Afraid of Reason by John Mark Reynolds

Afraid of Reason

Has Scientism Become Obscurantism?

by John Mark Reynolds

Not much is left of the old British imperial era. Queen Victoria, living symbol of that era, died in 1901 and the last human links with that time are now passing from the scene. Ideas often last longer than men, but today, 100 years later, many of the ideas of that era are of more historical than practical interest. Who advocates, or even remembers, the dabbling in magic by Yeats or the colonialism of Roberts? Of the three greatest ideas of the period—Marxism, Freudianism, and Darwinism—all but Darwinism obviously are on the way to extinction.

Darwinism, the creation myth of the triumphant and confident British Empire, survives undaunted. Of course, there is a good reason for that. Men cling to their creation myths with the most fervor and passion. To use the language of the period: it is basic to the human race to wish to know for certain who or what we can call “father” or “mother.” We are justly concerned to preserve our view of our origins: no good man willingly commits patricide.

We moderns do not often match the certainty of the naturalists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who embraced Darwinism. One such lion of the imperialist order, T. H. Huxley, recommended that critics of Mr. Darwin need only “...a little sound, thorough, practical, elementary instruction in biology.”

Huxley’s confidence in naturalism went beyond explaining the origin of our species. With absolute confidence he could turn to theology and say, “I conceive that the origin, the growth, the decline, and the fall of those speculations respecting the existence, the powers, and the dispositions of beings analogous to men, but more or less devoid of corporeal qualities, which may be broadly included under the head of theology, are phenomena the study of which legitimately falls within the province of the anthropologist.”

Such confident affirmations were common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was self-evident to Huxley that Victorian science was rapidly discovering Truth. Soon all the old problems of theology and metaphysics would be sent to the right science department for quick solutions.

But even Huxley did not see that the same reductionism he had applied to Christian theology eventually might be turned on his own passionate defense and exposition of Darwinism. It is impossible to read the old Bull Dog without an affectionate smile in this regard. Every line of argument rests on the naive materialism that well-educated men of his era took for granted.

Reconsidering Darwinism

It is not irrational, however, to wonder if the arguments of Darwin seemed convincing for the same reason the flawed economic science of Marx seemed convincing at the time: it filled a deep nineteenth-century need. It is not unreasonable, given the track record of the other great ideas of the era, to ask if Darwinism is something a rational mind must accept. That is why questions raised by thoughtful skeptics of Darwinism like Phillip Johnson deserve such careful scrutiny. We know that ideas can seem attractive to a culture far in excess of their actual merit because of prejudice or unexpressed desire. This is as true of the critics of Darwinism as the proponents, but it is no less true. It could be, in final analysis, that the case for Darwinism rests as much on nineteenth-century philosophy as it does on evidence. The theory may not be compelling without Huxley’s dogma to go with it.

Still, the fact that Darwinism so neatly encapsulated the beliefs of a time does not mean that is is all wrong. Darwinism might have been a truth discovered only in that epoch for the very reason that there was a happy convergence of biological truth and the prejudices of the day. Darwinism may in fact be “true.” But is it?


John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. The author of Toward a Unified Platonic Human Psychology (University Press of America), he writes an active weblog on religion and science (www.johnmarkreynolds.com). He, his wife Hope, and their four home-schooled children are members of St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church.

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