Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Darwinism and Atheism in the 19th Century [updated]

Just came across the book "What is Darwinism" by Charles Hodge (1874), who used to be the principal of the Princeton Theological Seminary from 1851 to 1878. The treatise is full of quotes that seem to be up to date given the current debates between atheists, theists, accommodationists, etc. It begins with:
"If a man says he is a Darwinian, many understand him to avow himself virtually an atheist; while another understands him as saying that he adopts some harmless form of the doctrine of evolution." (Hodge 1874, p. 1)
and ends with:
"We have thus arrived at the answer to our question, What is Darwinism? It is Atheism. This does not mean, as before said, that Mr. Darwin himself and all who adopt his views are atheists; but it means that his theory is atheistic; that the exclusion of design from nature is, as Dr. Gray says, tantamount to atheism." (p. 177)

In between are many well known arguments like the fact vs. theory one that has lateron been exploited so successfully by creationists:
"A second cause of the alienation between science and religion, is the failure to make the due distinction between facts and the explanation of those facts, or the theories deduced from them. [...] It is to be remembered that the facts are from God, the explanation from men; and the two are often as far apart as Heaven and its antipode." (p. 132)
Hodge's example of a fact is of particular interest:
"That the earth moves, no religious man doubts. When Galileo made that great discovery, the Church was right in not yielding at once to the evidence of an experiment which it did not understand. But when the fact was clearly established, no man sets up his interpretation of the Bible in opposition to it." (p. 132)
That is, what has been a theory in Galileo's days was a fact to Hodge. This historical development suggests that a fact is a match between a theory's predictions (derived hypotheses) and data collected in order to test it: theory + data = fact. Without a theory to interpret the data (get meaning out of them) all data would remain noise.  Philosophers of science would probably say that facts are theory laden. Hence, the best way to take the false dilemma toy of theory vs. fact from creationists is probably to point out that they have a false idea of what a fact actually is. They seem to think that data are facts and they can miraculously get the meaning from data directly, 'scientific revelation so to speak. 
Back to Hodge's incompatibility claim. Asa Gray (1876), for example, took exception with Hodge's claim that Darwinism is incompatible with theism. He claimed that Darwinism is opposed, not to theism, but only to divine intervention in nature, while that was a key of Hodge's theology.

All the elements of the current debates seem to have been around for 150 years, while their combinations have changed. The incompatibility of Darwinism and theism is now not primarily claimed by theists, but increasingly by atheists. Both Hodge and Gray retained an accom-modicum of compatibility. Hodge's extended to persons but not to the theory of Darwin, which he thought to be incompatible with theism, whereas Gray thought that Darwinism was compatible with theism via first cause with non-interference. 

Hodge, C. (1874) What is Darwinism? Released as an e-book by Project Gutenberg in 2006.
Gray A (1876) Darwiniana. Released as an e-book by Project Gutenberg in 2004.