Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Strauss and Darwinian Natural Right: Responses to Catherine Zuckert and Richard Hassing

Catherine Zuckert and Richard Hassing are the two discussants for my APSA panel this Friday.  They have sent me written comments on the papers for the panel.  Here is my response.


In commenting on my paper—“Darwinian Liberalism Solves the Straussian Problems of Natural Right”—Catherine Zuckert says that I have misread and misstated some of Leo Strauss’s most important claims about three topics--natural human desires, the reason/revelation debate, and esoteric writing.  She also briefly questions my support for Nietzsche’s position in his middle writings as superior to his position in his later writings.  I will respond to each of these four points.

Natural Desires

Zuckert writes:

Arnhart maintains that what he calls “Darwinian liberalism” can and does provide us with a standard of good based on the immanent teleology of emergent human nature, which he goes on to describe in terms of 20 desires.  He does not seem to notice, as any reader of Plato’s Protagoras would, that some of these desires seem to conflict with others—courage is the primary example of a virtue that does not align itself easily with the animal attraction to pleasure and aversion to pain.  Nor does he address the difference between pleasure and the good, upon which Plato, Aristotle, and Strauss insist.  He solves in quotes the problem of natural right by defining it differently than Strauss did.  For Strauss the problem of natural right is “solved,” so to speak, by identifying philosophy as the way of life that is good for human beings by nature.

I have been persuaded by Aristotle that “the good is whatever is desirable for its own sake” (Rhetoric, 1362a22; NE, 1113a10, 1139a36-b6).  In his biological studies, Aristotle saw that in their voluntary activities, animals move to satisfy their desires in the light of their information about opportunities and threats in their particular circumstances (On the Movement of Animals).  This does not mean that the good is whatever an animal happens to desire at any moment, because an animal can mistakenly desire what in fact is not truly desirable.  Furthermore, what is desirable differs for each kind of animal, because each species has its own species-typical range of desires.  What is desirable also differs for different individuals with different natural temperaments and propensities.  Human beings have a distinctive range of natural desires, and they are unique in their capacity for deliberate choice in choosing to intelligently manage their desires for the fullest and harmonious satisfaction of their desires over a whole life, which requires prudence in judging what is desirable for particular individuals in particular circumstances.

Strauss suggests this thought when he says that for natural right, “we must distinguish between those human desires and inclinations which are in accordance with human nature and therefore good for man, and those which are destructive of his nature or his humanity and therefore bad.  We are thus led to the notion of a life, a human life, that is good because it is in accordance with nature” (NRH, 95).  In the footnote to this passage, Strauss cites Cicero’s claim that “almost all” classical philosophers accepted this notion that prudence must judge what is in harmony with the primary natural desires instinctive to human beings (De finibus, 2.33, 5.17).

Zuckert says that for Strauss, “the problem of natural right is ‘solved,’ so to speak, by identifying philosophy as the way of life that is good for human beings by nature.”  Then, at the end of her comments, she says that Strauss and I disagree about the “definition of the human good by nature,” because while I identify this with “the satisfaction of 20 some desires,” Strauss identifies this with “the dignity of the human mind.”

I agree that the philosophic life is good for human beings by nature, because it satisfies the natural desire for intellectual understanding.  I disagree, however, with the claim that the philosophic life is the only good human life by nature, and therefore, as Strauss says, “there are no gods but the philosophers,” and “the man who is merely just or moral without being a philosopher appears as a mutilated human being,” who lives a life of “human misery” and “despair disguised as delusion” (NRH, 151; “Reason and Revelation,” 147, 163). 

I agree with Shadia Drury that this core Straussian teaching is both false and dangerous.  It is false because it denies the natural goodness of those many human lives that are not devoted to philosophy—moral, religious, and political lives. It is dangerous because it teaches those who think they are the true philosophers living the only naturally good life that they can rule over all other human beings by natural right.

I agree with Strauss that “philosophy is essentially the preserve of the very few individuals who are by nature fit for philosophy,” because they are animated by the “natural desire” to know (“Reason and Revelation,” 146, 149; “Progress or Return?,” 122).  But Strauss never offered any proof that this was the only good human life by nature—that other human lives with different rankings of natural desires could not be good by nature.  Strauss said that there must be a “pre-philosophic proof” that the philosophic life is the only right way of life, and that this proof must be confirmed by “an analysis of human nature” (“Reason and Revelation,” 146-47).  But Strauss never provided this “pre-philosophic proof” or the “analysis of human nature” that would confirm it.

A Darwinian scientific study of human nature can show that there is a range of at least 20 natural human desires that constitute the natural goods of life, which includes goods such as family life, social ranking, politics, property, friendship, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding.  The generic standard for a good human life will include all or most of these human goods to some degree.  But the ranking of goods—so that one good is stressed more than the others—depends upon the temperament and circumstances of individuals.  The philosophic life is best for Socrates, but not for those who lack the natural inclinations and capacities of Socratic individuals.

Consequently, the best social order is one that allows human beings the freedom in their families and voluntary associations to develop the moral and intellectual virtues necessary for pursuing the full range of naturally good human lives.  Darwinian liberalism embraces the liberal social order as doing this most successfully.  Even those who agree with Strauss that the philosophic life is the best life by nature should recognize the liberal social order as best, because philosophy has flourished in those “comparatively liberal” orders such as fourth and fifth century Athens (PAW, 33).  Socrates would not have lived a good life in Sparta, and Strauss would not have lived a good life in Nazi Germany.

An important part of the freedom secured in a liberal order is the open public debate over whether the natural desire for religious understanding should rank higher than the natural desire for intellectual understanding, which is the conflict between reason and revelation.

Reason and Revelation

Zuckert writes:

Arnhart also mistakes Strauss’s argument why reason cannot refute revelation.  It is not the “brute” fact of some people claiming to have had a revelation (which may, after all, have been an illusion); it is the incapacity of human reason thus far to give a complete account of the whole that would exclude the possibility of the existence of the God of Scripture.

Strauss writes:

There cannot be any evidence in favor of revelation but the fact of revelation as known through faith.  Yet this means that for those who do not have the experience of faith, there is no shred of evidence in favor of faith; the unbelieving man has not the slightest reason for doubting his unbelief; revelation is nothing but a factum brutum; the unbeliever can live in true happiness without paying the slightest attention to the claim of revelation. (“Reason and Revelation,” 142)

Yes, as Zuckert indicates, the unbeliever can say that “the fact of revelation” is “an illusion,” but to say this, the unbeliever must assume that a complete account of the whole would exclude the possibility of revelation, and therefore any putative fact of revelation is really an illusion.  Since that complete account of the whole has not yet been attained, and is probably unattainable, the unbeliever cannot rationally refute the fact of revelation.

