Chapter 8


Darwins of the Mind

They mean to tell us that all was rolling blind
Till accidentally it hit on mind…
-Robert Frost
  • In the late 19th century when Darwinism crossed the Atlantic, it was welcomed to American shores by a group of scholars who founded an entire school of philosophy upon it. The school was called philosophical pragmatism, and its core assumption was that if life has evolved, then the human mind has evolved as well–and all the human sciences must be rebuilt on that basis: psychology, education, law, and theology. Pragmatism is America’s only “home-grown” philosophy (most of the others were imported from Europe), and for that reason alone it has been enormously influential.
  • The central figures in developing philosophical pragmatism were John Dewey, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. Their goal was to expand Darwinian naturalism into a complete worldview to rival traditional religion.  They sought to turn Darwinian naturalism itself into a comprehensive philosophy that would satisfy the need to make sense of life.
  • At its heart, pragmatism is a Darwinian worldview of knowledge (epistemology). They rejected the older view that the human mind is transcendent to matter, in favor of the Darwinian view that mind is produced by matter.
    • In a single stroke, this assumption subverted most traditional and liberal forms of theism. Why? Because both forms make mind prior to matter. In traditional theology, a transcendent God creates the world according to His own design and purpose; in liberal theology, an immanent deity externalizes its purposes through the historical development of the world. Either way, mind precedes matter, shaping and directing the development of the material world.
    • Darwin reversed that order: In his theory, mind emerges very late in evolutionary history, as a product purely natural forces. Mind is not a fundamental, creative force in the universe but merely an evolutionary by-product.
    • For the pragmatists, it seemed to imply that mental functions are merely adaptations for solving problems in the environment. Ideas originate as chance mutations in the brain, parallel to Darwin’s chance variations in nature. And the ideas that stick around and become firm beliefs are those that help us adapt to the environment-a sort of mental natural selection. Concepts and convictions develop as tools for survival, not different from the lion’s teeth or the eagle’s claws.
  • James decided that ideas were imprinted in the human mind. If believing something produces results–if it gets us “pellets” that we want–then over time that belief is imprinted in our minds. In his famous phrase, truth is the “cash value” of an idea: If it pays off, then we call it true. In short, beliefs are not reflections of reality but rules for action. For Pierce, a successful belief is a winning bet.
  • Until this time the dominant theory of knowledge was based on the biblical doctrine of the image of God. It is because human reason reflects the divine reason that we can trust human knowledge to be generally reliable. God created our minds to “fit” the universe that He made for us to inhabit; and when our cognitive faculties are functioning properly, they are designed to give us genuine knowledge. Even thinkers who moved outside the sphere of traditional Christian theology still retained the philosophical assumption that the human mind is akin to a higher Mind, an absolute Mind, as the guarantee of human knowledge.
  • The problem pragmatists wanted to solve was the division of knowledge that has plagued Western thought for centuries. They wanted to bridge the gap between fact and value–to merge the lower and upper stories–and bring about a reunification of knowledge.
  • In the university curriculum, the two-tiered truth led to a division which was the existential dilemma that drove the pragmatists, especially Dewey and James.
    • The Arts and Humanities (Philosophical Idealism)
    • The Sciences (Philosophical Naturalism)
  • How did the pragmatists hope to accomplish this reunification of knowledge? By taking a little from each of the two conflicting streams of thought and melding them together.
    • From Romantic idealism (the upper story), the pragmatists took its historicism–the definition of ideas as products of evolving custom.
    • From British empiricism (the lower story), the pragmatists took its instrumentalism–the definition of ideas as tools for achieving social goals.
    • By combining these two approaches, the pragmatists transformed Hegel’s historicism from a spiritual process into a thoroughly naturalistic process.
  • As a result, however, they never actually succeeded in combining fact and value, but only offered a new flavor of naturalism. The model for their strategy was Darwin, who had effected virtually the same merging of the two philosophical traditions within biology.
  • The Pragmatist’s ideas have radically reshaped American social institutions, especially in the areas of theology, law, education, and philosophy.
    • Theology
      • Pierce envisioned the entire cosmos evolving toward Mind or the Absolute or God, in a telelogical process he called “evolutionary love”
      • We hear these ideas in our own day in Process Theology, which some say is the fastest-growing movement in mainline seminaries today, which teaches:
        • God and the world are both in a process of constant change and evolution.
        • God is a divine spirit evolving in and with the world, the soul of the world, the evolving cosmic life of which our lives are a part.
        • As we make the choices that shape our lives and experiences, we also shape God and His experiences, since our lives give concrete form to the divine life.
        • We are not only co-creators with God, we are also co-creators of God.
        • When we die, the life we have lived merely becomes a past stage in God’s own ongoing life, while we as individuals cease to exist. There is no afterlife.
      • Some of the same themes as Process Theology have spilled over into evangelical circles as well, in what is known as Open Theism.
        • Promoted by Clark Pinnock and others
        • Describes an evolving universe as an “open” universe–a world of novelty, innovation, emergence, and unpredictable possibilities, which cannot be known in advance, even by God.
    • Law
