Jacques Maritain Center : Natural Theology / by Bernard Boedder, S.J.

SECTION 5. -- Darwin's reasons for doubting the existence of God.

119. As appears from the Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by his son Francis,{28} that great observer of Nature never denied the existence of God. The arguments brought forward to prove that there is a God, seemed to him sometimes quite overwhelming; and in such moments he was forced to be a complete theist. Yet, after he had lost his faith in the Gospels, he lost also the habitual conviction, formerly so strong in him, that the universe is ruled by a wise God. His attitude towards monotheism became that of a non-aggressive agnostic. Most of the reasons by which he tried to justify his position, are closely connected with his biological theory of evolution. On account of the great influence which this theory exercises over many minds, we think it well to give these reasons in full with Darwin's own words and to test their force carefully.

The value of the Argument from Design is called in question by Darwin chiefly for three reasons, each of which we will state in Darwin's own words.

(a) In his autobiography, written in 1876, he says:{29} "The old argument from design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of Natural Selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of Natural Selection, than in the course which the wind blows. I have discussed this subject at the end of my book on the Variation of Domesticated Animals and Plants; and the argument there given has never, as far as I can see, been answered."

The argument to which we are referred in this passage is as follows:{30} "Are we to believe that the forms are preordained of the broken fragments of rock which tumble from a precipice and are fitted together by man to build his houses? If not, why should we believe that the variations of domestic animals or plants are preordained for the sake of the breeder? But if we give up the principle in one case, . . . no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations . . . which have been the groundwork through Natural Selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided."

The doubt expressed in the preceding lines is dwelt upon also in a letter to Miss Julia Wedgwood (written July 11, 1881){31} He owns in this letter that "the mind refuses to look at this universe being what it is, without having been designed." Yet he finds it too difficult to believe that all variations of organic structures should have been designed, for instance, "each variation in the rock pigeon." It seemed to him that to care about such was scarcely worthy of a Being who is the Maker of a universe. "Do you consider that the successive variations in the size of the crop of the pouter pigeon which man has accumulated to please his caprice have been due to "the creative and sustaining powers of Brahma?" In the sense that an omnipotent and omniscient Deity must order and know everything, this must be admitted; yet in honest truth, I can hardly admit it. It seems preposterous that a maker of a universe should care about the crop of a pigeon solely to please man's silly fancies. But if you agree with me in thinking such an interposition of the Deity uncalled for, I can see no reason whatever for believing in such interpositions in the case of natural beings," &c.

In the same sense Darwin expresses himself in a letter to Dr. Gray:{32} "An innocent and good man stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning. Do you believe (and I really should like to hear) that God designedly killed this man? Many or most persons do believe this; I can't and don't. If you believe so, do you believe when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that a man and a gnat are in the same predicament. If the death of neither man nor gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed."

We may put Darwin's argument in concise form as follows: If some adaptations of certain antecedents to certain consequents are explained by design of the Creator, all must be explained so, however trifling they may appear. But not all can reasonably be explained so; for instance, it cannot be reasonably referred to creative design that pieces of rock tumbling from a precipice are found fit for building houses, or that man turns rock pigeons artificially into fantail pigeons, or that a flash of lightning kills an innocent man, or that a swallow snaps up a gnat. There is consequently no sufficient reason for admitting design at all.

What shall we answer to this? At first sight it might seem reasonable to doubt whether it is necessary to admit design everywhere in nature, if you admit it anywhere. There is indeed no immediate appearance of intrinsic contradiction in the idea of a universe in which only the more important operations should be guided by design.{33} Considering, however, that the first Designer of the world is self-existent and infinitely perfect, He must know from eternity not only in general, but in detail, all conditionally future results of any plan possible. Moreover, His infinite wisdom necessarily prevents any event from happening, the occurrence of which would in no way serve His plan. From this it follows that every effect in the universe has been designed by God inasmuch as He has foreseen it, and has from__eternity decreed not to prevent its happening, but to make its occurrence serve the end of all creation.{34} Granting then Darwin's assertion that we cannot be consistent with ourselves, unless we admit that all effects in nature have been foreseen and preordained, we deny altogether that there is anything repugnant to reason in this admission. Reason forbids us indeed to admit that each particular event has been designed by a particular act of the Divine mind distinct from the act by which the whole of the universe was planned. Such an assumption would clash with God's simplicity and infinite perfection. But there is nothing intrinsically repugnant in the statement that God by one act of His infinite intellect foresaw all events, and by one act of His infinite will subordinated each of them to a particular good purpose. On the contrary, this cannot be denied, without denying what is logically connected with God's infinite perfection, as will appear in our treatises on Divine knowledge and providence.