Although the Darwinian liberalism that emerged in Victorian England did not settle this dispute between reason and revelation, it did promote the open public debate over reason and revelation as expressed in the conflict between evolutionary science and Christian creationism.  This allowed human beings—even the great multitude of human beings—to deliberately choose whether or not to rank the natural desire for religious understanding as higher than the natural desire for intellectual understanding. 

This showed the success of the Liberal Enlightenment in achieving its goal—“a time when, as a result of the progress of popular education, practically complete freedom of speech would be possible, or—to exaggerate for purposes of clarification—to a time when no one would suffer any harm from hearing any truth” (PAW, 33-34).  This seemed to contravene Strauss’s teaching that philosophers must always be esoteric in hiding their skeptical questioning of revelation and other authoritative opinions.  But then Zuckert says that I have misinterpreted Strauss’s account of esotericism.


She writes:

Arnhart gives an incomplete and therefore inaccurate account of Strauss’s argument for the ongoing necessity of esoteric speech and writing by ignoring the third and most fundamental reason Strauss gives for it: it is not possible to convey the truth of things by merely stating it.  People will not understand the truth if they have not thought about the problem themselves.  The most a text can do, therefore, is to provoke them to think.

Here she is alluding to Arthur Melzer’s distinctions between three kinds of reasons for esoteric writing.  Defensive esotericism is esoteric writing that defends philosophers from persecution.  Protective esotericism is esoteric writing that protects non-philosophic readers from being harmed by dangerous ideas.  Pedagogical esotericism is esoteric writing that teaches potentially philosophic readers how to think for themselves in the search for truth.  She seems to be saying that a liberal social order can eliminate the need for defensive and protective esotericism by promoting freedom of thought and speech, so that the philosophic quest for truth is no longer harmful in its subversion of social order based on unexamined opinion.  But this does not eliminate the “ongoing necessity” for pedagogical esotericism, in which philosophic writers create puzzles, so that in solving the puzzles, their philosophic readers learn how to think for themselves.

Is she suggesting that Strauss himself saw the “ongoing necessity” that he had to write esoterically, but only for the sake of pedagogical esotericism, and not for the sake of defensive or protective esotericism?  This seems to be what she says in The Truth About Leo Strauss, where she says that Strauss’s writing shows “pedagogical reserve” in saying less than what he thinks, but not true esotericism in saying other than what he thinks (136-37).  But if that is so, if Strauss saw no necessity in a liberal social order for defensive or protective esotericism, doesn’t that indicate that the premodern philosophers were wrong in believing “that public communication of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all time,” because in a liberal society there is no deadly conflict between philosophy and the city? 

That’s the point I make in my paper about how Darwinian liberalism in Victorian England promoted a largely open society with such freedom of thought and speech that esoteric writing and speaking were unnecessary and undesirable.  One can also see this in the Darwinian liberalism of Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human.


Zuckert writes: “Arnhart’s embrace of the middle Nietzsche as a supporter of modern science and liberal democracy raises the obvious question of why Nietzsche did not stick with this position but moved on.”

Nietzsche’s friend Lou Salomé offered the best answer to this question: In his middle writings, Nietzsche shows the intellectual clarity of a skeptical free thinker; but in his later writings, the religious longing from his youth reappears, and he is caught up in the atheistic religious frenzy which he affirms as his “Dionysian nature.”

The philosophic question here concerns not so much the motivation for Nietzsche’s switch from the Darwinian aristocratic liberalism of his middle period to the Dionysian aristocratic radicalism of his later period, but rather the question of which is rationally superior.  In my paper, I make some arguments for why his Darwinian aristocratic liberalism is closer to the truth about human existence than is his Dionysian aristocratic radicalism.

In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche warns against the foolish and dangerous belief that some minds are “superhuman” (übermenschlich) as a “religious or half-religious superstition” (sec. 164).  In his later writings, of course, he is inspired by a vision of the superhuman artist-philosopher exercising will to power over all of humanity for a transvaluation of all values.  This later position of Nietzsche is likely to be more appealing to those who believe that “there are no gods but philosophers.”


Hassing asks whether my account of Darwinian natural right could support a cultural education in natural right that would counter the modern idea of “transformism—the radical malleability of nature and human nature in face of scientific and legal techne, and political power in the hands of progressive forces.”

My answer is yes.  In my lifetime, I have seen an amazing shift in academic education and popular culture from the predominance of the “blank slate” denial of human nature unconstrained by animal biology to a growing acceptance of evolved human nature. 

While my thinking about Darwinian natural right began in 1975 as I read Ed Wilson’s Sociobiology, there was an explosion of vehement scorn for Wilson’s claim that human social behavior was shaped by evolutionary nature.  A few years later, the early proponents of “evolutionary psychology” (such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby) provoked the same kind of denunciation.  But then, over the past 25 years, these ideas about the evolutionary science of human nature as shaping human sociality, morality, and cognition have become widely accepted, although there is still serious resistance.  For example, evolutionary psychology has become a standard field of study within departments of psychology and anthropology, and even in some English departments, and in many philosophy departments.

In my own Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, we had “Politics and the Life Sciences” as a field of study at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  We had some courses—such as my “Biopolitics and Human Nature”—that were cross-listed in both the political science and biology departments.  So I had both biology and political science majors who were fascinated by thinking about how the biological science of human nature might illuminate the great debates in political science and political philosophy.

The influence of this thinking in popular culture can be seen in the popularity of many best-selling books explaining human nature and human history through evolutionary science.  Steven Pinker’s books are an example of this.

The success of such thinking depends on escaping the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture or biology versus culture.  Increasingly, evolutionary theorists recognize that we need to explain animal behavior as shaped by at least three levels of explanation: natural history constrains but does not determine cultural history, and nature and culture jointly constrain but do not determine individual history.  One illustration of how this might work is in my paper “Biopolitical Science,” which explains Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 as manifesting all three levels of analysis in complex interaction: we need to see this as an event in the natural history of cooperation in the human species, in the cultural history of slavery in America, and in the individual history of Lincoln as a political actor in the Civil War.

Hassing asks whether the Darwinian natural right of sex differences, familial bonding, and parenting might provide natural standards for judging current debates over the proper social norms for gender identity, family life, and marriage.  My answer is yes, and I would point to how these debates often become debates over evolutionary human psychology. 

