Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Power of the Assumed Belief

One of the great opponents of Christianity from ancient times into the Middle Ages was Neo-Platonism. Not only did many intellectuals embrace it, but there was a tendency for Christians to compromise with it. The ironic thing is not only does it now have little attraction, but few even know what it was. But once it seemed the obvious way to understand the world.

A similar viewpoint in our modern culture is what C. S. Lewis called the myth of evolution. This does not refer primarily to the scientific theory (though I am not willing to make as ironclad a distinction between the two as Lewis does), but to a worldview that is older than the biological theory. It goes back through Keats and Wagner to the German idealists, such as Hegel. (It has been suggested it goes back further through Jacob Bohme to alchemy.) It fit with the atmosphere of the revolutionary age and the industrial revolution. It continues to find current advocates, such as Gene Roddenberry and Arthur C. Clarke. It should be noted that, as a theory in biology, it began with Buffon, Lamarck, and Erasmus Darwin before Charles Darwin came up with a mechanism for it.

In our normal experience, things left to themselves decay and fall apart. Yet this worldview assumes it is normal for things to get gradually better over time. One of the things that justifies this is the technological revolution, where we constantly see new, better models succeeding the old. But this was brought about by deliberate planning and effort and did not just happen. (Growth of living things has sometimes also been used as a proof here, but this is a cycle, the new immature animal or plant coming from a mature one.)

All of this, of course, does not prove evolution as a biological theory is false. But something that arises so naturally out of the philosophy of the time is at least suspect. Steven Jay Gould once wrote that one of the chief reasons he advocated evolution was that it not only made biology make sense and consist in more than a system for classifying animals, but it also had applications in many other disciplines. But it is questionable to apply a concept in a wide variety of areas without any justification or mechanism. Also, people once believed that heavenly bodies were a series of ascending spheres. And each of these spheres had their own meaning and their influence on the earth. Compare this to the idea that there is a batch of stars out there, possibly with planets going around them, and our sun is one of them. And we can generally classify them and trace their life cycle and note the larger groups they are a part of. Does it not seem a shame to trade something with such deep significance for something so mundane? But it is the mundane view that is correct. And just because something captures the imagination does not make it true.

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