Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On Pilgrimage! But no Sandwalk for me!

I’ve at last done my obligatory “pilgrimage” to Down House where the great naturalist Charles Darwin lived, worked and eventually died. Here’s the essential evidence that I was there:

My lasting impression of Down House is one of incongruity: Here, set in the idyll of an English Country Garden, surrounded by beautiful countryside, was a peaceful and largely happy home and yet Darwin, through his evolutionary theoretical filter, saw his setting as a place of continuous and endless strife:

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, wherever and whenever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.  (Origin of Species 1859)

Search, find, reject and select! Darwin’s own poor health, and of course the death of his daughter Anna, would no doubt have help confirm his belief that life is a struggle and one that doesn't always end happily. It is also incongruous that Darwin’s ideas have led to much ideological strife, strife that Darwin himself would likely have shunned. Darwin’s diminishing personal faith over the course of his life has been well documented, although I'm left with the feeling that as a man given to restrained expression he would always have regarded out-and-out atheism with a measure of reserve; there is room for doubt about Darwin’s doubts right up until his death.

In 1860 shortly after writing the Origin of Species Wiki tells us:

In one 1860 letter to Gray, Darwin expressed his doubts about the teleological argument which claimed nature as evidence of god, though he was still inclined to vaguely believe in an impersonal God as first cause:
“With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.– I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I [should] wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.”

I interpret that to mean Darwin entertained an intellectual conflict over religion. This conflict was none other than the age old problem of suffering and evil: On the one hand Darwin couldn't see the work of an omnipotent loving deity in the haphazard and sometimes repugnant designs of nature and yet on the other hand this didn't sit well with an intuitive sense of the wonder at the universe and the enigma of man's conscious cognition. Darwin wonders if this conflict might be resolved by recourse to the concept of a deistical God who as "first cause" designed laws to modulate the operation of chance (A combination I refer to as Law and Disorder). But in the end he appears to throw his up hands and declare that he thinks the whole subject of ultimate origins to be beyond man’s intellect.

Thirteen years later (1873) in a letter to a correspondent at the University of Utrecht Darwin writes (See Wiki again):

I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came from and how it arose. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world. I am, also, induced to defer to a certain extent to the judgment of many able men who have fully believed in God; but here again I see how poor an argument this is. The safest conclusion seems to me to be that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect; but man can do his duty

Here we find Darwin still facing a similar intuitive contradiction: On the one hand there is the wondrous universe beheld by the conscious sentience of man, facts which he feels are the chief argument for the existence of God (Although Darwin now expresses uncertainty as to the robustness of this argument). On the other hand set against this is a world full of suffering. Darwin also sees problems with the “first cause argument” for God, a view I would certainly share.  However, Darwin shows respect for those who find that they can believe, in spite concluding (once again) that the whole issue is probably beyond the mind of man. For myself, I applaud Darwin for his self-awareness and studied detachment from the problems he faced.

In 1879 and 1882, just before his death in 1882 the same Wiki article says:

Though reticent about his religious views, in 1879 he responded that he had never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a god, and that generally "an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind."[7] He went as far as saying that [in 1882] "Science has nothing to do with Christ, except insofar as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For myself, I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities."

The same old Darwin reserve is apparent here. His view that there has never been any revelation is consistent with a deistical concept of God. Presumably by “revelation” Darwin means some kind of special revelation (such as Christ); after all, Darwin’s previous statements (as quoted) are evidence of an intuitive sense of God’s cosmic presence, an intuition which could be construed as a form of general revelation.

Darwin’s slow slide into unbelief gives every impression of being entirely genuine; he really can’t find it within himself to form a strong conviction about the existence of God in general and the truth of Christianity in particular. The apparent genuineness and innocence of Darwin’s encroaching disbelief conflicts with fundamentalist opinion that accuses those who don’t follow fundamentalist proprietary observances of conscious rebellion against the Truth of God.*

It is ironic that the concept of one-off-creation-deism expressed by Darwin in 1860 is in fact not so far removed from the punctuated-deism of the likes of the Intelligent Design movement expressed by, say, V J Torley. Like Torley, Darwin is a dualist in that his theology takes for granted a “natural processes” vs. “Divine intervention” dichotomy.  In this theology processes guided by law and disorder are thought to proceed all but autonomously; at least when God isn't “intervening”. The difference is that, unlike Darwin, Torley sees God coming back every now and then to do his miraculous stuff. As I've said so many times before I'm moving further and further away from this Western dualist theology, a theology which stresses God’s eminence at the expense of His immanence.

Given my doubts about Darwin’s implicit dualist theology, not to mention my reserve about his legacy, it is perhaps only appropriate that I was blocked from entering the Darwin equivalent of the holy of holies; When I tried to do Darwin’s sacred and famous Sandwalk where all Darwin pilgrims get their picture taken and where Darwin did much of his evolutionary thinking I found the way was barred:

Danger: Path closed during tree lopping

The trees on the Sandwalk were in need of some urgent tree surgery! In fact one of the trees on the Sandwalk had become so dangerous that it had been cut down completely:

There is an ambiguity in the Genesis Eden story as to whether the Tree Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil are one and the same (See here). For fundamentalists Darwin’s Tree of Life is the Tree of Knowledge of Evilution, but for atheists it really is the Tree of Life! So, the theological ambiguity about the Tree of Life may be a rather fitting parable to ponder for our times!

Trees, it seems, can be dangerous things and a bit of drastic tree surgery on Darwin’s tree(s) might not be a bad thing! Even so, according to Mega-church Pastor Rick Warren**: “In God’s garden of grace, even broken trees bear fruit”. Time will tell.

Further photos from my “pilgrimage” can be seen here:

* Some fundamentalists misread Romans 1 as a passage about atheism when in fact a more careful reading reveals that it’s about Roman idolatry. But there is a rationale behind the fundamentalist’s belief that atheists are nasty people willfully covering up God’s existence in bad conscience: For if there were such a thing as an innocent and genuine atheism that in itself would not justify the automatic entry of atheists into eternal torment. But in fundamentalism's view atheism is a sign of a wilful sinful state that is enough to qualify for hell; therefore fundamentalists are likely to see atheists as people of bad conscience.

** Rick Warren is not popular among fundamentalists.



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