So, for example, in Thomas Aquinas’s reasoning about the natural law of marriage, we can see the influence of Aristotle’s biological works in support of Aquinas’s claim that “natural right is that which nature has taught all animals.”  And in the recent debates over same-sex marriage, we have seen people questioning whether same-sex marriage can serve the natural biological ends of marriage—conjugal bonding and parental care.  Proponents of same-sex marriage have to argue that same-sex couples can serve these biological ends, because same-sex couples can be good parents, and because even if they don’t become parents, a married same-sex couple can satisfy the natural desire for conjugal bonding.  It then becomes an empirical scientific question to see if same-sex marriages succeed or fail to satisfy these natural biological desires.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Lockean Natural Punishment of Dictators Through Nonviolent Resistance

I have written many posts over the years on the Darwinian science of natural punishment in Lockean liberalism (herehere, here, herehereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, here, here, here, and here.)

The natural right to punish--the "executive power of the law of nature"--can be expressed in both violent and nonviolent resistance to tyranny.  Previously (here), I have written about Erica Chenoweth's research showing that since 1900, nonviolent resistance campaigns have been more than twice as likely to succeed as violent resistance movements, and that every campaign of nonviolent protest that achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population was successful.

Now, we have new research from Chenoweth (with her coauthor Margherita Belgioioso) adding to her theory of nonviolent resistance--"The Physics of Dissent and the Effects of Movement Momentum," just published online in Nature Human Behaviour (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0665-8).

Here is her abstract: "How do 'people power' movements succeed when modest proportions of the population participate?  Here we propose that the effects of social movements increase as they gain momentum.  We approximate a simple law drawn from physics: momentum equals mass times velocity (p = mv).  We propose that the momentum of dissent is a product of participation (mass) and the number of protest events in a week (velocity).  We test this simple physical proposition against panel data on the potential effects of movement momentum on irregular leader exit in African countries between 1990 and 2014, using a variety of estimation techniques.  Our findings show that social movements potentially compensate for relatively modest popular support by concentrating their activities in time, thus increasing their disruptive capacity.  Notably, these findings also provide a straight-forward way for dissidents to easily quantify their coercive potential by assessing their participation rates and increased concentration of their activities over time."

The database for this study is the Social Conflict in Africa Database (SCAD). There are some good databases for armed conflict such as the Uppsala University Armed Conflict Dataset, which collects global data on armed conflict as including state-based, non-state, and one-sided armed conflicts. What is novel about SCAD is that it is not limited to armed conflict, but includes social conflict such as nonviolent demonstrations and protests as well as violent riots.  The researchers have identified social conflict events in Africa by conducting keyword searches of Associated Press (AP) and Agence France Presse (AFP) news wires.  They looked for five terms: "protest," "riot," "strike," "violence," and "attack."  Between 1990 and 2010, they identified 7,200 distinct social conflict events (Idean Salehyan et al., "Social Conflict in Africa: A New Database," International Interactions 38 [2012]: 503-511).  For each event, they identified the start and end dates; and they determined the particular actor(s) involved, their target(s), and the issue(s) at stake.

In compiling their own dataset, Chenoweth and Belgioioso excluded violent events such as riots and included only nonviolent methods of dissent, such as protests and strikes.  They then went to the ARCHIGOS dataset, which has information on political leaders in 188 countries from 1875 to 2015, and they identified the dependent variable by looking for cases in which the leader lost power through "irregular means," defined as leader removal "in contravention of explicit rules and established conventions."

They found that in Africa from January 1, 1990, to January 1, 2014, there were 45 cases of leaders losing power through irregular means.  They then analyzed these 45 cases to see that in 21 cases, leaders were overthrown through assassinations or coups that were part of internal political maneuvers of the ruling elites outside the contest of any popular revolts, which left 24 cases of leaders forced out of power in response to peaceful popular protests.

In none of these 24 cases did participation in popular protests exceed 13.3% of the national population.  This confirms Chenoweth's earlier conclusion that nonviolent resistance can overthrow unpopular leaders even when the active protestors are only a small minority of the population.  But the main point of this new research is that peak participation rates alone are not sufficient to explain the success of social movements.  It is only when rising participation rates are combined with mobilization at a high velocity (measured as the number of protest events in a week) that a protest movement is likely to succeed.

In those 24 cases of leaders who fell from power in response to popular protests, the primary agents forcing their exit were military people, police, or other security personnel.  When those who are armed to protect the leader defect--perhaps by refusing to obey his orders to kill the protestors--then the leader must fall because he depends on the loyalty of his "minimum winning coalition"--particularly the military.  Even the most autocratic ruler cannot rule on his own without supporters.  (I have written about this here.)

Here we see the Machiavellianism of our chimpanzee politics: like chimps, human beings show three or four distinct political "humours"--the one, the few, and the many, and perhaps the military as a fourth humour.  The ambitious few want to rule over and oppress the people.  The many do not desire to rule or oppress, but they do desire to be free from the oppression of the few.  The one--the "prince"--rules as the alpha male who depends on the support of the few or of the people.  He can rule best through fear rather than love, but he must avoid the hatred of the people, because if he is hated, either he will be assassinated, or he will be overthrown by the ambitious few who see how vulnerable he is without the people's acquiescence in his rule.  That explains why Frans de Waal could not understand what he was observing in his chimpanzee community in the Arnhem Zoo until he read Machiavelli.

I have written about this in a previous post, which is illustrated by the case of Hosni Mubarak's fall from power in Egypt in 2011.

The overthrow of Mubarak is one of the 24 cases of successful nonviolent resistance in Chenoweth's study.  As Vice President of Egypt, Mubarak became President in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat..  Mubarak himself was the target of at least a half-dozen assassination attempts.  So he understood Machiavelli's teaching that even the most powerful prince can be brought down by any assassin willing to die in an attack.  He also understood the importance of being feared, and he held his princely power for almost 30 years through a declaration of emergency law that allowed him to arrest and terrify his political opponents without any legal procedures.

His mistake, however, during the Arab Spring movement of 2011, was in failing to see that even if the prince is feared, he must avoid the hatred and contempt of the people.  He provoked popular demonstrations of protest that made him vulnerable to those ambitious few around him who were looking for the first opportunity to take his power from him.  His dependence on the military then left him open to the military decision to force him out of office.  The leaders of the Egyptian protestors had studied the techniques of nonviolent resistance--the techniques of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others, as presented in some books by Gene Sharp.

