Sunday, February 15, 2009



The two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin provoked a large number of programmes both on the radio and on the television, and press articles devoted to the work of the great man, his life, times, family life, bereavement, tragedy, illness, scientific work and general outlook. As one of the towering figures of nineteenth century science, such devotion is entirely justified. By all reports Darwin was not only a great scientist but also a very admirable human being; and since these two things do not necessarily or even frequently correspond, we have to be grateful that one of the landmark thinkers of the nineteenth century, whose influence has continued strongly through the twentieth and now into the twenty-first, was a man of humanity and wisdom. But it should not be forgotten that Darwin was a man of his time; and this fact shaped his theory. What strikes one in all of the tributes and indeed in almost everything that is written on him is the hagiographic veneration of the figure and the pious reverence with which the unassailable veracity of his findings is referred to. Darwin has become a secular saint and his status is protected by that aura of sanctity that protects religious figures from criticism in the minds of the believer. It cannot be stressed too strongly that Darwin for all the seminal power of his work was a theoretician whose mind was imbued with Victorian sentimentality.

What do I mean by this? What I mean is that Victorian sentimentality, the lachrymose emphasis on the tragedy of suffering and loss is based upon the growing awareness in the nineteenth among the general public that the God of the European Middle Ages, the anthropomorphic, paternally providential God perhaps did not, and could not, exist. Victorian sentimentality arises from this loss of the Father in Heaven figure. It is the first reaction to our sense of orphanhood; and Darwin was thoroughly suffused by it. The disappearance of the father figure behind the universe is dramatised in a uniquely powerful manner by the success of the theory of natural selection and by the zeal with which people cling to it as if to revealed truth. Why is this important? It is important because it is not what many of those who are now most vociferous in their lionisation of Darwin think it is. The loss of the Father God is a sign of the end of the childhood of the Western European psyche. But far from being the victory for some sort of humanistic atheism, it is simply a stage in the evolution of our understanding of the divine. Those atheists who see some kind of definitive victory, some sort of definitive negative truth in Darwin’s theory behave as they do – as triumphalist ideologues – only because they are deeply imbued with the same Victorian sentimentality as their mentor. So what do I understand by Victorian sentimentality?

As already pointed out, the origin of the Victorian obsession with death and loss and with the human experience of the contrast between human warmth and the brutality of nature, arises from a sense of disappointment at the insight that the Father God cannot exist. Why can he not exist? He can not exist for essentially moral – not scientific – reasons: if He were to exist, He would be an evil, malicious, sadistic Father and that would be worse than no Father at all. The Victorian society was the first society that, as a whole, began to realise that the universe had changed for good and that many of the old comforting certainties that had sustained humanity for centuries had suddenly and brutally been found wanting. They began to realise that the circumstances of life on earth, both in the animal kingdom and in human society, could never be expressive of the concern of a fatherly deity. Karl Marx did for human society what Darwin did for nature: the father was found to be a figure of human families and not an essential principle behind the phenomena that we observed upon the planet that was our home. But is this such a staggering insight? The answer is ‘yes’, because the Heavenly Father was believed in so implicitly for so long, the perception that he could not be there was profoundly unsettling. But was the belief in the Father God ever reasonable? The answer is ‘no’; but that does not means that the belief was meaningless. It served a very valuable purpose. The Heavenly Father disappeared because humanity grew out of Him. So it is all the more surprising that the modern day atheists are still grappling in their atheism with the same Father God as the Victorians. If one studies the writings of Richard Dawkins, the entire thrust of his arguments depend on two theses: 1) Darwinism is a theory that accurately interprets the facts and require no divine intervention to explain the origin of species; and 2) that since Darwinism is in this sense ‘true’, then God cannot exist (or it is highly probably that God does not exist). Now the logic of this argument is of course very shaky and depends upon two unconnected elements: firstly there is a scientific case not only for the well-foundedness, but also for the definitiveness of the theory of Darwinism; and secondly there is a metaphysical thesis based on the science concerning the nature of reality as a whole that strives to establish the negative thesis of God’s non-existence. Let us say right away, that the logic proves nothing, simply because 1) though the theory of Darwinism is very credible, it does not and in principle can not rule out the possibility of other factors’ being involved in the evolution of species apart from random mutations and selective pressure (such empirical theories are never proven but merely corroborated and improved as the evidence mounts); and 2) it is impossible on the basis of this theory to demonstrate an absolute negative concerning the nature of the universe (God’s alleged non-existence). One has to ask, then, why the argument, if it is so shaky, convinces so many people. The answer to this is again to be found in the power of Victorian sentimentality. Let us take a closer look at this.

