Summer 2003

Philosophy and Ideas

Six Dominant Ideas, Part 5

Turning the Intellectual Tide

David Hulme

For the past year in Vision, we have been looking at six dominant ideas of our time. The following words from economist E.F. Schumacher have framed the series: “Our reason has become beclouded by an extraordinary, blind and unreasonable faith in a set of fantastic and life-destroying ideas inherited from the nineteenth century.” The ideas came from men who popularized their own musings until they became the concepts that animate our thinking and the language we all use. The series has reminded us that ideas are indeed the most powerful things in the world. If they are good, we all benefit; but bad ideas can have disastrous effects when they are widely accepted.

To recap, the six ideas are Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and its associated mechanism of natural selection; Karl Marx’s theory and practice of dialectical materialism; Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the human mind; positivism, the philosophy underlying the scientific method; and relativism, the idea that there are no absolutes. These influential ideas and their proponents have several things in common: science and scientists as the ultimate arbiters of true knowledge, the rejection of the metaphysical, and the end of God’s role in human life.

Darwin’s idea that evolution got its start by chance in a mixture of inanimate chemical soup has made man nothing more than an accidental collocation of atoms. Yet despite the worldwide acceptance of this model of human origins, deep down we are still troubled by the fact that it doesn’t really explain the emergence of the intricate and largely unfathomed workings of the human mind. We are asked to believe in theoretical “punctuated equilibrium” or “quantum leaps” in evolution to explain why the human brain is qualitatively different in major ways from animal brains of the same size. But why have these animal brains not reached the same level of intelligence when they have supposedly followed the same evolutionary process?

Darwin also hypothesized that evolution’s mechanism was natural selection, which operated through the survival of the fittest: only the strongest survive in competition with others and thus pass on their traits. The notion of the strongest being the best is what empowered the social Darwinism of Hitler’s horrific regime, during which those deemed weaker were systematically eliminated in pursuit of a deliberately bred master race. Further, if the idea that competition is natural and good in nature is transferred to human life, then there is no ethical barrier to a dog-eat-dog economic order. Think about the motivation of those involved in Wall Street scandals and the Enron and WorldCom collapses. Consider the destruction of the Amazon basin and dozens of ecological disasters promoted in the interest of the wealth of the few.

One of Darwin’s contemporaries was Karl Marx. When Marx suggested that the economic order of his times and indeed of all of human history was exploitative, he was not entirely wrong. He had simply recognized a fact about human nature: it is essentially selfish. But when he also concluded that all human activities—even higher order cultural and religious interests—were tools the upper classes used against the economically deprived, he debased all such activities and the beliefs that underpin them. Thus Christianity and the divinity of its founder were for Marx and his followers mere illusions. The result of his system was a violent and destructive communist world order, where belief in God was anathema.

As Marx believed he had defined economic man, so Freud’s theories of subterranean mental life purported to explain all human action in terms of a powerful hidden sexuality. The impact on modern life cannot be underestimated. When we talk about analyzing our dreams, the latent effects of our childhood, the “Freudian slip,” motivations that spring from our unconscious mind, father figures and repressed memories, we are using Freud’s concepts. Yet his ideas were based on his treatment of a narrow sample of mentally disturbed people in late 19th- and early 20th-century Viennese society. His successors in the field of psychoanalysis have both supported and disagreed with his ideas. Today he is generally thought to have missed the mark in his conclusion that infantile and adolescent sexuality is the dynamo of human behavior. It is, however, the effect that Freud’s ideas have had on human behavior that has caused most damage. His conclusion that God was an irrelevant, invented father figure who had to be removed in order for human freedom to flourish damaged the lives of millions. The resultant headlong rush into sexual liberation and the destruction of family life that ensued has played out with tragic results for almost a century.

The final two 19th-century ideas that were visited on the generations that followed have provided philosophical support for the ideas of Darwin, Marx and Freud. All three men considered themselves practitioners of the scientific method, which depends on observation alone in the pursuit of knowledge and truth. In other words, without observable data collected through the five senses, there can be no valid knowledge. This is the philosophy of positivism, which underlies all scientific research. It accords no value to revelation, to God-inspired truths. Thus, for example, the Bible becomes a book of Hebrew myths, despite its profound implications for morality, a stable society and a happy family life, and its directions for moral goodness and self-sacrifice in the service of others.

If everything were relative, there would be nothing for it to be relative to.” 