      • Homes took the idea that the source of law is nothing evolving but custom. Whereas traditional Western legal philosophy had based law on an unchanging source (on natural law, derived ultimately from divine law), Homes treated law as a product of evolving cultures and traditions, completely relative to particular times and cultures.
      • Holmes taught that we determine whether the old rules still serve any purpose by their practical consequences. From the analytical school of jurisprudence, Holmes took the idea that the criterion for law is social utility, as measured by the social sciences.
      • The justification for any given law, Holmes wrote, is “not that it represents an eternal principle” such as Justice, but “that it helps bring our a social end which we desire.” In practice, this means that a social end that the judge desires. Judges do not merely interpret the law but make law.
      • Where do we see these ideas in our own day? The most significant example is the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision. Even supporters of the decision agree that the court essentially legislated from the bench. The Court made its decision not by what the law said but by the social outcomes it favored.
    • Education
      • Dewy recast intellectual inquiry as a form of mental evolution, and said it should proceed on the same pattern as biological evolution:
        • By posing problems and then letting students construct their own answers based on what works best–a kind of mental adaptation to the environment.
        • Teachers are not instructors but “facilitators,” guiding students as they try out various pragmatic strategies to discover what works best for them.
        • What works for me may not work for you (in fact, it might not even work for me all the time).
      • Pragmatism inevitably leads to a pluralism of beliefs, all of them transient and none of them eternally or universally true.
      • Dewey is the source of much of today’s moral education, where all values are treated as equally valid and students simply clarify what they personally value most.
      • The underlying assumption of Dewey’s approach is philosophical naturalism. A naturalistic approach to ethics does not acknowledge any transcendent standard, so that the only standard available is whatever the individual in fact values.
      • Clarifying what we value sounds easy, but in reality it may not be so simple, Dewey said. For our experience is often distorted by religious and moral dogmas telling us what we ought to want or do. Thus it becomes crucial to disentangle our thoughts and feelings from preexisting moral dogmas in order to clarify what we really want.
      • In a particular case in an eighth grade class, the students concluded that their most valued activities were “sex, drugs, drinking, and skipping school,” and the teacher was hamstrung: her students had clarified their values, and the method gave her no leverage for persuading them that these values were morally wrong.
      • Moral education no longer means teaching students about the great moral ideals that have inspired virtually all civilizations, but training them to probe their own subjective feelings and values.
      • If knowledge is a social construction, as Dewey said, then the goal of education should be to teach students how to construct their own knowledge.
        • Teachers are not to tell students that their ideas are right or wrong, either, but merely to encourage them “to clarify and articulate their own misunderstandings.”
        • This explains why schools now have classes where children construct their own spelling systems (“invented spelling”), their own punctuation and grammar rules, their own math procedures, and so on. In one state, the history standards say that by high school, students “should have a strong sense of how to reconstruct history.” Isn’t that an Orwellian phrase?
      • If this is starting to sound like postmodernism in the classroom, that’s exactly what it is.
    • Philosophy
      • For Richard Rorty, the key slogan of postmodernism is, “Truth is made, not found.” In other words, it is not “out there,” objective, waiting to be discovered. Beliefs are merely human constructions, like the gadgets of modern technology.
      • Rorty says that the human species is not oriented “toward Truth” (note the capital T) but only “toward its own increased prosperity.” The very notion of Truth, he says, frankly is “un-Darwinian.”
      • Paradoxically, there is one idea that postmodernism treats as unquestioned truth–namely, Darwinism itself. Evolution is treated as objective fact and not merely a human construction–because unless it is true, there’s no reason for accepting postmodernism.
      • The most devastating argument we can use against this radical reductionism is that it undercuts itself. If ideas and beliefs are not true but only useful for controlling the environment, then that applies to the idea of postmodernism itself. And if postmodernism is not true, then why should the rest of us give it any credence?
    • Pragmatism easily holds to an endorsement of whatever values a particular society happens to hold. Or, more ominously, whatever the powerful happen to want.
    • “Ask anybody what the physical world is made of, and you are likely to be told ‘matter and energy,'” said a recent article in Scientific American. “Yet if we have learned anything from engineering, biology, and physics, information is just as crucial an ingredient.” Indeed, some physicists now “regard the physical world as made of information, with energy and matter as incidentals.” And where does information come from? In all of human experience, information is generated not by blind material forces but only by an intelligent agent.
    • Rorty agrees that objective truth is possible only if there is a Creator who has spoken to us–giving us divine revelation. The only way of escape from postmodern skepticism is if God has revealed something of His own perspective to us–not about spiritual matters only, and not just a noncognitive emotional experience, but revelation of objective truth about the cosmos we live in. Rorty states the choice with utter clarity: Either we “keep faith with Darwin” and embrace postmodernism, or we keep faith with a personal God who is not silent–whose Logos is the source of unified, universal, capital-T Truth.
    • If Christians hope to engage effectively in the culture war, we must be willing to engage the underlying cognitive war over origins.
This post contains quoted and paraphrased passages of Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey.

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