Mohamed Morsi was elected President of Egypt in 2012.  But then he too faced popular protests in 2013, and the military forced him out of power.

What one sees here in these cases of leaders being overthrown in Africa as analyzed by Chenoweth confirms Locke's account of how the natural desire to punish cheaters enforces government by consent of the governed, within a system of elite rule in which the people do not rule directly, but whose acquiescence to being ruled is required for elite rule.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Darwinian Liberalism Solves Strauss's Problems of Natural Right

At the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington, DC, I will be presenting a paper for a panel on "Natural Right and Classical Political Philosophy, sponsored by the Claremont Institute.  The panel will meet on Friday, August 30, 8:00-9:30 am, in the Calvert Room of the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

My paper is entitled "Darwinian Liberalism Solves the Straussian Problems of Natural Right."

I argue that Darwinian liberalism can solve the four problems of natural right identified by Leo Strauss.  Darwinian liberalism defends the liberal social order as conforming to the twenty natural desires of evolved human nature.

This Darwinian liberalism solves the problem of teleology by appealing to the immanent teleology of human nature rather than the cosmic teleology of the universe.

It solves the problem of species by relying on an Aristotelian and Darwinian empiricist conception of species rather than a Platonic essentialist conception.

It solves the problem of reason and revelation by securing the freedom of thought and speech in a largely open society that allows for public debate over reason and revelation, although the debate remains irreconcilable.

Finally, it solves the problem of liberal democracy because a Darwinian aristocratic liberalism--like that defended by Friedrich Nietzsche in his middle writings--can appeal to evolved human nature as setting the standards for Darwinian natural right.

This paper is a case study in what I have called evolutionary political philosophy or biopolitical science, which employs a modern evolutionary science of human nature and human history to illuminate and even resolve some of the great debates in the history of political philosophy.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Reason, Revelation, and the Miracle of the Resurrection in the Metaphysical Society

One of the best debates over reason and revelation occurred in London in the meetings of the Metaphysical Society from 1869 to 1880.  This shows how the liberal culture of Victorian England provided the freedom of thought and speech that allowed a public discussion of the reason/revelation conflict without any need for esoteric writing or any fear of persecution.  Much of this discussion arose from the public debate over Darwinian evolution and Biblical theology.  It was this success of liberalism in establishing a largely open society that would later allow Leo Strauss in the United States to publicly discuss the reason/revelation conflict without any need for hiding his teaching in esoteric writing.

Beginning in the fall of 1868, Alfred Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of Great Britain, met with some of his friends and proposed organizing a discussion club for those who wanted to defend Christian theology against the threat of scientific naturalism.  They decided they should include those they identified as "the opposition," so they could try to persuade their opponents that Christian natural theology had not been refuted by modern natural science (Hutton 1885).  They would meet once a month at a hotel for nine months of the year.  After dining together, they would discuss a paper that one of the members had circulated beforehand.  From 1869 to 1880, 62 members produced 95 papers.  Attendance at each meeting ranged from as many as 22 members present to as few as 7.  At first, they wanted to call this the Theological Society, but then they decided to call it the Metaphysical Society.

The membership was remarkable in their prominence as representing the diverse intellectual and social elites of Great Britain--including poets such as Tennyson, philosophers such as Henry Sidgwick, scientists such as Thomas Huxley, John Tyndall, and John Lubbock, Anglican theologians like Arthur Stanley, the Dean of Westminster, Catholic theologians such as William George Ward and Henry Edward Manning, politicians such as Lubbock and Prime Minister William Gladstone, lawyers such as James Fitzjames Stephen, and journalists such as Walter Bagehot.  Huxley, Tyndall, and Lubbock were the three who were also members of the X-Club.

Their discussions were confidential, and their papers were privately printed for circulation only among the members.  But most of the papers were eventually published as articles in journals or chapters in books.  The whole set of the original papers was not published until 2015, when Oxford University Press published them in three big volumes: The Papers of the Metaphysical Society.

The conflict between reason and revelation was the most persistent theme.  And the fundamental epistemological division was between the "empiricists" arguing that human experience of the world confirmed that everything was governed by natural law with no gaps for supernatural miracles and "intuitionists" arguing that human beings had a divinely implanted religious sense for believing in a supernatural miracle-working God.  Over  the years, it became clear that neither side could persuade the other because they were locked in an irreconcilable battle between reason and revelation, which is the point later made by Strauss.

Neither side could refute the other, because the empiricists assumed but could not prove the uniformity of nature so as to exclude miracles, and the intuitionists assumed but could not prove the reality of miracles as supernatural interventions in nature.  So, for example, William George Ward presented the paper for December 10, 1872, entitled "Can Experience Prove the Uniformity of Nature?," and his answer to the question was no, because, he argued, when the scientific empiricists deny the possibility of miracles as contrary to the uniformity of nature, they simply assume the uniformity of nature without establishing it through experience, and thus it is "a purely arbitrary and ungrounded assumption" (Papers, 1:410-16).

To prove by experience the unexceptional uniformity of nature, Ward contended, the scientific naturalists would have to show that universal experience testifies to this uniformity.  They cannot do this, because Catholics will point to the human experience of miracles that have been well authenticated, and the scientific naturalists have not yet proven that all of this testimony for miracles is unreliable.  Until they prove, one by one, that miracles have not occurred, their assumption of an unexceptional uniformity of nature is begging the question at issue.

Ward recognizes that many natural scientists think that the assumption of the unexceptional uniformity of nature is the absolute requirement for inductive science, and that affirming the possibility of miracles denies this assumption and thus denies the necessary basis of science.  But he argues that this is mistaken, because the idea of miracles actually assumes that nature is usually but not unexceptionally uniform, and that is enough to support empirical science.

So, for example, if I find today by experiment that certain materials combined in certain ways are combustible, then I can expect that these same materials combined in the same way tomorrow will be combustible.  But now imagine that when I go into my laboratory tomorrow, I find a man who looks very impressive seated in my laboratory.  He tells me that he has been sent by God to give me a divinely authoritative message, and to prove that he has been sent by God, he will perform a miracle.  I know that my hand is naturally combustible, but he tells me that if I put my hand in a fire now, it will not burn.  If I do that, and it does not burn, I will conclude that he has performed a miracle that testifies to his divine authority.  And yet nothing about this miracle gives me any reason to doubt that my hand is naturally combustible.  On the contrary, it is precisely because I know my hand is naturally combustible that makes me believe that if fire does not burn my hand, that must be a miracle.

