Newcomb and the Christian Evolutionists

The North American Review, it should be clear, was founded and fostered by an Unitarian spirit. Most of its editors and owners, as we have seen, embraced a liberal theology, and many were Unitarian ministers themselves. Thus it is unsurprising that many of its leading contributors during the late-nineteenth century were men like Simon Newcomb (1835-1909). Like many of the scientific naturalists in England, Newcomb advanced a reconciliation between science and religion only by segregating them into opposite—and thus opposing—camps. But as we saw in his 1878 address to the AAAS, and his subsequent “Advertisement” in the 1 July issue of the Review, Newcomb also went beyond the Huxleys, Tyndalls, and Spencers.

After delivering the AAAS address, Newcomb encountered opposition from a number of theologians. In a forum published in the Review on 1 January, 1879, Newcomb discussed with Noah Porter, Joseph Cook, James Freeman Clarke, and James McCosh the “Law and Design in Nature.” Newcomb begins by noting, as he did in his “Advertisement,” that there exists two conflicting schools of thought when addressing the course of nature. While both sides assume that there exists a uniform plan and method in the universe, they cannot agree what that plan and method are. But whereas the “scientific school” criticizes the fundamental position of the “theological school,” without directly denying its veracity, the theological school refuses to give any credence whatsoever to the scientific school. Newcomb admits that this is not a “fair statement of the position they [the theological school] mean to occupy, but only that it is the manner in which their position presents itself to the other school [my emphasis].”

In presenting the divergent views between the so-called scientific and theological schools, Newcomb repeats the main points from his presidential address at the AAAS. When men study the operations of the world around them, they find a regularity so constant that the only logical conclusion is that the course of nature is determined by law. What seems arbitrary or mystifying, man has historically attributed these operations to supernatural agents, or gods. In turn man anthropomorphized these divine agents, ascribing to them aims and designs. At which point some men then claimed to be able discern these aims and designs in nature. But as knowledge advanced, these arbitrary events were also revealed to be determined by law.

To make his distinction between the schools clearer, Newcomb gives the example of the destruction of a theater by fire. The theological school, he says, will likely claim the fire was the work of a Higher Being, perhaps as punishment for the wicked. Another explanation sometimes offered by the theological school is that the cause is inscrutable, and therefore beyond human investigation. The scientific school, however, will say that “it occurred on one of the many ways by which every one knows that fires may occur, and that the character of the theatre or the intentions of the wicked people had nothing at all to do with the matter.” Newcomb then takes this same reasoning and applies to how one understands the motions of the planets. The scientific school, and especially the astronomer, “assumes that these motions take place in accordance with the law of universal gravitation,” and thus are able to “predict, years of centuries in advance, that the moon’s shadow will pass over certain regions of the earth at certain stated times.”

In his concluding remarks, Newcomb says this same thinking can apply to the debate surrounding evolution, which is at present “raging with most bitterness.” If the theologians can agree that the scientific schools have provided better explanations for the theater fire and the motion of the planets, why not accept their explanations for the genesis of living beings? The postulate of “final causes,” which the theological schools hold so dear, are, in Newcomb’s view, completely irrelevant to explaining natural phenomena.

The first to respond to Newcomb is Porter. He argues that Newcomb has created a “fiction,” that Newcomb’s understanding of the so-called theological school is totally “imaginary.” His conception of the “course of Nature,” moreover, is far too narrow. According to Porter, the course of nature includes “phenomena and facts of spirit as truly as those of matter.” We encounter constant examples of matter and spirit in the course of nature. Subjective thought is manifested in objective action. Indeed the spirit has greater significance, for “phenomena and effects of the physical universe proceed in subservience to ends which concern rational and sentient beings.”

Furthermore, Porter claims that “a universe of law is, ipso facto, a universe of design.” When Newcomb says that both schools assume a uniform plan and method in the universe, this implies, and even at an inductive level, design—“or at the least are best explained by design.”  According to Porter, Newcomb ultimately goes half-way in his explanations. Merely attributing causes and effects to physical phenomena “overlooks the solution that the effect might be caused by physical agencies, and still be designed by God.” In Newcomb’s example of the motion of the planets, Porter says that “the constancy of the operations of Nature and the consequent possibility of foreseeing the minutest consequences are no more inconsistent with the belief in design in the future than an insight into these forces and operations of Nature is inconsistent with such belief at any present moment.” In concluding his response, Porter refers to German Emil Du Bois-Raymond (1818-1896), who had placed strict limits of our knowledge of nature. “After discoursing of what he calls the astronomical knowledge and  foreknowledge of Nature’s forces and laws and events,” Porter writes, Du Bois-Raymond “draws a sharp line between the field of this astronomical knowledge and the agencies and relations in the course of Nature which can never be thus mastered. In respect to some of these questions he is content to say, ignoramus—in respect to others, ignorabimus.”

