between knowledge which can be gained by revelation, and knowledge which can be gained by natural observation. Furthermore, beginning with that distinction drawn by Aquinas we have one further step; reduce the importance of revealed knowledge. Natural knowledge seems to be important, it seems to take over life, and theology or revelation seems unimportant after all. Don’t most of us live without it? The Christian explanation for this is very simple, this shunting of the revealed truth, the revealed knowledge, into a corner, is a very neat way by which natural, sinful man can carry out what’s described in Romans 1. “Avoid the Creator.” The classic example is LaPlace in the eighteenth century, who with his superb scientific knowledge, pushed his God, in whom he presumably believed, further and further into a corner of his life.
What’s all this got to do with Darwin? The force of Darwin today is just this: that most of the time we accept as valid the notion of explanation which has been bequeathed to us by the mechanistic science of the eighteenth century with its origins in the Medieval work of people like Aquinas. Most of the time we go along with the distinction of natural/revealed. We live with it, it’s part of our lifestyle, part of our thinking. And if we accept that, then it’s well nigh impossible to deny Darwin when he comes along with his explanation that makes perfectly good sense within this type of thought pattern. It becomes almost impossible to deny Darwin and yet remain a rational, logical, reasonable human being. This is the point that people find themselves in.
Well, what do we do? We must begin, I think, by becoming much more aware of the assumptions which underly this desperately simple question, “How do you explain?” or “How do you account for?” Quite obviously the answer that you give is going to be different if your starting point includes the hidden injunction of modern science—how do you explain (but only in terms of presently observable forces and with all Creator-God postulates rigorously excluded)? How do you explain, how do you account for? Sounds simple but it’s always couched in those terms. But what will count as an answer? It must only include presently observable and must rigorously exclude any reference to outside intervention by a creating God. And that’s practically what all science does, not just Darwin, but our physics and our chemistry and our economics theories and our geography and our psychology and anything else for that matter. That’s why we can’t reject Darwin very easily, because it’s a natural continuation of what we have come to expect and will come to accept in many of other areas. That’s why we can’t reject Darwin unless we are prepared to have at the same time, a revolutionary reappraisal of the entire scientific tradition—a rethink of the entire tradition.
When you do become aware of underlying assumptions, and reasons which force us to accept some things and make us see some things as self-evident, then perhaps we can judge Darwin fairly, and I want to be fair to the man—a great scientist, a gifted man, a man who asks significant, important questions, but who did so in a framework which excluded the key piece of the evidence.
Many of you are jigsaw puzzle fans; I have friends who are jigsaw puzzle cranks. Last year they bought themselves a five thousand piece puzzle. They worked on it for three weeks and couldn’t get it to fit together. Eventually they shook it up and started again, and then they started again and again. Eventually it worked. Do you know what was wrong? Four of the margin pieces were missing from the box, one from each of the four sides. Try and work on a five thousand piece puzzle with four of the margin bits missing—one from each side so the same distance was missing each way. They thought they had an outline and they didn’t. It didn’t hang together, because some of the relevant bits were excluded. If it was just one bit from the middle it wouldn’t have mattered much. They would have finished the puzzle and found there was a piece missing.
Darwin asked an important question, and gave a useful, a valuable, an intelligible answer, but we must recognize the framework in which he was working, a framework which excluded a key bit of the evidence. What Darwin did was not because Darwin was any worse or any different or any less of a scientist or less of a philosopher than anybody else. Darwin was working as part of a tradition that by now was six hundred years old. A tradition which accepts a distinction between faith and reason, between revealed truth and natural knowledge, between grace and nature. A distinction which in the centuries in between has come to show and has come to be taken as showing, that revealed truth has nothing to do with the scientific enterprise, nothing to do with knowledge about the things in the world. It’s that division between nature and grace, between natural knowledge and revealed knowledge, which as I see it, has led to this powerful, this attractive, this fascinating theory of Charles Darwin, which for all its power and for all its attraction and for all its fascination, just happens to be wrong. It might sound very presumptuous to put it in those terms, but I see it as false because I see it as a natural outcome of what I believe to be a basic fallacy running through probably ninety per cent of our Western scientific enterprise. It’s where the limitations of our kind of science show up in a very acute form. It arrives at the Darwinian model which, even in the minds of people who accept the whole framework and accept Darwin’s basic point, is full of anomalies.
When you next look at some of those anomalies in evolutionary theory and you ask yourself, “How could anybody ever really fasten onto the thing in the first place?” remind yourself that Darwin’s type of explanation is so attractive, because it’s built into the way we look at everything. If we reject the evolutionary framework then we must also be prepared to have a revolutionary reappraisal of the entire scientific tradition.