We can even imagine some extreme circumstances in which miracles could become frequent without denying the normal uniformity of natural law, Ward suggests.  If England were Catholic again, and if every Englishman, by invoking St. Thomas of Canterbury (Thomas a Becket), could put his hand in a fire without injury, this would reinforce the belief that fire naturally burns, because it would be clear that the Saint's name must be invoked to cause a miraculous suspension of this natural law.

In response to Ward, Huxley admitted that he could not prove by experience the uniformity of nature, but he said that this did not weaken his confidence in this principle as a "working hypothesis" guiding his scientific research.

After this paper by Ward, over the subsequent four years, other members wrote a series of papers on miracles.  On November 9, 1875, James Fitzjames Stephen presented "Remarks on the Proof of Miracles" (2:325-44).  Stephen was a judge as well as historian and codifier of English criminal law.  He was also a prolific journalist known for a series of articles criticizing John Stuart Mill's political theory.  For three years (1869-1872), he was in India as a legal member of the Viceroy of India's council.  He had been reared in an evangelical Anglican household, but he found that his legal training in the rules of evidence challenged his faith.  During his time in India, he studied the ancient texts of Hindu law; and he saw that these texts began with accounts of the divine creation of the world that resembled the Biblical story of creation, and that these miracles of creation gave divine sanction to the Hindu caste system of social order.  He saw that the Hindu faith in their miraculous divine code was as firm as the Jewish or Christian faith in their miraculous divine code.  Seeing such contradictions in the divine codes in the ancient history of humanity turned Stephen into a skeptic.

The source of Stephen's doubt corresponds to what Strauss said about the ancient belief that "the right way must be a divine law" from the ancestors, the authority of which becomes questionable when someone sees "a variety of divine laws or codes, each of which is the work of a divine or semidivine being."  And "what is decisive is the fact that the various codes contradict one another in what they suggest regarding the first things. . . . Thus the question arises as to which code is the right code and which account of the first things is the true account.  The right way is now no longer guaranteed by authority; it becomes a question or the object of a quest. . . . It will prove to be the quest for what is good by nature as distinguished from what is good merely by convention" (NRH, 84-86).

When he returned to England in 1872, Stephen was invited to join the Metaphysical Society, and he became one of the most active members.  In his "Remarks on the Proof of Miracles," he employed the legal standards of evidence for challenging the reliability of the testimony for miracles.  The testimony for miracles would hardly be accepted in a court of law, he argued, because it generally suffers from five weaknesses.  First, the testimony is often only an uncorroborated assertion.  Second, the event that is alleged to have occurred is highly improbable.  Third, there is often no record of what other spectators at the scene saw.  Fourth, the testimony is often hearsay--someone is reporting what he has heard and not what he has seen for himself.  Fifth, there is usually no record of a complete examination of the testimony conducted at the time of the alleged event.  For example, these weaknesses characterize the reports of miracles in the New Testament, which is a collection of texts written long after the events alleged by authors who are biased in their judgment.

Stephen concluded his paper by saying that stories about miracles are only "wild absurdities," and he offered as an example quotations from "The Institutes of Menu" that start with a divine creation story of miracles sanctioning Hindu law.  He also quoted from the introduction by the English translator of these texts saying: "The faith of a Gentoo (misguided as it is, and groundless as it may be), is equally implicit with that of a Christian, and his allegiance to his own supposed revelations of the Divine Will altogether as firm.  He, therefore, esteems the astonishing miracles attributed to a Brihma, a Raam, or a Krishen, as facts of the most indubitable authenticity."

The discussion after Stephen's presentation of his paper was so intense and so prolonged that it was decided that the meeting for February 15, 1876, should be devoted to continuing the discussion, without any new paper being presented.  These discussions of miracles were becoming acrimonious.  Arthur Russell wrote to his brother: "Our debate was brisker than usual.  Frederic Harrison declared that he considered a belief in miracles as the commencement of insanity, and His Eminence [Cardinal Manning] replied that he considered an incapacity to believe in the supernatural as a commencement of ossification of the brain."
The discussions became even more acrid after Huxley's presentation on January 11, 1876, on "The Evidence of the Miracle of the Resurrection" (2:366-72).  Here Huxley doubted the evidence for the most important miracle of Christian theology.  Speaking as a biologist testifying before a court, he applied the science of animal physiology, employing legal standards of evidence, to conclude that Jesus was probably not truly dead after his crucifixion, and therefore he was not resurrected from being dead.  He probably suffered from "somatic death" (the cessation of some of the functions of the living body) but not "molecular death" (the cessation of the organic activities of the living molecules of the body).  One can be revived from somatic death but not from molecular death.

To illustrate this, Huxley pointed to wheel animalcules (or rotifers) that are microscopic animals with tiny brains found in freshwater, which can survive dessication for long periods: they become inert, and then they resume activity when they are rehydrated.  It is dubious, however, that this is an apt illustration, because human beings cannot do anything like this.

What Huxley calls "somatic death" might correspond to what today would be called "clinical death"--brain death followed by cessation of heart and lung functions, which is followed within minutes by the death of cells and organs.  If that is so, it's hard to see how the "somatic death" of Jesus was not true death.

Since Huxley presented his paper, many medical doctors and forensic pathologists have written research reports to determine the cause of Jesus' death by crucifixion.  There have been as least ten different medical theories of the cause of death--including cardiac rupture, heart failure, asphyxia, and hypovolaemic shock (Maslen and Mitchell 2006).  One theory follows Huxley in hypothesizing that Jesus did not really die--that at the crucifixion, Jesus lost consciousness because of diminished blood supply to the brain, although the oxygen supply was above a critical level; and then when he was taken down from the cross, circulation was restored (Lloyd Davies and Lloyd Davies 1991).  What is most noteworthy in this research is the great variety of conflicting hypotheses and the failure to reach any agreement based on a reasonable assessment of the evidence.

The fundamental problem is that we don't have enough reliable evidence.  The New Testament stories are unreliable, because the books of the New Testament were written many years after the time of Jesus by people who were not eyewitnesses of the events reported, and who were writing with the bias of true believers propagating their faith.  Moreover, miracles like the resurrection of the dead to life are so improbable that we should not believe them to be true without overwhelming evidence.  That's why even those people who believe in such miracles believe that most reports of miracles are false.

But then the very fact that we can openly debate the credibility of such miracles is itself a remarkable tribute to the success of liberalism in allowing freedom of thought and speech about the reason/revelation debate.