Nietzsche was the first great Victorian (even though he was German) to announce to the world, ‘God is dead’. Now he meant something very precise by this. He meant that the anthropomorphic deity who guaranteed the eternal justice of the universe and the providential care of human beings as allowed for in the mixture of Platonism and Christianity, that had governed the West for two millennia almost, could no longer be believed in. He could no longer be believed in precisely because an anthropomorphic deity operates according to human conceptions of justice, beauty, kindness, beneficence etc. etc. and the natural world seemed not to incarnate those human values. Nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ showed none of the features of the ‘lovingkindness’ of the anthropomorphic deity because it was cruel, wasteful, brutal and appeared not to care a fig for human sensibilities and values. So the slogan ‘God is dead’ meant, ‘there is no human set of values and sensibilities governing the course of nature’. What Nietzsche put in the place of the old benign anthropomorphic God was a blind ‘Will to Power’ that ruthlessly, but with volcanic creativity, produced creatures locked in perpetual struggle to maximise their power over the environment and over their competitors.

The late nineteenth century was imbued with the conclusions of Enlightenment thinkers who had demonstrated to their own satisfaction that the Father God of the dominant religions of the West (monotheism of the Christian and Jewish kind) could no longer be retained. In the wake of this discovery there arose an entire culture of dramatic pathos that fostered a kind of adolescent bravado on the part of some of those who believed it. The pathos pointed out that since the Father God no longer existed, we were now on our own; and the bravado asserted that since we were on our own we didn’t need God anyway, we could cheerfully insult Him and enjoy relying only on ourselves. The great political, scientific and philosophical  thinkers of the nineteenth century  and even the religious thinkers were preoccupied with the non-existence of the providential God of monotheism. They were almost one in giving voice in some form or another to either, or both of the pathos and the bravado; but the emotional component varied: some were delighted and greeted the discomfiture of the Church with glee, others were elegiac and almost regretful that man no longer had a benign parent in the sky. Darwin was probably one of the latter and his theory arose in this environment. What is really surprising is that today’s Darwin-enthusiasts, who are mostly in to the bravado, still warm to the basic issues of that nineteenth century debate as if there were somehow fundamental principles of thought involved and not just a powerful cultural prejudice.

Dawkins was responsible for the recent advertising campaign on London buses with its catchy slogan GOD PROBABLY DOES NOT EXIST. His books are full of the victorious gleeful reaction to the discoveries of the nineteenth century, but they remain intrinsically nineteenth century nevertheless. The God in whom Dawkins champions unbelief is the anthropomorphic God of nineteenth century monotheists. All of his arguments derived from the science of biology adduce the purely biological evidence and then in essence assert, ‘if this evidence is true, then the universe and specifically the natural world here on earth cannot be governed by principles such as justice, kindness, beneficence and so on that characterise an anthropomorphic God. At no point does Dawkins pause to ask himself this question: ‘why should the universe and the biosphere of this planet be governed by human values?’ He seems to think that to have demonstrated that the biosphere and specifically the process of evolution are not governed by conceptions of human value and comfort means that he has demonstrated the non-existence of God. That so intelligent a man should fall for such a bad argument is surprising; but it is of a piece with the bad arguments of the Victorians and its force derives again, not from the logic or the evidence of the case, but from the powerful sentimental appeal in the thesis that the Father God does not govern the universe. Let us be quite clear, the arguments are metaphysical and not scientific, even though they dress themselves up as scientific prose. Dawkins may to his own satisfaction have demonstrated the non-existence of the monotheistic anthropomorphic God; but he has demonstrated the non-existence of a phantom who does not in fact deserve to exist, or who ceased to exist at least a century ago as man began to grow up. The slogan on the London buses should read FATHER CHRISTMAS PROBABLY DOES NOT EXIST. Is that such a staggering discovery?