120. (b) Another doubt against the conclusiveness of the design argument arose in Darwin's mind from the consideration of the so-called "rudimentary organs in man. He thus expresses it in a letter to Asa Gray (December 11, 1861):{35} "With regard to Design I feel more inclined to show a white flag than to fire my usual long-range shot. I like to try and ask you a puzzling question, but when you return the compliment I have great doubts whether it is a fair way of arguing. If anything is designed, certainly man must be: one's 'inner consciousness' (though a false guide) tells one so; yet I cannot admit that man's rudimentary mammae . . . were designed."

The difficulty in conceiving "rudimentary" organs as designed, expressed in the above passage, has often been repeated by Darwinists. Tt rests upon their not seeing the particular purpose those organs should serve. But from the fact, that the immediate object of an effect in nature cannot be discovered by us, it certainly does not follow that such an effect was not designed for some immediate object. As we have remarked already, when solving Lange's difficulty, there are many things apt to further the attainment not only of one but of several particular ends. Granting then for argument's sake, that a "rudimentary" organ may be useless to the organism in which it is found, this In no way justifies the inference that it is altogether useless; or that it is out of harmony with the final end an infinite Creator must intend by decreeing the existence of the universe. We have touched upon this final end above (§ 118). We have explained there that God creates in order to manifest His perfection to His intellectual creatures. But does it follow from this that each fact in nature must be understood by man? No one can reasonably deny the possibility of the existence of intellectual creatures whose minds are far more penetrating than the mind of man. Supposing then that there exists a world of created spirits, is it not very probable that they see perfectly the rationale of the rudimentary organs, and recognize in them a vestige of supreme wisdom? And even apart from this, the puzzle caused by the discovery of "rudimentary" organs seems to resemble much the amazement naturally arising from the sight of any complicated arrangements of which we only know the final outcome. For instance, a man of common sense who knows no more about the mechanism of a watch than that by turning the key properly, it can be made to measure time, enters the shop of a watchmaker well furnished with all sorts of instruments and materials. What the particular purpose may be which each of them answers in the construction of watches, his ignorance prevents his knowing; but it does not hinder him from the exercise of a reasonable belief that there is none among them all that is useless for the work of the watchmaker. Thus he knows the common remote end of all the things he sees, without understanding anything about the particular proximate end through which each must pass in order to reach the common remote end.

What such a man knows about the instruments he is looking at and what he does not know, seems to illustrate well both the knowledge we are able to attain about natural events and the ignorance in which we must remain. By logical reasoning based upon undeniable premisses, the certain conclusion can be arrived at that the whole universe is under the sway of one supreme infinitely wise Lord, that He penetrates with one act of His infinite Mind the essences and actions and mutual relations of all things, that He intends them all for a final end worthy of His Infinite Wisdom, and that He cannot fail to direct them rightly to this end. On the other hand, comparatively little can be known by man about the proximate object of particular things and events, although he may be sure that in some way or other they must lead up to the attainment of the final end. Even when he does catch a glimpse of the usefulness of things in particular, he never can grasp it fully, because he never comprehends the nature of any natural being, nor does he comprehend its relations to other beings, although he may know a great deal about both. Consequently, no solid doubt as to the wise guidance of nature can be based upon our not seeing the "why and wherefore" of things in particular. it is abundantly sufficient that the "why and wherefore" in general can be proved evidently.

Moreover, in the particular case of rudimentary structures, is it so certain that we can form to ourselves no conception at all of some possibilities of their utility? Mr. Mivart suggests that they may perhaps be useful in aiding the physiological balance of the organism. His whole passage may be appropriately quoted.