Huxley's paper on the resurrection pushed the limits of such freedom in Victorian England.  Huxley and John Morley decided not to publish the paper in Morley's Fortnightly Review--one of the most radical journals of the time--because Morley said that such a "deadly routing of the most sacred article in theology" was for scholars to discuss, not for "the profane crowd" (Desmond 1997, 466-67).

Two years before Huxley's paper, Walter Bagehot presented a paper on "The Metaphysical Basis of Toleration," February 10, 1874 (2:116-24), which pointed to the limits of toleration.  He said that the impulse to persecute those who question popular opinion is rooted in human nature, and that this natural impulse is particularly strong in ancient societies where the political order is understood to be a "religious partnership," and early law is identified with religious ritual.  The toleration of the freedom to question religious beliefs can come only in modern societies that have entered the "age of debate," when open discussion does not destroy the social order.

The philosophical debates in the Metaphysical Society show the remarkable freedom of liberal toleration.  But one can also see the limits of that toleration in late Victorian England.  One can see that, for example, in the persecution of Charles Bradlaugh, the founding president (1866-1890) of the National Secular Society, which advocated the complete disestablishment of the Anglican Church and freedom of thought for atheists.  Bradlaugh was elected to Parliament, but he was prohibited from taking his seat because he refused to take the sacred oath of allegiance to the Crown, which required religious belief:  "I, ---- do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God."  It was not until 1888 that Parliament passed the Oaths Act proposed by Bradlaugh that allowed people to choose to make a "solemn affirmation" rather than swearing an oath to God (Niblett 2010).

This continuing progress of the Liberal Enlightenment can be confirmed by various kinds of empirical historical evidence (such as the Human Freedom Index), which has been the subject of various posts hereherehere, and here.


Desmond, Adrian. 1997. Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Hutton, R. H.  1885. "The Metaphysical Society: A Reminiscence." The Nineteenth Century 18: 177-96.

Lloyd Davies, Margaret, and Trevor Lloyd Davies. 1991. "Resurrection or Resuscitation?" Journal of the Royal College of London. 25: 167-70.

Marshall, Catherine, Bernard Lightman, and Richard England, eds.  2015. The Papers of the Metaphysical Society, 1869-1880.  3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Maslen, Matthew, and Piers D. Mitchell. 2006. "Medical Theories on the Cause of Death in Crucifixion." Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 99: 185-88.

Niblett, Bryan. 2010. Dare to Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh. Oxford, UK: Kramedart Press.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Darwinian Liberalism Promoted Freedom of Thought in the Reason/Revelation Debate in Victorian England

There is a fundamental contradiction in the Straussian account of the reason/revelation debate and the need for philosophers to be esoteric in their speaking and writing about this debate.  Leo Strauss presented the irreconcilable conflict between reason and revelation as part of the irreconcilable conflict between philosophy and politics, because the philosopher's pursuit of truth about the whole clashes with society's need for unquestioned belief in the divine law that supports the social order; and consequently philosophers must speak and write esoterically to protect themselves from persecution and to protect society from being subverted by philosophic atheism.  At the same time, however, we see that Strauss spoke and wrote openly about the conflict between reason and revelation, apparently thinking he had no need to hide this disturbing teaching from public view by engaging in esoteric speaking and writing.  Moreover, Strauss argued that since every stable society must be a closed society that prohibits public questioning of the authoritative opinions supporting the social order, modern liberalism must fail in its attempt to establish an open society with freedom of thought and speech, so that even the most authoritative opinions can be questioned in public debate.  Oddly, Strauss said this while he himself enjoyed the freedom secured by the American liberal regime that allowed him to speak and write publicly about the conflict between reason and revelation and between philosophy and politics with no fear of persecution.

This is part of the most persistent and prominent theme in Strauss's teaching--his interpretation of Plato's metaphor of human beings living in a cave.  Most human beings are chained to the floor of the cave, and they can only see shadows cast on a cave wall, which symbolizes their mental confinement to common opinions about the world that they never question.  Only a very few human beings are capable of turning around to see the fire behind them and the objects carried before the fire that create the shadows on the wall.  These few can climb out of the cave to see the Sun outside.  This symbolizes the philosophic life of those few--like Socrates--who question everything in their pursuit of knowledge--in their quest to replace mere opinions with truth known by one's own reason.  The shadows on the wall of the cave include authoritative religious beliefs that the multitude of human beings accept without any rational proof.  Only the philosophic few can doubt those religious beliefs in demanding that all beliefs about the world be subject to rational examination, and so only these few can see the conflict between reason and revelation.  These philosophic few cannot speak about this openly in public without creating scandals that would harm themselves and others.  Strauss indicated that the failure of modern liberalism comes from the liberal attempt to establish open societies through popular enlightenment so that everyone can climb out of the cave to see the Sun, or at least question the shadowy opinions on the wall of the cave.

But then Strauss contradicted this teaching in his own words and deeds by publicly explaining the reason/revelation debate and then telling his audience (in "Progress or Return?"):
". . . No one can be both a philosopher and a theologian, or, for that matter, some possibility which transcends the conflict between philosophy and theology, or pretends to be a synthesis of both.  But every one of us can be and ought to be either one or the other, the philosopher open to the challenge of theology, or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy." (116-117)
How can "every one of us" be free to make this choice between reason and revelation, philosophy and theology?  Doesn't that assume that "we"--those in Strauss's audiences at the University of Chicago and those who have read his published writings--live in modern liberal societies like the United States where it is possible for philosophers like Strauss to speak openly to a popular audience about the reason/revelation debate?  If so, doesn't that mean that modern liberalism has succeeded in creating largely open societies with freedom of thought and speech where "every one of us" can choose between reason and revelation, and where it is no longer necessary for philosophers like Strauss to speak and write esoterically, so that this choice is hidden from public view?  Wouldn't we therefore have to say that for Strauss to escape self-contradiction, he needed to be a "Midwest Straussian" who saw that modernity is good, and the modern liberal social order is the best regime, because it gives human beings the freedom to live the best human lives, including the religious life and the philosophic life?  (I have written about "Midwest Straussianism" here and here, and about esoteric writing here and here.)

The modern liberal promotion of the debate over reason and revelation could be seen as beginning in the 17th century (as in the controversy stirred by Spinoza's writings) or in the 18th century (as in the controversy stirred by Hume's writings).  But this became a fully free and public debate for the first time in the 19th century in Victorian England, where it arose in response to the new evolutionary science of nature and the intellectual culture created by Darwinian liberalism.  It was during this time that the public culture of Great Britain moved from "confessional values" to "liberal values" (see William C. Lubenow, Liberal Intellectuals and Public Culture in Modern Britain, 1815-1914: Making Words Flesh [Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2010].)