The essential point in all this is the manner in which the notion of ‘intelligence’ is understood. The sentimentality of the Victorians was rooted in the discovery that cosy, cuddly human values did not govern the universe and that the human intelligence did not guide its processes. That we should have ever believed that human values did govern the processes of nature is surprising to say the least, but then perhaps not so surprising after all. Why should human values and human rationality govern anything except human affairs? The answer to this lies in the deep-rooted anthropomorphism of all human thought. We understand by projection. We have for millennia been extricating ourselves from an obvious anthropomorphism – the very human deities of religion being only the most obvious of the kind – that continues to haunt us in all sorts of disguises. The fact that we expect human language to be able to grasp the fundamental nature of reality and express this in propositions is a more subtle sort of anthropomorphism. Even the fact that we believe in the ability of mathematics – a creation of the human mind – to express the fundamental verities of the universe is a species of anthropomorphism. When it comes down to it, even the touching expectation that the human mind is equipped to understand the whole of reality is a sort of anthropomorphism. Once the anthropomorphic projections are understood, they can be forgiven, except by adolescent minds that still take them seriously. Dawkins is such a one and his crass slogan on the London buses is no more than an immature two-fingered salute to the vicar.

 But what does the demonstration of the non-existence of the monotheistic God prove? To believe that the demonstration of the non-existence of the anthropomorphic God in nature demonstrates the non-existence in principle of every possible deity is simply bone-headed. Human intelligence certainly does not govern the universe. Anyone with half an eye and very little intelligence can see that. But equally, that there are all kinds of intelligence in nature is also obvious. That there could be a non-human intelligence guiding the processes of nature and the course of evolution is a possibility that seems never to have occurred to Dawkins and his ilk, mainly because they assume that ‘intelligent’ means ‘humanly intelligent’. They all profess to a sense of wonder before the marvellous productions of the natural world, a sense of the almost miraculous adaptedness of organisms not only to their environment but also to other organisms; and this sense of wonder is not only akin to religious awe, but also expressive of the sense that the mind so awed does not completely understand what it is contemplating, but assents to its intelligence its cleverness, its subtlety and so on. What is completely understood ceases to interest us. What is part understood we grasp by metaphysics. Of course scientists such as Dawkins, wedded as they are to the metaphysics of eliminative materialism and the negative demonstrations associated with it, always fall back on the principle of chance to explain those things they do not fully understand. But an appeal to chance is not in any sense a means of understanding a situation, even though the chances of a given concrete situation maybe  mathematically computable. An appeal to chance on the universal scale, is simply an expression of metaphysical pseudo-understanding, i.e. no understanding at all but simply the replacement of intelligence by what is explicitly not intelligence – intelligence understood in all these cases, it must be stressed, only as human intelligence. To our perception, there is perhaps no difference between chance and non-human intelligence. But the appeal to purely random factors in situations where our wonder is excited is probably less rational than an appeal to a non-human intelligence. It is purely negative, a negative reaction to the sentimentality of belief in the Father God.

So once one has ditched Victorian sentimentality in the wake of the demise of the monotheistic God, one does not have to lurch to the opposite extreme of triumphantly announcing that no deity of any sort can have any presence in any possible universe. One can rationally concede that the course of nature in general and the process of evolution in particular could well be guided by a non-human intelligence, that can be understood by analogy with human intelligence after its productions have been examined and found to be unaccountably marvellous. Once one has ditched the infantile notion of a Father Christmas God presiding benignly in accordance with his essentially human attributes over the course of nature, it is quite possible to recognise that intelligence superior to ours, but of which ours is a reflection, may well govern the natural order. It was only infantilism in the first place that encouraged the belief that human intelligence and human values govern the universe; and the abandonment of these infantile fantasies enables us to grow up as humans without sinking into the pathos and bravado of the atheists who are no more than disbelievers in an outmoded and now unconvincing figment.

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