"As to rudimentary structures we may content ourselves with asking, in the words of Buffon, 'Why is it to be considered so necessary that every part in an individual should be useful to the other parts and to the whole animal? Should it not be enough that they do not injure each other, nor stand in the way of each other's fair development? Moreover, such rudimentary structures may have a certain utility, may aid the physiological balance of the organism after all! It cannot yet be shown to be so, but neither can it be shown that it is not so. They are parts of a great whole, which to be adequately understood must be surveyed in its entirety. But any one of us can as little judge the scope of the whole universe, as a fly perched on a pinnacle of York Minster, can perceive the plan, pressures, and bearings of the stones of that glorious pile."{36}

Buffon's suggestion that it is sufficient if a rudimentary structure is not harmful to the individual, might perhaps seem open to the reply that if the world were designed by God, we ought to find not mere harmlessness but positive utility in each one, even the minutest of its parts. We are of the same opinion. But from that alone it does not follow that Mr. Mivart was wrong in supporting to a certain extent Buffon's view. To say that a part of an animal is not positively useful to that individual animal, to its vegetative and sensitive operations, is assuredly not the same as to say that it is of no use. The whole animal with all its parts is to be considered not only as an individual being, but also in relation to the whole species; and the usefulness of each part is not only to be estimated from its appropriateness to physiological functions, but also from its value as contributing to the external expression of that idea of the Creator of which each organic type is a realization. It is from this standpoint that the celebrated physiologist Carpenter quotes with approval the following words of Mr. Paget: "These rudimental organs certainly do not serve, in a lower degree, the same purposes as are served by the homologous parts which are completely developed in other species or in the other sex. To say they are useless is contrary to all we know of the absolute perfection and all-pervading purposes of creation; to say they exist merely for the sake of conformity to a general type of structure is surely unphilosophical, for the law of Unity of organic types is, in larger instances, not observed, except when its observance contributes to the advantage of the individual. No: all these rudimental organs must, as they grow, be as excretions, serving a definite purpose in the economy by removing their appropriate materials from the blood, thus leaving it fitter for the nutrition of other parts, or adjusting the balance which might otherwise be disturbed by the formation of some other part. Thus they minister to the self-interest of the individual; while, as if for the sake of wonder, beauty, and perfect order, they are conformed with the great law of Unity of organic types, and concur with the universal plan observed in the construction of organic beings."{37}

121. (c) A third difficulty of Darwin against the Argument from Design arose from the consideration of the vast amount of suffering in sentient beings. It seemed to him that a benevolent Creator could hardly have predestined His creatures to so much misery, whereas Natural Selection might sufficiently account for it. He says{38} "That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this with reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in this world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and they often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent First Cause seems to me a strong one, whereas the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and Natural Selection." The way in which he thinks to explain the sufferings of men and animals by Natural Selection he thus sums up: "Such suffering is quite compatible with Natural Selection, which is not perfect in its action, but tends only to render each species as successful as possible in the battle for life with other species in wonderfully complex and changing circumstances."

A particular sort of suffering which caused Darwin to have misgivings in regard of design is mentioned by him in a letter to Asa Gray.{39} "I cannot persuade myself," he says, "that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created. the ichneumonidae 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." In the same letter, however, he admits that such suffering proves nothing conclusively against an omniscient Creator.

We answer to all this: An omnipotent and benevolent Creator cannot design sufferings merely for suffering's sake; He cannot find His delight in the sufferings of His creatures. But there is no argument to prove that He cannot will physical sufferings as a means for the bringing about of a real good connected with the final end of creation. It is not necessary that each suffering of a sentient being should have been proximately designed with a view to man's moral improvement. It may immediately have regard to something else, and may mediately serve the bringing about of a state of things of which man finally can make use for his moral improvement. In any case it will serve to reveal either to man or to other intellectual creatures higher than man the wonderful ways of God's. wisdom. That there is no Divine attribute with which the sufferings and moral disorders of this world can rightly be said to clash, we shall prove conclusively in the treatise on Divine Providence. "But," a Darwinian may object here, "after all it has not been shown that Darwin was wrong, when he thought that the sufferings which make life so bitter, are far more satisfactorily explained by the hypothesis of Natural Selection than by that of design." A sufficient answer to this objection is obvious enough. Whatever truth there may be in the theory of Natural Selection, certainly such process of selection could not begin before the existence of living organisms capable of struggling for the maintenance of their lives. But it has already (§§ 45, 46) been demonstrated that Natural Selection, even if it be a true cause of the habits and interests of living beings, cannot be their ultimate cause. Intelligence must even then be inferred to lie behind and to have established the evolutionary system in which Natural Selection plays so prominent a part. Granting then, for argument's sake, that Natural Selection can account for the prevalence of happiness with the addition of an unavoidable measure of suffering, as Darwin believed,{40} it certainly is not the chief cause either of happiness or of suffering, but is only instrumental in working out the plan conceived by the First Intelligent Cause, as Darwin himself once rightly conjectured. when he wrote to Dr. Asa Gray as follows: "I can see no reason why a man or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws, and that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event and consequence."{41}