After the publication late in 1859 of Darwin's Origin of Species, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote one of the first reviews of the book in the Westminster Review, where he said that "every philosophical thinker" would hail Darwin's book "as a veritable Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism."  The Whitworth rifle was considered the most accurate rifle of its time, and so Huxley saw Darwin's book as a powerful weapon in the warfare of liberalism against its opponents, in which the "philosophical thinkers" were on the side of liberalism and scientific naturalism, and the anti-philosophical thinkers were on the side of the theological dogmas of supernatural religion.  Some years later, in a letter to his wife, Huxley described this as part of a centuries-long battle between "free thought and traditional authority" (letter to Nettie Huxley, August 8, 1873).

In this battle, the liberal science of Darwin and Huxley had an alliance with liberal theology, which questioned traditional Christian doctrines and thus subordinated revelation to reason.  This was clear in the controversy over the publication in March of 1860 of a collection of seven essays--entitled Essays and Reviews--arguing that a rational study of nature and history proved that the Bible could not be literally true and could not be a miraculous revelation from God, and therefore it should be read like any other ancient book.  One author claimed that modern natural science showed that miracles were impossible because the causal uniformity of nature does not allow for supernatural interventions violating the order of nature.  The general argument of the book was that traditional Christian doctrines would have to be changed to conform to what was known by natural science.  The religious public was shocked by this, especially because most of the authors were ordained clergy of the Church of England.  Some of the bishops of the Church wanted the essayists to be charged with heresy.

John Lubbock, Huxley, and other scientists close to Darwin signed a public memorial lending scientific support to the essayists.  In persuading scientists to sign this, Lubbock insisted that in "the battle of freedom," "the great Liberal Party should stand by their guns and their friends," supporting the "liberal and thoughtful" clergy (letter to Joseph Hooker, March 2, 1861).

Against this, however, another group of scientists wanted to defend Christian orthodoxy as compatible with natural science, and they signed a "Declaration of the Students of the Natural Sciences," which affirmed that it was impossible for the Word of God as written in the book of nature to contradict the Word of God as written in the Bible.  Therefore, they argued, scientists should "rest in faith" that any apparent conflicts between natural science and the Bible would eventually be reconciled to confirm the truth of Scripture (Brock and MacLeod 1976).  Darwin and his friends saw that this attempt at a synthesis of reason and revelation would actually require the subordination of reason to revelation, just as Strauss would later argue.

Many of the leading defenders of Darwinian liberal science against traditional orthodox theology were informally organized as overlapping networks of friends.  On November 3, 1864, nine of these friends decided to form a dining club--the X Club--that would meet in London for dinner and discussion on the first Thursday of each month from October to June.  After their dinner, they would attend the regular meetings of the Royal Society of London.  Their meetings continued into the mid-1880s.  The nine members were George Busk (1807-1886), Joseph Hooker (1817-1911), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), John Tyndall (1822-1893), Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), William Spottiswoode (1825-1883), Edward Frankland (1825-1899), Thomas Hirst (1830-1892), and John Lubbock (1834-1913).  Although Darwin was not a member, because he preferred a reclusive life at his house in Down, much of the work of the X Club was devoted to defending Darwin's science and advancing the cause of Darwinian scientific naturalism against traditional theology.  Members of the X Club were responsible for persuading the Royal Society to award Darwin the Copley Medal, the highest honor they bestowed.  They were also responsible for having Darwin buried in Westminster Cathedral.  Even more importantly, they took control of the leading scientific organizations, such as the Royal Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and many of the leading journals.  Perhaps the most important lesson from the history of the X Club is the importance of philosophic friendships in forming social groups in liberal societies for the advancement of the philosophic life.  (The best history of the X Club was published last year--Ruth Barton, The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science.)

At the first meeting of the X Club, Hirst took notes and reported: "Besides personal friendship, the bond that united us was devotion to science, pure and free, untrammeled by religious dogmas.  Amongst ourselves there is perfect outspokenness, and no doubt opportunities will arise where concerted action on our part may be of service.  The first meeting was very pleasant and 'jolly'" (Barton, 13).  So they were committed to "science, pure and free."  By "pure science," they meant a science of relentless inquiry into nature for its own sake--for the Socratic pleasure of living a philosophic life--without regard for any practical utility, money making, or technological advancement.  This counters Strauss's claim that modern scientific philosophy denigrated the contemplative life of philosophy in favor of Francis Bacon's project for an effective knowledge directed to the mastery of nature for the relief of the human estate.  Actually, Huxley criticized Bacon for attaching "an undue value to the practical advantages which he foresaw"--in pleading for science as the "gathering of fruit."  Huxley thought this ignored the fact that the great steps in the progress of knowledge "have been made, are made, and will be made, by men who seek knowledge simply because they crave for it" ("The Progress of Science," 47, 56).

In their commitment to a "free science" that is "untrammeled by religious dogma," the X Club members took the side of reason and natural philosophy against revelation and theological doctrine.  As Strauss indicated, philosophers have made this choice for thousands of years, but they have hidden their argument for reason over revelation from public view by conveying it to only a few philosophic readers through esoteric writing.  What was new about the position of the Darwinian liberal scientists is that they defended their choice of reason over revelation openly in public debate before large audiences that included the great multitude of people in their society.

For example, the X Club members were active in the Sunday lecture societies, which was an anti-Sabbatarian movement that sponsored lectures at "Sunday Evenings for the People," as an alternative to attending church on Sundays and hearing sermons, and thus a challenge to Sabbatarian legislation that restricted secular activities on Sundays.  These lectures were attended by people of all classes, including workingmen and many women.

The first Sunday lecture in this series early in 1866 was Huxley's "On the Desirableness of Improving Natural Knowledge."  Thousands of people filled the lecture hall to capacity, and thousands more were turned away.  Newspapers published reports about the lecture.  A week later, the lecture was published as an article in the Fortnightly Review, and later it was published as a chapter in Huxley's Essays.  This was the common way to reach a large audience--lecturing and then publishing the lecture as an article in a journal and finally in a book.  Here we see one of the crucial elements of the Liberal Enlightenment: rising literacy and printing technology allowed for the general spread of knowledge through reading.  In Great Britain in 1600, only about 20% of the people were literate; by 1860, over 80% were literate.  And with improvements in printing techniques, newspapers, journals, and books were cheap enough to be purchased even by common working people.  (See James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000].)

