Evolution as a Paradigm to Explain Human Experience

Naturalism is a philosophy that maintains several propositions. It states that all processes and all things are explained in terms of space-time conditions so that no non-space-time existence is possible. Naturalism holds that the only intelligible statements are those referring to empirical inquiry and those amenable to empirical verification. The philosophy contends that the cosmos exists as a uniformity of cause and effect in a closed system. In dealing with humans, naturalism states that humans are only a complex machine and that death is extinction of personality and individuality. Naturalism considers history a linear stream of events linked by cause and effect but without an overarching purpose. Finally, naturalism states that humans are the central reference point of ethical values (1).

In the intellectual history of western civilization, many thinkers have contributed to the development of naturalism. However, some contributors were not themselves naturalists. The roots of naturalism can be traced to the ancient Greek atomists who postulated an infinite number of indivisible and unalterable atoms of an infinite variety of sizes and shapes that move in an infinite empty space, and these atoms are eternal, unchangeable, and self-sufficient. All things happen according to this law ofnecessity inherent in the properties of atoms (2).

Naturalism was first formulated as a systematic school of thought in the eighteenth century. René Descartes (1596-1650) set the stage for [276] naturalism by his conception of the material world as a perfect machine that is rigidly deterministic and reducible to exact laws.

Many traditional thinkers regard God as the maker of the universe, but they contend He is not personally interested in it. On the other hand, naturalists have elevated human reason as the sole criterion for truth.

Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) summed up the naturalists' view of history. He stated that history is a rational process that provides an ideal reality of dialectical reason that underlies all natural phenomena. He suggested that the world known to our senses is only the external manifestation of the essence, or the absolute, more simply defined as logic. Progress is made by the dialectic process. For example, in a conversation a first statement is made (thesis), then it is answered (antithesis), and then a new statement is made (synthesis). This new statement may then be answered, and so the process goes on. The dialectic works in all things that proceed toward fuller freedom and eventually toward the complete self-realization of essence. Hegel was opposed to the static formulations of Enlightenment thought (belief in the power of human reason). He had everything in motion, to be grouped only when its growth and development are understood. Hegel's views contributed directly to the nineteenth century's evolutionary outlook (3).

Hegel's naturalistic philosophy undoubtedly influenced the thinking of Charles Darwin (1809-82) when Darwin formulated his theory of evolution based on natural selection. Although reared in the Church of England, Darwin did not encounter strong pressure for religious orthodoxy from either side of his family. His father did not attend church, and his mother was a liberally oriented Unitarian (4). His gradual change from the acceptance of the traditional view of Christianity to agnosticism seemed, to a large extent, to be influenced by the naturalistic philosophy that was in vogue.

Darwin wrote in one of his most controversial treatises: "A belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal; and apparently follows from a considerable advance in man's reason, and from a still greater advance in his faculties of imagination, curiosity and wonder . . . . The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator does not seem to arise in the mind of man, until he has been elevated by long-continued culture" (5).

Over the years since the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, advocates of Darwin's ideas have to a large extent succeeded in the universalization of the theory of evolution and have thus established it as a new paradigm to explain most areas of human experience. Evolution and naturalism have become interwoven although evolutionary thought is not [277] always naturalistic. Both naturalism and Darwin's ideas have influenced past as well as present thinking in philosophy, psychology, education, political theories, economics, sociology, and religion.

References 8

1. Sire, J. The universe next door. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1976: 61.
2. Hooykaas, R. Religion and the rise of modern science. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 1972:2.

3. Stromberg, R. N. An intellectual history of modern Europe. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts; 1966: 245.
4. West, G. Charles Darwin, the fragmentary man. London: G. Routledge and Sons; 1937.
5. Darwin, C. The descent of man. New York: Rand McNally; 1974:607.


8.1 Evolutionary Thinking in Philosophy

Darwin's evolutionary concept broke down the principle of fixity. This idea had pervaded the field of philosophy ever since the view that each form of living organism is immutable was introduced by Aristotle and elaborated by Thomas Aquinas. In addition, new philosophical postulates in ontology, epistemology, and ethics incorporated Darwin's ideas (1).

The most influential philosophy that has Darwinian roots is pragmatism. Pragmatic theory emphasizes the evolution and changing character of reality, as well as the relevance of knowledge to practical situations. The emphasis is also on the need to test truth by its ability to "work" and on the instrumental nature of ideas (2).

Well-known pragmatists like Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), and John Dewey (1859-1952) have exerted a great influence on twentieth century thinking. John Dewey has been especially vocal in applying the Darwinian concepts in philosophy. He wrote, "A universe describable in evolutionary terms is a universe which shows, not indeed design, but tendency and purpose; which exhibits achievement, not indeed of a single end, but of a multiplicity of natural goods at whose apex is consciousness" (3). Naturalism as a philosophy does contain an element that treats the universe like an organism. This view, which was first expounded by Hegel, was based on the organic approach: nothing can be understood except by reference to the whole of which it is a part. Our minds and the universe are parts of a single whole; hence, they obey the same law.

With the monistic overtone, pragmatism also makes truth a subjective [278] affair. "Truth, in general or in the abstract," Dewey maintained, "is just a name for an experienced relation among the things of experience: that sort of relation in which intents are retrospectively viewed from the standpoint of the fulfillment which they secure through their own natural operation or incitement" (4).

Dewey attempted to explain away the ethical theory that there exists a final goal of absolute reality, absolute truth, and absolute goodness, and a separate moral force that moves toward that goal. He maintained that the progress of biology has accustomed our minds to the notion that moral force is not an outside power that presides supremely but statically over the desires and efforts of humans. Instead, he contended that moral force is a method of adjustment of the capacities and conditions within specific situations. Thus he advocated the abolition of final goals and single motive power, as well as the separate and infallible faculty in morals. Dewey thought that the business of morals is not to speculate on the final goal of human beings and what is ultimately right, but to utilize physiology, anthropology, and psychology to discover all that can be discovered in humans, namely, their organic powers and propensities. He felt that morals are to help humans resolve problem situations that arise in the course of social evolution.

This expedient definition of the morally good has become one of the major presuppositions of situation ethicists. They maintain that love only is always good and that there are no universals of any kind. On this basis, when a small neighborhood merchant tells a lie to divert a "protection" racketeer from a victim because of his compassion for the latter, the merchant is doing the most loving thing in the situation and thus the right and good thing (5).

References 8.1

1. Henry, C. F. H. Remaking the modern man. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 1946: 116-78.

2. Bixler, J. S. Pragmatism. An encyclopedia of religion. New York: Philosophical library; 1945: 601.
3. Dewey, J. Influence of Darwin in philosophy. New York: Henry Holt; 1910: 34.
4. Dewey, J. Influence of Darwin in philosophy. 190.
5. Fletcher, J. Situation ethics, the new morality. Philadelphia: Westminster; 1966: 40, 64.