122. Against the proof of theism drawn from the common belief of mankind, Darwin makes this remark: "This argument would be a valid one if all men of all races had the same inward conviction of the existence of God; but we know that this is very far from being the case."{42}

There is no point in this objection unless the argument, which it attacks, takes this form: "All men have always believed in one God. But this belief would never have spread so universally if there were not really one God. Consequently we must he certain about the existence of God."

Of course such an argument is open to the objection made by Darwin. But this is not the argument we have given above. (Cf. c. ii. § 49.) We argue thus: There has always existed in the majority of men a persistent belief in a Nature of some kind or other, superior to the material world and to man; a belief against the reasonableness of which, considered in its universal character, nothing can be said; a belief, moreover, the origin whereof can only be satisfactorily explained by taking the belief to be well-grounded and true. Consequently, it must be admitted that there exists a Nature, superior to the material world and to man.

Any doubts that might arise against the soundness of this argument have already been solved in the passage quoted above. (C. ii. § 49.) In that place attention was also called to the inability of the moral proof to stand by itself alone as an unassailable foundation of monotheism. Nevertheless, its value must not be under-rated. Although, without support from the argument of a First Cause it cannot convince us of the existence of One, Infinite God; yet it is strong enough to satisfy every reasonable thinker that atheism and agnosticism are not congenial to human reason, and must, therefore, be abandoned by every one who would not come into the predicament in which Darwin confessed himself to be{43} in "a hopeless muddle."

123. We come next to Darwin's difficulty against the argument of a First Cause. He thus expresses it in his autobiography:{44} "Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man, with his capacity of looking far forwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel impelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man, and I deserve to be called a theist. This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of Species, and it is since that time that it has very gradually, with many fluctuations, become weaker. But then arises the doubt, Can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic." In this passage Darwin confesses that the premisses which lead to the conclusion of a first Intelligent Cause are undeniable, and that the connection of that conclusion with its premisses is so close that the human mind cannot help seeing it. Such a conclusion is, according to all sound logicians, the enunciation of an objective truth. And yet Darwin stops short of being satisfied. And why? Have his careful biological observations led to the discovery of any fact incompatible with the existence of God? Assuredly not.{45} The only reason alleged by Darwin for the abandonment of his previous convictions is that a mind developed from that of the mind of the lowest animals is not competent to form an opinion on so grand a problem. This kind of false humility which refuses to accept the conclusions of logic and the evidence of reason because, forsooth, we are developed as Darwin imagines from the amoeba, does not need refuting. Even if our minds had the origin which he ascribes to them, it would be worth nothing as an argument. A mind derived through generation from brutes would be utterly unable to draw any conclusion at all. The soul of a brute is a substantial principle "entirely immersed in matter," altogether without power of reasoning.{46} Between an imaginary soul developed from the soul of an amoeba and the real soul of man there is an infinite difference. Man's soul, as we have seen, is a spiritual being, the origin of which is due to immediate Divine creation. (Th. XVII.) Considering this truth, Darwin's objection simply disappears.