In his lecture, Huxley traced the modern movement for improving knowledge of nature to the founding of the "Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge," which began in 1660 with a royal charter from Charles II, and which became the oldest national scientific institution in the world.  And yet, Huxley observed, the true origin of the pursuit of natural knowledge is in the ancient history of humanity, at that point at which human reason first discovered nature:
"I cannot but think that the foundations of all natural knowledge were laid when the reason of man first came face to face with the facts of Nature; when the savage first learned that the fingers of one hand are fewer than those of both; that it is shorter to cross a stream than to head it; that a stone stops where it is unless it be moved, and that it drops from the hand which lets it go; that light and heat come and go with the sun; that sticks burn away in a fire; that plants and animals grow and die; that if he struck his fellow savage a blow he would make him angry, and perhaps get a blow in return, while if he offered him a fruit he would please him, and perhaps receive a fish in exchange.  When men had acquired this much knowledge, the outlines, rude though they were, of mathematics, of physics, of chemistry, of biology, of moral, economical, and political science, were sketched.  Nor did the germ of religion fail when science began to bud. . . . the little light of awakened human intelligence shines so mere a spark amidst the abyss of the unknown and unknowable seems so insufficient to do more than illuminate the imperfections that cannot be remedied, the aspirations that cannot be realized, of man's own nature.  But in this sadness, this consciousness of the limitation of man, this sense of an open secret which he cannot penetrate, lies the essence of all religion; and the attempt to embody it in the forms furnished by the intellect is the origin of the higher theologies" (32-33).
Strauss thought that nature was discovered about 2,600 years ago by some Greek philosopher.  But Huxley thought that the philosophic concept of nature had already been implicit inchoately in the mental experience of primitive human beings who saw regular patterns in the physical and living world around them.  The natural knowledge gained by philosophic science is the systematic and rigorous working out of human common sense experience of the natural world.

This natural knowledge includes the moral and political knowledge of human nature that Strauss called natural right.  Primitive human beings discovered that there was a natural punishment for attacking or threatening other human beings, because they had a natural propensity to punish those who injured them: "if he struck his fellow savage a blow he would make him angry, and perhaps get a blow in return."  This is what John Locke called "the executive power of the law of nature"--the natural inclination of every individual to punish those who harm him.  Primitive human beings also discovered the natural gains from cooperative trade: "if he offered him a fruit, he would please him, and perhaps receive a fish in exchange."  Here is the ground for Darwinian natural right in the natural punishment of injustice and the natural benefits of cooperative exchange.

As Strauss said, the philosopher seeks a natural knowledge of the whole, but that can never be fully attained because human knowledge will always be limited, and consequently the whole will always be mysterious, which leaves an opening for the possibility of revelation from a mysterious God.  Huxley agreed: the sense of "the abyss of the unknown and unknowable" is "the essence of all religion."  He also claimed that a scientific theology could be based on "the noblest and most human of man's emotions, . . . worship . . . at the altar of the Unknown" (38).  But notice that this "Unknown" has none of the features of the personal, providential, and miracle-working God of the Bible.

Despite the fact that natural knowledge is always incomplete--and thus a Socratic knowledge of ignorance--those human beings who are most moved by the natural desire for intellectual understanding will devote their lives to improving their natural knowledge.  To live such a philosophic life, Huxley observed in his lecture, philosophers must overcome two obstacles.

The first obstacle is the moral conviction common among human beings that authority must be obeyed--"that authority is the soundest basis of belief; that merit attaches to a readiness to believe; that the doubting disposition is a bad one, and skepticism a sin; that when good authority has pronounced what is to be believed, and faith accepted it, reason has no further duty."  Against this, Huxley argued: "The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority as such.  For him, skepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin. . . . The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification" (40-41).  Strauss expressed this same thought by saying that philosophy rejects the authority of the ancestral and recognizes that "nature is the authority" (NRH, 92).

The second obstacle to improving natural knowledge is the natural tendency of human beings to anthropomorphic projection of their own mental experience onto the universe, so that they imagine that the whole world is ruled by a divine Mind or an Intelligent Designer that demands love and obedience.  This is the idea developed by Darwin and some recent evolutionary psychologists for explaining religious belief through an evolved "hyperactive agency-detection device," which has been the subject for some posts herehere, and here.

In his lecture, Huxley explained:
"But, with respect to all the less familiar occurrences which present themselves, uncultured man, no doubt, has always taken himself as the standard of comparison, as the eentre and measure of the world; nor could we well avoid doing so.  And finding that his apparently uncaused will has a powerful effect in giving rise to many occurrences, he naturally enough ascribed other and greater events to other and greater volitions, and came to look upon the world and all that therein is, as the product of the volitions of persons like himself, but stronger, and capable of being appeased or angered, as he himself might be soothed or irritated" (34).
This is an obstacle to improving natural knowledge because believing that the universe is governed by a divine Mind discourages us from rationally looking for the natural causes of cosmic order.  As natural philosophy increases our knowledge of those natural causes, Huxley suggested, we see that this is a better explanation of cosmic order than an anthropomorphic projection of mind onto the whole.

Strauss argued that the anthropomorphic analogy for explaining cosmic order as ruled by Mind is fallacious because it fails to distinguish that which is man-made and that which is not.  We have natural experience with how human beings make or design things with their minds, but we have no natural experience with how divine minds make or design things.  So there's a fallacy of equivocation in reasoning from human intelligent design to divine intelligent design.

But, still, Strauss argued, reason cannot demonstratively refute revelation, because reason cannot prove that it is impossible for any human being to have an experience of revelation from God.  Any supposed proof would have to beg the question at issue by assuming that nature is uniform, that there are no supernatural interventions in nature, and so miracles are impossible.

This irreconcilable debate over reason and revelation was carried on by the Darwinian liberals and their theological opponents in a remarkable series of discussions in The Metaphysical Society, which will be the topic for my next post.


Barton, Ruth. 2018. The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brock, W. H., and R. M. MacLeod.  1976. "The Scientists' Declaration: Reflections on Science and Belief in the Wake of Essays and Reviews, 1864-65." The British Journal for the History of Science 9: 39-66.

Huxley, Thomas Henry. 1896. Method and Results: Essays. New York: D. Appleton.

Strauss, Leo.  1997. "Progress or Return?" In Kenneth H. Green, ed., Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity. Albany: SUNY Press.