Bertrand Russell

The last of the influential but damaging six ideas is that of relativism—that there are no absolutes in the moral realm. Confusing Einstein’s general theory of relativity with relativism, the erroneous notion that there are no absolute standards for human behavior, millions have bought the lie that they can do anything they want without moral restraints if it satisfies individual desires. The logical positivist philosopher Bertrand Russell, whom we have quoted before in this series (as an opponent of religion), also said, “A certain type of superior person is fond of asserting that ‘everything is relative.’ This is, of course, nonsense, because, if everything were relative, there would be nothing for it to be relative to.” As others have noted, it is like saying everything is bigger. Moral relativists will also often say that so long as we do not hurt another in pursuit of our satisfactions, we cannot be doing any wrong. But this is not as simple a justification as it sounds. Anything we do affects others because we live within a matrix of human relationships. Einstein would have been the last person to agree with relativism. He was firm in his own convictions that there are moral absolutes.

Observing God

Each of these six ideas has undermined or destroyed belief in the Supreme Being, in divine purpose, and in human destiny beyond our time and place. The metaphysical is out; the physical is in and is all. As a result, spirituality is viewed by many as a figment, a crutch for the weak mind, and irrelevant to the here and now.

This conflict has been described as a battle between religion and science, between faith and reason. But as 20th-century essayist and mathematics scholar James Newman put it, the antagonism between science and religion is really about science competing with religion for power over people. The controversy suggests that science is reasonable and rational, and that religion is unreasonable and irrational. It says that science is based in observable fact whereas religion is not. But as we have seen, science has a metaphysical aspect to it. The “scientific” ideas of men begin in the subjective musings of the mind. Darwin, Marx and Freud began by theorizing. Then they looked for evidence to support their theories. Each of them thought they had found persuasive evidence, only to have their “findings” called into question by later scientists and thinkers. As Schumacher said, we have accepted these unproven “scientific” ideas on faith. Yet, it is unreasonable, blind faith—the kind of faith that nonbelievers accuse believers in God of expressing. Thus the judges of religious faith are self-condemned.

Patrick Glynn found himself crossing the imaginary line between reason and faith in the 1990s. As a student at Harvard and Cambridge in the late ’60s and the ’70s, Glynn, feeding on the standard intellectual fare served up in those years, became an atheist. It’s not an unusual story. My own experiences bear out what Glynn retells in God: The Evidence. I remember around the same time sitting through a series of university lectures on the proofs of God’s existence. Unfortunately not a single proof was put forward, but rather reasons why we should doubt or deny that He exists. After several years, however, Glynn, like me, became doubtful about doubt and came to see that there are many questions that skepticism about God’s existence cannot answer.

There are many questions that skepticism about God’s existence cannot answer.

For example, how do we explain that the universe is not such a chaotic place after all and that from the first nanosecond after the Big Bang it had to be perfectly arranged for the emergence of human existence and all we know? This line of thinking casts doubt on the idea that life is an accident. Because the same kind of science that promoted the death of God has now recognized that the properties and values of the universe are so delicately balanced that without such order nothing that we know could exist. In other words, the conditions are perfect to support human and other life on this planet. This “anthropic” principle strongly suggests that the universe was put together with humanity in mind. Glynn notes that this does not make some secular scientists happy, because it seems to suggest that there could be a designer behind everything after all. As a result, these scientists make the counterclaim that ours is just one among billions of parallel universes that we cannot see and will never detect. It’s a difficult argument to sustain when we will never know whether such universes really do exist; perhaps this is an entire boatload of the emperor’s new clothes! Philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said that scientific theory can outrun common sense to its own detriment. It is surely a better use of logic to deal with the one universe that we do know and do detect.

Faith is involved in belief in God, but not blind faith.

Faith is involved in belief in God, but not blind faith. The book of Hebrews says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is the support, the foundation of something that is hoped for; it is the proof of things we cannot see. The Creator of the universe is unseen, and this verse tells us that faith provides assurance and points us to the evidence that He is real. But this is not an ethereal or mystical hope or confidence, because as the passage also says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” This faith is based on reasoning about the evidence we see around us in the created world or can discover about it. Faith is the proof of the creation’s invisible origin in God. As the apostle Paul also wrote, “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead [i.e., divine nature]” (Romans 1:20). This is not blind faith but faith that results from reasoning clearly about what we can see with our own eyes. So faith and reason can exist in the same sentence without contradiction. Science and religion can coexist if we are willing to accept that the created world around demonstrates rather than denies that God is real.

The Challenge

We began this series with the thoughts of two authors who have made their mark by facing up to the challenge of going against the intellectual tide of their times. It seems appropriate to end by acknowledging that they both suggest the way ahead. Schumacher notes, “In ethics, as in so many other fields, we have recklessly and wilfully abandoned our great classical-Christian heritage. . . . As a result, we are totally ignorant, totally uneducated in the subject that, of all conceivable subjects, is the most important.” He asserts that metaphysical reconstruction is necessary to replace the soul- and life-destroying ideas of the 19th century. We must restore and build on those timeless Christian values in this new century.

For his part, Patrick Glynn concludes that “today . . . there is no good reason for an intelligent person to embrace the illusion of atheism or agnosticism, to make the same intellectual mistakes I made.”

I agree with them both. Do you?