As we have already shown, no natural law can be reasonably explained without reference to a first Intelligent Cause. If, therefore, progressive development and Natural Selection are laws of nature, they must, like other laws, imply belief in an "all originating, all fore-ordaining, all regulative intelligence to determine the rise and the course and the goal of life as of all finite things."{47} It is, therefore, quite natural that men who are both acquainted with the results of scientific inquiry and grounded in solid philosophical principles prove to be among the first champions of monotheism. And why is Darwin not among them? Because he believes fully in the development of the human mind from what he calls the "mind of the lowest animals." Is, then, this belief grounded on fact? Not at all. A consideration of the facts to which our own consciousness continually bears witness has led us to the evident conclusion that the mind of man is a spiritual substance. (§§ 31-37, incl.) In this conclusion we are supported not only by the most subtle philosophers of all ages, but also by one of the most prominent and thoughtful biologists of our own time. "The soul," writes Professor St. George Mivart, "though existing amongst a constant succession of changing conditions, can think of an eternal unchanging absolute. The soul knows itself as looking before and after, and as that which both thinks and endures -- persisting thus for years, or, in other words, as a spiritual substance. Above all, the soul can appreciate right and wrong, and now and then freely choose its motive, and so dominate and control the chain of physical causation by its free-will. All these considerations show that its nature is far more widely removed from that of the active principle of the ape than is the latter from a magnet. And as the soul or active principle of an ape differs from the activity of a magnet by a difference of kind, so the soul of a man differs yet more in kind from that of an ape."{48} Dr. Carpenter, also another distinguished biologist, tells us that the enunciations, "I am," "I ought," "I can," "I will," are "firm foundation-stones on which we can base our attempt to climb into a higher sphere of existence."{49} He considers the human will as "something essentially different from the general resultant of an automatic activity of the mind" as "a self-determining power;"{50} and consequently that "the death of the body is but the commencement of a new life of the soul."{51}

Darwin's doubts prove nothing more clearly than that the entertainer of them had a right appreciation of his capacity for philosophy when he wrote, "I have had no practice in abstract reasoning, and I may be all astray."{52} Our attention will now be occupied with the arguments of men who pushed their power of abstract reasoning to such lengths as to construct the whole universe a priori. These are our modern pantheists, leader and chief of whom is Spinoza.

{28} Vol. I. viii. "Religion."

{29} Ibid. p. 309.

{30} The Variation of Animals and Plants, Vol. II. p. 433.

{31} Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 1. p. 314.

{32} Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I. pp. 314, 315.

{33} In a letter to Asa Gray, dated November 26, 1860, the great biologist himself inclines to take this view. He writes: "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 and believe what he can." (Life and Letters, Vol. II. p. 312.)

{34} Cf. the solution of Lange's difficulty, § 118.

{35} Life and Letters, Vol. II. p. 382.

{36} On Truth, pp. 478, 479.

{37} Paget, Lectures on Surgical Pathology, p. 31; quoted by Carpenter, Human Physiology, p. 281.

{38} Life and Letters, Vol. II. p. 311.

{39} Life and Letters, Vol.1. p. 311.

{40} Life and Letters, Vol. I. p. 310.

{41} Darwin to Asa Gray, May 22, 1862. Life and Letters, Vol. II p. 302.

{42} Life and Letters, Vol. I. p. 312.

{43} Darwin wrote to Asa Gray, Nov. 26, 1860: "I grieve to say that I cannot honestly go as far as you do about design. I am conscious that I am in an utterly hopeless muddle. . . . Again I say I am and shall ever remain in a hopeless muddle." (Life and Letters, Vol. II. p. 353.)

{44} Life and Letters, Vol. I. pp. 311, 312.

{45} Even Professor Huxley acknowledges this: "The doctrine of Evolution is neither anti-theistic nor theistic. It simply has no more to do with theism than the first book of Euclid has. . . . There is a great deal of talk and not a little lamentation about the eo-called religious difficulties which physical science has created. In theological science, as a matter of fact, it has created none. Not a solitary problem presents itself to the philosophical theist at the present day which has not existed from the time that philosophers began to think out the logical grounds and the logical consequences of theism." (Life and Letters, Vol. II. pp. 202, 203, in c. v. written hy Huxley.)

{46} Mivart, Nature and Thought, p. 226; Maher, Psychology, pp 550-554.

{47} Flint, Theism, p. 209.

{48} Nature and Thought, p. 266.

{49} Mental Physiology, p. 376.

{50} Ibid. p. 392.

{51} Human Physiology, p. 1120, § 888.

{52} Letter to Asa Gray in Life and Letters, Vol. I. p. 315.

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