Charles Darwin was a scientific philosopher who took the side of reason against revelation, but with the understanding that he could not refute the possibility of revelation; and therefore he saw the irreconcilable tension between philosophy and the Bible that constitutes the vitality of Western civilization. In this way, he took the position on the reason/revelation debate that has been adopted by the zetetic Socratic Straussians. I have defended this interpretation of Darwin in some previous posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. In this post, I will restate and elaborate some of my reasoning.
I call Darwin a "scientific philosopher" to indicate that he did not see a separation of science from philosophy. In "Reason and Revelation," Leo Strauss observed that the distinction between science and philosophy did not arise until late in the 18th century, a distinction that created an opposition between "unscientific philosophy" and "unphilosophic science." As a consequence of this, "there exists no longer a direct access to philosophy in its original meaning as quest for the true and final account of the whole" (144).
During his lifetime, Darwin was generally identified as both a "man of science" and a philosopher. On board the Beagle, the seamen referred to Darwin as "the philosopher." In his early notebooks, where he began to work out his theory of evolution, he had notes on his reading of many philosophers--such as Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Adam Smith--particularly for his studies of the natural "moral sense," which later was written out in his Descent of Man. After his death in 1882, William Spottiswoode, the President of the Royal Society of London, remembered Darwin as showing the "ideal of the philosophic life." In his obituary for Nature, Thomas Huxley observed: "One could not converse with Darwin without being reminded of Socrates. There was the same desire to find some one wiser than himself, the same belief in the sovereignty of reason." Huxley concluded by quoting the last line of the Apology: "The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways--I to die and you to live. Which is the better, God only knows." Even the iconic photographs of Darwin's head evoked the resemblance to Socrates.
Darwin's study of nature conformed to what Strauss called the "original meaning of philosophy" as based on the discovery of nature:
". . . Nature was discovered when the quest for the beginnings became guided by these two fundamental distinctions:
"a) the distinction between hearsay and seeing with one's own eyes--the beginnings of all things must be made manifest, or demonstrated, on the basis of what men can see always in broad daylight or through ascent from the visible things.
"b) the distinction between man-made things and things that are not man-made--the beginning of artificial things is man, but man is clearly not the first thing, the beginning of all things. hence those things that are not man-made, lead more directly to the first things than do the artificial things. The production of artefacts is due to contrivance, to forethought. Nature was discovered when the possibility was realized that the first things may produce all other things, not by means of forethought, but by blind necessity. I say: the possibility. It was not excluded that the origin of all things is forethought, divine forethought. But this assertion required from now on a demonstration. The characteristic outcome of the discovery of nature is the demand for rigorous demonstration of the existence of divine beings, for a demonstration which starts from the analysis of phenomena manifest to everyone. Since no demonstration can presuppose the demonstrandum, philosophy is radically atheistic." ("Reason and Revelation," 145-46; compare "Progress or Return?", 113-14, and Natural Right and History, 81-89)Darwin described his scientific research during the five years of the voyage of the Beagle around the world as based on what he could see with his own eyes:
"During some part of the day I wrote my Journal, and took much pains in describing carefully and vividly all that I had seen; and this was good practice. . . ."
". . . Everything about which I thought or read was made to bear directly on what I had seen and was likely to see; and this habit of mind was continued during the years of the voyage. I fee sure that it was this training which has enabled me to do whatever I have done in science." (Autobiography, 78).He then began The Origin of Species in 1859 by claiming that his careful collection of and reflections on "certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings" could "throw some light on the origin of species--that mystery of mysteries."
Early in his life, Darwin felt compelled to believe that the origin of nature was "by means of forethought"--the work of a Divine Mind or intelligent designer, and thus he was a theist. But gradually he began to doubt the anthropomorphic analogy--the idea that the First Cause must be a Mind--and he saw that all of nature could have arisen by natural necessity. By the end of his life, he was a skeptical zetetic, who thought that while the human mind was unable to explain the mystery of the whole, there was no good reason to believe in Biblical Revelation; and the life of scientific inquiry into nature by reason alone was the best life for him. Darwin did not reveal his skeptical doubt about the divine in the writings published in his lifetime. But he did reveal this clearly in some of his correspondence that was marked "private" and in his Autobiography that he wrote for publication after his death.