Cook, in his reply, begins with a story about Kepler found in Joseph Bertrand’s (1822-1900) Les Fondateurs de l’Astronomie moderne (1865).

Kepler relates that one day, when he had long meditated on atoms and their combinations, he was called to dinner by his wife, who laid a salad on the table. “Dost thou think,” said he to her, “that if from the creation plates of tin, leaves of lettuce, grains of salt, drops of oil and vinegar, and fragments of hard-boiled eggs were floating in space in all direction and without order, chance could assemble them to-day to form a salad?” “Certainly not so good a one,” replied his fair spouse, “nor so well seasoned as this.”

The point of this anecdote and others like it, Cook explains, is that Newcomb and those who follow his line of thought have failed to distinguish between “the laws of matter and the collocations of matter.” Natural phenomena are conditioned by laws, no doubt. But what accounts for these laws? Newcomb answers the “how?” but does not address the “why?” How and Why are not mutually exclusive, according to Cook. “The combination of millions of forces so as to produce sight is intelligible only on the principle that they have been combined in order to produce sight.” There is a “chasm between the primordial star-dust and the solar system.” This “chasm” can only be bridged “by the teleological as distinct from the mechanical theory of force.”

Clarke responds by carefully scrutinizing Newcomb’s initial propositions. The so-called theological school, he says, “admit the truth of the law of universal causation.” However, Newcomb’s second proposition, that in the action of causes “no regard to consequences is traceable,” Clarke emphatically denies. Final causes and design are in fact observable in nature, he says. Clarke gives the example of evolution itself. “Man is certainly a part of Nature, and those who accept evolution must regard him as the highest development resulting from natural processes.” Furthermore, eliminating God’s interventions in nature does not rule our design. Clarke then cites philosophers (e.g., Leibniz and Descartes) who rejected teleological statements but nevertheless believed in final causes. “The phenomena of the universe,” he concludes, “can not be satisfactorily explained unless by the study both of efficient causes and of final causes.”

The final response comes from McCosh. As president of Princeton University and as one of the leading philosophers of nineteenth-century America, McCosh attempted to bring about reconciliation between Christianity and evolution. But in addressing Newcomb’s arguments, McCosh accused him of succumbing to the “fallacy of interrogation.” According to McCosh, Newcomb “has mixed up no fewer than three questions, which are not the same, with each other, which have no necessary connection, and are not to be satisfied with one reply.” In attempting to make sense of Newcomb’s position, McCosh breaks it down into three propositions:

(1) “The whole course of Nature considered as a succession of phenomena is conditioned solely by causes.”

(2) “In the action of which causes no regard to consequences is either traceable by human investigation or necessary for foresee the phenomena.”

and

(3) “Is the above postulate consistent with sound doctrine?”

McCosh holds that he too believed that in the course of nature “every occurrence is produced by antecedent causes.” The third proposition is marred with vagueness, he says. What is “sound doctrine”? Religious doctrine? Scientific doctrine or the method of induction? Newcomb, McCosh says, does not specify. Thus he declares that “it is sound doctrine in science and in nearly all religions that God is traceable in his works.”

McCosh’s main contention with Newcomb is his second proposition. McCosh agrees that “physical causes do not in themselves have any regard for consequences.” But according to McCosh, “law and design” are not incompatible. For McCosh, “there is design in law.”

In the end McCosh accuses some scientists (rather uncharitably) of “derangement of mental vision produced by their gazing exclusively on some one object.” He further accuses Newcomb of setting the two schools, the theological and the scientific, against each other. “He is a narrow man who in inquiring into Nature can discover only mechanical force—while he overlooks vital and psychical agencies.” At the same time, the “religious man is so far a narrow man who will not allow scientists to discover physical cause.” The “truly enlightened man,” McCosh concludes, will delight in discovering both.

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