In the section on "Religious Belief" in his Autobiography, Darwin related the evolution of his religious thought through four phases: New Testament Christianity, theism, agnosticism, and skepticism or rationalism. Darwin said that when he was on board the Beagle, he was "quite orthodox" in accepting the moral authority of the New Testament, although he had rejected the Old Testament because of its "manifestly false history of the world" (85). But then he decided that there was not enough evidence for the Christian miracles, and that "the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become" (86). He thus agreed with Strauss, who said that miracles must be incredible to the philosopher, even if he cannot prove them impossible: "all scientific accounts presuppose the impossibility of miracles" ("Reason and Revelation," 155).
By the time that he wrote The Origin of Species, Darwin reported, he had moved to being a theistic evolutionist who believed that the First Cause of all things was a Divine Mind:
"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 backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled 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" (92-93).This led him to employ the Thomistic idea of "dual causality"--God acted as the intelligent designer through "primary causes' to create the laws of nature at the beginning, but then those laws of nature worked through "secondary causes" that were open to scientific study. This was the famous "two books" analogy: the Bible as the Book of God's Word and Nature as the Book of God's Works.
But then Darwin saw that this anthropomorphic analogy--that there was a divine intelligent designer analogous to human intelligent designers--was fallacious, because while we have experiential knowledge of how human intelligent designers create artifacts, we have no experience with how a divine intelligent designer could create everything out of nothing. Moreover, once we see how the law of natural selection can explain the natural evolution of species, we have no need to posit a divinely intelligent First Cause, which cannot be rationally demonstrated to exist.
"The old argument of 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. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws" (87)Darwin thus agreed with Strauss: "the notion of inquiry presupposes the realization of the fundamental difference between human production and the production of things which are not manmade, so that no conclusion from human production to the production of non-manmade things is possible except if it is first established by demonstration that the visible universe has been made by thinking beings" ("Progress or Return?", 113). Here Darwin and Strauss have identified the fundamental flaw of "intelligent design theory" in the fallacy of reasoning through an anthropomorphic analogy, which is the subject of a previous post here.
Darwin had to admit, however, that his philosophical science of natural evolution could not provide complete knowledge of the whole, because it could not explain the origin of the universe or the origin of life. "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic" (Autobiography, 94).
Darwin thus agreed with Strauss that while scientific philosophy strives for knowledge of the whole, this is forever unattainable. "Human wisdom is knowledge of ignorance: there is no knowledge of the whole but only knowledge of parts, hence only partial knowledge of parts, hence no unqualified transcending, even by the wisest man as such, of the sphere of opinion" (The City and Man, 20).
This Socratic knowledge of his ignorance put Darwin into a state of "skepticism or rationalism," in which he could neither accept nor refute revelation, and thus the conflict of reason and revelation was irreconcilable, with neither being able to rationally refute the other. Darwin admitted that he could not demonstrate the impossibility of some people having some direct experience of God by revelation. He observed: "My father used to quote an unanswerable argument, by which an old lady, a Mrs. Barlow, who suspected him of unorthodoxy, hoped to convert him: 'Doctor, I know that sugar is sweet in my mouth, and I know that my Redeemer liveth.'" (Autobiography, 96)
And yet this "unanswerable argument" did not convince Darwin to choose revelation over reason. "As for myself I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science. I feel no remorse from having committed any great sin" (95).
This "unanswerable argument" seems to be what Strauss identified as "the fact of revelation as known through faith," which the unbeliever cannot know, because he has not had "the experience of faith" ("Reason and Revelation," 142). The debate between reason and revelation remains unreconcilable, and the question is settled for the believer by "the fact of revelation," while it is settled for the Socratic philosopher by "the fact that he is a philosopher" ("Progress or Return?", 122).
For thousands of years, this conflict between reason and revelation could not be publicly debated, because the philosophic proponents of reason would have been persecuted; and so the philosophers could speak about the conflict only through esoteric writing. In reading Alfarabi and Maimonides, Strauss learned about both the reason/revelation conflict and esoteric writing. But then, remarkably, Strauss himself wrote openly about reason and revelation without facing persecution, because he lived in a modern liberal order with freedom of thought and speech. This achievement of liberalism began during Darwin's lifetime, when for the first time, a Darwinian liberalism made it possible to openly confront the tension between reason and revelation. That will be the theme for my next post.